In my business, I have decided that I won’t even call it a failure/mistake unless I lose $1,000 (assuming nobody was injured). It’s “tuition at the school of hard knocks.” I have recently been dealing with two such “failures” at my business. One is that I did not do enough research before I decided to accept credit cards. Knowing that I was not going to have a chance to outsmart the teams of lawyers at the big credit-card companies, I asked the service rep at the company I was going to use to process my cards what my annual fee was used for.

“Oh, that’s just to tell them you are still operating at the same physical location.” OK, great. Well, hundreds of dollars of unexplained fees later, I find out that I promised to spend five hours a week managing the security system for accepting the three credit-card purchases per month that I had going on. This was ludicrous. I also found out that I had signed a three-year contract.

I know that when I choose not to read the minutia of a contract, I need to ask what it obligates me to do. In the past, I had kind of a squishy idea that I needed to ask if there were any objectionable clauses. But objectionable to whom? The more experienced businessperson who is reading it for me, or my son, the law student, who recently volunteered to read contracts for me now that he is more than halfway through law school? Now I have a larger more useful framework to review contracts, even when I determine that I don’t have the background to understand all the details myself. I have figured out how to ask better questions related to contracts.

The other “tuition” payment was the equipment rental to a local university that I have to cover since my scanning electron microscope went down the week I got a huge job from one of my bigger clients. It had happened before that the image-capture software people had told me that the microscope was “at fault” while the people who were supposed to be servicing the microscope told me the image-capture software was to blame. The difference was the failure was total this time. I could not capture any image at all. It was not like the previous times when there was a squiggle on the left side of the image.

Three weeks later, the problem was found to be a sudden change (after over five years of operation) in how the computer was grounded compared to how the electron microscope was grounded. As this was only the latest in a long, sad tale of woe relating to reliability of this instrument, I decided that I needed to learn to read the service contracts that various companies were offering more carefully.

What I found has been very interesting. Check back for my next installment for more insight on paying attention to detail.