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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Thrive Against the Biggies Even When They Steal Your Best Ideas

by Shel Horowitz

So what if big business steals your best ideas; you can still come out ahead. This was the message of Darby O'Brien's brief talk before the Family Business Center's December meeting at the Clarion.

Always creative and always entertaining, O'Brien, as owner of the ad agency that bears his name, has to be a trendwatcher. So for the past 15 years, he's not only been watching trends, but writing about them in his occasional newsletter, "The Gut."

He describes the publication as "not old school, not new school, but expelled from school."

Trends that he sees these days are encouraging for small business owners—because the advantage goes to those businesses who can build a personal relationship with their customers and prospects.

"Corporate America steals what differentiates and makes independent businesses successful. Charles Schwab, now they’re getting friendly and personal. They’ve got a new campaign, 'Talk to Chuck'; it’s been very successful. Now you’ve got the Bank of America as the official sponsor of Little League, minor league, and major league baseball all across the country."

This means smaller businesses simply have to work harder and smarter. "You’ve got to out-run them, out-local the big boys. Burgerville, a local store, had been losing business to the chains. They decided that the way to win was to use all local products: organic beef, the berries in the milkshakes. They’re opening up locations all over their area, beating both Burger King and McDonald's." In other words, they differentiated themselves in a crowded marketplace.

Yet some small businesses just don't get it, says O'Brien. Either they're too risk-averse—a number of companies and organizations have commissioned edgy ads from O'Brien but then been afraid to run them—or they make dumb customer service moves.

An example of the latter: "A year ago, my son Jake was looking for a pair of Stardust Runner skates. Dick’s didn’t have them but a local sporting goods company had them. They advertise they’re open until 5. It was 4:40. I said I could be there in 15 minutes. She said, 'if you’re not here, I’m locking up.' If I’d been the business, I’d have said, 'Where do you live? I’ll deliver them!' I got there before she locked the door, but I wouldn’t go back."

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