Playing Survivor, Small-Business Style

A new TV series takes mom-and-pop outfits, gives them a makeover, and steps back to record what happens. Producer Michael Klein explains why he thinks he has a winner

Most TV reality shows feature young, eye-catching contestants bungee-jumping off cliffs on deserted islands, wading into vats of snakes, or choosing lifemates from groups of strangers. In other words, despite the way they describe themselves, these shows couldn't be further removed from reality.

So why don't TV executives get a clue and tap into the genuine drama of real life? This fall, on the TLC cable network, executive producer Michael Klein is doing just that. His new show, Taking Care of Business, which will debut on Oct. 16, focuses on the in-the-trenches efforts of entrepreneurs to turn their outfits around. Klein spoke to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about dramatizing the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Q: Why this show and why now?


Business is an arena we've wanted to explore for a long time, but finding the right way into the subject matter, particularly for our audience, was tough. We needed to make business accessible to the general public, and also to the business owners who will watch the show. What we realized is that aspirations of entrepreneurship appeal to the dreamer in all of us. Everyone has thought about the American Dream of escape and becoming their own boss. At the same time, everyone's walked into a store and thought, "This is a disaster!" So, Taking Care of Business is for small-business people across the country, and also for the average viewer.

The idea came in as 12 words on a page and it was incredibly pitchable. You have real stakes here because peoples' livelihood is on the line. Also, the people we work with are bold individuals with entrepreneurial spirit. We give them access to four incredibly experienced professionals and it's a great combination.

Q: How does the show work exactly?


Each episode is about a particular small business that needs a boost. Some of them are going down, others need a turnaround, and others have just plateaued and need to move forward. We come in with a hidden camera and shop the store without the owners knowing it. This gives the audience and our experts a look at what the place is really like to start out. Then we bring in four experts who look over the operation and make suggestions for improvement. We ask the entrepreneur to close down the business for three days while our experts transform the place, and we take the entrepreneurs out and show them how the big boys do it. Then we come back four weeks to six weeks later to see how things are going.

Q: What do you mean by "show them how the big boys do it"?


We walk them through a successful business that's in a similar vein to theirs, and have them talk to the people who are running it. The owners we're working with really get good advice from these owners and from our experts about how they could be doing things differently.

Q: What are the experts looking at when they come in to makeover the business?


We have four experts. Richard Laermer specializes in building aggressive buzz and concrete brand images. Christina Manca is a designer and merchandising guru who has an eye for the best way to organize the store. Mitch Kates does forensic work on business management, and Mark Becker does a "gut instinct" entrepreneur thing. These four really transform the business, focusing on whatever the company needs, whether it's branding, management, design, or all of the above.

Q: But it seems like the most common problem with small businesses, especially startups, is that they don't have a handle on their financial data, which leads to undercapitalization. How much time do your experts spend on areas like funding and balance sheets?


Accounting doesn't make for great TV! We tend to talk more about inventory control and pricing, which accomplishes some of the same thing but gives us something fun to come away with.

Q: What kinds of businesses are you featuring?


We target businesses that are familiar to the audience, places where there is public interaction, as opposed to something like a warehouse. We've done an Internet cafe, an outdoor kayak store, a limo company, a bakery, and a barber shop that has been in business since the '50s and that the current owner inherited from his dad.

Q: Where do you find these companies?


Our producers are hitting the sidewalks in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut looking for small, mom-and-pop shops that need a boost. We want privately owned companies -- no franchises or chains -- with five to seven employees, though some are owned by just a husband and wife. We're also encouraging business owners to apply for the show online.

Q: Most entrepreneurs are pretty tough-minded, independent folks. How do they react to your experts' suggestions and advice?


It's an emotional journey. On the one hand, they love the fact that these individuals are in there to help them. On the other hand, it's hard to be challenged by people on decisions that you felt were the right ones. A lot of the owners have been mortified when we show them the hidden-camera tapes. And others have a really hard time when we ask them to close down for three days so we can remake their companies -- they are worried about losing even a few days' revenue. At times, arguments ensue.

Q: Can you give us a little sneak preview?


Yeah. We just finished an episode that features a 29-year-old guy who walked by a diner for months, thought it was cool, and then sold everything he owned to buy it. Unfortunately, he has no business experience at all. We have other episodes that feature people who mortgaged their house to start a business, but four years down the road they're struggling just to pay bills and raise their family. In every episode we want to give the owners the tools to pursue their business transformation themselves. We are trying to empower them, so they aren't just sitting in the background while the experts do everything. They're right up front.

Q: Are the businesses compensated for their involvement in the program?


No, but there's an awful lot of materials they get for free, like new computers, new store design, new logos, and branding. It all depends on how we transform their businesses. And, of course, they also get free advice and exposure.

Q: What's been the result when you've done the follow-ups so far?


They have all seen major improvements in their businesses. One found that revenues had gone up 40% after we got through with them.