Understanding your customer during tough times

We all have faced some interesting challenges in these last few months. Have you shifted your business model? Is your current model serving you well?
By examining your business’ value proposition and customer segmentation, you may realize that there are new needs for you to fill.
At the Covation Center, we want to help you answer the question, “What do I need to do to stay connected to my customers?” Learn how to take the steps to better understand your customers and communicate the value your business brings.
Reach out to us at info@covationcenter.org.


The Covation Center adapts amid COVID-19 challenges

The Covation Center has, like so many others, gone through changes during this COVID time. Coworking (actually being in a shared office) has changed.  We now encourage masks, and separation when possible.  Coaching has changed--we now do video meetings through Zoom. Our cohort program has even changed-- we have gone virtual, and that has allowed us to expand to serve businesses across the state.

While much has changed one thing remains constant--we are here to come alongside small businesses to encourage you as you find ways to grow and thrive in every situation.  We remain committed to providing a workplace for those who need a professional space occasionally while working from home.  We encourage you to share ideas with your other coworkers. We want to provide you with opportunities to learn and grow as you feel comfortable.

To that end, we are pleased to offer the “Engage Main Street” Virtual Cohort Program to a larger group while continuing to provide the direct, 1-on-1 coaching and mentoring that the program has provided to so many over the past few years.  We believe fervently that the best results come when we combine the learning experience with coaching from experts, and then have you all support each other through engagement in the program.

If you are new to the Covation Center take a minute to learn all that we provide--we aren’t just a coworking space.  If you are familiar with us then please, check back in, say hi, and let us know what we can do to support you.

I look forward to seeing you over the next month.


Ep 3: Small Business Grant and Loan application

The SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan has a unique aspect – a “rapid advance” of $10,000 that is not required to be repaid – AKA, a grant.

The process to apply for this grant is simple, and has few requirements for application, however the funds are limited, so early application is key.

If you want to apply, get your business documents together and go to: https://covid19relief.sba.gov/#/

KIVA loans — a “zero percent” alternative

Our Executive Director talks with Aden Wertz about the Kiva Loan program. Kiva loans are “crowd sourced” loans where people from across your community, and around the world, will loan money to enable a business to expand, grow, or operate. There are a number of changes in response to the COVID–19 crisis. The Covation Center as a KIVA Trustee can work with you to prepare your loan application and help you put your best foot forward. (At no cost to you.)

This is our a link to the Kiva Application for people to have us listed as a Trustee automatically.

COVID 19 and PA Unemployment Compensation

Welcome to the Covation Business Talks Podcast. This is the first episode, and we jump right in to the discussion about Pennsylvania’s changes to the Unemployment Compensation process due to the response to COVID 19. Now this process is subject to change as the challenges ahead change, but we recorded this episode to get the information “out there” right away.

Is your Business ready for the Holidays?

If you have a product or retail based business, this is the best time of year! 4th quarter means holiday shopping, party preparations, new outfits, and tons of customers visiting our shops. Sometimes it can be hard to manage the rush that comes in the last six weeks of the year – here we’ve compiled some of our favorite tips for making the most of the holiday shopping season

Shoppers during the holiday season

  1. Make sure shoppers can find you! Have you checked out your Google My Business lately? Make sure any extended store hours, or holidays closings have been posted. Double check your contact info to make sure it is up to date. If customers can’t find you, they won’t spend with you.
  2. Instead of offering discounts this year, try offering extra gifts instead. Offering discounts trains your shoppers to always wait for a sale. Offering a free gift with a purchase encourages them to pay full price, while still making the customer feel like they “got a deal.”
  3. Use this time as a way to clear out overstock. As we get closer to the Holidays, or even post- holiday, offer deep discounts on products you just want *out. * I know this sounds counter intuitive to point number 2, but having all your money tied up in inventory that isn’t moving, doesn’t do you any good. After the holidays, go ahead and give some great end of year sales on products that no longer add any value to your business, and free up some cash for growth.
  4. Get your profit plan in place! Holiday sales are fantastic, but if you don’t have a plan for the influx of cash, you’ll find it gone come mid-February. We recommend implementing methods such as those in the book “Profit First” to make sure you set aside profits for business growth, along with funds to cover overhead during the post-holiday sales drop.
  5. Reward your loyal customers! Every business has their die-hard customers that support them no matter what. Find a way to reward them – whether it’s an early bird sale, or an extra gift with a purchase; during this season of giving, let them know that you appreciate their support.

All of this is good, but what about January? We just finished up 1, 2, or even 3 AMAZING months of sales, and then all of a sudden – crickets. How do you handle this? First, take a look at your data. Historically, how have sales October-December gone? Then, how did the first quarter of the following year look? You can utilize your P&L statements to help you plan for this. If you know sales drop by 70% in January, then make sure you set aside enough funds during December to cover all of your costs during the slowdown.

If first quarter drops concern you, and the drop in cash flow is a threat to your business, find ways to bring people in during the “off” months. Can you host a customer appreciation night? Bring in cheese and cracker platters, partner with other shops or makers, and host a big “Here’s what’s coming in the New Year” party!

Need help planning a strategy for the transition from 4th quarter to 1st? Schedule a meeting with one of our staff, and we’ll help you work through it!

Grit newspaper

Do You Have What It Takes?

Grit: courage and resolve; strength of character.

That’s what it took to survive in Lycoming County back in the 1800’s.  So much so, that a newspaper founded in Williamsport bore the name of “Grit.”   Small business owners can learn a lot from the courage and resolve of Dietrick Lamade, (pronounced Lah’-mah-dee) a Co-founder of Grit.

Courage: the ability to do something that frightens one.

Dietrick Lamade was a typesetter, who worked for several different newspaper publishers in Williamsport.  He lost his job when his employer had to shut down his printing operation because of depleting funds and failing health.  At age twenty five, Lamade found himself with a wife, two kids and no job to support them. This young entrepreneur partnered with two of his buddies, pooled their resources, and purchased the equipment from his previous employer in order to start their own publication:  Grit.

Resolve: decide firmly on a course of action

The first issue, printed in 1882, brought in $4.  Their weekly expenses were approximately $80 to operate.  You don’t need much business insight to see that this is not sustainable.  It would have been easy to become discouraged and throw in the towel. In fact one of Lamade’s partners left the firm very early on because of their struggle to survive.   Lamade, on the other hand, because of his resolve, stuck with it. Soon the company was bringing in $40 per week. Not enough to survive, but if he could grow the business from $4 to $40, why not grow it from $40 to $400?  That’s exactly what he did and within five years his circulation reached 20,000 people. 

Strength of Character: being true to yourself, no matter who is watching.

After another ten years of hard work, his paper reached 100,000; Lamade’s perseverance paid off.  This success, however, didn’t change who he was. He did not choose sensational stories or images which played off readers fears or curiousity of the grotesque.  He set his sights on a higher goal and stuck with it. At a banquet for Grit employees, Lamade outlined his editorial philosophy:

“Always keep Grit from being pessimistic. Avoid printing those things which distort the minds of readers or make them feel at odds with the world. Avoid showing the wrong side of things, or making people feel discontented. Do nothing that will encourage fear, worry, or temptation… Wherever possible, suggest peace and good will toward men. Give our readers courage and strength for their daily tasks. Put happy thoughts, cheer, and contentment into their hearts.”

Be an innovator:  a person who introduces new methods, ideas, or products.

Throughout his career in the newspaper industry,  Lamade was an innovator. He was one of the first to adopt the use of electricity to operate his printing press.  He is also credited with utilizing news boys. Move over Newsies of New York–your occupation got its start right here in Williamsport.  He was also one of the first to use direct mail to reach his customers. Lamade thought outside the box and delivered results.

Williamsport business leaders: This is part of our heritage.  The little league ball field that brings our region into the spotlight of the world every summer sits on land donated by his family and the stadium is named after his son.

What can we learn from Lamade’s story?
Business isn’t easy.  It takes Courage, Resolve, Strength of Character and Innovation.

 It takes Grit.

Photos courtesy of Lycoming Historical Society.  Special thanks to Scott Sagar and all the folks at the Tabor Museum.  If you haven’t visited or haven’t been there in a while, go explore more of Lycoming County’s rich history!

Buy Local–For the Right Reason!

This image appears on Facebook every so often, and makes an appeal to “buying local” by, in part, disparaging the “big chains” as being greedy, and implying that all the money goes out of town. While there is “truth” to this, that isn’t the full story.

The image reads:

“When you buy from a small family run business  you’re not helping a CEO buy a 3rd Holiday Home.  You’re helping a little girl get dance lessons. A little boy get his team shirt. A mom and dad put food on the table. So THANK YOU for shopping LOCAL :)”

My “two cents worth” on this: I don’t think this argument is truly compelling. Why? The man or woman at Walmart restocking the shelves, the “checkout clerk” at Safeway, the cashier at the bank–they are all earning money to put their kids through dance lessons, get the team shirt, and even more importantly, keep food on the table, a roof over their heads, and gasoline in their tank.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that everyone in these stores also lives “local” and is working to serve you to put food on their table.

Here’s a more compelling argument, in my opinion:

Buy local, from locally owned (and perhaps family run) businesses that put quality service at the forefront of their offerings.   What makes “local” great is that they understand “local.” They are part of the community. The owners see you at the stores, in the streets, at school events, and (sadly less often these days) in church.  This web of relationships form a community and provides business owners and consumers access to one another. Local companies, because of their closer connection to local community, have a greater awareness of the needs of their local customers.  Because of this, they should be able to provide a higher quality service.

Quality service becomes something more than providing the right product at the right time for the right price.  Anyone can do that. Do the owners of “Big Chains” know your name, your kids names, your interests, and want to have a conversation about your life?  No–that would just be weird. The employees might–but they won’t be able to effect much change in response to your needs. 

A local shop owner on the other hand could (and often does) know all of these details and want to talk with you about your life.  In fact, they usually want to know how they can actually serve you better–immediately. Quality service in the context of a relationship becomes something more than a business transaction.  The exchange of goods or services for money becomes a platform for people to come together, to relate with one another, to help one another, and to care for one another.

And besides, local business owners know they directly answer to their local customers–customers that they come to know as loyal.

And you know what–sometimes those local owners have holiday/vacation homes, or hunting cabins. But we don’t mind. They took care of us. They cared. They were committed to making their money through providing QUALITY service and products.

THAT is compelling to me.

-Steve Brady

Backhouse Cafe Coffee & Tea

Intentional Neighboring

In August of 2018, Backhouse Cafe Coffee & Tea, owned and operated by Ron and June Wright, opened the doors of their restored Victorian Era mansion to the public.  As they moved in upstairs and opened the coffee shop on the first floor they incorporated their desire to know their neighbors into every aspect of the business.  And while their business has benefited from their efforts, their actions haven’t been motivated by their bottom line.  Anyone who’s been in their shop can tell there is something deeper at work here.  I had the privilege of interviewing Ron and June and experiencing the heart of their small business as part of the Covation Center’s participation in PA’s Partnership for Regional Economic Performance grant.


Moving to downtown Williamsport from the western side of town, Ron and June brought with them their desire to build community.  At their previous home they made a point to know everyone on the block. “It’s just who we are,” comments Ron, “We strive to be friendly and make friends.”  True to this nature, they made an intentional effort to not only introduce themselves to their neighbors, but to build relationships with them.


They met the realtor for the rental property next door who used their upcoming business as a selling point for the adjacent vacant apartment. While they were in the process of purchasing the building, they introduced themselves to the directors of the Tabor Museum and the Lycoming County Historical Society directly across Fourth Street, and began sharing their dream for the historic home.  The Historical Society immediately took an interest in Ron and June’s desire to preserve and share this piece of Williamsport’s history with the public. A relationship of mutual appreciation was born which strengthened as challenges to opening a coffee shop in a historic home arose.


As the Wright’s worked through the requirements of the Williamsport codes office, they discovered they needed off street parking in order to be approved to operate their business.  Sharing this need with the Historical Society and directly asking for their assistance, their neighbors across the street were happy to assist, giving permission to use some of their parking.   This mix of friendship and business hasn’t ended there; these two businesses continually refer customers to each other.


Relationships in Every Level of the Business

As I sat at a table talking with Ron, he greeted several incoming customers by name, and it became apparent that relationships are what drive this business at every level.  His customers are more than a source of revenue; they are individuals with hopes, dreams, and stories. With each person who walks through the door, Ron asks himself, “What can I do to make this person’s day better?”  He answers that question by giving people more than just coffee and tea.  He provides a place where you can be seen and known for who you are.


Beyond his customers, Ron has built a relationship with his coffee supplier, Kobrick Coffee.  He shared a story about traveling to their location in New York City and meeting with several generations of this company’s founding family.  Kobrick also spent time training Ron, investing in him to help ensure his success as a client. Now Ron primarily brews their coffee and their relationship has continued to develop, resulting in Ron’s loyalty to their brand.


Positive Results: Reciprocal Relationships

To the east, across Maynard St. lies a beautiful city park: Ways Garden.  Ron has begun building a relationship with the management of the park. As Spring begins and Backhouse Cafe prepares for their first summer in operation, Ron gets excited talking about how he can promote the events at the park.  It became apparent that he genuinely cares about the success of events held at Ways Park; he is less concerned about the benefit to his own business. His motivation for promoting events at the park is not to increase his bottom line.  His interest in his customers isn’t primarily that they’ll come back.  His interest in the historical society wasn’t just so he could make a deal over parking spaces. Ron and June’s desire for the well-being of their community motivates their relational generosity.  This has resulted in genuine relationships with others, who in turn, care for them and want to see them succeed.

June shared her take on their business methodology:  “It’s just sowing seeds.”  Ron summed up the essence of what drives them stating, “It’s the law of the harvest.  You reap what you sow.”  This business is reaping a harvest of good will from their neighbors and customers that’s a direct result of what they have freely sown.  They sow that which cannot be purchased, but can only be freely given: genuine love for their neighbors.

Could you tell me who your customers are?

If I came up to you today and asked you “who are your customers?” What would you say to me? Would you tell me “anyone who walks through that door?” How would you react if I told you that’s not who your customer is?

Sure, you don’t want to turn down a purchase or service request that lands in your lap, but when you try and say that anyone is your customer, you’re really focusing on no one. Think about this – you don’t approach conversations with everyone in your life the same way, do you? I don’t talk to my local butcher the same way I talk to my child’s daycare provider, or my mother the same way I talk to my spouse. Each of those relationships dictates how your conversations go.

who is your customer

hardware store owner and customer

The same goes for customers. You can’t speak to everyone you engage with in the exact same manner, because they don’t connect with you or your brand in the same manner. Every business, whether they understand it or not, has customer segments; that is, different groups of customers, who each have their own drivers to purchase from or engage with you.

To talk to these different groups effectively, it’s necessary to first identify who they are. For instance, a local coffee shop will serve anyone who walks in the door, but they market for subgroups. There’s the coffee aficionado, who values a high quality coffee with depth to the flavor and a bloom to the pour; there is the non-coffee drinking individual who loves the ambiance of the space; and there are those who don’t really care for coffee as a standalone, and would never buy a pour over, but enjoy unique and flavorful lattes.

Each of these customer groups require different conversations. The first might want to hear about how you personally travel to source aromatic and flavorful beans from around the world; the second may want to learn about your cozy atmosphere and variety of drink options; and the third wants to find out about your seasonal drinks as soon as they hit the bar.

Think about who you serve: what kinds of customers approach your business? You may have only 1 or 2 types; or you might realize you have 5 or more. Try and break them down into manageable groupings, then think about how you would talk to each group if you were to sit down at a table with them.

Does that seem daunting? How do you actually talk to these groups? Each group is still made up of different people! Ah yes, but it is possible to identify an archetype for each segment.

A common practice is to create a “customer profile.” You choose a customer segment, let’s say the coffee aficionado. What kind of person does that seem to be for the business? We would start with some very broad characteristics: What is their age? What kind of education or job do they have? Do they typically have children? What lifestyle habits, or beliefs?

As you identify these characteristics, you start to create an imaginary person that represents the group. But creating this person better enables you to speak to your group. Now you can talk to them on a more personal level – you know what (general) kind of things they probably like, how they spend their money, and where they hang out. This makes it easier to target them for conversations.

So; why not try making a profile for your largest customer segment? Download our free worksheet to help you out with this task!