Conflict of Influence for Top 100 Small Business Influencer Awards?

Perception is reality.

How you are perceived is much more important than how you think you are coming across, especially when you decide to take a leadership role in the small business community.

Someone surprised me by nominating me as a 2011 Small Business Influencer for North America“. I was flattered and when I came in 76th in the popular vote, that was nice, too.

Since the judges input is 60% of the decision and the popular vote only 40%, I had no illusions of staying in the Top 100. There are so many small business living legends to list and I’m focused on where we’re going, not on how I compare to others (see Your competition…Isn’t ). Contests that rate people usually distort reality.

A friend with a systems background, who notified me of the results, also noticed that an advertiser for the contest had won, which is highly unusual since advertisers in a contest are never eligible, for fear of a conflict of interest – paying for results. He decided to take a closer look and found more potential problems with the eligibility process. So he invested some time delving into it.

He first found some eligibility requirements for contests from Microsoft, NY Magazine, and Intuit to use as a comparison. He compared the Small Business Influencer results against the Intuit eligibility rules. Here’s what he found, section-by-section:

At Intuit, using their rules, the following individuals would never be eligible to win contests like the Small Business Influencer:

“Individuals employed by or otherwise associated with the sponsor”
Nine of the Top 100 are associated directly with Small Business Trends, one of the two Presenting Companies who own the contest, as regular bloggers with bios on the Small Business Trends site as “Small Biz Experts” in residence. While they are not employees, they are clearly associated with the sponsor and would not have been considered using Intuit’s, Microsoft’s, and NY Magazines eligibility rules. It may have been completely above board, but it’s perception that matters most.

[nor the] “Sponsor’s affilates and subsidiaries”
The Annual Small Business Summit is an affiliate/subsidiary of the other Presenting Company, Small Biz Technology. The following six Top 100 Influencer winners were all part of this Annual Small Business Summit, and all mentioned in one article on SmallBizTrends – Intuit, Batchblue, Shashi Bellemkonda, Pamala O’hara, Laurie McCabe, Collen DeBaise, along with one of the contest judges, Brent Leary. –

  • “participating advertising and promotion agencies”*
    This is probably the most serious alleged perception issue. Five of the eleven contest sponsors applied for Top 100 Small Business Influencer and all five were selected. Paying to advertise on the contest sight while putting their hat in the ring to win seems like a clear conflict of influence, as two of the judges own that contest site and have profited by that advertising – Small Business Trends and Small Biz Technology (they probably shouldn’t have been judges, either). Maybe there is a great explanation, but advertisers are never eligible to win for good reasons.
  • “technology and website development partner companies”*
    Two of the Top 100 winners supply ongoing technology support for Small Business Trends, the site hosting the contest; WordPress and Clate Mask, who is the CEO of InfusionSoft, which is also one of the advertisers and sponsors of the contest. This also seems like a clear conflict of interest and influence that could still have a good explanation.

The above problematic picks account for around 22 of the Top 100 Small Business Influencers. That’s a potentially serious perception issue.

Other perceptions of conflict of interest
Perception is so important. When there are alleged violations (and that’s important to remember at this juncture – alleged) of public trust like those above, it calls into question all the results.

My friend went on to find four different companies represented three times each in the Top 100 – the company itself and either a subsidiary or employees/founders: American Express, SCORE, Dunn & Bradstreet, and Microsoft. He found that they all appear to have close advertising or other relationships with either Small Business Trends or Small Biz Technology, the two Presenting Companies.

Six other companies take up two spots each in the Top 100, also with seemingly deep relationships with the presenters. A number of other picks appear to have close relationships with the presenting companies.

Some other things he found in the contest just appear to be not well thought through.

Surprisingly, 68% of all journalists who applied were selected by the judges to the Top 100 (15 of 22 applicants). Only six of them received enough popular votes to put them in the Top 100. The judges felt it important to pull the other nine in from as far back as 333rd place. Why are so many relatively obscure journalists in the Top 100, when influencers like Apple, 37Signals, Seth Godin, Vistage, YPO, Brian Tracy, Yelp, Mashable, Guy Kawasaki and Robert Kiyosaki were passed over?

Also, the ability for each voter to come back every day and vote for 30 straight days repeatedly for the same Influencer did not seem to serve any purpose other than driving traffic to the Small Business Trends website, an apparent self-serving technique. The judges certainly weren’t impressed with the public’s view of things. Six of the top 10 popular vote-getters didn’t make the Top 100 at all, and only 41 of the popularly voted top 100 made the judges final Top 100 list.

This is the first year for the contest, so I’m sure there is considerable learning to do. The presenting companies should share some of those learnings soon, as over half the list have some perception of potentially too close a relationship with the presenting companies. It’s tough running a contest, and I think Small Business Trends and Small Biz Technology have seen that first hand and will make the adjustments they need to next year.

I contacted Small Business Trends and they acknowledged receipt of a copy of the post early this morning, but haven’t been available for comment.

Three lessons for all of us.

1) Work hard to keep your public perception high. As I mentioned in this blog post we don’t own our brand anymore – our customers do.
2) Be authentic and make sure others see you that way. There is so much manipulation and self-promotion by politicians, giant government and giant corporations at the expense of small business owners that we don’t need to be giving the impression that we do it to each other.
3) There is a significant difference between a one-time mistake which this could be, and a culture of corruption. Everybody makes mistakes and rarely do one-time perception problems torpedo a company when we respond well. The key is responding well. This is their first Top 100 Small Business Influencer contest and there is plenty of opportunity to fix the perception that this was self-promoting and manipulative.

Everybody makes mistakes. When you do, take advantage of the opportunity to show people how trustworthy and authentic you really are. It’s the best time to show and reinforce your credibility.

Yesterday I Met a Rich, Self-made Hostage

Riches vs. Wealth – the big lie.

I was stunned when I heard it – “Next summer is our 30th anniversary, and I’m planning a full two-weeks off work to celebrate with my wife.” This proud declaration from a man who owns a $30 million a year company demonstrates what a sad life he has. This is a man who lives in abject poverty with no clue how to run a business.

I see it all the time. Business owners whose personal lives are train wrecks, with no time to invest in their kids, spouse, or non-existent hobbies, and no time to even think about creating meaning in their own lives. They are hostages to their businesses with no end in sight for their incarceration.

People think this guy is a great business owner because he works all the time and has a lot of toys he doesn’t have time to use. I think he lives in abject poverty.

Riches vs. Wealth
Riches is just money. Wealth is freedom. Freedom is the ABILITY TO CHOOSE what to do with my time. Time is more valuable than money. It usually takes money to buy time, but unless the specific goal is to buy time, money can make us hostages.

Money does not bring freedom. Time brings freedom. This man has millions and has no freedom. He readily admits that if he is gone from his business for a few days things begin to go awry. He has built a $30 million business that depends on him personally being there every day! He is a hostage to his business. He is not a business owner; his business owns him. He lives in abject “time poverty”.

Intending to receive time, not just money
You get what you intend, not what you hope for. You can just hear this man starting his business. He intended to do two things:
1) “I’m going to work REALLY hard” and
2) “I’m going to make me some money.”

He got exactly what he intended – hard work and some money. And he is trapped by the hard work. He did not go into business intending to get both time and money from his business, just money. He HOPED that getting money would give him time and create freedom, but we don’t get what we hope (wish) for, but what we intend to get.

A Day a Week, a Week a Month, a Month a Year
I built five businesses like he did and was trapped as a hostage every time. This time around I intended to do something different – I decided this next business was going to give me both money AND time, and everything I did from the beginning was driven by forcing my business to produce both.

As a result, I now have every Friday off, the last week of every month off, two weeks every three months, and the month of February. I also now get the unintended bonus of every other Monday off, and only work a half day on the other one. A three-day, to three-and-half day week, with 16-20 weeks off each year is something I’m getting used to. I use only a few weeks for vacation, and CHOOSE (freedom) to invest the rest in Africa and helping others build businesses around the world.

A recent American Express OPEN survey found 66% of business owners haven’t taken time off in several years. And of those few who do take vacation, 68% of them check in daily to try to run things from their beach chair (we didn’t call once from New Zealand for 3 1/2 wks last February).

The famous Framingham Heart Study found those who took regular vacation are 32% less likely to die from heart disease and 20% less likely to die from anything else.

The objective of your business should be to build your Ideal Lifestyle. If you’re proud that you finally get two weeks off, you need to reassess how you are running your business and your life, and refocus on WEALTH (time/freedom), not just RICHES (money).

Is this just for special people? No. I built five businesses and never got off the treadmill. The sixth time I simply decided/intended to do it differently, and, what a surprise, it turned out different.

You get what you intend, not what you hope for.

What are you intending to do with your business and your life?

Government Killed Small Biz Jobs on July 15

And the SBA is non-responsive.

In April I shared Why Small Business is Fed Up With Government – both sides are addicted to “big”. That addiction continues to escalate and hurt small businesses nationwide. And a Washington Post survey say you’re tired of it.

In early 2009 both sides declared the 19 largest banks “too big to fail”, and vowed at every photo op to change that. It was the political buzz-phrase de jour for a few months designed to make us “small” guys feel like someone was looking out for us while they gave hundreds of billions to their big business friends.

Today, three years later, those same few banks now control an even LARGER percentage of the banking industry. That’s how big government dealt with the issue; with their handouts they made the banks even bigger and an even greater national security risk for us. They assumed we would go back to our pitiful little lives and ignore them.

In 2010, Olympia Snowe, the self-styled Republican Senate advocate for small business, introduced legislation to kill the only small business loan actually designed for very small businesses. She had championed the loan through Congress, but received strong opposition from her big bank friends as well as her big government friends. She showed that her allegiance is to the bigs.

And now, in the midst of the biggest recession in history, government is killing small businesses with new regulations. On July 15, the State Department introduced requirements that forced small businesses to put as much as $500,000 in escrow (a business I know would have had to escrow that amount), and leave it there for 12-24 months without touching it.

This drove thousands of small businesses under in only a few days. The big businesses swooped in behind like vultures on a wire and took over all the customers these small businesses had cultivated for decades. They couldn’t get back in business now if they wanted to. Big government now has fewer, bigger clients to regulate. All the bigs are happy.

How did our government help the little guy with this? The business owner and I approached the SBA Office of Advocacy on July 11 and sent repetitive requests for intervention, the very thing that this bureaucracy was designed to do. For 24 days we received no response to many emails until July 29, which was a very unprofessional reply making the SBA out to be the victim. Since asking us a question on August 4, we have again received no responses to many more emails over the last 15 days. Simply inexcusable for an agency supposedly designed to advocate for small business.

Giant business and giant government got us in this mess, then turned around and looked behind and asked us to get them out of it. But they don’t invite us to the table to help them see how to do it. We couldn’t possibly know – we’re small and they’re big, and big knows better than small. Washington has Jeffrey Immelt, former CEO of GE who paid no taxes last year, in charge of fixing this. He, too, has no clue what a small business looks like.

Talk to any banker who used to give small business loans, and they will tell you very quietly and in complete anonymity that the reason their lending standards are beyond the reach of most healthy small businesses is because the government regulators are putting such pressure on them that they can’t adopt REASONABLE (not loose) lending standards. 73% of small businesses who need capital haven’t even bothered to apply because they know it’s useless. 48% who do get rejected – astonishing statistics. The 25 biggest banks control 32 percent more deposits than they did in 2006, but made 30 percent fewer small business loans.

This is your small business advocacy in Washington. In case you wondered if anyone is looking out for you, the small business owner, on either side of the aisle or in any of the halls of the giant bureaucracies there, you might think again.

I’ve said this in dozens of places on the internet for three years – access to capital is the #1 issue for small business and has been since October 2008. #2 is predictability from our govt., and #3 is regulations that hurt small business and help the big ones. The SBA says the #1 job growth sector is businesses with 1-9 employees and the #2 job growth sector is 10-19 employees. Then they, the rest of the government, and the giant corporations who all got us into this mess, continue to use this crisis to help each other just get bigger. Expect large donations from giant corporations to both sides next year.

Small business doesn’t want a bailout. And I personally don’t have time for recessions – I have somewhere I need to be with my business. None of the above make it impossible to succeed, but it does make it harder. And when government proactively kills jobs and small businesses like the State Dept. did on July 15, that is interventionism in commerce that is unacceptable and needs to be addressed, even if the SBA doesn’t have the spine to do it (in case you wondered, the SBA isn’t focused on small businesses under 19 employees).

Caveat emptor – for too long we have bought that someone in Washington is looking out for us. Think again. You won’t get help and you don’t need it. You can succeed without their help; just know that they are not in Washington to make it easier for you, but to make it easier for themselves and their giant corporation donors. It’s time to expose the game for what it is, one “big” scratching the back of another “big”, all at the expense of 28 million small businesses and the American economy.

This isn’t a lack of courage to act. This is simple self-preservation at work – both bigs (giant government and giant business) will protect their “bigness” at any cost, even the worst recession in history. And certainly without blinking an eye at the demise of small businesses.

Why Vision is Fundamentally Important

The great potential of the Congo

While in the Congo I met with people and led workshops in the highest levels of government and business. We talked about how to take the 2nd poorest country on earth to both an African and world leader. It’s the same process you need to grow your own business.

Kinshasa has 11 million people, not a single working street light, no waste disposal, at least 70% without running water, long daily electricity outages, no zoning, high crime, millions out of work, many going to work and not getting paid, pollution, dirt, and an extremely worn appearance.

That’s what most people see. The problem is that is only part of the story and if you want to grow a successful economy or a successful business, you won’t see things with these eyes.

For 11 days driving around Kinshasa we saw unbelievable potential (their economy is growing by 10-20% a year – how’s ours doing?); business opportunities everywhere – it was difficult to decide which ones to grab first.

As my very visionary Congolese friend, Emmanuel, and I worked our way through 10 days of meetings, we talked about vision, and how fundamental it is to creating success at any level; whether a street vendor, a small business, a giant corporation, a country’s economy. One large corporation president there told us “We’re just trying to survive.” They never will that way.

I presented to the 36 members of the DR Congo’s government Ministry charged with encouraging investment in the Congo. It was quite an honor. I shared what Emmanuel and I had been talking about as we drove every day through Kinshasa. Vision was critical and this Ministry must have it and be one of the leaders for the Congo in bringing Congo to the leadership position it will eventually (possibly quickly) have in Africa.

And the same process works for any small, local business.

I told the Ministry team that Emmanuel and I drove around Kinshasa using a three step process of developing a vision for the future of the city and the country.

Step 1 – What IS. We didn’t pretend things were what they weren’t. The first step in developing a vision for the future of the Congo (and your business), is to face what IS and understand it fully. Most of us don’t have a sane assessment of where we and our business are. We likely don’t even want to know. But until you know what your revenue is, the trend (up or down?), gross profit, net profit, and cashflow, you’re not going to go anywhere. And you have to know your own strengths and challenges as well. Knowing what IS, is the first critical step.

Step 2 – What COULD be. Once we faced the reality of what we were looking at in the streets, we then put that aside and created a picture of what COULD be in the next five to ten years. This is the dreaming phase of re-discovering where your business needs to go. Don’t look at what IS when you’re doing this – dream big and get a clear picture of what COULD be. Most of us won’t allow ourselves to dream big. We kill the dream before it forms by dragging what IS (or usually a distorted picture of what IS) into the middle of our focus.

Step 3 – What WILL be. Step two is dreaming. Step three is visioning. Look at both What IS and what COULD be, and then decide what you will commit to making come true, and when you will make it come true. We rarely envision with commitment, and we almost never put a date on it. Unless we do, we’re never going to figure out where we want to end up.

This is about the Law of Intentionality. We get what we intend, not what we hope (dream) for. Make a decision, put a date on it and go public – tell others. Until you commit strongly to what WILL be, you’re still dreaming.

What IS creates drag on our future. What COULD be creates false hope. What WILL be is all up to you and is where the successful business owner invests most of their mental, physical and emotional energy.

Victims focus on what IS – “We’re just trying to survive.” Dreamers focus on what COULD be – “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” But Visionaries focus on what WILL be, and believe they can make it happen because they understand the truth:

Circumstances don’t make me who I am. How I respond to them does. Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% what you make happen.

We finished the meeting with the whole staff shouting We CAN! We WILL! and then We DID! That’s a room full of visionaries.

What do you see in your business and your life that WILL be – the you fully intend to make happen, and are already moving toward? Unless you’ve got your finger on that, you’re going to stay on the treadmill.

What IS, What COULD be, and most importantly what WILL be.

Dreamers talk, visionaries walk. Getting walking toward your clear vision of what WILL be.