Dream on, small business

By MARY BETH CORBETT HUTCHINSON, Special to UPI  |  Oct. 30, 2001 at 10:21 AM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- There aren't many bones to pick with Debra Koontz Traverso's guide to crisis management for small business, "The Small Business Owner's Guide to a Good Night's Sleep" subtitled "Preventing and Solving Chronic and Costly Problems." (Bloomberg Press, 256 pages, $19.95.) But there are a few and they merit consideration.

First, some of the assumptions she makes should not be made, and her background in consulting to small businesses should have provided adequate evidence of this. For instance, she takes it as a given that the small business owners reading this book are working to a business plan. Wrong. Most small business owners prepare a business plan only when a gun is held to their head. When, for instance, they need to borrow money.

Second, she assumes that most small business owners want a clear picture of their ambient reality. Wrong again. Like remarriage, starting a small business is the triumph of hope over experience. If the entrepreneur stopped to consider that more than 80,000 small firms go out of business involuntarily every year, s/he most likely would end by not beginning. But they do begin and retaining a hazy perception of the many pitfalls along the road ahead helps keep hope alive.

Having said this, Traverso has produced a good guide to risk management and crisis avoidance that could be put to excellent use by the checked out small business owner. Like Scarlett O'Hara, the small business person's reaction to potential problems -- as opposed to the ones they are dealing with right now -- is to "think about it tomorrow." Nonetheless, s/he could well have fewer problems to begin with if s/he took the time to read this book ... and took its advice to heart.

The book is divided into three sections -- Principles of Planning for a Small Business; Getting Your House in Order; and When the Crisis Moves from In-House to the Public -- which basically boil down to: What Can Go Wrong and How to Stop It; Fundamentals of Managing a Business to Survive; and Dealing with the Media.

One could certainly quibble about the order in which they are presented, but useful topics and suggestions abound. The order in which they are discussed here is the order in which this reviewer thinks they would be most usefully read.

First and foremost, Traverso deserves considerable praise for her "Small Business Self-Audit." She asks the reader, as they "go through the audit, think in terms of safeguarding your company rather than growing your company." However, periodically responding to the audit's questions and reviewing the answers would be a useful exercise for any business owner looking to improve their company's health by sharpening up management practices.

Additionally, anyone even thinking of starting a business would do well to review the audit during their planning process and answer as many questions as possible to help their business start off on a sound footing. There are dozens of books on starting and owning a small business -- many of them considerably longer and more expensive -- that do not pack half the punch of this slim guide.

The first three categories tell their own tale. The businessperson is asked if they have the following: a mission statement; a business plan; and a budget. The sub-questions examine the adequacy of each. Of course, if the answer to any of these is "no," it's obviously back to the drawing board. The remaining 17 categories are divided more or less equally between management practices and potential risks.

Section B -- "Getting Your House in Order" -- consists of four management issues: avoiding the most common management missteps; good personnel practices; computer issues; and insurance questions. Again, this section is at least as useful to the person planning a new business as to those already up and running.

This reviewer would have plugged Chapter 1 -- "Get Control of Risky Business" -- in here. Traverso offers lots of specific alerts, mini-case studies and sound advice here, but it seems more logically to follow the business self-audit and the general management section.

The final section of the guide deals with public scrutiny and media relations. Few small business owners think this is a concern. "I should be so lucky" as to attract media attention, s/he thinks. Well, luck is not all it seems. By and large, unsought media coverage is nearly always unwelcome media coverage, and it behooves the small businessperson to make a plan to deal with it. Traverso -- who has a marketing and public relations background in addition to her consulting expertise -- provides invaluable step-by-step guidance and fire-fighting tips.

At $19.95 this book is a steal. It pulls together the elements of business and crisis management that are essential to successful small business, and presents them in a clear, concise manner. Traverso's "Guide" should be required reading for small business owners and entrepreneurs, and should be kept handy as a reference.

Despite all of this, the book's title is still misleading. Small business owners consistently getting a good night's sleep? Dream on.

Mary-Beth Corbett Hutchinson is a business writer and consultant based in Kensington, Md.

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