8 clichés every entrepreneur should consider

8 clichés every entrepreneur should consider

Clichés become clichés because they make sense, and are widely used, so they pass into the language. Unfortunately, common usage often makes them appear flippant, a throw-away line that means nothing.

That they take on that label does not make them any less valid, in fact, becoming a cliché is almost like getting an endorsement for wisdom.

Following are 8 that entrepreneurs embarking on an enterprise, whether it is the next Uber,  starting a cleaning business in your local area, taking on a franchise or a multi-level selling ‘opportunity’, that you should consider.

 

Cliché 1. Know where, and who, you are.

Irrespective of the starting point, starting a business is a journey. If you are going to start a business, recognise  that it will consume you if it is to be successful. It is not like being an employee, irrespective of results, at least for a while, you get paid to turn up.

Not so now.

Starting a business takes a heavy toll on not just your financial resources, but your resilience and personal relationships as well. Being prepared for the long hours, stress and uncertainty is a good start, you must know yourself well.

Cliché 2. Know where you want to go.

Many become tangled up in visions, missions, values, business purpose, their Why, and all the other ways that have become ‘popular’. All are valid, all have their place, but I ask my clients a simpler question; What does success look like? When you can answer that question, you have at least enough of an idea to start, but if the answer is purely financial, you need to do some more thinking.

Cliché 3. Have a plan.

There are lots of clichés about plans. Prominent amongst them are: ‘no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy‘, and  ‘failing to plan, is planning to fail‘ and both are right. Point is that unless you have a plan, you have no chance of understanding and managing your progress towards the goal, which tactics worked, and which ones did not. All crucial pieces of information. There are many planning models, each with their own emphasis, and I always recommend that you use several in the thinking part of the planning process as a way to ensure that things do not get missed.

Cliché 4. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Planning is the easy part, the hard bit is to take action. Without action, nothing happens, nothing!

Taking the steps, getting outside your comfort zone is why you are going into business for yourself.  Curiosity, an idea, recognition of a need you can fill, a problem you can solve, all are great reasons to go into business. All it takes is the first step, and it is always the hardest.

To add another cliché to the list: ‘hope is not a strategy’

Cliché 5. To succeed, you must have something others want.

Success in business is dependent on being able to deliver superior value to customers, at a cost that delivers you a margin. If you cannot deliver value, almost always the solution to a problem, which can be anything from a more efficient power station, to a better tasting tub of yoghurt, to on time delivery, or something no-one else can do, at a price the customer is happy to pay, you will  not survive.

Tough but simple.

Cliché 6. People have to know you are there.

Even if you do have the next greatest thing, you cannot sell it without  others who may need or benefit from your gizmo knowing about it. Marketing is essential. The process of gaining understanding how you will deliver value to whom, while making a profit on the way is make or break for every business, particularly a new one as generally you cannot afford to make mistakes. Selling skills are as important. Not only do you need to sell to your potential customers, but to the banks, your suppliers, and often even your partner. If you cannot sell, and do not want to learn how, do not go into business for yourself.

Cliché 7. Watch the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.

There are two aspects to this cliché. Cash is the lifeblood of every business, and you need to watch your cash the way a mother bear looks after her litter.

The first is to do a regular, I strongly recommend weekly, cash flow forecast. Make it a part of the way things are done in your business. At first it may seem strange, but it pays off, as you will always know your cash position, which will be a huge stress reliever. As a side benefit, trading while insolvent is illegal, and the simplest measure of solvency is can you pay your bills as they fall due.

The second is the behaviours you are setting out to build. Results come from the way things are done, as well as ensuring the right things are done, and if you want your staff to be as frugal with your money as you are, you have to  build, that behaviour deliberately. A weekly cash flow forecast with the appropriate level of staff engagement and contribution is a very good way to start.

Cliché 8. Work on your business, not just in it.

The ability to see your business as others  see it, customers, potential customers, and competitors, is essential to success. To have that external perspective, you must be able to extricate yourself from the day to day pressures of getting stuff done. It leads on to what could have been an addition the list, ‘do what is important, but not necessarily urgent’. Knowing what is important to the long term health and prosperity of the business is more about how others see you than it is about responding to those unimportant but seemingly urgent  things that pop up every day.

So, remember, all that glitters is not gold, but good advice can be.

 

 

9 reasons why SME’s should invest in a governing board

9 reasons why SME’s should invest in a governing board

 

Very few of the small and medium sized businesses I interact with have a governing board of any real quality. Many have a ‘board’ required under the various regulatory regimes they must meet, but very few have a board that acts in the manner of a public company, as an independent oversight of strategy, financial and operational performance, culture, and of the senior management effectiveness.

This is something that should be remedied.

The short term costs are in my experience  heavily outweighed by the benefits over the medium to long term.

Some of the benefits I have seen can be summarised as:

  • Introduction of industry knowledge and networks.
  • Introduction of business management expertise and experience from a wide range of backgrounds.
  • Provides time and the catalyst for management to consider wider issues than the normal ‘urgent’ things that dominate the daily routines.
  • Provides diversity of views, values and ideas
  • Keeps management and particularly the CEO focussed on the issues that will impact long term commercial sustainability, as well as the short term financial outcomes.
  • Adds depth to the management functional capability by enabling mentoring and coaching
  • Thought starter and sounding board for management
  • Acts as a catalyst and guidance for longer term capability development of employees, and the manner in which the business captures and leverages those capabilities.
  • Oversight if not development of strategy, and oversight of strategy implementation, feedback and renewal.

 

There is an old saying that most of the smartest people in your industry work somewhere else. Therefore it makes sense to try and tap into that expertise in some way, and a well considered ‘board’ is a great method.

These bodies do not necessarily operate under the rules of  the Corporations Act, where there are enforceable fiduciary responsibilities. They are usually more of an advisory body, often meeting  formally only 4 times a year, but with significant interaction with management on an as needed basis.

 

Understanding your break even point.

Understanding your break even point.

 

Understanding the break even point in a business is a crucial but often overlooked piece of the financial puzzle.

It is particularly important in a manufacturing business where there are both overheads  to just keep the doors open, and the marginal costs of production.

In order to make informed and sensible cost and pricing decisions, and effectively manage the business, you need to understand both.

Marginal cost

This is the cost of making and selling another widget. The materials consumed, packaging, and direct labour necessary. The difference between your sales price of a widget and the marginal cost of that widget is usually referred to as the ‘Gross margin’

For example, if a widget costs .80 cents to manufacture, (materials + packaging + direct labour) and you sell it for $2.00, the gross margin is $1.20/unit.

Fixed costs.

These are the costs necessary to keep the business going, and not tied to the cost of production. Rent, insurance, staff labour costs, marketing and sales expenses, travel, and many others. These costs keep on coming irrespective of sales.

Let’s assume your business has fixed costs of $600,000/year, it is a small business, so you as the owner pay yourself a modest wage, there is one sales person,  an office manager, rent and insurance, as well as the general costs of running a business. In the factory there are three people, a factory manager, and 2 people who work on the production line. The factory manager would normally be included in overheads, but if he works on the line part time, then a portion of his salary would reasonably be included in the costs of production.

There are always questions about where a cost should be allocated, marginal cost or fixed cost, For example, sales commissions would usually be considered a marginal cost, but sales salaries would be considered a fixed cost. Similarly with freight costs, the cost of keeping trucks on the road would be considered a fixed cost, but the cost of an outsourced courier service would be a marginal cost, as without a sale, it will not be incurred. The key is to be consistent in the treatment of costs.

Break even is the point at which all costs are covered, but there is no profit.

How to calculate the break even.

The formula is fixed costs divided by the unit gross margin.

In our case above,  the break even point would be $600,000/1.20 = 500,000 units.

In a situation where there are several different widgets, with different selling processes and differing costs of production, the calculation can be done either by taking averages, of both the sales revenue and costs of production based on average sales mix, or it can be done separately, for each of the products and added together.

In any event, understanding  the structure of your break even will assist enormously in making sensible pricing and cost management decisions. It will also make the choices that  impact future cash flows, such where to concentrate your limited sales and marketing resources, much clearer.

This will be the last StrategyAudit post of 2017. I am very grateful to those who have commented, shared and generally engaged with the sometimes random stuff that pops out of my brain, and I am enormously gratified that you see the value in the ideas. Have a safe and merry Christmas, and I will be back early in 2018, refreshed and eager to  go another mile.

 

 

 

Indifference is the killer of businesses.

Indifference is the killer of businesses.

 

Successful small and medium sized businesses are always on the lookout for opportunities, which can be a problem.

All businesses, and especially small ones do not have the operational and management ‘bandwidth’ to take on too many opportunities, they lose focus and end up being mediocre in the market that made them successful in the first place, as they compromise in order to enable the coverage.

In this terrific cartoon and accompanying commentary, Tom Fishburne relates the contrasting stories of the Mini, one of the most successful cars ever designed, and the Pontiac Aztec, voted one of the worst ever, despite being in front of the demand curve at the time and therefore in a great position to be truly successful.

The problem can usually be distilled down to indifference.

People buy things to solve a problem, scratch an itch. Sometimes that is a simple thing associated with what will I eat tonight, and sometimes it is a personal thing associated with self-image. When it is the latter, creating a situation where there is indifference, where the purchase decision is not driven by a strong emotion, you will end up failing.

Strategy is all about making choices. It is not just a matter of determining what you will do, it is also a matter of determining what you will not do. It is this  latter dimension of choice that always causes the most problems in coming to a conclusion, there is always that bit of green on the other side of the fence.

‘Find a niche and own it’ should be the mantra of every business, but particularly every small business. Be very, very good at a few things rather than average at a number of things.

A former client has a dominating position in a niche servicing the underground coal market in Australia. A dying market if ever there was one. There are several strategic options: expanding into underground coal internationally, and/or expanding into adjacent hard rock mining operations leveraging some of their technology that is relevant to the challenges faced. As there are limited funds available, choices need to be made. Not easy.

One of my mates is a baker, a creative and driven bloke who has successfully built a business servicing the ‘high end’ market in a major city. His business partners now want to expand by expanding operational capacity in order to service the ‘medium’ market  where there is indeed far more volume, but also more competitors with spare capacity, so it becomes a question of price.

Over 40 years of marketing, I have never seen a situation where the dilution of the value proposition benefits the marketer. Customers are not silly, they make judgements on a range of rational and emotional considerations, and they do not consider your operational and financial priorities in those judgements.

 

Cartoon credit”: is again a wonderful Tom Fishburne production

 

8 unfortunate realities facing every small business entrepreneur

8 unfortunate realities facing every small business entrepreneur

Every time I turn around I see another ad touting the ‘laptop lifestyle’. Travel, work occasionally, and have the money rolling in, just because you have invested in yourself and bought a course from a self-styled guru.

Of course it does happen, but very occasionally, and each time it does the person has met a number of key hurdles.

When you think about it the rules of  business apply irrespective of the size or nature of your business.

There has to be a market. Nothing succeeds without customers, and customers do not come to you simply because you are following your passion, which is the usual pitch. I would  love to be able to make lots of money by splitting my time between surfing, tramping through mountain streams in search of that elusive rainbow trout, and drinking lots of expensive wine, but have not found anybody willing to fund me as yet. From time to time, an entrepreneur creates a market, the magic can happen, but if your name is not Steve Jobs, Peter Theil, or Richard Branson, do  not count on it.

You have to create value. Being paid is simply a by-product of creating value for someone else. It does  not matter what the product is, someone will only pay for it when they see that they will get something out of it greater than the cost to them.

You need  to pay the bills. Every business has expenses, some are discretionary, others are overheads, that show up irrespective of any revenue generation. Those bills need to be paid, you need to eat, and the kids need a roof. This reality is the one that stops many from following the whacky advice to ‘follow your dreams’ and luckily so. However, the business management task is to reduce expenses, particularly the fixed expenses as much as possible, while still generating the revenue and absolute margins.

There is a lesson in every set-back. Life is a learning experience, and failing to learn from every situation you find yourself in is short-changing yourself. As a young product manager I also had to cover the sales territories of the NSW reps when they were on leave. Every couple of months I had to take 2-3 weeks out of what I believed was a busy and useful schedule to go around stores and sell to people who really did not want to see me, I hated it, but learnt more in those months than I realised, and now insist that all marketing people I hire have a period ‘on the road’.

Time is your most important asset. Time is our only truly non-renewable resource, and yet it is so easy to waste. Professionals tend to organise their time more productively than amateurs, they spend time practising, honing their skills, so that when the time comes they perform on cue.. We all see ourselves as photographers, as we now all have a camera in our pockets. However you can always tell an amateur shot from a professional one, the pro is better in a whole range of subtle ways, simply because the professional has spent the time to practise, and learn the skills.

Be different and be a master. Success rarely comes to those who are the same as everyone else. It comes to those who are different,  who have a unique take, and who are the masters of  their craft. In the digital world, the mantra I use is ‘pick your niche and own it‘ or as Steve Martin says, ‘be so good they cannot ignore you

Evolve and adapt. For most of human history, the past has been a pretty good indicator of the future, change happened slowly. Not so any more, relying on the past to forecast the future is a sure way to be wrong. Owners of small businesses have the power to move quickly, adapt their processes, learn by trial and error while their larger competitors are still at lunch. Of course, they do not have the depth of resources to be wrong too often, so it is a Darwinian process.

There are no silver bullets. We humans usually look for the easy way, and this is the hook used to sell us the silver bullet that turns out to be lead. You can get lucky, who you know does count, but the old adage that the harder I work the luckier I get holds.

Apart from these challenging realities, being an entrepreneur is really a doddle!

11 growth strategies for small businesses

11 growth strategies for small businesses

The last 23 years of working with, reconstructing, and observing small businesses in all sorts of situations has resulted in a pile of insights on many areas of business. A common fact or is the desire to grow, even when in the darkest times, almost all businesses aspire to grow. This is not ego, or self-delusion, it is simply a general acknowledgement that to stand still is to be overtaken.

Grow or get trampled.

The common factor of those that have successfully grown is that they do not follow any recipe, there is no guaranteed growth map, but it is clear that they have all combined some common elements in different ways to succeed.

Be different.

Every successful business I have seen has done something different to those around them, with whom they compete on a day to day basis. Being part of the crowd results at best, at being on the top of the ‘average’ range. Differentiation in the manner that they deliver value to their customers is perhaps  the most common element of success I have seen. It need not be a major thing at first glance, but combined with some of the following elements, differentiation becomes a powerful driver of growth.

Great product.

As the old advertising  saying goes, ‘The customer is not stupid, she is your wife’ . There is no situation where an average product can sustain above average performance. All the clichés and PR gloss in the world will not do any more than get a first sale, after that the product has to deliver value greater than available alternatives. It is the form of that value that differs dramatically, and value does not always mean technical quality, it means fit for purpose.

Growth is a relentless master.

Growth never happens in isolation of focus, effort and commitment. Every sustainable growth business I have seen, or read about, has somewhere in its DNA, a focus on growth, in a way that seizes opportunity, makes it work, learns from what does not work, and goes again. It can apply this focus while ensuring that the every-day operations, the ones that pay the bills today, are well taken care of.

Marketing is shaped by the need.

Too often marketing is seen as a formulaic process that just requires the appropriate level of investment and capability to be successful. Wrong. Every situation requires a differing mix of marketing elements, and there are no two situations where the template will just ‘work’. Just ‘doing marketing’ will not lead to growth, the marketing has to be connected to the intended customers viscerally or it just becomes another of the millions of messages to which we are all subjected every day.

Find a niche and own it.

Whether you are the corner store of Apple, you cannot be all things to all people, in one way or another, you need to focus on those to whom you can deliver superior value. The evaluation of your target niche, the motivations of those at the bottom of the niche who are likely to be your best, stickiest, long term customers, then delivering value to them, is a key to growth. Once you have consolidated your niche, widen it a bit, seek adjacencies, look for novel uses of your capabilities in other niches, but never forget the niche.

Growth is long term.

Nothing useful happens overnight. Growth happens as a result of patience, commitment, and an ability to remain focussed on the goals, even when the short term stuff looks dark, or there is some compelling distraction. While it is fine to experiment, sustainable growth comes from building smaller success over time, not from frequent changes in direction. When looked at in hindsight, successful growth always has some elements of compounding small success present. Remember the fable of  the wise adviser who wanted nothing but compounding grains of rice on his chessboard, each square having double the grains of rice of the previous.

Seek leverage.

Identifying the means by which you can apply leverage to the assets you can deploy always pays dividends. Often this means combining your marketing with the behaviour  drivers of those in your niche to deliver some unique value, bit just as often is means ensuring that the basic processes that deliver the cash every day are robust, and repeatable. Having Standard Operating Procedures that are a part of  the operational DNA saves huge amounts of time and energy better applied to activities outside the mundane . Successful growth engines always have their core processes working well, and those growth activities seeking the points of greatest leverage.

Insights not data.

These days we run the risk of being overwhelmed with data, unlike when I started in business, when quality data was a rare beast, hard won. Today there is just so much data that the real skill is sorting it out and finding the hidden gems that offer insights you can leverage.  Data guru Avinash Kaushik calls it ‘data puking’ which is in my view a fine description. The metaphor I use is going into a library, without any idea what you might be looking for. You end up overwhelmed by the choice, with little chance of finding the right book.

Recognise your ecosystem.

What makes successful businesses successful is an ability to mix and match the best options for  their target customers, in ways that best deliver leverage for both parties. Growth is a two way street, no business can be sustainably successful unless their customers and suppliers are also successful. The task is to make the pie bigger so everyone benefits, not to take a bigger share of a static pie.

No silver bullets.

Growth comes from hard work, focus, determination, commitment, and not from luck or circumstances. My old dad used to say, the harder I work  the luckier I get. And that has been echoed by every successful person I have ever come across. It is never left to chance, it is a managed, deliberate process of making choices between alternative applications of limited available resources, being proved right more often than not, and learning from the times when you are wrong.

Clarity.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is clarity. We are in a world that is intensively competitive for the attention of those we may be able to serve. It does not matter if you are the corner store, or a multinational, your marketing challenge is to gain, then hold attention of those we can best serve, while we relate to them the reasons their best interests are best served, their challenges overcome, by working with you. The first test is to ask a few of your employees, close friends, and current customers what problem you solve, looking for a consistent and clear response. In its absence you have some work to do.

A lot of this is common sense, an increasingly rare thing in a complex world.