As a virtual assistant, I see businesses at all stages of their growth – from well-established enterprises to the newest of start-ups. So I’m in a great position to see what principles, habits and strategies distinguish the successful, long-lived businesses from the also-rans that don’t last the distance. A new business has enough trials facing it, without depriving itself of the fundamental mechanisms needed for any business to function well, yet I’m continually amazed at the number of start-up business people who seem to think that efficient administrative practices are something that can wait until their business is “off the ground”. In reality, there are a few fundamental procedures that MUST be in place if a business is ever to get off the ground!
- Data management. That sounds like a rather grown-up term for a baby business, but remember, “data” just means “information” – and when it comes down to it, creatively managing and manipulating information is what any business is all about. I scratch my head when I see young businesses that don’t even have the simplest means of recording contact information for customers, prospects and collaborators. As we’ve discussed in 7 Startup Tips, a customer relations database (another “grown-up” term, but bear with me) doesn’t have to be elaborate, and it certainly doesn’t have to be expensive. Most baby businesses can get by with no more software than you’ll find installed when you buy a mid-range PC. And as we saw, just keeping a simple Excel spreadsheet with contact information will provide you with the foundation of your business’ database. When the time comes to buy a fully tooled-up database, the information you have stored can be imported from your Excel spreadsheet into the new system.
- Data management (2) – this concerns a less common mistake, but still one that must be avoided. It’s the temptation to go to the opposite extreme – buy an expensive, complex Customer Relations Management database, before you and your business are ready for it. Such a system will almost certainly require training (more bucks you don’t have) and skilled operation. The most likely outcome is that you’ll use your expensive system badly, and end up worse off than the chap who settled for an Excel sheet.
For most people, the ideal compromise is probably Microsoft Outlook – it will handle your email and the contacts database has reminders and filters to help you with your follow-ups.
- Filing. One of the curses of modern computers is that they have been made so easy to use that people develop the skills to do just enough to meet their immediate needs, and then learn no more. An astonishing number of people keep EVERYTHING they create in “My Documents”, and have no idea how to create an effective filing structure. As a start-up business owner, you cannot afford to be among them. Create folders for the essential functions of your business – here’s an example:
You can store documents of every kind of medium in your folders – including emails.
- Enquiry processing. Not all enquiries result in an immediate sale. Some will require follow-up, discussion of the customer’s needs, and so on. Some will result in no sale – this time – but the prospect of sales on future occasions. And some will result in no sale at all. It’s vital that a start-up business have systems in place to deal with all these cases. Give careful thought to the sales process, from initial enquiry to delivery of the goods or service. Map out the various paths an enquiry can take, using whatever medium works best for you – butcher’s paper and coloured crayons is a great choice. Make sure that you can document each significant step, so that you delivery exactly what was required, and, more importantly, so that you retain those opportunities that don’t result in an immediate sale, but have prospects for the future.
- Plan for catastrophic success. A wag once observed “the secret of success is to be ready for it!” Believe it or not, I’ve seen plenty of businesses at risk of failure because they weren’t prepared for their ideas to take off. They didn’t have the systems in place to handle the volume of business they generated. They ended up delivering their products and services chaotically. Quality, and quality of service, suffered, and they lost their reputation almost before they’d even acquired it. So when you’re planning your resources, make sure you cover the most optimistic sales case – and then some!