Everywhere you look, you might notice a new kind of flexible, smart small business. They serve a relatively small number of people. Big businesses drool over their profit margins and adaptability. Their customers are knocked out by what they do and how they do it.
Oh, and one more thing. They’re taking over the world.
These businesses know their customers, often on a first name basis. Their customer relationships, like every real relationship, encounter the occasional rough spot. Being small and human means making plenty of mistakes.
But when these businesses mess up, unlike AT&T or Microsoft, their customers often love them more.
What’s a village business?
A few months ago, I wrote about the advantages of having a village of customers. Business is personal, intimate, and human-scaled. Each village business is individual, defined by the personality of the owner, but also by the quirks of their customers.
But unlike a literal village, many of the new village businesses have customers all over the world. Your customers might hail from Melbourne, Malaysia and Munich, while you run your village business from a home office in Madison, Wisconsin.
As economic trends smash big companies to pieces (and outsource the crumbs that are left), more and more people are creating vibrant little businesses serving their own villages of customers.
A village business is responsive
When your customer base is small, you can be exceptionally responsive to the needs and desires of those customers.
If you’re a village baker worried about health trends, you can start doing something about it right away.
You put more heart-healthy items in your cases. You open your kitchen after hours for healthy cooking classes. You team up with local restaurants to put better bread on their tables, and local mills to get fresh organic flour for your products.
What you don’t do is run focus groups to see if there’s a market need, or ask your franchise manager if they’re ok with you adding some items to the menu.
You just try it out. Your community likes it or they don’t. Either way, you won’t have to do market research to find out how it’s going — your village just tells you.
You adjust your course. You find common ground between your vision and the needs of your village. You learn by doing.
A place where everybody knows your name
Remember that line from the old TV show Cheers? The show is about a bar that’s a quintessential village business. Everyone’s a regular. Everyone is familiar.
Television shows rely on this familiarity. Shows about quirky villages (Northern Exposure, The Gilmore Girls) draw loyal viewers week after week. And even shows allegedly set in big cities (Friends, Seinfeld, Sex in the City) give us versions of those cities where we spend all of our time within the same village of familiar faces.
Most of us are uncomfortable in vast, anonymous spaces. Red Square is magnificent, but no one wants to spend a week’s vacation there.
We want to feel special, like we’re part of something. We want to be a “regular.”
Give them someplace to gather
What does a village need?
You might create a membership site for your best-loved customers. Or organize special conferences, user groups, and gatherings. You might build something as simple as a private online forum where your village can share their experiences — good and bad.
But give your village a place to get together. To know you better, and know one another better. A place where everybody knows their name.