I grew up in a North Indian family that migrated to the South. The general culture in North India is known to be slightly aggressive versus in the south, people are a bit more polite. I’ve touched upon a debatable topic, and I know there are many many exceptions.
My mom is a master bargainer, recently someone told her that her daughter had gone to UK to do a course on “bargaining.” It was hilarious as my mom told me the story half-jokingly and ended with, “if she wanted to learn, she should have come to our family – why did she have to go all the way there?” I’m sure you’ve seen your parents do the same thing, where they will quote a price that’s 1/10th of the price the seller is quoting and walk away. Only to be called back by the vendor and meet them half way. The first few times I saw this, I was in awe. It’s almost thrilling to experience it, how can there be so much room for negotiation? I started picking up these skills too.
I’ve also seen my mother get things done by showing her assertiveness. I remember there was a time when there was some construction going on at home and the contractor was constantly delaying the delivery. We were on a time constraint so my mom went there and created such a scene that the laborers worked all night and gave us the place the next day. In this situation too, I was in admiration of the tough cookie my mother is.
It’s nice to be nice
Needless to say, I started believing that this is the way to “get things done.” I didn’t have a filter of when to use this character trait and I remember when I just started the business I yelled at a delivery person for being late until he never showed up again. I not only felt terrible for yelling but also realized that this strategy failed miserably. As I continued to face different experiences in business and life, I realized that being nice and making friends is in reality, the only way to “get things done.”
Because our business is an online bakery, the delivery person is a very important part of the customer’s experience. He could damage the cake or leave it at the wrong doorstep or even eat it on the way (as horrific as it sounds, it’s possible). Many times, the customer doesn’t pick up the phone or the delivery address is wrong. In all of these situations – I realized the only way to convince them to go out of their way and help you is to show them you’re also human, you made a mistake and politely request if it can be fixed. Most times, I have seen delivery executives help with no additional incentives, just because the other person was genuinely nice.
This doesn't just help when we need something done but also in any other aspect in life. I am a 100% certain our high repeat customer rate at Dream a Dozen is not only because we make a good product, but also because we are genuinely nice to our customers. This may sound really simple and obvious - but if you think of the past 10 transactions that you have done, do you remember the person that you were buying from? The guy behind the counter at the grocery store or pharmacy? Even the sales girl at a bakery. It's likely that you don't, because it was simply a transaction. When the other person goes out of their way to understand your needs and help, even if it's something as simple as buying a cake - they will be remembered. When they will be remembered, there will be repeat sales and good word of mouth leading to higher revenue. It all starts just from being nice.
If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no
I’ve spent the first few months of this year reaching out to chefs, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, so that I can pick their brain and learn from them. I know some people think I have a lot of “contacts.” Nobody is born with contacts, these are relationships that are built over time. I have learnt to let go of my inhibitions and just reach out to people, you will be surprised by the number of replies I have gotten from completely cold emails. Most people don’t take this first step from the fear of being rejected. The will say, “oh why will they reply to me?” And with this reasoning, they will never try. But if you don’t try, how will you ever know? I saw this amazing Ted talk called “What I learnt from 100 days of rejection” and it changed my perspective.
Some of these people that I’m reaching out to are extremely successful at what they do, to give you an example – I sent a cold email to the CEO of a unicorn in India. For those who don’t know, a unicorn is a company that is valued at a billion dollars. He actually wrote back to me a few days later, and when I saw his email agreeing to speak with me I was overjoyed.
When we spoke, he asked me our annual revenue to judge the size of the business and I told him. I also added a disclaimer saying, “I know we’re still very small but this is what it is.” He immediately responded encouragingly – that is not a small business Megna, you should be proud of yourself. I know he didn’t have to say that but he did. However, that one line of validation from him gave me so much more confidence about where we are. I can’t tell you how much it meant.
On the other hand, I reached out to a famous chef in Bangalore. I met him and he graciously gave me an hour of his time with very useful insights. He similarly asked me the same question about revenue, when I told him, his reaction was quite the opposite. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "I guess you can justify it because of COVID but it’s still very low." Although revenue is a very relative thing and we are all on our own path, when one goes to another person seeking guidance – it is disheartening to hear that. Since then, I’ve mailed both the unicorn founder and this chef again updating them about my progress, I dare you to guess which one replied.
I also believe the ones who really make it big, to another level, know when to be brutally honest and when to be nice. It doesn’t mean they are lying, it just means they know where to use the filter in their head. That particular filter may be the reason they are where they are.
Count on people paying it forward
Similarly, I reached out to the ex-CEO of Dunkin Donuts on LinkedIn after reading his memoir – Around the corner to around the world by Robert Rosenberg. I had just finished and was feeling genuinely moved by everything he had achieved in a span of 35 years. So I googled him, like I do after finishing most good books or movies. I found his LinkedIn profile and sent him a note. It was limited to 300 characters as he wasn’t my connection on LinkedIn (obviously), but he replied within minutes. This is an 83 year old seasoned businessman who took over the company from his father at the time that they were at 100 stores and took it to 6,500 stores. I sheepishly replied to his reply, saying I’d be honored for him to taste our cupcakes someday. He said it’d be his pleasure to inscribe my book and sample our cupcakes. I was over the moon. This was my kind of fan-girl moment.
All of these little moments add up, when someone is nice to you even though they don’t have to be. You will be surprised when you find the number of “big people” who will reply to you if you reach out because they realize that they are also where they are because someone was nice to them. It’s the circle of life and paying it forward counts.
I will leave you all with a quote I heard from a McKinsey Podcast where they were interviewing Mellody Hobson (CEO of Arial Investments). She said something beautiful and I quote,
Can you be strong but not tough, kind but not soft? Can you be not threatened and not threatening?
These few words define what I hope to become one day. A true representation of being a cultural mix between the North and South of India :)