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Dave was an entrepreneurial horse

Dave was the fifth of twelve children during the Great Depression. His father worked at a sawmill and was a part-time basket weaver.

Dave had some problems:  He was a stutterer, he had epilepsy, plus a learning disorder, all of which prevented him from graduating high school until he was 21. How do you like Dave’s chances in life so far?

But Dave was a good employee: first a Fuller Brush salesman and next a route man for two bakeries. Then, with all of his personal challenges, he purchased and successfully ran a restaurant and a grocery store.

Remember his father’s part-time basket weaving? Well, Dave started selling baskets: first from his father’s hands, and later from Dave’s factory. Oh, that’s right. You didn’t know Dave had a basket factory. Well, this was the basket factory Dave sold his two very successful businesses to buy. Turns out Dave had serious entrepreneurial sap rising in his bark.

Dave’s friends, family, and bankers were incredulous. Why leave a successful and sure thing to make baskets? By the way, they knew Dave didn’t know anything about how to make baskets himself. Would you have invested in Dave?

Turns out Dave also had vision. He envisioned a world that would need baskets—lots of baskets. And Dave Longaberger wanted to fill that need.

Over the next 25 years, Longaberger Baskets grew from selling a handful of Dave’s father’s baskets to millions of the woven wonders. Not too shabby for the stuttering, epileptic, learning disabled son of a sawmill worker, who took 15 years to get out of school.

What Dave lacked in education he made up with uncanny instincts.  Any lack of sophistication Dave had was more than compensated for by an innate leadership ability that made employees want to follow him and customers want to do business with him.

Dave liked to say, “Your success will ultimately depend on the relationships you build with people.”  There are a lot of highly educated folks who still need to learn that lesson.

Education is important. But an educated entrepreneur without instincts and leadership ability is like a jeweled Spanish saddle with no horse to put it on.  As we say of someone who possesses awesome ability, Dave was a horse — an entrepreneurial horse.

Next time you feel deficient because you don’t have an MBA, ask yourself what Dave would have done. When you’re tempted to have a pity party because you’ve had it tough, imagine what Dave Longaberger would have said if you tried to lay a whiny attitude on him.

Write this on a rock… I’ll let Dave handle this one: “Your success will ultimately depend on the relationships you build with people.”

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.

Business Growth: An Irony in the Marketplace

Here’s a scenario that plays out in the marketplace every day in Small Business, USA:

“My business is really growing these days,” a small business owner confides to his friend, “but we’re still experiencing negative cash during the month.”

And then, with that deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, he completes his concern, “I thought by now, with sales and profits up, cash flow would be the least of my worries. I used to be afraid I couldn’t grow my business; now I’m worried that our growth will collapse it.”

This entrepreneur’s lament is one of the great ironies of the marketplace: A small business in danger of failure as a result of extreme success.

Beware Blasingame’s Razor: It’s redundant to say, “Undercapitalized small business.”

This maxim is especially true for growing small companies, because sales volume growth depletes cash in two dramatic but predictable ways:

1. When the business is growing, organizational upgrades are to be expected in order to handle the new demands ­ new vehicles, staff, technology, etc. Of course, you must fund these things, often while the exciting new sales growth is merely on paper, and not yet in the bank.

2. Selling to customers on an open account - where payment for work or products is collected after delivery - is essentially making loans to customers. And while it’s true that your vendors may let you do the same, typically they allow you less time to pay them than you allow your customers to pay you. This difference between when you pay and when you collect mathematically creates negative cash.

Here’s how to manage these two challenges:

1. Growth plans must be compatible with the ability to fund that growth. Too often we think that the big growth hurdle is to get customers to say yes. But we must consider the impact of sales growth on cash flow before delivering a proposal. And don’t be surprised if the answer to this equation shows that you actually have to turn down some business.

2. Don’t use operating cash to fund acquisition of capital assets that have a life expectancy of more than 2 years. Capital purchases should probably be funded by bank debt, and the interest you pay is the wages of Blasingame’s Razor.

If you don’t like debt, or paying interest, that should motivate you to leave profits in the business as retained earnings, which is ultimately the best way to overcome Blasingame’s Razor.

3. Do a better job of collecting receivables on time. Understanding the relationship between Accounts Receivable Days and Accounts Payable Days is an “ah-ha” moment for any small business owner. Sustained growth cannot happen without continuous and regular monitoring of this ratio.

Write this on a rock…. If your business is growing nicely, congratulations. But beware Blasingame’s Razor. It is possible to succeed yourself right out of business.

Climbing the hill

In a former life, whenever I felt deficient in my ability to meet a particular challenge, one of my mentors would say to me, “This is no hill for a climber,” followed immediately by, “and you’re a climber.”

Today, whenever I’m feeling deficient in my ability to meet the challenges of my small business, I say these words to myself, “This is no hill for a climber and I’m a climber.”

In an even earlier life, growing up on a farm, we had an old two-ton Studebaker truck. This was a brute of a truck, with a very special feature: one really low gear. My dad called that gear “grandma.”

Whenever we had a heavy load to haul and a steep grade to climb, Dad would say, “Put it in grandma.” When that truck was “in grandma” it wouldn’t go more than a couple of miles an hour, but it would pull or haul anything, anywhere. Even when the pulling got really tough that truck might jerk and buck, but it never stopped pulling.

Small business owners have a special gear similar to the one on that truck. Our “grandma” gear is made up of the cogs of grit and determination, and the sprockets of courage and passion.

There are many hills in the life of a small business. Next time you’re faced with a hill that seems too steep to climb, tell yourself, “This is no hill for a climber and I’m a climber.” Then “put it in grandma” and keep on climbing.

We Began With Freedom and We’re Better for It

The first Plantagenet king of England, Henry II, is important to contemporary small business owners because he’s considered the founder of a legal system to which entrepreneurs owe their freedom to be.

Ambitious and highly intelligent, Henry’s attempts to consolidate all of the 12th century British Isles under his rule created the need for order. And while the subsequent reforms were intended more for his own political expediency than to empower the people, they actually gave birth to a body of law, now known as English Common Law, which replaced elements of the feudal system that included such enlightened practices as trial by ordeal.

Six centuries after Henry’s death, the legal and cultural tide of personal freedoms and property rights that evolved from his reforms were being established across the Atlantic. In the colonies, a group of malcontents, now called America’s Founders, envisioned, created and fought for a new interpretation of Henry’s legacy. Their plan was different because it was sans kings.

In The Fortune of the Republic, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “We began with freedom. America was opened after the feudal mischief was spent. No inquisitions here, no kings, no dominant church.”

In Origins of the Bill of Rights, Leonard W. Levy noted that, “Freedom was mainly a product of New World conditions.” Those conditions, as Thomas Jefferson so artfully wrote in the Declaration of Independence, were, “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

These were 18th century words for freedom and embryonic conditions for which the 56 signers of Jefferson’s document put their lives and liberties at risk on July 4, 1776.

But America’s founding documents weren’t perfected until they perpetuated rights that were, as John Dickinson declared a decade earlier in 1766, “…born with us, exists with us and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives.”

By definition entrepreneurs take risks. But only when freedom is converted into the liberty to pursue success are those risks acceptable. Thank you, Henry II.

Research shows that there is a direct connection between the rate of new business start-ups and economic growth. And the American experiment has demonstrated that a healthy entrepreneurial environment fosters national economic well-being. Thank you, Founders.

Without their vision, courage, passion, and sacrifice, it’s doubtful that entrepreneurship as we know it would exist today. And if capitalism is the economic lever of democracy, entrepreneurship is the force that renews the strength and reliability of that lever for each new generation.

We began with freedom. Freedom to dream and to try; to succeed and to fail; to own and to enjoy; to accumulate and to pass on to the next generation.

We began with freedom and entrepreneurship was born. We began with freedom and capitalism was made to flourish.

Write this on a rock … America began with freedom and the world is the better for it. Happy Independence Day.

Dealing with Pessimism

Do you know what a jet fighter is? If you said airplane, you’re only half right. In the strict nomenclature, a jet fighter is actually a weapons platform. Its job is to deliver ordinance to a target, not to fly the pilot around.

In that sense, the human body — this vessel of protoplasm we drive around — is not really what a human is. It’s actually a delivery platform for the will of our spirit; the true life force that is who we really are.

One of the things I have observed about humans is that we often don’t understand, and therefore tend to under-employ, the power of our spirit. We seem so obsessed with the body that we don’t spend enough time contemplating the presence and power of the spirit.

Someone once told me how little of our brain’s power we actually use. I don’t remember the percentage, but I do remember it was astonishingly low. I wonder if there is a connection between under-usage of the brain and limited awareness of the spirit.

Author and philosopher, Colin Wilson, wrote, “We possess such immense resources of power that pessimism is a laughable absurdity.” The power he’s talking about is that of the spirit.

Pessimism can’t be overcome by our bodies. Dealing with frustration and overcoming disappointment are both tasks performed way above the pay-grade of protoplasm. If you are a small business owner you either already understand this, or are acquiring that understanding a little more every day.

I’ve been a small business owner for a long time and have observed others far longer. I can’t imagine how any of us could do what we do without a strong spirit. The challenge is to become more aware of our spirit and flex it — like a muscle — to our advantage.

It’s Time to Tell The Truth About Minimum Wage

Before any product or service is offered to customers, the price must be determined. The foundational element of this calculus are costs, which includes labor. In a true free-market economy, all elements of cost are determined by the marketplace. But in the U.S., we don’t have a true free-market economy because of mandates and subsidies imposed by the federal government, one of which is the minimum wage.

Alas, raising the minimum wage is being proposed again.

When the government is involved, politics, not reason, is the motivation, which isn’t so bad when the issue is politics. But politics has no place in what businesses pay for their cost factors, especially labor, often the largest cost factor.

When proposed, the national minimum wage was never some great egalitarian blow for the working man. It became law in 1938 as a cynical, protectionist move by the Congressional delegations of the northern textile industry – primarily Massachusetts –against their southern counterparts, whose lower, market-based labor costs made them more competitive.

Today the minimum wage has become a political wedge issue of the cruelest type, because research shows each increase actually hurts the segment it purports to help, especially younger, entry-level workers, like teenagers and minorities. The primary reason is that for decades employers have controlled the impact of an increase by reducing entry-level positions using various organizational steps. But today, technological advances have given all employers an increased ability to forgo entry-level hires in favor of low-maintenance, non-taxed innovative devices and/or software.

The results of two recent online polls reveal how these options manifest on Main Street. When we asked about their attitude toward the minimum wage, 82% of small businesses said the government should not be setting wage rates. But when asked how a minimum wage increase would impact their business, 76% said “Not at all.” The reason for the lack of concern by the sector that doesn’t like the minimum wage is likely because: a) they’re already paying more than minimum wage; b) they have legal ways around it to the disadvantage of the unskilled, increasingly unemployed worker.

An important goal of most businesses is growth, but adding payroll expense to achieve it is no longer a given. And so far, business owners are in charge of the decision to add workers or use other means to achieve growth. Nevertheless, increasing minimum wage does cause problems: an arbitrary increase distorts all wages as it becomes the new base from which other workers measure wage progress. If a small business adjusts all wages up in response, expenses rise. But if it doesn’t, morale declines. Furthermore, unions use minimum wage as a contract lever to exact from employers automatic, across the board increases for all organized workers.

In the marketplace, any increase in price must be justified by value delivered. But this logic is lost when labor costs rise by government fiat without adding one extra unit of productivity.

Write this on a rock … Let’s call the minimum wage what it is: A political lie that actually hurts poor and unskilled workers.

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.