I am often asked to speak at business events about what makes businesses successful – and from talking with audiences, I know it’s always the same hurdles that baffle entrepreneurs and seem impossible to overcome.
Can you name them?
1. Overwhelm, also known as “where do I start?!”
But these obstacles can become stepping stones to success with a little creative thinking! I’ll start with overwhelm, because its remedy is strategy, and nothing happens without a strategy.
What is strategy?
A strategy is the answer to the following question: considering what your business is and what you want it to become, what is next?
A strategy means that you have a clear definition of your business – and you know exactly what your business isn’t, what kinds of clients you don’t serve, what kinds of projects you don’t take on. Knowing what you don’t want to be and what you don’t want to do will make it easier to actually choose those projects and those clients that you really want to work with.
A strategy forces you to exclude everything that is not your business and eliminate distraction, so that there only remains the essence of what you do. Then you will know exactly what opportunity looks like for you: which opportunities to pursue and which ones don’t bring you in your desired direction.
A strategy will give you an overarching framework in which to take decisions. Suddenly the overhwelm disappears and is replaced by one question and one only: is this part of my strategy, does it fit in it, or not? If something does not fit in, then don’t pursue it.
When you know where you’re headed, decisions are easier to make, you have crystal-clear vision of what you should be doing at any one time. Of course reaching that crystal-clear vision is work and doesn’t happen in a day – but you should be working on chiseling that crystal of a strategy!
Who needs a strategy?
Well, anyone who is in business can use a strategy. Actually, a good strategy is a cornerstone of success, since it makes prioritizing that much easier. It is the yardstick against which to decide what you should be doing at any one time. A strategy helps you focus, instead of chasing one “big thing” after the other and not accomplishing much.
This is especially useful for startup entrepreneurs. They often talk about the vision they have for their company, of what they will be doing in the future, but in the meantime, they will take any sort of business just to keep afloat. This is perfectly understandable.
In the US, 70 per cent of small businesses will survive at least two years, yet only half of those will make it past the five year mark. If you don’t want to be at the wrong end of that statistic you have to go after every opportunity you can pursue, at least in the beginning. This hunger for survival is a part of starting up.
But while you’re doing everything you can to keep your head out of the water, you shouldn’t lose sight of your strategy – this is the only way your company will grow, if you seize the opportunities that lead to your objective, instead of away from it, and if you slowly start being more selective in the kind of business that you take on.
Otherwise you will always be chasing the dream, instead of building it, and your attention will be scattered over so many potboiler projects, instead of focused laserlike on your ultimate goal.
How do you find your strategy?
And now how does that elusive strategy come about? Certainly not by sitting down and googling “how to create a strategy for my company”. Strategy comes after a lot of discussion, by talking a lot, to a lot of people, and by listening a lot.
People will reflect back to you what your business really is about, and what you want it to become. It is by talking about your business that you will realise what is a fit and what isn’t, what rings true and what is off.
You might talk about your business in a certain way and either realise “This is it – this is the quality I’ve been looking for – this is the true definition of my business!”, or “No. That’s not quite right. To be honest, this is not really what I want to do and who I want to work with.”
It comes after trying things out (a lot of things), and seeing what interests you. Very often people think “maximize profit” will do as a strategy – and indeed profit should be part of your strategy. But sometimes you’ll start off and realize something is not really for you, irrespective of whether it’s profitable or not. Money can be a carrot, but remember that money is not the only thing that makes a business sustainable. If you don’t enjoy it, your business is going to be unsustainable in a different way.
So my advice would be to discuss your ideas on strategy, what strategy you have for your business, with as many people as possible. Sit down with your business partner and talk it over – and over and over again. Talk to your mentors, talk at networking groups, talk to organisations that help businesses. Talk about what you do, and make sure to listen a lot to what they do.
After a while you’ll start hearing the same things over and over again – until finally they click and you see the way forward. In the meantime, you will have harnessed the wisdom of crowds!
If you can’t find the discipline to sit down and focus on strategy over doing some other tasks in your business, add in some extra motivation! For example, apply for an award or a grant where you have to answer these searching questions on the application form. You could apply for the SFA National Small Business Awards or for an Innovation Vouchers.
A strategy is not set in stone
It’s constantly evolving. Now that only begs the question – how can you take action if the basis on which you take your decisions is constantly shifting?!
For one, uncertainty is the life of entrepreneurship. If you wait until you know everything, until the perfect moment, until you know for sure, you will never start, you will never go forward. So you need to act on hunches and educated guesses – and then sometimes it will be a brilliant success, and you will think that your strategy was indeed right, and then sometimes it will be only half a success and you will realise this wasn’t really your kind of project after all, it is not something you would want to become a part of your business.
Strategy can always be refined. It’s only after I was two years in business that I figured out my own strategy. It did take that long. At the same time, I was “pointing the compass” in different directions and trying on those directions – did they fit me, did they fit my business?
Possibly in six months’ time I will think that what I have now isn’t focused enough – but that is the thing with strategy. It can and should always be fine-tuned. It is not something that you establish once and for all, only to rest on your laurels. It is a process, as much as a destination.
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