If you don’t think that details matter in a business, I have a story for you:
The dispute is over the activities of truck drivers for dairy in Maine and whether those activities are subject to overtime pay. An appeals court said a clause was not clear, because a comma was missing. There has been a controversy brewing for years over what’s called the serial comma or Oxford comma. It’s the comma before the “and” in a series, like, “milk, bread, and butter.”
Can that comma after “bread” really be so important? Here’s an example that makes the point FOR the comma:
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Are the author’s parents Ayn Rand and God? Or is the book dedicated to the author’s parents, to Ayn Rand, and to God?
Why the Detail Matters in the Maine Lawsuit
In this case, the missing comma changed the meaning of the paragraph:
The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Because there was no comma after “packing for shipment,” it wasn’t clear if overtime was paid for shipment or distribution. I know, this seems to be a tempest in a teapot, but there are many thousands of dollars at stake for the company and the employees.
Why the Details Matter in Your Business Startup
When you start a business, there’s so much to do it’s easy to miss details. You may miss a filing an important permit or getting a license because you forgot – or don’t know it’s due. If you are in a hurry to get your business started, it’s easy to miss things. Starting something as complex as a business has a steep learning curve, and details get overlooked.
A business owner I worked with started his business by paying a new employee as a contractor. When he discovered the error, he began withholding income taxes and FICA taxes (social security and Medicare) from the woman’s pay. But he forgot that he hadn’t withheld anything from her contractor pay and she ended up having to pay self-employment tax on that pay. A little detail, but a big cost.
How to Avoid Missing Details
Start Small and Slowly
It’s tempting to start off doing everything, but take your time. Here’s what I mean: I’m working with a small non-profit that offers services to elders. They wanted to create a big list of services. I suggested a couple of broad categories and to let the skills of the volunteers and the requests of the people being served drive the menu of services. Then, each specific service can be evaluated to see if it fits with the mission of the organization before making a commitment.
Taking the example above a little further, it’s always easier to add more as you go along rather than having to cut back. If your potential customers see a huge list of products or services that you provide, they will expect all of those. They will be disappointed and maybe upset if you say, “Well, we decided that product isn’t going to be available.”
Managing expectations means UNDER-promising and OVER-performing. In other words, give people MORE than they expect. People don’t want to be disappointed, and if you don’t meet their expectations, you’ll find you lost customers.
The same goes for employees. One of the cardinal rules of employee relations is that you can’t take back a benefit or expectation. If employees think they are getting two weeks’ vacation and you decide you can’t afford that, they will be angry. Especially if you put the benefit in writing.
Take is slow and build as you go, to avoid mistakes and missed details.
Get Input from Others
We entrepreneurs tend to think we’re the “Lone Ranger.” We think we can do it all ourselves, but we forget that we need others to balance our impetuousness with a dose of reality. Speaking of the devil, we need a devil’s advocate to say, “What about this?” “Did you forget that….?” or “I think you’re missing something.”
I’m guilty of this, big time. I tend to think of great ideas and jump into them without checking with trusted advisors. But getting people together and talking through the issue can help in many ways. Get a mastermind group, or just people who have expertise in the area you are struggling with. The more minds, the better.
Hire Detail Experts
Would a good attorney have caught that missing comma? Maybe or maybe not. But your chances of avoiding a missed detail are better when you involve detail experts in your planning. I’m talking about attorneys and accountants, and other experts in the detail areas that new business owners don’t have expertise in.
There are many financial and legal details that can sink a new business. Sure you’ll pay extra for that expertise, but it might keep you from making a serious mistake. For example, if you want your business to be an S corporation for tax benefits, you have to first form as a corporation, then make the election before a deadline. Missing the deadline can cost you money in additional taxes.
Do a Trial Run
With technical matters, like payment methods, billing, and web services, find a couple of helpful people to test things on. Most online services will allow you a test period or free trial; take advantage of this time to the maximum. Focus on working out the bugs before you buy and before you “go live” with real customers.
Avoiding those Devilish Details
While you can’t take away all of the missed details, you can minimize them by:
- Taking things slow and keeping them simple
- Adding products or services slowly and carefully, to manage expectations
- Hiring detail experts,
- Getting input from others, and
- Doing trial runs.