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How the Rookie Crumbles

Is your business off to a crummy start? Learn how facing your faults can put your business on a solid foundation.

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."

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the February 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: How the Rookie Crumbles.

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