Had a little academic diversion today — Alan’s entrepreneurship class had a guest speaker, Ari Weinzweig, so I tagged along to the luxe U of M B-school. (Yes, luxe. They could fund some more scholarships if they just sold the very nice print collection — Stella, Longo, Close — that lines the hallways.)
You’re forgiven for not knowing the name. Weinzweig is a founding partner of Zingerman’s, Ann Arbor’s peerless deli/bakery/catering business, generally acknowledged to be on a par with Dean & Deluca and Zabar’s, and hardly anyone else. I was interested in what he’d be like, since Zingerman’s is one of those hippie success stories, a retail business with the sort of structure every employee wants — health insurance, open-door meetings, bottom-up communication and all the rest of it.
Weinzweig told the story briefly, stressing his core beliefs, particularly the importance of having a vision for your life and business. That is to say, not a windy masala of business-speak, but an idea of where you want to be and what you want to be doing in X time period, so you at least know where to steer your vessel. When he opened the floor for questions, I asked him how much customer education he had to do, if for no other reason than to soften people up for items like an eleven-dollar loaf of bread.
He said something really important: That “we sell nothing anyone needs, and a lot of things nobody wants, until they’ve tried it a few times, and then decide they want.” For instance, he said, gesturing to the cream cheese he’d brought, to go with a loaf of the $11 bread (cranberry-walnut, mmmmmm), that cream cheese grew out of the company’s stated vision: to sell high-quality, full-flavor and artisan-quality food. To make the cheese, they first had to research what cream cheese was like before mass food processing. Then they had to figure out how to make it. Then they had to sell it, and people didn’t like it at first, because it didn’t meet their expectations of what cream cheese should be. But because they trusted the business, they sampled it, and after a while they started buying it, and now they won’t eat anything else.
The same rejection-acceptance-devotion curve happened with the bread, and most of the other products they sell.
So, in other words: In order to thrive, they first had to lead. Which is, it seems to me, the secret of most business, especially ones that sell products no one needs. It’s one thing, if you’re selling disposable diapers, to ask people what they want a disposable diaper to be. But if you’re selling expensive, high-quality bread that most people have probably never tasted in their lives, or any product people don’t get up every morning needing to get through the day, you have to show the way.
If you’re suspecting this is not evidence of a newfound interest in entrepreneurship but a warmup for a rant about the newspaper business, you’re half-right. I really don’t have the energy for a rant, but yes, it occurred to me: Publishers should save the money (not all, but some) they spend focus-grouping, market-researching and pulse-taking, trust their guts more and lead the way. Of course, when those publishers and their top editors are, increasingly, carpetbaggers (the last corner-office crew at the Indianapolis Star stayed a little under two years before moving on to greener pastures), they probably need the help.
The cream cheese was delicious, by the way.