It has been said before: the main objective of most businesses is to increase their owners’ wealth. This is true of large corporations as it is true for small businesses. But, small businesses are often owned and operated by people with a specific passion and skill, people who are self-directed, courageous and motivated by more than just profit margins. Small business owners are often people accustomed to shouldering the majority of tasks related to running their businesses. And many owners are not experts in business management; they are experts in their crafts. So accomplishing all the various elements related to running a business can be quite difficult – even overwhelming. For these hard-working individuals, there never seems to be enough hours in the day to get everything done and still have time to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Proposed here are standard business practices that can be employed by small business owners to create as much efficiency and solidity in their businesses as possible, while alleviating some of the management burden. As stated in a previous article, “The Business Side of Healing”, it takes more than one element to ensure the success of a business. What is fundamental to success is the right combination of elements. I call it: the “Rules, Tools and Jewels” approach to business.
Most small businesses are service businesses; and most services are based on scheduled appointments. You probably understand the necessity of scheduling clients. Well, what about all the other tasks of your business? Scheduling is as powerful a management tool for filing, ordering supplies and posting ads as it is for managing clients. As with everything else, don’t wait until the paper stacks are blocking the door or the call-back list is cold or the inventory is depleted before you take action. Create a schedule that includes all of your tasks – including time for yourself to rest and enjoy your life.
Organization is order; order is control; control is safety. The opposite of this is chaos – dangerous to mind, bodies, and businesses. Being organized as a business owner is extremely helpful; it is also rather demanding. Even if a great system is instituted, organization demands constant commitment and effort.
Effective organization means ensuring that everything is in the correct place where it can be retrieved quickly with minimal effort. It is the “bird’s eye” point of view that promotes the idea that investment of effort at the beginning saves twice the effort at the end. Which would you rather do: take 5 minutes to label a folder, organize its contents and file it correctly in the drawer so it can be retrieved within 30 seconds; or spend 20 minutes looking for it in paper piles 6 months later when you urgently need the information? Hmmmm…
This has been discussed by every motivational speaker ad nauseum, so it probably requires little explanation. But, it does bear repeating. If you are providing a service to people, then the quality of that service is your top priority. If you are a business owner, then the profit margin is your priority. And if you are both?
There is no denying the possibility of conflicting priorities in the management of your business. And no one can tell you what your priorities must be; only you can decide. What my advice to you is: consciously re-evaluate your priorities in relation to your professional and personal goals. Document them at least twice a year. Be willing to change your routines and processes in order to support your current priorities. And scrutinize everything in your business under the bright light of these priorities. If you see something wilting under that light, it is time to make a change. When in doubt or when you are overwhelmed, take a second look at your priorities. They are the signposts that you need sometimes to face the crossroads of your journey..
4. Mark Your Boundaries
Establishing boundaries is the progression of scheduling, organization and prioritizing combined. You draw the map from where you are to where you want to be. You add the roadblocks and traffic signals. You design the rest stops and speed limits. And you decide who belongs on your territory and where they can go. As a business owner, you are responsible for this map – for marking the boundaries so that everyone, from family members to office staff to clients, know where they can and cannot go. What do you expect from them? What are you willing or available to do or not do?
It pays to be strategic and map out your boundaries. Communicate them too, before someone crosses over a line you don’t want crossed. If you know when (schedule), what (organize), and why (prioritize) things are supposed to happen, the map will practically draw itself..
Ask a carpenter if tools are important; ask a mechanic. Ask a surgeon. Of course tools are important! They can make all the difference. Well, small business owners need the right tools to manage their companies like a plumber needs his wrench. Some things like “space” and “time” are too obvious to discuss. Some of what is listed here is also quite obvious; but some items may surprise you. Just to hammer in the point…
1. Office Systems and Protocols
This is mostly about organization, setting the processes in place that determine who does what, when, where and how. It isn’t the most popular of tasks, developing the operational procedures for a business. But it is quite helpful if you want to run the business efficiently and smoothly. All businesses should document their systems and protocols, even if they are very simple and brief. These documents, at least, should be on hand:
a. Business Plan – includes mission, goals, strategies, and financial projections
b. Organization Chart – depicts levels of responsibility
c. Operations Manual – procedures for managing and administrating the business
d. Accounting/Bookkeeping System
e. Employee Reference Manual – employee tasks, responsibilities and reporting
f. Marketing Plan – scheduled strategies for promoting business
2. Financial Management Tools
Accurate accounting records, wise purchasing decisions, and strategic planning and investing make a great foundation for managing the financial strength of a business. Invest in a good bookkeeping system (discussed in “6. Software” below), and maintain rigorous control of your businesses purchasing and investing. If finance is not your strong suit, employ the services of someone who understands this element. You may not need a full-time accountant; you may not want the expense of a financial manager. Even if you hire accountants and financial advisors on an hourly basis during periodic intervals (such as the start-up of a business, tax season, and for end-of-the-year compilations), their expertise can be vital to protecting your business.
3. People Management
Not all businesses have staff, some are a one-person operation. But, even if the business does not have support staff, it will interact with others – clients, vendors, marketers, referrals, associations. Knowing how to manage people is an invaluable skill, and it is not as intuitive as one might hope. People management is driven by communication; some people are skilled communicators and some are not. It is highly recommended to all business owners that they become educated on the subjects of business communication and people management. There are many good books on these topics and there are lectures and classes offered constantly at colleges and community centers. Being a good communicator can make the difference between being a good manager that knows how to build loyalty in support staff and get the most out of their abilities, or being a lousy manager that drives staff away and loses potential business (often without understanding why).
Security addresses several things: physical safety for you and your employees, protection of property and materials, insurance and/or bonding for loss recovery, and security of information and finances. These are usual considerations for business, and don’t require in-depth explanation. But, the security of information has become a more complex element in recent times when there is greater access to anyone’s information via networking systems and the internet. All business owners must invest in protection from hackers, computer viruses and other internet related threats. There are independent computer consultants that specialize in offering services onsite to their clients. They can be instrumental in evaluating the security of your systems and protecting your information from unscrupulous individuals.
Yes, this is the boring part. Paperwork is not the most exciting part of running a business. But it is important. Documentation is like the tracks that the train runs on – the train may still move without them, but it won’t get very far. Documenting every aspect of the business is key to its basic organization. The system for creating, using and storing documents does not need to be complicated; it just needs to be utilized. Business owners are often good at documenting receivables and payables, cash flow, and sales volume. But they are not always as diligent when it comes to recording client feedback, employee performance, or effectiveness of promotional activities. My advice to business owners is: if you are not a top notch administrator, hire someone who is to either manage your office (which includes documentation), or set-up your office and documentation in a way that will continue to be efficient throughout the life of the business. Office administration is a skill. If you want to find out the best way to document what is happening with the business, don’t ask the boss. Ask the assistant.
No matter what type of business you are in, chances are that you use a computer to manage your records. Most business documentation and communication is accomplished using computers; so software, the part that makes using computers accessible to everyone, is as crucial a consideration as office location and equipment. Software programs are designed for specific purposes and to answer specific needs. There are programs for managing the day-to-day financial transactions of a business. Quickbooks, Freshbooks, Sage Peachtree Accounting, and Quicken are some of the most popular for small businesses. There are programs for creating documents that consist mostly of text, such as letters, memos, and manuals: MS Word, WordPerfect, Mac iWork; and desktop publishing programs for creating documents that feature both text and graphics and/or photographs such as: Adobe InDesign, QuarkXpress and Apple Pages ’09. There are spreadsheet programs: Microsoft Excel, Lotus, and Office Mac. And there are drawing, graphic design, photo manipulation and other artistic programs such as: CAD, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, GIMP and Inkspace. Finally, there are website design and optimization programs: Dreamweaver, Sharepoint Designer, Web Studio, CoffeeCup, and Mac RapidWeaver.
7. Marketing and Strategic Planning
The most effective part of promoting your business is planning before you promote. Marketing is the activities that you or others do in order to increase awareness and interest in your business. The returns on marketing efforts are sometimes slow to appear, but they accumulate over time and prove to be worth the investment. But, before doing any marketing it is very helpful to look ahead with the company goals in mind, to six months, one year, and five years into the future. Deciding what are the long-term goals of the company as well as what, and who, are the focus of the business, and on what aspect of your business you want to build the company’s reputation are all a part of strategic planning. Marketing efforts are wasted if they are done sporadically, randomly and capriciously.
A small business owner tends to have an intimate relationship with his or her business. What this means is that he or she feels an expanded sense of ownership and, perhaps, pride in the business. It may feel like a part of his or her identity. Sometimes, as with other relationships, this intimacy may be blinding. It can be difficult to objectively evaluate a business when one is “intimately” involved. Employing a marketing consultant, a business coach, or a planning advisor can be very helpful in accomplishing the necessary strategic and promotional efforts for a business. Whether you go it alone or you wisely seek assistance, the strategic planning and marketing of your small business can be what ensures the future of your business.
8. Expert Advice
Getting advice from others who are experts in their field can save a business owner time, money and energy. More importantly, it can save them the repercussions of making devastating mistakes. Typically, at some point during the life of the business, owners will need the counsel of CPAs, lawyers, financial advisors, marketing professionals, and perhaps business advisors or coaches. An investment is necessary to obtain this expert advisement, but it is almost always worth twice the price. Whenever possible, try to obtain referrals for these resources from other business owners who have used their services.
9. Community Support
Building a relationship with the local community can be instrumental to ensuring success, particularly for small businesses. Look for opportunities to get involved with the causes and events of your community. Joining chambers of commerce and professional associations is another way of becoming more visible to your community. You may also wish to join a professional networking group, such as PowerCore or BNI. This is a good way for small business owners and independents to support each other. The point of the matter is, give back in some way to your community and it will give back to you.
There are many ways to generate reminders to stay on track. Business owners are typically very busy people who struggle with where to focus their time and energy. It is easy to miss out on opportunities to promote your business or increase your proficiency because of the day-to-day demands of running your business. Using reminders is one way to overcome the constant distraction of everyday demands.
Keeping written lists in a single notepad or an organizer is one way to manage task lists as well as creative and strategic ideas for future efforts. You may opt to record tasks and ideas on a digital source, such as a PC, laptop, Blackberry, Palm Pilot, iPhone or other digital device. For maximum efficiency, employ printed or digital calendars along with task lists and make sure that referring to them both is a part of your daily routine.There are benefits to using software that includes alarms and reminders when managing business processes and workflow. Many of the accounting, CRM, document management and other related software packages include calendar management functions with built-in reminders. Commonly used software like Outlook and Quickbooks includes reminder options. There are many powerful packages on the market now that incorporate accounting, planning, document control, scheduling, payroll and CRM capabilities into one management program, which simplifies the use of calendars and reminders because all of the company’s data is managed with a relational, single-source method. Whatever technique you choose to manage daily tasks and record strategic ideas and planning, the use of reminders is a valuable tool for optimizing your resources.
The “jewels” of any business are the professionals who prove themselves to be dedicated to supporting the goals, mission and success of the business. These professionals usually do not have a share in the ownership of the business. But their commitment, work ethic and integrity motivate them to give their best efforts to their employer, regardless of whether or not the compensation they receive is generous. These professionals may be full-time technical employees who provide the skilled labor that is the backbone of the business. They may be office support personnel, such as: office managers, administrative assistants, human resource staff, bookkeepers and IT staff. Or, these valuable individuals may be hire-when-needed independents such as attorneys, CPAs, marketing consultants, business coaches, and financial advisors. There is another category of “jewels” as well that includes personal assistants, life or wellness coaches, errand services and family members who are willing to roll up their sleeves and pitch in when necessary.
The point to remember is that “jewels” are precious and rare. Business owners would be wise to seek out, retain, and then treasure these individuals – let them know how valued and appreciated they are. The type of person that exhibits a willingness to “go the extra mile” is one that isn’t usually motivated by monetary reward alone. He or she is probably someone who values relationships more than profits; and the dedication and hard work that he or she provides to the business owner originates in respect for that professional relationship. Many people have a philosophy of “no one is irreplaceable”. That may be true. But when you, as a business owner, lose one of your jewels, you will notice that loss. You may not find another one as brilliant to take her place; and you will miss that shine.
Hopefully, within the practices suggested here, small business owners will find their perfect combination of these elements in a way that will decrease their burdens, and increase their revenues as well as their downtime. Employing the “Rules, Tools and Jewels” approach to business will alleviate some stress for business owners because it provides a roadmap for navigating the rough waters of running a small business in an economy driven by competition. The good news is that the success of small businesses in America contributes to the success of us all.