Back when our kids were little, taking a vacation was a huge ordeal.
Not only did you have to pick a spot that would satisfy the varied interests of each child, the packing and logistics involved required days of preparation and manpower. At one point, in fact, our vacation lead time got so long that we had to start packing for the trip back home before we had even left the house.
Now that the kids are older (22, 19, 16) it’s much, much easier. My wife Linda and I simply select a destination, tell the kids the day and time we will be leaving, and hop in the car as planned, confident that everyone will be appropriately packed and ready to go.
Of course I am totally lying.
It’s just as big a hassle as it ever was. By the time we got everybody’s suitcase, earbuds, drinks, reading material and body into the car last month, all I kept thinking was this: at least 15 years ago, I could pick them up and strap them in.
Fortunately, we did make it – three days in North Adams, a picturesque, former mill town in the top left corner of Massachusetts (bottom right, if your map is upside down). But we didn’t stay in a hotel. We stayed in the home of a complete and total stranger, thanks to Airbnb, an online platform that matches travelers with local hosts who rent out all or part of their homes. We’ve used Airbnb now six or seven times and it never disappoints. But it is different.
Doing business like Airbnb
We’ve always been “bed and breakfast” people. But staying in someone’s home isn’t the same thing. A bed and breakfast, I realized, is more like a home simulation. There’s furniture and closets and all that, and the facility itself was at some point a regular house. But today, nobody actually lives in the part they rent out. So it’s absent the things that make a home feel truly authentic and alive.
Airbnb rentals, on the other hand, are totally real. Even if the owners aren’t actually there at the time, it feels like you just missed them. There are photos on the fridge. There’s shampoo in the shower. There’s a six pack of beer on the back deck (okay, was). And you know what?
This seemingly trivial distinction is also the difference between a small business and our larger competitors. Big companies understand the value of connection and they try hard to look human. They run funny TV commercials. They hire well known celebrities to represent their products and services. They put a lot of smiley people stock photos on their websites. But it doesn’t usually work so well.
Like a bed and breakfast, we can feel that it’s a simulation.
Your job, therefore, when you present your business to the world, is to do what the big guys can’t: Be more like an Airbnb rental. In other words, keep the stuff – the real, in the moment, imperfect stuff – that helps people trust and connect with you on a human level:
Pictures on your website of people who actually work there
Handwritten notes to clients and others
Stories in your newsletter or blog with names, places and experiences of actual customers
Flexibility in the way you offer your products and services
Jargon-free interactions (of all types)
Here’s the bottom line. The more people you put in a room, the more plain vanilla the words and ideas become – that’s the curse of being big. Your quirkiness, on the other hand, is your advantage. If you want to stand out in a way that your larger competitors can’t, let the world see how you really live.
Michael Katz is a Boston-based marketing consultant and founder of Blue Penguin Development. He specializes in helping professional service firms stand out from the pack by positioning them as Likeable Experts. Get a free copy of his report, “The Professional Service Provider’s Essential Reading List – 11 Recommended Business(ish) Books,” here.
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