Business Struggling? Take a Bike Ride

For months, we’ve been reporting on creative approaches small companies across the country are employing to offset slipping sales, from layoff alternatives to discounting techniques. Now Dancing Deer Baking Company’s Trish Karter describes one of the more counterintuitive approaches we’ve seen so far in her essay below. Check it out—it kicks off today—then let us know what you think.

This isn’t a time for trial-and-error marketing, new long-term product strategies, or hiring new staff. Because sales are down at my for-profit socially progressive venture, I have set a rule that all new investment in the company has to deliver a tangible return in the current quarter. We, like most companies in consumer products industries, are really stretched. We work a lot harder to land every dollar of sales than we did a few years ago. We’re off track for the top-line growth we envisioned a year ago. The herd is being culled, but I plan for Dancing Deer to be among the survivors. I don’t take anything for granted. These are dangerous times.

So why am I climbing on a bicycle on April 22, for a two-week, 1,500-mile ride to promote my company’s philanthropic efforts for homeless mothers? In the midst of today’s economic turmoil, what I’m doing might seem like an idiotic move.

It’s clear, at least to me, that when shareholder value is measured solely in financial returns, it can have devastatingly negative effects on society. We’re now finally seeing drastic results in the financial markets and the global economy. But we are in even greater peril if we don’t recognize that a major underlying force at work in the tumbling economy is the ascendancy of a culture that values material wealth and superficial glitter over character and the common good.There’s no time like the present to start behaving sensibly.

Of course, most would say a CEO running a cash-challenged venture better make sure that priorities one, two, and three are cash on hand. They’d argue we should forget about what a former partner of mine used to call “Trish’s happy horseshit.”

But I don’t believe I need to choose mission over EBITDA—or vice versa. Our second and third bottom lines—minimizing negative environmental impact and making a positive social impact—are part of our long-term business strategy and our current survival strategy. It makes more sense than ever to stick with these motives, for commercial reasons as well as philosophical ones.

Research shows consumers increasingly exhibit loyalty to companies with social missions. You can check Forrester for some stats or just put your finger in the air and think about it. Having a powerful do-gooder story is simply good marketing. Plus, there are plenty of socially aware choices that have short term payback in COGS and other operating costs. That’s nothing new.

So how does a bicycle ride help me pull up this quarter’s top line and improve our long term value? In addition to making a real impact on family homelessness, I’m building visibility for Dancing Deer, which results in product sales and customer loyalty. Through all our sales channels, from Web to food stores, brand visibility is the name of the game. Looking forward, the bike ride will improve our customer retention because we give our customers an extra reason to remember and like us. Even if folks don’t totally understand the whole mission thing, they are likely to remember the wacky single mother CEO who’s riding ridiculously long distances to stay at homeless shelters and make gingerbread houses with the families living in shelters.

No points are deducted for exploiting the marketing aspects of doing the right thing! That’s the beauty of it. If the mission objectives reinforce the profit motive, then you have a sustainable model, happy shareholders, and a chance that your example will be adopted more broadly by fellow CEOs, resulting in lasting change.

Editor’s note: We’ve covered Dancing Deer in the past. Check out this story, video, and Karter’s previous essay on why female ownership matters. And catch more on other social entrepreneurs in our recent special report.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.