If there’s one thing we’ve learned from building several small businesses and working with small business owners, it’s that running a small business is hard and growing one is even harder.
There are many reasons why, but at the simplest level, it’s because they’ve got too many problems and too much to do with limited help and resources. Yet, through dedication, skill, and innovation, motivated business owners find a way to get things going.
Clients and sales pick up, first hires are made, solutions are added, more time and money are invested. Success begins to build. New opportunities and challenges arise.
Some business will aim to continue growing while others will settle into a comfortable and predictable pattern of revenue and operations. In either case, this can be an exciting time for small business owners. Leading a small business at this phase is challenging, and even exhausting, but the experience is usually characterized by positive energy and optimism.
Yet, almost inevitably, most small businesses eventually hit a “sticking point.” Sales may flat-line or even decline. Issues with customers and quality emerge. Conditions in the market change. Cash runs short. Colleagues and employees become frustrated.
While hitting a plateau or even regressing is normal in the lifecycle of a typical small business, it can cause a lot of anxiety when you’re sitting in the owner’s chair. It feels like the game is changing around you, and the playbook that you used to this to this point is no longer working for you.
The excitement from the early phases transitions into concern. What was once energizing and exciting becomes a grind. You worry about your employees and partners. The stress of payroll and other obligations begins to build.
It’s is a critical time in your business. Not time to panic, but time to take quick and decisive action to right the ship.
The key at this point is taking the right action.
As pressure mounts, it’s tempting to look for superficial, tactical solutions to address the symptoms you are seeing. If sales are lagging, spend more on marketing. If competition is increasing, add more products. If cash flow is running short, lay off employees.
While some of these moves may ultimately make sense or be inevitable, it is imperative to step back and assess the root cause of what is holding your business back. This is especially important when you’ve got limited time and money to work with before things become untenable.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three underlying and sometimes hidden factors that can cause your business to hit a sticking point. They exist on a foundational level and can impact the business from the inside out.
1. Lack of Clarity
When you first start your business, you usually have a clear vision of what it is that you are setting out to accomplish. You focus on a product or a specific service where you have expertise, experience, and passion. However, as things move forward and the business begins to grow, it is easy to lose sight of your purpose.
Sometimes it’s because you’re tempted to branch out into new areas or industries and you unintentionally spread yourself and the business too thin. Other times it's because communication breaks down as your team grows and differing opinions on priorities emerge. In either case, when your sense of purpose is weakened, it has a significant downstream impact on clarity in your business.
Without clarity on what is most important, it becomes difficult to prioritize, make decisions, and stay focused. Unhelpful distractions and disagreements emerge. Frustration and morale issues creep in. This will cause trouble and stagnation for businesses of any size, but it can spell doom for a small business that can’t afford the wasted time and energy.
Purpose is the foundation on which a business is built, and it should inform every aspect of planning and decision making. From there it must be well communicated and understood, flowing into your strategy, your brand, and your solutions. When you have clarity of purpose and alignment in your business, you and your team will know exactly what to focus on and will understand what is most important.
How to Get Unstuck
If you’re suffering from a lack of clarity, you need to have a frank discussion on purpose. It’s time to ask or re-ask the question, “how does my business contribute to a better world?” and “why?”
From there, assess where you are today and what’s holding you back from moving closer to your purpose. Identify some simple short-term priorities and goals that will get things on track. Communicate them extensively to your team to foster buy-in and commitment.
Our post on “What is Effective Strategic Planning for Small Businesses” will guide you through this process. It includes a free download you can use to work on your purpose statement and plan.
2. Personal Stress and Burnout
We recently polled small business owners and asked the question “What’s your single biggest challenge?” Of the 75 survey respondents, 52% selected “Overwhelmed / Stressed.”
This validates something that we already know from coaching many small business owners – they take on a tremendous amount of responsibility and often carry a hefty burden. This leads to a lot of stress.
Twitter Poll: What's Your Single Biggest Small Business Challenge?
Being overwhelmed and stressed is an issue that transcends the problem of being too busy and having too much work to do. Overwhelm begins to creep into your personal life and affect your sense of balance. It can impact your relationships and your health. When this happens, you can lose your motivation and positive outlook on the business. You begin to question if it's all worth it. Within your company, your colleagues and employees will notice that you’re burning out, and they will feel the negative stress too.
It puts your entire business at risk.
Small business owners become stuck with stress because they don’t see a way out. They’ll often say that they can’t afford to get help. However, in many cases, the truth is that they can’t afford not to get help.
It’s usually not a lack of resources that is holding them back. Instead, it’s an unwillingness to give up control. They simply don’t trust others to work with the same level of quality and proficiency as themselves. They can’t envision anyone else being able to do things the way they do.
This is a limiting mindset that draws a box around what you and your business can accomplish. It also fuels the cycle of stress since the business owner is continuously taking on too much responsibility.
We recently spoke with Small Businesses Consultant Brian Roberts about this issue in our post “Two Key Things Small Business Owners Need to Do to Thrive.” When we asked Brian to discuss what holds small businesses back and prevents them from getting to the next level, he identified trust and delegation as two critical points. When trust is absent, a business owner will hide his or her stress from partners and colleagues. They may also rush to judgment on what others are capable of and be unwilling to provide honest feedback. When it comes to delegation, they fear giving others the freedom to handle tasks in new and different ways.
How to Get Unstuck
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and sense that an unwillingness to cede control might be fueling your stress, it’s time to reflect on your workload and take a hard look at areas where you can get some help.
Ask yourself this question, “which tasks that I do give me energy and which drain my energy?” Pick one area or task that drives you crazy and try handing it off. For example, if you hate bookkeeping, enlist the help of someone who loves and specializes in it. While this may feel uncomfortable in the short-term, it won’t be long before you feel the sense of relief and find more productive and enjoyable ways to use your time.
When it comes to building your level of ease with delegation, consider Brian’s advice:
“Everybody is not going to do everything exactly the way you would do that, and that's not a bad thing because you haven’t cornered the market on all the best ways to do everything in an entire company, right?
Finally, you need to learn how to gradually transition your knowledge and responsibilities in a way that grows others and leaves you feeling confident. For one proven way to accomplish this, check out our post on “Using Coaching Skills to Enhance Your Leadership.” It describes a facilitative leadership approach that encourages innovation, ownership, and accountability for your employees as they take on new tasks and greater levels of responsibility.
3. Your Sales Pitch is Stale
Many small businesses owners attract their first customers from their network of friends and close contacts. Why? Because you already have relationships with them, they know you and trust you, they understand what you do, and they can envision how you will help them. You don’t need fancy marketing or messaging to reel these customers in; their comfort and familiarity with you are enough to bring them in the door. Your original network might be broad enough to get you through your first years of business and initial phases of growth.
However, at some point, you’re going to hit the limits of that network. To continue growing and avoid hitting a plateau with your sales and revenue, you’ll need to get in front of people that don’t know you. You’re going to have to convince them that you can solve a problem for them and that what you have to offer is better than other choices they might have. Your sales pitch becomes critical.
Many small businesses struggle to develop messaging that moves potential customers to action. They focus too much on explaining what they do; not why. They emphasize the features of their products and services, not the problems they solve for their customers. When you have a misalignment of purpose with your messaging and your customer’s needs, you hit a wall.
How to Get Unstuck
If you find that new potential customers are responding lukewarmly to your messaging and pitch, Business Strategist Glen Hellman has some great advice on how to shake things up.
In a recent presentation titled “How to Pitch to the Reptilian Brain,” Glen outlined a sales pitch strategy that is designed to appeal to your customers in a way that you might not expect. His contention, which is based on recent research in neuroscience, is that the primitive “reptilian” part of our brain is the one that influences decision making.
We often make the mistake of ignoring this and instead try to sell through logical and intellectual appeal. To hook and persuade your customers that they need your solution and need it now, consider re-working your pitch to incorporate the following points:
- The old part of the brain is selfish and is programmed to avoid pain. Start your pitch by tapping into your client’s top concerns and pain points.
- The reptilian brain sees things in black and white. Sharply contrast what makes your solution unique and essential
- The old brain doesn’t understand ambiguity. Generic terms like “world-class” or “cutting-edge” don’t resonate. Make your solution concrete and tangible.
- The reptilian brain responds to familiarity. Use simple analogies to make your products and solutions relative to something the customer understands. Offer social proof and references to let them know that they are not taking any risks by choosing your product.
Where do You Get Stuck?
Modern da Vinci is here to support you and your business in getting unstuck and making breakthroughs. We are committed to helping small businesses grow with purpose and speed. Let us know where you are feeling stuck in the comments below and we’ll respond with our experiences and ideas.
Also, do us a favor and share this with other small business owners you know using the share buttons on the left. This could be the one article that helps them grow and succeed, and they'll thank you for it.
Finally, if you're looking to take some serious steps to take control and your business forward, contact us for a free 30-minute consultation today.