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A 2020 mantra for small business: 'Listen hard, change fast'

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ben Chestnut, co-founder and chief executive officer of Mailchimp, a marketing platform for small businesses, has a mantra: “Listen hard. Change fast.”

A general view with Tokyo Tower is pictured in Tokyo, Japan March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

And it is one Chestnut says he has never found more relevant than now.

First and foremost? Listen hard to employees about what they are going through at home.

“Some of them in New York are sharing a tiny apartment with three roommates; some are parents taking care of kids,” said Chestnut, 46, whose Atlanta-based company was named Company of the Year by Inc. Magazine.

Also key: listening to customers and learning how to help them now, he adds.

Chestnut shared his thoughts with Reuters on how to thrive in challenging times. Edited excerpts are below.

Q. What did your first job teach you?

A. I was a bagger at a commissary on a military base in Fort Gordon, in Georgia. I had to be about 16 or 17 years old, and it was a summer job. I was saving for the prom.

There was this group of old ladies who had worked there a long time, and they were laughing at me as they watched me bag the groceries using just one hand. They said, “You look so lazy - use both hands!”

They showed me how if you make a better impression on the customer, you got a better tip. It’s stayed with me. If I catch myself ever doing any kind of chore or work with one hand, I feel guilty.

Q. How have your goals for your company changed this year?

A. We’ve always been about empowering entrepreneurs. Anytime there’s a downturn, what you have is a lot of joblessness, then you have a whole bunch of entrepreneurs who have always secretly wanted to start a business, so we have a wave of new customers.

Q. What is the worst job you’ve had?

A. Moving furniture. I was a teenager. I had to sit in the back of a van, and the exhaust fumes made me high. It made me so sick. I lasted one day.

It was for a guy who did upholstery, and we would go to gated communities and mansions. It was the first time I’d ever seen how wealthy people lived. I learned the value of good customer service, and that it sure looks nice to be wealthy.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten?

A. Love what you do - instead of doing what you love. If you really embrace where you’re at and try to master it, new opportunities arrive.

In my first job out of college, I had applied to be a web designer, but somehow my resume ended up in the wrong office, and I got a job as a banner ad designer. I didn’t want to design banner ads, but it taught me how to design things that made people click.

Q. What tips do you have for small businesses right now?

A. Try to be opportunistic. Don’t pause - pivot. Most small businesses have a purpose or meaning when they start. They often lose touch with that as they go along.

Get back in touch with your why. If you’ve buried it, embrace it and that will give you some kind of idea for a pivot.

Q. What is your work-from-home setup?

A. Everything started in the dining room, but then the kids (two sons, aged 13 and 9) got sent home for home schooling so I moved into the basement.

I bought a standing desk. I have my computer on night mode and dark mode. And I have black folders all around to keep my papers. It’s not just stylistic; it’s easier on my eyes.

I’m staring at this Zoom screen all day long, and I need something darker around it.

Q. When the world opens up again, where would you like to travel?

A. Tokyo or New York City - someplace with lots of people and lots of germs. Assuming we’re all safe and can bump into each other again, I’m going to hug and high-five everyone. That’s the dream.

Editing by Lauren Young and Nick Zieminski

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