The Gator Curator
The most valuable business lesson I have learned to date caught me by surprise on the main floor of the Jacob Javits Center. It was an unlikely, and rather large, de facto classroom. I was three years out of school, and as such, was a pro with a discerning eye and an innate business acumen that (hollowly) threatened to take the world by storm.
The non-profit I worked at had a custom invitation fundraising program in partnership with a mid-sized family-owned stationery company. They cordoned off a small section of their booth at the National Stationery Show to feature their support of our programs. The show itself is a pretty big deal and was, by far, my favorite week of the year. Vendors were a motley crew of artists who held court as buyers in sensible shoes walked miles of unpadded carpet aisles in search of items that make people happy to part with their hard earned cash at super cute local indie gift shops and Hallmark chains alike. Ten years later, I can’t walk into the greeting card section without finding the trendy / delightfully subversive lines of artisans I met at the Show.
Most companies book the same space year after year, and camaraderie develops amongst exhibitors as faces become familiar. The woman across the aisle from our booth (let’s call her ‘Suellen’) produced greeting cards out of Texas. The centerpiece of her display featured a line of fill-in-the-blank alligator themed event invitations:
- a gator in an apron BBQing;
- gators in caps and gowns, presumably receiving advanced degrees;
- and the piece de la resistancé – a tuxedo clad gator and his crocodilian bride.
That first year, Suellen and I struck up a nice acquaintance over safe topics like the weather and her travel schedule. All the time, I was careful to avoid mention of tacky gators, lest my wonderment over their appeal be betrayed.
Mercifully, the gator topic came up indirectly the following year. We had time to talk more in depth during the afternoon trade show slump. She answered my questions about concept development, graphic arts outsourcing, distribution channels, and sales analysis. Apparently, Suellen bought out the previous owner who had produced the alligator themed invitations among others. After having produced a number of own her designs, she sat down and tallied the sales numbers, keen to get rid of those god-awful gators. As luck would have it, the upwardly-mobile-love-struck-gator-couple were laying golden eggs. They were, by far, her best sellers in the Gulf Coast States.
Removing ego and personal preference from the equation, Suellen expanded the line with great success and made a tidy profit by giving the gator-loving-disposable-income-spending customers what they wanted. Here’s what I learned: Adapt. Humbly serve the kind people who pay your bills. Sometimes the hallmark, pun intended, of a good business decision is that it is informed by what the market wants rather than singularly indulging personal tastes and aesthetic preferences.
The customer may not be right about everything, but they are always right about what THEY want. So, suck it up and make the best damned gator invitations you can. Then proudly mail ‘em out to announce the party celebrating your ensuing financial success.