First-Time Owners Find Management Comes With Headaches

 In Business, Employee Motivation, Leadership, Relationships, Small Business, Starting a Business

Wall Street Journal | Small Business By SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN – FEBRUARY 24, 2010

When Cameron Madill launched Synotac Design LLC in 2003, wiping away tears and giving pep talks wasn’t on his to-do list. But once he began hiring employees for his Web-site development firm two years later, he learned that dealing with people matters comes with the job.

“I was interested in building a company,” says Mr. Madill, a first-time business owner in Portland, Ore. “I never thought through that it meant I would have to hire people, terminate people and do all of the things associated with being a boss.”

Cameron Madill

It’s common for first-time entrepreneurs to overlook responsibilities tied to managing people when starting out, says Edward P. Marram, a senior lecturer of entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. With all the focus on selling a new product or service, “most don’t think about being a boss,” he says.

But at some point, business owners typically need help to grow, Mr. Marram says, and that means hiring staff, delegating responsibilities, and learning to be effective managers. For the inexperienced, those management duties can be challenging, depressing and sometimes plain awkward.

For instance, entrepreneur Lisa Morris last year had to deal with an employee who accidentally copied her on a highly graphic email to a hotel sales manager. “He was saying he’d do certain things to the person’s body for good rates,” recalls Ms. Morris, owner of Road Concierge Inc., a travel- and concierge-services firm in New York. “We’re all about servicing our clients, but not actually servicing them.”

Ms. Morris, who started her business in 2006, says she felt “really uncomfortable” scolding the employee for his behavior because ruling with an iron fist isn’t her style. “I don’t like to be very corporate,” she says, adding that she runs a casual office where employees’ pets are welcome.

Still, while it was clear that the email exchange wasn’t serious, nor was the recipient offended, Ms. Morris says she needed to stress that a repeat performance would be unacceptable. “I hate having to act like a mom,” she says. “But there are times when you can’t be nice. You’re the boss and you have to enforce policy.”

Many first-time business owners struggle with laying down the law because they are in fact former corporate employees who became entrepreneurs in part to escape rigid work environments. The worst situation, however, is having to tell an employee you can no longer keep them on board.

Womenkind LLC

Sandy Sabean, co-owner of Womenkind, pictured center, meets with employees Lara Ngai, left, and Betsy Handwerker, right.

“You feel terrible,” says Sandy Sabean, co-owner of Womenkind LLC, a New York marketing-communications firm with five employees. Last year, she says, she laid off two workers for the first time after the company lost a bid. “When you have to let someone out on the street under those circumstances it’s hard,” she says. “It’s sad.”

Gary Hewing, co-owner of Bert Martinez Communications LLC, a sales- and business-training firm in Houston and Scottsdale, Ariz, says it’s just as rough to fire someone for poor performance. “You know they’ll have a tough time finding a job and that you’re giving this person the last check they may have for months,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult. I do not appreciate that aspect of the job.”

Some inexperienced entrepreneurs are caught off guard by just how significant a role a boss plays within a small company.

Mr. Madill, whose Web-design firm has eight employees, learned that lesson about three years ago when a worker who was hired to do miscellaneous tasks refused to take on a new assignment and subsequently offered her resignation.

A self-described pushover, Mr. Madill agree to let her stay on the company payroll for the next six weeks while she searched for a new employer. “She helped build the company,” he says. “You feel some loyalty to your first few hires.”

But the decision drew resentment from the rest of the company’s staff, says Mr. Madill, particularly because the uncompromising employee did little work from that point on. “It led to an unbelievably toxic atmosphere,” he says. And when the problem worker was finally gone, things changed dramatically. “Productivity suddenly increased,” he says. “You would’ve thought we hired a person the day she left.”

Mr. Madill says he since changed his outlook on business leadership thanks to the advice of counselors at Accelerator, a nationwide support organization for early-stage entrepreneurs. Other support groups small businesses can turn to for advice include Young Entrepreneur, Energizing Young Entrepreneurs and SCORE.

Now Mr. Madill believes that as a business owner, “you only have an obligation to make (your employees) successful to the extent that they give more back to the company,” he says. “And if someone doesn’t understand that, it’s not your responsibility to educate them.”

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at

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