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!