Stepping away – a management transition

Sometimes “getting out” of a business doesn’t mean giving it up completely. It may just mean letting go of a certain amount of control. Stepping away from day-to-day operations. Delegating management responsibilities to someone else so the business can continue to function smoothly. For this type of transition to be successful, the business owner needs to be ready to give up control.

stepping away

Your business = Your identity

As a small business owner, your whole identity can be wrapped up with your business. If you step away, you could lose that identity. You could lose a reason to stay involved with a merchants group, or you may no longer be invited to participate in certain business networks. Without your business identify, you have to redefine or reinvent yourself.

In any business exit or succession—whether it involves transitioning out of business ownership or just management control—a gradual process is ideal.  We encourage business owners to:

Assess your current business first

Before rushing into a change, you need to understand the value of your business and the strength of your systems. Are you building or have you built business assets that have real value? Do you have operational systems that can be understood by others? Do you have key employees that will stay and take on increased responsibilities?

Share your knowledge

Employees or junior partners will need to be prepared to become majority owners. Family members need to know what they are getting into. You may need to hire new senior management who must get up to speed. Any new manager (or eventual owner) needs to get to know the business inside and out and develop the skills needed for success.

If the transition is gradual, a new manager/owner will have time to grow into his/her role, gain confidence and also credibility in day-to-day management. As time goes on, you can take on more of an advisory (or backseat) role… and by then you will be ready to be in that new role.

Get support

It can feel impossible to focus on a future transition when there is so much to attend to with the business right now. You are managing products or services, employees, cash flow, marketing and day-to-day operations. How do you focus on your transition goals when so many other aspects of the business need your attention right now?

An advisor, support partner or support group can help you stay accountable to your transition planning. We work with small business owners who want to step away from a full-time management role but are struggle to figure out how to do it.

We help clients:

  • Put the right management systems in place to step away
  • Hire or promote the right management staff
  • Work with family members to build skills and create a succession plan
  • Gain confidence in the new management team
  • Create financial projections for the transition
  • Clarify their new role apart from the business

As small business owners, we pour our hearts (as well as lots of time and often lots of money) into our businesses to make them succeed. After that huge investment, we want to be remembered for our excellent products and valuable services. We want to see our businesses continue to flourish even after we step away from full-time management or are completely out of the picture. Creating a plan for how to transition will help make it happen, and can help make our desires a reality. Start now!

Wendy’s Wisdom

As the coordinator and teacher of Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center‘s Business Planning Class, I help small business entrepreneurs create solid business plans focused on management, marketing and money. Students learn, struggle and grow through the process… and many return to Renaissance to share their lessons learned as guest speakers, consultants and mentors.

At the last Business Planning Class graduation, Wendy Lieu, graduate of the Fall 2012 Business Planning Class, shared her wisdom. As of owner of Socola Chocolatier, Wendy Lieu handcrafts delicious artisanal confections.

Hiring great professional support

In every stage of small business, whether you are an emerging or an established business owner, it is important to have trusted relationships with professionals who know you and can support and direct your business growth and long-term sustainability.

professional support

Why get professional support?

As a small business owner, you will hire outside experts for many reasons — for technology support, social media development, financial planning, bookkeeping, legal issues, personnel reviews, or to improve your business management. You may also benefit from contracting with a business advisor who can be an expert sounding board on business decision-making, holding you accountable and helping you to meet your goals.

What to consider first

First, you need to be clear about why you want help and what you want from any professional. What is your challenge or opportunity?

Next, identify the qualities that would make a professional a good match for you and your business. You want to find someone who:

  • Has skills and experience that exceed your needs
  • Is ethical, transparent and trustworthy
  • Has an approach that fits with your style
  • Is available when you need them

How to find “the right one”

It can be hard to know if someone will be a good match just from looking at a website. We recommend asking for referrals from people you know and trust, and who are also in small business. After getting referrals, though, you must still do your own due diligence! You are not just hiring someone for an hour of their time (even if for now that is all you need). You want to find someone who can be a great support person for your business for months and years to come.

Due diligence

Whether you find a professional from a Google search or a trusted colleague, you need to do your homework. When interviewing potential people to work with, it is important to:

  • Honestly represent who you are and what you are looking for
  • Ask lots of questions to verify this person has the expertise you need
  • Read their testimonials and/or reviews
  • Understand the terms of the relationship and any contract, including fees.
  • Pay careful attention to the questions he/she asks you. (They should be assessing if you are the right fit for them, too!)

(Once you are working with someone, be sure to continue to re-assess your needs and the professional relationship so that you get the outcomes desired as your business grows and your needs change.)

Finalizing the match

Take your time to make a good decision. You need to feel confident that this professional understands you and your needs, will be available when you need them, and will help you implement effective solutions. This person will be an essential business asset – giving you advice that you can use, and helping you to develop systems for your business. With the right support, you will be able to focus your energy on your clients, customers, employees and business goals… and see long-term positive results for your business!

Managing my business in partnership

The first business I owned in San Francisco was a gourmet cheese shop, called Cheshire Cheese, located in the Fillmore District. In a previous blog post I shared how my business partner, Michael, and I decided to go into business together and start Cheshire Cheese. Here’s the story of how we managed and expanded our business partnership.

Seize the opportunities

Six months after we opened Cheshire Cheese, the retail space next door became available for lease and the primary lessee offered us the master lease. (He also gave us his Pacific Heights mailing list and all his demographic studies on the neighborhood!)  We discovered that our sublease was already 75% of the master lease so we jumped at the chance to take over the entire lease.  We successfully negotiated a new 10-year lease with the building owner.  Now we could double our size with the security of a long-term lease.

With limited capital to cover the expansion, Michael and I created a new partnership.  We found two women who could bring new strengths and additional capital to the business.  Tara was a graphic designer and display expert and Lynn was experienced with HR and motivating employees.

With the new next-door location, we added a small café and expanded our identity.  Cheshire Cheese became Cheshire Cheese & Mad Hatter Tea.  With the infusion of additional capital, we could now afford to hire more part-time employees.


Communicate openly

We were now four owners who each brought different skills-sets and personalities to the business.  We had our differences but we were in agreement where it mattered most: our vision for the business, the impact we wanted to have in the community and, most importantly, how we would manage the business together.

We decided on a consensus-driven approach to management.  (An early philosophical decision was to continue only offering vegetarian items and to not expand into wine sales.)  We created a written agreement that reflected our values and our equal ownership.

We held “official” business meetings every Wednesday after the store closed.  We used this time to plan work schedules, discuss personnel, review financial statements, prepare for holiday celebrations, and eat all the free samples that new vendors would drop off for us to taste.  Transparency and honesty was essential for us, so we made sure we talked about money — how we were doing both by the day, the month and based on our annual budget.

Build on lessons learned

Every day was a team learning experience.  We learned about the subtleties of food products, how to serve customers well, how to make strong relationships with vendors, and how to follow health department codes.  Through a lot of trial and error, we were also getting better at running the business profitably, managing it jointly, and working through management and personnel challenges along the way.  The best lessons learned were from hands-on experience.

Plan our exit

After running the business together for five years, two of the partners wanted to move on – one to another business and the other to go back to school.  We all decided we would sell the business.  To get ready to sell, we had to learn how to value our business as an asset, organize our internal systems, leverage our long-term lease, and negotiate with potential buyers.  After several months of planning and negotiation, we successfully sold the business to new owners!  (Cheshire Cheese & Mad Hatter Tea continued to operate for 15 more years.)

Business partnership means attending to both the business and the relationship

Like a business with one owner, a  business with multiple owners must be based on a viable business concept and a solid plan for marketing, money and management.  Unlike a business with just one owner, co-owners must be constantly attuned to the needs of both the business and the owner relationship(s).

Starting off, Michael, Tara, Lynn and I were aware of the qualities that each of us brought to the business – our personalities, passions, purpose, work styles and areas of expertise.  Once we were in business together, we had to pay attention to the dynamics between us — how well our individual strengths or weaknesses meshed, and how well we communicated and made decisions together.  Our written partnership agreement was key — both as a guide for managing the business and as a road map for how we would approach our business exit.

Owning a business with others took a lot of work!  But it was also incredibly rewarding.  With business partners, we didn’t have to tackle business challenges alone and we all got to share in the business’ success.

Are you starting a business in partnership or already managing a business in partnership? At Paul Terry & Associates we help both new and established business partners understand key business issues and how to work best together.  We help co-owners define roles, address key financial issues and minimize areas of conflict.  We also help business owners write partnership agreements and create business action plans so that they can move forward with clarity.

Partnership advice from small business owners

There are many factors that must be considered when operating a business with others.  We asked some of our clients to share their partnership advice for small business entrepreneurs who are considering business co-ownership.  Here’s what they had to say!

Jane Lin of Urban Field Studio

Partnership adviceJane and her business partners provide a full range of urban design services, including strategy, design, conceptual architecture, and urban design education and communications.

Why did you decide to go into business with other people?

Two or three is better than one!  It is good to share responsibility.  You can do more as a team.  And, it makes life outside of the business more flexible, since we can cover each other when we go on vacation.

What do you love about owning a business with others?

I really like collaborating with my partners.  I learn a lot from them.  They are not just business partners but mentors.  I feel that I contribute to something bigger than just myself when I work as a team.  We all contribute energy, knowledge, encouragement, skill, support, and friendship to each other.

What is most challenging about co-owning a business?

Distributing responsibilities is a challenge that requires daily tending.  But, that’s what running a business is all about!

How do you deal with this challenge?

TALK.  Say exactly what you feel and state what you want.  For tougher moments it’s good to have a third partner who can hear you both out.  And, when you don’t get your way, have a good attitude about getting what you desire next time and understanding that it’s for the long haul.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs considering a business partnership?

Think of your potential business partner like a travel partner.  Use a similar filter as the one you apply when you are choosing a travel buddy.  This is a long journey.  You are going to get lost.  Can you handle being stuck somewhere with this person?  Will they help you figure out what you’re going to do next?  Will you choose the same path forward?

Write a partnership agreement.  The biggest deal of all is the partnership agreement.  It’s like wedding vows and a pre-nup (but not as romantic).  The value of your business is maintaining a strong relationship between you and your partner every day.  If that is strong, your relationship with your customers will also be strong.

What do you wish you had done differently?

There is not that much I would do differently, but I do need to remind myself to give props to my partners as much as possible.  I want to practice gratefulness in what they do everyday.  And, I want to make sure we are connected as much as reasonable.

Shamita Dhar of Coyote Coast Youth & Family Counseling

partnership adviceShamita and her business partners co-own a counseling business that provides therapeutic support services to teens and families experiencing emotional, behavioral and substance-related difficulties.

Why did you decide to go into business with other people?

Being a part of a team is extremely rewarding.  We each have important strengths, which compliment one another and support a balanced approach when making important business decisions.

What do you love about owning a business with others?

I like the security of knowing that if one of us is having an off day, there are two others dotting “I”s and crossing “T”s.  Building a business is filled with opportunities for both successes and failures.  It certainly feels better experiencing either case when one is not alone.

What is most challenging about co-owning a business?

It is inevitable that tension will build when one or more partners fails to pull their weight or during periods when a partner experiences a crisis of confidence or some ambivalence about the work.

How do you deal with these challenges?

With solid agreements, direct communication and healthy boundaries—without these, we can end up feeling misused and mistreated.  Fairness is essential for a working partnership.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs considering a business partnership?

Talk through every possibility and establish a solid partnership agreement, no matter how close you may be.  In fact, the closer you are, it is even more imperative to outline clear and specific agreements about how to work within the partnership and exit the partnership.

Deborah Bowes of Feldenkrais Center for Movement Awareness

partnership advice
Deborah co-owns the longest established Feldenkrais Center in the Bay Area offering individual sessions, classes and related wellness services.

Deborah’s partnership advice for other small business owners:

Make a plan.  It is important to plan for the changes that the future inevitably brings.  Not only to decide what will happen, but design a process for working through change.

Communicate openly.  Good communication skills are essential, as well as being able to have difficult conversations and still be friends, and work through different goals and values.  There will be times when you want to go in a different direction than your partner.  If you want the business to grow and develop, you have to accept the difference and see how you can make it work for everyone.  Then you can be happy to be in business.

Trust is essential.  You have to trust each other; you must trust that your partner will be honest, and fair. You may not be best friends but you both must consider each other’s needs and want the best outcome for both of you.

Are you thinking about going into business with someone else?  Check out these three important steps when considering a business partnership or joint venture.  If you currently co-own a business, what partnership advice have you received that has made a difference?  What words of wisdom would you want to share with others about business co-ownership?

My first business partnership

The first business I owned in San Francisco was a retail food business. It was a crash course in how to launch a small business and what it takes to start a business partnership.

first business partnership

Behind the counter at Cheshire Cheese

Know your business partner

My business partner, Michael, and I were good friends before we ever thought to go into business together. We lived in a house with six other people and spent a lot of time in the kitchen. We enjoyed cooking big meals and feeding the rest of the house.

At the time, Michael co-owned a small manufacturing business. As we became friends, I volunteered to help in his business. It was soon clear that we had complementary work styles and had a similar approach to business management. We both saw small business as a vehicle to the principle of “right livelihood” and shared a collaborative approach to decision-making. It didn’t take long before we connected on a common business idea and decided to start a food retail business together.

Start with a good foundation

By the time we agreed to go into business together, we had a solid foundation for a business partnership. Michael had already started a business from scratch and had the technical and computer skills essential for smooth business operation. I had been to business school and had helped other friends start businesses. But what was most important was that:

  • We liked and trusted each other,
  • We knew we could work well together,
  • We had complementary skills,
  • We were both committed to working hard, planning ahead and taking on the risk, and
  • We shared a passion… for gourmet food.

Agree on a viable business model

Our first idea was to start a catering business, making and delivering gourmet lunches to corporate offices. We thought we could use our home kitchen to keep it simple and lower costs. But we quickly learned that making food in a home kitchen wouldn’t be legal. It also couldn’t easily scale.

We then researched taking over an existing restaurant. We found a restaurant that we could acquire. We researched the legalities related to using the kitchen, building out the space, and hiring staff. But the size and complexity of the restaurant was going to require more capital than we had or could raise.
Given our skills, timeline and budget, we decided to compromise and start a gourmet deli.

Do the shoe leather research – street by street

We scouted several commercial strips in the city looking for a location with good foot traffic and reasonable rent. We pounded the pavement on Haight Street, Potrero Hill, West Portal, Noe Valley and Upper Fillmore. Finally, we found an available narrow storefront on Fillmore Street. It was an old laundromat available for sub-lease from the tenant next door, a tennis racket repair shop.

The space was the right price and we negotiated a fair lease. There was a hospital nearby and many new retailers moving into the neighborhood. But now we had another problem – competition! There was already an established deli right across the street. So we pivoted to focus on cheese. We signed the sub-lease and named our new gourmet cheese shop Cheshire Cheese. We were off and running!

Share the load

We spent the next six weeks building out the storefront. It was a community effort. While we focused on legalities and plans, we recruited friends to help with carpentry, plumbing, interior design and graphics.  We figured out how to share responsibility for the business, each taking charge of certain aspects given our interests and skills.

Our partnership success

The success of our partnership and, I believe, any business partnership, was based on:

  • A shared passion and common purpose
  • Compatible personalities and work styles
  • Complementary skill sets and areas of business expertise
  • Good communication and joint decision-making, and
  • A solid plan for how to market and manage the business… and make it work financially!

My partnership with Michael started with Cheshire Cheese and continued on into two other businesses.  This hands-on business partnership experience continues to inform my consulting work today.

Owning a business with others can be an incredibly rewarding experience — but to work well it must be based on a solid foundation and good planning. Are you starting a business with others? Check out these three important steps when considering a business partnership or joint venture.

At Paul Terry & Associates we help both new and established business partners understand and assess what they each bring to the partnership and how they work together. We focus on partners’ expectations, strengths and weaknesses. We help define roles, address key issues and minimize areas of conflict. And then, we help create a written agreement and a plan for how to move forward together.

Starting a business partnership

Starting your own small business can be a leap of faith.  Starting a business with others can be an even bigger leap.  How can you be sure that your business partner(s) will be the right fit – with you and the needs of the business?

business partnership

First, you have to ask a lot of questions – both of yourself and the other person.  You need to understand what you each bring to the business, how you will work together, and how you will handle the challenges.

When our clients start a business in partnership or create a joint venture, we suggest a three-step process:

STEP ONE: Self-assessment

Before getting deep into conversations with a potential business partner about the details of the business relationship, each person should ask themselves some initial questions:

  • Why do I want to do this business?
  • What is my work style and my strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are my goals for the business?
  • What is my level of commitment to the business?
  • What roles do I really want in the business?
  • What are my expectations from a partner?

STEP TWO: Dialogue

After each person has a better idea of what they want and what they could bring to the partnership or joint venture, they need to sit down together to discuss mutual expectations.  By talking it out, it will soon be clear if this could be a good business relationship.

  • Do you share similar values and a similar approach to business ownership?
  • Do you trust each other?
  • How will your individual qualities and skills work together?
  • In what areas do you agree or disagree?

A strong business partnership or joint venture should have:

Good chemistry

You and your business partner must actually like each other!  You will be making many important decisions together.  A foundation of mutual appreciation and respect is essential to get through tough times and make being in business a lot more fun.

Clear communication

You both/all need to be comfortable and willing to talk with each other regularly.  You need to be able to share opinions and feelings honestly and deal with them promptly.  You also need a framework for making important decisions and a process for how to deal with conflict.

Benefits for all

You each must be contributing something unique to the relationship – such as specific skills, an area of expertise, or a management style that will complement the other partner(s).  Each person should bring something critical to the business, such as financial resources, marketing expertise or important connections.  And both you and your partner(s) should feel you are gaining something from the partnership to make it worthwhile.

small business partnership

STEP THREE: An agreement in writing

After going through the self-assessment and dialogue with a potential partner, you may discover that a partnership is not the best business relationship for you or the business.  Great discovery!  Maybe one person would be better as an employee/contractor for the business instead of a co-owner.  Or, there is someone else out there who would make a better partner.

If the process thus far makes it clear that you still want to proceed as partners, a written agreement (signed by both/all partners) is critical.  It should include specifics related to roles and responsibilities, ownership percentages, compensation, decision-making and conflict resolution.  The agreement should also include a process for reviewing, amending and exiting the agreement.

Take the time necessary to figure out that you and the other person(s) are the right match and you all have what it takes to start the business together. Then put it in writing!  This solid foundation is essential for any business partnership.

At Paul Terry & Associates we help both new and established business partnerships and joint ventures.  We focus on clarifying expectations, defining roles, addressing key issues and resolving areas of conflict.  We help business partners create written agreements and action plans for how to move forward together.

Business skills and lessons learned

As a small business owner, you bring your know-how from past successes and failures to your business.  As the business grows, you continue to build on lessons learned and hone your business skills.  For many small business owners, “learning from doing” is the primary teacher.

Do your business skills match your business’ complexity?

I recently shared six tips on this topic and asked other small business owners about their experiences.  How did their business skills match the complexity of their business when they first opened?  How have they dealt with this tension throughout their business’ evolution?  What advice would they want to share with others?

In previous posts Heidi Gibson of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen and Rachel Saunders of Blue Chair Fruit shared their stories with us.  Here are two more business owners tackling complex issues and leveraging their management skills.

Elizabeth Leu

business skills

When Elizabeth Leu started Fiddlesticks, a children’s boutique in Hayes Valley, she thought she was prepared.  She first worked for someone else and learned as much as she could about the retail business.  Elizabeth also took the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center Business Planning class.

She started her business with a solid foundation of hands-on experience, working for others, and thoughtful planning. Yet she couldn’t prepare herself for what it would actually feel like when she was completely responsible for her own business and all its complexities.

“As a small business owner you have to be the master of all in everything you do, and that’s not easy.  You have to wear ALL the hats and ideally, they should all fit.  I think management capacity is finding the correct fit with all those hats — and that’s hard!  It takes a lot of time and experience to get them all to fit.”

Elizabeth’s advice:

Learn as much as you can about every role in your business.

“You may love only a few of those hats but you have to figure out, master and tolerate them all — at least in the beginning until you can outsource.  Once you get strong enough to outsource, you still need to understand how it all works to keep a watchful eye on the whole operation.”

Stay positive and just keep going.

“I have worked very hard to grow my business and I have had some significant setbacks.  With every setback I can either choose to learn from it or become bitter and harbor frustrations.  I have worked hard to learn from them.  All of the setbacks were complex and difficult, especially because it was uncharted territory for me.  But I learned and I am still learning.  What is it they say, ‘two steps forward, one step back’? As long as you move forward, business complexity feels easier because you keep breaking it down, tackling it piece by piece.”

Claire Keane

business skills

Claire Keane, owner of the artisan, handcrafted sweet treats company Clairesquares, says that her business skills did not match the complexity of her business when she started.  She had a steep learning curve.  But Claire gained the skills she needed by seeking out specific business knowledge and support and her daily experiences in business brought many lessons learned.

Claire’s key steps for developing core business skills:

Write a business plan.

Claire took the 14-week Business Planning Class at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center and wrote a business plan.  “To this day, I frequently remember key pointers from each class.”

Join an incubator.

Claire joined La Cocina’s Incubator Kitchen and received the help of that community and all their support services.

Attend lots of workshops.

Claire learned from others to increase her skills.  “Whenever there was a workshop relevant to my lack of skills, I made sure to attend it.  I was able to take tips from each training and apply it to my business immediately.”

Develop a support team.

Claire knew that she could not do it all alone.  “It was very helpful to have a business mentor, new business friends with similar start-up business pains and other friends and family to lean on for advice to get me through the learning curve.”

Keep at it, even through failure.

Ultimately it has been Claire’s tenacity and her perseverance that has made her business a success.  “No amount of workshops can prepare you for real world experience.  In the end, I learned from trying, failing, and trying again.”

Check out these additional tips on balancing business skills with business complexity.  What has worked for you and your business?

Defining success

No matter how we define success — our business skills must align with our business’ needs at each stage of growth.  The skills needed initially for an emerging business must deepen and expand as the business grows.  We must consistently and continually increase our management capacity to meet our business’ complexity.  And this can be a constant juggling act!

There is a lot we can learn from other small business owners.

I recently shared six key considerations for matching business skills with the complexity of a business. Then I shared advice from Heidi Gibson of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen.  Now, here is some advice from another successful small business owner…

Rachel Saunders
Blue Chair Fruit


Rachel Saunders would describe herself as a complete neophyte when she started Blue Chair Fruit.  But, “what I lacked in experience, I had in determination.  Also, I had several bosses who were terrible managers and their negative examples helped orient me towards how I did NOT want to be!”

As Rachel’s business grew she realized that she had to pay attention to her business structure.  Instead of thinking about her business just in terms of herself or the people who worked for her at the moment, she started to focus on key roles and how they functioned together to support the business.  “Once I was able to step back and look at the staffing structure of my business, I was able to manage in a way that made more sense.”

Learning how to stream-line the business’ operations in general was also an important learning for Rachel.  “Big corporations can afford to have extra staff or waste, but a small or micro business cannot!  Over time, I was able to streamline things dramatically.  A leaner business is a stronger business, as long as everything is getting done!”

At one point Blue Chair Fruit Company was selling at eight farmers’ markets a week.  This was great exposure but ultimately not the most profitable sales channel.  “I realized that selling more product through a wholesale distributor, despite the lower profit margin, was actually a much cleaner, easier way to do business.  Since we scaled down to our three best farmers’ markets, our bottom line has improved!”

Rachel’s advice for success:

Take a step back and ask yourself if everything you are doing in your business is really necessary.

Determine what is actually working and worth the effort.  Scaling up is not always the answer.  Sometimes your business should be scaled back to increase profitability.  Look at your staffing.  Be clear about when and where you need the help.  How can jobs be structured to maximize efficiency?

Keep track and analyze your data.

Understand what activities lead to better returns.  Don’t commit yourself to a sales channel where you aren’t making any money.  Exposure alone isn’t good enough!

For Rachel and many other small business owners, business growth isn’t just about getting bigger.  It’s about developing the right business model and scale for success.  What does business success mean to you?

Check out Heidi Gibson’s advice for small business owners and my six tips for matching business skills to business complexity.

Business advice from the field

One of the most enjoyable moments during the Renaissance Business Planning Class is when we invite graduates back to the classroom to share their experiences and their business advice. They talk about their successes but also reveal their struggles and mistakes, and what they might have done differently. Their advice has a profound impact on the current students who are about to launch or expand enterprises of their own.

In that tradition, I asked some of my clients and past students to share their thoughts on a common growth challenge for small business owners: balancing business skills with the complexity of the business. I recently shared six key considerations on this topic. I was curious to hear from small business owners in the trenches.  How did their business skills match the complexity of their business when they first opened? How have they dealt with this tension throughout their business’ evolution? What advice would they want to share with others?

Here is one story…

Heidi Gibson and Nate Pollak
The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen

When Heidi and her partner Nate opened The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen they already had general business expertise, people management skills and financial management experience but they were new to the restaurant industry and lacked specific industry skills. Heidi and Nate’s approach was to be honest with themselves about their own abilities and get help. “We took a cold hard look at what we did and did not know how to do, and then we recruited advisers who could teach us, or hired staff who already had the skills we lacked.”

Heidi and Nate took a similar approach when opening their second location. They had never run a multi-unit operation before. They sought consulting from other multi-unit operators, and hired general managers for each store who had come from multi-unit backgrounds. “We tasked the managers in the stores with the responsibility of ensuring consistency across the stores, not just within their own. For us, hiring managers who brought experiences and skills to the table that we did not have ourselves was crucial.” With the added complexity of two locations, Heidi and Nate decided to outsource their bookkeeping, too. “We hired a bookkeeper who had deep experience with multi-unit restaurants, which brought more expertise to our operation and freed up our time to handle other issues.”

Just this month Heidi and Nate opened their third location and published a cookbook, Grilled Cheese Kitchen: Bread + Cheese + Everything in Between!

Heidi’s advice for other small business owners:


Be brutally honest about what you are good at and what you’re not.

For the things you are not good at, find a way to outsource them to someone who is good at them. This goes double for bookkeeping and accounting if you are in a high-volume, low-margin business.

Ask for help.

There are a lot of resources out there for growing business owners, including Renaissance, SBDC, ICA and most importantly, other business owners. People want to see you succeed and you’ll be surprised at how much they want to help.

Don’t skip financial forecasting.

Many small business owners underestimate their financial management needs and make mistakes with finances when starting or expanding a business. The worst-case scenario is running out of cash, and sometimes growing can really chew up cash. You’re in a much stronger position to secure financing before you run out of cash rather than waiting until you’re down to the wire. Take the time to forecast cash flow, accounting for your growth needs, and start investigating funding options early rather than late.

Check out these tips on balancing your business skills with your business’ complexity and stay tuned for more words of wisdom from small business owners!