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

By Michelle van Schouwen

Last month, Succeeding in Small Business published Part I of this article about the enormous and unceasing commitment of running a small company. In this concluding installment, we’ll find strategies and tactics for keeping all these responsibilities under control.

-Employees. Because having employees brings with it a myriad of serious responsibilities, move slowly. Knowledge is power, so read up on employment law (including federal, state and industry regulations) to make sure you will be coloring inside the lines. Consider using a payroll service to make sure all the right deductions are taken out, payroll made on time, and appropriate forms and information distributed to employees in a timely fashion. Ask your business insurance representative to advise you on workers compensation, medical, and other required and/or optional insurance policies. Create an employment handbook to make sure your workers know the procedures and policies you want to implement (this also helps assure you stay consistent).

At my marketing company, we started with part-time employees to stay within our still-tight budget. We gradually moved to offering full-time positions. We had an employment attorney with whom we occasionally consulted on tricky situations. The main point is that we did not assume we knew all the answers, and we recognized that we would sometimes need to do research or speak with an expert.

-Cash flow. Unless you are that rare start-up with fabulous funding, the advice you’ve heard personally applies to your small business as well: “Live beneath your means” and “save for a rainy day.” It’s always better to have cash behind you, so watch your pricing, your planning and your expenses like a hawk. Sure, it takes money to make money, but unless you want to borrow, you’ll need to accumulate the money you need for growth. (My earlier Succeeding in Small Business articles about managing profits and conducting annual self-audits may offer support. More on loans below.)

-Inventory management. To manage inventory efficiently, avoid the two traps of over- or under-stocking. When you start out, it’s tough to anticipate and time your needs, but automating inventory management and adhering to tried-and-true inventory management strategies will help.

-Contract management. Smart contract management starts with careful analysis, both of contracts you create with customers and contracts you sign with vendors and partners. One good rule is to make sure you have a reasonable exit strategy from any long-term arrangement, in the event that your situation should change. (My Succeeding article Beware the long-term lease or contract may be useful here.) Make sure you fully and absolutely understand every contract into which you enter, no ifs, ands or buts. Remember, too, that contracts signed by your authorized employees are generally binding, so don’t delegate decisions you may regret.

-Sales and marketing. If you can find, motivate and retain good salespeople, more power to you. Make sure you hold salespeople’s feet to the fire, because a rep who cannot make your goals is, sorry to say, a big waste of your money. Marketing can and should be outsourced to a knowledgeable professional partner as soon as you are financially able to do so. Make sure you are comfortable and confident with the marketing company you select, and agree on parameters to assess the success of your marketing outreach. Whether in sales or marketing, the buck stops with you, and you have the right to expect good performance.

-Long-term clients. Good long-term clients are wonderful to have and terrible to lose. Make sure you and your staff are giving these clients excellent service every day. Write your contracts so that, should a client wish to leave, you have a month or more notice before the cash tap turns off. Also, if one client starts providing more than, say 25 percent of your revenues, start getting more business elsewhere, because you have a burgeoning gorilla on your hands – a client whose loss could harm or devastate your business. Remember, clients like this leave, usually not because you haven’t treated them well, but because something has changed on the client side, such as a merger or a key contact leaving. So it can happen anytime, and you need to be ready.

Leases or mortgages. Because your lease or mortgage may be one of your biggest long-term commitments, plan for all contingencies. If you buy a building or suite, make every effort to understand the liquidity or rental options it offers you should you need to make a change. In the case of a lease, negotiate a cancellation clause that lets you off the hook with three or six months notice. Our company managed to do this despite the strenuous objection of the building owners. If that’s not feasible, keep your lease relatively brief.

Loans. When you take out a business loan, you may have to act as a personal guarantor, possibly even offering your home as security. Avoid both of these clauses whenever possible. That being said, remember that there are better and worse reasons to borrow money. Better reasons may include capital expansion, equipment that lets you make more money faster, a building, or other clear leverage for growth. Worse reasons to borrow money include striving to solve cash flow problems or dig your way out of a hole. (We borrowed once to get through a severe recession and, to this day I’m not sure if I’m glad or sorry we did it. It took a long time to pay back the loan. Then again, the business bounced back and survived for decades.)

Day-to-day decisions. Every decision made in your company is essentially your decision. Nevertheless, you can develop key employees and clear policies that will allow these employees to make many daily decisions, basing their choices on your standard practices, past decisions, written policies, and understanding how you operate. This allows you to take a day or a week off, although you’ll probably still get a few texts and calls asking for your input. That is as it should be.

-Reputation management. Again, everything about your company’s reputation comes back to you. Developing methods, policies and standards and a clear business ethos will help steer your team. Hiring and retaining only people you trust (easier said than done) is also important. (See Trust but verify.) The character of a company comes from the top, so if you are diligent in conveying the decency of the business you want to run, you’ll have better odds of avoiding reputational crisis – and a better path to cleaning up your reputation if any mistakes are make.

-Business direction. Because the direction your business takes will affect you in so many ways, it’s important to stay sharp and motivated. It’s also great to keep learning – from people inside and outside your industry, community leaders, motivational thinkers, economists, and other relevant thought leaders. It’s important to solicit the wisdom and perspective of your employees, too. It’s vital to keep your business premise up-to-date. Finally, it’s good to know when and if you are tired and losing steam (signs of burnout), and to either find ways to rest, delegate, re-ignite your passion, or maybe even to consider making changes to your business or your life.

Cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-transition commitment. Someday, you will want to retire or simply do something else. Or your industry will change to the point where your company is not as viable as it was. In some cases, you will sell or otherwise hand over your business, in others close the doors. None of these options are seamless. You have responsibilities to employees, landlord, customers, creditors, and even vendors.

When I worked to sell my marketing company, I created plans for each of the responsibilities I needed to fulfill and the choices I must make. My two principal concerns were the well-being of my key employees and clients, so I created lists and scenarios to assure that I was taking the best care of them – even working to support their continued success after I finally walked away from my desk. It was a gradual process, taking place over a couple of years. (I recorded some of my relevant takeaways in Succeeding article What no one tells you about selling your small company.)

Being a business owner can be fun – I consider myself very lucky to be independently employed over the last three-plus decades – but it’s really never just luck. Recognizing the serious and ongoing commitment you’ve made, and developing the knowledge base, tactics and support to navigate well will make all the difference… from the first day to the last of your ownership adventure.


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.

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