Book Review: “Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business”

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By Nancy Lublin

It’s budget time, and you’ve been going over your plans for 2011, just like you do every year when the calendar turns over. And as your eyes sweep over the pages, several words come to mind.

Thin. Slim. Small. Cut, slash, eviscerate, butcher, chop and several other euphemisms for painful carving. Also: uh-oh, awww-no, oh-heck and a few other things you can’t say in front of your mother.

How can your business ever hope to thrive and grow on such increasingly meager budgets? Find out what nonprofits do by reading “Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business” by Nancy Lublin.

While sitting in a planning meeting at a “ginormous” global company whose employees were bemoaning a lack of funds, Lublin gently, timidly suggested a few inexpensive solutions to the got-no-money problem.

Her ideas were met with silent looks, as if, she said, she was “the firstborn spawn of beings from another planet.”

It was then that Lublin realized that for-profit businesses could learn a thing or 10 from businesses that are used to working with nothing or less. She decided to write a book, based on what she learned in her 17 years of running a not-for-profit business and what she could glean from colleagues.

“I realized that what we have to offer,” she says, “can be boiled down to one concept: the power of zero.”

First lesson: do more with less cash. Bonuses, raises and other incentives are fine, but that’s not always what motivates employees. Hire people with passion for what you do; they’ll work harder and smarter. Offer them opportunities to build skills, and never forget the importance of fun.

Keep your brand simple, unique, consistent and relevant. Stick with one thing when branding, and use “ambassadors” in every facet of your business. With that in mind, choose your partners wisely and remember that word of mouth is the most effective method of marketing, ever.

When you are in need of help, money or services, learn to ask wisely and be specific. Never confuse business with friendship. Be shameless, but don’t ask for money — even if that’s what you really need. Then, do more for customers and never underestimate the power of the lagniappe. Be strict with your budget. Learn to barter. Be innovative.

Does budgeting make you want to eat antacids for dinner? You won’t need them if you take a big bite of this book first.

You might even need two bites.

Lublin, founder of Dress for Success, and CEO of DoSomething.org, used her experiences and that of colleagues to show for-profit businesses that being budget-challenged isn’t the end of the world. “Zilch” is absolutely packed with hundreds of ideas, instructions and tips; so many, that it seems overwhelming at times and, in fact, you may want to take time to read this honest, helpful book twice.

If you can’t seem to find the words for your skinny financial business plan, here’s more than 230 pages full of them. For you, “Zilch” is a book to budget for.

Book reviewer Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3 and never goes anywhere without a book. Her columns run every other week in the Business Journal.