Post 1 of 30: There Are No Small Businesses

In order to transition out of government contracting and into a more creative commercial career in branding and interactive strategy, I began freelancing in 2007 and accidentally started a small agency.People talk about the entrepreneurial boom taking place in Washington, they brag about crushing it, and they update Facebook and Twitter with glory stories about startups, but this is going to be my attempt to share a more personal and candid account of the risks and rewards that I’ve faced with my clients and working on my own.

My clients and friends tell me I’m more of a coach than a consultant and that I am at my best when I’m able to relate my experiences to theirs.  This has been a random journal in the past, but I’m transforming it to a space where I can share the story behind my work.  This is the first of 30 year-end posts I will devote to “Things You Can’t See On A CV”.

“If you knew what you would go through, you would never move forward”
– Poet in LA who’s name I forgot

A little over a year and a half ago, with business development cash was drying up, the owner of my company told me I had two choices: 1. Go back on direct client support to the Navy or   2. Take a severance check and walk.

I had a few creative projects, and a side web development project but that was it, but I walked.  Looking back on that decision (one of many I’ve taken) I’m startled by the risk I took.  Sure, I knew I was taking “a risk” but I literally had no idea the amount of overhead that was needed in this city, especially Arlington County, to just survive, let alone thrive.

A  quick example: In Arlington County, if you can’t pay your property taxes on your car, you can’t get your tags updated, and if you cant get your tags updated they suspend your licence.  If your tags are expired you can’t even park the car in private lots so you are left to leave it on the road, where it will inevitably be towed. Oh yeah, and they they doubled the fines for reinstating licences in Virginia.  Thanks.

Why do I mention this? Because there are no “small” problems when you are a small business.  If a client drags their feet paying you, if a roommate ditches on paying you utilities money, or say, a friendly neighbor decides to have your car (the one you bought on your previously cushy salary), the 200 bucks you were going to spend fixing your laptop and buying your way out of your Sprint contract to get an iPhone gets blown and you are left laptop-less and texting on an lame outdated Rumor during Digital Capital Week.  This doesn’t win you new business.

Mind you, I didn’t “walk” without assessing the risks involved.  How do you assess risks you don’t know about, even if you read and ask, there are things you’ll never know.  Its dark matter, and even if you try to shine a light on it, there are other things you are ignorant to. My best friend read books on childbirth for nine months straight when she was pregnant and still reached a pain level she never thought could exist when she actually delivered.  Perfect knowledge isn’t something one can wait around for, so when I walked, I walked right off a cliff.

But I learned to climb, I got a few new tools on my way up, I learned to ask for help, I learned when to stay still and the importance of training.  I wasn’t destined for a life in contracting for defense so despite the pain of the transition, it was both necessary and timely.  I moved back to this city because I knew LA was dead and that my hometown would undergo a renaissance and the longer I put off diving into it, the harder it would be.  But my ability to relate to my clients through these experiences is why they trust me, and like something out of  The Dancing Wu Li Masters, we’ve learned together which has made me a partner of theirs not just their project manager.

However, dealing with such “small” issues has made me rethink the words “Small Business”.  With a small business, nothing is small.  Problems like the ones above become small only when you are a big business.  While “small” businesses are lean, have “low” overhead and a hungry workforce, they also face greater challenges surviving.   When you walk, don’t ask yourself “Do you want to work on your own?”, ask yourself, “Do I want my bosses job?”  People might brag about setting their own hours, being their own manager and the freedom to take only work they want, but for myself and many of my clients, it’s like being a canoe in the middle of an ocean squall. Some days, all you can do is paddle and pray to God you don’t hit anything.


Small businesses aren’t small, they are compact.  You can’t be a “startup” forever, so you become a compact business, an entity that much like the Ford Fiesta can zip along swiftly but can also be flattened easily.  This doesn’t mean you can’t test, measure and plan just like the “big” guys do, it just means that the desire and ability to take more responsibility for what goes right is more closely wedded to taking responsibility every time something goes wrong.  But inevitably, you adjust, you learn to work smarter not harder, to be quick but not rush and the pressure of managing scant resources gives you an envious amount of budgetary prudence, without making you cheap.

Over the past two years I have gained a greater appreciation for former bosses, owners and a few of my clients as they all had, at one time, stepped off the same cliff.  I’ve zeroed out a few times, rebuilt and rebooted which has made me more compact and agile.  I’ve helped my clients rediscover why they love their businesses or products and in doing so, have helped them craft a message or launch a brand that customers will believe in too.  I learned that having a good idea or product, being talented or even being a good manager, doesn’t equate to running a successful business.  But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

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