Saturday, June 20, 2009

How do you start a small business? "Get good and get known"


When I was starting up my business a self-employed friend told me something that someone had told her when she was getting started: "get good and get known." As I continue into my third year of owning a small business during one of the worst economic recessions in recent history, I grasp ever more fully the importance of this advice.

Given the state of the economy, I thought it would be important to reflect on starting a small business, the lessons I've learned, and the different ways in which to determine success. I do so with the hope of starting a dialogue with other small business owners and to provide support to those just starting out.

Getting good

When I began my business I had already been mediating for over a decade with a master of arts degree in dispute resolution under my belt. Still, I knew "getting good" had to involve more than that. It wasn't just about actual mediation ability, although that was also exceptionally important. To me, getting good included creating solid business structures - accurate bookkeeping, sound policies and procedures, and high ethical standards of practice. It meant turning away clients when mediation wasn't appropriate for them or when I wasn't the best mediator to take their case (for example, when disputants wanted someone more evaluative). Those were difficult moments from a financial perspective - my phone wasn't exactly ringing off the hook - but I knew turning away inappropriate cases was essential and in fact something I could not compromise on.

I also made the difficult decision not to chase clients. That is, I made it a policy that all parties had to contact me directly. It wasn't enough that one disputant called and expressed an interest in my services. The other party had to contact me as well. I made this decision for the sake of neutrality; I didn't want to be perceived as pursuing one party on behalf of another or in appearing as though I was pushing people to use my services.

I also decided to provide free telephone consultations, an essential given the current state of mediation. I have spent as much as an hour on the phone with individuals who I knew would not be clients, answering questions about the difference between arbitration and mediation, discussing disputes they had with people whom they knew would never agree to mediate, and taking time to respond to queries posed by new mediators hoping to start their own private practice someday. In the past two plus years of owning my own business, I have collectively spent hours of unpaid time educating people about mediation, providing an empathetic ear, and suggesting resources that could possibly assist them.

As I started I had doubts about some of the decisions I had made. I wondered if I was losing out on clients or if I was giving away too much for free. I considered how my long-term goals possibly wouldn't be met if I didn't find quick and easy ways to make money in the short-term. Yet ultimately I knew I couldn't compromise my ethics and values despite the financial risks. In my gut, I knew I had to stick with my early goals, despite how hard that felt at times.

But it should never stop, trying to get good. It includes frequently evaluating my services, constantly educating myself, and remaining aware of cultural and legal changes that may affect clients. It is being ever-vigilant and dynamic too. It is a lot of work.

Getting known

When I got started I had to make immediate decisions that would have a long-term impact on my business such as choosing a location. I wanted the business to be situated somewhere that would draw clients, was close to public transportation, affordable and near other businesses such as restaurants and cafes. Even more importantly, however, I wanted to be part of a community. So I picked Oak Park, Illinois where I had personal ties versus Chicago where I had professional ones.

I did all the basics like building a website, blogging, contacting everyone I knew and telling them I had gone off on my own, developing marketing materials like business cards and brochures. Yet there's more to be done here. I've knocked on a few doors and introduced myself. People have found me through attorneys and therapists and judges and Google. But that's not enough. I want them to come to Noah Mediation Services because this is a small business and business owner who is invested in their community. I need to meet the local police, the village board of trustees, other local business owners.

As far as I'm concerned, until every resident of Oak Park, Illinois and the surrounding communities know about my business, I have not "gotten known."

Getting a part-time job

If someone told me they were planning to start their own business, there's one more thing I'd add to the other two important pieces of advice I received and that is: "get a part-time job." I was fortunate to get my start during a time in which small business owners could still obtain loans. I couldn't start my business while I was employed as a mediator for Cook County because of strict policies. While I never attended business school, I still knew that it's often better to start a business while you're employed, as long as you can do so legally and ethically. Since this wasn't an option for me, I knew quitting my job was taking a huge risk. I also knew that I had to begin looking for a part-time job immediately upon giving notice. I searched for full-time non-mediation jobs as well, but in retrospect part-time employment was best. A full-time job would have taken away from the business too much, and that would have been a fatal flaw.

Nine months after I opened the doors to my business, I started a part-time job as a Program Development Consultant at Resolution Systems Institute (formerly CAADRS) for the Statewide Mediation Access Project (SMAP). My role is to assist courts in developing mediation programs throughout the state of Illinois outside of Cook County (there are existing resources in Cook County) specifically in the areas of family, consumer and housing where poor and low-income disputants have the most unmet legal needs. As a result of this project, I have assisted one circuit develop and launch a new small claims mediation program and have helped with the development of a new non-profit community mediation center in another circuit.

As a result of this work, not only have I been able to pay down my business loan, I have also learned a tremendous amount from other professionals who have a passion for mediation and who care about the fact that the legal needs of the poor and those who earn low-incomes are not being met in this state. I have and will continue to offer private mediation services pro-bono and sliding scale.

I have also taught at two different institutions, North Central College and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. While this past spring that meant juggling four jobs at one time, they all intersected in ways both fascinating and essential in helping me get good and known.


So I've followed this advice and I've added a few pieces of my own and the truth is I still can't relax because my business loan isn't yet paid off and my part-time job is at risk due to the state budget crisis (SMAP received funding through the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation which receives funding from the State of Illinois) and people are avoiding spending money on mediation just as they are other services. Yet this business I started two plus years ago, though not yet profitable, is a success on various counts. I know this. If nothing else, it is something I created; something that has helped those clients who have chosen to use my services.

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