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AZRIELA JAFFE

11.10.99  
How One Entrepreneur's Random Act of Kindness Led to a New Business
Sometimes generosity pays off more than being hard as nails

I recently had an unpleasant exchange that made me think about competition and cooperation among entrepreneurs — and which approach gets you better results. For one of my books, I tried to interview a woman who does seminars on business issues. Unfortunately, she viewed me as a competitor and made it clear she didn't want to collaborate with me. I attended her public workshop, and she became quite hostile. I was going to demand my money back, but I decided that I had gotten something from her after all. On one level, her response had a certain business logic. Why should she help me? Yet, time and again, I've seen how shortsighted that perspective can be. And this encounter drove it home. I answer hundred of e-mails every day, and I know that, desperate as entrepreneurs are for any help they can get in their business, most are surprisingly willing to give others a helping hand, even if they have no reason to assume they'll be repaid. Sometimes they are — in surprising ways.

Take Bob Sullivan. He's the designer and host for my Web site, and he does a fine job. I hired him not only because of his technical skills, but also because he genuinely wants to help his clients. He told me a story of how a random act of generosity became an undreamed-of opportunity.

Bob's Web site, the Small Business Advisor, gets over 500,000 page views per month. On a typical day, Bob receives 200 e-mails, a fair percentage of them unsolicited junk mail, which he often deletes unread. Luckily, he didn't delete a message from Russia three years ago. It was from a young man from Moscow, Alexander Gruntsev, who asked Bob if he would be willing to answer a few basic questions about launching a business. Bob began communicating with Alex almost daily, offering him free advice.

Alex was interested in starting a company in the U.S. with a Russian component. His idea was to sell Russian newspapers, with full text and graphics, over the Internet. Customers around the world could subscribe to one or more Russian newspapers through him for far less than if they bought the print editions, and they would get the papers on a more timely basis. Eventually, Alex asked Bob if he would be willing to join his venture and handle the U.S. end. Bob agreed, and Russian Story Inc. was born (www.RussianStory.com).

Bob set up the corporation, banking arrangements, and the technical end. Alex handled the distribution agreements with the Russian publications and did some of the programming. It was a year before they met, in Orlando, and another year before they got together again in Virginia.

On the third anniversary of the business, Bob flew to Moscow to see many contacts he had never met. He and Alex celebrated their success and marveled at their virtual partnership. Today, Russian Story is a major distributor of Russian newspapers worldwide, and the pair plan to expand to distribute newspapers from other countries as well.

This success came from Bob's offhand decision to respond generously to a novice entrepreneur who wasn't a paying client. With that approach — being open, curious, and kind — Bob probably got a lot further than he might have as a hard-nosed businessman.


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 at AZ@azriela.com. 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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