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How to Conquer Small Business Chaos without Going Crazy


Seems like software company execs are getting into the book-writing business. A few months ago, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37Signals came out with Rework, a punchy book of counter-intuitive, short essays on how to get things done in your entrepreneurial business. Now comes Conquer the Chaos: How to Grow a Successful Small Business without Going Crazy by Infusionsoft executives Clate Mask and Scott Martineau. For me, Rework is a vastly better book -- the founders seem much more in tune with the scrappier, bootstrapped way startups roll these days. Chaos comes from two guys who admirably mortgaged everything, endured not making payroll and dancing around the bill-collectors before things started going their way. I think their story and model of getting started was perfect five years ago, but now that there's no one to borrow from and you can't go into hock even if you want to, their perspective seem less relevant.

Even if Chaos is more old school than Rework (it has a forward from the oldest of the old schoolers, Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth), it has some value for entrepreneurs. The authors rightly point out that even more important than raising financial capital is having emotional capital: the ability to keep going when things look really bad. They offer some good advice on how to raise emotional capital: talk to other entrepreneurs about their experiences; interview yourself to see if you're cut out for the life; read books by the sages of entrepreneurship (including The E-Myth, of course, and some other rather worn titles like The Power of Positive Thinking and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Oddly, there is no mention of folks like Seth Godin, Keith Ferrazzi, John Jantsch or some other more contemporary voices of entrepreneurship.

Mask and Martineau also introduce the concept of disciplined optimism, which involves having "faith you will prevail plus discipline to confront the brutal facts." Confronted with issues like cash flow, customer complaints, massive competition, impossible production goals and the like, how do you keep going? The authors offer suggestions including: rewire your brain to stop thinking negatively, get out of the situation causing you anxiety (take a walk), exercise, connect with loved ones, be grateful for what you have, and give compliments to get the good feeling of generosity. Can't argue with this mom-and-apple-pie. But I'd rather create a business that customers rave, rather than complain, about; where goals can be met as long as you''re willing to get the product out the door; where competition is either irrelevant or better yet, non-existent. I'm guessing Mask and Martineau would think this kind of business is impossible, but I know plenty of people who have just those kind of enterprises.

If there is one principle that Chaos articulates that is out of step with what most entrepreneurs are hearing and reading, it's their argument that referrals and repeat business are overrated. Sure, referrals are always great to have and you should try to get them. But, they write, "saying you grow your business through referrals is another way of saying you don't know how to grow." The most important thing, they argue, is to be focused on growth and new customers, because if you're not growing, they say, you are dying. I find their reasoning a little off. Many enlightened businesses are creating systems to maximize the referral potential of their installed base of customers and spend a lot less money and energy marketing for new customers. (The best book on how do to this is John Jantsch's The Referral Engine. Another worth checking out is Flip the Funnel: How to Use Existing Customers to Gain New Ones by Joseph Jaffe.)

For me, having a referral engine that creates new customers beats slogging through all the trade shows, AdSense, direct mail and other methods of meeting strangers. In a section on the importance of following up with prospects, the authors cite a study showing that 81 percent of prospects buy on or after the fifth contact with a business and only 10 percent of businesses are following up past the fifth contact. Isn't this even more of an argument for referral business? With referrals, you shortcut the customer interest cycle because they come to you.

Infusionsoft's website has an About Us section that says, "At Infusionsoft, we're very serious and passionate about our work. But that doesn't mean we don't like to mix it up and have some fun. Here's a few things we think are pretty cool," followed by photos of their gym, a Nissan Z....and a Hummer. A Hummer? Perhaps that's a fitting example of why this book's ideas feel dated, despite some good advice here and there.

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