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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, STEM

A Message From Small Business Owners: Before You Offer To Help Us, Ask Yourself These Five Questions

question-mark_light-bulbA recent post by Ruth Carter of Carter Law Firm, Time is Scarcest Commodity of Entrepreneurship, resonated with me so much that I was compelled to read it again.

Here’s the introduction:

Being an entrepreneur is one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in my life. I have almost total autonomy over the type of work I do, and I get to hand-pick my clients. I get to write books, speak at conferences all over the world, and develop new products. Although my work allows me to be involved in creative projects, the one thing I can’t create is more time.

As an entrepreneur, I feel like I’m constantly running against the clock. There are only so many hours in the day, and every time I accept an invitation to an event or take on a new project, there are other opportunities I have to decline. I’ve also learned that I have to allow enough time to do basic things like rest; otherwise, I’ll get overwhelmed, short circuit my system, and crash-and-burn where I’ll need several days to recoup.

The older I get and the more complex my projects get, the more selfish I’ve become with my time…Every distraction is a potential delay. So, the fewer distractions, the more I can get done, and the more people I can help in the long run…[Ref 1]

You’ll want to read the rest of her post, and I encourage you to do so. I strongly echo Ruth’s sentiments about not being able to create more time, the need to minimize distractions to meet my commitments and deadlines, and get enough rest and exercise to stay healthy.

My time is one of my greatest resources! My time is very valuable to me! I am especially annoyed by those who attempt to treat my time as if it belongs to them. I have never given anyone authority or permission to make decisions for me or to speak on my behalf, however, there are more than a few who have attempted to do so. When you disrespect my time, you disrespect me. Therefore, when I am asked by others if I need any help, the first question I ask myself is “how will your offer of help impact my time?”

Notice, my initial response to an offer of help is not “Yes! or Absolutely!” While I appreciate a general offer of help, the fact of the matter is that most people, and that includes many engineers that I know, don’t do the type of work that I do. Most folks recognize that every person with a medical degree does not practice in the same area or specialty. There are general practitioners and family doctors, and then they are specialist, e.g. surgeons, psychiatrist, obstetrics-gynecologist, etc.

Engineers follow a similar pattern, i.e. we don’t all pursue the same major or discipline, and we don’t all do the same type of work. In other words, we are not a monolithic bunch! There is a certain amount of overlap in our undergraduate studies during the first two years of most engineering programs, however, couple the discipline (civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical, architectural, biomedical, etc.) with the professional experiences gained after graduation, and one could be talking apples and oranges very quickly.

When I am approached by an offer to help, my standard answer begins with these two questions:

  1. Do you have an open purchase order that I can charge to? That would certainly help to increase my income stream.
  2. Can you develop a response to a bid document or request for proposal (RFP) and win a project so that a purchase order can be created, and we’ll both have a source of income to charge to?

It’s rare that I get an affirmative response to either of the above questions. Therefore, my response and not next question is: “Here’s what I can do. First, if I don’t already have your resume, please send me a copy or make sure that I have the link where I can find it online. I will review my current work load and projects, and if I don’t have an available opportunity at this time, I’ll keep you in mind should a compatible opportunity arise in the future.”

Here are a few questions that you should ask yourself, before asking me or another small business owner if they need help?:

  1. If I am currently employed, am I looking to change jobs? If yes, what is my timeline?

First, if you are seeking a new position, being up front about that would be good for me to know. Why? Because if you are currently employed, I or someone else is not hearing “I am looking for a new employer.” in your offer to help me. You may have an urgent need to find employment very quickly, however, I may not sense that in your offer to help. Knowing the above gives me a better sense of your needs and timeline for finding additional work and/or switching employers. Also, if there is not an available opportunity in my company today, I may know of someone or a business that is looking for help.

As an example, while working with one of my previous employers, I shared with a friend and colleague, a principal scientist at one of the local utilities, that I was job hunting. The first question that he asked me was this: How soon are you looking to gain new employment? While I thought his question odd at first, he explained that if I was in an uncomfortable situation and wanted to leave sooner rather than later, that would be good for him to know. Why? Because he would be more likely to step up his efforts to speak with others who may have open positions within his company or other firms.

  1. Is my offer of help a quid pro quo?

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means “something that is given or taken in return for something else.” This well known phrase is often summed up as “you scratch my back, I will scratch yours.”  By helping me, is there an expectation of something in return, now or sometime in the future?

Therefore, assuming that your skills are compatible with the available work on hand, is your offer of help a quid pro quo? During the Great Recession, a number of individuals and small businesses engaged in bartering of products and services to extend the cash flow. Is there a service that I offer that you are interested in acquiring? If yes, let’s be clear about what you are looking for instead of beating around the bush!

  1. Can I honor professional and personal boundaries as well as take instructions from others?

If it is determined that your services would add value to the business, the above question is in order. I think I speak for any small business owner, manager, or person in a leadership position in saying that a disregard for personal and professional boundaries, property, or failing to take instructions from those in charge is a deal killer.

There’s a reason that most organizations have standard operating procedures, rules and requirements, and policies. Chaos rules the day when someone initiates an action(s) without a clear purpose or at least understanding the current system that is already in place.

If you have a suggestion for improving the process, I and most others would love to hear about it.  Also, keep in mind that some things are done to meet the client’s need and not your or my need. A change in a process or procedures may require a review to ensure that it is compatible with the current system. Your position or the business may not be the only one impacted by the proposed change.

As someone who has worked as an employee, a manager, and an employer, I don’t want to shoot down good ideas from anyone that I may be working with, however, I also don’t want to trip over your good intentions that were never communicated to me.

To wrap up this post, Daniel DiPiazza, founder of Rich20Something, captures the thoughts of many business owners when he says: Having a business isn’t a necessarily better way of living, it’s just an other way of living. [Ref 2] “And this is your life,” DiPiazza goes on to say, “Any decision that you make for yourself will be correct — as long as you’re honest about what you really want.”

Therefore, in the future, when you ask “Do you need any help?” or “Can I help you?”, be honest about why you are offering to help me or others and what it is that you really want. That way we don’t waste each other’s time, and if there is any help to be given, it will happen sooner rather than later.

Sources Cited:

  1. Time is Scarcest Commodity of Entrepreneurship, by Ruth Carter, February 20, 2017, http://carterlawaz.com/blog/
  2. It’s okay if you don’t want to be an entrepreneur, by Daniel DiPiazza, contributing writer, Feb 23, 2017, http://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/how-to/funding/2017/02/its-okay-if-you-dont-want-to-be-an-entrepreneur.html?ana=e_du_wknd&s=article_du&ed=2017-02-25&u=NyOWfCXDipWGSaVAAlRpA09ca06fd&t=1488049295&j=77488021

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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