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What I Learned From Being Bullied by the 'Mean Girl'

High school dynamics don't just disappear after graduation. But in business, we have to handle them much differently.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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In high school, I was not part of the popular crowd. But I was well-known among my peers -- I prided myself on being able to get along with anyone, which allowed me to interact with different friend groups without being tied to a specific one. These skills have proven valuable in my adult life, especially in the world of business.

Just like in high school, the idea of joining a "popular" group in business is appealing. The popular group often provides the illusion of safety, social validation, stability, and in some cases, protection. However, within the popular group, bullying can still occur. 

When I started my business, I believed that partnering with bigger names in the industry would be the key to success. So when I was introduced to one of the largest woman-run firms in my industry, the opportunity to learn under another minority-owned and operated firm (one that held the majority of the market share at the time) seemed like the break I'd been waiting for. 

I'd connected with this firm through a mutual friend who worked with them -- they were looking for a minority-owned company to fulfill a state requirement. At first, the relationship appeared to be a win-win for both organizations. They would pursue the opportunity as the prime contractor, and we would be one of their subcontractors.

When we received our teaming agreement, we found a local attorney who was a friend of a friend and asked him to perform a cursory review. He responded that the language appeared to be standard, but he did offer a caveat that he didn't specialize in contract law. Excited to be working with this firm, we moved forward and signed the agreement. Little did we know that we had just signed with the popular mean girl of the industry. 

Fast-forward a year and a half: we won the project, and our phase of the project was finally ready to start. As a self-funded startup, we were running on fumes, so we were eager to get started. On our first project kick-off call, we discussed key elements: hiring requirements, billing specifications, and timing. But let's be honest, our focus was billing.

We had a $1.3 million task order, and no bank would fund us. Our bi-weekly payroll was $50,000 and we were struggling to pay a $350 monthly insurance bill. 
However, the prime contractor assured us that the billing process was going smoothly, and invoices were being paid within 90 days. Armed with this information, we found a nontraditional lender and negotiated a 120-day payment term. Nine months later, we hadn't received even one payment. We were more than $900,000 in the hole and at this point receiving the runaround from the prime. 

Another three months passed with very little movement on payment, and the prime presented us with an offer: They would loan us money off our invoices at a 4 percent interest rate. Now, one might ask, how does one charge interest on money they owe, and control when and how it's paid? The concept was crazy. But I had exhausted all other lending avenues -- this time, though, we entered the deal understanding that the prime was predatory. Instead of looking at us as partners, they considered us prey, and because they knew we had limited resources, they took advantage of us. 

If I could do it all again, though, I'd handle the situation the same way. While the payment terms negotiated were not favorable, we did a good job negotiating our billable rates. Once we recognized the truth of the prime's business practices, we pivoted our operations, moving several functions in-house and establishing partnerships with other small and medium businesses. And I knew once I eventually received payment, I could pay back my debts, and that the profits earned would still be enough to stabilize my business. 

I tell this story as a warning and wake-up call to other small businesses trying to find their way. While this partnership ultimately worked in my favor, other small businesses on the project could not pivot -- one firm ended up closing their doors altogether. 

Finding a big corporate partner can be great, and I have stories of when those relationships have worked in my favor. But before you sign on the dotted line with a big firm, remember that partnerships are about relationships. And even with the right relationship, you have to make sure your contract covers you as much as possible.

Photo Credit: Getty Images.

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