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Growing Strong

Hiring reliable employees is easy--if you follow these tips for weeding out the bad seeds.

Q: I own a small lawn-care business that is doing better than I had hoped. I want to grow the business, but I am afraid to hire because I'm worried those I delegate to won't do as good a job as I do. But if I don't bring in employees, I won't be able to service as many lawns as I'd like, and I won't have any time for marketing the business. Help!

Name Withheld

A: Dan Ramsey, president of Ramsey Business Strategies in Reedsport, Oregon, is the author of more than 60 books, including 101 Best Weekend Businesses (Career Press):

Congratulations! You've cleared the first hurdle in starting your own business: You've obviously learned how to manage customers and money. To grow your business and move to the next stage, you'll need to learn to manage employees. As you have recognized, this is an area where many small businesses either grow or fold. Be cautious, but don't be fearful. Millions of small businesses have successfully made the leap from one to many. So can you.

The first step in selecting good employees who will help you achieve your business goals is to ensure that you know what those goals are. You can't transfer a vision of your business to employees if it's not crystal clear to you. If you haven't done this already, put your vision in writing. For instance, you might write the following as your vision: "To efficiently help owners of luxury homes (or two-person income homes, or homes with expansive lawns) manage their lawns and related landscaping for beauty." Depending on where your business is located and how much competition you face, include a geographic focus to your summary as well.

Once you have clarified your vision, begin looking for potential employees who can help you reach these customers. Assuming lawn-care skills are teachable, your goal is to find honest people with the appropriate attitude toward work. Your interview questions, therefore, should focus on applicants' work attitudes rather than skills.

When you hire, establish a training period with the understanding that you will review employees' efforts and attitudes at the end before deciding to continue employment. This is a probationary period for both you and the employees. Check with your state employment office regarding hiring laws before you begin the process.

Finally, remember that the key to growth in your business lies not with your employees but with your ability to communicate with them and with customers. With this in mind, focus on improving your communication skills to avoid misunderstandings that can stunt your business's growth.

The added bonus to this approach? Now that you're ready to spend more time on the marketing end of your business, you have a much clearer idea of your market as defined in your business summary. It's now much easier to find customers who will keep you--and your new employees--productive and profitable.

Q: I have a small furniture, gift and accessories business, and I'm in search of a user-friendly software program that will accommodate my inventory and some accounting. I have an IBM laptop computer. Please point me in the right direction.

Jean Earp

Raleigh, North Carolina

A: Cassandra Cavanah, whose monthly "Business Software" column appears in Entrepreneur magazine, has helped computerize her husband's gift and accessories business:

Transferring your business's books to computer is one of the most productive moves you can make. By computerizing this data, you'll be able to easily track the money that comes into and goes out of your business. Your accounts receivable and payable will be kept up-to-date, and you'll have quick access to profit-and-loss statements. The goal is to let the computer do the work so you can do the thinking and strategizing.

There are numerous high-end accounting programs designed for specific industries and needs, but most small-business owners swear by Intuit's easy-to-use QuickBooks program. This bestselling software is the easiest accounting program I have ever come across. The laBODY version, QuickBooks Pro 4.0, also lets you manage your inventory and purchase orders so you can view what's on hand and what's on order.

Although you don't mention which particular IBM laptop computer you use, it's a safe bet that QuickBooks will be able to run on it, as the requirements are minimal: Windows 3.1 or higher, a 386 or higher processor, 4MB RAM (though I highly recommend 8MB), and 21MB of hard drive space. A Macintosh version is also available.

Having your company's data on computer means you can do all sorts of things with it, including running reports on all aspects of your business (QuickBooks includes 80 preset reports and graphs for tracking income and expenses, net worth, sales, budgets and so on). Additionally, QuickBooks automatically creates a database of your customers and vendors as you input new invoices and purchase orders. Once that data is stored, the next time you fill out an invoice or purchase order for that customer or vendor, the program will automatically fill in the address, terms and so on. You'll also be able to design your own invoices and purchase orders in QuickBooks, importing your company's logo and selecting your favorite type style.

Because QuickBooks will keep track of your customers and vendors, you'll be able to run reports to determine which customers are ordering the most product, or to find out which vendors you order the most from. You can also run reports on which product is your best or worst seller. And, when it comes time to do a customer mailing, QuickBooks can easily create mailing lists and print labels.

QuickBooks also has a payroll module that will automatically calculate earnings and deductions, and prints W-2s, W-3s and 1099s.

The list of QuickBooks features goes on and on. If you want to take a closer look at this product, visit Intuit's Web site at http://www.intuit.com. Here you'll find a list of features and articles discussing QuickBooks and can even order a free trial version of the program.

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Growing Strong.

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