I work at a big tech company now, but I still feel (and approach my work) like an entrepreneur. It wasn’t that long ago that I was running ShareFile from my kitchen. Since then, I’ve learned a bit about managing a business. And while I’m often in the position of speaking with and offering guidance to entrepreneurs, a lot of what I’ve learned can apply to small businesses, too.
So in honor of Small Business Week, I offer these tips gleaned from my years in small businesses, my many mistakes, and my lucky successes:
1. Focus on the problem you’re solving, not the solution.
Business people often mistake the What with the How of their business. The What is the problem you’re trying to solve. The How is the mechanism by which you’ll solve the problem. When you focus on the What, you’re open to new solutions and changing technologies that can help you solve your customer’s problems faster and better. If you’re glued to the How, you might miss chances for growth and change.
2. Stop reading business books and start reading Darwin.
The environment around us is going to change. Fast. And there’s not a business book out there that can accurately predict what’s next. So gather advice, stay knowledgeable, but remember Darwin: the nimble ones among us are the winners. Position and prepare your company to adapt to a changing environment and move quickly when the market changes to maximize your odds of survival.
3. Know thy customer.
One of the most important ways you serve your customer is by understanding him. Deeply. Consider Ron Johnson’s failure at JC Penney: he brought his Apple sensibility to the JC Penney crowd. Brilliant? Not so much to the loyal Penney’s customer who didn’t fit the Apple profile. What works for Apple, or Google, or any other company might not work for yours. Know your customers, understand their needs and pain points, and solve for them — not you.
4. Pace yourself.
When we’re overworked, we tend to make bad decisions. So when your decisions are driving the work and resources of your entire team, it’s particularly important that you are at your best. Research backs me up: doing things like eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep make you a better decision-maker and leader. Taking care of yourself is taking care of the business.
5. Always test.
Experimenting on a small scale lets you take risks and refine without disrupting the whole enterprise. Before you overhaul your website’s cart, for instance, roll out your new version to a subset of visitors to make sure everything works. Your test might confirm your bright idea, or it might point out flaws that can be worked out before everyone sees them. (Just think what a small-scale test could have done for the Obamacare website.)
OK, those are my lessons learned from starting and running a business. What are yours?