Resources for spring cleaning your business. What the experts use and recommend (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of my 4-part serious on spring-cleaning and taking stock of your business. In Part 3, I’m going to be focusing with my group of expert contributors, on their favourite resources when they review their businesses. (You can find the other parts to this series, covering why and how you should review your business and what to prioritise, on merlie.co.uk)

So in your experience, what are the best resources for reviewing a business?

I asked each expert to identify his/her favourite resource(s). As you’ll see from the chart below, my contributors rely on a wide variety of helpful resources, ranging from online resources, advice from coaches, comparing notes with peers, advisory boards, social media, to app-based/digital management solutions, amongst others.

We’ll delve a little more deeply into some favoured examples of these resources in a moment.

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Online resources

Small business expert and confidant, Hannah Martin, co-founder of the online Talented Ladies Club, relies on a variety of online resources and she frequently recommends them to others on her own resource-rich site.

‘For time management, I recommend using a project management tool like Asana to plan out tasks and ensure you’re working to schedule on them. It’s also a great tool to manage outsourced tasks.

‘For managing your costs, I like the Profit First system’, she says.

Hannah’s own web-site is always worth a look for ‘how-to’ guidance for any small business-related topic, from finance management to SEO, social media, PR, business modelling and a wealth of other areas on which we all need a helping hand from time to time. Many of Hannah’s materials are freely available or at a very accessible rate.

Voxsmart’s head of marketing, Emily Jane Brown recommends Trello. ‘It’s one of my favourite list-making/goal-tracking tools’, she says. ‘You can move tasks from board to board depending on what stage the task is at. And I create different boards depending on priorities. I have a wish list, to-do list and an ideals list.’

Founder and CEO of Makeitcheaper.com, Jonathan Elliott nominated the survey solution insights.com as one of his preferred resources. ‘It’s great for understanding how to get the best out of yourself and our team.’ And as for surveying customers, ‘Surveymonkey is a really easy tool for running surveys with customers, and staff.’

When it comes to business planning and reviewing business strategy, Jonathan also recommended the great 1-page Business Model Canvas tool by Strategyzer. I’ve used this myself and it is a very neat way to record and review your plan. It’s also very useful when presenting it to others. And if the Strategyzer web-site literature is to be trusted, then this tool has rapidly become the most successful business planning tool of the moment, used by some of the top market players as much as the startup and small business community.

Bea Montoya, Simply Business’ Head of Marketing is enthusiastic about access to so many great online resources. These online resources, she says, are ‘full to the brim with expert hint, tips and industry news’. She adds, with a mischievous smile, ‘we don’t like to toot our own horn, but our Knowledge section is a great place to start, whether you’re a sole trader or a scaling start-up.’

Having recommendations such as those provided above can be a real advantage. For as Dawn Whiteley, MBE, CEO of the National Enterprise Network, points out: ‘there are a myriad tools on the internet and elsewhere, but don’t drown yourself in them to the extent that you get overwhelmed.’

What you need to be able to do is work out which you can trust and understand and focus on them. You can always build up this repository over time. If there are particular sites that people you trust recommend, try these first. If you get stuck, at least you know you’ll have a friendly contact who can give you a hand!

Social media

Liz Whitaker, founder of Condor Communications, listed LinkedIn as one of her top resources for her agency, both for information, staying up to date with relevant news and for connecting with the right community to propel her business forward. ‘Keep in touch with the world,’ she advises, ‘make sure you’re always listening.’

Bea is also a fan of what can be easily learned from contacts and conversations on social media. ‘Why not get involved in some conversation with fellow business owners on Twitter? There are a number of dedicated hashtags to do so, and depending on your area, there may even be a local conversation happening right now.

Twitter and Facebook especially provide a great way to connect with fellow business owners, to compare notes, to participate in the ‘business hour’ opportunities (that many business experts and representative organisations now offer, where you can post questions and get answers from qualified experts, comment and share experiences), to find out about relevant local and national events and organisations who could be highly valuable to your business/market knowledge and growth prospects.

Personally, one of my favourite tools is Passle.  Passle offers a brilliant solution to busy experts for creating and sharing content in a highly time-efficient way. It connects you with other experts too and enables you to share their content as well. For individuals as well as businesses, large or small, it’s an easy and very affordable solution to the challenge of needing to stand out with an authentic voice, but not having the time to write lots of detailed and original content. Other valuable benefits include data insights and hugely positive SEO impact. Absolutely worth the small amount of investment.

My only word of warning on social media is not to get distracted. It’s a fantastic source of information, contacts and leads. But set aside dedicated time when you will interact with it and keep all other moments in the day focused on doing the real business. Otherwise, a bit like emails and other methods of communication, you can all too easily find that hours have passed and you still haven’t crossed anything off on today’s to-do list.

There are some great automation tools like Hootsuite to help you to schedule some of your social media content and reduce some of that admin and distraction time. But don’t rely wholly on an automated approach; social media is about engagement, conversation and connecting with people who can help you to grow your business, through thought-leadership, introductions and of course, sales leads. It might feel more remote as a medium of communication and engagement, but it’s still very personal. Automation can’t do that – at least, not yet!

Published self/help or ‘how-to’ materials

Hannah recommends the Watertight Marketing book for anyone wanting to get on top of good marketing. ‘Every entrepreneur should read this!’ she told me.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, business coach and author, David Mellor of David Mellor Mentoring, recommends his own excellent ‘Crew to Captain’ trilogy – a suite of concise and easy to read materials that help any business owner, from initial founder status all the way through to scaled up executive, to navigate the challenges and opportunities of running a business with real success.

And of course, as a business founder himself, David has personally well-tested what he recommends, as have the many business owners who he’s coached to follow the same techniques.

Recommendations and advice from coaches/ mentors

These come top of the list for ex-Olympian athlete-turned-entrepreneur, Josie Horton, who runs her judo business in schools across London.

Dawn also advocates getting a mentor as a great starting point for anyone starting out in business.

People tend to think of mentors and coaches later on in the development of a business, quite often as there’s an assumption that you’ll need to pay them and that makes them an avoidable luxury early on.

But not all mentoring and coaching relationships need be paid ones; and many of those that do charge a fee, will offer some kind of introductory arrangement and/or free initial consultation. A number of business coaches, like David, also publish guidance or hold workshops, which may make access to their valuable knowledge and experience more affordable where money is tight.

App-based/digital management solutions

If you’re spending too much time in diary/meetings management, take a look at the very neat, award-winning Appointedd software too.  This takes much of the burden away and it contains a fantastic CRM function too. You can be up and running in only a few minutes. If you don’t have a web-site, don’t worry, this solution plugs just as easily into a Facebook page.

Customers

For entrepreneur and business influencer, Ash Phillips, who founded YENA (the Young Entrepreneurs Network Association), customers are a key resource. ‘No one is a better temperature check for your business than current clients.’ He advises selecting some of your early adopter customers and using them as sounding boards and test groups for new ideas.

It’s an approach that I agree with too. A representative group of customers can often be more valuable to you, in terms of identifying your growth potential and honing in on your competitive distinctiveness, than business and management consultants. And of course, your customers’ feedback is generally free!

Advisory boards, councils of ‘wise ones, network contacts & peers

Laura Vanessa Munoz, the founder of Empowering Futures and champion to entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs internationally, claims that her most important resource for keeping her business on track is her board of advisers and her network contacts. ‘It’s extremely important to surround yourself with the right minds to keep you on track with your most important goals’, she says.

You don’t need to have a formal advisory board to benefit from the wisdom of experienced others. In the past, and again with my new legaltech startup, I’ve relied on an informal grouping of experts, peers and trusted contacts, that I loosely describe as ‘my council of wise ones’. They are my sounding board, source of much knowledge, valuable experience and tips, my introducers, critics and cheerleaders. They come from very varied business backgrounds, span all age groups and interests and while they may come, go and change over time, most of them have been on the journey of each new business from the start.  They understand the product, the goals, the audience, the technology and every single one of them is a very effective brand ambassador for the businesses I’ve been a part of and led, as well as for me personally (which matters enormously, especially when you’re trying to pluck up the courage to do something you’ve never done before).

Every business and every business founder can afford to (and really should) have one of these ‘councils of wise ones’. They can be a huge factor in securing your prospects of success.

Liz recommends this arrangement too. She’s been a member of a group that she calls an ‘accountability group’, with five other entrepreneurs from non-related sectors. ‘Their feedback to me has been invaluable,’ she shares. ‘They see my business and my product with a fresh pair of eyes and are completely objective. They have helped me to find the diamonds in the rough.’

Dawn also emphasises the value of ‘taking as much advice and as many soundings as you can’. Next, she says, ‘think about it, assimilate all the information and work out which bits will really work for you. Remember that you don’t have to act as someone else thinks you should, but you can make sure that you’ve rationally considered all the angles by listening to others, especially where those others are people you trust, who have been there and done it.’ Listen freely, consider, then discard or apply.

Business courses, conferences and events

Business courses can be great sources of information, though be wary of those who focus too much on theory and not enough on experience, evidence and personalisation to you.

So pick them wisely. And if do you attend one, make sure you attend it fully, without one eye constantly on your inbox. Otherwise it’s your money and time you’re wasting.

‘At MakeitCheaper we love the Winning Edge course by Mancroft International,’ says Jonathan. ‘It’s great for setting goals and hitting them.’ Jonathan is also a fan of the Scotwork negotiation course too.

Business conferences and events can be invaluable learning and networking opportunities and there is an increasing wealth of these to choose from, across the UK. Many of these events provide free access to experts attending those events and offer special deals on products and services that may really help your business. You can also get a great sense from these events of who’s worth paying for.

A good way to get a clear idea of who and what is worth targeting is to sign up with organisations like Enterprise Nation.

What resources do you rely on?

Have you got any tips or recommendations that you’re willing to share?

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