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."