Starting Your Business: Avoiding the "Me Incorporated" Syndrome

Dr. Robert J. Lahm
 


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Many people who want to start a business have similar reasons for their ambitions. Typically, they are seeking autonomy from an employer, freedom, or control over their own destiny, which also means that they can determine their own income, work schedule, job duties, and career trajectory. However, upon launching a business, it becomes immediately apparent as to why many entrepreneurs describe their position as that of “chief cook and bottle washer. ” This is another way of saying—in the absence of anyone else to address all of the major and minor tasks that must be accomplished to run the business—it is the entrepreneur who him or herself, must do everything.

Sweeping the floors, taking out the trash, wiping counters, answering phones, taking care of customers, packaging, shipping, invoicing, receiving, repairs, handling the bookkeeping, marketing: performing these tasks as well as anything else that must be done, is all in a day’s work for the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur becomes a jack of all trades and also falls into a trap. This scenario bodes well for a prediction: The business will never grow. This is because at the onset—when the entrepreneur’s imagination should have been running wild with “blue sky” possibilities surging through his or her head—there was only one overarching compulsion, which was to rush forward and print the title “President” on the entrepreneur’s new business cards. The entrepreneur was already afflicted with the “Me Incorporated” syndrome.

The job description above also explains why some displaced corporate executives who start businesses are completely unprepared for their new roles as business owners. Now they have to do everything; but, they were trained as specialists who operated in silos. They never had to clean the toilet or polish the brass handrails at “Behemoth Worldwide. ” Their jobs there did not prepare them for survival in the “mean streets of Entrepreneur Town. ” They can’t deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds entrepreneurs, who must create their own destiny and fly without a manual. Their jobs were about keeping their mouths shut, fitting in, and saying, “Yes, boss—that’s a great idea [which you stole from me, you wheezing, blundering, conniving, drooling…idiot]. ”

Lest I go on into a full fledged rant about oversized corporations and the drone-like behavior that they seem to thrive on (not to mention ethical breaches and other shenanigans), let me stop right here and get back to the primary theme of this article. Suffice it to say that you want to start your own business, and you have your own reasons.

Given that I have explained the outcome of the “Me Incorporated” syndrome, it would be appropriate for me to discuss cause and effect, so that the affliction can be avoided. Let’s start with how you should think about your business in the beginning. Now hang in there with me folks, I’m going to be talking about imagination, crayons, scissors and paste, and being considered just a bit on the edge for a few moments.

Prior to starting a business, there are no restrictions as to the thoughts that you are entitled to have. When you are in the planning stages, it’s no time to squelch anything that pops into your head. There will be plenty of time for you to confront impediments after you start the business. Feel free to doodle, draw, color, paint, cut out shapes, and assemble anything that you wish. Draw other people a picture that’s clear as a bell and show them what you are made of. It’s your vision. Make it big and bold, and throw in a dash of pure crazy colored sugary sprinkles. Many phenomenally successful inventions were created by people who were proven to be geniuses instead of lunatics, only that was after they became successful.

As an example, let’s suppose that you imagined, instead of one sandwich shop, starting a chain of sandwich shops throughout a city. These shops could benefit from efficiencies of scale. Did you know that anything that you have printed, such as napkins, menus, cups, and sandwich wrappers in this instance, is cheaper in larger quantities? If you print 1000 of something, for a few dollars more, you could probably have printed 2500. Most things are “cheaper by the dozen. ”

A few other examples of efficiencies are well worth mentioning here, so that your imagination becomes fully engaged. I once serviced a group of franchised business owners who wanted to collaborate and purchase advertising, acting together, instead of separately. First, I helped them write a cooperative agreement. You should know that even though they each provided the same services, realistically, customers would do business with the franchise owner whose store was closest. In other words, customers who were located downtown did business with the downtown store; customers who were located on the east side of town did business with that store, and so on. Technically, these stores competed with one another, but not really.

The store owners purchased a large advertisement in the yellow phone directory, and they split it up so that they had plenty of room to promote not only their individual locations, but also their brand name, and the features and benefits associated with their services. Any given single location could not have afforded to get all of that across; acting as a group of stores, they could.

The majority of all advertising is local advertising. Mom and pop companies advertise to consumers in their own respective market areas. Your single sandwich shop, acting all by itself, just about definitely cannot afford television advertising. However, with five or ten stores in a city, a chain of sandwich shops probably can. TV might be a great medium for featuring the satisfied faces of customers who are consuming your delectable culinary creations—if only your vision had called for that. Purchasing supplies, advertising, food, and anything else can probably be accomplished more efficiently when you are acting on behalf of several stores.

Let’s talk about personnel, too. Instead of rushing to become President, you should think about becoming CEO. In that role, your job is to be the visionary, and the team builder. “What are the qualifications for becoming a successful store manager?” is the question you should be asking. In case you haven’t followed my leap of reasoning—you need ten such store managers in our hypothetical scenario. You are the CEO, remember? Your role is to hire and motivate, compensate, and grow the overall enterprise. Your primary responsibilities are to plan, to confer with other team leaders, take the pulse of the markets in which you operate, understand the economy, and to fulfill the unmet needs of customers. As an entrepreneur, by definition, fulfilling unmet needs is what you are in business to do.

“Where do I get the money?” you may ask. Did you ever think about the fact that you can “sell” the notion of a bigger return on investment more effectively when you are wielding a more imaginative, stronger plan? Many small businesses, afflicted by the “Me Incorporated” syndrome as they are, will do nothing more than struggle and exhaust their owners, who are doing too much, for too long, for too little. Eventually, both the businesses, and the owners will submerge beneath the waters of insolvency and sink to the bottom of the entrepreneurial sea—or they will be eaten alive by larger, better adapted predators.

It is just as easy to say, “All I need is nine-hundred-and-seventy-three thousand dollars to underwrite the opening of ten highly competitive, efficiently run, strongly promoted, professionally managed sandwich stores” as it is to say, “Mom, dad, I was hoping that you could lend me two-thousand bucks for first and last month’s rent on a ‘sandwish’ shop. ” No, it’s not a typo. I meant to say “sandwish” shop, because that’s what it is. It’s an uncertain proposal on the part of an unimaginative would-be entrepreneur, who has already demonstrated a lack of foresight or an ability to think beyond him or herself. It’s one thing to bootstrap a business startup, but it’s another thing altogether to proceed without any of your creative juices flowing. If you think “me, me, me, ” all of the time, then you won’t think about sharing the work, sharing the profits, or building a team.

No, you’ll do it all yourself. No thanks to all of the other people who have let you down. There’s nobody who can make a “sandwish, ” any better than you can. Nor can they run the cash register, accept a delivery, or do anything else as well as you can. “Oh, baby, baby, you are the best!”

To avoid the “Me Incorporated” syndrome, you need to create strategic and tactical plans representing your solutions for recruiting, hiring, training, developing, compensating, and retaining personnel. You need to have external resources lined up to accomplish what is not done in-house. You need a detailed marketing plan, to include the product, pricing, publicity, advertising, facilities, delivery, and customer satisfaction processes that you will utilize. Similarly, you need a financial plan, an operations plan, a technology plan, and contingency plans to manage business interruptions and risk. Whatever you were planning to write down, just add zeros, because that’s what it costs to start a real business and run it right, so that everyone gets their money back, along with a profit.

You will probably not have time to do all of this planning after you are overwhelmed with the responsibilities of handling every aspect of running your business all by yourself. It will be too late by then, for you will already be trapped in a quagmire.

Before you take the entrepreneurial plunge, decide what kind of business you want to create. If you ask for something bigger, and justify it, you may just have a chance of making it happen. What’s the alternative? You’ll be in charge of your own tiny little fiefdom, never knowing how things could have been, if you had only thought a little longer, a little harder, a little bigger, and a little less about how you could do every little thing all by yourself, either scheming to keep all of the profits, or avoiding reality thinking that you could wing it forever.

Put that “sandwish” down and think beyond what you can do yourself, and focus on what you can imagine. The transcontinental railroad that spans the United States was built one railroad tie at a time, but it was always the plan to connect the East Coast, with the West Coast (and a larger part of this vision was to connect the East Coast with goods shipped by merchants from places such as China and India). If you can envision, articulate, sell, and implement a business concept that entails serving, employing, partnering, leading, and uplifting others, you are probably cured.

Dr. Robert Lahm is the founder of several businesses and Web sites, an entrepreneurship professor, a public speaker, and a writer. His typical topics include creativity and innovation, careers, start-ups, and small business marketing. Webmasters and other article publishers are hereby granted article reproduction permission as long as this article in its entirety, author's information, and any links remain intact. Copyright 2005 by Dr. Robert J. Lahm, EntrepreneurshipClearinghouse.com .

(1999)

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