HETRICK: Ten tips on the way out the entrepreneurial door

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On Sept. 30, I shut down an 18-year-old business.

On that final day, I eliminated half-a-dozen high-paying jobs, including my own.

I eliminated many others by attrition in the years leading up to the fateful decision.

I sent talented people scrambling for other employment, health insurance and the means to support themselves and their families.

I stopped supporting printers, broadcast producers, media companies, content editors, retirement plans, insurance companies, computer consultants, office-supply and -equipment firms, attorneys, accountants, phone- and data-service providers, community organizations and the deli on the first floor of our building.

Our landlord now has a full floor of Class A downtown office space for lease.

And once the books are closed and all things reconciled with the Internal Revenue Service and the Indiana Department of Revenue, the United States of America, the state of Indiana and all the cities and counties where our former employees reside will be without our token contributions to the public good.

I’ll spare you the guilt trip I’m on and the emotional baggage I carry from the shut-down decision.

But in the hope that someone out there is hesitant to hang out a shingle and build a business, I’ll surprise you with this: Try it. For despite my decision to call it an entrepreneurial day, this was the most rewarding career move I’ve ever made. It supported many individuals and families for many years, contributed to the local and state economies, and—most important—made a positive difference for scores of clients around the state and nation.

Few things are forever in this world, businesses included. But in the hopes that yours might last as long as you want it to last, I’ll offer 10 tips on what I did right and what I’d do differently.

Get good counsel. A respected accounting firm and a respected attorney helped me set up shop in 1993. They still represent me in 2011. Their advice has been invaluable.

Think small unless you’re sure you want to get into management. Most entrepreneurs start personal—something they know how to do or make. Adding that first employee makes you a manager, teacher, provider and worrier over someone else’s well-being. Be sure you’re willing and able.

Involve partners. I operated a sole proprietorship. If I had it to do over, I’d never go that route. Life is too unpredictable. If a sole owner gets ill, goes into mourning, has a change of heart, or whatever, everyone’s affected. What’s more, all the lonely-at-the-top rumors are true. And yes, few employees perform with the same commitment as owners. If I ever start another business, it will be in partnership with others who can share the load, deliberate over the details, and support one another.

Look like what you want to be, not what you are. When I started out, I was ready to buy some cheap business cards. But a smart graphic designer convinced me to look good from day one. That initial design built instant credibility and didn’t need refreshing for more than a decade.

When you sell your time by the hour, you lose the value of ideas. This one’s for professional-service providers. A friend shared it with me before I opened my company doors. I didn’t listen. I wish I had.

You’re managing a river, not a dam. This one’s from local business coach Ron Ernst. Many leaders bemoan turnover in their organizations. While I never celebrated departures, I’m proud of what former staffers went on to become and grateful for the fresh perspectives of newcomers in our organization.

Don’t put your name on the door. While rarely to their benefit, some clients want to work only with the person at the top. In many circumstances, that costs clients the best talent available and makes other staff members feel about 6 inches tall.

Be a friendly competitor. I went head-to-head with people in my industry for 18 years. I liked beating them for new accounts. But more than that, I liked breaking bread with them, referring business to them when my firm had a conflict, and getting referrals from them when they had a conflict.

Everyone’s in sales. I’ve heard smart, talented professionals say, “I’m a writer,” or “I’m a designer,” or “I’m a PR person,” coupled with the words, “I’m not in sales.” But the fact is, every interaction either adds to or detracts from an organization’s reputation. If marketing is a department, it will fail. Marketing is a state of mind. Everyone is in sales—especially in a small business.

Be transparent. While our firm’s decision to close was disappointing to all, it wasn’t a surprise. We showed financials to every employee every week for years. If people understand where the business stands, they’re better able to affect the company’s bottom line, and their own.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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