Building a small business online is scary. Big businesses can easily outspend you with PPC, SEO, SMM and inbound marketing campaigns.
However, smart startup founders grimly pass around business battles on the blogosphere, charging low prices for quality product, reversing their vision, failing to voice their opinion on their podcasts, showing contempt for our product, and disrespect for our craft.
And yet, look around at the World Wide Web jungle. It’s watered by the services offered by small businesses. The technology to produce product and convert customers exists because we create codes, design services, and write web pages, blog posts, and marketing materials that generate leads and close sales. And every 350-pound gorilla company uses our products or services to thrive.
If you’re a small online business owner, you can chicken out and quit when you face your competitor in the marketing arena, or you can choose something better. Because there is something better.
In the time since I began building my content marketing business online, I’ve noticed some mindsets, traits, and abilities that make the difference between businesses that want to accelerate their sales, make a profit, and survive, and businesses that want to sell more and increase their ROI but don’t seem to have the ability to do so.
Based on my observations, here are the seven most important things small businesses need to succeed online.
This might sound too simple, but if you’re a small business owner, you know what I mean.
There’s no substitute for the love you have for your products or services. There’s no substitute for the commitment of showing up every day. There’s no substitute for the excitement of receiving an order or for the burning desire to work extra hours, to reach your prospect, to ship an order, and to make more money.
If you don’t love entrepreneurship, your product or service, and the process of getting things done, none of the rest of this really means anything.
I could have just as easily dreamed of building another Moz, Kissmetrics, or Shopify, but I chose what I loved most. Whichever business idea you dream of, it’s about refusing to do it just for the money. It’s not only about making money; it’s about changing your customer’s life for the better.
If you want to achieve that, you have to dominate your industry. You have to be the go-to person for your products or services. Be super professional at your offerings so that your customers won’t want to leave you for your competitor.
2. Attitude of service
Making money can be a tempting proposition, pursued for the sake of your own interest of becoming rich and dominating the headlines.
However, as soon as the customer clicks to order your product – the vitamin C pills, the Smartphone cover, the SEO or PR services you sell – the product becomes the focus.
Professional founders work with an attitude of serving their customers great value, yes, serving them with beautiful, durable, quality products. They also work to provide excellent customer experiences that exceed their expectations, that gratify rather than aggravate, and that are born out of the genuine attitude of serving the buyer.
Successful consultants, bloggers, and content marketers all live in service to our clients. No matter how stunning or super sexy we may find an idea, if it doesn’t serve our client, out it goes.
Why? Because we have deep love and obsession for our customers.
3. Obsession for the customer
It has always struck me as odd that many of the most serious startup founders pay more attention to selling than to their customers.
It shouldn’t be that way. Customer obsession comes first. It’s like the engine that pumps cash into your corporate account. It comes from your company’s culture, value proposition, mission, and overall vision to change your customer’s world with your product or service.
Serious visionaries are obsessed with their customers. “If you’re truly obsessed about your customers,” Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO says. “It will cover a lot of your other mistakes.”
You can’t just sell your products. You can’t just sell your services. You can’t just advertise your brand.
You need to appeal to your customers first, because they are your buyers. And you can’t see a spike in your revenue unless you’re obsessive about charming them with your brand and building quality products that will ease their lives.
4. Obsession for quality
Many small-business owners imagine that if you have a great business idea and a great vision, you’re qualified to be called an entrepreneur.
Not so fast.
Successful CEOs and entrepreneurs are not just creative; they’re producers of quality products. They understand what type of products to create in the first place, based on the feedback they get from their customers.
They also understand that their products must solve their customers’ pain points. Their products must add value to their customers’ lives and must provide great experiences for them. You can learn more about how to build a solid product by looking at how great companies like Apple, Amazon, and Starbucks did it.
If you are obsessed with quality, you can incorporate what you learn from these companies into your business culture. Beyond your product or service, you can internalise quality packaging, simple usability, prompt responsiveness to customer queries, and even quality, compelling content on your company blog.
Because in today’s digitally driven marketing world, quality blog content is king. It’s crucial for your traffic, sales, and revenue.
5. Compelling content
You may have a brilliant idea. You may have gotten the perfect product/market fit. But, if you don’t devote yourself to the butt-in-chair time needed to produce a significant quantity of compelling content on your company blog, you won’t get where you want to go.
To a great degree, writing compelling content is a skill that can be cultivated. As a small business owner, you can devote some time to practice the art, ingrain writing into your schedule, and write every day to master the craft, or dig deep into freelance marketplaces to find a superb content creator.
Compelling content does more than just amuse your clients. Compelling content can change your life. After writing this viral post on this amazing platform, I received a dozen praises from readers across the globe. I also got a couple of writing gigs.
The blog post went viral not only because the story appealed to its intended audience, but also because the conversational tone and writing style are so engaging and entertaining … the reader feels compelled to share it.
Writing compelling posts has nothing to do with your degree, your experience, or whether or not you’re a native English speaker. It’s about how you make readers feel. That’s why every writer – just like every entrepreneur – must be creative, imaginative, and innovative.
Innovation is critical for your business growth for a number of reasons.
First, innovation develops customer value. Your customers are always in need of a product that will ease their lives, and once they get it, they move on to something else – something easier, newer, or simpler. As Steve Jobs put it, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them,” the Apple founder opined. “By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”
Second, innovation is vital for your traffic, sales, and revenue. New ideas, new products, and new stories are what always get the most attention. “The arrogance of success,” according to William Pollard, “is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”
Third, innovation-active businesses are more productive and generate more jobs than non-innovation-active businesses, according to a recent data by Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
But, building new products from your new ideas is risky. There’s a good chance that you’ll fail. Still, you must do it. You must double up on your experimentation. Bezos says, “If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your inventiveness.”
You’ll see wonders if you consistently innovate.
One of the tough things about growing a startup is that the path you walk is one you make yourself.
There’s no one to tell you how you should work, no one to tell you which direction to go, no one to tell you when to go for a break, no one to tell you when to work extra hours, and no one to tell you when to say no and when you need to be where.
That’s one of the fantastic things about running your own business. But, sometimes Fantastic is also Difficult. You might open your e-commerce shop today, work for an hour, check your email, and retreat for the day.
But, can you come back to do exactly the same thing tomorrow? Can you do it again the day after tomorrow, and again the day after that, and again, and again? Consistently?
That’s the difficult part. And that’s where many entrepreneurs are getting it all wrong. Building a thriving business is not about working for extra hours today and not working the next day.
It’s about doing the work that matters consistently. It’s about showing up every day. It’s about minimalism, not complexity.
So roll up your sleeves and keep working. “For the future,” as Paul Wellstone puts it, “belongs to those who are passionate and work hard.”
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
The Rising Cost Of Small Business
Many of the hidden costs that tend to surprise small business owners are related to the employment of people. However, the silver lining is that there are ways to mitigate the risks associated with scaling a business and several tools available to streamline HR processes.
A small business starts with a visionary dream fueled by energy and grit. Founders build on that and attract a small team of people who can help breathe life into the business. But not very long after setting out on course, the harsh realisation of rising costs like insurance, permits, licenses, equipment, maintenance, taxes, shrinkage and utilities suddenly appear.
Poor Labour Relations Management
Extensive labour laws in South Africa require dedicated overseeing and management, which generally lead to additional costs of employing labour consultants or hiring human resources managers that are not entirely relate to the core of your business. However, left unattended, labour relations issues can and will shut down your shop.
Labour relations issues cost South African companies R14 billion annually. Many companies have costly compensation orders from the CCMA due to Line Managers and HR employees not complying with legislation regarding disciplinary matters.
A surprising statistic from SEFA suggested that of the small businesses that fail, 40% of them can be attributed to poor labour relations management, therefore managing disciplinary processes by the book is critical. There are useful templates as well as step by step guides available online to help managers through disciplinary processes and to avoid incurring penalties from the CCMA.
By law employees are entitled to at least 15 working days’ vacation leave in every leave cycle. Employers could face substantial penalties from the Department of Labour if they do not allow employees to take leave. Planning for peak and off peak periods in businesses is a critical part of drafting job specs and these conditions must be communicated to staff early on.
The cost of poor leave management will contribute to the company’s leave liability i.e. the amount of leave an employee is owed is noted as a liability in the general ledger. Annual leave that employees do not take is a hidden expense for a business that if left unattended, will accrue and create cash flow problems for the business.
Employers are advised to make use of a leave management tool that enables both the employer as well as their employees to keep track of leave days owed to employees and brings some automation in to the process.
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act ensures that all employees are “entitled” to a minimum of 30 days (for a 5 day workweek) and 36 days (for a 6 day workweek) paid sick leave.
According to Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA), absenteeism costs the South African economy around R12 -R16 billion per year. This equates to around 15% of employees being absent on any given day. The answer isn’t to go on a witch hunt throwing policy at employees and demanding doctor’s notes for even a few hours off work (employers are not allowed to breach medical confidentiality by requesting a diagnosis on a sick leave note).
Alternatively, employers can be proactive in managing absenteeism by monitoring leave reports monthly and quarterly taking regular health interventions (e.g. flu shots) before a peak sick leave season e.g. before winter. Maintaining a positive work environment where employees feel acknowledged and are encouraged to perform goes a long way in keep workers present and absenteeism on the low.
Is Unmanaged Stress Killing Off Our SMMEs?
Most SMMEs don’t make it past their first year. This is worrying for an economy in which SMMEs are a vital part of growth. A range of reasons are given for what is stifling these businesses, from financing to access to markets, but one factor has been completely overlooked: Stress.
It is now widely understood that Small Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) are key to a country’s economic- and employment growth, but something is amiss in South Africa. Our SMMEs are just not doing what they should and understanding why this is – and fixing it – will be critical to the future success and sustainability of the economy.
The common conversations around SMME failure rates point at six main culprits: (1) access to funding, (2) access to markets, (3) infrastructure challenges, (4) scalability, (5) tough regulations, and (6) skills/education. The problem is that we have known about these for years, and for all the efforts to address them, we are unfortunately not seeing the growth in the sector that is needed.
A recent survey by the Small Business Institute (SBI) and the Small Business Project (SBP) put the number of formal SMMEs in South Africa currently at just 250,000. These numbers are alarmingly low – especially when compared with international benchmarks. SMMEs in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, make up 95% of businesses, and employ between 60%–70% of the working population, contributing up to 60% to GDP. In South Africa, while SMMEs make up 98% of the business population, they only employ 28% of the nation’s workforce, according to Chris Darroll, CEO of the SBP.
And yet the government continues to pin its hopes on the SMME sector. Initiatives like the DTI’s Invest SA and the South African Investment Conference this October, that claims to have attracted billions in foreign investment to the country, have foregrounded the role of SMMEs in economic revival. And the Government’s National Development Plan aims to have SMMEs contributing 90% of job growth by 2030. It is likely that more money will be channelled into support for the sector, to join the billions that have already been spent on incubators and initiatives to help small businesses.
This is a good thing, but it is not enough. The numbers speak for themselves. To date, none of these initiatives has borne much fruit and this signals that we may be overlooking something fundamental. Our collaborative research at the UCT Graduate School of Business suggests that what is being overlooked is something that most of us find difficult to define, or even talk about: Stress.
Stress is under-acknowledged by most people, personally and professionally, and for varied reasons. And this can have devastating effects. If ignored in business, the human devastation is likely to have larger scale effects on job loss, workforce disengagement, health-related days off, impaired teamwork, sub-optimal decision-making, lowering of productivity, and ultimately fuelling a declining economy.
While access to finance and markets, infrastructure and scalability challenges, tough regulations, and not enough educated and skilled employees are all valid hurdles tripping up SMMEs, the fact is that they are perfectly normal hurdles to have in a competitive, emerging economy. Our research reveals that good leaders, who are able to get their businesses over each encountered hurdle, are also able to manage their personal negative stress and harness their positive stress.
Stress can, generally, be quite motivating, however it is generally accepted that there are three kinds of stress: (1) positive stress, which is chosen and does not last very long (like writing an exam), (2) tolerable stress, which is unexpected and lasts a little longer, but then stops and there is time to process, and (3) toxic stress or distress. Toxic stress is tolerable stress left to run on and on without end, without rest and without time for healing and processing. It is this third and debilitating kind of stress that business leaders are likely to experience, and in SMMEs it can be even more severe.
Our research suggests that SMME owners tend to set very high, and often lofty, goals for themselves when setting up their SMMEs. And then they are constantly feeling stretched in either striving for these goals or ‘maintaining the course’. This can mean maintaining good business results, maintaining the customer base, where often 20% of the customer base accounts for 80% of the revenue, maintaining employment levels in changing political and economic conditions, maintaining pricing when squeezed for ever-lower prices while delivering good quality products and services, having their integrity challenged, and dealing with clients/customers who are not averse to replacing their products/services.
Another cause of stress for SMME business owners is that they mostly have internal loci of control, meaning that they take personal responsibility for outcomes and results and therefore blame themselves for every failure, and find it difficult to forgive themselves for deviations from intended results. In addition, an innate sense of accountability to their staff and their staffs’ families reportedly weighs heavily on business owners. Many feel similar accountability toward the broader stakeholder groups that their businesses serve.
All of these factors, which many argue are innate to the nature of business, place undue, long-term pressure (toxic stress/distress) on the cognitive, emotional, psychological and spiritual resources of individual business owners. This reportedly leads to drops in productive activity and motivation, withdrawal from relationships both personal and professional, low energy, impaired decision-making and ill health. And it also destroys resilience – leaving business leaders unable to ‘bounce back’ from personal- or business-setbacks, which is part and parcel of life and business. With a debilitated leader, the business is almost always likely to suffer, on a day-to-day basis and also in the long run. Like a virus, stress transfers to others.
An SMME’s success is inextricably linked to having an effective leader. And effective leadership is inextricably linked to effective stress management and self-care. It stands to reason, therefore, that improving the way SMME business owners manage their stress and boundaries could have a significant impact on improving business survival rates.
Along with offering business advice, funding incubators, opening up markets, attracting foreign investors, educating consumers, subsidising and improving infrastructure, the government should be looking at ways to encourage stress management and self-care into the daily operations of small to medium-sized businesses.
We need to get business owners educated about stress and self-care: about how exercise, sleep, diet, meditation, life-balance, self-forgiveness, and other-forgiveness affect them, their staff and their businesses. Effective self-care, of which stress management is a part, will enable business owners to courageously stay resilient in the ongoing stressful situations they will naturally encounter. This may, in turn, help to turn the tide in South Africa’s SMME sector so that it can drive the country’s economic revival like everyone hopes it will.
Many SMEs Start With Great Plans But Fail To Take The Big Leap
Most small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are aware of the benefits of good governance practice but, faced with limited time and resources, which could be costly in supporting growth ambitions.
- 27% of SMEs don’t have a vision that covers more than the next 12 months
- 45% of SMEs either don’t have a strategy, or one which covers only the next 12 months or less.
The latest global research, inclusive of Africa in supporting small business growth from ACCA, outlines the governance needs of SMEs. It highlights simple but effective practice over vision, strategy and human capital can provide them with greater flexibility, adaptability and resilience as they grow. This a huge factor in the long-term sustainability of the business, if put in practise.
“If you incorporate good practice for running your business from an early stage, your company is more likely to be resilient and is more likely to appeal to external investment,” explains Jo Iwasaki, head of corporate governance at ACCA. It is about leadership directing the company and being aware of factors both within and beyond their enterprise and build resilient organisations in the face pf the changing world.
The research also found that half (49%) of SMEs do not involve anyone external in their strategy discussions, despite the benefits experienced by those that do, which include additional experience and knowledge of the industry/sector (according to 46%), an independent perspective / constructive criticism (44%) and advice on their growth strategy (39%).
“There are a lot of daily concerns for the leaders of a small business, and often the biggest challenge is meeting day-to-day operations and cash management needs while thinking about the long-term future of the company. And while many leaders are keenly aware of the importance of resilience in the rapidly changing business environment and of buy-in from stakeholders, for example funders and employees, there often may not be the time to think or do much about it,” added Iwasaki.
“I hope that this research helps SMEs in focusing on some of the most crucial issues, and can be a resource not just to SMEs themselves but also to policymakers,” concluded Iwasaki.
How vision and strategy helps small business succeed is available at ACCA Global.