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How to position your business for adaptability without compromising purpose

Whether you are embarking on a new business or trying to reinvent the business you already have in a post-2020 world, you’re likely asking yourself a lot of questions. Should I be focused on online sales? Should I try to have a physical presence as well? Do I need to expand my offerings to a wider customer base? Consolidate? Change my marketing approach? When the world around us is undergoing big change, it’s hard to know how to adapt your business, and the uncertainty can be overwhelming. But a changing world doesn’t have to send your business into an identity crisis.

When we started our first business, my friend and I were 23. We opened a counter service coffee shop in Portland, OR. We had very limited experience and were entering a competitive marketplace, so we knew we would face some challenges. Initially we were the sole employees, so we opened and closed the place together every day. Being young, female, first time business owners, and in the service industry, we were easy targets for unsolicited advice. As soon as we had customers, we had people telling us what we could be doing better. Since we lacked experience, it seemed entirely possible to us that at least some of our customers might know more about what makes a successful coffee shop than we did, so we listened

Like many small businesses just starting out, we  had used up almost all the money we had scraped together to open the place, and we NEEDED to retain customers if we were going to make it. So we put our humility hats on and took all the feedback.We tried to deliver on as many requests as we could.You think we should start adding fried eggs to our breakfast sandwiches? Great idea, we’ll go buy a hotplate and add eggs the menu by tomorrow morning! You’d drink mimosas if we served them? We’ll go get a liquor license! …Pretty soon we realized we had spread ourselves (and our remaining dollars) way too thin. We were trying so hard to secure customers by being all things to all people that we had lost sight of who we were and what we were all about. 

Which brings me to an important takeaway: listening to people’s advice doesn’t mean you have to take it. Some people want fried eggs on their bagel, some want mimosas, but almost nobody wants to go to a coffee shop that has a thousand menu items and no tangible identity. But how can you compete when there are other businesses like yours going bigger and better in seemingly every direction? Advice is easy to give for someone who has no skin in the game, but as the business owner, it’s your name and your investment on the line if things don’t work out. There are definitely some kernels of wisdom in the feedback you get from your customers, friends, and family, but it’s on you to sort words of wisdom from white noise.

In order to do that, a business owner needs to get clear on the answer to this question: 

“What is my business’ reason for being?” 

Beyond just putting money in your bank account, your business has a guiding purpose. So what is it? If you have a mission statement, pull that out and read it over. If you don’t, I’ll bet you do have a working draft swirling around in your brain. After all, you could be spending your time in lots of ways, but something made you start this business. What was it?

In my case, my friend and I saw a coffee shop on a busy corner in a cute neighborhood close its doors and thought, “no way, that community needs a coffee shop there! Where is everyone going to go to get a latte and connect with each other?” From the beginning, the whole goal of our business was to be a place where people could treat themselves, connect with their community, and feel welcome and at home. If we had remembered that, we would never have scrambled to offer so many items that only those customers with better-than-average vision could read our tiny-font menu (and even those folks were probably too overwhelmed by then to decide what they wanted).

When you write down the reason your business exists, you identify what it is that matters the most to your business. In doing that, you give your business (and yourself) clarity of purpose. From that vantage point, it becomes clear that certain pathways will divert your business from its mission while others will align with the central goals and ideals, and this is true no matter how the terrain changes.

Once you know why your business is, you can better understand where your business fits into the ecosystem of the existing marketplace, identify your target customer base, identify areas of potential growth, and strategize how to reach more of the people who want what you’re selling.

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