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Monthly Archive for January, 2009

Fertilizing the small business attitude

A group of anthropologists at Cambridge were conducting research on the concepts of pessimism and optimism. Their subjects were two young boys: one a pessimist, and the other an optimist. The pessimistic boy was put in a room full of wonderful toys. The optimistic boy was put in a room with nothing but a barrel of manure.

When the scientists looked in on the pessimistic boy one hour later they found him complaining about this toy that didn’t work, that one needed fresh batteries, the next one wasn’t the right color, etc., etc. Recording their findings, they moved on.

As they opened the door to the room where the optimistic boy was, they had to duck to avoid being hit by flying manure. Indeed, it was splattered everywhere. They found the young lad head-first in the barrel, where he was heard to say, “I know there’s a pony in here somewhere”.

Be sure to look for your pony this year. Even in 2009, it’s in there somewhere.

Recently I talked about attitude and perspective on my small business radio program, The Small Business Advocate Show. Take a few minutes to see what you think and leave your own comments.

Small business capital acquisition even when the credit market stinks

This isn’t my first rodeo. The current recession is my 7th one to work in since 1969. As I have noted several times in the past few months, the single greatest difference between this downturn and others is the collapse of the credit sector resulting in a steep reduction of credit availability to consumers and businesses. In every other economic crisis since the Great Depression, when consumers and businesses wanted to make a purchase requiring some level of credit, there has always been a healthy and motivated credit industry standing by to help put purchaser and seller together. Not this time.

And this challenge is no respecter of size: Pharmaceutical players no less than Pfizer and Wyeth had to cobble together transactions from five banks in order to finalize their merger.

Thankfully there are some bright spots for established small businesses. Independent community banks are still lending to small businesses that have, or want, a relationship with those institutions. Credit unions are still hanging in there and expanding their influence with businesses. But for the most part, consumer credit firms and the big banks are MIA.

Notice my qualification word “established” in the previous paragraph. In my 2009 predictions, I said that, unlike previous recessions, the current credit dearth will not be kind to small business start-ups, which historically have relied heavily on the founders’ personal credit lines, including home equity, to capitalize their new small business baby. Consequently – and sadly – start-ups will not play as large a part in this economic recovery as they have in others.

Also in my 2009 predictions, I said that the Obama administration would deploy part of its stimulus efforts through the Small Business Administration. The president should expand the influence of this well established channel to help small businesses acquire the capital they need through their local banks, and I think this will come to pass.

Recently on my small business radio program, The Small Business Advocate Show, iBank founder and Brain Trust member, Tom Markel, (www.iBank.com)talked about the state of the credit landscape, plus his own proposal for what he thinks President Obama should do for small businesses in his first 100 days in office. Be sure to listen to the wisdom of this important voice on small business capital acquisition, including his multi-step small business stimulus proposal for President Obama. And don’t forget to leave a comment.

The war between Universal and Market-based healthcare

In the world of health care, a war of philosophies has been raging for almost two decades – some could argue longer. If you’re scoring at home, the two sides of this battle are the government solutions warriors and the market solutions champions.

The team fighting for government to control America’s health care system identifies the ultimate goal of their plan as “universal health care.” So we’ll call them the Universals. If they win, all Americans will receive their health care as an entitlement from the federal government, which by definition will be paid for with tax revenue. If you’re looking for an example of this plan in action, consider the European model.

The other team is fighting for market-based solutions, where provider competition and patient portability prevails. We’ll call this team the Markets, and they want individuals to be able to make their own health care coverage decisions, pay for insurance coverage and treatments with before-tax dollars and become health care consumers, not just patients. The fans of the Markets think individuals, not the government, should be able to determine what’s best for them. The best example of success in support of this philosophy is Health Savings Accounts.

The difference between the two teams is actually quite simple: If you want to become a ward of the federal government regarding your health care services, root for the Universals. If you want to have more choices and control your own health care, cheer for the Markets.

Ironically, in 1997, a Republican-controlled Congress, typically on the Markets’ side, passed a bill called State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). This provides coverage for children in families often called the “working poor,” households whose family income puts them in a kind of Never-Never-Land between Medicaid and an income level where they could afford to purchase insurance on their own. One argument against SCHIP is that families at the high end of eligibility may drop their own coverage, even when they can afford it, and let the government cover their children.

The health care war is heating up again, this time over SCHIP income eligibility - the Universals want to increase it. If passed as proposed, as columnist and Markets fan, George Will, reported recently, in some states the new family-of-four income eligibility level for SCHIP could grow to over $84,000, which is more than 400% of the poverty line and $30,000 more than the U.S. mean household income.

Adding irony to irony, the Democrats, a.k.a Universals, are using this Republican creation to do an “end-run” around the Markets to accomplish their ultimate goal. Indeed, Universal co-captain, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, called this increased coverage “a down payment on President Obama’s promise to provide universal health care to all Americans.”

If you favor the Markets’ philosophy, as I do, these are fighting words. Beside greater federal intrusion into my life as my primary objection to universal health care, there is also the prohibitive tax increases on small businesses that would ultimately result to pay for it.

Recently, Grace-Marie Turner (www.galen.org)joined me on my small business radio program, The Small Business Advocate Show, to talk about the health care war and the Universals’ SCHIP weapon. Grace-Marie is one of the world’s top thought-leaders on health care public policy, president of the Galen Institute a long-time member of my Brain Trust and a co-captain of the Markets. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear what this important expert has to say about the future of the American health care system. And be sure to leave a comment.

Small business plans are only as good as the planning that follows

A business plan is the result of thinking, researching, strategizing, coordinating and reaching conclusions about how to pursue a specifically stated business opportunity. It exists in one or both of two places: on paper (including electronic “paper”) and/or in the head of the planner. Whether elaborate or simple, a business plan is a collection of ideas, facts, assumptions and projections about the future.

Why is a business plan necessary? Here are five good reasons:

1. It’s important to conduct due diligence on your proposed new business or future direction of an existing one.

2. It’s essential to take stock of the potential opportunity and compare that with your ability to pursue it effectively.

3. It’s necessary to evaluate your ability to overcome any obstacles discovered during the plan development.

4. A written business plan can be helpful in getting a loan from a bank and is usually essential when courting investors.

5. Anything in writing is always more valuable than relying on memory.

But a business operates like a movie, not a photo album. And since a business plan is more like a snapshot than a video, how does it help? It’s a good question that’s often asked, and the answer is it establishes a baseline from which you execute the most important management fundamental of all, planning. A plan is static; planning is motion, just like your business. A plan is a parked car; planning is conducting a safe cross-country trip through heavy traffic.

Planning is checking your moving business activity against fixed assumptions and projects you made in your plan and then measuring performance, or lack thereof. Planning allows you to see how smart you were when the plan was written, or where your due diligence and assumption skills need work. It also highlights any external changes that you must deal with.

For existing businesses, written plans often become collateral damage in an economic downturn. But you can’t allow planning to meet the same fate. Indeed, when things slow down there is even more need to check your position than when things are rocking and rolling. In a recession, planning should be conducted daily, not monthly. And if you’ve been a business owner in other recessions, you know that it’s sometimes necessary to do hourly planning.

Recently, on my small business radio program, I discussed this with the world’s business planning expert, Tim Berry. Tim is the founder of Palo Alto Software (www.paloalto.com)and an original member of my Brain Trust. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear from the master about why now, more than ever, planning is one of your keys to survival. And don’t forget to leave a comment or question.

Avoid the “Small Business Condition” - ask questions

What’s the first thing you learned in school after finding the bathroom and how big the teacher’s paddle is? There are no dumb questions. Right?

Small business owners should print these words and post them on the computer monitor because it’s one of our most dangerous deficiencies. I call it the “Small Business Condition,” and there are at least four reasons why small business owners contract this debilitating affliction:

1. Embarrassment - they think everyone else knows the answer, so they should too.

2. Revealing such a lack of knowledge would make them appear dumb and, therefore, uncompetitive.

3. They don’t know anyone to ask, like a consultant.

4. If they did know someone to ask, like a consultant, they would imagine that they couldn’t afford to hire this person to get the answers.

Left untreated, the “Condition” can be a fatal small business disease.

Perhaps you can tell that the “Condition” has occupied my mind for a long time. I first witnessed it when I had my small business consulting company and decided to devote the rest of my professional career eradicating this affliction. In fact, the business model of my small business radio show and media company allows us to create small business content and electronic delivery systems that can be accessed anonymously, for free and on-demand. The good news is that others have also committed themselves to this cause and, consequently, unlike 15 or 20 years ago, easy access to small business information abounds today.

Recently, I talked about the “Condition” with Brain Trust member, Nora Klaver, management expert and author of Mayday! Asking for Help in Times of Need. I think you’ll enjoy listening to what we had to say. And, please, leave your comments for us and others.

Ten Small Business survival steps to take right now

Last week we talked about assuming a survival attitude. Here are 10 things to do right now to execute on this attitude.

1. Profit is the Queen of business, but cash is King. Ask employees to help cut waste and expenses, plus review operational steps and eliminate or tighten up inefficient ones. What’s their motivation? How about job security? Watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.

2. Stay close to accounts receivables and cash management. Many tasks can and should be delegated by a business owner, but right now cash management isn’t one of them.

3. Declare war on excess inventory. Don’t miss a sale, but don’t let one piece of inventory spend the night in your building unless it’s absolutely essential. Inventory is cash you can’t spend until you convert it back by making a sale.

4. Review ALL contracts for services to make sure you still need them. Your customers are doing the same thing; get ready.

5. Make your banker your survival partner in 2009. Keep him or her informed about how things are going, good or bad – especially the bad. Bankers need information, even if it’s bad news. Remember this: An uninformed banker is a scared banker, and no one ever got any help out of a scared banker.

6. Wherever possible renegotiate term loans, including real estate mortgages, to take advantage of lower interest rates. Longer amortization and lower rates preserve cash.

7. If you rent, talk with your landlord about adjustments in the terms of your lease. Don’t expect the landlord to take a major hit, but he or she knows that prospects may not line up to take your space if you leave. This is a good time to be creative.

8. Convert non-performing assets to cash – even if you have to sell for less than you want. What things were worth last year has no bearing on what they’re worth today, and they might be worth less tomorrow. If it’s not performing, cut it loose.

9. If it’s humanly possible, personally call on EVERY customer at least once in the near future, even if a salesperson is calling on them. This isn’t a sales call; it’s a relationship call. Find out what you can do to help them, and then do it. Your company’s future probably depends upon these visits.

10. Payroll expenses must be addressed. Non-performers must go first. Before making other cuts, ask your team to help find creative ways to allocate your bare-bones payroll budget. But don’t forget that now could be a good time to invest in the future by acquiring a highly trained “big business” employee who just got laid off.

Don’t wait - take these 2009 survival steps right now.

Recently, on my small business radio program, The Small Business Advocate Show, I discussed these 10 survival steps in more detail. You can listen to my thoughts by clicking on this link. And as always, I look forward to your comments.