Two Essentials for Every Small Business

Jan 03, 2005

I’m getting ready to start teaching a course at The Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville this spring semester. It will be a class on entrepreneurship— more specifically, small business start-up. I’m quite excited about it. And while the timing wasn’t fantastic (next fall would have been better), small business start-up is fascinating to me. I didn’t want to say “no” and lose the opportunity to teach this class. When the College asked me if I wanted to use the textbook they had used previously for this course, I asked to see a copy of it. What they sent me was a book titled, “Small Business Entrepreneurship, An Ethics and Human Relations Perspective,” by Lavern S. Urlacher, published in 1999 by Prentice-Hall, Inc. My first reaction was, “This isn’t going to be what I want to use. I want to teach these students about how to start and grow a small business, not a bunch of human relations stuff!” I thought (incorrectly) that this book was probably written by some well-meaning, but misguided academic who didn’t really get what this subject was all about. Then, I took the time to do a little reading and found out, as is often the case, that my first reaction was just plain wrong. It’s a great book that’s well-written in plain, clear language, and I got two really big points out of it— no matter how good your idea or how great your product or service, you need to do two things to stay in business: Be ethical and treat people well, both inside and outside of the company. These are so fundamental the author refers to them as “bridges.” He’s right— these are fundamental. And I think we need to constantly remind our employees (and ourselves) of how important these two things really are because it is these two things that can either make or tarnish our reputations. Being ethical and treating people well, and the resulting good reputation that comes from it, is especially critical in an A/E/P or environmental firm. Our companies tend to be one of two types of firms— either local or regional service providers that are thoroughly plugged into the communities we work and operate in, or highly specialized service providers serving one or more tightly defined client market sectors. The important thing to remember is in either case, bad news travels fast. If you do something unethical— such as not pay a subconsultant promptly after you as the prime were paid by your client— tongues will wag, and it will hurt your ability to team with good subs in the future. When something bad happens, everyone talks about it. People like to gossip, and bad news is more interesting than good news. Good news falls on deaf ears— think about it! How you treat people— both your employees and your clients and customers— is paramount. There are still a few firms out there whose names come to mind as being terrible employers. One company, a design-build firm based in St. Louis, used to have such high turnover back in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s that they were rumored to have more than 20-something full-time recruiters on board just to replace the people who quit! Needless to say, this firm would not be fun to recruit for— they had a terrible reputation for being a lousy place to work. Client and customer treatment is an essential requirement, too. There are people in our business who just aren’t nice, and the word gets around. I heard a story recently of a well-known architect who was visiting a potential client at their request. The client was considering him and another well-known design firm for a very large and important project. The client put this particular architect up in the nicest hotel that was nearby, and when it asked him about his accommodations, he went into a tirade about what a dump the place was. Though I doubt he knows the reason for it, he didn’t get hired for the job. The client representatives who were charged with hiring an architect didn’t feel he was a nice person. The bottom line is whether you are a start-up or have been in business for 50 years, if you want to be around another 50 years, you must operate ethically AND treat people well. Anything less and you risk the entire enterprise. Originally published 1/03/2005

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