How a Small Business Owner Kicked Self-Doubt

One of my favorite things is hearing from customer service leaders and small business owners who candidly share the challenges they face. One recent email that caught my attention was from Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts

Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts

He explained that he was trying to use service to differentiate his business from other martial arts studios. Yet he wasn't sure all the extra service was appreciated.

"There are a few [customers] that will go out of their way to say something nice or write a great review online. However, for the majority it just feels like they expect me to do all this extra work because they want it—some outright abuse these offerings.

"This is both infuriating and makes me feel like I should just go back to the hard sales approach and the extra income. I mean, why offer so many things to add value to the program if 80% of our members just act like they're entitled to something no other martial arts school offers?

"What am I missing?"

Too much self-doubt can be paralyzing and toxic. Here's how Pallesen kicked those limiting feelings and refocused on what his business was doing right.

Seek Advice

Pallesen emailed me out of the blue. He was reading The Service Culture Handbook, and noticed I published my email address in the book, so he reached out.

It's incredibly brave to email someone you don't know and share as much as Pallesen did. We often try to protect our egos by pretending things are going better than they are, but Pallesen was brutally honest about what he was thinking.

I immediately admired Pallesen for his honesty, and his story grabbed me:

"My vision when I opened up shop was to provide a far better experience at a more approachable price point for our urban families; often times at the risk of losing a little money in the short term to gain loyalty and brand ambassadors for the long term.

"The moment we opened, I wanted to build everything around a service culture. This means we don't charge $35-$50 per student, per belt test. We don't charge for specialty classes for our tournament competitors that want to compete but can't afford the $30/month extra. I also removed the maximum limit of (2) classes each student can attend during the week, and allow unlimited classes for those that want to pursue it but, again, are held back due to financial limitations most schools apply for the addition classes.

"I don't do contracts and rely on our service for long term sustainability."

Pallesen felt under-appreciated, and he wasn't sure his approach was working. Nobody likes to experience self-doubt like this, but it's something I commonly see in customer-focused leaders. They always worry about finding a way to do better.

Focus on the Facts

Emotions can cloud our perception of reality, so it can be helpful to focus on the facts. 

I asked Pallesen a few questions about his business. His answers revealed his customer-focused approach was actually working!

  • Customer retention is 25% better than his competitors'.

  • Referrals are up 30% in the past eight months.

  • Gross profit margins are a healthy 55%.

Looking at the numbers helped Pallesen adopt a new perspective. His business was doing well overall, despite the frustrations he had experienced.

Pallesen emailed me back to share his new perspective. "I was up until 3am doing a lot of internalizing and looking more into these questions. It really seems I'm focusing on a couple bad apples, and not the majority."

Work Towards What You Want

There's a difference between fixing problems and making things better. I asked Pallesen a couple of questions to stimulate thinking about his desired future state and what he could do to get there.

The first question was, "What would you like to happen that's not happening now?"

"I want people to experience that 'hero' moment more often. Whether it's because their kid no longer needs occupational therapy because of martial arts (true story), or because their child finally has the confidence that there's no need to defend themselves, they just carry themselves in a way that removes that target. 

"We do hear about it sometimes, and some of our reviews gave me goosebumps as I re-read them this afternoon. However, only about 20% of our members have mentioned those hero moments, and I'd like to significantly increase that."

Okay, now we're getting somewhere! The narrative changed from feeling under-appreciated to feeling great about the successes he's achieved and looking forward to delivering a hero moment to even more people.

My next question was, "I’m sure some people notice the extra services you offer—when does that happen and who notices?"

Pallesen did an excellent job of using this question to look at the situation from his customer's perspective. And it gave him an idea to build on.

"Honestly, while thinking this through, I'm suddenly realizing how many people were surprised after they overheard me talking about some of the specialty classes we offer on Saturdays. If I put myself in their shoes, I can see how it would be easy to forget that these extras are offered if the only time they hear about it is during their initial lesson and orientation.

"Since it's human nature to avoid being wrong or uncomfortable, it's easy to understand why people wouldn't ask about the extra classes without me first initiating the conversation."

This insight helped Pallesen realized the importance of offering additional services at the time of need. If customers don't know about something, they can't appreciate it!

Moving Forward

I could really relate to Pallesen. I can't tell you how many times I've experienced self-doubt in my own business. Fortunately, I have a supportive wife and great friends and colleagues who help me work through it.

It was great to see Pallesen work through it, too.

"When I could get out of that funk and look at your questions objectively I was able to overcome a lot of questions I had about what we are doing. We're on track for a record year, and I should continue focusing on what we're doing right instead of focusing on the couple people that want to try to abuse the system."

Please consider giving Hive Martial Arts a visit if you live in the Minneapolis area!

How You Can Help Idyllwild After the Cranston Fire

On Wednesday, July 25, an arsonist started a fire that quickly spread towards the Southern California mountain community of Idyllwild. 

The blaze, known as the Cranston Fire, burned several homes and caused the entire area to be evacuated. It could have been a lot worse if it wasn't for the heroic efforts of more than 1,500 firefighters and first responders who worked tirelessly to protect life and property.

You may recognize the town from my monthly Lessons From the Overlook posts about a vacation rental cabin my wife and I own in Idyllwild. Fortunately, our cabin is safe and in good condition. I truly appreciate all the email, text, and social media messages people have sent over the past few days!

Evacuations are slowly being lifted and people are starting to return to their homes. Many people are now wondering how they can help the community, so I'm sharing a few ideas here.

View of Lily Rock before the Cranston Fire.

View of Lily Rock before the Cranston Fire.


Many restaurants, shops, and other small businesses in Idyllwild depend on visitors to bring in revenue so they can pay employees and keep the doors open.

The best thing you can do is visit the town.

You can book a cabin with Idyllwild Vacation Cabins, which manages over 40 cabins in addition to The Overlook. Cabins range in size from one to six bedrooms, giving you some great options for a romantic getaway, couples or friends weekend, or a family gathering. The cabins are well-appointed, many accept pets, and you'll receive personal and friendly customer service!

I spoke with the owner, Martha Sanchez, who told me there have been a lot of cancellations from people who see the fire on the news and assume the town is unsafe. Small businesses like Martha's have already been hurt by the fires and evacuations. The cancellations prolong the recovery, so even booking a future visit now can help!

There are many other businesses who selflessly supported the community and first responders during the fire. Giving them your patronage is a wonderful way to show some appreciation. 

Here are a few terrific stories:

Idyllwild Chevron—We fill up here because of their always friendly employees and surprisingly good gas prices!

La Casita Mexican Restaurant—offers great service and is our favorite place for Mexican food on the mountain!

Village Market—a well-stocked small market that also has a nice deli and super-helpful employees.



You may still wish to make a donation to help support the community if visiting in person is not an option. Here are three great options:

Living Free Animal Sanctuary. This local animal rescue nonprofit was evacuated during the fire and remains evacuated as of Monday, July 30. Yet they've still managed to muster resources to shelter and feed the dogs, cats, horses, and other animals they care for. Donate

FIND Foodbank. This organization provided food and water to evacuated families. Food bank supplies are often diminished after a major event like this. Donate

American Red Cross. The Red Cross has operated shelters from evacuees and is currently providing counseling, cleanup supplies, and other services to people returning to their homes. Donate



You can still help even if you can't visit or donate money.

Please help get the word out that Idyllwild is open for business. The news media tends to head out of town to chase the next story once the fire subsides. You can help people learn that this beautiful mountain town is not engulfed in flames.

Take less than one minute to share this post on your favorite social media platform. Better yet, send this update directly to any friends or family members you know in Southern California.

3 Simple Ways to Make Your Small Business Stand Out

My wife, Sally, and I are in the middle of a bathroom remodel right now. I probably shouldn't share this, but we only got one bid for the project. 

It never occurred to us to call any company besides Ideal Plumbing, Heating, Air, and Electrical. The company has successfully done two previous remodeling projects at our home, installed a new HVAC system, repaired a slab leak, and made countless repairs. 

It's a company we trust, so why take a risk with someone else?

Chances are you feel the same way about a small business that counts you as a customer. You may even recommend them to others on Nextdoor or Yelp.

And if you're a small business owner, you probably want to earn that same type of reputation. Here's how you can do it.

Three auto mechanics in their shop.

Be Responsive

Service business owners have a reputation for not being responsive. Calls, texts, and emails go unreturned. Appointments are missed.

You can stand out just by mastering this one basic step.

Sally and I hired recently hired Artisan Landscape Management to help maintain our yard. We were frustrated by a previous gardener who didn't show up when promised and didn't respond quickly to contacts.

Pete Pena, Artisan's owner, is always responsive.

He and his crew arrive on time. Pena promptly returns calls, emails, and texts. He's even proactive about notifying us about important updates, such as a recent text prompting me to change the amount of time I ran my lawn sprinklers.

Pena and his team do great work, but it's his responsiveness that really sets him apart from other landscapers we've worked with.


Keep Promises

Things don't always go as planned. Sometimes you underbid a job or promise a delivery time and your truck breaks down.

Customers still expect you to keep your promises.

Sally and I tried to book a room at a small inn for an upcoming vacation. The inn's website advertised an off-season special, "Stay one night, get the second night free," but we were charged for two nights when we tried to make a reservation.

The inn's manager was unsympathetic when I called. "That's an old promotion," she told me, and she refused to honor it. The offer magically disappeared from the hotel's website during our conversation.


Needless to say, we booked a room somewhere else. 

Small business owners undoubtedly face pressure to watch expenses. A small issue like forgetting to remove an old two-for-one promotion from your website can cost the business money in the short run. 

However, keeping your promises will payoff over the long-term.

We recently hired Peek Brothers Painting to paint our home. Like Ideal, we've relied on Peek Brothers for many years and often hire them without seeking other bids.

This project included painting our front door. When it came time to do the job, the foreman realized the door needed several more coats of paint than our contract called for. Unlike the inn, Peek Brothers kept its promise and painted the door without trying to charge us for the unanticipated extra time. 

It may have cost the company a little more in the short run, but it's this type of service that's caused us to re-hire and refer Peek Brothers many times.


Be Honest

There are times when your customer is in a bind. An unscrupulous small business owner will take advantage of that situation. A customer-focused business will do right by the customer.

A HVAC technician once came out to fix the heater at The Overlook, a vacation rental cabin we own in Idyllwild, California. He knew we had guests scheduled to arrive later that evening and were eager to get our heater repaired.

Unfortunately, the technician did not get the heater working that afternoon. He recommended we replace the motor, a repair that would cost several hundred dollars. It would also take several days for the new motor to arrive.

Martha Sanchez owns Idyllwild Vacation Cabins, the property management company we use for The Overlook. She went out to the cabin with her maintenance technician to see what they could do to keep the cabin warm over the weekend. They discovered the real problem with the heater was a loose wire and they quickly got the heater working again.

The local HVAC business had tried to take advantage of our situation and cheat us!

I was in a similar situation a couple of years ago. My car broke down while I was in Woodland Hills on a business trip. Not knowing the area, I took a gamble and had it towed to Automotive Instincts, a nearby mechanic with good Yelp ratings.

The shop manager knew I was stranded and he could have taken advantage of my situation, but he was fair and honest.

My car needed a new clutch slave and a master cylinder. It was a major repair because the entire transmission needed to come out to install the new parts, but the shop charged me less than half of what my local dealership would have charged.

Even better, the car was towed in mid-afternoon, and the shop ordered and installed the parts by lunchtime the next day.  


Make Your Small Business Stand Out

I realize these three techniques are far from revolutionary:

  • Be responsive
  • Keep promises
  • Be honest

My challenge to you is to review your business to see if this is really happening. How quickly do you respond to customers? Do you keep your promises? And what do you do when your customer is in a vulnerable position?

In my experience, the vast majority of small businesses do not do these three things on a regular basis. This helps those that do really stand out.