Thursday, April 8, 2010

The "spoiled kids" buckle down and make it happen

The excesses of the American lifestyle are nearly a cliché now. There is no doubt that American business loves its private jets, fancy corner offices, and business junkets. When times are good, we like to live “large” and don’t mind spending money on perks and extras. This is the America that other countries see; however I’ve seen a different story unfolding in the last year.

America is a young country, pioneered by people who didn’t mind working hard and sacrificing the finer things to live independently and free. We are really not so far removed from this way of thinking as others might believe.

2009 was a brutal year for most small businesses, mine included. It seemed as though the bottom feel out quickly and decisively with little warning. Many businesses failed and many more of us are left picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the financial storm. As a seller of office cubicles, our business was deeply impacted by the hiring freezes, layoffs, and business closures seen last year. We also saw at the front lines, the struggles of many businesses to grow their company in economical and cost effective ways.

Contrary to our spoiled child image, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time bemoaning the loss of our luxuries and conveniences. American business quickly abandoned the comforts and excesses of our past, and quickly looked for cheaper and creative ways to grow our businesses with limited cashflow.

Office products quickly became a commodity, and office furniture was one of the first products to see the demise of luxury and customization. Five years ago, businesses had very specific requirements for cubicles. They wanted a particular brand, a particular look, the latest color scheme. Businesses wanted their office cubes to reflect their prosperity, their culture, and their cutting-edge good taste; and they didn’t mind paying for it. Today it’s a different story altogether. Employees gotta have a place to sit, but it doesn’t have to be special or opulent.

The office cubicles of today reflect the old pioneer attitudes; functional, comfortable, and able to grow with the company. It is rare to have anyone ask us what brand of cubicle we sell. They want to know the cost, the warranty, and the ways it can be configured. We basically sell two colors, gray and tan. 85% of our customers think that works just fine. Businesses today wants their cubicle supplier to provide a good value so they can get busy turning profits. We don’t see this changing anytime soon.

The internet age has allowed many small businesses to compete head to head with larger companies. Keeping the operations lean is many times the difference between success and failure. Brand name and special equipment is less important today than efficiency and value.Like our puritan ancestors, investors and stockholders are shaking their heads in disapproval at extravagant purchases. They would much rather see fiscally conservative practices in all aspects of the business. American business has taken a good hard look at our expenses, quickly cutting back on things that can be done less expensively, even if we have to work a little harder, or look a little less exciting.

These things always move in cycles. Eventually we’ll be back to our expensive toys and perks. Today and for the foreseeable future, we are rolling up our shirt sleeves and making do with fewer conveniences. It’s harder work, but it’s easier to sleep at night knowing that we are leaving our businesses in better financial shape for the future.