A former New York Times and Washington Post columnist, Gene Marks now helps small businesses build relationships with their customer bases in many ways, including through his own company, The Marks Group. We talked to him about what small businesses can do to grow during the pandemic and the key to solid customer relations.
Former New York Times and Washington Post Columnist, Founder, The Marks Group
What do you think are the top challenges facing small business owners today?
There are a few challenges facing consumers today. The first is the economy and figuring out not if a recovery will happen, but when the recovery will happen and how fast it will happen. There’s a lot of conflicting data and a lot of reports going back and forth about growth and GDP and unemployment.
If you’re a small business owner, you’ve got to make some big decisions about spending, investing, and hiring. You don’t want to time it wrong because it could be fatal. Timing yourself and navigating the recovery is a huge thing.
Cash flow and funding is obviously a huge challenge right now. Some businesses are back in business. There are plenty around the country that are still under quarantine or lockdown or limited operation, so they’ve got to manage their cash as effectively as possible and make sure they’ve got financing and funding to see themselves through this downturn.
Finally, it’s really making sure you keep your eye on the ball with your employees, keeping your best ones happy and productive and loyal, and making sure they don’t jump ship. And also keeping an eye out for potential other employees you might want to grab if you have the funding to do that.
What is your advice for small businesses looking for brand purpose? Where do you think they should look to find that?
Other customers. I should be doing this more for my business. I have about 600 clients in my business and we sell technology and technology services. I don’t survey my customers enough and I should because it’s your customers that are telling you why they’re buying from you. Why are they parting with their money and hiring you or buying your products? They perceive something in you that hopefully dovetails into what you perceive in yourself and your business.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if I asked my clients, “What do you perceive is the value of my company?” or, “Why do you buy from us?” I might get some answers I wasn’t expecting. All of that would be an education and an enlightening thing for making sure your brand is speaking to the reality of what the marketplace is. Your customers are the best place to give your brand purpose.
What would you say to an aspiring entrepreneur who is hesitant to take the risk of starting their own business?
I would say that you don’t have to change the world and you don’t have to come up with something so incredibly new and innovative — what you need to do is come up with something that probably already exists because we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, but just make sure you can do it better.
Before you start your business, get some experience. If you have a good idea for doing something, maybe you should be working elsewhere in a specific industry where you can learn about the industry, so you can then apply your idea when you start your own business. In other words, don’t be premature when you start up a business.
No. 2 is you better damn well make sure you have capital. There are two types of capital: cash and financing, and there’s time. It’s not just the time that you’re spending, it’s also the time you’re going to be away from your families, your loved ones, or other people that rely on you. That’s capital as well.
Before you jump out and start your own business, realize it’s hard. It’s a cold, hard, dark world out there, nobody cares about you and your business no matter how much your friends and workmates give you the thumbs up and wish you well, they don’t care. You have to make sure you’ve got cash in the bank and that people that do care about you are willing to put up with all the challenges you’re going to have and all the time you’ll be away from them.
What do you think is one act of doing business in America that is different from doing business anywhere else in the world?
I think it’s choice. My wife is from England so we had this 30-second conversation when we got married: Should we live in the United Kingdom or in the United States? The U.K.’s great, don’t get me wrong, but we decided to live in the U.S. I’ll tell you the reason why:
I live in Philadelphia. If things turn south in Philadelphia, I can move to Vegas, I can move to Birmingham, I can move to Des Moines, Iowa. It’s a big country with choice and options, whereas in the U.K., it’s just a smaller country, so your options are more limited.
The same applies when you’re running a business. It’s a giant market here in the U.S. With all the problems we had, there are still a zillion opportunities, a zillion potential customers for products that you want to sell as long as you’re willing to spend and be flexible, and maybe even move around. That’s what separates this country from most other countries is the opportunities you have to sell and make money.
Beyond money, how do you personally measure a successful business and a successful business owner?
For a successful business, it is about the money but the money is translated into value. You’re building an asset, something of value that you can sell one day, you can pass on to a future generation. It’s not just about earning or generating cash, it’s also about building an asset. In the end, it’s just a business, but that asset is very important as well from a value perspective because it’s providing livelihoods for employees, partners, customers, and suppliers who are contributing to a community. It’s not just the amount of money you’re making, it’s about the value the business is providing to all the people who depend on it.
As far as a business owner is concerned, I run my business for three reasons: No. 1, I am doing it to make money because I want a livelihood, and I want to pay for my kids’ college education and my retirement. But I also do it because it’s fun and challenging, and I do it because, as many hours as you put in, if you do it the right way, you have more control over your life. I can disappear for a few hours to coach my kids’ Little League team, and then reappear later and get my work done. If you’re an employee somewhere, you don’t have that flexibility, so running a business does give you that ability to have more control.
The smartest people I’ve met are the ones who delegate and I’ve tried to emulate that. You have all these things to do and the first thing that comes to mind is “who’s going to do this for me?” I don’t have to do all this because otherwise, I’ll never have time for myself or my family.