Who's In Your Cockpit?

Here's the question: as business owners, we're faced with more choice than we know what to do with. So how can we take steps to minimise the risk of wasting our money, while at the same time saying a resounding YES to things that will actually make a genuine difference?

Sometimes we get swept away by our own enthusiasms. Sometimes we get swept away by all the exciting new possibilities, and sometimes we get swept away by assumptions and opinions about 'what we should be doing', especially in areas where we know we need to take action but where we don't necessarily have the skills, expertise or knowledge to make informed choices. Here's the old-school way of tackling an internet-generation question...

Now, as the founder-manager of your own business it's all too easy to get swept away.

Sometimes we get swept away by our own enthusiasms. Sometimes we get swept away by all the exciting new possibilities, and sometimes we get swept away by assumptions and opinions about 'what we should be doing', especially in areas where we know we need to take action but where we don't necessarily have the skills, expertise or knowledge to make informed choices.

And there are plenty of opinions and tempting offers that look like appealing opportunities that will really help move the business forward. Some look like common sense. And indeed some might be. Others look like cutting-edge innovation that we can't live without. And indeed some might be. Some not. How to tell the difference?

And yes, sometimes we do get swept away. But sometimes we just become paralysed by all the choice and don't know which way to turn.

The trouble is we have limited resources. Limited time. Limited budget. And, crucially, limited knowledge, experience and expertise in many areas where we need to make informed decisions about where, when and how we invest those resources.

Perhaps the most obvious example is marketing. So many options - social media, search engines, email, networking, advertising, the list is endless. And often they come wrapped in an enticing story of outstanding results at negligible cost and with no effort on our part.

So my question this week is this: how can we take steps to minimise the risk of wasting our money, while at the same time saying a resounding YES to things that will actually make a genuine difference?

Well I suppose the first thing to say is that if it looks too good to be true then it probably is! That might be a good gut-feel indicator, but I'm not sure that's terribly helpful as a management tool.

So how do we tackle this.

And I'm afraid the truth is it all comes down to doing your homework!

What does that actually mean, I hear you say!

Well, it means following the process.

Ugh, I hear you say. Process. Boring. Turning the handle. Where's the fun in that?

Well, actually, you might equally be saying Process! Yay! Repeatability! Consistency! Fantastic! I know where I stand!

Here's the thing about business. If you have process where you NEED process, and you follow the process professionally then you're going to have a lot more fun where your business will really benefit from creativity, spontaneity and experimentation.

And that can be a stretch for many people. But here's something to bear in mind, and it's not something that's widely discussed so take a moment to pause and think about the truth of it. The secret to success lies in lies in flexibility. The secret to success lies in your willingness to experience new situations and your willingness to tolerate the discomfort that comes with learning to behave in new ways in order to expand what we might call your behavioural repertoire. And when you step up to doing that you start to develop and widen your ability to respond more resourcefully and more effectively in more situations.

Some people like process. Some people find it uncomfortable. But for a business owner it's an essential tool of the trade and you need to embrace it.

Now when it comes to talking about process we could be here exploring for hours, so you'll be relieved to hear that I just want to look at one specific area where process can transform your business and it is directly relevant to where I started, in posing the question of how we, as business owners, can protect ourselves against getting swept away by shiny objects, by our own enthusiasms and by skilful and unethical sales people, online and in real life.

Here it is.

And if your heart sank when I mentioned 'process', brace yourself! Because the specific process I want to talk about is Planning.

There you go! Told you so!

Anyroad, planning.

I don't know if you watch Dragon's Den, but it's well worth it to see how professional entrepreneurs actually think.

Now I know most people aren't seriously setting out to create multi-million-pound businesses. Most people simply want a lifestyle business that will enable them and their family to enjoy a rewarding and satisfying life. But hear me out.

Because the fundamental thing the Dragons want to talk about is the Business Plan.

They want to know what you're selling. Who you're selling it to. Why they want it. Who else is out there. How much you're selling it for. What's your route to market. Do you have the sales skills. What are your sales forecasts? What are your profit-and-loss forecasts? What are you measuring. How much does it cost to provide. How are you funding it. What are the risks. What comes next. How to scale. Who's on the team. How motivated are they. How motivated are you. Who's missing from the team. And so on.

When it's all said like that it makes complete sense, doesn't it? I mean, surely everyone has thought those things through?

Well, you know as well as I do that they haven't. And watching Dragon's Den demonstrates that truth time after time.

So. Step One in the process is your Business Plan.

And you might be saying 'oh yes, of course, I have a business plan in my head! No problem!'

Great! Get it out of your head and get it written down. Because that's when you discover that the clarity you thought you had in your imagined business plan all falls apart when pen hits paper. Or, more likely, when fingers hit keyboard.

So. Step One in the process is your Business Plan. Written down. With numbers.

And remember, even if you aren't looking to raise finance, you still have at least one investor. They are up to their neck in it so you owe it to them to be professional and disciplined. Can you genuinely say to them that your business is a viable investment?

Of course you know who that investor is: it's you. And your family are probably investing pretty heavily in your business too, which makes it even more important to think it through. Follow the process. Do the due diligence. Review it regularly.

Of course, the Business Plan is not the end of the story. It's a summary document designed to give investors the confidence you've thought it through. It's about intention and strategy and understanding what success will look like.

So what comes next?

This is where we start to address the question I posed at the top. Because next, after business planning comes implementation planning. Making it happen. Getting it done.

What does that mean? It means getting down to the real practicalities. You need a product plan. A marketing plan. A production plan. A customer service plan. A people plan. A systems plan. A risk management plan. And an IT plan that includes security.

Does that sound like overkill? I promise you, you have all those plans in place already, it's just that most of them aren't written down and in any case would probably simply say 'my plan is to either ignore this aspect of my business, or see what happens and wing it'.

Let's take Marketing.

Without a written marketing plan, you have no idea whether you should invest in SEO, or Social Media, or Networking, or Direct Mail, or Telesales, or Printed Media, or Radio, or YouTube. You have no idea whether you should be investing in paid ads on Google, or paid ads on Facebook, or paid ads on YouTube, or paid ads in Printed Media. Or anything. And you don't know what to measure. You don't know what success looks like, you don't know the danger signs and there's no way of being warned when things aren't going the way you hoped. You're flying blind in fog. Actually, it's worse than that for many people because they don't have their hands on the controls at all: they've just engaged an agency who might or might not have their best interests at heart. Probably not. The business owner probably isn't even in the cockpit - which means they can't see the instruments. They have no idea whether things are going up or down, and no idea what direction they are going in.

And in that situation you could easily be duped into believing that, say, digital marketing is The Answer when old-school marketing might, in truth, serve you better. It's a question of understanding all the possibilities, how they fit together, how to prioritise and where to focus your limited resources.

And when I say 'agency', that could equally mean someone you have employed to do the job for you on a freelance or employed basis.

Does that mean you shouldn't work with agencies?

No, of course not. What it DOES mean is that you should engage any agencies you work with in the same way you would engage with any other professional advisor, because that's what they are. They aren't just a supplier, they are in the cockpit on your behalf. They have their hands on the controls. They know how to read the instruments.

More than that, if you choose well, they actually DO have the knowledge, experience and expertise to help you make those informed decisions. The key phrase here is, of course, "if you choose well". If you choose people who have a broad overview of the field, and who aren't invested solely in leading you down the path of their own narrow specialism. And that's what I mean by treating them as if they were a professional advisor, not merely a supplier. A professional advisor who wants to help you create a viable, purposeful, timebound, measurable, costed plan where the return on investment is clear before you invest in anything.

And it's all too easy to just throw that responsibility over the wall. To abdicate instead of delegate. To forget about due diligence and willy-nilly take the risk. So take advice, yes, but always make up your own mind. Having a written plan can really help with that.

Which brings us to a crucially important but almost universally overlooked part of your planning.

Your purchasing plan.

Your purchasing plan sets out the rules by which you buy things. It sets out how you engage with prospective suppliers to help you create the written implementation plans so fundamental to the professional delivery of business growth. It specifies how many quotes you must get to be satisfied you are buying what you are being promised. It specifies how you negotiate the metrics that tell you whether a supplier is delivering what they promised - or not. And what the remedies are.

Perhaps some of these plans should be fully fleshed out, and others can be more like policies or standard operating procedures, but the point is they need to be thought through and written down, so they can be reviewed and updated.

Does this all sound like overkill? All a bit corporate?

Perhaps it does sound that way. But as I said earlier, you have all these plans in place already. It's just that they aren't written down and in any case would probably simply say 'my plan is to either ignore this aspect of my business, or see what happens and wing it'.

And if that's true, then it raises a very serious question: how would your investors feel if they knew that was how your business was being managed?

And given that those investors include your family, perhaps it's worth giving some thought.

I'm Jim Pirrie and I hope this has given you something to think about! Let me know in the comments below, wherever you're watching, listening or reading this.

And, as they say on the telly, if you've been affected by any of the issues we've talked about, be sure to get in touch because there are probably some quick and easy wins that could possibly make a massive difference for you and your business

That's it for now and I'll see you again, next time.