Earlier this week I met with some young entrepreneurs who are trying to apply their design school education to solve a social/business/design problem. They are interested in ways to help “mom and pop” (i.e., small, independent) businesses in a specific category remain viable. They’ve done a bit of research and ideation, but were feeling stuck, so they asked me to meet them and critique what they had done so far.
The timing was interesting, because I had just writen about my Mom and Pop failure experience (ironically, thinking about this upcoming meeting the whole time). Their response to my story was to comment on the on-demand nature of our culture that seems to be escalating; that’s fair enough, I was certainly looking for my paint right then; we’ve been trained that it’s indeed possible, and we do want that.
There’s a lot of conventional political perspective on why one should shop locally and small, and they are hoping to get beyond that, to motivate people not for moral reasons but to create real benefit. (Virginia Postrel challenges at least one of the shoulds in her comment here.)
We brainstormed for a couple of hours, building up some possible scenarios, solutions, and I think most importantly for them, the research they should do next if they really want to understand their problem in an actionable fashion.
It’s all about triangulation; trying to get enough different perspectives on the situation, to bring differences out as contrasts, and to do that you need to look at different stuff. They had been mostly talking to the types of proprietors they wanted to help, and they had a really nice segmentation that came out of that. But they hadn’t looked at why customers shopped at those smaller stores. Or why customers didn’t shop at those smaller stores. What do people like about mom-and-pops? What do they like about chains? Both in the category they are looking at, but also other ones?
The second area I recommended they focus on is a deeper understanding of success and failure in other categories of retail. Brainstorm a list of different categories where large retailers have come in, but some small businesses remain. Look at what has made them successful, or what has prevented them from being successful.
In each of those ways of pulling back from the problem, they may see some interesting strategies that can be adapted to their target, as well as develop a more nuanced take on the challenge for their target.
I look forward to seeing where they go with it and I will be sure to publish anything that goes live here.
Also: they told me about a new doc called Independent America where the filmmakers drive across the country talking to people in different small businesses. Sounds interesting.