The Entrepreneur's Dilemma

Being a successful entrepreneur makes you target for budding entrepreneurs seeking advice on their ideas. This is a no win situation. Here's how to cope

Written by Cumulo Nimbus

I had been at the party an hour and had barely noticed the tall blonde in the black blouse with the pink Gucci jacket before she came up to me and breathed, “They tell me you’re an entrepreneur.” When I nodded dumbly, she said, “I have an idea for a business.”

I excused myself to get a drink, because I can’t take it anymore. When you’re an entrepreneur, too many people ask your opinion of the world’s dumbest business plans — usually their own. But commenting on someone’s idea is the ultimate no-win scenario. You risk either puncturing people’s precious dreams or being blamed for encouraging them to launch a doomed venture you said looked promising. If you’re ever trapped this way, here are five ways of escape.

1. At an industry conference in Las Vegas, a client wrapped his big arm around me and said, “Cumulo, I want you to know how much I admire that business you’ve built.” Then came the windup: “Seeing you succeed makes me think I could do well in this biz out on my own.”

Then, the pitch: “Whaddya think about me consulting? I could sell my services back to Boeing and other clients, too.” After a pause I said, “Vinny, I’m sure you’ve thought this through. But before you quit your job, get your family’s teeth checked and stock up on prescription drugs. Life without a health plan isn’t pretty.” I never heard of Vinny’s scheme again.

2. Since that tactic doesn’t work on people covered by spousal benefits, you’ll need backup. Last month my neighbor Ida saw me walking the dog and said, “Cumulo, I’m thinking of starting my own little business, just like yours.” I was about to say we now have 46 employees and ship to five continents when she said, “There’s money in cat daycare. Do you know my Oscar hates being left alone?” That’s when I came up with Response 2: “I’m sure your experience is valid, but have you done your market research? You should call my friend Sal. He charges $200 an hour, but he’s worth it.” Research guilt always works. No one has ever called Sal, although two people have told their kids to go into market research.

3. Another tactic is turning on the jargon. When my dentist retired, he wanted to open a store selling hand-painted motorcycle helmets. “Terrific,” I cooed. “But first you should read Elements of Contemporary Cash Flow. Its correlation of net margins, turnover ratios and inventory analysis is one of the clearest explications I’ve ever read.” He bought a condo in Florida instead.

4. But never use jargon on a pro. When my accountant told me of his son’s plan to start a business developing supply-chain solutions software for enterprise-level clients working with multiple vendor platforms, I knew I was outmatched. So I played the Huh? card. “That sounds promising,” I lied. “But success comes quicker to those who can sum up their mission in five words or less. And no word can have more than two syllables — you know how impatient bankers can be.”

Six weeks later, his son was still working on a mission statement. Good thing he’d kept his job at Canada Post.

5. When all else fails, tell the truth. Bernie, a high-school buddy, asked me to invest in a caterer geared to downtown employees working late. “They want good food and they’ll pay any price, because they bill it to their company,” he said. “I’m calling it Revenge Foods.”

Another entrepreneur with issues. So I told him, “Your idea may work, but just think what success will mean. Long hours, late nights. Minimum-wage delivery people. Complaints and callbacks when you make a mistake. Rivals just waiting to undercut you.”

“Is that what it’s like for you?” asked Bernie, staring at the dark circles under my eyes. “The entrepreneurial dream is like every other dream,” I said. “It twists and turns and ends up in a very different place than you expect.”

Bernie started his company anyway. He worked hard, tinkered with his pricing, fired some employees and made his family work for free. He even took a second job to keep the business afloat after the great bologna scare of 1999.

Bernie sold out two years later and made a bundle. Did I kick myself for not investing? Nope. I keep telling myself that in business, a good idea is just 10% of the answer. Ninety percent is execution — and that’s something no one can predict.

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