Business Failure: Autopsy and Recovery

Failure and setbacks in a business venture can take many forms, from a botched new product or service launch, to cash-flow insufficiency, losing the lease on the perfect storefront or office location, to the appearance of an aggressive new competitor. Business failure is painful and humiliating.

Even if the pre-launch planning and start-up capital are inadequate, significant research and planning and usually a large sum of money (that may have been borrowed) are nevertheless invested with the hopeful intention of bringing a new product, service, or company to life. If things don’t pan out, it’s inevitable that those involved feel crushed and demoralized.

The intricacies of launching and operating a business can cause any venture to falter, even if the founder is not directly responsible for the downfall. The many moving parts of a new venture can cause the founder to overlook essential factors, resulting in a failed launch.

Yet, in some cases,  it’s possible to recover and relaunch after an autopsy has been performed and you and your team (if there is one!) have figured out why things unraveled and how to avoid that problem and maybe others, too, in a second attempt. Common stumbling blocks include insufficient operating capital, an ill- conceived business model, an inadequate assessment of what target customers value and improper pricing.

Many Freelancers and entrepreneurs, after allowing themselves to grieve the loss, are able to move forward with determination and a better plan (and additional resources, most likely) to do much better in the next iteration. Take a look at these common causes of business failure and make note of the lessons to learn:

Unanticipated start-up costs and low sales revenue

Whether you self-financed and bootstrapped your business or borrowed from a bank or investors, you can find yourself in financial quicksand if your projections of start-up costs were underestimated and expectations for customer acquisition were blue-sky optimistic. It’s very easy to rack up big credit card debt and then succumb to panic that leads to making reckless decisions, such as second- mortgaging your home or borrowing from friends and family, as you struggle to successfully launch and create adequate business revenue. Unfortunately, you might find yourself unable to repay as expenses mount and customers are slow to arrive.

THE LESSON IS, do your homework. Thoroughly research the amount of money that will be required to launch your new business, or new product/ service, and make a rational plan for how to acquire the funds, whether you go to the bank, self-finance, ask to borrow from selected family and friends, or take on partners.

Regarding target customers, your first task is to figure out who will buy what you propose to sell, whether products or services. Is there a viable and growing market? Moreover, can you access those prospective customers, something that can be a challenge in the B2B sector.  Realistic financial projections will protect you, especially a Break-Even Analysis, which helps you predict when customer sales can be expected to pull into profit-making territory.

Finally, develop a profit-making business model. You must anticipate the start-up costs, be able to access the targeted customers, you must have the right method of delivering the products or services and pricing must be acceptable to the customers and profitable for the company.

Receivables collection problem

“They’d take sometimes 3 – 4 months to pay and it was killing my cash flow,” she said. “I couldn’t pay my suppliers without difficulty. (The company) refused to pay with a credit card. I was trying to get paid.” Lara O’Connor Hodgson, Co-Founder of the NOWaccount

As counter-intuitive as it seems, a business owner can have orders flying out the door and be totally broke. The problem, as described above by Lara O’Connor Hodgson, is that customers can be slow pay and the difficulty in collecting accounts receivable has put many businesses under.

THE LESSON IS, healthy cash-flow is essential to sustaining a viable business. Investigate the NOWaccount, which guarantees that invoices will be paid on time and in full (both you and the customer must have good credit). Those in a service business (me!) are advised to ask clients who contract to pay a project fee for an assignment to pay 15 % – 20 % of the total fee at the contract signing and link additional payments to project milestones or specific dates (at 30 day intervals, for example). The final payment owed should be no more than 25 % – 35 % of the total fee. In this way, you will receive regular infusions of cash and be much less vulnerable to a payment default by ghosting.

Powerful competitor

Facing a big new competitor is scary, but take a couple of deep breaths and take heart. If you’ve been in business for at least a year and managed to attract customers and deliver your products and services adequately, then you have a chance to hang on and continue with a growth trajectory. Just don’t panic; shift your adrenaline to market analysis instead. In reality, your competitor probably does not offer better quality products or services but rather has resources (like a generous advertising budget) that your organization lacks.

THE LESSON IS to 1.) analyze your competitor’s operation and determine the obstacles you need to overcome or what you need to do differently, i.e. smarter; 2.) refresh your customer knowledge to learn how their expectations and concerns may have changed to make them susceptible to switching their business to the competition; and 3.) avoid competing on price, which is usually an unwise strategy for smaller operations.

Larger companies have more money to work with and that allows them to hire more employees, offer a wider range of products and services, roll-out splashy marketing campaigns, stock more inventory and more flavors or colors and also offer lower prices because they can afford to buy in volume from the wholesalers.

Your defense is to brand your business well and customers reasons to think twice about opting for the competitor. Because no two businesses are alike, you must define for current and prospective customers why they’ll do better by doing business with you.

The heart of branding is defining and constantly communicating a company’s unique selling points, so you must 1.) understand the competition’s unique selling points and 2.) learn to clearly define and articulate your organization’s unique selling points so that you can build on the attributes that set your company apart and potentially make you valuable to customers.

When you understand your competition’s unique selling points and update your customer knowledge to learn as many specifics as possible about what resonates with them, at least theoretically, about the competitor’s unique selling points, you’ll see how to tweak your offerings in ways that reflect your company’s “house style.”

New and small businesses should definitely put an emphasis on excellent customer service. The digital revolution has not meant that customer interactions aren’t essential, even though face-to-face communication has become more limited for many.  To the contrary, customer service is even more vital in today’s business world.  Present a customer first attitude and create a pleasing customer experience. Go the extra mile to surprise and delight and your business will quickly become trusted and loved.

If you have employees, you also want to ensure you are the best employer in the industry. Having motivated and skilled staff will provide benefits for your customers and that will translate into benefits for your ability to successfully compete.

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs have suffered the frustrating experience of a business failure. For Scott Adams, creator of the world-famous Dilbert cartoons, life’s path wound through many jobs, failed startups, useless patents he applied for and countless other indignities. In his memoir, Adams shares lessons learned about keeping himself motivated, healthy and happy while racking up the failures that ultimately led to his success.

It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”  Bill Gates, Co-Founder and former Chairman and CEO of Microsoft Corporation

Thanks for reading,


Image: American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood (1891 – 1942 Anamosa, Iowa, USA) courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting depicts an Iowa farmer and his daughter.

Madam Builds an Empire

“I got my start by giving myself a start.”

Madam C.J. Walker,  founder and CEO of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company

Most who aspire to launch a business venture must overcome significant adversity as they build their dream.  It is safe to say that none faced a steeper uphill climb than Madam C.J. Walker,  the orphaned daughter of freed slaves and former laundress who became America’s first female and first African-American self-made millionaire. Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867, Madam Walker founded her hair care products company, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, in 1905.

She was a woman with vision; absolute belief in herself and her business model; passion, determination and courage. As all successful entrepreneurs do, she saw a problem, set about solving it and monetized the solution. That she was female and African-American in a time of enormous discrimination and limitations placed on those of her gender and race was apparently beside the point. The lady was not afraid to dream big.

Madam Walker was a savvy businesswoman who knew her customer (initially, herself).  She knew there was a large and dissatisfied market waiting to be tapped (African-American women).  She entered a business of which she had some knowledge— her four brothers were barbers and owned a shop together. When she developed a scalp ailment that caused her hair to thin, she consulted them for advice and experimented with various remedies, store-bought and home-made.

Madam Walker shared the family flair for entrepreneurship and she excelled in manufacturing, sales and product distribution. Initially, she made batches of her hair care potions herself, in a washtub, and personally sold her products door to door to friends and neighbors in Denver, CO, where she had moved to give herself a fresh start after marrying at age 14, becoming a mother at age 17 and a widow at 20.

Marketing was another of her strengths. To persuade women to try her product, she gave free demonstrations and created plenty of buzz along the way.  Later, she implemented the operational efficiency of mail order, to expand product distribution.

By 1908, she had hired and trained a team of female sales representatives and by 1910, she employed 950 representatives who crisscrossed the country making sales and creating loyal customers.  She also remarried, to Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman.  She summarily launched successful newspaper advertising campaigns and adopted the name Madam C.J. Walker. A brand was born.

Madam Walker built an international business: her products were also sold in the Caribbean and South America.  By 1917, she had become the nation’s first self-made female millionaire, founder and chief executive of the country’s most successful African-American or woman- owned business.

Her only child, Lelia McWilliams, was born during her first marriage, joined her in the enterprise first as director of sales and eventually became president of the company.  After Lelia’s death in 1931, Madam Walker’s granddaughter Mae Walker (1898- 1945) and great-granddaughter A’Lelia Perry Bundles (1928-1976), also served as company presidents. The company ceased operations in 1981.

Madam Walker passed away in 1919. She was a revered businesswoman and philanthropist who not only built a spectacularly successful multinational enterprise from the ground up, but also knew how to pay it forward. She championed  women’s entrepreneurship and in Philadelphia in 1917,  she convened what is believed to be the first women’s business conference in the nation. She was no doubt a role model for other highly successful female entrepreneurs who followed her, such as cosmetics business giants Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder.

In 2007,  the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company became a Harvard Business School case, written by Nancy F. Koehn and Katherine Miller. In February 2016, Sundial Brands, a manufacturer of hair care and skin care products, announced that it would re-launch Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products and that the line will be available at Sephora.

Thanks for reading,


Don’t Screw-up Your Start-up

John Osher has business in his blood.  During his 7 years as an undergraduate college student,  Osher started and sold a vintage clothing store and an earring outlet.  On his way to building ConServ,  his first major business venture,  he worked as a cab driver,  plumber and a carpenter.  Second venture Cap Toys,  where sales volume reached $125 million,  was sold to Hasbro in 1997.

When formulating the strategy for his third venture,  which became Dr. John’s Products,  Ltd.,  Osher wanted to start the perfect company and so decided to make a list of everything he had done wrong as he built the previous two.  In 1999,  he used this list when he started Dr. John’s SpinBrush,  an electric toothbrush that retailed for $5.00.  Maybe you had one?  The SpinBrush became wildly popular and in 2001,  Proctor & Gamble bought him out for $475 million.  Enough said!  Below are more pearls of wisdom from John Osher’s list of start-up screw-ups:


“Even if you’ve been realistic about your ability to enter and penetrate your market,  sales projections and start-up and operating expenses,  there are things that happen when you start a new business.  These aren’t a result of poor planning,  but they happen.  Bank rates could go up.  There could be a strike.  You need a Plan B to cover yourself should things not work out within the timing that you want.”


“There are certain partners you need.  If you need money,  you’ll need money partners.  But too many times the guy with the idea takes on his friends as partners.  Many people don’t provide strategic advantages.  Before people are made partners, they have to earn it”.


“In my first business or two,  I hired relatives,  but in many cases they were wrong for the job.  It’s hard to fire relatives and friends.  Spend time to handpick people based on skill requirements.  It bogs you down when you hire people who can’ t do the job”.


“You see this happen all the time.  They’ll spend 50% of their time on something that represents 5% of the business.  Too often, the business owner doesn’t have a view of the whole company.  They get involved in part,  but don’t manage the whole.  Whether I handle this aspect or another,  whether I hire someone to do what I can’t,  I consider how it all fits into the long-term and short-term big picture.  Constantly try to see your big picture.


“I had an engineer who was very good,  but with every product we developed,  he would say  ‘You can’t do it that way’.  I had to be careful not to accept this too easily.  I had to look further.  If you’re going to be an entrepreneur,  you’re going to break new ground.  A good entrepreneur is going to find a way”.


“Too much of your management is often based on sales volume and market size.  There’s too much emphasis on how fast and big you can grow the business,  rather than on how much profit you can make”.

I’ll conclude with the final five elements next week. Thanks for reading,


17 Start-up Screw-ups

Serial entrepreneur John Osher has developed numerous consumer products,  including an electric toothbrush that became America’s best-selling toothbrush in just 15 months.  He also started several businesses,  most notably Cap Toys,  where he built sales to $125 million a year and then sold to Hasbro, Inc. in 1997.

Osher’s most important contribution to American business may not be the companies he’s started and profited handsomely from,  but rather the business advice that he’s willing to share. His list  “17 Mistakes Start-ups Make”  became a Harvard Business School case study.  See what you can learn from his entrepreneurial experiences and use it to create your version of the perfect Freelance consulting business.


“The most important mistake of all.  I say nine out of ten businesses fail because the original concept is not viable.  You want to be in business so much that you don’t slow down and take the time to do the up-front research,  so the business is doomed before the doors open.  You can be very talented,  but your business will fail because the concept is flawed.”  Go to the library and do your research.  Read blogs,  journals and newsletters that pertain to the industry you plan to enter,  so that you’ll know what’s going on.  Develop a credible business model.


“Most new entrepreneurs get very excited about their concept and don’t look for the truth about how many people will want to buy what they they’re selling.”  Take the time to research and understand targeted customers and get to know why they will want to buy from you or hire you.  Calculate your potential to penetrate the target market and grow a client list you can live on.


“Based on inadequate research noted in Mistakes #1 & #2,  fledgling entrepreneurs operate from the premise of over-stated market size and their ability to enter it.  They then start spending more money than they should on start-up costs,  creating costs that require those inflated sales projections to be met,  so they run out of money”.


“You have already miscalculated the size of the market.  Now you over-project your portion of it”.  Always another way to run out of money, no?


“Cost projections are often far too low.  Part of the problem is that you’ve projected market share and sales volume that are too high.  There are always unknown reasons that come up to make expenses higher than planned”.


“Now you’ve got lower sales,  higher start-up costs and then you layer on too-high operating costs.”  I have seen colleagues maintain fancy offices when they have the ability to run the business from the kitchen table at home.  If you can take clients out to a restaurant for meetings,  then why pay for office space?  You can get a telephone answering service to personally take messages,  so it looks like you have a secretary.  I’ve done it for a dozen years.  Besides,  no one answers the telephone these days,  especially not in major corporations. When you need another pair of hands to take on a big project,  hire in another Freelancer and spread the wealth.

More next week.  Thanks for reading,


Starting a Business? Consider Your Customers and Competition

Once you’re clear on the difference between an intriguing idea and what may be a genuine business opportunity and you’ve chosen what product or service you will offer,  it is then time to carefully consider who your customers will be.

The entrepreneur must define the customer well,  by using demographic and psychographic (lifestyle) data. The more specific the customer profile that is created, the better the ability to deliver what the target customer wants and will pay you to obtain.

When an entrepreneur fully understands who the customers are,  then he/she can understand what compels them to buy,  how to sell to them (on line or bricks and mortar?),  how to market to them,  how to price the product and how much time and money it will take to win those customers over.

This is why it is always preferable to enter a business in which you have experience.  The best way to know customers is by talking and interacting with them.  That allows you to tailor your services to meet their perceived needs and expectations.

If you’ve already done business with your target customers,  you will have a significant advantage and are better positioned to create a profitable venture.

Be sure to flesh out your customer info by speaking with others who do business with your target customers.  Suppliers and Freelance vendors  can provide lots of useful info. Speaking with your competitors will likewise be very helpful.

Visiting conferences and trade shows that are frequented by your target customers is a smart move,  as those are forums where information is shared.  Competitors may be more forthcoming in these settings.

Analyzing the competition will be a key success  factor for the business.  This is how you’ll find out what customers want from businesses similar to your own,  what benefits they think they’re getting and what price they’ll pay to have what they want.

A thorough competitive analysis allows the entrepreneur to refine the market niche and identify additional competitive advantages.  Good competitive info sets the stage for your marketing and sales strategies.

Visit the stores,  the restaurants and the websites of your direct competitors.  Check out where and how they advertise.  Study their message and methods of interacting with target customers.  Are your competitors making money? How do they make that happen?

Make sure that you have a critical mass of advantages that will improve your chance of success,  be it a hot product,  strong relationships with target customers,  experience in the business,  influential friends or a healthy budget to spend on start up costs.

You probably don’t  hold all of the cards, but before you take the leap  make sure you have enough to give yourself a good chance of winning the game.

More later,

Starting A Business? Consider This

Like millions of people around the world, over the past few months you’ve given some thought to ensuring your economic survival.  How to make money is at the top of the list for many and we’re all exploring our options.  A yard sale or two can help in the short run, but most of us need a steady and healthy income stream.

Polishing up your resume might no longer be a viable option, given that employment statistics have been dismal for several consecutive quarters and the global economy continues to shed jobs.  What little employment exists tends to be at at the bottom of the pay scale.

This cruel reality has lead some of us to decide  what the heck, I’ll go out on my own.  I’ll start a business or become a Freelancer and do some consulting.  That’s why I went out on my own.  Employers did not give a damn about transferable skills, work ethic, strategic thinking or anything else.

All they knew was that I was  too expensive to hire (or keep) and so they didn’t.  To have a roof over my head and food on the table I had no choice but to become a Freelancer. Thank God  I had a few desirable  skills that I eventually learned how to package and market!

This blog is all about sharing knowledge and experience as a way to help readers become more successful Freelancers, business owners and even employees.  My objective is to help you avoid time-wasting mistakes and obstacles and get you into your definition of success,  faster.

First of all,  becoming an entrepreneur requires  objective thinking and creativity.  You’ll need to take a cold hard look at your skill set and figure out what you can possibly do.  Next, you need to analyze the marketplace.  Who will pay for the product or service that you’re able to offer? Does it appear that you can eventually persuade enough clients to pay you enough money to live on?
Also, what relationships can you rely on to help ease your way into the business—refer clients, provide expert advice, hook you up with good deals on equipment or a space to set up shop?

Oh, and BTW, can you afford the start-up costs? Every business requires up front money to get rolling, so the financial requirements of the business you choose need significant consideration.  Banks are making very few loans these days and those who do get funded have near perfect credit.

On the upside, going out on your own during a difficult economic cycle can be a smart  move.  The economy will force you to distinguish between the magical thinking of an intriguing idea and a real business opportunity. You’ll be in the planning and learning stages while the economy lags.  When the inevitable upswing comes around, you’ll be prepared to take advantage and make some money.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll help you take a look at a few basic things you’ll need to consider before you take the leap.

Much more later,