Are you a small organization? Don’t screw up

Dennis Schrag/Tree Full of Owls

Small organization? Go where the competition is. Find your niche.

I bought a wristwatch a few months back. It is a simple watch with a white face, large black numbers (not Roman numerals – who uses Roman numerals anyway?) and a simple gold tone (not real gold) case. It came with a brown leather band.

It was not an expensive watch. I paid less than $75. It is thin and very light weight and comfortable. I liked everything about it except the brown leather band. I want black. The point where the band attaches to the watch is very unusual. It requires a special band only available from the watch manufacturer. I ordered a new black band and paid about half the cost of the watch for it.

I tried and tried to remove the old band so I could replace it with the black band. I have a set of tiny screw drivers. I applied finesse and direct pressure, but the two small screws on the two back sides of the band that attach to the watch would not budge. Actually, in my frustration and determined efforts to replace the band, I may have stripped the miniature screw heads, maybe just a little. Well, a lot. I also managed to cut off part of one section of the brown band. Don’t ask. The watch could not be worn unless I used some duct tape.

I was traveling to Hong Kong. I took the watch with the stripped band screw heads, cut brown band and the new black band with me. I was certain I could find a craftsperson who could replace the new band. I went to the section of town where there are 50 or 60 watch retailers. One retailer sold very upscale watches, your typical $5,000 Rolex would be at the low end of their inventory. This was a Paris Hilton retailer that had real bling on real Rolexes. I asked if they could fix my band. You could hear them laugh all the way back in theUSA.

I found a very nice shop that sold the same brand as my watch. They said they did not sell repair services. They were a specialized retailer. La di da. I visited 11 retailers and all looked at me and my stripped screw watch band and declined the offer to do business.

I was discouraged and frustrated. I was still in the watch district. I saw a woman with a small, wheeled cart. It was an old cart. The work surface of the cart was about 18” square. She sat on a folding stool. The cart is located on a busy street at the intersection of an alley. There is a fire-station next to the alley.

She had six or eight people lined up on the street waiting for her services. She specialized in watch band and watch battery replacements. Eureka! I got in line. I was sure everyone else in line had a stripped screw-watch band replacement issue. She sold a new band to one person and quickly replaced it. Ditto for two batteries.

There were no special lights for her work surface. There was no electricity. It was 92 degrees and 95 percent humidity, and she just kept working. I was in the shade –sweating. She was not.

I was next. I showed her the watch with the stripped watch band screws and the new band. She spoke Cantonese; I did not. She looked at me as if to say, “Who is the dummy that stripped these screw heads?” She smiled. I smiled. We never discussed cost. I had invested in the watch and the new band. It was worthless without a fix. I was at her mercy.

She had a collection of ancient tools and kept working on the stripped screw heads. She worked the physics of the band. She studied it and studied it. A friend dropped off a Chinese muffin. She said thanks (I think). The two chatted for a while, and I know she explained to her friend that this stupid American screwed up the screws on this watch band.

Twice the fire trucks with blaring sirens and flashing lights tore out of the fire station. She never looked up or flinched. She kept working on my project. It was hot. She was experienced. She was focused on taking care of my needs.

She fixed it. I paid her double what she asked.

Lessons learned:

Small business can thrive with the big ones.

Go where the competition is; that is where the customers gather.

Specialize. Find a niche.

Location, location, location.

Have great tools and great skills.

The big guys can’t make enough on some services to pay the rent. Smalls can (it helps when you have no rent to pay).

Treat people nicely, even when they are very different from you.

Stay focused – don’t let little things like fire trucks with sirens and flashing lights bother you.

Charge reasonable fees. You will be rewarded.

Like my new watch?

Dennis Schrag is president of the Longview Group of Iowa City. E-mail him at