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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Starting a Business Like Bridge Builders, Ltd.

What I love about this business is the day-to-day diversity of demands. Each of my clients is their own soap opera, as I suppose each one of our lives is. The difference between my "active" clients [clients who currently need assistance] and the world at large is that my clients cannot manage their lives without assistance. Sometimes they are willing to listen to advice and sometimes they will do things that I know will have unpleasant consequences. It is not my job to tell my clients what to do. It is my job to give my clients the available options, along with the consequences, good and bad, of each option and let my clients make their own decision. It is easy to tell someone what to do. It is far more challenging to respect a person's right to make a bad decision. My job then is to try to be a "safety net" for my client so that the consequences are not as serious as they might have been. I love the challenge.

I "boot strapped" my business. I learned through my journey of developing a business that banks, angel investors, etc., are not interested in bankrolling a social service business. In this business Angel Investors are in the form of friends and family [if they have money to loan]. The bank wants to secure everything you own against a loan for operating money and, in my opinion, are to be avoided.

I started with a somewhat vague business concept of helping the elderly and disabled and have honed it by trial and error through the years. It hasn't been easy but it is the most rewarding venture I have ever experienced. There will always be good times and bad, great cash flow and trickle cash flow, clients I love and clients I could be happier without. There will be the never ending battle to capture receivables [getting the unpaid invoices paid].

If you are afraid of risk, work for someone else.

When my [then] business partner and I started the business, our goal was to "bridge" the gaps between services available for the elderly and disabled. We did not want to duplicate services that were already available. Many people were skeptical when we opened our doors. I finally got someone to explain the skepticism. "Old-timers" could recount numerous businesses that would start up to assist the elderly and disabled, doing a good job. Then, they would disappear leaving all of the people they were helping without any support. It's great having a strong desire to help others, but if you cannot run an efficient business, you will end up closing up the shop.

I have received calls from people saying they want to start a similar business in their area. While talking to them I learn that they expect customers to come flocking them them when they open their doors and that they will build the business for 10-years, then sell it off making a nice, tidy financial profit. WRONG! #1 - Marketing this type of business takes a lot of networking and demonstrating successes. You don't get handed credibility on a platter and credentials only get you so far. #2 - It takes many years to develop a reputation within a community. I am coming to the end of my 8th year and this year we have been hearing that our good reputation extends far beyond the area we serve. It takes about 10 years to develop a reputation as an expert in a particular field. #3 - We are talking about people here, not hardware or some other commodity. You cannot just sell your client contracts to someone else and move on. When my business partner left, I witnessed the concern our clients experienced. Our clients were very worried about whether the business would survive my business partner leaving. I've even noticed how worried some of my clients can get when one of my employees leaves the business. These vulnerable adults depend on us for their quality of life and sometimes for their very lives. Please don't let them down!

If you are not in this business for the long haul, please don't start it. Ten years may seem like a long time when you're starting a business but the time flies amazingly quickly. Of course, you will want to start thinking about how you will phase out of the business as you get closer to retirement. There are ways to do it so that it doesn't traumatize your clients.

Still want to get started? Call your local Small Business Development Council and get a [free] business advisor assigned to you. I didn't start using a business advisor until year four. I would have avoided many problems if I had a business advisor from the beginning.

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