The Sole of a Business

Yesterday, I met a man who runs a very small shoe repair shop at the University Village shopping center, near my home in Seattle. His name is Mr. Lee, and I want to share a short story about him, because he embodies the potential wonder and beauty of a business.

A couple weeks back, Seattle had a snow storm that was pretty big for us. Roads were shut down, and businesses closed. Then, things warmed up quickly and the snow turned to slush as the precipitation turned to rain. Walking down the street, I started to notice that my right foot was getting wetter and wetter. I had walked a few blocks before I eventually looked down to see that the sole on my right shoe had become detached and was flapping like a flipper – straight out of some old Charlie Chaplin flick. I had to walk home through the slush, flippity-floppity, wetter and wetter.

I’d had these hiking boots for a long time. They were good shoes, and if you can love an old shoe, then I guess, in a way, I loved these shoes. But this right shoe was pretty trashed and I thought about simply throwing them both away.

Then it occurred to me that, maybe, just maybe I could have them repaired.

And so, a week or so later, I finally made it down to Mr. Lee’s shop. I’d gotten there a few minutes before we was to close up for the night. I asked him how much it would be to repair both shoes, and after a little back-and-forth, to confirm what type of sole would be best, he confirmed that it would be $70 and I paid him up-front.

The next day, I went back, and it was clear that he had been waiting to show me the results. He had spent over 3 hours fixing my shoes. He completely rebuilt their bottoms, going way, way beyond what he had assumed it was going to take him to do. The result was…well, how can I say this except to say that it was beautiful. My shoes looked better than they had been in years – almost like new. I was amazed.

Mr. Lee said that there would be no additional charge, but it was clear that he wanted some feedback. He wanted to know if I was happy. He wanted, more than any additional money, to know that I was happy with the work that he’d done. He wanted acknowledgement that I appreciated just how far he’d gone to get this right. He fixed these shoes in the very best way he could, going above and beyond the call of duty, and he wanted to know whether I understood what had happened. I clearly had, and made it extremely clear to him just how much I appreciated what he’d done.

The two of stood there, admiring his work for a few more minutes before it was time for him to close up shop. He’s not a dumb guy or a sucker. He wanted me to let others know how good a job he does there, but that’s not why he did the work that he did.

He did the work the way that he did it, because it gave him meaning to make me happy – to be of service. His whole business is designed around doing just that. I left marveling at this man’s incredibly generous spirit, and the soul of the little company he had built. This man represents the true potential for the enterprise and its ability to serve society.

Thank you, Mr. Lee. I wish there were more of you out there.

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About Gideon Rosenblatt

Gideon Rosenblatt writes about the impact of technology on people, organizations and society at Alchemy of Change. He is a technologist with a background in business and social change. For nine years, Gideon ran Groundwire, a mission-driven technology consulting group, dedicated to building a more sustainable world. Prior to that, he spent ten years at Microsoft in various marketing, product development and management positions, where he developed CarPoint, one of the world's first large-scale e-commerce websites. Gideon was raised in Utah, lived and worked in Japan and China for several years, and now lives in Seattle with his wife and two boys. More details on Gideon here.
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20 comments

  1. This is the glory of small businesses, which the big chains simply can not do.
    And shoe repair is a dying business since everything became throw-away, but it is always worth it to get things fixed right instead of spending the same money to get an inferior replacement which itself will soon need replacement.

    Mr. Lee is a great american and if I were in Seattle I'd gather up my old and worn out boots for him to work on. THIS is the future of America.

    Thank you for posting the story.

  2. That's a great story, +Gideon Rosenblatt I still hang onto the hope that most people are like Mr. Lee. They want to do the best job they can do, but, more often than not, there are a variety of obstacles in their way – for example, in one organizational culture, you can ask for forgiveness, as opposed to permission. In another, you won't take that risk because, unlike the first organization, mistakes are punished, sometimes harshly. Thanks for the story – it's refreshing and real.

  3. Will not throw a couple of pair of boots away in case i be Seattle Way, got the Mr. Lee Blues in the land of self entitlement provocateurs

  4. Greta story, +Gideon Rosenblatt. I need to find a Mr Lee to rework a great old pair of boots I have.

  5. I think you found the Q that Robert Pirsig yearned for in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

  6. I need a Mr. Lee to repair some shoes too. The last repair shop I took mine to basically told me "nope, sorry, can't help you" :(
    Btw, I'm amazed at the number of people I meet these days who are just unwilling and uninterested in going that extra mile. Forget about doing the best job…I'm simply talking about doing a thorough or decent job. #atlasshrugged

  7. Same thing happened to me too, but not Mr. Lee. The sole of my hiking boot came off and was yapping away as I was alighting from a ferry. Embarrasing to say the least with the hordes of passengers walking alongside me seeing me hobble along with one foot dragging. Had to buy some tape to bind it until I could get myself home. But no Mr Lee. Dad was a shoe salesman and he knew the type of glue to use. It got fixed for its second life but I decided to give the boots away to a charity bin.

    Love it when people like Mr Lee underpromises and overdelivers. Big corporations can never match. Thumbs up. Hope he'll be there for the next person.

  8. Thanks for the comments, +Donal von Griffyn. Yes, as we've artificially lowered the costs of production by not fully accounting for its cost, it is way cheaper to just buy something new. But in addition to the great part of the interaction with Mr. Lee that I outlined in the story, there's also the fact that this transaction was much more sustainable – both in terms of people and the planet.

  9. For the second time in 10 minutes, I wish I could +10 something.

  10. Thanks +Jeff Moskovitz. I'm of the same belief. People, for the most part, want to do a good job. They want their work to matter. There are exceptions, of course, but those are the exception. More often than not, the kinds of dysfunction we've grown used to are more the result of organizational structures and incentives that are out of whack and out of alignment with this strong desire in most people to do work that means something. Thanks for your comments.

  11. Brilliant story +Gideon Rosenblatt – I seem to remember you mentioning the slushy shoe day alright. I wonder how many other happy stories about Mr Lee are floating around the web… he has a better grasp of marketing & service than a great many.

    You killed me with the Charlie Chaplin reference – I could visualize the scene immediately ;)

  12. These are the kind of brand stories that are worth reading and sharing – big retailers take a lesson from Mr Lee. Great share, +Gideon Rosenblatt.

  13. Michelle Holliday

    Wonderful story!  

  14. +Michael Ow – sounds like you know where I'm coming from. It really does make you feel like an idiot when your shoe is flapping like that. There is something quite comical about it. So in addition to looking like some tragic clown, you're chuckling to yourself, as mother's pull their children just a little bit closer to their side as they walk by you. ;-)

  15. Thanks +Rod Dunne – yeah there was somebody from Seattle who posted that she'd worked with him (but the comment's gone now). I'm sure there are a ton of people. I'm actually going to take the post from my website, print it out, and then print out all these comments from folks here and bring them to him. He's not a big Google+ – or computer guy.

    P.S. – and thanks for sharing this.

  16. Thanks +Michael Ricard. Agreed. And thanks for sharing this.

  17. It’s a nice story.  Lots of small business owners do this.  During the storm days the veterinarian/owner of the B’way Vet Hospital slept in the hospital three days running to make sure there was service on the Hill for emergency pet problems as the roads to the night emergency clinic in Lake City weren’t navigable.

  18. Wonderful. Now, where on a Google map would an interested but less locally conversant prospect find Mr. Lee’s shoe repair shop?

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