I was meeting with a business owner to discuss business structure and changes that could be made to achieve more success going forward. The owner was frustrated. Even though they were passionate about what they were doing the service they provided, and the quality and care that went in to creating their product, people just weren’t getting it. They launched their own business more than five years ago, but even now they aren’t profiting enough to leave their “real job,” which they are now working on a part-time basis.
One of my first questions was “In a perfect world, and if all went according to plan, where do you see yourself in the next five years?” It’s a fairly basic question of short-term goals and it usually leads to a discussion of longer-range concepts and ideas of how to get there.
I’d like to tell you that I was shocked when the business owner’s answer was, “Well, we haven’t really thought of that,” but it didn’t surprise me. I hear that quite a bit.
In a business planning meeting for another company, one owner told me, “We haven’t had time to plan more than five years. We just have to roll with things as they come.”
It is true that you can’t plan for everything and that there will always be unforeseen dilemmas or circumstances, but you have to have a big-picture plan in place. Without a clear vision of the larger picture, the small details, hiccups and every little blip along the way have an opportunity to sidetrack and thwart you from achieving your “ideal business.”
If you have the big picture, milestones and end goals in place, the small fires that come up won’t be as distracting. You’ll be able to clearly delineate priorities and those seemingly important tasks that aren’t as important in the long run as they might appear in the present.
For instance, if you know your goal is to be prepared for retirement in the next five years, you know you need to get your business prepared for sale or transfer of ownership. There are real tasks to getting your business to that point: Clearing out debts, grooming a replacement or seeking out a buyer for your business and setting up procedures that make your business viable even after you aren’t there anymore.
If you merely say, “We’ll retire when the business is ready,” you’re likely to spend the rest of your life waiting for some sort of magic to work. I see this a lot too, where business owners haven’t planned for retirement and end up working until they die, passing on a business that is laden with debt and not capable of running without that key individual who is no longer with us.
We’ve all heard that “failure to plan is planning to fail,” and yet we have business owners who run around day after day, fighting fires, chasing new leads, working to the point of exhaustion, but not following any sort of plan for the end goal.
If you don’t already have one, start outlining a company vision or mission statement. This should give a brief overview of who you are as a business, a glimpse at who your customers are and how you treat them, as well as what your company culture is. What are your ideals? How do you treat employees and stakeholders?
There are several branches of planning once you get that vision in place, but it is a good starting point and it is a good thing to have in front of you as you dive into the day-to-day business functions.
Then, as the unexpected arrives you can reference your vision — would taking on this project fit with our vision of providing “x” to the “y” market? Or does it take away from our overall vision?
Does responding to this email four days later fit with our promise to “provide outstanding customer service”? “Does selling food from Louisiana fit with our ideal of providing locally sourced ingredients?”
There are a multitude of ways in which to challenge your day-to-day operations by considering your vision. But you cannot do that if the vision has not been spelled out.
Kim Bowsher started her management track at Starbucks in Seattle. She now helps small businesses, putting to work the lessons she learned in the coffee business. Contact her at email@example.com.