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The Advice that Hurts Takes Us the Furthest

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My business partner, Stephanie Silverman, and I arrived at the meeting so excited to talk about Your Teen: two moms who recognized a need and created a magazine without any of the requisite skills. As we started to tell our story, this stuffy businessperson interrupted, "So how are you going to make money?" I felt blindsided by this aggressive response; I found the question so out of line. We have this great business idea that is filling an important niche and the first question is, "How are you going to make money?"

I tend to surround myself socially with people who have a similar perspective on life. Conversation is pleasant and tension is rare. Not surprisingly, I feel the same way in my business life -- I really like to talk to people who think that Your Teen is a great idea. So when stuffy businessperson attacked us (not really), I became very defensive and knew that stuffy was not going to be invited back.

He wasn't the last person to say something that I didn't like; that made me feel defensive. Eventually I started to notice a pattern. The comments that caused me to recoil and want to run away tended to be the most valuable.

Here is the short list of painful/helpful comments.

Where's your business plan?
We have spent years trying to grow a business without a business plan. Not surprisingly, people who owned businesses would ask us whether we had a business plan. I had three reactions to that question: 1) Why do we need one? We know what we want to accomplish, 2) Just because you have an MBA doesn't mean we can't accomplish our goal in a different way, and 3) Jerk. My real problem was that the mere mention of a Business Plan made me recoil and panic; the document seemed daunting and overwhelming for someone with no business background. In fact, what is a business plan?

Get rid of your story.
We participated in a program called Build It Big: Cleveland run under the umbrella organization called Springboard. Amy Millman, President of Springboard Enterprises, heard our presentation. After praising our concept, she told us to get rid of our story. Our story, which we loved, was that two moms who had spent the last many years raising kids, one a banker and one a lawyer, decided to start a business in an industry about which they knew nothing. Amy said, "Cute story but you need to change it. No one cares." Ouch. I got defensive. But she, of course, was right.

What are your projections?
Although I barely knew what the word "projections" meant, I knew for sure that we could grow our business without them. Not everyone has to grow in a traditional way. We have our own intuitive path and it will take us where we want to go. Anyway, maybe we are big enough. Well, after graduating from Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, I can't imagine how a business could grow without realistic projections based on solid assumptions.

Lighten up your content.
One distributor of our magazine told us to lighten the content. We snickered, "Like they know what our readers want." Parents are desperate for advice about teenagers and that advice is serious stuff. So we ignored them. Little by little, we were able to see our content through our readers' eyes. We looked at what draws us in; what we choose to read and the best length for an article. And we had an epiphany--we like light mixed with heavy, leaning more toward light. As we set a lighter plan in motion, I remembered that our brilliant idea wasn't our idea at all.

Stuffy guy - well, turns out he was saving us from ourselves. He, and many who followed, tried to help Your Teen grow into a real business.

So stuffy guy, thank you for your great advice and we welcome you back to our table. This time, coffee's on us.

Susan Borison is the Publisher and Editor In Chief of Your Teen Media. Your Teen Media: Helping parents understand, influence and guide their teenagers.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.