Monday, December 14, 2009

What You Can Learn from A Weekend Bartender About Building An Authentic Brand

My date and I wanted an after-dinner drink Saturday night. We ended up in an older, not-particularly-trendy but eclectic part of town. I had designs on a place but it was closed for a private party. We wandered down the street and stumbled upon a small restaurant, one of those places with painted tin ceilings, cracked plaster, limited seating, and a menu that changes daily. We bellied up to the small coffee/wine bar for our nightcaps.

Our bartender wasn't exactly warm. I wouldn't call him cold either. He was more matter-of-fact but well-spoken. Between sips of Grenache and her Italian red, we struck up a friendly conversation with him. It wasn't too busy so the banter went on though he continued to work behind the bar.

He mentioned that he only worked weekends, which led me to inquire about his "real job." This 30-something is in the house-flipping business. You can probably guess my next: "How are you doing in this economy?" I had come to the preconceived conclusion that he must be moonlighting to supplement income.

"Very well," he replied.

It wasn't the answer I expected. When things aren't going well, most people try to hide it (except on Facebook). But he seemed genuine. I began to dig, believing there might be a brandecdote to be had and shared with you.

His name slips me now (more on that in a minute) but it seems this entrepreneur has carved out quite a nice little niche. Flipping houses doesn't do justice to what he does.

He noted it takes him about six months to finish a home and he works on only one at a time. He's clearly not about the quick turn and volume. He also does most of the work himself, which you could see from his hands. Both answers lead me to believe he has good margins, a good indicator of a strong brand. Remember, specialists can charge more than generalists.

As the discussion progressed, I began to wonder if he realized he had been following many of the key laws that create and govern the most powerful brands. If not, he certainly has the instincts.

He's definitely laser-focused. He only rehabs houses in a few square-mile radius of a somewhat historic area. He admitted to having strayed to a few other neighborhoods in the past but realized it wasn't the same for him. He is back on his turf and committed to staying geographically limited. If only Coors and the show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, along with so many other brands, realized that mass availability doesn't always equal mass consumption.

I don't claim to be Bob Villa but I have some baseline knowledge about home improvement. It's clear, he does not cut corners. He also tries to salvage original materials - floors, walls, even windows if possible - to maintain the original charm. Yet, he transforms them into modern, efficient homes.

There's another unique aspect to his brand: It seems he already has the buyers secured. Any unique brand needs a unique business model, like Southwest Airlines and Google for example. In fact, brand and business model should be one, not separate. While I don't know the particulars of his, I surmise clients have most of the skin in the game, allowing him to operate somewhat free of the financial pressures that everyday house flippers face.

His target audience is also narrowly defined. I get the sense they are somewhat affluent and desire this bedroom community for all it's neighborhood charms. They are also willing to pay for maintaining the integrity and originality of the home but want and need modern conveniences. He's currently working on a home for a Kansas City Chiefs football coach.

In essence, he doesn't work for home buyers. He works with clients. Again, reading between the lines, I sensed they find him. If you have a powerful brand, you don't need to shout. People will hear the whispers of others and find you. Starbucks, Google and YouTube are testament to that idea, having all launched with no advertising. To this day, they do very little of it.

When you create a focused, unique brand, you don't have to work as hard at the marketing. It speaks for itself and others will do the talking for you. Conversely, when you create an average-to-above-average product or service, be prepared to bullhorn your way in front of people.

Even the biggest marketing and advertising budget is no guarantee you'll be successful. Just think about products that have launched with million dollar advertising blitzes and flamed out like WebTV, Kellogg's Breakfast Mates, and of course, New Coke.

Before leaving, I asked if he had a Web site. Nope. Business card. Nope. Which explains why I don't remember his name. More importantly, I know what he does because it so stands out and how to find him. I recognize that not everyone can operate this way. But he's doing just fine without a Web presence or business card. His calling card is his reputation, which is built by having a truly distinctive product or service and staying true to it.

As to why he bartends on Saturday nights? He says it's because the owner is a friend. He added it provides a little weekly break from his busy life, which includes a wife and two kids at home. Since he's only working one night a weekend, it really can't be for the money. Then it struck me. This low-key, savvy entrepreneur is doing it for another reason: It just so happens this restaurant/bar is around the corner from where he lives, which just so happens to be the same neighborhood in which his brand is alive and well.

He has built an authentic brand from the inside out. Smart guy.

These are My Guts Feelings.