Monday, January 29, 2007

Looking out for others

One of my ongoing pursuits is trying to figure out why some people are successful at whatever they want to accomplish while others are always floundering.

One clue is found in the Bible in Philippians chapter 2, verse 4. Paul say’s “Each of you should look not only to your own interest, but also to the interest of others.” The Message paraphrases it this way, “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”

This is not only scripture, but the best business advice I can think of. Zig Ziglar say’s, “You can get everything in life that you want, if you help enough other people get what they want.”

We have had a few issues lately with people either leaving early or arriving late to work. We try to accommodate people’s needs, but the real problem is that if one person has to leave early, arrive late, or call in sick, somebody else’s plans are changed. One person being late for work means somebody else has to work later than they had planned. One person’s desire to put their own plans ahead of their work commitment means somebody else has to cancel a date, change dinner plans, or miss an important meeting.

The ability to put other’s interest ahead of your own, in the long haul, translates to one thing – winners and losers. Selfishness always looses. Looking out for others always wins.

We are very fortunate in our business at Homer’s Coffee House to be able to help young people learn these principles early. It is a joy to be able to help shape the work habits of young people, greatly increasing the chances that they will be labeled with the winners, because they have learned the importance of service, hard work, and looking out for the interest of others.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Culture of Sameness

On a recent trip to Europe, the first thing we noticed, in big cities and small towns, was that 95% of retail businesses and restaurants were single location, usually with the proprietor behind the counter. There are very few chains, big box stores, or franchises. This is in a remarkable contrast to the US where small owner-operated shops or caf├ęs have all but disappeared. As a result we have less choice, lower quality, and certainly no personal service.

I have been trying to figure this out for several months and the conversations I have had with other small business owners are alarming. Contrary to popular belief, most can compete with the “big guys” on a level playing field quite nicely, thank you. The problem is that the field is not as level as you might expect.

Developers and landlords seem to be increasingly unwilling to rent to anyone but national accounts, (click here) to the point of canceling leases for owner-operators and seeking to fill the space with national chains. There is a growing culture that thinks that small is bad, familiarity is good, and that unique is undesirable. That is why a drive down Dodge in Omaha, or Metcalf in Overland Park or any other shopping street in any American city looks exactly the same.

A while back we were visiting relatives in a city 2,000 miles away. When the subject of lunch came up, they suggested Red Lobster, Olive Garden, or Applebee’s, the same restaurants that are within six blocks of our home. These places are all OK, but they could be anywhere. Signs of local flavor are quickly disappearing.

I don’t have a solution. I have only begun to identify the problem. I have seen window decals in Chicago saying, “Support your Local Merchants,” encouraging neighbors to support their neighbors. This might be a start, but local merchants don’t need benevolence, they just need to be able to rent prime space at market rates, have access to goods at fair prices, and be treated the same as other businesses when it comes to taxes and regulations.

It is hard to compete when the big chain down the street is getting tax breaks, strong arms the supplies to get rock bottom prices, and intentionally drives out competition. But owner-operators have the advantage of knowing the customers, knowing the community, not having to rely on reports to know how business is doing, and having consistent management.

I would like your ideas about this situation. Click on the “comments” link below.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Meeting people's needs

Churches and ministry organizations are often accused of being out of touch with the needs of the culture, and rightly so. We can go along for years being totally ineffective and be content in our own little world. But big commercial organizations can make huge mistakes as well.

Take cell phones as an example. Motorola demonstrated a handheld portable cell telephone in 1973. The press made a big deal out of it stating that the completely portable wireless telephone would change the way people lived and that the world would never be the same.

Unfortunately nobody at Motorola, AT&T, or the FCC believed it. Little effort was put into developing it and little bandwidth was assigned. AT&T was so convinced that there was no commercial potential that it gave away the technology it had developed. This was in spite of the fact that pop culture had forecast, and the public longed, for such a device for years. Dick Tracy had his wrist two-way radio in the 30’s and Adam Smart had a telephone in his shoe in a 1960’s TV show. If there was ever a demand for a new technology, this was it.

A consultant for AT&T predicted that the world-wide market for cell phones would be about 900,000. They missed it by a factor of 1,000s. There are now billions of cell phones in use. For that reason we now suffer from overcrowded frequencies due to not enough bandwidth, highly compressed signals, and a confusion of standards, resulting in poor sound, weak signals, and dropped calls. All because demand is far greater than the major players ever expected.

Even a casual observer of culture can see that there is little need for wired telephones or broadcast television, yet billions of dollars have been wasted on these technologies. People stay home to watch TV, but they need a telephone wherever they are, not the other way around. Looking at a picture of the radio spectrum it is easy to see that huge chunks are given to broadcast television while only a few slivers are designated for personal communication.

I am sure there was a reason for this at the time. Television just followed the model of radio even though radio is a portable device and portable TVs have never caught on. Who knows why portable phones were so long in coming? I tried to get a car phone in the 1960’s only to find that there was a long waiting list due to the fact that there were only a few frequencies available. Doctors and emergency personnel were given priority, so the chances of a photographer getting one were slim.

The point of all this is this: we need to be aware of people’s needs and wants and work to supply those needs. Just providing what we want to provide or what is easy is not the model demonstrated by Jesus. He met people’s needs whatever they were.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Stuff, stuff, stuff

Four year’s ago, Louise and I sold or gave away two-thirds of our possessions and moved from a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment. It was not at all an easy thing to do. In fact it was one of the hardest things we have ever done. But in retrospect, it was well worth the trouble. We had no idea how weighed down we had become with extra stuff in our life. Since then we have kind of become the “go to” people for those wishing to down size and simplify their lives.

The first thing I tell people is to figure out who you are and get rid of everything that isn’t you. For example, I now describe myself as a musician, photographer, and writer. That means that I am not a woodworker, a mechanic, or gardener. Therefore I do not need woodworking equipment, mechanics tools, or gardening tools. By my own definition of who I am, I only need musical instruments I can play, a camera that works, and a computer to write on. Everything else is superfluous and could be discarded.

Of course it isn’t that simply, but you get the idea and that is a good start. Eliminating equipment for hobbies I no longer pursued helped clean out my basement. It also helped in reducing the size of my library.

In the kitchen we had our good dishes and our everyday dishes, our good silver and our everyday stuff. The simple decision that we were good enough for the “good stuff” all the time allowed us to get rid of all the everyday day stuff and use the best stuff everyday. Our lifestyle went up and the clutter went down.

In my case at least, the accumulation of stuff was caused by the pursuit of different interests over time. I restored an old car and ended up with mechanics tools and car parts. Since I don’t even work on my own car anymore, I don’t either. Multiply that principle by twenty and you get the idea.

Clarity of purpose and a clear understanding of who we are and what we want to do will go a long way in simplifying our lives. Staying focused on our calling and sharpening our passions will help eliminate the junk in the basement and garage.

God created us with a purpose. Satan’s plan is to keep us distracted with stuff to the point that we never get around to completing God's purpose.