Time to reflect on your business

We all need to reflect on our business more often but with that reflection comes the big questions that you might have been avoiding. 

However, once you’ve taken a step back and identified what needs to change then you don’t need to try and reinvent the wheel to do it.

You can also hear this article as a podcast

In business, we spend a lot of our day-to-day time on the actual doing.  We find ourselves working to everyone else’s agenda, and our to-do list is dictated by what drops into our inbox.  By the time you actually get to the things that you needed to do it’s already the end of the day!  If you’ve ever worked with a business coach then you might have heard the phrase that “you need to spend more time working ON the business and less time working IN it”.  Because when you are building a business, it’s easy to get a few steps in and then get stuck there.

If you have a business but it’s not able to pay you a wage yet then it’s just a hobby.  And sometimes a very expensive one, especially if it’s costing you money to run it.  This might sound quite harsh and it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to become a business, but if you’re not getting paid for what you are doing then right now it’s a hobby or a past-time and will remain so for as long as your income is coming from somewhere else, and you need to be honest with yourself about this.  Or you might be able to pay yourself a wage from your business but if the company cannot keep running when you decide to take some time off then you haven’t built a business yet, you’ve just built a full-time job for yourself.  But unlike working for someone else, you don’t get the benefit of 28 days holiday allowance and sick pay!  Both these scenarios will be familiar to most business owners and, in fact, most businesses go through these stages in some way or another.

And sometimes you don’t realise that you have got stuck at these stages which is why reflecting on where you are is so important.  And if you actually want to build a business, then you need to get past these stages as quickly as you can, not have them as a target.  But just working more hours will not get you out of these stages.  It requires more than just effort, it requires a step-change, a fundamental or creative restructuring of what you are doing.  It requires you to be able to step out of the day-to-day ‘doing’ and plan what actions you need to take to move your business to the next stage.

So if your business at the moment is just a hobby because you are not getting paid yet, then what do you need to do to move that business to a place where it can pay you a wage?  What are you going to have to do very differently to break out of your current thinking?  If you have just built yourself a full-time job where the business has to shut down or come with you on holiday, then what needs to happen for the company to become independent of you?  What needs to happen so that the income it generates isn’t directly tied to the hours you work?  Can you imagine what it would be like if all companies had to shut down production and stop making sales just because the CEO needed to take the day off?!  And we’re not just talking about sole traders here.  I’ve known businesses with more than ten staff that were completely incapable of operating if the managing director wasn’t there in the building because it was built around a single person.

But it doesn’t just stop there.  Maybe your business does run quite well day-to-day independently of you.  Maybe it’s generating good revenue and has found a deal of success.  And if this is your company right now, then you need to ask how are you going to move it to the stage where it’s actually making an impact with that profit, how is it making the world a better place?  How can you create a company that actually has a purpose that is bigger than yourself?

 

And the truth is: moving past any of these stages doesn’t just happen organically.  For every business you see that is successful, at some point the owners of that business have sat down and set a course.  They have defined the goals that were going to make a significant difference to that business and then made sure that work was diligently carried out and completed to bring those goals into view.  Because to build any successful business, you really need to work in that time to step-out of the day-to-day work and reflect on what you are doing – to keep putting your head above water to see which way you’re actually heading.  Do you have a business, or is it still just a hobby?  Have you built a business, or have you just built yourself a full-time job without the employee benefits?  Is your company just making money, or is it actually having a positive impact and moving us closer to the vegan world that we all so dearly want?

If the company cannot keep running when you decide to take some time off then you haven’t built a business yet, you’ve just built a full-time job for yourself but without the employee benefits!

And sometimes, asking those questions is hard.  Sometimes they are the questions that you have been purposely avoiding.  Because to truthfully answer those questions might mean evaluating the core thing that you are doing.  For example, do you remember the company Kodak?  For a century, Kodak were the market leaders in photography.  If you took a photo you probably took it using a Kodak camera using Kodak film which was printed on Kodak photographic paper.  And you think you probably already know how that story ended: Kodak lost out to the digital photography revolution which resulted in the company filing for bankruptcy in 2012.  But it’s not quite that simple.  Because what you probably didn’t know was that Kodak actually pretty much invented digital photography.  The very first digital camera was developed by Kodak engineer Steve Sasson in 1975 (pictured) and Kodak brought out one of the earliest consumer digital cameras to market in 1991.  So what went wrong?

 

The reason why Kodak failed was that they didn’t realise they were in the taking photos business.  And that sounds ridiculous, but to them, they were in the photographic film business.  Then when film declined in use they were in the camera business.  Then when everyone had a camera built into their phones they decided they were in the printer business.  And as we know, people then stopped printing photos and started sharing them online – and while tech founders were building the first online photo sites that would eventually become behemoths like Instagram, Kodak acquired early photo-sharing platform Ofoto and rebranded it to ‘Kodak Gallery’.  A smart move, but the reason we now all use Flickr and Instagram and not Kodak Gallery is because even at that point, Kodak still thought they were in the paper and ink business, not the taking photos business.  The Kodak Gallery photo-sharing site was completely free to use, you could upload your photos and share them with all your friends and family.  But if you didn’t order a physical print of your photo within 90 days of uploading, the site deleted that file.  Gone.  Kodak didn’t fail because it didn’t innovate, it innovated constantly and with industry-leading talent.  It failed because it was inflexible in its view of what the company was.  It didn’t follow the customer, it kept trying to get the customer to follow it.

And it’s easy to laugh at Kodak but how often do we do that with our own businesses?  How many times have we turned down an opportunity or have we not followed a trend because we’ve simply said: “that’s not what our company does, that’s not the business we’re in”?  And that’s why you need to make regular time to reflect on your business and what you are doing because that’s when you can ask those questions.  That’s when you can say: “well, what business am I actually in?”

Blockbuster video thought it was a video and DVD hire company whereas Netflix knew it was a content company where the format was irrelevant.  Imagine if Amazon had refused to budge from its initial concept of just being an online book-seller!  In your business, you need to constantly ask where the value for the customer lies.  Is it in the product you sell or is it in your knowledge?  What is your customer’s end goal and how are you helping them achieve it, not just trying to sell them the product or service that you make?  And without taking the time to reflect, you will never ask the kinds of questions that might be a pivotal turning point in your business.  Because, as we said, they can be scary questions to ask.  They are questions we avoid because the answers might mean making big changes.  One of the reasons why many businesses never reach the level they should is because of fear, our own self-limiting beliefs.

Even thinking about taking your business further than you know how to can trigger a fight-or-flight response.  And for many of us, burying ourselves in the day-to-day ‘work’ of our businesses is a way of choosing ‘flight’.  We’re avoiding doing those big scary things that will rock the boat of the business we’ve built by keeping busy doing the day-to-day work so we never have to address them.  But sometimes, rocking the boat is exactly what’s needed.

Kodak didn’t fail because it didn’t innovate, it innovated constantly and with industry-leading talent. It failed because it was inflexible in its view of what the company was. It didn’t follow the customer, it kept trying to get the customer to follow it.

So how do you do this?  How do you take a step back from your business and reflect on what you are doing?  A lot of entrepreneurs work reflection into their calendars.  They might book off Friday afternoons to go for a walk or to spend some time sitting in their local coffee shop with their notebook.  I suspect that even just reading this article has got you thinking about your business, what stage it’s at and where it’s heading.  And creating space is a wonderful thing to do.  How many times have you gone away on a holiday, or even just gone for a long walk, and then come back with an idea that will move your business forward?  Even if that’s just taking a Friday afternoon off once a month and going and sitting in your local coffee shop with your notebook.  But you need to keep your eyes on the horizon, you should never stop thinking about what needs to be done next to move your business forward.

So start by looking back at what you’ve done so far.  What has been successful this last year, what have you learned?  What have customers kept telling you over and again?  Have they been telling you your prices are too low?  Have they all been asking if you deliver a certain kind of service or make a certain product and you’ve kept telling them no?  Why have you kept telling them no?  Because it’s impractical to give them what they want (in which case, can you make it practical?!) or because, just like Kodak, you’ve set yourself too stringent rules to what your company is?

Consider what you’ve really enjoyed this last year, what’s got you jumping out of bed in the morning – because if you’ve found something in your business that genuinely makes you jump out of bed in the morning then build your business around that!  Building a business can be really hard, there’s always grind, but you are far more likely to succeed when you bring together your passion with how you make a living.  And in the same way, look at the things that you absolutely dread doing in your business, the things that keep pulling you down, and ask can you do less of them or just stop doing them all together?  Maybe it’s time to stop doing your own book-keeping and accounts if that’s taking away your joy from your business.  Maybe it’s time to let someone else do your social media if you hate doing it.  Or maybe it’s even time to stop making your product yourself.  Find someone else who will make it for you (or who already make something just as good) and are happy for you to put your label on it instead.  Or if you are a service business but what you actually really love is building customer relationships and finding sales, then is it time to find someone else to actually deliver your service?  Why does it need to be you if your skills and energy are better used elsewhere to build the business you want to build, because that might be the first step to building a company that is independent from you.

On the flip side, once you have this knowledge you can use it to enter a new marketplace or take on a competitor yourself.  You will start to spot how big companies use these pricing strategies themselves. When Disney launched into the home streaming market with their Disney+ platform, they knew that consumers would not see them as being as good as Netflix so they undercut Netflix on price.  Disney have the cash reserves to play the long game and spent that time working on gaining an advantage over Netflix that would make them more attractive to customers. Namely buying Marvel and Star Wars to provide content that fans would recognise and Netflix couldn’t replicate. And as soon as Disney’s research shows them that the consumer now values the platform as highly as Netflix you bet they will put their prices up to match.

So can you apply this same knowledge in your own marketplace? Take a look at plant milk. Oatley retains its first-mover advantage and continues to work hard to keep it. You would be a fool to try and out-Oatley Oatley. Many have tried, copying the quirkiness of the brand, but most haven’t got anywhere near the same results. Those who have stolen some of Oatley’s customers are the supermarkets who have been able to use their economies of scale and buying power to bring out oat milk at a third of the price of Oatley. But they have only stolen the customers who were always going to jump to cheaper options as soon as there were good enough options – those people were never really Oatley customers in the first place. But Oatley continue to grow regardless, mainly down to the work they did before the others entered the marketplace of cementing their position. And while there’s a number of companies innovating in the market and bringing out new products like potato milk (which is seen as a more sustainable option to Soya and Oats) all Oatley would have to do is bring out Oatley Potato if one of those product really took off and any competitive advantage is gone. But why not let the other companies build up the acceptance of drinking potato and pea-protein milk first?!

 

Because you should never be worried about tackling a problem that you don’t yet know how to solve yet.  Instead, have belief in your ability to learn.  Look at the skills you have now, how many of those did you start out with?  Look at how far you have already come since you started your business.  What didn’t you know how to do on day one that you take for granted now?  Not knowing how to do something should never be a barrier to moving your business along, we’re all natural learners.  There is absolutely no need for you to try and reinvent the wheel.  If you hit a problem in your business that is stopping you, I guarantee that other people will have hit the same problem and already solved it.  We live in the information age where for every problem there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of YouTube videos, podcasts, online courses and step-by-step instructions on how to solve it.  Or if it’s a big enough issue that lots of people have, then people will likely offer services to solve it for you. 

 

Let’s have a bullet point recap of what we’ve just covered in this article:

  1. It’s easy to get stuck at the early stages in your business.  Remember, if you are not able to pay yourself a wage then you don’t have a business yet, it’s a hobby.  If the business cannot keep running when you decide to take some time off then you haven’t built a business yet, you’ve just built a full-time job for yourself without employee benefits.
  2. Kodak didn’t fail because it didn’t keep up with digital photography, it failed because it didn’t realise what business it was in.  That’s why Flickr and Instagram are the new giants of the photography industry.  How many opportunities are you not following because you have too narrow a scope of what your business is?  Imagine if Amazon had refused to be anything other than an online bookseller.
  3. It’s important to make time to reflect.  Book in an afternoon stroll in the countryside with your team to talk about the business or go to your local vegan cafe with your notebook.
  4. Reflection leads to some big questions and sometimes big questions can be scary.  One of the reasons why many businesses never reach the level they could is because of fear.  Sometimes there’s a lot you need to let go of to move your business forward.
  5. Start your reflection by looking at what you’ve achieved so far but also consider what your customers have been asking you for the most this last year.  What have you enjoyed doing and can you do more of that?  As we know, when you combine your business with your passion, that’s when the magic happens!
  6. Then take a look at what you’ve enjoyed doing the least.  Is it time to let other people do those things for you or just stop doing them all together?
  7. Then look forward.  Remember you are the expert in your marketplace, so what’s your gut feeling of where you need to be heading?  Identify what’s holding you back from doing that and making those changes.
  8. Remember, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.  We live in the information age and it’s called that for a reason – so if something is holding your business back then find out how others are solving that same problem and learn from them.

 

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