JJ Ramberg: Her Business Is Your Business
Everyone's trying to figure out what's on the mind of small business owners, particularly this election season. And of all the people I know, there's one person who's seen it all. That's JJ Ramberg. She's the host of Your Business, a weekly show on MSNBC devoted entirely to the small business community. And now she's the author of a new book: It's Your Business--183 Essential Tips That Will Transform Your Small Business.
As host of Your Business, Ramberg has talked to countless business owners over the course of the 282 episodes she's taped. And she's a small business owner herself.
Tell me about the Your Business show. How did it come about and what is its purpose?
The purpose of Your Business is to give tips and advice to small business owners to help them grow and survive. Though this is such a large and important part of our population, there was no television show addressing the issues small business owners face. When we launched the show, there was a lot of media focus on Wall Street, but little on Main Street. Your Business was conceived of to fill that gaping hole.
What would you rank as your favorite shows/segments and why?
I walk away from most of the interviews really inspired by the person I just met. Kim Bensen is someone who sticks out as one of my favorites. After being the primary breadwinner for their family, Kim's husband lost his job and, for medical reasons, could not get another one. That left Kim, who had been doing some part time waitressing, to figure out how to pay their mortgage and support her family of four kids. With nearly no business experience, Kim took a big risk and invested practically their entire savings on a business idea she had to make and sell low fat bagels. As you can imagine, it took a lot of pounding the pavement, but Kim would not take no for an answer. And when you meet her, it's hard to not be taken in by her optimism and determination. I'm sure you can guess how the story ends. Kim's company was a big success and now not only supports her family, but the families of her many employees.
What did you do before, and why do you think you were selected for this job?
My career has zigzagged between television news and small business. I was an Associate Producer at Dateline when I decided to go back and get my MBA from Stanford. After graduating, business degree in hand and infected by Silicon Valley, I went to work for an Internet start-up called Cooking.com. Then, going back to my TV roots, I left that job to join CNN where I was a reporter, covering a lot of business stories. And then, I jumped sides once again to start my own company GoodSearch.com. I believe I was selected for this job because I had extensive experience in both journalism and small business. Because I have started and run my own company, I am much better able to get to the heart of the stories we cover on Your Business. When we talk about something such as the expense of providing healthcare for your employees, I've lived it right alongside my audience!
How has hosting Your Business helped you as a small business owner?
I'm in an incredibly lucky position. I've gotten to interview thousands of small business owners about what they've done to help their companies grow. So, I'm constantly learning about great ideas to implement at GoodSearch.
Tell me about Goodsearch, the company that you own.
GoodSearch turns people's every day actions into ways to support their favorite nonprofit or school. I founded this company with my brother Ken. We both knew that everyone has a cause they care about--whether that's saving the environment or finding a cure for cancer or helping stray animals--but not everyone has the means (time or money) to help these causes as much as they'd like. So, Ken and I wanted to do something game-changing in the world of philanthropy and give people a simple way to support these organizations every single day. Through GoodSearch, every time you search the Internet, shop online or dine out, a percentage of what you spend can be donated to your favorite cause at no cost to you. Last year about 15 million people used GoodSearch and we've raised more than $9 million.
If you had unlimited funds for your business, what would you do with it?
I am a product of the first Internet boom and as a result, I don't think unlimited funds are necessarily helpful (this is not a criticism of the company I worked with at all. Cooking.com is still around and doing well). I think that when people are given unlimited funds, money often replaces creativity which can lead to a company being less successful.
Do you think women are at a disadvantage in the business world?
I am the daughter of two entrepreneurs. Both my mom and dad started and ran small businesses. So, with them as my role models, I have never felt that I personally have been at a disadvantage. But, if you look at the statistics and hear some of the stories, it is clear that there are still areas where women have it harder than men. I had three kids in two and a half years soon after we launched Your Business. So, looking back, I think there were a few shows that were not my favorite simply because I was so incredibly sleep deprived!
Why do you think some entrepreneurs are more successful than others?
I think success comes from a combination of determination, hard work, reflection, resources and in some cases, luck. For some people it takes more hard work and determination to get the resources than others, but it is possible.
What do you consistently hear as the biggest problems for small businesses?
Getting customers. Now the cause of this problem can be all different things--from not having enough money or time or market the company effectively to having a target audience that disappeared during the recession. But, the issue is the same--not enough people are buying my product or service.
If you were advising a startup, what three things would you tell him/her to do?
1. Do not fall victim to tunnel vision. It's so easy to believe so strongly in your idea that you stop listening to what your customers or potential customers are saying if it is not exactly in synch with what you believe. So, do a lot of listening and be prepared to course correct if necessary.
2. Don't spend all of your time and all of your money making things perfect. Get your product or service out there so that people can start experiencing it. You can make changes as you go along.
3. Surround yourself with smart people and good advisors. There is no doubt that you are not going to know all the answers, but there is someone out there who can help you with almost every one of them.
What would you tell a high school senior who's about to enter college about entrepreneurship?
I just went back to my college reunion and my college roommates and I went around the table and said what we majored in and what we wish we had majored in. I was an English major and wish that I had been an Economics major. So, my advice is to major in something that interests you. College teaches you how to think and debate and question and research and organize your thoughts. So, learn those skills around a subject you are excited by. Though, while you're doing that, learn how to program too.
I have three kids going to college in September. Any ideas how to make a quick $250-500K to cover four years of tuition?
Soon as you figure it out, please let me know!
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.
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