Commitment without end: The small business owner’s challenge – Part I

By Michelle van Schouwen

It’s great to be your own boss. It’s also an enormous and unceasing commitment.

Starting out, a small business owner may not fully appreciate the level and constancy of responsibility it will require to run a company well, from cradle to grave or cradle to transition. But the reality that “this baby is YOURS” becomes increasingly clear over time… and during challenging times… and even when the owner simply longs for a real, no-worries vacation or needs to take a leave for health or family reasons.

Most businesses are tough to turn off or turn over to subordinates for any sustained period of time. I’ll share here some of the common “ties that bind” and, in my next (October) article, tactics to smooth the way.

-Employees. As soon as you add employees, you also add a myriad of complications. You need to make payroll every week. You need to assess how much you can trust any particular employee, and how you will verify that the employee is worthy of this trust. You need to follow all regulations for paying, protecting health and safety, scheduling, and much more. If you need to fire or lay off an employee, you need to follow proper procedures to protect your own interests. You need workers compensation insurance. You need to make sure no employee is completely irreplaceable, because people do leave, sometimes with less notice than you expect. You may also feel especially responsible for the well-being of long-term employees, which can be difficult if you need to lay them off or make other changes that may adversely affect them.

-Cash flow. Cash comes in and goes out. Often it needs to leave faster than it arrives. Even if you have excellent financial staff and accounting support, the responsibility for income and expenses ultimately rests with you. During good times, this may seem easy, but when a recession, the sudden defection of a large client, or other challenge comes along, cash flow can keep you awake nights.

-Inventory and contract management. You’ll need to juggle all of this, even if you eventually have trusted employees helping you “keep all the balls in the air.”

-Sales and marketing. Yes, you own this, too. Good salespeople are really hard to find. Marketing can and should be outsourced to a professional partner as soon as you are able to do so. But again – it’s yours to manage, monitor and track. Always.

-Long-term clients. You make a deal to provide a product or service, and you must fulfill your commitment well. What’s more, you may find that even after you do the work, you are still struggling to get some portion of your payment. You want each client to grow, but you don’t want one or two gorilla clients who could take your business down by leaving. Speaking of which, turnover and mergers assure you will have to work to retain relationships through transition – or replace them promptly if that’s not feasible.

-Leases or mortgages. For some businesses, a lease or mortgage is the biggest long-term commitment. In the case of a lease, every time it comes up for renewal is a time of self-reflection. (Do I want to do this for another three or five years? Is this space adequate? Can I get out of this lease if the business doesn’t do well next year?)

-Loans. I’ll admit I am a boot-strapper. I HATE to borrow money for business. When you take out a business loan, you may have to act as a personal guarantor, maybe even putting your home on the line. Fun, huh?

-Day-to-day decisions. Can you take a vacation, have a baby or attend to some other life demand and have your business operate relatively smoothly in your absence? Can you trust that decisions made by staff will be sound? In the end, all company decisions are your responsibility, no matter who makes them.

-Reputation management. If it were all about – and up to – you, and if you were perfect, reputation management would be easy. But you will be involved with customers or clients, products or services, and employees, and something can (and likely will) go wrong somewhere along the line. No matter who or what caused the problem, it will be yours to repair.

-Business direction. This is more a long-term responsibility and perhaps less everyday. But it is critical. And while you can certainly enlist the support of marketers, mentors and brand managers, you will ultimately need to decide what the purpose and methodology of your business will be. Further, you’ll steer the company through any course changes over the years. This is a big commitment and will require your best thinking.

-Cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-transition commitment. Someday, you will want to retire. Perhaps you will sell your business, or maybe you’ll simply close the doors. Perhaps partners or offspring will run it after you leave. In any case, preparing for that transition can be a years-long process and responsibility.

These are a few – certainly not all – of the commitments for which you sign on when you start your own business. In my next article, I’ll offer strategies to deal with each of these responsibilities so that, most days, you will nevertheless be glad you are a business owner.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate change mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship ,and works with start-ups to support their development.

1 comment

  1. ayushya says:

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