This is Part 2 of my 4-part series on spring-cleaning and taking stock of your business. In Part 2, I’m going to be focusing with my team of expert contributors, on what you should prioritise when you’re reviewing your business. (You can find the other parts on merlie.co.uk)
So what are the most important things to prioritise when reviewing your business?
I asked each of my contributors to identify their top 3 items to prioritise when it comes to reviewing business performance and deciding what to focus on in the months ahead.
As you’ll see from the chart below, their views were quite varied, although the majority identified (i) market, model and competition,(ii) finances and costs, and (iii) marketing as their top items, followed by (iv) performance and further development of your product/service offering and (v) business partners and distribution network, actual and potential.
Managing your time and efficiency, staff, exploring new opportunities, ensuring customer satisfaction and building in ‘down-time’ (for mental, as well as physical, refreshment) came after that.
Your market, model and competition
Bea Montoya, Simply Business’ Head of Marketing emphasises that revisiting your business plan, goals and targets is a priority. ‘If they’ve changed since you last set them out – how? If they haven’t changed, is that actually a good thing? Re-aligning with the goals you’ve set yourself is a great chance to validate successes and learn from mistakes.’
Founder and CEO of Makeitcheaper.com, Jonathan Elliott advises that it’s really important to know your model and your margins well: ‘over time, things change, so make time each quarter to review these thoroughly…’
Dawn Whiteley, MBE, CEO of the National Enterprise Network and a hugely impactful small business champion says that it comes down to asking the question: is the product still the right one, in the right market?
That’s a scary question for many; and the danger for others is that they assume they know the answer is yes, of course it’s right.
However you look to validate the answers to Dawn’s question, make sure that you’re working with true and reliable data – not a hunch or a superficial set of data, because if your model isn’t right and you haven’t got the right handle on your market and what’s going to sell, your competition, assuming they have done the proper analysis, will soon knock you out of play. (In Part 3, we’ll look at some great resources recommended by my contributors, to help you to gauge ongoing product and market appropriateness in a robust way).
Your finances and costs
Business mentor and coach, David Mellor, whose business David Mellor Mentoring, regularly advises businesses and their founders on how best to operate and grow, recommends a careful review of your sales pipeline and to check your liquidity ratio – does cash in the bank, plus outstanding money owed to you, exceed your costs/financial commitments? Clearly you need to ensure that it does. Keeping an eagle eye on this is critical to the sustainability of your business model.
Small business expert and confidant, Hannah Martin, co-founder of the content-rich ‘how-to’ site, The Talented Ladies Club, agrees wholeheartedly. She emphasises that you also need to ask yourself: ‘are you running your business as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible? What are your monthly outgoings? Can they be reduced?’
It’s a view shared by Jonathan, who echoes this advice: ‘of course, MakeitCheaper would say this … but you should always look to get better value for what you’re spending your money on. (Remember that £1 on the bottom line is the same as £5-10 on the top)!’
Hannah asks herself the following questions, which help her to zone in on the effectiveness of her marketing efforts, (which for her, were no.1 on her priority list): ‘what was the plan? Is it getting the intended results? What changes might improve results? Are there any aspects that would benefit from tweaking, or stopping? And where an approach is working, can you do more of it?’
Entrepreneur and business influencer, Ash Phillips, who founded YENA (the Young Entrepreneurs Network Association) encourages a clear focus on marketing. ‘There are always new trends, technology and channels offering new opportunities. Understand them and embrace them where they fit with what you envisage. You need to get out there and to sell. Marketing makes that happen.’
Voxsmart’s head of marketing, Emily Jane Brown takes a careful look at the data behind her marketing campaigns and activities, gauging from this what’s worked well and what hasn’t really generated leads. It helps her to identify what to spend budget on in the future and with whom.
Product/Service and customers
Laura Vanessa Munoz, the founder of Empowering Futures and champion to entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs internationally, shares that with her latest social enterprise, ‘my priority is to make sure we have the right methodology to give value to the people in our programme.’
Jonathan also emphasises the need to ‘listen to your customers (and staff) – understand what they like and what can be improved.’ For him, this was a key priority that goes to the heart of MakeitCheaper’s very evident success.
Ash identified this as a key area to prioritise as well: ‘take stock of customers and their happiness levels. Is your product/service delivering a difference? What are your customers saying about it? Have you turned them into brand advocates for you?
Ash adds ‘and how do you feel about your products/services yourself? What do you enjoy doing? You’ve looked at the figures and your performance so far, what does your gut say about your current strategy for the coming months/years? Does it tell you that you should or could change the strategy?’
Your business partners and network
For David, the key question to ask here is whether the network you have is the one that you need in order to sell and grow your business?
There’s no benefit, for example, in having a huge network of contacts or followers, if none of them are likely to buy from or invest in your business. So the quality and relevance of your network is something that you should keep front of mind. Cultivate the right contacts for your business and review them on a regular basis. It’s also helpful to identify influencers and others who would be of benefit to your business and to find appropriate means to extend your network to include them.
Laura shares David’s views on the importance of network and business partners. In her case, however, it’s also about being associated and working with the right people: ‘I want to ensure that we liaise with partners who are passionate about what we do’, she states.
Emily makes it a priority to ensure that her CRM records are up to date, guaranteeing that none of her email or other new contacts have been missed off her database.
Existing and loyal clients can be just as important, if not more important, than new and potential ones. Ensuring your distribution lists are comprehensive and that they provide good opportunities to generate new leads and repeat business is vital. Get your data working for you.
Your time and efficiency
Efficiency is a recurring theme within Hannah’s list of priorities: ‘Look at whether you are spending your time as efficiently as possible.’ She advises. ‘What are you actually working on every day? I recommend that you keep a list for a week to see. And then look at the result. Is that the best use of your time? Are you working ‘on’ or ‘in’ your business? And if the answer is ‘in’ too much, then focus on what you can stop doing, what you could streamline or maybe outsource.’
Emily adds: ‘I [regularly] clean my downloads folder, my desktop, inbox, etc. This really helps too. An untidy workspace is an untidy mind.’ Being organised and uncluttered helps, she says, to put her ‘in a great place to look at my goals, targets and lists’.
And it’s not just about being efficient with admin and general business management tasks.
Most of us produce content, whether that’s blogs, articles, advice or presentations. We invest valuable time creating it. So make sure that that content works as hard as possible for you, to earn its investment of your time, knowledge and experience.
Whenever you produce something, ask yourself if it could be repackaged or repurposed and used somewhere else too. Advice or presentations could be genericised and turned into case study or a slideshare on line, or a blog – or all of them. Blogs and slides can be converted into infographics or vlogs or video sound-bites; these in turn can be posted on site-landing pages, shared on social media, attached to newsletters or email campaigns. Use these various formats to invite comment, start conversations, engage with influencers, and to link people back to where they can find out more about you and buy what you’re offering.
A little extra effort around content in which you’ve already invested your time can be a very efficient and highly effective practice, including when it comes to making you even more competitively distinctive and discoverable.
There are some excellent tools that you can use to be really productive and efficient at content publication and content marketing; or if you’re spending a lot of time on admin, organising meetings or managing customer data. (Take a look at Part 3 of this series to find out more about these.)
Your staff – people make (and can break) a business
For Dawn, this is an important area that must not be overlooked. ‘Do you have the right people in place to deliver what you need to know and what you might want to know in the future? If not, what are you going to do about it?’
Your staff and people that work with your business can be your strongest brand advocates. How well are you empowering them to really promote what you do? How well are you listening to their feedback and their ideas?
Are you over-exposed in relation to anyone in the business? Is there one person who understands or knows more about key intellectual property in the business than anyone else? Are you prepared in case that person leaves (permanently or for example, on parental leave), or becomes long-term sick? Do you have the right records, training arrangements and knowledge-sharing structures in place so that the business can continue in their absence?
Do you have the right employee arrangements in place? For example, do your employment contracts contain restrictive provisions protecting your position if an employee leaves? What if someone working for or with you suddenly stops performing well or does something that you’re not happy about? What if your employees aren’t happy? Clear employment structures and policies matter as much for small and new businesses as they do for larger ones.
A lot depends on you … and you are not a robot
Finally, a number of the experts stressed the importance of ensuring you take time out personally. Bea strongly advises the need to ‘enjoy some downtime. Seriously. Get your mind in order with some time away from your business. Spend time with family and friends, take up a new hobby or take a holiday for a week or two. You’ll find that when you do get your head back into business mode, your energy levels will be up and you ideas will be on overdrive.’
Dawn agrees with this and stresses the importance of taking the time to ‘think about your ambitions for yourself and for the business – are they still compatible with where the business is and where you might want it to be?’
If not. Pause. Reflect. Take advice if you need to, from those you trust.
You control what happens next.