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September 9, 2002 10:45 AM CDT

Choose Your Car Wisely: A Fresh Approach to Success


There are dozens of books on how to build a money-making business. But are they really helpful? Look inside them and you'll typically find advice that's stale or geared to larger businesses.

Now we have a book specifically aimed at smaller business, and the advice it offers is as fresh as a newly brewed pot of coffee. The title: Drive a Modest Car ? And 16 Other Keys to Small Business Success.

Ralph Warner, the entrepreneur who started Nolo Press some 30 years in a corner of his bedroom, wrote it. He's built Nolo into a respected publishing house that offers over 200 self-help books, mostly on legal topics (full disclosure: I have written some of the Nolo Press titles).

So what does the car you drive have to do with running a successful business? As Warner sees it, plenty. Driving a modest Honda Accord rather than a big Mercedes sends a much different message to employees, Warner says. Many employees will view the bigger car as ostentatious, and may resent it. Far better, he says, to make your spending less conspicuous. (Though a highly successful businessman, he himself drives a 1999 Volkswagen Passat.)

The idea is if you don't alienate employees, they'll be more loyal and productive. To build better rapport with employees, Warner offers the following additional tips:

  • Furnish your office in a businesslike way. Save the oriental carpet, fancy furniture and TV-stereo combo for your living room.
  • Share secretarial and office help with others on an as-needed basis. You may not need a secretary of your own.
  • Park in the lot or garage with everyone else, not in a "CEO" slot next to the front door.
  • Roll up your sleeves and participate in workplace clean-up projects.
  • Get your own coffee and snacks.

In short, Warner believes you can lead a company without acting like a big shot.

Warner has lots of other suggestions for making your business succeed ? many of which defy conventional wisdom. Here are some examples:

Don't work long hours. Warner says "owner overwork" is one of the biggest reasons why potentially successful businesses close. "Working too many hours for too long is bad for your health and the well-being of your family," he says. "These are two things you absolutely need to nurture to have a chance of long-term success." His solution: Stick to what you do best in the business. Learn to delegate everything else.

Pay your bills early. Some business gurus recommend that you wait to pay your bills until the day they are due ? or even until you're dunned a few times. Not Warner. He thinks it's better to pay at least a few days early whenever you can afford to ? and sometimes even if you must scrimp to do so.

He offers several convincing reasons for his recommendation. Paying early builds trust among those you deal with, he says. What's more, it ensures that you'll get prompt, excellent service in the future. And it builds positive word of mouth ? meaning that creditors will recommend your business to others.

Finally, if you have an unexpected downturn in business, creditors who have been promptly paid in the past will be more inclined to cut you some slack.

Market your business creatively. Advertising is expensive, Warner says, and may not be the best way to bring in customers. It's better, he feels, to work on ways to keep current customers coming back ? and to have them recommend you to others.

Here are some things he suggests:

Focus on quality. "Provide excellent goods and services that meet, or preferably exceed, those offered by your competitors."

Keep your place clean. "A significant slice of the public makes many purchasing decisions based on how clean a business is."

Be helpful. "Customers want to know how to use your goods and services efficiently. The more honest, easy-to-understand information and hand-holding you provide, the more likely they are to purchase."

Provide customer recourse. "Let customers know that should anything ever go wrong, you can be counted on to make it right. Backing your products with a no-hassle, money-back guarantee is one excellent way to convey this message."

Make access easy. "Lack of parking is the biggest reason customers avoid a business. Failure to return calls in a timely manner is another huge turn-off. Other roadblocks in customers' paths include confusing voicemail systems, out-of-date websites and inconvenient business hours."

The book also explains how to get free publicity for your business instead of paying big bucks for advertising.

Get rid of the bad customers. Warner says that in many businesses, a fraction of the customers ? sometimes less than 20 percent ? produce most of the profits. "Unfortunately," he continues, "savvy entrepreneurs may not realize that just a few bad customers can pull a business down almost as fast as the best ones can elevate it."

He recommends weeding out those high-maintenance customers ? the ones who are "incredibly cheap and endlessly picky" ? even if it means your income drops in the short run and you have to hustle to find new customers.

Then you can devote your time to good customers ? "People you can treat well without worrying they'll take advantage of you."

You'll find Drive a Modest Car at most bookstores, but consider ordering directly from Nolo by calling 1-800-728-3555, or by going to their website ( As Warner reminds us, if you order directly and aren't completely satisfied, Nolo will cheerfully refund your money. After all, he takes his own advice seriously.

About the Author

Fred S. Steingold practices law in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the author of The Legal Guide for Starting and Running a Small Business and The Employer's Legal Handbook published by Nolo.

This article is not intended to provide legal advice, but to raise issues on legal matters. You should consult with an attorney regarding your legal issues, as the advice you may receive will depend upon your facts and the laws of your jurisdiction.


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