Top Tips to Help Your Small Business Thrive and Grow

“Twenty years from now you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Although that pithy pronouncement may sound like something from a modern-day podcaster, it came from Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, the 19th century novelist and essayist.

Many of Twain’s tips have an amazing shelf life, and his counsel seems to be a perfect fit for today’s growing legions of entrepreneurs. For countless reasons, more and more people are leaving the work-for-someone-else world and hanging up their own shingles.

Cynthia Kay should be one of their new best friends. She’s author of Small Business, Big Success: Proven Strategies to Beat the Odds and Grow a Great Business.

As founder of an award-winning media production and communications consulting firm, Kay serves clients ranging from the Global Fortune 100 to small businesses and non-profits. She has served as board chair for the National Small Business Association.

Workplace upheavals spawned by the Covid pandemic seem to have nudged a lot of people toward entrepreneurship. Kay offers tips to people starting their own business.

“Having a great idea for a product or service is not enough,” she says. “You need to do your research to see if the idea is one that’s commercially viable. By doing independent research, you can discover if the idea is worth pursuing. And timing is important. If you’re too far ahead of the pack and entering or creating a new market, be sure you have the resources to create demand. If you’re entering a crowded field, it’s important to look at the competition and see how what you offer measures up. Is it different, a better value, more convenient?”

Kay says business owners need to be passionate about what they’re doing and have staying power. “There’s a direct relationship between passion and success,” she says. “The more passionate the individual, the greater the likelihood of success. Owning a business is all-consuming, especially in the first five years. Be prepared to miss family events, forgo vacations and perhaps struggle financially. If you have great passion and you’re willing to put in the hard work, then go for it.”

Finally, have an exit strategy before you even open the doors. “In the rush to start-up, many miss this important step,” Kay says. “Most business owners love their business. Why else would they have started it or purchased it? The answer is simple. If you know how you want to exit, it helps you determine how you will build, operate and grow your business. Building a lifestyle business is very different than one that you grow quickly to sell.”

Without clear understandings, partnerships risk turning sour. Kay advocates creating a “business prenup.”

“Many would-be business owners go into a partnership without having the conversations that are critical to business relationships,” she says. “They spend time on the typical business issues: structure, percent of ownership, buy-out agreements and the like. However, they do not get personal.”

A business prenup, she says, explores working styles, values and other character traits that can cause friction. “You need to set aside some time to ask each other a number of questions. Things such as what does work-life balance look like? Do you have personalities that complement each other? This is not a single conversation, but a series of conversations.”

Kay recommends taking careful notes. “Then you can go back and refer to them later to see if they resonate after the discussion. The truth is that you can never really know someone until you’re in the trenches working with them. But if you don’t explore business and personal topics with a business prenup, you might end up in a business divorce.”

Hiring the right people is one of the most important tasks for a business owner. Kay has advice on that, too.

“The key to hiring the right people is having a clear understanding of your business’s style and culture. For example, the right fit for a smaller organization where it is all hands-on deck looks very different than the right person for a larger organization with lots of support and infrastructure.”

She says employers often have a list of skills and requirements for openings. “I like to think bigger and focus on things like creativity, motivation, problem-solving ability, communication and attitude. You can teach specific skills, but you can’t teach these things that are vital to the success of the individual and the business.”

What are some of the most common mistakes made by aspiring entrepreneurs?

A big one, Kay says, is underestimating the amount of money required to launch a business. Aspiring entrepreneurs have projections for people and equipment but often forget to take into account funding for things such as IT, marketing and other critical activities.

Another mistake, she says, is believing that legal and other professional services are not needed. Trying to set up a business without an external team can be very costly down the road when there’s a problem.

A third problem, Kay says, is failure to clearly identify a profile of ideal customers for the business. “Many entrepreneurs take whatever comes in the door and often that’s a customer or work that’s not well suited to their core capabilities. That keeps them from having the time to develop a customer list that moves the company in the right direction.”

When it comes to operations, Kay suggests thinking like “big business.”

“Smaller businesses often fail to take the time to document processes and procedures,” she says. “The knowledge is ‘in the head’ of the owner. While larger companies collect vast amounts of data, simply writing down step-by-step instructions can ensure consistency, accuracy and improve customer satisfaction. Of course, it goes without saying that the documentation needs to be in a central location and accessible to all.”

Kay points out that digitization is touching every aspect of our world. “Some believe that they are too small to ‘go digital.’ However, smaller entities can take advantage of technology to improve operations, sell on ecommerce platforms or move from paper-based systems to the cloud.”

Another thing to consider is safety and security. Kay says smaller entities don’t think they are targets for cybersecurity. “Nothing could be further from the truth.

They are easy targets and need protection, just like a big business.”

Does Kay have any regrets in her own entrepreneurial journey?

“I wish I had made the leap to start my business sooner,” she says. “I spent 13 years working for others. While I learned a lot, I stayed about five years too long.”

Kay would likely agree with this thought: Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t so you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.

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