Sarah Loates, who founded her own highly successful Loates Business Solutions after two decades climbing the corporate ladder, gives her advice to businesses just starting out.
Whatever the reason behind deciding to start up a company, there are some things that are always going to be important. Going it alone does feel like a huge, brave leap in the dark; after all, for many of us, you’re turning your back on the safety of an existing business and believing in your own instincts to make it out there. But with the right attitude, plenty of drive and planning, the huge feeling of satisfaction in making a success of your own business idea is a true reward in itself. There will be plenty of pitfalls along the way, but here is how to avoid some of them.
Believe in yourself
It is very, very hard to be successful in business without a large degree of honesty. Before you start, it is vital to have a good look at yourself, your ideas and your strengths, and work out what it is that you personally are best at doing. Examine your offering from every angle and make sure you’re happy with your business plan, because when you start, you will need enormous amounts of self-belief to convince others that your fledgling company is worth buying into and from. To that end, price your services fairly – don’t think that massively underselling yourself will help you get off the ground; it will simply make it much harder to put your prices up to a reasonable level when you need to.
When it comes to your involvement in your own business, work out where you add most value and try to spend as much time as possible doing that. Understand you can’t do everything your business needs, and delegate everything else.
When planning your business at the outset, be clear on your vision and your USP. In our case at Loates, we’re all about long-term relationships and personal service. Whatever it is you want to do differently from other companies in your field, don’t lose sight of it. As your business progresses, always know where you’re going. You will find this really helps make decisions, as you will be able to consider whether they move you towards or away from your planned objective.
Get your tech right
Efficiency is vital in a start-up. Everything takes so much longer at first that you don’t want to be wasting time on things that could be done quickly. Look around carefully for the best, time-saving IT systems for you, plus reliable support for those services. Also invest time in making sure you have effective financial processes in place. These are areas where you really don’t want to mess up.
Don’t burn out
A lot of people who set up their own business exhaust themselves by trying to do everything and burning the candle at both ends. It may be tempting in the short-term to think that working flat-out is the way to succeed, but you must remember that you are in business for the long-term. Pace yourself. Don’t be afraid to take holidays when you need them. Manage your energy on the right things and try to work on a ratio of finding 80 per cent benefit from 20 per cent effort.
When it comes to your energy levels, you will find that recruiting the right team is absolutely key. You have a business plan so communicate it clearly to whoever you are interviewing for any job. If they buy into it, they will work much better for you than just doing as you say without any conviction.
The demands of the day-to-day will always be pressing. But you ignore the future at your peril. As the business unfolds you will see what your long-term problems may be so try to think of contingency plans in case these materialise. Hope for the best; plan for the worst.
Following on from that, it is very important to allow some time for strategic thinking. Take some time out from the everyday for your long-term “eating an elephant” tasks. You will know the ones. The big things that you mean to get on top of, but somehow life gets in the way. Don’t let it. It’s your business, after all.
Treat people well
The image of the nasty business leader stepping on people on their way to the top is truly a thing of the past. Make good use of all your network of contacts and build relationships. Treat people well, play the long game and sales will follow. At Loates, the majority of new business is from personal recommendations and the majority of our clients are long-standing ones who repeatedly use our services. Go to networking events but treat them as building relationships, rather than making sales. People these days are generally wise to the “hard sell” and don’t go for it, and if you go down this route you may just come across as desperate.
Develop critical listening skills
It is vital to listen carefully to clients when they tell you what they want. But when listening, also ask questions so you can try to understand what their business objective is, rather than simply rushing to implement the solution that they’re asking you for. You know the marketplace, and there may be a better way to achieve the thing that they need, and you will impress by making different suggestions that show you really know what you’re talking about. One of my first questions to any client is always: “What are you actually trying to achieve?”
There is no room for dithering in business. You must be decisive. My rule of thumb is that a timely decision is better than a “perfect” one. That doesn’t mean that you must rush into things. A decision not to act is still a decision.
Don’t be afraid to try new ideas, but measure their effectiveness so that you know when they’re not working. Remember the vision of your company and test any new ideas to check they comply with your main plan. Being creative doesn’t mean being wacky for the sake of it. If your new idea isn’t working, take corrective action sooner rather than later. You should never be too proud to admit when your idea – which might have looked great on paper – simply didn’t work.
In summary, be passionate, work hard, take time off, and find satisfaction in what you do. Running your own business is a great thing. I haven’t looked back since I set up mine.