Q&A With Jeff Cornwall: Entrepreneurs, Growing Businesses, And A Changing Economy
In the face of financial turmoil, business owners are scouring their budgets for places to reduce spending, but Jeff Cornwall, the author, academic, and leading blogger, says there are places where you shouldn't cut back, especially during a recession.
The lessons you learn early in life often form the foundation for what you decide to do later on. That certainly holds true for Jeffrey Cornwall. The author, Entrepreneurial Mind blogger, and inaugural Jack C. Massey Chair in Entrepreneurship at Tennessee's Belmont University credits his interest in small business to discussions at the dinner table when he was growing up, and to his corporate-expatriate father, who he says is now an "active, octogenarian entrepreneur." Cornwall also is an entrepreneur in his own right: In the late '80s he co-founded and ran a health-care company in North Carolina before he returned to academia nearly a decade later.
Cornwall's books include "Bringing Business to Life," "From the Ground Up: Entrepreneurial School Leadership," and "The Entrepreneurial Educator," his blog has been recognized as Forbes' Best of the Web, and the entrepreneurial programs he has guided (not only for Belmont) have received national recognition. Suffice to say, Cornwall is well-entrenched in all things entrepreneurial. In his conversation with bMighty.com, Cornwall discusses the opportunities of group collaboration, the double-edged sword called social media, and where you should -- and shouldn't -- cut back during a recession.
bMighty: What are some of the trends affecting growing businesses and entrepreneurs?
Jeff Cornwall: One of the interesting trends is a real decoupling of traditional organizations. More and more, you see networked organizations of people coming together as individual entities, or small teams coming together and working on projects. They are creating opportunities to tackle problems, but they also present issues of information-sharing and collaboration. [For example], a couple of my alumni have a business in the video market. They're doing projects that take them into other arenas, and they need to subcontract and make joint ventures with consultants.
It even creates international challenges. Another one of my students develops Web 2.0 programs, and he uses programmers around the world. It's creating issues of quality assurance, but it opens up opportunities for him. But with opportunities come new challenges.
The tech world is providing new solutions, and some of the convergence in tech will allow us to integrate even more. I could imagine technology evolving to the point where real-time conferences are on handheld devices. These not only create opportunities in the tech space, but it also creates opportunities for people to tackle problems.
In a study sponsored by Intuit, the Institute for the Future envisioned a new merchant class with lots of individual people working autonomously and tackling projects together. There are 20 million people in the U.S. that classify themselves as self-employed. Many of them are banding together.
bMighty: What tech tools do you recommend for entrepreneurs and growing businesses?
Cornwall: I'm not a techie kind of guy, but I'm working with entrepreneurs who are. There are fascinating applications in Web 2.0, and now we're getting to Web 3.0. The power and ability they give you to share information is incredible.
bMighty: Do you think social media is beneficial to growing businesses or a waste of time?
Cornwall: Anything can be either of those things. Years ago, I was one of the last people to get a fax machine. I wasn't sure it was cost-effective. I saw it being used a lot as a waste of time. Any new technology takes time to figure out how to use, and also how to use it effectively. I use things now that I used to be skeptical about being productive. I am seeing some real indications that these social media tools can be used productively. There is a lot of overkill, but I think it allows for collaborative work that's collaborative in a truly synchronous state. That can get to be pretty powerful. If I can do applications with someone across the world in real time, that is really powerful. It takes the whiteboard, creative-solving process out of the conference room.
How The Economic Crisis Affects Entrepreneurs & Growing Businesses
bMighty: How do you anticipate the economic situation affecting entrepreneurs and growing businesses?
Cornwall: Not very well. Many entrepreneurs are young. Forty percent of my incoming freshmen have a business, and even entrepreneurs under the age of 40 have not had to manage through a significant recession. Those of us who are baby boomers have been through severe recessions and inflation. I feel like my Dad when I say you don't understand, but now I know why they tried to warn us. We can get caught in a bad situation.
Small and midsize businesses cannot increase their prices by that much, or they are often locked into prices with big clients. So I am telling entrepreneurs and growing businesses to build up cash reserves and bring debt down. Bring down overhead, keep it low, and cut back. But don't stop spending to build your customer base. Marketing is where entrepreneurs and growing businesses should spend. Don't cut costs there because now is the time to stay in front.
I had this debate on my blog. One guy said businesses just need to increase prices. But customers don't work like that. Individuals are being careful, and they can great deals now. Consumers are starting to alter their behavior. They are preserving their cash, and that's what businesses need to be doing now. Remember the old phrase, cash is king? That is more even true in inflation. That becomes your buffer when you can't increase prices quickly enough.
bMighty: Why did you start blogging?
Cornwall: About five years ago I came to Belmont to start this Entrepreneurship Institute, and a successful blogger, Bill Hobbes, asked me if I wanted to start a blog. I thought it was an interesting forum and figured I'd give it a shot. I started playing around with it; I got some traction, and it went from there. All of a sudden several thousand people were reading my blog every week. I keep thinking blogging will go away, but it keeps growing and chugging along. I've been asked to do video blogs, but I don't know if I'll do it. It has been an interesting journey.
bMighty: How do you measure the success of your blog?
Cornwall: Traffic is important. I do enough writing -- academic journals, books -- that nobody reads! I measure success in volume and also in impact. I'll get a random e-mail where someone will tell me they read my blog and it made an impact. I've been getting things from people around the world -- the Middle East, Africa, Australia. They encourage me to keep it up. That's what keeps me going. If all I saw were numbers, I wouldn't be blogging. The personal feedback matters. I've also made some very good friends through blogging, and it gives Belmont a visibility that's beyond anything they could get -- an incredible reach nationally and internationally with recognition that is beneficial.
bMighty: What's the best blog post you've written this year?
Cornwall: Often it's the ones that surprise me, but it's usually the ones that put my heart on my sleeve. Sometimes it's a public policy issue or a struggle of an entrepreneur. My wife is never surprised what strikes a chord! Mine is not as interactive a forum as some other blogs. I'm more of an information source. I deal sometimes with controversial issues, but it's more like reading an editorial. I get more e-mail than comments posted to the blog. They want to talk to me, not the world. I switched locations from an .edu to a .com because of the increase in traffic, and I got all these e-mails asking me where I went. It's cool that they missed me.
bMighty: Other than your own, what blogs do you think are "must-reads" for business and technical decision-makers?
Cornwall: There are a lot of really good ones out there. I've always loved Small Biz Trends; I like what [Anita Campbell] does. I don't read a lot of blogs, and I don't engage in dialogues with other bloggers. Occasionally I go to Duct Tape Marketing. What I like in a blog doesn't matter. Everyone has their own flavor of what they like. I read Seth Godin sometimes, and Guy Kawasaki has some cool stuff. Otherwise what I read is pretty random.
Naomi Grossman is assistant editor of bMighty.com.