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Get Real

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In entrepreneur's presence cannot be manufactured. Notice that I say "presence" and not "image." Image can be purchased with a fat checkbook and the creative genius of the wizards of Madison Avenue. But once the promotional campaign ends and the image fades, is the presence still remembered? Presence, not image, is what customers remember--and what is remembered pays off.

Presence is a process of revelation that is part of the growth of an entrepreneur and his or her product or service. Presence could be the personal style of an artist like Flavia Weedn, owner of The Flavia Group Inc. in Santa Barbara, California, whose creative designs are seen on thousands of greeting cards, paper products and collectible gifts, or it could be the consistent gestures of unselfish service from a neighborhood store owner. Whatever form it takes, presence follows three basic rules:

1. Presence starts with taking a risk. No more standing in the shadows and waiting--waiting for money to create a fancy brochure or waiting to afford a better location or office to impress your customers. What really impresses customers is courageously putting your work out there, allowing the critical eye of the public to cast its vote of yea or nay.

For Weedn, it started with exhibiting her artwork for the first time at an art show nearly 34 years ago. She had no formal art training; all she had was a tremendous desire to express herself.

"I remember well my initial feelings at that show," Weedn says. "I kept taking the paintings out of the trunk of my car and putting them back in before I finally set up."

Weedn thought all the other artists were much more talented than she was. They all had slick brochures to pass out and impressive credentials to tout. But to her amazement, she sold all her paintings by the end of the day. One artist whose work she admired at the show said something to her that day she will never forget: "Flavia, I hope you keep painting. Your work has a kind of magic because it sings, and that is the ingredient most artists strive for."

"I thank God I had courage enough to take a risk in the beginning," Weedn says now. "A quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes reminds me of what might have happened if I hadn't taken my paintings out of my car that day: `Alas for those who never sing/But die with all their music still in them.' "

2. Presence doesn't mean being pretentious. Don't use a lack of money as an excuse not to go out and promote. Years ago, when someone asked Weedn where she painted, she told them she painted in the bedroom. "But my husband corrected me and said `No, we sleep in the studio.' " Later, as Weedn's career grew and she became well-known, her "headquarters" was still far from glamorous. Just ask one wealthy customer who had purchased one of Weedn's paintings and brought his girlfriend out to California to meet Flavia and buy more of her work.

"I remember hearing the woman complain as they walked up the muddy pathway to my front door," Weedn says. "Her shoes were laden with mud, and she was sure her boyfriend had taken her to the wrong address."

A few hours later, the couple walked out of Flavia's house with two new expensive paintings. Their muddy shoes--not to mention the odors coming from the gas station next door--were completely forgotten.

Weedn's goal as an artist has always been to go to the place that touches all of us deeply: the heart. When you connect with a customer's feelings, the desire to own the product transcends externals such as perfect offices and verbose presentations.

In 1970, Shirley Pepys and Sylvia Noble, the founders of NOJO Inc. in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, a $30 million juvenile bedding and accessory company, had no brochure and no idea how they would mass-produce the quilted infant seat cover they were showing to the buyer of a major department store.

"We just asked her if she would put it on display for a few days and see if any customers showed interest," Pepys recalls. "Our friends with new babies loved the idea of a quilted backing for their babies to lie on instead of the usual vinyl coverings."

Within a day, the buyer ordered 10 infant seat covers to be delivered immediately. How did Pepys and Noble handle it? "We had Grandma and friends sewing up a storm in the garage," says Pepys.

3. Presence means being present. This means listening and paying attention to the customer. John Crean, CEO of Fleetwood Enterprises, an RV manufacturing firm in Newport Beach, California, says some of his most successful products were created after spending hours listening to his dealers describe exactly what customers wanted in a recreational trailer.

"Many a time I stayed up half the night designing a whole new product as a result of shooting the breeze with my dealers," says Crean.

Public relations entrepreneur Henry Rogers recalls the time account executives at his firm pitched a Shirley MacLaine TV special to potential sponsor Time magazine, which rejected the idea. Rogers and MacLaine put their heads together and decided he would call the president of Time Inc. himself. He offered to bring MacLaine over to have dinner with the president and his wife, who was a big fan.

After dinner, MacLaine told the whole story of her show, explained how she got the idea, and then performed a brief sketch of it in the living room. The couple was spellbound. The show aired . . . sponsored, of course, by Time.

Who can really sell your product, service or idea better than you? Your presence alone creates a magic for which there is no substitute.

I highly recommend that even the most successful entrepreneurs periodically go out on sales calls to keep the magic of presence alive. Don't just tell your sales force how the master does it--show them. Your presence will rub off.

As a business owner, you must constantly remind yourself how you got where you are: by rubbing elbows, networking, chewing the fat and mingling with the masses. The connection creates a positive friction--that necessary energy between visionary entrepreneurs and those they serve.

Without marrying your presence to your passion, all the image-building techniques and high-tech tools in the world won't help you grow your business.

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This article was originally published in the November 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Get Real.

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