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.

Baseball and small business… oh the similarities!

I’ve been a fan of baseball ever since Willie Mays roamed center field for the New York Giants. When I played Little League in Vancouver, Canada my teammates and I all had heroes who played our position in the Majors. I was a center fielder so Willie was my hero. I moved to San Francisco over 30 years ago and re-connected with my love for Giants baseball.

baseball and small business

The recent Giants World Series win (woo hoo!!) has me thinking about the similarities between playing Major League baseball and running a small business…

It takes specific skills and years of practice
A baseball player must spend years in the Minor Leagues honing his craft and developing the skills, strength and confidence to perform well. He also has to get noticed.

Similarly, in the world of small business, successful entrepreneurs are those who have had a lot of practice developing the skills relevant to their product/service. By educating yourself about your industry, doing thorough market research, working for others, and starting with a pop-up or a simple business model that can grow with time, you can set yourself up for “major” success.

Success comes from trying, failing, and trying again
An excellent batter in baseball is only successful 30% of the time. Occasionally a batter might get on base with a walk or because of someone else’s error but he has to face failure with each batting experience. It is very hard to hit a small round ball hurdling through the air from 60 feet away at 90+ miles per hour!

A small business owner won’t be able to make a sale with every customer or client interaction. Being successful means putting yourself out there and reaching out to customers and clients over and over. You may have to contact a potential client 5 to 10 times before they are convinced to “take as swing at your pitch”. Yet with every business “failure” you will gain experience and confidence.

It is a team effort of stakeholders
The pitcher needs to throw fast and get the ball over the plate, the catcher needs to catch the ball, and each infielder and outfielder needs to be ready for every pop-up, fly or ground ball. Everyone has to work in coordination to keep a runner from scoring. That coordination and synergy is central to success—both for the offensive team and those on defense.

As a small business owner, your most important asset is your team. First it starts with you as the leader. Then there are the people you hired and trained who work hard alongside you to make the business a success. Most business owners can’t do it all themselves. Even if your business is too small for employees, there are professional support people, vendors, investors, clients and customers that all have a role to play. They are all stakeholders in the business.

It requires fans
Nothing feels worse than going to a baseball game with lackluster support in the stands. The fans are the 10th “player” on the field. Their enthusiasm and encouragement (and sometimes discouragement) can make a huge difference in the course of the game.

Businesses don’t just need customers and clients, they need enthusiastic and loyal customers and clients. They need fans who will “cheer loud” and spread the word—write positive testimonials, refer the business’ products or services to friends and family, and get others excited, too. Consistent contact and positive messaging to your fan-base is needed in both baseball and in small business.

You need a great coach or advisor
Bruce Bochy is an amazing manager—coaching the Giants to three World Series in five years! As a coach, he decides who plays each position, the batting order and when the pitcher will change. His attention to detail throughout the game can affect the outcome. Players on the team also take on the role of “coach”—helping to keep their team members motivated and working together. Hunter Pence or Buster Posey play this role with their constant encouragement to their teammates.

In business, the owner is often the “coach”—training new employees, guiding staff and creating at atmosphere of trust so employees feel welcomed, supported and motivated to take risks to grow the business. But small business owners need their own coach, too. This could be a trusted business advisor or mentor or it might be peers who are grappling with similar business challenges and opportunities. (PTA plays this role for many of our clients.)

You must take a position and play to your strengths
Some baseball players have an outstanding pitching arm, others seem to always connect the bat with the ball, while others are super fast on their feet. Players must play positions best-suited to their skill-sets.

Small business owners must play to their strengths, too. First, it’s important to understand what skills are needed to run your business well. Then, to be honest with yourself about what you do well and what you don’t (and what you would rather not do). Others should be hired to fill any gaps.

There are the stars
The Giants had some real stars this season, like Madison Bumgarner and Hunter Pence. They performed well under pressure and made the magic happen.

Small business owners and managers need to be stars, too, by “performing” well in every customer and client interaction. You must know your products or services inside and out and consistently rise to every challenge, be they complaints, delivery issues, employees who quit, or other unexpected emergencies.

Support people make everything work
A baseball team can’t be made up of “starters” only, though. There must be a solid crew of players who can be counted on to play well and become utility players at times, pinch-hitting when there is a need. And we cannot forget about all the behind-the-scenes people who make each ball club function.

Successful small businesses also need support people to make everything tick. Even a one-person small business needs a bookkeeper, administrative services, legal and insurance help, and access to the banking community.

You must take breaks and time off to rest and recharge
For eight months of the year, baseball players practice, stay in shape and play hard. But it isn’t non-stop. They take breaks to recuperate and for intense positions, like pitcher, players won’t even play the entire game.

Small business owners are always go-go-go and do not usually get to work just eight months of the year—at least not right away. A fast and constant pace is often required to get and keep customers or clients and manage cash flow. But it is key to manage your time well, too, both on and off the job. Taking a break to rest and have creative time is essential.

When you close a deal and win, it is oh so rewarding!
Every year baseball players go through arbitration or salary disputes. Sometimes they have long-term deals for two or three years but they still have to close the deal, perform at a higher rate and sometimes move to a different team. (We will see how Pablo Sandoval does in Boston. Sometimes your competition convinces your best people to leave.)

As a small business owner, you also have to close the deal. You have to make the sale, hire or fire the employee, open a new store, bring in a new manager, and continue to meet the complexities of the business by increasing your management, marketing and financial acumen (or finding others to help). And every time you make a sale, hire a new employee, find a new location and grow, it is incredibly rewarding.

It is a lot of fun and it is hard work
Baseball players play hard and they get to revel in a great hit, catching the ball for an out, or scoring a run. After all, it is just a game!

As a small business owner, owning a business is the hardest work you will ever do. But it is also a lot of fun—you get to follow your passion, blaze your own trail, create jobs, contribute to your community, and make a difference.

Now, if only the pay rate for small business owners was in the baseball player “ballpark”, we small business entrepreneurs would have it made!

Where did the time go?

This is the question we all ask, and perhaps small business owners ask the most!


In the book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play, When No One Has the Time, author Brigid Schulte says that the key to time management is “figuring out what’s important to you, and then making time to do what’s most important first.”  It sounds simple and yet it’s hard to do when so many things compete for our attention and everything feels urgent.

The pros and cons of the to do list

Many of us keep detailed to-do lists. Our list will grow and grow and can become so long that it’s easier to focus on the “simple stuff” we can quickly complete and check off the list. We put off the tasks that will be most strategic for our business, the tasks that will help us grow and be a success. Schulte calls this tendency to spend time on the small stuff, “virtuous busyness”.


As small business owners we wear many hats and must often multi-task. We have the tendency to want to do it all ourselves (even when we are stuck) and we don’t want to delegate (or don’t know how to). We are often completely consumed in the business without making time to work on the business, or we let personal stuff get in the way of how we run our business.

The effects of overwhelm

There can be a lot of emotions tied up with how we spend and “manage” our time, too. When we have too much to do we can get overwhelmed and frustrated. Our actions become non-productive. We procrastinate (ignoring what we know we must do) or we sabotage ourselves (purposely doing something counterproductive), and we end up paralyzed – blaming ourselves and sometimes even giving up.

The 80/20 Rule

One way out of this overwhelm is by paying attention to the Pareto Principle or what is often referred to as the “80/20 Rule”:


If you can figure out which tasks are producing your business’ results, you can spend more time on those activities and less time on others.  Often if a task makes you feel uncomfortable or if you are putting it off, it’s probably a sign that it needs your attention!

As a simple way to start, Perry Marshall, author of 80/20 Sales and Marketing, recommends that we flip our daily to do list. “If there are 10 things you need to do today, odds are that one task is worth 10 times more than the rest. It is natural to want to put it off and get the other tasks done first but you need to switch it around and first focus on that one thing that is most important.”  Do you need to write your marketing plan, call a disgruntled customer, create financial projections or go after a new client?  Focus on that key task first.


When I talk to my business students about time management I share the same essential message. The first step is to identify the priorities — or  BIG ROCKS — for your business and then structure your time to put them first. If you are a small business owner (particularly if you are just launching your businesses) you really cannot do it all. You need to focus on the key 10-20% of your business that can bring the best results now. Once you have some comfort in or mastery over that area, you can expand your focus.

Taking action

Now, it’s time to take action!  Starting first thing tomorrow…

  • Look at your to-do list and pick only three tasks for the day – tasks that are the most important for your business right now. (What task will help you make money now? What task will build a key business skill now?)
  • Tackle only one task at a time.
  • Set a start time and end time for each task to keep yourself focused.
  • Share what you are doing with someone else so that he/she can hold you accountable.
  • Don’t forget to get rid of all distractions. Clear other work off your desk, turn off email, put down your phone… and get to it!

The reality is that your to-do list will never go away and it will probably always be long.  It may be helpful to write down all your tasks so they don’t keep swimming around in your head. But the goal is to not get distracted by your list.

And, it is important to put away the list entirely sometimes. Our best business breakthroughs often come when we aren’t focused on our business. Sometimes it is only when we take a break, that we can gain perspective.

Take a Break, Gain Perspective

Owning a small business requires all-consuming focus and it can be really hard to take a break. Yet it’s important for your health and the health of your business to un-plug and get away sometimes.

taking a break

Lake Louise and the Canadian Rockies

Recently I traveled to the Rocky Mountains of Alberta Canada for a two-week vacation in Banff and Jasper National Parks. I was last there as a kid road tripping with my family from Vancouver, British Columbia. Traveling to Canada brought back old memories but also a fresh perspective. Climbing steep paths and breathing the mountain air was invigorating. I felt refreshed by the physical exertion and the natural beauty around me, and in these new surroundings I was able to see myself and my business in a new light. Away from the constant demands of day-to-day tasks, I was able to free-associate and dream about broader goals.

Getting away from the daily routine is key to being able to think creatively as a business owner. When we give ourselves time to relax, sleep in, exercise and do something fun that has nothing to do with our business, it can actually make us more productive and can even lead to new ideas. According to Tony Schwartz’s article in the New York Times earlier this year, “a new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

John Donahoe, CEO of EBay, spends two weeks every year at a beach house on Cape Cod with bad cell phone service and no internet connection. “Without a constant barrage of work issues to respond to, I find that my mind calms down and my intuition begins to come alive. I am able to see things through a more creative lens and new ideas often emerge from my ‘time off’”.

You don’t have to travel a far distance to take a break. You can set aside 10 minutes a day for quiet reflection or a walk around the block.  Even that short time away from work can be beneficial, especially if you do it regularly.

As small business owners our work is never done. The demands of the business and our own drive to create the best product or offer the best service can lead to workaholic behavior, which can often make us less productive. With the computer always on and the cell phone always in our pocket, it’s hard not to read every new email or respond to every call or text. We become reactive instead of proactive and can drift away from what is most important.

We often worry that things will fall apart if we’re not there or not constantly connected. But if we have developed good systems with well-trained employees we can trust, it may be easier to get away than we realize. The business can survive for a night or a few days without constant contact or input. And, more importantly, it may thrive because of that break and that time for reflection.

The To Do List: Getting it done

to do listThere is too much to do and not enough time to get it all done.  In fact, time management experts seem to agree that you will never really catch-up, and you will never get it all done.  So what to do?

Christopher Robin was explaining this issue to Pooh Bear during a long walk in the woods.  His wisdom went like this: ” Well, Pooh…there is so much to do.  So organized is what we do, before we do it, so when we do it, it is not all mixed up”.

Where do you focus? On what you most want to do? On the most pressing issues in front of you? On what seems most important? On what makes the most sense for your clients or customer? On what will make the most money?

It can be hard to know the best approach and what tools will make a difference.  Sometime it can be an online solution with an application or a bell that rings.  Sometime it is simply a short hand-written sheet of paper.

When running a small businesses we need to think about building skills to make time management better?  Is there a tool that works?  What is the best solution for you?  Do we write it out; do we use an on-line tool; do we post it on our screen; do we tell others so they will remind us; do we have a regular schedule so that we have the time set aside.

Yes…all or some of this list.  Whatever works for you and moves your business forward. If your time management system no longer works, try something else.  Do not let the procrastination rule you.  Keep moving!!!

Time for Action: Seven Steps

Planning and managing your time effectively is the single most important factor for the launching and management of a successful small business.  You may have great ideas, a great product or service and a receptive marketplace.  However, you still have to find and take the time to do all the work.  How do you get things done?

Does any of this sound familiar:

  • you feel pressured and overwhelmed with too many tasks and not enough time
  • you work harder than anyone else with endless meetings, calls and interruptions
  • you have ideas on how to improve but no time to implement.

Therefore, you become paralyzed, tend to sabotage, procrastinate or simply give up.  All of the above conditions are a common reality.  There is simply too much to do and simply not enough time to do it. There is no one who is available to help you and only you, of course, can really do it right anyway.  So the only other solution … you stretch, juggle and squeeze!

time for action

However, it is possible to get things done without such a “squeeze”.  You can change and learn to work smarter so you can meet deadlines, be creative and then celebrate each success with a reward.  You can start right away with one successful strategy and build from there.  Pick a routine, a time management tool, or office procedure.  Make it something simple and easy to initiate.  Then include a monitoring or reward system to acknowledge that you have made this technique your routine and it is making a difference.  We are talking about CHANGING BEHAVIOR…and we can do it one step at a time.

Here are seven simple suggestions that, if implemented, can really help:

1.   Write out a goal that is very specific and measurable. (You want to open your business for the holidays.  You must be ready with inventory and marketing collateral by the end of August or you will be too late.)

2.   Use the master “to-do” list and match each task to pre-set goals.  (Use a prioritized list of very specific action steps each with an estimated start date AND completion date).

3.   Prioritize your “to-do” list based on effective criteria that will help your business now.  (Make sales calls to new and old clients before you procrastinate to file old client files.)

4.   Eliminate unproductive meetings or any personal phone calls during the business day.   (Have meetings early in the day and make personal calls after 5 p.m or not at all.)

5.   Establish a predetermined place where you get things done efficiently (For example, try to answer all calls right at your desk near client files when you first arrive at work and make all appointments right there).

6.   Revise your plans constructively.  If something doesn’t work out, you have learned from a “mistake”.  (Learn from your OWN experience.  This is NOT a failure but a discovery of what didn’t work.  Take this lesson learned and change your next action accordingly.)

7.   Take your predetermined reward.  (Set up a reward in advance for your efforts.  When you have achieved the “success” that you have set for that hour, day or week and take the reward when you are “done”).

Plan and use your time well.  If your business is to be exciting and profitable, your attention to developing time management expertise will have a significant impact on your success!