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Episode 183: ‘I Had to Fire the Guy’
‘I Had to Fire the Guy’

This week, Paul Downs, Jay Goltz, and Sarah Segal talk about sexual harassment and where you draw the line with employees. Is it sexual harassment for one employee to ask another for a date? Is it sexual harassment to ask twice? Does it make sense to have a policy of zero tolerance? Or is it better to leave room for discretion and judgment? The conversation was sparked by a recent situation Jay experienced with an employee who had been with the company for almost three decades, having started at the age of 17. “It was a very sad thing,” Jay tells us.

Plus: Sarah Segal asks whether it’s better to build her business on a bunch of small clients or a smaller number of large clients. And is being CEO a health risk? We begin the episode by talking about an eye-catching story the Wall Street Journal recently published noting that an increasing number of CEOs have been dying on the job, presumably because of the heightened levels of stress. I asked the three CEOs on the episode if they’ve been taking care of themselves—but they weren’t having it. Instead of thanking me for my concern, they chided me for highlighting an article they consider complete BS. Which, of course, is what we love about these guys. They call ‘em the way they see ‘em.

Why Would You Want to Own a Business?

This week, Shawn Busse, Jay Goltz, and Jennifer Kerhin respond to a somewhat depressing view of business ownership offered by an investor who buys businesses for a living. That view, essentially, is that for most owners, building a business is a daily knife fight of long hours, unexpected risks, slow growth, and meager returns. In this episode, I read most of the investor’s observations to Shawn, Jay, and Jennifer, and get their reactions, which hit upon a bunch of issues that are not widely understood—including how fast growth can destroy a business, how even a profitable company can go bust, and why a good metric to assess the health of a small business might be how many people have been crying in the bathroom this year. While Shawn, Jay, and Jennifer disagree vehemently with a few of the investor’s assertions—”Kiss my ass!” says Jay in response to one—they do acknowledge that he makes a lot of good points, which leads to an obvious question: Why would anyone do this? Why would anyone subject themselves to this kind of life? As you might expect, Shawn, Jennifer, and Jay have a response to that as well.

Have We Been Too Generous With Employees?

This week, Mel Gravely, Jaci Russo, and William Vanderbloemen talk about the possibility that, after several years of the Great Resignation and the labor shortage, some owners may have given away the store. We all know the risks of not offering employees enough. What are the risks of offering too much? How do you even know when you’ve crossed the line? The owners also discuss why this might be a good time to consider acquiring other businesses. “I think this is a time to double-down,” says Mel. And Jaci explains how she and her team are reviewing everything the company does to see if AI can be employed to improve each and every process. Oh, and one last thing: How exactly, in this day and age, are business owners supposed to keep track of all of the subscriptions—and all of the subscription log-ins—that they and their employees have acquired through the years? How much money are they spending on stuff they no longer use? “Thanks a lot,” responds Mel. “I’m starting to sweat.”

We’re Making Good Money. I’m Not Sure How.

This week, Jay Goltz, Jennifer Kerhin, and Liz Picarazzi discuss their efforts to get a better grasp of what drives their profits. They ask how much of their finances they should manage themselves. And how much should they rely on an accountant or a fractional CFO? When does delegation become abdication? Jennifer says she’s benefitted from hiring a fractional CFO who has taken an active leadership role, including setting up a database that helps Jennifer see in real time whether the fees she’s charging cover the labor she’s deploying. “Whatever she's charging me,” says Jennifer of her CFO, “it's absolutely worth it.” Liz, meanwhile, thinks she should be doing more herself. And Jay says he was paying big bucks for a full-time CFO until late last year. “And it was a complete waste of money,” he says, which is why he’s decided not to replace her. Plus: Liz reveals her secret strategy for marketing directly to municipal government officials, some of whom have started to use the term “Citibin” generically. And the owners respond to a question from the head of a cost-reduction service who wonders why she’s struggling so much to get business owners to try her risk-free service.

The Worker Co-Op Solution

In this week’s bonus episode, Cameron Madill takes us on his succession journey, which began years ago when he started having conversations with older business owners, many of whom seemed to feel trapped. They’d had a lot of success, they were proud of the business they’d built, but they weren’t sure what to do with it or how to leave it. None of the usual options seemed terribly appealing. Hoping to write a different ending, Madill, now in his 40s, started looking for better options much earlier than most owners, and the one he landed on was an unusual choice: a worker cooperative. Now, there are aspects of this model that are likely to give some owners pause. For one, a co-op probably isn’t going to produce the biggest payday for a selling owner. And if the owner wants to stick around as CEO, he or she will have to report to a board, and that board can challenge any and all of the owner’s decisions. But Madill, as he explains in a conversation we recorded late last year, before he stepped down from his role as CEO, decided to sell to his employees anyway. Not only is he glad he did, he thinks co-ops are an option far more owners, especially those struggling to find a buyer, should consider.

Never miss a 21 Hats Podcast episode
New Year’s Resolution? Make. Some. Money.

This week, Shawn Busse, Paul Downs, and Laura Zander talk about why 2023 was so challenging for them and what they plan to do differently in 2024. “Last year was a year when I knew I was going to be making a bunch of investments and didn't expect to show much or any of a profit,” says Paul. “And I absolutely nailed that goal.” Shawn, meanwhile, thinks his new marketing scheme is working, and Laura is addressing her issues by going shopping — shopping, that is, for businesses. She’s now bought a total of six, and she offers a step-by-step guide to how even a relatively small business can grow through acquisition, including what she’s looking for (mostly companies in distress), how she sets a price (she aims to recoup her cash outlay pretty quickly), how she finances the deals (not with a bank!), and how she integrates her old and new operations (that can be a bear).

This Is What It Takes to Build a Business, Vol. 2

This week, we take a look back at the conversations we had last year about the many rewards and responsibilities of business ownership, highlighting some of our happiest, smartest, funniest, and most difficult exchanges from the past year. Along the way, we discuss topics such as escalating salary demands, how much profit a business should make, a new way to sell a business, the problems with ESOPs, how to sell cookies on LinkedIn, breaking a million dollars in annual revenue, escaping the valley of death, and the pain of having to fire a long-time employee.

There aren’t many places where you can hear entrepreneurs talk about the real-life problems they are confronting right now, today, as they happen—with no guarantee of a happy ending. But those are the conversations I have every week with Paul Downs of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers, Shawn Busse of Kinesis, Jay Goltz of Artists Frame Service, Mel Gravely of Triversity Construction, Jennifer Kerhin of SB Expos & Events, Liz Picarazzi of Citibin, Jaci Russo of BrandRusso, Sarah Segal of Segal Communications, William Vanderbloemen of Vanderbloemen Search Group, Dana White of a soon-to-be-named successor to Paralee Boyd, and Laura Zander of Jimmy Beans Wool.

In this episode, we also highlight several appearances by special guests who stopped by in 2023 to discuss their journeys, including Muhammad Abdul-Hadi of Down North Pizza, Jeff Braverman of, Michael Brown of Teamshares, Brad Herrmann of Text-Em-All, Grayson Hogard of Grove Cookie Company, Lance Tyson of the Tyson Group, and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s. If listening to one of these highlights makes you want to go back and listen to the full episode, that can be done most easily by going to There you’ll find a transcript of this episode with links to all of the episodes we sample.

The Unlikely Plan That Launched Down North Pizza

So here was Muhammad Abdul-Hadi’s idea for a pizza joint: First, buy a building in one of the most troubled neighborhoods in one of the poorest big cities in the country. Open a restaurant despite having no experience in the food industry and do it during the pandemic when many restaurants are failing. And hire only people who, like Abdul-Hadi, are convicted felons. If that business plan sounds a little dicey to you, rest assured you would not be the first to suggest that to Abdul-Hadi. But he did it anyway. He built out the restaurant, and it opened in 2020 to lines that required people to wait as long as three hours for their pizza—thanks in part to a marketing plan that created excitement and scarcity by “dropping” pizzas the way some people “drop” special-edition sneakers. And now, Down North Pizza, which has been featured on best-of lists in national publications like Bon Appetit and The New York Times, is looking to expand. A special, year-end bonus episode.

What Are Your Goals for 2024?

This week, Shawn Busse, Liz Picarazzi, and Jaci Russo discuss what they learned in 2023 and what they expect from 2024. After a tough year, Shawn is optimistic that his clients, having survived the turbulence of the past few years, are ready to spend money and try something different. Liz explains why she’s been willing to discount her products as much as 40 percent on Cyber Mondays and tells us about some new products she has in the works. Early in the year, Jaci, thinking she was going to have to staff up to handle two big new clients, dove into remodeling her offices—but those big clients have yet to sign on. “I might have jumped the gun a little bit,” says Jaci. Plus: Liz talks about her Midwestern mom, who can’t understand how Liz can charge so much for her trash enclosures. And Shawn raises the issue of how much money business owners should spend on marketing.

We Need to Go Back to Marketing for Humans

This week, Paul Downs tells Jay Goltz and Jaci Russo about the latest developments in his year-long campaign to stop relying so heavily on Google AdWords. At a specially arranged, two-day marketing event, Paul got to sit down with a series of architects and designers who had already been vetted and who he hopes will become repeat customers. So far, Paul says, the results look promising. Plus, we also discuss: Do you write your website copy to please Google or to please people? Is there any way around skyrocketing property insurance rates? Why has Jay decided he no longer needs a chief financial officer? How big a disadvantage to owners are the new laws forbidding employers from asking job candidates about their salary histories? And would you reject a candidate simply for trying to negotiate a starting salary? I know someone who would.

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