If you’re starting or running a business near Orlando, Florida, Jerry Ross is the man to see. A lifelong entrepreneur who sold his first company right out of college, he eventually started an entertainment-lighting company that lit up the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and a Super Bowl or two, before he sold the firm in the late ’90s. Now he’s the driving force behind the National Entrepreneur Center, a small business nonprofit hub that more than 12,000 business owners and would-be entrepreneurs have passed through in its nine years. The Center is a home for business mentoring, one-on-one advice, and seminars about all aspects of the small business world.
EM: Is there a mantra that you have for small business owners?
JR: For me personally, “Just stay vertical.” That means just stay upright and don’t hit the mat whatever challenge comes your way. If you can take whatever comes and just stay upright, eventually you will outlast the storm, opponent, competitor, or hurdle of the day. “Just stay vertical.”
Professionally, it’s: “Is what I am doing right now, making me money?” As an entrepreneur, I would ask myself that question 10 times a day. If the answer is yes, keep on doing it. If the answer is no then I would drop the task right there and redirect my efforts. Going to lunch with a client can be a “making money” activity. However, playing golf with a bunch of buddies who aren’t going to buy from you—during the workday—is not!
EM: What do people lose sight of?
JR: Making money! A business is not a hobby. A business must make a profit. If you don’t make money, you go out of business and then you can’t help anyone, including your family, your investors, and the community as a whole. If you like to sail and buy a sailboat, you can spend all the money you want and people say you have an expensive hobby. However, if you get into the “sailing cruise” business, you better make a profit.
JR: Three things. 1) How long was it going to take to actually make money to take home? 2) How I could possibly work all day in the business, and then all night doing paperwork, mailings, etc. and still have time for family? 3) How and when to hire an employee—how can I afford it? How can I afford not to?
EM: Were there mistakes that haunt you even now?
JR: I was too quick to give up pieces of the ownership to partners that I probably didn't need to have in the first place. And I was too slow to fire employees who were not productive.
EM: It’s been a difficult few years for a lot of small businesses. What are the trends you’ve been seeing in the last few months? What should SBOs be keeping an eye on for 2013?
JR: Businesses are getting better at getting rid of expenses that they don’t need and can’t afford anymore, which helps them stay vertical. And there is virtually no capital for the smallest of businesses, so businesses are getting more creative about asking friends, relatives, and neighbors for investment because they are getting no interest on their savings accounts, Wall Street is scary, and they know the local businessperson... just like the old days.
EM: Small businesses are a major engine of employment in the U.S. What have visitors to the NEC been reporting about the outlook for hiring?
JR: Hiring plans remain stagnant with so much uncertainty in the marketplace—health care, expiring tax cuts, the election etc. Most businesses are hesitant about investing in anything—including people.
EM: Your organization deals with all types of people looking to hang out a shingle. Are there new groups you’re seeing come forward that surprise you? Are there those that you have difficulty reaching, traditionally?
JR: It’s hard to quantify, but service businesses remain a big part of the startup market because many folks have decided to start their own business because they can’t find employment elsewhere and those businesses are not capital intensive.
EM: You’ve enlisted numerous nonprofits and organizations that run the gamut of business backgrounds—Hispanic, African-American, disabled entrepreneurs, female business owners, among others—to advise and coach. What are the common threads? How do you advise other regional entrepreneurial centers in terms of inclusiveness?
JR: This is something that we have learned to do over the nine years we have been in operation. There is a real attitude of inclusion in Central Florida that has allowed us to not only think about these initiatives, but also actually engage community funders who got involved and financially supported doing something. I speak to audiences all over the country about how simple an idea like collaboration can be, but how difficult it can be to actually accomplish. Today we have such diverse opinions, ideas, and agendas. However it can be done, and you can achieve great things as a community, an entrepreneur center, or as an individual entrepreneur—if you just stay vertical.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.