How To Keep Your Business Headed In The Right Direction

By Tom Harnish on 2 November 2011 (Updated 10 November 2011) 0 comments
Photo: boocaphoto

How do you know you aren’t working harder and harder to do better and better at something you shouldn’t be doing at all?

Part of the answer is to make sure you know where you’re going. The other part of the answer is to make sure you're making good progress getting there.

Charting a Business Voyage

Contrary to popular opinion, Christopher Columbus—an entrepreneur in every respect—had a very good idea where he was headed and no fear of falling off the edge of the earth. Earlier sailors hinted at a route to the Orient, and mariners and landlubbers alike had known the world was round for over 1700 years before his historic voyage.

But in a sea of business uncertainty, how do you figure out where you want to go and how to get there? The answer is to have a plan and track your progress.

Strategic planning isn't just for large businesses. You don't need a Plans Division or a formal document that could double as an anchor. In a few hours you can create a useful working document that will set you on course.

In a fast moving environment, such as smart phone app development, a five-year plan doesn't make sense; nobody knows what the iPhone 10 will be able to do. Anyway, the plan isn't the point. Its value is in the thought process and the strategy you develop.

1. Know Why You're Going

Knowing the purpose of your business sounds easy enough, but under the surface you’ll find a variety of alternatives.

Do you want to build a nice little Mom and Pop business that allows you to take out, say, $150,000 year after taxes? That’s a common and noble objective that requires one kind of strategy.

But maybe you’ve already been doing that for 20 years and have decided it’s time to cash out so you can pay more attention to your hobby, go into politics, or sail to the South Pacific. That requires an entirely different course.

Do you have a bright idea for a web-based business that you hope will go viral and let you sell out in five years for megabucks? A strategy designed to produce rapid growth obviously has to be different from one designed to produce a steady income stream.

2. Know Where You're Going

To make sure Mom & Pop Inc. is successful, you might want to focus on controlling costs, and set a goal to cap your fixed costs at, say, 30 percent of sales.

If the goal is to sell your company, three years of profitable growth and consistent or increasing margins should guide your efforts.

The web business will be easy to copy, so you’ll need to get in quick, buy market share if you have too, and demonstrate potential even if you never make a profit.

3. Plan Your Course

Once you know where you're going, you have to plan how you're going to get there.

A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) is a great way to take a look at your own, your competitor’s, and your industry’s situation.

When you’re sailing, if you’re thinking about what’s happening right now, you’re already in trouble, even if nothing bad is going on. You need to be thinking about what’s going to happen next, and a SWOT analysis can help you do that. The result of your efforts will be a list of objectives to help you reach your goals.

Ma & Pa Inc. might have as one objective to reduce real estate costs, or perhaps find a way to reduce shipping costs on the products they order for resale.

But if you’re trying to sell your business you might add an objective to also maximize gross profit by making sure to keep your prices as high as possible. Every extra dollar you generate will be worth $3 to $5 when you sell. And raising prices won’t hurt sales as much as you might think. In fact, you might actually make more money, and work less.

If you’re developing bleeding edge software an objective might be to have a prototype working for display at an important trade show.

4. Watch Where You’re Going

If you don’t track your progress through good times and bad you won’t know if you’re meeting your objectives and goals designed to achieve your company’s purpose.

Tracking your progress alerts you to changes in market currents or economic winds that can blow off course. Telltale signs offer an early warning that it’s time to do something. Over and over business people (and sailors) either decide to wait and see if things get better (they inevitably will change, but not necessarily for the better), or people are paralyzed into indecision.

Chart Your Course

To sum up, a strategic plan will help you navigate the rough waters of change if you:

  • take the time to understand where you’re trying to go;
  • chart a course to get you there;
  • track your progress against your plan; and
  • take action when you’re off course.
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