About fifteen years ago when I started my own business, I got the opportunity to write custom programs for clients of a company named Automatic Data Processing (ADP). ADP does a lot of different things including providing payroll-processing services to thousands of companies of all shapes and sizes across the world. Often, they run across a company that likes to color outside the lines and do things a little out of the ordinary and when they need some specialized programming or custom reporting that can’t be handled by the regular ADP computer system, I sometimes get the call to work as a third-party software consultant, which is just a fancy way of saying that I get to help the customer and ADP fit together better.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really nifty companies such as a chicken processing company in Atlanta called King’s Delight; Quikrete, the packaged concrete company, Outdoor Technologies up in Macon, MS; an office furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids, MI; Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans; a bunch of great companies right here in Mississippi and even a Canadian company named Bombardier that manufactured Ski-Do watercraft. Along the way, I’ve written software for the timber industry and worked with foresters all over the Southeast. And a few years back, I released a product to help telemarketers comply with the Do Not Call Law that went into effect in 2003 to make sure telemarketers didn’t call people who didn’t want to be called.
In the course of fifteen years, I’ve enjoyed meeting and selling my software products to customers in about 28 of these United States and at least two countries and it has been enlightening, entertaining and down right interesting to learn about the different businesses and to become acquainted with lot of good folks just like you and me. They go to work everyday and earn a living and whether it is by sitting behind a desk, counting trees in the woods or knocking on doors by and large they are all honest, hard working folks trying to provide for their families. From Georgia to California to Michigan to New Jersey to Texas to Florida and all in between, there are a lot of good people out there and I’ve enjoyed getting the opportunity to meet a bunch of them.
Back when I was about to graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi, I noticed a lot of my fellow classmates going on interviews for jobs that would take them away from Mississippi; sometimes a long way away. I thought about it and decided that moving away just wasn’t for me. I knew from the time I was about thirteen years old that I wanted to start my own business and I really wanted to do it right here in Mississippi. I felt there was two ways to go: 1) I could go to a big city and try to make good and maybe come back, or 2) I could create my opportunity right here in my home state. The latter option though harder, meant that I could stay near family and if I played my cards right, I might even be able to say one day that I had added something to the economy of Mississippi and maybe in some small way helped improve Mississippi a little bit too.
When I finally started my business and began to get referrals from ADP to perform some job for a client in some other state, I would put on my real radio voice and brush off my best vocabulary taught to me by Ms. Tedder in my Senior Year of High School and I would call the customer up and begin pitching them on the benefits of agreeing to let me do the job. I would try to ask all the right questions, offer my best suggestions and show them my best manners. If the customer resided in a state right next door, say Louisiana or Tennessee, Alabama or Georgia, it usually went as expected, we’d chat for a while and eventually, I’d get the go-ahead to start working on the project.
But pretty early on, I learned to expect that if the client was outside of the Southeast or at least more than one or two states away from Mississippi about half-way through our conversation they would ask, “Now where did you say you were from?” Without hesitation I would respond, “We’re located in Meridian, MS.” There’d be a pause on the other end of the line and I always felt they were thinking, “Meridian, MS? They have computers there?” What they usually said was a little more tactful like, “Really! I thought you were from Atlanta or Memphis or whatever big Southern town came to their mind.”
For me the solution to uncomfortable situations has always been humor, so I’d quickly revert to my native Southern drawl and say, “Yep, we got us a regular ole Sillycon Valley going on down here. Not only have we got computers, last week they installed telephone lines that go BOTH WAYS!” This comment got the customer laughing, broke the tension, and once we had put the stereotypes to bed, we could move on and do some business. Over the last fifteen years, when I’ve been in that situation and responded that way, I’ve rarely failed to get the business. And when I got the business, I did everything in my power to give that customer the best programming, the best service, and the best return on their investment that I could give them.
Representing Mississippi in a positive light has always been one of the benefits I’ve been blessed with doing the work I do. And if along the way, I have changed just one person’s mind about how they view our great state, then I can say I’ve been successful in accomplishing the goal I set out for myself in college: To make my opportunity right here.
Choosing to stay in Mississippi and build my life and my business here didn’t mean I had to isolate myself from the rest of the world. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t do the same sorts of things I could have done in a city bigger than Meridian. All it meant was that I had to reach out a little further and sometimes work a little harder to overcome people’s pre-conceived notions, but in the end it has been rewarding, exciting and educational.
Yes, I am an un-appointed ambassador of my company AND of the Great State of Mississippi. And, so is every other business owner who makes the decision to do his or her thing in this state and then take it to the larger world. Business owners in Mississippi are all Ambassadors At Large and every time one of us reaches outside Mississippi and brings business back home, the whole State of Mississippi takes one more step forward.