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.
I wish I could give you a firm timeframe. I wish I knew what it was myself! Growing a grassroots movement is unlike any other entrepreneurial endeavor on Earth. The sooner, the better, though—ideally in the next year, given the financial burden I’m personally carrying on behalf of the project.
When I first opened Details, I committed to not taking a paycheck for three years. I also resolved to spend my entire first paycheck on something completely frivolous. I had to give myself a reward. I believe that, as an entrepreneur, holding back on that first paycheck has to be part of the business’s DNA. The businesses that fail the fastest are the ones where the entrepreneurs pay themselves soonest. For me, this is purely a business decision.
So what was that frivolous purchase?
I walked around with my first paycheck for about a week. One day, I had to go downtown to visit our engraver. He took me by the hand and brought me to a family-owned jewelry store. He said, “This is my sister Cinda. She wants a bracelet. Do something nice for her.” I walked out with an exquisite bracelet at a very friendly price. I’ve worn it almost every day ever since.
On your website, you invite people to help underwrite your costs. To paraphrase Sara Palin: How’s that Tip Jar thing workin’ out?
Very well. Because we’re getting so much web traffic, our server costs are going up exponentially. That’s why I put up the Tip Jar. It’s amazing how fast $5 donations add up. These contributions have secured the website. The graciousness of hundreds of people reaching into their pockets has kept us on the web.
You have a very strong social mission. Have you considered taking The 3/50 Project nonprofit?
I’ve been back and forth about this. There are pros and cons on both sides. There’s no obvious benefit to going nonprofit, and there’s a lot more paperwork and red tape. For now, it’s wait and see.
Any pushback about your doing this as a for-profit business?
No. Remember that we’re doing all this for free, and we’re not making a profit.
Although it’s technically a business, what you’ve really done is launch a movement. Where do you see it in five years?
My approach is to take things one year at a time and to lay the groundwork for future growth. Marketplace circumstances fluctuate really fast. It doesn’t make sense to plan too far ahead.
However, I believe some things will stay the same. We’re all overworked and worried about money. We’re all trying to save. This creates a condition I call “commuter consumerism.” At the end of the workday, we go into autopilot mode. We do our essential tasks and then collapse in a heap. We’re all moving so quickly! We go to the big box stores because we think that’s where the savings are and we don’t see the small independent businesses. We see the big shiny objects but not the small objects in between.
None of this is going to change anytime soon. Independent businesses will continue to need the support of campaigns like ours. What we’re saying resonates very positively. What we’re doing won’t die on the vine.
Any closing thoughts?
Yes. First, it’s important to know that we’re emphasizing balance. We’re not asking people to change their behavior dramatically. We’re simply asking them to stop and think for a moment. We’re suggesting that you can balance things better, and inviting them to do so if they’re able.
Second, while I thoroughly enjoy being the voice of the project, the real heroes are the small business owners around the country. These are the people who have breathed life into The 3/50 Project and continue to do so every day. I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. I know how hard they work. That they’ve found the time to run with this blows my mind.
Cinda Baxter will be speaking about The 3/50 Project on Friday, August 13, from 8:30 to 9:30am at the SUNY/New Paltz Lecture Center (Room 102). The event is sponsored by the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Gardiner Association of Businesses. Tickets are $20 to $35. Reservations required; reserve in advance through PayPal at www.newpaltzchamber.org.
For more information: www.The350Project.net.