Tightrope: Communication is key in starting a business

— -- Dear Gladys,

I wonder if you could give me some advice. I am a high school history teacher, and I enjoy my work. But, more than anything, I want to have my own business. I want to own a restaurant. I love to cook, and I get great joy from cooking for others. And, I constantly get compliments on my meals. The problem is that I have no qualifications nor do I know how to get started. -- D.P.

There are many ways to approach starting a business, and there are just as many books and websites that can give you technical advice and support. But keep in mind that these things are just part of what makes a business work.

Another important part to making a business work is the ability to communicate effectively. Communication is a word that is tossed around frequently in both conversations and books. Understanding what it means and practicing it are vital to the growth of your business.

Communication is about making a connection with your customer. And, listening plays a key role in that connection, and is often overlooked. Develop the ability to "listen" to your inner voice, and above all, listen closely to your customers. Listen to what they say and what they don't say.

Here's an example of what I mean.

In pre-Starbucks days, I met a man who owned a coffeehouse that opened for business at 10 a.m., because it was convenient for him. He claimed that he set his store hours based on when the stores around him opened. He called me because his business had never made a profit and rarely experienced a break-even month.

"My coffee is the best, and I make the pastries myself from the best ingredients," he said. "Why is it that more people can't see that?"

I asked him what made him start his company. He said, "It has been my lifelong dream to bake the best pastries and serve the best coffees to people."

I suggested he might try opening by 7 a.m. He told me when you offer the best, people will appreciate it any time, and opening three hours earlier would not make that much difference.

His business continued to slide, and eventually he sold the company for about 25% of his original investment to what he called "some fool who thinks he can make money selling coffee and pastries."

Several years later, I stopped by the coffeehouse and had a cup of coffee and a chat with the new owner. I learned that his business success had helped him support his family comfortably, and he had even started to put money aside for retirement. In addition to his success at the original coffeehouse he had opened four other locations in other parts of the city.

He said his busiest time of the day was between 6 a.m., and 9 a.m., which was the best time to catch commuters heading to work. This new owner had listened to the needs of his market.

As an entrepreneur, you have a dual responsibility to provide good service to your clientele while making a profit. A good way to do both is to listen and respond accordingly.

You have valuable qualifications: You love to cook, and people love what you cook. Also in your favor is your desire to own your own business. And, desire is important and can be a great motivator. Once you get your business started, make a point to listen closely to your customers' likes and dislikes. Something as simple as listening can give you the edge you need to succeed.

Gladys Edmunds' Entrepreneurial Tightrope column appears Wednesdays. Click here for an index of her columns. As a single, teen-age mom, Gladys made money doing laundry, cooking dinners for taxi drivers and selling fire extinguishers and Bibles door-to-door. Today, Edmunds is founder of Edmunds Travel Consultants in Pittsburgh and author of There's No Business Like Your Own Business, a six-step guide to success published by Viking. Her website is www.gladysedmunds.com. You can e-mail her at gladys@gladysedmunds.com.