There's no business like small business, local entrepreneur says

Q&A

September 06, 1994|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Sun Staff Writer

Rudy Lewis has done a lot. He once owned a 24-hour towing service -- and was its only employee. Later, he worked for a large corporation. But for the past 10 years, he has specialized in nurturing small businesses.

Not clubroom businesses, for example, that may produce wooden toys to sell at craft fairs, or a dressmaker who doesn't work until the children start school.

The small businesses Mr. Lewis seeks are the ones that want to make it to the top, to expand so that they can hire employees and eventually seek out international trade partners. He figures that nationally 12 million to 15 million people operate such independent businesses.

Mr. Lewis, a 53-year-old who is based in Baltimore with offices in Owings Mills, has several businesses of his own that reach out to the entrepreneur, such as the National Association of Home Based Businesses. He also owns the Small Business Network Marketing and Management Co. Inc. and other companies geared to the small-business person. He has written such books as "The International Trader's IntroGuide for Independent and Small Business Traders."

Q: Why do people want to start a home-based business?

A: There's been a fundamental change in our society where workers are no longer assured a long term "cradle-to-grave" job at some large company.

A lot of executives want to hedge their bets and start a business now, before they are out of a job. There are also employed people who are thinking ahead to when they retire . . to supplement their income.

Q: Do you ever tell people that they are destined to fail or that they have an unworkable idea?

A: No, that's not my role. My role is to provide information, not to make a judgment call.

However, the failure rate is high. I would estimate that 90 percent of them will fail within the first two to three years.

Q: What's the difference between an entrepreneur with a home business and someone who works out of his home?

A: Entrepreneurs dream of having other people working for them. They expect their business to grow out of their houses.

Q: What do most people expect from your services?

A: They expect something easy. A lady called me a couple of weeks ago to say she had invented a way to improve pantyhose and she didn't understand why local companies would not sell her product.

The problem was she expected the companies to do all the work. She hadn't done any comparison-testing of her product compared to regular pantyhose; she hadn't proved why her pantyhose was better; and she had no research to present any of the companies she contacted.

This used to be a country where if you built a better mousetrap, the world would come to you. That doesn't work anymore; you can sit there with your mousetrap forever.

Q: Why not join a corporation with the same type of products?

A: Corporations and entrepreneurs are opposites. A creative person will not survive in a big business. He or she will probably get fired, because creativity clogs the system. There is this belief that big business loves to work with small business, but that's a myth.

Q: When where are the entrepreneurs to go?

A: Foreign countries. We are in a global marketplace. Look around. I have seen entrepreneurs sell their knowledge and business skills to people in South Africa. A good part of the world, like Russia, has no

idea how to start a company or how to keep it going.

A lot of the world has never seen free enterprise in action. Our entrepreneurs know what it takes to run a company. Small business in this country could do training seminars, show them how to create distributorships and how to deal with customers.

Q: What are some of the basic tricks of the trade for entrepreneurs?

A: A lot of information is basic. A good word processor can turn out letters and reports that look like they came from a Fortune 500 companies.

Many office parks offer "shared office space." What happens is you contract with a company to use anywhere from an office every day to a conference room once a week. The good part about this is you are paying only for what you are using.

There are some things entrepreneurs rarely think of. For example, if you are going to operate a business out of your home, how many phones do you need? If you have only one, do you really want your 5-year-old to answer it while your toddler screams in the background?

Q: How important is family support to a start-up business?

A: It is vital. It can be quite a shock when a husband or wife announces they are going to quit their jobs to pursue a lifelong dream of entrepreneurship. It can create a tremendous amount of tension and strife about money and security, because entrepreneurs so frequently fail.

Q: You've been very critical of the efforts of federal agencies, especially the Small Business Administration, to help entrepreneurs. Why?

A: Times have changed, but the government agencies have not. When I was first starting out and I called for help, all the SBA did was tell me what I was doing wrong and how I was going to fail.

Another thing with the SBA is that they concentrated on getting acceptable applicants a loan.

Well, the worst thing that can happen is to give someone who knows nothing about marketing or budgeting planning money. They have received no business training, and so they are bound to fail. The government too often throws money at a problem and hopes some of it sticks. That doesn't help.

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