by Amanda Cleary Eastep
My father pulled into the driveway where I stood with my mother and younger brother, the shiny 1978 pick up my dad used for his construction business coming to a halt beside us.
We were there to witness the big reveal.
On the passenger door facing our tiny crowd gleamed the bold, metallic script, “Colby and Son Construction.”
My 10-year-old brother smiled, my mother beamed, and my father honked. My heart felt like it was wearing an itchy dress.
After all, my brother didn’t care about carpentry as much as Lego. I was the one who loved the smell of fresh-cut lumber; the 1-2, 1-2 of the hammer on nail; and the way my dad’s neck turned brownie dark in the summer sun.
Twenty years into a marketing career and two years into a freelance writing venture later, I understand that I wasn’t feeling sibling rivalry; it was the first signs of possession of the entrepreneurial spirit.
I see that my love of small business and the stories behind the swinging hammer and the truck door advertising was emerging on the driveway that day like a dandelion pushing through the crack in the concrete. I learned lasting lessons from watching my father build his construction business and–with my grandfather–the two-story farmhouse with a window in my room that looked out over winter wheat and sunsets.
Today, small business owners try to elbow their way into people’s social media news feeds and to discern how to make themselves heard in a world on information overload.
How do we market our businesses effectively when Facebook keeps changing its algorithms and the person manning the counter doesn’t have time to blog?
I hold tight to my father’s three tenets, which never became a meme (until now) or necessitated a TED Talk, but that he lived out whether he was wearing a tool belt or not. It helps to remember that what my father taught me is what it’s still about…
3 things that marketing a small business is “still about”
It’s still about building relationship.
My dad’s social media platforms included sharing a cup of coffee at Wilma’s Cafe with the farmers or talking shop with the guys at Will County Lumber. Dad spent time with the people in our small town. He was a volunteer fireman and elder at the church. He marched in the July 4th parade. He and his first business partner roofed the town’s Community Hall where I narrated my grade school production of Noah’s Ark.
Social media platforms, like Facebook, can provide similar “gathering spots” for the demographic small business owners are trying to reach. And just like Dad did in person, social media gives business owners a way to answer people’s questions in a timely way, nurture relationships with current customers, connect with new prospects and build a loyal tribe.
Frequency, consistency, variety and engagement are key components to effective social media, just like they are in relationships. But, even when interacting with customers online, we also have to truly care about them as neighbors.
It’s still about good reputation.
Measure twice, cut once is the rule in carpentry. If you put your best into the front end of your efforts, you have fewer mistakes, less waste, more efficiency and happier customers. The quality of my dad’s work and his integrity got people talking. And there’s nothing like word of mouth.
Today, we talk a lot about a business’s “brand”. Sure, you can’t control everything people think and say, but the obvious way to build a good reputation is to work hard, be honest and, when you mess up, try to make it right, whether with wood glue or an apology.
One year, my dad paid a local farmer $100 to tear down an ancient house on the man’s property and take the wood, including the 12-inch hand-hewn oak beams to build our barn. Dad borrowed a dump truck and hauled it all away, the hand-hewn oak beams and the scrap.
The farmer handed him back the $100, admitting that he had mistakenly assumed my dad would take the good wood and leave the refuse.
Gladly taking back his $100, my dad said, “I told you I’d finish the job.”
It’s still about grit.
I always held my breath when the circular saw chewed through a two-by-four, spitting sawdust across my father’s suntanned arms. Some jobs come with grit, but every small business owner, no matter how pristine or grimy the industry, needs to come with it, too…a persistence to keep pushing through the noise and stand out in the minds of customers.
What I didn’t realize as a child was how much my parents struggled after my father left the security of his heavy equipment operator job at the quarry to start the construction business during the Great Recession of the early 80s. My father took all kinds of construction work. And when even that work was slow, he built a barn with that house he had torn down.
The barn was framed and enclosed that spring when the tornado pirouetted its way across our five acres like a drunken ballerina. People had a good guffaw over that one–the carpenter whose barn “blew down”–but it turned out to be a godsend for our family as the insurance money helped us make it through the next year. My dad and grandfather salvaged much of the wood and rebuilt the barn.
Dad labored as a carpenter for 13 years before returning to the quarry for a “steady paycheck” until he retired. On occasion, he installs a window or helps my brother and I remodel a kitchen, and he uses “carpenter” language when he gets mad at himself for not measuring twice. But I feel a nostalgic comfort when he wears his tool belt, the hammer at his hip like a cowboy’s Colt 45.