The Unoriginal Sin

Small businesses have big dreams. Fair enough, there's nothing wrong with ambition. But slavishly copying the big guys is pure folly

Entrepreneurs are stepping into 2003 just as consumers' mistrust of Corporate America has reached what could be an all-time high. In this post-Enron, post-Worldcom era, the job of reviving confidence in the marketplace may fall by default to entrepreneurs, says small-business development expert Michael Katz, whose outfit, Blue Penguin Development, teaches small businesses relationship marketing through e-newsletters.

Humanizing the face of business is the key job for small outfits in the current climate, Katz believes. He recently shared his personal tips for surviving -- and thriving -- with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein.

Let your style and quirkiness shine through. "Resist the temptation to blend in with all the other accountants, consultants, financial planners, executive recruiters, or whatever profession you happen to be in," Katz says. "Looking the part, and overly smoothing the rough edges, will ensure that nobody remembers you or your company."

Spend less time finding new clients and more taking care of current ones. "Develop a system for staying in touch with everybody you know via e-mail, phone, handwritten notes, and face-to-face conversations," Katz says. "Correlate your effort and expense with a ranking that you give to each of these people, based on their potential to contribute to your business."

Don't neglect your personal life. "Big companies love to fuel the myth that business and personal are two separate worlds, and that we're somehow more effective as businesspeople when we leave our personal values at the door," Katz notes. "But the last few years have demonstrated that our business, political, and even clergy leaders, would have better served themselves and their followers if they had not tried to make a distinction between what's right at home and what's right in the office."

Take a position. You don't have to be controversial, but you have to believe in something. "You had an approach, a perspective, a vision when you started your business. Can you still remember what it was?" Katz asks, who advises business owners to distill the emotion that led to shredding their corporate I.D. badge and "baking it into all your interactions with the outside world. Share your dream."

Use both sides of your brain. "Your gut and intuition are often the best guides in making decisions. You're doing yourself and your company a disservice by ignoring them."

Narrow your focus. "Become the leading expert in something, and when somebody in your network comes across that need, they'll drop your name every time."

Abandon your envy of large companies. "In a world where we're all tired of dealing with automated phone systems and Web sites that don't respond, dropping the barriers between your people and the outside world works to your advantage," Katz says.

Get rich slowly. "You can make good decisions even if the payback isn't immediate, because, as long as you believe that it's good for the business over the long term, you don't have to answer to anybody else. Have the courage to build your business one customer at a time, making the right decisions every day," Katz advises. "Get rich slow is a great growth strategy, and the big guys can't touch it."

Ignore the experts. "There's a virtually unlimited amount of information out there to help you launch, market, manage, and operate your business," Katz notes. "I advise you to read everything you can find, and then make your own decisions -- and feel free to ignore that advice, too."

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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