If there’s one characteristic successful entrepreneurs share, it’s adaptability. As much as they may try to plan, they rarely know how the road ahead will unfold for them, and the ability to be flexible can make the difference between their success or failure in business.
That flexibility is a characteristic Janet Zablock often observed in the small business owners she served as former head of global small business for Visa. It also described her own career, one that required her to reinvent herself several times. What she learned offers lessons both for those trying to grow a business, as well as those building their careers.
Learn As You Go
Growing up with a single mom after her father had passed away, Zablock started working at age 12 to earn money, doing everything from cleaning a doctor’s office to shampooing hair at a salon to working at a car dealership.
She enrolled at Eastern Illinois University thinking she would earn a degree in food and nutrition, but the amount of science classes that degree required didn’t appeal to her, so she earned a B.S. in home economics with a minor in business administration, instead.
While still in college, she managed to land an internship with McDonald’s, whose corporate headquarters were based in the Illinois suburbs where she grew up. It was in their corporate giving group, where she helped evaluate grant requests. After graduation, she stayed on and joined the corporate communications group, where she screened media calls.
But then a recommendation from a friend led to a new opportunity: to run customer service for a payment processing company that had just been purchased by an investment firm. She knew nothing about payment processing and had never run a customer service team. “I freaked out,” she admits. But she didn’t turn it down.
Once on board, she reached out to various people within the company, read all the training materials that were currently available, and talked to employees who worked there—asking them to explain their jobs and describe what was going well and what was going wrong. “I used my people skills to help me be successful,” she says.
That leads to her second piece of advice:
Zablock was often helped by mentors as she advanced her career, and as she climbed the corporate ladder, she was often asked to be a mentor. She’s not a fan of formal mentorship programs; she believes it’s more effective to ask for someone’s insight into a particular problem or challenge you are facing.
Before that, lay the groundwork. Try to find a personal connection to those you want to network with, she recommends. “Then you’ll feel more comfortable with them,” she says. When you need advice you’ll feel more comfortable reaching out, she says. ”It shouldn’t always be work, work, work.”
That approach paid off time and again for Zablock, as she moved to new companies, and new positions within those firms.
When the payment processing firm she worked at was bought out, for example, she moved to a bank where she supported corporate cash management sales. Again it wasn’t something she had trained for, but she found mentors and asked for their advice so she could learn what she needed to know to be successful. When the bank she was working at was bought out, she soon became bored, and she took another position with Household Bank, where she was asked to establish a corporate card program.
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When she was initially recruited by Visa, Zablock’s first job was as product manager for corporate credit cards. She worked on $200 billion federal government credit card sales, which meant working with government agencies. She was traveling from California to Washington DC every week for three years. She then moved into a role developing a card program for mid-size companies who were caught between big business and small business
And then the opportunity came up to move into small business credit cards. Part of her job involved research into the needs of small businesses, including interviews with a wide variety of entrepreneurs.
It was eye opening.
“The perception in Silicon Valley is that a lot of small businesses are early adopters of technology; however that wasn’t the case,” she says. “They use a lot of desktop versus mobile,” for example, and “they still write checks (and) use a lot of paper.”
By enhancing and embracing technology, though, many small business owners can save time and money, both of which are often in short supply. Money and financing in particular are often major hurdles that get in the way of small business growth.
“I’m surprised at how bootstrapped small businesses really are,” she says. “You can have a business for three or five years and still develop no financial footprint. You could be flying by the seat of your pants.”
Zablock retired last year from Visa, but she continues to be passionate about helping those small business owners get the tools they need to be successful. She knows that for many of them, success to them does not mean growing into a big business. They just want to make a good living and do work they can be proud of.
A small business credit card is one of the tools Zablock continues to recommend, as it can help business owners track their business spending as well as earn valuable discounts and rewards and establish a financial identity, preparing them for potential future growth that may require loans.
Zablock has joined Nav’s board of directors as an independent member and is excited about advancing Nav’s mission to reduce the death rate of small businesses by helping entrepreneurs build financially healthy companies. She looks forward to helping Nav as it builds tools to help small businesses get financing.
“(Entrepreneurs) are so resourceful and passionate,” she says.” They are so excited to tell you how they got there.”
What business would Zablock start if she decided to become an entrepreneur? “A wine bar,” she laughs. “I’m interested in different wines,” she says, and “I like to socialize. I think you could bring some of the wine tasting experience into (a wine bar) in a different way.”
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