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.