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.