Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Business Planning with Women

Over the past year, we've been working with a local business woman who needed to change her business to accommodate changes in life circumstances. We've subsequently been approached by two other women in similar situations, although different lines of business, to do similar work with them. In all cases, the women felt that the usual business planning resources available were not a good fit. They were choosing to struggle on their own to think their way through the dilemma facing them rather than 'take advantage of' the usual resources. This was tantamount to their being disqualified from publicly funded services, without the services being held accountable -- or even knowing about -- the way in which these business women were excluded as clients.

It strikes me, as I write, that this is similar to the situation we are involved with in the Women's Charter project: clients are excluded because of how the institution does business but the clients are 'at fault' because they don't take advantage of what is available to them. Helping an institution find a way to dialogue with people who could be but are not their clients is a difficult assignment -- as the Sherbourne Health Centre is finding in the Women's Charter project -- that only the highly motivated will undertake. We don't have a pre-contemplation situation here, at least not at present.

Therefore the work comes from the other perspective, the disentitled client -- although none of the women who have approached us would likely describe themselves in that way. They are established and respected members of the community -- but perhaps not established and respected in the business community. Not disrespected; more likely 'under the radar'.

The woman with whom we've been working for a year has a successful massage therapy business. Over 12 years, it has become steady throughout the year (always a factor in our community, which is 'cottage country' with a 4-fold, or more, increase in population over the summer months) and as much work as our client could manage. Because the business is 'piece work' and the pricing structure is largely established by professional bodies, there is a natural revenue ceiling. It is also physically demanding work, and as our client aged, she was not able to manage as many clients a day as she had in earlier days. And she was less willing to sacrifice family life to work evenings or weekends. But she wanted and needed to increase her income.

She had introduced a number of changes by the time she began to work with us. In fact, the first order of business was us recommending that she apply for a grant from 'the usual resources' in order to hire us to work with her. We wrote the proposal for her signature on spec. She was given the grant with very little discussion. The granters were mildly surprised that she planned to work with us, as they hadn't thought this was our line of business. They 'knew' Michael as a writer and volunteer and me as a government-funded social service type, none of which said 'business' to them. However, each of us has a strong local reputation as people who make things happen, so they were willing to take a chance. We are now on their 'accepted' list of consultants.

Our client had already attempted to engage a second massage therapist to share her business and space and had had limited success. She wanted to develop a clearer framework for sharing her business. And to make money out of her physical space, which had untapped potential, not all of which would be absorbed by the addition of another massage therapist. We helped identify the negotiating elements: what kind of skill set, what financial arrangements, what work arrangements, how important is personal chemistry, how to protect and enhance her 'brand' (and what was that brand), etc..

We developed a generic contract for sharing space and support services to help her clarify and quantify these elements in her decision making. This was mostly useful in increasing her comfort with doing 'hard-nosed business' in what she saw primarily as sharing her 'baby', her business and physical space, with a new partner. Balancing head and heart: the usual woman's dilemma! But not one that many business planners are comfortable with working through.

We also developed a mechanism for our client to analyze rigorously her core clientele. She is analytical by nature, but wasn't confident in her conclusions. We developed a data collection instrument from which she gleaned non-identifying information from active files of her core clientele over 12 years of business, a full-population study of considerable size. This was time-consuming for her to do and took quite a while to complete. She found the process itself interesting and useful. The analysis was a lot of fun (for me). It ratifies the rationale for the decisions she has already taken and should give her confidence going forward -- both in her plans and in her capacity to correctly analyze her situation.

We also developed a simple survey questionnaire for her clients to complete in the waiting room, asking what auxiliary services they would like to see in the community, perhaps as an addition to her business. This, too, was merely confirming the validity of data collection she has always done informally. She took it the next step by organizing and hosting (in her beautiful space) a meeting of other massage therapists in the community (pointedly not including those who called themselves massage therapists but who were not qualified professionals) to share information about the services available and to strengthen referral patterns.

Before we began working together, our client had entered an informal apprenticeship as a travel agent as a potential second business that was compatible with her massage therapy business and had the capacity to increase her earnings. During the time we worked together, she 'graduated' herself from her mentor and registered independently as a travel agent with a new firm. She applied for a skill-development grant to take the required training and offset the substantial fee (and received something, although less than she was hoping for, as the training fee was interpreted as a purchase of franchise). She also applied for and received an interest-free loan to get broad-band internet access at her home, so that she could do more of her travel agent work at home.

The final piece of work that remains is to write The Business Plan, which is a deliverable of the grant. The template that the granter provides is not a good fit with the work we have done: it's all about head and nothing about heart. I see that as an indicator of the process of how business women (or some, at least) are excluded and need to figure a way to reflect this to the granting agency without alienating them.

This is particularly important because two other local women have indicated interest in hiring us to work with them in very similar ways. One of them approached us to help her make the application for a business plan. She, too, has one successful business that cannot grow to meet her financial requirements, and the desire to develop a second business that turns a 'hobby' about which she is passionate into a source of income, which will involve asking people to pay for something that she has always made available for the sheer love of it.

However, this woman found the granting organization to be challenging to work with as she went through the application process. Although she was eventually given the grant, she refused it - without explanation - rather than allow them to be involved in her progress going forward. She insisted on paying me for my role in the application process, which began with bringing its availability to her attention, hearing her plans at length and translating them into the grant proposal. My belief is that my listening and translation was all she needed to affirm her intention and capability to launch her new business. Ironically, the granters may have been correct when they questioned why she wanted to hire F&A when she was already an acknowledged expert on the business she was proposing to develop. In her head she is; in her heart, she wasn't sure. But now she is. I plan to purchase her new product from her this fall.

The third woman who has indicated interest in working with F&A to do a business plan is, once again, involved in a successful business but wants to modify it to accommodate life stage and circumstances. Unlike the other two women, she is very aware of the granting agency and very comfortable with applying for a grant. The impediment for her was that she wasn't aware of anyone that she wanted to do the work with -- until she affirmed that we did this kind of work and were acceptable to the granter. It will be interesting to see how the granter deals with her application when the time comes... and how she deals with what they do.

It seems to me that by making ourselves available to do business planning locally, we have inadvertently drawn attention to how the business world works by posing an alternative. F&A itself was the recipient of a business planning grant, at the point when we were preparing for me to leave paid employment and become a principal partner in F&A. We hired a woman who worked for a sister organization to our granting agency. She did a good business plan, based on our input at the time. Ironically, we've never used the resources she provided. It assumed that we would grow the business by marketing ourselves to take advantage of the credentials and interests I brought. But in fact, the market network in health promotion that Michael established has welcomed me as well, and my network in the community has claimed my skills in ways I did not anticipate.

Again, it seems that F&A's business planning process spoke to the head and ignored the heart. My perception of myself in the business world was clearly not in line with the business world's perception of me. Actually, in retrospect I think I did not have a perception of myself as a business person. I saw myself as an experienced and skilled manager of people, an administrator with proven capacity to get and manage funds, someone able to conceptualize, resource, implement and disseminate community-based research (a combination of skills that I think is not captured by saying I am a researcher). And maybe some other things. But they didn't add up to what my business should be. I think if our business planning partner had had the skills and interest to listen to me as much as I have listened to the the women we've worked with, we might have derived a more useful document. Or perhaps the business plan document is not in itself important, but only evidence of a process that is more or less helpful.

I don't want to downplay or disregard Michael's role in this business-planning part of our business. Although I take the lead in these local contracts, he is the lead in developing strategies for funding for our social inclusion projects. He has an intuition for positioning and describing work in a way that joins together partners who didn't realize they had a confluence of interests. He sells well. I listen well. Together we're a great team!

And now I need to decide how to write The Business Plan... for women, by women... in a men's world... I thought we were past that!!!!! Not!

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