Mattering

I am sitting here in the Relentlessly Cheerful Cafe working. I’ve been here since about seven thirty this morning. I’ll likely be here till two or so this afternoon. I had two eggs, a slab of meat, and some spinach. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

The cook here knows me. She was the cook at Pawlet Station, a place I went to most days when I was not traveling, for years. When the Station went under for the last time, she moved here and so did I. I know how she cooks and she knows I like spinach and real coffee for breakfast. It’s a little more expensive than McDonalds, but it’s a way better experience, worth the extra dollar or two.

Regular readers know I have a thing for local coffee shops and diners. For many, many years, my work was a series of appointments through the day, with empty chunks of time in between. So I got in the habit of looking for small, quiet places with internet and coffee to work. After a few years of this, I pretty much knew all the small wired little places in half a dozen cities in the Eastern United States. When I had to help a company find and build new offices in DC, I conducted most of my interviews for staff, contractors and vendors from a Carabou Coffee shop in Loudon County, Va. When I was working from home in Daleville, Va, Mill Mountain Coffee was my office. Here in my little corner of nowhere, Vermont, I have less choices, but I’ve found a few places within a reasonable drive.

I like the mix of bustle and anonymity of coffee shops. There is energy there, yet you can be as anonymous or social as you like. Here in Vermont, it’s a little different than in the big cities. You can go to a coffee shop in New York every day, EVERY day, and if you don’t reach out to others, you are nigh on to invisible. Here in the little towns of New England, you show up for about 3 days, and people start to talk to you. You become a regular.

I like being a regular. In a world where everything is transacted on the internet, being a regular is an affirmation that you matter. Connection happens. It is amazing to me how close I have gotten to people I met in coffee shops.

I think that mattering is on the decline. We have a zillion more ways to connect, but so many of them are impersonal. The companies I do business with have all the data of what I’ve been buying, what I read, where I shop, and somewhere there are data analysts who look at all the data and decide what I want so it will show up the next time I visit their site. But they know nothing about me. But in the local stores I visit, over time, people have come to know me, Tom the person. They have come to understand not just what I want, but what my particular mix of business sense, technology saavy, artistic nature, romance and hard headed factoid guy, spirituality and profane-laced life is, and we have conversations, not “customer encounters”.

Many years ago, my dad decided to retire. He was about sixty-five or so. His idea was that he was going to give up all but his ten best customers and semi-retire. His expectation was that he could cut his workload to half time, and make about half the income, which would be plenty for his needs.

He was so wrong.

It turns out that, by concentrating on his top ten customers, he grew to know them better and better, and he actually made more money his first couple of years of semi-retirement than he had ever made before. And still worked less hours.

I was in my late thirties at the time, and I remember thinking to myself “How can I do that before I retire?”. And much of my life since then has been set on a path asking myself that question. It’s not that I want to work 20 hours a week and get rich. But I DO want to have more than customers – I want people in my life that I can care about as people, and who grow to care about me. I want relationships. And relationships take time. Conversations, not fly-bys. Caring, not “likes”.

I am not bashing social media here. I love social media. Where I am going with this is that I found there are a couple of paths to making money. One involves more, more, more. More sales, less margins, automate to within a hairs breath of profitability, faster, faster, bigger and bigger. All very profitable and when you get bigger and bigger, there’s certainly prestige in that. I know, I’ve been part of building some seriously large companies from scratch.

But what I learned was that, once these companies got to a certain size, it wasn’t fun any more. It was about numbers more than people. I could not stay close to my employees as well. There were too many customers, so I had to develop ways to make it seem like I was in touch with them. Well, I was in touch technically, but not in reality. I was touching them maybe, but that is different than being in relationship. That was different than making everyone in my life and work matter.

For a time, my solution was that once a company reached a certain size, I was done. I’d move on. I was (and am) very very good at startups, at creating corporate cultures that win. Every company that took me in, in a leadership position has grown, dramatically. But when we got to X size, the closeness eroded in favor of the things you have to do to manage scale. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can keep culture and size, but it takes an effort that most companies, as they grow, are not willing to put in.

The past few years, I’ve taken a different approach. I am still learning, but it seems to prove something I thought for a long time. There are a few people and companies that want to matter. And they will pay a little extra to matter – to be a priority, to have me learn more than the task at hand, but the key people and issues and culture and…. the things that make them who they are. I learned that making people matter can pay. And that making people matter makes me feel better.

I have a friend who was a counselor for many years. She once told me that most of her clients actually had very little wrong with them. “They just need someone to talk to.”, she says. “They need to matter.”

Amen.

One of the things about coaching that most people don’t think about is that for the time the coach and the coached are working together, the coach is 100% focused on the person being coached. It’s an intense focus. Most clients very quickly talk to about how good it feels, even beyond the results, to have someone so focused on them, just them, for that period of time. We don’t get that in life. We don’t get that at work. A lot of times, we don’t even get that at home.

Want to know what sets me and Quarry House apart?

I want to matter. That’s why I love my little coffee shops, my local food markets, small churches. And I want my clients to know THEY matter. I could grow my business to something way bigger. I know how to do it. I’ve done it. Multiple times. But I’ve chosen to go counter to the culture. I will reach less people perhaps, than building a large consulting firm. But the people I do reach, I will help. And more that that, they will matter and they will FEEL like they matter. It’s more than a business. It’s relationships. Real ones.

Like me and the cook here at the Relentlessly Cheerful Diner.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

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