Veteran to novices: “Just do it!”

Thinking too much before opening a business can lead to paralysis

Jane Solovyov, ETC English Training Centre owner: listen to your heart but be guided by your head

Jane Solovyov's first lesson in growing a small business came hard and fast – on the same day that the jets slammed into the World Trade Center towers.

"I had an appointment on September 11, 2001, to sign my first lease with the landlord," said Solovyov, who was opening ETC English Training Centre when she woke up to the news. "I phoned the owner and said, 'Can we postpone the appointment?' I feel so terrible thinking about business and signing a lease when so many people have lost their lives.'"

The landlord's reaction was quick and unequivocal: "'Jane, business is business,'" Solovyov related. "'We have an appointment and we are going to sign the lease.'"

The importance of separating her heart from her head has stayed with her, as her business has grown from just her teaching 20 students alone to having four full-time teachers instructing 70 to 80 students.

"The challenge is to be centred and to ride out the waves of economic change, your audience, changes with your staff, anything that comes your way," she said.

That "anything" includes raising her now seven-year-old daughter on her own and running a business at the same time, which has forced her to set priorities.

Looking back, Solovyov says she would have taken more courses in leadership and "finding the right people to work for her," asked more questions rather than "shooting first" and educated herself about business, including leases.

At the same time, says Solovyov, you can think about things too much before opening your business "and you get scared of leaping."

"You really have to just do it."

Be ready to ramp up

Anticipating change and client needs are lessons that veteran human resources consultants Peter Saulnier and Vincent Chow are still absorbing after opening the doors at Logan Human Resource Management Inc. in June.

"We did our research and we knew there was a need out there for local expertise without going to a global concern," said Saulnier who, like Chow, had worked previously at an international human resources company.

"We were anticipating a reasonable ramp-up time [for hiring staff] but we underestimated how great the client need was. To ramp up quickly when the business rolls in you must have a qualified and flexible workforce. That's been a key learning point for us."

The pair scrambled, and Logan has added four part-time staff. They also learned to be prepared to reshuffle their day at a moment's notice to be responsive to their clients' needs, which is getting advice on compensation programs and salary structures.

Says Chow: "I received a call today from a client asking about a bonus plan. The client has to do something right away. We have to respond to those calls quickly."

The pair's advice for hiring staff? It's really important to get the employee's expectations about compensation correct.

"It's not about the amount of money; it's about the message as to why you are paying that particular amount," said Chow.

Saulnier and Chow suggest small-business owners seriously consider a partner when starting up. "I think everything we do is better because it is the product of two brains," said Saulnier.

An unexamined business may fail

Sometimes answers to growing your enterprise are staring you in the face, if you step back and re-examine your business. That's what Glen Mund learned shortly after rescuing a moribund software sales firm back in 2003.

"In the high-tech industry, there are so many bells and whistles and bright and shiny objects for our customers, it's easy to lose your focus," which happened with the firm's previous owner. "The salesman never left the office. He never met a client face to face in the three years he had been there."

Mund and his staff of 13 full-time and one part-timer turned things around with a needs assessment of the company's customers. What they found was surprising. Customers kept phoning Mund's firm – Plus Computer Solutions – for help with the new software they had purchased but yet the standard procedure at the time was to "push them away" to the software publisher's support line.

"We quickly found out that not only did they want help from us but they were happy to pay us for it. They found the service was better because while the publisher knew the software well, they didn't know the customer's business well. We did."