Position your company for growth.
by Dave Sanders
The past few years have been tough on businesses of all sizes, but especially tough on small businesses. This year looks to be a continuation of the slow but steady economic recovery. Many economists agree that the real key to sustained recovery is job growth, and big companies such as AT&T are starting to hire again. Not all businesses will be in a position to hire people right away, but focusing on some business basics will help keep you in a position to do so when it’s time to expand.
As the recovery continues, business planning is critical. The most basic strategy is cash planning—and the easiest way to do that is to look at your cash inflows and outflows week by week. As the CFO of a growing business, my team spends a significant amount of time each week forecasting our cash position and needs. Many expenses are regular, recurring and predictable, but others occur infrequently and require good cash management to cover those annual, quarterly or one-time expenses. The most common tool used by management is a rolling 13-week cash flow forecast. (Examples are available online.) The continuing discipline of knowing your cash needs over the next quarter will allow you to make better decisions in all areas.
Once that 13-week plan is in place, an annual plan is the next step. Planning is not just about putting some sales and cost numbers on the page—it’s thinking about how to achieve your business goals. The simplest goals are profitability and growth. There’s an old saying that says that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Setting goals for the year will help guide your decisions, especially when it comes to investment in people, equipment and sales. Setting a revenue and profit target is usually relatively easy, but figuring out what you need to do to achieve it usually proves more difficult. The initiatives and plans you undertake, and the level at which you execute them, is what separates you from your competitors.
As a business evolves, certain processes change and can become ineffective, requiring review and updating. Assuming that you’re doing the right things, your focus needs to be on doing things right.
A broken process adds costs, takes time away from other critical activities and can frustrate employees. Some critical processes you should review involve customer contact—selling as well as invoicing and production. Whatever the size of your company, you must be efficient in production, purchasing and invoicing, and effective in selling and communication.
It’s also a good idea to take a look at activities that can be automated. Automation techniques have become more available to smaller companies through open software and less expensive applications. If you can’t automate, consider outsourcing functions and services that are not core to your business, such as payroll or even accounts payable. Finally, as part of your review, assess the viability of eliminating activities that are outdated or no longer necessary. For critical functions and activities, you must ensure that your process has kept up with your product.
All businesses today strive to do more with less, and one of the best ways to do that is to leverage others, making them your business partners. There are more and more ways to look like a bigger company without all the costs of actually being bigger. One example is to get the specialized skills you need without having more employees. Today, businesses use fractional CFOs, part-time recruiters and IT specialists on a time and materials basis. Advertising and marketing campaigns, usually reserved for bigger companies, can be used by small and medium sized businesses today in a “pay as you go” model.
Another leverage point is suppliers and customers. Many of you already collaborate with your major suppliers, and some of those same opportunities exist with customers. By getting closer to your customers, you position yourself to better understand their needs and future plans, and that information can help guide you in making investments in either people or equipment. You might be able to work more collaboratively with your bank, your insurance provider, other local businesses or even a competitor.
Step back for moment and ask yourself: What is my plan for 2011? What is my target for sales, for new customers, for profitability? Look at the cash needs of your business so you’ll know how to afford and achieve those goals. Resolve to take a hard look at how you do things. Talk to employees and customers to better understand what your company does well and where you need to improve. And finally, explore the many relationships you have built over time and figure out who might help position you for growth and quality improvement.