Ask the Chief: IGWT AOPC

There are certain folksy “wisdoms” that accompany someone going into business for themselves. Some have not stood the test of time; however, not all customers are trustworthy just as not all sellers are ethical. But when learned and applied, most of these will enable the self-employed to succeed.

  • the customer expects a service to be performed on time and at the agreed fee
  • offering a price discount is a way to draw customer interest
  • customer and entrepreneur both understand the scope of work prior to acceptance; additional work requires an additional fee
  • buy now, pay later is a service to generate sales; this should only be offered to reliable, repeat customers
  • count out the customer’s payment and any change due, at the time of service
  • in God We Trust; all others pay cash (IGWT AOPC); this is particularly important with new customers who may wish to pay with credit that the processor refuses.
  • respond quickly and appropriately to negative feedback (especially online)

Ask the Chief: the little things

A young man’s resolve -this morning encouraged me greatly. He had arrived early to take his certification exams – which, among his peers, is sufficiently remarkable to be noteworthy. (As a military retiree, I am accustomed to the military tradition of being fifteen minutes early to something as being “on time”.) He unfortunately only possessed two of the four items needed to register. (One was an stamped self-addressed envelope to mail his exam results.) Apparently, his program administrator had not furnished him a specific document to register for the State exam. He was embarrassed and disappointed but he made calls to his administrator – at 7 AM – to obtain it. They hand-delivered the needed form to the test site at an agreed time so as not to reschedule his exam. Once he was registered, I joked with him that after that particular exercise, any nerves while taking the exam would no longer pose him a problem. Though he will not know it for a few days, he passed both exams and earned his certification. I have some confidence that obstacles would, in future, be opportunities for him to overcome.

For many, the statutory regulations that govern these certification exams including a certain proficiency in English comprehension, are not obstacles. For others, lacking the self-discipline to thoroughly prepare, to read the pre-registration letters, emails, text messages or phone calls, and to arrive for a state exam in a timely manner, make a successful outcome difficult. From a veteran’s perspective, the Admiral quoted here, is correct.

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

William H. McRaven, USN (Ret)

Starting a career as an entrepreneur, a veteran may have only her life experience, wits, and an idea. Skills as active listening, experience of mentoring by experienced professionals and preparing thoroughly for most expected conditions, are basics. Just as in the military, in business, there are certain things that require the entrepreneur to think on one’s feet. And an idea of a product or service, is only as profitable as its feasibility in the market. A veteran should be willing to get advice, seek expertise, and commit or redeploy in another product or service or market.

You can’t change the world alone – you will need some help – and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.

William H. McRaven, USN (Ret)

A successful business has efficient operations and administration. Much of this is beyond the expertise of a new entrepreneur. Beyond computers and productivity software, calendars, and government licenses, fees and regulatory paperwork, engaging the services of bookkeepers, Certified Public Accountants, and specialized expertise may be required to maintain efficiency and regulatory compliance. In this area, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has offices in most communities to provide guidance to help entrepreneurs succeed.

Just as in the military, the failure to know statutory regulations, compliance – licensing, taxes, and record-keeping- is not often an acceptable excuse for non-performance. This means that businesses often are the clients of other businesses. Just as one’s own enterprise needs to have exceptional customer service with clients, the entrepreneurs engaged to provide service or products to your business needs to have the same standards. The business which loses clients to communication, operations, or staffing issues that financially impact their clients will not be in business for long. Friends, colleagues, good will, and a disciplined leader will make your destination attainable.

Ask the Chief:Formula for success

The month of March is touted as a time to recognize achievements by women today and in history. In my social media feed, warriors, astronauts, authors and civic leaders are presented as outstanding examples and role models for their gender. I am married to one such as these, whose circumstances thirty-some years ago might have dictated a much different path had she not had the internal motivation and applied herself to becoming a Registered Nurse, then an educator, a program director and lastly, an entrepreneur. My interpretation of a formula to succeed in Life, has a lot to do with personal motivation and how much someone applies herself or himself to the task.

Results (R) equals Motivation (M) times Application (A), in a Skill (s) that is in demand, in a society.

Eric Saretsky

A story published by wearelatinlive.com that was distributed in my Facebook feed is one of these success stories that strikes me as representative of the possibilities that many, particularly in Government, act as not being possible by the majority in the United States. The story of Diana Trujillo, Director of Flight Operations for the Mars Perseverance Rover, speaks to a Latina immigrant from Columbia who came here, not speaking English, and with $300 in her pocket. Working as a cleaning women, she attended community college, then transferred to a university and became one of few women studying to become an aerospace engineer advancing to her position today.

CMDCM Barbier

Another story that was remarkable was a video interview published online by Mike Rowe. He interviewed a young lady, who is a highly-skilled specialty welder earning a six-figure income today. This young lady, with a passion for fancy eyelashes seen in the video, applied herself starting with a high school elective, after realizing that a teenager’s idea of a career in medicine was not really her goal. And there there are the examples of my female Shipmates from my years serving in the United States Navy. Two in particular have always reminded me of the formula I noted earlier in this post. One, a now-retired Admiral, Linnea Sommer-Weddington, began serving as an enlisted linguist, and after earning a college degree, received a commission. Twenty-five years later, facing a mid-career health situation, she had the tenacity to overcome it and through her leadership example, experience and skill, advanced in her career to Flag rank. It was her motivating those she lead to also reach their full potential that impacted the second female I am reminded. Navy Reserve Command Master Chief Kristie Barbier , I had the good fortune to serve alongside and lead for a time as the Senior Enlisted Leader for a Reserve unit that then-Commander Sommer-Weddington headed. Kristie’s expertise in her civilian occupation supported the Department of Defense. In her military role, ambition and skillset, she volunteered for service in the combat zone of Afghanistan. Through skills and exceptional leadership, she earned the highest Navy enlisted rank and serves as a Command Master Chief today. While this may sound extraordinary to many, there is one other caveat that makes these stories noteworthy. All of them were accomplished by females raising families or other ventures who shaped their circumstances – instead of being burdened by them.

RDML (Ret) Sommer-Weddington

As a veteran I have had the good fortune to work with people from every background and circumstance who volunteered for military service. Mentors and friends whose career success were shaped by application of a success formula whether or not they knew it as such. And in the civilian community, many with whom I have worked who strived to have the life they earned. Circumstances, from economic declines and health challenges, to worldwide pandemics will occur, but it is the ones who have skills that are continually needed who will thrive throughout. In my business today I see examples of civilian and veteran, men and women, young and older, immigrant and native-born, through exceptional work ethic and ambition, achieve certification. And sadly, I have witnessed those whose self-limiting formula delays their success.

In some I know, through my military experience and in my marriage, there is one other caveat that makes these stories noteworthy. Most of them were accomplished by females raising families; working while in training; in business with husbands or partners; or varying degrees of all of these. These are women who shaped their circumstances – instead of being burdened by them. And I have met men, immigrants, who have had skills, authority or respected careers in their home country who achieve competence in a new language and culture, and support their families working from the bottom upward, in a field that is in high demand.

value of “customer experience”

A website I found when writing this post, makes my point, “We believe in the business of experience”. Successful business, or more specifically, very successful businesses, value their customers. As a California small business in two niche markets, one of my enterprises serves a specific market of business to business services, and the other has a broader client base. Yet both sets of customers are looking for the same things from me. Competence, reliability, competitive pricing, and an excellent customer experience.

The value of serving a niche market is the relatively few competitors given the specialization required to service it. The challenge of servicing a niche market is both to continue to treat a client as though they had numerous choices for your service. And a niche market can become financially-stressed by bureaucracy as well as tough economic times as has occurred during this Pandemic. Our operations must maintain customer trust. In contrast, some companies fail to recognize changing needs of customers and the value of the customer experience. Montgomery Wards, Sears, and even General Motors stumbled and failed. Only GM returned to profitability.

Our business was built initially by personal recommendation to our first clients. It initially expanded due reputation of its founders and partners- consultants. However, the success and continued growth for these enterprises have been due largely to the customer experience. Having a willingness to listen to the needs of the client. Using current media and technical means to provide a quality first impression to attract customers. Influence the customer to not want to go elsewhere for service.

Reputation

Honor, Courage, and Commitment

Remarkable contributions are typically spawned by a passionate commitment to transcendent values such as beauty, truth, wisdom, justice, charity, fidelity, joy, courage and honor.

Gary Hamel, businessman b. 1954

In the Navy, Sailors are taught the value of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. These are not simply cherished values, they are the foundation of what will ultimately make an individual successful in Life. A person learns that Honor – both that which you earn personally and that which you hold in esteem, is fundamental to how one builds trust with others. In a biography, The Luckiest Man (Mark Salter), of the late Senator John McCain, he maintained his sense of honor as a POW in refusing special considerations during captivity (his late grandfather and father (during Vietnam) were Navy Flag officers). His Senate career, in pushing normalization of relations with Vietnam, on legislation over campaign financing, foreign relations and military matters, won praise even from the opposition party (including President Obama). A second tenet, courage, is not simply the quality of the fiercest warrior. Courage is being resolute, despite opposition in one’s moral convictions. Taking a stand in support of just principles (the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights), or doing the right thing in spite of opposition. When the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, commander’s crew were succumbing to COVID, and the Navy was slow to act, his convictions to get attention for his crew resulted in his reassignment (public opinion may have moderated the Pentagon’s decision-making). Think of the last year when police officers were collectively criticized and even attacked for the actions of a minority of officers nationally; some officers when ordered to confront protesters took a conciliatory knee to ease tensions. And commitment? A resolute, unwavering effort to follow through on a promise, mission, or task, in spite of difficulties or opposition. The example and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who was in the forefront leading the way to obtain civil rights legislation, and at the cost of his life, exemplifies this.

building reputation

Repetition makes reputation and reputation makes customers.

Elizabeth Arden, businesswoman, d. 1966 (brainyquote)

Adding to these last, fidelity, passion for truth, and enjoying service to the public, build an enterprise’s reputation. In competition for business success, reputation attracts employees and customers. Successful companies such as Starbucks showcase this in their philosophy, and in their employees whether in Seoul, Korea or Charleston, South Carolina. Using the example of military basic training which I received in the 1970s, recruits are first screened to meet at a minimum certain qualities. Whether Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force or Coast Guard, recruit training shapes individuals into a team, and instill traits that distinguish military servicemembers from civilians. As they say in the Marines, you do not ‘join’ the Marines, they make Marines of those who thrive in the rigor of training, have the caliber of mental and physical stamina of warriors, and embrace the values that will make each an invaluable member of a “unit”.

fragile and easily damaged

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.

Warren Buffett

Reputation, even when built through such a “crucible”, is fragile. It can easily be lost or damaged through public misperception, and errors in judgement from management or employees. In the last decade, the perception that businesses – or their employees – disparage lifestyle choices of a segment of the consumer public, whether or not . However, in the cases of Chik Fil -A restaurants, Hobby Lobby stores, a bakery in Colorado, and most recently, individuals whose participation in political violence (storming of the Congress), reputations were damaged as well as expense to defend these in court. In the latter, the “insurrectionists”, even if painted with a broad brush, when identified as employees or representatives of agencies or businesses, had to be swiftly terminated, and have public apologies issued by their employers. While some patronize a business because of some affinity, the businesses will eventually suffer from the scrutiny. Reputation is an asset for a business. As Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics magnate of the last century said, “Repetition makes reputation and reputation makes customers.”

finger business

“After each customer interaction, notice if you gave them a “happy to see you” kind of experience.”

Marilyn Suttle, author, via Goodreads

Personal values, such as integrity, honesty, and likeability, I learned from my upbringing. Motivation, commitment, and organization, came from a career in the Navy. Problem-solving and customer relations are the result of a lifetime in various occupations including the aforementioned Navy, sales, and some self-employment ventures, two that were particularly unsuccessful and my present venture in partnership with my wife. After nearly forty years at work, each of us has found the perfect venture – and, a perk, we love working together. When my spouse was ready to leave the day-to-day management of a Nursing Education program, she found the certification side calling. In this niche market, students have graduated a post-secondary healthcare school and now require them to meet State public health criteria through examination and skills evaluation to receive licensing.

And that is happening in spite of, and to some extent, because of, the 2020 Pandemic. Despite candidate health surveys, frequent sanitization, applying social distancing spacing, and following revised assessment criteria, the key to a successful enterprise continues to be good customer relations.

And as the coronavirus still drives strong demand for healthcare workers, servicing federal or State-mandated fingerprinting for school enrollees is strong. Though we are primarily focused with healthcare, other occupations are regulated by State or Federal mandate to submit fingerprints. Clearance by the DOJ and /or the FBI is necessary in finance, social work, daycare providers and for teachers. With the closure of many competitors for months due to California pandemic prevention measures, our ability as a mobile service during the year – to go to the client’s site – has been one of the only servicers in my region. And our business is assisted by social media, word -of-mouth referrals, and when the cell phone rings, answering it as often as possible, is key to setting appointments.

Maintaining a good product, providing excellent service, and rolling (pardon the pun) out to a client, often female, as a mom n’ pop service team, have only served to increase customer referrals. I can attest to the success of Marilyn Suttle‘s advice, to give the customer a “happy to see you” experience.

Leadership on the Line

A book I began reading a month ago, Leadership on the Line, by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, (Harvard Business Review Press, 2002). is now the first leadership book on my recommended reading list for 2020. Only 236 pages, it is easily read and well annotated. Using stories, including among others, a turnaround at IBM to a Chicago Bulls locker room incident in a crucial NBA finals game, the authors illustrate leadership lessons. The principles of leadership the authors discuss are just as relevant to present leadership challenges -in business, in politics or other less structured organizations. For those who are not looking at this worldwide pandemic as “when we get back to normal”, but recognize change coming and are willing to step up to lead -entrepreneurs, independent contractors, and public servants – they will face resistance but how they communicate, will change everything.

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the fax about business

Entering the military communications security world in the late 1970s, I was told that the “paperless” revolution was upon us. Forty years later, paper is still central to many bureaucracies and the legal system. Though communication systems have been modernized, technology that is older than most working adults is still being used in education and by Government agencies.

Fax machines were developed to convert documents and images for transmission over telephone lines around the globe. While Internet data rates now approach the hundreds of Gigabits (billions of bits) per second, a fax generally transmits a document at 33 thousand bits per second. A single sheet may take thirty seconds to reach its destination once a link is established. When a hundred or more documents must be transmitted back and forth over the course of several hours, poor connections or errors requiring re-transmission, cause a significant impact on an otherwise efficient work day.

One of the reasons fax machines have endured as long as they have, is that digital “signatures” validating the sender of legal documents via the Internet, have not been reliably secure until very recently. Other than representation of a personal signature on legal documents, it is also excellent for imaging pencil marks. To expedite processing volumes of similar information, a 19th Century technology, Optical Mark Recognition (OMR), was adapted and patented by Scantron. Typical uses for such forms are in Federal student aid, voting booths, at the DMV and so forth. Most schools, universities, government entities and testing centers continue to use “scantrons” as a fairly cheap method to administer multiple-choice tests thousands of times per day. A common No. 2 soft-lead wooden pencil, an answer sheet with ovals or squares and a fax machine line to the test clearinghouse, is technology not soon going away.

Owning a niche business which serves test-takers, the expectation is for the fax transmission of tests and reception of pass/fail reports goes smoothly. Sometimes, any number of issues can stall progress. Telephone line quality, an issue with the equipment or line at either end, or an overwhelming volume of calls being processed by the host computer (the test processing center) create a negative perception among test takers. When customers are accustomed to receiving information at the speed of present-day Internet and wireless communications, managing expectations among clients is the key to a successful day. It also is important to earning additional business from the schools whose graduates are the clients being served. When students are satisfied with the test processing, they may recommend more peers to their school. And in turn, the school may feel their students are being properly and efficiently taken care of. Which in turn creates more entrepreneurial opportunity.

As for the testing centers that process all these results? Adoption and fielding of new technology, like the example of the “paperless” world, is a long, long, long process.

Exit, stage left

In the 1960s, Saturday morning cartoons were a favored diversion as I had my bowl of Fruit Loops (or oatmeal, when my mother intervened in my breakfast). The cartoon lion, Snagglepuss, had a trademark saying whenever he faced a challenging situation. ” Exit, stage right” or “Exit stage left, even!” However, I was never one to flee from demanding tasks. I think of Snagglepuss now as a classy way to exit this career and explore some new roads.

I am old enough to remember a simpler time, for kids anyway, when the American work ethic was the envy of the world. Parents, neighbors, and teachers taught me values and work ethic. I already had figured out about hard work, respecting others, and making your own way in the world, since I earned money from before and after-school jobs since I was 14. After a few years in the service, and then four years in college, I went back into the service in 1987 and remained in uniform until 2010. The unit held a great ceremony, gave me a nice party, and a wonderful shadow box of my military memories. I was already working at Viasat, so I had my second career already figured out.

I retired from my second longest career today. Well, technically, my last day is tomorrow, but our division threw me, and a co-worker also retiring in August, a retirement party. This latest career was the closest I have come to the camaraderie I felt in the Navy. And now, what does a two-career veteran do at age sixty?

Start my own business, or more accurately, support my spouse who started a business. I am sure the Senior Chief or the Engineering technician can tackle just about any business issue.

the fog of war, and other business problems

One of the most basic issues in business that causes inefficiency or worse, confusion, is miscommunication. And as things get more technology-dependent, communication stubbornly remains an obstacle to be overcome. Communication difficulties between people or now, also between machines, can be more than an irritant. With various militaries, it contributes to lacking situational awareness and can wreak havoc in wartime.

How does this relate to your or my business venture? Everyone has, at least once, experienced a presentation to prospective clients, current clients and co-workers “hang” for a sound issue, a wireless network password mismatch, or in certain situations, restricted or “secure” computer channels failing to connect due to out-dated “digital certificates”. Being able to handle the various unexpected situations that involve either the work site, the clients, problems with technology, or bureaucracy, is part of a successful entrepreneur’s skills.

Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without the talking about the other. Bill Gates

https://www.brainyquote.com

Anyone over age forty has at least heard of, if not actually used a fax machine. We use ‘analog” transmission (if you have ever misdialed a telephone number and heard a long series of tones or chirps- that’s fax) to transmit and receive client tests/reports. So it was that my business submits examinations via a fax to an nationally-recognized agency that scores and reports back in short order whether a prospective healthcare worker has passed or failed the exam.

What can possibly go wrong with that? Well, either with the human, the machine, or the medium being used! With experience, our management team recognizes when the scoring or report cover sheet is missing data “bubbles”. Or someone misses the instructions about using a pencil – and a specific one. at that. (We carry dozens to meet a need.) Anyone who has taken a multiple choice exam filled in with a No. 2 lead pencil might remember that “stray marks”, multiple “bubbles”, or incompletely-darkened ovals can be misinterpreted. Or in certain specific situations, a device with an internal battery was not charged prior to being needed. Or the communication system may be plagued with “poor line conditions” generally at the distant end we all agree , or equipment power issues. Sometimes, in an age of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), that is, phone running within the Internet, we have experienced a lack of connectivity before the “fax” transmits or receives.

fax machines
not a musical instrument nor a museum piece

In these situations, a successful business person should try to mitigate the embarrassment and irritation we all might feel. Take a moment to relax. Breathe deeply. Remain calm. And then, to quote a recent client, and entrepreneur who is a retired military man, in this situation, one only needs to “adapt and overcome”.

your Mission Statement

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

What is a “mission statement”? I recall the first time I understood what it was, without hearing the actual term used, was in the Navy. “America’s Navy: a Global Force for Good”. A decade later, I was committee member in our local church determining a “mission statement” to capture what our specific purpose. Christian churches, as a matter of Whom we serve, are about the purpose of introducing people to the spiritual essence of the life of Christ, and creating followers of Christ. I think we started with, “To glorify God, Love and teach people, and build His church”. But the “mission statement” we were crafting that month was a little more “how” to implement that in post-millennium America.

While you may operate a long time without a common focus or purpose simply by hiring skilled people, it is the most successful enterprises that have a common vision. Everyone from CEO to the custodian knows, and embraces, their company mission statement. When my wife and I began a new venture this year, together, to administer state certification exams for Nursing Assistants in California, we brought individual skill, personal values, and organizational ideas. We were fairly fortunate in that we meshed fairly quickly. But how to capture our particular enterprise in a short “elevator” speech to potential employees, vendors and clients? It was actually almost a month in business, as we were wrapping up a test day with a new client, that the idea gelled. The client and I were chatting as I waited for the last candidates’ results to be transmitted back to me, that I mentioned what we do.

“We bring Integrity, 
are focused on Quality, 
and deliver Results”

“That sounds like a ‘mission statement’ to me”, the school director remarked. “It does, doesn’t it, ” I smiled.

Wild Bill, ain’t no fighting City Hall

If I’ve got any authority in Hays, Mrs. Lake isn’t going to pay this town a cent of license for showing, and if any man attempts to stop this show, then just put it down that he’s got me to fight.

Wild Bill Hickok, http://www.brainyquote.com

Some may wonder which came first, shaping stones and bone into spearpoints and arrowheads, or the village council that decided Mog and Og needed approval, licenses and regular inspections of their enterprise.

Eight thousand years later, an enterprising small business person who ventures into performing a service or providing a product, is supporting a community. She has not just her own family’s living to support, but an entire “industry” of bureaucrats, at the local, state and federal levels of Government. And in California particularly, as a businessperson, earning a living that minimizes the costly regulations that have environment, employment practices, taxes, fees and so forth, driving small businesses under.

Deciding to start one’s own enterprise, in California, and certainly elsewhere, requires a great deal of capital up front, a niche market, and establishing quickly an efficient organization. Mentors, business seminars and other resources can provide training and encouragement, but skilled and dedicated owners and employees find, serve and retain clients. Many, like myself, who have decades of employee experience, soon realize the challenge of one’s own business to balance investment, expenses, and fees against recurring income to make a decent return in the first and succeeding years. It takes planning, and frequent tweaking of the business model. The bureaucracy is another thing entirely.

After filing the regulatory paperwork with the State, including forming a Limited Liability Company, we loaned the business personal funds for the contractual and mandated types of insurances, paying filing fees, and notarizing documents, setting up business banking, bookkeeping, and a Google GSuite of Cloud-based calendar, business email and document storage. Since we were still working for our respective employers, tax considerations of incorporation or forming and LLC were and remain an important issue. Prior to earning a cent, our Liabilities were looking to be a very big motivator to getting our business moving forward.

As a residence-based service business, our enterprise does not operate in an office building, nor manufacture products, nor maintain an inventory. Operating out of a residence located in an unincorporated area, I learned that reporting the actual physical location – separate from the mailing address – in business organization documents would mitigate municipal taxes, inspections and other recurring fees. (The mailing address bears the nearby municipality name.)

But there are other concerns as well. Operating a business, even one that travels to a customer site as our business does, is required to file for a business license. The “gray area” that no municipal clerk whose job it is issuing business licenses and collecting fees, would likely err on the side of the entrepreneur – is whether a license to do business in every municipality that one performs a service – is required. Of course, every municipality’s City Hall will state categorically that a license is required by a business according to a list of industry types. Some types require fees and inspections from safety professionals, zoning and building code enforcement officials. Business coaches I have spoken with, concur that paying fees willy-nilly can quickly eat away an enterprise’s bottom line. While membership in associations that help small entrepreneurs may be a necessary expense, I am considering that expertise gained in those associations may help steer a small business toward profitability.

At least, one of my prospective clients is a State agency, so there is an opportunity, however slight, that money coming out of my pocket, might eventually trickle somewhat back to me. And while I might appreciate a Wild Bill Hickok helping me fight City Hall, I think even he might be outgunned, particularly if he has not paid the required 2019 firearm licensing and entertainment business fees.