Advice on handling new opportunities, dealing with terrible employees, working with your spouse, figuring out the next move, finding mentors, and following dreams
There are few things I enjoy more than sitting down to read the e-mail messages that readers like you send to email@example.com. My only regret is that I don't have time to respond personally to each of them. I do read all the messages, however, and pick out the ones I feel the rest of you might want to see. Here are some of the great queries I've received in recent weeks.
Too much success
My sisters and I started a bath-and-body company on a shoestring three years ago. This year we're on target to hit $4 million in sales. We have great distribution, sell to every major department store in the country, and have been approached by Disney, Warner Bros., and others to create private-label products. We'll soon be entering the mass market under a different name. The problem is that our opportunities are outstripping our resources. What do you advise? --Sara
Dear Sara: I'll give you the advice I wish someone had given me before I took my first company to $100 million -- and wound up in Chapter 11. Your core business must always come first. No opportunity is worth going after if it jeopardizes your core business even one iota. The danger is not only that you'll run out of money. You also have limited time. So you have to ask yourself two questions about each new opportunity: Will it keep me from putting in the time required to build or maintain my core business? And if the opportunity turns into a financial disaster, will my core business be crippled? If the answer to either question is yes, you probably shouldn't go forward.
And one other thing: don't try to do too much at once. If you have 20 opportunities in front of you, narrow the field down to 2 or 3 that you're going to look at carefully. Then choose one to pursue. Don't worry about letting the others get away. As long as you're in business, you'll always have more opportunities than you can handle.
Employees from hell
My mother died in 1999, and I took over her business. I needed help, so I hired a girl, who brought along a friend, and I reluctantly hired her, too. I've been living a nightmare ever since. Not only am I coping with the grief of losing my mother, but these women drive me crazy. They abuse my kindness, abuse my phones, misfile, can't type, mess up my computers, complain constantly, and never complete assignments, so I end up doing their work. Yet I'm scared to say anything for fear they'll quit and I won't be able to replace them. The people I've interviewed want benefits, and my business is too small to provide them. What should I do? --Renee
Dear Renee: Fire them both as soon as possible, and do it on your own terms. What kind of life do you have with those people around? You're miserable. You hate going to work. You're living in fear. You deserve better, and you'll feel better as soon as you make the decision to let them go.
Believe me, you can replace them, even if you can't afford benefits. Maybe you can offer something else -- a flexible work schedule, for example, or a chance to learn new skills. One way or another, you should find new people, train them over the weekend, and have them start on Monday. When your two current employees come to work, tell them they're no longer needed. Sure, you may have to put in extra hours for the first two or three weeks, but your life will be easier in the long run, and you'll be happier.
Marriage and business
My wife and I have been married for eight years, and I love her to death. In 1996 we started a consulting company, which is doing well, but the challenge of living, working, eating, playing, raising children, and sleeping together is taking a toll on both of us. It's hard to keep business and personal considerations separate when I'm dealing with my wife. How can spouses run a company together and still maintain a great relationship? --Rich
Dear Rich: I also work with my wife, Elaine, who is our vice-president of human resources. We first tried working together 31 years ago, shortly after we were married. Elaine spent one day in the office and vowed she'd never work with me again. But five years ago she decided to give it another shot, and things have gone extremely well. I showed her your message and asked what she'd advise you to do.
"You have to establish guidelines," she says. "For this to work, there has to be a clear division between work life and married life, and both people have to abide by the rules. You have to figure out what you can talk about and when, how you're going to function in each role, and what's acceptable behavior and what isn't.
"But that type of arrangement won't work for everyone. I'm not sure you've been married long enough to pull it off. Eight years into our marriage, we would never have been able to do it. My advice is that you try, and see what happens. If you can't set down clear guidelines and stick with them, maybe you should think about having separate businesses."
Elaine is wise about these matters, so she's probably right. Besides, who am I to argue with my wife?
Sick and tired
For a quarter century I've fought the good fight in two small businesses. I can't say it's been rewarding in any way. I don't know how anyone in small-scale manufacturing can deliver a superior product at a competitive price and still make a decent profit. The big guys do well, but the little guys like me wind up working 60 to 80 hours a week at minimum wage. After 25 years of that, my health and personal life have suffered severely. I'm ready to throw in the towel, but that's tough to do when you're 50 years old and have always worked for yourself. I'd appreciate any thoughts you might have about my next move. --Name withheld
Dear friend: Your next move should be to take two days off from your business. Just close it up and go to a quiet place at least three hours from your home. There you should do nothing but contemplate what you want to do with your life over the next 10 years. Forget about the business. Think only about what will make you happy. When you know the answer, the business decisions will be much easier.
"I don't know how anyone in small-scale manufacturing can make a profit. The little guys like me wind up working 80 hours a week at minimum wage. What should I do?"
And don't get too down on yourself. Fifty isn't very old, and I sincerely doubt that the past 25 years have all been wasted. You have tremendous experience and knowledge, and you've probably had some good times as well. The world always looks bleak when things are going badly, but it will brighten up as soon as you have a life goal you can start working toward.
Where the mentors are
I have a $3-million business and several paid advisers -- accountants, lawyers, and so on -- but I feel alone and, frankly, very confused. Where do I find someone I can talk to who doesn't have his or her own agenda? --Henry
Dear Henry: First, understand that there's nothing unusual about feeling alone and confused. Entrepreneurs are always alone, and we all do a lot of groping in the dark. Fortunately, there are many places you can go to get unbiased advice, including industry conferences, business seminars, and networking groups, not to mention SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), the counseling arm of the Small Business Administration.
Of course, you may want one-on-one advice from an experienced entrepreneur who is still active in business. I had two or three friends I relied on. If you don't have such friends, I'd suggest you look around your town and pick out a business you admire. Then I'd write or call the person behind it, introduce yourself, and explain that you need advice from a successful entrepreneur. Would he, or she, mind helping you? I'd be shocked if the person didn't feel flattered and happy to oblige. Remember, you don't ask, you don't get. A lot of people don't ask.
Making it in the USA
I am a Korean-born female. I majored in sociology as undergraduate and worked as magazine reporter for three years. After that, I spent two years in USA, got my M.B.A. at Wharton, and came back to Korea. I did business planning at Citibank Korea for five years. I left due to boredom and joined an Internet company in Korea. Here is my problem. My husband got a job offer from a Korean-run start-up in Los Angeles. I want to go with him and start my own business in USA, but I'm not sure I can be successful, since I have very little connections, knowledge, and some language limitation. What do you think? --Jeongwon
Dear Jeongwon: I think you should follow your dreams. To me, success isn't about achieving a specific goal but rather about having the courage to try. Of course, you want to build a successful business, and you probably will. The factors you consider handicaps are easily overcome in this day and age. Given your background, I'm sure you'll have no trouble with language or connections, and your experience is fabulous. More important than the company you build, however, is the life you lead. If you have a dream and don't follow it, you'll regret it for a long, long time.
Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. This column was coauthored by Bo Burlingham. Previous Street Smarts columns are available online at www.inc.com/keyword/streetsmarts.
Please e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NORM BRODSKY | Columnist
Street Smarts columnist and senior contributing editor Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded six businesses.