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July 31, 2015

Mission? Improbable!

Keith Jackson

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I've been racking my brain in an effort to recall any experience I had working with a so-called “micro business” – those tiny enterprises that still populate a few slots on the high street, but I suppose are now mostly based online.

I was pretty sure that I'd never been part of an organization that had fewer than 10 employees, which is how a micro business is defined by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even the smallest provincial newspaper I worked on had a healthy roster of editorial staff and advertising salespeople. And the paper itself was owned by a huge publishing company.

Then, out of the blue, I remembered I actually held a management position in a long-forgotten micro business! In 1985, at age 17, I was appointed company secretary of Quest – a printing company set up with the princely sum of nearly £50 (that's about £160 at 2015 prices, $55 in 1985 or $126 today).

Quest enjoyed/endured a short-lived, badly-managed, bad-tempered, exciting, and fantastic existence  – even turning a small profit before being snuffed out at Christmas time, to the relief and sadness of our little team.

Quest's mission statement was vague, and its vision was blurred. We weren't budding entrepreneurs or particularly business-minded. We were students who had spotted a way of avoiding studying for our looming exams!

Our school had decided to take part in Young Enterprise, a scheme based on the American Junior Achievement program, designed to teach young people the values and skills of work by setting up small companies for a national competition.

The process of establishing our management team followed what we assumed to be the way things were done in the real corporate world: I was appointed company secretary because I could spell and had the neatest handwriting. The finance director was appointed because he wore glasses and looked most likely to be good at math. But the roles of managing director and head of sales were decided by a method even we thought was unconventional - verbal pitches by the two dominant hopefuls didn't separate them, tempers flared, and they actually got into a fight. The victor's prize was the title of MD and a split lip.

The rest of the meeting was tense but peaceful and, without further bloodshed, we decided our name and the product we would market to our gullible and unwary fellow students, friends and families. Quest was the name of our school study room, and our product was printed stationery, Christmas and greeting cards, and business cards – on account of the school boasting several magnificent but ancient lead lettering printing presses.

For six months we actually acted fairly responsibly. We sold shares in the company at 25 pence each (30 cents), invested in high-quality paper and card, and cajoled younger, impressionable students into setting type and operating the presses with overblown promises of profit sharing and a legitimate opt-out of gym class.

Then things got a bit ragged. Quality dropped, we failed to fulfill a few orders, and so we thought it best to wrap up the venture while we still had money to refund the disappointed customers and clear our liabilities. We even had a bit left over to consider paying a dividend to our original investors.

In fact, we didn't pay a dividend in the traditional sense. Rather than "divvy up" the money left in the pot to our shareholders, we reinvested it in cheap wine, a few nibbles, and invited them to a closing down party! They didn't seem to mind!

That was my first and only taste of corporate responsibility, and I'm sure it taught me some valuable life lessons, but they escape me for the moment!

Managing in a micro business could be your first leadership role, and it offers many of the challenges faced by those in much larger organizations. For more detail on the opportunities and difficulties it entails, see our article, Managing People in a Micro Business.

What is your experience of leading a very small team? What unexpected situations have you had to face? Join the discussion below.

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