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Spark Schools: Adapting At The Speed Of Scale

SPARK Schools is a disruptive educational business model that has garnered so much investor interest, its founder, Stacey Brewer, has secured R200 million in funding. Here’s how she’s turning a traditional, entrenched industry on its head to solve real problems and bring about systemic change.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Stacey Brewer
  • Co-founder: Ryan Harrison
  • Company: SPARK Schools
  • No of schools in network: 15
  • 2019 goal: ± 12 000 students and 20 schools
  • Est: 2013
  • Visit: www.sparkschools.co.za

In 2012, Stacey Brewer raised R4,5 million in her first round of funding. It gave her an 18-month runway to focus on launching her low-fee private school model, SPARK Schools. This was followed by R28 million from an international fund, the Pearson Group’s Affordable Learning Fund. The business’s most recent round of funding was a Series B round that raised R150 million in 2016, taking SPARK’s overall funding to R200 million.

“We’ve committed to having 20 schools by 2019, which will enable us to educate 12 000 children,” says Stacey. “Our investors still expect a 10X return, but it’s ‘patient’ capital, designed to support impactful business models. Educational companies are highly valued. They provide a good annuity income, but investors also love what we do because we’re focused on achieving systemic change, and funds are looking for that. More and more, funding mandates are focused on the greater good.

“This is still a business though. One school is not a business — you can’t scale it, and so there’s no growth opportunity. If you can build a network of schools however, you can benefit from economies of scale.”

Here’s how Stacey and her team are turning the traditional education model on its head, and in so doing, are providing value for children, parents and their funders alike.

If that’s how it’s always been done, it’s time to do things differently

spark-schools-growthAs a low-cost private school, SPARK aims to make a quality private school education accessible to parents who cannot afford traditional private school fees. What Stacey and her team soon learnt however, is that everyone is looking for quality, irrespective of social and economic status.

“When we started, we thought our price would be a huge selling point. We soon realised it actually switched people off. There was an assumption that you get what you pay for, and that low fees mean a poor-quality education,” says Stacey. “South Africa is very aspirational, and people want the best for their children.

Related: 4 Leadership Lessons You Won’t Learn In Business School

“We needed to reposition what we were doing and focus on the fact that our schools have a modern, aspirational look and feel, and that we deliver a quality education. Once we had driven those points home, we could discuss price. Now that we’re becoming known and our kids are our ambassadors, this is a different story, but it was very important when we launched.

“Parents vote with their feet — just being cheap isn’t enough. We’ve received the investment we have because we’ve developed a model that’s both affordable and can compete internationally.”

A full year’s tuition at SPARK for 2018 is R21 000. How do you provide a quality educational experience at a fraction of the traditional price? To start with, you need to embrace a disruptive mindset.

Stacey says ‘no’ to doing anything the traditional way, as this will immediately drive up the school’s price point, and the business will lose its ‘why’.

So, what’s the solution? “You need to embrace your constraints. It takes a special person to be involved in our team. We need individuals with a high level of accountability, and who can focus on being lean and agile. But it’s amazing what we come up with when we’re forced to think out the box. Raising our fees is the easy answer, and once you go that route it doesn’t stop. Instead, we need to be excited by the opportunity to come up with solutions given the constraints we’re faced with.

“If I hear the words ‘because this is how we’ve always done it’ or ‘that’s how it works’, I immediately know I have to change it. Too much is done simply because it’s always been done that way. If you want to change an industry, you need to find completely new solutions to the same problems.”

The big idea

Let’s take a step back to how the idea for SPARK Schools originated. Stacey was studying an MBA in Entrepreneurship at GIBS (the Gordon Institute of Business Science). During her economics lectures she discovered that although a high percentage of South Africa’s budget is allocated to education, South Africa still ranks amongst the worst education systems in the world. “I wanted to understand what was going wrong, and to research what the solution could be,” she says.

Stacey wasn’t planning on launching a new and disruptive education model, but she did need a theme for her thesis, and she wanted to address a real problem.

“I believe that all entrepreneurs should be advancing the human race. We need to question what we’re doing to change society. What problem are you solving? How are you making the world a better place? How are you making it more sustainable?

“This view meant I gravitated towards one of the biggest problems I believe we face as our country. One of my professors agreed. She liked the thesis topic, and advised me to start networking in that space. I needed to get on the map and speak to other like-minded people who were interested in education.”

Stacey took her professor’s advice, and started networking. “This was how I met our first angel investor, David Gibb, who was on sabbatical after resigning from his position as head of research at STANLIB. At the time I had no plans to start this business, which meant funding wasn’t even a thought, but I found a very supportive mentor who is very passionate about business and education.

“Dave and I had incredible discussions around the problem, and what the solution needed to take into account. I still had no concrete ideas of actually launching a school, but I was on a path that clearly showed we needed to create something completely new. Tweaking the current model wouldn’t be enough.

“The MBA and my thesis also forced me to take a deep dive into my research. I’m not sure start-ups always do this, and certainly not to the level I took it. But it’s been a very important success factor for us. The research I conducted while completing my thesis has allowed us to position ourselves very well within our market. More importantly, it helped us get from ‘what?’ to ‘how?’”

Related: Why You Need A Million-Dollar Pitch Before Your Start a Business

Thanks to Dave and Stacey’s own tenacity, she was also developing a strong network in the educational space. “Dave introduced me to the blended learning model in the US. He then offered to fund a trip overseas so that we could evaluate if the tech the blended learning model is based on would be feasible in South Africa.”

It was at this stage that Stacey asked Ryan Harrison, a tech-savvy friend from university, to join her on the trip. “I understood the educational landscape, but not the tech — I asked Ryan to join me so that he could evaluate whether or not it suited our local conditions.”

Stacey and Ryan returned to South Africa, and she knew this wasn’t just an idea or a thesis anymore. “I knew I was going to open a school. Ryan was also excited by the concept and wanted to join me. Our trip introduced us to Rocketship Public Schools, who have pioneered blended learning in the US. They were very open to us, and shared everything they’re doing. This feeds back to purpose — they want to change education and solve a real need, and they’re supportive of anyone who shares that passion. Two of their staff came and joined us when we launched, and one is still with us today.”

The lesson: Stacey didn’t start out thinking she wanted to launch a business and trying to figure out what that would be. Instead, she found something she was passionate about — something she knew was broken and needed real, innovative solutions to fix. That passion led her down a path where she learnt as much as possible about the topic, met other passionate people with ideas and solutions to share, and finally developed a model that would help her solve a societal need and drive systemic change.

Matching problems with solutions

spark-schools-logoOnce Stacey and her co-founder Ryan had their big idea, they needed to launch. A school (or more specifically a network of schools) requires capital. You can’t bootstrap a school. This is one more reason why you need an idea that will drive real change (and returns) — something investors are increasingly looking for.

“David Gibb gave us some seed funding and bridged the gap to find formal investment, and GIBS introduced us to a network of angel investors. This was how we raised our first round of funding of R4,5 million to launch our first school.”

Interestingly, raising funding isn’t just about pitching your business to investors — it’s also a dialogue between the entrepreneurs and their investors. At the end of the day, it’s in everyone’s best interests for the business to do well.

“At that stage, we were looking at buying or building a school,” says Stacey. “Our investors disagreed. Their advice was that we prove the model instead of focusing on property. We needed to focus all of our attention on the problem at hand. What makes education expensive?”

The basic premise of all innovation and disruption is starting with the problem. If you can clearly define the problem, the solution will often start to present itself.

In the case of education, particularly providing low-income earners quality but affordable education, the problem is cost. “Infrastructure and salaries are the two biggest costs. To bring down fees, you need fewer teachers and smaller spaces. You also need to achieve both while improving quality. That’s the benchmark. Once we knew that, we just needed to figure out how to do it.”

An added element was the investment component. Funders are interested in businesses that can scale. As we’ve already mentioned, one school is not a business. But a network of schools is. Once you have a network, you can leverage economies of scale, which is when investors start seeing their returns.

“Once we were introduced to the blended learning model, we realised it was exactly what we were looking for. The traditional model doesn’t support low fee solutions. We needed a different solution. I did not want to rely on donor funding.

“NGOs become too dependent on donors and end up struggling over time. They’re also constantly needing to raise cash. I want SPARK to live far beyond me. If we built it properly from the beginning, with decent margins and a sustainable price point, we knew we’d get investors on board — particularly because so many funds are now interested in creating systemic change as well.

“We quickly realised blended learning was the solution we were looking for. It’s a model that drives cost efficiencies by focusing on the utilisation of assets. It’s also data rich, which drives quality. Most importantly, it can be scaled.

“At first, we were fast followers, now we’re evolving into leaders in this space. Our delivery of quality at our price point is one of the best in the world. We never, ever throw cash at a problem. Instead, we rethink and redo the system — that’s where we know we’ll find the solutions we need.”

The lesson: Start with the right problem and you will find a solution. If you aren’t clear on the problem though, you’ll be working around it, either following existing solutions or making assumptions about what people need. You need to dig into the detail. The problems that really need solving are often complex, so learn to interrogate things from every angle.

Forget IQ and EQ, what you need is AQ

Stacey is a firm believer that the success of SPARK is rooted in her team’s AQ, or Adaptability Quotient. “We’ve gathered a team of smart thinkers who are able to adapt quickly to new challenges, based on the ingrained idea that the old solutions won’t work. The problem is that you’re unlikely to be adaptable if you don’t also have passion.

“The name for our schools comes from William Yates, who said that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. It’s about igniting passion, and we needed that same passion to really start solving our education crisis. We want to spark a change across the country.

“I bring passion, and my team has passion and common purpose — when you have these ingredients, you figure things out,” says Stacey. “When you’re constrained, both in terms of cash and human capital, you need to be smart. We call it ‘frugal’ innovation. If you don’t throw people or cash at a problem, you really find solutions. You can also seldom cut back costings once they are there. I love a constrained environment — I see it as an opportunity.

“We had one major advantage: We didn’t have an education background, which meant we questioned everything. More importantly, it means we’re not precious about anything. We’re willing to try new things to see if they work, and if they achieve our objectives. I’ve learnt that too often, people don’t even know why they do things — they just do them because that’s the way it’s always been done.

“Infrastructure and salaries are the two highest costs we need to solve. We’ve combined two blended learning models to address this. The first is lab rotation. From Grade R, our students are in and out of learning labs. Our teachers introduce a concept in the classroom, and then the students rotate to a learning lab, where they practically work through problems related to the concept on computers. Data is gathered during these sessions and addressed. Our teachers see multiple students based on this rotation. The learning labs are run by facilitators, not teachers. At full capacity it’s a highly operational schedule, and our students are always in small, flexible groups of four to six children. Our staff cover multiple classes and are experts within specific areas.”

The lesson: What skills and attributes does your organisation need most? This may change as you start scaling, but in order to know who you need in which positions, you need to understand your organisation.


KEY INSIGHTS

Don’t do what’s always been done                       

Following an accepted industry or business practice will only help you achieve more of the same. If you really want to radically improve your business, a sector or the lives of your customers, you need to question everything.

Start with the problem                     

If you can’t clearly define your problem, you’ll never come up with a solution that suits your target market.

What’s your AQ, or adaptability quotient?                       

Forget IQ and EQ — businesses that are looking to scale need to be highly adaptable.

Scale fast, but learn faster

You’d think that finding a model that solves the cost versus output problem South Africa’s education system currently faces would have been Stacey’s biggest challenge. It wasn’t.

“Our biggest challenge has been scale. We’ve doubled our network of staff and kids every year since we launched our first school in 2013. In 2017 we had 4 000 students and 450 staff. This year we are educating 7 000 kids with a staff of over 700.

“We understood 4 000 kids, but towards the end of last year we needed to seriously consider what 7 000 kids would look like. You have to think about it before you get there. What does 20 000 kids look like? You’re going from a village to a city. There are changes, and you need processes and systems to cope.

“I personally need to grow faster than the organisation. I need to reinvent myself and my role every six months and stay ahead of everyone else. It’s imperative that leaders of organisations are self-aware and willing to improve themselves.

“I have mentors and coaches. I’ve built a network of people that I can reach out to when I have questions or challenges. I love feedback, and I’m always asking ‘what’s next?’ What does the company need from me? Today I’m less operational and more focused on strategy. What are we doing? How do we start leading our industry? Are we engaging other stakeholders?

“These aren’t only local questions. What are people doing and thinking globally? We can’t solve this by ourselves. We need other people to open schools, to offer more choice for families. People vote with their feet, and that’s good for business. I’m all for competition. The people who benefit from healthy competition in this sector are the families and their children, because it puts the power in the family’s hands in terms of choice and accountability. The problem is also so big, there’s room for multiple players.”

A big part of Stacey and SPARK’s success is the team she’s built around her. This frees her up to focus on strategy, but it also gives the business a growth foundation.

“Hiring the right people for their specific roles has been essential for us. You need to understand your organisation and its needs to get this right. At head office, we need two different types of people: Those who can build and improve schools, and those who can focus on operations and structure.

“Scale is tough on people. Things break when you’re scaling, and you want them to break quickly so that you can fix them. If you’re too slow you’ll actually miss stuff, but it takes a very specific type of person who can operate at that pace.”

The lesson: Organisations that are in scale-up mode are changing quickly. Does your team have the tools and skills they need to handle that change? Do you support them? Does everyone understand why changes need to happen quickly so that you can solve problems sooner rather than later?

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Lessons Learnt

Scaleup Learnings From Our Top Clients – What The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Do Right

So, how do our successful clients move through these constraints to scaling up? We see four key drivers of success, and they are: people, strategy, flawless execution and finance.

Louw Barnardt

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You’re out of your start-up boots, staff is increasing, your client base is growing, revenue is up and you’ve proven your case to the market. Now it’s time to scale up. The challenges of this vital growth phase are different and it’s a time that demands different mindsets and different actions. In a world littered with small business failures, it helps to be well-prepared for scaling up using a proven methodology. At Outsourced CFO, we get an inside look at the success factors of our clients who are mastering the transition.

On the one hand, scaling up is a really exciting phase; this is what moves you into real job creation and making an impactful contribution to economic growth. On the other hand, it is really hard to scale up successfully. We see three major constraints that limit companies’ transition from start-up to scale-up:

Leadership

The business has to have the leadership that can take it to the next level. When you start scaling up, especially rapidly, the founders can no longer do everything themselves. The team must grow and include new leadership talent that can take charge and execute so that the founders are working on the business instead of in the business.

Infrastructure

The processes, procedures, networks, systems and workflows of the business all need to be scalable. This is imperative when it comes to your infrastructure for the financial management of your business. You’re only ready for growth when your infrastructure can seamlessly keep pace.

Market access

Scaling up demands more innovative marketing and storytelling so that you can more easily connect and engage with the new employees, clients, network partners, investors and mentors that need to come along with you on your scale-up journey.

Businesses that build a market conversation and a compelling brand narrative during their start-up phase are better positioned to have this kind of market access when they need to scale up.

People

It is critical to have the right people on your team. Our successful entrepreneurs have what it takes to attract, inspire and retain top talent. A strong team of smart, ambitious and purpose-driven people who love the company and want to see it succeed contribute greatly to a world class company culture. They are adept at communicating a compelling vision and establishing core values that people can take on. These entrepreneurs are tuned into the aspirations of their people and focus on developing leaders in their teams who can in turn develop more leaders.

Strategy

It is planning that ensures that the right things are happening at the right times. At successful scale-ups strategies and action plans are devised to ensure that the most important thing always remains the most important thing.

Strategy includes input from all team members and setting of good priorities for the short, medium and long term. Goals are clear and everyone always knows what they are working towards. The needle is continuously moved because 90-day action plans are implemented each quarter to achieve targets and goals that are over and above people doing their daily jobs.

Flawless execution

Top entrepreneurs are not just focused on what operations need to achieve, but how the business operates. They have the right procedures, processes and tools in place so that everyone can deliver along the line on the company’s brand promise. Frequent, quick successive meetings ensure the rapid flow of effective communication. Problems are solved without drama. There is no chaos in the office environment. Everyone is empowered to execute flawlessly to an array of consistently happy clients.

Finance

Everyone knows that growth burns cash. A rapidly scaling business faces the challenge of needing a scalable financial infrastructure to keep the company healthy. Our successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to finance as the heartbeat of the business, ensuring that everything else functions. They look at the tech they are using for financial management and for the ways that their financial systems can be automated so that they can be brought rapidly to scale. The capital to grow is another vital finance issue.

The best way to finance a business is through paying clients on the shortest possible cash flow cycle. However, when you are scaling up and making heavier investments in the resources you need for growth, it is likely that you will need a workable plan for raising capital. Our scale-up clients know the value of accessing innovative financial management that provides high level services to drive their business growth.

Navigating the scale-up journey of a growing private company is one of the hardest but most rewarding of careers to pursue. Having people in your corner who have been through this journey before helps take a lot of pain out of the process. No growth journey looks the same, but there are tried and tested methods that will – if applied diligently – lead to definite success. Happy scaling!

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Lessons Learnt

That Time Jeff Bezos Was The Stupidest Person In The Room

Everyone can benefit from simple advice, no matter who they are.

Gene Marks

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When you think of Jeff Bezos, a lot of things probably come to your mind.

You likely think of Amazon.com, a company he founded more than twenty years ago, that’s completely disrupted retail and online commerce as we know it. You probably also think of his entrepreneurial genius. Or the immense wealth that he’s built for himself and others. You may also think of drones, Alexa and same-day delivery. Bezos is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a cutthroat competitor and a game changer. He’s unquestionably a very, very smart man. But sometimes, he can be…well…stupid, too.

Like that time back in 1995.

That was when Amazon was just a startup operating from a 2,000 square foot basement in Seattle. During that period, Bezos and most of the handful of employees working for him had other day jobs. They gathered in the office after hours to print and pack up the orders that their fast-growing bookselling site was receiving each day from around the world. It was tough, grueling work.

The company at the time, according to a speech Bezos gave, had no real organisation or distribution. Worse yet, the process of filling orders was physically demanding.

“We were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor,” Bezos recalled. “I said to the person next to me ‘this packing is killing me! My back hurts, it’s killing my knees’ and the person said ‘yeah, I know what you mean.'”

Related: Jeff Bezos: 9 Remarkable Choices That Shaped The Richest Man In The World

Bezos, our hero, the entrepreneurial genius, the CEO of a now 600,000-employee company that’s worth around a trillion dollars and one of the richest men in the world today then came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. “You know what we need,” he said to the employee as they packed boxes together. “What we need is…kneepads!”

The employee (Nicholas Lovejoy, who worked at Amazon for three years before founding his own philanthropic organisation financed by the millions he made from the company’s stock) looked at Bezos like he was — in Bezos’ words — the “stupidest guy in the room.”

“What we need, Jeff,” Lovejoy said, “are a few packing tables.” Duh.

So the next day Bezos – after acknowledging Lovejoy’s brilliance – bought a few inexpensive packing tables. The result? An almost immediate doubling in productivity. In his speech, Bezos said that the story is just one of many examples how Amazon built its customer-centered service culture from the company’s very early days. Perhaps that’s true. Then again, it could mean something else.

It could mean that sometimes, just sometimes, those successful, smart, wealthy and powerful people may not be as brilliant as you may think. Nor do they always have the right answers. Sometimes, just sometimes, they may actually be the stupidest guy in the room. So keep that in mind the next time you’re doing business with an intimidating customer, supplier or partner who appears to know it all. You might be the one with the brilliant idea.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

How Sureswipe Built Its Identity By Building A Strong Company Culture

Culture is unique to a business, it’s the reason why companies win or lose.

Nadine Todd

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A company’s culture is its identity and personality. Since this is closely linked to its brand and how it wants to be viewed by its employees, customers, competitors and the outside world, culture is critical. The challenge is understanding that culture contains unwritten rules and that certain behaviours that align to the culture the company is nurturing should be valued and cherished more than others.

At Sureswipe, the core of our culture is that we value people and what they are capable of. We particularly value people who are engaged, get on with the job, take initiative, are happy to get stuck in beyond their formal job descriptions, and who sometimes have to suck up a bit of pain to get through a challenge.

We include culture in everything we do, so it’s a fundamental element in our recruitment process. In addition to a skills and experience interview, each candidate undergoes a culture fit in the form of a values interview. We look for top performers who echo our core values (collaboration, courage, taking initiative, fairness and personal responsibility) and have real conviction about making a difference in the lives of independent retailers. If we don’t believe a candidate will be a culture fit, we won’t hire them.

If we make a mistake in the recruitment process, we won’t retain culture killers, even if they are top performers. This is such a tough lesson to learn, but it liberates a company and often improves overall company performance.

Culture should be cultivated, constantly communicated and used when making decisions. At Sureswipe, we often talk about what it takes to win and have simplified winning into three key elements: A simple, yet inspirational vision; the right culture; and a clear and focused strategy. The first and third elements can be copied from organisation to organisation. Culture on the other hand is unique to every business and can be a great influencer in its success.

Catch phrases on the wall are not the definition of culture

A strong culture is purposeful and evolving. It’s what makes a company great, but also exposes its weakness. No company is perfect and it’s important to acknowledge the good and the bad. Without it, we cannot ensure that we are protecting and building on the good and reducing or eradicating the bad.

Mistakes happen. That’s okay. But we are very purposeful about how mistakes are handled. Culturally we’re allergic to things being covered up or deflected and have had great learning moments as individuals and as an organisation when bad news travels fast. It’s liberating to ‘tell it like it is’ and almost always, with a few more minds on the problem at hand, things can be rectified with minimal impact.

Related: Starbucks Coffee Is All About Culture… For A Reason

Culture should be built on values that resonate with you and that you want to excel at. In our case, some are lived daily and others are aspirational in that we’re still striving for them. In each case we genuinely believe in them and encourage each other to keep living them. This increases the level of trust within the team, as there is consistency in how people are treated and how we get things done.

We are always inspired when, after sitting in our reception area, nine out of ten visitors will comment on the friendliness of staff. We hear their remarks about how friendly the Sureswipe team is or a potential candidate will talk about the high level of energy and positivity they experience throughout the interview process.

These are indicators that our culture is alive and well. It’s these components of our culture — friendliness, helpfulness and positivity — that cascade into how we do business and how we treat our customers and people in general. Being able to describe your culture and support it with real life examples is a great way to communicate and promote the type of behaviour that is important and recognised within the organisation.

Culture doesn’t just happen

We are fortunate that culture has always been important to us, even if it wasn’t clearly defined in our early days. As we grew it became important to be more purposeful in the evolution of our culture. About four years ago, the senior leadership team and nominated cultural or values icons were mandated to relook all things cultural.

A facilitator said to us, “You really love it when people take the initiative, and get very frustrated when they don’t.” That accurate insight became core to our values. We love to see people proactively solve problems, take responsibility for their own growth, initiate spontaneous events, change their tactics or implement new ideas. It energises us and aligns to the way we do business.

We celebrate growth and love to see our staff getting promoted due to their hard work and perseverance. We recently had one of our earliest technicians get promoted to the Regional Manager of Limpopo. It was one of the best moments of 2018.

Be purposeful with culture, describe it, communicate it and use it in all aspects of business. Culture should change. Don’t allow phrases like ‘this is not how we do things,’ or, ‘the culture here is changing,’ to stifle the growth and development of your culture. When done correctly change is a good thing. Culture is driven from the top but at the end of the day it’s a company-wide initiative. Design it together with team members from different parts of the organisation to get the most from it. And then make sure everyone lives and breathes it.

Cost Cutting

The best ROI is achieved when you stop wasting money.

Peter Drucker once said that businesses have two main functions — marketing and innovation — that produce results. “All the rest are costs.”

If you agree, that means that the average business has a lot of fat to trim. Obviously you can go overboard trying to cut costs too. My philosophy has been to look at some of the general areas where you can add some efficiency but not at the expense of impairing your most valuable resource — your focus.

The following cost-cutting measures will do that. Think of these as adding value to your company, whether it’s time, creativity or a closer connection to your consumers.

Related: Wise Words From wiGroup On Building A “Wow” Company Culture

Uncover inefficiencies in your process

This is where I begin. In fact, it was analysing the inefficiencies of legal communication and knowledge sharing that led me to create Foxwordy, the digital collaboration platform for lawyers. I noticed that attorneys in our clients’ legal departments were drafting new documents from scratch when they could pool their knowledge and save time by using language that a trusted colleague had employed in a similar document. Business is all about process. When you create a new process, or enhance an existing process, you will drive cost efficiency.

Refine your process, then automate

If existing processes are lacking, it is time to create process. If you have processes, but they are not driving efficiency, it’s time to redefine your process. Either way, a key second step is refining processes that are needed in your business. Only then can you go to automation, since automating without a process will result in chaos — and won’t save time or money. Similarly, automating a poor process is not going to give you the cost-saving results you are looking for.

Thanks to the Cloud, there are very accessible means of automating manual processes. For instance, you can automate bookkeeping functions with FreshBooks and use chatbots to interface with clients — for very basic information. If you’re a retailer, a chatbot on your site can explain your return policy or address other frequently asked questions. Automating such processes allows you to spend more time focusing on clients and customers. Technology alone isn’t a panacea for all business functions, but if you find something you’re doing manually that can be automated, take a look and consider how much time and process definition automation would save you.

Rethink your outreach

Marketing and outreach are usually big and important challenges for an organisation. In my experience, there are two main components to successful marketing — knowing your customers and using the most effective media to spread your message. For the first part, I recommend polling. There are various online survey services that offer an instant read on what your customers are thinking. You may think business is humming along, but a survey could reveal that while consumers like your product, a few tweaks would make it even better.

For the second part — marketing messaging — once you have a firm idea of your marketing messaging, Facebook is a great vehicle for outreach. The ability to granularly target customers and create Lookalike audiences (from around 1 000 consumers) can help grow your business.

Related: Take Responsibility For Your Company’s Culture To Boost Productivity

Scrutinise your spend history

There are tools that can help you assess spend history and find cost-cutting opportunities. For example, you might be able to take advantage of rewards or loyalty programmes to reduce common business expenses, like travel, or consolidate vendors for a similar function. If you have a long-standing relationship with a vendor, negotiate better pricing.

The most important elements to keep in mind are resources that make your company special. Your company may be built on one person’s reputation and expertise. Guard against tarnishing that reputation with inappropriate messaging in advertising or social media. If your company’s special sauce is intellectual property, protect that too. But everything else — ranging from physical property to salary and benefits — are costs and should be considered negotiable. — Monica Zent

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