When it comes to running a business you don’t have to be the lone wolf.
Business Commentary by Don Simon
What is perhaps the greatest cause of small business failure? Is it lack of money? Nope. How about a bad location? Uh-uh. What about poor product or service distribution? Not quite. These aren’t the causes of most small business failures. In fact, they are only the symptoms of a common disease known as Business Owner Isolation Syndrome.
Running a business can be a lonely affair. You work nontraditional hours. The business requires your constant attention. There are no managers, no colleagues, no happy hours and no office holiday parties. Once you take on the title of “owner,” you generally become the sole decision-maker for virtually everything during the early years. It can be overwhelming with little or no input from outsiders.
1. CONNECT WITH A BUSINESS INCUBATOR.
A business incubator is a building that is divided into units, which are leased to early-stage small businesses. They provide opportunities to share resources and learn from other businesses. Many incubator operators have capital to invest or links to potential funding sources.
According to Lee Langerock, executive director of the Independence Regional Ennovation Center, incubators can aid in reducing some of the hazards associated with starting a business. “Business incubators can help de-risk the upfront cost of doing business and provide the technical and collaborative expertise to proof out that business model,” Langerock explains.
But not all incubators are alike. Shop around and find one that fits. “Interview the incubator managers first,” suggests Nathan Kurtz, manager in entrepreneurship with the Kauffman Foundation. “Ensure they have the right expertise, mentoring and connections for your particular customer and problem segment.”
Incubators are not intended to be permanent homes. Rather, they provide a temporary nurturing environment where businesses can get support until they are financially healthy. Upon reaching predictable profitability, the business moves into a more permanent location.
2. NETWORK WITH YOUR PEERS.
Networking with other small business owners gives you an opportunity to interact with those who face many of the same day-to-day challenges as you. It can also lead to more business. “Networking is a great way to create relationships with other business owners,” says Chris Nastav, owner of KC Web Specialists and member of the Kansas City Networking Group. “Industry-specific networking groups are great for referrals too. Whenever someone in the group has a need, you can say, ‘Hey, I know a guy!’”
But networking doesn’t necessarily have to be through an organization. Anthony Ladesich goes about it in a different way. “Since starting Mile Deep Films eight years ago, I’ve missed having co-workers but have found ways to recreate those relationships,” he says. “Others in the local film industry generally are solo businesses as well. We get together for lunch or to have a drink and exchange ideas, vent frustrations and discuss new projects.”
Whether it’s regular appearances at formal networking events or getting together informally with a small group of industry cohorts, peer networking can help you overcome Business Owner Isolation Syndrome.
3 GET A PARTNER.
Before going this route, you should do a lot of soul searching. Deciding whether or not to bring in a partner is an important decision in the life of any business. Not everyone fits the bill. Look for someone with whom you can get along and share complementary skills.
Local artist Chris Dahlquist of Dahlquist Studios didn’t have to look very far for her business partner. She found a good one in her husband, Kyle. “Being married to your partner means that you know where their abilities lie, you know how to communicate effectively and that you can trust them implicitly,” she says.
But Dahlquist, who’s been in business with her husband for 25 years, says her situation isn’t for everyone. “It can be hard to keep private issues out of professional ones and vice versa,” she admits. “It also takes a conscious effort to keep the business relationship from subsuming the marriage.”
Partnerships can present additional risk. But with proper execution, having a partner will give you someone you can work with and brainstorm and bounce ideas off of. Partners are also people with whom you can share the responsibilities, risks and liabilities of running a business.
4. FIND A MENTOR.
A mentor is a person with more business experience who can help you hone your abilities and advise you on many of the challenges you face. They’ve been there, and they can provide pointers on business strategy or act as confidants when times get tough.
Judy Mills, owner of Mills Record Company, found a mentor in an unlikely place: the competition. “I have a mentor-type relationship with Kelly Corcoran of Love Garden Sounds. We call each other to compare notes, and I ask him novice questions. He’s a good teacher, and I’d be foolish not to learn from him,” says Mills who celebrated her first anniversary of being in business this past May.
A mentoring experience can last one day, one year or the entire life of your business. If you find someone who’s willing to work with you, here are a few things to remember:
- Be honest and straightforward about the problems you face.
- Leave your thin skin at home and listen to what your mentor has to say.
- Don’t blindly follow your mentor’s advice.
5. TRY SCORE.
Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) is affiliated with the Small Business Administration and offers one-on-one counseling services, workshops and events. Sarah Carpenter of The Clutter Maven had a positive experience with a SCORE volunteer.
“It was easy to get an appointment,” Carpenter recalls. “I sat with a retired accountant who walked me through some simple tips for managing the daily details for my business.”
She says they also helped her with some of the more challenging aspects of her business such as bookkeeping and mileage tracking.
Business Owner Isolation Syndrome is one of the most common and possibly greatest challenges facing an entrepreneur. There’s an old saying: “It’s lonely at the top.” But with help and input from others, it doesn’t have to be. Good luck!
Donald R. Simon is president and CEO of Simon Business Consulting, Inc.
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