Rhonda Abrams, 'USA Today' Small Business Columnist & President, PlanningShop: Change the World, Create Jobs

Rhonda Abrams is widely regarded as one of the foremost authorities on growing companies and entrepreneurship, and writes the most widely distributed column on small business, appearing weekly in USAToday.

She’s the author of over 15 books on entrepreneurship, including the best-selling business plan guide in America: Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies. She is in great demand as a public speaker. She has been named as one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Silicon Valley and one of the top Small Business Influencers.

Her company, PlanningShop, is the leading publisher of content on entrepreneurship and small business, used in over 700 business schools, including the top 22 of 25 entrepreneurship programs in the US. PlanningShop books are based on years of real-world experience, sharing advice from successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, investors, lenders, and seasoned business experts. 

We spoke to Rhonda about why she's so excited about going to the cloud; the satisfaction of creating good jobs; and the "holy grail of business models".

TNW: What was the inspired moment that led you to launch PlanningShop?

LF: I began my entrepreneurial career as a management consultant to growing companies. In particular, I helped develop strategies and business plans for fast growth companies, typically seeking venture financing. But they needed assistance throughout their startup phases. The seed of PlanningShop began with the identification of the problem: where can entrepreneurs get trustworthy advice?Before the Internet, there was too little: after, too much. We were dedicated to building a brand that was trustworthy, practical advice based on real-world experience. We are now the leading publisher of content on entrepreneurship at the college and university level, have the best-selling business plan guide in the US, and our books are used throughout the world – translated into over 30 languages.

TNW: What is next for PlanningShop? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

RA: Clearly, all content is going digital, and we see great opportunities in digital content. Not just for delivery, but for the quality and ‘experience’ of the content itself. Internally, we are rapidly moving to the cloud as a company. My mandate to my company: be entirely cloud-based by the end of 2012!

TNW: What is the most common piece of advice that you give to startups? Do you find that male and female founders generally need the same, or different advice?

RA: I speak to MBA classes as well as entrepreneurs’ groups all the time, and a key piece of advice I give is always the same. The most important attribute for an entrepreneur is to ‘redefine failure.’ Very successful entrepreneurs usually have had numerous previous experiences that others would see as ‘failures’ – businesses that didn’t succeed, careers that were stalled. Successful entrepreneurs view their past as learning experiences. They build on their past instead of being buried by it. 

As for differences between male and female entrepreneurs, one is that women often feel they need to be perfect to move forward, while men are typically far more confident and don’t hold themselves to a standard of perfection. Women feel like they can succeed only if they do ALL their homework first.

If a woman wants to start a business, she’ll often feel she has to do months or years of planning, start small. Men often think bigger and move faster. Women need – and deserve –more of that confidence.

TNW: Looking back over the years that you have been advising start-ups, have the companies that have gone on to succeed had certain key traits in common?

RA: One key commonality is an ability to adapt to changing conditions and re-think their strategic plan. The world – especially the business world – changes rapidly, and you have to be able to respond intelligently. You may even have to change the nature of your products and services, even market and entire business concept.  I think the new buzzword for this is “pivot” – you have to be able to pivot to thrive.

TNW: Have attitudes towards female entrepreneurs changed in that time?

RA: Absolutely! Fortunately, there have been many role models of women who have built incredibly successful companies – sometimes while even raising a family. That’s opened eyes to the fact that women can start and build multi-million dollar – even billion dollar – businesses. It’s easier to do business with customers, vendors, banks. Unfortunately, the established venture capital world is the slowest to adapt to this reality, and only a teensy proportion of portfolio companies from major VC firms are headed or founded by women. Still one hopes this last ‘old boy’s club’ will change one day…soon!

TNW: Have you come across any exciting startups recently and what is it about them that appeals to you?

RA: I see them all the time. What excites me about a startup is when the entrepreneur has a true passion for a product or service, brings a fresh but realistic approach, and is willing to ask themselves challenging questions to make their dream a reality.

TNW: We published an article recently about subscription service startups being the next big thing in 2012. What other trends do you predict for the next year or two?

RA: Well subscription is the holy grail of business models, so I’d still urge everyone to try and think if there are ways to structure their offerings on a subscription basis.

Big trends for 2012 and immediate future: cloud (especially for creating subscription SaaS offerings), all things mobile, social media, green technology, health care – especially medical equipment.

TNW: How important is technology to the success of your career? What kind of technology are you most enthusiastic about and why?

RA: I live and work in Silicon Valley so I am surrounded by technology, and I love it! I’m not a gear-head – I don’t love technology for tech’s sake but for what it can do – for people, for businesses, for the world. Let me tell you a story: years ago I went to Egypt, and I visited some ancient tombs right next to the Nile. In the tombs, there were drawings of people living along the Nile thousands of years ago, and when I walked out, I saw people living the same lives – still drawing water by hand, washing clothes in the river, using animals for power. The lack of technology kept humans from being more fully human – utilizing their creative and intellectual capabilities, improving their health and well-being.

As for the technology I’m most excited about going to the cloud. I think cloud services are transformative for growing companies.

They liberate you from spending so much time and resources on infrastructure so you can build your core business.

TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why? What is one lesson about leadership you have learned the hard way, but wish someone had told you in the beginning?

RA: Hire sooner! I waited far too long before hiring my first employee. Before hiring my second, etc. You can’t grow if you do everything yourself. My leadership style has always been consensus building, open book management; that’s never changed and never will.

TNW: If you could change one thing about the world of entrepreneurship, what would it be?

RA: Make money for startups easier to get. There are so many great ideas that can’t get funding. Make it easier to raise money for businesses that will never grow huge but can be healthy businesses offering good employment.

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

RA: I’ve met so many wonderful, inspirational women from all over the world. I’ve made some dear friends that I treasure. DWEN members are many of the most successful women in the world; it’s amazing to be able to spend time with them, share insights, build relationships. It’s invaluable. 

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

RA: One aspect of entrepreneurship that is rarely discussed is the great personal and social value there is in creating good jobs. I am so proud and grateful to be an employer.

There are few things more satisfying in the world than to create good jobs and treat people well every day. And my employees give me so much back in return.  If you want to change the world, create jobs.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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