I'm an Entrepreneur, Not a Small-Business Person
By Judith Mackin
Photographs by Kelly Lawson
Our business, Tuck, a furniture and décor store, is located on historic Prince William Street in Saint John, New Brunswick. Since the advent of online shopping, one feature of life on our street is the near-constant arrival and departure of vehicles delivering packages to my neighbours, both residential and commercial. It’s more than likely that each of those shopping experiences began with an isolated shopper attentive to a screen. At no point did the exchange that ended with a delivery involve physically entering a store or any human contact beyond the incidental. And on almost no level did this commercial transaction represent a show of support for local business. You’d think that for me, the owner of a business dependent upon a certain level of foot traffic, all this constitutes a situation bordering on the dire, an escalating threat. But it doesn’t. In fact, quite the opposite. I take it as confirmation that, standing in the doorway of my local enterprise, I’m exactly where I need to be to thrive. Let me explain why.
Several years ago, in the midst of the still relatively novel — but burgeoning — growth of online shopping, I opted to open something of a “legacy” business: a store located in a building built in 1878, one complete with, yes, an actual sales team. And rather than languish in the years our doors have been open, our business has grown tenfold, even in the face of the unique and putatively powerful competition from online shopping.
How have we managed this? I’m an entrepreneur and not a small-business owner. What’s the difference? Basically, I think of “small business” as an expression of small-mindedness. Entrepreneurship, however, involves a creative commitment, not just to profit or short-term gain but to a scheme of values that serves the larger community. Small businesses tend to be preoccupied with short-term interests; entrepreneurs know how to play the long game. Practically, what does this difference involve? For my co-workers at Tuck and me, it means scanning the neighbourhood for litter and discarded bottles. It means sweeping the street daily. It means greeting every single person, customer or not, with a “Good morning” as they pass by our shop. It means that, if you park yourself outside Tuck for any length of time, you are apt to see a member of our team racing out to meet the parking commissionaire with a toonie in hand because we know that the ticket they were about to write would have been one more reason for someone not to visit uptown. You’d see our team carrying packages out to cars and helping the elderly get out of their vehicles on the way to the doctor’s office across the street. You’d overhear us giving tourists directions. In sum, you’d witness a team of six dedicated individuals determined to make anyone and everyone’s experience in uptown Saint John a pleasant one.
At Tuck we have what we call “Tuck culture.” What directs and informs that culture is the recognition that we aren’t just in business or in the business of staying in business. We are, rather, citizens who happen to be in business. Citizenship implies a deeper investment than mere residency. It means that we aren’t simply members of Saint John’s population. Instead, we’re committed in various, sundry and often subtle ways to the greater good. It means that we never forgo an opportunity to promote our city, to be responsible members of a neighbourhood and, perhaps more important so far as the health of our business is concerned, to treat each and every customer as we would a friend. We really do endeavour to approach everyone, even those unlikely to ever make a purchase at Tuck, with the same care and regard. We think of every person as a potential customer of Tuck, if not today, if not tomorrow, then possibly someday. These potential customers come to us in every possible form, from the 15-year-old passing the storefront on the way to school to the woman asking for directions to the accountant’s office right above us to a delivery person with a bursting bladder seeking immediate relief. Every single day we hustle hard to make everyone’s experience in uptown Saint John a positive one; we are proud ambassadors for our city.
We know that relatively little of what we do in aid of this broad definition of “service” is likely to result, at least directly, in a sale. And that’s where the distinction between small business and entrepreneurship obtains: I’m convinced that small-business owners focus too narrowly on the bottom line. They regard their business as a means to an end, and that end is survival (and the profit that survival entails). Small-business owners set targets and commit themselves to meeting them. As a result, they are tempted to look for ways to reduce costs. At some point, there’s a risk that the customer will become something they have to “handle.” Their staff too is at risk of evolving into a liability. So they cut back hours and start to micromanage.
Although I “own” my business, I regard myself as a member of a team. The team runs the show. We don’t work on commission. In our regularly scheduled meetings we never discuss targets. The questions that most concern us, rather, are: “How can we better serve our customer?” “How can we be better involved in serving our community?” and “How can we each be a better team member?” At Tuck, team members choose their own schedules, the salaries are above average, and the benefits are generous. The result? A happy group of people who love to come to work, love each other and — here’s the real dividend — love our customers.
But please don’t misunderstand me: we aren’t Luddites with regard to online shopping and its sister ship, social media. We like to think we’ve warmly embraced their possibilities and opportunities; they’re not so much alternatives to our current business model as adjuncts. We’re deeply aware that, when it comes to our customer’s attention, the principal avenue open to us is via social media, yes, those very screens that our “lost customer” is using to shop online.
Recently, while on vacation in Amsterdam, I visited Droog Design and picked up a wonderful little book, Made in China, Designed in California, Criticized in Europe (it was free!). It makes the somewhat depressing point that social media has had the unanticipated effect of flattening and narrowing our experience rather than enlarging it. “Paradoxically,” it notes, “the gospel of permanent change and constant renewal has produced a deep sense of stagnation.… the great digital powers… (merely) enable us to do exactly the same thing as everyone else.” An alternative to the stultifying sameness fostered by social media is precisely what our store — like any bricks-and-mortar operation committed to providing a genuine experience — can provide.
So no, at Tuck, we don’t think of ourselves at war with online shopping; it’s not our real competition. (Ironically, if the author of the aforementioned book is right, “the great digital powers,” in their failure to connect us in any meaningful way, are a powerful ally.) No, our only enemy is complacency. Hence our motto (lately immortalized in neon at our sister shop, Tuck Interiors): “F*** mediocrity.” Regarding every single aspect of our business, we ask ourselves, “How can we make each customer’s experience both unexpected and genuine?” Every day we fight to make that customer’s experience so positive that they’ll return to Tuck time and time again, if only for another taste of that experience.
Will Tuck still be alive and kicking in another eight years? It’s hard to say. And on some level, in the great scheme of things, does it really matter? In the meantime, as the old adage goes, we’ll continue “casting our bread upon the waters”; that is, we’ll do what we do without any particular expectation of advantage or return. We will continue to live, breathe and present as entrepreneurs and trust this will carry us through. And we’ll leave the running of small businesses to others.
Since 2008, Judith Mackin and the team at Tuck Studio and Tuck Interiors have helped design the interiors of hundreds of homes in Atlantic Canada and in the United States). They have over 50 commercial projects under their belt, including restaurants, bars, dental practices, start-ups and medical offices. Their work has been featured in The Globe and Mail, East Coast Living, [EDIT] and Progress Magazine and on HGTV, Slice TV and W Network. Along with an abiding commitment to service and value, the key to Mackin's vision is a focus on Canadian furniture companies and original art.
122 Prince William Street, Saint John, NB
tuckstudio.ca | @tuckstudio
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here