mokie: Red-haired punk Vyvyan makes rude gestures at the viewer (snotty)
An odd trend popped up and caught my eye over the last decade: failing businesses requesting donations to keep from going under. I mean donations literally: not an exchange of goods and services, but outright requests for money to pay off outstanding rent and utility bills. They were usually from bookshops under three years old, crossing my path because I am bookish and frequented bookish sites and forums where the requests appeared.

What the requests suggested to me, depending on the details:
- The owner did not have a viable business plan and knew diddly-squat about running a business.
- The owner confused their daydreams about what they'd do with 'the keys to the candy shop' with having a business plan.
- The owner confused being a business in the business of [whatever] with being a church in the service of [whatever].
- The owner confused being a business in a community with being a community center.
- The owner should have started a club instead, as it seemed they wanted a place to hang out with fellow [whatever] lovers rather than a business.
- The business was already beyond saving.

Bookshops aren't really the point here, but they do illustrate it well.

First, more than half of all new businesses fail by their fourth year, simply because new business owners are inexperienced. Successful business owners usually have a few failed businesses under their belt; their failures taught them the pitfalls of business, how to mess up and pick themselves up and eventually succeed. Bookish people who've long daydreamed of having their own bookshop look from a customer's point of view, seeing a lack of bookshops as a need for bookshops, but missing the obvious counterpoint: shops with decades of experience in successful operation were put out of business by Amazon and the chains, and those that survived did so because they had advantages others didn't (like a great walkable urban location) or because they made changes that brought in a wider range of people (like bric-a-brac hunters).

Second, these small business owners overestimated the importance of their interests to the local community, and their role within the community. To bookish folks, a refrigerator is just an appliance, a bath towel just a flop of cloth. They're just things. Books are different, sacred vessels to which we entrust ideas, containers for other worlds and lives. Opening a bookshop isn't just like having the keys to the candy shop - it's like being entrusted with your own church. A church of candy, even. That lends itself to unhealthy expectations, because to the rest of the community, a book is just a thing, and even dedicated bibliophiles are going to have to pay their own rent first.

That's why new and troubled bookshops take to their blogs and Facebook pages, asking for $15,000 in a month to cover their outstanding debts so they can stay in business. They do a little interview with the local paper about how they'll have to shut their doors if the community doesn't come through and show it values its bookshops, and keep Twitter abuzz with updates. They'll certainly get a few more customers, mostly looking for really good going-out-of-business sales, but I haven't seen a single bookshop yet saved by begging the community to keep their dreams afloat.

For some, as the deadline looms, the bitterness creeps in. If all the people offering supportive comments were regular customers... If they were real book lovers, they'd have been there all along, and the shop wouldn't be in trouble. They get huffy at what they see as invasive questions, because who do you think you are, asking them about their business plan and how you can be sure they wouldn't be asking for donations again in a few months? How dare you want to make sure your money wouldn't be wasted? They forget that they run a business, not a charity or a church or a fucking community rec center, and that nobody owes them a goddamn thing - certainly not to be rewarded with free money for their incompetence, no questions asked. "Show us you value our business" is the customer's line.

The community sees a business begging, and a business begging for donations is a business that's bad at businessing. Why throw good money after bad? That hardly gives them any confidence in the business owner's competence.

The community wants to see the business taking steps to fix its own problems, and telling them how they can help - not that it's dead in the water unless its customers come up with a load of cash. People will happily help someone raise money to start a business (and I will, because St. Louis needs Dr. Dan's Pancake Van). People will gladly patronize a business if they like it and it fulfills a need or want for them. People don't want to be blamed for a business they've never heard of going under, however, or shamed for not taking up the flag in someone's personal cause, be it books, raw dog food or organic produce.

To be clear: the point is not bookshops, failing bookshops, how many bookshops turn to donations/crowdfunding, that small businesses should not ask for help, that small businesses should not be given help, or that one should write off troubled businesses as, "Oh well, do-over." It's that the community loves to give businesses support, but asking for charity makes a business look non-viable.

All of which brings us to the inspiration for this ramble!

A local organic grocer's expansion fell through, and now the business is in debt and at risk. Though only five years old, they are pretty well established on the local food scene, and increasing their business steadily. On social media, they're sending a business message that suggests confidence and capability: we're responsible and well-run, not asking for donations but having a sale to raise funds to fix an identified issue. Not a hand-out, just a hand-up - that sort of thing.

It's perfect! It should appeal not just to the organic church and choir, but also to the community. Except, in local print media...
Horine says it would defy the Local Harvest ethos of building a stronger local-food community to close without first turning to that community for help.

"We've always stuck with it," he says. "We believe in what we're doing. It sounds cliché, but we feel like it's bigger than us. So we're going to give the community a chance to try to save it." (Ian Froeb, "Local Harvest Grocery and restaurants face imminent closure, seek help", St. Louis Post-Dispatch 27 January 2014)
Give the community a chance to... Gah!
The Scoop talked with Earnest about her fund raising plans. “What we built the [Local Harvest] model on was building a local food community,” Earnest said. “People will have the chance to say…whether it’s important that we continue to exist. Whether it’s worth it. Whether it’s right for them. Obviously we think so, but do they?” (Ligaya Figueras, "The Scoop: Local Harvest launches community fund raising campaign to avoid closure", Sauce Magazine 27 January 2014)
Whether it's worth.... Gah! 'Cause' wording undermines any sense of confidence and capability. By shifting all action to the consumer, it doesn't tell us how (or if) the business is trying to fix its problem, if there's a plan besides "beg for donations help", if the problem has even been identified or if this is just rescheduling a crisis. It's all just "Support my church of candy! Don't you love candy? Prove it!"

Besides, who says something like that when they're asking you for money? "I need $1000 to pay my rent and heating bill and buy food. You have the chance to say whether it's important to you that I don't freeze to death homeless and starving on the street." And why am I hearing Sarah McLachlan?

To the owners, local and organic is its own little church of candy. To the 'church and choir' customers, it's local, it's organic, but it's also asking for a lot of money, while using language that puts responsibility for its success or failure on the people it's borrowing from. To the community that might have been persuaded to help a local business out, it's a goddamn business, and they do not need to prove any goddamn thing to a goddamn business. The community does not have to prove its love, prove that it cares, prove that it values a certain kind of business. The business has to prove that it's not going to tank and leave people high and dry with worthless gift certificates. Because it's a business, not a cause.

SPACEBALLS: THE CLARIFICATION! (and update): Yes, this entry was edited to clarify the intent (I hope), eliminate some repetition, and address my lack of caffeination when it was written. But more importantly, on February 1st, LHC met their funding goal, and the villagers rejoiced!

Date: 2014-01-29 05:42 am (UTC)From: [personal profile] marahmarie
marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)
I think the best part is how you say on the one hand that businesses should not ask for help if they're already running but can and should if they haven't been started yet. So if failing Local Ye Olde Community Shoppe asks for money while it's still open, that's no good (or it's "gah", as you like to say). But if they close down completely, then decide to open a new, similar business two weeks later but need funds to do it, that's great and let's all pitch in!?!

Really?

Date: 2014-01-30 02:28 am (UTC)From: [personal profile] marahmarie
marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)
I think I was more concerned with the tone of your post; the impression it gave me was that you're a misanthrope. Which is fine, by all means misanthrope away all you want, but I'm not going to keep subjecting myself to it.

You've written other posts (too many to list; I would actually have to check your archives to refresh my memory, which would be painful) where I've questioned your motives or raised an eyebrow or two. Who cares, though; I write that way often enough myself. Now I'm just getting a better taste of what it's like to be the reader instead of the writer of such things (and I am sort of jumping up and down in pain from it, but hey, don't mind me).

This in particular almost sent me rocketing out of my chair:

If all the people who offered support in comments had ever come in before they heard of the shop's troubles, they wouldn't be in trouble. All these people coming in now aren't true book lovers, or they'd have been there all along. And who do you think you are, asking them about their business plan and how you can be sure they wouldn't be asking for donations again in a few months?

You know, forgetting that they run a business, not a charity or a church or a fucking community rec center, and that nobody owes them a goddamn thing - certainly not to be rewarded with free money for their incompetence, no questions asked.


It hits close to home for me because while I realize you're talking about brick and mortar businesses I'm currently supporting an online-only business which is crowd-sourcing the next version of itself in much the same fashion (in a sort of "prove to us you think our vision is worth it" manner vs. a "here we are asking for a hand up not a hand-out" manner). You're right; this is about semantics but the difference is I don't care how a business asks for our help as long as I support the business. To you that's a big deal, how they ask, why they're asking, that they get offended or don't have a proper answer if you ask them where they'll be three months from now (asking for money again? That's insulting and of course they get offended by the question for the lack of faith it shows; I would get offended by it, too).

I would've also been more at peace with the following if you'd done some research on it...

[...] I haven't seen a single bookshop saved by begging the community to keep their unrealistic dreams afloat, no matter how much they appeal to the community to 'show your support' and 'show us you value our business' (that's the customer's line, folks!), because to the community, that feels like business owner abdicating responsibility and shifting it to the customer.

I mean, I know you haven't seen it. My point is, does any research exist on the matter that says how often bookstores in particular fail or succeed after asking for community help/donations/hands up not hand outs? And if you don't know the answer to that question then what does it matter what just one person (you) has 'seen'? If you're going to offer that up as a fact, it's not my job to make sure it is, it's yours to check any existing statistics that support your argument before you write the post. Because you didn't perform due diligence (or share the results of any due diligence you performed) I have no idea if what you said is true or not but now the curiosity is killing me, which is not a good state to leave a passive reader of your post in.

Date: 2014-01-30 06:30 am (UTC)From: [personal profile] marahmarie
marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)
It's just that you put such "ranty, crotchety" passion into your POV that I would expect you'd have the requisite research/fact-checking/whatever you want to call it on whatever you mention as though it's fact already lined up. But I'm basing this on how I compose some of my own (admittedly better or at least "more factual") posts: I really do bother to research the damn things either a) before I write them or at least b) before I publish. I'll also eventually fact-check again while re-reading after posting to catch any errors that blew by in my admittedly heightened state(s) of angst.

I guess that's just down to personal preference and my own experience - which is mostly writing about a big online company that screwed people out of their money with a glee that to this day cannot be matched by anyone. I did that for years and from the start I researched and fact-checked just to cover my ass precisely so that when the inevitable company trolls would roll in to call bs and "YOU LIE" I could say, with a clean conscience, "tell me where I lied or did not tell the truth exactly as it is and I will gladly correct that for you". So I guess it's just second-nature to me now.

Blogging about things in general is more casual by nature and does not normally require due diligence. I'll admit that. I don't always do it myself - I leave people to find the truth on their own with some of my posts (but if they do bother to dig, I don't leave them wanting; I'll base what I say on the truth while avoiding specifics that'll just push me into a corner before I've lined up proper resources). So I guess my gripe was you were very specific and when I'm that specific I'll handle it differently or I won't be that specific at all.

I'm not trying to have a tone argument with you or tear you or your post down over tone: I have a tone so ranty and crotchety of my own there are times in calmer moments when I read my own DW that I practically need to cover my ears for what I can hear jumping off my pages at me. I'm simply saying the way I inferred your tone on this post was as misanthropic and it rubbed me the wrong way. I subscribed to you (and that was a long time ago, too) because your tone was something I enjoyed and a tone I used myself long before I ran across your DW. So we had that in common. It's just that this time that tone got twisted into what I felt was a merciless, totally obnoxious, unkind POV and that's when I decided to step back and re-assess.

I don't have the same reaction as you do as a consumer, sorry.

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