Collecting seed corn for your small business

I grew up in a rural area. Our nearest neighbor owned a working farm. The oldest boy was my age, so I frequented the farm to ride horses, feed the cows, and assorted other activities.

One day the farmer was taking the kernels off of a load of harvested corn. He had usually stored the corn without doing this, which he then fed to his animals. I asked about this activity. “This is my seed corn,” he said. I still didn’t understand. “Next spring I will need to plant another crop of corn. If I don’t save some of my harvest from this year, I won’t have anything to plant. These are the seeds for next year’s crop.”

So it is with a small business—if we don’t save some of today’s harvest, we won’t have any seed corn for next year. If we don’t save some of this year’s harvest, we cannot grow our business.

In the case of our business, cash is the seed corn. Cash allows us to advertise, to purchase and maintain equipment, to invest in training, to save for a rainy day. Cash allows us to invest in our business and provide benefits. Cash allows us to grow our business. Just as a farmer can’t grow a crop without his seed corn, a business can’t grow without cash.

The farmer gets his seed corn from today’s crop. The businessman gets his cash from today’s sales—but only if it is built into his price. If his price does not include seed corn the cash will not be available. If he does not anticipate tomorrow’s needs he will not be able to meet tomorrow’s expenses.

The farmer plants more corn than he needs today. The excess becomes his seed corn. The businessman must charge more than he needs for today’s expenses, and the excess becomes his seed corn.

I see many small business owners focus on their immediate income and expenses. This short-term approach denies them seed corn. For what will they do when equipment needs replacing? How will they advertise? How will they weather a temporary lull in business? Without seed corn, they can’t. As a result, they get locked into a vicious cycle of feast or famine.

Those who do not collect seed corn will have nothing with which to plant next year’s crop. And without a crop, there will be nothing to harvest come the fall.

Imposing our values on customers

In working with small business owners, I am often amazed at how frequently they seek to impose their values upon their customers. Sometimes this occurs is small, subtle ways. And other times it occurs in a huge way.

One of the most common ways small business owners do this is by declaring that customer’s won’t pay higher prices. Many believe that customers only buy on the basis of price, and so they seek to do anything reasonable (and sometimes unreasonable) to keep their prices low.

Certainly, in some industries competing on price is simply the business model. Commodities are a prime example. But even when one is selling a commodity, one doesn’t have to compete solely on the basis of price. The success of brand names is one example.

When an owner refuses to offer his customer options he is imposing his values on the customer. The owner believes something to be true, and acts accordingly. He never bothers to find out if it is true of this particular customer. Rather than offer the customer options–and let the customer decide–the owner offers one option and the customer must take it or leave it.

Over the years I have had many customers buy from me when I would have bet the farm that they wouldn’t. Often, the reason they have bought from me is because I gave them options. I spent the time to learn what they want and why, and then offered a number of solutions to meet their needs.

I don’t like others making assumptions about what I want. They may or may not be correct, but it is my money and I will decide how to spend it. We should do the same with our customers.

Silence can be golden

It is often said that in negotiations “he who speaks first, loses.” The idea is that once you give away your position, the other party can begin to chip away at it and get more concessions. For example, if you are asking $100 for your product, the buyer can ask for a lower price. However, if you let the buyer make an offer, he may offer $110.

This adage isn’t literally and always true. Good negotiating skills, as well as a clear idea of your goals, can make speaking first beneficial. For example, if you want $100 for your product, but initially ask for $110, you have “wiggle” room to offer concessions and still get what you want.

Sales is as much about listening as it is about talking, and perhaps more so. While our goal is to sell our product or service, we should also be trying to create win-win situations. This requires listening to the other party to understand their goals and desires. It means understanding their motivations and the results they are seeking.

While we all want to tout our product or service, sometimes the best way to do this is to keep our mouth shut. Sometimes, if we do more listening than talking we will wind up with the gold.

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