It happens every year about this time. The slew of Trade shows for the IT world covering a wide variety of specialties, catering to diverse verticals, and scattered across the continental US. As much as I try to spread out our exhibition commitments, invariably April through July is usually pretty booked.
I understand why it happens. New budget years (for most year-to-year fiscal calendars) come out. New technology expos usually hit first quarter. And when spread across education, government and corporate entities, it’s not surprising they occur in quick succession.
But for a small software company who caters to every vertical, it can be a little challenging. The last three years, we have often had as many as three shows in five weeks. The personal travel challenges of trying to run sales and marketing can be pretty profound. I always travel with our Sales Director, so when the two of us are out of the office for extended and repeated periods of time, goals and items for completion often get pushed back. Let alone this year, I am not traveling to our two shows in April because they coincide with the birth of my daughter.
But the real challenge for a small business is having to find a way to budget for those shows so close together. Show costs and sponsorships keep going up. While the ROI and face-time with leads is easily justifiable, the shows continue to take up a larger portion of my budget each year. Add to that the exorbitant cost of shipping, show marketing and especially Convention Center services ($125 a day to vacuum and 10x20 piece of carpeting?), and we have to be pretty choosy about the shows we attend.
Fortunately we have found a few great shows and are pretty loyal about yearly sponsorships. This year we are trying out two new shows, Microsoft’s TechEd (our new product UIUSD for Config Manager launches next week and makes us eligible for the show) and Campus Technology. But our very successful staples continue to be Help Desk International (HDI), FOSE, and Educause.
Unfortunately, only Educause is in the fall, everything else falls between April and the first week of July. Alas, what are we to do?
Anyone else find themselves exhibiting at shows all at one time?
I recently did a three part posting about hiring the first employee - taking the first major plunge into business ownership. Welcome to being the boss. And my suggestion for that first employee was that you may well need someone very similar to yourself. That will change as time goes on and the business grows. Too many of me around would be wholly unbearable.
Over the years here at Big Bang we have hired people from several different backgrounds and experience levels. Some were IT people, some were, and are still, as far from IT as you can imagine. The key issue for us though, is personality. A small business works like a family, except that you get to pick who's in it.
Rarely have we hired someone and had them do the exact job they were initially interviewing for. It's the advantage, or challenge, of a small business. The Boss isn't the only one that has to wear multiple hats.
Our interview and hiring processes have changed and evolved over time. We still ask the occasional odd question like, "Who is your favorite comedian?," or "What football team do you support?" (We hired a Bears fan here in Packer country. I'm still baffled by that!) However, there is one question that I will continue to ask that truly throws most candidates:
What do you want to make?
I let people know that I don't expect an immediate answer - they can think about it. Get back to me later. And, of course, we have a range in mind that we feel is reasonable based on the position and experience of the person.
I don't ask this question to make people uncomfortable or to put them on the spot. Instead, I ask it because it gives me great insight into how they think, what their motivations are, and how they value themselves. It is also an opportunity for them to take a look at themselves, and a little introspection goes a long way.
Here's how it plays out, (and I normally explain this to them after they get back to me with a number.) First off, I get to see their critical thinking skills in action. When someone gets back to me with a salary request, I then get to ask them, "Why?"
Interestingly, most people underbid themselves. Perhaps it's because we are a small company, so they expect less pay. Perhaps they have heard about our benefits, such as our open vacation policy including a vacation stipend. Perhaps they are looking to leave their existing job and consequently willing to take a pay cut. Regardless, it gives me insight. Also, in many cases, it has worked as a great morale boost, because if I can offer more than they asked for, all the better!
Perhaps they did research on the industry, and found that the average position in Milwaukee pays $X.00, and so they used that. Maybe they did that research, and feel that their experience is more or less than what the position calls for. It gives them the opportunity to explain their position, and me the opportunity to understand how they value themselves.
I've also been told, "I currently make $X.00, but I can come on for $Y.00," which is generally lower. Here I get to delve into whether it is a career change the person is looking for, or perhaps a location change instead? Why the willingness to take a pay cut?
One of my favorites was one of our temporary/contract employees, who wanted to split the difference between what he was getting from the temp company and what Big Bang was paying the temp company! Awesome answer, and justifiable. Of course, I then spent time with him explaining exactly what it costs Big Bang for an employee - employer paid Social Security and Medicare, Unemployment, Insurance - Health, Life, and Disability, vacation time, etc. Sadly, this is rarely explained to employees in detail. (Did you know when the government cut the Social Security tax employees pay from 6% to 4%, but they didn't change the employer contribution? The business still pays 6% on top of the employee portion. Did you even know that your employer pays into Social Security? Many people don't!)
We give everyone the numbers for their benefits so they understand their true cost. An employee costs about 50% above their salary, on average. Once we walked through that math, he accepted a salary less than requested, and has worked out incredibly well for us. I hope he feels the same.
The point is this. As an employer, I will establish what I feel comfortable paying someone, but that number has changed based on what they bring to the table. Establishing a specific salary for a small business employee doesn't work for me because depending on the person, I may change the job. Establish the salary up front, and you will only get people who are willing to work for that number. Instead, I like to get the best people I can find, and help adjust the job to them.
There are so many wonderful things about working for yourself. Not having a boss. Scheduling your own time. The freedom and flexibility. The cash! But as a friend would say, "Ah, horseshit!"
Please don't get me wrong. The potential is there for all those things, but the perception associated with being a business owner can be, shall we say, highly entertaining. Depending on the status of the business - independent contractor or small business - the reality and perception not only change over time, but can be vastly different depending on who is doing the looking.
My personal favorite perception of a small business owner is that life must be grand because I don't have a boss! To an extent that's true, and I wholeheartedly admit that I would make a terrible employee after ten years of independence. However, the truth of the situation is that every customer is essentially my boss. Especially when first starting out, or working independently, the customer is the ultimate boss and arguably more difficult to work for than in a normal employee-employer relationship. Our customers demand more of us as contractors or vendors than they ever would of their own employees. Think about it this way - you will happily try to get better terms from a vendor or contractor. Do you ever negotiate with an employee? Not a chance! So, as business owners, our bosses (customers) are always demanding the most while trying to pay the least. Great fun!
Now, Big Bang is in a comfortable spot for me as the owner, because our customers love our product and tend to be very reasonable. Add to that a growing group of awesome employees, and I do currently live the life of not having a boss, wife excepted. But, if Big Bang continues to grow and eventually considers something like investors or a public offering, suddenly the board of directors, investors, and shareholders become my boss. Here's to growing organically, and never having to deal with those headaches!
And what about the freedom and flexibility? I can make my own schedule, set the path for the business, golf when I want to! Again, that has become a bit more of my reality as the business has grown and I am incredibly grateful for that, but for the first several years that was certainly not the case. Technology deals aren't made on the golf course in my reality. Might I golf with my banker once a year? Sure. But as the owner, you are continually pulled by employees, customers, product development, outside interests, etc. I can't tell you how many times I have received a call to play hooky because of the perception that I've obviously got the freedom to do anything at any time. When independent, perhaps I could put work off until "after hours" or the weekend. If you have a family or deadlines though, that may not be an option. In my opinion, this is the greatest misperception people have of small business owners. Many, perhaps even most, small business owners put in far more time than anyone ever knows.
The most difficult perception to deal with though is the one associated with the financial state of the business, and the perception can go either way. For example. my grandfather is perpetually worried about me as we grow. But at 83 years old, and as someone that worked for one company all his life, when he sees us buying property and an office for Big Bang and doing renovations and hiring employees, he sees the risks I'm taking. For him, those risks are huge, arguably overwhelming. The numbers are bigger than he can fathom. So I do what I can to explain the business and the money and the risks to him so he's comfortable with what we do here. He worries and I appreciate it. It reminds me to evaluate what we're doing from a different perspective.
The flip side of that coin is the perception of financial success. Of course, that term means something different to everyone and changes over time - a topic for another time. But it is amazing how people and organizations perceive you and the business as it prospers and gains traction. The best example I can offer is from when Big Bang was awarded a Future 50 award for the Milwaukee Metro area a couple years ago. We were subsequently bombarded by people and organizations wanting us to buy virtually everything and donate to every cause under the sun. I have actually been yelled at and chastised for not being willing to donate to a cause that I have no knowledge of or connection to, by random phone solicitors! It still amazes me.
Whether an independent or an owner, the perception of you and your business will vary dramatically depending on the viewer. The perception will likely not match with reality, and that can be incredibly difficult to deal with because it is very personal. Remember though, most people have no experience as a business owner. My suggestion is to help teach them what you can.
There are three very distinct areas to consider when hiring your first employee. The first is the financial side. Which is what should create the impetus for hiring. Will this decision help make more money? It may sound cold, but every major decision for a business must start there. Lose money as a small business and you lose the business, and maybe far more.
The second aspect of hiring is you, the business owner. Are you ready for an employee and the risks and challenges that go along with it? How will your reality change, and can you accept those changes?
The final piece to hiring that first employee is, "Who to hire?" Assuming you have detailed what you want this person to do, that should help identify the traits and skills and talents required. It is unlikely that this first employee will fall into a specific and limited role - bookkeeper, for example - because you should be able to do your own books as a single person business.
It is far more likely that you will need to hire someone who will answer the phone, interact with customers, handle quotes and sales, help provide a service or create a product, support your customers - basically someone like you. It's really something to consider - can you handle someone like you in your space? To be a business owner generally requires more than a little bit of ego, and someone talented enough to be your Number One will not come with a small ego. And you don't want them to either! Consider yourself warned.
There are two ways to approach this first hire - either as a Partner, or as an Employee. A partner may mean some level of financial buy-in from that person. It may mean some level of control in the company. There is a lot to consider here, and a partner is a whole different venture. Personally, I don't recommend it, but that's a decision only you can make. I have mentioned the NY Times Small Business Blog before, and Paul Downs has a few great posts about his Partner Experience. Here I will stick to actually hiring an Employee.
Of course, hiring a first employee is obviously something you only do once, so my thoughts on it are based on my limited experience. Your situation may be vastly different. There are four groups to consider when hiring - Family, Friends, Acquaintances, Strangers.
Generally speaking, I am opposed to family members working together. The holidays are difficult enough without added stress. Do I know people who have had some success working with their families? Yes... and she now works for me while her sister works somewhere else. They no longer work together, but as a plus, they still love each other! The biggest challenge with hiring a family member is that you are essentially hiring that whole side of the family. You can not expect privacy. Add to that the family members who feel they are qualified to work for you, and you are setting yourself up for planning Thanksgiving vacations away from the family for the rest of your life.
Strangers I think, is a difficult group to consider at first as well. It may be difficult for someone to take your business seriously as a one-man shop. Also, it can be very difficult to judge a potential hire's enthusiasm for your business early on. Once you grow and have a reputation, it's much easier to attract and hire the type of people you want for the business. But initially, that first person is such a make it or break it proposition, I think hiring blind would be tough. Also, it will represent a tremendous amount of time, effort, and perhaps cash that you likely don't have the ability to spend.
So, Friends and Acquaintances is where I would draw from first - leaning towards Acquaintances. I have hired friends and friends of employees, and actually found that to be extremely beneficial. They know your quirks, you know theirs. They know about the business and the passion you have. It can really work out well... for the third or fourth person you hire. Try for and Acquaintance first. Here's who I hired and why.
One of the odd jobs I did for twelve years was to deal craps (yes, the dice game) for a local casino party company. I got into it because I loved the game and I stayed because I really came to enjoy teaching people how to play a very complicated game. Jason was another dealer whom I got to know over the years. We would probably see each other fifteen to twenty times a year - a lot more regularly around the holidays - and the group would often head out for a beverage after a gig. So, my definition of an Acquaintance. We later became friends.
What I learned about Jason during these years was that he was arguably one of the smartest people I'd met - quick with math, capable of multi-tasking, picked stuff up incredibly quickly. He was also good at instructing people. We spent a lot of time teaching people who had never played craps, how to play correctly, and that's not always easy depending on the amount of alcohol flowing at a party. I knew that he had been in the banking industry, doing loans and mortgages, so his business skills were there. He had also moved over into the IT department of his bank, and he complimented my technical skills well. The final piece that fell into place was perhaps a bit of luck on my part - his bank was bought out right at the time I was looking to hire, so he was about to be free.
It was the perfect hire, and he helped Big Bang grow into the business it is today.
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|About Adam Murphy -
Adam is the President and Owner of Big Bang LLC and espouses a pretty progressive small business philosophy based primarily around hiring the right people and getting the hell out of their way.
|About Nate Bauer -
Nate is the Marketing Director for Big Bang LLC and pretty much spends his days tip-toeing on the pinnacle of how to most effectively implement strategy given the wide open cookie jar of small business marketing possibilities.
|About Kelley Burian - @kelleyburian
Kelley is the Sales Director for Big Bang LLC. Responsible for everything from GSA contracts, resellers and international customers, she has her hands full doing whatever she can to make sure our valued clients are thrilled with our fantastic products.
|About Justin McLaughlin -
Justin has over seventeen years in IT management and consulting with Fortune 500 and AmLaw 200 firms. His creds are way too many to mention here, but in addition to reading his posts, you can learn more about him here