Awhile back, I interviewed Dan Levine, a very successful individual who ran a small business for nearly 30 years. I’m happy to say that he’s back here again today to answer more questions about what it takes to run a business and navigate/run a successful workplace. While the advice and tips that follow may seem super specific and niche, I assure you, they aren’t. There is a lot of wisdom here that translates to every job: how to handle difficult co-workers, how to access your weakness and turn them into strengths, and the (evergreen) value in good old-fashioned ~networking~. Take a look below!
1. How does one prepare themselves, mentally, to face stress for a (potentially) long period of time? Are there any tips to stay sane?
Honestly, I’m not sure how to answer these two questions without sounding cliché. For me, stress management has always been about perspective and balance. Stress in business is really no different from stress in school, in your personal life or your familial relationships. Stress can overwhelm you, in business or otherwise, and minimize your ability to function efficiently. That’s a real problem in the business world. Psyching yourself up for the insanity of running your business is critical, but it’s an ongoing process, as stress will rise and fall a hundred times over during the course of a business cycle.
As for tips to stay sane, here’s one: be a great decision maker. If you’re not instinctively a great decision maker, and most people aren’t, learn how to be a better one. It’ll help keep you sane, and reduce your stress. Stress levels and decision-making abilities seem to work in an inversely proportional manner.
2. What kind of people do you need to surround yourself with as you try and run a bigger operation, or really, handle any job/career with great responsibility?
Some of the best books on business advance the idea of surrounding yourself with people very different from yourself, with complementary business skills. As your business grows, this becomes more and more critical. However, if you’re a one-person show, looking for a partner or “right-hand man,” I’m not sure that’s the best advice. So, in the very early stages of your business, it’s particularly helpful to surround yourself with people who share your vision and passion. As the business grows, it’s important to seek out new points of view, and to hire people willing to challenge the status quo and be contrarian if necessary. Start-ups benefit from everyone pulling together; expanding businesses, while still requiring a consistency of vision and culture, can greatly benefit from the dynamic clash of competing ideas and systemic turbulence.
3. In your opinion, what is the value of networking, and how high would you rank it on the list of things that help a business significantly grow?
Not to sound old fashioned, but networking sure has changed over the years. My peers ran successful businesses long before there was a LinkedIn. Was it less important “back then” or just done differently? A manufacturer of specialty equipment didn’t network to the same extent as a marketer of consumable items. At SCORE, we mentor many small business clients selling niche items on Amazon or Etsy, and networking is critical to their success. Reaching out to their respective communities, actively engaging with their users/clients, and figuring out how to translate that engagement into sales, are huge challenges for these small business owners. All to say, depending on your business, networking can be one of the most important aspects of your sales and marketing plan, and vital to the growth of your business; learn how to do so in as productive and efficient manner as possible.
4. How extensively should someone invest in taking personal finance courses and/or business finance classes before they get into this type of work? I ask because, for me, there’s a part that wants to outsource any task I can’t handle myself, but what is the value in learning how to do it yourself?
There’s a fine line between outsourcing a task that you can’t handle yourself, and closing your eyes and refusing to learn the task. I think you should learn every task associated with your small business, then, assuming you can afford it, find someone who can perform that task better than you. It goes without saying that you can’t be the best at every business task, and even if you could, there aren’t enough hours in the day to allow you to perform every task.
But, having at least a working knowledge of all aspects of your business keeps you in touch with its day-to-day activities; empowers you to make better decisions, even in areas of the business where you are not the primary expert; and demonstrates strong leadership to your colleagues (and customers/suppliers). To that end, take the business finance course, the accounting course or the sales and marketing course, it’ll be helpful in the long run.
5. When you help run or grow any type of business, customer service and managing employee/workplace dynamics is always an essential component. Do you have a story about a scenario that went badly? What did you learn from it, and how did it make you better at what you did?
Customer service is about training. In the vast majority of instances where one experiences poor service, the blame lies squarely on the manager behind the scene, not on the surly teenager greeting you indifferently or avoiding eye contact. But employee/workplace dynamics can still be a supreme challenge no matter how well-trained one’s staff happens to be. A very good team will still have members who don’t get along, are jealous of another’s success, or have less than an ideal work ethic. A perfect team may avoid these pratfalls, but there’s no such thing as a perfect team. I’ve worked with great sales people who had no interest in working more than a 40-hour week, and average sales people willing to put in 50-60 hours a week to see the company succeed. There was a place on our team for both types, because the great salesmen willing to work 50-60 hours are few and far between. Similarly, I’ve hired an inside sales person with excellent people skills, solid sales skills, and less than optimal written communication skills. He couldn’t string three or four sentences together in a coherent enough fashion when called upon to submit a written proposal to a client. So, we built templates to simplify that task and allowed him to focus on what he did best, and then we paid for him to take online courses to improve this skill set.
But, we all have horror stories, and hiring mistakes are common in a small business. But the worst mistake, one I’ve made a couple times in my career, is hiring someone who turns out to be mediocre at his/her job, and then sticking with that person in the futile hope he/she will improve, or because one is too nice to let him/her go. It took me a while to realize that a business owner with a good heart is one thing, but an owner unwilling to accept that an employee is not working out, is ultimately, and needlessly, harming his or her business.
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