94. Shark Tank Lessons for Libraries with Elektra Greer

Are there ideas that libraries can take from the business world to create success? On this show I speak with Elektra Greer, Director of the Nederland Community Library in Colorado, about Shark Tank lessons for libraries. She discusses what it might look like to pitch our ideas for funding and support using lessons from entrepreneurs that add value, help develop services, and bolster marketing techniques. It’s an intriguing conversation that provides insights into entrepreneurial success that we can apply in our libraries.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

Are there ideas that libraries can take from the business world to create success? On this show I speak with Elektra Greer, Director of the Nederland Community Library in Colorado, about Shark Tank lessons for libraries. She discusses what it might look like to pitch our ideas for funding and support using lessons from entrepreneurs that add value, help develop services, and bolster marketing techniques. It’s an intriguing conversation that provides insights into entrepreneurial success that we can apply in our libraries. Enjoy the show!

Elektra, welcome to the show.

Elektra Greer:

Oh, thank you Adriane so much for inviting me. I’m really touched that you reached out.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Well, I’m looking forward to this conversation because we’re going to be talking about Shark Tank lessons for libraries. It’s not something we talk about every day, but it’s an intriguing concept about pitching our libraries—just like they do on the entrepreneurial show, Shark Tank. First off, what can libraries learn from entrepreneurs and the business sector?  01:32 

Elektra Greer:

Oh, Adriane, so much. Your listeners don’t know this, but I just learned you have an MBA, so you know how much we can learn. So, there’s a lot we can learn but I do want to start with saying that I think the most important thing is that we’re just open to learning from the private sector. We don’t have black and white thinking, or demonizing the private sector. There’s a lot that we can learn.

At that same time, I also want to be sure that I am really clear that this is not about privatizing libraries. I am not about that at all. What I’m really just about is that we want to approach aspects of what we do—some of our decision making, with more of a private sector lens. It really helps us focus on things.

Although it would be a blast if for our next show we could get together, and we could have Nancy Pearl pitching Invest in your library versus Mr. and Mrs. Public Works, pitching Invest in your sewage treatment plant. I think that’s going to be our next show—but until then even though I’m not literally, literally, talking about doing a pitch competition. I am talking about using that lens, and thinking, and focusing a bit that way. 

I’m digressing a little bit. Let me get to what I really think are some critical things that we can learn. I think we all agree we want to stay relevant. I make this joke a lot, but I love Amtrak. I love trains. I love books, but I do not want libraries to go the way of being subsidized nostalgia. [laugher] I want us to be current.

Some of my takeaways that I think we can learn from—the number one thing is seeing opportunities everywhere. There are always opportunities and we need to adapt quickly, and act on them. Like this morning I woke up with, Why aren’t more public librarians out there driving school buses? Our country needs us. This is critical, come! So, I’m actually thinking it might sound crazy, but I’m thinking that way.

I started in news services and we were always struggling to get into the classes more— even though I have a classroom background. I’m like, Wow, this would be amazing for our community if some of us stepped up and were helping out during this crisis of school bus drivers and other crazies that we’re all going through right now during COVID and post COVID. Looking at what are the needs, right? What are the needs in your community, not just the wants. Looking at things that aren’t seen directly related to Libraryland, but actually are. 

Another one is responsiveness. We have to recognize that businesses are forced to be very responsive. When their numbers aren’t adding up, when their items aren’t selling, when their services aren’t working there’s an urgency there that I sometimes feel that we don’t have in our profession. I think it really behooves us to have a little bit more effect.

Another one is—know your metrics, and know your financials. Why I love Shark Tank is when the contestants go in and they pitch they know their stuff inside out. And you really need to. You need to know what are those performance indicators?  You need to know why we are doing what we’re doing.

A lot of us are doing social media. Well, what’s our conversion rate from that? What do we want from that? It doesn’t mean that we necessarily want or need something that the business world wants, but we should be asking those hard questions and asking why we are doing what we’re doing? 

Another one is being future-oriented. We hear this a lot, but it’s true. Fail and fail fast. Look at Elon Musk, right? So, we need to be more comfortable with risk and we need to be more future-oriented.

Another one that I think would be really helpful in our profession is rewarding the work, not just the job title. I do think there’s some bureaucracy in some library communities that could be thinned out a little bit. We could look a little more at our output and look at things from the patron/customer perspective. I won’t go down the controversial rabbit hole right now with cataloging. But, how much time are you spending on meetings with catalogers and cataloging, and what’s important and what’s not—so always asking yourselves those kinds of things. 

Then another big one is—it’s all about cross-pollination. Bringing in diversity of ideas, diversity of thought. Look out—wherever I am, whatever I’m doing I think, How does this relate to libraries? And everything does, that’s the beauty. Everything does. So start connecting with things that may seem really unlikely partners and you’ll be really shocked at what that brings back to the library community, and vice versa.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: What are value, and value added propositions in libraries?  06:07 

Elektra Greer:

These are terms that I like and that we hear a lot. It’s pretty self-evident what it means—it just means what you add to what you’re already doing, and making it crystal clear to your community what you’re doing. So if people have a general idea of the services we provide, or maybe our higher ideals of what we’re trying to do as an organization and an institution—that’s mostly beloved in our community and in our county, but making that a little bit more concrete. For me value added goes along with what differentiates us from all the other things.

How are we different from a bookstore? How are we different from a coffee shop? How are we different from Amazon? How are we different than the streaming services? This may seem like a silly answer but in my small community that I serve, no doubt about it the value added is that we answer the phone. We have a human that answers the phone. [laughter] That is what we promise. You will not go down the rabbit hole of a phone tree. People love it, right? They ask us all sorts of questions and that was something that was a given, however many decades ago, right?

So looking at what in your community—maybe you’re doing work on equity and diversity. Bring in an author. That’s your value added. Bring in new partners. Being able to really articulate that is going to be different for every community, but making it crystal clear, I think, that’s the key to that.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: What is the difference between being product-focused and service-focused, and why does it matter?  07:37 

Elektra Greer:

I was talking about this with some peers and colleagues, and when I asked this question I got a lot of blank stares—I’m wearing three heads. So that was interesting to me and surprised me and I thought, Oh, wow this is a good thing to talk about. It’s kind of intuitive, but we maybe don’t think of it as—product-focus is what the name implies these are tangible items. A lot of time in your library it’s going to be your books, and your DVD’s, or your library of things. We’re all trying to do more creative things with telescopes, and movie projectors, and those items that patrons can love but also they kind of know what is the value of them. They can do a little cost averaging because they know generally what books and things like that cost. 

Then your service-focused are the more intangible. They’re more the expertise that you provide. They’re more the experience. We know that our younger generations—and something that I personally love, they really value experiences. You just need to look at any wedding registry [laughter] to know that, right? They want to travel. They don’t want a lot of stuff. 

So when you’re looking at product versus services in libraries, undeniably we are inevitably moving more, and more, and more to service-oriented. Because, we know that with streaming services, and digitization, all of these things that are physical products are going to be less in demand, because the cost of them is getting less and less, right?

Even devices—even conductivity, we’re soon going to be a world where everyone is really going to have connectivity. And it’s great that we’re working towards that as a profession, but eventually we’re going to be there. That’s not something we’re going to be providing. So we need to really focus on what are our services? How do we continue to grow and evolve them? It’s important to know the difference because you really market them differently. 

One thing that I share with a lot of colleagues—you market services with relationships. That is something that we do well. We do it great—most libraries do it great.  Approaching how you’re going to market your product versus your service is really important. Focusing on the relationships for services. Then also recognizing that we have a lot of talent in our library team, and there are people that are just going to be more naturally people persons.

So, put them out front. 

I say this all the time. I learned more as a bartender through college than I did with the degree I got to be a librarian. [laughter] So, it really is true. You have different skills and talents. Look in your team and put those people out front for certain things. Send your staff to bartending school. [laughter] Allow them like three hours of paid time to go observe QVC, or bartenders, or other great sales people, because it seems to be a dirty word, but it’s not. It’s just about storytelling and connecting with humans. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: So that brings us right back to what we started talking about, which is this Shark Tank concept. Given what you’re sharing with us today, how do we pitch our libraries for best success?  10:31 

Elektra Greer:

So, that’s a great one. I wish I had an easy one-size-fits-all answer. We all pitch in our way. We call it—you can call it advocating. We can call it marketing. We can talk about your elevator speech. I think the best way to pitch your library to your community is really being clear on why you exist today, and why are you going to exist tomorrow? 

That’s where looking at those performance indicators—looking at those financials, looking at the return on investment, knowing those things. When a young parent comes and they check out thirty items, and you hand them their receipt, or whatever you want to call it—their check-out, and they can see how much money they’ve saved. All of those things really—that’s what pitching your library to your community is about. 

I also put in the back of my mind, Ok, how am I going to go head-to-head, toe-to-toe with Bezos from Amazon? I can do it! I dare him. I hope he’s listening to this podcast. I can do it! I think about things like, Okay, tax funded organizations, like our rec center has a pool. I’ve got to go head-to-head, toe-to-toe with a pool. I can do it, right?

I think that way. Framing—when you’re making decisions on things in that way like, How would I pitch this? How would I go about it? That’s just a really great way to get clarity of thought, especially if you’re in some decision making, financial places and you get stuck— which I do all the time. We all have hard choices we have to make. 

I’ve been in several library positions where I went from being at the desk and doing service—to now, I’m the one that oversees the budget and has to make difficult decisions. It really can help me to just suddenly put on my small business lens and go, Okay, reality—what do I need to cut, and what do I need to enhance?

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: So what are some market strategies that libraries can take away from the private sector to advance our products, and services?  12:33 

Elektra Greer:

My favorite question, thank you Adriane. The irony of this question [laughter] is that I have to confess that in my former position I had a fabulous director and she brought on—I was on a hiring team and she brought on, this was a few years ago. She brought on our first marketer. Some of us who had been in Libraryland longer know that it was relatively recent that we were even willing to say the word, marketer, or marketing.

I was the worst. I was so insulted [laughter] that our venerable institution would have to stoop so low to get a marketer. [laughter] I was just so full of myself. Now I am the first person putting pie in my face and making TikTok videos. I have a ball. [laughter] I love marketing because once I did see it as, Oh, that’s right, it’s advocacy. All these things—I was able to go to the dark side. 

A couple of things that I’m going to throw out there—and again, we all know this. I’m not telling you things you don’t know. Observe where do you spend your money? Where do you spend your time? That tells you exactly what works for you. What campaign works for you, and you’re going to see that there’s tons of commonality, right? 

I love behavioral economics. You should read up and learn a lot about that. It’s all stuff that we know, but there’s all these kinds of things that marketers know inside and out. By the way, I’m just going to throw out there—humor’s a great one, and storytelling. 

Here’s just some things that I want to touch on.The scarcity theory is something that happens all the time. When you see limited edition, Black Friday, I mean even look at our vaccine rollout. At first when it was—we couldn’t get enough. Look at how that changed to, Oh, we have a lot. Now what do we do?

So the scarcity theory—that’s just so innate, so baked into us as humans. But, that’s something that you can really incorporate into your marketing advocacy. Another one is called loss aversion. We used to call it—when I was growing up, the devil you know, [laughter] opposite to the devil you don’t. People are often more afraid to lose what they have than to gain something that they don’t have. Really think about that—your last chance to do this kind of thing.

Ownership is huge. I think that’s actually happening now a lot. I think it’s wonderful that we’re in a cultural shift where local, and ownership is really—emotional attachments are really important. We focus so much at my library on saying, Our library. Your library, because that’s really important.

Another thing, when I go into places I like to remind myself—avoid what is called choice paradox, or analysis paralysis. Our culture in general suffers from this terribly, right? We don’t need thirty brands of toilet paper to choose from. We don’t need fifty flavors—at Starbucks, they’ve definitely peaked. They’ve seen that America’s going to start cutting back, right? You don’t need twelve flavors, nuanced—blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s actually the point at which it’s effective—that’s a hard science, not a soft science and it’s super interesting. 

Think about that when you’re creating your displays, when you’re doing your posts, when you’re doing all that. You don’t want too much, because then people get paralyzed, and they get turned off, and they start emotionally feeling icky. So when you’re baking pies—I don’t know when this is going to air, but we’re going into the holiday season, and you’re offering cookies. Lots of research shows that if you have more than three choices you like to taste less, right? So, don’t overdo it with choice.

This one was kind of new to me. We talk a lot about cognitive bias; but, I didn’t realize how clear this is to research—that people tend to rely on the first piece of information they get, the most. First impressions really matter. When we talk about marketing our services versus our products, that’s an important thing to keep in mind. That’s why I personally do a lot of work—and where I’ve been before, really making sure we have great, great, great patron services when people first walk in the door. I really think it’s important to watch—sit and just observe the whole library experience start to finish. 

I remind my team of that all the time. You might have checked this thing out a thousand times, or you might have answered that question, but it’s just like a performer on Broadway. People have paid good money to see it, and you might have performed that thirty times, but this is the first time they’re hearing you belt it out—and you’d better do it right, right?

I think of that when people come into libraries. This might be their first time. It might be your only time. So, I think it’s really important. That’s just a few—I don’t want to overwhelm people, but this is just some to get the juices going.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: Those are good ones. Is there anything else you’d like to share?  17:15 

Elektra Greer:

I always like to remind myself, and ourselves, that our organization—our industry, whatever term you want to use, we have something that everyone would want. We have trust. It’s wonderful that we are such a trusted institution. I personally feel that we are needed in our country more than ever right now. Please don’t be scared to be visible. 

I say this a lot and people laugh. I have found people have a really hard time saying no to librarians. So that’s like your secret in. If you’re not comfortable doing an ask on something—a lot of times for me, it’s not about asking for money it’s about asking for visibility. We’re in an influencer era. Find the people in your community that have that, and ask them to do just a little something for the library. You’re just not going to be turned down. 

If you’re nervous about it, find that person in your team who isn’t nervous about it. Or find—or ask me. So, don’t be nervous about asking for things. Trust is our brand. [laughter] It sounds like a terrible, icky thing to say in a way, but it is. We should be proud of that. We should continue to work for having that. That is just something that I would like all of us to think about.

Oh, and something else—just came to my head. Everybody, you should be doing table pitch competitions, which is hosted by the Entrepreneurship & Libraries Conference. That’s how I got involved. I was so excited to see that they host this. I do want everybody to know it really, really is so much more difficult than you think. It really forces you to reframe—Oh, how would people not in Libraryland invest in us? So, it’s all about getting judges, people that aren’t librarians, are outside of our field to listen to what you have to pitch—that libraries do, and then they vote and judge on that. It’s really wonderful and I just suggest everyone do that.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Do you have any favorite management or leadership books, or resources, and why?  19:22 

Elektra Greer:

I feel terrible because this is always like, which child is my favorite question—and I just really can’t answer it. [laughter] But I do believe in reading widely. I think a lot of librarians do, so just keep doing that—diversity of thought is everything. 

Definitely read some financial magazines, or listen to some financial podcasts, or books. But it’s more about just getting the language, and being comfortable with that language so that the next time you are in an environment where you’re talking to a small business leader, or you’re talking to somebody that’s in those decision making capacities, you’ll sound like you know what you’re talking about. However you feel about it—because of the realities of our world, really getting that language is so important, that financial language.

Another thing is—read outside your comfort zone and what fits your communities. We all know that there’s lots and lots of adults who don’t come to our libraries, and maybe they never will, but it’s helpful to understand what they love and the language that they use. For example I’m in a community that I moved to relatively recently, and I love. But I needed to learn about firearms and hunting. Honestly, it’s made me a much better librarian. [laughter] So just kind of think along those lines. Futurist stuff—there’s so many fun futurist, science things out there. We are so naive if we’re not thinking about artificial intelligence, if we’re not thinking about space travel, if we’re not thinking about these things then we’re really not doing ourselves, as a profession, a service. Know what’s going on in the world around you, not just socially, critically, and culturally—but science and economics.

Is it my turn to ask you a question?

Adriane Herrick Juarez:


Elektra Greer:

Question #8: I love your podcast. I love that you’re looking at your library leadership topics that you’re looking at. Can you share with us, very, very quickly maybe, a couple of things that you have learned that have enabled you to think a little bit differently about your profession and your leadership role?  21:06 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Well, as you mentioned at the beginning of the show, I have an MLS, plus an MBA. When we were getting ready for this we were talking about the innovations of my city, which is Park City, Utah. We actually did a Shark Tank competition, and the library won. 

So we had extra revenue at the end of our budget year, and the city said, Hey departments, we want to spend this in the best way possible. Come pitch your best ideas. And, the library did, and we won. So, I’m really understanding what you’re talking about in terms of this. There is a really good way to think about your library in a new way—thinking outside of the box. If you had the opportunity to get more money by talking about the resources and benefits you offer to your community, how could you do that in an exciting way?

So this is a great conversation, Elektra, it’s been really fun.

Elektra Greer:

Well, thank you. It’s been so much fun.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9: Electra, in closing what do libraries mean to you, personally?  22:17 

Elektra Greer:

Well, I could answer in so many ways but truthfully, I just—I love libraries. I feel they call on our highest ideal. I grew up living in a lot of places that I traveled to as a kid, and I would always try to find the library. A lot of times I lived in places overseas in developing countries that didn’t have libraries. I think that really gave me a sense that they call on our highest ideals. For me personally—this is personal, but I feel like what I get from my library is what I get from my place of worship. I get solace. I get humility, and I get inspiration. What more can you ask for?

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Well, thanks for being with me here today. I know you’ve given us a lot to think about in terms of libraries, and what we can learn from entrepreneurs and the business sector, so thank you.

Elektra Greer:

Oh, and thank you, too. Go make your TikTok videos everybody.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.


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1 Comment

  1. Robert Greer

    Enjoyed a refreshing combination of corporate and non-profit view on the community library. Great ideas and would love to hear more from this speaker in the future.

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