Last week's column — in which I gave my readers a (perhaps too) candid look into what I personally will be doing (and not doing) in the next year or two as we emerge from our pandemic foxholes — generated a fair amount of comment, both positive and negative.
An example of the latter: "Up to now I've always respected what you do for the small business community, but after reading this I'm starting to wonder if you believe in freedom." This was no doubt in response to my statement that I will be wearing a mask in public situations and avoiding large crowds for at least the next 12 to 24 months.
First, let me remind everyone that this is a column designed to help small-business owners be more successful. That was precisely why I wrote last week's column: to let you know how at least one customer (me) is going to interact with local businesses for the foreseeable future.
Like it or not, the pandemic has changed the way your customers look at the world around them. Many of them — especially older folks, those who came down with the virus and those who lost loved ones — will be much more cautious and much more conscious of their health, safety and surroundings than they were in 2019. Even if they've been vaccinated.
State and local governments may allow you to take off your mask, but many people — myself included — will probably continue to wear one in public for quite a while to come.
As a small-business owner, you need to be sensitive to that.
Asking whether I believe in individual freedom is a loaded question. There is only one acceptable answer: yes!
But here's the tricky part: Freedom is not always what the entrepreneurial life is all about.
In a free society, people are free to do what they like within the limits of the law. In America, they are free to start businesses of their own. Millions of immigrants come to this country precisely for the opportunity to do so, and entrepreneurship has been the path to success for many people who have been marginalized by the traditional corporate career path.
But business owners are not free to do whatever they like with their businesses.
Sad to say, when you run your own business, you are seldom, if ever, "your own boss." You are still accountable to someone; it's just that that someone doesn't live in the office with you.
That someone is your customer.
One of the hardest lessons first-time entrepreneurs learn is that people are seldom willing to pay them to do things that are fun, creative and fulfilling. Many of the jobs people pay good money for are things that are tedious, boring, complicated, risky, dangerous or disgusting.
Often, what people want you to do is at odds with what you want to do. Often, what people want you to do is contrary to what you think they should want you to do. But you know what? That is their prerogative. They are free to spend their money however they wish.
To put it bluntly: If you run a restaurant, you will certainly have the freedom not to wear a mask and to require your employees to take theirs off. But I also have the freedom not to patronize your restaurant if I do not feel safe there. If I ask your mask-free waitress whether or not she has been vaccinated, she does not have the freedom to ignore my question. And if she equivocates or gives the wrong answer, I have the freedom to walk out and eat somewhere else. You may think me a wimp, or worse, but it's my life and my money. Guess who wins?
A local Indian restaurant in my hometown did something amazing this past week. In addition to putting out tables and chairs for outdoor dining as they did last summer, they commandeered five parking spaces in front of the restaurant and built a shed with five individual dining compartments separated by glass dividers. By eating there, you can enjoy indoor dining and still benefit from social distancing, as families occupying adjoining compartments can see, hear and talk to each other in a safe way.
The shed is an eyesore and takes up a good-sized chunk of their parking lot — and how they ever got it past our local Planning and Zoning Commission I will never know — but it's a brilliant way to cope with the new world we will be facing as we emerge from our foxholes. The ambience is not the same as their gorgeous interior space featuring Indian antiques and tapestries on the walls, but I don't think most customers will mind if the food is good, the service is punctual and friendly, and the seating is comfortable.
The goal of any small business these days, as it has been this entire past year, is to stay open, keep the revenue flowing, and survive, whatever it takes. That means worshipping your customers and subordinating your freedom to theirs: exactly what the concept of "service" means.
If you disagree, you have the freedom to fail.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.
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