Friday, November 21, 2014

Fighting for your life in the fun business

A friend and customer is in the fitness business. She's ferociously active, and energetically generous about sharing her knowledge and support with the people who come to her for training.

In a small town the ugly aspects of business competition come to the surface the way rocks gash the hulls of smooth-sailing boats in shallow water. The fitness industry is a busy one. Lots of people try to find an angle and work it. Businesses that attract enough clientele to meet their overhead will survive. In that arena, business owners will pursue any advantage, including propaganda, disinformation and the weaponization of zoning regulations to take down a competitor.

My friend managed to set herself up in a niche with a clientele that seems to like her methods. But it's yet another plucky little crew that can't spare too many members before the implacable forces of finance make survival mathematically impossible.

It's made my friend a little crazy. She goes into a bit of a spiral whenever one of her clients does what customers so often do: they go shop around.

In the bike shop we've been through these waves many times. Each time you wonder if the receding tide will leave you high and dry  forever, your bones to bleach on the parched sea bed. And I watched the cellist go through it with her 15-year effort to establish a steady flow of students through her music studio.

Each business, the fitness center, bike shop and music studio, is offering something that has practical benefits, but which is more publicly categorized as merely fun. The people who work in those businesses depend on them for the practical necessities of life. But in each case the business and the activity it represents competes against many other activities that provide the same benefits in different ways. They also compete against activities that offer completely different attractions.

People will only do things that seem like fun as long as they seem like fun. If it's something clearly not fun, like emptying the garbage, cleaning the cat box, or going through chemotherapy, there's still a perceived benefit. But when the benefit includes fun, you'd better be fun.

There are ways to get away with being a bit of a grouch, but you'd better remain a lovable grouch. Most people don't want to be dragged through the rough by a stern taskmaster for something they consider optional. So whatever frustrations you may feel, you must project a positive outlook. At least be entertaining.

If you have a large population to draw from you might have better luck finding "your people" to join you and support your endeavor. In a small town that number might be too small to sustain life.

From the consumer's point of view it can be as bad. What if the surviving provider of whatever it is you want strikes you as an a-hole? Maybe the locals don't care or a lot of them are a-holes too. In that case you get in and get out as quickly as you can. If an alternative comes up, you check it out.

Even if the local (insert business here) isn't run by jerks, even if you actually like them, an inquiring consumer, advancing in knowlewdge and experience, is liable to explore anyway. They should. And when times are good, even the small business owner will have a bit more equanimity about these walkabouts. In the end, a business can only keep doing what it does best, to the best of the collective ability of its staff.

The game changes. In the 1990s our shop fought it out with competitors here in town as well as shops many miles away. The Internet hadn't brought point and click shopping, but people were willing to travel a long way to check out trails. Going a long way to check out a shop came naturally. In that regard we made out well a lot of the time. Customers might come to us from shops that did not have the advantage of trails right nearby on which to train the sales and repair staff.

Now that mountain biking has shrunk to a small and dedicated subculture, we don't even get the chance to audition. The cool kids, some of whom we used to cheerfully trounce on group rides, mostly go to one shop in a nearby town where the owner represents the religion more to their liking. From his end, he needs the few devotees who are willing to keep investing the money and time to have relatively contemporary mountain bikes in order to meet his survival expenses. It's a good thing he likes to work at his business, because he needs to till that patch for all it's worth. We miss our old clients, but the heart wants what the heart wants.

It's easy to be a motivational speaker and tell people to adapt and change. Motivational speakers have been drawing from the same basic repertoire of bullshit for thousands of years. Of course they're always happy and upbeat. They've figured out how to get by without needing an actual job. That never changes.

Small operators in the fun business usually get into it because they like or love the activity in question. If it's love, and it's unquenchable, you can only follow it and hope it does not lead to misery and ruin. Misery and ruin seem especially cruel if you'd had a good thing going for a while. And they're particularly inconvenient when they're setting in just as you think about kicking back a little, perhaps easing into something resembling retirement.

Love or not, your willing shift to another livelihood may face steep obstacles if you're a little on the old side or lack the funds to pay for retraining.

For now my friend gets by. The shop survives. The cellist, my beloved, is a disembodied voice on the telephone, calling from where she found a toehold on the inhospitable cliff of her profession.

We fight for our lives in the fun business. To all of you out there like us, as alone as you are, you are not alone. We can't really do much for each other except commiserate. But that's something.


RANTWICK said...

Nice angle, one I never would have come to on my own, since I have always worked in "gov't" way-less-sexy-than-fun sector.

cafiend said...

Your appreciation is timely and welcome. It's a theme I've been pondering for years from various angles.