If this was just another book on how to start a business, I would not be sufficiently excited to write this foreword, even though I have known Melinda Emerson as a colleague on the National Urban League Board of Trustees for a number of years. This is one of the most insightful books I have read on any subject.
This book can be read and enjoyed on many levels. It is certainly a very high quality guidebook on how to start a business. But what truly makes it stand out for me is the extent to which Melinda helps the reader to think through much deeper issues. She recognizes that starting a business is as much about defining the founder’s core values and priorities as it is putting together a business plan to market the products and services. Although this book is uniformly excellent and each chapter could be the foundation for a separate, highly-insightful book, some of the profound insights come from the many points Melinda helps the reader understand about how tightly interwoven the business owner’s life goals are with business goals.
She makes it clear that the most critical success factor for a business owner is the ability of that owner to decide on life-related goals and to align the business to the achievement of those goals. She also reminds the reader that, like any goal of consequence, sacrifices are needed, and she is more explicit than other books about the kinds of sacrifices that will be required. Beyond that, she makes it clear that there are several different approaches to running a small business, each of which springs from a particular set of life priorities for the owner.
What also impresses me about the book is the extent to which it raises basic questions that enthusiastic business owners fail to address until it is too late. Most owners start businesses because they believe that a product or service that excites them and a group of investors will also excite customers. Even if they are right, she points out the less glamorous details about selling and marketing the product or service, how to support it after the customer acquires it, and how to insure that the end-to-end value chain is profitable. I particularly liked her comments about the critical importance of customer support and service.
I also recall sharing a story with Melinda about a friend of mine who invested in a restaurant and came to the reluctant conclusion that the profitability depended more on decisions about napkins, water consumption, cash management, and electricity and health department compliance costs than the food, service, and décor that enamored the restaurant’s critics. She does a great job throughout the book illustrating the importance of a wide range of seemingly mundane details which, if not attended to, can sink a business.
Although she is advising would-be small business owners, her advice applies equally to executives and professionals of large businesses. Having been on many sales calls at Pitney Bowes, I would underscore the importance of her comment in that “You must capture your target’s attention in the first seven seconds or you fail.” As a recipient of sales solicitations, I have also found myself losing patience with numerous sales people long before the person told me what they were selling.
Another broader lesson for business people from organizations of all sizes is that we must not overlook opportunities that can arise at taxi stands, on an Amtrak train, and in churches and alumni associations. Whether one is representing a small or large business, we are all brand ambassadors for our businesses 24/7, and can make those encounters with others either moments of success or missed opportunities.
Finally, she helps the prospective business owner think about the point in time when the founder will have to add employees or other helpers. To the degree that any of us want an organization to outlast us and to leave a legacy of success, we will need to think about those who will take on the work we have started. You need to hire people only when the business has reached a stage at which adding staff makes sense and is supportable by the business’ revenues. At the same time, you need to know when it is time to delegate work to someone else to free yourself up for higher value activity. The decision about when and how to add staff is challenging, and Melinda deals very effectively with both the conceptual and practical issues associated with hiring people.
In the course of preparing this forward, I have read and re-read many parts of this book and found new insights each time I have encountered it. This is a book to be savored and to remain at close reach for a very long time whether you are starting a business, running one, or simply interested in why some businesses succeed and others do not.
Michael J. Critelli
Former CEO, Pitney Bowes