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Archive for August, 2010

Well, here we go again. I’m worried. I don’t wish to be a small business Noriel Roubini or any kind of pessimist, but I continue to fear the economic myopia reflected in legislation recently enacted by Congress.

There is a little good news since I last wrote in this trope (see May 18, 2010, “Chicken Little and Entrepreneurship“). The major media are finally beginning to pay attention to the small business conundrum. Even the Obama administration is beginning to recognize the essential role of entrepreneurship in job creation and ending recession. Banks are finally at least giving lip service to loosening lending. But it ain’t nearly enough to assuage a looming bleakness that augurs nothing but ill for the small business community, with concomitant implications for the macro economy.

What is of increasing alarm to me is the issue of mandates. Let me list just a couple.

  1. A requirement that all businesses must file 1099 forms with the IRS to report any purchases totaling more than $600 in a year. This is a gigantic added paperwork burden.
  2. The unspecified rules and paperwork can now be imposed unilaterally and without explicit Congressional approval by well over 300 new bureaucratic entities legislated in ObamaCare.

The vagueness of all this is bloody scary. It creates a nightmarish chiaroscuro of uncertainty for business in general and the small businessman in particular. How do you plan, how do you budget, and how do you hire in such a hostile and fluid atmosphere?

I believe the current administration genuinely would now like to belatedly give small business a boost to aid the dismal employment picture. But there is a problem with this. The Obama government has lost the faith of most small businessmen not only because of hostile legislation, but also because of populist rhetoric that paints business as the venal enemy of the greater good. Explicit verbal attacks have been made on doctors, insurers, drug makers, oilmen, bankers, automakers, casinos, hoteliers, etc. It makes most of us feel like we have a big target on our chest.

Our trust that the government is on our side must somehow be restored. The heedlessly imposed new rules and mandates must give way to a practical and real sympathy to how business actually works. Bureaucratic mandates are a creativity killer for the entrepreneur and the capitalist risk-taker.

The Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher reports survey results that neatly sum up where most small business is in a recent speech to the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. He says:

“…the politicians and officials who craft and enforce the rules are doing so in a capricious manner that makes long-term planning difficult, if not impossible. [Businessmen] are increasingly distressed by the lack of consistent  direction coming from Washington….So they are calling time-outs and heading for the sidelines while they wait for the referees to settle the rules of the game.”

Gore Vidal said in his 1968 book Sex, Death and Money, “There is something about a bureaucrat that does not like a poem.” Or an entrepreneur. Thanks, Gore.

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Today I’m depressed. I don’t want to be a salesman. I don’t want to be an entrepreneur. I don’t want to write this blog. My words seem to come out blank, dead, fake, arbitrary, forced.

A colleague of mine tells me he thinks this blog is a waste of my time–that it serves no business purpose for my company, that it is insufficiently defined, anomic, opinionated, political and quixotic. Whew. All things, I guess, an effective business blog should not be.

Well. Golly. Damn. In truth I’m an old, failed actor/singer who accidentally became an entrepreneur and a salesman. I write about what I know from my personal search for meaning in the capitalist maelstrom. If business isn’t a gas, an illumination, and an everyday revelation encompassing all aspects of existence, how boring. How stultifying. How deadening. How killingly inhuman. How dull.

Some days you just have to stop for a moment. So I just won’t talk about sales or business today. Let me explore something else today. Let me simply talk about something sweet and lovely. Let me tell you about Maude Maggart. Maude Maggart (www.maudemaggart.com) has nothing to do with entrepreneurship or sales or small business in a down economy. Maude Maggart is utterly unrelated to my sales outsourcing business Corporate Rain. Maude Maggart is a cabaret singer. I’m writing about her because she is, for me, restorative, centering, truthful, elevating, moving. A terrific tonic for the summer blues.

Go see Maude Maggart if you get a chance. She’s quite special. I saw her at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC, after hearing her on Jonathan Schwartz’ nonpareil music program on WNYC. She has a remarkable combination of the unblinking truthfulness of the later Rosemary Clooney and the elegant femininity of Jeanette MacDonald. She sings the American Songbook, both well-known and obscure, with authority and personal integrity. She sings with a depth, an understanding, and a sympathy for the human condition, that is surprising in a young woman. Like any fine artist, she illuminates truth and brings wholeness and clarity in her wake.

And why should we in business not strive to do the same for our clients, our employees and our world?

Thank you, Maude Maggart.

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Politeness, courtesy, niceness, manners. These are qualities I find increasingly missing in sales and most other aspects of business. People increasingly just don’t see the need to bother with this stuff.

I was reminded of this as I read Peggy Noonan’s fine, zeitgeist attuned article in the WSJ last Saturday titled, “We Pay Them To Be Rude To Us“. Ms. Noonan states,  “American culture is, one way or another, business culture and our business is service. Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy.” She says the social implications of this are making us confused and crazy. “We wear away the superego and get straight to the id, and what we see isn’t pretty.” She describes a revolution in manners. “We tore [manners] down as too fancy, or sexist, or ageist, or revealing of class biases. Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one knows how to act anymore.”

When I was a young actor (mostly unemployed) many years ago, before I became an accidental entrepreneur, I often supported myself as a catering waiter for high-society in New York. I worked mostly for a company called Glorious Food, the most elegant caterer then around.

Glorious Food parties were run by a very traditional and exacting maître d’ named Serge. Serge was an old school martinet who was about doing everything with precise properness. Training to become a waiter for Glorious Food involved a long seminar where you were trained how to set a traditional table, fold napkins, correctly serve, etc. Basically, I thought this was a bunch of hooey.

But one day I found myself sitting next to the daunting Serge and got to talking to him about why we did all this minutia so precisely. He quite cogently explained to me that, as silly or unnecessary as it might seem to an American (slight disdain with a French accent), there were very good and practically efficacious reasons for why the dessert spoon is placed over the desert fork, or why the white and red wine and water glasses were in a specific configuration. Basically it made things easier for the server and the servee. It was not arbitrary or phony. It was well thought out and imminently practical.

There is a reason for manners and courtesy and it is not just to be nice. The purpose of manners is to give us a practical structure to deal with each other. It is not bullshit. It is the glue of civilization and the utilitarian road map for dealing in everyday business. Manners and polite address are not superficial. They are essential. The importance of plain good manners is increasingly not taught or explained with any depth. Too bad. It is an important tool increasingly missing in the modern salesman’s repertoire.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay “Behavior” from The Conduct of Life (1860), “Manners are the happy ways of doing things; each once a stroke of genius or of love, now repeated and hardened into usage.” Thanks, Ralph.

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Meetings. Ugh.

My idea of hell is to be forced to spend eternity in a meeting. I’ll do anything to avoid meetings. In fact, I doubt there are too many of us who love meetings. A former client says I should have myself checked out for ADD/ADHD since my daughter struggles with the condition and people who have ADD/ADHD have particular problems sitting in meetings. However, I think the greatest issue for me and a lot of fellow entrepreneurs is that we are hard driving, impatient, autonomous people.

Entrepreneurs are courageous. They are calculated risk-takers with the potential to have their heads handed to them every day. To even attempt the audacious act of entrepreneurship presupposes a strong will, a healthy ego, and the instincts of a jungle carnivore. These characteristics are, perhaps, not the ideal for mediating useful meetings.

I was reminded of this when I attended a seminar hosted by Lewis Schiff on Open Book Management (OBM) last week at a gathering of the Inc. Small Business Council. OBM is a term invented by John Case In the early ’90s. But the concept’s chief evangelist is Jack Stack, who has written and spoken extensively on the concept. To oversimplify, OBM’s core assumption is that most firms perform best when it’s employees see themselves as partners rather than hired hands. All company financials are shared by employees. Employers are challenged to improve profitability, and all share in new company efficiency and prosperity. Ideally. The assumptions are not very different from Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), except there remains a single boss and owner.

I was fascinated by the concept of Open Book Management in theory since I have always tried to run my own outsourced executive sales firm, Corporate Rain International, collegiality–as a community of high-level peers. (I certainly try to never hire anyone who isn’t better than me.) That said, OMB is a bridge too far for me at present for several compelling reasons. But the one that strikes utter terror into my small businessman’s soul is the potentially endless meetings educating and sharing and discussing management decisions and finances. This potentiality alone is enough to send me fleeing the seductions of OMB.

As Eileen Shanahan acerbically states (as quoted by Harold Faber in The NY Times Magazine–3/17/68), “The length of a meeting rises with the square of the number of people present.” Or to quote that great business philosopher Mel Brooks. “It’s good to be King!

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I loathe PowerPoint presentations. There’s just about nothing in business I more dread.

In this I seem to be in a minority. PowerPoint is acknowledged to be the most popular tool for creating slide show presentations and an essential sales tool for many of my entrepreneurial colleagues. From what I read in Microsoft documents on the Internet there are well over 300 million PowerPoint users in the world, including over 30 million per day and over a million going on right now. My guess is the majority of these are boring their listeners to death.

I don’t use PowerPoint (or any of its alternative cousins). Here’s why: I want people to listen to me, the wonderful me. Now, admittedly, my outsourced sales company, Corporate Rain International, lends itself to a more simple presentation than, say, a complex, rococo technology sale. My company is primarily about a bespoke service and quality of strategic sales execution into the C-suite. But, even when selling computer hardware, software or other technological wonderment, buyers hire who they know and like. Anything that clouds or vitiates the urgency of that personal selling relationship is counterproductive.

The simple truth is the more efficaciously naked you can be emotionally, the more compelling you become as a salesman. PowerPoint puts a layer between the salesman and the client that I prefer not to have. This makes selling a more personal and courageous, as well as compelling, act.

Of course, I don’t mean to be absurdly reductionist in my intuitive salesman’s dislike of PowerPoint. Obviously there are necessary moments for the graphic and visual. But, even when necessary, it should be kept simple, as should almost everything in sales.

In an article in Wired from 2003 (subtitled “Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.“), Edward Tufte comments about PowerPoint:

“Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time and degraded the quality and credibility of communication.”

That rather neatly sums up my sales instincts on the use of PowerPoint.

Last week (July 27 blog) I noted that there is growing scientific evidence that people who excessively multitask and watch busy multimedia presentations retain much less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. In my opinion, PowerPoint is another exemplar of this phenomenon.

Painter Hans Hofman in Search for the Real (1967) states, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Thanks, Hans.

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