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Entrepreneurial Confessions: Things Business Owners Wish They'd Never Said

If I had only known then what I know now. There are many occasions in life for which we have to admit our initial perceptions were not nearly as prescient as our 20-20 hindsight. Starting and growing a business is one of them.

For the past twenty years, I have facilitated and participated in a number of business owner mastermind groups, which act as informal boards of directors for their members. During their meetings we have discussed the gamut of issues from the exhilaration and angst of getting started to the satisfaction and inertia of managing a successful business.

If you are currently an entrepreneur or are contemplating starting your own business, take heed. The myths below can victimize even the smartest of us.

It's Mine and Mine Alone

"I don't need a written business plan. Mine's in my head."

If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there. Neglecting to have a business plan can make running your business a lot harder because you have no concrete direction. According to Tom Glueck, who started an Alpha Graphics franchise last April, "My written business plan did three important things for me. It helped me think through how I would approach all aspects of my business, including how to deal with potential obstacles. It gave me tremendous credibility with funding sources. And it offers me a benchmark for gauging my ongoing progress. Without a business plan I would feel like a ship without a rudder."

"Now that I've decided to go it alone, I can't rely on anyone to give me advice or support. The success or failure of this business rests solely upon me."

It's true: when your business is involved, the buck stops with you. You have the ultimate responsibility for its success or failure. Yet, you don't have to bear the burden entirely by yourself. Friends, family members, employees, fellow business owners, your CPA and any number of other resources are available to help you, if you'll let them. Asking for support from others not only lightens your load, it also generates new ideas, builds relationships, offers a pat on the back, subjects out-of-the-box thinking to some healthy skepticism and provides you with a more balanced perspective.

"If this business is going to succeed, I must devote 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to it."

Get a life! Putting inhuman hours into your business can turn you into a real beast. It can also make you sick and tired, cause you to neglect your family and friends, stunt your creativity, and leave you wondering why you ever created this all-consuming monster in the first place. Giving yourself time away from the office will renew your energy and resolve and show the people whom you love most they're still your first priority.

Don't Confuse Me with Facts. I Already Know What I Want

"I'm just a small business person. I can't afford anything but the bare essentials in equipment and employees." or "If I don't have a four-color brochure and a big office, I can't compete with the big guys."

Leave your preconceptions at the door and consider what resources your business truly requires for it to be successful. If you can't see past your own assumptions, talk to other business owners or friends who might be potential clients to find out what employees, equipment, promotional materials and other trappings make sense for your situation. In some cases going on-the-cheap might be the best alternative. In others, you may need the top-of-the-line. Just make sure you can justify your resource decisions with facts, not opinions.

"Direct mail campaigns and other types of advertising are the best ways to attract customers."

As with looking for a new job, networking will always be your most effective way of marketing yourself. George Frantz, a former CFO of a Fortune 500 company, assumed the best approach for finding clients for his new venture, Small Business Financing, would be developing a targeted direct mail campaign for entrepreneurs who were likely to need business plans and financing. After three months of researching potential candidates, sending out letters, and doing telephone follow ups, he hadn't generated any contracts. Taking a new tack, he started talking with bankers, patent attorneys, CPAs and other small business service providers about how he could help their customers grow. In the last two years every one of his clients has come to him through a referral.

While direct mail campaigns can be useful in some instances, they tend to be expensive and time-consuming. Spend your time and money taking a contact to breakfast or lunch. It's cheaper, faster, more effective and a lot more fun.

What Big Picture?

"Now that I finally have some income-producing business, I'd better concentrate all of my time on it."

How many times have I heard business owners talk about the marketing/production seesaw! First they spend most of their time selling. Then business comes pouring in and they concentrate all of their efforts on filling customer orders. One morning they realize their work is complete. Suddenly, they notice it's very quiet. Their phones aren't ringing. Actually the calls had stopped weeks ago, but they were to busy to hear the silence. Now they have no work to do and none in the pipeline. And the cycle begins anew.

If you want to avoid the marketing/production seesaw, force yourself to do some selling every week. While most entrepreneurs would much rather produce than promote, making regular sales calls isn't nearly as painful as having no orders.

"I don't have time for 'the vision thing.' This job needs to go out today."

"The vision thing" is your key to growing and improving your business. It's the thing that companies like IBM, Apple and a number of other Fortune 500 corporations failed to employ to their peril. Perhaps you now have your own business because you were a victim of their lack of foresight and you vowed to never let that happen again. Myopia doesn't affect only large, slow-moving organizations. It can strike your little business at any moment, unless you set aside regular time to think about your big picture.

"It's easier to do it myself."

The typical entrepreneur is especially guilty of trying to do everything. He is a rugged individualist who prefers not to rely upon anyone but himself. He wants to forge his own future on his own terms. Often, when he first starts his business, he can get away with being a "one man show." But, if he wants to grow his company, his insistence on total self-reliance eventually sabotages him.

Sure it takes more time in the short run to train someone else to do a job you can handle with your eyes closed. But, unless you want to continue bogging yourself down in the details, you'll have to give up some control and start to delegate.

"I know my company has outgrown its staff and systems, but I don't have the time to upgrade them right now."

Have you asked yourself the question, "What will happen if I don't?" Companies who are limping along on inadequate personnel and systems are not a pretty sight. They have declining product/service quality, frustrated employees, a critical lack of control and information, plummeting productivity and a growing number of unhappy customers actively looking for suppliers more attuned to their needs.

Just Who Is My Customer?

"Finding new customers is more important than nurturing ones I already have."

Make new friends. But keep the old. One is silver and the other's gold. This Girl Scout old favorite makes an important point that all business owners should take to heart. Who knows you better: your current customers or the ones on your potential client list? Whom have you already satisfied with your product or service: the ones you've invoiced or the ones you want to? Who is in the best position to sing your praises to their friends and business colleagues: the people who love your customer service or the ones you have yet to serve? Many marketing research studies have proven what common sense already knows: your current customers are the foundation of your business. If you treat them well, they will assure your future through increasing their orders and referring new business.

"That customer wants me to do something outside of my core business, but hey, it's income so why not go for it?"

That innocent customer will lead you both down the garden path, if you let her. New business beyond your boundary of expertise can be both tantalizing and deadly. Consider the training business owner who is one of the top experts on basic supervisory skills in the country. Her first-line supervisor participants rave about her insightful material and engaging presentation style. Consequently, top management decides to have her back to do a strategic planning workshop for them. The trainer is gratified for the opportunity and excited about developing a program of new material, until she realizes what it will require. Since each hour of new training takes ten more in research and development, plus a great deal of work in preparing overheads and a workbook, this great opportunity may be a money-losing proposition. To make matters worse it may keep her from accepting other, more lucrative work. Unless she decides to make executive training a growth area for her business, she would be wise to either graciously refuse the offer or ask a trusted colleague who specializes in this niche to collaborate with her on the project.

"Once a customer tells me no, why continue wasting my time on him?"

Recently I attended a seminar by Pat Romboletti, an expert on how to use a system of pre-developed letters as a strategic marketing tool. She told many anecdotes about how persistence pays off in eventually doing business with customers who initially say no. My favorite was about a company who had written a thank-you-for-the-opportunity note to a potential customer after losing a lucrative contract to a competitor. Two days later the customer called to say the winning party hadn't bothered to thank him, and he had serious concerns about their follow through. The loser's thank you note has so impressed him, he decided to give them the contract instead.

The Incurable Optimist

"Even though Bill isn't up to par at his job, he's an old friend and I just can't bring myself to let him go. Besides I think he's finally catching on."

The person who thinks old Bill is finally coming around is kidding himself, and he knows it. While it's painful to fire a friend, no one wins when an employee is misplaced, including the employee. Doing the right thing for both the business and old Bill requires telling him that he's a good person in the wrong place who deserves a chance to find his niche. He may even breathe a sigh of relief that he won't be deserting a friend to look for a better position.

"I know that 200% growth in our second six months sounds like a lot when we're already 50% behind our plan the first half of the year, but I know we can do it."

Unfailing optimism can be both a blessing and a curse. While it helps entrepreneurs live through their darkest moments, it can also render them "reality-challenged." Business owners who confidently expect a 200% increase after a period of slow growth are predicting "The Hockey Stick Effect," an unlikely phenomenon where less-than-expected growth suddenly skyrockets. Unfortunately, hockey sticks are much more likely to work for the Bobby Hull's of the world than struggling entrepreneurs.

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