A Friendly Wager with My Friend Larry Sullivan

As the founder of a local search company I’ve gotten to know a broad variety of people and experts in the space over the past couple years. From experts like Greg Sterling to fellow entrepreneurs and insiders like Andrew Shotland, I’ve built a network that I can tap for perspective, knowledge, and in many cases, for friendship. I’ve always said how different and cool it is to be a part of such a great community of people. One gentleman I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know quite well over the past year or so is a well respected local search blogger named Larry Sullivan. He’s in Georgia, but like me, his roots are in NY. We get along well and recently our relationship took a sharp turn down a bumpy road – we started talking about sports – at length – about basketball (Celtics and Knicks) and about football (Pats and Giants). Thankfully, he’s a Mets fan and we can have a conversation about baseball. (Yankees fans don’t have dialogues about baseball, they have monologues, right Rich?) So Larry antogonized me enough through Facebook the other day that I agreed to place a friendly wager with him on the outcome of the Superbowl.

So Larry posted on his blog last night about our wager, but I’m going one step further. Larry stated that the Giants will win – of course he’d say that. He’s just happy to be rooting for a team that’s actually in the postseason. Being a Bostonian now, I’m getting kinda used to winning but this is all very new to Larry.

The wager is as follows: When Larry loses, he has to allow me to post something on his blog about either the Superbowl, or about local search. And in the strange and rare possibility that I lose the bet, I have to allow Larry to do the same on my blog. I can’t imagine having my blog polluted in such a way, but that’s the price of losing a bet I suppose. I look forward to talking about the Patriots, at great length, on Larry’s blog, early next week. Maybe I’ll start drafting it now.

For the record, let it be known now that the 18-0 New England Patriots will be 19-0 Sunday night, and will prove once and for all that they are, in fact, the best team in the history of the NFL.

Go Pats!

Locally Owned Businesses: Superior Businesses

Locally owned businesses, aka independant businesses, aka Mom and Pops, are superior to big box retailers in so many ways. Even though I believe this with every nerve in my body sometimes I forget the nuances and subtle qualities that really drive this point home. I’m guilty of shopping at chains and non-locally owned businesses like 99% of America but I truly and wholeheartedly try to shop locally whenever reasonably possible. I go to Porter Square Books to get all my books and if they don’t have it, I order it. I go to Diesel Cafe for my coffee. And when I shop at Trader Joes’s (yes, I know they’re not “local”) I buy organic foods and coffee beans etc, all in an effort to support whatever and whoever I’m told I’m supporting! Unfortunately I don’t have any locally owned pharmacies near me, so I go to CVS. On rare occasions I may go to Starbucks and I’ve been guilty of shopping at others, like Target, Home Depot, whatever. But I really try to avoid it. This past holiday season Ali and I did 90% of our gift shopping at local businesses. Some stuff we just had to buy otherwise, like a specific Brookstone gift. Unfortunately the days of local grocers are mostly gone, but we do try to shop at local butcher shops and farm stands and such. I do not like Home Depot and I try very hard to go to locally owned and operated hardware supply stores. I’ve learned a lot about Ace and True Value as a result of this and make no mistake about it – Ace and True Value stores are still very much locally owned and operated retail stores.

I think most of the population probably doesn’t concern themselves with this too much. They don’t intentionally go out of their way to Buy Local. When they need a new rake for their lawn, they go to Home Depot or Lowe’s. When they need a coffee they go to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. When they need some food they go to Stop and Shop. And the national brands like those I just named have such deep pockets, they can outspend and out-advertise any local guy. They can cast so broad a net that we’re just all victims of their marketing and branding and it becomes almost instinct. You think soda – you think Coke. You think car, you think Ford. You think clothing, you think Filene’s. Ever since I was a little boy sitting in front of the TV eating cereal I’ve been bombarded with these ads. Sears, Home Depot, Circuit City, Macy’s, whatever – I’ve been groomed into this zombie consumer. MUST SHOP HERE. MUST GO THERE. NO OPTIONS.

When I was a kid I went to the same local barber with my dad every 2 weeks, I went to the same hardware store, more often than I liked. Most everything we bought was bought locally. My father is a republican, mind you (or was). He loves Nixon, loves Reagan – so this had nothing to do with politics or policy. It was how he was raised too, in NYC. Neighborhood stores in Brooklyn, the Bronx. So for me, the occasional trip to say, Child World, or Montgomery Ward was, again, occasional. It wasn’t the only choice. Heck, I don’t even remember Wal-Mart as a kid. It seemed to spring up when I was a teenager out of nowhere, but that’s here in the northeast. Anyway, I digress. Point is, I have fond memories of local stores and service providers. I don’t have memories of long and towering aisles at Sam’s Club, or grumpy people standing in lines at Wal-Mart.

So when I started CitySquares back in 2005 it was as much about local businesses, neighborhood businesses as it was about anything else. Our message is clear – BUY LOCAL. But we’re not obnoxious about, we’re not pious about it – we can’t be. And also, we ultimately respect people’s own individual rights to shop wherever they want to shop. At the end of the day, a larger portion of society does shop with their wallets. It’s nothing against local businesses, and they may even understand the value of shopping locally, but for them, it’s a matter of dollars and cents. If they can buy a box of crayons at Wal-Mart for 69 cents less than they can at a local toy store, then there are likely other savings for them and that’s ultimately what drives them. They may care deeply about the economic benefits of shopping locally – and there are many – but they have a family of four and the budget is very tight. So as far as they’re concerned, “thanks for the enlightenment buddy but I’ve got 3 kids to feed and a mortgage to pay!” And we respect that. That’s also why we continue to list non-locally owned businesses. We don’t ask them for their advertising dollars but we still put them on the website. That’s for us to be meaningful and credible.

Anyway, as you see, I’m passionate about this stuff. It’s not just a drum I’m beating either – I believe in it greatly and I believe in the importance of shopping locally as much as the next guy.

To wrap things up, I’m writing this because many people have heard me talk about it before, some people have heard me talk about it so much that it’s making them crazy (but they get it!) and I finally realized that I haven’t really blogged about it at any length. I got inspired this weekend when Ali and I had some very inspiring local shopping experiences. But I won’t get into that right now, I’m only on one cup of coffee and I feel like I could talk about this forever. But I will be talking about this more, you can bet on that.

The Importance of Good Advisers

Being that CitySquares is my second business I understand how important it is to have advisors – good advisors – and good advisors are hard to come by.

In my first business, which I started with a technician’s mindset (See E-Myth), I brought on some “advisors” and paid the price – in more ways than one. I brought in people who I thought I could learn from, who I thought I could grow my business with and in return provide them with some real interest in the company’s growth. What I ended up with was whiteboard sessions that went nowhere too often, overly complicated product ideas, and more messes to clean up. After giving it a good solid shot for a year I had to end it. It was painful, very painful, and cost a lot of money and time. It was a good decision and I learned some extremely valuable lessons from that experience.

When Bob and I started CitySquares not a day later did we decide to build an advisory board made up of people we could a) trust and b) who didn’t immediately want something from us in return. Those two qualities ruled out a whole bunch of people over the course of a few months. We quite literally interviewed people! I remember some of them read about us in the paper when we were just starting out, and they were very eager to “work with us.” Well, what that really meant was they wanted to do any number/combination of these things:

  1. draw pretty pictures on a whiteboard and show off how smart they are
  2. convince themselves of how valuable that MBA is
  3. carve a notch into their belt – like its another credential
  4. get-in with any board members/investors for their own selfish reasons

And in return they wanted equity, a seat on our board of directors, introductions to investors, even cold hard cash.

When it was all said and done what we ended up with was a small advisory board made up of a few people who came to us in very unexpected ways, and who …

  1. totally bought into our vision
  2. totally bought into our business model
  3. totally bought into our mission for locally owned business and real world community

These advisers wanted nothing in return for their time and for their brainpower – and I’m not exaggerating. I’d press the issue with them over coffee, lunch, whatever, and I’d insist that we put something in writing – and they’d insist “what’s the rush, Ben?” and “there will be plenty of time for that, Ben.” and “let’s just get Citysquares to [milestone] first.”

These folks are my most trusted advisers today. I have the utmost respect for them in so many ways and they continue to provide immense value to me and to the company, from referring us to others/others to us, to attending various meetings, to taking calls from me at various hours and in some instances working with some of my staff on things. The value is immeasurable. And yeah, now they’re all under formal agreements with the company and I sleep better at night because of it.

The point here is …

  1. Finding good advisers is extremely hard
  2. Bad advisers can be costly – even devastating
  3. they likely end up coming to you in unexpected ways
  4. they don’t want anything in return (within reason of course – I do suggest picking up the tab on lunches, coffees, beers, whatever, and going to meet them where it’s convenient for them – always)
  5. when you got one, you’ll know it
  6. when the time is right, be sure you know it!
  7. offer them your best deal
  8. Thank them often – you’ll need them when times are good and when times aren’t good.

An actual use for Twitter?

I’ve been using twitter for a good many moons now but as time went on my use of it devolved into auto-postings about my blog entries, occasional rants about this and that, occasional baseball fever inspired entries, and yes, I admit, the rare drunken banter. Then again, is that devolving my use of twitter or is that evolving my use of twitter?

Over the same period of time I found myself disabling my phone notifications for some people I follow, mostly because I grew very annoyed with their random twits about who they’re having lunch with, where they’re getting drunk at, or whatever other random bullshit I don’t care about that they decide to twit about – you know, things that I also twit about. Some of these people think twitter is just revolutionary. Uh huh – and subway car graffiti is revolutionary too, and so are writings on a bathroom wall, and so is my Facebook status. Get outta here! Are the Gen X and Gen Y and Millennial generations really this self-important?

Anyway, I’ve all but declared myself a quitter of twitter and some of my twits have hinted at my growing boredom. But yesterday I was reading the paper and I saw that we were going to get hammered with snow today. I immediately thought of several things that would be impacted by the snow:

  1. Shit, I have to shovel and potentially use the plow. I also get partly excited by these thoughts because I like doing things that don’t require me to sit at this computer and the prospect of my heart rate going somewhere above ‘caffeinated’ status.
  2. Shit, Bob has an interview with a candidate for an open position. This is an important position. Does Bob know about the snow? He commutes in from Saskatchewan so someone better send a messenger.
  3. Shit, many of CitySquares’ staff come in from outside the city. Do they know? Do they think they’re required to go in?
  4. Shit, I have our marketing intern starting today. Am I going in to get her up to speed?

As it stands right now, it’s 9:12 and I’m at my kitchen table – not at my office desk in the South End.

So, what better use for twitter than a company broadcast system? Have the staff sign up for twitter and follow the citysquares account I set up. But I made it private so that I can control who gets access and who doesn’t. It’s a perfect solution for alerting the staff of important company updates.

I’ve had other ideas about twitter, like letting Citysquares.com users follow customers. Then, customers can notify their followers of random specials, sales, events, whatever. Think of it as a newsletter for mobile devices. However, based on T-Mobile’s recent issues with twitter (or is it the other way around?) I’ve questioned making such a feature available to users and to customers, when there’s so much dependency on third parties and so little internal controls.

Anyway, that’s my word.

A Tough Week

On a personal and professional level, this was one of my toughest weeks since the company was launched in the autumn of 2005. It was made especially hard because this week saw the departure of an employee who’s been with us since the start. It was awful in many ways and I found myself physically affected by it to the point of nausea, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and when I could sleep, I had nightmares. It was truly a shitty week.

Additionally, I had to pitch the board on something and it didn’t go over with showers of rose pedals and applause. C’est la vie – I get my 2nd swing at it in a couple of days.

On a broader level, not just isolated to this week, we’ve had a hard time finding qualified sales people and in a couple instances made offers to people who just decided to not show up on their first day. Nice huh? It seems, though, that the dust has settled now. We’ve a couple new people who started with us this week and they appear to be taking well to their jobs and to the company culture – two things I watch very closely in those first few days.

Yet, Tuesday we had our monthly company lunch and morale is good and healthy! At lunch we went around the table and told stories about our most embarrassing work moments, or most demeaning jobs. There were some good stories told!

We’ve got a marketing intern starting with us on Monday and I’m actively interviewing to fill the newly opened role. We’ve got two more sales people scheduled to start over the next few weeks.

Anyway, the point of all this is that my job, for the past couple of years at CitySquares, has been entirely about building a business and a company, and it still is. We’re in ‘build’ mode, there’s no two ways about it. I enjoy that work greatly. Now that our staff is in the double digits my job is becoming increasingly more about managing the organization. I also enjoy that work greatly. I think I’m good at both of these things, which is why, ultimately, I enjoy being an entrepreneur and CEO. My previous company saw about 12 full time staff at it’s peak, but dozens of contractors around the country, nearly all who reported directly to me. I also was the direct contact for most of our customers. I greatly enjoyed that work, the hustle of it all. It makes me wonder too though, about those entrepreneurs that aren’t able to make the transition from founder/builder to manager/CEO.

So back around to tie it all off – it was a tough week, the worst yet. Unfortunately, as a manager, tough decisions need to be made. Unfortunately as a CEO sometimes you gotta take a few jabs from your board. But at the end of the day, this is a business, that’s the bottom line. And at the end of the day I need to be able to look at the books, look at my board, and look at my staff confidently – knowing that I’ve done the best job they expect from me. I have to be accountable. It’s not easy, I didn’t sign up for easy. And I also need to be able to look at my own reflection and know that I’ve done the best job I expect of me. And the two are not separate – they are the same.

So to wrap it all up I thought I’d share a funny video that someone sent me on Monday – the timing was great. This person had no idea that I was entering a shitty week either, just really good timing on their part.