Small Business

Why Some Entrepreneurs Will Miss the Recession


Sure, the recession has had a devastating effect on some. But for others, it has provided a chance to slim down inventories, attract superior talent, and soak up government largesse

Ask my wife's Uncle Joe when the greatest time of his life was. You may be surprised by his answer.

"It was the War," he says. "I loved the War."

Before you get the wrong idea, understand that Uncle Joe was only about 10 years old during World War II. He lived on the tiny island of what was then British-occupied Malta. He knew all the types of aircraft, both Allied and German, that battled in the skies above him. He kept up on the news from the front like he was reading baseball scores from the day before. While his parents cowered in terror, he found the nightly bombings of his island thrilling. And he looked forward to the "all clear" signal so he could run out and search for shell fragments and other exciting treasures.

It's funny how some people can have different experiences from the same event. Fifty years ago, there were many people who found something to love about the War, regardless of its devastating impact on countless lives. My teenage daughter loves to watch Bridezillas, regardless of its devastating impact on the brains of anyone near the TV set. See what I mean?

The recession is the same, especially for small business owners. Many have lost money. But then there are other business owners, smart business owners, who have benefited from this recession. They've been able to make decisions during these challenging economic times that will favorably impact their profitability in the years going forward. Some of us will look back on this recession like Uncle Joe looks back on the War. We'll miss some of these times.

For example, we're going to miss having had this opportunity to take a breather and do a little house cleaning. Many business owners I know have been reorganizing, refurbishing, and painting their offices. One friend of mine is selling off a ton of old inventory, some at below cost. Besides freeing up room in his warehouse and raising cash, these sales are helping him to establish new relationships for future deals. Other guys I know are reviewing their customer databases and updating information. They're upgrading their computer systems and repairing equipment. They're sending idle employees off for training and more certifications. Many of us are going to miss these slower times and the opportunities we've had to make our businesses, and our people, better.

We'll miss the David Spade effect, too. What's that, you ask? That's the phenomena where small, unattractive, nerdy guys get to date beautiful models just because they're famous and rich. During this recession, many small business owners have been enjoying the David Spade effect. But instead of getting hot girls, we're getting access to great people for our companies. O.K., it's not as exciting. But it's definitely profitable. Unemployment is close to 10% nationwide, which is not a good thing for many. But this means that there are a lot of good, smart minds out there hungry to do work and willing to build a long-term relationship—on the cheap. And we're snapping them up. This has been a very good thing about the recession. And this is something that I, a small, unattractive, nerdy business owner, will miss.

The Perfect Excuse

We're also going to miss using the best excuse in the world for everything: the recession! Why am I paying my bills so late? It's not because I'm disorganized, malicious, or petty—it's the recession! How come I'm beating the hell out of my suppliers for discounts? Not because I'm a cheap bastard, it's that darned recession! Why did I freeze salaries, eliminate bonuses, and reduce benefits? Come on, people—the recession made me do it! Why did I let my 72-year-old mother pick up the lunch tab? Hey, lady, giving birth to me may be all well and good, but there's a recession on, O.K.? One thing a lot of business owners are going to miss about this recession is using the recession as an excuse for all of our weaknesses and shortcomings. Ah yes, good times. Good times.

A lot of us are also going to miss all this stimulus money, too. President Obama used the financial crisis as his rationale for dumping billions of government cash into the system. There are all sorts of government projects out there for businesses to bid on. And there's Web sites like www.recovery.gov to help us get through the process. And even if we don't want to deal directly with the government, we can sell our products and services to the construction, health-care, energy, and education industries that are getting all this funding. What are we going to do once this recession's over and the government can't justify its spending? Actually go out and create demand and customers on our own? Good God, man, can you be serious?

This recession is wreaking havoc on my competitors, and for that I'm also grateful. There used to be dozens of other firms in the area that sold the kinds of products and services that we sell. Now there's just a handful. Thank you, Charles Darwin. I know that many of them sucked. But it took a significant drop-off in demand and a more competitive environment to prove me right. During the salad days, I competed against companies that were thinly staffed, technically challenged, and mismanaged. But, somehow they were surviving…and giving me headaches. Happily, that's all in the past now. Once growth returns, I am not looking forward to these guys coming back.

And I'm not alone. I know many other business owners who are profiting from the demise of mismanaged giants that have been victims of this recession. The gas station on the corner has a backlog of repair work thanks to the disappearance of so many of our auto dealerships. The crafts and home shops around the area have been busy since the Linens 'N Things at the strip mall went bust. Nice little coffee places are sprouting up replacing the Starbucks (SBUX) that have shut. Web sites selling electronics, run by small business owners from their homes and industrial parks across the country, are making more money since Circuit City (finally!) went belly up. The recession has created opportunities—some are taking advantage and some are missing the boat.

Uncle Joe is happy that the War is behind him. But he has good memories of those times. Most of us will be happy when this recession is finally behind us. But many will look back at these times with the same feelings as Uncle Joe. Me? I'll be happy when my daughter stops watching Bridezillas.


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