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The Power of Three

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Ideas are like sperm. Out of every gazillion, only one or two ever see the light of day.

Cinda Baxter’s Big Idea was unplanned. On March 11, 2009, the Minneapolis-based entrepreneur and motivational speaker crafted a short, spontaneous blog post proposing a campaign that would “ask consumers to frequent three local brick-and-mortar businesses they don’t want to see disappear, and to spend a very affordable $50 per month doing it.”

She closed the short piece with an offer to put her shoulder to the wheel—a little. “Whadaya say, folks? I can have a window banner whipped up in no time for printing at your favorite local print shop and bag stuffers you can print on your desktop. Just say the word-—I’ll get the PDF files in your hands ASAP.”

Baxter dubbed her idea The 3/50 Project and cast it out into the blogosphere. Which, as a rule, is where ideas go to die.

Only this one didn’t. Within 48 hours, Baxter reports, she “had 350 e-mails asking ‘What else have you got?’” A week later, more than 7,600 people had found the post. Now it’s over a year later and the buzz has evolved into a national movement, with The 3/50 Project promotional material now available at independent businesses throughout the country. And Baxter? She’s been tending to her love child since its birth.

We caught up with Baxter, who will be speaking on the camppus of SUNY New Paltz on August 13, for a discussion of The 3/50 Project and her life after that fateful post. We had expected to encounter a passionate social activist. Instead, we found ourselves speaking with a person who is a businesswoman through and through, and bringing this specialized perspective to her work in the social arena.

The 3/50 Project is a remarkable success story. How about some metrics?

There’s been an extraordinary uptake, to be sure. I thought I knew what the term “viral” meant. Now I realize I didn’t.

Before I mention any numbers, let me say that I’m single, I have no kids, no pets, and dead houseplants. So this is my version of “proud mom” stuff. As of today, we have more than 20,000 registered business supporters and 61,000 friends on our Facebook page. We’ve had 376,000-plus absolute unique visitors, over 481,000 total visits, and more than 1.4 million page views.

What makes The 3/50 Project different from the many ideas that are stillborn?
I think there are three main reasons for its success. First, the simplicity of the message. We don’t discuss macro- and microeconomics. We speak in the language people use at the dinner table. Second, we’re not asking for impossible commitments. For instance, we’re not telling people to boycott the big box stores. Although it’s a fiction that their prices are usually lower, sometimes it’s necessary to shop there. We’re inviting people to spend a total of $50 a month at three local businesses. In fact, many people are doing this already. We’re just asking them to do it more consciously. We’re not trying to force people to shop locally, either. If you can’t afford to spend $50 at three local businesses, that’s okay.

The third reason didn’t occur to me till six months down the road: The message came from and is being nurtured by someone who owned a brick-and-mortar business for 14 years. When people learn that the person behind The 3/50 Project is one of them, they respond especially warmly.

What business were you in?
I had a business in Minneapolis called Details Ink. We sold fine papers, stationery, and gifts and did in-house design. I loved it: It brought together the various elements of my life. I closed the business after 14 years when the landlord defaulted on our lease. We decided to move on rather than get involved in a lawsuit.

And now you’ve got yourself a new business!

That’s right. I inadvertently created an 80-hour-a-week job with no paycheck, and I’m thrilled! In the summer of 2009, when it had become clear I had a tiger by the tail, I had to decide how I was going to proceed. I decided to treat The 3/50 Project as a start-up. It’s turned out to be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Right now, I’m living solely off speaking fees. Thankfully, The 3/50 Project could be integrated into that part of my pre-existing business. Doing so, however, created two conundrums. First, it crowded out accepting new consulting clients, which cut my revenue stream severely. Second, the project provided me with subject matter that was great for speaking to local organizations, but no local organizations could afford me. As a solution, I now offer a special “Chamber [of Commerce] rate” to those groups, less than half my normal minimum fee. The good news is, I’ve still got income coming in. The bad news is, I took a hefty pay cut in the process.

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