Where to begin? The idea of picking retail topics to write about, not to mention the very first topic, is pretty daunting to say the least. Inventory management, hiring, training, sales tips, merchandising, cash flow, or advertising only touch on some of the day to day areas of focus that a retail owner or manager has to tackle. But before we dive into all of those, let’s start at the beginning…
The Best Place to Start is at the Beginning
The reason why
Before I opened Fitzgerald’s Bicycles, I took a small business class that focused primarily on writing a business plan. Crafting the perfect Mission Statement was A#1 on the list of where to begin. Yeah, sure I’ll jump right on that… as soon as I fill out my business license, set up my insurance, debate who has the cheapest credit card processing fees, paint my sign, build a work bench, figure out where to buy slat wall, print up some t-shirts, freak out about how expensive advertising is, and become a master at quick books. You want a Mission Statement? How’s this “Fitzgerald’s exists to avoid bankruptcy, make payroll, and remember to check the answering machine every day”.
By the time I remembered that companies usually have a Mission Statement, I was four years into business ownership wondering what it was I set out to do in the first place. Over those first years (Fitzgerald’s 1.0 – 3.2) my customers made up for my lack of clear goals by telling me what it was I was doing. They told me what to order, what hours to keep, how much to charge, what events to sponsor, and even what my slogans were. Don’t get me wrong, that was awesome! But there comes a time when every business owner wants to take back control and actually steer the ship in a direction you want to go in, at a speed you feel comfortable with. Sure I was selling more stuff every year and hiring a few more employees, but why? What was it all about?
A good mission statement is functional. When you are stuck on a hard decision to make, turn to it for guidance. Should I buy the 100% recycled paper, or the cheaper 75% recycled? Bring on another employee, or dig in deeper yourself to get the job done? Well, how do these choices affect your mission? If your mission is to support environmental efforts then buy the 100% recycled. If elements in your mission require you to free up your time to grow, then hire the extra employee.
The mission statement functions as a stress reliever also. In the day-to-day stress of running a retail business, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and burnt out. If you are staying on target of your Mission, then it gives you long term focus that makes it easier to live with the day to day chaos.
Also, don’t forget about the function of getting your customers fired up about who you are and why they should spend dollars with you. Customers love to support passionate businesses and will key in to your mission if it’s genuine.
What the finished product looks like
There I was… alone in my office, wiped out at the end of a long day, with a blank computer screen staring me down and punctuating the torture with that stupid little blinking cursor. I curse you, you stupid blinking cursor! How hard could it be to write a mission statement? All of the experts tell you a mission statement should be short (1-2 sentences)and lay out the big picture goals of why a company exists. Piece of cake. Actually, absolute torture to the small business owner, who barely has time to check emails let alone engage in high level, focused, creative, word-smithing.
“Fitzgerald’s Bicycles exists to provide the highest level of customer service while offering quality bicycles, bicycle repair, and bicycle accessories in Jackson Hole.” Mark it Donny, Mission Statement done!
I actually can’t remember my first one but it was along these lines. I covered who we are, what we do, and where we do it. This statement lets my customers know that we strive for the highest level of customer service and we only sell quality products. So why am I about to tear this statement to shreds? For the same reason I can’t actually remember how it read. Because it carries the same punch as the mission statement for a fence post store, “Acme Fence Posts exists to provide the highest level of customer service while offering quality post pounding, posts, and post accessories in Wankerville”.
My first cut at a mission statement carried no message of where my passion was, it felt rehashed from some “Small Business Ownership for Dummies”, and was only a reflection of my desire to get the whole exercise over with. Basically, the sign out front covered about as much.
How was this statement to keep me from getting stressed, help me to make tough day-to-day decisions, or build long lasting customer loyalty? It wasn’t.
After a few years of living with my yawn-inspiring mission statement, I went back to the drawing board and took another shot at it. This time though, I was feeling really worked over. Now I had a staff into the double digits, yearly gross sales approaching seven figures, and a tax bill that made me finally understand why there are Democrats and Republicans in the world. But the craziest stat of all: I wasn’t making any more money! Nothing like working harder for the same amount of money to get you motivated.
I took the time to do it right this time. Here’s the mission statement that stuck around to this day and hasn’t come close to wearing out it’s welcome:
“Fitzgerald’s Bicycles exists to grow CYCLING, the fortune of our PEOPLE, and respect for the PLANET”
I’m not here to tell you I think this is the best mission statement ever written and is the benchmark by which all others shall be judged. No, I’m here to tell you this statement works for us. That’s the key to all of this, a mission statement needs to be uniquely effective for the company who owns it. For us, this mission statement tells the world why we choose to come in and open the doors each day. We are passionate about cycling and want to see more of it in the world. We want our people (employees and customers) to feel fortunate that we open the doors each day. And we want to make a positive impact on the planet by acting thoughtfully about our business practices. That’s it – everything else is gravy.
But how about Acme Fence Posts? Can’t really say for sure, but maybe the mission statement they really want is:
“Acme Fence Posts works to reduce the rate of juvenile swimming pool deaths by selling attractive and affordable back yard fence posts at a price every family can afford.”
How it really works
I’ve now been a part of three other successful mission statement exercises for other entities (which really only puts me at the advanced beginner stage) and the technique I’ve found to be the best begins with a good old-fashioned brain dump. If you’re into cool tech tools, I highly recommend the free, open-source mind map program called FreeMind. If you have a hard time turning off your Facebook alerts and like to stay up on emails every five minutes, a blank piece of paper and pen work great. Whatever you do, try to really stop everything else that’s going on and spend at least an hour focusing solely on this project. You’ll thank yourself for years to come for carving out this time! Personally, I work best on this stuff during an airplane flight with a blank notebook. It’s hard for me to unplug so the isolation chamber of an airplane is priceless (don’t expect me to sign up for Boingo on-board wifi anytime soon).
Blocking out all other distractions that are constantly tugging at your attention is really the hardest part, and don’t feel bad if it takes a few attempts – keep at it. Once you do get into your groove, just start writing down everything you love about your store, job, employees, customers, industry, etc. There is no wrong answer and everything that comes to mind deserves to be on the page for now. After you have your list, read through it a few times and write down the last thoughts that come trickling in as you review.
First step to get you going
If you really buy into the importance of being a mission-driven company, dive in and start your brain dump! Remember, a Mission Statement without the buy-in of all the owners is not really worth the time it takes to write it down.
Now go back over your list and highlight, circle, or check mark the most important words or phrases. Which ones really get you fired up and are at the heart of why you do what you do? Shoot for more than three and less than 10. Do any of them have some similarities? If so, try to find a word or expression that sums up what they all mean. If one of the biggies is, “make a ton of money” or “early retirement” and you’re afraid to let the world know that’s why you’re in it, don’t be. Most of us feel okay with a profit at the end of the day and few of us think early retirement is a bad thing!
So now you have your list. Hopefully with some grouping the list has thinned down to the single digits. If it hasn’t, think again about your real motivations for being in business and eliminate some of the other words that are really just supporting players like, “provide excellent customer service”. For most businesses that’s a given, but really should be left to a follow-up ‘statement of organizational values’ (let me know if you want to know more about “organizational values” in a future blog).
The only thing left is the word-smithing that felt so painful the last time you tried to write one of these. This time though, the sentences should kind of fall together. Of course you’ll need to choose a few verbs like “exists”, “works”, “provides”, and the like. If you can dig up some fresh ones, great. If you fall back on the tried and true “exists” like I did, that’s no problem. The real meat of the Mission Statement lies in nouns. For us, we can boil it down to three words, “Cycling, People, Planet”
Good Luck and let me know how it goes for you!
What is your mission statement? How did you write it? Let us know in the comments.