April 1, 2001

Buckhead Bricklayers

Filed under: Atlanta — schroder @ 12:00 pm

April has come to represent an exciting time in the life of this old Atlanta entrepreneur. This month, we start a new paper called Atlanta Downtown. A year ago, we started Atlanta 30305 for Buckhead. Two years ago, I hired my first employee to pull all-nighters, listen to James Brown’s Greatest Hits and crunch out Atlanta 30306 on two Macintosh computers.

I suppose my entrepreneurial streak started one April more than 20 years ago. I was in Florida on spring break with my friend Charles Driebe (our current music editor). My mother called and said if we hadn’t already figured out what we were going to do for a summer job, that she was going to send my Dad down to Atlanta Area Tech and register us for a bricklaying course. She needed some repair work in her yard and so did some of her friends, so she figured we could be somewhat useful that way.

I woke Charles up and asked if he wanted to learn to lay bricks. He grumbled, “Sure,” and thus a four-year company was begun. After graduation from night brick school, Charles and I had to make a few strategic decisions. One was the name of the company. Another was a slogan. Every company had a slogan. The next decision was whom to hire to be our first employee (read: mud mixer and brick hauler). Our final decisions centered around our marketing strategy.

We assembled a crackerjack marketing advisory board: our high school buddies. During a lengthy executive brainstorming session: our name and our legendary positioning slogan were born: The Buckhead Bricklayers: “We Lay for Less.” Following an arduous interview process, Charles and I agreed to hire our best friend, Mike Egan, as our mud man. He had all the necessary credentials: he had just been accepted as a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina, he was an ex-football play of considerable brawn, he had access to his parents’ 1954 Ford Fairlane (a.k.a. “The Bomb”) to haul bricks with a U-Haul trailer – and he was willing to accept $2 a hour.

Since I was the graphics guy, I designed a fine brochure with a brick border. We promoted our status as graduates of an Atlanta Area Tech course, our recently attained high school degrees, our name, slogan, phone numbers and the clincher: free estimates. Our marketing strategy thus set, we set about determining who was our “market.” We carefully selected our target audience as we drove around the finer streets of northwest Atlanta in The Bomb. Potential customers had to own a big house, seem rich and, most important of all, have lots of big shade trees in their yard. This was after all, going to be a summer job in Atlanta. We didn’t go to night brick school for nothing.

Our first “exhibition” was in my parents front yard. We added a couple of additional layers and wings and posts to their existing brick wall next to the street. With this drive-by resume in place, we set about distributing our brochures and sat back and waited for the phone calls. We were totally shocked: people actually called.

Our first customer was on Woodward Way. Big brick house, lots of walls needing repair in the backyard – and huge primary growth white oak trees all around. After our first morning of hard laying, we nodded with approval when our customer leaned out her back kitchen door and asked how we would like her chef to cook our hamburgers for lunch.

As we sat amidst the shade of a beautiful azalea garden, ate our hamburgers, potato chips and cookies off of antique Coca-Cola lunch trays, we sat back and tried to picture the paths our futures would hold. We talked about expansion and buying other bricklaying companies and becoming big bricklaying executives in air-conditioned offices. Little did we know we were enjoying the last lunch a customer would ever offer us.

After a couple of summers, Mike drifted off to pursue an education at Harvard Law and to become a partner at King & Spalding. Charles went to Georgia Law and practices with his Dad in Jonesboro and Atlanta. I became an itinerant journalist, traveling from town to town in the South. I’m the only one who kept up the bricklaying and have projects with my signature from Virginia to South Carolina.

And I never quite lost the entrepreneurial bug. Today I head up a two-and-half-year-old newspaper company and a few weeks ago we moved into our first air-conditioned offices. I never get too worried about whether things will work out. When things get tight, I look out my window beyond the big office buildings. Out there I see the rolling hills of Atlanta, full of large white oak trees and brick terraces and walls that surely need some repair.

Redemption at Breakfast

Filed under: Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

I was a little nervous approaching a breakfast meeting a few weeks ago my personal marketing guru, Al Ries. I’ve been reading books he wrote or co-authored since I discovered his classic, Positioning, about 15 years ago. His logic struck me so clearly that I have been pushing his later writings on employees and clients ever since.

But I’ve been haunted by the fear that, subject to his scrutiny, my own record as publisher of these newspapers would get a failing grade. The purpose of breakfast was to discuss story ideas about Al, but I had a secondary motive. Having been raised a Catholic, I learned at an early age the import of going to church and confessing one’s sins to the priest. In return, the priest would give absolution and God would grant forgiveness. Now as an adult, I felt a strange desire to confess my marketing sins somewhere between the coffee and French Toast.

The short version of his doctrine is: in a world in which we are bombarded by millions of messages, our brains only assign a space a couple of words long for each company or product we care to remember. Volkswagen means small. Mercedes means expensive. Maytag means washers. Xerox means copiers, etc. When products remain true to their narrow “branding,” they succeed. When they morph into other meanings, they fail. Xerox computers never made it. Neither did larger VWs or inexpensive Mercedes. In fact, these diversions hurt the image and earnings of the original brands.

Try to be all things to all people and you will fail, Al preaches. The secret of success: narrow your focus – and thus enlarge your marketing potential.

I used to work for the big daily newspapers. Then I instinctively followed his sermon when I quit and started my own neighborhood newspapers, focused on and even named after the zip code I live in, Atlanta 30306, and later, the one I grew up in, Atlanta 30305.

Everything seemed to be going fine. Then we approached a dilemma: we needed to grow the company, but didn’t want to change its focus. We began to look at the potential business beyond our zip code boundaries and wondered if we wouldn’t do better if we enlarged our coverage – and changed our names. Temptation. Greed. Envy. This fork in the road had all the makings of a morality play.

For months, my staff argued the merits and the risks of changing our original name and focus. Some thought it would show growth. Others argued it would confuse our original readers. In the end, it probably did both. Over time, we have proved that we could survive the metamorphosis, but would this youthful indiscretion forever hinder our marketing purity and potential? It has worried me ever since.

After my first cup of coffee, as our discussion drifted toward neighborhoods, I broached the subject: “You know, my Atlanta Buckhead paper used to be called Atlanta 30305.”

“Yes, I know,” he said dryly and changed the subject.

“What was that?” I wondered. Disapproval? Disdain? Disinterest? I pressed again after the waitress cleared the dishes. I needed to know if my company was continuing to harvest fruit from a poisoned tree.

“I’ve got to ask you, was it a mistake for my company to change its names as such an early age?” He paused, took a sip of tea and looked at a recent copy of my paper. “Here it comes,” I thought. “My penance is on the way. Would I spend my life in purgatory?” I suddenly noticed Al’s face reminded me of one of the priests from my grade school years. I braced for his answer. “Please, give me an answer,” I thought. “I can’t carry this burden any more.”

“No,” he said. “I think you did the right thing.”

“Come again?” I said in shock.

“I think the zip code names were novel, but they don’t a lot to people who don’t live there. They don’t know where the zip begins or where it ends. Everyone knows where Buckhead is. The name connects to a place in people’s mind. Your product has weight just for carrying that brand.”

“But what about Atlanta Intown or Atlanta North, my other papers?” I asked.

“I don’t know enough about Atlanta to know if people use those terms,” he said. “But if people say I live ‘Intown’ or live ‘North’ then it works.”

There it was: redemption. As we exchanged business cards in the parking lot, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. “Could I email you if I have future marketing dilemmas?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

As I drove away, beaming, I thanked God for email, wishing for a moment that I could email Him for guidance on life’s more important dilemmas. Or at least share a breakfast. “Maybe one day,” I thought. “Right now, I’ve got to write a column.”

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