The great thing about owning your own business is that there is always something to do to make it better, always. I had this challenge for 25 years and it consumed every ounce of energy I possessed right up till the end in 2003. I would willingly do it all over again. If I could start with the knowledge I have gained since then it would be even better but it doesn’t work that way. No, you start out young, dumb and full of yourself. Then you get your butt kicked for a few years and you start to learn how to do it better so it doesn’t hurt so much. I will readily admit, I learned most of it the hard way with my Dad watching me screw up. He never let me have a meltdown but he was really good about knowing when to grab the wheel and steer me away from the cliff. He knew full well that there is no good substitute for experience. His best lessons were focused on the small stuff, the intricacies and details that ultimately determine your fate more than the major decisions.
I think that’s why small businesses exist. Small business is where stuff gets done and usually much more efficiently than our larger corporate brethren. In fact it’s very much a symbiotic relationship and when it’s working both parties are better off. My best years were in the 1990’s when the vast majority of my clients were Fortune 500 type companies and they depended on us for some major projects that they would have struggled mightily to produce themselves, given their management structure and decision-making process. My sales pitch was pretty simple, “I can only save you money and make your deadlines if I am involved in the project from start to finish.” Once I proved my ability to add value, they willingly added me to the invitation list.
One of my first experiences with Corporate America was a simple little software CD label and jewel case. The corporate buyer sent it to me so I could give him an estimate on what it would cost to reproduce it since they had lost the artwork. My guys completely recreated it in less than 2 hours and had it back on my desk in time for me to take it with me to my next meeting with the client in Minneapolis. I walked into the buyer’s office, handed it to him and was greeted with total silence as he looked at the proof. He said,”Are you kidding me? It has taken us weeks of meetings just to figure out what we should do with this thing and you finished it in a day? How is that possible?” My response, ” We don’t have meetings.”
Shortly after that I worked on a much bigger project for the same client and my original estimate was way off. They added so many things to the list, it barely resembled the original idea but I was committed to a set price. When I got it all done, I made an itemized list of everything, including all requested changes and met with them again to discuss the bill. After I explained the difference I said, “You can pay me any amount between the original estimate and my final total and I will never say another word about it. I just want you to be happy with the work.” The room full of managers looked at each other like I had lost my mind and the senior VP asked if I was serious. When I said yes he said ” No one has ever done what you just did and we appreciate it so much we will gladly pay the whole bill.” It was a calculated risk on my part but some times the element of surprise is priceless.
The next time I had the opportunity to work with a Fortune 500 client, I was better prepared for the risk. They came to me with a ridiculous deadline for assembling mockups of products for a photo shoot in New York the following week. The ad agency that had been working on the job said they needed 6 more weeks to complete the work and this was after a full year of design work. I agreed to the deadline and we finished it in 5 days including one very long weekend. When it came time to discuss the bill I knew a $15,000 bill was going to be a tough sell but then it became apparent how this needed to be framed for the client. I simply told the buyer, ” I will take half of whatever the agency was going to charge or $15,000 whichever you prefer.” Presented in that framework, $15 g’s was a bargain. The upshot of this little test was an order for 400 designs and a year’s worth of work which became the single biggest order we ever produced.
The truth is that in almost every case, we worked faster, smarter and better than any of these companies could themselves and they knew it. We didn’t waste time discussing anything and we didn’t have to get a consensus of opinion from anybody but me and my staff. Lucky for me, in the 90’s I had some extremely talented people working for me. Robert Fordyce, Nancy Conley, Shawn Abrahamson, Kevin Cullen, Pat Wiederaenders and Linda Roberts were all with me for more than five years and we worked together better than any other group I ever had. Teamwork is a beautiful thing and small business is all about that. We simplified every process and watched each others back for mistakes. They all talked to clients when I was out and I trusted them to do that well.
Here’s the takeaway you need to remember from this story. Small businesses in the hands of quality minded owners who value their employees and treat them accordingly are the lifeblood of America. We create jobs by the thousands, we don’t waste our time lobbying Congress for favors and we get the work done. If we are ever going to turn around the American economy and truly help the middle class it will happen because we encourage small business ownership. Corporate America should be doing all it can to foster this relationship because small businesses buy stuff that the big guys make like hardware and software and heavy equipment. We innovate and invent, we take risks and overcome challenges, oh and most of all, we pay lots of taxes. Every state government and every federal department should make small business growth their highest priority because it has the greatest potential for return on investment. I know I would jump at the chance to try again.
©Guy R. Horst and grhgraph.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy R. Horst and grhgraph.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content