Chronology plus Lessons for Consultants
January 1979 -- Sandra Winston publishes The Entrepreneurial Woman, the first book "to focus on the psychological and personal implications for women" from the long boom in business-creation just then starting. Truly a pioneering work, it’s original, "deep" and action-defining.
1981-88: President Reagan achieves deep cuts in federal income tax rates; this drives down the penalty for individual entrepreneurship, and spares second-earner income from big tax hits. The top marginal tax rate will plunge from 70% during the Carter years down to 28% by 1988. During this decade, female entrepreneurship soars.
Sometime in 1988 -- Your correspondent, a Republican political operative in and around the U.S. Congress, has an idea: Can the boom in women-owned firms transcend – or help the political system transcend -- the ideological chasm between feminists and traditionalists? Feminist groups lobby for bigger government and group rights and sometimes overplay "victim status." Meanwhile the number of women-owned enterprises (overwhelmingly sole proprietorships) has by this time roughly doubled -- not just because of Reagan's tax-cutting, but also the home-based options offered by the PC, and disdain for big-company cultures with their Glass Ceilings. Pick your own primary cause, but let the numbers carry the day for Big Change.
August 24, 1992 – Newsweek tunes into the WBO megatrend, except the article’s theme is "they still want to stop you" victimization: "Now: The Brick Wall" quotes WBO spokespeople on "some of the same frustrations they thought they had left behind in corporate America." Yet most breakthroughs come from some kind of pressure, and the best quote in this piece is from Small Business Administration chief Pat Saiki: "They bring with them the history of frustrated goals and ambitions, and they vow not to replicate those patterns in their own small companies."
May 13, 1993 – In "Women-Owned Businesses Attract a Lot of Attention,” Barbara Marsh of the Wall Street Journal surveys the emerging academic plus economic landscape. With a pragmatic Democratic President in the White House, the first one since JFK, all kinds of groups are glad to be rid of the previous Administration’s torpor and boredom with domestic policy.
1992-93: Joline Godfrey publishes Our Wildest Dreams. The title slights the long odds, and the subtitle is almost as bad: "Women Entrepreneurs Making Money, Having Fun, Doing Good." But I fault her publisher rather than Godfrey for the airiness. The workshops Godfrey has started, to turn teenage females into business-builders, sound great. In his WSJ "Business World" column of 4/27/93, Tim Ferguson reports on the "distinctly feminist flavor" of Godfrey's non-profit An Income of Her Own. Still, he rightly concludes, it's progress -- because we need a new model for "bored and ignored" urban girls. And Godfrey's policy agenda is business-friendly.
October 1994: A congressional research group about to be wiped out by Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich approaches me about proposing a study. The group is run by a solid staff fellow named Bill Inglee. Someone told him I had a new spin on Republicans and the gender gap? Yep.
January-September 1995: Inglee has moved on to a new Capitol Hill post, but the memo drafted for him finds a better-situated audience: Two long-time buddies -- Jeff Walter and Greg Waddell -- are attached to the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of Congress. After months of slogging, a payment-and-deliverable schedule is affirmed. Mission: Explain the surge in women’s entrepreneurship in ways that will please pro-enterprise federal legislators and nonpartisan trend-interpreters alike.
October 1995 through June 1996: Some 28 interviews -- in Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Texas, South Carolina, and the DC area -- are taped and transcribed.
July 25, 1996 -- Veteran political reporter David Broder writes the dream sentence: "Small business is a key component of the Republican coalition. Female voters are a problem for GOP candidates. So today Republican presidential contender Robert J. Dole highlighted his plans to help entrepreneurial women build on their record of success." He does so at "a manufacturer of giant paper clips near Pittsburgh and at a cookie-making factory in [King of Prussia, PA] run by women and their families."
My two allies inside the client group cheer Broder's article – it’s exactly the type of PR to test the market for the WBO report, which by now has been drafted and submitted. But no one else is psyched. In retrospect, this “failure to applaud” is a starkly bearish sign for my vision of the project. Why doesn’t the client group see the value here? Rather than grumble about that to myself, I should’ve demanded time -- to ask them. Aren’t we doing this to help legislators grasp the benefits of business-creation by women? The top staff people probably have different measures for the report’s effectiveness.
August 1996 -- With the JEC report formally "in the can," I launch what will be another 18 interviews (Wisconsin, Ohio, the Pacific Northwest). They can be used in Seattle under a think thank I am relocating there to take a job with.
October 1996 -- It's confirmed the JEC report on WBOs won't be released during the campaign. Either not important or potentially controversial. Hard to get a detailed answer; my contacts sound frantic, Congress is trying to adjourn for the year. Two chapters were earlier sacrificed to ease qualms by staffers.
January 1997 -- Ten weeks after I have moved to Seattle, the report comes out. Thin plain cover; all acknowledgments, thank-yous and sourcing deleted; and not available via the Committee website. Still, it's a done deal, a credential of sorts, and Committee staff did allow complete publication of the 12-page finale, called “Agendas, Timing and Drama.” Now a think-tank operative in the Northwest, I proceed to look for new backers. My boss, Bruce Chapman of Discovery Institute, is enthusiastic; WBO fits the "new economy" niche Discovery has become known for.
February-April 1997 -- I appear on a Seattle cable show touting the JEC report and give a WBO speech at probably the most liberal university in that state. Different types of people react with: "That's neat, I had no idea this trend was going on out there."
April 28, 1997 -- In an op-ed for a Seattle-area newspaper, I write: "Right now, the U.S. economy and its technological marvels are facilitating greater ownership for women of the 'means of production' than at any time anywhere in recorded history. Not 'influence on' or 'participation in' but ownership. And with such newfound power has come a rush of responsibility, innovation, social change -- in fast, most of the priorities liberal feminists told us could be achieved only through politics… The story has got to come out, eventually.”
June 1997 -- Steve Waite, driving force behind www.bionomics.org, helps put a WBO spread on that cite; it features six of what by now are 49 transcripts. For the next six years, i.e. until the Bionomics website is retired, this will be the only web manifestation of my work in this realm.
July 1997 -- The American Enterprise magazine Public Opinion publishes the decade's best article on the WBO trend. Barb DeLollis is the writer, the title is "Today's Female Passion for Entrepreneurship," and amazingly the whole thing is still available without a fee and without parting with more of your privacy.
DeLollis quotes me beneficently. That leads to lively exchanges with Katherine Post and Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute. I’ve also turned in a 2,600-word speech draft to Congresswoman Dunn’s designated contact. Yet the question of what can be done with "WBO" is being answered no better, in mid-'97 out here in Seattle, than it was a year or two earlier in and around Washington DC. Still failing to boil it down to a product and a market, although one more serious pitch is underway…
November 1997 -- Despite positive noises previously, Vivek Varma of Microsoft and Amy Millman of the National Women's Business Council show no interest in sponsoring a jointly funded book of WBO profiles. This turns out to be the last real effort; looks like no follow-up to the JEC report. Several lesser pitches and meetings have also gone nowhere. Discovery President Chapman, who had been as supportive as a subordinate could want, will muse a few months later: "I’m the wrong gender, and so are you.”
Let’s stick to the primary investigative trail -- the JEC Report and WBO interviews of 1995-96. Why did the product disappear without a trace? What did the research show? Can an upper-level audience relate to “life stories” told not by celebrities but by real business-growers? And, nearly a decade later, what does all of that teach someone about managing a "themed" project so it does not misfire as a product and a market-definer?
Much worked. That is, certain sound tactics were knowable ahead of time:
(1) Don't go out on the road talking to anyone until the client sends you the first check. Yes, it took the Joint Economic Committee six months, thanks partly to a split in the staff executive roles, to okay the project. From that point on, “JEC” always paid on time; in fact, they kicked in extra expenses when they heard another client was bringing me to Silicon Valley, thereby allowing some extra tapings.
(2) Tape everything, and assure your subjects that they have control over what is published, plus can reasonably patch up their remarks. Partly as a result, I detected little skittishness or lack of candor. It’s also the case that entrepreneurial females (and us guys too) are vastly more open and self-aware than the people who struggle inside the Fortune 500.
(3) Be creative as to how you get time and with whom. Creative yes, but star-struck and wheel-spinning, no. A southern CA friend said to go after Oprah Winfrey and Linda Wachner. They had been interviewed 500 times, and I would get past their PR wall? Instead I found dozens of truly entrepreneurial people who had never been talked with by any researcher.
(4) Go to where your subject works. If it's a home, go there. More often it was the HQ, the place of ownership. Why wouldn’t a founder and/or owner want to be seen and heard there? Especially memorable were the Oregon Candy Farm, the concrete operation out in Upper Marlboro MD, and the Artworks Gallery in – of all places – Marquette, Michigan.
(5) Organize the stories functionally. No matter how interesting a small-biz saga seems to you, the key figure has no PR value. You can't dump their 5,000-word transcript on any audience beyond their own kin and employees. So Greg Waddell hit on the idea of organizing the JEC report categorically, and breaking up the Q&A segments so each would sound like people sitting around a table – “virtual focus groups,” we called ‘em -- and tackling similar questions.
(6) Enlist the press person. The JEC communications director was Shelley Hymes, a fabulous person and a wonderful ally. She perceived the project's aspiration right off the bat. In the end, the Committee delayed the report until the dead of a post-election winter, and would not allow any of her PR materials to accompany it. Even so, Shelley ended up as JEC staff director and, during 1999, used the research to help design a hearing.
One other thing worked -- and it's a “plus” not appreciated until long after this entire project line was confined to a box in the closet. But first let me explain to you the mega-lesson, the principle and mode that -- with the 1995-96 cycle and WBO congressional analysis to do over again -- I'd implement big-time.
ASK THE QUESTIONS THEY’RE NOT ASKING YOU
One of Peter Drucker’s greatest and most heretical points is that the big gains come from “asking the right questions” rather than delivering answers. I base my own consulting on questions as opposed to answers. During 1995-96 working for the Joint Economic Committee, though, I was expected to cover both the Q and the A side of the WBO zone. I unwisely grabbed all that leadership. Meanwhile, no one in the client group was predisposed to function in the Drucker mode.
Never assume that clients or colleagues see the opportunity like you do -- indeed, work overtime to get them to define problems. Someone pushing an idea or theme is (to quote Manfred Mann) "blinded by the light"; that person needs help to envision the dark side. In fact, I’d like to make this core point even starker: Never assume anyone knows what you're doing. If they "get it" during one magic moment – if they grasp the project’s upside at a fortuitous meeting when a pithy memo or serendipitous exchange has flicked on a floodlight -- assume those very same people will forget it a week later.
Your client or sponsor has plenty of meetings, projects and “ideas” to worry about -- while you probably have just that one. Make a blessing out of your obsession, rather than a curse out of their distractibility. Tell 'em. Remind them of the project’s goal and your latest moves toward that goal. And then quickly ask for the problems or downsides they see in what you have told 'em.
The deficiencies of meetings, where the participants are neither friends nor opponents, can suck the life out of a project rooted in a major trend or Big Idea. The more innovative an idea is, the smaller a portion of your collaborators and/or client group will keep a hold of it. This quickly becomes not their problem, but yours, as the manager in charge of the writing.
Here’s why: Since 19 of 20 people hate to be appear dense, they will sit there nodding; two of the 20 will ask a benign technical or timing question; and the meeting will be a big zero. It's better to risk being patronizing and repetitive with these colleagues and clients than to assume support just to keep the vibes correct. Then again, you can avoid both of these extremes by asking the type of question -- to them, about your own project -- that they don't ask. For example:
From Fall 1995 into Summer '96, the JEC staff didn't ask me enough questions, and I didn't ask them enough. I allowed fog and enthusiasm -- the two go together very nicely, no? -- to displace confrontation and clarity.
Other lessons or mistakes deserve brief mention. I was pursuing multiple audiences with a single product. I had two bosses, along with an inside ally (Waddell) who constantly had to maneuver between both. In the draft report, I strayed from economics (which Republican insiders love) into sociology (which they are allergic to). With detailed survey instruments, yes, I might have smuggled that sociology into the report as "data," but my written questions were too few and too open-ended. Aging intellectuals like to imagine that ideas and knowledge trump mere data. But that isn’t true in business or in certain political realms.
Yet don't dwell on those smaller points at the expense of the two wider doctrines: (1) Ask and provoke questions; and (2) never assume the client group knows what you are doing or why you are doing it. You might be an offsite consultant, or an inside innovator, but: Don't make my mistakes. Shrink that cosmic idea down, and narrow its scope while deepening its relevance to your sponsor. Come out on the other end with something you can be “okay” with -- for innovation, rigor, or whatever is your deepest value – while shaping it into a project the sponsor will want to advertise. Doesn't matter if they don't hire you again; as long as they’re flacking it, others will contact you, and you can publish for the next group what this one couldn’t swallow.
“Wider” conclusions could be drawn, such as whether the real need was a female co-author or a wholly different type of client. I choose to leave such speculations for a different venue, while leaving you with the Pleasant Surprise...
Negotiating, Persuasion, and How to Think
Thanks to dozens of candid and comprehensive taped discussions during 1995-97, I was being educated about business definition and expansion. In ways more powerful than I knew at the time, it was taking place due to people such as Margaret DiCorpo, Toni Ford, Julia Klein, Elaine Kraut, Kathy Ley, Lillian Lincoln, Catherine MacRae, Rebecca Matthias, Terry McCaffrey, Catherine Novak, Sherrill Paul, Marty Phillips, Barbara Rackes, Marketta Silvera, Holly Telfer and Ellen Wessel.
One purpose of this retrospectus is to keep alive that spirit, their real-world lessons, and update three mid-1990s profiles:
Cheers to fellow self-employeds who make mistakes and profit from those mistakes. Boos for the Success and Money magazine covers that display people lounging on the beach on the way to articles about how you can be your own boss and lollygagging away in just a few years. And -- this one's for your kids -- a related quote from Silicon Valley veteran Marleen McDaniel. I sat down with her in October 1995, thanks to the Bionomics Institute. Asked what she'd tell teens attending a camp for entrepreneurship, Marleen said:
"It's good to be able to read and write, and do some fundamental math, and now use computers. But the skills you really need [for business] are negotiating, persuasion, and how to think. My high-school speech teacher gave me an invaluable gift. They made us give speeches on how to convince -- you know, 'Convince me of something, anything.' So we would try to convince them there were people from outer space. Make an assertion, prove points, and then conclude -- and sort of be quiet about it. And they [also] need to know, early on, how competitive the workaday world really is. Everyone, men and women -- they're exhausted by their jobs... It depends on the person, but -- business is hard."
© 2005, Gregorsky Editorial Services