Business Made Easy

A review of resource books which include management tips on starting a small business.
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Most small-business resource books claim to have all the answers. That's their first mistake

You probably don't remember that minor rock-and-roll hit of a few years back called "Takin' Care of Business." Performed by an equally minor rock-and-roll group, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the song was about getting through the workday, and it included the following immortal lines:

If you ever get annoyed

Look at me, I'm self-employed

I love to work at nothing all day.

For some reason, that refrain kept running through my head as I perused the latest crop of small-business resource guides and handbooks. Maybe it was because almost all of these books make starting a business sound a lot like doing nothing all day. At any rate, they sure do make it sound easy.

The Macmillan Small Business Handbook (Macmillan, 1988) by Mark Stevens is typical: "You own your own business or you plan to. Congratulations. You are living the American dream. Self-employed, responsible to no one but yourself, you run your company and your life as you see fit. No boss, no peers, no corporate rules to complicate (or interfere with) the management process. Your word is the law. . . . "

True, almost all the books are quick to counsel that starting a small business isn't for everyone. But listen to how they do it. Here, for instance, is Irving Burstiner in The Small Business Handbook, revised edition (Prentice Hall, 1989): "If you are lucky enough to possess a higher-than-average level of self-confidence, if you can think positively about (and are not turned off by) the prospect of hard work, long hours and onerous responsibility, if each new problem challenges you to tackle it with everything at your command, then owning your own business might be the proper route to chart." In other words, you shouldn't start a business if you think of yourself as an insecure, lazy wimp. Big help.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Burstiner's book. It's just so general as to be worthless. Suppose, for example, that you're thinking of buying a business. Burstiner writes: "Bring in a consultant with experience in the particular kind of business to examine the premise thoroughly." Really? Why is that a good idea? How do you find the consultant? What will it cost? How will you know if he has done a good job? Burstiner doesn't say.

Or consider Burstiner's advice about interviewing job candidates: "Because it's comparatively easy for an interviewer to be overly influenced by an outstanding characteristic of an applicant, it's wise to develop and use an interviewing rating form that touches on all important areas." OK, maybe. But what's in the form? Are there certain things that should weigh more heavily than others? The answer from Burstiner, whose résumé boasts that he has more than 35 years of experience in business as a lecturer, consultant, and professor: "Of course, the more you interview people -- and the more you read about how to interview in books on human resources and administration -- the better you'll be at it!"

Swell. Burstiner bills his book as "a comprehensive guide to starting and running your own business," and then says people should learn on the job and read other books. For $16.95, you might expect to get more than generalities and gentle encouragement.

What you should expect, at the very least, is something like How to Run a Small Business, sixth edition, by the J. K. Lasser Tax Institute (McGraw Hill, 1989). The publisher boasts that it is the most successful book on small business published during the past 40 years. I can see why. It covers every conceivable concern, from accidents (industrial) to the Yellow Pages.

How to Run a Small Business is filled with commonsense tips -- some basic, some less obvious. In the discussion of buying an existing company, for example, Lasser stresses the importance of studying the business's tax returns. "You can be fairly sure that the receipts are not overstated, although expenses may have been exaggerated and the inventory may have been adjusted for tax purposes." Here's another: thinking of locating in a town based on tax breaks and other promises offered by the municipality? "Be-ware . . . mayors and council members change with each election."

And the book is not afraid to take a stand. Should you hire consultants to help you get started (as Burstiner blithely recommends)? No, says Lasser. "You are probably not qualified to judge their worth." It even answers mundane questions you may never have thought to ask, such as this: "If you plan to provide parking facilities, you must have at least 200 square feet of parking lot per car." And this: "The average office needs at least one toilet and one sink for every 15 persons."

It's a good primer. But Lasser's strength -- its attempt to cover every conceivable topic -- is also its weakness. When a 314-page book needs a 20-page index, you can be assured that no subject is covered exhaustively. Thus setting up an accounting system gets 24 pages. Doing business overseas gets exactly eight paragraphs.

Along the way, some strange things happen. Consider the discussion of advertising. The book attacks the conventional wisdom that a small agency will give you more attention than a big one. "A large agency, offering more specialized facilities, may be interested in your business because of your growth potential, and offer more diverse services (such as market research)." Interesting, but where do you find these agencies? Lasser's advice: look in the phone book.

Clearly, the book is only a starting point. You need to augment it. You might think you could do that with Mancuso's Small Business Resource Guide (Prentice Hall, 1988) -- but you'd be wrong. Granted, the book's premise is intriguing. Within its 557 pages, author Joseph R. Mancuso attempts to offer the answer to every small-business question, or name someone who can provide the answer. Unfortunately, he doesn't succeed.

Suppose, for example, that you have a pencil-making company in Ellisville, Mo., and you're looking for an advertising firm to assist you in your business-to-business marketing. Lasser is little help, as we've seen. So you turn to Mancuso's advertising section and read: "The JN company is a very creative agency." Well, bully for them. Do its ads sell? Does it know anything about business-to-business? And can the JN company really help you in Ellisville, west of St. Louis? After all, it's located in Melville, N.Y.

Not to worry: Mancuso has other listings. "The Madelyn Miller Agency offers a flair for the colorful." Great! But your pencils come only in yellow. "The Blaine Group specializes in public relations." Is that what you want, a PR agency? You don't know, and Mancuso doesn't tell you how to find out. "Jamison & Associates specializes in retail advertising." You're not a retailer. "Stephen L. Geller Advertising excels at placing magazine advertising on a barter basis." OK, but should you be advertising in trade publications? If so, what should your ads say?

You won't find the answers here. Those five referrals make up the complete listing of advertising agencies. I suppose you could take Mancuso at his word and call these firms to see if they can refer you to the right agency. But then you could also look in the St. Louis phone directory under advertising, pick a name at random, and do the same thing. That way, you'd save $39.95 on Mancuso's book.

The book is just not very helpful on the specific problems that arise when you start a business. Instead, it devotes hundreds of pages to names of government agencies and other fairly useless listings. It also includes a lot of outdated information. Why would anyone want to know that the SBA direct-loan rate was 8.25% on Oct. 1, 1986? And don't bother writing to Senator Lowell Weicker Jr. for his help as a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business: he's no longer a senator.

Meanwhile, you're still in Ellisville looking for advertising help. In desperation, you turn back to The Macmillan Small Business Handbook by Mark Stevens. "Advertising," he writes, "is as much a business expense as, say, the cost of labor and, thus, should be related to the quantity of goods sold." That's a good point, and Stevens goes on to explain about measuring your advertising budget as a percentage of sales -- past or future. But how do you figure out what your ads should say, or where they should run? Stevens gives no clue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book follows the same pattern. Stevens generally provides one good idea under each topic heading. (Example: if your bank doesn't hit you with service charges, it probably isn't altruism; odds are you have money sitting idle in noninterest-bearing accounts.) But you'll look in vain for the specific advice you need.

So what is a fledgling entrepreneur to do with all these tomes? First, understand that no small-business book is truly "comprehensive," and those that claim to be are guilty of false advertising. If you want help in solving your advertising problem -- or most other real business problems, for that matter -- you'll need specialized books and publications, not to mention a large telephone budget to call people in your field.

Beyond that, save yourself some aggravation by passing up any book that speaks only of the joys of owning a business. Owning a business is hard work. The people who provide you information should work as hard as you do.


CHECKING REFERENCES

Or, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours

Maybe it's just coincidence. I really didn't think much about it at first. I mean, if Joseph R. Mancuso wants to call Mark Stevens "one of the best writers in the field of small business," that's fine by me. I liked Stevens's book on accountants, The Big Eight, and -- while I didn't think much of The Macmillan Small Business Handbook -- I'm definitely in favor of writers being praised. By anyone.

So Mancuso plugging Stevens was OK. And when I saw that Stevens, in his book, quoted Mancuso -- repeatedly -- I raised an eyebrow or two, but figured, "Hey, no big deal. Let it slide."

And I would have, too, if Stevens hadn't included a quote in which Mancuso canonizes Victor ("I liked the shaver so much I bought the company") Kiam as one of the giants of the industry. Mind you, I have nothing personal against Mr. Kiam. Yes, I thought his book, Going for It!, was truly awful (Inc., January 1988), but people tell me he makes an OK shaver.

No, what finally got me was the blurb on the back of Mancuso's book: "Joe Mancuso, the entrepreneur's entrepreneur, has compiled an excellent sourcebook for those in small business, but far more significant than the listings are Mancuso's ideas and insights. . . . " Signed Victor K. Kiam II, chief executive officer, Remington Products Inc.

As I said, maybe it's just a coincidence.

Last updated: Mar 1, 1989

PAUL B. BROWN | Columnist

Best-selling author (and Inc. magazine columnist) Paul B. Brown's latest book, Own Your Future, has just been published. Brown's blog appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

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



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