Useless & useful advice for SOME small businesses

Being sick with only half of my brain cells functioning, I spent the weekend reading random articles on some of my favorite sites. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find one had the stock title:

“Do you want to start your own business, escaping the cubicle, be the next Mark Zuckerberg, do you have what it takes, is a start-up for you, are you an entrepreneur?”

Okay, well, maybe I ran a few together. My problem with all of these articles is that they combine the obvious, the overly general and the Black Swans.

The obvious:

The head of a troutSell a product or service people want. Oh, thank you for that advice. I was going to go out and start a business charging people $42 to come over to their house and hit them in the face with fish heads. But now I won’t.

 The overly general:

“Every small business owner needs to immediately hire two people, an accountant and an attorney, both with small business expertise. An attorney will save you far more in contract problems than you pay.”

In 27 years in business, I’ve never had an attorney look over a contract. Much of our work is with the federal government or very large organizations. They have boilerplate contracts and we are pretty much the bee to their elephant.

We also do a lot of work with small non-profits. If the contract is only $5,000, there isn’t much point in paying $250 for a lawyer to look it over.

What if someone sues us, you say? For what? We write programs and conduct research to specifications in the contract. We don’t miss schedules – ever. (No, not ever. Not when my husband died. Not when I was in Costa Rica. Never.)

A lot of our work is done on Indian reservations, and although tribal judges are far from perfect, most of them are pretty practical. You go into tribal court wanting to sue us because you slipped on the ice coming into a meeting and the judge is likely to say,

“Ice is slippery! My three-year-old grandson knows that. Get out of here and quit wasting my time.”

We NEED an accountant, but that is because we have to do billing to our clients, pay employees, pay workers compensation, have insurance, a 401 k plan – but we didn’t have any of that when we started out. I was in business about 15 years before I hired an accountant. Now, I couldn’t live without her.

Here are two bits of advice that worked for me, and they weren’t so obvious early on.

1. Keep the rights to everything if you can.

Sometimes it is not feasible or not even reasonable to ask – the client is doing a big project and calls us in to do the analysis or the data are highly sensitive. That’s fine. We usually get paid commensurate with our work on those and all is well.

Generally, though, if I write just about anything, from a report to this blog to a conference paper, I try to get the rights to everything – the report, the website, the data. My standard contract gives the client “non-exclusive right of use for any legal purpose”. That means they can take any program or report that I wrote and do anything they want with it.

However, if I want to later use that report as a chapter in a book, a conference presentation or to paper my office, I can.

If I need real-life data for a class that I am teaching (with personally identifying information removed, of course), I have dozens of data sets to choose from.

Having the rights to a pile of stuff has turned out to be immensely useful to me and I fell into it way back when. I was doing consulting for student dissertations, (I don’t do that any more because …) many of them could not afford to pay much but I felt bad for them and wanted to help them out. So … I would cut them a break on the price and add a clause in the contract that said I got the right to keep and use the data.

If I needed to test new software with data that I had results on from previous analyses — just in a whole bunch of ways, it turned out to be useful. I started adding this clause into contracts with my other clients, many of whom are non-profits. They had no intention of publishing the data they collected, and if I wanted to go and submit an article to some academic journal and their program got attention for being part of it, they were thrilled.

I, on the other hand, got data I did not have to go to any effort to collect, and on which the analyses had already been done – by me- for pay.

2. Speak your mind with all your heart now

I don’t mean that if your latest client is a die-hard Republican and you voted the straight Democratic ticket since you turned 18 that you need to harangue him on it. I’m Catholic and if you’re not, that’s fine, and if you think my immortal soul is in danger and I’m going to burn in hell for all eternity, keep it to yourself.

On the other hand … if someone starts to tell me how the increase in the percentage of Hispanics is bankrupting the public education system, I am going to stop them immediately. I’ll let them know in no uncertain terms that *I* pay taxes and my children attend private schools and I am one of their beloved “job creators”.

I’m not going to tell you where your lines in the sand are. What I will tell you is this – as Carly Fiorina said,

Once you sell your soul, no one can buy it back for you.

People think I am outspoken now because I own the company and cannot get fired.


When I was an assistant professor with three small children and a sick husband who was in and out of intensive care, I was the exact same way.

Recently, a young person told me that I could hold to my principles about the importance of my family, honesty and equality – and any of a hundred other things because I had “made it”.

This troubled me. It troubles me when I hear the same thing from new Ph.Ds who are trying to get tenure. I don’t see how you can pretend to be someone else for 5 or 10 years until you have “made it” and then be your true self.

Be who you are.

I do censor my tweets, blog posts and what I say often, but I do it because I think it’s wrong to casually hurt people’s feelings – that’s why I didn’t mention the specific article I read. If someone criticizes my faith, friends, country or family, I stand up for them because I believe that’s the right thing to do.

Maybe I will lose some business because of it.


Here’s some more advice, though, from Charlie’s grandfather in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“Money is the commonest thing in the world. They print more of it every day.”

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  1. Phil,
    Thanks for mentioning luck. That was my point about “Black Swans” that I didn’t get around to – emulating any of the wildly successful companies ignores the fact that there is an element of luck. I’m not sure the folks at Google were all that much smarter than the ones at Yahoo, Netscape, Alta Vista, Compuserve or AOL when they first started

  2. I agree with all of your small business advise. I got an accountant several years into my now 16 year old business. I have never had a lawyer. Not to be too practical, but a basic understanding of cash flow is essential before starting a business. Not sure if I still have mastered that skill! Thanks for these blogs.

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