The Alternative Board likes to know what entrepreneurs and small business owners are thinking — how optimistic are they going into 2015? Are they happy with their decision to go into business? What things would they have done differently, looking back? As small business owners work on the front lines of the economy, they have an important perspective to offer about changes and trends impacting business at large.
We recently conducted a Small Business Pulse survey of hundreds of business owners to find out how they feel about the coming year, what changes they’d make if they had the chance to start all over again and where they think entrepreneurs should spend their time and resources.
Strategic planning, marketing and sales were some of the most common areas where business owners wish they had spent more time and resources. In particular, the entrepreneurs we surveyed wish they had sought out the advice of experts and mentors on these challenging subjects.
A Profile of the Entrepreneurs Surveyed
Of the entrepreneurs we surveyed, the vast majority are veteran small business owners, with 95% having owned their own business for four or more years and most running businesses that employ fewer than 50 people. The majority build their businesses from the ground up, while 17% took over a family business. They span a variety of industries, from professional services to manufacturing and engineering.
How would entrepreneurs have done things differently?
We asked our respondents two sets of questions to determine how they would have spent their time and money differently, given the chance to start over again. Despite their overall sense of confidence, in hindsight, the business owners we surveyed would make several changes in planning and resource allocation.
Given the chance to focus their time and budget on different things, respondents said they would invest more in marketing, finding and turning leads, strategic planning and hiring the right talent.
If they could turn back time, respondents would devote more hours to:
- Strategic Planning (27%)
- Sales (20%)
- Marketing/Advertising/PR (18%)
- Hiring and training employees (11%)
And they would spend more money on:
- Marketing/advertising/PR (20%)
- Hiring and training employees (18%)
- Sales (17%)
- Strategic planning (15%)
Strategic planning made the top four in both categories and was the primary area where respondents would have spent more time. Strategic planning helps entrepreneurs lay out where their business is, where they want it to go and how they’ll get there, from expanding operations to reaching new market segments.
Mapping out your sales, operations, advertising, marketing, public relations and growth strategies can all fall under the strategic planning umbrella. Experts and mentors can help shape the plan, but the biggest investment is the time it takes to fully understand your business and develop a well thought out roadmap for its future.
Interestingly, some commonly discussed aspects of starting a business were not mentioned in the responses. Operations, technology investments and product development were all ranked low on the wish list, and only 1% of respondents would have spent more time seeking investors and venture capital.
Incidentally, only 1% of respondents reported having received any venture capital to start their business, with the majority of them using their own savings. So if you’re starting a business but stressed out about making the fundraising rounds, don’t worry too much — many have achieved success without the help of outside funding. According the entrepreneurs we surveyed, it’s more important to have a strong strategic plan for business growth.
It would be easy to assume that funding is the most important factor at the start of any commercial venture, but given the choice to have invested more time or money from the start, 40% of respondents wish they’d spent more time on their businesses.
They would have spent their time more efficiently, investing more in planning and organization. No matter how much money you have in the bank, there are only so many hours in the day. Respondents wish they had prepared themselves to go into business by spending time improving their time management skills (33%) and strategic thinking (41%). Again, almost none of the respondents said they wish they had spent more time trying to raise money.
Getting (and keeping) customers matters more than developing new products
Weak sales and lead generation programs can stop a company from reaching its potential and cripple the growth of the business. Even if you have the world’s greatest product, you need to develop strong relationships with your customers to get your product out the door.
The majority (80%) of survey respondents said that developing customer relationships mattered more than developing new products and services, and 35% said that a system or plan to generate more leads early on would have helped them grow their business. It’s not that the product quality doesn’t matter. Most business owners probably had a solid product or service to launch their business. The important take-away from these findings is for new owners to place a high priority on lead generations and customer relationships in the early stages.
And don’t be shy about it — 86% of respondents reported that they wish they had been more aggressive, rather than cautious, at the start of their business. Stronger marketing and strategic planning may help make that possible.
Your product might be a “game changer”, but the way to grow your business is to create happy customers who will consistently deliver referrals and new leads. One of the best ways for a new business to get there is to seek expert advice, then build a plan for sales and marketing that looks years — not months — into the future.
Surrounding Your Business with the Right People
Many respondents feel that leveraging a stronger network would have given them a leg up on their business. The number one response from those surveyed was that they would have benefited most from better coaching and mentoring. The second most common response expressed regret for not having built a better network of experts for advice.
“We found that entrepreneurs are confident in their products and services, but feel they would have benefited from better planning and more guidance,” says Jason Zickerman, CEO of The Alternative Board. “24% of entrepreneurs say that better coaches and mentors would make the single biggest difference in their businesses if they did it over. Only 2% say that a better product would.”
What advice would seasoned business owners who act as mentors offer to newly minted entrepreneurs?
“Find your customers, and surround yourself with smart people,” says Zickerman. “It’s one thing to think about what you would do differently, but it’s another to have that guidance when you’re just starting out. That’s why business owners are looking at solutions like The Alternative Board — they’re realizing that there are entrepreneurs who have been there and done that, and can help them avoid learning these lessons the hard way.”
Turning insights into profits
There’s one thing that’s absolutely clear from these survey results: entrepreneurs can benefit greatly from strategic planning and expert help at the outset of their business. Every entrepreneur has gaps in his or her knowledge about some aspect of the business they’re building, whether it’s in sales, marketing and PR, lead development or building customer relationships. These are all areas where expert help and advice can make the difference between stagnation and success. Why spend time and resources reinventing the wheel?
While a plurality of respondents became entrepreneurs because of a desire to be their own boss, nearly a fifth of respondents were motivated to start their businesses because of the faith they had in their product or service — a passion born from their “lightbulb moment.” Although that passion can help a business grow, a solid foundation in strategic planning, marketing and sales can help turn an entrepreneur’s zeal into a successful business.
A positive outlook
Business owners are as optimistic as ever, with 82% of survey respondents expecting an increase in revenue in the next year. This is not surprising, given that in the past year, 78% of respondents saw their sales increase or hold steady. In this positive climate, it makes sense that the vast majority of respondents reported that they’re still happy with the decision to start their own company.
Community support helps entrepreneurs thrive
This general satisfaction is bolstered by family and community support. The vast majority of respondents (93%) said that the people around them provided necessary emotional support while they built and ran their businesses. With so much financial stress on entrepreneurs’ shoulders, that emotional support can be crucial to a business’s success.
But beyond your friends and family giving their vote of confidence when you embark on your venture, fellow entrepreneurs also play an important role, both as mentors and an overall support network for people starting a business for the first time. The takeaway for those considering making the move to entrepreneurship? Find other business owners. They’ll offer not only valuable perspective and wisdom, but also a sense of camaraderie for when times get tough.
Still want more?
With thousands of members across the globe, The Alternative Board offers business owner advisory boards, executive coaching and business training to help budding entrepreneurs and seasoned professionals grow their businesses, increase profits and improve their lives. If you want to find out more about how your business can benefit from strategic planning, mentoring and more, contact us today.