How Success Can Hurt Your Business

By the time you start looking for more work, it is often too late. Here’s a solution to this challenge…

Feast or Famine: The Challenges of Keeping a Business Forward-Focused

Most businesses, especially ones that concentrate on Business-to-Business services, tend to operate in a feast-or-famine mindset. This happens in good times and bad, although it can get worse in times such as these, when economic indicators are worsening on just about every front on which they can be measured.

As a long-time consultant for companies big and small, this feast-or-famine mindset is something I’ve noticed more and more. The interesting thing is that companies actually operate more proactively in times of famine then in times of feast. The problems can start when business is booming, not when business is bad.

It works like this: you get a landslide of business rolling in, which sets your whole company into motion. From your administrators to your people in the field doing the work, your whole company is entirely focused on getting projects completed well and on time. There may even be numerous new jobs lined up, enough to keep you and your staff working overtime for months to come. The ability to grow and adapt to a swelling workload is, of course, the bedrock of any solid business. Not losing your focus, your cool, or the quality of your deliverables keeps your clients happy and your bottom line strong. I’ve seen this sort of adaptation in just about every kind of business, from construction companies to creative agencies to retail-oriented giants to pharmaceuticals. But hidden in this kind of approach are the seeds of a potential problem, one large enough to cause some companies to crumble when the workload begins to dry up. The result can be plunging morale, layoffs, pay cuts, or even bankruptcy.

The reality is that too often, when the workload begins to dry up and the owners and senior managers finally have some time to breathe, they realize there is little to no new work coming in. Suddenly next quarter earnings are in serious doubt. Another scramble must begin – contacts must be made, relationships developed, needs identified, but often the next few big projects can be far off in the future, leaving your company without active work for weeks or even months. This has an obvious impact on your bottom line, but it also affects companies in other ways as well. The sudden lack of work can be toxic to your staff, which can grow bored, develop poor work habits, or lose confidence in senior management. Worries about job security can leak in, and create a rumor mill that might cause some of your best employees to look elsewhere for a more fertile – and stable – company.

There’s an old adage in business: if your business isn’t growing, it’s dying. What I’ve found especially interesting is how truly successful companies take this adage to heart. It is something that is at once obvious and intuitive, and at the same time far more difficult to pull off than most of us realize.

The Role of Business Development in Successful Businesses

The obvious question is how: how do you keep your business growing when you are so busy that you hope for only a 60 hour workweek? One very effective solution is to have Business Development as an integral part of your business model. In many small-to-medium sized companies, the owner/CEO is responsible for this task. The only trouble is when that person gets too busy to focus on new business, and instead has to manage their current workload.

The solution is to hire someone whose only job is to do just that – find, create, and sustain new relationships that, when the time is right, the owner/CEO can help to mature. The job of a Business Development Executive is to go out and make new contacts for the company, especially when times are incredibly busy and the staff overworked.

The Role of the Business Development Executive

Business Development Executives have a reputation as the men and women who “wine and dine” potential clients. Hospitality is certainly part of what they do, but more than that a Business Development Executive needs to know your business inside and out. Just as importantly, they need to be able to self-generate contacts and leads in your industry. A good Business Development Executive will help to “sell” your company to more than clients who need your services in the short-term. The idea is to build enough relationships that as your potential clients grow and come across their own problems, the first company they will contact for help is yours.

This forward-looking approach is the most sure-fire way to keep your business growing, especially when you are too busy to put much energy into it yourself.

Solutions for the Small Company

Fortune 50 companies usually have the bottom line luxury of hiring a six-figure Business Development Executive to help grow the business at all times and in all economic conditions. But many small companies cannot afford that kind of salary output. One possible solution I have seen successfully implemented is to outsource this role to a freelance professional who knows your industry. This person can help you to continue to grow when times are good and your workload is too heavy to wine and dine every potential client yourself. A base salary can be attached to bonuses for any future contracts, which can help to keep things both fair and honest. A freelance Business Development Executive can help your company to continue to add clients even when you’re too busy to worry about it yourself.

“If your business isn’t growing, it’s dying.” My experience says this is true, which is why I’ve always worked with a Business Development Executive. Keep in mind that by the time it occurs to you to start looking for more work, it is often too late. A healthy business stays healthy by always challenging itself to grow and take on new projects. My last blog mentions some ways you can grow your business in busy times without having to hire new employees.

Browsing For Business – How to Run a Business With Web-Based Software

I stayed plenty busy on Saturday, December 19, 2009. Not only was I shuttling my five-year-old around town to his Christmas pageant rehearsal and his birthday party, I also wrote several blog posts and articles (including this one), reviewed my current bank account information, entered receipts into my checkbook register and my budget software, updated my business plan, created a survey form, and responded to about 10 e-mails. I never opened a single application besides my Firefox browser. I accessed all of my software through the Internet. My first all-day experience with web-based computing, also called “cloud” computing was a great success!

Web-based computing simply means that instead of using software programs downloaded to your hard drive, you open your software applications through the Internet. You open your web browser, access the software’s location on the Internet, open the program, and start using your program. Like many computer users over the last 25 years, Microsoft defined my software user experience. If I needed to update a spreadsheet, I opened Microsoft Excel. I created my word processing documents in Word, and I would open Outlook to check my e-mail or calendar. I only used the Internet to look at news sites, shop online, or check my social profiles at LinkedIn or Facebook. Over the last several months, I have completely shifted my focus to use Microsoft products as little as I possibly can. I should have seen this advancement coming. We have watched much of our commerce move inside a web browser. Whether we have purchased books from Amazon.com or downloaded software directly from a website, we entrust an increasing amount of our commerce to web-based activity. Using web-based software for all computing is a very logical next step.

I am by no means anti-Microsoft. For many high-powered spreadsheet activities like I use at work, nothing works better than an Excel spreadsheet. I also need to use Excel in many cases, because Excel’s add-on programs allow greater data analysis and productivity. However, many people are not like me and do not work with 30 megabyte spreadsheets every day. Many people need little more than the basic features of the traditional Microsoft Office package. For these purposes, web-based software like Google Docs is more than enough to fulfill users’ needs.

Major software companies are quickly catching on. Google’s web-based application program is arguably the most popular web-based software, but other companies like Adobe (check out Adobe Buzzword) offer competing products. Even Microsoft is creating a web-based version of its Office software, which is a clear admission that computing is more about the Internet and less about shipping software CDs. Other companies, such as 37 Signals, offer a number of software solutions to handle a wide range of business problems.

In the last two months, I have learned that you can do the following business activities using web-based software.

  • Maintain your accounting books
  • Prepare business plan information
  • Share documents in a common team location
  • Prepare presentation graphics
  • Maintain your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software
  • Pay your bills by scanning invoices

Here are five reasons why web-based software is quickly becoming a key part of business computing.

  • Mobile computing – When we look back at this period, Apple will be best known for creating a truly mobile computing environment. While BlackBerries were important as communication tools, the iPhone made a leap of several levels to a true handheld computer. Since smartphones have limited memory, any usable software needs to be based on a web-based platform.
  • Increased collaboration – the rise of the free agent workforce, the never-ending expansion of global commerce, and increasing numbers of virtual teams are creating demand for easier collaboration. In the past, we would have to e-mail documents or upload documents to the Internet using complicated procedures. We would never know if the version we were editing was the “live” or the “official” copy. Web-based software allows people around the world to access the same document at the same time. Editing and collaboration is becoming much simpler and more productive for a connected workforce.
  • Data security – Your first response may be, “How can using a web-based program be safer than accessing my hard drive?” What would happen if a technology company like Intuit (QuickBooks’ parent) or 37 Signals lost a significant customer data? The answer is the equivalent of Enron. These companies would collapse because the market would lose trust in their ability to secure confidential data. These companies maintain security levels far above what we can maintain on our home computers or small business networks.
  • Mac vs. PC switching – Darren Root, executive editor of the CPA Technology Advisor magazine, wrote a September 2009 blog post about how he lives a “double life” using Macs at home and PCs in his office. If your only need a web browser to access your programs, then the physical computer may not be as important in the future. You may not need an expensive computer if you only need to access a browser. The sudden popularity of netbook computers is somewhat related to the increased popularity of web-based software. If you can access your business software through the web, then a $300 netbook could support your business as well as a laptop that is two or three times as expensive.
  • Less need for IT support – Instead of hiring a full-time IT support staff for your unique hardware and software needs, you can rely on the software providers to monitor upgrades, solicit user feedback, and handle any software issues. Your reduced need for support personnel gives you more resources to improve your business.

So what software did I use on December 19? I used a variety of software that substitutes for much of the software we have downloaded to our computers for many years.

  • Gmail – E-mail, calendar, task, and contacts (free), which replaced Microsoft Outlook.
  • Google Apps – Anything MS Office can do (also called Google Docs, free).
  • PlanHQ – Business planning software. The version I use costs $9/month, but larger business will spend closer to $30/month. Palo Alto Software, the maker of Business Plan Pro, told me last week that they are planning web-based introductions of their very popular Business Plan Pro software. I use Business Plan Pro for my clients’ formal business plans, but I maintain my own business plan on PlanHQ.
  • Highrise – 37 Signals product for customer relationship management (about $30/month). o QuickBooks Online – Online version of the accounting software leader ($9.95/month).
  • Dave Ramsey’s My Total Money Makeover personal finance site – For about $6/month, my wife and I use Dave Ramsey’s on-line personal budgeting software instead of a program like Quicken or an Excel spreadsheet.

I pay approximately $25 per month for my firm’s information technology costs. Not only can I save the cost of a full-time IT support person, but I also access my work from my laptop, netbook, smartphone, or a computer halfway around the world and have the exact same data and format in front of me. I am convinced that we will only see increased activity in this type of technology to reduce costs and increase flexibility. As demands for employee flexibility and employer mobility become more prevalent, operating our businesses inside of a browser will become more natural and more necessary.

Flexibility and value are key success factors in today’s business environment By utilizing web-based software to run your business, you are able to run your business from any location and on any computer. Instead of working in the technology maze of traditional business, you will have more time and resources to work on your business and achieve your goals.

7 Things to Consider When Engaging Small Business Consultants

Many small businesses are experts in their field and know their own business inside and out. However lots of small business owners lack the time or expertise required to implement certain projects. That’s where a small business consultant can step in and help.

In order to achieve a successful project it’s important to be clear about what you want your consultant to be able to do for you. Just as important is selecting a consultant with the right skills for the job, but how do you make sure you don’t get off on the wrong foot?

Here are some things to consider:

1. Are you looking for a research/diagnostic approach or do you need help with implementation?

Firstly are you looking for someone to take a diagnostic approach to a business problem you are facing? For instance, which market segment should you enter? Or what product line should you sell? Or is your business need about implementation? For instance, you’ve identified that you need to be on Social Media and need a marketing consultant with the expertise to make this happen.

The two needs are different and some consultants are better in one area than the other. To find out whether your prospective consultant prefers to work on implementation projects or research projects ask them. Don’t be afraid to ask them for specific examples of projects they have worked on and how they have tackled projects similar to yours in the past.

2. Ask prospective consultants how their clients are better off after they leave.

What sort of outcomes were they able to achieve for their clients? Look out for wishy-washy answers. Look for specific examples and outcomes. Does this fit with the sorts of outcomes that you would like for your business? Where they able to increase website traffic by a certain percentage, reduce staff turnover by a certain amount or generate more business for the client?

Picking the wrong person for the job might end up feeling like you are pushing water up a hill with a rake. Not only will the results be less than optimal but it may end up being a costly and stressful experience also.

3. Be careful of wanting champagne on a beer budget.

Do you want fast, cheap or talented? You must pick two out of the three. There is a triangle trade off here. You can get premium talent, faster results or a cheaper cost but Taylor Swift won’t teach your team how to sing tomorrow for free if you see what I mean.

Often a small business owner will set a budget and then begin the search for the best talent and/or fastest result within that budget. From my experience a budget-driven approach can often compromise results. Your best approach is to establish your desired outcome, then judge each potential candidate by how likely they are to be able to achieve that outcome.

4. Look for a solid “About Us” page.

Ask consultants about their qualifications and their approach. With so many so-called ‘experts’ out there it’s really important to identify who is qualified and able to do the job for you. Ask prospective consultants questions about their skills and experience to determine whether they are fit for the job. Are they methodical in their approach? Do have a history of achieving quality results for clients? This will help you to avoid being mislead by organisations with few processes, a glossy website and no real qualifications or experience.

5. Ask yourself whether you think you will be comfortable working with the consultant.

Do you think they are going to be the right fit for your business? Can you see yourself and your team working well with them? Sometimes it’s less about the exact industry experience they have had and more about their ability to get results.

6. Think about goals and outcomes first.

Don’t pick a technical specialist to do a job when you really need someone who can deliver a sales outcome. Think about your goal first, what are you trying to achieve? For instance, if it’s conversions and leads from your website then perhaps what you really need is a marketing consultant to advise on the layout of the website rather than just a technical person to do the build. A technical person can definitely build the website for you, it will function beautifully, but will it achieve your goal of converting traffic to sales?

7. Be wary of small business consultants who are all things to all people.

A good consultant will be honest about what their speciality is and will not simply be a ‘yes’ man or woman. They will push back on projects, ideas and suggestions that they don’t think are right for your business or are beyond their area of expertise. Look for a consultant with backbone not someone who lets you steer the project without alerting you to the danger that lies ahead because they are too afraid to question your judgement or afraid they will upset you. I’d rather have an expert question me and make suggestions than sit back and watch me sink the ship!

So whether it is a marketing consultant or a small business consultant you are looking for, many of the same rules apply. Identify what you need and look at it from an outcomes perspective, work out who has the expertise to help you achieve your goals and whether or not you are comfortable working with them. Look for someone who is genuinely interested in working with you and passionate about what they do.