“Almost there, go for 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .”
The Bodypump instructor at ProRobics on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill has barely finished the final count for the first set of body sculpting exercises when Melody Biringer lays down her barbells and beelines for her cell phone — a one-minute break; plenty of time to check e-mail.
This is how the multitasking queen of girlfriend chic gets it all done: In a mere one-hour class, she reaches for the phone five times.
With hundreds of e-mails calling out to her each day, any free moment is a chance to catch up. Catching up on voice, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Biznik and other message venues is a huge part of Biringer’s day. And, her least favorite part of it: “I’ve really got to put some thought into how I am going to answer almost all of them. It’s like a pressing thing on me at all times.”
Biringer, founder of The CRAVE Company based in Seattle, is an icon of entrepreneurial spirit who has started more than 20 businesses over the last three decades, selling a wide range of products from berries to fitness to furniture. She sighs as she eyes the top message on a screen full of the telltale highlighted blue — unopened e-mail — and clicks on the first in line.
“The truth is I really just want to delete a lot of e-mail, but of course I have to answer them; most of them are serious questions for the person who sends them, even if I don’t think it’s that serious,” she says.
Biringer’s days are filled with tweets, woots, bings and rings — social media contacts that she has made an art of cultivating.
“She’s always trying to sell people on social media,’’ says
a colleague. “She’s one of the best.”
CRAVEguides produces the company’s popular CRAVE Urban Girls’ Manifesto guidebooks. The first guide made the Seattle scene in 2002. This year Biringer expects to distribute the fourth edition of the Seattle guide to 10,000 people in the region, bringing attention and, hopefully, sales to dozens of women-oriented businesses profiled within. And Biringer and her colleagues around the world are currently working on guides for 12 other U.S. cities, Vancouver, B.C. and Amsterdam.
“We are growing at the rate of 10 cities a year,” says Biringer. “Inspiring women to do their own thing and spend more time with girlfriends. It’s all I could ask for.”
In just eight years, both Biringer and her brand have grown a reputation for connecting women-owned businesses to their target audience: women. Women of all ages, all styles, all interests, with one thing in common: they love to pamper themselves and spend time with friends. Getting a business profile or expert “intelligentsia” profile in a CRAVE guide, at least in Seattle, has become a mark of honor — and a critical marketing boon for many.
“We already have a long waiting list for the next version of the Seattle guide coming out this fall,” Biringer reports. “It’s by invitation only, but I have a lot of people calling. They know we will do a lot to highlight their business if it fits our profile.” Companies included in the guides can count on added marketing mileage from CRAVE’s dedication to tweeting, blogging, Facebooking and partying.
The latter, of course, is the second core element under the CRAVE bumbershoot. In 2003, Biringer started CRAVEparties. Each party, as aptly described on the company Web site, is: “an exclusive, festive, glam-gal gathering of fun, entertainment, personal pampering, specialty shopping, sippin’ and noshin’, and just hanging with the girls.”
“I wanted to create an excuse for girlfriends to get together — a venue for combining local shopping, spa services, entertainment, food and pink drinks,” she says of the first gathering, a classic pajama party. “I thought, what more could a girl want. I hit a nerve when I sold out the first event and have been tweaking it ever since.”
The parties too are a great way for businesses to connect with clients:
“Our relationship with CRAVE started out doing the parties and I have to say doing the parties it was a very wise marketing choice,” says Sabrina Mohlman, owner of Undies and Outies/Queen Anne Mail & Dispatch. “The parties always happened on a weekday, and the weekend after we were always busy. That was huge for us.”
The winter, spring, summer and fall main party events are the manifestation of the mission Biringer founded her company on.
“Hanging out with your girlfriends is what’s fun in life, so I finally created a whole business just to have a reason to get girlfriends together,” Biringer explains.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE CRAVE MAVEN
It’s easy to see how this 47-year-old farm girl-turned-urban trendsetter brought 20 businesses to fruition — starting with a lemonade stand on her family’s famous Biringer Farm in Snohomish County. At 18, Biringer launched a Biringer Farm product sales business that continues to thrive today.
Ambitious, but down-to-earth, Biringer possesses the enviable ability to make a stranger immediately feel comfortable. She is high-energy, but homey. She runs CRAVE from her fairly nondescript West Queen Anne home, where she has lived for 16 years with her husband, photographer Paul Butterfield. Her desk faces a bookshelf full of inspiration, including Six-Week Start-Up, Unstoppable Woman, two copies of Teamworks, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Marketing, and The Power of the Purse.
The décor in the Biringer-Butterfield home is chic, modern, comfortable. Biringer says she once dreamed of buying a classy urban condo.
“But the truth is, I ended up putting all my money into my businesses…so we gave up on the loft and now we are fixing up the house to be more of what we dreamed up.”
She and Butterfield also realized they’d rather travel than settle down in a piece of real estate that chewed up their income, she says. Not to mention that traveling is inspiring for developing new business.
“We went to Amsterdam without a plan, just to travel and relax, and came back with a CRAVE book system started up,” says Butterfield. The first CRAVE guide on the European continent will be published in Amsterdam this year.
But Biringer doesn’t only receive business inspirations from the universe of her mind. While in Amsterdam, she was moved by the huge number of people on bicycles — ordinary people in street and business clothes pedaling in every direction; not the spandex-covered sports bikers who pepper the Pacific Northwest.
“So we hopped on bikes and rode all over Amsterdam for two months like everyone else, and when we got back here I thought, I want to start a movement, of regular people biking everywhere,” says Biringer, who is now getting a reputation for showing up at meetings on her bike. She recently pedaled up Queen Anne Hill in a pink dress to attend a shower.
“I’m kind of known for it now — and I am really determined to make a movement here,” she says. According to her friends and coworkers, it will happen.
“Melody doesn’t start projects she doesn’t finish,” says CRAVE operations manager Lilla Kovacs.
Butterfield says he has learned to flow with his idea-a-minute partner. They have a system. “I try to get out of bed early so I don’t ever hear that sentence: I have an idea! If you listen, you hear it just about three times a day, but she knows not to tell me unless it’s a really big idea,” says Butterfield. “Nothing surprises me at this point, which is really the fun of being married to Melody.”
Butterfield wasn’t surprised when Biringer sent two of her employees in their 15-foot truck full of strawberries from Seattle to upstate New York to tour with Peter Gabriel. Nor was he floored when Biringer herself decided on a Tuesday to go to London on Thursday for a tradeshow she felt would get her inspired for a weekend event.
“She is predictably unpredictable and unscripted,” says Butterfield.
And efficient: “She met all her Amsterdam colleagues and employees on Twitter,” Butterfield boasts.
That’s not just marital pride speaking; Biringer’s social media prowess is widely known in the business world and she has used it to help many others succeed in start-up businesses through CRAVEbusiness, the third main arm under The CRAVE Company banner. She’s also inspired others to follow their inner entrepreneur through the group Ladies Who Launch.
“Melody is a firecracker, a great energy source and just really inspiring,” says Mohlman. “She’s wonderful to approach and bounce ideas off and she always has great suggestions. You can hear the wheels turning in her head and it always seems like that — like she’s always swimming with ideas and creativity.”
How does that constant churning of possibilities impact those who work closely with her? Kovacs says Biringer’s energy simply infects them:
“Melody is a kick-ass salesperson! This woman could sell anything,” says Kovacs. “She just has this force around here. Whenever she comes up with another idea, my first reaction is to (cringe) because I already have a million projects going all the time, but she’ll be so enthusiastic that I’ll want to drop everything and do that. She sells you!”
A BUSINESS BUILT AROUND HER SCHEDULE AND STYLE
“I am not a morning person,” Biringer says when asked if 9 a.m. is a good time to meet up on a Tuesday. “Let’s make it 10.”
On Tuesdays, Biringer usually starts her day in bed, on a conference call to her partners on the East Coast. From this comfy vantage point she listens carefully to how their sales and contacts are going and gives them both leads and encouragement. She works hard at not projecting her personal ups and downs on her employees and at keeping meetings short, focused and inspired.
“It can be hard always being in a good mood and cheerleading the team. I fake it a lot,” she confesses. “If I projected a bad mood onto my team it would give them permission to do the same and that would not be a fun atmosphere to be in. It’s my job to lead them.”
“I’ve gotten to know Melody pretty well and the thing about her is she is just a positive person,” says Kovacs. “Of course there are times when she’s not feeling up, but she is always positive.”
Following the initial conference call of the day, she takes her first swipe at e-mail (in fact, on this particular Tuesday, she knocks off a few during the telephone conference call). Then it’s out the door for the 20-minute walk up Queen Anne Hill to the ProRobics studio. The walk takes her by Muse, the local coffee shop a block from her home which she refers to as her second office. Many CRAVE meetings with employees and contacts happen in this tiny neighborhood espresso bar. On the way back from class, she stops in a second time in the hopes of catching a CRAVE party planner who mentioned she might be stopping in.
Biringer is back in front of the computer by 2 p.m. for the Skype call connecting her sales force in five different cities. As she did in the morning call to New York, she has to do a little coaxing and prodding to make it clear she’d really, really like her colleagues to use the prospect and sales computer program she had specially created for CRAVE. One of the women on the other end of the Skype line tries to convince Biringer that her notebook system of tracking is working for her.
“I can’t see her notebook — and a notebook can’t help me help her,” Biringer says later.
“Melody is an amazing communicator and amazing connector; she is all about getting the right people to connect to the right people,” says Kovacs. “In that area she’s just inspiration, period.”
She’s also all about helping companies succeed. Which is why she has just started a new venture.
“I’m writing a book on the fact that I’ve started 20 businesses and the lessons learned. It will be 20 chapters, one for each experience and what I learned from it,” she says.
WHY A BOOK?
“I just kept starting new things and then I moved on from them. Each one had its own little piece of advice but never really took stock of what I learned,” she says. “I think that’s kind of like going from one boyfriend to the other without having any break-up time. Now, 30 years later, I am literally going, ‘Oh my god, why did I have to do that eight times?’ I’d like to help others prevent that!
“I’m noticing that one of the patterns is the ‘Keep it simple, Stupid’ theory. That is the thing that works,” she adds. “We as women, we want to have our hands in so many things, and the fact is we need to keep it simple,” she says.
Although CRAVE is anything but simple with it’s many avenues and ventures, Biringer points out that she has finally learned to focus her energies on one vision that can be moved forward one project at a time.
The vision for CRAVE, then, is simple: “CRAVE is about girlfriends getting together. It’s about connecting, having fun, indulging, learning more and empowering yourself!”
Melody Biringer shares five important lessons she’s learned starting 20 different companies:
KEEP IT SIMPLE. “I have four things on the menu in my strawberry shortcake concession business; it is a well-oiled machine and it has worked for over 20 years.”
DON’T HAVE PARTNERS. “At least it doesn’t work for my personality. I like to move too fast and if I have to stop and always sell a partner on why I am making a decision, I go nuts.”
FAIL FAST. “I opened a circuit workout business in Lakewood, but then I learned I don’t have any patience for strangers. It was a hard lesson to learn after building out a 30,000-square foot facility and signing a five-year lease. But there is a lesson, you can get out of a lease! Today I don’t do anything that requires a five-year lease! So the lesson is, just do it and get it out of your system. It may or may not work but at least you will know fairly fast and either run with it or move on. I have failed in one week’s time and up to five years’ time. I would much rather know in a week if it is going to fly.”
HAVE A BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND END. “Basically, I am project-oriented. I like to see results as soon as possible. With projects, you can measure and regroup fast. With open-ended, 365-day businesses it is much harder to analyze if you should be doing this or not.”
KNOW YOUR NICHE AND FOCUS ON IT FULL-ON. “You can’t be something to everyone. There are enough people in the world who will enjoy your exact niche and with whom you can really go deep, rather than trying to be something for everyone.
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