“Yeah, we have too many customers!” That’s what the harried checkout clerk said.

This was back in the 1990s, in a big retail store in Texas. I don’t remember what city it was in, or what I was buying. But I do remember that the store was crowded. The checkout lines were long. There weren’t many lines open; there were a number of closed checkout stations.

When I finally got up to the front of the line, I made a casual remark to the checker: “Kinda busy here today…” The checker didn’t look at me; she was starting to ring me up. But she said, “Yeah, we have too many customers today!” She wasn’t smiling.

I was speechless. How do you respond to that? Was she essentially saying, “I wish you and a lot of other customers in my line would just go away”? Hmm.

Here’s what she didn’t choose to say:

“I know, I know! I’m hoping they open a few more registers here in a minute.”

Or, “Yes, and I apologize for the wait. Thanks for your patience.”

Or at least, “I know, it’s crazy! Happy Holidays!”

That was a time in the history of retailing when the universe was changing: Walmart was just beginning to take over the world.

Have you ever heard a “too many customers” line from a Walmart employee? Or a Target checker? Or anyone at The Home Depot? Me neither.

Now in all fairness to that checker on that day, the store management hadn’t done a good job of resourcing the checkout stations. Maybe that store’s checkers weren’t trained very well. At least some of that comment probably wasn’t her fault. And maybe she was just having a bad day and said the first thing that came to mind, like we all do sometimes.

Even so, my wife and I made that experience a code phrase for bad customer service. Ever since, whenever we have a bad employee interaction in a store, restaurant, airline counter, etc., nothing more need be said between us than “Too many customers”.

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Thinking about going out on your own and starting a new business? Be inspired by this Red Bull Stratos highlight video of Felix Baumgartner’s jump to the New Mexico desert floor from 128,000 feet up.

Love it. I think there is some inspiration, as well as lessons to be learned, for small business startups:

Reward and risk are related

The Austrian daredevil undertook serious personal risk to smash a 52 year standing world record for highest jump. He risked….his life.

When you start your own business, you undertake risk too. You risk significant elements of your life: your previous job and career path…and the stability and predictability that go with it. The opportunity cost can be high. You often risk your personal savings. Your family and closest friends will see less of you for awhile and that costs. You undertake these risks for the sake of obtaining a financial and/or lifestyle reward.

It takes a team

Red Bull, the drink company, sponsored the space jump, and had been working towards this event with Mr. Baumgartner for several years. Red Bull provided the funding, the technology, the planning, the logistics, the experts…it cost a lot. No way Mr. Baumgartner could have pulled this off on his own.

When you start your own business, even if you are going solo, you need a team to pull it off. Reason? Successful entrepreneurs can’t do it all. If you are good at marketing, chances are you’re not so great at keeping the books, and vice versa. (And by the way, a TON of new business fail because they don’t keep good books.)

In my opinion, a successful start up must have people wearing these hats or more:

* Accountant / bookkeeper
* Web designer
* Marketing pro
* Office manager / administrator
* Customer service rep
* Banking / finance
* Producers — people who provide the goods or services you sell

If you are starting up a new business, there’s a good chance you are a producer. How many of the other hats can you wear well? You can’t wear all of them, right?

Hire or contract out for the rest. Build a great team before you launch. Then you’ll get great results from the start. (This I did not do, see below.)

Overcome fear

In an extended video I watched of the space jump, Felix Baumgartner opens the capsule door, swings his legs out, and stands up on the little platform outside. Someone from earth says, “Felix, step out a little further.” Ha! It reminded me of going up on the high dive at the neighborhood pool when I was a kid…times a kazillion! Step out a little further, to the edge of space, right. Cold chills.

But Baumgartner did. He immediately inched out on the platform, saluted, and hopped over the edge, with the big curvy blue earth under him. After all his planning and preparation, he did not hesitate when the time came to execute the plan. There’s your lesson.

Over twenty years ago, I left behind the comfort and security of writing code for a major player in the accounting software world. It cost me. It took a couple of years to figure out the hats and this was almost a fatal error. Then the reward came. It was never guaranteed, of course.

Companions in Adventure
I Didn’t Get the Job at IBM. Cool.

The risk and reward were commensurate. As they always are.

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Pine tree broken by high winds
One of many pine trees broken off by high winds
A windstorm came through central Colorado last month. The wind meter at the airport clocked gusts of up to 79MPH, breaking the all time record.

In my neighborhood, I counted 8 broken-off ponderosa pines as I drove down the main road the next day.

There was one tree with a five foot diameter trunk, broken completely off. That tree had to have been hundreds of years old.

They couldn’t bend enough. So they broke.

Most businesses these days feel the economic gales pushing against their trunks.

Bend, don’t break.

Do you need a cash infusion to give more flexibility until cash is self-sustaining through your operations?

Do you need to restructure or renegotiate some debt so the wind doesn’t push as hard?

Do you need to find a consulting CFO to review your books to see if there are costs or expenses that are disproportionately high for your kind of business?

Do you need to change your approach to customer terms and collections so that the cash comes in quicker?

Do you need to prune off departments/locations/branches that cause stress to the whole organization?

We’ve had to do that. We’ve gotten out of some business areas that were not at our core and that were not very profitable or strategic. That helped.

Bend, don’t break. And here’s to to the hope that the wind won’t blow as hard in 2012.

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Most adventures are meant to be shared.

Think: The Three Musketeers. Han Solo and Chewbacca. Holmes and Watson.

It’s just more fun to have an adventure buddy.

In life, my family members are often my adventure buddies. This usually (but not always) works out well, and makes for great family memories. Here is my daughter and my pooch, pausing during our climbing adventure up the west face of Mount Yale, in central Colorado.

mt yale colorado

In business, it is good to have adventure buddies too. My first adventure buddy in business was Leif Haug, co-founder with me of AccountingUsers, Inc.

Leif was first my friend, then my boss, then, as we went into business together, my partner. We weathered lots of storms together in the software consulting market. It was fun learning how to make a business work during the infancy and maturation of the PC accounting software world. These days, Leif is working on new challenges elsewhere, so our relationship has come full circle — now he is just my friend again.

These days, I have new companions in business adventure. In particular, I’ve partnered up with some Quickbooks training professionals to offer a new series of online training seminars specifically designed for QuickBooks users. We’re just finishing up our first wave of classes. This is great fun, and it’s gratifying to work with people who share a bit of that sense of adventure.

Who are your companions in adventure?

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I am a newbie, amateur, fresh-faced tomato grower.

I have three planters that I take out on my deck in the morning, and bring inside my house at night. (I live in the mountains of Colorado, so leaving them outside at night — even in July! — would mean death, dysfunction, or dormancy for them).

Since I’m a newbie at growing tomatoes, I of course googled how to help them grow.

Here’s some of what I learned: If you want to grow tomatoes, grow tomatoes. Not leaves.

Apparently, there’s a bit of an either/or there. If you have a lot of leaves, you’ll get fewer tomatoes. Fewer leaves, more tomatoes. (Obviously, you have to have some leaves!)

It’s a matter of resource allocation. The tomato plant will channel more resources — growth — into the fruit if there are fewer leaves on the plant.

Now, I like the leaves. I like healthy, bushy plants. Even tomato plants! I went to the nursery last weekend and saw some tremendously robust looking, leafy tomato plants. You could have used them as ornamentals if nothing else. They looked great! But I wondered if all that leafiness was gardener eye candy, and if the plants would have produced more tomatoes if the nursery had pruned them down some. Hmm.

So I made a decision: I wanted tomatoes more than anything else in my plants. So I cut back a lot of leaf-only branches. My tomato plants weren’t as nice looking then. A bit sparse. But they recovered and are producing more tomatoes now.

My yellow pear tomato plant had, at last count, 73 tomatoes on it.

In business, we make similar choices. We only have so many resources (especially in this economy). We have to make the resources pay off in concrete ways — to produce tomatoes, so to speak.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” – Steven R. Covey

What’s the main thing for your business? What are the tomatoes? What are leaves?

p.s. Anybody out there successfully growing tomatoes in planters, at altitude? I’d welcome your advice!

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Most startups struggle at the beginning and mine was no exception.

My business partner and I started our software consulting company in 1986. By mid-1987, I had little left in savings. My wife and I did have a new baby on the way. And we had a new mortgage too…with a wonderful mid-80s fixed rate note at 13.5%! (What were we thinking?!)

I was more than a little discouraged at my consulting business’ prospects and my personal finance situation.

It seemed that it was time to bail out and get a job again. I sent my resume out to a few companies in Austin.

Here’s what I got back from IBM:

Not the response I wanted

That was September of 1987. No offers. Troubled Texas economy. In the absence of other options, I plugged away at my consulting business.

Fast forward a few months. My partner and I created an add-on program to a now-defunct accounting app called BPI Accounting. Our little program allowed users to archive and report general ledger information for a whole fiscal year, instead of just four months. (Primitive! This was for the first generation of PC-based accounting software.)

Somebody helped us reach out to the user base, and the next thing I knew, our mailbox was full of order forms and checks. Wowee!

Developing accounting software add-ons and troubleshooting accounting data files became our niche, and the second part of that equation still works for us 24 years later in the QuickBooks world.

In an alternate life, I’m sure that a career at IBM would have been very challenging and rewarding. But it was not to be; I got to be a long-term software entrepreneur instead.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” ~Jean de La Fontaine

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I was talking to a software entrepreneur friend the other day. We were comparing notes on how our businesses were faring during the Great Recession.

My friend said that these days, his business is ‘hunkering down’ and just surviving. If the bills are getting paid and the doors are staying open, that is enough for now.

I’ve had recent conversations like that with other small business people I know in banking, transportation, hospitality, and manufacturing.

The thing he said that encouraged me, though, was this: Once the economy opens up again, there will a marked reduction in the number of competitors in his market. Not everyone will survive. But if you survive, there will come a day when suddenly increased demand coupled with reduced supply (of vendors in the market) will make for a very good business environment.

I think that scenario rings true.

So for many, it’s time to hunker down, survive, and be ready to aggressively expand when the opportunity (someday) comes.

What do you think? Is it time to hunker down, close up shop, or expand now?

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