From the February 2004 issue of Startups

As scientific studies go, it at first sounds ridiculous. Making headlines last year was the news that a doctoral student in England had identified the "that" in the expression, "That's how the cookie crumbles." Qasim Saleem and his colleagues at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, used a laser beam to follow tiny deformations that form as the cookie picks up moisture near the edge and loses it near the center.

What follows are ruptures in the cookie that make it susceptible to crumbling, causing the cookie to be prone to disaster even before the customer reaches for it. The point of the research is that cookie makers want to stop throwing up their hands and saying "That's how the cookie crumbles." They want to fix the problem-and save immeasurable dollars in lost cookie revenue in the process.

It's a good bet you never learned in Business 101 that entrepreneurs are a lot like cookies. Like the cookie that has fault lines somewhere in its sugar, shortening, flour and vanilla extract, every entrepreneur has some personal weakness inside all those mitochondria and brain cells, a weakness that will affect how his or her business is run.

The question is whether your flaw is harmless or the type that could short-circuit everything you're trying to create. And the problem is that even seemingly harmless shortcomings can end up hurting your company. If you aren't very good at accounting, that may be fine while you're the only employee. But the slack may not be cut when you've hired two more people, and you've misplaced a decimal on their paychecks so they've been working for $1.20 an hour instead of $12. They may not find that funny.

There's a lesson here. Before you open for business, make sure you're ready for business. Tap your inner Socrates, and take to heart his oft-quoted phrase: Know thyself. And how do you know thyself? It helps to know what weaknesses entrepreneurs frequently share.

Achilles' Heel

Missy Cohen-Fyffe, 42, came to a crossroads a few years ago, when she realized she would have to give up some control of her company, or quit. And she doesn't mince words. "I always refer to my behavior as being a control freak. It's not flattering at all. But the nuts and bolts of the problem is that I often think it won't be done right if I'm not the one doing it."

Certainly, in the beginning, Cohen-Fyffe had all the control, which made sense-she was the only employee. And so naturally, things were being done the way she wanted them. But her thirst for control almost kept her from hiring employees, and worse, from letting them do anything once they were hired.

In 1999, she began Babe Ease LLC in Pelham, New Hampshire, to sell Clean Shopper, a cushion that fits over seats and handlebars of grocery carts so tots with a taste for teething can gnaw away on the cushion and not the handle, which has likely been handled by 347,897 shoppers beforehand.

It was and continues to be a success: Babe Ease, which makes other baby-friendly products, is projecting $2 million in sales in 2004. But in early 2001, Cohen-Fyffe was a one-woman show, putting in eight hours a day at her business, coming home to spend time with her husband and two children, and then working to fill orders from 8 p.m. until about 2 a.m. She'd sometimes enlist her spouse to help her stuff packages while watching Jay Leno.

The turning point came after an annual February vacation, says Cohen-Fyffe. "When I got back, I was mortified by the level of work waiting for me." Cohen-Fyffe realized her need for control meant that she was frequently feeling out of control. She was either going to have to hire employees and turn her operation into a full-fledged business, quit, or keep working and eventually go insane.

Neither of the latter options sounded promising; the former seemed appealing. She discussed the situation with her spouse, who believed she should go for it. So Cohen-Fyffe did, after several more months of deliberating; she finally asked a neighbor to join her business part time. "Once I hired her, and I realized somebody else could answer the phone, it was a big relief," recalls Cohen-Fyffe. "It was like this huge weight being lifted off. Then I realized, if she can do this, clearly she can charge the customers; and then once that went well, I realized if she can do this, clearly she can stuff the bags and send them out the door."

The result: Cohen-Fyffe had more time to manage and build other parts of her business, hired four full-time employees, and outsourced wholesale orders to a warehouse. The company now ships thousands of Clean Shoppers and other products every week. On her own, she was doing about 40. "It's been a relief to realize I don't have to have a hand in everything, and that there are many people who can do what I do," says Cohen-Fyffe. "And I try to take advice from my staff. Many times, they'll come to me with some idea, and I'll say, 'yes,' and we'll run with it. And that's why we can grow. I would call myself a reformed control freak. I'm not 100 percent cured. But I'm getting there."

Getting There

Fixing a personal problem is often the easy part. It's figuring out you have the problem in the first place that can be difficult. Kenneth W. Christian, a Carmichael, California, psychologist for more than 25 years, has rescued numerous entrepreneurs from themselves. If you can figure out you have a problem, he says, the best way to manage your weakness is to "disconnect the trigger." If, for instance, you have a short fuse, you may discover your temper rises with your workload, and you're constantly chewing out your one employee. To deal with an unmanageable workload, you could either hire somebody else or opt to work from home on the days you're likely to blow sky-high.

That's the problem Demetri Argyropoulos faces when employees do things that raise his ire. "It's not so much a short temper," says Argyropoulos, CEO of Prima Consulting Group Inc., a Santa Barbara, California, business talent agency that connects professionals with firms that have business and technical needs. "But I have low tolerance for lack of common sense. I think I have a lot of that, and that's what people really lack."

The 27-year-old entrepreneur readily admits that when expectations for employees aren't met, he sets himself up "for getting pissed off. I don't slam doors or anything like that. But I will maybe insult the person a bit, like 'How could you do such a stupid thing?'"

Argyropoulos doesn't really believe his getting peeved is a problem, and it probably isn't-Prima is almost a $10 million operation, employing 22 people full time-but that may be because he's disconnected the trigger: Argyropoulos has surrounded himself with "some very key personnel who handle a lot of the office relationships. They make my life so much easier. They're able to operate as close [as possible] to the quality that I can produce, and in some regards, they have skills I don't have as well."

But what if you don't know what your weaknesses are? What do you do then? Christian suggests some self-analysis is in order. He indicates that, as with Dorothy and those ruby slippers, the answers have been with you the whole time. "No matter how young and inexperienced in the business world you are, you know if you don't have patience," says Christian. "You have to work on yourself-and create backups, checkups, anything to keep you in some sort of order, if you have a weakness that threatens to distract you from your business."

Picture Imperfect
Kenneth W. Christian is a psychologist and author of Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement. While entrepreneurs as a group are generally overachievers in many areas, they usually compensate by underachieving in other areas. The question remains: How can you discover your weak spots? If you just want to quickly spot-check those weaknesses, Christian suggests these tactics:
  • Ask around. Talk to some of your friends or family members, tell them you're planning on starting a business, and ask them to assess what your weaknesses might be and what's most likely to trip up your company.
  • Look at your career history. Think about the comments you've received over the years, from as far back as elementary school. Chances are, if you were a slob in the seventh grade and your locker needed to be fumigated, you could be facing a future filled with overstuffed, almost useless filing cabinets. "Look for a pattern," urges Christian. "They're always there."
  • Go deep, very deep. In other words, you have to be willing to analyze everything about yourself. Accept the idea that what you thought were your strengths might be weaknesses. Often, Christian observes, we like the idea of changing on our own terms. As he points out in his book, "If you do not prepare well for change, are not open and pliable, and do not pay close attention, you undermine your own attempts to change."

Practicing Perfection

Josh Barsch, 29, knows he isn't flawless, and he's always trying to fix what he believes may be broken. "Most things are learnable, provided you can manage your time well," says Barsch, president and CEO of StraightForward Media, a Peoria, Arizona, marketing firm that specializes in pay-per-click search advertising. "You can consistently work on your weak areas and become better at them."

Barsch is doing just that. He wakes up at 4:45 a.m., and he heads to the gym to lift weights. Instead of driving to the gym in a sleep-induced fog, he listens to foreign language tapes and now speaks passable French, German and Spanish. He admits, "I wouldn't want to conduct business in those languages anytime soon," though that's clearly his end goal.

But Barsch's weakness used to be much more serious. When he began his business in April 2001, he was afraid to tell people what his services cost. "In the beginning, it's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that it's OK for you to charge X amount of dollars for what you do," says Barsch, whose business was projected to pass the $1 million mark in 2003. "At some point, you have to jump in and do it. You can't ease in and ask half of your rate today and 60 or 70 percent with the next client. There are always going to be people who think you're too expensive or too cheap. As long as a fair number of people think you're the right price and become your client, then that's OK."

Barsch managed to quote his prices from the beginning, but it was always done with a gulp and a knotted stomach, and it took a lot of practice and time before he could do it without feeling strange about it. His memory of other days didn't help him. Before he began StraightForward Media, he worked as a journalist for a paper in rural Missouri, and his editor asked him to convince a tractor supply store owner to buy an ad. "I choked up. I couldn't do it," says Barsch, who did make a clumsy attempt. The owner cut Barsch off, saying, "I don't need this; everybody knows me." Within seconds, Barsch says, he was out of the office and back on the street.

Silvana Clark, a Bellingham, Washington, motivational speaker and author for 13 years, specializing in every topic from small-business problems to parenting issues, recounts a similar experience. "I stuttered when someone asked me my speaking fee. For the average person, hearing that a speaker gets several thousand dollars or more seems outrageous," Clark explains. "I've had people say, 'You actually expect us to pay you?'" But she realized that "if you speak with confidence, people just accept what you say."

Barsch echoes that advice. "The worst thing that can happen to you is that somebody says no. All you'll be in is the same position you're in now. It can't get any worse. You have to get past the fear that somebody is going to grab you by the belt, put the other hand on your collar, and toss you out. That doesn't happen. 'It's more than we can afford,' is all they're likely to say."

So if closing a sale is your biggest problem, you either have to do as Barsch did and learn to get over it, or partner with somebody who is comfortable discussing fees.

It can be daunting and depressing, searching for your drawbacks and realizing you're not a natural in a critical part of your planned business, but you should be applauding yourself for looking for possible fault lines in your personality, instead of beating yourself up about it. Better to realize you're easily intimidated and start working on it now than to wait until you enter a meeting with several clients, only to turn white and lose all ability to function.

"I've talked to so many businesspeople who have one personal problem or another that's holding them back," explains Christian. "Everybody has to deal with these issues at one time or another." That's just life. That's how the cookie crumbles.

Foiling Your Foibles
Obviously, there are numerous ways your weaknesses can spill over into your business. You can probably think of half a dozen right now. But Marcia Reynolds has been in the trenches, as the president of Covisioning, a Phoenix coaching and leadership training firm that works with individuals and organizations. Her Web site is appropriately titled www.outsmartyourbrain.com. She offers a few typical ways entrepreneurs undermine their enterprises, with her suggestions for fixing them:

Problem: You're always operating in chaos.
Solution: Determine what annoys you in your environment. Something is making you feel like everything's out of control, so start asking questions. Do you need to exercise, delegate some errands, or is it maybe as simple as cleaning your desk every day?

Problem: Your temper always gets the best of you.
Solution: "Get to know your body signals," suggests Reynolds. "The chemicals released with anger generally act to tighten the stomach, arms and leg muscles. Catch your body readying for a fight. Then, before you open your mouth, breathe. Release the tension, clear your mind, and focus on one thought or word that describes how you want to come across-like direct, disappointed or curious."

Problem: You lack confidence-and it rattles you when you least need it to.
Solution: Give yourself a daily pep talk, suggests Reynolds. "Focus on your strengths, not just what you're capable of, but who you are. Are you generous? Are you compassionate? Are you open-minded? These are some major strengths, and you need to remind yourself of those. Remind yourself of who you are, and not just what you do."


Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio.