Beating The Odds

Remembering the basics of business can help

It’s a grim reality that nearly half of all small businesses crash and burn within the first few years. An even darker statistic is that many of those doomed businesses are African American owned. Exactly what can a small company do when faced with a bleak situation? Where should it turn? What are its priorities? How does a minority small business owner beat the odds and sustain a booming business?

Marsha Robinette, owner and president of Child Friendly Ltd., in Rockville, Maryland, found herself asking these and a multitude of other questions in 1994, the year she started her business. The company specializes in interactive and broad-based entrepreneurial CD-ROM’s for children.

Robinette says her business has been struggling to survive since inception, mostly due to bad advice, miscommunication, broken promises, and weary investors. Her hopes of finding an angel investor to complete the funding of her project have constantly slammed into roadblocks. On a few occasions, Robinette says she has considered scrapping her entrepreneurial dream and settling for the 9-to-5 routine. “It’s frustrating when you constantly face one obstacle after another and things continue to fall through,” she says. “I followed the rules and my business is still struggling to survive.”

Rafael I. Garcia, president of Rafael Architects Inc., the largest Hispanic-owned architectural firm in Kansas City, Missouri, is another entrepreneur who followed the “rules” and initially came up short.

Garcia opened his business in 1983 with little money or experience, but a lot of enthusiasm. His partner died shortly after the firm’s inception and he was forced to go solo.

“It was a scary experience,” says Garcia. “My partner and I had planned this venture for some time, then I was suddenly forced to carry the ball alone.”

After some research and niche marketing, along with networking, Garcia began to develop a list of clients and projects. Now the highly successful company has multimillion-dollar contracts and a nationwide client base. “I didn’t let negative comments, or being chided by some that I couldn’t make the business work, affect me,” he says. Garcia offers this advice:

  • Surround yourself with experts in various fields (accountants, attorneys, bankers). If you don’t know any personally, then ask for advice from friends, family members, neighbors, parishioners, etc. Be gutsy. Get as much information as you can.
  • Be creative in your approach. Offer to take your new contacts to lunch in exchange for a half hour of advice. By offering to exchange lunch for advice, you’re sending a clear message that you’re eager to learn, you value their time and advice, and that you’re serious.
  • Although Garcia faced his share of rough spots, his persistence, along with a carefully thought out business plan, helped to overcome the typical small business obstacles of getting financing, insurance, and bonding contracts.
  • The tacit “rules” that Robinette, Garcia, and other business owners refer to are a standard list of dos and don’ts for running a business. While some versions of the list may vary slightly, perhaps the most basic appears on www.allbusiness .com. The Website lists the top
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