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Group therapy pays off

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Group therapy pays off

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March 25, 2012

From 8 a.m. to noon on the third Friday of each month, the Terry boardroom is the setting for some serious small business group therapy. Fifteen area entrepreneurs signed confidentiality agreements so they would feel comfortable sharing their most pressing management concerns with each other, hoping to get advice on how to fix the kind of nagging problems that keep them up at night.

This is the Terry Entrepreneurship Society, the brainchild of Mobile IT CEO Joe Moon and Terry Entrepreneurship Program director Chris Hanks, a former risk management consultant in the corporate sector who has created successful entrepreneurial ventures in the e-commerce, exporting and publishing sectors.

"Small business owners quickly learn that there's nobody who will be blatantly honest with them about the state of their business," says Hanks. "It's difficult to go home at night and respond to 'How was your day?' with 'I'm worried about losing our home.' That's a three-hour dinner conversation. There is an incredible sense of isolation, a sense that nobody can feel your pain."

But all that changes when Moon and his fellow Entrepreneurship Society members congregate at Terry for their monthly group therapy sessions.

"A lot of it isn't warm and fuzzy . . . we'll get in your face and smack you around a little bit!" said Moon, who values the return on investment that members give and receive from the group. "I can pour my life out to these people-and whatever lessons, talents or abilities I learned from my experiences may help them. In turn, they help me, other people, their employees . . . even the economy."

Like many new small business owners, Moon learned the hard way that building a successful venture is an unrelenting balancing act. Seeking outside help to stop the bleeding, Moon initially enrolled in the fast-track program at UGA's Small Business Development Center, where he met other entrepreneurs who were learning the hard way that there is a difference between starting your own company and running a successful business.

When Hanks made a presentation to the fast-track group, Moon knew right away: This is the guy.

So Moon invited him to lunch to review Mobile IT's business plan.

"He was about getting the fluff off the top . . . he didn't care how good our ideas were," said Moon. "He said, 'Let me look at the systems and I'll tell you what the business is worth.' When I told him I had no sales or marketing plan, he about fell out of the booth. That particular conversation with Chris and another saved my business. I realize that now."

When the fast-track program ended, Moon realized he had acquired a network of people whose advice he respected-which gave him an idea.

"I wondered if there was a way we could start a group that would be associated with what Chris Hanks was already doing with Terry's entrepreneurship program. But we would bring in real-world business leaders who needed help and who could help each other," said Moon.

Moon was surprised to learn that Hanks was considering the same concept. Together, they worked out a vision, the logistics and the mission.

Six months later, the Terry Entrepreneurship Society was born. Members pay a monthly membership fee, and meetings are typically split into two halves. The first segment is open to guests and features a speaker or collective discussion on assigned reading. The second segment is a members-only think tank where confidential organizational information is shared and members grade their own performance and set new goals for the next meeting.

During one of the meetings this summer, a particularly downtrodden group member requested the hot seat because of complicated personnel issues that were proving difficult to untangle. After several insightful questions and some sage advice from the group, the business owner realized that the root cause of the problem was completely different than its visible symptoms. By that afternoon, the entrepreneur had returned to work and fixed the problem.

Moon and Hanks have assembled a roster of business owners who couldn't be further apart in their fields of endeavor. But they come together, said Hanks, because there are certain universal truths to owning a business-truths that get aired in each monthly meeting. The owner of a local travel agency is completely absorbed in personnel management advice being dispensed by the proprietor of a ServPro franchise. A business attorney learns valuable marketing lessons from a general contractor.

Antonio Martin, owner of Athens Professional Septic & Drain Service, credits the group with teaching him volumes about running a business.

"It's helped me see that there's more than getting out and doing the labor side," said Martin, who has a new aptitude about working the books and identifying things that could cause his business to fail. "It's helped me to structure the business a lot better, because I can use the numbers to figure out what I have to cut back on."

Joe Moon has been in Martin's shoes.

"Since Moon joined this group, he has increased his profits 124 percent in one year," said Hanks, who refuses to take all the credit. But he values the fact that business owners believe they are better off because of time spent as Entrepreneurship Society members. "Sometimes, the meetings are as simple as letting them vent and then doing some cheerleading. I remind them that most people aren't fulfilled by what they do. In a USA Today poll, two-thirds of Americans say that the best part of their day is their commute . . . their commute!

"So when Entrepreneurship Society members complain, I tell them it's 'the hard,' that makes it awesome. Otherwise, everyone would be an entrepreneur. There's a reason why most people want it, but so few get it."