The Guppy Tank – Assessment of the Real Small Business

I must admit that I proudly proclaim that I don’t watch reality shows. However, that’s not really true. I am an avid follower of ABC’s “Shark Tank” series. The question is why, and what do I learn from that show that can be applied to my business?

While we all strive for the multi-million dollar or even billion dollar business, the truth is that most of us would be happy to have a small business that satisfies our needs – both in terms of income and satisfaction. We will likely not develop a business in which Mark Cuban would want to invest. So let’s take a look at our business interests as they might be evaluated by smaller investors in the “Guppy Tank”.

A small business, by my definition, is a business that often starts from scratch, employs the owners, perhaps some family members, and a few others. Initially, at least, the business struggles with sales and is faced with at least some periods of negative cash flow. This, of course, differs from the definition of a small business that might include 50 workers and have five million dollars in sales. With this definition in mind, let’s follow a hypothetical business into the “Guppy Tank”.

Our show opens with the introduction of three possible investors. Each has had some level of small business success of his/her own. They represent hard work, good planning, and the recognition that not all small business owners will get to this point.

Next, in comes the owner of business “X” which designs, manufactures, markets, and sells widgets. The widgets could be a consumer product or service. It really doesn’t matter. The owner of business “X” introduces his or her widgets with some fanfare. He or she explains why business “X’s” widget is so much better than any other widget out there and why it occupies a unique niche in the developing market. Everyone is properly impressed at this point.

Our guppies, however, know nothing about the widget or business “X” or the person or persons behind it. The questions begin.

Guppy 1 asks how business “X’s” founder and owner, whom we’ll call Sandy, got into this business. The question, of course, is intended to find out more about Sandy. What is Sandy’s background? Does Sandy have prior business experience? Is Sandy committed to this business? Where did the idea for the widget come from?

Guppy 2 asks questions about the widget and its current acceptance in the market. Is the item selling now? What is the market? What do we really know about the market? How did Sandy form her projections?

Guppy 3’s inquiry is focused on the financial needs of business “X”. What is needed now? What will those dollars accomplish? What will future needs be? And, of course, what’s in it for the guppy that invests.

In our show, the guppies get their answers, are impressed with the widget, with Sandy, and with the future prospects. They fight over investing in business “X” and Sandy. Sandy has succeeded. But how?

Sandy demonstrated by her answers to Guppy 1 that she is passionate about her small business. She has always been willing to work long and sometimes stressful hours because she enjoys the enterprise. She sacrifices for her business. Her widget came about from a combination of prior experience and a love for the product or service. The business provides Sandy with more than a job. It is her vocation and hobby rolled into one. Hard work – yes. Time consuming – yes. She says “Bring it on!!”

To Guppy 2 Sandy presents some data about the product and market. The guppies and Sandy know that the data was less than stellar since there was no practical way to do a full-blown analysis. But it was clear that Sandy had thought this through. She had tested the market as best she could. The results were more than encouraging. Sandy is the expert when it comes to her widget and it shows.

And as for Guppy 3’s focus, Sandy presented a picture in sufficient detail as to how the funds would be used, how they would increase sales, and how profits would benefit. Sandy had done her homework.

As the show comes to an end, we are very happy for Sandy’s success and can’t help but wonder “how would I have done” in the Guppy Tank.

The lessons from the tank are simple. In order to achieve success, we have to be passionate about our business. We must understand our market. The ultimate bases for decision making in any business, cash flow and profit, must be no strangers to our thinking. Planning is essential. And we have to understand and keep within our available resources.

But we knew all of that, didn’t we?