5 Jul 2012
By Heidi Staseson
This week I went digging for precious small-business nuggets and my iPhone led me straight to Livingston, New Jersey, where I interviewed Bruce Freeman, small-business columnist and teacher of entrepreneurship and management at both Seton Hall and Keane universities.
Freeman is the co-author of the book, Birthing the Elephant (Random House), targeting women entrepreneurs. His Scripps Howard News Service column “Ask the Small Business Professor” circulates to 300 U.S. newspapers weekly; he is a commentator for Smallbiz America Radio Network; and his own business ProLine Communications, a marketing, public relations and media solutions company, has been around for 21 years. He and his writing partner have another book in the works called Screw the Résumé: Open Your Own Door to Success.
HS: How did you become small-business guru of sorts?
BF: In 1999, I was let go from a managing job in a top publishing company. I am what the Wall Street Journal calls “an entrepreneur by necessity.” I had a wife, a mortgage and a two-year old daughter. Once I got fired, I decided I was not going to allow myself, when my daughter was ready to go college, to be in a position where one person could pull my financial plug.
Since I worked with high-tech magazines, basically I used all my skill sets and contacts and started my own high-tech publications firm ProLine communications and I’ve been in business for 21 years.
HS: What is the biggest mistake a small business owner can make?
BF: One big mistake people make is they overinvest money in the beginning. When you start a business you’ve got to go lean. If you need something desperately, you buy it. I have a friend who opened up a deli. We did the whole place, he bought a brand new truck— it was the wrong time. You start slow, you build and you only buy what you need. And if you can, barter services or products with other people— like, I would do someone’s public relations and maybe that someone would do my plumbing.
You gotta go lean-and-mean in the beginning. My co-author has a great line: “You substitute brains for bucks.” You use your skills before you start spending money. It may be impressive that you drive a Mercedes and people think that you’re doing well but you’re spending $800 on a lease to look cool.
HS: Any other entrepreneurial advice gems?
BF: Yes. Knowing what you don’t know is as important as knowing what you know. For instance, I’m great at media relations—which is part of my business—but I have [and use] someone who’s a phenomenal writer. If you think you’re Superman [and you can do it all] you’re not. So know what you know , more importantly, know what you don’t know.
Also, you’ve got to have a plan. And I’m not saying “a plan” to get venture capital—which is nice—but you’ve got to have a plan so that you have a focus, a direction, a raison d’être. You can change it as you go. Most people just work it day-by-day and it doesn’t work. Like the expression goes: “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”
HS: Why are so many people currently jumping on the small-business bandwagon in the U.S.—and even in Canada?
BF: There are a lot of kids coming out of college with no jobs and a boatload of debt. About eight months ago, Katie Couric, before she went off the air, said that 75 per cent of the kids coming out of college during the recession had no jobs. That’s what my next book Screw the Résumé is about.
You can’t just go out for jobs with a résumé; you can’t just post résumés on job boards. It used to be that [after college] you could [go out and] get some experience—but now there’s no experience to be had. So people are starting things on their own now.
So when I say “screw the résumé” it doesn’t mean that you don’t need a resumé; it means going after a job is not the only option. If you can’t find a job try [doing] something on your own— wash windows—maybe someone will see you doing a good job and ask you to wash their windows.
HS: I emailed Brett Wilson the other day asking him what his number-one advice to small-business entrepreneurs would be. Brett is a celebrity Canadian entrepreneur from Alberta and former “Dragon” on CBC Television’s Dragon’s Den—the Canadian equivalent to Shark Tank.
His response was: “STUDY MARKETING; they can never know too much.”
Can you add to that great advice please?
BF: I teach my students that you don’t need to come to the rest of my class—but all you have to do is remember one thing about marketing: If it’s not bigger, better, faster, different or a better bang for the buck—then it’s not worth doing.
That is Marketing 101 in one sentence— if it’s not [all that] then don’t do it; it’s being done. That’s the key to marketing.
You’ve got to find a niche; you’ve got to find your market; you’ve got to find something that is different. If everybody’s walking in a line and turning left, I want to be the guy to get to the front of the line and turn right.
We came up with our title Screw the Résumé for our new book. Yet there are a thousand books on entrepreneurship—what’s going to make my book different? What’s going to make my book different is that on the front cover, there’s going to be a gigantic, rusty screw going through a résumé with a guy holding it. Does my book give any tips that are better than anybody else? Probably not!
But you’ve got to have something.