Most advice for startups comes from high-powered entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, private equity managers, self-appointed gurus, and academics. To get a different perspective, I sought out an old-school small business owner to uncover his secrets for launching a company, weathering the storm of a disruptive technology, and bouncing back stronger than ever.
Sanjay Sarkar is the founder, owner, chief cook, and bottle washer of Park Avenue Art Gallery, Inc. His neat little storefront has been providing high-quality framing at the corner of E. 30th Street and Park Avenue South in New York City for more than 17 years.
During that time, Sanjay has not only handled the standard problems that any new venture faces, but has had to compete with a new and disruptive technology known as the World Wide Web. And he's had to bounce back from the worst recession our country has experienced since the 1930s.
But, when I met Sanjay, I felt as if I were speaking with a 26-year-old technology entrepreneur who'd just launched his website and is poised to become the next Mark Zuckerberg. He exudes passion, humanity, and confidence. He made a great first impression on me, something we all know the importance of in the entrepreneurial world.
I spent time with Sanjay to understand which traditional strategies and techniques he uses that might help Inc. readers (and this columnist). He provided seven spot-on old-school tips that had me nodding my head and thinking to myself, "My firm needs to do the same things." Here is his sage advice, illustrated with some examples of how my business applies these concepts.
1. Don't start any business until you've learned the ins and outs thoroughly.
Sanjay suggested five years. That's how long he served as an apprentice before hanging up his own shingle.
2. Demonstrate your professionalism in every new business encounter.
Sanjay told me that he can almost immediately determine the exact frame a customer will want for her valued piece of art, but he still takes pains to listen to the customer and ask important questions. Then and only then will he get to work.
I pride myself on asking as many questions as possible of my prospects and clients. Like Sanjay, I know enough to know what I don't know, so I ask and listen.
3. Fight fire with fire.
Sanjay's business model was almost totally derailed by the emergence of art.com in 1998 and posters.com in 1999 (Note: the former purchased the latter in 2012). Both sites enabled Web visitors to select the frames they wanted from the comfort of their living rooms. It took Sanjay time to react, but he took two immediate courses of action:
- He worked to further improve the in-store customer experience, edging closer to becoming an art director for his customers. In other words, he made sure his level of expertise couldn't be matched by any online experience.
- He launched his own website so he could begin directing customers and prospects to an online destination that described his POV, level of service, years of expertise, etc.
In short, David fought Goliath with his own weapon, the Web, but Sanjay added his own version of the slingshot: Unequaled personal knowledge, passion, and exuberance.
We try to do the same. We don't have hundreds of offices and tens of thousands of employees like WPP, Omnicom, or Interpublic, but we can outthink and outflank them with both our innovative range of service offerings and, dare I suggest it, a higher concentration of senior-level counselors.
4. Decide what industry you're in.
Sanjay thinks like Walt Disney did. He told me he's in the happiness business. He doesn't see himself as someone who frames a great piece of art. Sanjay lives to put smiles on customers' faces. Talk about answering the "why" question (i.e., Why does your business exist?).
I must admit I've struggled with the why question over the years, and struggled to figure out what industry I'm in. Now I know: I'm in the advocacy business. But unlike my strategic communications firm competitors, I advocate equally on behalf of my clients and the audiences they hope to reach. I no longer take what my clients say at face value. I insist, instead, in first walking in their customers' shoes and experiencing the client organization from the outside in. That assures me I can truly advocate on behalf of each.
5. Be price-sensitive.
Everyone wants to score a 30 or 40 percent profit margin from day one, but Sanjay is highly attuned to price increases. He factors in overhead, employee salaries, and other fixed costs, but he also makes sure he knows what competitors are charging. He makes a profit, but he keeps his clients happy because they don't feel they're being taken advantage of.
When people ask if my firm competes against other midsized agencies or boutiques, I answer in the negative. We almost always find ourselves fending off a 2,000-person firm that's lowered its monthly minimums in order to continue fueling its coffers. Like Sanjay, I need to be ever vigilant not to charge too much while still maintaining my profit margins.
6. Showcase your best work.
Sanjay makes a point of changing his window displays every week in order to showcase his latest, greatest work. He says it definitely increases walk-by business.
Many startup entrepreneurs don't take the time to highlight their best work. That's because they're too busy servicing clients, paying bills, and growing and managing their organization.
That's one mistake I never made. I've always felt Peppercomm was Peppercomm's single most important client. As a result, like Sanjay, I showcased our best work from the very beginning. I made sure we publicized our thought leadership, displayed our award-winning work, and got our names on the Rolodexes of the most important media covering my industry at the time.
7. Location, Location, Location.
Sanjay told me he took a very deep dive into the local business community that surrounds his storefront before he signed the lease. He wanted to make sure there were enough companies, large and small, with enough office space (and bare walls) to support his framing business. In other words, he made sure there was a market for his product before he ever began offering it.
After countless missteps with any number of new service offerings, we've finally instituted a rigorous process to determine if, in fact, there is a market need for our latest, greatest innovation. Only then will we determine the best "location" to set up shop.
I must say Sanjay Sarkar is one of the nicest people I've ever met in business. He's also as authentic and professional as they come. I'm not suggesting you stop listening to what Guy Kawasaki, Clayton Christianson, or other such luminaries have to say. But I do encourage you to open your eyes, ears, and hearts to an old-school businessperson like Sanjay every once in a while. The humble frame-maker may not have changed my personal business canvas, but he did add some subtle highlights that left me smiling and happy.