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In 1976, Steve Epner started his own business. Along the way, he founded the Independent Computer Consultants Association, was a founding member of the EDI Coalition of Associations and he created the Distribution Solutions Council. In 1994, Steve’s firm merged with Brown Smith Wallace, a business and financial advisory firm. Today, they have over 200 employees in 3 offices. The firm works nationwide from their headquarters in St. Louis MO. More information is available at www.bswllc.com.
Steve is also an adjunct instructor of Entrepreneurship at Saint Louis University and Innovation at Webster University. He has authored or coauthored 8 books, over 1,000 articles and has made over 400 presentations to business and association audiences. Steve helps organizations find new answers to old questions.
Gus: What are some great resources and tools for entrepreneurs that you feel are underused, misunderstood or not well publicized?
Steve: There are many. In St. Louis, we have the Venture Mentoring Service (VMS). It provides a free team of seasoned executives to work with growing companies. The help is in the form of an advisory board that will work with the management team to keep them moving forward. These teams are great at working with less experienced management groups so they can be more successful in a shorter time frame.
Many of the Universities also have programs that are much underutilized. Saint Louis University has an Institute for Private Business. It meets once a month for Boardroom breakfasts or lunches. Top notch entrepreneurs share their experiences and there is time to ask questions to help apply their experiences to anyone’s business.
In the St. Louis area, there is an organization called The Saint Louis Regional Entrepreneurship Educators. This group represents Universities and Colleges on all sides of the rivers (from west of St. Charles to east of Edwardsville.) Among other things, they coordinate and publicize business competitions. Some are as simple as “elevator pitches” all the way to full business plan competitions with tens of thousands of dollars in prizes. They are a perfect way to hone a message and launch a business.
Gus: Can you provide some of the highlights or key points from the four solid techniques you use to go beyond the obvious to create a vision for tomorrow?
Steve: The most important is to consider the Mark Twain quote: “It is not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It is what you know for sure that just ain’t so!” When working with management teams, it is so common to find them “doing something” because they believe it is the only way to do it, or it is the required way. More often than not, I help them find there are other answers. Many of which can give them competitive advantage in the market place.
The second is to remember that everyone is a salesperson. If you are part of the management team, you need to be promoting the business every chance you get. Do not leave it to the named salespeople. Why limit your impact? As an executive, you should know more about the business and why it provides a valuable product or service better than anyone else.
Gus: What are some tips for managing change within an organization?
Steve: There are two secrets to managing change. The first is to manage expectations. If you let people know honestly where the problems will be; if you level with them about extra effort and potential issues; they will be more likely to help move forward. Surprises scare many people. Then all they want to do is stop the change so they can go back to the way it was. It may not have been ideal, but they knew it and could work around anything that kept them from getting their jobs done.
Second is good communications. Keep everyone aware of what is being done. Tell them about problems that come up and how they are being solved. Make them all part of the “inner circle” with the knowledge that goes with that status.
Gus: Do you think that innovators are born or made? What are some ways that individuals can fine tune their perception so that they can approach problems differently and come up with new solutions to old problems?
Steve: I teach students (young and old) how to innovate. Anyone can do it. The big problem is that most of us have been taught that it is bad to be wrong since an early age. Innovating requires making mistakes. What we want to do is teach our business leaders to celebrate efforts, not just positive results. As a matter of fact, I do think failure has a positive result. We learn something about what not to do – and this can be just as important as what we should do.
There is no super sophisticated MBA secret to innovation. To succeed you have to get over your fear of being wrong! Once this is done, you will be willing to try things and soon, the successes will start to come. Without trying, they will never happen.
Gus: Why do you think that it’s imperative that companies are able to work with trusted advisors who can bring outside viewpoints to their discussions about the current and future concerns?
Steve: It does not just have to be a trusted advisor. For thousands of dollars in free consulting, just spend time talking to new employees. Do this their first two weeks on the job (after that, they learn how you do things and become part of the problem). When they start, they have fresh eyes and ideas from other organizations. Ask what they see, what does not make sense, what can be improved. Anyone can offer great insights if they are given the chance.
Gus: Can you talk about the inspiration behind the new program you’re launching to help the unemployed and under-employed start their own companies?
Steve: Starting a Single Shingle Shop is our effort to help average people start their own businesses. Too often, people are intimidated by the business plans that most colleges teach are necessary. They are overwhelmed thinking about hiring, space, equipment, and so on.
Our goal is to do a 2 or 3 page business plan. It is simple and straight forward. It forces the person to think through what will they do, for who, and how. Then, we give them the tools to go out and sell their first customer. When they come back to the second day of class, they will already have a wealth of knowledge. We then help them interpret what they learned. We help them fine tune their plan. We give them encouragement to succeed and a Board of Advisors to give them ongoing support.
At the end of the day, we want to emphasize action over writing. It is always better to try something, analyze what happened, and make corrections – rather than studying something until you no longer have the desire to even try it.
The President of Babson College (probably the best Entrepreneurship program in the country) said it best: “Action trumps everything.” One of my clients encourages all of his employees to try things. His feeling is that “a good idea well executed is always worth money.” What we want to encourage is for people come up with an idea (most of them already have one), think it through (but without paralyzing themselves), and then try it. This is the secret of success.
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