Of Spiders And Entrepreneurs

Jim Blasingame Even as spiders go, he was a little guy; not much bigger than a piece of lint you might pick off of a pair of navy trousers. Barney Fife probably would have said he was wiry.

But there he was staking his web-claim to a corner of my desk, between a stack of Wall Street Journals and a bottle of saline nasal spray. Observing his single-minded industry, you would have thought he was Admiral Bird taking the North Pole.

Making up the order Araneae, of the Arachnid group, spiders have been around for millions of years. So they didn't make it this far by being stupid. Somewhere along the way they figured out that the silky stuff that oozes out of their backside would be handy for erecting a web in which to encourage unsuspecting and tasty neighbors wandering by to stay for dinner. Then, whenever it's time for din-din, Spidey saunters over to the now-indignant guest and partakes.

At first I admired the little squatter's spunk. You gotta love a guy who just goes for it, like a lot of small business owners. No guts, no glory, right?

But then I pulled my focus back and looked at what he was going for, and how and where he was going for it. From that perspective, unfortunately, he still reminded me of some small business owners I have known. Apparently, like humans, some spiders are smarter than others.

Building Your Web
One of the unfortunate facts about being a spider is that they have a very short life expectancy - typically no more than a few weeks. With such a brief existence, it's understandable if a spider doesn't obsess over finding the absolute best place in the world to set up shop.

Unfortunately, too many small business owners with, presumably, years to live, behave like my eight-legged desktop developer - heavy on haste and light on research.

One morning a few years back, when I was a full-time business consultant, a couple of ladies asked me to help them purchase a local business. As I began laying out the fundamental steps of making such a transaction, including the due diligence stage, it became obvious that the time line I was describing wasn't fitting into their plans. It was Monday and they wanted to be the proud new owners of this establishment by Friday.

Granted, as business transactions go, this wasn't a big, complicated one. But it was bigger than alpha-to-omega in five days. Negotiations weren't completed. Financial statements were not available, nor had an inventory been taken. It was not known who, if anyone, had liens on inventory, fixtures, or equipment. It was unclear whether the lease could be assumed.

Realizing that I couldn't convince them to take the appropriate amount of time to build their web, I mean, conduct an informed and intelligent acquisition, I decided to pass on the engagement and wished them well.

With irrational exuberance you could cut with a knife, they made the acquisition without me - by Friday. Sadly, I must report that their small business, like my spider's web, didn't last long.

It's true that there comes a time when you have to stop analyzing your dream and start living it. But when a small business owner - or a spider - sets up shop so hastily and tenuously that it is, literally or metaphorically, between a stack of newspapers and a bottle, success will be, like a spider's life, very short.

Mr. Spider's Neighborhood
My little arthropod neighbor was just so keen on getting his new enterprise going that he obviously deployed his web-vision without even looking around, let alone conducting any market research. Any spider that invests his capital - silk, energy, and precious time - on a web cast on top of a desk between a stack of newspapers and a four-inch-tall bottle, must have graduated at the bottom of his class at web building school.

Smart spiders can be found building webs in places that have at least two essential characteristics: where creatures larger than a spider can eat aren't likely to wander by and destroy the web; and where creatures of the size that can be eaten by a spider wander by with great regularity. Smart business owners behave similarly.

The dunce on my desk obviously was home with a bug (sorry) the day this lesson was taught. Not only do I hire people armed with weapons of mass insect destruction to defend my office from spiders and spider dinner guests, but the objects on my desk are subject to at least be shuffled, if not removed, in any given hour.

A would-be small business owner wrote me once to ask what steps he should take to open (I'm not making this up, I couldn't make this up) a combination cigar bar, coffee shop, Internet kiosk business. Oh, I almost forgot: he was going to launch this venture in a small town.

Small business owners, like spiders, must make sure that they cast their business webs in places where there are sufficient prospects for whatever is being sold. My wannabe entrepreneur's idea screamed esoteric. And esoteric businesses only work in BIG MARKETS.

With all of the delicacy I could muster, the steps I wrote my correspondent to take were very large and very fast ones away from his idea. He was going to build his business - like a spider building a web on top of a desk in an office sprayed regularly with insecticide - in a market where there were very few prospects. And even if some prospects should occasionally happen by, there would never be enough to sustain business life.

Haste Makes Waste
Sometimes taking a bold step is to be admired. Carpe diem. That sort of thing. But most of the time, especially in a small business, it's dangerous.

Compared to well-capitalized larger businesses, many small businesses - even well run ones - can be one mistake, or one backhand by a customer, banker, or big competitor, away from having everything we've built torn down.

So what can we do? When starting your business, or any new direction or addition to your existing business, don't make haste. Ask yourself if your willingness to go ahead is based on research and due diligence, and being comfortable with the findings; or is it heavy on emotion, impulsiveness, and impatience.

Have you given your new venture the maximum opportunity to succeed? Or is it like my spider's web, constructed tenuously between a stack of newspapers and a bottle.

Write this on a rock... The spider's great resources are his silk and construction instincts. The greatest resources humans have are our ability to think, reason, discern, and make informed decisions. A spider's life is short, so he must make haste. We don't have to do that. Oh, and one more thing for humans to remember: If it's a good deal today, it will almost always be a good deal tomorrow.

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Category: Entrepreneurship
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