It’s not unusual for business owners to feel stuck at times. Sales are leveling off, it’s gotten hard to find employees to staff up, or you just feel like you’re in a rut. When this happens, you may need a new set of eyes to help you find ways to reenergize and grow your business.
Your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) is a great place to turn, as it offers free consulting, along with training that is often free or low-cost. SBDCs work with a variety of small business owners and will see opportunity where you see obstacles.
Here, 21 SBDC experts share strategies for any business looking to grow:
1. Reach customers in more ways than one
If you are a retailer with no online presence, consider setting up a web store as another way to capture sales. Once you have captured enough customer emails, consider an email campaign to keep your message in front of your customer base. And don’t forget about social media.
If you’re an online-only business, consider a direct mail campaign, including a catalog featuring your best sellers for prospecting to new potential buyers. After testing a multichannel approach, you will be able to determine how to best spend your marketing dollars based on which channels were most effective in reaching your sales goals.
—George Fotis, Business Consultant, Michigan SBDC—West Michigan Region, Grand Valley State University
2. Find employees eager for a second chance
Often, we hear that businesses want to go to the next level, but can’t for lack of workforce. Explore opportunities such as “justice involved” individuals, who often have received some training and/or certification while they were incarcerated. They expect entry-level positions, are eager to work, and may have extra motivation to “show up and deliver,” due to reporting to probation/parole officers. For businesses, there may be extra incentives for hiring these individuals, such as tax credits, and there are assistance programs to further develop these new workers.
—Kelly Asbury, Director, SFCC Small Business & Technology Development Center
3. Use a 60/20/20 approach to time management
Instead of spending 100% of your time knocking out tasks via the “Whack-a-Mole” method, I suggest a strategic approach to time management. First, use 60% of your time to proactively focus on tasks that truly add value to your business or cannot be done by others. The other 40% of your time should be divided into two categories: 20% on planning and 20% on strategizing. Planning is dedicating time to resources and schedules for the operation of the business; strategizing is time evaluating how you can improve your business performance, your customer experience, or your profit model.
—Shawn Lynam, Business Advisor, South San Diego SBDC
4. Dig deep into your numbers
As an established business, you should be using accounting software. Once you understand the basics, what else can you measure? Understand your inventory turns and dive into your cash flow. Now is the time to start to measure your business and use metrics to take your business to the next level.
—Kayla Rossiter, Business Development Specialist, South Central Minnesota SBDC
5. Build and leverage strong cybersecurity
Businesses need to prepare and strengthen their cyber infrastructure, not simply to be ready for the next threat, but more importantly, to position their companies to take advantage of the opportunities provided by a strong information security posture. The overwhelming cascade of messages communicated to small business owners emphasizes the ongoing threat that malicious software and cybercriminal elements pose to the security of their digital information.
Businesses need to challenge themselves now to harden their business’s information security infrastructure, positioning and strengthening their business to be ready for the requirements expected from larger corporate and government entities. Consider information security not so much a protection against a threat, but as an investment to grow in a digital economy.
—Mark Lupo, Business Education/Resilience Specialist, University of Georgia SBDC
6. Make strategic acquisitions
As a business, you grow by controlling cost and maximizing profits. As you acquire small businesses that are ancillary services, you not only control the cost of your primary business, but you gain the clients and customers of those ancillary businesses—not to mention the introduction into new areas of business or industries not originally served by you, through a partner they already have grown to trust.
—Donald C. Robertson Sr., PTAC Counselor, Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, St. Louis County office
7. Create a business toolbox
Every company should have a business toolbox. Your business toolbox should include:
- A business plan to keep you on track on business progress to avoid setbacks.
- A marketing plan that will give your company a presence on the marketplace and build a loyal client base.
- An employee manual to maintain an informed workforce, outlining rules and regulations and assuring your business is in compliance with labor laws.
- An accounting software that can produce current financial reports at the touch of a button, to keep track of all business activity.
- Computers, computers networks, and an IT infrastructure.
—Julio Estremera, Business Consultant, Florida SBDC at Florida Gulf Coast University
8. Stop using social media the wrong way
Businesses need to stop the bad habit of constantly selling on social media. Marketing and sales are two different things and a sales-only strategy on social media might as well be a fail-only strategy. Create and document content that provides value to your audience and builds a relationship with them. This could be industry insights, tips and tricks, or even entertaining behind-the-scenes videos.
Giving more than you take is the basis of all relationships. Give away your knowledge, your industry trends, your insights. That way when it comes time for a potential customer to make a purchase, they can turn to a brand they both know and trust: YOU.
—Wes Otto, Business Advisor, South Central Minnesota SBDC/CEO & Co-founder, Otto Media Group
9. Leverage Google
Google My Business pages are an amazing and free tool for local small businesses. Claim your free Google My Business page, then:
- Complete it (especially the business description).
- Master the dashboard.
- Post regularly.
- Respond to all reviews . . . especially the bad ones.
- Keep the page current and up-to-date.
—Brian DuBoff, Center Director, Santa Fe SBDC
10. Attract the next generation of workers
Many businesses are not adequately prepared for hiring today’s younger workforce. You need to plan ahead and learn about the potential strengths and weaknesses of the age group, then rework your interview questions to best highlight the talent you are looking to hire. It is also important to learn how to speak to workers in a way they understand the importance of their responsibilities, tasks, and place in your organization.
—Kim McLerran, Business Advisor, University of Houston Texas Gulf Coast SBDC Network
11. Build in downtime
In farming, Mother Nature gives us some downtime; in other businesses, you need to create your own downtime. This is not vacation or “off” time. This is time away from working in the business to work on the business, to review data, streamline systems, plan for the next day, week, quarter, year—whatever timeline makes sense for your business. Carving out even an hour will allow you to strategically plan and have insight into small problems before they become major issues.
—Stepheni Norton, Food & Farm Small Business Advisor, South San Diego SBDC
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12. Be a know-it-all
Know your numbers: your gross margin, net profit, credit scores, days cash, etc., so you know where your business is financially at all times. And know your customers: who they are, where they are, and what you need to do to attract and retain them.
—Ronda Hawkins, Business Consultant, Arkansas SBTDC at Arkansas Tech University
13. Form an advisory board
Forming an advisory board can be one of the best moves you can make to boost your business performance. An advisory board customized to the challenges and opportunities facing your company is a powerful management tool that can provide access to experts at low or no cost, offer fresh ideas, and help you run your business better. Hand pick a small team to meet with you quarterly to address issues, formulate a strategic plan, and continually assess your progress. Having an advisory board can increase the value of your business, accelerate growth, and provide mentors to keep you focused on achieving your goals.
—Jill Kaufman, Assistant Director, Florida SBDC at the University of Central Florida
14. Don’t fall into a common tax trap
Don’t make important business decisions by trying to lower your taxable income. Your business purpose should not be to win a game against the government, but instead to make a profit.
—Bri Torborg, Business Consultant, Minnesota Central Region SBDC
15. Ask and share
Never hesitate to ask questions from other business owners for fear of looking like you’re not the expert. Truth is, you’re not the expert, you’re the entrepreneur! Be willing to share business knowledge; it’s in the exchange of information that others perceive your confidence in building a business and new partnerships are discovered.
—Merly Thomas, Director, Illinois SBDC at ICNC
16. Plan to sell your business
There is no other next level for your business that is greater than succession planning. The silver tsunami of baby boomer business owners (with over 50% of small business assets) means that now more than ever, and over the next decade, a conversion to employee ownership as an ESOP or worker cooperative should be considered.
Transitioning to employee ownership preserves your legacy by keeping your business operational and providing willing and able buyers who know your business the best. It also keeps your workers employed while providing them assets in ownership equity, and helps keep a community stable from a maintenance of jobs and taxes. Passage of the federal Main Street Employee Ownership Act in August 2018 provides for mandated outreach and technical assistance from SBDC staff to advise for employee-ownership transitions, and for the SBA to expand loan access to employee-owned companies.
—Frank Cetera, Advanced Certified Business Advisor, Onondaga SBDC
17. Develop a strategic plan
Develop short-term goals: quarterly, semi-annual, or annual, and create a plan that will help you reach those goals. Make sure your plan considers the resources you may need: cash, people, equipment, inventory, and additional operating costs, and make sure the end result will be a service or product that customers are looking for. Set the metrics you will use to monitor your progress towards attaining that goal; adjust your plans as needed based on how close or far you are from your goal. If you aren’t meeting your goal, determine why you are not meeting it: Is it lack of resources? Is marketing not working? Are you targeting the right customer segment?
—Terri Urbanek, Consultant & Business Outreach Specialist, Wisconsin SBDC at UW-La Crosse
18. Numbers don’t lie
Creating sound systems and processes are essential in finding anomalies in costs and revenues to refine profitability. Point of sale systems, inventory management, and bookkeeping practices, processes, and procedures will help ensure you can find out what’s wrong faster. It’s often easy for business owners who have been in business for a while to rely on qualitative data and therefore neglect quantitative data that is easily found. For example, a retailer may think that a particular product is flying off the shelves, but after looking at the numbers, realize that’s not the case.
—Joshua Billington, Senior Business Consultant, Michigan SBDC-Upper Peninsula Region/Michigan Technological University
The business world loves acronyms: ROI, URL, EIN, SMART, SWOT. But CFIMITYM is the most important one—it stands for “Cash Flow Is More important Than Your Mother.” Lack of cash is one of the biggest reasons small businesses fail. “Inadequate cash reserves,”aka “running out of money,” will shut you down faster than anything else. You can’t pay your bills. You can’t make payroll.
It’s possible for your business to make a profit, but have no cash. Profit is an accounting concept, while cash is the amount of money in the business checking account. You can have assets, like inventory or accounts receivables, but if you can’t collect on what’s owed, you won’t have cash. And if you run out of cash, you’re out of business.
—Cliff Robbins, Senior Business Advisor, Massachusetts SBDC
20. Ignore this cost at your peril
While it’s not a line on the profit and loss statement, it is important for business owners to be intentional about identifying and quantifying opportunity cost in their business. Opportunity cost shows up in number of ways. The most common example is a business owner who spends time on tasks or areas of the business that are not the best use of their time or talent. While they may be saving on the cost of hiring for or outsourcing that work, they are actually costing themselves more by tying up their time, and often doing the job poorly. Another example is businesses that take on clients who aren’t the best fit. This may cause reallocation of resources, which in turn slows growth or dilutes the company brand. Growth will happen faster when opportunity cost is addressed.
—Harriet Parker, Manager, Illinois SBDC at Waubonsee Community College
21. Don’t try to go it alone
Owning your own business can create a lonely world: You make decisions on your own, you might find a few successes that no one else sees, and you worry all by yourself. Build your tribe of advisers, counselors, guides, and good friends who can offer input, join your celebrations, and help you find the light at the end of the long dark tunnels.
—Kevin Lust, Director, Illinois SBDC at Lincoln Land Community College
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