Here’s a Strategy for This Year: Be Afraid

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(This post originally appeared on Entrepreneur)

Monday, January 2nd was a holiday for most people. And hey, why not? The Federal government was closed. So were schools. It was the day after New Year’s Day and because New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday most companies were also closed. But not for some business owners I know.

While most employees at larger companies slept in and enjoyed the last few moments of their hard earned holiday break, all across my city some businesses and restaurants opened their doors. I saw coffee shops, dry cleaners, barbers, nail salons – even a pet supplies and a shoe repair store with its lights on. I also saw a few familiar street vendors at their usual place. Remember – this was on January 2nd, a Federal holiday and school holiday where most offices in the city were shut. But these people were working. Why? I know why.

They’re afraid.        

Do you really think these people want to be at work? Of course not. They want to be sleeping, binge-watching, reading, relaxing — all the things that the rest of the world seemed to be doing. But they weren’t. They weren’t because they’re running businesses. They’ve all been around for a while. And they’ve seen it all.

Go ahead, you survive as a dry cleaner for 30 years — like the guy in my neighborhood – in an era of casual dress and wrinkle-free shirts. You run a coffee shop for more than five years that’s one block from a Starbucks and when most startups have already reached their expiration date. You operate a nail salon for a decade when it seems that every other block has a nail salon. Not so easy, is it? So what’s the secret? The secret is fear.

They’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t open up their doors. They’re afraid of losing their hard-earned customers because they’re not available and the competitor down the street is. They’re afraid of the next definite, inevitable recession, stock market crash, banking failure or other financial calamity that will close up their customers’ wallets so they slash their dry cleaning expenses or make more coffee at home.

They’re afraid of some financial meltdown in China, India or Europe that reverberates here and makes people cut back on the chewy bones they buy for their dogs. They’re afraid of the next big bill for health insurance, a key employee who leaves them in the lurch, a fight with their insurance company over an accident, a bad review on Yelp.

In industrial parks and corporate centers around the area, many of my clients were open for business on January 2nd even when officially “closed” or operating on a skeleton staff. They came in for a quiet day in the office or they worked from home. They responded to emails and revisited their paperwork. They, like me, are also afraid. We don’t know what new regulation will hit us or what new product a competitor is introducing this year. We don’t know if that piece of equipment will perform as hoped or that marketing campaign will generate enough leads to pay for itself. We’re afraid of the darkness that looms in just a few months when our spreadsheets tell us that our backlog will end. We expect that more work will ultimately be there, but we don’t know for sure.

Small business owners like me don’t have the security of a paycheck or a severance package. We don’t bank overtime or accrue vacation pay. Sure, we take our time off and get our golf time in — but we still obsessively worry what’s going on back in the shop when we’re not around. We work those extra hours not because we are passionate, driven and enthusiastic…does your dry cleaner seem that way? No he’s not. He’s open early and staying open later on a national holiday because he knows there’s money to be made. He’s afraid of not making that money. He knows that every dollar that goes into his bank account today is security for all those unseen events that will require money tomorrow.

Long time business owners know that to be afraid is to be prepared and being prepared means survival. That’s why we worked on January 2nd. Did you?


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