June 24, 2017

You’re the Boss Blog: Figuring Out How to Help Small-Business Owners

Staying Alive

The struggles of a business trying to survive.

I get a fair number of e-mails from my readers. A couple of weeks ago one arrived from a gentleman named Michael Bloch He wrote:

I am a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, studying Business Administration Political Science. Three months ago I founded an organization at Cal called Consult Your Community, which provides low-income, small business owners in college communities with pro bono consulting services. We believe that by helping these business owners improve the performance of their companies, we can create tangible, lasting benefits for both their businesses and our community at large.

Although we have enjoyed tremendous growth in the last few weeks (we have chapters opening at schools like Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, UVA, UNC, UMich, and more) I feel that our members don’t fully understand the small business environment in which we operate. After reading your NYT’s article from this month, I wanted to reach out to see it would be possible to speak with you directly to learn from your wide range of unique experiences, so that our members could be better equipped to serve our clients.

Michael and I did speak on the phone, a conversation that started with my congratulating him for getting his organization off the ground. He also outlined what he wants his organization to do. Consult Your Community has very grand goals. It wants to address income inequality and help rebuild the American economy, while providing a way for large corporations to act in a socially responsible manner. And it plans to do all of this by deploying business students to provide free consulting to local businesses.

I agreed to help. Then we discussed the point he raised in his query, how to prepare his student volunteers for the messy reality of running a business. I know nothing about what business students learn in school, and it’s been a long time since I started my business, but I’m going to throw out an idea based on my own experience. Here’s what everyone needs to know about very small businesses: they have very few resources. Particularly when starting up, entrepreneurs have no money and no time.

Forget what you hear about venture capital financing and software start-ups — those are very unusual situations. (My son Peter has been working at a technology start-up in San Francisco, and it’s a different universe from anything I’ve experienced.) My sense from talking to Michael is that he’s more interested in working with business owners who are trying to start a corner store, or a copy shop, or a coffee shop. Most people start companies like this with their own money — and run through much of it just getting the doors open. The owner’s time is completely wrapped up in trying to get the business going — it takes a lot of time to establish basic operating procedures — and also doing the work. For this person to spend even 10 minutes with a student volunteer may be a lot to ask. No matter how well intended, a misguided approach won’t help anyone.

In more than two decades running a business, I have encountered all kinds of unsolicited input from outsiders. When considering these, I have learned to separate them into two categories: advice and actual help. These are very different. Advice is well meant, and often would be terrific if implemented, but is given without any commitment from the giver. It sounds like this: “You should do some difficult project with lofty goals!” I’ve always been a little grateful to get advice, as it does express some concern for my well-being. But I have rarely been able to act on it, as I have been overloaded with existing responsibilities.

Actual help has been much rarer but a lot better. It generally appears only after some effort on the part of the helper to understand what is really happening in the business, generally through time spent with the owner. Actual help sounds like this: “You are weak in some area of concern, and I’m going to take on a specific task for you.” In other words, the actual helper provides not only a thoughtful, customized analysis, but also the resources to put the plan into action.

In my own business, my greatest weakness was understanding my finances. The most useful actual help I received was having my partner’s wife set up my QuickBooks properly. She spent time with me, understanding my make-shift system, rolled up her sleeves, and got it done. This took several months of part-time work. Having my books set up in a conventional manner allowed me to hire a bookkeeper to maintain them. I was still a long way from real profit, but that one act set me on the road to sustained success.

Consult Your Community’s Web site lists four services that it intends to deliver: marketing, finance, environmental, and human resources. Michael and I did not discuss where this list came from, but let’s assume that it reflects course work that the students have done. Presumably, they have an academic understanding of these concepts, and now they have to apply them to real businesses. This, in my opinion, is where it might get tricky. Are those the primary problems that a small-business owner faces?

Based on my own experience, I would immediately remove environmental issues from the list — my clients simply do not care how green we are. And I would change marketing to selling, a related but different problem. Finance and human resources are always good to think about but maybe not in the way they are taught in school. My experience with finance has been about living simply, begging help from relatives, and running a large credit card balance now and then. H.R. has been easy except when it’s dreadful: disciplining and firing workers for things they have done, and sometimes having to lay them off because of bad business conditions.

Every business is different. The problems depend on the particular skill set of the owner. I hope that Michael’s volunteer helpers will work with business owners to identify areas of weakness and then provide actual help, not just advice. But that’s just me.

What would you tell Michael? If some bright-faced young business students showed up at your door, what would you want them to do?

Paul Downs founded Paul Downs Cabinetmakers in 1986. It is based outside Philadelphia.

Article source: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/figuring-out-how-to-help-small-business-owners/?partner=rss&emc=rss

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