Finding the time to grow – not just run – the business

By Sherron Lumley.

For many small business owners, finding the time to grow, not just run their business can be a perennial challenge. “It’s tough,” says Sharon Rose, owner of Rose City Acupuncture in Portland, Oregon. In addition to seeing clients throughout the day, Rose keeps her own books, manages her own billing, writes a monthly newsletter, and handles the marketing for her business.

“With relatively few resources and often no support staff, managers of the nation’s 26 million small businesses can find themselves even more pressed for time than overworked and stressed-out colleagues in big corporations,” writes Hillary Chura for The New York Times.

Pull-Quote3.pngTo get a sense of the challenge and scale of the small business growth problem, a 2011 National Small Business Association (NSBA) survey of 400 small-business owners reported, “Unfortunately, 45 percent do not believe there will be any growth opportunities for their business in the coming year,” and, the number of small businesses reporting decreases in profits was just as large, at 46 percent. In another new report by market research firm Infogroup, more than half of the small business surveyed—56 percent—reported their “growth” was flat or had declined in the previous 12 months.

Creating a blueprint for change

But in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit, both the NSBA and Infogroup surveys found that a majority of small businesses reported feeling confident about the future of their own individual firms, with most anticipating growth. So how does one go about making growth a reality?

Distinguishing short-term goals from long-term goals is an important first step in putting one’s business on a growth track. Long-term goals are big picture, purposeful and mission statement driven. Short-term goals are S.M.A.R.T: Specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-specific. “Give yourself daily, weekly and monthly activities and standards to which you hold yourself personally accountable,” writes Bob Phibbs in his book, The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business. “You must feel all of the work is worth it, or you will be doomed to failure.”

Kurt Andrews, who runs his own American Family Insurance Agency in rural Corvallis, Oregon, definitely feels his work is worth the time investment. Though he has two employees, Andrews still handles most day-to-day operations, saying, “I believe in being available to speak with my customers personally.” That’s not surprising since it was that same personal touch that helped him initially build his customer base—his early sales prospecting involved heading out to construction sites with coolers full of ice water in the summer and coffee and donuts in the winter to chat up small contractors and their employees.

Twelve years later, though, taking care of all his current customers leaves him little time to find new ones, he acknowledges. “I can’t rest on my laurels,” he says, “It’s change or die.” To avoid that fate, Andrews says he would like to grow his business by ten percent in 2012. Again, that short-term goal is precise, measurable and time-specific. And to accomplish this goal, he is specifically blocking off four hours per week to focus on growth, make cold calls, and contact referrals. He will also participate in an upcoming Farm Expo to meet potential new clients and plans to take the time to visit all of the local co-ops and grain elevators in his farming community this year.
Don’t make today the enemy of tomorrow

Time management expert Peter Turla, founder of the National Management Institute, says, “Many people prioritize items based on what’s most urgent and what’s next-most urgent.” Instead, he says the key is to ask, “How does this activity fit in with my long-term objectives and where I want to go with a particular project or with my career or my life?”

Although it is tempting to concentrate solely on building relationships with existing customers, this can’t be a business’s sole focus if it is to survive and prosper. When the NSBA surveyed small business owners about which future growth strategies they plan to implement in the coming 12 months, the top four responses were: new advertising and marketing strategies (43 percent), expanded Internet presence and e-commerce (36 percent), and strategic alliances (26 percent). However, “no growth strategies planned” came in at fourth with 24 percent.

“With me,” says Rose, “I see people a couple of times and then they are healed and they go away, so I always need to find new business.” To raise the visibility of her acupuncture business, Rose takes advantage of 20 minute pockets of time to update her business Facebook page, network with other professionals, and handle email correspondence, tasks that will ultimately lead to more business. Occasionally, she sacrifices a weekday of appointments to participate in trade shows, where she offers a limited range of services to attendees, who she sees as potential future customers. “I lose a Friday when I do a trade show over the weekend,” she explains, “but it’s essential.”

Learning to delegate

Do it, ditch it, or delegate it is a favorite tenet of time management, but of the three Ds, delegating is the perhaps the hardest for small business owners to do. “If you want your business to grow, you need extra brains—not just extra brawn—no matter how smart you are,” says Rhonda Abrams, author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies. She adds, “While this may seem self-evident, hire well. Just as it’s easier to be a good parent if you have good kids, it’s much easier to be a good boss if you have good employees.”

To better delegate his agency’s clerical tasks, Andrews hired an assistant to work afternoons and a licensed agent who works in the mornings. His assistant takes care of the front desk responsibilities, filing and making past due calls, while the additional agent can handle functions that require an insurance license, such as following up on leads. Although he intends to stay available to his customers, having the phone lines covered throughout the day at a minimum frees his time to pursue his business growth strategy.

Creating a blueprint for change, prioritizing tasks with an eye toward bigger goals, and understanding the importance of delegating: following these three steps will help small business owners finally find the time to grow, not just run their companies.

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