I recently had occasion to chat with Ursula Dudley Oglesby, president of Dudley Beauty Corp., a High Point company that makes ethnic hair care and cosmetics products. It consistently ranks among the top 100 black-owned businesses in the nation.
As I typically do when talking with proven business leaders (she graduated from Harvard Law School and has grown the company her parents founded in 1967), I asked Oglesby for the single-best piece of advice she could offer to a determined small business owner.
Without hesitation, she said, “Know your numbers.”
“When you don’t know your numbers,” she said, “you’re going to be out of business fairly quickly, or you’re going to be in debt fairly quickly.
“Don’t operate on emotions,” she continued. “Operate on facts, and really make some of the critical decisions based on your numbers.”
Oglesby’s advice struck a nerve. It also called to mind a talk I’d had years earlier with one of my vendors, who offered similar advice and pointed to a spreadsheet that he described as his ever-present business companion. On that spreadsheet, which he printed out daily, were all the numbers he said he needed to understand the various aspects of his growing business at any given moment.
I was blown away. Like many trained in journalism, I spent the bulk of my college years and a good chunk of my working life trying to avoid numbers. Those who kept our corporate ships afloat were what we guardians of the Fourth Estate derisively called "bean counters."
Now as a small business owner I find myself counting beans – pushing aside coveted opinions, hunches and “gut instincts” to rely on the cold reality of past revenue and projected cash flow.
It’s not that I’ve mastered the numbers game – far from it – but I have come to appreciate the need for the kind of objective analysis that only numbers can provide, and I have vowed to become better at it.
Business, after all, is nothing if not a numbers game.
Too often we ordinary folks dive into this entrepreneurship thing for what I believe are all the wrong reasons: We have a passion for the work we do and want to do it independently. We want set our own schedules and come and go as we please. We want to escape the uncertainty of big corporations or the glaring eye of a demanding boss.
As I have come to see things (and I was told this by others early on), there’s only one good reason to start a business: You believe that you can make money, and do so in sufficient quantity to negate the headaches and stresses that are certain to come.
A South Carolina man called last week to say he needed a mentor. He said he had discovered my website years ago and admired what I do. He said he wants to start a similar business in his town.
I listened for a few minutes then asked him why. He talked about wanting to make a difference in his community. He talked about how he believed his town “needs” an online media presence to connect the African American community.
What I didn’t hear was the one thing I had hoped he would say – that he saw a great opportunity to make lots of money. Sound avaricious? Perhaps. But business is no place for those who disdain dollars.
Anyone simply looking to do good should start a nonprofit. Or better yet, go to work for one that’s already doing good work in your community.
The primary purpose of business – above all else -- is to generate profit. I understand that fact now if I never fully appreciated that fact before.
I agreed to mentor the S.C. caller (assuming he can stomach my brand of tough love). But we won’t begin this mentorship talking about “community impact” or other feel-good measures. I’m not interested in seeing the template for his website. What I want to see is a business plan with lots and lots of numbers. Then, once satisfied that he has put together a sustainable business model, we can turn our attention to the good it will do.
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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