Tips for Growing Your Small Business

Consumers have so many choices when it comes to choosing the right business for their needs. The first decision they must make is whether to go with a small or big business. Small businesses are able to focus on their mission and keep their fingers on the pulse of their customers. They are also able to offer more personal attention to their clients. But we have seen a dramatic decline in the number of small privately owned businesses these past few years.

For smaller businesses today, an important point to consider is whether they should develop an online store or website. Many experts agree that an online presence is essential for most businesses, and that there are several reasons why consumers should select a small business over a big one.

While many small companies see big companies as the enemy, their real competition is other small companies like themselves. Most big businesses already have a recognizable brand name. They also have a pretty loyal fan base. They are not worried about small operations knocking them down in sales. But other small shops must continue to fight their business counterparts to get an edge in today’s market.

Why would people choose to go with a smaller business over a larger one? Many customers enjoy the more personal and face-to-face attention they get from a small business; they’re not just talking to a voice on the end of a phone. Some people like to think that the money they’re spending is going back into the local community. You need to remember these principles when developing your website or online store.

It is increasingly straightforward for a small to medium business to establish an online presence nowadays. Successful online stores can really help small businesses increase their sales and steer their profits into the black. Before launching an online store, however, a small business first needs to learn how to make the most of its strengths.

Some small sized businesses make the mistake of using their online image as a way to appear bigger. But that image may turn away the customers they would normally attract with their usual image. Building an online image that reflects the hallmarks of a small business is important. Having an email address and phone number on your website for customers to contact you is a good way help them feel more personally connected to your business. Also consider an instant chat option with customer service representatives for your customers to receive real-time responses.

Also highlight how your small business benefits the local economy. Use your website to remind customers that you are a member of the community and that you care about it. Maybe highlight the employees to give them the “face” your customers want to see. That added personal touch is what brings in the types of people who are tired of big businesses and want better customer service.

Too many small businesses try to go bigger and better when they establish their online store or website. They lose sight of their original mission and forget about the things that people value about small business. Make sure you make good use of your business’s characteristics when establishing your online presence and don’t discard your small business image. This will help your venture online be a success.

Busters of the Top 6 Most Common Misperceptions of Mobile Small Business

The trends are very telling – mobile small business apps is the smart way to reach your audience.

The latest research shows that the primary reason small business continues to place traditional advertising such as their annual yellow page listing is because everyone else does.

With the sharp downward trends of traditional advertising it’s time to go where your audience already is. Let’s examine closer where you can improve a much higher promotional ROI with your mobile apps for small business investment.

First Steps Toward Mobile Apps for Small Business

  1. Know your current ROI.

What is your yellow pages (or other print) actual ROI?

How many new customers came to you through your print listing?

What was their average purchase amount?

Does your incremental sales margins cover the cost of your print ad?

  1. Start small. Take just say 10-15% of what you are already spending and pilot some of the mobile small business apps.
  2. Leverage both. For example, use your yellow page listing to include a promotion that drives traffic to free Facebook business page such as opting in for a discount coupon.

The Most Commonly Perceived Barriers for Mobile Small Business Apps

Anything new and different always has initial barriers.

Let’s explore whether they are fact or fiction so that you can decide if this exciting and fast growing medium is right to consider for your business.

We’ll start with the most common perceptions.

  • Time – Overwhelmed business owners have little time to research new technology for mobile small business apps and consumer tastes.

Fact- Customizable templates offer turnkey solutions for even the most non-technical business owner.

  • Cost – Normal development costs for mobile apps can be costly. Typically $4,000 to $15,000. Don’t forget multiple technology formats and future software changes create additional costs.

Fact – Affordable options are now available for the smallest promotional budget.

  • Branding and Customization – Mobile app templates don’t allow me to express my unique brand, benefits and features for my business.

Fact – Menu driven templates allow you to choose which small business apps functions will engage your target audience the most. You can even choose your own logo, color, look and feel that mirrors your web site and print collateral. This custom menu approach saves you thousands of development dollars.

  • Technology – How could I ever keep up to be sure my mobile small business apps can be viewed on Android, Apple iOS, Blackberry and Windows smartphones. How about all the different tablets?

Fact – Exciting cloud based solutions mean all that back office technology stuff is done for you so your business apps are always easily accessible to your customers, no matter what device is in their hand. More importantly your information is secure.

  • ROI Tracking and Control – How do I keep up with a repeatable tracking system for my mobile apps?

Fact – You select the measurable traffic and customer conversion indicators you want to track and the system does it for you. Once you decide what you want you can maintain your system in less than 15 minutes a day.

  • Type of Business – My business isn’t about connecting with local mobile shoppers like restaurants and Realtors. I don’t see how mobile business apps would work for me.

Fact – If you have a product or service that provides additional value to help people with solutions they need there are mobile business apps waiting for you to connect to. Because of the widespread use of smart phones across all demographic groups (1 billion by 2016 globally!) every business has a sizable audience to reach.

Think outside your local market. With mobile apps it’s time to consider regional, national and even a global reach.

While this article emphasized smart phones don’t forget to include tablet users, another exploding mobile platform many small to mid-size businesses are not effectively connecting with.

With a world gone mobile the time is now to rid all the barriers in helping your mobile small business apps connect with growing your business.

Four Reasons Why Small Business

It is so widely acknowledged that a robust business plan is one of the key ingredients in small business success, it seems remarkable that anyone serious about their business could considerable it optional. For example, Business Link say, “It is essential to have a realistic, working business plan when you’re starting up a business”. A recent survey showed that small businesses were twice as likely to be successful with a written business plan as compared with those without one. The Times in their annual round up of 100 up and coming UK businesses suggest that “poor business planning” is a key reason for failure. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to find an authority that would advocate the opposite idea, a clear signal that this idea is accepted wisdom. Despite this, a recent survey shows that two thirds of small business owners run their businesses on gut instinct alone.

I had a very interesting discussion about this a couple of days ago with a good friend of mine who has run several successful small businesses in which he posited the idea of a “planning gene”. He felt that the only possible explanation for the lack of proper planning in small business was genetic.

According to his theory, the majority of people are born without the “planning gene” and this explains why so many people don’t have any written business plan, despite the overwhelming evidence of a high correlation between a robust and vigorously implemented business plan and business success. The majority of us are simply not biologically and genetically wired to plan.

This is certainly one explanation, although I have to say I have a few reservations as to the validity of his theory. I talk with small business owners about planning every day. I’m part of a small business myself. I’ve owned several small businesses over the last ten years each with varying degrees of success. In all those conversations and all that experience, this was the first (semi) serious discussion I’d had about the planning gene.

If I was to aggregate the results of the conversations I have had with actual and prospective customers on this topic, four distinctive strands emerge explaining why small business owners fail to plan. Whilst I have heard a few other explanations for the lack of effective small business planning, I am treating these as outliers and focusing on the most significant.

I’m Too Busy To Plan – More often than not, the small business owners we talk to tell us that proper planning is a luxury that only big business can afford. For them, business planning, if done at all, was a one-time event that produced a document for a bank manager or investor which is now gathering dust in the furthest recesses of some rarely opened filing cabinet. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and if forced to choose, they would do the real, physical work and leave the mental work undone, which seems to be the poor relation at best, if it is even dignified with the status of work at all.

Traditional Planning Doesn’t Work – The “I’m too busy to plan” excuse is often supplemented with this one. I’ve heard the stories of the most legendary construction overrun of all time, The Sydney Opera House, originally estimated to be completed in 1963 for $7 million, and finally completed in 1973 for $102 million, more times than I can remember. Sometimes, this idea is backed up with some actual research, such as the fascinating study by several eminent psychologists of what has been called the “planning fallacy”. It seems that some small business owners genuinely believe that mental work and planning is a bit of a con with no traction on physical reality.

My Business Is Doing Fine Without Detailed Planning – A minority of small business owners we speak to are in the privileged position of being able to say they’ve done pretty well without a plan. Why should they invest time and resources into something they don’t appear to have missed?

Planning Is Futile In A Chaotic World – Every once in a while, we hear how deluded we are to believe that the world can be shaped by our hopes and actions. This philosophical objection to planning is perhaps my favourite. It takes ammunition from a serious debate about the fundamental nature of the universe and uses it to defend what almost always is either uncertainty about how to plan effectively or simple pessimism. This is different from the idea that planning doesn’t work as these business owners have never even tried to form a coherent plan, but have just decided to do the best they can and hope that they get lucky as they are knocked hither and thither like a steel ball in the pinball machine of life.

As with all of the most dangerous excuses, there is a kernel of truth in each of these ideas and I sympathise with those who have allowed themselves to be seduced into either abandoning or failing to adopt the habit of business planning. Most small business owners feel the same dread in relation to business planning as they do to visits to the dentist, so it’s unsurprising that so many simply don’t bother. However, by turning their backs completely on planning, they are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Taking each idea outlined above in turn, I’ll attempt to show why business planning is critical, not just despite that reason but precisely because of that reason.

I’m Too Busy Not To Plan – Time is the scarcest resource we have and it is natural that we would want to spend it doing those things that we believe will have the greatest impact. Of course, we want to spend most of our time producing, but we should also invest at least some time into developing our productive capacity. As Stephen Covey pointed out in his seminal work, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, we should never be too busy sawing to sharpen a blunted saw. Planning is one of the highest leverage activities we can engage in, as when done effectively it enhances the productive capacity of small businesses, enabling them to do more with less. Nothing could be a bigger waste of precious time than to find out too late that we have been using blunt tools in pursuit of our business goals.

If we as small business owners weren’t so busy and time wasn’t so scarce, then we wouldn’t have to make choices about what we did with our time and resources. We could simply pursue every opportunity which presented itself. However, for the busy entrepreneur, the decision to do one thing always has the opportunity cost of not being able to do something else. How can we be certain that our business is going where we want it to go without pausing regularly, scanning the horizon and making sure not only that we are on track but also making sure that we still want to get to where we are heading? I believe more time is wasted in the single-minded pursuit of opportunities that are not right than is wasted by over thinking the opportunity of a lifetime.

In short, small business owners are extremely busy and their time is precious. So much so that to waste it doing the wrong things with the wrong tools would be tragic. Small business owners that cannot afford the luxury of making expensive mistakes simply must regularly sharpen the saw through continuous business planning.

Traditional Planning Doesn’t Work, So We Need a New Approach That Does – There are some fairly large question marks over the effectiveness of traditional business planning techniques. In an age where business models are becoming obsolete in months rather than years, a business plan projecting five years into the future cannot be viewed as gospel. Nobody has a crystal ball and if they did, they probably wouldn’t be writing business plans but using their remarkable predictive powers to some more profitable end.

Dwight D Eisenhower said “plans are useless, but planning is essential”. Whilst producing a document called a business plan is far from useless, the real value lies in the process by which the plan is created in the first place. If this process can be kept alive in a business then the dangers associated with traditional planning can be minimised or avoided all together. In an environment of continuous business planning, small businesses can be flexible and adaptive to the inevitable changes and challenges they will face. Rather than quickly becoming obsolete, their plan will simply evolve with the changing circumstances.

Accepting that the plan is a living thing that will evolve necessitates a change of approach to business planning. An effective business plan is the response to the repeated asking of the questions what, why, how, who and how much. It is not a 20 – 30 page form to fill in for the benefit of a bank manager or some venture capitalist, who will probably never fully read it. A business plan should help you, not hinder you, in doing business. If traditional business planning doesn’t work for you, it’s time to embrace the new paradigm of continuous business planning.

My Business Could Do Even Better With Effective Planning – If you are one of the lucky few whose business has thrived despite an absence of traditional business planning, then I say a sincere well done. I hope that you can say the same thing in five years time.

Business life expectancy in Britain and across Europe and indeed the world are in rapid decline. A study done at the end of the eighties and then again as we marched into the new Millennium showed that life expectancy had more than halved for British businesses in those ten years, from an average of 9.7 years to 4.1 years. Just because a company once enjoyed market leadership does not mean that its future is assured. Many high street institutions have fallen victim to the recent recession. Five years ago it was inconceivable that UK retail institutions like Clinton Cards, Game, Borders, Barratts, T J Hughes, Habitat, Focus DIY, Oddbins, Ethel Austin, Principles, Allied Carpets, Woolworths, MFI and Zavvi/Virgin Megastore would all be either out of business or teetering on the brink of oblivion in 2012. Yet that is exactly what has transpired.

Any business from the smallest to the greatest is not impervious to the winds of change. A new competitor, a technological breakthrough, new laws or simply changes in fashion and consumer preference can all re-write the future of a company regardless of how bright that future once seemed. It is precisely because these risks exist that business planning is critical. To survive in business is extremely hard, but failing to effectively plan for the future or adapt to current realities surely makes it impossible and failure inevitable.

Of course, it is not necessarily the absence of plans that did for these companies but the quality of their plans and most especially the quality of their implementation. Even a poor plan vigorously executed is preferable to the finest planning and research left to rot in a drawer. Continuous business planning is effective business planning because it emphasizes implementation and regular reviews of real results as part of what should be a continual process of improving company performance rather than simply attempting to predict the future and wringing our hands when our prophecy fails to come true. We believe, like Peter Drucker, that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Planning Is Essential In A Chaotic World – We sometimes feel small and insignificant as we try against all odds to translate our dreams into business reality. It’s easy to feel all at sea when we consider some of the challenges we face. However, whilst it is true that we cannot control the direction of the wind, we can adjust our sails and change the direction of the rudder. Difficult and challenging circumstances may come in our lives, but we can control the outcome of these circumstances by choosing which path to take.

The truth is that we are fundamentally achievement orientated as human beings. When this is taken away, we lose much of the energy and motivation that propels us forward. There have been numerous studies carried out on life expectancy rates after retirement, which show that when clearly defined goals and daily action moving in the direction of those goals are removed from our lives, the result is literally fatal. The individuals studied who failed to replace their career goals with a new focus for their retirement simply shriveled up and died. The implications for small business owners are clear. Those business owners with clear goals who take action daily that propels them in the direction of their goals are far more likely to thrive and survive than those who take any old goal that comes along or move from day to day with no defined objective other than survival.

It seems to me that precisely because life is so chaotic and challenging that effective planning is essential. Without continuous business planning, our businesses and the small business owners that work in them may find that bit by bit they are atrophying and on their way to becoming another business failure statistic.

There undoubtedly exists an antipathy for business planning felt by many small business owners. Clearly, this cannot be fully explained by the lack of a “planning gene”, but it equally cannot be fully justified by the reasons most commonly put forward by small business owners to not engage in the business planning process. These reasons must be critically re-evaluated and a commitment made to a continual and never ending process of improving the condition of their small businesses. Without such a commitment, the future for small businesses in the UK is uncertain.

Small Business Project Management

Growth hungry small businesses today in the UK and indeed throughout the world face the challenge of balancing two competing objectives. Firstly, businesses must maintain and standardise current business processes in order to give your business the chance to get really good at what it does through experience curve effects. Greater business efficiency normally translates into a better customer experience and higher profits. Secondly, businesses must transform business operations in order to survive and compete in the future. How well we are able to achieve the right balance for our business will ultimately determine if we survive and go on to thrive or go the way of so many small businesses into market irrelevancy and insolvency.

You may well be thinking right now what has this got to do with project management? To understand that we first need to understand the fundamental differences between projects and day to day business operations. Whilst many of the skills required to manage your “business as usual” activities are the same as those needed to manage projects, there are some crucial differences. Amongst the most significant differences are that project work tends to be at least cross functional and often cross organisational and every project will be unique in some way rather than following the predictable pattern of business as usual. These characteristics of projects introduce opportunities and risks over and above those encountered in business as usual. In short, projects are riskier than day to day business, and therefore need a different management approach.

Projects are the means by which we introduce change in organisations. All businesses that are making any attempt to adapt to face future challenges have projects. Common examples of projects in small businesses may include setting up a company website, establishing the office in a new location, or implementing a new product but it can be any temporary activity or set of activities that have a specific output associated with it. Businesses increase their productive capacity one project at a time. Indeed, for ambitious small companies looking to grow and expand, the need to initiate the right projects and achieve the desired results is even more vital l than it is for huge national and multi-national businesses

Despite the obvious need for a project management (PM) approach, most small businesses don’t bother. This constitutes a huge missed opportunity as effective project management impacts the bottom line. For example, research by the CBP shows that project management improvement initiatives improve project performance by up to 50% for the first project and can continue for each new project if the business offers ongoing project management tools and support. We could emphasise this point further by citing the Standish Group, who in their CHAOS Report conservatively estimates that 20% of money spent on projects is wasted because companies don’t have a consistent approach to project management.

Let’s take a look at six reasons I often hear from small business owners that choose not to bother with project management and then critically address the misconceptions behind these reasons.

1. Project management practices take more time

Having a process to follow may add time to the duration of an activity. Doing something properly will almost always take a little bit more time than adopting a slapdash approach. However, if you where building a house, would you rather have a quality end result that took a little longer, or would you prefer to have it done quickly but with lots of problems? Given that poorly executed projects can be completely de-rail a small business if they go badly, doing it well is essential, and PM processes help ensure things are done well.

2. Project management eats into the cash that I need to grow my business

A common misconception is that it is hugely expensive to implement PM process. The reality is that there are many free or low-cost sources of advice, techniques, tools, templates and project management services readily available and accessible through the Internet. If done correctly, any small business can implement PM processes, techniques and tools with very little cost. The likelihood is that small business owners are already using software and other tools that can be used for project management. For example, certain email software, spreadsheets, and other common software applications offer good templates for project management, especially if used in collaboration with some of the low cost project management services available for small businesses

3. Project management requires skills that I don’t have and cannot afford to hire

Although it does require specialised skills and experience to be an accomplished project manager, these are skills that can be learned over time. To move further up the learning curve faster, it is possible to take a PM course in as little as four or five days. Most small business owners tend to possess the knowledge needed for project management, and courses such as the Prince 2 Practitioner course would build on these skills while introducing the specific theories, tools, and processes essential for project management. Whilst business owners might not emerge from a course as a project expert, they would certainly learn valuable skills to apply to their small business.

4. I don’t need the hassle or paperwork of project management.

Every entrepreneur that starts their own business will, at some point, need to do a risk assessment, a marketing campaign or apply for finance. Being knowledgeable in project management and applying associated tools such as stakeholder analysis, communication planning and risk management will not only assist in many of these tasks, but will provide your small business with a competitive edge over competitors who do not approach.

5. Project management will slow me down and I need to stay agile.

Modern PM methodologies all acknowledge the importance of a tailored approach to project management. If your project requires speed, the right methodology can enable you to move quickly. Just as important, however, it will provide you with techniques to understand whether some proposed projects are worth pursuing at all. Rushing into situations without thoroughly understanding your environment is hazardous to the health of any project and potentially to the health of the business as a whole

6. I am an expert in my industry, I don’t need project management.

Most small businesses are started by a person who already has some expertise in their industry. This is unquestionably an advantage; however, project management should still be used to convert plans into reality. The main reasons for project failure tends to be poor planning, lack of capital, and lack of management. Project management, while not a cast-iron guarantee of success, will assist the small business in mitigating some of the common risks that so often cause project failure amongst small businesses.

Even a brief look at the reasons often posited by small business owners for failing to approach projects in a systematic and different way that recognises their inherent riskiness and addresses some of the more challenging aspects of project work shows them to be of dubious merit. Without question, the quality of project outputs would be greatly enhanced and the cost of and time taken in delivering project benefits using a project methodology appropriate to the scale of the project.