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GIVE BUSINESS GIFTS THAT COUNT

7 Holiday Dos And Don'ts For Every Entrepreneur

I've survived 22 holiday seasons as a business owner--and learned a thing or two about what not to do this time of year.

I'm not going to lie: the holiday season isn't much fun for the typical small business owner.

It's not that we don't enjoy the holidays. Or that we don't have that special Christmas spirit.  It's just that the holidays are, er, kind of costly. Many of us shut down for a period of time. Shipments don't go out the door. Business gets interrupted. Key people go on vacation. There are holiday parties and other distractions. And of course, the holidays means it's time to dole out year-end bonuses too. It's all good and fun but let's face it: it's expensive.

I started my business in 1994, which means I've survived 22 holiday seasons as a business owner. And I've watched hundreds of my clients do the same. So it should be no surprise that I've learned a few things not to do at this time of year.

As we enter the final two weeks of 2012 year, let me tell you a few holiday dos and don'ts that every small business owner should know.

1. Don't send out holiday emails. 

No one is reading your holiday email. Everyone knows that you used a free service, picked out a template, uploaded a spreadsheet, and blasted out the message to a thousand people in your database. It's not personal and it's not worth the effort. Stay old school: send a nice card via regular mail. Have your key people sign it. Splurge a little and get a bigger-than-normal size with some type of old-time holiday scene and merry English people wearing top hats. Or get a card that's local to your area. If you're too cheap to send out a cute card, send a simple thank you email to the clients and partners that really matter to you. Try to make it personal. No funny reindeer. No splashy graphics.

2. Don't worry about religion. 

I'm Jewish. I love Christmas. There, I said it: I love Christmas. I looked it up on the Internet and read that Christians believe that Jesus was born on December 25th. What's politically incorrect about that? Why would anyone have a problem with it? I love Santa. I love Will Ferrell in Elf. I'd probably love Jesus too if he was in a good movie. It's OK if you wish me a Merry Christmas. In fact, when non-Jewish people go to great pains to wish me a "happy holiday" it seems kind of strange to me. If someone gets offended because you wish him a Merry Christmas that's his problem. Celebrate Christmas for what it is: a joyous event. Even if you have to endure that stupid Paul McCartney song a thousand times.

3. Decorate your office.

I mean it. Do it up. Your office is a drab, boring, business-y, tedious place. This is the one time of year when you can actually make it fun and festive. Hang stockings from the walls and little white, green, and red flickering lights everywhere. Have your employees bring in decorations. Ask them to participate. They're falling asleep at their desks anyway. Some people aren't allowed (and don't even ask me why or God may smite me) to have a single Christmas ornament at home. So going into a decorated office really creates spirit. Also, get a tree. Do a secret Santa gift-giving thing, and put all the gifts under it. Trust me, your people may be grumpy old grown-ups on the outside with mortgages and deadlines and car payments. But on the inside they're still nine years old. And even that long term employee in accounts payable will have a twinkle in her eye when she sees a little present waiting for her under the ol' Christmas tree.

4. Forget about an overboard office party.

Holiday parties outside the office are a drunken, silly waste of time and money. If your people want to see each other after work they can do that at happy hour. Otherwise you have a lot of people in a fancy restaurant nibbling on overpriced hors d'oeuvres and drinking too much. Nothing ever good comes from that. The quiet guy from IT gets way too loaded and behaves so outrageously that people avoid him for months afterward. The girls overdress and ignore that IT guy. Everyone checks out everyone else's spouse, and wonders how that really nice girl can possibly be married to Jake from shipping. You make "the speech" and it seems awkward and out-of-place. And everyone leaves early to go to a more happening bar downtown. And that's if you're in New York. If your business happens to be located anywhere else in the country you're risking a lawsuit or, at the minimum, a very angry spouse when an employee gets behind the wheel after one too many hard lemonades. Most people aren't having a good time anyway. And then you're stuck with a giant bill.

5. Do the office party right.

Have it at your office. Cater it nicely. Do it during the day (preferably lunch time). Keep it internal--no spouses or family members. Make it nice and friendly and warm and professional. And for God's sake do NOT serve alcohol. Especially to the guy from IT. You'll be less awkward making "the speech." Then give everyone the rest of the day off. Because that's the best gift you can give anyone: the opportunity to be away from work, and with family.

6. Shut down if you can.

Of course you're closed Christmas Day and New Year's Day. But try to close up your offices for longer than that. Give everyone a much-needed rest. Use the time to hang out with your family and all the relatives who are visiting you from out of town. And after those five minutes are up, go to the office and walk around. Look at the empty desks and deserted warehouse and enjoy the quiet. Then think about all the things you can be doing to make more money next year. Clean things up. Jot down a few objectives. Blast your favorite Abba song over the loud speaker system. No one's going to hear! Many of my clients use Christmas to reconnect with their businesses. Alone. You'll be surprised at how many great thoughts come out of it.

7. Give.

This is the one time of year to give. Embrace it. Use the holiday season as your primary rationale for saying thank you. To your employees, with bonuses. (I'll write more about that another day). To your customers, with a bottle of wine, or a box of chocolates (to the more deserving). And to charities. Have one or two charities that your business supports and use this time to contribute a little something more. The reason Christmas is so special is because it's the end of one year and the start of a new one. It's a time to reflect on the past and make plans for the future.  And it's a time to appreciate all that you have in your professional life: the employees who have helped you succeed, the customers who pay the bills, the suppliers who deliver the products you need, and the partners who help you get your done. Thank them. Give them something. And be grateful.

Merry Christmas everyone.

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Last updated: Dec 19, 2012

GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group

Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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