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Surviving the Lean Years

Robert Heinmiller, Co-founder and Vice President, Omnet, Inc.

Small businesses are vulnerable to many things, some of them fatal, some only temporarily disabling. If your business hits a wall-as mine did a few years ago-how do you survive personally?

My wife and I had been providing e-mail and other online services to a scientific community for fifteen years and had built a $3.5 million a year business called Omnet Inc. Then the Internet caught fire. Our academic and government customers all had "free" access. The bottom dropped out of revenues. We didn't have the resources to react fast enough, so we shut down the service at the end of 1994.

As a corporation, the company finances were always distinct from our personal finances. However, our entire income was in salaries and dividends from the company. Like any entrepreneur, our personal financial well-being was closely entwined with our company's health. How do you survive personally when your company goes bust? Here are some suggestions.

Prepare During the Fat Years

First rewind the tape a bit. It is a lot easier to survive the lean years if you have prepared for them in the fat years. In my case, I had a partner who stashed cash away almost compulsively. Since my partner was also my wife, that meant personal as well as company cash. There were accounts, personal and corporate, of which I had never heard. (We always had a division of labor; she ran the business, I did the technical stuff. You can't be expert at everything).

How much do you need to stash away? How long do you expect it to take to get back on your feet? Three months? A year? You need enough cash in your rainy-day fund to live on for that length of time. Are you going to try to restart the business? If so, how much cash will that take?

Do a realistic budget, decide how many months you are likely to have to live on it, and come up with a plan to put that much money away as fast as you reasonably can. Due to my wife's good management, we had three years' worth. But, there was a catch: most of it was the money we had been setting aside for our retirement. So we were eating into our future. Nevertheless, it kept food on the table while we rebuilt.

Consider Geographic Mobility

Build geographical mobility into your business if possible. During our rebuilding years, we moved from an expensive western suburb of Boston to a lower-cost, rural area in northwestern Virginia. This may not be possible for your business, but don't automatically write off the idea. Think hard and creatively about how your business might move to a different location where costs are lower or where an opportunity presents itself.

In this day and age of e-mail, fax, overnight mail, parcel services, and toll free numbers, it is possible even for many traditional businesses to relocate and still service their old customers. With what you save in a lower-cost location, you may be able to make a monthly trip back to your old turf to stay in touch with customers and still come out ahead.

In our part of Virginia, business space leases for a quarter of what we paid near Boston, real-estate taxes are a fifth, and gasoline cheaper. All of which sure makes restarting easier and the rainy-day fund last a lot longer.

Revisit the Nuts and Bolts

Consider switching from owning to renting. We occupied half of our own office building. We downsized to an eighth of it and sold the building, with a guaranteed rent for ourselves for at least a year. It cut our expenses for legal and accounting as well as upkeep, cleaning, snow removal, and taxes. It also gave us much-needed flexibility.

Get good business advisers. They'll help you build in the good times, and they'll have an objective view of where you are at and can give you early warning of the bad times. In our case, we consulted with our accountant, who is also a valued business adviser, a year before Omnet folded. It was he who told us to see the handwriting on the wall. Entrepreneurs frequently are too emotionally tied to their business to think they might fail.

Once you see the inevitable, move quickly. Downsize fast, don't kid yourself. Get expert help. A good accountant like ours is worth his weight in IRS forms in these circumstances.

Look for expenses you may not think about. Do you pay taxes on your inventory? Get rid of it. Don't store your now-superfluous office furniture and computers. It'll be cheaper to buy new ones as you need them when business picks up again.

What is essential? Consider all resources you need to stay in contact with the world and your former, current, or potential customers.

Prepare a plan. Develop a plan for managing financially when the cash flow stops and follow the plan. To recap:

  • Store cash away
  • Cultivate frugal habits which will serve you well in lean times
  • When facing the inevitable, downsize and consolidate quickly
  • Get expert advice for the downsizing phase
  • Be flexible: consider a new location where the money goes further
  • Be hard-nosed about evaluating your needs

There are those who will object to planning for failure. I don't agree. Personally, I don't do my best work while I am scared. Manage your cash and save for the future while you build for success. If things go bad, you've given yourself the resources and tools for a second chance.

© 2007 Robert Heinmiller. All rights reserved.

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