The World Is My Focus Group

This week, I spoke to one of Birmingham’s CO.STARTERS groups about creative marketing. CO.STARTERS is a program for local entrepreneurs, and every time I speak there I get jealous. I’m jealous because they have a really strong curriculum. (I learned a lot of things covered in CO.STARTERS through an unfocused and somewhat abusive program called “life experience.”) And I’m also jealous of the collaborative environment of a class full of entrepreneurs — they bounce ideas off each other, help each other, and have a supportive place where they can share successes and failures. (A support group for entrepreneurs isn’t such a bad idea, in my opinion, but unfortunately none of us would have time to attend the meetings. “Hi, my name is Carrie, and I … oh, wait, I just got an urgent text and I have to go back to my store.”)


CO.STARTERS asks members to talk to lots of people outside the group to get feedback about their business ideas (they get gold stars for doing this, which I’m also super jealous of). Big companies have focus groups that do this in a very targeted way, but most of us can do a version of a focus group ourselves just by talking to people. As the group went around the room sharing feedback they got from customers, I heard some success stories, but I mostly heard about a lot of uncomfortable conversations. People heard that their ideas weren’t viable, that their locations wouldn’t work, that the names they’d chosen for their companies were too silly.


The good news is, not all of this feedback matters that much. When Cal and I were starting our bookstore/coffee shop, plenty of people told us we’d never succeed where Starbucks failed. Plenty of potential investors said books wouldn’t work in the age of Amazon. Most people told us to skip the bakery and instead sell pre-made food that we only thawed out in the store. The success of Church Street’s coffee, books and bakery proves that it doesn’t always pay to take the advice of the peanut gallery.


But it still pays to listen to them. Hidden in the outlandish comments and insults are often beginnings of good ideas that you can use. For example, we weren’t willing to give up making books a part of Church Street, but we did structure our business plan so we’re not dependent on them as a huge moneymaker, and we took steps to address the Amazon problem (like adding ebooks and providing fast, free delivery for any book we don’t have in the store).


It’s also worth soliciting feedback early just so you’ll know how to respond when you get the same comments after starting the business. Once you launch, you’ll get the same comments and questions a dozen times a day, and it’s a lot easier to respond once you’ve already developed quick, polite responses. (Constantly hearing the same question is also a good way to learn what information needs to be part of your website and your in-store signage so you can help customers get the answers they need before they even ask the questions.)


Sometimes, of course, you should take the advice. One person who doesn’t like the name of your business can probably be written off, but if ten people have the same problem, you’ll want to at least rethink it. It also matters who’s giving you the advice — if someone who doesn’t live in Birmingham tweets a random insult at my business, I’m not going to weigh it as heavily as advice I get from another local business owner.


Using the world as your focus group and listening to feedback was key to building Church Street Coffee & Books. It was also important to self-publishing The Localist, although that the process was a little bit different — my buy-local blog, Shop Small, generated both ideas and insults for years before I turned it into a book — but I still asked tons of people about publishing decisions on everything from the name of the book to the cover design once I decided to actually publish.


Part of starting a business or launching a product is getting vulnerable, learning how to be uncomfortable, and staying open to critique and criticism. It’s difficult, but it also teaches you to create better and build a more successful business. So go ahead, Internet — tell me what you think. I might not do what you say, but I’ll be sure to listen.


Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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