My Advice to Entrepreneurs

This week I was invited to give a keynote address to over 200 small business owners and entrepreneurs in Long Beach, California. They are all alumnae of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, based in Long Beach and Los Angeles. It is delivered locally and nationally, and coordinated by the very impressive Babson College.

Members of the audience had completed the four-month program, meant to help ignite their businesses. The luncheon and daylong follow-up session was created to continue their development.

I was given only 15 minutes to share my thoughts. So I gave them six ideas to ponder from my own perspective as a longtime business owner:

1. Not telling the truth is hard.

I am occasionally asked about the most difficult thing I have to do as a business owner. And I’ve found that my answer never changes—it’s when I have to not tell the truth.

Such as: When I have to tell my employees, “Everything is going great” or I have to tell my friends, “Business is booming,” when in fact things are pretty crappy. (The audience really chuckled when I said this.)

2. Get involved outside your business.

It is dangerous for a business owner to only work in their business. It’s also important to work on your business. I have found that one way to do that is to work outside your business.

Get involved in some sort of organization outside your company, where your clients or suppliers hang out. You can find out which one is the best by asking your clients: “So what organizations do you belong to? Is there any organization that you belong to that you think I should know about?”

I have a national company, and I have clients all over the country. So I decided early on to get involved in my national trade association. If your business is more local or regional in scope, it may mean getting involved in a local chamber of commerce or a statewide trade group.

One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had that took me outside my business was when I served a term as a director of the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.

3. Keep your eye on the ball.

While it is important to work on your business, by getting involved in organizations outside of work, be careful to evaluate how relevant they are. It’s easy to really enjoy your outside-of-work involvement. And if you’re like me and get asked to serve in a leadership position, you could easily get distracted from focusing the necessary energy and time on your real business.

And, as with all charity or volunteer work, it’s tempting to overcommit your time or resources. As an entrepreneur and business owner, you should always be doing a mini-ROI in your head. Ask yourself, “How can I leverage this experience to grow my business?” It may even be as simple as mentioning to your co-volunteers that you are always looking for referrals and asking yourself, “Do they have any for me?”

4. Network like crazy.

You can’t just join outside business groups. You need to network when you join, which might mean volunteering for committees (I still volunteer to sell raffle tickets and help out at events in several organizations). That way, people get to know you.

Always carry business cards. Always. You never know when there will be an opportunity to hand one out. For example, last year I was at a special event at a local university. While networking at the cocktail party, I ran into a potential prospect. We exchanged business cards. Within a few weeks, he contacted me and suggested we talk further about a way to do business together! I could not have predicted that happening. But it did, because I hand out my business cards to everyone.

5. Speak, write, publish

Don’t be afraid to accept speaking engagements or requests to be on a panel. No one wants to do it, so why not you? Just think: if you are a speaker, you get your name and your company name out there with tons of free publicity. Also consider producing a newsletter, writing a blog, or writing a guest column for your industry paper. You can gain great credibility by being published.

6. Craft a plan to stay current.

What is your plan to stay current and inspired? There are many CEO and presidents’ organizations around. I belong to Vistage, a global network of over 20,000 CEOs who meet once a month. We actually meet in groups of about 15 in our own area. All groups are made up of CEOs from non-competing businesses and your group serves as your own private advisory board. Over time, other members get to know your business, your challenges, and your strengths, so you can bring your issues to the meeting to discuss and get advice.

I know it’s hard to break away from the daily pressures of running your business. But just like great athletes, we business owners need coaching, practice, more practice, and knowledge about the latest techniques in order to thrive in today’s economy.

Frieda was also in the audience during my talk. (Photo credit @DavePhillipson)