Lessons I Learned Today 6/16/09 – Looking for the Silver Lining

This is a digest and recap of highlights, quotes, and comments from articles and discussions posted on this date on the Applied Entrepreneurship, LinkedIn group site.


*Divorced – but still in business together by Joseph V. Tirella

“The firm, co-owned by Joseph Carini, 47, and Aurelie Lang, 37, sells rugs and tapestries that are handwoven in Nepal using Chinese silk and wool from sheep that graze the Himalayas. Prices typically range from $8,000 to $10,000.” 

“Carini and Lang – he’s an artistic New Yorker, and she’s a native Parisian with a no-nonsense approach to both business and life – married in 1996 but are going through a divorce (they are legally separated). They live on the same Brooklyn block and share custody of their three children: Celia (8), Leonardo (5) and Gregory (4). Although the breakup was heart-wrenching, the process has been amicable. They recently drew up papers splitting the firm fifty-fifty.” 

“We’re still in business together because we trust and respect each other and bring different skills to the table,” says Carini.

 Despite their complementary styles, they don’t always see eye to eye. Although Carini and Lang agree on their firm’s problems, they often disagree on possible solutions. 

The article business details advice given the couple by three experts hired by Fortune magazine. 


*Expanding your biz, despite the downturn by Emily Maltby

“Like many business owners fighting the recession, Mark Rickard is looking for ways to draw in new customers. The challenge: How to expand beyond his firm’s traditional services without confusing customers or taking on more than his company is equipped to handle.” 

“Rickard List Marketing is a direct mail marketing company that Mark and his sister have run since their father’s retirement. Rickard wants to use this slow period to rebrand the company, but he has questions about how to make the transition. He’s brought the issue to a gathering of The Alternative Board (TAB), a panel of seasoned business owners who meet monthly to swap advice on their business challenges.” 

“Think about the long-term future, Buonfiglio says. Building up new lines of business will inevitably take some of Rickard’s time away from current customers and projects, but that temporary trade-off can be worth it if the expansion will pay off for the company down the road.” 

“You’ll have to consider opportunity cost versus reward,” he says. 

The best way to grow is through “baby steps,” Labriola emphasizes. “You don’t want to be too far from the core. Insulate it and expand into areas that are safe. Pick a few things off your list just to elevate who you are. It takes a long time.” 

“You have a million ideas and directions. Take a holistic look and examine the risk factors associated with each idea. Look at where you are with each one today and where you want to go. Then, you can start to execute those ideas. And only then should you think about marketing.” 


*A frontline view of the Great Recession by Emily Maltby 

“Behind every statistic about whopping job losses and the shrinking economy are thousands of small businesses battling the everyday realities of trying to survive with less staff and fewer customers. A group of entrepreneurs from peer advisory group The Alternative Board (TAB) gathered to discuss their view from the frontline of the recession.”

“To adjust to the new economic realities, business owners are shaving their staffing down to the bone. Businesses with fewer than 50 staffers have collectively shed 1.4 million jobs in the past six months, according to estimates by payroll processor ADP.”

“Managers are taking a hard look at their remaining staffers – no one can afford to carry marginal performers these days.”

“There’s one silver lining for business owners in the grim job market: When they need to hire, they can hold out for an exceptional candidate.”

“Economic experts say there are signs the economy may have already hit bottom and begun its rebound, but down in the trenches, business owners see a hard slog ahead. Those gathered for the TAB meeting predicted it will be at least a year or two longer before they feel the effects of an economic turnaround.”

“I think we’ll see some recovery in the first quarter of 2010, but the aftermath may last a year,” said Owen Mester, the baker. “The unemployment numbers, for example – I can see them lagging for months.”


*Recession: A Great Time to Start a Business! By NicoleR

“Despite a struggling economy with high unemployment rates, tight salaries and a crumbling corporate world, a recession is actually a great time to start a business.  History has shown that recessions can be birthing grounds for some of hardest working, most successful and creative entrepreneurs today.  A recession can teach an entrepreneur a lot about running an effective business that has the potential to do great things in a sprouting economy. Practices such as learning to operate on a budget, investing more time in client satisfaction and taking time to trial and error your business model are essential to operating a successful business.  The truth is if a business can survive even the toughest of times, that business is most likely to be a forerunner in the best of times.”

“Many businesses do not keep as close of a watch on their financials as they should.  A recession can force a business owner to closely monitor its spending habits on marketing, advertising, operating costs and other company investments.  In a recession, a business is more likely to search the market for the best deals on software and supplies, the largest ROI advertising opportunities and alternative methods to marketing aside from ‘big name’ publications, television airtime and costly PR campaigns.”

“More attention on customer satisfaction and retention is another valuable practice a small business will attain during a recession.  Since a recession leaves many individuals watching their pennies and focusing more on product quality and credibility, it is the perfect time for a company to devote more time to their customer service department.”


*An office where work is a family affair by David Koeppel

“After taking a six-week, fully paid maternity leave earlier this year, Francine Gemperle was anxious to resume her job but reluctant to be away from her infant daughter, Veronica. Fortunately, she didn’t have to choose between them. Maya Design, a Pittsburgh-based creative consulting firm, allows parents to bring newborns into the office.”

“Maya’s CEO and president, who argues that the policy builds loyalty and helps parents shift back into work mode.

“Babies at work, four-week vacations, continuing education — it’s important to strike a good balance between work and life,” he says.

“As part of its balancing act, Maya shares up to 20% of quarterly profits with its employees.”


*Strange brew: Beer and office democracy by David Koeppel

“A Colorado brewery views perks like free bikes as a core part of the company ethos. The perks aren’t just for fun, though. The free bikes help the environment.”

“Operating a business in a way that is consistent with your values is particularly pleasing,” says Jordan, 50.

Those values include employee ownership. Workers own 33% of New Belgium, which has 320 employees and posted $93 million in revenue last year. A large proportion of the staff participates in strategic planning and budgeting. “People are engaged and committed,” Jordan adds.

Some workers “get sucked into an entitlement mentality. Ownership investment gives the company a sense of cohesion, but giving everyone ownership can undermine the hierarchy.”


*Magic Johnson’s captivating customer service by Desa Philadelphia

“As an NBA Hall of Famer, Earvin “Magic” Johnson faced down such giants as Larry Bird and Julius Erving. Diagnosed with HIV in 1991, Johnson has fought off full-blown AIDS for the past 18 years. Now, as a coffee shop proprietor, he’s fighting his latest battle against…scones.”

“My customers in urban America are so skeptical, we have to win them over,” he says — and the skepticism extends to exotic pastries. “So in my Starbucks, we serve sweet potato pie.”

“When Johnson makes public appearances, he isn’t just signing autographs. He also gives his office phone number to any customer who complains to him personally, even if the problem is a dearth of sugar packets. If the problem persists, he wants to know about it. ”

“Minorities appreciate that, because we are used to corporations coming in, opening up their building, but then disrespecting us with their service,” Johnson says. “If you don’t engage us, we’re going to cut you off our list.”

Selling sweet potato pie instead of scones, he says, “shows customers that you’re trying to figure out how to serve them in new ways.” By targeting a less affluent market, Johnson benefits from less competition, greater loyalty and, paradoxically, more revenue in the long run.

“The lifetime value of his customers can be quite high, even if they don’t bring in as much money in the short term,” Hanssens says. “Everybody loses business in a recession. But it’s better if your existing customers stay with you and just spend a little less.”  


*Drive-by message: One entrepreneur’s crusade against guns by Alyssa Giacobbe

“John Rosenthal has a long history of social activism — and the prison record to prove it.”

“He launched Stop Handgun Violence, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to reducing gun violence without banning guns. Rosenthal was a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association and an avid rifleman (he shoots skeet, not animals), which makes him a voice of moderation in the often polarized debate on gun control.”

Businesspeople solve problems every day; that’s what we do,” says Rosenthal. “If more entrepreneurs involved themselves in activism, we could solve every problem this country has — and for a lot less money.”


*The six-year fight to start a Boston company by Malika Zouhali-Worrall

“Erroll Tyler doesn’t give up easily. For six years the Melrose, Mass. entrepreneur has been battling the cities of Cambridge and Boston to get his amphibious-vehicle sightseeing company, Nautical Tours, off the ground and into the water. His case is pending in federal court.”

This article gives some of the details of his journey through the Cambridge License Commission, Massachusetts Department of Public Utilites, Boston Police Department, and United States District Court.


*Training entrepreneurs to save cities by Sheena Harrison

“In the midst of a struggling economy, the Small Business Administration is hoping to create jobs and generate wealth in hard-hit urban communities by boosting small-business growth through its Emerging 200 initiative.”

“The six-month program, which launched last year and began its second session a month ago, aims to provide training to small-business owners in 15 major metropolitan areas that have experienced flat or negative job growth rates in recent years. Initially intended to train 200 entrepreneurs per session, the program has attracted enough interest that around 215 companies have been accepted for 2009.”

“The project’s goal is to provide talented entrepreneurs with the skills and contacts they need to grow their companies and create more jobs in their communities.”

“The group’s business owners attend classes every other week, which are hosted by officials from local SBA branches or by partner organizations such as chambers of commerce. On the off weeks, the attendees gather for peer-group sessions, at which smaller groups of four or five participants collaborate on class homework and discuss the ups and downs that their businesses face.”

“At the end of the six-month program, E200 participants walk away with a written, three-year growth plan – a helpful document to have handy for entrepreneurs looking for business loans or investors.”

“Other E200 lessons include primers on analyzing financial documents, new marketing techniques, and human resources strategies that can increase productivity and help business-owners delegate tasks. Bienko describes program as a “mini-MBA” for entrepreneurs.”


What I Think

I think one common thread in the articles posted on this date is the ways entrepreneurs struggle to find solutions to their problems and try to capitalize on the problems of the competition. Trust in the old English idiom, every cloud has a silver lining, would seem to be helpful here.

What could seem worse than having your biggest asset take the form of a troubled business, which you own with a spouse you are divorcing? The Tirella article, Divorced – but still in business together, teaches us that it is possible to make even this work. With help from some experts, the owners of this business were working on strategies to turn around sagging sales and resolve other business issues. Stress in managing a business together may have been at least partially responsible for the breakup, but the net result for the business, based upon assistance from the experts, may very well end up being a stronger business than was the case during the marriage.

NicoleR’s article, Recession: A Great Time to Start a Business, makes another great case for the silver lining.  The lack of available capital becomes a great teacher of frugality. In all likelihood, entrepreneurs starting a business during a recession are going to have to economize on start-up expenses and operate with a minimal burn rate. They will also develop a short pipeline, out of necessity, between startup and income stream. More good news can be found in the ready availability of one of the most important assets of any business, exceptional employees.

Several of the articles focus on entrepreneurs who are making a difference in their community, as well as making a profit in their business. Magic Johnson is achieving great success by giving great, personal service. Others are giving their employees exceptional perks instead of cash, while still others manage to focus on community service issues, as part of their business plan.

In several of the articles, the silver lining was discovered with the help of one or more consultants. In some cases, it was simply the perseverance of the entrepreneur or the ability to innovate. To some extent, a few of the turnarounds seem to simply be possible because the entrepreneur was able to make the proverbial lemonade out of lemons.   One thing is clear, however, in essentially all of these situations, a lesser “entrepreneur” would have quit or sold out, but the entrepreneurs in these articles have had the dedication and talent to recognize a problem and to stay with the path to finding the silver lining.


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If you enjoyed my impression of these articles, why don’t you read them for yourself and see what you and I missed or hit? Join the Applied Entrepreneurship group on LinkedIn. Membership is free and I try to post about ten articles a day there. We have some great discussions going and if you are an entrepreneur, we hope you will join us.

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Posted in Applied Entrepreneurship, Business interruption, crisis, etc., entrepreneur, Innovation, Perseverance

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