Why I gave my competition a gift

Sometimes it’s nice to give your competition a gift

No question about it, turning down business is hard, especially in today’s environment. The very idea might seem counter-intuitive. It’s taken a number of years, plenty of dollars, and a few clicks on my personal odometer to get to the point where I understand not only the necessity of doing this in certain cases, but the importance to the success of a business that saying ‘no’ can provide. Many entrepreneurs suffer from the disease of trying to do everything for anyone, instead of sticking to what they can do well for the right customer.

I know there are those out there who will disagree. ‘Any business is better than no business’, I’ve been told. Certainly fresh recruits into the ranks of business development, hungry to make their mark, will feed on any order like hungry sharks at the first scent of any blood. And I know a few seasoned business people and entrepreneurs that chase after anything that increases the balance in the checking account. And that is okay – for those folks. ‘Different strokes for different folks’, as Sly sings.

So why would I turn down an order – a nice recurring order? I actually owe the idea of ‘gifting customers to the competition’ to John Costigan, a sales training expert that I’ve followed for awhile. I did this because I’m looking at the big picture of how our resources are allocated at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, and the type of customer we are most successful at serving. And I’ve also learned that everything has a cost associated with it. Most people understand the cost of hard goods, but forget about the cost of your time, opportunity costs, etc. We all get precisely 24 hours each day. No more, no less.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for a barter service. I was familiar with these organizations, and for some businesses, they are a natural fit. I had never tried them before, but like most entrepreneurs, I’m always looking for ways to find new customers.

The barter rep called me a few days ago with a ‘potential deal’ from a member of the exchange. I agreed to take a look to see if it would make sense to us. The potential client then called to ask questions and place her order. I could tell from her questions that this customer might not be a good fit for our business. The warning light began to flash.

After adding up what she expected to order, I decided to take a closer look at what this would actually mean for our business, and to call her back. Bartering can be great, but we know exactly what we are going to buy and there simply was not going to be a way for us to spend the ‘barter dollars’.

The net effect to our business would be to give away our product for free. I could do this in hopes of recouping my investment at some later date. The investment includes ‘hard costs’ like butter, flour and sugar, as well as our time and labor costs. Whether you give away time or materials, you are loaning out money. To be profitable, you need to make sure you receive a return on that investment.

Ultimately, I passed on the order. The customer let me know quickly that she was going to a competitive cookie company if we would not ‘barter’ with her. Their products are significantly more expensive than ours to begin with, so she’ll end up paying two to three times the amount for gifts from ‘my competitor’, getting far less for their money than they would from buying direct from us. I don’t know if my competitor is happy with the deal or not, but I’m happy to not have to figure out how to manage with another form of currency while serving a customer that may not be a good fit that is essentially, getting product for free.

We had another phone call recently from someone looking for gingerbread cookies and I happily referred them to another company. A few years ago a very high profile client asked if we would make them cookies in the shape of stars. I passed. Could I have filled both of these orders? Yes. Would they have been profitable? No.

Being successful in business requires, among many things: capital, time, creativity, persistence and discipline. Like all successful entrepreneurs, I have enjoyed my share of success and failure in each of these areas, and I am learning with each step I take. The balance between being flexible enough to adapt to your customer’s needs and driving yourself and your business into the weeds can be a challenge. Was this the right decision? Time will tell.

The point of this article is not to debate the merits of the barter business, but to raise questions about focusing in on, and serving, the right type of clients that fit your business. Do we want more clients at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies? Absolutely! Are we going to make cookies shaped like cartoon characters, start baking cakes or do catering? No.

I’ve read ‘The Power of Focus’ a couple of times and I continue to work towards keeping my life and business tuned into the right channels. I even called my oldest (albeit not chronologically) friend, former business partner and fellow entrepreneur, Jim Plappert from ACH Payment Solutions and asked if my thinking on this subject is in check. “Chris, I agree with you 1,000%. I’ve learned the hard way that one of the keys to business success is to find your ‘sweet spot’ and strive to excel at serving those customers”. As the owner of a gourmet cookie company, I don’t think I could have put it any better.

So I’m happy to turn the oven off, enjoy a freshly baked, still warm, chocolate chip cookie and think about the other people that will be smiling today, tomorrow and next week because they are diving into a box of gourmet cookies we shipped to them. Now that’s what I call hitting our sweet spot.

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What did you see in 2009?

Delivering cookies back to the folks that made the flour

I’m guessing that practically everyone you meet on the street these days is likely to echo the same response when asked about business in 2009. It was tough for lots of folks. And unless you are living on Wall Street, where tax payer funded bonuses will hit eight figures this year, you might be feeling a bit somber about 2010. I believe there is a better way to look back at last year.

Anna’s Gourmet Goodies finished our year with a healthy December. We did not quite reach the level of exuberance we saw in 2008, but we managed to find plenty to be thankful for during the season.

We visited our families in Kentucky for the Thanksgiving holiday, already feeling tired from filling early orders, and with more on the books for December than we have ever had before. We shared a wonderful meal at Debbie’s parent’s home, with more brothers, sisters, cousins and their children than I can count these days. There was a solid showing from four generations, enough to give even the gloomy minded a reason to find hope for the future, even on a cold Ohio Valley day.

We also visited, and feasted again, with my family in Georgetown. Smaller in numbers, but no less interesting. The following day, I had the chance to take my Aunt Lois, now pushing on towards 90, to lunch with my daughter Anna and my niece (also Anna). We didn’t set any land speed records getting to and from The Cracker Barrel, but it was a wonderful afternoon spent with three generations of family. A simple time, but one I’ll always remember.

We returned home safely to NC, tired from the trip, but eager to get the orders lined up and ready for the holiday rush. We bake everything to order, so orchestrating production and shipping during this time is always a challenging puzzle. Anna’s Gourmet Goodies runs an efficient operation, with a very reliable group of suppliers to make sure everything arrives when it should and keep production running smoothly. We planned for almost everything, except our main computer system that refused to start the day we returned.

My early training as a Boy Scout and years as a computer consultant has served me well in the cookie business. Our backup system worked flawlessly and a new computer was less than 24 hours in arriving to the office. Restoring all the files and programs required a few days and late nights, but I simply refused to see anything but orders going out, just as our customers expected them.

It’s not easy being thankful when the electronic brain behind your business decides to stop functioning right at the most critical time, but I promise you that I said my ‘thanks’. I was determined to be grateful. Grateful that the crash came long before we put the final touches on all the orders and queued them up for baking, and long before the run of shipping labels was due to stream out of the printer.

We were fortunate to have an entire family, the Ponsolles, work with us again this year. More than simply employees that show up to finish a task, they’ve been helping us almost as long as we’ve been making cookies. They know our customers. They understand how meticulous we are about everything. We are incredibly grateful to work with such dedicated and nice people.

By the second week in December, I felt like I was living the movie ‘Groundhog Day’. Wake up. Bake cookies. Ship packages. Sleep for a couple of hours. Repeat.

As the last shipping days approached, we watched our once large stock of flour shrink rapidly. We were almost at the point of not having enough ingredients to fill the orders, when the phone rang. It was June from Lindley Mills. She asked if we needed any flour. “Why yes, as a matter of fact we do!”

She also asked if they could get an order of our cookies for all the employees that work there. It was their holiday celebration and they wanted everyone to taste a product that comes from the fruits of their labor. I’ve taken orders of our cookies to Lindley Mills before, but this order seemed felt extra special.

I love going to the mill to pick up our order. I suppose I could find a distributor that will deliver it for me and save the few hours it takes to ride out there, but it is more that simply an ingredient we buy. It’s a chance to take a ride out in the country. To see more cows and goats, than cars. To spend some quiet time. To talk with my daughter Anna. It is a chance to do business with a company that has been operating in the same location since 1755 (not a typo). And yes, Joe Lindley runs the place.

I don’t know all the secrets involved in operating a business that’s been around for 255 years, but I do know one thing – it is a company that I want to do business with. These are the types of people that I want to continue to associate with in 2010 and beyond. We get wonderful feedback from customers about our cookies, but this felt like one of the highest compliments we’ve ever received. I was humbled and grateful.

We shipped our last holiday order on Tuesday before Christmas, just as requested by the customer. I finished up with just enough time to take my place in line with the other husbands and dads, looking to find that special something that will help remind those closest to us that we are indeed grateful for all we have been given. I found everything I was looking for and was treated to some of the best customer service I’ve ever had.

I’ve never been great with New Year’s Resolutions, but I did spend time trying to get my mental and physical house in order before we kick off another calendar year. Included on my list are:

    To focus squarely on what I want to see for my family, my businesses and my friends in 2010.
    To, as Dr. Wayne Dyer says, ‘Sell my cleverness and purchase bewilderment’.
    To surround myself with people that are moving forward towards something more than simply making up for any lack of accumulation.
    To be in a state of ‘gratitude’ at all times.

If you’ve found your way to this site, my hope is that you have enjoyed the past few minutes and will leave with an idea or inspirational thought that might help you see 2009 from a different perspective and look for something better in 2010. And, if you are looking to surround yourself with people and companies that are moving forward in a positive manner, then I hope you’ll take a minute to visit We make great cookies, to be certain, but we’re really in the business of making people happy. And that is a pretty good resolution no matter what business you might be in.

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Do your homework

Did you do your homework?

Did you do your homework?

Someday, I hope that Anna will thank me. It’ll probably take her a while to understand, but the lessons and lectures on homework and discipline I seem to dole out on a regular basis will pay off for her in the future. Like any athlete that expects to reach the top of their sport, discipline and practice are not optional. Schoolwork and academics are no different.

I’m certainly not perfect in this area, but I have learned the value of research and preparation over the years. When I was working in the technology world, one of my associates used to always say, “It’s not enough to know the answer, you have to understand why”. I believe that you can apply this principle to many areas of business and life. Certainly it plays a role in baking our gourmet cookies, and I practice this philosophy in the business side of Anna’s Gourmet Goodies as well.

Baking is really about science and chemistry. Ultimately, you are trying to take moisture out of natural materials at a rate that allows all the ingredients to blend together just perfectly. I can throw together a sauté dish of veggies and meat for dinner with my eyes closed, but making a batch of 10,000 cookies where each one will come out precisely the same, requires research, diligence and doing your homework. Whether or not Anna will ever step behind the mixer and fire up the oven is yet to be seen, but I am still going to insist that she develop the muscle required to approach problems and opportunities logically, and do her research.

We apply the same principle to conducting business with our clients. It is not uncommon for us to receive an order with what appears to be an error in the shipping address. We could simply ship the product as ordered and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, we choose to do some basic research on the Internet first, before contacting the customer for clarification. Sure, it takes a little extra time to do this work, but in the end, it is one of the features of our service that differentiates us in the marketplace.

I do the same when contacting new prospects or vendors. Before I ever pick up the phone, I’ll do my homework to make sure that I have a basic understanding of the business I am calling. How easy was it to find them on the Internet? Is their website up to date with contact info? What about products and services – is it easy to find out what they do or sell? Is the owner or management team listed?

It is a habit I’ve developed that truly pays dividends when it comes to building long term relationships with clients. It helps us build our customer base, as well as selecting our suppliers, because we expect the same level of service and commitment from those companies that support our business, that we provide to our clients. Ultimately, we attract and retain customers and suppliers that are truly a pleasure to do business with. Life’s too short to have it any other way.

So if you and your company decide to send gifts from Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, you can rest assured that we’ll take some time to do our homework on your business. If there is something we can do to help, even if it has nothing to do with cookies, I’m happy to share our experience. And, if you are a supplier looking to work with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, I’d recommend you at least visit our website and do a little research before you make that first call. If you think it’s not that important, just ask Anna how Dad feels about doing your homework.

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Gourmet cookies – with a little attitude

Gourmet cookies – with a little attitude

One of the great things about our business is getting to work with some really cool companies to combine our cookies and gifts with their marketing and branding ideas. A long-time friend and customer, Mike Minogue from Dark Horse Creative always inspires me with his packaging ideas for holiday gifts featuring our cookies and brownies. So when Mike came up with his latest viral marketing idea, I was happy to jump on board.

Dark Horse created some temporary tattoos, sent them around the country to various people and had them take photos. When I saw the tattoo, I thought it might be a great fit for Anna’s Gourmet Goodies to get in on the action. They sent a supply of the tattoos and I setup this photo shoot with my daughter, and the business namesake, Anna.

We really had fun with it. To be sure, our cookies and brownies really are good, so why not display a little ‘attitude’. The picture has a timeless quality and it certainly drove home something that all fathers with daughters have to face – my little girl is growing up fast!

Not sure how we’ll use this photo and promo in our marketing, but I’m sure we’ll find a spot for it. If nothing else, perhaps it will spark an idea with someone wanting to combine our cookies with their marketing and branding program. Thinking out of the box and working with clients that have an edge in their marketing is something I absolutely love. It simply does not get much better than some of the work we’ve done with Dark Horse Creative. And, as those of you that have been around horse racing at all know, you should never underestimate a dark horse…

Learn more:

Tattoo Fun

Want to know what we did for Dark Horse gifts? Visit our website and drop me an email.

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Have you ‘unplugged’ lately?

Have you unplugged lately?

Have you ‘unplugged’ lately?

The last time I heard the challenge to ‘unplug’ from technology, it came from one of my favorite sales trainers, John Costigan. In one of his newsletters, he challenged readers to get off all email and cell phones for 24 hours. Sounds easy, but when you run a couple of businesses based on the Internet, it can be challenging.

Stepping back from your work is something that most everyone agrees is important, yet in actual practice many of us fail miserably when it comes to actually pulling the plug. It is simply too easy to check the iPhone or Blackberry for messages. You justify it by wanting to eliminate the ‘vacation penalty’ of having to clean out a mountain of emails or voice mails when you return.

I decided to take a weekend recently and unplug – totally. No checking voice mail, (I don’t have a phone with email), no laptop, and no TV. I’m fortunate that my extended family has a slice of paradise on the Pungo Creek in eastern North Carolina where there is a land phone line for emergencies, but the grip of the cell phone tower simply does not extend that far. I unplugged just after 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon and did not reconnect until returning home on Sunday afternoon, a full 48 hours without connectivity.

I admit that there were a couple of times when I was tempted just to call in quick and check for messages, but I fought the urge. The Hatteras Hammock by the water and the sailboat were perfect distractions. When I returned, I did have some emails and calls. But the good news is that there were some new customers and orders waiting, and nothing happened that I could not handle upon returning to work.

Here are some ideas and tips to help you unplug from your technology connections:

  • Start small. Turn your cell phone off at a given time each day – say 7:00 p.m., especially if this is a business phone. Leave it home when going to places where you are not going to make calls, like church (how important is it really, that you answer a phone call during this hour?).
  • Increase your time value. Return calls and emails to be sure, but start placing a higher value on your time. Stay away from ‘junk’ email and threads that steal your time.
  • A Black Hole for time. Social media is great – but it can take ALL of your time, not just your spare time. Check out Deidre Hughey’s blog if you are interested in managing your social media connections for business in a smart way.
  • Face your fear. If you are really scared of losing your business or your job because you fail to return a call or an email when you are supposed to be ‘offline’, then it is definitely time to step back and evaluate this fear. Remember, fear stands for False Evidence Appearing Real.
  • Give yourself permission. It is okay to let down. Just as you cannot exercise your body 24×7, you cannot exercise your mind all the time either. Everyone needs some time away from the constant pull of work and responsibility, to rest and recharge your batteries.

I hope you find these tips helpful. I’ll be working hard to take my own advice and cut the cord more often. If you have any other ideas, please feel free to post comments and suggestions. I’ll try to look and approve them quickly, but I may not get to them right away. I’m sure you’ll understand if I’m off email now and again.

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Don’t Look Back

Going fast

Watch where you are going

We’ve not had much snow lately in North Carolina, but last week we did see a pretty good dusting. Enough to allow me to take Anna over to the park for a short ride down the hill on a sledding tub. I don’t get on a sled much any more, and while I enjoyed the ride, it did bring back a vivid memory and a lesson from my younger days.

Now that my parents have both passed on to the next life, I can safely tell this story. Although I expect my mom knew what happened all along, as only mothers can. It was a painful life lesson about looking backwards when you should be focused on where you are going.

We did not have continuous snow cover in Kentucky, but when the ground was white, I was probably outside on a sled. One snowy afternoon when I was 15, my friend Wayne (who already had his driver’s license) and I planned a trip to George Rogers Clark Park for a little sledding. We picked up his girlfriend at the time and headed out to the park, bundled up and ready for some fast downhill action.

We met some folks at the park that were riding downhill on a car hood. Seemed like a cool idea at the time. It was wide and fast and totally out of control; the perfect draw for a couple of teenagers out for an afternoon of adventure.

I do remember thinking that my mom would most certainly not approve of me riding down the hill on the hood of a car. Partly because it was not safe with all the metal edges and mostly because she knew better – I did not. But the parents were not around, we were on an adventure and I hopped on for the ride.

The three of us started off down the hill all facing in the right direction. Yes, it was fast and it was fun. Not too far into the ride, we hit a bump, tossing my other two passengers off and spinning me around so I continued down the hill backwards. I was looking back up at Wayne and remember him waving, laughing and yelling. I turned around to look where I was going and a split second later, I made contact with the tree.

It stopped me completely. Fortunately, I was wearing several layers of clothing and luckily I impacted the tree about two inches to the right of my spine, dead center in the largest muscle of my back. My head snapped back, but missed the tree. Had I landed a few inches the other way with my spine taking the impact, I probably would not have walked away and might not be writing this post as well.

They helped me back up the hill and slid me into the car. It felt like I had cracked something, but I was too scared to go to a doctor. Wayne dropped me off at my house and left quickly before anyone could ask where we had been. I went straight to my room, got in bed, and said my prayers for not ending up in the ER. I never said anything to Mom, but I’m sure she knew something not quite right.

I try to look back on these life events and see if I can learn something so I don’t have to go through that pain a second time. For me, I believe this was an example of the value of looking forward when you are going somewhere fast. Running a business, in today’s spiraling economic climate, reminds me of my sledding adventure and the importance of staying focused on where you are heading.

At Anna’s Gourmet Goodies, we try to do just that. We’ve introduced a new line of packaging with bright colors, are adding some new services for our business clients, and continue to look for ways where we can add value to our existing customers as well as new clients. Debbie and I are shaping some ideas for a new website that we hope to launch shortly. We’re moving forward fast, watching where we are going and not continually looking backwards.

Don’t get me wrong – history is important. You have to know where you’ve come from to get a clear sense of where you are going. But, there is a time to look back and be reflective, and a time to look forward. When you are racing down a hill or running a business in a fast changing environment like we have today, you’d better stay focused on where you are headed or you just might hit a tree.

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