Some would say that big business has it made; I on the other hand believe that there will always be a special place for the little business guy. Entrepreneurs have an edge over their bigger competitors. So while the Amazon’s of the world are struggling to break even from their multi billion-dollar overheads, the smaller Dot coms are already realizing profits. What advantages do the “little” guys have in the marketplace? Below is how to “think like a startup” and realize greater success.
HOW TO KEEP THE ENTREPRENEURIAL EDGE:
1) STAY IN TOUCH WITH YOUR CUSTOMERS
Ever heard of the 80/20 rule? The old adage says that 80% of your business will come from 20% of your customers. In business, the customer is king. It’s far easier to sell to an existing customer than to find a new one. So, once you get a customer, you need to service the heck out of them.
So how do you make your customers feel like they are number one? By letting them know that they are top priority. This means answering your own phone, replying quickly to email requests. It means staying in regular communication with your customers. Keep up a good rapport. Send an occasional email asking them what’s new. Mail birthday cards or a customer anniversary card. Gestures like these can build close, long lasting customer relations and goes a long way to building customer loyalty.
In addition to building stronger customer relationships, keeping in touch with your customer base can enable dot coms to offer one to one marketing. By identifying your customers needs and buying habits, you can personalise product packages and service offerings to meet your customer’s individual needs.
2) LISTEN TO THE BEAT OF THE STREET
If small business owners want to keep their head above water, they need to closely monitor their environments. By “listening” to the pulse, you can think proactively rather than re actively. This means spotting things when they are coming so you can act quickly and take advantage.
Web stats – Do you look at your web stats regularly? Or are you guilty of being too “busy” to make time? Unless you regularly look at your web traffic reports, they probably will read like a foreign language to you. By looking at your web reports regularly, you’ll be able to spot trends. What pages are your visitors going to? What is the hits-to-sales ratio? What can you do to improve that number?
Feedback – Another way to “listen to the beat” is to get feedback from your customers. Try to be on a first name basis with your customers. Ask them how they are doing and if there is anything you could assist them with. The answers you’ll receive will be worth their weight in gold.
Industry news – Keep up with the industry by reading everything you can get your hands on. When you work in “living room central” it’s easy to let yourself be isolated from the world. You can’t rely on your favourite soap operas to keep you informed about the current trends in business. So put down your munchies and flavoured coffee and make a concerted effort to stay “in the know” by subscribing to print magazines and online newsletters
When I think about flexibility, the childhood rhyme “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick” comes to mind. In order to keep from being burned, small businesses need to be nimble and quick. This means having the flexibility to act quickly in response to changes in the marketplace. Like a surfer riding a wave, you have to be in just the right place at the right time to ride the crest of the wave and get the best ride. Likewise, if small businesses monitor closely what’s going on in the marketplace, they can act quickly to take advantage of current events and trends in the marketplace.
They say what gets measured, gets managed. Keep a close eye on your monthly financials. Listen to your customers. Measure the effectiveness of your advertising. Then when you see a difference ask yourself, “was that good or bad” and ACT!
4) TAP INTO THE FIRE AND LET IT FUEL YOU
Simply said, small business owners want it more. Because of this, they will try harder and go the extra mile. That’s why big companies like Wal-Mart and Saturn have made their employees part owners in the company. They have seen that people will work harder for themselves than for anyone else.
The best secret to success as an entrepreneur is to find something you are passionate about and create a business around that. When you do something you love you’ll never “work” a day in your life. Entrepreneurs have that fire in their belly. Find a way to tap into that internal fire and let it fuel you to success.
While big companies will often be able to offer the lower prices, small businesses will always be able to pile on the value. By offering better service, adding bonuses, giving and discounts on related products, the entrepreneurs can add more bang for the buck.
6) CREATIVE SPARK
What’s great about the entrepreneurs is that they aren’t afraid to try something new. When I think of “creative spark”, I think of my son, when he was three years old, eyeing a package of cookies up on top of the refrigerator. He doesn’t know that it is up really high and that climbing up there is dangerous. He only sees the cookies and starts stacking chairs and climbing until I find him sitting on top of the fridge with a big smile and a mushy cookie face. Similarly, entrepreneurs don’t “know” if something will work or not and fearlessly forge forward with their eyes on the prize. This innovation helps them to tap into new products, techniques, and processes.
They say, when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. When the market starts putting the heat on your business, ask yourself, are you staying “sharp”? Do you still have the entrepreneurial edge? By thinking like a start up, you will find that you will have the staying power to compete with the big boys on the block. And you’ll find that kind of hard-earned success is “oh” so sweet!
Here’s an interesting notion: Do you realize that there are mistakes you can make at various stages of your business’ growth that can be slowly killing it for months or even years if you don’t watch for them?
Well, these mistakes do exist and they are not just reserved for the rookie companies. Many working businesses, including those you might think are “successful” because they’ve been around for 10+ years, are often still making them… and are possibly losing a lot of money and/or wasting a lot of time in the process.
Although some of these big and sneaky mistakes seem aimed more at service type companies, they really do fit the bill for almost any type of industry. I’ve done my best with the listings below to give examples to prove it.
Underestimating Project/Service Time– This is a big one and it pertains to service companies as well as companies that sell a product. This is a service company’s bread and butter. If you don’t estimate your time to perform each and every service in your repertoire, you will get burned and there is little you can do about it but bite the bullet and learn from it. The best way to estimate time is to do it once yourself or watch your best employee do the task and then throw in a little fudge factor on top of it. For product companies, time becomes an issue with logistics so be aware!
Not Knowing YOUR Company Numbers/Incorrectly Setting Prices– Notice I emphasised the word “your”. It’s a common mistake to use a competitor’s as your pricing gauge without actually knowing why they use those numbers. Think about the nightmare you will get yourself into if you take a competitor’s price, cut it by 10% and then start selling. What if the competition has a bad pricing structure and is barely making money or even losing money?!?! What if your costs are more than theirs?!?! You can use competitor as a starting point but you can’t base your whole strategy on it.
Different industries have their own variables as far as costs go and you need to be aware of them for your project or product pricing. What you pay for a product you are going to sell is not the only cost to have in your head when you are pricing products. How much your labour and materials cost for a service is only a piece of an hourly rate. Employees cost more than just salary and not every employee is part of your labour cost. Every company has insurance to pay for. There are tons of overhead expenditures that need to be part of your price. Oh, by the way, the big one that many people forget about in their price is the quality factor. What you include as “standard services” or “standard product features” as well as job site etiquette or in store service or warranties all need to go into your pricing. I’ll get to more on why in the next segment.
Not Charging for All of Your Time & Costs– This seems like a stupid statement to some but I bet most business owners will admit that they have given away a little too much of the farm at times. Hey, there is nothing wrong with giving a little extra here and there to show you care. But either way, that’s not what I’m talking about here. What concerns me are those that put a lot of quality into their work or products or stores and do not cover the cost for it. As an example, say you run a service company and your competitors don’t do a certain standard service that you do. You can’t just undercut their price to steal a job; you need to have that cost covered in your rate and advertise the fact that it comes with the price upfront. Stores undermine themselves, for example, when they put more people on the floor for customer service but don’t charge for it. These things cost you money and when your competitors don’t do them it costs them less money. Put out better service and then under price them, and your competition just has to wait a little bit for you to fall on your face so they can swoop back in.
As a business owner you need to believe that you are providing your clients worthwhile wares that deserve to be paid for. If you get the chance to explain why your prices are higher, then take that opportunity and do it. If they don’t like the fact that you include things that others charge extra for later or that you treat them better, then they are most likely completely price shoppers. You don’t want them as regular customers anyway. Trust me.
Not Getting Paid Fast Enough– That’s right, the old cash flow issue. As long as you are actually making enough money to pay the bills, this problem can be solved, prevented or at least made to be not as bad as it could be. Here’s the deal:
First off all, bill customers very promptly. It is very common for a small business to not have the procedures or systems in place to get invoices generated and out the door in a timely fashion (see the next segment for more). Again, this would seem unlikely since that’s the reason why we are doing the work- to get paid. But it is very easy for the people responsible for getting this info to the billing people to be too busy to get it there or not have enough organisation to give it to them the right way.
The second part to slowing down or stopping a regular cash flow crunch is to make the quickest payment deals possible with customers and the slowest possible with vendors and employees. If there is any way not to pay employees any more than twice a month, you better do it. Contractors always have an issue with this. If you must pay weekly, then tell them before they are hired that they will be getting the first week held back, essentially buying you a week. It will help, I promise.
Part three involves credit. If your company can get a credit card, then get it. This allows for certain important things to be bought (that you can afford) that might come up during a cash flow crunch. Better yet, especially if you have no choice but to deal with 45+ day customer payments, do your best to get a company line of credit. This is a must if you plan on selling to the government or doing commercial service work. These clients often have 60 to 90 day wait periods.
Failure to Have Solid Systems and Procedures in Place– Too many procedures (known as “red tape”) is the reason why many people start their own business in the first place. Unfortunately, having no procedures and systems in place at all is not an alternative. Depending on the type of industry, business owners must come to a happy medium or chaos and the unknown will ensue. Some basic examples where procedures or systems are needed include billing, collections, payroll, hr (interviewing, hiring, vacations, benefits, job responsibilities, etc.), manufacturing, operating equipment, maintaining equipment, inventory, sales calls/visits and logistics to name a few.
Even a one person show needs to have some admin procedures in place. This will make it easier to hire temps and subcontractors and control what they are doing for you. Without at least a watered down version of a system or procedure to do everyday work, you will be to blame for causing many major headaches as your company grows. I can’t emphasise how important this is for when you bring on new employees. I’m sure you heard this before, but I am also a big proponent of having an employee handbook even for one employee. It’s amazing the trouble people can cause business owners just because they allow you to pay them.
Spending Advertising Money Just to Say You Advertise– I would almost rather see my clients not advertise then to spend without regard to tracking the results. There is no point in a marketing campaign if you do not put things in place that allow you to measure how well the plan is working. The other wasteful part of marketing that many people make the mistake of doing, is not tracking their previously successful campaigns. Why some people think that just because a $400 dollar a month ad worked once very well for one busy season, that it will automatically work every year after that is beyond me.
Spreading Yourself Too Thin– This is a classic mistake made by every entrepreneur. The key is to figure out when you are at that “wearing too many hats” point and start getting some help. The solution here is to know your strengths and to be able see when you are not performing the duties that demand these skills. If you are the best sales person on the company, you can’t get caught up in day-to-day operations. If you do, sales will slip and eventually you won’t have any operations to worry about. Think about this to help you figure out if you are spread too thin: Did you really go into business for yourself to work 80+ hours a week?
Not Getting Help Soon Enough– Set goals to know when to hire people to take over where you are light on knowledge. Not getting help or waiting too long can kill a company. Most people who start a business do it because they are good at the technical end or the sales end. If you know the best way to make a widget, then your strength is in production and that is where your time should be spent. Hire an outside company or consultant to take care of the sales and marketing and then hire inside when you can afford someone full time. Don’t be something to your company that you are not. It will only hold you back.
The three big issues people like to tackle themselves but usually are least knowledgeable about are legal issues, accounting/bookkeeping issues and daily operations issues. The odds are that these three things are your weakest link so if you don’t have a partner that has the background for these subjects, then be prepared to get help as soon as possible. It’s preferable that you do this before you start a business.
Although looking for these problems at any time is a good idea, the end of a year or season is an excellent business interval to make sure you are not making these errors. Take the time, or make the time, to fix these problems. If you don’t know how to reverse the problems, then get some help. If you really don’t have enough time to either figure out if you have these issues or know they are there and can’t break away long enough to do it right, then get some help.