Question: I work for a small financial service company. My bosses are a husband and wife team. They have very unconventional ways of operating their business and most of the time I find it quite refreshing. However, sometimes I miss the regimen of working for a large firm. How do I weigh the pros and cons?

Answer: Simple. Write down on a piece of paper what you like the most about working for a small business and what you like least. You'll be able to judge for yourself if one side outweighs the other.

But remember, even if you think you might enjoy working for a large corporation, don't ever underestimate the political problems you'll encounter there. Large corporations are often so political that it's almost impossible to get ahead or have your work be appreciated or even acknowledged.

Working for a small company is not only a great training ground for you as an employee, it can also help you become an entrepreneur yourself. So don't ever underestimate the value of working with unconventional methods in many cases throughout history, it's the unconventional that becomes the accepted way of thinking for the next generation.

Q: My partners and I have run a construction business in the Los Angeles area for more than 15 years. When we first opened shop, we used to get a lot of business from the government. During the last few years it has gotten more difficult. Is there any relief in sight?

A: President Clinton (if he's still in office by the end of this year) has been preaching "mend it, don't end it," as it relates to affirmative action. Along those lines, he is instituting new federal procurement procedures intended to ensure that owners of smaller, disadvantaged businesses (SDBs) can effectively compete for government contracts.

That by no means will guarantee that you'll get one; it will simply ensure that you can get back into the game. Of course, if you're not economically or socially disadvantaged (defined in this case as being Asian American, African American, Latino or American Indian), you will have to submit an application to a regional SBA office describing how you might have been discriminated against in the past.

The change will be effective as of Oct. 1, and will affect an estimated 30,000 small businesses nationwide by the end of the first year. Government contracts given to SDBs account for about $11 billion in business; less than half that amount will be directly impacted by the new rules.

Q: In regard to the Y2K problem we read about almost daily in one business article or another, will it have as much effect on smaller businesses that run on individual PCs and not on a large mainframe computer network?

A: Unfortunately, yes. You must test your PC's compliance, almost the same way a larger organization would test its mainframes line by line. Every data entry needs to be analyzed and reviewed.

Believe it or not (and why wouldn't you believe it when we live in such a litigious society?), if you're not compliant, you can open yourself and your company to lawsuits. The first lawsuit has already been filed, even though the next millennium won't arrive for another 15 months.

So you'd better start getting with the program (no pun intended). One of the best products to test both your hardware and software is PC Solutions 2000. You can reach its producer by phone at (888) 285-7629 or online at pcsolution2000.com

Q: As an owner of a women's clothing boutique, I'm having a hard time making money. I'm very tempted to shut this store down and try something new, but still stay in retailing. Do you have any suggestions?

A: First, recognize that the only businesses more likely to close their doors than retailers are restaurants. So you're definitely not alone.

Before just closing up shop and opening a new business, you should evaluate what might be wrong with your current business. Could it be location-related? Are you in a highly trafficked area? What are the area's demographics, particularly relating to price levels? How are the other businesses in your area doing? Are you properly marketing your products? Should you add new services, like a personal shopper or fashion consulting? And so on.

If all of these turn out to be negative, and you really want to change businesses, you might want to consider opening up a "branded store." It's a concept that takes some of the venture risk out of the retailing business. It creates a distinct relationship between manufacturer and retailer.

The relationship is formed through a licensing arrangement. As a retailer, the licensing arrangement provides you with a product that has brand recognition and is proven in its marketplace. Similar to being a franchisee, you get the benefit of a national marketing campaign and support from a large organization.

Often, you can carry about 20 percent to 30 percent of merchandise that is not part of the branded line. This gives you some flexibility and diversification so that all of your eggs are not in one basket.

It's obviously something to consider, especially if you're still determined to stay in retailing.

Lorraine's business tip of the week:

Test marketing: Get consumer reaction to a product by introducing it first in limited areas representative of its fully intended market. Test marketing can minimize the risk of failure by subjecting each element of the marketing mix product, price, distribution, and promotion to a trial. The downside of test marketing, especially by a small business with a new product, is that you could very well be tipping your hand to your competitors. They may then have a chance to launch similar products at lower prices.

Lorraine Spurge is a personal finance advisor, author of "Money Clips" and business news commentator. She can be reached at (818) 705-3740 or by e-mail at lspurge@spurgeink.com.

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