In October of 2010, I met a woman named Maria. Maria lives in a dodgy area of Fremont, California with her sister. Between the two of them, they have five children in the household, one of whom is already grown up and works at a nearby Walmart to help with the bills and monthly expenses. Neither father of the aforementioned children are anywhere to be found.
Maria and her sister currently run a house cleaning service. They would travel to a customer’s house or apartment in a 1987 Toyota Camry, and extensively clean the place in one or two hours. They leave business cards and printed fliers by doorsteps in hopes that someone will pick it up as they walk into a less-than-spotless house and call the listed number. Business has been up and down; during most weeks they would go three or four days without any work. Maria decided to post a question on the popular forum Yahoo! Answers. In the question, she detailed the scope of her business and its current performance. She asked for advice on how she and her sister could improve what they’re doing.
One day, I was watching a rerun of How I Met Your Mother. During the commercial break, I got bored so I began browsing the web for random items to read. I happened upon Maria’s post and read about her current business. I began jotting down some basic things like what type of client base she would be catering to and what type of thought processes typically befall those who might consider hiring cleaning services. The show came back on, and I stopped halfway through my response.
During the next commercial break, I continued to respond to her question and before I knew it the response was five full paragraphs (that’s about 4.9 paragraphs longer than the typical response on Yahoo! Answers). I clicked “Submit” and continued enjoying the episode where Marshall is being courted by John Cho to take a job offer from the legal division of a high-powered corporation.
The next day, I received an email telling me that my answer has been marked by the “asker” as the “Best Answer” on a question. I thought to myself, “Well that’s kinda cool…”, and I clicked to see it again. Maria had responded with a very thankful note, and she provided her email address and asked if I’d mind emailing her so she can run some ideas by me. I emailed her (mainly because she chose my answer as the best answer, and I liked that), and she responded with five more questions.
I took 20 minutes drafting a brief for Maria, inserting my opinions about her business and the strategic approach she can take. I also let the creative juices run and came up with some random and rather wacky ways where she’d be able to politely yet effectively bring awareness to her cleaning service with the local clientele. She thanked me with a very kind note and I said nothing more.
A month later, I had already moved to New York and certainly have not thought about Maria or her business, especially since I’ve never actually met her. In the midst of settling in, Maria sent me an email saying how thankful she is for my help a mere five weeks ago. She said she’s gotten a dozen more leads since that day and now nearly works the entire weekend for $40/hr between her and her sister. She’s on her way to taking care of some debts and has even been able to take her entire family out to dinner, something they haven’t done in a very long time.
When she told me all of these things, I was shocked beyond belief. The TV commercial breaks I spent essentially jotting down thoughts was able to improve someone’s life by a measurable amount. The thoughts I had written down were not exactly ground-breaking and award-winning concepts in the business/marketing field. Rather, these were things that any young professional in the field with a year or two of experience could have put down on paper. With a basic business acumen and 20 minutes of spare time, I improved the life of a family without having spent a single dime.
That’s what I wanted to write about today. You see, since that day in November when Maria wrote me that thankful email, I’ve gone on forums like Yahoo! Answers to search for things like “small business help” or “small business marketing advice” or something of the sort. I was able to find quite a few questions floating out there, and it took me no more than a half hour to respond to a half-dozen questions. Since then, I’ve been contacted by primarily lower-income individuals like Trevor who owns a truck and a modest moving service and Lina who owns an e-commerce business that sells homemade jewelry and accessories. I take 10 minutes to think about their situation and see how to best improve what they’re already doing. To my great delight, as of this month small business owners like Maria were able to see very desirable results.
I’m not really an expert in anything unless it’s Friends the TV show. However, I realized that many people like my friends and myself have graduated from respected universities and have since acquired some business acumen such that we have more than enough to help someone who perhaps never got the chance to go to college. Things that you might have encountered in an introductory business topic course are the realities for many of these people. Sure, there are plenty of factors that prevent us from starting our own bona fide consulting firms at this stage in our lives. Nonetheless, you’d be surprised at just how “sufficient” your education and experience already is when it comes to helping someone who didn’t have the chance to earn it like you did.
An education should never have to be a selfish endeavor; it’s not like I’m asking you to write in the name of somebody else on your diploma. I’m just saying, to all those with whom I’ve had the privilege of going to school or to the office, to see if you can’t find somebody who could use a bit of that Kotler & Armstrong you have stashed in the back of your brain. I mean, my undergraduate GPA was an insult to the institution of academia, but it hasn’t stopped me from learning and acting when it counts. Doing this has certainly helped me perform better at work because my mind remains sharp and open to new problems and solutions.
You have a handsome-looking diploma sitting somewhere, possibly collecting dust already. Make it worth something more, even just a little bit, and even if it’s for someone else. To my Universities of California brethren… Fiat Lux, right?