The Questions You Must Ask

Every year millions of people answer “Yes” to that question and every year that answer costs many of them money, time, confidence, and heartbreak. The Small Business Administration estimates there are 580,900 new small businesses opening each year and that number does not include the small one-person entrepreneurship that pop up every day. However even if you are your business’s sole employee then there is still something to be learned from the SBA’s numbers.

According to the SBA, two-thirds of new businesses survive at least two years and 44 percent survive at least four years. Two of the key factors in the businesses survival and ability to thrive: the owner’s education level and the owner’s reason for starting the firm in the first place.

How can you make sure that you are among the winners rather than the losers in this high stakes game? The answer is inside of you. You must ask yourself four key questions to determine whether your own small business will survive and thrive.

Are You Ready?

Have you mentally prepared yourself for the switch from employee (or student or whatever label fits you currently) to boss. You are going to be the one making decisions now about everything from office products to product line. This total control is one of the driving forces behind many people who take the plunge into starting their ownbusiness but it is also one of the elements that drives new entrepreneurs crazy. When you start out there is an endless list of decisions that need to be made and new questions crop up every day.

Even more important you will need to remember that in a small business you will wear many hats. Even if you manage to start out with one or more employees you will each fulfill more than one role in your new business. And if you are running a one-man or one-woman show then you serve in every capacity from file clerk to maintenance crew to salesman to CEO. Can you handle switching from task to task and role to role like that? Are you willing to make those switches?

Similarly, have you prepared your family and friends for this switch in attitude. Your life is going to change — probably pretty drastically — and that change can have a positive or negative impact on your family life and social interactions. It will make things much easier if your friends and family are supportive going into the process.

Where Is Your Niche?

Have you identified your niche yet? One of the reasons many businesses fail is that they fail to focus on a target audience. Yes if you are a major discount chain then you can sell everything from peanuts to wallpaper but this type of business requires vast resources that just aren’t available to the small business. But small businesses dominate the marketplace (creating more than 50 percent of the private gross domestic product last year) by finding a different approach — a niche.

Knowing your niche means you are better able to find, target, and maintain your customers as well as provide the best possible goods and services to that customer base. That focus is one of your best chances to not only survive but to thrive in a very competitive marketplace.

What Is Your Plan Of Action?

Another key factor in the survival and ultimate success of your business is how much planning you do before you open your electronic or physical doors.  You need to decide if your business will be based on the internet or include more traditional models. Are you going to work full-time or part-time at your new business? Are you going to hire help or go solo? Have you written (or at least outlined) your business plan? Dreaming, thinking and planning can save you much trouble and waste later when things are hectic and problems strike. Planning can also help keep you focused and to balance your spending and time.

Who Are You Going To Call?

At some point, no matter how experienced a business person you are, you will need help. You will need support, advice, tools, or information — or all of the above. One of the beautiful, and most frightening, aspects of growth is that it can lead you to places you never imagined. No matter how much planning and experience you bring to your new position as CEO the unexpected will arise. How will you cope with this? It is important to recognize that no business is an island. It is not failure to seek help. Failure is when your business shuts down because you didn’t get the help you needed.

The best way to get timely help is to work on your support system while you work on building your business. That way you will already have a ready list of resources available that you can quickly tap into when emergencies strike. In today’s world there are many marvelous resources available to you no matter what your business model may be. These include:

– Publications (newsletters, magazines, books)

~ People (professional advisors, mentors, teachers, consultants)

~ Networks (organizations and forums in your niche as well as general business and marketing)

~ Education and training (tutorials, courses, and seminars)

After you have answered these four key questions you are now ready to ask yourself that one big question again — are you ready to start your own business?

Maximize your Productivity

So, you are ready. Ok! Let’s talk now on how to maximize productivity. Do you know that you get 80% of your results from just 20% of your time and effort and consequently 80% of your time is virtually wasted on non productive activities?. Once you realize this it is easy to take advantage and either reduce the hours you work or significantly improve your productivity.

The 80-20 rule was first discovered by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto a hundred years ago. Using this knowledge is incredibly powerful in combating the “not enough hours in the day” mentality of today’s society.

The 80-20 rule means that in any area of our lives, literally 80 percent of our fruits are derived from only 20 percent of doing “what matters”. In other words, there is only a very small portion of all that we do each day, regardless of the situation, that brings us the “higher return”.

How can you benefit from being aware of this principle? Implementing a strategy based on the 80-20 rule can result in greater wealth and greater leisure time? Just imagine how productive you will be if 80% of your time could be spent on productive activities. You have to realize that the things that matters most should never be at the mercy of activities that matter least.

Here are 5 Steps to maximize your productivity:

Keep a work log for at least a week

Write down all of your activities and the time spent doing them. I appreciate this is time consuming initially but it is essential you get a true picture of your working week.

Analyze your activities

Separate your activities into high priority – those that produce a return or where only you have the skills to do the work – and low priority – activities others can do where the activity can be delegated to support staff. You will almost certainly find that you are spending most of your time on low-priority activities rather than activities directly providing a return. In almost all businesses these non productive activities tend to absorb time at a far greater rate than they should.

Delegate non productive activities

Once you can identify the low priority activities delegate as many as possible to support staff providing training where required. If necessary employ an additional member of staff to take responsibilities – the cost will be more than offset by your improved productivity. There may be a number of low priority activities you are tempted to keep. Unless it is absolutely unavoidable don’t be tempted and don’t get involved in non productive activities or your productivity will fall.

Calculate the time required for any remaining low priority activities

Once you have delegated all that you can, your next step is to calculate how much time you should be spending on the remaining low priority activities to make maximum use of your productive time. Do not work disproportionately hard at these low priority activities and set aside specific time each day or week to complete them.

Prioritize your remaining activities

Once you have cleared out the activities that do not bring you any return, it is time to turn your attention to the activities in your life that are bringing the most reward. Prioritize your activities and concentrate most of your time just on a few high-priority activities.

The objective throughout is to maximize your results from the areas of high return and to delegate those activities that have a low return. Having to spend a disproportionate amount of time on non productive activities is a major source of stress for many businessmen. Delegating these activities will therefore have the added benefit of reducing the stress you are under. It is all about doing less work for greater return.

For more success in life, whether that is more money, more time with your family or just making time for golf you should start implementing the 80-20 rule immediately. It will help your career as well as your personal life and, as a bonus, following the 80-20 rule day in and day out can make you very wealthy over the long term.

Ten Entrepreneurial Mistakes

It’s hard to avoid certain mistakes, especially when you face a situation for the first time. In fact, many of the following mistakes are hard to avoid even if you’re an old hand. Of course, these are not the only mistakes CEOs make, but they sure are common enough. Take the following self assessment: give yourself ten points for each of these entrepreneurial blunders you are in the process of making. Deduct five points for those you have narrowly avoided. Your score, of course, will be kept confidential, but do seek help. Fast!

Big Customer Syndrome

If more than 50 percent of your revenues come from any one customer you may be headed for a meltdown. While it both is easier and more profitable to deal with a small number of big customers, you become quite vulnerable when one of them contributes the lion’s share of your cash flow. You tend to make silly concessions to keep their business. You make special investments to handle their special requirements. And you are so busy servicing that one big account that you fail to develop additional customers and revenue streams. Then suddenly, for one reason or another, that customer goes away and your business borders on collapse.

Use that burgeoning account as both a cause for celebration and a danger signal. Always look for new business. And always seek to diversify your revenue sources.

Creating products in a vacuum

You and your team have a great idea. A brilliant idea. You spend months, even years, implementing that idea. When you finally bring it to market, no one is interested. Unfortunately you were so in love with your idea you never took the time to find out if anyone else cared enough to pay money for it. You have built the classic better mousetrap.

Do not be a product searching for a market. Do the “market research” up front. Test the idea. Talk to potential customers, at least a dozen of them. Find out if anyone wants to buy it. Do this before anything else. If enough people say “yes” go ahead and build it. Better yet, sell the product at pre-release prices. Fund it in advance. If you don’t get a good response, go on to the next idea.

Equal partnerships

Suppose you are the world’s greatest salesman, but you need an operations guy to run things back at the office. Or you are a technical genius, but you need someone to find the customers. Or maybe you and a friend start the company together. In each case, you and your new partner split the company 50/50. That seems fine and fair right now, but as your personal and professional interests diverge, it is a sure recipe for disaster. Either party’s veto power can stall the growth and development of your company, and neither holds enough votes to change the situation. Almost as bad is ownership split evenly among a larger number of partners, or worse, friends. Everyone has an equal vote and decisions are made by consensus. Or, worse still, unanimously. Yikes! No one has the final say, every little decision becomes a debate, and things bog down quickly.

To paraphrase Harry Truman, the buck has to stop somewhere. Someone has to be in charge. Make that person CEO and give them the largest ownership stake, even if it’s only a little more. 51/49 works much better than 50/50. If you and your partner must have total equality, give a one percent share to an outside advisor who becomes your tie-breaker.

Low prices

Some entrepreneurs think they can be the low price player in their market and make huge profits on the volume. Would you work for low wages? Why do you want to sell at low prices? Remember, gross margins pay for things like marketing and product development (and great vacation trips.) Remember, low margins = no profits = no future. So the grosser the better.

Set your prices as high as your market will bear. Even if you can sell more units and generate greater dollar volume at the lower price (which is not always the case) you may not be better off. Make sure you do all the math before you decide on a low price strategy. Figure all your incremental costs. Figure in the extra stress as well. For service companies, low price is almost never a good idea. How do you decide how high? Raise prices. Then raise them again. When customers or clients stop buying, you’ve gone too far.

Not enough capital

Check your business assumptions. The norm is optimistic sales projections, too-short product development timeframes, and unrealistically low expense forecasts. And don’t forget weak competitors. Regardless of the cause, many businesses are simply undercapitalized. Even mature companies often do not have the cash reserves to weather a downturn.

Be conservative in all your projections. Make sure you have at least as much capital as you need to make it through the sales cycle, or until the next planned round of funding. Or lower your burn rate so that you do.

Out of Focus

If yours is like most companies, you have neither the time nor the people to pursue every interesting opportunity. But many entrepreneurs – hungry for cash and thinking more is always better – feel the need to seize every piece of business dangled in front of them, instead of focusing on their core product, service, market, distribution channel. Spreading yourself too thin results in sub-par performance.

Concentrating your attention in a limited area leads to better-than-average results, almost always surpassing the profits generated from diversification. Al Reis, of Positioning fame, wrote a book that covers just this subject. It’s called Focus.

There are so many good ideas in the world, your job is to pick only the ones which provide superior returns in your focus area. Don’t spread yourself thin. Get known in your niche for the thing you do best, and do that exceedingly well.

First class and infrastructure crazy

Many a startup dies an untimely death from excessive overhead. Keep your digs humble and your furniture cheap. Your management team should earn the bulk of their compensation when the profits roll in, not before. The best entrepreneurs know how to stretch their cash and use it for key business-building processes like product development, sales and marketing. Skip that fancy phone system unless it really saves time and helps make more sales. Spend all the money really necessary to achieve your objectives. Ask the question, will there be a sufficient return on this expenditure? Everything else is overhead.

Perfection-itis

This disease is often found in engineers who won’t release products until they are absolutely perfect. Remember the 80/20 rule? Following this rule to its logical conclusion, finishing the last 20 percent of the last 20 percent could cost you more than you spent on the rest of the project. When it comes to product development, Zeno’s paradox rules. Perfection is unattainable and very costly at that. Plus, while you getting it right, the market is changing right out from under you. On top of that, your customers put off purchasing your existing products waiting for the next new thing to roll out your doors.

The antidote? Focus on creating a market-beating product within the allotted time. Set a deadline and build a product development plan to match. Know when you have to stop development to make a delivery date. When your time’s up, it’s up. Release your product.

No clear return on investment

Can you articulate the return which comes from purchasing your product or service? How much additional business will it generate for your customer? How much money will they save? What? You say it’s too hard to quantify? There are too many intangibles? If it’s too difficult for you to figure, what do you expect your prospect to do? Do the analysis. Talk to your customers, create case studies. Come up with ways to quantify the benefits. If you can’t justify the purchase, don’t expect your customer will. If you can demonstrate the great return on investment your product provides, sales are a slam dunk.

Not admitting your mistakes.

Of all the mistakes, this might be the biggest. At some point you realize the awful truth: you have made a mistake. Admit it quick. Redress the situation. If not, that mistake will get bigger, and bigger, and… Sometimes this is hard, but, believe me, bankruptcy is harder.

Assume your costs are sunk. Your money is lost. There is good news: your basis is zero. From this perspective, would you invest fresh money in this idea? If the answer is no, walk away. Change course. Whatever. But do not throw any more good money after bad.

OK, everybody makes mistakes. Just try to catch them quickly, before they kill your company.

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