Lessons from a birthday party

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Two weeks ago, I threw a surprise party for my wife's 35th birthday. The sole purpose was of course to have a good time and celebrate my wife Maile. In the process of planning the party though, I learned (or in some cases re-learned) some pretty valuable lessons about running a small business. Most of these lessons seem simple and obvious, but they're worth recognizing and calling out none the less.

Initially, I was going to have the party at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants. The food is good, it has a great atmosphere, and I thought it would be nice to give the business to a restaurant in our community. After all, restaurants are feeling the impact of this recession as much as anybody. After a lot of back and forth and numerous phone calls, I still had the party in our neighborhood - but it was at a different place than I had originally wanted.

So.....what happened? It wasn't one thing, but was instead a series of events. First, there was an issue with how much space I needed and the owner was concerned about having to turn away too many people. Once we worked that out, then there were concerns over whether we could really have an open bar. Once we came to an agreement on that, then there were problems over how much food would be available and what kind of food would be included. At one point I even asked, "well, can I just make a reservation for 30 people and pay for everything on a normal tab?" The answer: "No, because you guys might end up staying all night and my tables wouldn't turn over."

Over the course of our conversations the price changed three times, the "open bar" became pre-purchasing a certain number of drinks, and reserving our space became having the space unless there was a chance someone else wanted it in which case we might have to split our party up. Then a contract came over, via fax because the owner didn't have an e-mail address, outlining a different agreement than what we had discussed.

All I wanted to do was throw a nice little party for my wife, and all of a sudden it felt like I was planning a full blown wedding reception. It was getting ridiculous.

The final straw was when the owner said: "You know, we're going to have 30 people eat at our restaurant whether you have your party here or not." With that single statement he told me that he didn't care one bit about getting my business or me as a customer.

Contrast this with ElCid, a great little Mexican restaurant in Logan Square where I ultimately ended up having the party. I called them up and told them how many people I was having. They had a room upstairs available that we could use and there was $100 deposit. They told me how much the open bar would be per person, or if I wanted I could just pay as we went like a normal tab. He e-mailed me a menu that I selected a bunch of appetizers from to get started and then allowed people to order whatever meal they wanted once they arrived.

Everything was easy.

When I saw how simple it was to work with ElCid, the decision was made. I'm a firm believer that the way someone works with you before an engagement begins is how they'll work with you throughout an entire project. The experience with the other restaurant left me wondering how much, or what kind, of a headache I was going to have to deal with the night of my wife's birthday.

There are a host of lessons coming out of this experience that I want to remind myself of and apply to how I run my own business:

Lesson #1: If you can't, or don't want, to do something - just say so. If the first place had just said "hey, we'd love to help but we don't do parties" everything would have been fine. I'd still be a happy customer. Instead, they irritated me to the point where I don't want to give them any of my business.

Lesson #2: People like it when you trust them. No one at ElCid even asked me for a credit card until the end of the party - it was quite refreshing to have that level of trust given to me. Everything has gotten to the point where we're always trying to protect ourselves from any possible loss, that we're very likely alienating people that might otherwise do business with us because we act like they can't be trusted.

Lesson #3: The easier you are to work with, the more people will enjoy working with you. If you make people use a fax machine, you aren't easy to work with. Period.

Lesson #4: If you put something in writing - it better match exactly what you said verbally. If you send over something in writing that doesn't match exactly what you said - you either look like an idiot or a liar.

Lesson #5: Know your business. The fact that the first place struggled mightily with the open bar, when every other restaurant I ever talk to knows how much they would charge, tells me that they don't have a good grasp on basic financial components of their business.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, most of these are obvious, but it's easy to forget these lessons when entering into discussions with a potential client. I'm going to try and make sure I keep these at the front of my mind next time I'm discussing an opportunity with someone.