Author, entrepreneur and USA Today columnist, Rhonda Abrams is widely recognized as one of the nation’s foremost experts on small business, entrepreneurship and business planning. She was also one of our special guests atQuickbooks Connect Chicago recently, where she led a session on the five key things every small business owner must do in order to get more customers online.
We asked Rhonda to share with us a bit more about her own journey to entrepreneurship and why it's crucial to identify your niche.
Tell us a bit about your background. When and how did you decide you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I grew up in Los Angeles and went to UCLA, then attended grad school at Harvard. I lived in Texas for a few years after that, but soon found my way to San Francisco.
I worked for the Anti-Defamation League for awhile, but realized early on during that experience that I wanted to work for myself. After spending time in the nonprofit sector, I was frustrated by a lot of the mundane, bureaucratic stuff: working for someone else, dealing with office politics, having colleagues who weren’t as passionate about the work as I was. And to be perfectly honest? I’d also just gotten a new dog and I really didn’t want to leave my dog at home all day long.
I was an early adopter of self-employment. When I started my own business as a consultant roughly 25 years ago, nobody around me thought I was making a smart choice. Two of my neighbors both worked for Bank of America and they were concerned that I didn’t have a “real job.” It was considered risky to be in business for yourself.
Well, within 18 months Bank of America sold and they were nervous every day for weeks. They didn’t know if they would be fired or acquired (unfortunately, in the end, both of them lost their jobs). They had some mysterious, far away executive in charge of their lives while I was getting up every day and taking charge of my life.
I knew I had made the right choice.
What kind of consulting work did you do when you were first starting out? How did you find your first clients?
Building on my experience in the non-profit sector, I started by marketing myself as a charitable giving consultant. I saw how badly people were giving money away and I knew that I could help large companies manage their fundraising better. I quickly landed a well-funded foundation as my first large client and that was enough to sustain me for a year.
I learned pretty quickly, however, that even if you start out with one business idea, being open to new opportunities can surprise you in a very good way.
One day, around the same time I was starting my consulting business, I was walking around Stow Lake in San Francisco with my dog. I met a man with a King Charles Cocker Spaniel and we started talking. He had recently returned from London where he was taking some classes as the London
School of Economics, where I had also studied for a time. We got to talking and he said that his partner was starting a small sportswear company and they needed business plan. He asked if I could do it for them. I said, “Sure!"
The truth? I had *no* idea what a business plan was.
I took the job anyway and figured it out as I went along.
It ended up that my very first two clients were this teeny tiny sportswear company being run out of someone’s home and this giant foundation with a lot of money. My work at the foundation was interesting, but the work I was doing for the sportswear company really got me excited. I realized immediately how much I loved helping this small new company figure out their market, improve their operations and raise money.
That’s when I moved away from working with foundations and started helping small business owners do their strategic planning and marketing.
What is one of the big lessons you learned early on as a small business owner?
When I was first starting out and only focusing on my charitable giving work, someone called me and asked, “What do you do?” I started blabbing about everything I did before I'd even had a client yet.
I had to learn how to shut up and listen first to what people need. This is especially true when your business is new. Being responsive to people and understanding where they’re coming from is more important than immediately launching into your sales pitch. That doesn’t mean you change yourself completely, it simply means taking the time to understand where your customer is at before you try and sell to them.
I learned the importance of listening early on. After botching that call, I had a meeting set up with another potential client. Before the meeting, I wrote up a 3x5 card with all the questions I wanted to ask. I studied it in my car just before we met so that I could be prepared for asking about their needs and understand their personal motivation for needing my help. It worked – I ended up landing the client!
Did you have a mentor or coach who helped you learn the ropes?
I was lucky enough to have a really wonderful mentor and business teacher, Eugene Kleiner of Kleiner Perkins. He gave me examples of business plans that I could model as I was learning how to do this work for other small business owners.
I also hired a consultant early on to work with me on my own business plan. At the time, all kinds of opportunities were coming in from businesses in different industries. I also had a handful of law firms asking me to work with them. I needed to take a step back and decide what I was going to specialize in.
It was tough. We spent a whole day working on my business plan and the consultant helped me realize that I didn’t want to specialize in law firms.
Sure, that route would have made me more money, but I wasn’t going to be happy doing the work. I decided to be a business plan consultant and only specialize in certain types of businesses.
That plan worked out really well! My consulting business evolved into PlanningShop, a publishing company I now run that creates content (software and books) for small businesses. All the work I did over the years dealing with dozens of small businesses prepared me for the one-on-one consulting work I do now.
What is your favorite part about attending events like QuickBooks Connect Chicago?
Nothing beats in-person experiences with other entrepreneurs for getting you recharged. There are so many wonderful entrepreneurs out there who have great stories and great products. I love getting inspiration and ideas from them when we meet at events like QuickBooks Connect.
If you’re attending a local event, you also have a fabulous chance to network. I built my own business through networking – my very first clients found me through the networking organizations that I'm a part of. Networking re-energizes me and there’s nothing better than being face to face with other entrepreneurs!
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I love hearing other small business owners' stories, where they started, the forks in the road they encountered and which paths they chose. What a great interview!