It is has been exciting over the last few weeks getting more closely involved with small business owners. There have been more opportunities for live lectures, workshops, coaching and consultancy opening up as we come to terms with a new normal.
All the online support sessions for entrepreneurs I have been involved with during lockdown have been invaluable. But the recent live involvement has been energising – and a reminder of the fact that, in the UK, small and medium-sized businesses really are the engine room of the economy.
I never cease to be amazed by the fact that in the UK there are only 8,000 businesses that employ more than 250 people – compared to around 6 million SMEs with 1 to 25O employees (and 96% of these have fewer than 10 employees). If we are ever going to recover from the pandemic then, as a country, we need to invest in boosting and supporting our reservoir of entrepreneurial talent.
What I find most rewarding about working with the SME sector is that it’s not just about helping business owners build profitable businesses – it is not just about the money. It’s about the dignity, structure and psychological stability a thriving business creates for people.
This respect for those who have struck out on their own stems from my early days in founding and building up DVL Smith. For a number of years, I undertook scores of focus groups for a major publisher of business titles. These publications covered a variety of trades and professions – from those running bakery businesses to metalwork operations to smallholdings.
I was constantly humbled by the professionalism, integrity and commitment to always doing their best that these small business owners brought to the party. These were decent people battling the odds and wanting to do the right thing.
With this fundamental respect for entrepreneurs – and knowing that the highs can be higher but the lows can be lower – I am constantly reviewing how best to support hard working small business owners.
It is about drawing on the knowledge I have built up about running an insight agency – and seeing how to tailor and adapt my relevant business experience working for corporates to the needs of smaller businesses.
A start point is to hit home the now generally acknowledged principle – work on not just in your business. Specifically this means prioritising marketing what you do over just doing what you do.
This clearly makes sense, but this focus on marketing can jar with that commitment and pride around the craft and technical skills that characterise many small business owners.
And there is often another related challenge. This is ‘shiny object syndrome’. Many business owners eventually get the importance of marketing and of being customer centric. But they often become too fixated on the latest tips and tricks on Facebook advertising, Google Ads, SEO and creating BombBomb videos, and so on. All important stuff – a necessary but not sufficient condition of success.
So in asking the small business owners I’m coaching to draw up a priority list of what they want to get out of the sessions, I will often find the shiny techy things at the top of the list with the more important stuff being relegated to the bottom.
So, at the bottom of the list we often find different references to the critical determinants of success. This takes us into things such as applying clear deep strategic thinking about where you are most likely to win, knowing precisely how to win by focusing on what matters most to customers, together with the identification and unblocking of critical constraints that can stifle growth.
The fix I have learnt is a simple one. Just flip the list and encourage small business owners to start at their bottom (my top) with the big ticket mindset and strategic thinking stuff – whilst reassuring them that we will get to the shiny techy things later. It is a technique that drives home the message that is difficult to tactically retrieve a fundamentally flawed strategic position (even with all that passion for core craft skills).
So returning to my paraphrasing of Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards’ classic song – with coaching, in this way ‘they don’t just get what they want – they might just get what they need!’
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