Out of the mouths of babes. Of course, a 17-year-old is no longer really a “babe,” but the other day, a young man by the name of Lawrence from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles said something to me that many far more experienced business owners don’t always understand. I had the chance to talk to Lawrence courtesy of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), an entrepreneurship education program for kids in low-income communities.
During the classroom discussion I told the students, many of whom were reluctant to talk, that they needed to learn to speak out and ask for what they want. Lawrence interjected and put it better than I did: “Closed mouths never get fed.” So true.
Think of how many situations that statement applies to in your daily entrepreneurial life.
Speaking up can save you money. Don’t be afraid, especially in recessionary times like these, to ask for the best deal. Just a few months ago I read an article in the New York Times that said everyone was negotiating, from banks to big-box retailers. I tried it on a banker last week when she was talking to me about refinancing my home loan. She gave me a quote, which though lower than what I’m currently paying, didn’t seem “special” enough. When I asked if that was the best she could do, she told me about the “good relationship rate,” which was “good” enough for me. (I asked the same question at Best Buy a few months ago and saved about 5 percent off my bill.)
Speaking up can also make you money. I’m not a sales guru but I’ve had the opportunity to listen to quite a few of them and I’ve learned that you have to ask for the sale. This comes easily to some, but to those of us who weren’t born to sell, it can be fairly difficult. I spent 30 years in the workforce and it is only after seven months as an entrepreneur that I now feel comfortable asking for what I want.
But speaking up is more than just saying “I want this.” It can also help you establish and cement relationships. You might not know this if you’ve seen me on TV or heard me give a speech, but I’m actually a shy person. But over the years, I’ve had to bury the more introverted side of myself so that I would feel more comfortable talking to strangers (a big part of my job). I’ve tried hard to develop a more extraverted side of my personality. Now those traits have merged, enabling me to ask others for help, advice, or anything else I want or need. It’s helped me, in Lawrence’s words, to “get fed.” And now that I’m a business owner, I mean that literally.
It works both ways, though. You can’t just always ask for favors, information, or advice; you have to offer it was well. (That’s how I ended up talking to the kids at Crenshaw High.) I believe that one of the keys to entrepreneurial success has an element of karma: The more you give, the more you get.
We entrepreneurs are in a unique position these days. With a hemorrhaging economy, businesses large and small going bankrupt, and millions of Americans getting laid off, the country needs us. The fate of the economy ultimately will depend upon our ingenuity, our resourcefulness, and our ability to craft something out of nothing. Up until now, we haven’t had a lot of help doing all this.
Hopefully, all this will soon change. I’m hearing from a lot of sources that the incoming Obama administration considers small businesses a vital part of their economic recovery plan. Not many details have been revealed yet, but I expect they will be unveiled soon. However, this is the perfect time for all of us to speak out. We entrepreneurs are more than willing to give, but we need to get as well. We need banks to understand our needs, we need government officials to examine the regulations that govern us, we need insurance we can afford, and we need easy, affordable access to resources.
You can start by telling your elected officials what you need. Begin on the local level and work your way up to your government representatives. Contact Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, head of the House Small Business Committee and Senator Mary Landrieu, who now chairs the Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship. We business owners can’t count on others to speak up for us; we need to take the responsibility of asking for what we need. After all, as Lawrence says, “Closed mouths never get fed.”
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