October 1, 2014

How to be an entrepreneur


It was a beautiful spring day. There was no wind, the sun was in its glory and better yet, my garden centre was packed with customers. They were buying their plants and sundries. I was at the front, ensuring that everything ran smoothly. We were in top gear. It was humming.
A customer, in his forties, made a purchase of a heavy order. I had four students who were assigned to carry customer purchases to their cars. All were busy. I stepped in to carry his purchase. It was something we did. On the way to his car, the customer cracks, “This place is nothing more than a licence to print money.”
An interesting comment and it made me wonder — where was this fellow on the May long weekend when it snowed? I had 26 staffers on duty, waiting to serve the onslaught. I had six customers. If we were going to be robbed, I preferred it to be that day. No one made references during the snow, to ‘a licence to print money.’ Also, there was no ‘licence’ reference the days when we would get out the bleach and disinfect the greenhouse or the day in March when it was so cold that all fourteen furnaces were running nonstop. Nope. No smart-ass remarks about owning ‘a licence to print money’ then.
I would write, with optimism, that eventually you get a thick skin and those comments don’t bother you, but I would be lying about my own experience. I didn’t care for those comments then and I don’t care for them now. Those cracks got to me, and one day I snapped at a fellow who made a similar remark, “If this business is indeed a licence to print money, then why have so many gone bankrupt? Why are there so few of us independents left, if all we have to do is to open our doors and put some plants on our benches?” Not the finest example of how to handle customers, but (insert sigh) I had had my fill.

Here is how to be an entrepreneur, how to be successful and how not to become one of those bankruptcy statistics. I know that my introductions are legendary for being a bit long. Thank you; I have a wife who reminds me of this habit.
First, you have to have a passion for this business. If you don’t have a passion for this business, then find one that you do have a passion for. Life is much too short to spend 60-70 hours a week at a job if it is not where you want to be.
Second, have a plan. Those who fail, and there are many, are usually missing one item and that is their plan for success. I really dislike including the U.S. Marine cliché that, “No one plans to fail, but they do fail to plan.” I detest that cliché because it is, so often, improperly used. The reality is that when a person is struggling with a business and they come to me for advice, I ask them to show me their business plan and their mission statement. Two things. Both requests are met with a blank stare. The point is made.
Story time: I was out for a bike ride and stopped at a downtown coffee house. They had an outside seating area with a long bench. It was a lovely Sunday afternoon and I took my coffee to the outside bench. Two others shared the bench with me. One fellow asked the second one, “What do you do?” The second fellow explained that he was from Toronto, in town for the week, for a television shoot. The first fellow claimed to have written a television script. The second fellow handled this situation quite well. He suggests that he would like to read that script. Then the first fellow back tracks and says that it is just a series of notes and not ready to be read. “Uh huh,” grunts the Toronto man. A long pause occurs, then this is offered, “It is more of an idea for a show that I have in my head than an actual script.” That statement was the closest to the truth that he would get. I tell that story, often, to demonstrate that there are those among us who say they have a script, but in reality they have nothing written down. Therefore, they have no script, only an idea. Or so they say.
My mentor would say to me, “A plan is not a plan until it is written down. Until then, it is only daydreaming or thinking out loud, at best.” Those are true words. God bless him.
Third, be organized. There are business owners who actually have a crew of people arrive for work in the morning and the owner does not have a plan. This is called wasting money and time. I maintain that being organized makes you money. I am the first to admit that plans, including mine, change. They do not always work out. Better to have a plan and to change it as need be, than to have no plan at all. None of us can foresee the need to repair an overflowing toilet or an unexpected truck that shows up at the back gate, but most days, the plan is followed and it works.
Fourth, be willing to change. Again, be willing to change, especially your opinions. Most entrepreneurs are strong willed and opinionated. That is a given. But there must be a degree of flexibility, or else you will continue along the wrong path only because that was the one chosen by you. Sometimes, you have to change your path because the evidence suggests (and you may gasp) that you are wrong.
I ran a small ad in our local newspaper. It was a coupon for ‘buy one bedding plant pak at regular price and get the second one for free.’ There was a limit of one per customer. I wanted to offer something special but not to give away the store. After two days, I counted the coupons and we were at the 200 mark. This proved that I was on the right track and I was so damned proud of myself.
I was having lunch in the break room with two cashiers and I bragged of our success (translation: see how brilliant I truly am) and both cashiers, who were experienced, glared at me. “What? What?” They explained to me that most of those two hundred people had been ‘trouble.’ Most insisted that the limit of one per person did not apply to them as they wanted to buy one for, “my daughter, my neighbour and my friend.” The cashiers explained to me that while they were arguing with this ‘coupon person,’ one of our regulars had a $200 order in her cart and she was watching this entire debacle. They went on to explain that of the 200 coupons, perhaps only five had been redeemed by regular shoppers, the rest had been turned in by “people we have never seen before and we will never see again, unless we are giving away something else.” I never ran a coupon like that again. I was wrong.
Fifth, learn to make decisions and do so quickly. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is an excellent read for entrepreneurs. It offers the premise that most people know in a blink if something is real or if it is false. They don’t have to think about it. Sometimes, thinking too long about anything, gets us into trouble. We are not bureaucrats. We are entrepreneurs. We make decisions!
How many times have I pondered a decision and my time spent was greater than had I decided when asked? Decisions that cost you five dollars should not be delayed. There are some decisions that are best delayed as the consequences are so severe, but those are not the bulk of the decisions that you or I are required to make.
A customer phoned me up and said she had been in our store, bought some petunias, and that we had shorted her. I asked, “How many petunias do we owe you?” Her answer was “nine.” I told her to come over after work and she could pick up two six paks of petunias; she could have the three extra for her trouble. Her comment was, “That was quick.” I thought to myself, “I am running a company. I don’t have time to argue with you about something that involves four bucks.”
Sixth, take advice from those who are best fit to offer such advice. All of us need advice, from time to time, on a variety of issues. I get that. I still seek out opinions and knowledge from others. You should, too. Keep in mind, my adage is that if you wish to find out how many of your friends and family are experts on running a small business, then just open one. I had a family member, who worked for the government, tell me how to run my business. I never had any shortage of advice givers, most of who had absolutely, and I write the word absolutely with confidence, no foundation on which to base their advice or opinions. The late Bud Boughen, of Boughen Nurseries in Manitoba, was someone I turned to, back in the Eighties, for good advice. Bud always treated me decently but he could be as cranky as I can be, with people who cross boundaries. Someone would tell him “you should...” He would turn to those wannabe advice givers and ask, “What is the name of your garden centre or nursery?”
I had one man who told me that I would double my sales if only I cut my prices in half. I asked him, “Seeing as I make around ten per cent for myself, after everything is said and done, if I were to cut my prices in half, I would lose forty per cent on every sale. If that occurs, wouldn’t I want to sell less rather than more?” He told me, “You don’t understand anything about business.” Apparently not.

I am out of space, but there is more in the months to come. There is enough here to either stimulate you into action or to cause you to say, “He’s wrong about that.” It’s okay. I have been in retail for 38 years. I have been told I was wrong before, and you will not be the first. Of course, I will take it personally. I always do.
There are rules for entrepreneurs. Follow them and that is how you stay on the Road to Success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years.  He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.