Zen and the Art of Being a Small Business
Being a small business is tough, there is no way around that, long sleepless nights, long sleepless days, clients who act bizarre, clients who do not pay promptly yet you need them anyways.
Clients that do a lot to make life as interesting as possible, without any real knowledge of why they are doing that, or what the underlying motivators are for the behaviors. Then there are employees who do the things they do, have good days and bad days, and also do inexplicable things along the way.
As I entered the small business world I did not realize just how different it could be. There is no inertia of a large company, no one coasts, everyone freaks out over everything, the drive to exceed limitations is always present, and business is tough. It is not for the weak, the disorganized, people without a vision on how it should be, or friends in the industry.
Being a small business is even harder if you are a “classic tech geek”, let’s face it, either you are doing work because you fit into a niche that no one else has, or you are doing work based on personal relationships you have with folks. If you have no ability to work with people, then small business is not the place you should be.
Realistically, it’s your friends that get you gig’s at the places that they work at. So any gig you have has got to be your best gig, doing your best work ever, to build out your reputation. That way your friends stay your friends, you meet the expectations that your friends set up in the company, and life can go on being good.
If you have no friends, or if you know no one in the community, then it is very hard to get gigs because there is no personal relationship there to get you into the door. If you are an introvert, then life is very hard when you own your own company.
If you don’t go to all the locally sponsored meetings for your particular niche, there is no way to hand out business cards and develop that personal relationship. Those local meetings with bad chicken, even more dreadful speakers, and everyone trying to sell you everything from schwag to full blow SAP systems, VC’s who don’t want to know you until you have a million unique hits a month, or others who are merrily there to make mischief, these meetings are important.
You meet new people, new people who might have something interesting to do, or might not have anything you want to do. You collect business cards, and if a client wants something you might be able to partner on a gig, that makes your bid much stronger. Learning the local community is priceless, even if you are bored to tears and vow never to go back, always keep on going back.
Who are your enemies, who did you work with in the past that does not think highly of you and where are they working now? What will they do if they find out that you were hired to do an audit of their work, and how will they sabotage the contract? This is something that is very important to know when you own your own small business. Not everyone at a company you are doing a contract with is going to want you there, and they will make your life exceedingly impossible. They will sabotage the contract, they will make the work experience as painful as possible, they will call up your boss and tell your boss what a crappy job you are doing while telling you that you are great to your face. They will ask you to do things or prove yourself to them, and still not want you there. They will provide you a box in the store room and call it an office. Do the work on the contract, and being a small business you can pick and choose what contracts you want to do. There are some companies and some people out there that are not worth the cost of doing business with. Their costs in people, corporate health, and overall ability to do work are not worth the revenue that would be brought in by doing work with them.
Employees are a critical key resource to your company, even if they are a collection of freelancers who do piece work for your company. They represent your company to the client, they work with the client, they talk to the client, and the client will judge your company based on your employees behavior, skills, knowledge, and how they conduct themselves always. Not everyone you hire is going to work out, some bad seeds will slip through the background checks, interview, reference checks, and other processes that you have in place to screen potential employees. You have to know when to let people go, and its not a matter of second chances, or hoping that they will change. It is far less costly to the company to let the geek god who can not work with people go, than it is to retain them in an ever increasing socialized business environment.
Hire the best and brightest, well rounded people you can afford that have solid skills. Then train the heck out of them knowing full well that they will leave. As a company, having the best, the brightest, most socially adept people are critical. As a company it is also important to know that they will move on. You want to make that decision to leave as hard on the employee as possible. When the employee though puts in their 2 week notice, let them go, wish them well, talk about them highly, but never counter bid, that usually does not work because the reasons that they want to leave will still exist. You might hire them back, but then you might not, it depends on why they left, when they left, and under what circumstances they left under.
The other fun issue with your small business is “what do you do best”, what is the best skill or skill sets you have. How are those skills marketable, what number of people have the same kinds of skills, and how can you leverage your skills to make money and get gigs? You might be interested in a lot of things, for example I am interested in robotics, programming, search engine technology, web design, internet marketing, marketing, information security, human computer interfaces, and a host of other things, but I am not an expert in all of them. Really the only thing that I would consider myself expert in is auditing, auditing networks, auditing web servers, auditing web applications, education and training, code development, code cracking and that would be about it. Since I am not an expert in all these things, I can really only sell auditing, code checking, technical training and writing. Those are the only things that I think I am expert enough in to develop a company around. Now I have friends, who also need gigs, who fill out the rest of the skills I am lacking and are willing to take piece work when it comes up.
Dan Morrill has been in the information security field for 18 years, both
civilian and military, and is currently working on his Doctor of Management.
Dan shares his insights on the important security issues of today through
his blog, Managing
Intellectual Property & IT Security, and is an active participant in the
ITtoolbox blogging community.