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Making the Most of What You Have

Sometimes, seeing the silver lining is all you need to keep your business burning bright.

If you believe the saying that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, then the people in New Orleans have got to be among the strongest people in the world. I went back home several times in the past year and each trip brought a new level of appreciation and gratitude for what my friends and family have been dealing with for the past few years.

My first trip home a few months after Katrina showed a ghost town: blue tarp roofs, empty and deserted yards, and no bikes, cars or any signs of life. On this last trip, the blue tarp roofs had disappeared, but many of the streets were still mostly empty.

On my last night in town, a group of us decided to try a new restaurant by one of the city's top chefs. It was a Saturday night and the place was packed with locals. Our waiter welcomed us and took our drink orders. No sooner had he left the table when all the power went out in the restaurant.

An alarm sounded, and he returned to tell us the hotel next door's fire alarm was responsible and the fire department was on its way. There were no signs of smoke, and the kitchen had a stove and oven full of fresh seafood and other items that would certainly spoil if not used that evening. They brought out candles and everyone in the restaurant ordered their meal. The waiter let us know things might be slow, but the wine and bread were already on the table so everyone relaxed and chatted as the food started coming out in phases.

For more than three hours, the locals enjoyed a delicious meal by candlelight. The sirens blared outside and lights flashed, but everyone stayed. Because the computers were all down, they couldn't ring up bills at the end of the evening. The owner went table to table, telling everyone that dinner was on the house and thanked them for staying. People refused to accept a free meal and offered cash or checks instead. The locals didn't want to see the restaurant suffer. I'm guessing that the restaurant actually made more money that night from the goodwill they generated by handling a difficult and stressful situation with class and humor. The customer experience was memorable and an adventure. They didn't miss a beat.

New Orleans and its people have been through a lot, and they know what and who matters in their lives. They are incredibly scrappy and resourceful and when the power goes out, they start eating the seafood and enjoying the romantic ambiance that candlelight creates.

I visited the French Quarter, where the streets are busy and there is almost no trace of the damage and destruction from Katrina. The shops, bars and restaurants are full of life again. There are still plenty of parts of the city that need help. What can entrepreneurs learn from the resilient people of New Orleans?

  • Stay positivebecause it helps you be creative during stressful times. If you believe that you'll find a solution, it forces you to consider possibilities you otherwise may not have tried. When failure isn't an option, it's amazing what ideas you can generate.
  • If the seafood is going to spoil anyway, you might as well enjoy a great meal while you can. In other words, fix the things that are in your control and don't waste energy or tears on the other problems. The chef and staff decided to make sure every customer had a great food experience that night with or without the power company's help. The customers ate and drank well and did not blame the kitchen for the problems that night. Once the firemen realized there wasn't an emergency, they helped clean out the refrigerator, too.
  • Keep a sense of humor at all times. This will make the journey much more enjoyable for you and everyone else around you. The kitchen made a quick decision to bring out the bread, wine and shrimp cocktails. Everyone in the restaurant became part of the adventure that night, included in the inside joke so we all felt part of a special club. Who needs reality TV when you live as a real world survivor in your home town?
  • Vote with your wallet. If you want to support other entrepreneurs and companies whose products and services you value, then buy from them and tell others to as well. Everyone at my table left with a smile and a stomach full of delicious treats. We all agreed to come back with different friends and family over the next few weeks to let the chef know how much we appreciated him rising to the occasion on what could have been a complete disaster of an evening. So a table of eight turned into more than 50 people coming into the restaurant over the next month. Support the businesses and people you admire and you'll always be proud to be associated with them.

I'd be remiss if I did not leave you with one final thought. If you are looking for a venue for your next conference, meeting or vacation, check out New Orleans. The food and music will be memorable, and I'd be surprised if you didn't pick up some fresh ideas to help you improve your customer service and overall experience. It may also make you appreciate simple things in your life like enjoying some gumbo, a chicory coffee, and your neighbors, friends and family that you often take for granted when things are going well.

Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic-marketing consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as early stage and emerging businesses.

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