A Place In-between, Commentary by Lloyd Shefsky

Brigid Sweeney, in her insightful article, “Please Don’t Call Them Stores: Modern Retailers Aim to be Hangouts,” appearing in Crain’s Chicago Business, provides local examples of how retailers are focusing on providing “a place in-between” and customer entertainment, such as including experiential happenings.

Nowhere is the importance of a place in-between laid out more clearly than in the story of Starbucks, both at its inception and later, during its reinvention in 2008. Even when I first met Howard Schultz and interviewed him for my first book, Entrepreneurs Are Made Not Born, I referred to Starbucks as a club, much like the bar on “Cheers,” where the opening song proclaimed “a place where everybody knows your name,” reminiscent of the way Starbucks taught baristas to know frequent customers’ names and even their favorite beverages. In my latest book Invent Reinvent Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2014) I explain how Howard’s clear understanding of that essence of the business (what he refers to as “the company’s soul”) enabled him to avoid the near catastrophe in 2008.

Similarly, in Invent Reinvent Thrive, I tell the stories of Jim Sinegal, founder Costco, and Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear, both of whom believed in customer entertainment and experiential events in their retail businesses, much as those mentioned in Brigid Sweeney ‘s article.

As I said in Invent Reinvent Thrive, “Jim Sinegal decided he’d better reinvent Costco, at least partially from time to time, lest his stores…become uninteresting. He decided to add new items periodically. He constantly reminded himself and his colleagues, ‘There’s no annuity [here]. You’ve got to continually add stuff that’s new and exciting. Otherwise you become boring.’” Likewise, I quote Maxine Clark in Invent Reinvent Thrive: “At the May Company, she was fortunate enough to make a presentation to Stanley Goodman, May’s chairman. He told her that ‘retailing is entertainment and the store is a stage. When the customers have fun, they spend more money.’ His words made an indelible impression on Maxine.”

Brigid is right on!

Describers and Demonstrators: How Great Business Leaders Communicate Their Visions (Part 2 of 2)

In my last blog I discussed “Describers,” or entrepreneurs who are able to sell their visions to investors and others by describing what they see in great detail, using words and graphics. That is, they convince people to invest by describing the picture on the puzzle-box cover, without assembling any of the puzzle. Some entrepreneurs choose not even to try articulating the vision and opt instead to demonstrate it—whether that’s their natural preference or tendency, or because a description isn’t sufficient to paint the vision clearly.

Image: Leonardo da Vinci; Musée du Louvre; Clementoni Products

I call this type of entrepreneur a “Demonstrator” (but not the kind holding a protest sign!). Here I present two examples of consummate Demonstrators, using examples from my book, Invent, Reinvent, Thrive (McGraw-Hill, 2014).

Maxine Clark

Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear Workshop, is an excellent Demonstrator. Executive stints at May Company and Payless Shoes (where she was president) helped fuel her vision of a store offering a “stuff-your-own-bear experiences.” But the manufacturers she approached initially about the idea didn’t get it; they couldn’t see the fully assembled jigsaw puzzle—an experiential entertainment venue, not a mere toy store—as she did so it wouldn’t make sense asking them to invest. (This was symptomatic of my old saying, “If you’re not up on it, then you must be down on it.”) In fact, the only people who consistently understood Maxine’s idea were children, who could invest only with their hearts, not their piggy banks. Rather than trying to force suppliers, investors, and others to believe her, Clark decided to assemble the puzzle herself. She funded her first Build-a-Bear store in St. Louis out of her savings. (She could afford to do that; many can’t.) Despite friends’ warnings to “start small,” she built the store the way she envisioned it, with ample space for customers to explore and interact. An angel investor came to see the first store immediately after it opened and on the spot offered to back the business’s expansion. Today there are over 400 Build-a-Bear stores worldwide.

James Freeman

James Freeman had a passion for coffee; it motivated him to found Blue Bottle Coffee. Much like Maxine Clark, James’s vision involved process, the experiential element. He had a special way of preparing the coffee–one cup at a time. In his case, the completed puzzle was the coffee quality resulting from the unique brewing process, rather than the atmosphere that Starbucks offered. He had to overcome doubt that customers would be willing to wait an extra few minutes for an individually brewed coffee. Rather than just talking about it or asking focus groups what they thought, Freeman demonstrated his idea would work by offering the fresh-roast coffee at farmers’ markets. It was a big hit there, but customers strolling through farmers markets aren’t as time-sensitive as commuters. With his own meager funds, James opened a small coffee kiosk in a smelly San Francisco alley; the outlet grew quickly in popularity, including with commuters, proving what he couldn’t with words alone. Having proven the concept, Freeman later opened more stores in San Francisco and New York, where they continue to succeed today.

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Of course, many entrepreneurs, including those profiled here, are good at both describing and demonstrating. As I explain in Invent Reinvent Thrive, some business ideas lend themselves better to one approach or the other. But the bigger point is to understand the value of each way of sharing a vision, and to harness describing and demonstrating in service of your own ideas, however big or small they may be.