This is the first article in a monthly series on small business owners I have met or worked with over the years who developed beautiful successful businesses.
Stories of successful real business owners
In 35 years of doing business and working with some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, I’ve learned a very important lesson: Success in small business starts by building great habits. I call these practices the “7 Highly Chilled Habits” and I find they’re best illustrated with the stories of real business owners who I happen to have had the pleasure of coaching.
The articles are based on my E-book, The 7 Habits of Highly Chilled Small Business Owners. All of my books and other resources are available for free here
Highly Chilled Habit #1:
To be successful in business, be Dependable
I can’t sell what I don’t stock… Colin
A client I once worked with imports wine from Europe and sells it to restaurants around Australia. One day, a particularly cheeky rosé from his range sold out and his Italian suppliers were running behind with fulfilling orders. The situation wasn’t going to be resolved for at least a month and some of my client’s favourite eateries were going to have to put a different rosé on their menu.
Not only were sales lost in that month, some of the substitute rosé from other distributors stuck. My client lost several big accounts and tens of thousands of dollars in revenue throughout that year alone.
When working through this challenge with my wine importing client, I was reminded of Colin. I first met Colin in the eighties during my early days as a builder in Sydney. Colin owned a builder’s timber and hardware store in the inner city, and I became a regular customer of his. This is his website: http://www.swadlingstimberandhardware.com.au/ . Colin was a grumpy bugger, but he ran an incredibly successful business that was far superior to most of his competitors.
It’s All About Trust
One of the things that made Colin’s business so successful was that they always had what we needed in stock. The team virtually never ran out of their product lines and on top of that, they generally provided same-day delivery.
I asked Colin once about the enormous range and quantity of stock he carried. It looked, to my inexperienced self, like an expensive business to run. All that money tied up in stock. Colin’s response was brilliant in its simplicity and I’ve always remembered it: “I can’t sell what I don’t stock,”.
Colin continued to build a Highly Chilled business as a Highly Chilled small business owner. By the time I left the building industry, he had 6 massive stores in locations all across Sydney and most local professional builders had a trading account with one of them. We all relied on that simple philosophy of his.
My wine importing client now holds at least a 3-month supply of any label he sells because Highly Chilled business owners make a habit of making great promises to their customers. What’s more, their customers know they’re in the habit of keeping them!
Your Homework (The Chilled Kind)
Here’s a short exercise you could carry out to start the process of making this habit your own.
Practice Highly Chilled habit #1: Take a look at all of the promises you make to your clients.
Ask yourself: Do I go to every length I can in order to fulfil every promise I make? Do I, like Colin, have everything that my clients expect me to have in stock? Or, if I say that I deliver in 24 hrs, do I actually deliver in 24 hrs – every time?
Hungry for less Netflix, more chill? Explore all 7 habits. you can download the whole E-book for free here
Next Month, We’ll talk about Habit #2: Be Specific and my brother Sebastiaan in Holland
Growing your building business is not as hard as you might think.
Some of you will know that I used to have a building company. It’s been a while now, I founded the company in 1983 and I sold the company to my junior partner in 2003, but I have many fond memories of my building days (and some not so fond).
Because of my background I am often asked how to grow a building business, while keeping margins up. In my experience, business growth in the building industry comes down to implementing Five Golden Rules:
Under-promise and over-deliver
Probably not the Rules you were expecting, so let me explain:
Muddy boots and cream carpets
The building industry in Australia is a strange beast. On the one hand, because of it’s widespread system of contractors and sub contractors, I believe it’s probably one of the most efficient building industries in the world, but on the other hand I also believe it is one of the unruliest building industries in the world. Most of us know one or more horror stories of builders going bankrupt, subbies walking off site, costs spiralling out of control, tradies walking muddy boots through cream carpets, leaking bathrooms, disputes before tribunals and indecipherable quotes on the back of enveloppes.
I’ve certainly have my fair share of war stories from my 20 years in the building industry in Sydney. And to be honest, I’ll even admit that I and my company might even have been at the root-cause of a couple of those stories.
It’s not easy running a building or building-trades company in Australia. But there’s two sides to that coin. There’s great opportunity in the building industry to grow your business and make good money, because there are so many drongos out there and customers are desperate to find professional reliable businesses to deal with.
Laying out the red carpet
It was that way in my days as a builder. The good, professional, reliable, tilers, bricklayers, carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians, concreters, renderers and roofers were always busy. I would have to book them in 6 weeks in advance, I’d have to pay them well and lay out the red carpet for them, or they’d go somewhere else. And I learnt that I’d better do all of that, and then some, because getting the cheaper, available tradies always led to disasters of one kind or another and most importantly, unhappy customers.
The Golden Rules:
Hence my Five Golden Rules for Growing your Building Company above, because this is what I learned about developing a growing Beautiful Building Business (and Life):
Be empathic: Building contracts are big things, in dollar terms as well as scope. Customers enter into building contracts with great trepidation, because it’s usually the biggest contract of any type they’ve ever signed and they can’t even see what they’re buying yet. You need to be sensitive to that anxiety, that all customers experience at some stage in the journey. You deal with big contracts and big turnover every day. For your customers it’s a great source of stress. Stress makes people behave irrationally… Make allowances for that.
Be predictable: People are happy to pay your price if they feel confident they’ll get what they are expecting. If they don’t have that confidence, they’ll shop on price because that’s the only thing they can control.
Under-promise and over-deliver: If you say you’ll be ready with something by Friday, surprise them and finish by lunchtime on Friday and then take some time to really clean up, dot the I’s and cross the T’s. Don’t ever tell the customer you’ll be all finished by Friday and then when they come home from work on Friday it’s still unfinished and a mess… That’s just asking for trouble.
Say No: Don’t take on work you don’t feel confident you can deliver, fully, properly, on time, profitably and with a smile. Say yes, only when you are 100% confident you can do it how it’s meant to be done.
Communicate: The three C’s: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. If you come to the conclusion on Wednesday that you can’t complete the job on Friday as you promised… Tell them… on Wednesday… By email, by letter, by carrier pidgeon, by SMS, or by Whatsapp or Twitter… But for Pete’s sake, tell them. They won’t know, they expect to have a Barbeque on the new deck on Friday evening and they’ve invited their friends to celebrate. Similarly… If you strike something unexpected, you hit rock where you didn’t expect it, asbestos in the roof, an aboriginal artifact in the footings, a conflict on the drawings, you find out you’ve made a mistake in your calculations, ordered the kitchen benchtop 100 mm too short, or forgotten to order it at all… TELL THEM. Seriously. They’ll understand. They’ve made mistakes in their life as well.
And if you do all of that… If you live and breathe those rules, every day, and you hammer those rules into the heads of your employees and subbies, your business will grow and grow and grow, because your customers will be your Raving Fans and they’ll do your marketing for you. They’ll tell their friends all about how you finished the deck early on Friday, cleaned and tidied up and left a bottle of wine to have with the barbie on the deck when you came home from work. They’ll talk about you to their work-mates and convince their neighbours to have their own decks built by you as well, even though they’ve had cheaper quotes.
The alternative means you’ll have to endlessly compete on price and competing on price is a dog’s game… trust me on that.
Do these 5 things right every time and your business will never stop growing
I’m often asked by clients to help them grow their service business. I nearly always tell them that growth is easy in a business based on services, anyone can grow a small business.
All you need to do is this:
Deliver what you promise
At the time you promise it
For the price you promise it
For a profit and
With a smile.
That’s all… Honestly
If you do those 5 things, every day, customers will break down your doors, because so few small businesses do.
Most small businesses fail doing those 5 things consistently and stunt their growth, because of the classic problem of small business growth:
It’s easy when you’re small
You see, when your business is small, you and a couple of people delivering all the services, be it plumbing, washing machine repairs, fixing cars, bookkeeping, designing websites or building houses, then it’s easy to manage and be in control of everything. You can make sure things happen the way you want them to happen.
Once you start to grow with 5, 10 or more employees, and you have a number of teams, or vans on the road, suddenly you’re not in touch with everything that goes on anymore. You don’t even get to meet all the customers and you won’t personally see all the services that get delivered. You have to rely on others, and hope they do things the way you want them done. That they communicate with customers they way you expect them to and that they take their dirty boots off before they traipse in through the house.
Managing by keeping your fingers crossed.
And guess what? It doesn’t work. Your customers start being less than happy, they start looking elsewhere, you’ll believe you need to lower your prices to keep them and it all becomes a dog’s game.
So here’s the biggest secret of all to growing your business:
Learn to say no.
Learn to say no, until you can handle the growth. Never taken on any work, any new business, unless you are confident you can deliver it to those 5 standards above.
If you do that, you’ll be in control of your business, you won’t have to compromise on price and you will build a Beautiful Business and Life. And the customers? They’ll keep coming. There is never a shortage of customers for businesses who deliver on all of their promises, with a smile… I promise you.
How to grow your business is the most enduring of The 7 Big Questions. All of us business owners have felt frustrated at some stage in our journey to building a Beautiful Business The business feels stuck at one level and we are not sure how to get it to the next level.
So many misunderstandings and myths about business growth:
I have written about the general topic of business growth in many different places. I think there are a number of misunderstandings about business growth that are not helping us, as business owners, to feel better about ourselves. The first article is about that (and you can also read about the misunderstandings about growth in my book: The Ten Truths for Making Business Fun):
I believe that to grow a Beautiful Business that Stands the Test of Time you must be able to answer the question: Why does your business exist and why would anybody care? Most business owners can’t answer that question succinctly and powerfully. That’s bad, because if you don’t know why your business exists, your customers certainly won’t be able to tell, and then all it comes down to is price. Competing on price is a dog’s game, unless you’re Aldi, where price is your Purpose. The second reason you need to be able to answer the question clearly is that if you can’t, you will never master the greatest skill of effective business owners, namely the ability to say “NO”.
We’ve all heard that to grow your business you must start with Goal setting. But effective Goal setting is more complicated than you might think. Most Goals we set for ourselves and for our businesses are at best ineffective and at worst actually hinder our progress. Goals are often arbitrary, unrealistic, and unrelated to what really matters in our lives. A Goal to make $2 million revenue is an arbitrary and meaningless number, why $2 million? why not $1,956,384.13, or $2,163,927.46 for example? And so what when you reach the goal? Will you be better off somehow? What if you fall short? By $100, or by $1,000, or by $100,000? Does that mean you are a failure? Goal setting really makes a difference, as long as you understand that Goals are like a compass, they provide a direction on your journey, they are not the destination.
Marketing is about creating opportunities to sell your stuff. As such, I fervently believe that:
Marketing is everything and everything is marketing
And it is. To grow your business you have to look at every aspect of your business. Marketing is about advertising campaigns, and social media and designing your logo and your website, but it’s also about how you answer the telephone, about your pricing policies, about ensuring that your customers are happy with what you sell them. It’s about how you dress and about how you present your quotes and about your Public Relations strategies and about your warranty return policies. One of the greatest marketing strategies is a relentless focus on quality in everything the business does, in order to “Create Raving Fans”, because if your customers are all Raving Fans, they will actually do your marketing for you.
I don’t mean to imply that online marketing is somehow something different from all other forms of marketing, it isn’t. But it is useful to pay special attention to online engagement and marketing to build and grow your business, because it has become such an important aspect of any marketing strategy. Whether your business is a cafe or a building company or a law practice, or it imports widgets or makes whatsits, you can not ignore a bunch of different forms of online marketing. Email marketing, content marketing, Search Engine Optimisation, Search Engine Marketing, Social Media Engagement, Social Media Marketing, online PR, online reputation management (The ubiquitous star ratings), video marketing. The list is near endless and constantly changing.
You could easily argue (and I have in one of the articles I refer to below), that the principles of marketing haven’t changed, we’ve just got a bunch of new tools to do it with. And at one level that’s true, people still want to get to know, like and trust you before they will do business with you. But on another level things have changed drastically. Ten years ago, you’d give someone a business card with your web address on it and they would immediately want to know if you also had a bricks and mortar store. These days they want to know you’ve got a high functioning web presence and that you’ve got a presence on Facebook and on Google local and ideally a bunch of 5 start ratings on Yelp and Trip Adviser. Whether or not you have a bricks and mortar presence, simply doesn’t matter anymore. Online engagement in all forms must be part of your marketing strategies or you will not be taken seriously.
That’s a quote I saw hanging on the wall at a big office once, many years ago. And it’s true. No business growth, no business, without sales. No matter how great your product is, how beautiful your logo is, how smart your website is, or how wonderful your employee conditions are, if you’re not selling, the business will cease to exist.
Sales is often seen as a subset of marketing, but I’m giving it it’s own section here, because I think of marketing as getting the customers to your door and sales as actually getting them to hand over money. Lead generation v lead conversion. Sales is about skill and it’s about mindset and systems and above all, it’s about making it easy for people. And this last word is the key to the whole shebang. It’s always about people. The old saying is:
People do business with people they know like and trust
You must always remember it’s about people first and foremost and in small business especially it’s about people in both directions: People do business with people. Your whole approach to sales, especially in small business, all aspects of it must be built on a people to people philosophy.
A business without a Plan achieves everything in it
Nothing in other words.
Your business growth depends on planning. No human endeavour ever amounted to anything without a plan. Yet planning is guessing. It can never be anything more than guessing, because we can not know the future. So if planning is guessing, why does it matter so much and how can we do it so it works? There are two important answers to those questions:
There are two important answers to those questions:
1) You must understand that there are two entirely different types of business plans: Internal Plans, and External Plans. External plans are designed to impress others about your business and form part of the documentation to obtain a loan or other form of funding or make a proposal to a third party of some sort.
Internal Plans are documents designed to help the business focus. They are combined with meaningful goals (see above) and they help people in their day to day decision making processes. Internal and external plans have different functions and are presented quite differently as well.
2) Planning is a verb. It’s not static, it’s an activity that never stops. As soon as one plan is created, we start again. John Lennon said: Life’s what happens when we’re making other plans. Planning is like that, we make a bunch of assumptions and plan our actions accordingly. Then we go ahead and check reality as it unfolds and make changes to our plans to suit the new realities, every day, every week, every month and every year. Business Plans that work, that make a difference, are living documents.
Customer service is also a subset of marketing of course, if done well it leads to more business from those customers, and as I said above, everything is marketing and marketing is everything, but it’s worth mentioning separately, because of the concept of Raving Fans. Ken Blanchard wrote a little book that said it best in the title: Create Raving Fans and have your customers do your marketing for you. It’s a great little book and there’s a link below to get yourself a copy of it.
The principle of Ken Blanchard’s book is that your business should always be working to do one better for your customers than they expect. If you do so, your customers will become your advocates (Raving Fans) and advocates will go out of their way to help your business grow. They will talk to their friends about you, they will drag their colleagues to your door. They will defend your business against the competition and best of all, they won’t quibble about price. If your business focuses on turning it’s customers into Raving Fans, you will be able to slash your marketing budget in half, over time, for a better result.
Grow your business with systems and quality improvement
My clients often ask me to help them grow their business, and I often tell them to stop worrying about that. Getting more customers is actually the easy part. The hard part of business is:
To deliver what you say you will
By the time you say you will
For the price you say you will
At the quality you say you will…
With a smile
If you can do that all the time, the customers will come flocking to your door and you won’t have to spend much money on marketing (for one thing because you’ll be creating Raving Fans, see the previous topic). And right now, you may well be doing all those things, with a smile, but the trick is to be able to keep doing that as the business starts to grow.
I can’t tell you how many businesses I have seen struggle and fail in my years in business who couldn’t maintain their product or service quality and dependability and price, at scale. Once the business starts to grow and you, yourself, are no longer in charge of every step in the process, things start going wrong. Quality becomes inconsistent, delivery times become unreliable, prices go up or profitability suffers and your smile starts to disappear. Once the rot sets in like that, your reputation starts to suffer and customers start to look elsewhere.
There are only two answers to this dilemma: Either, don’t grow, stay small, learn to say NO and say it all the time… Or systematise. Developing systems for all aspects of the operation is the only answer. Systems for how the phone is answered, systems for estimating, systems for quality checking, systems for calendar management, systems for inventory management, systems for callbacks and warranty repairs. Systems for marketing, systems for hiring and firing etc etc. Above all, systems allow you to create Continuous Improvement Loops into your organisation. And continuous improvement is the Holy Grail of business. It’s what made companies like Toyota great.
Inventory management is a big specialised topic, and it’s really a subset of the systems section above. There are whole management libraries written about the various philosophical approaches to managing stock when building and growing a Great business that Stands the Test of Time. My earliest lessons of inventory management came from the owner of a big hardware store I dealt with a lot in my days as a builder, Colin. One of the reasons I bought so much of my material from Colin was that he always had everything in stock. Colin clearly knew what it took to create business growth, because his business was booming.
I asked Colin once if keeping such high stock levels of everything a builder such as myself might need from time to time was economical for him. I imagined that it was a very expensive way to run a business, having all that money tied up in timber and hardware and bits and bobs. His answer was:
If I don’t stock it I can’t sell it.
I have often thought about that statement in the years since, now that most operations run on the principle of “just in time”. Supermarkets have made an art form of stocking just enough and not a jar more than required, to minimise shelf apace and inventory cost.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that Colin got all my business for 20 years and most Sydney builders had an account with him, because everything we needed was always ready to be picked up.
Grow your business with hiring, firing and engaging people
Michael Gerber in his famous book “The E-Myth” wrote that it’s impossible to manage people and hence great businesses focus on systems, and manage those instead. And that’s certainly what grew McDonalds into the enormous business it is today, no argument. And as I’ve written elsewhere before, if you set out to make as much money as possible from selling restaurant food, it is undeniably the case that the McDonald’s model is the one to emulate. But, I can’t tell you how happy I am that not everyone in the restaurant industry wants to build McDonalds, because the world (and my palate) would be the poorer. The same philosophy can be applied to any industry.
If you’d like to build and grow a unique business, a business with an individual character, you’re going to have to manage people. You’re going to have to get good at putting the right people on the bus, sitting in the right seats, facing in the right direction and also know which people to get off the bus. If you don’t learn how to find and keep the right people and get them to do great work, your business will always struggle.
That means developing hiring policies, being prepared to hire people who might be better than you are at certain things, learning how to do great interviews, implementing induction and development training programs. It means learning how to coach your people, encourage them and hold them accountable. And it means learning about effective delegating. It means doing the HR admin and compliance effectively, writing job descriptions and doing performance reviews. It means learning what it takes to be a leader and it means being prepared to take the tough decisions when required, and take them quickly and respectfully.
To build and grow a Great business that Stands the Test of Time, you can’t afford to be left behind. The pace of change and innovation is relentless and what was ok even a few years ago is no longer ok now. Not long ago it was still fine for a cafe to have a sign saying “cash only”, but in 2018, you’ll lose a lot of business if you don’t accept cards in payment. Even in a business as simple as mine, people expect me to be able to accept online bookings. Cloud computing combined with smart phone technology and advanced GPS systems mean that customers now expect to be informed that their plumber is on its way and can be expected to pull up in front of their house in 13 minutes.
You don’t need to be Uber or AirBandB to implement new technology and come up with new ways of doing business. I just bought a house in a different state of Australia. The real estate agent gave me a private showing of the house via Skype. I engaged the conveyancer, the building inspector and a surveyor all without setting a foot in the house or the state.
A client of mine with a creative marketing agency has a team of designers and copywriters and marketing assistants all over the world and she rarely even meets her clients face to face. Another client with a small supermarket chain has technology in his stores that allow him to see what’s going on in any part of any store and to get live access to each of the store’s Point of Sale systems. He’s also just implement a bunch of tablet screens in his stores allowing people to find dinner recipes incorporating the fresh vegetables he has on special.
And all this stuff is only the beginning. It won’t be long before artificial intelligence is integrated in doctor’s surgeries and lawyer’s offices, and copywriting agencies. If you think that technology and innovation isn’t going to have a massive impact on the way you do business and how to create business growth, you are kidding yourself.