Tuesday, December 17, 2013


For small independent business owners the personal life and the business life are tightly interwoven. More often than not the business is the primary – if not the only – source of income and wealth. In many instances the business owner has put everything on the line in order to start a business or stay in business. In order to get and keep enough working capital he/she often has no choice but to subordinate everything owned to the bank or suppliers for credit.

As if the pressure of having to meet payroll every week is not enough, the small independent business owner puts enormous pressure on him/herself and the family by putting everything at risk: income, retirement funding, college funds for the kids, even the roof over his/her head.

Should we be amazed then that, even when these pressures have abated, equity has been built in the business, kids have successfully completed their college education and meeting payroll is no longer a concern, the interwovenness of personal and business life does not really change for many owners? These owners remain firmly in control of their business by being at the center of operations every waking minute. They are the Owner, Chief Executive, check writer, first line repairman, janitor and bottle washer and everything in between. Little, if anything, happens in their business that they are not involved in. It is as if they still have to protect the roof over their head.

These are the small independent business owners who, unwittingly, become the largest impediment to the growth and full development of the enterprise they sacrificed so much for. These are the prototypical micro-managers who know everything and know how to do everything better than anyone else in the business. These are the owners who are putting their dream at risk of atrophy, because they are incapable of attracting and keeping the talent the business needs to grow and flourish. These are the owners of businesses that are almost completely run by family members, because they have a hard time recruiting competent outsiders.

These are also the small independent business owners who have the hardest time initiating a plan for how and when to exit the business even though they may loudly complain that they can never be away from the business or things are falling apart. When asked, they will tell you that they would not want to die in the saddle, but they don’t take the first step to design a transition plan that will allow them to step away from the business in an orderly fashion and within a planned timeline.

Dave Sullivan, in his last appearance as the co-presenter of Aileron’s (www.aileron.org) Course for Presidents in October of 2013, addressed this reality and offered counsel for a better way of organizing the life and business of the small business owner. 

His first advice is to never start an enterprise without, at the same time, designing an exit strategy for the possibility that the enterprise may not pan out or may not deliver against the Owner’s expectations. It is one thing to risk everything for a dream of a well-designed entrepreneurial endeavor, it is unacceptable to increase the risk of lasting damage by not having contemplated how to extricate from a business when it fails.

Dave Sullivan’s further advice to business owners is to keep two parallel plans: a business plan and a personal plan or rather, in order of priority, a personal plan and a business plan. The thought here is that for the small independent business owner the business is part but not all of his/her life and that it is important for the person and for the business to have sorted out how, where and for how long the two intersect.

We all have only one life to live and –as we all know and if we play it right– there is more to life than just work. If the owner is a real entrepreneur, chances are that he/she will want to pursue more than one idea and start more than one business. In that case getting too deeply involved with one endeavor represents failure. A life plan deals with what one wants to make out of one’s presence on earth and what one wants to represent to others, family, friends or outsiders who are people in need of something one can deliver. Some, but never all, of that can be delivered by running a business. And therefore it is incumbent upon business owners to decide early on, but better late than never, where their business figures in the larger context of their life’s plan and where it should take a backseat to other pursuits.

If I heard Dave Sullivan right, he encourages every small business owner to have a life’s plan first and then figure out what contributions the business should make to achieving that plan. And what limitations should be placed upon the business owner’s interaction with the business in order to make sure that the business does not stand in the way of accomplishing the personal goals expressed in his/her life’s plan.

Just like a happy spouse is crucial to a good marriage, a business owner in pursuit of happiness is good for the business; and social research has established beyond doubt that happiness does not come from work or wealth but from accomplishing what one has set out to make out of one’s life.

For people who think that personal life considerations should stay out of business, I would remind them of the interwovenness of the two they have undoubtedly experienced at one point in their career. The two should be reconciled and that requires planning of both life and business.

Dave Sullivan would say as he dispenses this advice: It’s nothing personal, just (good) business!