How does a small company become successful? Despite the bad news we so often hear about the number of small businesses closing or moving, the news really isn't all that bad: Thousands of small businesses startup every year, and a good percentage of those companies have learned what it really takes to survive the early startup years and become successful enterprises.
After working with dozens of small companies, I discovered that the successful ones share some common traits. Here, then, are the 14 qualities I've witnessed in many of the thriving small businesses I've worked with:
Company culture. Culture is defined as the "integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations." For successful companies, culture is about attracting and hiring the people who would be most successful in that specific organization. And it's about driving the behavior that makes the company successful.
Customer service. Simply defined, customer service means taking care of your customers. Many companies integrate customer service into their business culture through training and the design (and frequent redesign) of relevant business processes. In most cases, the business plan dictates how they will provide quality customer service.
Attitude. As the owner of the company, you must have a positive attitude and accept 100 percent of the responsibility for the results of your business. When you accept responsibility, you can act to make the necessary changes to accomplish the desired results. Then, when success is achieved, you're generous in giving credit to others within the organization. Without exception, the most successful business owners understand that it's all about people: hiring and retaining the right people, eliminating ineffective people and providing the necessary resources for employees to master their tasks.
Business strategy. A complex strategy or business plan isn't necessary to achieve success. A simple one-page document will do, but it should be well thought out and well executed. A poorly crafted business plan that's well executed is far superior to the well-crafted business plan that sits on the shelf collecting dust. A good business plan defines and drives the activities and behaviors of the entire organization. Without it, the business becomes a ship without a rudder; it simply can't be steered and ends up going around in circles. A sound strategy should include a financial plan, marketing differentiators, and product strategy as well as a plan for employee retention.
Discipline. Discipline is all about executing the strategies and then staying the course. It's about staying focused on your core markets and measuring success as defined by your business strategy. It's not about overreacting to market changes and adjusting your core strategy to keep up.
Risk. Successful business owners aren't afraid to take calculated risks with clear outcomes in mind. Most owners who take risks do so because they recognize the need to change as the economic climates changes, and they understand it's disastrous not to embrace change. Successful business leaders understand that being in business is about managing and responding to change. Companies that succeed embrace change and respond to challenges presented by the market, the competition or changes in general business conditions.
Financial roadmap. An important attribute is the creation of a financial roadmap and budget--and then having the discipline to follow it. A financial plan reminds owners where and how to spend money, and it provides ways to measure progress or shortfalls. A sound financial plan is the cornerstone of a great business plan.
Business processes. Another frequently credited attribute of success is the streamlining of business processes. We call this "creating predictability." Unfortunately, this is probably the least understood task a small-business owner can take accomplish. Business processes are how things are done within a business. Every company has some processes; some are clearly defined, others are implicit. The intention here is to increase productivity and reduce costs while generating the same (or better) outcomes. Successful businesses understand the need to continuously improve their business processes: to become more efficient and productive, and to respond to market changes faster while providing better service to customers.
Information technology. While technology is important, it doesn't have to be complex or costly to be effective. Effective technology is probably the most important enabler for change that a company can introduce.
Marketing. Effective marketing efforts perform different functions around unique selling environments. For example, business-to-consumer enterprises have completely different marketing needs than business-to-business companies. Having a good understanding of the pains your clients are experiencing and how your product and services stop that pain can help you understand just how to market to your customers--and that's critical to business success.
Sales. Every company's approach to sales is different. Some depend on building referral partnerships and strategic alliances, and this is the extent of their sales process. Others aggressively attack the market with direct-mail campaigns, cold calling and other forms of direct customer contact. The specific selling approach a company uses is usually defined by its marketing plan. Successful owners know that the concept of selling is a process that can be measured and improved, like all business processes. They talk about the importance of having a consistent, measurable and repeatable sales process, and they engage professional sales trainers (with flexibility to customize training to their selling environment) to help create consistency within their selling process.
Training. Because we live in a world of continuous change, it's more important than ever to implement a culture of continuous learning. For many successful owners, continual investment in training is a major contributor to success. For training to be successful, however, there must a direct link back to the business plan and an understanding of how training supports the successful implementation of the business strategy.
Team of advisors. Without exception, every successful business owner I've worked with has talked to about how having trusted advisors is necessary for success. They know they can't know everything and they searched out advisors they could trust. They usually preferred to pay for this advice because they were looking for someone who would challenge them, hold them accountable, ask them important questions and introduce them to others who could help them when necessary.
Work/life balance. Successful business owners understand that every person has just 1,440 minutes in any given day and how they spend this time directly impacts how effective they'll be in growing their businesses. Smart entrepreneurs successfully integrate their social lives into their business lives: The client who purchases a product today gets invited to the lakeside cabin the next weekend. Clients become friends, and co-workers become like family. These entrepreneurs build their lives around their business, and it's almost impossible to distinguish between their social lives and their business lives.