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Business Advice from a Southern Entrepreneur

These down-home expressions have plenty of advice to offer new business owners. See what you can learn from these nine sayings.
April 18, 2005
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/77288

The South has a lot to say about doing business the right way. Just what do I base my assertion on? Having spent my first 17 years living below the Mason-Dixon Line--my grandparents are all Southerners--and having lived a year in Atlanta as a professional, I come by this business advice quite honestly.

For those of you from other parts of the country, let me share some phrases that have served me well throughout my career, especially during the three years since I started my company. I'll start with my all-time favorite:

1. Dance with the date that brung ya. I'm always surprised by those people who seem to come down with a severe case of amnesia when things go their way but who are the first ones to call when they need a favor. And this is true whether you're talking about customers or business alliances.

I once had a client I'd worked with for two years who experienced the best period in the company's 20-year history while we worked together--the CEO even attributed their success in large part to our efforts. But they got wooed by a big agency that had started seeing them everywhere--thanks to our work for them--and the CEO decided it was time to "trade up" now that he'd outgrown us. I haven't seen much written about them in the past few months and can only guess that big agency found a bigger client to go after. Guess who called me for lunch last week?

Lesson Learned: Be loyal to those who got you invited to the party in the first place. They were good to you before you were a success, so don't forget them when your business takes off.

2. That dog won't hunt. You'd never take a non-hunting dog on a hunting trip--it just doesn't make sense, so don't waste your time. How many prospects string you along for months but really have no intention of investing in your products or services? As much as I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, you have to be honest with yourself and admit that some people just aren't meant to be clients. I've learned this lesson the hard way, trying to educate a small-business client on the importance of building a strong brand and conducting market research to understand their customers' needs. All they really wanted was a brochure and a sales kit--they didn't care about strategy or building for the long term. The CEO was looking for off-the-shelf solutions; we deliver customized experiences.

Lesson Learned: Find the dog that hunts, and keep him happy.

3. Putting lipstick on a pig. I've heard Texas politician Ann Richards use this phrase before, and it always makes me laugh. But the truth remains that an ugly situation does not improve with window dressing--no one will be fooled. So be honest and realistic, because people know when it's just a pig wearing lipstick. Smoke & mirrors don't last forever; the truth will catch up with you eventually.

A consultant I know once wanted to prove she was building a global practice and knew as much about cross-cultural marketing as firms like ours. But the truth was, she had never worked overseas, had never managed a global business, didn't speak a foreign language, and was just a one-person band. When a client was considering hiring her firm vs. ours, he ended up choosing ours because we had the right experience to get the job done.

Lesson Learned: You cannot make up your past credibly. People do check references.

4. Too clever by half. Sometimes it's just not about being right. In Ivy League terms, it's called the "Pyrrhic Victory," where you win the battle and lose the war. We once had a client who really believed he was knowledgeable in everything, including public relations. We got him a live segment on one of the top morning shows to promote his services as the expert they were interviewing for the story. It would have been a great opportunity for the CEO--high visibility and credibility factors. But the CEO felt he knew what was best for the spot and wanted to change the focus (so now he's a television producer, too!). And he might have had a good idea, but by being too big for his britches, the real producer cut him from the segment altogether because in the end, he was just too much trouble to work with. So listen to the people who know the rules and call the shots. There may be a way to add your opinion, but think carefully before you come across as a know-it-all. You may just find yourself cut from the show if you aren't careful.

Lesson Learned: Don't be too smart for your own good. You could end up cut out of some good deals.

5. Big hat, no cattle. You know the type, the ones who overpromise and underdeliver. There's lots of talk but no follow though, and there's one in every business. If you don't know who it is in yours, it's probably you. I was once introduced to a consultant who wanted to join my firm, and he clearly had a very high opinion of himself. Because we knew several people in common, I asked around about him. It turns out, he rubs a lot of people the wrong way and quit several projects before he's completed the job. He had dropped a lot of hints that he had a huge business and just wanted to partner with someone like me to leverage his contacts. Since he thought of himself as such a rainmaker, I asked him if he'd show me his financials so I knew what he was really bringing to the table. I never heard from him again.

Lesson Learned: Only commit to what you know you can deliver, and never brag out of school, especially if you've got nothing to back it up. It's sure to come back to haunt you.

6. Just fell off the turnip truck. Only the truly naive or stupid fall off of a truck. You've got to hold on because the ride can be bumpy, and the edge is a dangerous place to wait if you don't have anything to grab onto. The same is true with on-going projects and pending sales. You have to pay attention at all times, because projects sometimes come to a screeching halt or speed up in order to meet an aggressive deadline. Sales deals and minds can change in an instant, so make sure you're getting your information from the right sources who have both the decision-making authority and budgetary control. Ask the tough questions as you go-it'll save you a lot of time and money in the end. Hang on to that truck.

Lesson Learned: If you're not keeping a watchful eye on what's in progress, you could be taken by surprise and knocked for a loop. So hang on to that truck and keep an eye on the road ahead.

7. Playing possum. Possums aren't much to look at, but they are survivors--they know when to play dead until a crisis passes. For business owners, using crafty tactics to gain a competitive advantage by acting defeated isn't always a bad route to take. Let me explain what I mean.

We once had a client whose brand and key messages had been diluted over the years. They really needed to retrench and build their business from the inside out if they were going to make it in the marketplace. At the same time, one of their competitors was making lots of noise about the next new thing and was drawing a lot of attention from all sides. Our client opted to stay out of the crossfire, hone their message and then relaunch their brand bigger and better than ever before. We helped them give their customers a reason to take another look at them with a consistent and compelling offer--and they successfully drew market share away from their "louder" competitor.

Lesson Learned: Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to go undercover and regroup until you're ready for the spotlight. Only then are you in a position for people to take notice.

8. Getting the hogs off the truck, Focus on your key activities no matter how mundane they are--the legwork has got to be done. And while it may not be the most interesting or glamorous part of a project, it's a necessary step in the process, so make it happen with attention to detail. Remember, every step matters for success in the end--there really are no shortcuts to success that I have found. You have to pay your dues, and that means getting dirty along the way. But that's what differentiates a good outcome from an exceptional one. So make the extra phone calls, go to the event site one more time just to test the audio visual equipment and layout before the client arrives, proof the material again before it goes to print, bring a backup on disk just in case--hard work always pays off.

Lesson Learned: Don't avoid the mundane tasks just because they're the hardest or the least glamorous. Your hard work and attention to details will help turn what could have been a good success into a great success.

9. Rode hard and put up wet. People tend to let themselves get over-worked and ill-cared for, not unlike a horse that's been ridden hard and not brushed down before being placed back in their stall. Never take your health for granted! Be good to yourself and make sure you recharge your batteries on a regular basis. Even Winston Churchill took a nap every day. You're no good to your business unless you're healthy and energized. So take vacations and schedule downtime on your calendar. Note to self: Read this one again. I'm as guilty as the next person when it comes to this.

Lesson Learned: You can't devote yourself to your business 24/7 and expect to be able to give it your best. Take care of yourself and find time to relax, and you'll be able to come back with a renewed sense of purposes.

I'll leave you with this quote from Mark Twain: "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way." There's just nothing like firsthand experience to teach you a good lesson you'll never forget. People can tell you it's hard, but until you try it yourself, you'll never really know just how tough something is to accomplish. While I hope you've picked up a few lessons from these sayings, the truth is, you have to go out there and try if for yourself to really understand what it means to be an entrepreneur. So what are y'all waiting for.