Why The 3/50 Project broke up with American Express

by Cinda Baxter on August 31, 2011

in AmEx OPEN, Finances, Small Business Saturday, The 3/50 Project

It’s an age-old story: Single girl, single boy. She’s connected, he’s from the other side of the tracks. He pursues her, she declines (and declines, and declines).

But eventually, he finds the magic words. She gives him a chance. They date. Things get serious.

She ignores warnings from those familiar with the fellow while introducing (and defending) him to the family. They make their relationship official, giving him creditability within the circle of influence he’s admired from afar.  They’re the golden couple at the Big Holiday Party.

Then, after the holidays have passed, her  phone stops ringing. She calls, she emails. She wrestles for scraps of conversation.

After months of heartache, she quietly takes off the ring.

Then it happens. The inevitable. People begin asking questions.

Sadly, this mirrors the brief relationship between The 3/50 Project and American Express.

Boy meets girl
June 10, 2010
A New York PR agency contacts me on behalf of American Express OPEN regarding possible Project sponsorship.

Boy pursues girl
June, July, August, and September 2010
I listen, but don’t commit. Just not convinced they’ll be around for the long haul, and am more than a little leery of a large financial institution that’s been bumping heads with independent merchants the past couple of years.

Boy finds the magic words
October 8, 2010
The AmEx team pitches a “super secret big idea” that might, if done properly, bring a lot of visibility to the pro-local/independent message. They ask for advice. I give it. They take it, embrace it, and retool to fit my suggestions.

Still…I have doubts about whether or not this would be a good relationship for the Project.

Girl gives boy a chance, they date, and things get serious
Late October 2010
After lots of soul searching, I convince myself the little voice is the back of my head is wrong—there’s no reason to question AmEx and their commitment to long term sponsorship of The 3/50 Project, or their interest in mending fences with independent merchants. After all, this “super secret big idea” is going to make a big splash, giving independent brick and mortars some much-deserved visibility. Surely, they wouldn’t go to all that trouble unless they were in this for real…. As a result, and on behalf of The 3/50 Project, I agree to support the “big idea,” to bring AmEx on as the Project’s exclusive Premier Sponsor, and personally agree to be the “super secret big idea’s” (paid) national spokesperson.

She ignores friends’ warnings, introducing (and defending) him to the family. They make their relationship official…
November 8, 2010
I introduce American Express OPEN as The 3/50 Project’s exclusive Premier Sponsor, which garners waves of anger, disbelief, and warnings from small business owners, both within and outside the Project. I stand up to each, representing AmEx as our champion, and the champion of independent merchants everywhere.

American Express announces the creation of “Small Business Saturday,” introducing me as its national spokesperson.

…giving him credibility in the circles of influence he’s admired from afar.
(ie, the entire “buy local” movement, and, by extension, hundreds of thousands of small businesses and independent merchants.) After all, this new sponsorship of The 3/50 Project surely must mean AmEx is turning over a new leaf…right?

They’re the golden couple at the Big Holiday Party.
November 27, 2010: Small Business Saturday
The entire day is spent basking in the wonderful thing AmEx was doing for independent business as three of us (me, plus someone from AmEx OPEN and their outside PR firm) run from one media interview to the next, throughout the whole of New York City. Merchants are happy. Consumers are happy. Everyone is happy. Happy, happy, happy. We’re practically swimming in Joy Juice. The day is a raging success.

Then, after the holidays have passed, her phone stops ringing. She calls, she emails. She wrestles for scraps of conversation.
January – early April 2011
(Literal translation.)

Finally, in early April, there’s a conference call, but…no one wants to talk about sponsorship funding. They want to talk about Small Business Saturday, nearly eight months away.

After months of heartache, she quietly takes off the ring
May 2011, Memorial Day weekend
After five months of no sponsorship funding, I quietly remove the logo and all mention of American Express and Small Business Saturday from The 3/50 Project website, without flaming blog posts or Facebook announcements. The goal is to avoid burning bridges, in hopes the relationship can be saved.

People begin asking questions.
August 2011
First, during the Las Vegas Gift Show, then two weeks later at the New York International Gift Fair, dozens of people begin asking what American Express is doing to help the Project, if they helped develop LookLocal, and how we’d be working together for Small Business Saturday this year.

Time to come clean. Time to admit the relationship failed—for one of us, anyway (as is so often the case with these things).

Hindsight: The Great Truth Serum
Looking back, I see the entire relationship hinged on one word: Credibility.

Credit card companies need independent brick and mortars to stay in business; a lot of revenue comes from those swipes. Small Business Saturday would not only push additional holiday purchases through merchant card terminals (revenue), but would simultaneously bolster the American Express image as that of a small business hero.

(The technical term for this practice is “cause related marketing.” Pick a popular cause, then align your company with it to sway the masses in your direction.)

Without the endorsement of a highly regarded “pro-local” organization, however, Small Business Saturday could? would? be perceived as a self-serving corporate promotion, funneling web traffic to the AmEx-owned Small Business Saturday website and AmEx-owned Small Business Saturday Facebook page…deriving additional revenue from businesses who accept AmEx cards…mining yet more revenue from AmEx cardholders enticed by Small Business Saturday account credits.

To lose the “corporate beneficiary” perception, American Express needed to wrap Small Business Saturday in in a small business wrapper, which meant winning over small business owners—a disproportionate number of which weren’t feeling very “warm and fuzzy” about AmEx. They needed those merchants to talk it up and take it viral. They needed an open door and “small business street cred” they didn’t have on their own.

They needed to date someone credible from within the circle of influence.

Someone who would hold their hand and walk them into the dance. Someone well-liked by small business owners, with loads of positive press, who wasn’t political, and didn’t throw Big Boxes under the bus (many of which are sizable AmEx customers). Someone highly visible in the pro-local movement who could introduce them to the family, then stand up to Mom and Pop in their defense.

They needed The 3/50 Project.

Did I drink the Koolaid when I should have reached for scotch?
No, I don’t believe so. You see, nearly every conversation during the “wooing period” (early June through late October) included me saying ”I’m not looking for a short term partner; The 3/50 Project is only interested in a long term financial sponsor.”  And every time I uttered that statement, it was met with repeated assurances that American Express wanted the same thing, long term sponsorship with no meddling from afar. They had the funds; I had the expertise. The last thing they wanted to do was complicate or disrupt the Project’s forward momentum.

After four months of hearing “Me too” in response to the L word (“Long,” followed by “term“), one tends to believe it.

A lot of promises were made during a lot of phone calls and one particular face-to-face meeting in New York. A lot of “long term” sponsorship assurances were voiced that disappeared after Small Business Saturday.

And a plethora of calls and emails were left unanswered during the first several months of this year, as I scrambled to find out what had happened to our funding.

So why go public with this now?
Two reasons (actually, four, if you count the fact I wanted to let the dust settle to avoid accusations I’d rushed to judgement -and- making absolutely sure I wasn’t violating contractual agreements that had yet to expire): 

1. When questions began popping up at Las Vegas Gift and New York Gift about what wonderful things AmEx was helping us with, vague responses became increasingly difficult to conjure.

2. We need financial sponsorship. Unlike other “independent” or “buy local” organizations, The 3/50 Project isn’t owned by a large corporation or financed by mandatory membership dues. The Project is currently funded (and I use that term loosely) by a virtual tip jar on our website and Facebook page, a sliver-thin “profit” margin from the store tab on our website, a spontaneous $1,000 donation from Juice in the City…and my savings account (that last one is definitely a step backward). We’re upright, no question. But future expansion requires reliable, budgeted sponsorship funding.

So now we’re the ones looking for a date. Or, more accurately, several dates. Never again will I entrust all our financial eggs to someone else’s single basket.

In the spirit of full disclosure, so there are no misunderstandings

• In June (after six months of me pushing) AmEx eventually proposed funding for this year—11% of what I was led to believe would be their annual financial commitment. After taxes, there wouldn’t be enough left to cover our website for twelve months, let alone move the Project forward.

• On July 11, I appeared at a Baltimore event as the official spokesperson for Small Business Saturday. The event organizers approached me early in the year about doing this, prior to my realization things were headed south with American Express. Before accepting the offer, I asked for, and received, the blessings of AmEx—with those in hand, the event contract was signed. By the time the engagement rolled around, my faith in their sponsorship was quickly eroding. Not being someone who leaves a client in the lurch, I did the appearance, with a smile, and without letting on that there were problems between the Project and American Express. My speaking fee was paid by the event host; AmEx was not billed for the appearance, nor did they pay me for it.

• AmEx did, however, ask me to return as the (paid) national spokesperson for Small Business Saturday 2011. My response was clear: There would be no discussion about my role as spokesperson until sponsorship of The 3/50 Project was resolved. As explained to both their PR representative and the point person at American Express OPEN, there’s no way I would represent an American Express promotion while The 3/50 Project was “left on the curb.”

Would the paycheck have been nice? You bet, since I’m not paid a dime by the Project.

Would I have been able to look myself in the mirror each morning? Nope. Selling out my integrity for personal financial gain at the expense of The 3/50 Project isn’t in my DNA—the same DNA that came from Grandpa Baxter and Dad, who built a successful three-generation family business on the simple premise “My word is my bond.”

Translated: If you make a business commitment, you stand behind it.

Time to turn the page
I believed in this relationship. I fought for this relationship. I hung in there for months after most would have walked away from the relationship, determined to get things back on track. Then, at last, I finally let go of the relationship, accepting the truth, that things ended long ago. I worked my way through the seven stages of grief, on behalf of all you wonderful independent brick and mortars whose hopes were as high as mine (while resisting the urge to blog during the anger phase in mid-July—a truly Herculean effort).

Relationships need more than complementary personalities to function well (the great irony in all of this—I truly like the PR and AmEx OPEN people I interacted with). Successful relationships require open, honest, free-flowing communication…transparency of intent…and commitment that follows through.

I’m game. Let the dating begin.

Linda Crim August 31, 2011 at 10:13 pm

I admire you for being honest and forthright in this statement. I think that shows great strength and business smarts. Good luck in finding new sponsors.

Beth Marcus August 31, 2011 at 10:34 pm

As small business owners almost every one of us has stood at the edge of a big opportunity and wondered if all was as it appeared. Half of us jumped in both feet…half walked away. Some of us won..some lost…and we all learned from the experience.

I commend you for your leap…and applaud you for the honesty and frankness (and just the right amount of humor) with which you have told your story. Yup ..its a dog eat dog world and the well..your tail is slightly between your legs..but had you not jumped..had there never been a small business Saturday..well that is a whole ‘nother story.

Like every small business before you..and all thoses here after we’re all gone…we’ll all stand up..brush ourselves off and hope to learn something from all of this..

personally I’ve learned something…I like your style…I did from the beginning..had concerns about the Amex thing..but admitted to still liking your style.. So keep on keeping on…and don’t worry about the boy you left behind..there are others….and sometimes friends are better company!

Rhonda Haralson August 31, 2011 at 10:38 pm

WOW! What a great article – if I had money I’d sponsor you in a New York minute – good luck to you Cinda and keep up the great work that you do – I think things will turn around for you quite soon :-)

John Ranes II August 31, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I would really like to know the next time the phone rings…and there is a long silence on the other end.

(Wondering if it’s that boy calling back but he doesn’t know how to say he’s sorry – can we start over as friends?)

dan marx August 31, 2011 at 11:17 pm

I’m so sorry it didn’t work out for you, Cinda. You deserve so much better. One has to look long and hard to find anybody else who has championed an entire industry more than you have. Your passion and enthusiasm, and 100% total commitment to making brick and mortar shops succeed is fantastic. Keep the faith, Cinda- you’ve done a lot to get our industry back on it’s feet, and headed in a positive direction. We all thank you for that.

Sylla August 31, 2011 at 11:21 pm

I appreciate your honesty. I have to admit, I always wondered about the partnership. I stopped accepting Amex a few years ago when my monthly processing fees to them was larger than the charges people made on their cards. I have never had anyone walk out or complain when I said I just don’t accept Amex anymore. I participated in Small Business Saturday, but quietly removed the Amex logo (bad, I know, but I couldn’t honestly promote their logo if I wasn’t accepting their card!). I am bummed that you will only be speaking in Southern Oregon later in September and that no one in the Portland metro area had the guts to bring you on as a speaker. I will endeavor to do another round of local support for the 3/50 project so hopefully our small contributions can add up to something in you coffers. I think what you do is really important and hope that more people will get on board.

Ernest Adams August 31, 2011 at 11:44 pm

You have shown outstanding character and restraint when explaining exactly what happened. You hung in far longer than was reasonable. AmEx has lost a good partner, as they should have.

Linda September 1, 2011 at 12:03 am

Best of luck to you in finding that next sponsor. I have to say though, strictly from an outside-looking-in point of view, the whole Amex connection looked more than a little strange. Many small businesses don’t accept Amex because their fees are higher than the other cards. So, I wondered, how will it work with Amex backing a buy local campaign when more than a few of those local shops don’t accept Amex?

The good side of it all was that the Amex promotion on TV and in print brought the 3/50 project to the attention of people – like me – who would probably never have heard of it otherwise. I wish you all the best as you move forward.

Sissy Blanchard September 1, 2011 at 12:17 am

For all you do on behalf of us…Thank you! You should check the tip jar tomorrow ;-)

Carol Pozos September 1, 2011 at 5:52 am

My husband was against participating in Small Business Saturday (for our business) because we don’t accept AmEx. The cost it prohibitive for our little business.
I was thrilled that a big company was supporting the little guy and trying to promote our business. I feel a little used right now.
Thank you for your integrity.

Amy September 1, 2011 at 6:58 am

Up until small business Saturday we didn’t even accept Am Ex because of the fees they charge. With the support of the 3/50 Project we changed our minds. We might have to rethink that decision heading into 4th quarter

Scott Heiser September 1, 2011 at 7:35 am

Thank you Cinda. Your honesty and integrity reflect that of small retailers all across Texas. What would it take to get you to come to San Angelo, Texas? We are the hub of commerce in a 13 county area known as Concho Valley smack dab in the middle of Texas. I’ve never tried to get a speaker to San Angelo before and have no idea of what to do but, I believe so strongly in supporting our local retailers that I willing to try most anything.

Editor’s note: Thank you, Scott, for the kind words. I’d be happy to come to San Angelo—that’s a part of Texas that hasn’t had a session about The 3/50 Project yet. Please visit our Facebook page, then click the “Host an event” link on the left. All the details are there. Hang in….

Carla Carter September 1, 2011 at 7:38 am

This is exactly why we date before we marry! Great analogy. I’m glad the relationship ended before you had ‘children.’ That is, before more sponsorships were riding on the relationship. You are now available for a new ‘love.’ Best wishes on this new chapter in a mission important to not only small brick and mortar businesses, but the communites they serve. We appreciate all you do.

Barb C September 1, 2011 at 8:20 am

Good move. Another example of one of the big boys proving once again ‘It’s all about me’.

Ester Venouziou September 1, 2011 at 8:36 am

Sorry things did not work out, but hopefully the temporary funding helped move 3/50 forward.
Small Biz Saturday did help bring more attention to small businesses, at least. So even though Amex intentions seem to have been mostly self-gaining, the results were positive because it got more people to at least start thinking of the importance of shopping locally.

Big lesson here for all of us is to get everything in writing. …

Tove September 1, 2011 at 8:40 am

Such decisions are never easy, but your thoughtfulness (in the business sense of that term!) throughout that process is to be commended. And as we know, lots of small donations can add up to decent funding…and tends to come with considerably less strings and/or fake promises. I challenge all you readers: if you appreciate the courage it took to walk away, reward it with a donation!

Andrew Zalkin September 1, 2011 at 9:00 am

Thank you ,Thank you,Thank you! I kicked Am Ex out of my store a few years ago for lying to me, and was totally taken aback by your relationship with them….to the point that I questioned my support for the 3/50 Project. Now I feel vindicated, and will continue to sing the Project’s praises. I tried to arrange sponsorship for a visit during your Southeastern Swing ( sounds like a square dance) this year, but couldn’t rally the troops. I’m still trying………………

Eileen Esworthy September 1, 2011 at 9:14 am

Last time I was in one of my 3 independents, The Dog Spot in Alpharetta, GA, I mentioned the 3/50 project to one of the minority owners. He’d never heard of you but was anxious to look up the project and get more info. He also mentioned that his son had created an app for independents much like the Sbux app (sorry, not advertising, just giving an identifiable example)…maybe it’s a good fit.

Regardless, I love the work that you’re doing and will continue to support my local businesses. Making a donation to you now.

Tom Plant September 1, 2011 at 10:49 am

Keep up the tremendous job you’re doing. Why local matters has been a proponent since its inception.

Michelle Harris September 1, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Unfortunate situation, as a small brick and mortar we are completly and utterly dedicated to the 3/50 Project concept. Take heart Cinda, you know the saying…Karma’s a b—-! What goes around does come back around.
Admire yourself…respect what you’ve done and the faith you had to do it with!

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