Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Layoffs: Pushed out of the Nest

Most of my posts encourage those within Corporate America to be proactive in taking steps towards entrepreneurship if that is in fact a long-term goal. Within the fabric confines of your cubicle, you will not intersect the sphere of small business unless YOU take steps to do so. For many, however, the new reality is a rude awakening to the fact that corporate jobs are not as safe and cushy as one might think. Laid off employees are also made harshly aware of the lack of support from empty tools such as COBRA.

There's a broad set of implications to consider at this point for those who have been kicked out of the corporate nest. For example, absolute income needs, severance, and health insurance options (unsolicited advice: dental insurance is a racket!) can be decisions that lop off entire branches from your decision tree. Beyond the objective set, there is the subjective "what do I want to be when I grow up" questions to consider given your new "opportunity."

There are plenty of sites and people to give you more than enough advice on managing your job search, but I suggest you specifically consider an approach that incorporates what I broadly define as small business. Many view this path as too risky or beneath a Corporate America gig. I find these to be short-sighted arguments. You've just had proven to you that Corporate America is not the land of lifetime employment, and you are likely to find a crowded field competing for the next corporate opening.

Spend some time and energy outlining a plan for small business. The three most important things are networking, networking, and networking. You should have more meetings at Starbucks and Panera than you even thought possible. (Entrepreneur secret: It's called Panera Bread, but their bakery stuff really isn't very good ... but it's worth it for free wifi.) Informational "cup of coffee" meetings can lead in directions you never envisioned. I hazard to guess that you will find the conversations stimulate a part of your brain that you forgot you had.

Once you have that ball rolling, look for ways to be creative in your approach. Work in smaller businesses can take a variety of shades. You won't find job postings and interviews conducted in a traditional or consistent manner. Get used to it and leverage that! It puts you on more equal footing than an interview for a job that tends to give the company the upper hand. Instead, you can identify ways to work together on projects, hourly basis, etc.

It's not all sunshine and roses, and it can be time-consuming. I merely encourage you to consider the options you have in front of you. Be realistic about those options. Assess your position and then move aggressively. I will remind you too that any step in the general direction of your goal is better than where you started. Avoid the trap of developing the perfect plan to reach an overly-defined goal. And good luck.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Partnerships are Challenging: Part Two

About two months ago, it occurred to me that I had not yet addressed a common approach to small business -- the partnership. After my first post on the topic, I had several conversations with folks who seconded that experience, suggested other challenges, and/or tried to guess at partners of mine that prompted the post. I figured it was about to time to revisit the topic, however. This time to discuss assumptions and goals when starting a business.

An alarming number of partnerships begin without clear discussion among partners of what individuals are hoping to achieve for the business and themselves. If questioned, the response is often along the lines of "we're all on the same page", "well, naturally we all want to _____", or "we got started so fast we didn't have time for all that stuff." If you find yourself currently in a partnership or starting one and have heard you or your partners utter statements similar to these, beware!

I have encountered no other circumstance in business where there is a better example of "when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME." Many small businesses are wrecked when the reality of disparate goals and drivers are brought to the light of day. Whether it is the strategy of the business or the hours you keep, the differences can be stark and, if you are not careful, toxic.

It is amazing, however, that the exact same differences can be reconciled and often improved through early-stage conversations. If necessary, you can find facilitators to help you in shaping the vision of your company from strategy through execution. Either way, the discussions are critical to have sooner rather than later.

Personally, I have seen one of these facilitated exercises that drove to the values of a partnership (and the company). Putting individual opinions and ideas onto white paper forced an incredibly rich conversation. The result of which was a set of company values that endured and guided every difficult decision the company faced. The values then drove the discussion of the vision - mission - objectives.

It was not all wine and roses from that point, but the partnership was much stronger for the exercise. From my experience, there is no greater indicator of a successful partnership that can endure than the ability of the partners to communicate and that inevitably starts at the beginning. Don't forget that in small business, there is no place to hide. You and your partners must learn to live by a set of shared principles to see your company through. The ties within that partnership will be tried at the best and worst of times.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Is Yours a Job or a Calling?

I'm back from the holidays with a bit of a philosophical post to start the year. Over the holidays, I read an article by Michael Lewis that he wrote in response to Wall Street'ers displaced by the economic fallout. The article encourages the recipient and others to determine whether they are looking for a job or for their calling. I also found the responses rather interesting. What I found interesting in the tone of both was the extent to which this question is new or absurd to those in this space. The rats in this particular race are often excused for their lack of attention to this point given the money to be made in the space. With that changing, Wall Street'ers (I thought of using Wall Streetwalkers, but relegated it to parentheses instead) are left to ponder the same question as so many others.

I am also reminded of this point given the scant number of those in the world of finance that seem to have found their calling versus a high-paying job. One of these is an old friend of mine that I had the good fortune to see over the holidays. His discussion of the current situation is both objective and confident. He has been fortunate to find his calling in a space that pays him well for what he really enjoys doing.

The beginning of the year is an opportunity to assess the fit of what you do with what you want to do. If you are in a position of trading hours for dollars, that might be the right place for you right now. But if you keep your eyes on the horizon and consciously take steps in the direction of your goal, you will continue to put yourself closer to that point. Movement is the key, not planning for the perfect path. Michael Lewis' article takes aim at Wall Street as the topic he knows the best, but his points remain important across the professional spectrum.

For those of you less familiar with Michael Lewis, you will see his book Hardball on the right in my recommendations. His book Liar's Poker is also a particularly timely read. Finally, his recent cover story in Portfolio is literally unbelievable.