Tag Archive for 'Small Business'

Wall Street’s sour grapes shouldn’t set Main Street’s teeth on edge

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

When Jeremiah and Ezekiel so prophesied 2600 years ago, it was to offer hope for a time when the Children of Israel would stop having the sins of their fathers visited on them. As a student of the evolution of American capitalism over the past half century, recent observations have moved me to paraphrase the ancients with a new marketplace maxim that I pray will not become prophetic:

“Wall Street has eaten sour grapes and Main Street’s teeth are set on edge.”

Alas, my passage is not about hope for a sweeter time, but rather, a lament of concern for the opposite.  My perspective is informed by three periods of time: The Reagan Boom, post 2008 financial crisis, and post 2016 election. I’ll split the latter into bookends around the other two.

Post 2016 Election
When we awoke on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 to the shocking Electoral College tally showing Donald Trump had preempted the anointing of Hillary Clinton as president, the Dow Jones was already in record territory at 18,323.  By closing bell that day, the Index was up 265 points. Since then, the “Trump Bounce” has driven the Dow Jones through the once-mythical 20,000 level on the way to 21,000, the fastest 1,000 point run in history.

Meanwhile, out here on Main Street, the 44-year-old NFIB Index of Small Business Optimism reported its own historic spike in that sentiment since the election. But a small business can’t eat optimism, and my recent online polling indicates less than a third of our respondents are seeing customer enthusiasm actually ringing a cash register. After a tough decade, unlike investors, consumers are more measured than manic, so it’s likely to take months of sustained optimism to manifest as Main Street sales growth.

The Reagan Boom
Once upon a time, small businesses benefited from an exuberant stock market.

Beginning in the third quarter 1982, the Dow Jones caught a rocket to a 52% increase over the next four quarters, to 3071. And with the exception of a correction or two along the way, including the 1987 “Black Monday” crash, Wall Street didn’t look back until the turn of the new millennium when it closed at a record high of 11,722 on January 14, 2000.

Main Street businesses had much to be excited about because in those days it was an article of faith that “the stock market was a leading indicator of the national economy.” During that same period, as it had always done, the rising Wall Street tide raised Main Street boats too. Indeed, in that 18-year economic expansion, plus a shorter one from about 2002 to 2007, the old “leading indicator” dynamic between Wall Street and Main Street was made manifest during what has been called the “Reagan Boom.” As Wall Street reached new records, annual GDP growth, the favored indicator for small firms planted in the ground, averaged a beautiful 3.5%.

Post Financial Crisis
American macro-capitalism changed significantly beginning in 2007 with the Great Recession, which overlapped the financial crisis of 2008. In the process of surviving those two gut-punches, Corporate America and Wall Street shifted their business practices by focusing inward more than ever before. Inward, meaning investing less in the Main Street economy, to the extent that the once-dependable maxim, “Wall Street is a leading indicator of the economy,” morphed into my observation that Wall Street is now merely a leading indicator of itself – Main Street is on its own. Here’s my evidence:

  • While the U.S. economy was experiencing essentially a lost decade (2007-2016), with GDP growth averaging 1.4%, including barely 2% annually for the seven years following the end of the recession, the stock market spent the last five years setting new records.
  • For three years running, in the first quarters of 2014, 2015, and 2016, two things happened simultaneously that had only happened before in Bizarro World:
    • GDP went perilously negative in 2014 (-2.9%), 2015 (-2%), and achieved only .5% growth in 2016 (U.S. Dept. of Commerce).
    • The Dow Jones reached new record highs in all three first quarters.

Again I ask, what’s wrong with this picture?

Back to the future
There’s been no corporate earnings performance since November 8 to justify spikes of 15% for the Dow Jones and 11% for the S&P. Where’s the fundamentals evidence one would expect to cause equities to wander into unicorn territory? It’s true: The hope of a more business-friendly government is raising optimism in all sectors of the marketplace. But unlike Wall Street, a small business can only spend what it takes in by serving customers. Our top line manna falls from customers, not mania or manipulation.

Smarter people than I are forecasting a stock market correction if, for example, there’s no tax reform this year. My “sour grapes” concern is that having already “clipped its coupons” on the post-election exuberance, a correction this year for any reason it will set the economy back abruptly, derailing Main Street’s bounce before it ever happens.

No one on Main Street begrudges the success of Wall Street. But right now the disconnect between the two once-symbiotic sectors is at once illogical and unsustainable. When the irrational exuberance of Wall Street ultimately reconciles with reality, that event should not cause Main Street to become collateral damage before the latter ever gets to play in the game.

Write this on a rock … When Wall Street eats sour grapes, it should not set Main Street’s teeth on edge.

Four things you must know before buying a franchise

Over the years, I’ve met many people who want desperately to own a business, but 1) just don’t know what it should be; or 2) lack the entrepreneurial vision and/or desire to start a business from scratch.

Enter one of the great inventions America has given to the world: the franchise.

Purchasing and operating a franchise is entrepreneurial coloring inside of the lines.If you don’t have a problem playing in a sandbox someone else built, a franchise may be just the ticket for you.

The franchise universe is broad and diverse, with arguably thousands of options, which is both good and bad news - so many choices begets lots of intimidation. But fortunately, the fundamentals you apply to conduct franchise acquisition research, regardless of the one you choose, are basically the same.In his excellent book, Franchising and Licensing, my friend Andrew Sherman identifies a number of key components in any relationship between a franchisor (the developer of the franchise), and a franchisee (the purchaser of the franchise). From Andrew’s list I’ve chosen what I think should be the first four to help you narrow your search, followed by my thoughts.

1. A Proven Prototype
When you lay money down for a franchise, the model must be proven to work, because you’ll have to replicate the product over and over. Indeed, the prime expectation of any customer seeking out a franchise product is that it’s a known quantity. McDonald’s may not have the best hamburger in the world, but whether you’re in Moscow or Moline, it’s supposed to taste just like the one you had in Meridian.

2. A Strong Management Team
When you buy a franchise, not only will you need to seek periodic advice and instructions from the franchisor’s staff, but you want to have confidence in that support. There should be virtually nothing you can ask that they haven’t experienced and anticipated. Here’s a tip: If you aren’t getting overwhelmed with support and answers when considering a particular franchise, don’t expect much more once they have your money. I’d move on.

3. Comprehensive Training Program
In order to make that “hamburger” look and taste just like the last one you delivered, you must be able to learn how to do it yourself and teach your people how. That training MUST come from the franchisor. They will demand that you follow their rules, so you have a right to demand the best training.

4. Sufficient Capitalization
Franchisors are just like all other businesses in that they must have the capital to: a) Grow - you want your franchisor to expand their footprint; b) Innovate - to continue to offer relevant products and services every year; and c) weather the inevitable marketplace storms. When they ask about your financial condition, tell them “I’ll show you mine, if you’ll show me yours.”

Before you buy a franchise, you must talk with two people: 1) Someone who’s operating a franchise like the one you’re considering - ask what it’s like doing business with your franchisor prospect; 2) Someone who’s failed with a franchise - ask what happened and what they wish they knew before they started.

Remember that while owning a franchise is operating a business based on someone else’s idea, it’s still running a business. Other than being a single parent, there is no harder job. If you don’t love working, if you don’t value sweat equity, if you don’t appreciate deferred gratification, if you don’t have a lot of energy, if you like to sleep late, or if you’re a whiner, don’t buy a franchise - or start any business. And if you aren’t good at coloring inside the lines, like me, don’t buy a franchise.

Finally, in addition to Andrew Sherman’s book mentioned earlier, I also recommend one by another friend, Joel Libava, Become a Franchise Owner.

Write this on a rock … Franchising isn’t for everyone, but it might be for you.

Why strategic alliances are a 21st century imperative

In the 1990s, when I began thinking about how to help entrepreneurs prepare for the 21st century, I condensed the areas requiring a heightened level of importance into three critical disciplines:

1. Leveraging technology in every aspect of your business;

2. Professional networking, as opposed to just meeting new people;

3. Building strategic alliances as a growth strategy.

If by now you haven’t become at least somewhat proficient with the tech stuff, you don’t have much time to adapt, adopt and survive. Better get busy.

And thanks to the work of people like the legendary Ivan Misner, founder of Business Network International (BNI), most of us now subscribe to what I call Misner’s Razor: “It isn’t netplay; it’s network.”

But what about that alliance thing?

Blasingame’s Second Law of Small Business states: It’s redundant to say, “undercapitalized small business.” It’s a natural law that small businesses come to the end of their resources - people, assets, technology, cash and credit - much quicker than do our big business brethren and sistren. So by that definition, we have to do something as primordial as when Og asked Gog to hold the chisel while he carved out his new stone invention that looked a lot like a donut. We have to seek and develop alliances.

Answer these questions:

  • Is your business growth hampered by a lack of people, capital or other assets?
  • Would you like to bid on a request-for-proposal (RFP) that has specifications beyond your company’s ability to perform?
  • Are you reluctant to ask a large customer about their future plans for fear that your organization may not be able to step up to the answer?

If you answer any of these - or variations thereof - in the affirmative, perhaps it’s time to pursue one or more of these three alliance examples, in descending order of formality.

Partnership

A partnership is more formal and typically longer term. Regardless of how it’s structured, in general, all partners have a vested interest in the success of the entire enterprise. Think of two business owners buying a commercial duplex and sharing the space because neither has the cash or credit to swing the deal alone. Most partnerships are best organized with the help of an attorney. But remember, because it’s more formal, probably even legally binding, choose your partners well.

Once, when consulting a mentor about choosing a business partner, he used hyperbole to encourage caution by saying, “A partner is only good for two things: sex and dancing.” But it isn’t hyperbolic to say that alignment of values between the parties is imperative to a successful partnership. This is a natural law: Regardless of how symbiotic the combined contributions may be to the venture, a partnership founded by parties with conflicting values is doomed from the beginning. Choose your partners well.

Subcontractor

By definition, a subcontractor becomes a contractual participant you bring in to help fulfill a larger project for which you are the lead vendor or general contractor. Unlike a partner, a sub expects to get paid for delivery of work or products regardless of how the project turns out.

Subcontractors are a great way to leverage your business without giving up control of the opportunity. But remember that with this step you’ve created a performance chain. And we all know that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A weak subcontractor could undermine your performance, harm your brand, and may even take you down.

Like partners, choose your sub-contractors well.

Strategic alliance

This relationship is typically less formal. Let’s say a web designer, a programmer and a search engine optimization expert plug each other in on projects as peers, instead of as subcontractors. After a project is executed and paid for, the participants go their own way until the next symbiotic scenario. The most successful professionals I know claim, nurture and go to market with many and varied strategic alliance relationships. And most were born from networking.

Going forward, I believe we’re going to see more enthusiasm and growth in the marketplace than in the past few years. That should mean more business, which should present more opportunities for alliances.

Before giving up on a project because you don’t have the in-house resources, look around for ways to create alliances that allow you to take advantage of an opportunity.  Start establishing them now - before you need them.

Write this on a rock … If Og the caveman can create an alliance, you can, too.

5 year-end steps to take while you’re closing out this year

Fourteen hundred and forty - the number of minutes in a day.

Since we can make more money, arguably the greatest challenge of any small business owner is balancing the demands of the forces that compete for those minutes.

“What is the best use of my time right now?” is the constant management question on Main Street. And in no other part of the year are we more time-management challenged than in December, when we’re faced with allocating time to two very powerful management imperatives: The tactical focus on closing out the sales year as strongly as possible, while simultaneously taking strategic steps to set the business up for a fast and clean start on January 1.

In his book, Blue Highways, William “Least Heat Moon” Trogden said his Osage Indian grandfather once told him, “Some things don’t have to be remembered, they remember themselves.” It’s a natural law that the year-end sales push doesn’t have to be remembered, it remembers itself. But as we come to the two-minute drill in the last quarter of the marketplace game our business plays all year, committing precious time and energy to preparing for the future requires the discipline to remember it ourselves.

There are many areas to focus on this month to help you start the New Year clean and fast.  Here are five to get you started.

1. Throw stuff away

Even if you’re not a pack rat like me, you’ve accumulated stuff you don’t use anymore.  For example, one of the markers of a 21st century office is the digital graveyard. Unused or broken computers, monitors, etc., may have some value, so call a tech recycler and convert it into cash. If you can’t sell it, give it away or throw it away, because it’s in your way.

2. Empower producers - cut the dead wood

Year-end is also a great time to take stock of employees who’ve demonstrated leadership and engagement. Recognizing the performance of those individuals will motivate them to a fast start in the New Year.

The only thing worse than firing someone is letting an unproductive employee hold your team’s performance hostage for another year. A byproduct of identifying those who perform is it also shines a light on those who don’t. You owe productive people the most effective organization possible, which means you have to let the unproductive pursue their careers elsewhere.

3. Classify customers

Classify customers by gross profit into four groups, from the most profitable As to the least profitable Ds. Worship the As, cater to the Bs, encourage the Cs and teach the Ds about self-service. When the cost of a customer’s expectations encroaches on your profit margin too much, allow them to join your unproductive employees - elsewhere.

4. Purge inventory

As with customers, take a new look at your products and inventory by identifying the most profitable As to the least profitable Ds. Stock all the As, a few of the Bs and maybe a couple of Cs. But never let a D spend one night under your roof unless it’s paid for. Remember, profitable inventory management means just-in-time, not just-in-case. And write off obsolete and damaged inventory. Take the hit now.

5. A/R reality

Take another hit by writing off uncollectable accounts receivables now, so you can start January with a clean list. A/R write-offs are tax deductions this year, and if you wind up collecting them next year, it’s gravy. The only thing more troubling to a banker than uncollected A/R is a customer who doesn’t have the discipline to deliver a clean balance sheet.

Each New Year deserves to have the maximum opportunity to be successful, so don’t saddle it with obsolescence, waste and bad decisions. By taking these steps - and others from your own list - you’ll prove to yourself, your team you’re your banker that you have the discipline to make the critical decisions for which successful managers are known.

Write this on a rock … Have the discipline to set up your New Year for a clean and fast start.

The wonderful world of small business niches

One of the things Sears Roebuck is famous for is their Craftsmen tools, especially their mechanical socket wrenches. Once, while buying one of these, I was confronted with the options of “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” a strategy for which Sears is also famous. Asking about the difference, I was told that the Best model had more notches, or teeth, inside the mechanism, allowing for finer adjustments when tightening a bolt or nut.

For the past 30 years, the marketplace has increasingly become like that “Best” socket wrench: every year, it acquires more notches, except in the marketplace, notches are called niches (I prefer “nitch,” but some say “neesh” – tomato, tomahto). And just as more notches in a mechanical wrench allow for finer adjustments, niches create finer and more elegant ways to serve customers, which they like – a lot.

Webster (and Wikipedia) defines a niche as, “a place or position perfectly suited for the person or thing in it.” If ever a concept was perfectly suited for something, it is the niche and small business. Indeed, as one small business owner creates a new niche, another is creating a niche within a niche. It’s a beautiful thing.

Rebecca Boenigk is the president of Neutral Posture, Inc., a Texas company she and her mother founded in 1989. This small business manufactures REALLY comfortable and ergonomically correct office chairs. As a guest on my radio program, she told me they attribute their success to filling a niche: Their chairs aren’t for everyone, just those who are willing to pay a little more for a chair that promotes the best posture at work. Many small business fortunes have been made with the Neutral Posture model of being the best-in-niche, rather than trying to conquer the world.

The mother of niches is what Adam Smith called “the division of labor,” which today often manifests as outsourcing. Outsourcing is when individuals and businesses spend more time focusing on their core competencies and contract for the other stuff. For example, there are more professional lawn businesses today because folks are increasingly realizing they can earn more by sticking to their professional knitting, than it costs to hire their grass cut.

And across the marketplace, it’s become an article of faith that the best way to stay on track is by outsourcing non-core tasks to a contractor – often operating in a niche – whose core competency is that task. I’ve long said that the best thing that ever happened to small business – after the personal computer – is outsourcing, because it manufactures niches, which are pretty much the domain of small business.

As niches have increased in number, so have entrepreneurial opportunities, resulting in the most dramatic expansion of the small business sector in history. It’s difficult to say which one is the egg and which is the chicken: Have entrepreneurs taken advantage of niche opportunities presented to them, or have they carved out niches while pushing the envelope of an industry? The answer is not either/or, it’s both/and.

In the future, there won’t be more mass marketing, mass media or mass distribution, but there will be more niches – lots of new niches. Even niches of niches. And that’s good news, because more niches means a healthier small business sector, which I happen to believe is good for the world.

Write this on a rock … Most small businesses will find more success by creating and serving niches.

Can you make teleworking work for you?

Here’s a scenario that every small business owner fears: A key employee resigns because he or she cannot continue to come to your place of business to work for reasons out of their control, such as an illness or a family issue. Is there another answer besides accepting the resignation?

With the exciting recruiting resources available today, you might discover that the best prospect for a job opening you have lives in another state, or even another country. What if they don’t want to move? What’s your next move?

One word answers both questions: Teleworking.

New technology and evolving management paradigms make stories like these have happy and productive endings through teleworking.

A marker of the 21st century workplace, teleworking is where an employee works off-site full or part-time (aka tele-commuting), most often from home. But in order for such an arrangement to be successful, two things must happen:

First the easy part: You must have the necessary technology and tools, which you will have to provide your teleworker.

  • Computer capability and Internet connection are the minimum.
  • Your teleworker will need the right set up, like office furniture, etc., to make their off-site working environment as productive as possible. And it’s not unreasonable to ask to see how the space is organized.

Now the hard part: Can you handle such a management relationship? Consider these four ground rules to execute a teleworking relationship.

  • Find out if, and what work can realistically be done off-site.
  • Determine how to coordinate all work, off or on-site.
  • Establish expectations for scheduled communication, plus production, execution and delivery of work.
  • Talk with other employees about why this employee is being allowed to work remotely, so they can support the new plan. If handled properly, you’ll get major points for being such a cool, 21st century manager.

Execute your teleworking plan with the expectation that adjustments will almost certainly have to be made. So schedule periodic reviews with your teleworker to discuss how things are going.

By the way, if you’re still having trouble imagining having an employee who’s not sitting under your roof, add up how many hours in-house employees work and communicate without actually seeing each other. I’ll bet that number will surprise you.

It might make you feel better knowing that the teleworking model is now being implemented by thousands of small businesses like yours every day.

Write this on a rock … Teleworking can work. Can you make it work for you?




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