The “Little Steps” Entrepreneur

A friend of mine has a company he started several years ago and he’s on an unbelievable roll. If he’s not there already it won’t be long before his top line revenues exceed nine figures. When I first met him, his business was grossing nearly $10 million. Not only has he seen a gigantic increase in his sales, but his profitability is off the charts. I fully expect to read about him in Forbes one of these days. How has he done it?

My friend is not a particularly flashy guy. He didn’t design fancy strategies or engage in crazy risks. Instead, he concentrated on taking little steps. You or I might see them individually as pretty mundane. But when viewed collectively these small steps have become giant leaps, propelling his organization to dizzying heights. What have I learned over the years about how my friend has built such a successful company?

In the early days my friend was the classic bootstrapper. He literally did everything. He and one key associate were the “executive” level management. They paid attention to the little details and obsessed over their customers. I remember urging my friend to spend more time working “on” his business than “in” it. Over time he took this to heart and began to be more strategic. But initially he was the chief cook and bottle washer as well as the CEO.

Also in the beginning, this man was allergic to debt. He re-invested his profits and made sacrifices to get through the leaner times. I suggested that he procure a line of credit to which he responded, “Why? I don’t need it.” I explained that at some point in the future he would need a lending relationship with a bank and that he should establish it sooner rather than later. He could borrow against it and then pay it right back if that would make him feel better. Ultimately, he did obtain a line of credit and it was eventually quite helpful in accelerating his growth.

My friend was very particular about the business he would take. There were opportunities abound, but he showed great discipline in staying in his lane. He did not set out to be the biggest company in his industry, nor did he care if he developed a national footprint. By only taking assignments that he knew he could handle, he avoided the pitfalls that many entrepreneurs have made (including yours truly) by gobbling up every piece of business they could. At first, I thought he might have an affliction of limited thinking. But I was wrong. Though it wasn’t articulated, it was obvious that he had a winning formula that was taking shape because of his intuition.

Over time, my friend learned how to scale his company. He gradually created the infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of more and more customers. Today he hires more than 50,000 people a year to staff the industrial operations of his customers. He attributes his continued growth to his ability to identify and value talent. The “value” part is especially intriguing. He genuinely cares about the team he has assembled. It would be easy to view 50,000 workers as a commodity. But he doesn’t. My friend goes to great lengths to make certain that everyone is treated fairly and with respect.

Above all, he’s played it straight as long as I’ve known him. He makes certain that he only hires team members who are legal, and I’ve never seen him cut corners. Over many breakfast meetings and other encounters, I’ve observed this man to be grounded in principle and integrity. We’ve all heard about high-flying businesses that came crashing down when it was revealed that they had been involved in some form of cheating. My friend is Mr. Straight Arrow and has marched to that tune from Day One.

Overall, I think I can ascribe his level of success to his ability to execute. Some leaders are born to perform – my friend seems to do so effortlessly. I’m sure he’s stubbed his toe along the way. But I’m not aware that he’s made any major mistakes that would have jeopardized his future. I can’t say that he was studious about creating strategic plans and organizational charts or subscribed to the Harvard Business Review. Maybe he did. My guess is that he simply exercised a great deal of common sense and had an amazingly deep understanding of his industry.

My friend is a living example of how taking little steps can lead to sweet success. What he has done can be instructive for the rest of us as we grow and flourish as entrepreneurs.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Apologetic Entrepreneur

There’s something we all need to do from time-to-time, but many of us find it to be quite difficult. To become great leaders, entrepreneurs need to be able to perform this act in a genuine and authentic way. And yes, there’s a right way and a wrong way. Before I give away the punchline, let me share an example that will illustrate the concept.

Our company has a set of core values that includes Integrity. One of the individual actions prescribed in this core value is, “I speak directly with people to resolve issues as they arise.” This translates into the notion that rather than triangulate with other people about a problem we are having with someone, we go directly to that person to resolve the matter. Seems simple enough, right? Now, suppose a member of the team is in a meeting with senior leaders including the CEO and this team member makes a comment that makes other uncomfortable. Some might believe the comment to be slightly disrespectful to the CEO. After the meeting, the CEO and a couple of the senior leaders are debriefing, and the CEO mentions that the comment that was made was probably inappropriate. The team member’s supervisor then goes to the team member and advises her that she should refrain from making similar comments in the future. The team member becomes upset that the CEO didn’t address this directly with her. What should the CEO do?

This situation actually occurred in our company and the CEO was me. It was brought to my attention by the supervisor that I may not have been keeping with our core value of Integrity because I triangulated with that supervisor rather than bringing the issue directly to the attention of the team member. What did I do? I picked up the phone and called the team member (who is based in another city). I told her that I had in fact mishandled the matter and should have come to her to discuss it. And I apologized for screwing up. In no way was this individual trying to deflect away any focus on her comment – she admitted that the remark was inappropriate, and she apologized to me. But she was absolutely right in her observation that a fundamental core value had not been observed.

Earlier in my career I might have been defensive about the feedback I received. I might have been indignant that somehow, I was wrong when it was another person who made the inappropriate comment to me in the first place. But I’ve learned a lot over the years and particularly how important it is to expunge false pride and an unhealthy ego to become a humble leader. Learning the Art of the Apology has been of great value to me.

Telling someone we’re sorry and admitting a mistake is important. But the way it’s done and what we say is equally critical. We’ve all heard this kind of an apology. “I want to apologize if what I did offended you.” This isn’t an admission that the perpetrator did anything wrong. He is simply apologizing if you are offended. The correct apology would have been, “I am sorry and want to apologize to you because what I did was wrong.” Another mistake is that of trying to rationalize the offense and then apologizing for it. In a way we’re still trying to defend what we did – although somewhat weakly. And it can come across in a condescending sort of way with the message that the aggrieved party is overly sensitive.

Smart entrepreneurs admit their mistakes and move on. Not making the same mistakes over and over is also a factor here. When a team member sees the leader of the organization easily and genuinely apologizing for his or her toe stubs, it goes a long way toward making it easier for others to follow suit.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Respect-Earning Entrepreneur

Successful entrepreneurs display many different leadership traits. But there’s at least one aspect of leadership that an entrepreneur cannot just automatically possess – instead it must be earned. Of course, I’m talking about Respect. Many believe that respect should be granted simply due to a station in life or perhaps a position that is held. Certainly, there may be some truth to this, but true respect is not something that is simply bestowed. Yes, the Queen of England, the President of the United States, and other heads of state command respect. But it’s for the office and not necessarily the individual.

Rodney Dangerfield made a living as a comedian with his trademark phrase, “I don’t get no respect.” With apologies to Rodney, respect is no laughing matter. It should be viewed with the utmost of seriousness because it can be a life-or-death factor for businesses and organizations of all sizes. When CEOs misbehave not only is the individual disgraced but the company he or she represents is shamed as well. On September 28, 2015, the EPA announced an order to recall Volkswagen cars built from 2009 – 2015 due to software that was programmed to cheat on emissions testing. Two days later the company admitted to this malfeasance and on September 23 the CEO resigned. Volkswagen has since paid well over $20 billion in financial penalties and legal settlements – not to mention the long-lasting reputational damage that would bankrupt smaller firms. Rebuilding the respect of the public for the VW brand will be a long and arduous process. And who knows if the former CEO will ever again be truly respected.

Earning respect doesn’t just happen. There is an intentional process that is required, and it consists of multiple facets. From my perspective it all starts with integrity. Do we always do the right thing even if it’s seemingly detrimental to our best interests? And do we always do the right thing even when no one is watching? Integrity cannot be turned on and off on a whim. Either it’s there or it’s not. Our team members, customers, suppliers – everyone is watching. If we keep our moral compass centered, we will have taken a giant step toward the pinnacle of respect.

Together with integrity is authenticity. It’s impossible to be authentic and genuine without integrity. Are we comfortable enough in our own skin to be ourselves? We’ve all seen others who are struggling with inner demons and insecurities. They “put on airs” and engage in bragging and blowhard behavior. It’s hard to respect someone who is living in disguise and can’t deal productively with his or her personal issues.

Entrepreneurs who have empathy and genuinely care about others are more likely to earn respect than an insensitive tyrant. Think about this. An individual is completely honest; does everything in an above board and straight forward manner; is totally authentic – but he’s also a flaming a-hole. How much respect do you suppose those people with whom he interacts have for him? Treating people poorly is a fast way to lose the respect of others. The leader who is courteous and thoughtful is earning respect. The leader who shows a real interest in others and their welfare is earning respect. The leader who subordinates his needs or desires to the wishes of another, is earning respect. When a leader enjoys success but publicly gives the credit to members of his team, he is earning respect.

Consistency is the final ingredient in this recipe for respect. We can’t be hit or miss with our integrity, authenticity or in the way we treat people. Inconsistency sows seeds of doubt about our real motives. In a worst-case scenario others see us as being manipulative and conniving. Clearly when we stay true to our principles, we have no problem remaining consistent.

Earning respect takes time, and once achieved the quest to maintain it should be sacred. Earning and keeping respect is best accomplished through integrity, authenticity, empathy, and consistency.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The “My Word is My Bond” Entrepreneur

This blog is a bit of a lament. I grew up in my industry during the 1970s and 1980s when a handshake was still as meaningful as written documentation. The proverbial handshake was not necessarily a legal contract, but it might as well have been. Once we gave our word, nothing could change the follow-through on our intent. Legal documentation was merely a formality and there was not a lot of haggling over the verbiage. Sadly, this notion of “my word is my bond” has diminished in recent times.

We recently sold two large apartment communities that were part of our portfolio for several years. We went through a painstaking process of listing the properties for sale with a national brokerage firm. The properties were marketed extensively, and we issued a call for offers. Dozens of offers were received, and we opted to have further discussions with the top ten bidders. Then we made a call for “best and final” offers. Once those offers were received, we interviewed the top four bidders and determined a winner. We then told the winners verbally that we were accepting their best and final bid. In both instances, one of the unsuccessful bidders reached out within 24-hours and increased their offer. In one case, the increase was $250,000, and in the other case it was $750,000 higher. In our minds there was no decision to be made. We had already given our word to the initial winning bidders and we had no problem staying with their offers, even though it cost us $1 million.

Contrast that with a situation that occurred with another of our business units. This business is involved in the syndication of historic tax credits. We offered term sheets to a developer who verbally accepted our offer and confirmed the acceptance in an e-mail. A couple of weeks passed, and we had not received a return of the term sheets signed by the developer. When we reached out to the developer he apologized and said that he had decided to accept an offer from another tax credit syndicator. Legally, he had every right to do this. But it certainly left a sour taste in our mouths. For sure, his word was not his bond, and he did not even have the courtesy to let us know without being prompted.

It all boils down to the simple yet powerful premise of Integrity. Our company embraces five Core Values, one of which is Integrity. We are proud of the fact that we can demonstrate in real time that we practice what we preach. Integrity used to be a foundational principle for entrepreneurship. I believe that it still is, but it has become devalued – especially where the almighty dollar is involved. The problem is compounded by the fact that too many businesses throw around terms such as “integrity” and “honesty” but fail to deliver on them. Hearing Honest Harry yap about how you can trust him to sell you a car at “$1 over invoice” has caused society to tune out.

So, what do we do about this sad fact of life? At this point, I do not really care about whether I can believe that the word of other entrepreneurs is their bond. Instead, we will just keep doing things the old-fashioned way. If I tell you something, you can believe it whether we have a legal document or not. Hopefully, you will treat me the same way. If I screw-up, I will step up and make it right whether I have a legal document compelling me to do so or not. I cannot count the number of times over the course of my career this has happened – at a cost of literally millions of dollars. This may not be the smartest business decision, but it is the right thing to do, and I can sleep at night.

At the end of the day, as entrepreneurs we should want to be judged by the character we display over the course of our careers rather than the amount of money we will have made.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Advice from a Boomer to a Millennial – Part 2

A few years ago, I wrote a blog offering advice from a Baby Boomer entrepreneur to Millennials. Now, I have some additional thoughts to share.

  1. Create your own opportunities. Nothing should stop you from creating and pursuing your own opportunities. They are not going to be handed to you, so do not have an expectation that someone is going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Here is an opportunity that I think would be perfect for you.” I was very fortunate early in my career to work for an entrepreneur who allowed me free rein. I had certain roles and accountabilities that I was expected to perform. But after that, I was free to dream and take the steps necessary to make those dreams a reality. It was important that the opportunities I created did not conflict with our organization’s values and goals. I made more mistakes than I can count, but none were so serious that they would have sunk the ship. Too many people today seem to be in a “waiting mode.” Rather than dreaming big dreams and making them a reality, they think that someone else is going to give them direction and structure. Believe me when I tell you that this mindset will only end up in frustration and resentment the longer it persists.
  2. Work for/with honorable people. Another fortunate aspect to my career was the fact that the entrepreneur for whom I worked was an honorable man. He was tough and old-school with many of his leadership traits and tendencies, but he was as honest and fair as the day is long. I had job offers along the way but always thought, “I am able to create my own opportunities and work for a person of integrity. What more could I want?” The grass-is-greener syndrome that many people face was never a factor for me. Now that I lead our collection of companies it warms my heart to know that one of our five core values is Integrity and we have created an entire organization with hundreds of honorable people.
  3. Make your own happiness. We have all heard it said that happiness comes from within. This is 100% true. How many times have you (or a colleague) said that when your compensation reaches a certain level or you have a specific amount of money in the bank, that you (or a colleague) can relax a bit and be happier? There is no question that material wealth can make life easier. But easier does not necessarily translate into happiness. When we make our own happiness, we are channeling our passion in ways that are satisfying to us. Passion and happiness go hand in hand. Find your passion and chances are you will be a happy person.
  4. What the heck is boredom? This one stumps me. I have never been bored a minute in my life. And yet I hear adults talk about being bored all the time. As a kid life was full of wonder and excitement. I grew up in a time long before video games, the Internet and 24-hour stimulation. If any of us kids ever thought about being bored, our parents would read our minds and make us go pull weeds in the yard or scrub out garbage cans. My grandkids talk about being bored which is amazing considering all the toys and tools to which they have access. Boredom comes from being too one-dimensional. If we are curious about all things in life, there is never a chance to be bored because we are always learning something new. I will never forget Saturday afternoons as an eight-year-old grabbing the World Book Encyclopedia annual update and reading about so many different things. If you tend to become bored, consider creating a bucket list of things you would like to learn and do, and then get to it. This does not have to be the “Climb Mt. Everest” type of aspirational bucket list but could be as simple as learning to play the piano or reading a book in a genre that you would not ordinarily consider. Simply put, boredom is a complete and total waste of life.
  5. Live a positive life. We all have a choice to make. Do we maintain a positive mindset or a negative one? Other people do not dictate our mindset. To me, the choice has been a total no-brainer. If I can be positive and happy or negative and miserable, what choice is there really? Life is far too short to wallow in despair and negativity. If there is only one piece of advice that I can give you, it is to always, always, always stay positive and look for the silver linings in everything, for they are there.

Here is wishing you the ability to create your own opportunities, work for and with honorable people, make your own happiness, never be bored, and live a positive life. YOLO!

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Entrepreneur Negotiator

Harrison Ford starred in the classic movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson starred in Lost in Translation. Richard Dreyfuss played the lead in Lost in Yonkers. The television show Lost in Space ran from 1965-68. And entrepreneurs star every day in the Lost Art of Negotiation. Why is negotiation a lost art? I believe that too many of us see negotiating as a competition.

Google gives 90,500,000 results for the word negotiation so there is no shortage of material about the subject. But I do not want to focus on negotiating techniques – that is not the point of this blog. Instead, I would like to offer some ideas that may be helpful in making the negotiating process more productive.

If we start with the premise in a negotiation that we want to win, then it becomes a competition where someone (not us) is going to lose. From here we harden into our “positions” and the tension begins. There is a better way. First, we need to see a negotiation as an opportunity to solve a problem. It is a dual problem – one for us and one for another party. Trying to solve just our problem may be far more difficult than figuring out how to solve for both parties. What do we do when we solve a problem? We start by clearly defining all elements of the problem. Then we catalog all the possible solutions. Our innovation and creativity come into play at this point.  

In the process of attacking the problem we establish our bedrock principles. For example, we may resolve that no matter what, we will always be respectful. Perhaps we commit to avoid getting hung up on personalities. Or we may decide that regardless of how dirty the other party may play our approach will continually reflect total integrity. Ultimately our analysis leads us to the bottom line for the most critical factors to the outcome we believe will best solve the problem for both parties.

Recently I was coaching a business owner about the potential sale of her company. I asked her what her bottom-line number was, and she gave me a figure. Then I asked her if negotiations led to a value that was $50,000 less than her bottom-line number, would she sell. She replied in the affirmative. So, we went back and forth with the $50,000 question until we finally reached an amount that she absolutely positively would not accept. The takeaway for her was that the initial figure she thought was her bottom-line number actually was not.

As we engage in a negotiation we listen to and understand what the other party is telling us. This information is then overlaid onto the problem we have identified, and our array of solutions is applied. We avoid confrontation by working from a set of facts; seek agreement wherever possible, and constantly narrow the scope of issues.

Being in the commercial real estate business I have been in continuous negotiations in one form or another for more than 45 years. You can read all the books you want and watch all the videos in the world on negotiating strategies. And if you pay attention to them you can easily end up getting too cutesy. I have found that a fairly straightforward approach has been extremely successful for me. I do not try to outthink the other party or construct a series of chess-like moves. Instead, I know what my bottom line is, and I know the principles that I want to maintain. If I must violate my principles to get to my bottom-line, I’ll withdraw. And I have learned that transparency and respect have been more valuable than anything else.

Entering a negotiation as a creative opportunity to solve a problem for both parties puts us on the same path. Bedrock principles and a clear understanding of our bottom line is then the recipe for a positive outcome.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Bad News Bears

Uh-oh. Jack just learned that he did not win a contract that was supposedly all but certain. He was counting on this deal to make his quota and had been bragging to the vice-president of sales and his co-workers that it was in the bag. What’s more troubling is the fact that he’s been under the gun by upper management over the past few months to improve his production. Now what?

Jack has to deliver the bad news. The first thought running through his head is that he’s going to be fired on the spot. He’s deep in debt and has a wife and two small kids at home. What does he do? Unfortunately, Jack chooses to do what so often happens in situations like this. He fudges the truth. He tells his boss that he hasn’t yet “heard the final word” from the client. Jack holds onto a thread of hope that he might be able to salvage the deal.

It’s obvious that delivering bad news is never fun. It actually starts with an organization’s culture. What is the reaction to bad news by the leadership? Is there screaming, yelling and threats? How about chaos and recriminations? If so, this sets the tone for anyone on the wrong side of having to report unfavorable results. It’s human nature to try and avoid painful encounters of this sort. Thus, some people may have a tendency to stretch the truth, fudge the facts or outright lie about the situation, rather than endure the wrath of the boss.

In a healthy organization, delivering bad news is just another routine task to be performed. The enlightened leader will encourage team members to openly talk about what isn’t working including setbacks that have recently occurred or are anticipated. He or she will work with the team to understand what went wrong and how to avoid a similar result in the future. There’s no negative emotion or drama associated with this analysis. In so doing, team members feel safe in bringing news of any sort – good or bad.

A leader who operates in a fair and even-handed manner is entitled to expect full and total integrity from the team. The team member in a healthy organization who fudges the facts like Jack did should be dealt with in a severe manner. Here’s the calculus. I won’t blow up and make you feel lower than whale poop, and you owe me complete transparency. It’s as simple as that.

If you are part of an organization that struggles with bad news, first look inward and remember that it’s a two-way street. If the organization is unwilling to react in a calm and measured way, then it cannot expect team members to want to deliver bad tidings.

There’s another element to delivering bad news. It may be that the leader does not have an angry tantrum at all. This individual may always be very upbeat and optimistic. But members of his or her team may still not want to tell it like it is. Why? Because they don’t want to disappoint him. In many situations feeling like one has let down a co-worker or a leader is a powerful motive to duck or delay the inevitable. It’s circumstances like this where the leader must take care not to send any signals that he/she may be disappointed. In fact, this leader should go out of his way to encourage members of his team not to equate bad news with a disappointed boss.

One way to solve this dilemma is to embrace failure as simply a step in a process. A forward-thinking entrepreneur will model this attitude by sharing his or her failures with the team. Being vulnerable in this manner may encourage others to be more comfortable doing the same without fear of disappointing the leader.

Let’s replay Jack’s scenario with a different twist. Jack learns that he did not win the contract. He immediately goes to his boss and explains the facts of the situation. His boss says, “Jack, this reminds me of a situation a few years ago where I was positive I was going to win the brass ring only to be left holding the bag. But I scrambled together a radical new approach and took a long-shot by asking to see the client one last time. Believe it or not he changed his mind and I won the deal after all. You might try the same approach.” Maybe Jack went on to win the deal and maybe not. Regardless, there was no hesitation when it came time to deliver the bad news initially.

Delivering bad news can be done in a matter-of-fact fashion if an organization’s culture encourages it. If not, we can expect that people will take extreme measures to avoid this unpleasant task.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Transparent Entrepreneur

There’s a priceless element to an entrepreneur’s success when it comes to his or her customers, employees and investors. This element can be broken. It can be elusive. And it can be very difficult to regain when lost. Of course, I’m talking about “trust.” But this isn’t so much a blog about trust as it is one of the foundational components to building trust. Let’s explore the concept of transparency.

Transparency is a word that is used a lot these days – sometimes it becomes a bit trite as well as overused. Don’t you just love print advertising and television commercials that implore us to “trust” the company peddling the product? My guard goes up when I hear this sort of naked appeal – I probably am much more cynical about companies that resort to this messaging. If we start with the premise that “trust” is the given baseline, why then, is there a need to say, “Trust me?”

If I do a poor job of delivering what I promise to my customers, I’d much rather admit in an open and honest manner that I screwed up. Too many times we see companies stonewall, deny and otherwise obfuscate when the train goes off the track. This results in mistrust rather than accomplishing whatever we had hoped for by not being transparent. The old saying that the cover-up is worse than the crime certainly applies here!

Transparency begins with the basic core value of integrity. Either we have it or we don’t. We use this core value to guide us in the actions we take to fulfill transparency. I know that there are those who will say, “I’d like to be more transparent but in today’s litigious society I can’t say what I really want to say – I’ll be sued if I do!” However, there are ways to be open and honest without creating legal jeopardy.

We must also remember that most people don’t like surprises – at least not the negative kind. This is especially true when we’re working with our team members and investors. A number of years ago we acquired some land and launched a residential subdivision which turned out to be a bad idea. Shortly after we completed the purchase, installed the streets and sold our first three lots, the financial world came to an end (2008 – 2009). Our lot sales came to a screeching halt and remained very anemic for several years thereafter. We had raised substantial investor equity for this project and needless to say, the lack of sales was a difficult thing to report. Nevertheless, we dutifully wrote and sent investor reports every year laying out the facts. There was no sugarcoating, nor did we try to sound overly hopeful. Eventually there was good news to report and we were naturally pleased to do so. I’ve been told by several of our investors that they never lost confidence or trust in us because we were totally transparent throughout the process. It also helped that we explained in detail what we were doing to try and solve the problem.

Transparency means getting in front of the message rather than being behind the curve. Here’s an example. We learned that a major employer was about to close its doors in a market where we had an apartment property. Immediately, we contacted the investor and let him know that this was happening and apprised him of how we thought this closure might impact the property. We also laid out our plan of action for minimizing the negative impact to the investment. He was also an investor in another property in the same market that was handled by one of our competitors. He told us he never heard from the competitor and appreciated the fact that we delivered bad news as soon as we knew it. Our transparent approach built trust and enabled us to do more business with this investor.

Transparency is one of the cornerstones of trust. By operating with integrity, we are never afraid to deliver good news or bad, and share all that is relevant with our customers, team and investors.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Entrepreneurial Snakes

Here’s a set-up question. What do you think of companies that aren’t honest with their customers? The answers range from, “That’s terrible” to “It happens every day.” Unfortunately, both answers are correct. What’s particularly irritating is when those companies beat their chests about how much they care about their customers. There’s a disconnect between words and actions which is pretty disturbing and serves as an excellent lesson for entrepreneurs.

Allow me to tell you a personal story. Each summer we look forward to spending a couple of weeks at a beautiful destination spot in the mountains with enormous trees, blue skies and a fabulous lake. We fly into a nearby airport, collect our bags and head to the car rental counter where we’ve previously made a reservation. After checking in we venture to the car pick-up area – and every single year, bar none, our vehicle is never ready. We’ve waited anywhere from 20 minutes to as long as 45 minutes. The attendants smile and promise that “They are just cleaning up the car as we speak – it will only be a few more minutes.” Fifteen or twenty minutes later they smile again and disappear to go “check” and see where things stand. Sometimes we go through the same drill with two or three more attendants – they seem to work in a tag team sort of manner. Finally, someone tells us that “They’re bringing around the car right now.” Any reasonable person would conclude that would mean the car would arrive in two or three minutes. But it never happens. Eventually we may get the car we ordered. More often than not, we end up with a different vehicle – sometimes better and sometimes worse. Adjustments are made to the price and we’re finally on our way. 

Here’s what’s so bothersome about this experience. We are never told the truth. The attendants are friendly enough. They explain that they’ve been slammed with returns and pickups. But the string-a-long routine is always the same. Yes, I know. I should probably use a different car rental company – though I’ve encountered similar issues elsewhere with other firms. With this particular car rental company, on their website they make a big deal about how they focus on the customer. Part of their mission statement extolls their desire “To exceed our customers’ expectations for service, quality and value.” Elsewhere we’re told that, “Take care of your customers and employees first, and the profits will follow.”

This situation is emblematic of a pervasive problem in the business and entrepreneurial world today. Sometimes we’re so afraid of disappointing a customer that we’d rather try to give them hope while we juggle difficult circumstances. We say things that aren’t quite true and eventually we’re in worse shape than if we would have just been totally honest. Lying doesn’t usually end well. I learned this as a kid and have watched others suffer the consequences as an adult. What should the car rental company have done? For starters, they have a very sophisticated IT operation and could easily have collected data from every hour of every day at every location. Then they would know from my stated pick-up time that there usually is a 30-minute wait and set my expectation accordingly. But we all know that sometimes things unexpectedly go wrong. Training their employees to have empathy in such situations and be totally honest would go a long way.

In a circumstance like this, here’s what I would rather have someone say to me. “We had 50 cars returned within a 30-minute timeframe. Normally we never have more than 20 cars returned in such a short period of time. We’re running at least 45 minutes behind. I’m going to give you a 15% discount for the delay and recommend that you come back at 3:30. In the meantime, here are some drink coupons for the bar inside the airport terminal. Please accept our most sincere apologies.” This statement is pro-active and wrapped with empathy, honesty and realistic expectations. The customer may not be pleased, but at least the company can’t be criticized for not doing everything possible to atone for a bad situation.

We need to ask ourselves whether we set honest and realistic expectations for our customers. When we do, we’ll have a much greater chance of solidifying customer loyalty – even when things don’t go as planned.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Hard Times and Happy Times

The entrepreneurial experience produces emotions of all sorts, often extending across the positive to negative spectrum and all in the same day! Most entrepreneurs will attest to the fact that there have been hard times at different points in their careers. These hard times may be the result of personal challenges, professional challenges or both. They run the gamut from aging parent issues, marital strife, divorce, rebellious children, lawsuits, financial pressures, unfair competition, loss of market share/customers, and a multitude of other mole hills and in some cases, mountains – really big mountains. Through it all, there’s a central question that we grapple with. How do we make hard times into happy times? Is it even possible?

Let’s start with the whole notion of happiness. Are you happy overall? Where do you land on the happiness scale? Are you happy some of the time but not always? Are you moderately happy or are you ecstatically happy? When you encounter hard times, are you able to maintain your level of happiness or does it slide down (or off) the scale? Obstacles are a part of life. They’ll always be there. When we sign on to be an entrepreneur, we also understand that we’re signing up for a roller-coaster ride. Our gut check is determining if we can be happy while we’re riding the roller-coaster, the bucking bull or whatever metaphor is chosen to represent the challenges we inevitably will face.

Over the course of my 65+ years I’ve learned many things about happiness. Allow me to share them with you.

  1. Happiness is a choice. First and foremost, I’ve come to understand that my happiness is 100% my choice. Where I land on the happiness scale is totally my choice. This concept may not be easy to grasp when we’re in the throes of a crisis. But I’ll be darned if I’m going to let what is happening around me determine whether or to what degree I’m going to be happy. Some may say that this sounds like a Pollyanna type of response – after all the world is crumbling around us and we’re going to choose to be happy? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. It may not be as easy to dial up happiness when we’re getting punched in the gut . . . but it definitely is a choice that we make.
  2. Go to bed with a clear conscience. My wife is constantly shaking her head. When my head hits the pillow at night, I’m fast asleep within 30 seconds or so. One of the reasons is the fact that I go to bed every night with a clear conscience. I know that my integrity is intact, and I haven’t intentionally stepped on anyone’s toes. A sure-fire way to unhappiness is breaching the trust of others. There may be other problems that crop up along life’s road, but this isn’t going to be one of them.
  3. Be grateful. Gratitude is one of the keys to happiness. I find that when I am grateful to someone and express it, I feel an endorphin rush. And because it feels so good to express gratitude, I try to do it every single day. I have found that being grateful helps to create a balance in my life that pushes up the happiness meter.
  4. Serve others. Years ago, I discovered that getting out of myself was a major factor in being a perpetually happy person. Rather than dwelling on my own inadequacies, mistakes and failures, I found that serving others produced those same endorphins I felt when I was in gratitude. When I could make others happy it became infectious and made me happy as well. I volunteered at a children’s hospital; have served as a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs; created a scholarship program for young people studying to be teachers, and many other examples.
  5. Turn the tables. Look, I said it before. Hard times are inevitable. But we can use them to learn and grow. We can use them to stimulate creativity and innovation. I have come to thrive on complexity and challenges that some might find would push them over the edge. Instead, I say, “bring on the tough stuff!” I’m not about to be defeated by hard times because they present an opportunity to excel and move to even higher levels of performance. And that’s just as applicable in my personal life as it is in my business.

Hard times and happy times can coexist. We need to recognize that happiness is a choice and it can be realized when we operate in integrity, express gratitude, serve others and use our challenges as opportunities for growth.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.