The economic conditions for new businesses starting out are tough. There is no question of that.
The global economy is still in the grips of a long and sustained recession. Consumers have less money in their pocket so spending remains tight. The host of macro-level uncertainties has created an environment that is hardly conducive to starting out alone or growing a small business.
Despite these challenges, there is still optimism in the business community. For example, in the UK, SAPs own research, recently published on ThinkBigGrowFast, showed that 96% of SMEs are looking to grow their businesses and just under half are expecting to grow by more than 10% year-on-year.
This optimism might seem misplaced to some – but in certain respects start-ups have never had it so good. The tools at their disposal and the unrestricted opportunities to grow and succeed have never been greater.
As a marketer, technologist and a former business owner myself, I passionately believe there has never been a better time to start a business.
I started my marketing career working for Pirelli, one of the world’s leading tire manufacturers, which led to other opportunities in corporate marketing. While organizations like that provide a great “big picture” perspective, the “entrepreneur” in me was intrigued by the possibility of creating my own business.
I made the leap in 1992 when I launched the first of two marketing services/consultancy firms. Like any young business, we had growing pains, but turned those challenges (being a small start-up) to our advantage (moving faster than our larger competitors and filling specific niche needs in the marketplace). Over time, it enabled both firms to gain traction and grow our customer base and our revenues.
During that time I learnt some valuable lessons about running a business which have stuck with me throughout my career. But today, breakthroughs in technology have shortened the learning curve and lowered the barriers for growing companies.
Part of my work now involves helping SAP market its products and services to small, medium and growing businesses. For savvy business owners, the path to growth and success no longer needs to be dominated by guesswork and uncertainty; just make sure your business plan addresses these five important considerations:
1. A new breed of customers.
The Internet has created what I like to call “the age of the informed customer.” They’re savvy, selective and use the web to gather the information they need to make better, more informed buying decisions. The recommendations of their industry peers have a growing influence on their buying decisions.
It’s no longer a case of the product or service with the biggest advertising budget winning the lion’s share of the customer’s wallet; companies have to continue to deliver innovation and value. Customers are no longer as strongly bonded to their suppliers; small and growing companies are in a great position to take advantage of that. SMEs can increasingly go toe-to-toe with big business… and win.
2. Grow beyond your market.
Thanks to advancements in IT and logistics, the world is truly flat. Businesses are no longer limited to a local market or region. You can now attract customers whether they’re around the corner or around the world. Potential customers are everywhere and online research tools make the task of finding them easier than before. Put the time into your online prospecting and embrace a “global” business mindset.
3. The laptop is the new office.
As a business owner myself, I remember writing those expensive monthly rent checks because there were no options to maintaining a large, costly business presence. Today, companies are running more and more of their business operations “virtually,” giving them more financial flexibility. Low-cost IT and mobile devices means more employees can easily work remotely or on the road.
A growing number of companies are realizing that their smartphones and laptops are more important to running and growing their business than extensive and expensive bricks-and-mortar offices. Costly facilities and premises are giving way to a leaner, smarter workplace.
That is why mobile commerce is such a game-changer for SMEs. By taking advantage of affordable and available web solutions, a company’s shop window need only be an effective and engaging website.
4. Leveling the playing field.
Previously, no matter how innovative or agile an SME was, it was often difficult to compete against larger, more established competitors. The economies of scale for an enterprise organisation meant that it was rarely a level playing field. Many of the barriers which existed for small companies when I was in business have been lowered, or even removed, in today’s business world.
Small businesses don’t need to invest in expensive IT infrastructure. Instead, SMEs can scale-up and scale-down based on their specific needs by leveraging hosted or cloud services. They can pick and choose the applications they need as their business dictates and increase the required bandwidth or storage capacity as they grow.
5. Solving the Customer Equation
No matter what your business or industry, it still comes down to connecting, communicating and engaging with customers and prospects. Thanks to the digital revolution, even small companies can make a big impact in this critical area.
I cannot emphasize enough the transformational impact social media and e-marketing is having on businesses of every size and industry. Today, any organization can amplify its message or details of its products and services through online social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, among others. They can engage customers where they congregate or even build online user communities for them.
These relationships are not passive. When properly nurtured, these “followers,” “fans,” “friends” and user community members become your strongest advocates and brand ambassadors. The most enthusiastic ones serve as an extension of your sales team…their endorsement can be a real catalyst for your company’s growth.
In fact, in many cases small businesses are actually better placed to exploit social media as a marketing tool than their larger competitors. They can utilise social media more freely than organisations burdened by corporate hierarchy and express more of their personality – and as any good marketer knows, “people buy from people” so letting you personality shine through is invaluable.
Run Better…and Grow Faster
Technology is a key enabler which has made an indelible mark on small businesses. It has changed the speed at which companies can grow; it also serves as a catalyst to help organisations capitalize on opportunities faster than larger competitors.
Compared with 20 years ago, the start-up landscape is a far more fast-paced and exciting one. Even in the current tough economy, I believe it’s an enviable place to be. It is just a matter of taking advantage of the tools, technologies and opportunities that are now available to you.