Small Business Lessons: "You’ve Got Mail"

Stephanie Melnick

Business Advice,

I love a good rom-com. And You’ve Got Mail is one of the best, for sure in my top ten. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, virtual romance (over email and a dial-up modem), and in NYC—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. 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), I’ll try not to over share.

  1. “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.
  2. "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,” a.k.a. 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 provide doesn’t follow through, enforce your rights.
  3. “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.

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.

Stephanie Attorney

Stephanie, owner of Melnick & Melnick, S.C. and self-described law nerd has been practicing law for over 25 years. Stephanie loves taking a deep dive into clients’ businesses to learn what makes them tick. She also relishes a well-written (short and simple) contract and is pleased to draft and negotiate all kinds, including leases, operating agreements, and terms of service.

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