Juiced up about a lemon business? Think again

We bought a zooAn adventurous reporter with two children is suddenly widowed. He leaves his reporter’s job and decides to buy a zoo in a small rural community.

Despite the misgivings of his brother and children, he goes ahead and buys the zoo.

From the outset, the new zoo owner runs into problems with everything: staff who question his motive, sick animals, zoo keeping regulations and financial hurdles.

“We bought a zoo” is a light-hearted comedy/drama family film but it has some interesting lessons for start-up owners and buyers of second-hand businesses.

Benjamin Mee, the new owner of the dilapidated zoo, has to convince the small staff that he is for real. None of them really believe that he has his heart in it, nor are they convinced that he can resurrect the failing zoo.

It’s important to know the exact reason why you are going into your new business venture. You need to be clear about your purpose because others will judge you on the clarity of your vision and your commitment.

Benjamin faced not knowing how to run a zoo because he had no domain expertise. All he knew was how to report on the news. So he had to rely on the existing staff who fortunately provided him with good advice. He was also lucky that the staff had their hearts in the business and didn’t want to leave the zoo even though it was failing.

Venturing outside your circle of competence, as Warren Buffet calls it, is dangerous. To bridge your skills gap you need skilled and experienced people who know what they are doing.

Money in a small business is always a massive challenge. Benjamin faced the giant challenge of raising finance because he had run out of money paying for the refurbishment of the zoo to comply with regulations. Fortunately for him, his late wife had left him savings to bail himself out of any “circus” adventure he may have undertaken. She knew him well.

In a crisis it is not easy to suddenly raise money. This is why it pays to build up a kitty so that you can tap into it to tide you through bad times.

Though the film is fiction, it highlights some common failings in anyone starting out in a business they don’t know. The basics are to know why you are in business, how to operate and run it and to plan your cash requirements up front.

There are many other problems but these did not surface in the movie. These include bad pricing, not understanding technology, not doing enough marketing, overpaying suppliers, being a perfectionist and underestimating your competition.

If you don’t know what you are doing, you won’t last very long. Get a business adviser to guide you but just make sure your business adviser has run small businesses. Starting a small business from scratch and running it is the biggest teacher. Even if you fail at it, the lessons will be far more valuable than from entrepreneurial courses and experience solely gained in a giant corporation.

Not knowing how to run a business makes for great conflict in a movie such as “We bought a zoo” but in the real world of small business operations where every problem doesn’t have such neat and carefully choreographed solutions, it pays to have an experienced mentor or business adviser to guide you. If you don’t, you may just find yourself being chewed up by the lions.

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