SOME PEOPLE ARE BORN entrepreneurs. They open their first lemonade stand at nine, and by age eleven have franchises in three neighborhoods and half the fifth grade on the payroll. These are entrepreneurs who make millions and then cash out to do it all over again. They can’t help it. They love the chase.
Others enter the entrepreneurial space backed by an affluent upbringing. Well-heeled and well-educated, they hatch their business plans and then make the rounds of dad’s country club seeking funding. They were born into the golden circle of networking.
Then there’s the rest of us. We are the entrepreneurs who stumbled into the space without the benefit of either the Ivy League or a supernatural sixth sense. We are the folks who’d always thought we’d work for someone else but it just didn’t turn out that way. We are the accidental entrepreneurs.
And we have a secret.
In this chapter, I’ll review the art of using conversation to start and build a business. It’s such a simple idea that many overlook it — it’s not nearly as sexy a concept as you’d find in curriculums at our nation’s finest institutions of learning. But as I look back on the critical junctures in my own entrepreneurial career, I see that the turning points often took place in moments of dialogue — moments when I looked across the table at another human being and one of us said, “You know, I was thinking . . .”
It’s conversation that starts the business. It’s conversation that builds the business. It’s conversation that turns your fledgling project into a going concern. That’s what we’ll review in this chapter. Because, unlike an inborn talent or family money, conversation skills can be acquired anytime.
A Guy Walks into a Bar . . .
I decided to build my conversation chops as a young man in New York City. I was naturally shy, so I thought a job as a bartender might be a good place for me to work on that particular soft spot. It was. Nobody ever wonders if the bartender might be shy. People just walk in, order a drink, and in many cases strike up a conversation. There was no time for me to ponder my reticence. I just talked back. It was a job requirement and I needed a job.
It was over the bar one night that I learned from the owner of the flower shop up the street that he was thinking of selling. It was not a spectacular retail location — a storefront on First Avenue at East 62nd Street. But it was a nice neighborhood location. As I conversed with my customer, an idea began to take shape in my mind. Soon after, I made the investment. That was my entry into the Manhattan retail market.
Conversation is the hidden key to entrepreneurial success. We all talk all the time. Even those of us who are shy manage to come up with a few words here and there for those we know and trust. But how often are we truly in conversation? By that I mean, how often are we talking and then listening and then moving the dialogue forward — giving the exchange some attention rather than just shooting the breeze?
For the accidental entrepreneur — the business-starter who does not come to the table with an innate talent or plenty of family money — the conversation may be the turning point. Many times I see young people at networking events or business conferences talking to one another — exchanging pleasantries, shooting the breeze, just filling up the empty space between them until the meeting or the presentation or whatever entertainment is on hand starts up again. I want to go over and shake them, and tell them to stop talking and start conversing. Start listening to each other. Start asking questions to get more information, more detail, more anything. Sure, this particular exchange might not lead you anywhere. But it might also be like that seemingly innocuous conversation I had with a regular customer about his plans to sell his store. It might be the conversation that launches your business.
Conversations that start a business don’t come with flashing lights to get your attention and give you time to prepare — you have to be ready to have that conversation when it happens. You have to be open to the idea that it could happen anytime. You have to put yourself in a position so that conversations are possible — be out and about, be in places where people will engage with you. Obviously, it doesn’t have to be a bar, but think of that natural conversation hub as your model. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, consider the lesson of the bartender. Is your current situation one in which you are in contact and conversation with as many people as the average bartender is? If not, what can you do to fix that? How can you get out more, mix more, find yourself in more conversations more often?
Building a Business with Conversation
Most new businesses fail. If you’ve already started one, one of my most important tips is to continue the conversations around you. You need all the help you can get.
Some of it will come in the form good old-fashioned advice. Although I started my retail flower business in 1976, it was many years before I gave up my “day job” as a social worker and counselor in a boys’ home in Queens. So many of the conversations I had at the home informed my business decisions. I often tell the story of the time, early on in my social worker days, when I was despairing to Brother John of my inability to connect with the kids. I wasn’t getting through to them; I wasn’t helping them the way I knew they needed to be helped. I was not cut out for the job, I told him.
He listened patiently. And then he said, “Jim, you need to go in with a plan. Not for life, but for the day.”
We were talking about managing troubled boys. But Brother John’s advice applies to any entrepreneur. The tendency when you start your own business is to shoot for the stars. We all want to make it big. But by focusing on that distant goal, we may lose hope. It seems so unattainable, so crazy, so impossible. It’s enough to make anyone say, “I’ll never make it. This was a stupid idea.” It may not be stupid or unattainable — you may simply be getting ahead of yourself. As Brother John pointed out to me so simply, going in each day with the goal of “fixing” each boy right then and there was just too big. I needed to arrive each day not with a plan for my life, but with a plan for the day. Lay out the executable steps, go through them with precision and care, and move yourself in the direction of your goal without expecting to arrive in one great leap.
Other advice you gather will be more directly related to your business. When I was a young boy growing up in Queens, I met one of the most important business role models of my life. Of course, I didn’t know it then or for years afterward. But watching him work was highly influential. So much so that his is a story I often tell today.
His name was Dave, and he delivered in the neighborhood for Sealtest Dairy — a division of a bigger company that would eventually go on to become Kraft Foods. Dave came to my grandmother’s door every day with a selection of milk, cheese, butter — and conversation. He knew the neighborhood like nobody’s business. He knew if Mrs. Grady’s back was acting up again or if the Murphy boys were in trouble or how a new business on the corner was faring. He was a hub of neighborhood news. When he arrived at the door for my grandmother to examine his goods and make her selections, he’d share what he’d learned and pick up a few tidbits from her. Then, business over, he’d gather up his wares and be on his way.
Dave was a master at the art of branding, and he used conversation to make it happen. To this day the Sealtest name means quality and reliability to me. I can’t put butter on my bread without hearing Dave chatting up his customers. Certainly, conversation wasn’t necessary to the sale. It was pretty clear to anyone what he sold. He could simply have arrived, sold, and left. The conversation was part of cementing the brand.
As I grew my own little business, this was a lesson that came back to me — and one I tried to apply. What was so great about Dave and his product line? Was it really the taste? Did other butter taste inferior? Or would we never even have considered buying another guy’s butter when we knew and did business with Dave?
In our flower shop, we always had a pot of coffee on. You didn’t need coffee to sell flowers. We also had a couple of chairs in the shop — also not a requirement of the flower retail business. But I had them in there because of Dave. We brewed coffee and set up chairs as a way to invite our customers to drop by, have a cup of joe, and share with us the news of the neighborhood. You didn’t have to buy anything. You didn’t have to be in possession of gripping, groundbreaking revelations. Any old chat would do. The key was making time for conversation — as Dave always did — in the daily rhythm of life.
This is how we built our brand in the early days. In fact, it still is.
Conversations Solidify a Business
Sometimes, when a business starts to grow and everyone begins to think, “Hey, this might really work,” it’s time to remember how you got there. Often, trouble comes when entrepreneurs decide they are “grown up” enough to shed all their early entrepreneurial activities and take on the tactics of the big guys.
The truth is the tactics that got you started are the ones that will build your business into something big. And this was a challenge for us. We had grown up on conversation. But now we were growing too big to sit down and have coffee with each customer. What could we do?
For starters, we sought out partners and staff who valued conversation the way we did. This seems like such a small thing, but as we grew, we did our best to hire staff with warm, outgoing personalities. It is sometimes hard to feel warm and fuzzy in a retail transaction. There can be barriers between people — a counter or a telephone line. These can be obstacles to the human relationship. We looked for people with the skills and the desire to overcome those obstacles again and again and again.
That emotional connection is critical to the sale. We didn’t just see it in our own flower shops. Consider the effect of the Walmart Greeter. This individual’s job is simply to smile and greet you with warmth and emotion as you enter the store to shop. That’s it. And people love it. It humanizes the vast, cavernous experience of the megastore. It makes an impersonal experience seem personal again. Most shoppers, when greeted, will smile and answer back with a “Hello” or “How are you?” It’s a natural response. It’s a tiny snippet of conversations that makes Walmart stand out from the discount chain crowd.
We were looking for a similar effect. If Walmart could make the vestibule of a discount store feel warm and friendly, surely we could achieve something analogous over the telephone. So while everyone else hired reps for speed, accuracy, and punctuality, we added friendliness to our wish list. We wanted our staff to sound like people you’d like to meet.
These are the conversations that ultimately build businesses into brands. Over the years, we’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars into building our brand through marketing activities. If someone has a bad experience with anyone from our team — from an employee in one of our stores dealing with a customer to one of our IT folks interacting with a business partner — all of that investment is for naught. That customer or partner will forget everything good they’ve heard about us and remember only the bad interaction. Our brand is only as strong as our team.
So, as your business grows, it becomes crucial to understand the conversations that are taking place not just in your presence but on your behalf. When it comes to your brand, who is speaking for you? Are you attracting team members who are empathetic, responsible, and considerate people willing to work hard and embrace what your brand is all about? Or are you hiring showboats and show-offs willing to say anything to get ahead?
We knew early on the importance of finding smart, motivated, energetic people who want the company to succeed. In many respects, that’s what other organizations look for, too. To my mind, these are just the “table stakes” — the bare minimum that a potential employee must have in order to be successful in the workplace. On top of all that, I look for people who let you see their capacity for empathy every time they open their mouths. People who ask you how your kids are doing and actually care about the answer.
Is that unique to our business? To a business engaged in the everyday desire to express and connect? Maybe. But I’d argue that it doesn’t matter whether you sell gizmos or gladioluses. If your team isn’t talking to your customers, partners, and suppliers, listening and reacting to their responses, then whom are they talking to? And what does all this talking say about your brand? Does it convey the message that yours is a business that cares? These are the conversations you need to foster throughout your organization.
We do. And like Walmart, we have found that a little warmth goes a long way. Our warmest and most friendly phone reps are our most successful. They are the voices that make our callers feel as though they are chatting with a friend rather than engaging in a retail sale.
Often a business focuses so much on our contact with the customer that internal conversations often get short shrift. But I believe strongly in the power of culture to bind and support a company as it moves forward.
One of the ways people engage in cultural conversations is by sharing their stories. In our business, we are often involved with customers when they are engaged in life’s most emotional moments — in celebration, in mourning, in love. We encourage our employees to do what’s necessary to make the customer happy in these important moments in life, and that often makes for some great stories.
Here’s one that everyone at 1-800-Flowers.com knows well: the story of Mrs. Williams’s bouquet.
It was Mother’s Day — our biggest day of the year — and we’d gotten a last-minute order to deliver a bouquet to a nursing home. We reached out to one of our florists nearby. He was just closing up for the day and was only going to take a bouquet to his own mother on his way out. But, at our request, he took this one last order, put the two bouquets in his car, and headed off for the nursing home.
When he arrived, he left his mom’s bouquet in his car and took the delivery up the steps. As he entered, one of the residents, an elderly lady, called out to him,
“Is that for me? Did my children send me flowers?”
“What’s your name?” asked our florist.
Our florist checked the card. “Mrs. Williams.”
“No, these flowers are for Mrs. Smith.”
Mrs. Williams looked crestfallen.
“My kids never remember me,” she said.
Our florist hesitated for a split second — and then decided his own mother would understand. He delivered the first bouquet and then went back to his car for the one meant for his mother. He didn’t even have to alter the card, which read “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! You’re the greatest!” He went back into the nursing home and found Mrs. Williams.
“You know what, Mrs. Williams? I made a mistake and left your order in the car by accident. These are your flowers. Happy Mother’s Day.”
Mrs. Williams cried. Our florist cried. The staff at the nursing home cried.
So, if that story involved just one florist, and perhaps a few staffers at 1-800-Flowers.com, how come everyone at the company knows it?
It’s a legend. We have a book of them — stories of extraordinary customer service efforts. Along with the story of “Mrs. Williams’s Bouquet,” we have many other tales of team members going above and beyond to make a customer happy. We have the story about the customer service rep who fielded a furious call from a customer and calmly, sweetly handled the redelivery request — knowing all along that the customer was dead wrong and had given us the wrong address. (The customer herself realized the error later and acknowledged the rep’s superior service in a letter to us.) We have the story about the World War II veteran who asked us to deliver a flower to his wartime sweetheart, whom he hadn’t seen in decades. We did. (We did the flowers for the subsequent wedding, too. That’s also in the legends book.)
One of my personal favorites has gone down in our company’s history as “The Cop and the Rose.” In addition to Mother’s Day, the holiday that really revs up our operation is Valentine’s Day. I was present for one of our great Valentine’s Day legends as it happened.
That afternoon, I was in our telecenter looking for one of our supervisors. Everyone told me she was busy and had asked not to be disturbed. It took me three hours to track her down and, when I finally did, she told me what she’d been doing all that time.
“I have an order for a customer’s sick aunt in a small town outside of Pittsburgh,” she explained. “I’ve been trying to find a florist who can make the delivery in time for Valentine’s Day.”
It hadn’t gone well. This town was just so out of the way, we could not convince a florist to take the time during this busy time of year to drive all the way out there to deliver the order.
But this supervisor — Gloria — didn’t give up. She continued to call around until she reached a local police officer who also ran the town’s hardware store. The officer knew the town and knew the destination. He offered to make the delivery. So Gloria — after three hours devoted to this project — had the bouquet delivered to the hardware store and the cop agreed to drive it the final few miles to Auntie.
The police officer called us the next day to relay this message from the aunt: “You didn’t just make my day or my week or my month. You and my wonderful nephew made my whole year!”
All these legends fuel an ongoing internal conversation. No amount of off-site training sessions and memos from the boss can do what staffers do when they talk among themselves and share their own war stories. These conversations have power. They reinforce what we’re trying to do as a company. They reward hard work with the one thing most people really crave — positive recognition for a job well done. Because we take the time to collect and distribute the legends, we ensure that the conversation is ongoing. The story of Mrs. Williams is not forgotten when new employees come on board and those who were part of the original story have moved on. We’ve institutionalized our stories and made storytelling an integral part of the company.
These are the conversations that are crucially important to have as you grow your business. In the early days, when there are just a handful of employees, it’s easy to swap stories during a coffee break. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing.
When a company grows, that intimacy falls away and you get into a completely different pattern of communication. The casual exchange of great stories from the trenches falls away and is replaced my memos and meetings and PowerPoint presentations. It’s important as a firm expands to remember to keep the tug-at-your-heartstrings conversations alive and flowing. These are the stories that raise us up and keep us focused on the positive purpose of our lives.
Conversations for Hiring
How you staff up as your company grows is critical. Every company would like to know the secret to hiring the right people. I have a tip of my own. Not surprisingly, it is based on conversation.
This technique is based on one I developed back when I worked at the home in Queens. The boys who came to us had come from difficult circumstances, to say the least. To engage with them and to get them to buy into our rules and regulations, I developed what appeared to the boys to be an entrance interview. But it was a conversation in disguise.
I asked each new boy a series of questions about the circumstances that had brought them to the home. Were they having problems at home? At school? With drugs? With gangs? All of the boys had already been accepted and placed in the home, so there was no real hurdle to clear. But they didn’t know that, and that gave me an opportunity to get them to open up and talk to me.
It was in this process that I developed a question I still use in interviews today. I often share it with managers when I talk about hiring. It is: “What am I going to see in your behavior a year from now that you’ll wish you had told me today?” This is the question that heads off all kinds of problems down the line. This is where I learn that the poised, accomplished person before me has a fear of public speaking — and wants coaching and practice in that department. This is where I learn that an engineer has a hidden passion for marketing. This is where I learn an individual has family demands that may limit how long he can realistically stay with us.
Everyone likes to put their best face forward in a job interview. This is a question I use to break through the facade and get to the real personality of the applicant. It worked on the troubled boys in Queens and it works in my company as well. When you ask the right questions, people will open up. Suddenly you’ve moved from an interrogation to a dialogue.