5 Strategies for Competing When You’re Small

Plum Grove Music is a David and Goliath success story, with one location, 20 employees and less than $1 million annual sales. And despite strong local competition, the full-service band and orchestra business had grown steadily since 2010 and is debt-free. At 2016 Summer NAMM, company owner Rick Thacker shared five ways for small retailers to compete, beat the odds and thrive in today’s competitive retail marketplace.

Here are his five strategies. (Watch the video for the full session.)

1. The Power of One (Location)
Thacker advised retailers to embrace their size and use it to their advantage. When his business wasn’t initially profitable as a lessons-only operation, he revamped his space over a weekend and re-opened Monday morning as a music retail store with an education corner. The company’s small size let him adapt quickly. As a result, gross sales increased 38 percent in a year.

Thacker emphasized the benefits of having a single store and quoted Maple Leaf Strings Vice President Jason Blank: “Your greatest advantage as a small dealer is in having one location. You can make a directional decision in the moment.”

2. Do Something Remarkable
Marketing guru and best-selling author Seth Godin defines remarkable as something that causes one to remark about it to another. Thacker suggested you apply this to your business and ask yourself what you do that’s so unique or different that your customers tell someone else about it. He offered the following examples from his own business.

Lesson program. In 2011, Plum Grove Music had 30 students taking viola and violin, taught by one teacher (himself). In 2015, Plum Grove had more than 400 students ranging from ages 2 through 65, enrolled in a variety of instruments, and taught by a team of teachers. “I believe our lesson program is the best example of remarkable,” Thacker said. The program generates social media content that inspires customer remarks, and it’s marketing you can’t buy.

Teaching team. Ideas and activities start with the teaching team. This gives the business a united front to serve students, while ensuring that everyone has fun.

Company culture. Plum Grove Music’s tagline and motto is “Sharing Joy Through Music.” Thacker described joy as the commodity the company provides to its community and music as the vehicle (how they do it).

Repair shop. “If I could tell you one thing to do with your repair shop, it would be to take photos,” Thacker said. Plum Grove Music texts repair photos (before and after) to the customer and puts the photos on the company website.

• Thacker’s wife also makes a complimentary restoration photo book. Two copies are produced, one for the customer as a surprise gift and another for the store’s coffee table.

• Tell everyone all that you do, including free estimates, loaner estimates and school delivery (a great way to get past the gatekeeper).

• Give when you can. Don’t charge customers for a minor fix if it involves little time or expense. A little bit of goodwill goes a long way.

• Use customer comments on your website. Ask them to write up their compliments and post them.

3. Work On Your Business, Not Just In Your Business
There are numerous reasons why small businesses get stuck or fail. Thacker shared his advice and ways you can avoid it from happening:

• Owners tend to do everything from the start. At some point, you need to realize you can’t do it all and let go. Don’t get burned out, or it might result in closing the doors or shrinking.

• Procedures, systems and organization will save you, and the lack of them will kill you.

• Delegate, don’t abdicate. Transfer the task to someone with training.

• Be clear about what the business is and is not. Be clear to yourself and to your team.

• Don’t grow too much or too fast.

• View your business as a product. (If your business was a product on a shelf, would you pick it up?)

• Write out procedures for your store.

• Invest in what you know, or learn about it so you know enough to invest.

Thacker noted that he tried to grow too fast into band and orchestra instruments. He realized he didn’t have the right infrastructure, so he waited until he could support the business and maintain it steadily. This year, Plum Grove Music landed several schools—an example of working on a business, not just in it.

4. Readers Are Leaders
Thacker stated that business, innovation and marketing books helped him define and grow his company. After hiring employees who just didn’t work out, he came up with a required reading list for new employees. They are asked to read and write a brief summary of each book:

• Rhinoceros Success by Scott Alexander – self motivation

• The Go-Getter by Peter B. Kyne – overcoming obstacles

The Monk and the Merchant by Terry Felber – principles of success.

5. Find the Foothold
Thacker related a story about a close friend with an amazing business. Despite big successes (and lows), he’s been missing the ingredients for total success. He works hard in his business, but not on it. Thacker concluded: “Anything in theory and not in practice is useless.” Thacker also echoed best-selling author and radio host Dave Ramsey’s advice to leave the cave, kill something and drag it home. “You may loosen a brick, so get out there,” Thacker said.