On the Backs of Strangers
While roadtripping with my daughter this past weekend, we made a stop at Cracker Barrel (I don't know about you, but it's really only acceptable to eat at the Barrel when you're at least 100 miles from your home). After our meal and a quick perusal of the built-in souvenir stand, I told my daughter I needed to use the restroom.
While traveling with her solo, this can be a bit of a challenge. If it's a small restroom, like you'd find at Chick Fil-A or Starbucks, she usually goes in with me while I hastily accomplish the necessary. But bigger restrooms at airports or larger restaurants present more obstacles (dirty stalls, urinal cakes, loud hand dryers).
A very nice woman overheard me asking my daughter if she wanted to wait just outside the restroom or come in and she offered, "I'll watch her. I'm a grandmother. " (This is something both of my daughters' grandmothers would say, by the way.)
I thanked her, ran in, emptied, and ran out. This woman and my daughter were chatting about the toy she'd picked out.
I thanked the woman repeatedly and we were on our way.
This interaction could have happened anywhere, but that it happened at Cracker Barrel makes it more Southern and a perfect scene for some movie where all the actors sweat throughout while performing with terribly overdone accents.
I'm a trusting individual and had no qualms about letting my daughter speak with someone new for 45 seconds (yes, I counted). Once we pointed our car north to finish the trip, I realized that most of what we build in our lives is done on the backs of strangers.
When community becomes anonymous
I don't know all of our customers at Batch. Same goes for Cool People Care. Onward is a different story because as you consult, you get to know someone and his or her work quite deeply. Occasionally I'll recognize an order I see come through at Batch or CPC, but most of the time these names are mysteries.
At first, it wasn't like this. Early orders at each company were peppered with friends and family. Familiar faces greeted us at festivals and fairs and often handed over $10 or $20 bills out of kind empathy.
But if you are to grow, you'll need to find those strangers who believe in you, too. If your idea is to flourish - no matter how long it takes - you'll need the interest and support of those you don't know. In fact, when you get this interest and support, you can assume you're going somewhere. It's easy for your mom to tell you that you're on to something. It's better for business that someone who didn't birth you confirm that notion (see: Idol, American).
Last week, we had a slight shipping snafu at Batch. All is well now and as best we can tell the people we let down the most were ourselves, only because the highest expectations placed on this small, slow company are those put there by its founders. In the midst of our hand-wringing we found that it was the strangers' patience we appreciated and needed the most.
Friends will gladly smile and nod and still hang out with you when your product doesn't live up to the hype or when you miss a delivery deadline. Strangers, however, can quickly demand refunds or pan you online (which is well within their rights). But it's awesome to see empathy and understanding from people you've never met, people who are rooting for you to succeed even without a blood relationship.
Slow companies are built on the backs of strangers. The trust found there takes time to cultivate, of course. But the world and our most enduring societies took a while to get there, built up over time because one stranger started to trust another until a community took root.
And on the way to community, something great happened. We all stopped being strangers and started being friends.