"There are major challenges in running a small business," said Donna Marie DeCarolis, associate dean for graduate programs at Drexel University's LeBow College of Business.
She wasn't even counting the 50 percent failure rate for small businesses in their first five years.
Into that pressure cooker Gregg Prescott and Steve Brodack plunged in 1997, leaving more secure lives as, first, employees of a big company, Motorola Corp., and then as owners of a distributorship for Motorola communications equipment.
It was through the latter experience that the two South Jersey men got the inspiration for the small business they have co-owned for 15 years: Jan-Pro Cleaning Systems of the Delaware Valley.
The sales calls they made on behalf of Motorola exposed them to a variety of commercial properties in need of vacuuming and dusting.
Neither man had any professional cleaning experience, but they figured there were plenty of people out there with it who would jump at the opportunity to own a cleaning franchise. Evidently, they were right. Prescott and Brodack have sold 145 franchises - starting at $3,000 apiece - that serve 450 customers, mostly in South Jersey and Delaware.
In addition to developing new accounts, Prescott's and Brodack's role is to teach their franchise owners the essentials of being small-business owners.
With less than $5 million in annual sales and a staff of 10 working from a small headquarters in Haddon Heights, Prescott and Brodack are themselves small business owners.
Yet the network of franchisees they oversee is vast, and the risk of inconsistent customer service great. That can be a business killer in this environment, Brodack and Prescott said they stress to franchise owners.
Since the recession, customers have been even more demanding and less tolerant of substandard service, Brodack said. He attributed that to their own financial pressures.
"Everybody is trying to save ... the most effective way they can," he said.
For instance, businesses that used to contract for cleaning services five days a week, have cut back to two or three.
The tough economy has also spawned more competition for Prescott and Brodack. Much of it is from wives and husbands who have lost jobs and have started up mom-and-pop cleaning businesses offering hard-to-beat prices. Brodack said most are low-overhead operations with few if any employees. He said he was told by one potential client that a competitor had promised that "whatever price you get, we'll beat by 5 percent." In that circumstance and other similar encounters, Brodack said he has emphasized the quality and reliability of the Jan-Pro enterprise, asking, "What kind of people are going to clean your building for that price?"
Meanwhile, Brodack and Prescott brace for the next test: when the economy improves and more franchises are needed to meet demand. That means finding more trustworthy franchisees committed to Brodack's and Prescott's way of doing business.
Drexel's DeCarolis calls it "navigating life cycles." For small business owners, those are tricky times, she said.
"Every time there's a growth spurt, that means there needs to be a change in strategy," she said. That could entail adjusting the company's definition of its target customer, or altering product offerings, DeCarolis said. For small businesses, the toughest part of such a process might be coming up with adequate funding to support such "reinvention," she said.
The upside is that the smaller the company, the more flexible, which often makes change easier to pull off than at a big company, DeCarolis said.
At the law firm of Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano in Philadelphia, managing partner Samuel Pond is confronting one of those life-cycle dilemmas now.
Formed in July 2010 with 22 employees as a spin-off practice specializing in worker compensation and Social Security disability claims, Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano already has grown to a complement of 72 lawyers and support staff.
With each new person added has come the challenge of "making sure they're happy, they feel like they're stakeholders in your operation, they're motivated . . . adequately compensated," Pond said, adding that training to assure consistent client service had also been paramount.
The addition of two branch offices - in Northeast Philadelphia and South Jersey - has now been followed by a period of assessment.
"We've had to step back and strategize and almost intentionally slow it down a little bit," Pond said. "The bigger it gets, the more challenging it gets. You have to worry about our culture and everyone buying into your culture."
Through it all, those running small businesses also have to guard against what DeCarolis identified as a potentially "silent killer" for any small company: leadership burnout.
"Running a business is lots of work and lots of setbacks," she said. "Sometimes you get passion-drained."
If burnout sets in, containment is critical, DeCarolis said.
"That burnout can be contagious, not only to employees, but customers," she said.
Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter @mastrud.