Were there any obstacles that would keep her from increasing sales? Maybe. Pat was doing all her business in New York City, and it looked as though she might have saturated the market there. In that case, she might have to think about expanding geographically.

I checked out the other common sources of cash-flow difficulties. Was she having a collection problem? No, her accounts receivable had remained pretty steady as a percentage of sales. Was she spending too much on overhead? The numbers didn't seem to be out of line.

So I zeroed in on her inventory, which was huge. It included all the Olympics and millennium merchandise she hadn't been able to sell. What about the artwork she'd done, commissioned and not commissioned? She said she had the paintings in her home. She was saving them for her children. How many paintings? About 100, she said. And were her children well off? Oh, yes, she said. They were all married and doing nicely.

"Well, Pat," I said, "I know things seem bleak to you, but you have two hidden assets here. First, there are the paintings. What are your kids going to do with 100 paintings, anyway? You can leave them 2 paintings each and sell the rest. Even if you get $5,000 apiece for them -- and they're worth much more -- you're talking about a lot of money.

"Not only that, but you can probably sell the paintings tax free. You have a huge tax loss coming to you on the inventory you can't sell. You can also think about donating the merchandise to charity and taking a tax deduction. A cup is a cup. Somebody can use it."

In the end, however, I may have helped Pat most just by reassuring her that her business concept was sound, thereby giving her the confidence she needed to start taking chances again. When she set up her exhibit at the next big trade show, she didn't put her New York City items out front, as she had in the past. Instead, she featured a new line of merchandise with African American themes, which she'd created in hopes of finding a new market. She also decided to offer her Olympics and millennium merchandise at a discount and see what happened.

The show was a great success. She sold much of the discounted inventory and did even better with the African American items, landing her first big accounts from other parts of the country.

It still may take a while for Pat to put her mistakes completely behind her, but at least she's not stuck anymore. She's looking forward again, focusing more on where she's going than on where she's been.

And me? I have the satisfaction of knowing I helped in some way. That's my compensation, as I'm sure it is for other business mentors. But there's one thing I ask of the people I advise. Someday I hope they'll do the same for someone else.

Norm Brodsky has six businesses, including 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.

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