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How do you position your business within a customer problem, and not through product and service features?

Entrepreneurship has many attributes ascribed to it. Passion, creativity, interest in knowledge, adaptability, industriousness, and the list goes on. Over the years, we have developed an entrepreneurial assessment that looks at 14 attributes.

We use it for a number of purposes that can be roughly divided into two camps:

In service of the entrepreneur (your attributes; how they work for you and against you in your everyday life), and in service of building a business (the process of building a business into an asset of value requires particular support structures to achieve the end goal of a successful sale in three, five or even 15 years from today).

We build our business in the image of our personality, with all the attributes impacting on the end result. Being aware of them makes the difference between moving forward and remaining in one place, irrespective of how smart or hard you work. Being aware of them helps prevent self-doubt creeping in where awareness of an unproductive, personality-driven pattern of behaviour should be.

Separate your business from yourself

Andre has an interesting entrepreneurial profile. His attributes are weighted heavily in favour of interest in knowledge, innovation, adaptability and industriousness.

Backed by his technical skill set, these attributes fuel his desire to make his products better. And make more products. However, 16 years on, business growth eludes him.

His business seemed stuck in an annual turnover band of R18 million to R23 million. For the last seven years, the turnover bounced within this range. His furniture was well priced, well made, well designed and very competitive with many wonderful features that, as he explained in detail, set him apart from his competitors.

After further discussion, we agreed to work together to tackle this problem. The market opportunity in the furniture industry is in the billions. Doubling his turnover in two or three years should not be a hard task.

 

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When I asked him why he did what he did, he spoke with excitement about his products. He was elated by the new CNC panel saw that he had recently acquired.

His meticulous nature had seen him break up his production process into neat, well-defined activities making up four business units of design, production, promotion and dispatch. This new investment would increase the efficiency of his operation by 13%, he proudly explained and showed me how the CNC machine would hopefully improve his sales performance.

I was doubtful about the acquisition and also struggled to see the link. He went on to explain that his sales staff could then take the multitude of briefs from clients and translate them quicker than his competitors into quotable, better priced designs. I continued to ask questions about the machine’s necessity.

Service, he said, better service builds trust and confidence in our ability to deliver, he told me with pleading eyes whilst he stood by the CNC machine, resting a hand lovingly on the control panel as if it were his star performer. I could see that Andre was not even that sure about his argument himself!

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Productive allocation of resources

We ran a business diagnostic on his operations. The results were not surprising. His business systems were heavily weighted in favour of the back-office activities of design and production capability. The front-office was very light in sales and marketing.

It was clear that Andre had built his business in the image of his personality, both consciously and unconsciously. He found his greatest meaning in design and production and his thirst for innovation, new product development, industriousness and conscientiousness had resulted in directing all his investment, time and energy into the part of the business that fed his personality attributes.

Immediately we knew where to look and went out to the market. He had a very exciting group of clients. Andre served corporates, big, medium and small business with office furniture. In some cases he secured work from the companies’ CEOs and designed and built furniture for their homes too.

He had a number of independent retailers on his books, some historical sales with a big brand discount retailer and had recently opened up business with a competing retailer group that served the middle market with furniture credit sales. Andre proudly told me how this left him with a well-diversified customer base to counter the risks of an uncertain economy.

Like Andre, many of us have to operate with limited resources. Directing these resources to give us the best result is one of the single biggest challenges we face as business owners. Andre’s ‘spray and pray’ selling strategy was tearing him, his staff and his business apart.

He could never build momentum in any one direction. His sales staff were all over the place and seldom was the same product sold more than three times. His design and machine repurpose costs were consuming the profit he was making and the business started and ended every year as it had started that year. There was no real progress being made.

Market segmentation

One of the first tasks that I set for Andre was to segment his market. This required him to define the multitude of people and businesses that needed furniture.

Once this was done, we organised them into groups with common features. For example, businesses were broken up into corporates, big, medium, and small businesses and small-office-home-offices (SOHO). We further broke them up into regions and type. Some of the types were service businesses, manufacturing business and retail businesses.

Regions located the businesses — provinces and then proximity to Andre’s factory. We indulged ourselves further by organising these businesses into groups that included more features such as ‘care about design or don’t care about design’ and so on.

We landed up with 47 groupings all in all. The next step was to assess the sizes of the groups in market potential. Once done, we combined groups that had 80% similar features and settled on 15 groups of which eight were sizable groups in terms of market potential.

The fight began. Andre wanted to serve six of the eight and include three of the remaining seven since the work would be interesting. I locked the door of the meeting room. At 3am the next morning we had agreed on the single group Andre would focus on. It was to be the SOHO.

With the recession on hand, retrenchments likely and job growth slow, we believed that this would be a growing market. It was already sizable and Andre was getting 37% of current sales from this market. Full of enthusiasm, Andre started to create designs on his pad that he thought this market would love. We produced a ‘research questionnaire template’ for Andre to take to his current customers. It was designed to ask them what design features they wanted.

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Repositioning to achieve focus

What he came back with astounded him. The designs that he had played with three weeks before, after we agreed on the SOHO, were all ripped out of his file and torn up. Back at the drawing board, Andre created final designs that went well beyond furniture features.

They included the method of selling, now that he understood the problems of his SOHO clients. They incorporated annual sales calls to touch up the furniture at no additional cost, giving Andre a long-term relationship from his previous once off sales. It also gave him sight of which SOHO clients were growing; the leap from a SOHO to a medium-sized office for any of his clients was a small one. So too was the design capability that Andre offered and that his factory could deliver.

The designs were also exciting. They gave his clients versatility. A set of three tables could double up as a board room table as well as three separate workstations maximising the use of small spaces. The materials he used gave the furniture a very classy feel, something important to a SOHO entrepreneur who wants to lift his image for clients.

Three and a half years on from our first meeting, Andre’s business is approaching R49 million in annual turnover. He does one thing very well; design, produce, promote and deliver furniture suited to the SOHO market. He is now looking at the early stages of increasing his range to accommodate some SOHO clients moving into medium sized offices.

The lever to get Andre’s business to grow annual turnovers from R20 million to R50 million was largely one thing. He positioned his business to solve the problems of a well-defined customer group.

Checklist

Have you considered the following when choosing your market segment:

  • Separate your market into categories. Now give each category a % of your sales. Who is your biggest segment, and where is there room to grow?
  • If you were to narrow your focus, which segment offers the biggest growth opportunity?
  • Have you created a questionnaire for that segment asking what they want and need from you? You might be surprised by what they say.
  • Based on the above questionnaire, does your product or service offering deliver on these needs?
  • What can you change to meet those needs?
  • What value adds can you offer that will make the lives of your clients easier
Pavlo Phitidis
Pavlo Phitidis is the CEO of Aurik Business Incubator, an organisation that works with entrepreneurs to build their businesses into valuable assets. Pavlo is a regular commentator on entrepreneurship on 702 Talk Radio and 567 Cape Talk Radio. He can be contacted at www.aurik.co.za