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  • Monday, January 29, 2018
    Tatum's business is helping businesses

    It’s obvious that John Tatum takes no pleasure in his nickname at Blinn College’s Small Business Development Center.

    His co-workers, Tatum said, jokingly call him “the dream crusher.”

    But Tatum, who has been with Blinn’s SBDC for 20 years, sees himself as more of a realist when it comes to guiding someone with a business idea down a road that is littered with failures.

    “I’m kind of referred to around here as ‘the dream crusher,’” he said. “Of course, I try to be nice about it. I point out the parts (of a business idea) that are weak, and usually they see that.”

    An example, he said, was someone from Sealy who came to the SBDC with business idea and a plan in hand.

    “They had obviously paid someone to prepare a business plan for them, but they needed some help in going to the bank (for financing). I looked through it and at the break-even point,” said Tatum. “(He told them) You have to sell X number of products to break even. Do you really think you can do that in Sealy?

    “They said, ‘That sounds really high, doesn’t it?’ They realized it just wasn’t workable. They’d paid money for someone to write a business plan, but they don’t really do the planning for you. I felt bad for her.”

    The failure rate of new businesses is difficult to quantify, Tatum said.

    There is no “central place that a business has to register,” and also some businesses are started by people who have lost their job, he said. They will decide to abandon that businesses when another job opportunity comes along.

    “That happens a lot,” said Tatum. “It’s really difficult to know, but the prevailing consensus is that about 50 percent fail in the first three years.”

    He added, “I certainly advocate writing a business plan, but like Dwight Eisenhower said, ‘In war, I’ve always found battle plans useless but planning essential.

    “That’s kind of where we are with business plans,” said Tatum. “It makes you sit down and look at the different aspects of your business and think it through. That’s probably why most businesses fail. They have not thought through things and they end up coming to hurdles they can’t overcome, where if they would have thought it through, maybe they could have approached it in a different way and succeeded.”

    Matthew Wehring, director of the Blinn SBDC, said Tatum is a valuable asset.

    “Whenever I introduce John to someone, I refer to him as the ‘brains’ of our organization,” Wehring said. “He is very analytical with his thinking and often looks at things very differently than most of us.

    “That is very helpful to a lot of business owners, so that they can see things from a different perspective.”

    Business background

    A native of Odessa, Tatum earned a master’s degree in business administration from Angelo State University in San Angelo.

    After graduation, he had to choose between two job offers — one in Bryan and the other from the Blinn SBDC.

    He opted for the one here, even though the Bryan position paid significantly more.

    “At Angelo State, all grad students worked on SBDC projects, so I was familiar with an SBDC,” he said. “I like helping other people. I like the variety both in the size of the businesses I deal with and the type of businesses I deal with.”

    He also teaches business related classes at the University of Houston’s downtown campus. UH is the “umbrella” organization for the Blinn SBDC, contracting with it to provide local services.

    Tatum already had experience running his own business even before he earned his MBA.

    “My brother and I inherited land from our grandfather as a teenager,” he said. “We thought about what we could do with it. It was farmland growing up in pine trees.

    “So we started managing it as pine timber. We’ve done well with it. That got me through graduate school and through some health issues.”

    A second business venture wasn’t nearly as successful. Tatum looks back and laughs now about his attempt to launch a website service in the mid-1990s.

    “The internet was just taking off. I tried to convince businesses to have a website,” he said. “I learned two things. One, I’m a terrible salesman. And two, no one would ever believe that a business would ever need a website.

    “To me, it was pretty clear. But I couldn’t convince people.”

    Now, Tatum devotes his time to helping businesses. The SBDC at Blinn has about 200 “open clients” every year.

    “We want them to succeed,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal of this, economic development and strengthening local businesses.

    “Big businesses are run by people with MBAs. And they hire consultants to help them make decisions. Most small businesses, people don’t have any college and they can’t afford to hire a consultant.

    “So I’m their consultant. The real idea is that I can help them avoid making costly mistakes. If you can reduce the number of mistakes people make, that helps the individuals. But it also helps our economy too.”

    Brenham, he said, is fortunate to have a diverse economy which is helped along by an active Economic Development Foundation. Tatum works with the EDF on occasion.

    “The leaders had the foresight to really get behind the Economic Development Foundation,” he said. “That helped a lot. And brenham is in a really good spot. Some businesses have located here because we’re halfway between Austin and Houston.

    “We’ve got a lot of things going for us in the community.”

    Battling illness

    After Tatum earned his undergraduate degree, his life was put on hold because of illness.

    “Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) — it really became debilitating for me,” he said.

    Tatum responded well to treatment for what he called “a very severe case,” and he “decided to shoot for my MBA.”

    That led him to Angelo State and its MBA program. And eventually to Brenham.

    Among the factors that led him to join Blinn’s SBDC was that its health care provider was through the Scott & White medical system, the same system that had covered the OCD treatments that had helped him so dramatically.


    “So in a way, I think God probably guided me to this job,” he said.

    Tatum was active in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), serving as a director on both the local and state boards.

    He called that “an eye opener for me.”

    “It was interesting to see the government aspect to it,” said Tatum. “I found out one thing — most people with mental illness get addicted to drugs or alcohol. I can see it. It makes sense. I didn’t.”

    In many cases, he added, “people with serious mental illness get arrested.”

    Harris County’s jail system, said Tatum, “is the largest psychiatric facility in Texas.”

    “That’s really kind of pathetic, that a jail is the largest psychiatric ‘treatment’ facility. The focus really isn’t on treatment. That’s an issue. It’s not one that’s going to change very easily.

    “I think for me, the biggest issue I see with mental illness is stigma. I had problems for years and tried to hide it because I was embarrassed by it. When I got the job here, I certainly didn’t advertise it because I thought it would hurt my career. I think it’s getting a little bit better.

    “Most people think, ‘OK, you’re depressed. Think happy thoughts.’ For a healthy brain, those kinds of things might work. But not for a brain that’s ill. OCD ... it’s very difficult for someone to understand why you don’t just stop repetitive behavior. They don’t understand that the brain is misfiring and you can’t just wish it away.”

    Cowboy at heart

    Born in West Texas, Tatum said he loves that part of the state.

    “I’ve always been a cowboy at heart,” he said. Tatum also collects Western art and “knowledge.”

    He also called himself a lifelong “learner.”

    “I love reading about things and learning,” said Tatum. “Learning, I guess, is a big hobby of mine.”

    Brenham Church of Christ which he attends “is very important to me,” he added.

    Tatum is a past president of the Brenham Rotary Club as well.

    His 13-year-old son Jonathan is a student at Brenham Junior High and “is really falling in love with theater and drama.” And like a typical teenaged boy, he also loves video games.

    Tatum became a single parent after his wife of 20 years died last July.

    He said he may return to West Texas, maybe even San Angelo, to start a business of his own after he retires from the Blinn SBDC.

    It probably won’t be trying to convince businesses they need a presence on the internet.Facebook