Category Archives: Running Your Business

Blowing Off Steam

Have you ever “vented” or “blown off some steam” to another person about your frustrations and ended up saying something that, after you calmed down, you disagreed with yourself? Because of the intensity of your frustration and some temporary lack of self-control, you said something that you knew wasn’t true: it simply represented how frustrated you were.

We all get frustrated at times. We all need someone to “unload” on who will listen, understand and perhaps empathize. We’ve all done it. And if there is one characteristic about venting, it is this: when we vent, we do it all the way – 100% – totally unvarnished – we just “let it fly”. People who are good at sarcasm can be funny when they are venting, but most of us are not and we say things that is not intended for public consumption.

But what do you do when you, a Christian Business Owner, overhear your employees venting about you, their boss? That 100%, totally unvarnished talk may hurt you deeply. You may not like it, but there is probably some truth in what they are saying, even if it is wrapped in a thick layer of sarcasm, hurt and/or anger.

If you’re like most bosses, you’ll swiftly acquire an air of superiority and self-righteousness. You may confront that employee directly or you may go away and sulk, promising to get revenge later is some passive way (we call this passive-aggressive). But if you’re mature, you’ll realize that your employee is just venting and that after a day or two, his old, likable self will come back.

The Bible speaks to this in Ecclesiastes 7.21-22:

“Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you – for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others”.

Well, now.

What Solomon is saying is that we should overlook the offense – let it go. Why? Because we have done it ourselves and so who are we to suddenly correct another person for doing what we have done many times? At this point, something about taking the log out of your own eye before taking the spec out of another’s eye comes to mind.

Your employees will blow off steam about you. Get over it. As a business owner – even a Christian one – you’re not universally liked. Not everyone has an enthusiastic opinion of you or your work product. And sometimes, you do and say things that are worthy of a venting session among your employees. Solomon’s advice is sound: if you hear about an employee or another person venting about you, your policies, your processes, your decisions and so forth – let it go because you yourself have done this many times too.

Bill English

Scalability, Power, Control and Risk

Along with his wife, Mark is co-owner of a $1.8M retail establishment that they built from the ground up by investing their own monies and getting two SBA (Small Business Administration) loans. One is a “7A” loan designed to make initial investments into the business. Of the initial $320K, after 2.5 years, Mark still has $220K of that money sitting in a bank account.

Mark has a difficult time trusting other people. His father abandoned him at birth and his mother died when he was twelve years old. He’s on his third marriage (this is her second) and working together in their business over the last few years has taken its’ toll on both of them. Because it is a retail business, they have been at their business seven days/week for over two years. By all appearances, they are not doing well. The jury is out on whether or not their marriage can survive working together in the business they have built. It is profitable and growing. But the personal toll it has taken on them is substantial.

As a business grows, more managers need to be brought in to run parts of the business. You don’t hire good people to tell them what to do, you hire good people so they can tell you what to do. Mark is good at hiring good people, but then he micro manages them right out of the business. He always blames them for his failures. Mark is a moving target with his directives and selectively enforces his rules. His employees don’t like him and don’t like working for him. They avoid him as much as possible, which can be difficult to do when he is roving around the store all day.

Mark wears multiple hats – marketing, floor manager, cash management, vendor relations, facilities manager and so forth. It appears that he loves working all the time. But again, their business is killing their marriage.

Mark and Nancy have reached the “Transition Point” – the point at which they need to either be happy with the size and scope of their business or they need to let go and allow someone else to run their business. They readily admit that they are unable to “take it to the next level” yet they won’t let go of simple spending decisions, hiring decisions or firing decisions. They have hired an outside consultant to be their CEO, but he is CEO in title only. They simply won’t step back and allow others to make important decisions. “If he (the hired CEO) fails, we’re the ones left holding the bag”. They’re right.

From my perspective, their most important priority here is their marriage. Businesses come and go, but marriages do not (or at least, should not). But since their life savings is wrapped up in this business, it has become the core of their marriage. If the business fails, they lose everything – their marriage, money and livelihood. At age 60, they will not be able to recover from such a failure.

So, what should they do?

First, they should take time away from their business to work on their marriage.

Secondly, they need to make a basic decision about growing their business vs. selling it. If they choose to grow, then they need to choose to trust other people to make decisions with “their baby”. If they choose to sell, it will take at least a year to get the business ready for sale, which means they will need to continue to work in the business long enough to sell it. They put at risk their marriage by doing so.

Thirdly, they need to develop some personal, outside activities so that they are growing personally, not always being together every hour of every day.

Lastly, if they choose to keep their business, they need to learn to step aside and let others run their business. They need to stop micro managing every aspect of their business. The problem they will face here is an emotional one: can they let go and trust? Can they manage the anxiety this step creates in them in a positive and mature way?

The worst situation for them is what they have now: they have hired a CEO but won’t get out of the way and let him manage their business. They won’t let go. They won’t risk. Mark is too tied emotionally to the $200K as his security. The CEO is unable to make sensible infrastructure investments, so they continue to struggle with manual processes fraught with mistakes. They have weekly power struggles, paying good money for a highly talented person whom they are micro managing. He won’t last long – he’s too talented and smart to be micro managed. But without a true leader in their business, it won’t scale up and while they might win the power struggles (because they are, after all, the owners), they will have defeated themselves.

If you’re a Christian Business Owner and you find yourself in a similar situation, its’ imperative that you learn to trust others and let go when needed. Good stewardship sometimes requires us to trust and allow others to lead in our business. Only then will you find yourself able to scale up your business and increase it as God asks of us in Luke 19.

Bill English

How Open Should an Owner Be about Their Christian Faith?

Recently, I’ve had several Christian Business Owners ask me about how much of their faith should they openly display in their business.

Their question brought me back to my high school days in which one of my classmate’s father owned a business. I was going to see him about purchasing a yearbook advertisement when I couldn’t help but notice in his lobby this rather large sign on the wall:

“This business is dedicated to the glory of Jesus Christ”.

If I recall correctly, he had lost both his business and his wife about a year later due to his affair with his rather well-blessed secretary.

How much should a Christian Business Owner share about his or her faith with employees, vendors, partners, customers and the community? Interestingly enough, the Bible is silent on this question. When you consider the four core purposes for business – Products, Passions, Profits and Philanthropy – you’ll find that even in fulfilling the purposes God has for business, there is ample room for variation on the degree of intensity and the frequency of display in which Christian Business Owners can engage when integrating their business into their faith.

However, I find that Esther’s life can give us some principles to live out which will call all of us in business – to one degree or another – to display our faith in the marketplace. But it won’t be some pretty sign or pithy saying or eloquent web page. We’ll have to lay our lives bare and be willing to risk it all to stay faithful to Jesus Christ.

At this point, if you’ve not read the book of Esther, I would ask that you stop reading this article – go read the book of Esther and then return here to continue.

You didn’t go read it, did you? Ok – we’ll move on anyways.

Esther was a Jew who, through a series of events, became the Queen to Xerxes, a king who seemed to like food (he was always holding a banquet), money (he used the banquets to display all his wealth) and women (he made sure he enjoyed an endless supply of women and rated them on how well they pleased him). So, we have a guy who probably was fat, very rich, all powerful and loved sex. Other than the “all powerful” part, this seems to describe many men in American today. There really is nothing new under the sun.

Not to be crude, but I suspect he enjoyed all kinds of sex – I doubt little was outside his range of enjoyment. Recall at the beginning of Esther, he wanted to display the beauty of wife for everyone to see – which meant he wanted to display her body fully naked to show all the men what he could enjoy at any moment, any time, at his discretion. She was just another luxury he had that others didn’t have. His arrogance was profound.

So, Esther makes it all the way to being his Queen without ever revealing her identity or her religion. Commentators have taken her to task for this, roundly criticizing her silence about her beliefs. I’m not so sure I’m all that critical of her. One can’t really know what it was like to have such luxuries given to them in exchange for pleasing the most powerful man on earth sexually. Today, we would call her a trophy wife or a “kept woman” or at the worst, a prostitute.

Yet, the writer of Esther doesn’t condemn her for her silence. Instead, the writer focused on God having placed her in her position of favor with the King so that His people could be saved. Much like Esther, as business owners, we have been entrusted with position and a platform in our communities.

Through another series of events, Esther becomes the only person on the planet who could save the Jews from complete eradication from the face of the earth and through her bravery along with three days of fasting before the Lord, God saves his people.

Now there are two macro points that I believe can be applied appropriately to Christians who own businesses. The first is this: silence about your beliefs is not condemned in this story. Now, before all you folks who protest that we should never be silent about our beliefs, I want to point out that there is a certain decorum that is expected in the business world about how faith is lived out – especially from those who don’t believe the way we do. Even within Christian circles, there are different level of comfort and expectations about how one goes about sharing their faith appropriately. Don’t be so quick to judge others if you don’t share your faith regularly. And if you do, check your arrogance at the door. God hasn’t made you like another and vice versa. I can’t find a place in the Bible where we are commanded to openly share our faith in the marketplace.

When I first started in business, we had daily prayer sessions at my business. I made it clear that no one was forced to attend and that non-attendance or attendance at the prayer times would have no effect at all on performance reviews. After about a year, it became clear to me that some used those times to get out of meetings in which they should have participated. It caused problems. My staff was about half Christian, half not. Those who didn’t believe didn’t say anything, but I received back-channel messages that all were not enthusiastic about the prayer times. I, myself, found it was more and more difficult to attend due to my travel schedule and my heavy meeting load when I was in the office. The prayer times eventually faded away and I didn’t try to resuscitate them. Was I wrong? I don’t think so.

I’ve met some business owners who open meetings with prayer. I was one of them. I’ve met others who feel it is wrong to share your faith with employees due to the power imbalance between an owner and an employee. I’ve often wondered how I would react if I worked for a Muslim employer who took time, with half the staff, to pull out their mats and pray toward Mecca. How would I feel? Would I be drawn to Islam as a result? Or would I resent that those who shared my employer’s faith got, essentially, an extended break to practice their faith while I was expected to work? Would I judge he quality of their work more closely because of their openness about their faith? Probably. I’m human, you know.

How open or silent you are about your faith with your employees, I’ve concluded, is a decision to be explored between you and God. I am not in a place to tell you what to do or not do. I believe this is one area in which we need to allow freedom and difference – and to value those differences.

The second point we can learn from the story of Esther is this: God has given us a position of status and a platform for speaking out at the right time by entrusting us with a business in the marketplace. I will suggest that as time passes, more and more of us will be called to risk everything we have to stand up for God. Esther risked her life to stand up for her people and God. He may very well ask you to do the same. I think the question will be whether or not we will be faithful to God, even if it means losing our business and our source of income, not to mention our reputations and influence. In the face of death, Esther stood up. Will you stand up? Will I?

The legal environment in which we operate is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity. The cleavage is widening and the divergences are become more profound. I don’t think we’re too far away from the Bible being labled as hate speech by the LGBTQ community and seeing them use the court system to create a set of laws that will profoundly call us to faithfulness and suffering. Christian businesses are under attack. There is a growing segment of our society that sees us as the real terrorists in America. Just read So many Christians, So Few Lions if you don’t believe me. Do you have a proper theology of suffering? Are you prepared to suffer for Christ?

So, in short, how much of your faith should you share in your own business – that’s entirely up to you and the Lord, in my opinion. On the second point, if God calls you to suffer publicly for Him and lose your business, will you stand up? Will you lose it all for Christ? On this question, I fear many more Christian Business Owners will be called by God to suffer. I think the jury is out on how many will be faithful.

Bill English

Christian Business Owners Never Stop Learning and Growing

Proverbs 8.10-11 says this:

10 Choose my instruction instead of silver,

knowledge rather than choice gold,

11 for wisdom is more precious than rubies,

and nothing you desire can compare with her

The command is pretty clear: choose instruction and knowledge over money and wealth, because the wisdom that you gain from instruction and knowledge is more precious than any wealth you can accumulate.

There are many things worth more than money and wealth, the Bible teaches. This is just one instance where material wealth is deprecated in relationship to something else that God gives us. Another example is 1 Peter 1.3-7:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. [emphasis added]

Note that Peter tells us our faith is more valuable than gold – more valuable than material wealth.

It is a common temptation for Christian Business Owners to desire wealth because we have such a strong potential for creating it. When we own a business, our potential to create wealth is greatly enhanced when compared to a person who is employed with a predictable salary. And frankly, it is fun to make money. There is a feeling of satisfaction that we get when we’ve closed a big deal or earned a sizable bonus. Such reinforcements to creating wealth can build within us a deep desire to make more money – to get that feeling of satisfaction over and over, stronger and stronger.

Yet Proverbs tells us that we should pursue knowledge and instruction ahead of pursuing wealth creation. Peter reminds us that our faith is worth more than any retained earners we’ll create on our balance sheet.

Another common temptation for Christian Business Owners is to “pack it in” – to coast. To reach a certain age and then stop growing and developing, whether personally or professionally. When we do this, we’re running counter to the given assumptions of the Proverb’s passage – i.e., that we’ll be in a state of always growing and developing. Don’t let the lure of wealth with its’ comforts and perks cause you to stop learning and growing. Keep pursuing knowledge and instruction – keep pursuing learning and mentoring. Never stop. Don’t give up. Keep going. Why? Because those who stop growing become ineffective and unproductive for the work of the Kingdom (2 Peter 1.5-11):

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. 10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, our work is for the Kingdom of God, not for our businesses. Anything that gets in the way of advancing the Kingdom and our holiness and sanctification should be jettisoned. This includes “coasting” as we get older.

Be sure that your heart is not set on accumulating wealth. And be sure that you’re learning and being instructed, regularly, persistently.

Bill English

Essential Planning: Management, Directors and Advisors

Proverbs 24.3-6 says this:

3By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established;

through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.

The wise prevail through great power, and those who have knowledge muster their strength.

Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers.

If these verses are applied to running a small, family-owned business, it is clear that a business (just like a “house” literally, a place or dwelling for one or more families) is built through wisdom, understanding, knowledge, guidance and advice. It is by knowledge that the rooms are filled with “rare and beautiful treasures”.

You might recall that when Peyton Manning was a two-time Super Bowl winner and was the MVP of the NFL several times. Peyton never lost sight of his need to be coached and to learn from those who were willing to pour into him their knowledge and wisdom. If only small business owners could grasp how important it is to be always learning, growing and improving – not just their technical skills – but their business skills as well.

This is why I recommend that small business owners realize and accept that as their business grows, they will need to develop and invest time with three different groups.

Management Team

The first group small business owners need to invest in is a management team. The management team runs the day-to-day operations of the business and the folks paid to lay awake at night and worry about the business. If you don’t have a management team, then most decisions will route through the owner and the business will only scale to a certain size, then stagnate. When your business is $250K/year, that’s not a big deal. But it will be rather difficult to run a $5M or $10M business without a management team. The largest I’ve ever seen is $23M – but they were paying the price in people leaving the company for better environments.

How you management team is comprised is up to you, but there are two basic ways: Organizational Chart and the Value Process. Most business owners will build their management team off of standard organization charts: managers for sales, operations, supply chain, finance and so forth. They departmentalize their company and then appoint people to manage parts of their company. It’s very common to see this. How well it works all depends on how well the business owner is able to build a team.

Advisors

This is usually the second group that most small business owners put together, but they do so grudgingly and really don’t like it because the cost of engaging and building a team of trusted advisors. Many take the position that advisors – consultants – are just there to take their money and not offer much of anything in the way of value. And while it is possible to waste money with trusted advisors, my experience is that most business owners end up paying more in other costs when they don’t properly build and engage their team of trusted advisors. Good trusted advisors will save you money, even though they have up-front costs.

Most small business owners are really good at what they do, but they are not good at accounting, contracts, compliance, hiring, firing, benefits, financial reports, banking and so forth, so it really is a good idea for them to have a team of trusted advisors who can help them work better “on” their business. And they will offer real expertise at a fraction of the cost of having the business owner him/herself read and learn the same information on their own.

Your trusted advisors should include:

  • Law firm – look for those who can help with contracts, policies, shareholder disputes (if you have a partner(s)) and HR/employment law.
  • Accounting firm – Have them do your quarterly and annual filings. Be sure to ask them about things you can do to lower taxes. And they should help you with your personal will, since that will be highly affected by the size and profitability of your business
  • Banking – look for a bank that can scale with your projected sales and size for the next five years
  • Financial Planner – be sure to pull out value out of your company on a regular basis and invest it personally for your retirement
  • HR/Benefits – you *will* need someone to help you with human resource elements such as payroll, policy manuals, job descriptions, benefits and so forth
  • Executive coach – believe it or not, an EC is become more and more common as small business owners look to sell or transition their business to their children. While most second or third generations know how to run the business, they often don’t know how to lead or how to think outside of what they have seen in their mom and dad. And often, the coaching has to help mitigate the family’s dysfunction so that the business can survive.

Board of Directors

As a business grows, so does the need for accountability and outside perspectives. A small business – even if completely owned by family members – will need outside perspectives both at the management and at the governance layers. While this is usually the last of the three groups to form, it is an important one for ensuring that proper governance is followed. Why is this important? Well, for family businesses, it is important for the family members to have a place where they can put their owner hat on and express themselves on matters pertaining to their role as an owner. What should not be happening is family members acting as owners during the day when their employee position doesn’t require it and, in fact, would negate that role for them during the day. For example, if one of the family members is an owner of 20% of the business but is employed as the Vice President of Sales, they s/he shouldn’t be talking or acting as an owner during the day.

Be aware the “outsiders” should be on your board – not just family and friends. You may want to include some trusted advisors on your board, but the board is there mainly to hold you – the business owner – accountable to accomplish certain things that you wouldn’t normally do yourself but you know you need to do. It’s a form of self-discipline. If your business is owned by your family, we highly recommend having non-family members on your board in order to get outside perspectives at the Board layer.

Summary

As your business grows, you will need to build and engage these three groups. And you, as a small business owner, will need to value what they bring to your business. Yes, it will cost you some money, but in the long run, these groups will save you money as they help you grow, become more profitable, streamline your operations and mitigate risk.

One caveat – as your business grows and you groups are formed, remember that your role will necessarily change and through delegation, you will need to know how to get more done through people than doing it yourself. This is where many entrepreneurs flinch and just say that they’ll stop growing the business so they can stay in control. That’s a legitimate business decision. But if you want to grow and sell for millions in the future, you’ll need to recognize that your role will change and you will be surprised as little you actually control after these three groups are formed. Your focus will be working “on” the business more than “in” the business, so reserving the things to yourself that allow you to work within your strengths will be very important.

Bill English

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