If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Henry David Thoreau

I’ll give Thoreau credit that if he were writing great quotations today, he would have written “people” instead of ‘man.’ Thoreau encourages us to step the music of his own drummer. I like to think I have my own rhythm section. And I carry that attitude into business.

Small businesses need to be more focused than big ones

At our web development company, we sold our web hosting several years ago because we couldn’t be better (or cheaper) than the big ones. They had 24/7 tech support, chat windows, online hosting signup and then they started running WordPress-specific servers. I knew we couldn’t compete with all of that, so we got out of that portion of business. That’s what small businesses need to foresee and do: grow what they do best and don’t try to do what’s outside your focus. Since then, our websites have gotten bigger and better – with time to write new custom plugins, use new technologies on our sites, find new open source and professional tools – and launch faster and with better precision.

Every small business owner knows that it’s our job to solve problems. The easiest way to do that is to avoid problems. When a web server goes down on Christmas Eve, there’s a tech support person waiting at that 24/7/365 help desk to deal with it for us.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Do what you do best and hire others and let them do their best.

Small businesses must manage their growth steps

Credit cards. The year we started taking credit cards still intrudes on my night time dreams. We knew we had to accept electronic payments so we started – without doing our homework. Back then, it wasn’t electronic. We had to buy a credit card machine, run each transaction, print it out, run the batch and then go to our accounting program and enter each one so the invoice was paid. And finally, figure out how to account for the credit card fees. It took 4-5 hours once or twice a month to simply “take credit cards.” The only good thing was that many of our clients weren’t using them as much back then and preferred to send checks.

With perfect hindsight, I now have a list of things to know before we embark on a growth step. The first one is: do better research. Now when we take managed growth, we know how it worked (or didn’t) for other small businesses.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Do research first, then make a bold move.

Communication. This year we cancelled our screen sharing contract because we wanted a better one. For 2 months, we invited our friends first and then our clients to try different brands on our free trials. We asked for feedback (they love giving feedback!) and then evaluated our own ease of use. After 45 days, we knew which one to buy. Step two of managed growth steps is: use the free trial.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Let your clients be part of your decisions. And test.

Client Satisfaction. If clients wanted to be abused, they have plenty of big business choices. Small businesses have to provide a smoother, friendlier experience. Our next managed growth step is to qualitatively and quantitatively provide an improved customer experience. Our team has researched and tested models and we plan to implement two in the first quarter of the upcoming year.

Client take-aways. When the job is done, we’ve instituted a client feedback survey. We improved our client post-launch (swag) gift. We have a new follow-up system. These three areas focus on after the job is done because we’ve built a fabulous website build experience already. And we’re working on improving that, too. When it’s all over, a happy client is a repeat customer and a sharer of a good experience. 

What’s next?

Plan. Always plan. We plan “what’s next” as much as “what’s happening today?” My iPhone notes grow all the time and I dictate a new idea probably twice a week. What new thing should we investigate or implement? What did I see at someone else’s business and coveted their idea? If you’re managing a small business, set a goal to add a new idea every week and evaluate them quarterly. Then implement the best ideas after careful research, doing trials and measuring client satisfaction. Those ideas can be small (“thank you Friday” is when we send at least two written notes) or bigger (“let’s do a survey”). The only roadblock is your lack of follow-through.