Company Strategy? I’ll have mine “to go”, please …

Company Strategy? I’ll have mine “to go”, please …

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Do you hate boardroom brainstorms— with those over-excited colleagues, the bizarre ideas and a whiteboard covered in random words? The great news is that strategic decision-making is changing for the better at smart companies.

Most of us have lost many hours of our lives to heavy-duty strategy meetings that failed to deliver much at all. Years ago, we probably saw these sessions as a necessity as we set budgets, identified priorities and carefully steered the course of our companies.

But that drizzly Wednesday you spent last October holed-up with ten other people may not be the springboard for success that everyone imagined anymore… it could be your downfall.

The simple truth is that the world doesn’t stand still long enough to lock ourselves in a room for a day and decide what’ll happen over the next 12 months. And here are just a few reasons why:

Customer expectations will evolve quickly and rise considerably. New competitors will emerge — from start-ups or larger businesses expanding aggressively into your marketplace. And disruptive technologies may present opportunities for you to enhance your products and services.

And don’t forget, your company dynamics can shift profoundly too. Changes to personnel, investors and offices can mean you’ve got suddenly double or half the resources you had before. Illness and other unforeseen factors can change everything too.

The world can look very different… even a few months later.

Sticking rigidly to a detailed strategy can create ‘group-think’, lead to blind spots and prove fatal for a company if you can’t respond to unforeseen challenges.

Relying on consultants to come up with all the answers isn’t the solution either. Most will follow the same point-in-time approach — and not be around when the storms hit home.

So what’s the best way forward for strategic decision-making?

 

Please read the full article on The Executive Magazine.

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Do you want famine or feast?

Do you want famine or feast?

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Imagine you’re ravenous — and someone brings you plates of your two favourite dishes. You like them equally and both are the same distance away on the table. Which do you choose — or is there a very real risk you’ll starve because you just can’t make up your mind?

This may seem like a bizarre scenario. But there’s a business parallel that I’ll explore in a moment.

As for the dilemma itself, it’s one that philosophers have been chewing over since the 14th century. The quandary was dubbed “Buridan’s ass” which — let us assure you — has more to do with donkeys than derrières.

The scene goes like this … a donkey is equally hungry and thirsty but finds itself precisely midway between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. The paradox suggests the animal will die of hunger and thirst because it cannot make a rational decision to choose one over the other.

 

So what’s the business message?

At this point, we need to think about another animal … the elephant in the room.

We’re talking about a recent event, not seen in generations. A head-to-head contest, with a narrow victory. Something that left a country shocked and divided, raising all sorts of questions. As we’re sure you realise, we’re talking about the BBC losing out to Channel 4 over the signing of the Great British Bake-Off …

Seriously though, we do mean Brexit. For UK businesses, the country’s decision to leave the EU creates a major dilemma.

 

Put simply, companies face two options after the referendum:

1) Should we invest, seeing Brexit as an opportunity?

2) Or, should we batten down the hatches, make cutbacks and anticipate a downturn?

 

Note: this post has been published as an article on Real Business, where you can find the full version.

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Expanding abroad? What you need to know first.

Expanding abroad? What you need to know first.

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Are you thinking of selling globally — and hoping to win new customers and secure big profits? If so, then you need to tread carefully. But don’t be put off.

 

There’s a point in the entrepreneurial journey when expanding abroad seems the right thing to do. It’s seductive, of course, with the promise of travel, glamour and the kudos of having a global empire in the making. Such a move can make perfect sense though: A new market may become your most profitable stream of revenue and turn out to be that moment when your firm ‘really took off’.

However, the risks are significant. Over-reaching and over-spending can be enough to topple an otherwise-stable business. Unknown local market dynamics and factors could trip you up. And then there are those logistical and language hurdles.

That said, if you follow these five steps, you’ll be on safer ground.

Step #1: Choose your market
It’s easy to say ‘abroad’, but which country first? Research what the local competition is offering and the level of demand from customers. Also, use industry events and networking contacts to get insights from people who work in that country. Then consider what the culture and language gap may mean for you: Do you need English to be spoken? Do you have issues with time-zone or proximity? For example, is Brazil more suitable than the US, or South Africa better than Germany?

Step #2: Fine-tune your proposition
Focus on just a few verticals — and adjust your product or service offerings to fit the local market, based on your research.

 

Note: this post has been published as an article in The Executive Magazine, where you can find the full version.

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Expanding in 2018: Should you focus on growth or profit?

Expanding in 2018: Should you focus on growth or profit?

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Extra funding can be a huge boost for any small business with a burning desire to expand. But how should you spend an influx of cash? Should you go for growth or profit?

Scaling up can be a make-or-break moment. Perhaps your launch went well and now you’ve got some traction? With a well-designed core product or service, some encouraging financial figures, and a thriving customer base, you’ll be on your way to attracting a second round of investment. But should you focus additional funding on growth or profit?

It’s good to have a clear idea of whether you’ll use funding for growth or profit before you even start approaching investors.

 

Going giddy over growth

Broadly speaking, young business bosses usually look for growth because they need to get known, and are maybe challenging established players, if not industry assumptions. This is understandable.

However, focusing on growth does not mean the business model shouldn’t be profitable, or that the business should give its products or services away for the sake of reaching as many customers as possible.

There’s also the temptation to grow by starting to own more things and employing lots of salespeople and other staff on permanent contracts. Then you need a lease on a larger premises, heftier insurance, HR people, lots of IT and much more. This might feel good at first. But in reality, you’re narrowing your options for the future and increasing your liabilities.

It’s also possible to run into problems quickly. Without orders, you’ll be like an empty machine. With too many orders, the operations side of your business may feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the delivery of products or services.

 

Note: this post has been published as an article on Real Business, where you can find the full version.

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Big versus Small: Which is better?

Big versus Small: Which is better?

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Towards the end of last year, I was invited to FT Innovate, a flagship event organised by FT Live, the global events arm of the Financial Times.

It was an intense two days of presentations, meetings and discussions. I met many interesting people and attended a dinner with the founder of Evernote and the CIO of Eurostar. I also joined a debate hosted by TableCrowd.

The buzz was around ‘Big vs. Small: which one is better?’ For me, this is always a hot topic, because I left the corporate world to focus on growth strategy for SMEs.

The debate was all around how companies of any size generate, propagate and scale innovation. Some familiar themes emerged …

Big companies have the availability of resources, but they face the pressure of the quarterly results, and innovation can sometimes be stifled by corporate processes. In contrast, small companies can engage with great new ideas more easily, but struggle with getting expertise and how to scale up without sizeable investment.

It was a good discussion. But I felt we had missed something.

Afterwards, I wondered: Are we simply accepting the traditional ‘rules’ of the game? If you win in one way, do you automatically lose in another? And what about the medium-sized companies? Are they forever doomed to be caught in the middle – beaten by the smalls or eaten by the bigs?

If you were a small company with big ambitions, how could you go about growth in a better way? Is it possible to get the best of all worlds?

I think the answer is ‘Yes’ if you take a step back and consider three simple truths.

Truth #1: Success isn’t measured by what you own physically

Unless people have a burning ambition to build an empire, then success shouldn’t be about size in terms of buildings, people or even product ranges. Success should be about growing, profitable revenue.

In effect, you could be small business – let’s say 10 people – and be astonishingly profitable without needing to add to your headcount or invest much at all in new equipment.

Truth #2: Success is often linked to being very good at one thing

Can you sum up what makes your business special in just a few words?

It’s much better to do one thing exceptionally well, rather than being a mile wide and an inch deep. Often it’s helpful to get some outside expertise to help capture your USP (unique selling point) – and revisit this from time to time. Otherwise, it’s very easy to lose focus and drift when you start to grow. Staying fairly small – in terms of your core team – can keep you focused on what you do best.

Truth #3: Other people are willing to handle 99% of the cost and risk of investing

Cash-flow is the lifeblood of smaller companies. But as you start to grow, there’s the temptation to start owning things and employing lots of people on permanent contracts. Then you need a lease on a larger premises, bigger insurance, HR people, lots of IT and much more. This might feel good at first. But, in reality, you’re narrowing your options for the future and increasing your liabilities.

Today, virtually every kind of service can be purchased on a pay-as-you-go basis. And the list seems to be getting longer: office space, cars, people, telephony, IT hardware, software, hosted services, videoconferencing and more. Simply let other people invest in these things and make them brilliant. Just pick the best of them rather than try to create or own them. Then simply only pay for what you use, month by month, scaling up and down easily. That’s optimum efficiency.

What will the small-big company of the future look like?

In the extreme, I suppose it might look like a large company in marketing and financial terms – a brand with a massive turnover, recognised within every home and business.

But behind the logo, there might simply be a handful of innovators and their intellectual property. They might not even own a desk between them. If they want to change direction by 180-degrees, they can – or they might set up other ‘small-big’ businesses on the side (which entrepreneurs love to do).

As a result, they combine that ‘small company’ innovative spirit and agility with those ‘big company’ resources and scalability.

 

Note: the original post dates back to the beginning of 2016; it’s been recently published as an article on MyEntrepreneurMagazine.

 

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The entrepreneurial vision: built to last

The entrepreneurial vision: built to last

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“You don’t always need an exit plan – especially with small companies, where life and business are really interwoven,” says Stefano Maifreni, founder of business-expansion consultancy Eggcelerate. “It all depends on what you want to do: do you want to conquer the world, or do you want a decent life with no real dream of being the next ‘unicorn’ [a start-up worth $1bn or more]? It’s perfectly OK to keep running a business for as long as it makes you happy.”

Maifreni agrees that finding your niche is imperative: “Look for something that is not quite grabbing the headlines yet, but is growing,” he says. “Ride on a trend that you will be able to scale.”

He says it’s equally important for founders of ‘lifestyle’ businesses to know that their market will probably be very different in five years’ time to what it looks like today. “You need to be open and to constantly question your business model,” he says. “You need people who can help you, and you’ll also need to be able to delegate as you’ll have less and less time to do the things you did when the business first started.”

Read the full article on Natwest Content Live.

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Why Marketing can be your best friend or your worst enemy

Why Marketing can be your best friend or your worst enemy

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Giving birth to a new product can feel awesome. You’re full of pride as your idea comes to life, passes important tests and gets ready for the big wide world. But your product needs a partner, someone who will help your product to blossom. As a proud parent, you want the best. So when a flashy individual called marketing steps out from the shadows, you might have mixed feelings.

Love it or hate it, marketing is essential. It translates great products into great sales.

But few SMEs have a chief marketing officer. Often, it’s the owner or managing director who decides what approach to take – or maybe it’s the sales manager?

If you’re about to launch a new product, you’ve most likely set aside some funds for marketing. But maybe you’re not sure what to do next, and everyone wants your money. Some may even promise instant results.

It’s wise to be very cautious about what you spend – and how you spend it. Things can go horribly and expensively wrong, and the reputation of both your product and company are on the line.

Here are some helpful principles for getting it right.

Hold yourself back – think strategy first

In some ways, marketing has never been easier. Making announcements on Facebook and Twitter means you can start promoting your new product within seconds of reading this blog. You can send emails to a list of targets in moments. Then there’s pay-per-click, print advertising, trade shows, websites and much more.

No-one likes to curb enthusiasm. But don’t start marketing your product before you’ve developed your strategy and your ‘story’. Without this, you’ll waste budget, get poor results and your stress levels will rocket.

Please read the full article on London Business Matter (page 33). The article was also featured on SME Insider.

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When you only need 48 hours in every day

When you only need 48 hours in every day

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Too much to do, too little time? If that’s the story of your life right now as you run a small business, then you need to make important changes. Changes that may help your sanity, your relationships, and your business’s bottom line.

Does this sound like you?
Owners of small companies often find themselves so engrossed that business becomes all consuming. That’s understandable: It happened to me too. But when this carries on for months, it’s unhealthy.

Time is a limited resource — something we can never get back. If the work / life balance breaks down, that creates a spiral of stress and lack of sleep. This can impact your personal relationships, self-confidence, and business judgement. And any time off is no longer ‘quality time’. Rather, it’s time spent worrying.

If this is happening to you right now, then it’s time to reset the clock — and take back time.

You cannot fix everything in life by following the ground rules I’m about to suggest … but you can bring order to the chaos and make the best use of every hour.

10 ground rules for smarter time management

Rule #1: Take a super-hero reality check
You’re not Superman or Wonder Woman, even if you look great in tights. There’s a limited number of things you can do in one day — even if you get up at 6am and work until 10pm. But crazy hours should be the exception, not the rule. Work regular hours and just accept that sometimes you can’t fit in everything. Get over it!

Rule #2: Focus on your business goals
Have a business plan and keep it up to date. Then translate this into operational objectives for each month. This will help to keep your activities on track while giving you focus and believe that your business is getting somewhere.

Please read the full article on MBA World.

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Are you allergic to consultants?

Are you allergic to consultants?

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The symptoms can creep up on you. There’s a sensation that you’re losing control. Perhaps you’re overcome by a feeling of weariness. And maybe your wallet seems mysteriously lighter. The symptoms can come and go, every few years …

 

Over the years, I’ve worked with many clients that want to achieve and manage growth for their businesses. In most cases, this meant difficult change at some level. But they all managed to go through it and achieve their objectives.

However, all of them loathed the word ‘consultant’.

Why? Well, they had some previous experience with consulting firms that came in and told them what to do. The consultant’s report or presentation was slick and stylish. Then they disappeared, leaving behind a huge bill.

Their recommendations didn’t really work either. But it was easy for the consultants to claim that the execution, not the strategy, was to blame. And therefore, another consulting assignment was needed to fix things!

Does that sounds familiar?

Simply telling small businesses what to do isn’t enough. Neither is coming up with a strategy. You need to be accountable for the execution.

Small businesses don’t require consultants. What they really need are ‘committed experts’.

So how can you identify one? Here are five ways capabilities they will display.

1) They can provide the answers that small businesses need – and put them into effect
Usually, ‘committed experts’ have experience working for major corporations as well as for small businesses. They understand the pressures weighing on business owners and senior decision-makers, whether it’s the daily decisions faced by a small family firm, or a key change to a portfolio of products worth millions of pounds. They know what works and what doesn’t. They put their proposals into action for you.

2) They are multi-skilled. One person is usually enough.
Their skill-set extends across many overlapping areas of business expertise: strategy, marketing, business development, restructuring and funding. Normally, hiring just one person is enough. This means you can make smarter decisions faster, without endless meetings with large groups of people.

3) They are committed
They don’t suddenly appear, make a few general observations and then vanish, leaving you with a large bill. They’re willing to work hand-in-hand with your business at a deeper, employee level. You can trust them. They’re open, honest, knowledgeable, committed and genuinely care about making your company a success. They’ll stay for as long as you need them.

4) When you invest, they’ll help you to get more back
During times of business growth, it’s very easy for companies to waste money on marketing plans, product launches and campaigns that turn out to be flawed. When working for your company, they’ll help you to avoid these approaches and focus only on proven strategies that will deliver the maximum return on investment (ROI).

5) They see the ‘big picture’ and can make success sustainable
Expanding in a profitable way is great news for any company. But it often leads to ‘growing pains’ as the business needs to reshape and re-organise around different objectives, products/services and customers. These experts will enable you to plan ahead, so you can prepare for these extra challenges in advance. This way, you can adapt easily, avoid the pressures of unforeseen consequences and protect the morale of your staff. With their help, you can make your profitability sustainable.

Maybe at this point you’re asking whether these people exist!

They do. But you have to look closely.

For a start, try to spot those who ask questions, rather than giving answers straight away.

That’s a good sign they’re focused on you and solving your problems – rather than making a quick dollar and a fast getaway!

 

This post was also published as an article on SME Insider and on the Great British Entrepreneurs Award website.

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Help! My business partner is from another planet

Help! My business partner is from another planet

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It can feel like that sometimes. When companies are growing fast, pressures can bring personal differences to the surface … surprising things you didn’t realise were there! So what should you expect and how can you deal with it in a professional way?

 

My experience has brought me into contact with a number of start-ups in different capacities (mentor, strategist, product marketer and business developer, to name a few). I’ve also worked at different stages of product development, from the birth of an idea, to testing its commercial viability and then looking for growth capital to bring it to market on a major scale.

Working alongside company founders and CEOs gives you a unique perspective. You’re exposed to the rollercoaster of emotions that inevitably happens when companies are growing rapidly.

The excitement of a start-up or new product can take over. Targets, finances, campaigns, spreadsheets and the regular business issues are vital. But all this activity can mask significant differences.

It’s crucial not to neglect the personal and emotional side of your business – and how the company’s founders feel about how things are going and about each other. After all, will the partnership between partners be strong enough to last the distance?

Let’s explore four key areas where differences can put a strain on working together.

1) Different dreams

What do each of the founders want in 5, 10 or 25 years? Is their vision to change the world or simply to get acquired by a large player and then exit with wads of cash for an easier lifestyle?

It’s important to be on the same page from Day 1. Otherwise, this can lead to conflict and affect the company’s direction in a serious way – for example, when deciding what to do about a future round of financing.

An outside expert can provide a listening ear and work to create a common objective at the outset, giving a strong sense of direction and purpose. This can be kept in review of course.

2) Different geographies

Is it viable to have a co-founder based in a different city or country to most of the other founders? This is linked to the ability to manage expectations.

The people that live and work in the same place (often the same room!) can meet, discuss and decide what to do. This can often be spontaneous. But their remote colleague can feel more and more excluded from the decision-making process – and simply be told what’s been decided already.

It’s as if they have become a ‘virtual’ partner, not a real one. Even with the latest tech, face-to-face communication is always better in this kind of scenario. It’s so easy to misunderstand the tone of an email, isn’t it? Miscommunications can have disruptive effects – eroding trust in a way that may destroy the business.

I’ll be honest, sometimes having a remote partner doesn’t work. But it can succeed with good communications, equal input from everyone and regular calls – not simply unstructured decision-making. Sometimes decisions need to be taken quickly, so the remote partner needs to make themselves easy to contact – or be happy to delegate some decisions. You can’t have it both ways.

3) Different planets!

Often, friends go into business together, which is great! But it can be difficult for everyone to enjoy the same strength of relationship at a serious, professional level.

It’s important to have a structure in place, to define how to make decisions and what to do in case of disagreements. Formulating a shareholders’ agreement at the outset is fundamental. Someone told me once that it’s a document you write when you’re sober – to use when your drunk, and I agree.

Think about what can go wrong and add it to the agreement: if things work you’ll never read it again. But if things become challenging, it’s essential. I know of co-founders having an equal share and no agreement. They were unable to decide if/how to take their start-up to the next level – and lacked the legal ground to unlock this difficult situation either way.

4) Different levels of resilience

If two people always agree, only one is needed; if they always disagree, both are not needed!

Disagreements can drain the life out of people – and your early enthusiasm for the business ebbs away. Companies grind to a halt. So how can you keep going during tougher times?

Even in healthy and active working relationships, sooner or later, you disagree and get to a conflict situation. This is usually amplified by the stress, the workload, the lack of sleep … and ultimately governed by the level of resilience of each person.

It’s here where points 1-3 all come together. But on top, you need a deep respect for each other, enormous patience and an acknowledgement that the skills/roles/experience of each person may be different, so should carry weight accordingly. Sometimes a decision is more to do with the other person’s side of the business. Sometimes you just have to ‘let things go’ on some issues, while the other person does the same on points that matter most to you. It’s give and take, which gives you balance. In many ways, this is the sharp end that may decide the fate of any company.

Conclusion

The points above speak for themselves and are worth considering seriously before going very far with any new start-up business or offshoot operation.

I would strongly urge anyone in this situation to get outside expertise to set a whole range of ground rules – from goals to communications. I know it’s often the last thing of people’s minds – and no-one likes to think of worst-case scenarios during those giddy early days of a new venture.

Getting a sympathetic expert to work alongside everyone to agree some helpful ground rules doesn’t have to be a dry, awkward, clinical experience. It’s a good way of thrashing out important details before politics or other problems raise their ugly heads. You could even decide how partners can exit the business gracefully if they wish (which is to be expected, almost inevitably). Sort these things while everyone is in a good mood and feeling positive. It can actually prove to be a motivating experience too, unlocking ideas and goals.

Ground rules will give everyone that added confidence as you move forwards. Over time, they’ll effectively serve as that grounded and sensible voice in the boardroom – that everyone can call on for impartial guidance.

Without thinking ahead, that first rush of enthusiasm that got your company started could disappear as quickly as it arrived.

 

This post was also published as an article on SME Insider and on the Federation of Small Businesses website.

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