I recently collaborated with the Business Impact Group (BIG), a partnership between University of Washington and Business Impact NW, to take an inside look at the current challenges facing the Seattle Farm Co-Op. The opportunity to work directly with my local, small-business community provided me with a fresh look at the diversity and hardships of what it means to own a company in the pacific North West today. The Co-Op is a dynamic collaborative of like-minded members, who are working to provide urban farmers with access to supplies, training, and community support otherwise unavailable in our area. They empower everyone from backyard hobbyists, to garden chicken farmers, to medium-scale community garden leaders with organically sourced feed, monthly classes and member gatherings.
Belonging to the Co-Op is akin to joining a family, in which members become owners and are encouraged to engage with the community holistically. In exchange for a lifetime membership fee (which can be earned at a markdown through volunteer hours), you are granted access to free lessons, discounted supplies, and even a tool library from which to borrow.
Immersing ourselves in the Co-Op culture, we began to get a real-picture of the struggles faced by community owned companies. While lauded by their member base for their work within the community, it became apparent that frustrations arose with no clear leader among the group. Of particular interest, sole financial responsibility appeared to be relegated to one employee, who was not even a member of the board. Caitlin single-handedly completed the accounting and some other in-store work. Christie, the other employee, worked with Caitlin in the store but also acted as a branch to north Seattle customers by driving their orders to north Seattle and allowing customers to pick them up.
Sensing an opportunity, we began working as a team to discover key issues for the company moving into the next quarter. We used a survey and some outside research to learn about the Co-op’s change in customer base after they were forced to relocate from north Seattle to south Seattle. We asked customers which items they most frequently bought at the Co-op and why they might stop shopping there in the future, among other questions. Coupling the results from our survey with a significant decrease in sales since 2015, the loss of North Seattle customers seemed to negatively impact the company more than any other contributing factor. We developed our marketing focus: attract new customers closer to the Co-op’s new location.
Our key recommendations included a website renovation to keep up with the websites of their competitors, joining an organization with other small businesses in the south Seattle area, hosting more community outreach events to expand the new local customer base, and hiring an additional employee in the long run to expand their store hours. We hope that by building a base of connections with other business and reaching out to their new community, Seattle Farm Co-op will be able to drive new people to their (redesigned) website, and eventually hire another employee to keep up with demand and be open linger hours.
This project showed our team the value of looking at the bigger picture. A 5% difference in profit margins between products does not matter when sales decline by 40-50% between years. I saw that while business owners are extremely knowledgeable about their company and industry, this might blind them from factors that prevent their company from growing. This program gives students a sense of importance and autonomy to solve a real problem while giving businesses fresh ideas and analysis that will hopefully help them all in the long run.Through this project, our endpoint was always an increased customer base, and our advisers and the Co-op Board members guided us with the specific tools and information that we needed to get us there.