ICS Magazine

Business Lessons from the Ozarks

May 18, 2006
"Serendipity: The faculty of happening upon fortunate discoveries when not in search of them." I love the moments that take me completely by surprise. When I expect one thing and find another. The other day I received a call from a woman named Cathy... "Hi Ellen, I read your article in the local business journal and I would like to invite you to our association meeting."



"Serendipity: The faculty of happening upon fortunate discoveries when not in search of them."

I love the moments that take me completely by surprise. When I expect one thing and find another. The other day I received a call from a woman named Cathy...

"Hi Ellen, I read your article in the local business journal and I would like to invite you to our association meeting."

"Well, how thoughtful of you," I replied. "What is the name of your group?"

"The Home Based Businesses of the Ozarks," she answered proudly.

Immediately, I pictured a room full of good ol' boys in overalls: "Hi I'm Billy, owner of Hillbilly Billy's Moonshine. Try a snort of this!" I collected myself and replied, "Gosh, thanks, Cathy. When do you meet?" I was stalling for time, trying to think of a gracious way to decline.

"We meet the second Tuesday of every month. In fact, Ellen, we would really like you to come and speak to our group about how to make more money. Profitability is always a hot topic in our breakout discussion groups."

Now, I am all about helping people make more money. Cathy was asking me to do just that. Sigh. I agreed to go to the next meeting as a guest, and get a feel for the group. I could do my presentation the following month.

"OK, Cathy, I'm in. Where do you meet?"

"You know the Smitty's grocery store at the corner of National and Republic? There is a little coffee shop in there. That's where we meet."

Of course it is.

Well, the second Tuesday arrived and, of course, it was a crazy-busy day. I looked forward to the meeting like I look forward to doing laundry. I just wanted to get it over with.

I am a big fan of associations, of networking. I believe that if you hang out with successful people, some of it is bound to rub off on you. I look for the eagles! I want to find folks who can teach me something. I have spent thousands of dollars attending the best seminars. I've sat at the feet of the world's top business gurus - Steven Covey, Frank McGuire of FedEx, Frank Meeks of Domino's Pizza, Tom Peters, Michael Gerber. What could the Home Based Businesses of the Ozarks teach me?

It was pouring rain as I drove to Smitty's. Grumbling, I raced to the coffee shop, expecting to be the only one who had braved the storm to make the meeting. There was a little private dining room off the main part of the coffee shop. More than 30 people were packed into it and the meeting was already in full swing. Cathy was looking for me as I arrived. She acknowledged me with a smile and pointed to an open chair.

The speaker was a woman named Geraldine. Her white hair was untidy and her clothes a bit rumpled, but she was clearly in charge of the room. As I found my seat, Geraldine swooped down on me and demanded, "Well? Who are you?"

Startled, I stammered, "Uh, I'm Ellen Rohr."

She shook her head and prodded, "And what do you do?" I recalled the same tone of voice that Sister Theresa used to prompt my catechism answers in fourth grade.

"Oh, gee, well, I teach basic business skills. I help folks learn how to read their financial reports. So they can learn where the money goes. I help them make more money." Now I was hitting my stride. I smiled broadly, expecting Geraldine to be duly impressed.

She squinted at me, not in a kind way. "Fifteen seconds. No good," she announced.

I felt my cheeks burn. I opened my mouth to respond, but had no idea what she was talking about.

"Fifteen seconds and I am out the door!" she explained. "Ten seconds and I have already decided that you are a longwinded bore. Honey, if you can't tell me who you are and what you do in eight seconds or less, well, I'm going to think you don't know! Stand up, look me in the eye and try again."

Holy hush puppies! I looked around the room at the alert and amused members of the Home Based Businesses of the Ozarks. They looked back expectantly. Gulp. I looked for the door and saw a large Smitty's waitress blocking the exit. "OK. Here goes. Hi, I'm Ellen Rohr and I can help you make a living doing what you love!"

"Better!" Geraldine smiled and won me over with her dimpled grin. "Seven seconds, and I am interested in making money. Have a seat. You can stay." She and the rest of the group chuckled. I exhaled and accepted the hard-won praise like a puppy.

"You see, we must confidently - and briefly - announce our presence in the world, and tell of our good works," Geraldine enthused. "Nothing is worse than a mumbled, self-deprecating how-do-you-do. You have eight seconds, or less, to make a first impression." She commanded us to break into groups of six, and practice our introductions.

In my group I met Sandy, owner of a carpet-cleaning company. Ernest sold light fixtures. Emily grew and marketed organic produce. And Kay had just started her first business.

Kay looked at the floor and sighed. Then she mumbled, "I'm Kay, and I guess I'll call my business Kay's Lawns. Ummm, our lawn care prices are the lowest around."

Sandy was gentler than Geraldine but the message was clear, "Kay, that will not do. Head up, shoulders back, and no guessing this time. State your name and your business." Ernest chimed in, "Gotta speak up, Kay. Try again." I couldn't help helping, "Kay, don't mention the price. What else makes you special? Why did you want to start a lawn care company anyway?"

Kay went on to explain that after 25 years of working as a Missouri state employee she was only making $25,000 a year and was developing health problems. "I realized that my job was making me sick! I was tired of punching a time clock and doing meaningless work. I've always loved to garden. My yard is beautiful. I am especially good with flowers. So I thought, why not start a landscaping company?"

Sandy, Ernest and I coached and prodded Kay. We made her introduce herself over and over. Finally, Geraldine stopped by our group and Kay jumped up to greet her.

"I'm Kay of Kay's Landscaping. I'll care for your yard as if it were my own. And mine is beautiful."

Kay still spoke a bit too softly, but her introduction was so much better than only a few minutes before. We cheered for her and Geraldine gave her a high-five. Kay was very pleased with herself. Sandy, Ernest and I had the glow of knowing we had been really helpful. It was so much fun!

Geraldine continued to bark orders. "Switch group members. The person with the most hair will state their most pressing business problem. The rest of you solve it. You have 10 minutes. GO!"

And we went! Honest situations were presented, suggestions offered. We had fun, but stayed on topic. Nobody whined about anything. I suppose if they had, Geraldine would've tossed ‘em into the rain-pounded parking lot.

Serendipity. I came to the meeting arrogant and disdainful. Within the first few minutes I was exposed as a bore. A few minutes later, I helped improve the life of a fellow traveler. I listened and connected and offered advice - mostly about raising prices!

I left with three pages of suggestions for my own business. The seminar with Tom Peters was not nearly so powerful as the Home Based Businesses of the Ozarks association meeting. How about that? I am really looking forward to next month's meeting.

As you wander into your business pasture, recall these pearls of Ozarkian wisdom:
There is nothin' new under the sun.
Don't judge a man by his overalls.
You get what you give.
When you tell folks who you are and what you do, keep it plain and straight. And under eight seconds.