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January 28, 2010

5 things I didn't expect to learn at my business counseling session

The dental interlude was just the first stop of a very busy Thursday.

After lunch, I headed to my local SCORE office, where I had made a free appointment with a counselor. The man I'd been assigned to was a retired bank executive, and his free time he volunteers to help aspiring entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. My goal for our hour-long session was to learn about six things (or as many as we had time for):
--how broadly or narrowly to focus the services I'll be offering
--whether or not I needed a business plan
--a few very basic bookkeeping questions
--how to decide how much to charge
--what are mistakes small businesses typically make when they're starting out
--what steps I need to take to make sure I'm doing things by the books, i.e. what basic things might I be overlooking besides a business license?

I wasn't sure what the protocol was: would the counselor have some standard info he'd tell me, or would it be a free flowing conversation?

It turned out the be the latter. I introduced myself, we started talking, he asked me what line of work I'm in, and then things took a turn for the worse.

"That's exactly what my niece does. She's a fantastic girl. She just moved to town and let me tell you, it's been a big change. She loves it here," he said.

"Oh really? How so?" I asked, figuring, for some odd reason, there was a purpose to his bringing her up.

"She just left New York, where she was making $100 grand, and decided to strike out on her own. You know, I'm here, her family is here, and I think she was burned out. She just wanted to be closer to us, and now she's really loving it! She moved about three weeks ago."

Unbelievably, this counselor spent twenty minutes or so talking about his niece: comparing me to her, saying how much I'd like to meet her, what a great career she had, what a nice girl she is. We're about the same age, and in the same line of work, and she is just so darling.

As he talked, I tuned in to the conversation that was happening at the cubicle next to ours. Another aspiring entrepreneur was getting advice about marketing, pricing, competition, paperwork to file. "I started a business at 54, too," his counselor told him. "You'll do fine. Just remember the four points I told you."

As this mustached old man talked, I wondered: Was it really and truly because I was a chick?

Did he believe this was an appropriate use of our time? He was, after all, kind of clueless. For instance, he suggested I learn what a blog is and then try linking it to my business home page because "everything is done on the internet these days. And if you get a blog, you should update it. Try once a week." He also said he thought an MBA is a prerequisite for a PhD.

Was he just an old man with a niece who wanted to connect on a human level? Maybe he just the oddball of the counselors, regaling every visitor with anecdotes about his family. Did he think I was there for a friendly chat? Maybe now that he was a volunteer, was he a bit self-indulgent -- finally allowed to prattle on, after such behavior was verboten at his bank.

Or was he just a jerk? I mean, if we'd met at a country club brunch and we had this conversation, he'd be the sweetest old man. But we were at a business meeting, and I'd been hoping to learn a lot in that session.

Finally, I stopped speculating and asked him to focus on me. I dropped a few names (my graduate school, the places I've worked) and he exclaimed that was impressive. I wasn't there to impress him -- I just wanted to get some answer to questions I'd been itching to ask. I held his attention for about 20 minutes. He told me about the legal stuff, the business bank account, how he charges his own clients and why I should do the same, and more of the nitty gritty.

And then kept coming back to his niece.

That's when I changed my strategy. He wants to talk about her? Ok. She's in my industry? Even better. She's a stellar human being? Fantastic.

"She really does sound charming. Actually, I think it would be great if I got to meet her in person! Do you think she'd be willing too have coffee with one of your advisees?"

"That is a great idea. You would have a lot to talk about. I'll call her right now."

He reached her on her cell, he told her about my background, and she said she'd be happy to have coffee with me.

So I picked up a few unexpected lessons at this counseling session:

1) Business is a human practice. If I just wanted information, I could have gotten it online or on the phone. Instead, I chose to interact with a retired bank executive. That came with a few strings -- he's older, not plugged into technology--but talking to him also opened my mind to this and the following revelations.

2) I have been very shielded from overt and veiled gender biases. My family raised me to think not just that I can do anything like a man, but that men aren't the standard. I set the standard. In academia I have never felt "sexism" per se (though yes, it's built deeply into the institution, and that's clearly troubling, but it's not something I come up against all the time); and in my professional field gender discrimination has been known to be an issue, but so far I've largely sidestepped it. I'm friends with people of all backgrounds, religions, nationalities, sexual orientations, races and political persuasions, but we're united by a similar outlook on gender parity. This was a reminder that we're probably in the minority, especially among older generations. Shudder. But a useful shudder.

3) A refusal can be an opportunity; constantly reassess your gameplan and seek optimization. Maybe the end result is even better than what you set out hoping to achieve. (In this case, I wanted business advice but I left with a contact instead. Could turn out even more valuable, at the end of the day.)

4) Your time matters. I waited too long to ask him to focus on the questions I had. As long as I asked nicely, and remembered he's a volunteer and owes me nothing, I could have shifted the conversation back to my talking points earlier than I did. Asking for respect earns respect.

5) Don't take things personally. Pride is useless. Think, act, and feel strategically. Plan for the ultimate outcome, not the play by play. Sure, I got frustrated about half way through, and though I didn't show it, I was feeling very indignant, but if I'd cut it short, I wouldn't have made a potentially useful addition to my network or learned what he finally got around to teaching me.

If my goal was to leave with more information than I had coming in, and this counseling session was certainly an illumination.

What do you think? Any refinements or contradictions? And I'm dying to hear your dirt: have you ever been treated like a silly little biddy in a similar situation, and how did you react?

[image via styleforall]
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