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  • July 08, 2021

    Small Business Lessons: You’ve Got Mail

    What does a good romantic comedy have in common with running a small business? Stephanie Melnick talks about the lessons learned in the movie "You’ve Got Mail."

    Stephanie L. Melnick

    This article was originally published on the Melnick & Melnick law blog and is used here with the author’s permission.

    I love a good rom-com. And You’ve Got Mail is one of the best, for sure in my top 10. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, virtual romance (over email and a dial-up modem), and in New York City – need I say more?

    But there is more. Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) owns a small business, a charming children’s bookstore on the Upper West Side with an established clientele and three employees.

    Stephanie Melnick Stephanie Melnick, U.W. Law School 1994, is owner of Melnick & Melnick in Milwaukee, where she focuses on supporting small-business owners.

    Kathleen and her store, The Shop Around the Corner, face an existential challenge from Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Fox Books, a huge bookstore that boasts discounts, comfy chairs, and “legal addictive stimulants.”

    Kathleen’s and The Shop Around the Corner’s experience facing Joe and Fox Books includes lessons for us as small-business owners.

    In case you haven’t seen You’ve Got Mail (which I almost can’t believe, and you should immediately rectify, and here’s a warning: spoilers are ahead!), I’ll try not to over-share.

    Three Lessons

    ‘The world isn’t driven by discounts’

    The new Fox Books store is under construction and Kathleen’s staff is worried. Kathleen insists, “The world isn’t driven by discounts” and is confident her special store and with its friendly service and knowledgeable staff will beat out the big and generic Fox Books.

    She’s right, right?

    Identifying your small business’s unique selling proposition is the key to answering this question. If your USP is you have the best price on Diet Coke and Cheetos in a 5-mile radius, then disregard Kathleen’s advice and do what you do. But if your USP is not price-specific, then focus on what value and service you’re delivering that others aren’t or can’t.

    ‘Go to the mattresses’

    Fox Books proves a bigger threat to The Shop Around the Corner than Kathleen anticipates, so she asks her anonymous email pen-pal Joe for advice. Joe, citing The Godfather, tells her to “go to the mattresses,” aka fight for her store.

    And she does. She stirs up the press around her little store, organizes rallies, and galvanizes customer and public support.

    Think of Kathleen when your business faces a challenge and stand your ground. Respond to and challenge the conclusions if you receive a cease and desist letter claiming trademark infringement. Protect your intellectual property – designs, brand, product names, slogans, logos, art, formulas, podcasts, blog posts, and all documents and content. Revise your website terms and conditions and client services agreement so your rights and their obligations are clearly defined.

    And, when a customer or service provider doesn’t follow through, enforce your rights.

    ‘Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal’

    Despite Kathleen’s best efforts, her sales drop and she decides to close The Shop Around the Corner. It’s heartbreaking, because the store and closing it are personal to Kathleen, and Fox Books is not particularly personal to Joe, the store’s name aside.

    What makes a small business special is, in part, that the owners’ blood, sweat, and tears are integral to its success. Small businesses are personal in a way big corporations can’t be. This is a good thing.

    At the same time, if a business becomes too personal, if the way we do things becomes too static, and if our products, services, and ideas become too conventional, we lose the ability to transform.

    Kathleen pivoted, closed the shop, and “dared to imagine … a different life.”

    So can we – dare to imagine a different product or service, a different client base, a different location (or a virtual location), a different team, or yes, a different life.

    Thus Endeth the Lessons

    For the rom part of this movie, you’ll have it watch it yourself.

    Are you buying it? I’d love to hear what you think.

    Need help “going to the mattresses” with your small business? Let’s talk.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Agriculture Law and Rural Practice Blog of the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section. Visit the State Bar sections or the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


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    Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Blog is published by the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Nancy Trueblood and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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