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There Should Never Be a Limit

Susan D. Hesse, Senior Program Consultant, Kauffman Foundation

Entrepreneurial structures have been exciting for me because I'm a true entrepreneur who loves building a company. As vice-president of marketing for a corporate travel company, traveling four or five days a week for many years, I was clearly a workaholic before my son was born, but once he arrived, I couldn't return to that kind of work pace and travel schedule. In the meantime, my husband was transferred twice, ending up in St. Louis. At that point, I was ready to return to work and felt that the only way I was going to meet people in a new city was to start a business.

So, shortly after moving to St. Louis in 1986, I started Print Management Design Group, Inc., and served as its president for 12 years. I sold my company in August 1998, when I realized that this was my one shot at spending more time with my children, then ages 10 and 13.

Naively, I had chosen printing, not only because as a client I had bought printing for a number of years but also because I wanted control over my schedule in order to have time to raise a family. I already had established relationships with my customers from the travel industry. With a product I thought I knew about, I thought it would be an easy transition for me. In fact, I had a great deal to learn about the printing industry.

Learn on Someone Else's Dollar

When I founded Print Management, fewer women were comfortable leaving corporate positions to jump into entrepreneurial ventures. Today we see more and more women who, after successful careers in the corporate world, have the confidence and self-esteem to actually quit those high-paying jobs and become entrepreneurs. A few start-up founders are coming right out of school, but those are mostly male entrepreneurs. Women, I have a feeling, test the waters by joining the conventional work force for a couple of years before starting their own businesses. That's smart. Certainly, it would make sense to learn on someone else's dollar before starting your own business.

What I've come to learn about myself is that I'm interested in starting, growing and selling a business as opposed to managing one long term. One of my philosophies, which I didn't adopt early enough, is to always hire high—beyond what you think you need at the time—and let the senior people recruit and develop their own teams. Had I to do it over again, I would always start with a senior VP of sales instead of hiring the sales staff. It's difficult to make executives accountable for a staff that they've inherited. If they have ownership of their objectives, they should be able to develop their team, which will result in a business that is more likely to succeed.

Another lesson drawn from experience was that numbers can outweigh gender. In my 13 years in the travel industry and 12 years in the printing business, I was always in a high-incentive compensation program, where I made my own figures. While corporate pay scales for men and women were rarely equal, I was never personally affected by that because my earnings were always based on my output. In other words, with a performance-based incentive plan, I was paid for what I accomplished. That may be why my perspective is different from that of salaried women.

Make Sure Numbers Count

In my own business, salespeople had control over their day-to-day pricing and could manage their pricing spread on every order. Let's say you had a 20 percent markup for a $5,000 job, and let's say you got 50 percent commission on the gross profit. Now, if you moved the markup to 25 percent based on the size of the order, you'd get maybe 60 percent of the spread. So, it provided a dramatic sliding scale upward. It wouldn't take much for a salesperson to say, "Well, if I increase the gross profit by five percent, I could make a thousand dollars more from each order." It was very effective.

There was also a monthly bonus, based on profitability. The third component was an annual bonus based on volume, paid out over a three-year period. That allowed us to retain our strong salespeople, because they lost it if they left. When we put that condition in place, it really helped with employee retention of our top salespeople.

I've always felt very strongly that there should never be a limit to what someone can earn in incentive compensation—so I never set a cap. Everyone, male or female, had an incentive tied to productivity and profitability. If the president earns a salary of $80,000, and has salespeople earning more than $160,000 a year on commission, more power to them!

Fulfill Goals to Move Ahead

Given that I was very young when I started Print Management, my age and the fact that I wasn't St. Louis-born and bred were much bigger obstacles than my being a woman in the traditional and somewhat chauvinistic printing industry, which was typically run by second, third or fourth-generation families native to the area. However, my clients were very well educated and terrific to work with. They didn't care that I was a woman. They wanted results: their jobs printed well, under budget and on time. Fulfilling these goals proved to me that a woman could move ahead, even in a male-dominated industry.

Our sales staff was probably 60 to 70 percent female, and with our compensation plan, anyone who was professional, committed and hardworking could make a lot of money. Additionally, our flexible scheduling and account-management process allowed us to attract experienced working mothers. There are some very talented women out there who've had a terrific education and wonderful previous careers and experience, but who can't seize the opportunity to participate in a business because, with young children, they are not able to work long hours. Our staff managed their own schedules, coordinated to their clients' needs and their own availability. Because we operated in teams, there was always backup if any one person was unavailable when a client's job was being run.

Get Support From Peers

The people I turned to when I had a critical situation to deal with were my fellow entrepreneurs, male or female. I wish I could say other women in business were there to guide me, but all along, the mentors I've had have been men. I never felt that I was making that choice based on their gender. It's wonderful to be able to draw on a female perspective if needed, but for me, business is business.

That's not the case, however, for many women who have either left a membership organization or feel that they need special courses, training or conferences specifically geared for women. When I was president of the St. Louis chapter of Young Entrepreneurs' Organization, we had a large number of women members. That probably wasn't accidental. They probably felt comfortable that there was a woman in a leadership role. In YEO as a whole, currently 14 percent of the members are women. It may fluctuate between 12 and 15 percent from time to time. That's still pretty low. One of the organization's initiatives this year is to increase the percentage of female members.

Today women are starting twice as many businesses as men. We'd like to find out what kinds of experiences they would be interested in and how we could improve conditions for female entrepreneurs. For me, gender hasn't had a negative impact. It may even have helped me. But, I think what really matters is that it has never held me back.

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