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DECEMBER 29, 1999

AZRIELA JAFFE

Is Your Business Killing You?
Sometimes, the best solution to a bad situation is to get out


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Too often, I receive mail from entrepreneurs whose lives have been devastated by an entrepreneurial dream gone sour. Usually, these stories have two unfortunate things in common: One, people fail to protect themselves legally against some of the classic problems of small businesses (partnerships that go awry, for example). Two, the entrepreneurs don't know when it's time to quit and keep struggling until they're nearly dead. Here's an edited excerpt of a recent e-mail I received:

"I am a 46-year-old woman. Three years ago, my husband and I became 50% owners of a small convenience store. An accountant friend, who also owns two other businesses, owns the other 50%. He put up all the money for the business. Our partner recently bought the building that houses the store, so he is also the store's landlord.

"This little store has been in business since 1934. We have made many improvements. Our customer base has tripled since we took over. The store is open 100 hours a week. We work there most of the time. Our partner works a few hours on Friday evenings. We have one part-time employee. My husband also works the graveyard shift at a hospital to make ends meet.

"I want out of the business. Our partnership agreement states that we are to make minimum wage, but our partner says that's null and void because the store can't afford it anymore. There is no way I can work full time for free. My husband was recently hospitalized with a `heart attack in the making,' according to the doctor. At the age of 50, he can't handle so much pressure.

"I know we should contact a lawyer, but my husband fears that we can't afford one. What should we do?"

First, I am not a lawyer or an accountant, and you really need both (and the accountant should be someone other than your partner) to guide you in such a situation. A lawyer needs to look at the original partnership agreement so you know what your negotiating strengths are before you speak to your partner. Given that you've increased business so much, it seems odd that you still can't afford to pay yourselves minimum wage.

Start by trying to work out the situation with your partner. Tell him: "We have a problem that we must come together to solve. We would like to come up with a solution that will work for all of us." Define your needs and wants clearly. "We need to either reduce our working hours in the store, or be paid for our time." Or, "We want the store to become profitable enough so that my husband can quit his second job."

And most of all, remember your priorities. You can always find another way to earn a living. Your husband's health crisis is an early warning sign. Heed it.



Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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