Want to Start a New Business? Ask and Answer this One Simple Question

Earlier in January we posted a blog on what you need to do to start a new business in Washington state. I recommend that you check this out if you are considering starting a business as it gives you some tactical steps to take to be successful (including some that, if you miss, can lead to a lot of headaches later).

Before you even get to tactics, however, it’s important to ask and answer this very simple question: What do I want my business to do for me? This isn’t just a starter question; this is as important for the individual who has owned a business for 20 years as it is for the person who is just starting a business. This answer becomes the North Star, and the business owner who stays true to his or her answer will have more energy, fulfillment, and confidence than the one who doesn’t.

Although this question is simple on the surface, it takes continual honest and sober assessment as you build your business and time goes on. It is essential to have this North Star in place, stay aligned with it, and continually assess if you are meeting it. Because without this alignment, owning a small business can be difficult and lonely. Many more people choose to have a typical job with typical hours with typical benefits – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking that path if your own small business is not doing for you what you need it to.

But hey – we are in the small business game, and we wouldn’t change it for a second. We absolutely love what we get to do each day. Below are a few things to think about as you think about that simple question – What do I want my business to do for me?

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Personal

When you work for a large corporation, you are essentially opting in to its’ values (and associated perks). If bringing my dog to work is the most important thing to me, I’m going to choose to work for a company that allows me to bring my dog to work. But you don’t really get to bend the company rules – unless you are the next Albert Einstein! Additionally, you don’t really have the luxury to think about how your personal needs are going to be met; you figure that out on your own.

The beautiful thing about owning your own business is you can focus more on the personal side of things – some might say that you can be a little selfish. But I would dispute the ‘selfish’ notion; being able to set the terms enables us, as small business owners, to have a balanced life and be able to give back to the community in other ways. In fact, I’d say what the world needs right now is fewer frazzled, stressed-out people running around!

Is it important to you that you are home to take your son to soccer practice? Or that you can meet your spouse for lunch on Fridays? Absolutely build those types of things into your plan, and don’t be willing to give them up!

Review Your Preconceptions

We all have preconceptions about what it means to own a small business. A fairly common mindset is that you have to work long hours, barely make it month to month, stress out about costs like health care, and constantly do things you don’t like (such as accounting). Many people still start a business despite that, as they believe it is worth it because they are doing what they love and not answering to “the man”.

These preconceptions are further cemented by noticing how small businesses around us operate.  Whether we realize it or not, businesses are trying to impact our experience of their product/service from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep.

Owning a small business has made us even more hyper-sensitive to these daily business interactions. We notice everything when we are connecting with other businesses – and not just the obvious things like customer service. We see subtler things as well, like when a business undervalues its’ services or is willing to work with people who don’t match its’ values.

As you analyze what you want for your own business, observe others – which business owners seem genuinely happy and how are they doing it? Which business owners seem miserable running a business and why are they so hassled or frazzled? And make sure that you are reviewing your own preconceptions. Don’t be willing to settle for less of an experience just because you think being a small business owner equals a frazzled life – it doesn’t have to!

Your Business (and your Answer) Will Change

In some ways, it’s easier to ask and answer ‘What do you want your business to do for you?’ when you are starting your business. When you’ve owned a business for any length of time, it really becomes a part of who you are. Walking away from a business is not easy – nor is making significant changes even when they are required.

As you embark on your journey, you need to understand that both your business and your answer will change. Your business will grow and it will face and overcome new challenges. Five years from now your business – the structure, people, and services – may look very different. But as your business grows and evolves you absolutely need to go back to the key question, because growth for growth’s sake is not worth it. Every change to your business needs to be viewed with the same approach that you started with, accounting for changes since you started.

Additionally, know that the answer to this key question will change as well. Perhaps you were single when you started your business and you got married along the way. You’ll definitely want to revisit the question and re-set what you’re doing so that the business is working for you.

Artificial Intelligence and Accounting – The Challenge of ‘Now’

Although we can understand the past (what we’ve experienced) and try to predict the future (what we can dream up), often the most difficult thing to understand is what is happening RIGHT NOW. And nowhere today is that more true than in artificial intelligence.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve all heard buzzwords such as ‘artificial intelligence’ a million times. And there is no doubt that the buzz is real; the resulting advances will change the way we work and live in a fundamental way. According to Andrew Moore, Dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, “Artificial intelligence is the science and engineering of making computers behave in ways that, until recently, we thought required human intelligence.”

When it comes to AI, on the one end of the spectrum – let’s call it ‘The Sky Is Falling’ view – the questions are along the lines of ‘How long until I lose my job to a robot?’On the other end – let’s call it the ‘Pie in the Sky’ view – the questions more closely resemble ‘How long until I can live comfortably without working so much since AI will be doing my time-consuming work?’

Our own mental model of the world is shaped by past experiences. When something completely new comes into existence – like the Internet in the 90’s – it’s takes some adjusting to wrap our brains around what it means and how to use it. You don’t have to look very far on Facebook to see that many of us are still on the social media learning curve – ourselves included!

On the other end of the spectrum, our ability to dream helps us to see what is possible in the future. Movies have always tried to predict what the future will look like, sometimes with creepy accuracy…and sometimes not. I looked up a few big misses, and they included gems from movies like Back to the Future II, which showed at various points both restaurants with workout bikes and people floating around on hoverboards (not to pick on this movie too much as it also basically predicted the Cubs winning the World Series after a 100+ year drought). We don’t always get the future right, but many people enjoy thinking about what could be possible.

Although we can understand the past (what we’ve experienced) and try to predict the future (what we can dream up), often the most difficult thing to understand is what is happening RIGHT NOW. And nowhere today is that more true than in artificial intelligence. I’m sure that each of us have two kinds of stories – the first kind involving ‘wow’ experiences (“I can’t believe this system is that smart/helpful/amazing”) and the second kind quite the opposite (“I can’t believe it’s 2019 and this device still can’t do X, Y, or Z”).

Terra and I had the second type of experience while navigating through Seville, Spain, a couple of years ago. I made the mistake of driving towards the center of the old town, and we found ourselves on roads that were so narrow that the sidewalks were essentially acting as rails on both sides. A couple of restaurants had to move a few tables for us to get around them! We were guided to this perilous location by our helpful Google Maps assistant. Worse yet, when we got to a pedestrian square, her directions basically indicated that we needed to stop, pick up and carry the car across the square, and continue on our merry way. Yeah right!?!

Existence in this seemingly perpetual transitory state can seem confusing at best and irritating at worst. Every intelligent system we use (and the companies behind them) are continually trying to improve, but we are (sometimes painfully) living through their growing pains. Technological advances have absolutely enabled us to say “Yes, we can help” to just about every single problem/issue that a client can come to us with.

This is no less true in the Accounting industry. On the one hand we (as Accounting professionals) are experiencing amazing times because of this technological improvement. We are constantly finding new ways to utilize cutting-edge technology to solve business problems. Although we do encounter a lot of similar issues, there are occasions for new problems to come to the forefront. And when that happens, we invariably say ‘I’m sure there is a solution for that!” And then we invariably find it. Technological advances have absolutely enabled us to say “Yes, we can help” to just about every single problem/issue that a client can come to us with.

But the important thing to realize is that artificial intelligence is in many ways in its infancy, and therefore as a small business owner it’s critical to have professionals by your side who have ‘seen it all’ and understand the pitfalls and challenges associated with each system. Despite the amazing progress we’ve made, businesses still need trained professionals who know how to scout out the errors or anomalies in an imperfect software world.

We at Joy Accounting have built a library of knowledge based on these particulars, including how well specific systems work together (or not). Recently we noticed some minor calculation errors in one of our accounting programs that, had we not known what to look for, would have gone unnoticed and could have affected clients negatively. This latter example is more related to automation than AI per se, but the same idea applies – you need someone who knows the ins and out of the software you are using by your side. Despite the amazing progress we’ve made, businesses still need trained professionals who know how to scout out the errors or anomalies in an imperfect software world.

I’ll leave you with a Forbes article from 2018. Although the article clearly suggests that artificial intelligence is the future of accounting (in fact that’s in the title!), it also states that “Despite being very promising, the accuracy of the machine learning algorithms used in most of today’s solutions still needs to significantly improve in efficiency to avoid accounting errors and really fulfill their promise of automation.”