Growing your Cleveland business in 2003
By ANDREW BIROL
"The best of times, the worst of times," Dickens wrote, and it is so true now when doing business in Northeast Ohio. Ten years ago, I moved here from Boston and in 1997, I started a consulting firm that has helped some 140 companies to grow. Here are my eight tips on how to grow your business in Cleveland:
What kinds of businesses will do well in Cleveland?
- Come for the resources, stay for the lifestyle. Cleveland has an incredible workforce of moderately priced talent, is one day’s drive from half of every American household, and offers million dollar homes for $300,000. You can attract maturing talent to Cleveland on the value of settling down. Labor-intensive businesses like Progressive Insurance, MBNA Bank and the Cleveland Clinic have thrived through good times and bad.
- Northeast Ohio is better for expanding your market than developing it from scratch. Proven ideas, particuarly offering cost savings, have faired quite well here, even in recession. Yet, as a conservative, risk-averse culture, the area does not seek new ideas from new suppliers. Build a local presence by getting involved. Jack Kahl of Manco Products built one of the area’s great successes by providing Wal-Mart with duct tape!
- Business relationships and good service create more success than superior features or larger marketing budgets. Companies providing value through service prevail over those focusing on innovation. So, delight a few customers and their references and referrals will grow your business. Big marketing splashes do not work in Cleveland, but stealth campaigns do. ProForma Corp. has succeeded not by developing new print and promotional products but rather by designing a franchised sales system built on trusted sales professionals providing the human touch.
- To succeed, provide strong leadership, project management, and motivational skills. The workforce is highly responsive, but can have a "go along-to-get-along" mindset. Risk-taking does not come easily to middle management. When leading your new effort, create a strong implementation plan, and push your staff to take responsibility and risks. Lincoln Electric became one of the country’s most respected manufacturers by creating a piece-rate compensation system that turned every employee into a decision-maker.
- Government is ambivalent towards entrepreneurs so bring your own motivation. Northeast Ohio’s government is emphasizing traditional approaches to generation-old challenges. You will have to be your own cheerleader because the region respects employers more than entrepreneurs. While they do not discourage entrepreneurs, they are more reactive to their needs than proactive. Recently the Russo Brothers began filming their next screen hit here in Cleveland only after the new mayor cut away troublesome red tape.
- The action is outside of the city, but the establishment is inside. Cleveland is a welcoming town, but real inclusion may not be worth the years it takes. Decide how much you need the old guard and the private clubs for your business to succeed. The suburbs are vibrant, growing, and open to more transient residents than is downtown. The Northeast Ohio Association of Chambers of Commerce (NOACC) is challenging the Greater Cleveland Growth Association for the area’s leadership.
- Cleveland is more real than virtual. Cleveland’s legacy of steel and plastic has been a mixed blessing as it transitions to a services and knowledge economy. Northeast Ohio was largely unaffected by the first Internet boom and bust but is slowly acknowledging the new economy. When selling and using technology, find opportunity in the fact that most here are not early adopters. A lot more Daytimers and Franklin Planners are purchased than wireless PDAs.
- Human and logistical resources are plentiful, but finance sources are not. The region grew up producing and distributing what others invented. From cars to steel to plastic to rubber, the Northeast economy has the people to make it and the transportation infrastructure to deliver it to the heartland. But, bring your financing with you. Ohio venture capitalists act more like investment bankers, while investment bankers act like lenders.
As a 2002 winner of the Weatherhead Award as one of Cleveland’s fastest growing businesses, I have helped many of the area’s fastest growing entrepreneurs as well as some of its slowest. Successful companies do well in any environment by understanding and responding to their customer’s pain, which, during a downturn, is in ample supply.
So how can you grow your business here in Cleveland? Because you have a better mousetrap, know how you want to produce it, and have enough financing to get you started until your customers start paying you. Cleveland’s real world attitude, "prove-it" customers and face-to-face business style is a breath of fresh air after your flights of fantasy around either coast. In sum, if you have a real product produced by real people for real money that solves a real problem real soon, the sun will shine for you in Cleveland. And, have we got a worker, customer and distribution base ready for you to help you make hay.