Lessons from a Cobbler

Maria Coppola, APR, CPRC owner and lead consultant at Coppola PR, recounted a story about a cobbler. Many solo and small business owners have often talked about having “cobbler’s kids’ syndrome,” in which everyone has shoes except the shoemaker. In this account, shared with Maria’s permission, the cobbler and all of his kids have shoes and he may be our new hero.

The Cobbler

I go to a shoe repair/cobbler in my longtime hometown. They've been there for years and years in the same spot and they are literal magicians. They are super old school – no computers, two-part claim tags. But these guys are geniuses – and I think a dying breed. There are four or five of them and I think they are all co-owners. The place smells of leather and glue and it's an art form as much as a service.

We moved and I now I live about 50 miles from there but continue to patronize a bunch of my favorite local spots once a month or so. My accountant is there so I make an afternoon of dropping off my financials and such. Sometimes I have shoes that need to be dropped off for repair with the geniuses.

A couple weeks ago I was there dropping off shoes. This is the kind of business model where you pay for them when you pick up. At least that's how they ran their business for many years. But they changed it up. Now it's pay at drop off. So, of course I'm like take my money, I don't care when I pay you because:  1. shoe whisperers and; 2. small business karma.

The cashier cobbler guy surprised, says “thanks for being so cool about it, not everyone likes the new system.” We started up a conversation about the change, what drove it, etc. He tells me that one day they decided as they looked around at the 200+ orders that were done and needed to be picked up that they were doing it all wrong.

For decades they had been waiting for people to come to them to secure their cash flow. He related that it was difficult for them to change their mindset but people had become such jerks about paying for the shoes they dropped off to be repaired. They'd sit for weeks. Sometimes they were left holding the bag on an item they'd fixed because the customer decided they didn't want the item anymore anyway. They would call and literally people would tell them, “ah, changed my mind, go ahead and donate them or whatever, sorry.” They had already put in time, talent and resources to fix this stuff!

Tired of being stiffed, they now get their money up front, no exceptions. I was there again this week and I asked how it was going. The shop is clean and free of the numerous orders piled up waiting to be claimed. The place is running like a top. And the cash flow issues are fixed. They are happy. Everyone has adjusted to the new system, they say, save for a few difficult people and they don't want their business anyway.

And I've been thinking about this story all week. If the cobblers can do it, so can we.

Takeaways for Solo and Small Business Owners

There are so many lessons in this story but here are three that stuck with us as we read it.

Lesson 1. If it’s broke, fix it. Far too often solos and small businesses stick with a process that is not working for fear of losing clients. The cobbler like so many other businesses continued using a system, because it had always been done that way, even when it was clearly detrimental to their survival.

Lesson 2. Get paid. It’s your business, and you get to decide how, how much and when you get paid. Set payment policies that work for you and not against you. The cobblers lost a few customers, but they kept those that value their work and don’t mind paying for it in advance.

Lesson 3. Be attentive to the business and not just doing business. It’s so easy to get caught up in doing the work that we ignore nagging issues about the business itself. Spend time consistently reviewing not only what you are doing but how.

As Maria, so aptly said, “if the cobblers can do it, so can we.”

What do you need to fix today? Share in the comments or on social media using #solopr.

Photo Geber86 | istockphoto