Let's Do Lunch ... for Business Sake

Sooner or later, you find out what a lonely job it can be to own your own business.

Not just because you carry the burden of keeping sales rolling in so that you can pay your suppliers, your employees, and yourself. But also because you’re the president, and there's nobody at your level with whom to talk over ideas and solutions to big-picture problems. Heck, it’s even hard to talk with your spouse about all the worries you’ve got. Running a small business is hard work, and, in the beginning, there aren’t any colleagues down the hall or in the C-suite, as they call it in big business (meaning CEO, CFO, COO, CMO, etc.).

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So, it gets lonely. Who can you talk to? Who can you ask for advice and let your hair down with? Who actually understands what you’re dealing with, because they've "been there, done that"?

Here's the best piece of advice I can give you as a small business owner: Don't isolate yourself.

Find someone with business experience whom you can talk with openly. It may be a business owner in town who’s been in business 5-10 years longer than you; it may be a retired businessperson who has loads of experience and time now to share it; it may be a friend who has worked for different kinds of companies. It can’t be a competitor in town, but it may be someone who runs the same kind of business you own in a different locale. It may be someone you met at the Chamber of Commerce who seems like a good guy or a good gal whom you’d like to get to know better, even if they’re in a different line of work.

What’s important is to find someone you can talk with over lunch once a month – just the two of you. That’s two hours a month, 12 times a year. Call it your “monthly planning meeting,” and pick a time, date and place to meet so that it becomes a regular meeting that you never miss.

As an example, my good friend who owns a small business and I meet at the same time, same restaurant on the third Thursday of every month. We’ve taken to calling it our "Third Thursday" lunch.

Isolating yourself from other people is the worst thing you can do as a business owner. Not only does isolation kill creative thinking, as Julia Cameron writes in her book, "The Artist's Way," it can kill your spirit and your business's spirit, too. Reach out to others who know what it's like to run a business. They can help you and your business get better and more creative. They can even make life more interesting for you.

How do you find such a business companion? Consider how a premier NFL coach handled the same kind of problem. Bill Belichick led his New England Patriots to their second Super Bowl championship over the Carolina Panthers in 2004. Belichick was at the top of his career, but he was also worried about how to keep his team hungry for the next season. So, he sought out another coach who had reached the same pinnacle of football excellence. Here's how David Halberstam describes their meeting in his book, "The Education of a Coach," published in 2005:

“After the Carolina victory, Bill Belichick went to Florida to visit with Jimmy Johnson [former Dallas Cowboys coach], who he thought was the one coach out there who knew the most about what would happen once a team had shown itself able to play as so lofty a level, Johnson’s Cowboys having won the Super Bowl after the 1992 and 1993 seasons. The two men were friends in the delicate sense of friendship that football coaches are allowed – in the we may be on opposite sides of the field but we have similar problems and similar enemies and we may need each other yet you coaching for me or me coaching for you kind of friendship….

“They had talked about getting together, and … Belichick took Johnson up on his invitation to come down to Miami and talk, and they spent a day and a half going over the problems that accrue to the victorious. Johnson was the perfect person to visit with, Belichick thought – he was very smart, as smart as anyone in the game, and more than anyone else, he had been through what Belichick was now just beginning to go through, the ordeal that came with success.”

Johnson told Belichick to watch for the pressure that would come with winning, because, he said, when you win, everyone wants more, particularly players who want bigger salaries – even those who have three years left on their contracts. Sure enough, a few days after the two coaches met, Halberstam reports, one of the Patriot players “began talking publicly about his need for a bigger contract.”

Unlike Belichick, you won’t have to travel to Miami for your lunch meetings. But if you take the time to set up a regular lunch with a knowledgeable businessperson, I guarantee that you will find a way to release some of your worries and feelings of "being in it all alone." Better yet, you will find some answers to problems – both problems you knew you had and those you hadn’t thought of yet, just the way Jimmy Johnson clued Bill Belichick into what to expect after winning his second Super Bowl.

People with experience in business are often quite willing to share their ideas and their knowledge. They just need to have someone ask them. Once you do, you may find that you both enjoy your businesses and your life a bit more. You will get the benefit of another’s hard-won experience. You will be able to air the pros and cons of taking on an expensive piece of equipment or a new line of business with someone who takes an interest in you and what you’ve built, someone who can be dispassionate and who can ask questions and bring a perspective you might not have. You will make a friend who helps bring out the best in your thinking and longer-range planning. And you will find ways to help your business friend as well. Information and ideas flow both ways, which will make your lunch meetings fulfilling for both of you.

It may be odd to think of needing someone to help when you are supposed to be the answer person in your company. However, without an outlet for talking over your dreams and worries and pet ideas, you can become stuck doing the same things you already know how to do.

As they say, if you want the same results, keep doing the same thing. But if you want different results, then change what you’re doing. And rather than changing willy-nilly, wouldn’t it be better to talk over your thoughts and plans with a trusted friend and advisor?

Susan C. Walker writes a personal finance and economics column for FOXNews.com as well as this small business column. She works for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company, and has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper business editor, an investor relations executive for a real estate investment trust and a speechwriter for the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She graduated from Stanford University.

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