Lessons learned.

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.

Posted at 7:02 pm in Uncategorized |

5 responses to “Lessons learned.”

  1. Humble Reader said on December 4, 2003 at 8:14 am

    As a former Arborite, I had the good fortune to attend Ari’s customer service seminar. Not only is he a sucessful businessman (business person??) but he’s also a gifted and generous teacher.

    Now that I live in Indy and have to pay good $ for the Star–who’s tone is “anyone who lives in Indiana is a drooling idiot”–I think they should hire Ari to advise them.

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  2. alex said on December 4, 2003 at 9:56 am

    Amen, hallelujah!

    If it’s possible to produce bread so good people will pay $11 a loaf, it’s a safe bet it’s also possible to produce a newspaper so good even Gen Y will want to read it.

    It’s certainly possible to put out a newspaper so bad that even dyed-in-the-wool, lifelong readers abandon it. That’s what’s happening to the News Sentinel right now.

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  3. humble reader said on December 4, 2003 at 10:07 am

    My pricepoint is 10 bucks a week.

    Give me 5 interesting, high-quality stories about my community once a week and I’m good to go.

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  4. Randy said on December 4, 2003 at 1:10 pm

    For a couple of years we had a great national newspaper here in Canada. The National Post was launched in 1998 by Conrad Black (who is now buried in scandal for some shady financial dealings, but that’s beside my point), and for nearly three years, it was the most readable, thought-provoking paper in the country.

    It also bled money like a stuck pig. Even with his limitless fortune (and we’re starting to find out why it’s limitless, but again, beside my point), Conrad Black had to get out, so he sold it to Canada’s other publishing empire, run by the Aspers, a family that has never encountered a good idea they couldn’t take out back and beat to death with a club.

    Within months the great writers were gone, the editorials (mostly PR pieces for the current federal government) came from head office instead of the gifted minds of all political stripes who previously graced the pages, and the terrific sense that something interesting might show up on your doorstep had vanished.

    Now I’m back to reading the Globe & Mail, which is like going back to decaf. But I’m not sure I ever read newspapers long enough to miss them. Maybe I’ll actually prefer to collect my own news online. It takes longer, but at least I can avoid the “we can’t EVER lose one subscriber” mentality that’s plaguing most papers I see these days.


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  5. Lex said on December 4, 2003 at 1:19 pm

    It’s like the Michael J. Fox character said in “The American President” (an otherwise forgettable movie): People aren’t drinking sand because they’re thirsty. They’re drinking sand because they don’t know the difference.

    For a long while, my paper fed people sand. Then, starting about five years ago, we started feeding them something better. They screamed at first, and they still scream once in a while, but even some of our long-time critics are either silent or grudgingly acknowledging the difference. And circulation? Up. Not by a huge amount, but up.

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