Business Owners Toolbox Blog Discussions and articles to help the small business owner solve the challenges they face as they grow their business.

August 12, 2014

How to Grow My Business

Many businesses stay small because the owners are afraid to let their employees take over important tasks, for fear they’ll make a costly mistake. Let’s face it: the owner is a control freak!

Here’s a basic rule for growing your business:

The more you can let go, the more you can grow.

• If you’re stuck being a worker or an administrator, you can’t be a good manager.

• If you’re stuck being a day-to-day manager, you can’t be a good strategic executive.

You’ve got to bring in top-quality people to handle every one of these tasks you hold on to and need to hand off, or you’re stuck doing them yourself. That holds you back, and limits your growth and profitability.

Many owners have a very hard time seeing this. They can see getting a bookkeeper or admin assistant, or hiring more producers, but they hold back from hiring a director of operations or a director of marketing. This keeps them small, and consigns them to low profit and low wealth build up. Then they complain about how hard they work and how little they have to show for it.

Hire good people, show them how to do what you need done, give them goals and targets, then let them do the job you hired them for, give review and feedback as needed. If they don’t do it, let them go, but that means you didn’t do a good job of hiring them in the first place.

For you to have good people so that you can let go, that means you have to learn to select good people–or get help from somebody who can help you choose and bring on board good people.

CEOs of rapidly growing companies are leaders of a growth team.

April 9, 2014

Poverty Gulch

How to stay out of POVERTY GULCH

“I’m so busy on my big lucrative project that I have no time to market!” Then the project comes to an end. Now you have plenty of time to market. But you’ve been out of the flow so long that it takes awhile to fill your pipeline. You’re in Poverty Gulch.

boom and bust cycleYou have just gone from having a big project, where you are very busy, but fat and happy, to having no work at all. Since you were so busy–and making so much money–you did no marketing. When the project ends, your workload falls way off. You have to hustle for work until you get another big project. Then you once again forget about marketing.

This is a very common occurrence for entrepreneurs. It’s called the “boom and bust” cycle. What can you do about this? How can you keep a level of business development going even when you are focused on a large project, so that when it ends, it doesn’t take you so long to get back up to speed?

It is a matter of attitude and setting boundaries with your client. Are you the head of a business? If so, you must allocate time for all aspects of running your business, including marketing.

The biggest barrier to this is not the demands of your client. It’s your own preference to just keep working rather than face the uncertainty of drumming up more business. Admit that to yourself.

no povertyMany entrepreneurs much prefer doing client work than marketing for new work. For them, having one big lucrative client is the ideal–especially if the money is good. It’s a risky strategy, though.

Two options:

1. Set a limit: No single client absorb be more than 15%, or 30%, or 50%, of your work time. Choose your own number.

2. Make clear to your big client what your maximum weekly or monthly billable hours for them will be. Then stick to it. You don’t want to be their contract employee.



May 22, 2013

At What Age Should You Start a Business?

Filed under: Entrepreneurship — Tags: , , — Mike Van Horn @ 11:50 am

From a question asked on MosaicHub by Barbara Ciosek.

I’ve been advising small business owners for 25 years, and I see that people start businesses at all ages. Here are a few common categories:

20s. New professionals. People who get professional training, then go out on their own, so they never really work for anybody else (except their customers). Pretty quickly they see they must make their professional practice work as a business.

30s – 40s. Experienced professionals. People who start out working for a large company, get fed up with it, and strike out on their own, perhaps taking a few customers with them. Most of my clients fall into this category.

50s – 60s. Corporate escapees or castoffs get laid off–or retire–then either start their business or buy a business. I have a client who took his golden parachute from investment banking and started a yoga studio.

60s – 70s. Recycled Boomers. People who retire often get bored and decide to launch another venture. I have a client who sold his cable programming company at 67, and has started a training program for other retirees.

What about energy levels? I think it’s a myth that you have to work 24/7 when you start a business. Many do, of course, but I think that’s often due to poor planning–or choosing an inadequate business model.

The young often see older people as decrepit and slowing down. But when you get to be 70,  you might say, “Hey, I still love my work, and I still have plenty of energy and gumption. And what else would I do for the next 20 years or so?”

I, at 71, am about to launch a new offshoot from my company, training coaches and consultants to do what I do.


PS. This ignores the whole category of people who take over a family business, which can happen at any age, but most commonly in the 30s or 40s, after working in the business for a long while.


November 12, 2012

New Entrepreneurs’ Biggest Mistakes

Filed under: Entrepreneurship — Tags: , , , — Mike Van Horn @ 3:20 pm

Asked on MosaicHub by IcanNY

I see several big mistakes by entrepreneurs that can cut either way. Or even three ways:

1. Spending money before it is absolutely necessary–especially on overhead.
Or, on the other side . . . Failing to go all in, not spending as much as you need when the window of opportunity opens wide.

2. Plunging ahead too quickly before you are ready. Going to market with beta.
Or . . . Hesitating, waiting too long, so that others pass you by. Striving for perfection instead of good enough.
Or . . . Beating a dead horse. Sticking with something long after you should have written it off and moved on.

3. Being the Lone Ranger. Taking too much on yourself, thinking you’re the smartest, and that you know all the answers.
Or . . . Being indecisive. Listening to too many voices and viewpoints, trying to satisfy everybody.

4. Micromanager. Hiring good people but always looking over their shoulder, telling them how to do their job.
Or . . . Laissez faire. Hiring good people then turning them loose, giving too little guidance and feedback.
Or . . . Switching back and forth between these two. That REALLY drives your people crazy!

We all do these things. I’ve probably made every one of these mistakes! You can recover.

In my book, How to Grow Your Business without Driving Yourself Crazy, I show how to avoid these errors, and how to recover once you commit them.


November 6, 2012

How to Name Your New Company

Asked on MosaicHub by Jackie G.

Here are 10 rules for naming your new company.

Don’t rush it. A bad company name is tougher to dump than a bad spouse!

Brainstorm to start with. Bring in a few savvy allies and start tossing out both sensible and crazy ideas. Write ‘em all down. The most outrageous suggestion might later spark the most practical name. Listen to yourself as you explain to people what you do, or when they then paraphrase what you do.

After you narrow down the candidate names, run them by people who might be your clients. If you get blank stares, scratch that one. If their eyes show recognition, you’re getting close. Listen for the one that clicks. I bought my company, and retained the (so-so) name, The Business Group. But my slogan, which is my top selling tool, just popped out of my mouth when I was explaining to someone what I do. (It’s “Grow Your Business without Driving Yourself Crazy®.”)

Try to find a name for which the URL is available. If not exactly, then very close. I failed at this, because my company name is too generic. But I got the “dot biz” version. (Your URL must be something you don’t have to spell for people. No hyphens, underscores, abbreviations, or cutesy made up words.)

Can your company name actually tell what you do and convey a benefit to the desired customer? If you can come up with one that does, use it. Even pay for it if you have to

Select a name in conjunction with clarifying your brand and designing your logo. Also choose your tagline or slogan this way.

What about clever made-up names? If people don’t get it instantly, it’s no good. The companies that successfully use made-up words for their name have a million dollar promo budget to drum it into the public consciousness. You don’t have that. For every Google and Xerox, there are dozens of failed names that just evoke a “Huh?” response from people

If you need to launch and don’t yet have a name that clicks, operate under your own name. Then when the right name pops out, register that as a DBA.

If you decide to use your own name, use your last name, not first. “Jackie’s Resume Service” sounds small; “Turner Executive Job Placement” sounds corporate.

If you use your name, is this a problem when you want to sell? Not necessarily. A client of mine just sold her company for $1 million, even though it had her last name. The buyer plans to retain the name.

There’s a trade-off between being too specific and too generic. You could be “The Turner Group,” which says nothing but allows you to diversify. “Turner Executive Placement” is specific, conveys a benefit, but could get in the way if you diversify.

But the less generic and more specific, the more likely you can register the corresponding URL. E.g., “” may well be available.

November 5, 2012

Do you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?

Filed under: Entrepreneurship — Tags: , , , — Mike Van Horn @ 3:35 pm

From LinkedIn question by Ayoola Stephen Efunkoya: “Do we all have what it takes to be entrepreneurs?”

It doesn’t matter if everyone has what it takes to be entrepreneurial. Enough do. Let them create jobs for the rest.

Do YOU have what it takes? That’s all that matters to you. Sounds like you already have several qualities needed by entrepreneurs. Here are the basic qualities. How would you rate yourself?

Profit drive. Do you have a strong drive to make a profit from your entrepreneurial efforts, in addition to serving others and getting satisfaction and pleasure?entrepreneurial vision

Market sense. Secondly, do you have a good sense of what you could sell that people would pay for–and pay enough so that you can make a profit and provide yourself with a good living?

Organizer. Third, are you good at organizing resources–ideas, capital, people, equipment, vendors–needed to build and manage an efficient and productive endeavor?

Visionary. Fourth, do you have a vision of how all this could unfold, and where you could take it? It’s okay to start out with a fuzzy vision–most of us do.

Risk taker. Fifth, are you willing to take a big risk, and go for it even when it’s all very uncertain?

Planner. Finally, can you pull all this together in a plan that you can follow and that others can understand?

If you can do these things, you can be an entrepreneur. You don’t have to be at 100% with all these; we all start out small and inadequate. But we go ahead anyway–because we WANT it.

Or maybe because we are forced into it, and have no option. Necessity is the mother of entrepreneurship!

One other thing. Not all entrepreneurs go into business. You can be entrepreneurial in a non-profit, in an educational or scientific or artistic organization, in an NGO. You can even be entrepreneurial working in a large corporation, if you pick your place carefully.



August 20, 2012

How to Avoid a Get-Rich-Quick Mentality

Q. That desire to get rich quick is the bane of small business growth. I want my business to grow gradually and steadily. Asked on by Mbanude Izuchukwu.

A. This is an excellent question, because so many entrepreneurs fail to take your attitude.

I think the best way to do this is to surround yourself with a small group of  savvy business owners to act as an informal group of advisers. Here’s how to do this:

My business is leading such groups here in California. My groups–with no more than ten members–meet each month. You explain to them your business, your plans and goals, and your strategies, and they help in several ways:

— You present your plans to them. Doing this forces you to create plans that make sense, and that aren’t too ambitious.

— By having to explain your goals and strategies to them, they can keep you from making expensive mistakes. Sometimes you are being too bold, as you are concerned about. But sometimes you are being too timid, and you need to think bigger. And they will tell you either way.

— You help them with their problems in turn, and you learn just as much doing that.

— They serve as role models for you. You learn a lot by seeing how they solve their problems.

— If you think your problems are unique with you, they are much harder to overcome. But when you see that many others have dealt with the same problems, they don’t seem as overwhelming.

How do you find or build such a group? I would start with local business organizations, and look for those who have growing businesses, who seem savvy, who are willing to learn from others, and who aren’t competitors. The more diverse kinds of businesses you have, the better. The people must be trustworthy to keep confidential whatever is discussed in the meetings.

A group like this is a very powerful tool for growth, and for avoiding bad mistakes.

August 13, 2012

Raising Seed Capital or Licensing a Formula

Filed under: Entrepreneurship,Finances,Innovation — Tags: , , , , — Mike Van Horn @ 10:33 pm

Question on from Amar S. How do we find partners to help fund and license our concept? I am part of a two physician team that has a formula for an appetite-suppressing meal replacement bar. The concept allows us to take any soup and turn it into a bar. Our initial focus will be to produce vegan/vegetarian, allergy-free, low carb, low fat, high protein and kosher bars. We have a great idea, but we are having trouble finding established companies to partner with for development.

My answer. Amar, the farther along you can develop your idea, the easier it will be to attract interest from potential backers or licensees, and the more control you’ll be able to maintain. Very few established companies are interested in helping you develop such a product from an untested idea.

You say you have a formula, a concept. If I were an investor, I would be more interested if you had produced some initial batches, conducted tests with them, and tried them out with the kinds of people who would be your consumers. What did they like and not like? If it’s for weight loss, did they have any results? What about packaging and shelf life?

As a potential investor, I would want to see what processes you used, what equipment, how it would scale up, what sets it apart from similar products. How would the production costs pencil out against the likely retail price point, after backing out all the distribution channel costs? Does it require testing and approval from any regulatory agencies? How are the processes and products protectable? Are there pieces you can patent?

Where and how would it be sold? Would it be a grocery item? Health food or natural food stores? Sold online? How would it be marketed initially?

You’ve been in a service and consulting business. Now you’re looking at a manufacturing and distribution business. It takes a different mindset and skill set. You might say, “We just want to sell or license the concept to a big player, then wash our hands of it.” But even if you find a taker, you’ll realize the least return from this approach. You’ll lose control, and somebody else will make most of the money.

I’d look for three things first:

1. Raise some seed capital to do the things I outlined above. At the earliest stage, this money usually comes from your savings, family, or a true believer. (For example, a client of mine who produces gluten-free products has been approached by a VC who has celiac disease. BUT, she has been in operation for several years, and has a track record of growth.)

2. Partner with a person experienced in taking such products to market, with operational, marketing, fund raising experience. Not that he/she is an expert in all three areas, but has been there in the trenches

3. Find an attorney who can advise you how to protect your formulations and processes through patents, trademarks, etc.

June 25, 2012

Are You Cut Out to Be an Entrepreneur?

Do you have what it takes to succeed in business? Some people think it takes special skills to be a successful entrepreneur. I think it’s a myth. If you question your own entrepreneurial credentials, take a look at some of the people I’ve worked with—from solopreneurs to 50 or more employees:

  • Two art majors started making hand-printed greeting cards for friends. Now they own a print shop with a bunch of employees. They’ve printed my books.
  • A woman was making pear condiments in her kitchen. Soon she was selling pallets of her specialty foods to Costco from her warehouse. I have a photo of her driving her forklift.
  • A woman in IT had gluten intolerance, started baking things for herself. She now has a bakery, several retail outlets including a new one in the San Francisco Ferry Building, sells online, and has 30+ employees. She still doesn’t understand her P&L.
  • A Japanese immigrant worked as a busser in a restaurant, and saved his money. The restaurant went bust, he bought it for a pittance. Twenty years later, he has one of the best restaurants in the Bay Area, and has had a Michelin star.
  • A woman took over her husband’s bookstore when he died of a heart attack. She didn’t really enjoy the business, but she trained somebody else to run it for her, and she actually hired two more people.
  • A Hispanic guy got hurt on his construction job, and went on disability. While he was waiting for some job retraining, he started doing gardening for neighbors. He was chastised by the state for accepting money while on state aid. He now has three trucks and two gardening crews working for him.
  • A woman got fired from her sewing job, took a couple of favorite customers and did sewing for them. She now has a sewing workroom with ten employees. She recently bought out her former boss.
  • A banker took his early-retirement buyout and started a yoga studio, and he just loves doing that.
  • My wife BJ, the least entrepreneurial person I know, left her job when she got passed over for a promotion. She scanned the want ads for a new job for about six months, until she had so many HR consulting clients she had no time for that. Ten years later she keeps her schedule full without any marketing, just by referrals.

None of these people would have scored high on anybody’s entrepreneur test beforehand. But they’ve all done well. It may be true that not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, but I challenge you to point ’em out ahead of time.

Are you one of these “accidental entrepreneurs?” Your issue is, once you are up and going, how can you make the best of it? Not just to survive in business, but to thrive, and get where you want to go.

What It Takes to Succeed

For these folks to succeed as entrepreneurs and take their business where they wanted it to go, they had to master a handful of basic lessons. Here’s what they have told me. My guess is, these apply to you as well:

Find your natural gift and build your business around it. Not only what business you are in, but what you do in the business. These folks learned to succeed by doing what they were best at—design, product selection and merchandising, working with customers, spotting and negotiating deals, whatever—and handing off all the rest.

Insist on making a profit. Know what things cost, and how profitable each sale is. Don’t spend money unconsciously. If you’re not good at the numbers, hire a strong numbers person and have them give you the financial data you need in a way you can understand and take needed action. If they don’t do this, replace ‘em!

Pay yourself first, and well. If the cash is just not there, tune your business model until it is. Or is this just a hobby for you?

Listen to the market. Let it tell you what to sell, and what to ruthlessly pare back. Let your customers tell you what they want to buy from you, then give it to them.

Learn to sell by being who you are. Let your passion show through. Be there with your prospects and customers. Looked at this way, selling is not a fearful activity.

Don’t be the Lone Ranger. Get past your “only I can do this job” mindset. Bring in top quality people. The better people these owners had on their team, the bigger and more profitable they became, and the easier their job was. And the longer their vacations!

Let go those who don’t measure up. Don’t be held back by the limitations of your people—whether employees, subcontractors, or professional advisors such as accountants.

Stop being a control freak.  When you have good people, trust them to do the job you’ve hired them for. Trust but verify. Watch over things, but don’t jump in and do them yourself.

Get the secret knowledge out of your head. Learn to turn everything into systems, checklists, procedures manuals—even the things that you’re sure only you can do correctly—so that others can do them.

Set a plan, even when the uncertainties are daunting. Stick with it, review it regularly, and revise it as needed. A plan should be just a page or two, and should be dog-eared, coffee stained, and covered with notes.

Save money as you go along. Build up a cushion for tough times and a fund for expansion. Those that did this all along stayed in business throughout this tough downturn.

Take care of yourself. If you burn yourself out, you can’t provide the services you are passionate about. The notion of the 24-7 always-on entrepreneur is a dangerous myth.

Build your business around your life, not your life around your business. You’re in business to get to do what you want. Otherwise you might as well have a j-o-b.

Know when to let go and get out–whether you sell, pass it on, or just lock the door–and head on to the next thing.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to master these lessons. But having some help makes it easier.

This is where I come in. I’ve helped these folks grow to the size they want, put a lot more money in their pocket, take long vacations, then come back and find things ran well in their absence.  So give me a call.


June 4, 2012

The Inner Game of Business Growth

Why do some businesses grow rapidly while others struggle for growth and profitability? The difference often lies within the noggin of the owner. You are the biggest asset of your business, and more than likely the biggest bottleneck as well.

How about you? Is the way you run your business a barrier to your growth, profitability, and ease of operation?

Self-defeating management habits, attitudes and beliefs pervade the “crazy makers” I hear from business owners all the time. If you look at yourself, you may notice contradictory attitudes like these:

On the one hand . . . On the other hand . . .

• I can’t get all my work done. . . . I’m not hiring another employee.

• I must learn how to manage my time better. . . . I can’t find the time to make the needed changes in how I use my time.

• We’ve got to stay on budget. . . . I can’t resist making last minute design changes.

Pulled by conflicting attitudes

• We’ve got to watch costs. . . . I can’t be bothered to review the financials.

• Low margins are killing us. . . . I can’t bring myself to raise prices.

• I’ve got to take more time away from the business. . . . I can’t leave my managers alone. I can’t totally trust them.

• I need more skilled employees. . . . I’m afraid I’ll just train my own competition. I’m afraid I won’t have enough work to keep them busy.

• I need more sales. . . . Marketing scares me. I wish customers would just come.

• I get so tangled up in day-to-day operations that I lose sight of my vision. . . . I doubt the value of having a plan.

• I want to ease up and work fewer hours. . . . I can’t change my belief that hard work is necessary.

If you are nodding your head, “Yep, that’s me!” for any of these, you’re not alone. Crazy makers like these bog down many entrepreneurs.

This is the theme of my new ebook, “The Inner Game of Growth,” which shows you how to resolve these crazy makers.

I also offer you a freebie phone session on how to tackle contradictory attitudes like this using two simple tools. Just call me, 415-491-1896.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress