21 Aug 2012

Must Be Nice: The Secret to Success Isn’t Really a Secret

Written by Danny Bonvissuto
Graphics by SeeMeDesign

Throughout the early 90s—when I was still rocking the home-permed poof a la Elaine on Seinfeld—I listened to professors explain how to make it in the wide world of work. They’d start with the basics—stay in school; apply for internships—then I’d uncap my extra-fine ballpoint, ready to scribble down their secrets for success. When class was over, I’d look down and see a few hearts and a smiley face.

I wanted a blueprint. A flow chart. A map with arrows leading me straight to Successtown, a happy place with a nice office, flexible work schedule and paycheck with lots of numbers before the decimal point. As it turns out, there is no map. As it turns out, the secret to success—bust out those ballpoints, folks—is being good to others.

That’s it. Really.

Okay, there’s one catch: If you’re good to people because you want something from them, the Gods of Niceness will sniff you out and send you straight back to square one. They didn’t get to be the Gods of Niceness by falling for sneaky work-arounds and tricks, so don’t even try.

Education is important, as is experience. But people will open opportunities and propel you to places you couldn’t have gotten on your own. Think about it: A pinball can’t go anywhere without those mighty silver flippers shooting it to all the right spaces, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the people who pushed me to places I never imagined.

People like Julie, the empathic operations manager at Nashville Scene, the cool-kid newsweekly in my hometown. Julie looked past my post-college résumé of restaurant jobs and hired me as the receptionist. I answered phones and made friends with the assistant editors, who let me be the “she” in a controversial he said/she said column. My first byline.

People like William, a blind date with whom there’d be no second date. We kept in touch and he called when he heard a new daily newspaper was hiring. William helped broker an interview with the publisher, Brian, whom I told I wanted to write about people and food. He showed me to my desk. I was the lifestyle editor and restaurant critic for the next six years.

When I needed a letter of recommendation for a senior editor and restaurant critic position at The Atlantan, a monthly luxury magazine, I asked Jim, my former Scene co-worker and landlord. Jim wrote a letter so beautiful it still makes me cry and I stood out from the stack of candidates—which was good because my other option was a magazine about waste management.

While covering a social event for The Atlantan, I chatted up a woman named Kate who turned out to be an editor at Food & Wine. Kate not only assigned me a feature about Atlanta—my first national byline—but she gave my name to her friend Christine at another magazine. And that’s how I scored a byline in Travel + Leisure

Then there’s Nancy. Nancy changed everything.

Two months after Nancy took over as editor-in-chief of The Atlantan, I moved to New York. Instead of saying hello and goodbye, she suggested I stay on as a freelance contributor. I’d always wanted to freelance full time, but never thought I could make it work financially. Nancy sent me so many assignments over the next three years that I made as much writing freelance as I had on staff—and she took care of me off the clock as well. After a death in my family, she overnighted me a chocolate chip Bundt cake. When I gave birth to my son, she sent a slew of gifts.

She even acted as a reference when I applied for a staff job with Food Network magazine during my there’s-no-way-freelancing-will-pay-the-bills phase. Maile, the editor of what was then a brand-new publication, thankfully didn’t hire me, but she threw me a little bone of a byline as a consolation.

While working for Nancy out of a satellite office, I met James, a curt New Yorker who warmed up to me after we shared a closet of an office. James did freelance editing on the side for a major publishing house, and thanks to him my portfolio now includes names like TDAmeritrade, MSN.com and Star magazine.

Nancy also hired Felicia, with whom I worked solely via e-mail. Felicia is now the editor of HGTVGardens.com and was kind enough to think of me when putting together a stable of freelance writers.

Call it fortune cookie philosophy, but there are angels in this world dressed as normal people and if you’re good to them, they’ll be good to you. Do you still have to work hard? Of course. Will you still make mistakes? Absolutely. Can you be nice to everyone all the time? Definitely not.

Twenty years ago, I tried to figure out every step between College Student and Gainfully Employed Writer. Not famous writer. Not sipping-tea-in-Oprah’s-green-room-while-waiting-for-my-book-club-segment writer. Just someone who gets paid to string together pretty sentences for a living. What I’ve learned is that there are two steps, and they apply to every industry:

 

GONcoupon[1]

Download this coupon in pdf format, print it out and stick it on your computer. Make some copies and pass them out like Starlight Mints. Hell, have it cross-stitched on a pillow or tattooed on your forearm—maybe with a few hearts and a smiley face for good measure.

And now for the flow chart I always wanted:

GONchart[1]

 

 

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10 Aug 2012

Couponing the Bullet

By Marci Cohen

Despite the new obsession some people have with couponing, I learned the ins and outs of stretching my budget the old fashioned way – from my Grandmother.

My Grandmother read the Sunday advertisements religiously. She clipped coupons, compared prices, mapped out her weekly shopping strategy, and she taught me to do the same. Although life sometimes interferes with my ability to follow through with a weekly shopping plan, I stir up sweet memories when I get a bargain that would have made my Grandmother proud.

But things have changed. A lot.

While traditional couponing still exists (at least for the time being), my Grandmother wouldn’t recognize the discounts available today. Delivered to our inboxes daily are offers from countless daily deal sites. Looking for a new pizza place? There’s a deal for that. Interested in trying laser hair removal? There’s a deal for that too. Maybe you’d like to take a late summer family vacation? Don’t book it yet. There will certainly be a deal for that soon too.

Most shockingly, I recently came across a coupon that promised its audience the ability to hit their “targets” with not one, but two bullet vibrators at just $19. Perhaps this site offered its customers a discrete way to purchase a personal product, but the discount was the icing on the cake.

I will admit that I do subscribe to several of these daily deal sites, and part of my morning routine is to see what offers come across my inbox. I’ve bought a lot of deals, and although I’ve used most of them, some have been forgotten and gone to waste. I can hear my Grandmother scolding me for making this mistake more than once! I’m much more savvy about my purchases these days. I’m not so often lured by the appeal of a deal that I’m unlikely to use.

But how does this strategy work out on the other end of the stick? For the businesses, I’m betting it might be bittersweet at best. Think about the restaurant industry. Suppose a restaurant signs to offer a 50% off deal. With the cost of food and service, in addition to the cost that goes directly to the promoter, the restaurant might only walk home with a marginal profit. To top it off, it’s common that customers forget that a proper tip would cover the full price of a meal, even after enjoying a discount. So, unless the deals are carefully constructed, the servers often lose out too. Restaurants are most likely signing onto these deals in hopes of the golden pot at the end of the rainbow. Meanwhile, their servers might be looking for a new job at the higher-end-no-deal-site-kinda joints.

If the restaurant is really a special and unique place, it might be likely to get repeat visits after deal seekers exchange their coupons. But for those restaurants that are more run of the mill, these deals probably don’t work out so well. Think about it. Wouldn’t you look for the next new deal rather than become a repeat customer at an average restaurant? How many people do you know who only go out to eat on ScoutMob? I definitely know more than a few.

So, what does this new couponing phenomenon mean for the restaurant industry – survival of the fittest? It certainly means that quality and caliber will improve as the industry gets tougher and tighter.

The daily deal phenomenon is a complicated one. The deals have a way of working themselves out, but it will be interesting to see how they will drive our future. What is certain is that the phenomenon is here to stay for at least a while. When we thought there were enough dealers in the businesses, Google jumped onboard despite the fact that they almost purchased Groupon just about six months prior. I will withhold any comments about that for now.

What would my Grandmother think? I’m not so sure, but my guess is that she would advise me to tame my impulses and stick to her old faithful strategy. Don’t get tied up in the “buy me today!” strategy. A deal is not always all it’s dressed up to be. But if we’re talking about a freebie like ScoutMob, I’m sure she’d be all over it provided one little piece of feedback — “Nothing in life is free.”

09 Jul 2012

C’est La Vie

By Ellen Witt

Being in the design world, I hear a lot of requests for “outside the box thinking.” I know the English language is built on clichés, but if I only say it once, I will say it here – outside the box is so inside the box.

SO, I decided to set a fun challenge for myself and see how many clichés I could fit into one story. Here’s how it ended.

——–

L E S S O N  L E A R N E D :  You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Personally, I think it’s all relative, but I’m an optimist. Life goes on; It’s what happens while you’re busy making plans, but look at the bright side. We live, and we learn. The grass is always greener on the other side. That’s why the chicken crossed the road, isn’t it? To his demise, he never made it to the other side. There must have been a reason…

Haste makes waste…
And chicken paste.

The golden years aren’t always so golden, but anything that doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. On the other hand, parting is such sweet sorrow.

I’m not so sure anymore that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Maybe it’s true – no pain, no gain. I hear it feels better when it stops hurting. Talk is cheap, but a picture is worth a thousand words.

I thought WAY outside the box on this one. And so they say, laughter is the best medicine. But even I must say, that was SO cliché.

C’est la vie. Carpé diem, and have a nice life.

28 Jun 2012

It Must Have Been a Lemon

By Ellen Witt and Marci Cohen

Have you ever heard the one about lemons? They say you should avoid the slices at restaurants since they are proven to contain considerable amounts of bacteria. The thought is that there are too many people touching these lemons after doing who-knows-what with their hands. And maybe they sit in a bacteria-ridden container that fills with even more bacteria throughout the day. The New York Times reports that researchers have categorized this type of bacterial exposure with a very scientific term: the “yuck factor.” In an effort to cover interesting stories, the media has contributed to a new generation of germiphobes. While these stories make most of us think twice, it is important to think once again… and with rational sensibility this time.

While the germs on lemons have been brought to our attention by the media, how about the germs in the rest of our world… that little pocket folder restaurant servers bring to your table that so perfectly holds your change or credit card, the cash and coins you carry every day in your wallet, the elevator buttons and the main entrance doors at public facilities, that rubber fitness ball at your gym, or the communal bowl of M&M’s that your favorite coworker constantly refills for pleasure and reassurance.

Our world is filled with bacteria, so why is it that the media chose to target lemons? That lemon might possibly be the most nutritious part of the average person’s meal out to eat, and now it has been doomed. Maybe it’s because lemons can’t be cleaned with Purell?

Looking back to lemons, has it ever occurred to you how the media controls our every day thoughts and fears? The Today Show and Good Morning America tell us to worry about the unlikely but potential illnesses that may result from the lemons in our iced tea, but why aren’t they doing the real, heavy-duty research to uncover more serious issues of our society… like the long-term effects, of artificial sweeteners that have become such a regular part of our diet? While The New York Times reports a stomach bug that may be a result of the germs contributing to the “yuck factor,” how about taking a closer look at what the pesticides that kills the insects trying to eat our strawberries might do inside our bodies and how that might affect our immune systems.

The key to living in our world of information overload is gaining an understanding of what to actually fear versus what is plain old media hype. We all need to start thinking beyond the concerns that others choose for us. The fact that the media has a pretty impressive hold on our every day thoughts is a fact that we must all acknowledge. But as long we think realistically, mathematically, scientifically and rationally, we can conceive the difference.

After all, like my Grandma always said, a little dirt is good for everyone (just make sure it’s organic). So, go ahead – eat that dirt and take in a little bacteria. It might do a little justice for that immune system of yours.

13 Jun 2012

Is there such a thing as TOO GOOD of an idea?

By Marci Cohen and Ellen Witt

Just a couple years ago, someone dreamed up the great new idea of self-serve frozen yogurt sold by the ounce. It all started with one shop offering a multitude of flavor options and toppings galore ready to pour on at your own discretion (or temptation, as the case may be). The appeal was too good for any yogurt lover to deny.

If you live in a city that’s anything like Atlanta, the number of yogurt shops has probably grown to staggering heights over the past two years. Chances are, there are so many locations available to you that you aren’t even familiar with them all.

Within just miles of our office, we have Menchie’s, TCBY, Freshens, Yogli Mogli, Cowlicks, Yoforia, Yogurberry, Pinkberry, Frutella, Swirll and The Yogurt Tap, to name quite a few. In fact, in case we ever find ourselves in unfamiliar territory and desperate to find the closest shop, there’s an app for that… we wouldn’t want to overheat or undersugar.

The new yogurt concept was clearly just as enticing to all of us as it was to all of those people looking for the next big idea – so enticing that about 200 other dreamers decided to jump on board and copy it. Most of them have a slightly different twist – tart flavors, organic ingredients, probiotics, yogurt floats, designer or gourmet toppings – but they all go back to the same basic idea. And why is it that so many people have copied the same basic idea? If you ask me, they must have thought they could do better than the shop two blocks over.

This trend of jumping into someone else’s next big idea is something we’ve seen on different levels in the world of cupcakes and coffee shops. Just as quickly we watch new shops open, we see them close. Even Starbucks has suffered from its own growth.

As the consumer, we face so many options that we can’t choose – we freeze in our footsteps. That feeling we get when we spoil ourselves with that extra special yogurt is no longer so special. We have too much of a good thing.

Where do you think this is heading? Is the yogurt business in cannibalization mode? Will the trend-followers ever learn that too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing?

Let’s face it.  Most of us didn’t have to do much growing up to learn that our world is full of copycats. Now, with the way technology works and ideas travel at the speed of the Internet, succeeding in a retail business means the concept is so good that the copycats don’t want to copy it, most likely because it’s too difficult to do well. The dream is too distant to achieve, so they might as well just come on over and support yours.

The moral to the story is this… The next time you think about starting your own business, don’t drive around the block looking for the next big thing. Think of something new. Think of something unique. And think of something different. The science of business doesn’t always follow the laws of math. In this case, one too many positives can take us into the negative.

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