Small businesses are the backbone of the economy on both sides of the Atlantic. But what separates successful small businesses from the ones that fail? There are obviously many factors at play, but one key ingredient is often overlooked: learning from others' successes and failures.
I've launched two successful startups myself. The first was an internet business sold to a national newspaper in a multi-million pound exit. The second was Social-Hire.com, which has grown to a team of ~25 people at the time of writing.
Along the way, I've learnt many important lessons from my own businesses. But I've also worked with hundreds of other start-up businesses and seen many of them succeed... but also a great many of them fail.
So that's why I've written this blog - to uncover success principles from the experiences of other startup founders, to help you be more successful in launching and growing your small business and hopefully stack the odds of success in your favour. Here's some food for thought that I trust will help.
Starting a business is no small feat. In addition to coming up with a great idea, you also need to worry about putting together the right team, securing funding (or bootstrapping), and developing a product or service that people will actually want to buy. And even if you do all of those things, there's still no guarantee that your business will be successful.
However, one of the biggest failings of startup entrepreneurs is not factoring in enough time to pivot their business model when necessary. I can tell you for sure, it's only when you start trying to sell in your chosen market that you uncover what people are really willing to pay for and what aspects of your product or service they truly value.
All too often I see entrepreneurs spend an eternity crafting the perfect business plan and holding off launching their business until they've got their website and branding and a whole host of other things just how they want them to be. The trouble with this approach is that, if your initial assumptions (or research) about what people will buy don't stand up to reality, the resources you need to be able to pivot your offering have been squandered in the months and months that were spent pre-launch.
So my advice would be that entrepreneurs should try to launch with the minimum viable product version of their offering - and have enough financing or runway in place to be able to pivot without going bankrupt.
I personally experienced this in both of my businesses. In each case, the services I thought the businesses would provide ended up changing fairly significantly once I tried taking them to market. I'll not bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the original revenue streams I had in mind ended up being <10% of what the businesses earnt money from once I'd taken them to market.
There are a number of reasons why it's important for startups to be able to pivot their business model. First and foremost, it allows you to course correct based on feedback from your customers. If you're not providing them with what they want, or not addressing their biggest pain points, then they're not going to consistently buy from you and pay top dollar for your offering - no matter how good your product or service may be.
It's also important to understand that pivoting isn't just about changing your product or service in response to feedback from the market. It could also be the way you go to market and the way you market and sell your offering that simply don't stack up once you're out there and trying to make a success of your business. Pivoting may not always be easy, but it can mean the difference between success and failure for your startup - so factor in from the outset that you're going to buy yourself the time to be able to pivot!
One of the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs is finding enough hours in the day to get everything done. As the business grows, there are more and more demands on your time – and it’s only natural to want to do everything yourself in order to maintain control. However, if you don’t learn to delegate and outsource tasks, you will quickly become overwhelmed and bogged down in the day-to-day running of the business.
In fact, when I reflect on it, pretty much every conversation I've had with successful entrepreneurs and every podcast interview I've listened to with those who've succeeded has uncovered this success factor in some shape or form.
I think it's one of the hardest traits for an entrepreneur to develop - learning to accept getting things done to a good standard rather than done exactly how the entrepreneur would have done them themselves.
If you can't get to the point of accepting this, then the growth of your business will always be constrained by the hours of time you have available to get things done (and warning: this is also a fast-track route to facing burnout if you try to make yourself more and more available to work in the business). So the sooner you accept and embrace this, the earlier in your growth story you'll be able to achieve significant rather than modest growth.
There are actually two aspects to this challenge. One is entrepreneurs trying to do everything so as to conserve funds. The other is trying to do everything because you don't want to lose control and accept any variation from how you'd have done things yourself.
Let's talk about conserving funds first. I used to spend hours every week doing my own invoicing, accounting, and tax returns. I thought that if I did these things myself, I would save money and have more control over the process. But what I didn't realise was that by trying to do everything myself, I was actually slowing down my business growth and wasting valuable time that could have been better spent growing my income streams. I was a terrific salesperson, yet the hours I spent selling in the early stages of my business were severely constrained for this very reason.
It wasn't just accounting either! When I started my business, I decided to build my own website rather than hiring a professional or an external agency to do it. In hindsight, this was a huge mistake. Not only did it take me forever to get the website just the way I wanted it, but the SEO results were terrible and the functionality wasn't as good as it could have been. When I think of the years I lost getting minimal Google traffic, it makes me shudder!
Alongside this financial reason for trying to do everything is a different reasoning. The other angle to this is ceding control and trusting others to do a terrific job. When a Founder has been the key salesperson and has driven the marketing and is the key point of contact for clients - well, it can be very difficult to relinquish those responsibilities and entrust them to someone else.
And even when you do entrust someone else, the temptation can be to monitor everything they do and constantly be tweaking and changing how they've done things. This is the big turning point for the small businesses I've seen thrive. When a team is in place where the team members are skilled enough and trained up enough that the business owner can just leave them to get on with the job of growing the company, that's when the real magic happens.
So what are some tips on how to delegate and outsource effectively?
The first step is to define your goals for the business. What are your long-term vision and objectives? What needs to be done in order to achieve these goals? Once you have a clear understanding of what needs to be done, you can start to identify which tasks can be delegated or outsourced. Be ruthless here in carving out that your own role will only entail you doing the things that others really cannot do or that bring you the most satisfaction from undertaking yourself.
One of the keys to outsourcing or delegating more and more of what needs doing in your business is to find the right people or the right external outsourcing providers. You need to find people who are competent and trustworthy, who have the drive to help you succeed - and who complement rather than duplicate your own skillset and character. A shortcoming of startups is often that they rush this selection process because of all the other pressures there are building up in the business that need the founder's attention.
Once you have found the right person or agency for the job, it’s important to set clear instructions. This means being clear about your expectations, deadlines, and any other relevant details. The clearer you are at this stage, the less likely it is that there will be any confusion or mistakes further down the line. But also, give people room to succeed. If you're using an external agency, they should be bringing expertise to the table and may negate the need for you to lay down exactly what needs doing. Similarly, with a team member, give them some leeway to determine how things will be achieved and you will unlock far more creativity and enthusiasm from them.
One of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs is letting go of control. However, if you want to delegate or outsource effectively, it’s important to trust that the person you have delegated or outsourced the task to is capable of doing it properly. Of course, you can always check in from time to time to ensure that everything is on track – but try not to micromanage too much. That will kill their creativity and will prevent you from truly freeing your time in the business.
Finally, remember that you get what you pay for. If you want quality work, you need to be willing to pay for it. Trying to cut costs by hiring someone who is inexperienced or who charges very low rates is likely to end up costing you more in the long run – so don’t be afraid to invest in quality help. When I think of getting disappointing results in my own businesses, that's invariably happened when I've tried to cut corners. Similarly, I've seen other business owners rue the day they chose the cheap option for services they were procuring or positions they were trying to fill.
Scaling a business quickly can become a real challenge even with the right team and suppliers in place. One of the key things you can do to give your business the best chance of success is to create Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). So let's explore why SOPs are important and provide some tips for successfully implementing them in your business.
Standard Operating Procedures are simply a set of instructions that detail how a particular task should be carried out. Having SOPs in place helps to ensure that everyone in your team is working in the same way and to the same standards. This, in turn, can lead to increased efficiency and productivity in your business.
There are a number of reasons why SOPs are so important, especially when scaling a business quickly. Firstly, they help to ensure that everyone in your team is on the same page and knows exactly what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. This can save a lot of time and frustration, as well as reducing the likelihood of mistakes being made.
Secondly, SOPs can help new team members to quickly get up to speed with how things are done in your business. This becomes really key if you reach the stage where you are repeatedly hiring multiple people to undertake the same tasks. Being able to onboard them consistently and efficiently is critical. And finally, having SOPs in place makes it much easier to delegate tasks and responsibilities to others, safe in the knowledge that they will be carried out correctly.
1. Keep them simple: The best SOPs are those that are clear and concise. Use step-by-step instructions where possible so that there is no room for interpretation or confusion.
2. Make them easily accessible: All members of your team should be able to easily access your SOPs whenever they need to reference them. A good way to do this is to store them electronically in a central location such as Google Drive or Dropbox, or better still use an online learning platform like Thinkific.
3. Make sure they are up-to-date: It's important that your SOPs are kept up-to-date so that they remain relevant and accurate. As your business grows and changes, you may find that certain procedures need to be altered or added. Once any changes have been made, be sure to communicate these changes to all members of your team so that they are aware of them.
4. Get input from your team: When creating or revising SOPs, it's a good idea to get input from other members of your team who will be using them on a regular basis. This will help to ensure that they are fit for purpose and user-friendly.
5. Train new team members: Once you have created your SOPs, it's important to provide training for new team members so that they know how to access them and use them effectively. This could involve showing them how to access the SOPs, walking them through each procedure step-by-step, and answering any questions they may have.
As an entrepreneur, it's super important to take care of your mental health. Here are four ways I've seen entrepreneurs benefit when they've prioritised their own wellbeing:
1. You'll be more productive when you're happy and healthy.
2. You'll make better decisions when you're not stressed out.
3. Your team will perform better when you're leading by example.
4. You'll be more motivated when you have the support of those close to you.
1. You'll be more productive when you're happy and healthy. When you're feeling down, it's tough to get anything done. But when you're taking care of yourself and your Mental Health, it's easier to focus and be productive.
2. You'll make better decisions when you're not stressed out. It's hard to make clear-headed decisions when you're anxious or stressed out. By taking care of your Mental Health, you can avoid making impulsive decisions that you might regret later on.
3. Your team will perform better when you're leading by example. If you want your team to be happy and productive, lead by example! Show them that it's important to take care of your Mental Health by practising what you preach. When they see that you value your own Mental Health, they'll be more likely to do the same and prioritise the team's wellbeing.
4. You'll be more motivated when you have the support of those close to you. By carving out time to spend with family and friends - and closely guarding that time - you'll ensure that those closest to you are supportive of what you're trying to achieve. This can really help with sustaining motivation and with unwinding effectively when the working day ends.
It's important to build your business in a way that minimises stress on your team members. This will help sustain their motivation and allow them to focus on doing their best work. But how can you do this in practice? Some ideas from what I've witnessed in business:
One of the best ways to minimise stress on your team is to be selective about the clients you work with. Not every client is going to be a good fit for your business, and that's OK. Similarly, not every potential client is going to be fun to work with. It's better to turn away a troublesome client than to take on a project that's going to cause problems down the road. If you're not sure whether a prospective client is going to be a good fit, ask yourself these questions:
If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," it's probably best to walk away from the deal. Remember, it's better to have fewer clients who are easy to work with to take on clients who are constantly causing problems. Problem clients are one of the main reasons employees will leave a business - and they suck your team's time away from serving more profitable clients to the best of their abilities.
Another way to reduce stress on your team is to set up your services so you're paid in advance. This will help alleviate any financial worries you might have and allow you to focus on doing the best possible work for your clients. There are a few different ways you can do this, such as requiring payment upfront or setting up recurring billing for long-term projects. Whichever method you choose, make sure you're clear about your payment terms with each client before starting any work. This will help avoid any misunderstandings down the road.
One additional point on this. I know business owners often worry that clients will simply not agree to this. Well more than ten years into running Social-Hire, we've never had this be an issue. We give a financial incentive to set up an automated payment in advance - and clients are thrilled to secure that discount rather than being aggrieved at being expected to pay up front. So believe that this is possible and then find a way to price your services so that your prospective clients will benefit and feel good about paying you in advance.
Finally, it's important to make yourself approachable so your team feel comfortable coming to you with ideas and concerns. This doesn't mean being available 24/7, but it does mean being accessible when people need you. Whether it's setting aside time each week for one-on-one meetings or keeping an open-door policy for drop-ins, make sure your team knows they can come to you with whatever they need. By creating an open and supportive environment, you'll foster a more positive and productive work environment for everyone involved.
I hope these ideas help many of you to overcome a bottleneck, belief or challenge you've been facing in trying to grow your business. We'd love to be part of your success story, so if you'd like to chat with us about getting help with your social media marketing please do book in for a call.
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You might like these blog posts How to Create a Successful Marketing Team, Techniques to Improve Collaborative Project Management, Social Media Marketing: Is Paid or Organic Best for your Business?, and How to Produce More Leads With a Solid Content Marketing Strategy.