Monday, December 22, 2008

Take Advantage of the Slow Time

The holidays are notoriously slow. In fact, one of my Corporate America pet peeves is the oft-spoken rule that "nothing will get done between Thanksgiving and New Year's." It seems to become a more ingrained self-fulfilling prophecy every year, but the slower pace can also present opportunities for you to focus on creating options for yourself.

Here's a quick list of suggestions to seize on during the holidays:

Books. Hit the bookstore and grab a couple of those books you've been meaning to read (see my Amazon list on the right for some suggestions) and to find some new jewels. Begin with a clear focus on topics to make sure you don't end up walking out with another Dilbert book (understandably irresistible to the cubicle crowd). Then get out your pencil for note-taking and dive in!

Online Research. Dig around the internet and read up on small business / entrepreneurship. I have not found it to be the easiest of topics for this, but see what you can find. You can get through a lot of the internet in an hour! Pop open the laptop and do some digging while you watch It's a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time. INC magazine's site isn't great, but it's not bad. Norm Brodsky's articles are very good. If you don't get the magazine in the mail (and at $15 a year, there's no reason you shouldn't), go back and read his. I have come across one other blog on a topic similar to mine. She's been working on a book (Newman! She's beating me to it.), so her posts are less frequent of late, but try the archives. Get out on this world wide interweb thingy and see what you can see.

Networking. Not everyone is out of town during the holidays, so drop that excuse. And for people with company in town, many would relish the chance to get out of the house for just about any reason other than shopping or returns. Reach out and see who else might be around for the holidays to help you expand your network. For those in town, it's a great time to avoid work, school, and other conflicts.

Conversations with Family and Friends. I include this one, because you are probably think, "What in the world can I learn from that cousin that used to make fart noises under his arm when we were kids?" Well, that cousin probably thinks the same thing about you and your ability to make milk spray out your nose! But you've both changed (hopefully!) and might need to find some new topics of conversation. Ask questions and then ask some more to learn what you can from relatives that might be in areas of potential interest to you. Warning: This one's certainly not foolproof, but it's worth a try. Also, you know those holiday parties you dread (especially New Years)? Take the opportunity to meet new folks and ask lots of questions. Make connections. I guarantee that you will come away with a couple of interesting new additions to your network.

Finally, if you are going into the office during the holidays, it's also a time when you frequently find you get your "day's worth" of work done in about half of the time thanks to fewer meetings and other distractions. Take advantage of the flexibility and efficiency to make some progress on multiple fronts. You'd be surprised what actually can get done in December!

And with that, I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Discovering Servant Leadership

Joel Spolsky's articles in INC magazine are providing a consistently strong accompaniment to Norm Brodsky's monthly missives. Joel's article this month was on servant leadership. He provides a particularly impactful personal example of witnessing and his own recent example of practicing servant leadership. It is an often overlooked opportunity in small business that can have deep and long-lasting impacts on your organization.

Corporate America provides fewer (or at least different) opportunities for servant leadership. Consider the opportunities that abound in small business: picking up the mail, making coffee, cleaning the bathroom, taking out the trash, running to Target for Folgers/toilet paper/a box of pens, addressing Christmas cards (maybe try that one today!), replacing light bulbs, .... Those are all provided for you in Corporate America. Warning for those of you in Corporate America, if you are the type of person that leaves the coffee pot empty, then you might struggle with the list above.

The point of the list above is not to say that you as the budding entrepreneuer needs to take care of all of those all the time, but a good rule of thumb I've been told is "don't ask someone to do what you will not do yourself." If your teammates see you delegating or ignoring all of those things, then you are sending clear signals about your priorities. Believe me, toilet paper is important to people!

If you have a list of objections for me at this point, I can assume what they likely are. "I'm busy with running the business.... I don't have time for these details.... I will hire someone to do all of that...." For one, your business might not be able to afford the cost of delegating all of these. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the time required to make this commitment and the return you can see on that investment would make it worth your while to carve out the time to address them yourself.

By displaying servant leadership, your people will respond by giving more of themselves in return and picking up other small things around them because they see you doing that. All ships will be lifted with the tide and the business will see the impact. In return, your objections above will be addressed by the team's overall performance and responsiveness to your leadership. So, pick one or two off the list and make them part of your routine. Servant leadership is simply part of being an entrepreneur and a small business leader.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rattling Your Corporate America Cage

I always find the job numbers thrown around in the news a bit difficult to digest. Sometimes big numbers are small percentages. Typically big cuts at small businesses are not even mentioned. Often there are qualifiers to the cuts such as early retirement, not filling open slots, etc. Recent months have brought a slew of job numbers across the economy, big business, and even some small businesses. The workers at Republic Window and Door in Chicago are a notable example. Here in Richmond, Circuit City, Land America, Qimonda, and others fill the news with cuts at all levels of the organization.

My suggestion is that you focus less on the numbers and the news and consider what lessons you can learn from the current environment. Here are a some ideas for you:

1. Beware your faith in your Corporate America paycheck.
I am reminded of an old adage to "buy as little car as you can stand and as much house as you can afford." The prior is always true, but the latter is also predicated on the thinking that your mortgage payment (before taxes) stays the same in a fixed rate loan and your pay will go up as you get raises. Not necessarily a bad strategy, but consider how many areas of your life are connected to today's paycheck AND tomorrow's larger one AND your bonus AND .... These are the financial corners into which many people paint themselves that prevent them from being able to consider other career options (ones that cannot support that financial pyramid) and make any hiccup in any aspect of pay a cataclysmic event. Of course, it doesn't help dissuade this thinking when the American consumer is implored to SPEND! in the spirit of patriotism and national interest. (Brief soapbox tangent there, so I will stop but I will avoid going back to delete the sentence.)

2. Root for some form of national health coverage.
This is the one that always raises the most eyebrows. I'll quickly give you my arguments. I have innumerable conversations with people who use their health coverage in Corporate America as a primary reason for not pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. For some this may be a red herring, but for many it is a true, harsh reality. I have been fortunate to have good enough health to be able to pursue my own options for health care, but any hiccup in your health can shut this door in an instant, thereby truly eliminating this option for people. This leaves someone no choice but to pursue only those opportunities that provide health care. I am not saying that the government would necessarily run programs better, but I believe that the blind faith in business-based health care is not without its own major flaws. [NOTE: Feel free to comment below on this one, in particular. It's always a topic sure to stir debate!]

3. Create options for yourself.
Some people feel that it is dishonest to be looking around for other jobs while at their current employer. Poppycock! (There's a word that doesn't get used enough.) As long as you are fulfilling the duties of your job and not surfing Monster all day or mentally checked out (an unfortunate, ongoing struggle in many corporations), there is absolutely no reason for you not to be networking constantly. There is not a thick black line between looking for a job and not. Keep discussions going and see where they may lead. Answer the calls from reputable headhunters. Beware of loving a corporation, because it can't love you back. Besides, a great piece of advice I received was that considering other jobs either confirms you are in the right place or leads to a better opportunity. That is a great set of options!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Can You Work with a Variety of People?

This may sound like an odd question to which you would automatically answer "yes," but I will tell you that for many people that would be a lie. Realizing this too late can be catastrophic in small business. For example, if you've been cooped up in Corporate America with the MBA crowd your whole career, you might be wildly out of your element with the machine operator out on work release. (Link graciously provided for those of you that just said "What is 'work release?'")

Personally, I have enjoyed the jobs I have had where I have interfaced with both the boiler room and board room. I love the variety. Maybe it's the engineer in me that still gets a charge out of talking to the line operator. I have also seen the extent to which others can struggle when thrust into a situation with one or more of the groups across this spectrum. And if you don't know how to interact with a certain group, your biggest mistake will be to try and fake it.

Most entrepreneurs will run the gamut from bankers to adminstrators to salespeople to maintenance to purchasing to operators to lawyers. And that's probably all in the same week! There are a couple of risks of which you should be aware. For one, many people will consciously or subconsciously avoid the groups with which they are least comfortable. Danger! Another risk is that you can get taken advantage of when you are visibly out of your comfort zone.

Therefore, it is not a topic to be overlooked when considering small business opportunities. You can either steer yourself towards opportunities more in your comfort zone or be aware of the challenge and mitigate it with your teammates and/or a focused effort on your part. This can be one area where a personal coach or other reliable resource can help expand your comfort zone and your skills.

Both internally and externally, your interpersonal skills will be of heightened importance in small business. Much gets done on trust and relationships in this space. And the inverse is true too. You can't hang up a banner proclaiming "People are our Greatest Asset" if people do not see it in your actions. In small business, actions speak much more loudly than motivational posters! (For those of you still in Corporate America, see for some amusing alternatives.) So much is of heightened importance in small business, and your ability to connect with people is not one to be taken for granted.

REQUEST: Last week, a friend of mine emailed with some suggestions for post topics. Please email or share those in the Comments. I'd love to hear it. My goal is to sustain two posts per week, so variety helps.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Managing Yourself in a Home Office

For those considering the move to small business, the ability to work at home at any hour is an important consideration. I've had the pleasure of having my car in the shop for the last two days, which has forced me to work from home more than I have in the last few years. It is interesting how a couple of days of this bring back the challenges and the adjustments necessary to succeed in this setting. It is certainly not something to take for granted.

I am fully aware of its upsides--wearing slippers to work, cranking my favorite Pandora stations, going for a mid-day run, etc. There are several other negatives or, at minimum, double-edged swords. Some are clear--seeing the kids, random doorbell rings, etc. One that is often taken for granted, however, is the ability to stay focused and get work done.

For those of you coming from Corporate America, take a minute to stop and think about a day with no meetings. How would you utilize it? Specifically. It's a tougher answer than you may first think. Some struggle with limits on the above pros and cons. Others simply struggle with keeping their head down and getting productive work done. This point can kill an entrepreneur. Your time is more precious than you think.

I am no expert here and certainly have my own challenges, so this post is not intended to provide a magic recipe. 'Boundaries' is my one word of advice. Give it a day and you'll know what I'm talking about. As for managing your time, I can say that there are some useful points in a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Some people that I know and admire absolutely swear by this book!

The important thing is that you find your own solutions. As mentioned here multiple times, small business has a way of permeating your life. In general, I find this to be a bigger pro than a con, as long as the business is one that you love and can abide having permeate you life. It is critical, therefore, that you find ways to be productive at home. So before you sit down with cell phone in hand and computer on lap, outline your plan for making sure that you can be your own boss and do what you need to do in that potential black hole called 'the home office.'

Monday, November 17, 2008

Job Security, Where Art Thou?

This is not an "I told you so" post, but I would suggest that now is an opportune time to consider personal biases about job security.  Personally, I'm not sure that such a thing exists anymore, but for those that do, I think it's hard to argue that Corporate America shares your opinion.  See today's news from Citi as just the latest example.  It is simply the latest, unfortunate example of the need to keep your head up and look out for yourself.  Here in Richmond, we continue to watch the slow, painful death of Circuit City.  Some of the quotes coming out of those let go remind me of the admonition to be careful how much you love a company, because it can't love you back.  

Reframe your thinking about skills and the investment you are making in your future.  This month's INC magazine has an interesting article that helps to reframe the influence of small business in America.  How are you investing in your future?  

Job security is up to you.  It is imperative that you create and build a strong and competitive skill set.  It may be easy to think of job retraining and job loss as something that happens to auto workers in the Midwest, but the current changes are broad and large.  As the country's economy evolves beyond manufacturing, the impact of job losses are necessarily going to extend beyond the traditional sources.  

Small business can also be an area where your skills are more essential and flexible.  These are key variables during a downturn.  Cuts at major corporations are made at an impersonal level.  You have an ability to establish your worth in the small business space and also to extend a network of contacts to many businesses that operate in this space relative to the smaller number within Corporate America's industry verticals.

Some food for thought during these rapidly changing times.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Partnerships are Challenging: Part 1

In a class in business school on purchasing companies, the professor said on multiple occasions that "partnerships are hard." It occurred to me recently that I have yet to write a post on this topic directly. One reason that I call this point out in particular is that many people take it for granted. For those coming from Corporate America, you may have the experience of being able to escape those with whom you have challenges. In small business, however, there is no place to hide. And when you are partners, you will learn the extent to which many things you take for granted (priorities, decision-making, etc.) are not necessarily shared by others.

I definitely do not go as far as some to say "never have partners." I believe and have first hand experience with the benefits that you can enjoy (that will be a separate post), but these benefits can be quickly overshadowed by the challenges if you are not alert. Rather than a litany of the challenges, let's focus on one.

Shared focus is one challenge within partnerships. In small business, organizational structure is typically either non-existent or less meaningful than in Corporate America. One result is more of an "all hands on deck" approach. Another result can resemble "swarm soccer" (think: 6 year old soccer game where positions mean less than chasing the ball). For those looking to stay within lanes, this can quickly become frustrating. For those looking to micro-manage, you will quickly frustrate those around you.

The solution (are you ready for this?) is communication. Ta da! Seriously, though, there are ways to define roles and responsibilities and to invite group participation when appropriate. For those who can't wait to jump into someone else's business, your challenge is to give direct feedback if that is the heart of the matter rather than the passive-agressive approach of bypassing this and just jumping in "to help."

Successful partnerships rely on establishing clear expectations. I would suggest focusing less on trying to translate that into an org chart, since it will likely be obsolete by the time the ink dries. Do focus, however, on roles and responsibilities and establish communication intervals and vehicles that work. Setup check-in's every other day at 9am and make them sacred, for example.

Partnerships can work and may be necessary in certain businesses, but beware the rose-colored glasses. Raise the bar on your communication and keep an eye out for the assumptions that I guarantee will come back to bite you later.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Small Business Consulting Opportunities

Many people overlook one straightforward way to get into small business opportunities--consulting.  Beware, however, that this is often a four-letter word in the small business space often associated with the big business version---a.k.a. either "you pay me a lot of money, I give you a three-ring binder, I walk away" or the dreaded "Bobs" from Office Space.  The opportunities with small business are many, however, if you look at the fundamentals--the business is in need of an outside perspective, expertise, and/or hands to do work without making a full-time commitment.  Your ability to bring some combination of those to the table present an opportunity to make a match.  

For you, the benefits can extend beyond financial.  An opportunity to engage with a small business broadens your base of experience and expands your network.  This combination often leads to unenvisioned opportunities.  

A good relationship starts with clear agreement and understanding by both parties.  Be aware that many small businesses rely on getting gratis advice or support from their network.  Define the boundaries of your relationship for scope, time, and money.  Holding to these can be difficult as you get more heavily engaged, but it is important to do.  Small business is inevitably personal, but you can ill afford to become emotionally engaged in multiple small businesses.  This can present an opportunity, however, once in the door to expand a relationship and realize those "unenvisioned opportunities."

A common mindset coming from Corporate America is that you are either a full-time employee or unemployed.  Engaging with small businesses in a consulting relationship can present an opportunity to test the waters before "jumping ship" or to create some income once in the water before engaging in a specific entrepreneurial venture full time.  (Somehow that became a very wet analogy, but I'll stick with it.)  The small business space creates a wide breadth of opportunities for those willing to look for them.  As you have conversations in this space, I guarantee that you will begin to find them if you are aware of them.

A final comment.  Realizing this opportunity is in your hands.  Small business owners are rarely actively looking for this type of support.  If you can point it out to them, assess the potential, and identify specific ways in which you can help, you can typically find a path.  Be creative in finding ways to make it work, since small businesses are rarely rolling in excess cash for several hundred dollars an hour in consulting fees.  In the end, it creates new opportunities for you and the small business.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Control of Your Investment

Much has been made in recent months of Wall Street versus Main Street in the fallout from the financial system's woes.  Since that team, a lot of oxygen has been consumed and wasted with opinions on how to fix the system and kvetching about the impact of the fall on personal investments.  However, I have found that active entrepreneurs are impacted very differently by the financial _______ (NOUN -- depending on your alarm level).  

Recent years have supported a widely-held conception that home prices are supposed to appreciate by 10 to 20 percent per year and stock prices always go up.  The common theme in these "investment strategies" is that they are outside of your control.  Those in small business are more accustomed to investments which they can control (at least moreso than the stock market).  

This lies at the heart of the relatively muted--or at least more focused--response of entrepreneurs to the financial crisis (I'll use the common word here for convenience, but you can still insert your Mad Lib entry from above).  In discussions with those in small business, the focus on the financial fallout is on how it will impact their business and that of their customers.  They are also acutely aware of the impact on the inordinately more important, but less discussed credit markets.  The second and third order effects of the fallout on banks can have enormous impacts on small business, especially as banks have centralized into a much more analytically-driven, centralized operation instead of personal and local.  

In the end, entrepreneurs can exert control over their investments through a variety of levers that depend on their business--stealing market share, cutting staff, across-the-board belt-tightening, creative financing with suppliers and customers, etc.  

The question for the would-be entrpreneur is do you consider that more or less comforting?  One huge trade-off is that the small business investment is typically focused on one business--essentially the anti-mutual fund.  In the end, that ability to control can often carry the day and mean the difference for surviving the lean times in order to succeed in the long run.  These times present another lens for the "know thyself" process that can set you up for a successful small business venture.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Being an Entrepreneur with Friends

Every month I look forward to Norm Brodsky's articles in Inc. magazine.  His NYC candor and first-hand experience make for a powerful combination.  Whether his decisions have been smart or dumb, he will point it out to you.  I found this month's article to be particularly strong.  

In it, Brodsky provides his "10 most important lessons learned" over his career as an entrpreneur.  One of them warns "you have no friends in business, only associates."  Of all the points on his list, I find this to be the one tested the most and with widely varying results.  Regardless of the outcome, I believe most people would tell you that when they have tested this rule that the outcome was different than they expected.  And the average seems to favor a "for the worse" outcome.  

Brodsky admits to his own conflicts around this one.  We want so badly for it to be different, but the reality is that the business relationship is different from, but intertwined with the friendship.  Some choose to ignore the connection or the impacts, but they do so at their personal and professional peril.

Without providing you a psychoanalysis of entrepreneurs and partnerships, I will simply suggest to you that you strongly consider AND DISCUSS the path forward if considering a business partnershsip with friends.  Two classmates of mine from Darden actually had a case written about their experience leading up to considering a partnership.  Theirs has progressed well to date (with Atlantic Caseworks), but due in no small part to their front-end efforts to assess fit and create a framework for their relationship.  

A failure to consider this and to get it on the table will lead down a poor path.  Never before has it been more true to say that "when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME."  Friendships can survive on assumptions and random breakdowns in communications.  Businesses can be crushed by them.  This becomes acute when personal finances become involved.  And in small business, the business finances are your personal finances.  And in a partnership, you share that.

To many, starting business with friends seems like the most natural thing in the world.  It does have its pros, but I urge you to consider the cons and their depth and breadth.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Control Your Career Path

The current market gyrations and the resulting uncertainty in the halls of Corporate America remind me again of the magnitude of the shift in corporate job security.  Long, long gone are the days of lifetime employment, but when you stand up in your cubicle and look around, it is amazing the extent to which so many within corporations act as though that continues to be the reality.  If you are one of those, wake yourself up before your company does it for you.

I'm not trying to be gloom-and-doom here, but millions of people will spend the coming (or maybe even past) weeks and months worried about their futures with their current employer.  The uncertainty will paralyze some as they await their fate.  A victim mentality can take hold if you allow it.  Now is the time for you to manage your own career.  

In keeping with the theme of this blog, I will also remind you that the difference between small business and corporate job security is not quite what it is made out to be.  Small business opportunities are typically more constant than corporate hiring, which can swing wildly between over-hiring and over-firing. 

Spend some focused time on your network and your story to unearth small business opportunities.  Market uncertainty also opens the spectrum of job opportunities to discuss, including consulting engagements which can be financially beneficial to both parties if set up properly.  Be open-minded in your approach with small businesses.  You are rarely replying to a job posting in this space.  The options abound for those open to the discussions -- sweat equity into a business, management help needed, support to expand into new businesses, consulting, etc.  

David Martin, a friend of mine that runs Spanda Group, wrote an article titled "Action Begets Action."  That is never more true than in owning your own career progression.  Avoid the victim mentality and become a doer.  And as that old cat on tree branch says, "Hang in there."  

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Local Entrepreneur Support Resources

I am in Sacramento this week at the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's annual convention.  A speaker at this morning's breakfast shared his experience on identifying and enabling budding entrepreneurs.  He said that he works with groups in Washington, DC that identify high-potential entrepreneurs and then help assemble teams and funding around them.  If I can find the names to these groups, I will post them in the comments below.  I don't have them now, but his comments made me think about an avenue that I have overlooked in my previous posts.

Local chambers of commerce and other civic groups can be fabulous conduits for small business support.  Granted there are a range of these organizations from lukewarm to very good, but these groups are in the business of helping their communities and they recognize the importance of small business to the local economy.  And the leaders of these organizations are born networkers.  Their network covers financing, corporations, small business owners, and more.  It is a worthwhile use of your time to get to know the personnel within these organizations that can help you and/or point you in the right direction.

News of groups that actively identify and support entrepreneurs for the good of the local community are promising.  This suggests an awareness that the "safety" of Corporate America can suppress the value to be created by certain individuals.  For some, it may be the breakthrough idea for a new business.  For others, it may be the leadership abilities to lead a small, growing organization.  Regardless, the value of a group within a community that can identify these individuals and bring the teams together has some real potential.  

So, one takeaway was that there are local groups that are on the lookout for people wanting to enable small business.  The same fundamentals from prior posts apply to determine what you can bring to that team, but an established network to enable that can be a real game-changer for individuals and the economy.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wall Street to Small Business

This week's news has reminded me of one area of Corporate America in particular that doesn't necessarily get a lot of sympathy or consideration when it comes to small business or entreprenuership--Wall Street.  Not known as a bastion of entrepreneurship, there are doubtless some inhabitants considering the transition to small business for any number of reasons.  Certainly, this week may have presented some with a new list of additional reasons to look for options beyond their current employment.  

The same principles outlined in other posts still apply, however.  For many coming from the world of finance, they already possess a skill set that has value and is often lacking in small business.  With an appropriate mindset, they can be extraordinarily successful in the small business space.  I offer a few points to consider while trying to avoid the stereotypes (because they're just toooo easy!).
  • Adjust your income expectations.  Small businesses aren't in the businesses of big salaries or big bonuses.
  • Learn how to make coffee, copies, and travel reservations.
  • Look for teams that offset your weaknesses.  If you are good at finance but a newcomer to operations and sales, make sure that you "hire/partner for your weakness."
  • Expand your network.  Ensure that you have "nodes" in your network that can get you into this realm that is often very far from Wall Street and downtown high rises.
  • Be honest with yourself.  A confidant is often essential here to give you feedback on potential blind spots.
  • Communicate with your family.  This transition will not go well, if you do all this in your head and don't communicate at home.
Hopefully these posts and others on the right can help bring some structure to people thrust into a journey that had maybe been in the back of their mind.  My own paradigm is within a more corporate setting than that of a bank, but there is a path into small business from there.  You just have to get onto the path.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Powerpoint Skills in Small Business

My last post was on focusing your skill development in Corporate America on areas that will be of most use in the entrepreneurial space.  Today, I will underscore the importance of Powerpoint skills in small business.  That's right, Powerpoint.  The sexiest of corporate skills!  

The ability to create impactful, concise presentations is a skill that is important in many facets of small business, but is often sorely missing.  For those of you that are Powerpoint psycho's, find the right balance since spending a week creating a 15-slide presentation will not serve you well as an entrepreneur.  For those of you that don't know how to add a graph to a slide, learn the basic skills while you can.

Big companies use Powerpoint to varying degrees.  In the most optimistic scenario, it is an effective communication tool for presenting data and making decisions.  In a pessimistic scenario, it's an abusive tool for bludgeoning listeners into acquiescence.  Whatever situation you are in, find ways to acquire good presentation habits.  It is a minimal investment for a skill that will differentiate you immeasurably as an entrepreneur.

As an entrepreneur, you are presented with continuous opportunities to present yourself and your venture to potential partners.  In the event that this accompanies a presentation, this is a unique opportunity to put forth a professional image that captures you and your company.   The reason for this post today is that too many entrepreneurs fumble away (like Michigan!) this opportunity with shoddy presentations. 

Here are a few suggestions:
  • Start with a story-board to outline your message 
  • Be brief
  • Pay attention to simple formatting
  • Have someone proof-read the big picture story and the details
  • Skip the clip-art ... seriously
As a corporate employee, if you let your assistant create slides for you, stop it.  You most likely will not have that type of support in small business.  (And if you do, it may be a sign that your company is too cavalier with its capital.)

Finally, I will sign off by encouraging you to avoid my biggest Powerpoint pet peeve.  It's the slide that pops up and is immediately followed by:  "I know you can't see/read this, but ...."  To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, "You lost me at 'but.'"

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An Entrepreneurial Take on Your Annual Review

If you are employed within Corporate America, you are either approaching or are maybe in review time.  Without commenting on the merits or drawbacks of the actual process itself, I would suggest that you take the opportunity to view your feedback through an entrepreneurial lens.  If you view both the feedback, the conversation with your manager, and the action steps that come from it, the process can move you towards your small business goals within the confines of your current company.

Most processes will ask you to evaluate your peers and yourself for a set of traits.  If you take a step back and view these traits through your new secret-decoder entreprenuer lens, you will notice that some of these traits will be useful in small business and some ... not so much (in the words of Paul Reiser).  Your alignment of those traits along that spectrum does not always match those most highly rewarded by the corporation.  For example, the ability to make killer decks (PowerPoint presentations, for those of you fortunate not to know) might be the communication trait rewarded.  Not the most important of strengths to have in small business, however.  (It just occurred to me that this could be the topic of a whole other post in the future!)  

Many companies will also fall into the trap of getting you to focus your development on areas in which you are weakest.  Newer schools of thought encourage companies to focus on making strengths even stronger and insuring that teammates complement one another rather than trying to make a bunch of mediocre jacks-of-all-trades.  Regardless, your challenge is to focus your development opportunities on areas that will also enable your success in small business.  Presumably, you can do this without submarining your corporate job.  It is often a matter of stating your desire to find a role or opportunities that will develop those areas.  Hopefully, you have a manager and/or a corporate environment that will support you in that.  If you set aside cynicism, you are often pleasantly surprised.  For one, you will stand out in relation to those who are more reactive than proactive in their response to the annual review process.

So, maximize the personal, long-term value you get from the review process by seeing how your peers feel you do on the metrics that matter to you.  Discuss the results and gather the feedback with an emphasis on those from your manager and peers.  Take away from that a focus on opportunities to develop and improve those skills that you deem most important.  You don't have to be out of Corporate America to begin taking steps in the small business direction.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Keeping the Entrepreneurial Faith

I must begin by once again pointing out that entrepreneur is a needlessly difficult word to spell.  I just might have to create my own word.  If I do, I'll be sure and trademark it (see Pat Riley's "three-peat").  

This is another one of those partly therapeutic posts that I believe all small business people can use from time to time.  Keeping the faith in the small business space is not always easy.  The realities of small business can be aggravating when viewed through the corporate or mainstream lens of so many friends and family.  Things like regular paychecks, packaged benefits, regular hours, and others seem to be the God-given rights.  There will always be those times when the questions will pop into your head.  Why am I putting myself and my family through this?  

Rather than platitudes about "it being darkest right before the dawn" or the like, it boils down to the fact that it is just plain hard at times.  The world around you is structured for those with a steady life.  The world wants to see the income statement more than the balance sheet.  The problems presented in small business are quite often personal and hard to get out of the forefront of your mind.  The challenge is to achieve a peace with the path you have chosen and a faith that your perseverance will pay dividends--financially and beyond.

It is important that all entrepreneurs have a deep-seated confidence in what they are doing.  It permeates all of your actions and cannot be faked effectively.  Beyond yourself, however, it is important to leverage your friends and family for support.  Find a network that can appreciate your challenges and mentor you when necessary towards solutions.  Wallowing is not the support team you need.  

Create a personal system to support yourself during the natural ebbs and flows that come with a business that is truly a part of you.  Choose who you listen to at the times you feel down, since many will encourage you to "get a real job."  I have had the benefit of a start-up with several partners where the team was able to pick up the one or two members that might be down at a given time.  Be honest about your concerns and challenges, and you will find that the process of addressing them will boost your confidence to keep on keeping on.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Complementary Assets

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the importance of evaluating what you bring to the table in a small business. The small business environment also accentuates the need to insure that there is a good fit across the team. You will hear a lot of entrepreneurs discuss their focus on hiring for their weakness as a key to the success of their business. There is a reason for that.

Keep your eyes open for the abilities and skills that you and your partners (using a broad definition) bring to the party. Don't be distracted by "liking" people. "Liking" someone is a nice-to-have, but unnecessary factor that is not highly correlated with success. How does the team perform together? What is the team's potential? Are there key skills missing and how can you correct that?

It is also important to consider at what point the fit is not complementary but conflicting. There is no hiding in a small business--no far-off departments where you can ship unsavory co-workers. You must address conflicts quickly and absolutely. This can be difficult for many people, but in the end I find the outcomes to be much better than the festering elephants in the room (Hey, Dave Barry! That would be a good name for a band!) in Corporate America.

Be critical and honest in your assessment of abilities and fit. Hiring mistakes are difficult and time-consuming to resolve. Unaddressed conflicts can tear at the fabric of a small business. If you can police yourself (and/or find a confidant to police you), the attention to these critical factors should enable your business to flourish. At a minimum, you will be eliminating factors that will surely submarine your success.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Breaking the "Face Time" Habit

Much has been written about the perils of the "face time" metric in Corporate America, but Inc Magazine (a rather good publication with a woeful website--I had to google this article because I couldn't find it on their site) had an article in its August issue about the value of breaking the habit in small business. While the article presents an extreme example, this legacy of corporate life is difficult to eliminate.

First of all, shared office time is necessary for most any business to facilitate communication in a way that phones and emails never will. Beyond that basic tenet, the value of office time changes dramatically with individuals. The heart of the disconnect between people who those who put a high versus a low value on office time can be a matter of trust or commitment. These weighty issues are much more difficult to discuss than a simpler debate about "being in the office."

Whether you are someone who puts a high (although, I would argue, misplaced) or low value on time in the office, it is important to recognize this challenge and address it. Working styles will differ much more dramatically in small business. The work/home lines are typically much more blurred in entrepreneurial ventures which leads to early morning / late night computer and reading time. Cell phones chase you independent of your location. Some in small business simply value the opportunity to get a change in scenery. (I contend that this segment and its insatiable appetite for free wifi and bottomless coffee is the only thing that got Panera Bread off the ground.)

Small business shatters the traditional (and lazy) metrics of work. Hours in the office will no more guarantee your success than a third arm (unless you work for the carnival, I guess). But it is important to recognize the needs of others when it comes to working styles. It also ups the ante on managing your own time and others as it relates to clearly articulated results.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Random Walk to Entrepreneurship

A friend reminded me the other day of the image I keep in mind for the journey to and through small business / entrepreneurship. If you are at point A and want to get to point B, you can either sit at point A and meticulously lay out the plan to get to point B, or you can identify the first step that will at least get you closer to B and take that step. From that new point, the path continues by keeping an eye on the general direction of point B and insuring that you are taking advantage of opportunities to move closer. Analytical types will cry that this is sub-optimal and inefficient, but I'd say that it's a heck of a lot more effective than sitting at point A so long that you can't move or until point B gets lost over the horizon.

Many of the people that you know who talk about "someday" making the move into small business are waiting for that perfect path to evidence itself. Fool's gold. That is why you will find yourself having the same conversation with that person in five years time.

Again, it is important to know your stomach for this journey before you begin. It requires faith and commitment to appreciate the progress through the peaks and valleys of the sub-optimal path, but the confidence comes from knowing that you are making progress. For those of you in the midst of the journey, I will remind you of Teddy Roosevelt's famous quote for entrepreneurs ("The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena..."). That can serve as your shot-in-the-arm for the day.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Small Business Assets -- Evaluate Yours

A variety of assets are required to start a small business, but you don't have to personally possess all of them to get started. The recipe of skills, experience, and money will vary according to business and will frequently change with the growth of a business. It is important, however, that you consider what you bring to the game and are able to articulate it.

Money is the first asset many people consider. Some believe it's the salve for just about any challenge. Not so. As a professor I knew in school said, "You can always find money for a good idea." Don't get me wrong. Money doesn't hurt, but even if you have it, success is certainly not guaranteed.

For most people, the assets you bring are not financial. You bring a set of skills and experience that are tailored to small business success. The more you talk to people in the small business realm, you can identify the skills necessary and how yours fit. It is also the reason that ghosting or a mini-internship can help you get a better a feel for combination of skills in a small business and what you can bring. I wrote an earlier post about that topic.

Be proud of the assets you bring. Those who bring money can often overlook the other assets. If you bring the money, beware this mistake. If you do not bring the money, defend your assets, but you must acknowledge the value of the money. Although, remember that good ideas can find the money and price is negotiable.

Considering and building your assets takes some planning to be prepared. Build your experience, build a financial base/cushion, and identify the fit of yours with potential partners. The recipe will vary based on the business, but you may be surprised at the value of your assets.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Is Risk-Taking Still American?

America is long known as the entrepreneurial economy of the globe. But I must admit a questioning about the reality of this on a practical level. We are all aware of the concerns and obstacles that keep would-be entrepreneurs from making the leap in, but are these obstacles self-inflicted or endemic to the system?

At the risk of sounding preachy, consider a few examples of reasons people seek the "security" of big companies: lack of savings, keeping up with the Joneses, medical benefits, dental insurance (a.k.a. pre-paid dental), 401k/pension. I'll stop with there. Beyond that, I run the risk of getting really preachy.

The list is not meant to diminish the reality of these concerns, but are they individual or systemic? Despite its continued brand for a small business haven, I would contend that the system is shifting against the growth of small business and towards fostering the perception of security within corporations. When you take a step back from it, the system is structured towards the security of that paycheck and the benefits that come with it. One simple example that many entrepreneurs experience is the wrench thrown into a loan process (i.e. car or mortgage) when you can't simply throw your W2's on the table.

A recent post spoke about the balance sheet versus income statement mindset. This is exacerbated by a culture and a system structured around the latter.

To paraphrase Bono, this post is not a rebel post. It's simply an observation of the challenges that stand in front of entrepreneurs. If you are aware of the challenges, they are easier (not always easy!) to overcome. It also speaks to the importance of insuring you are on the same page with others that are impacted by the change (code for "spouse").

Monday, August 11, 2008

Share Your Small Business Dream

Recently, I have heard a couple of more people tell me about the unexpected rewards they found from telling others at their big company about their small business aspirations. Most people fear the negative results that they feel are inevitable by not being a "company man" (or "woman", of course). Granted, there will be those companies or bosses that use this information against you, but many people are finding the net benefits that accrue to those that open up.

There can be a lot of factors at play, and this is not an area to be entered into blindly. Your relationship with your manager is probably more critical than the company itself, but a corporate culture that rewards solid contributors and seeks the best for its employees can embrace these aspirations. Many companies recognize that the qualities that can make you a solid teammate and a hard worker align with the qualities required to succeed in small business. It is analogous to the company that acknowledges that its best employees will be most attractive to headhunters -- so it had better keep those people happy. One of my first managers used to say that he liked to know his employees were looking at their external options and either continuing to affirm their commitment to their current job or finding something truly better for themselves.

A concept I have raised previously also comes into play in this communication -- what is the worst that could happen? If you are communicating this dream, you are already at some point on the path. Regardless of the point on the path, you will likely be surprised at the options that can be made available. Consider a few:
  • Entrepreneurs need a variety of skills. Your manager and their peers can help find diverse opportunities within your company to give you a diversified skill base while providing cross-pollination within the company.
  • Some big companies spawn small business ventures. These efforts and teams are often not widely publicized, but an attractive opportunity may be within your existing firm.
  • People within your company might know of external opportunities. Depending on your personal relationships with your boss/co-workers, these people may respond with "I know someone you need to talk to." Bang!
Again, consider the possible negative outcomes and ways to minimize those, but in most cases the positives will outweigh the negatives in reality. Not every boss is a Lumbergh.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Expand Your Thinking

I have mentioned before the interesting (although not very romantic) concept from The Millionaire Mind of thinking about your approach to life in terms of a balance sheet versus an income statement. Again, it may not rank up there with "life as a blank canvas," but it serves a purpose. You can also think of this in terms of delayed gratification.

In the small business space, this can take the form of deferred compensation, working for equity, mortgaging your house, or a whole range in between these. It's a question of what you are working for (apologies for ending a sentence in a preposition). Once in the space, it does not take much creativity to find workable solutions, but it does take expanding your thinking beyond the normal solutions. You can surprise yourself with options within your network for work that can help pay the bills (an income statement requirement) while working on the big dream (a balance sheet investment). Sometimes attaining the dream may require putting it on hold for a tour of duty in Corporate America. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it all depends on your mindset.

Look for options to balance the needs of short-term financial demands and investing for the long-term. The answer depends on the individual and the individual's family and other factors, but stopping to consider the real needs and the available options can often evidence much more palatable answers.

In the spirit of full disclosure, this is a personally therapeutic posting as well. It often requires a conscious pause in the action to remind myself of why I persist at the path I am on and non-traditional ways to stay on it for the long-term rewards. Thanks for listening.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Solid Local Entrepreneur Example

Today's Richmond Times-Dispatch has an article in the Metro Business section about Wayne Castleberry's Mac Technologies. It provides a solid example of someone who found a way to follow their small business dream. I love hearing about these "who knew!" businesses that are right around the corner. This one's about ten minutes from my house.

The article provides a couple of clear takeaways that can be utilized by everyone considering such a transition:
  • He is willing to take managed risks and get his hands dirty.
  • He shares his learnings with others to help them grow their business (what goes around, comes around).
  • He has clearly grown his business into areas of customer needs.
The article still fits Mr. Castleberry's story into a stereotype, however, as someone who was forced into small business from cushy Corporate America by downsizing. An interesting follow-on article to these (since a lot of these profiles seem to follow this same pattern) would be the envious conversations Mr. Castleberry and others have with the old co-workers. "I wish I could get out and start a small business to ...."

Mr. Castleberry found a way to make his dream happen. Those that he "left behind" would be surprised to find the options they have for doing the same. If they only took the time to look over the cubicle walls to see it!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

De-Corporatize Your Communication

One of my favorite Dilbert's features Wally trading empty corporate slogans with the pointy-haired boss. When called on the carpet for a particularly hollow phrase ("I propose that we work smarter while broadening our focus."), Wally responds with, "Well, excuse my leadership!"

People in small business tend to get to the point much quicker and appreciate direct communication. Corporations--both intentionally and unintentionally--train employees on how to speak. One of the biggest pitfalls is that words become substitutes for action. Where's the synergy in that??

I have admittedly had to retrain myself on this as someone who can take some time in communicating my point, so this is a "do as I say, not as I do" post. Maybe part of it is my Southern roots, but certainly some of it comes from years in and around big companies. One adopts the vocabulary that is often used simply to fill the void created by meetings.

In the process of making this transition and talking to others in the small business arena, be cognizant of your communication. Get to the point and ask for what you want. And for Pete's sake, don't feel it necessary to put it in a Powerpoint!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Avoiding the Double Life

Consciously or not, many people lead two distinct lives. They exist as one person in the corporate environment. Their other existence is the "everything else" person for home, church, community, etc. The extent of the contrast between these two depends on the individual. It has been my perception, however, that the differences are pretty dramatic. Look at the evidence. Why are people so excited for the weekend? Why do people relish vacation days? Why do we laugh so hard at The Office or Office Space? It's not just that we don't enjoy work as much as those other parts of our lives, it's at least partially due to the fact that the "work self" is more different from the rest of our life than we like it to be.

In contrast, small business owners and entrepreneurs find it nearly impossible to lead the double life. For better or worse, all parts of your life become inextricably (25 cent word!) linked. Now, many people will react negatively to that based on their corporate world experience. Imagine, however, a job that can fit with the rest of your life and becomes a valued part of your identity. Not to say that all small business is wine and roses, but it is real and it becomes part of you.

This is the reason that the decision process for getting into entrepreneurship is so important. Rash decisions lead to a miserable existence where all of your life is infected by something that does not fit. There's no walking out at 5:00 on this one! Know enough to know what you are getting into. In fact, uncertainty around your comfort level with that can inform your choice of paths. For example, don't buy a business that may be difficult to sell (as most are) if you are uncertain you want to stay married to it.

Avoiding the sense of a double life can and should be a real upside of small business. Most people don't realize the toll that the corporate double life takes. (Admittedly, a paycheck every two weeks can cover many ills!) Make sure that the choices you make are ones that can accommodate this reality.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cast a Net Before Throwing Your Line

While not a fisherman myself, this analogy seemed appropriate for people considering options for their exit from Corporate America. Simply put, don't narrow your options too early. Take the time to investigate options that may not have seemed initially attractive or apparent. Maybe franchising has some potential for you. Maybe networking will reveal a small business seeking an executive as part of a succession plan. I have mentioned before that it is important that you define entrepreneurship for yourself. Part of doing so is doing the leg-work required to create an informed definition that fits you.

Don't be afraid of reaching out to people to investigate. You will never know where these initial meetings may lead, and you can always get someone to talk about themselves! Ask a lot of questions and probe. Make sure you understand the lingo they use by asking for clarifications. You don't want to be six months into a process and have to stop to ask what X means.

Initial efforts to understand the landscape will allow you to better target your search. I'll pass on trying to end with some snappy fish analogy that I'd probably get wrong anyway. I think you get the point!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Consider the Costs of Inactivity

Not many people consider the price of inactivity when considering a move towards small business from Corporate America. When you consider the differences between the two, however, the cost of inactivity towards small business becomes large. Corporations reward you for a certain set of actions. These don't always naturally align with the skills and steps required to get into and be successful in small business.

Activity doesn't have to be the final jump itself, but you must stay in motion towards your goal. If you let the trail get cold, it is much harder to pick it back up. Get in the habit of adding to-do's for your personal objectives to your task list the same way that you would for items to be done on your job. This can serve 2 purposes. First, it forces you to consider your next steps in order to determine what to put on your list. The second is that the simple act of checking an item off the list can provide a mini-confidence boost.

A practice that I adopted was to create a weekly to-do list on paper that stayed in my pocket. Next to each task, I would mark the day that I targeted to do that action. At the end of the week, items that were not checked off would be added to Monday's list. I took a suggestion from a book to add tasks from all parts of my life. This led to my personal objectives related to making the leap to small business. The practice forced me to continue taking steps in the direction of my goal.

It is imperative that you drive this process. Your big company sure isn't going to do it for you. Keeping your eyes on that goal will also influence the way you go about the tasks of your current work.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Be Honest with Yourself

Don't let others dictate your personal definition of small business and entrepreneurship. Given the range of paths out there, it is easy to get tunnel-visioned on one version to your detriment. The traps depend on a variety of factors including ego, experience, finances, your network, and many others. In the end, this path is successful and rewarding if you define it for yourself and remain true to the key pillars.

On a high level, I'd suggest that the options can be categorized into starting a business, buying a business, franchising, and working for a small business in a senior role. Within each of these, there is also a broad range of options when you consider the future prospects of the businesses themselves. Is the company a startup (high growth), sustaining success, a turnaround, or a realignment? These categories come from the book The First 90 Days(also in Amazon links on right). Many people will narrowly define (and sensationalize) the startup with explosive potential as the "true" entrepreneurship. This is far too narrow, for the answer is more personal than general.

Consider your desires (work and beyond), your goals, your financial plan, and more in determining the key characteristics in taking your steps forward. The input of others is a helpful factor--especially if the world is foreign to you, but the output of that process needs to be personal. Small business infiltrates your life. It is important that it can exist there.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Planning on the Home Front

You can substitute significant other, friend, or any other communicative cohabitant in the following where I refer to "spouse". That will save us all a lot of slashes and etc's!

So many folks that I talk to who have made the transition from "cushy" corporate job to small business say that the move would have been impossible if not for the support of their spouse. Mind you, I have had this conversation with men and women alike. In his book The Millionaire Mind Thomas Stanley calls out the relationship with one's spouse as a major factor for many who achieve financial success and satisfaction in their career.

The journey into small business is not without significant obstacles and uncertainty. Regular paychecks and benefits are no longer direct-deposited and automatically-deducted every other Friday. It requires a collective awareness and (often) a new level of communication at home. And having these conversations after the journey has started is not a recipe for success!

Beware the sense of security that your family has likely developed around the routine of Corporate America. Living hand-to-mouth, all-you-can-eat medical plans (discussed in a previous post), taken-for-granted bonuses have become expectations in many households. Stanley refers to this as viewing your financial life through an income statement rather than a balance sheet. This isn't the most romantic description of life, but it serves the purpose! The transition away from this security is not easy, but with preparation and communication, it's not as hard as you might think!

Consider this as well--What would you do if those items went away? How unlikely do you think that is? Is it unheard of that your company might have cutbacks? If you think that they won't, I'd suggest you think about it a little longer.

Begin the discussion early. It will help to verbalize your thinking to both clarify it for yourself and to get feedback. It will also allow both you and your spouse to calibrate expectations on the path forward. Are you really up for it? If the answer is 'no', it is much better to know now than later. If the answer is 'yes', make sure the lines of communication stay open to navigate the obstacles.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Corridor Principle

This is a simple concept that I learned from a professor several years ago that always seems to ring true for entrepreneurs and those considering the move. The corridor principle simply suggests that there are open doors you can only see when you are walking down the corridor--they are not visible from your starting point at the end of the hall.

Don't expend too much energy planning for and waiting on perfection. You simply can't do it from where you are standing. Small business truly is about the journey. As I have referenced in previous posts, simply taking the first step in the general direction of your goals puts you further ahead than where you started.

Compared to the world of corporate recruiting and headhunters, small business is a dynamic and less predictable space. Headhunters shuffle players between roles and companies that are often more similar than many would like to admit. Small business affords the opportunity to try a myriad of roles across a variety of industries. And once you are in that game, opportunities will find you rather than a set of indistinguishable roles.

Part of my rationale in painting sometimes extreme pictures of Corporate America is to get you to think beyond the surface of "what you have" versus "what you can do." Not many folks will truly encourage that, and many are afraid to look. Push yourself to consider the differences for yourself.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Make Time for Coffee

As temperatures in Virginia head back into the 90s, I am reminded of the importance of coffee to the world of small business regardless of the time of year. Starbucks and Panera have provided a virtual network of conference rooms for entrepreneurs. It seems as though any Starbucks at any time of day is playing host to one or more small business meetings. The locations are comfortable and convenient to grab an hour with someone to share and learn.

The to-do here is to make a regular habit of reaching out to folks for these meetings. A 7:30 meeting makes it easy for someone to grab coffee and still make it to the office by 9:00. It's also the time of day at which people are most likely to be engaged. Productive meetings such as these occur much more frequently in the mornings than at lunch or after work. These other times are much more likely to be conflicted with last minute changes to the day.

Keep your network active and growing. Take advantage of the natural forces of coffee and the ubiquitous coffee houses. If you have not already done so, take a look around on your next visit. I guarantee you will see a number of these meetings occurring. And as you network, you will soon discover how many of these people you can get to know. Networks spider-web out quickly, but it takes initiative and attention.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dipping your Toe in the Water

One of the difficulties in considering small business or entrepreneurial ventures from within Corporate America is often the lack of appreciation for a day in the life of small business. Frequently, the world you know in Corporate America is something like: drive to large parking lot, enter building with ubiquitous badge on an acronym-branded lanyard, read email, attend meetings, scavenge for lunch between meetings either in cafeteria or from lunch meeting leftover pizza, do a bit of work, have some conference calls, read email, review tomorrow's meetings, and go home with laptop to do work you didn't have time for between meetings.

"Surely," you think, "the life of an entrepreneur must be different. But how?" I'm not suggesting that it's rocket science or even that it's better, but it is unequivocally different. The best way to learn if the change is for the better for you is to find a way to give it a trial and see first-hand.

I was fortunate to make this seemingly odd request of a friend in Richmond and spent two days with him at his small manufacturing and retail business. My offer for his time to do this was to identify some small area in which I could assist him during those two days and with a bit of follow-up. So, for two days I was part puppy and part sounding board. As for the mini-project, I gathered some data while there, did some high-level analysis (quantitative and qualitative), and made a couple follow-up phone calls before presenting a recommendation back to the owner.

It was a minimal investment and hugely helpful. I had a real chance to get a taste of what "normal" days in small business present. A day full of meetings it is not! You also learn a lot about the types of people with whom you will interact all day long.

Think about the cost and the payoff here. Particularly, if you are able to discover that you don't care for the small taste that you get. And if you do like it, it will help accelerate you on the journey.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ground Your Medical Benefits Assumptions

[As I feared, this post ended up a bit long, but I hear so much discussion on this topic.]
A couple of previous posts ask you to consider what's the worst that can happen and obstacles you place in your path. A frequent objection I hear that prevents an alarming number of people from ever getting off the dime is health care benefits. I always encourage people to investigate their options and to consider their costs today.

Pull out your pay stub and remind yourself of the amount you pay in health care premiums today. It's typically more than you remembered. And it's been increasing at a rate much higher than your gross pay ... typically. Additionally, consider deductibles, co-pays, etc. that you incur. This doesn't have to be a higher order math problem. Simply jot some numbers on the back of an envelope.

Armed with this set of data, check out some web resources or contact an insurance broker who writes individual/family policies. Now, the big problem at this point is that the process is now stacked HEAVILY in favor of people/families with pretty good to great health records. The options and/or costs for those deemed "undesirable" by the health care companies are sadly limiting to say the least. This unfortunately drives some back to the safety of company/corporate plans that can absorb these individuals. Over time this has the potential to create a "negative selection" within company plans, but the insurers are constantly working to avoid this problem.

For those who have good health records, the options are more numerous and MUCH more cost-effective than you think. Beware, however, that the underwriting process with insurers is not necessarily logical or fair. (See plug for some form of universal health care below.) Plus, you can get these numbers before you take the plunge. Simply ground yourself and make the obstacle tangible. Sitting back and hiding behind this corporate benefit is doing yourself a great disservice. As your back of the envelope exercise is likely to reveal, this corporate "benefit" often costs you more than you think.

Two final points. Number one, in order for individual plans to make sense, you often need to change some habits around health care. "All you can eat for $20 copay" is a fading reality. Shifting family habits can be painful. This is particularly true with high-deductible/HSA plans. These are not for everyone, but they are definitely worth investigating. Again, do the back of the envelope. You may be surprised. You might also learn that it's not worth going to a doctor to have them say, "Your child has a cold. Good luck with that." whether you're paying $25 or $100.

Finally, small business has made me strongly consider the benefits of some form of universal health care. Are there budding entrepreneurs out there unable to make the leap due to some illness of theirs or a family members? Given the nature of the underwriting process (i.e. Have you sneezed in the past 5 years? If yes, please provide Kleenex samples with dates.), I can guarantee you that there are some. For those worried about the tax implications of universal health care, ... check out your paycheck, dude! You're being taxed now. I will stop short of commenting on the government's ability to run a health care system, but I can say that the current system is stacked against small business and entrepreneurs in many ways. That's it. No presidential endorsement follows. And after posting this, I'll certainly never be able to run for office!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Defining Small Business / Entrepreneurship

In addition to being an unduly difficult word to spell, entrepreneurship is difficult to define. (My recent posting mentioned obstacles. Maybe an inability to spell the word keeps people from pursuing entrepreneurial ventures!) If you ask 10 people to define it, you'll probably get 15 variations. In my opinion, the definition truly is in the eye of the beholder. On a high level, one can envision three paths to pursue: starting a business, buying an existing business, or franchises. These are probably the most commonly used conceptions, although you will find many people overlook the middle one. (Not unlike Otto in A Fish Called Wanda.)

A commonality across these 3 is the concept of ownership and "being your own boss." That is one aspect of small business, but not necessary, in my opinion. People who pursue a smaller business (think: relative to their options) are frequently throwing in their lot with small business. This choice often requires sacrificing the perceived "gifts" of Corporate America for the perceived "risks" of smaller businesses. The trade-off's can be lower salary, but an equity stake that is more within your control or longer/different hours, but a stronger emotional connection to your work.

These characteristics are more fundamental to the small business than being the sole owner. I have met and worked with people in a variety of roles that I would consider entrepreneurial. It is more of a personal trait than a defined role. What are your goals and how do you approach your job? The path to small business is a journey and simply beginning that journey gets you in the game.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What's the Worst that Could Happen?

Recently I spoke with a friend currently considering a move to a small business from a large company. Actually, that is a common enough occurrence that the timing is almost irrelevant. Anyway, a point that I remind folks of when considering a move such as this is to put a fine point on picturing the "worst case."

Many people create a long list of excuses when considering small business ventures. It is important, however, actually to spend some time defining and thinking through these. In the end, you are left with a picture of "the worst that could happen." I suspect you will be surprised with how livable this case actually is. Seriously. Also, you will find ways to minimize the risk. For example, if you are concerned that the opportunity doesn't pan out, and you have to go back to "a real job," keep your network active to keep that option open. It's a minimal investment to help insure options you may need.

The goal is to move beyond a point of worrying about worst case scenarios in order to focus on the opportunities. Think of Maslow's hierarchy--if you have some comfort that self-preservation is taken care of, you can reach for self-actualization.

Humans have a limitless ability to create obstacles to their own progress. Defining these will enable you to address them. And by addressing them, you will enhance your ability to reach your goals.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Your Corporate America Peers

Beware "someday." You will hear this word a lot within the walls of Corporate America. If you had a nickel for every person you talk to and hear "Someday, I'm going to pursue this small business opportunity ...." A good barometer of your own readiness and willingness to pursue this path can be found in your belief in what your cohorts are saying. Over time, you will likely realize that 90+% of these folks will never in fact come close to taking that plunge.

It's not your place to point this out to your peers. What's the value in that? And remember, "there but for the grace of God go you"! The golden handcuffs and the perception of security are strong within those walls. My conviction is that the companies want you to believe in those. The more you do, the more those intangibles help to keep you there.

But don't allow yourself to fall victim to the "someday" story. The trap here is that you find yourself telling that "someday" story year after year. And the next thing you know, you too are handcuffed and thinking about that plunge you planned to take.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Gaining Small Business Experience in Corporate America

Generally speaking, it is possible to customize your experience in Corporate America in order to better prepare yourself for small business. The catch, however, is that you likely have to be prepared to choose the road less traveled. Large companies often reward those who specialize, those who excel at internal politics, those that make stellar Powerpoint decks, those that attend the most meetings, etc. Consider how these pursuits fit with your long term goal. Are these getting you further down the path in the (at least) general direction of your goal? It is unlikely.

Make conscious choices to seek variety and experience in areas that will apply to your goals. Pay particular attention to areas in which you feel deficient. Generally speaking areas that will translate well for entrepreneurs are going to be operations, finance, and sales.

Seek experience on truly managing a business for profitability. Salespeople that know how to drive top-line without regard to profitability (I'm sure you don't know any of these) will fail in smaller environments. Finance people that lack an appreciation of the realities of operating a business will likely be hanged by peers in a small business (this is an optimistic outcome!). Operations people (engineers take heed!) that fail to appreciate the pitfalls of "efficiency at any cost" will drive a business into the ground.

These choices may not always be the most popular or rewarded in the short term, but they will strengthen your foundation for future success. I might even go so far as to suggest that if you choose the road less traveled, it will make all the difference!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Seeing the Destination

One of the biggest challenges with a journey out of corporate America to small business is knowing what the heck small business is. This is easier said than done. Entrepreneurship is not just a difficult word to spell, but it has a lot of definitions. If you get 10 "entrepreneurs" together, you can probably get at least 15 definitions of entrepreneurship. (And maybe as many spellings!)

I have long subscribed to the belief that the definition is in the eye of the beholder. Whether it is starting a business from scratch, buying a business, running a franchise, or working in a small business, entrepreneurship takes many forms. In the end, it's a personal definition.

Until you are able to begin defining this end state, the reality of making the journey becomes more difficult to see and more unlikely. So, begin by creating your definition of entrepreneurship. Beg, borrow, and steal at will from the range that already exists. And don't let folks tell you that yours is wrong. If nothing else, most entrepreneurs are an opinionated bunch!

Giving that seemingly simple concept some thought will yield more progress than you think.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


My name is Matthew Markee. I live in Richmond, Virginia and am engaged in the small business community here. You can see my professional background through LinkedIn (

Richmond has a bit of a mixed brand, but my experience has revealed a strong and receptive business community. There is a decent mix of large companies in the city along with a myriad of small to medium business opportunities. I am continually amazed at the extent to which folks within large companies have interests in the smaller business realm, but they fail to reach out and make the connections. Without the effort, these realms simply don't seem to interact beyond the coincidental. After having made the transition myself, I am interested to use this process to capture these thoughts and get feedback on challenges people experience themselves and solutions to these. I believe the opportunities within small business can be substantial in a financial sense and many, many others. I also believe that the perception of security and other rewards within big business are not as real as many hope to believe--and certainly not over the long term.

So bear with me on this process, but I welcome feedback and comments.