Who Are You?Posted on Friday, October 4th, 2002 by Mark Mehler
Who Are You?
Whether you’ve been in business for 20 years or 20 days, taking inventory of your business personality is the first — and most crucial — step toward maintaining or establishing a successful business.
After 28 years of running a shoe distributorship and another few years at the helm of a small insurance brokerage, Steve Shedroff still didn’t have a handle on the whole entrepreneurial thing.
“I knew everything about everything and felt constant pressure to do it all myself,” explains the Pennsylvania businessman. “Whatever went wrong was 100 percent my problem, and I had no idea how to rely on other people for help.”
Meanwhile, slowly and almost imperceptibly, the job was taking over his life. Even on those rare days when Shedroff wasn’t in the office, his mind was on work. And to make matters worse, there was no separation between current and future business, which meant no opportunity to plan for growth and streamline operations.
Ultimately, with the assistance of a small-business coach, the 53-year-old Shedroff learned to accentuate his positive traits—an optimistic outlook, a good work ethic and a cautious attitude toward new investment—and eliminate the negatives. Shedroff says he is finally able to delegate responsibility, plan for the future and gain the necessary distance between his private life and his working life.
“In short,” he concludes, “I’m more effective, more efficient and more satisfied than I’ve ever been.”
Ryan Walker, formerly a twentysomething dot-com hotshot, who freely admits he’s a juggler, has traveled a similar path to entrepreneurial enlightenment. Back in the go-go 1990s, his Cincinnati-based Web design shop, Sharkbytes, was positioned right in the thick of the New Economy revolution, ramping up staff and infrastructure to meet a seemingly endless flow of orders.
But as much as Walker was caught up in the whirlwind, something was amiss. Growth for growth’s sake, he realized, was not the ultimate barometer of his entrepreneurial dream. For one thing, he says, it was no fun having to deal with prima donna designers who demanded royal treatment without earning it. And Walker was troubled by the total abandonment of business fundamentals such as cost controls, return on investment and best practices.
In Walker’s case, it took an economic meltdown to get him to reassess his goals and establish his own entrepreneurial identity. He sold his company in 1999 to a bigger Web design firm, but took mostly stock in lieu of cash and ended up with practically nothing to show for all those years of frenzied activity. Now he is running another small Web services firm, U.S. Digital Partners, that targets traditional (non-dot-com) small businesses. Only this time, the 29-year-old Walker is doing things his way—slower, steadier and with the application of some basic financial discipline.
“We actually have cash-flow statements now, which is something we had never even heard of back then,” he explains. “No more recording revenues when we invoice. Now we only recognize cash. We keep close tabs on what comes in and divide up the cash left over.” The new company also is taking a more conservative approach to staffing, using independent contractors in the early stages of development.
To be sure, Walker is working harder than ever and his big financial payoff is probably years away. But for the first time, he feels confident that he can create something of lasting value in the Internet services niche.
The kind of personality inventories undertaken by Shedroff and Walker should be standard operating procedure for every business owner. Happily, the process doesn’t need to be accompanied by an economic or psychological meltdown. But taking the measure of your business personality does require serious introspection and a willingness to alter lifelong habits and beliefs.
“You can’t possibly be successful without knowing who you are, your reason for being in the business you’re in, and what it is that you really want to do in life,” says Terri Levine, a small-business coach in Philadelphia.
Adds Curt Holaway, a managing director of RSM McGladrey in South Bend, Ind., who advises business owners on their goals and strategies: “We begin by doing lots of identity work with clients. Most of them are consumed with putting out daily fires. We try to get them to step back and see the big picture. Where are you now, where are you going, and where do you ultimately want to go?”
A major study of small-business attitudes and behaviors by independent research firm Yankelovich Partners, based on more than 2,000 interviews with owners of small, for-profit businesses across America, can be a valuable tool in the quest for that identity. The survey, commissioned by Pitney Bowes, offers a comprehensive portrait of the U.S. small-business community at the crossroads of a new millennium. This heterogeneous group shares a variety of traits, including long working hours, a cornucopia of worries, a desire for independence and a positive outlook for the future.
Of particular value in the survey is a breakdown of the nation’s small-business owners into five broadly defined categories: “Traditionalists” (conservative owners who choose stability and comfort over growth); “Fast Trackers,” who have an overwhelming focus on revenue growth and a strong success drive; “Jugglers,” who also focus on growth, are hesitant to delegate control and thus are hamstrung by a lack of time; “Idealists,” who are more passionate about the work than the administrative details of running a business; and “Optimizers,” who equate success with the money in their pockets and have a balanced work and home life.
While all five categories naturally bleed over into each other, they can nevertheless serve as a template for locating your own business personality, suggests David Hanania, the founder of the Small Business Institute, a national association of member owners. And even more important, he adds, they can promote self-improvement.
“Once you locate yourself in one of those groups, you can begin to really examine your strengths and weaknesses,” Hanania explains. “Take, for example, the ‘juggler’ group. I know plenty of owners who fit that description. These are people who say, ‘If I didn’t have to do everything myself, I could really grow my business.’ They use the time pressures as a crutch. The same with many ‘traditionalist’ types—they sit back and say they’re content to have 10 steady customers and only 10. They don’t realize that five of those 10 customers could go away overnight and leave them in ruins. In business, you either grow or die.” He says the more self- examination you do, the better chance you’ll have at success.
Leslie White, who runs a training and coaching company for businesses in Ocean City, Md., adds that successful business owners bring more to their work than financial expectations. Business, like life, is a process, she says, and wherever you fit on the business personality spectrum, you need to concentrate on the moment.
“The owners who are focused strictly on the outcome find their creative energies blocked,” she says. “It can’t be just about the money.”