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greybeard tips

Good mentors worth their weight in gold

This article was published in a Business Partners newsletter of 24 November 2015, and appears here as a guest post by Christo Botes, then Executive Director of Business Partners Ltd. Business Partners Ltd is an African risk based Finance house and Venture capitalist focused on SME’s. The company has a mentors arm staffed by experienced specialists, and co-manages the South African SME toolkit.

 

There is no shortage of business advice in the world. It comes in the form of consultants, coaches, advisors, professors, management gurus and self-help celebrities. Each has its place, but for Christo Botes, executive director of Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), there is a special breed of business adviser who are worth their weight in gold: the business mentor.

 

For Botes, the distinction between a business mentor and other forms of business advisers is subtle, because a mentor can play any number of roles, sometimes that of strategic adviser, technical expert or business consultant, and sometimes all of them at once. But the key characteristics of a mentor has to do with their experience, attitude and approach. They practice the science and the art of business, not merely the science, says Botes.

An ordinary business consultant usually has a clinical approach, coming into a business to solve a specific problem and impart formal, defined pieces of knowledge or procedural know-how. A mentor can do this, but also strives to impart wisdom based not on textbook learning but on his or her experience.

The ordinary consultant keeps within his scope of work, and his interest stretches as far as the settlement of his invoice. A mentor can also work with a defined plan and for a fee, but gains his satisfaction from seeing his client succeed as a result of his work. Even if he is brought in to implement a technical process in a business, he does so with passion, and with a broader view to empowering the entrepreneur and the business.

A consultant can be a fresh-faced graduate with an MBA. A mentor can also have an MBA, but can only be someone with experience, or “scars and medals” earned in the real business world, says Botes. Continue reading

Need a quick profit boost?

increased-profitsFive ideas you can implement quickly and inexpensively

 

All businesses need an occasional profit boost and very few would have the luxury of saying they were already making more than they dreamed of. Here are five relatively painless and inexpensive strategies to improve your business.

 

 

  1. Sell more to your existing customers by cross selling. Cross selling means you sell products in your range to customers who now only buy other products in your range. They may be buying products which you carry from your competitors and this is often because they do not know the extent of your product range. It does not matter that you have explicitly told them about other products in newsletters or advertising, they may not have noticed. Do this by listing your known customers, and then making a matrix of what they buy. You should have this information in your sales analysis. If there are too many customers, take a selection of maybe 50 or 100. Assuming you are sure they could use your other products, make a series of individual direct approaches by e-mail, messaging or in person. Offer trial periods, initial order discounts or anything to get their attention
  2. Stop throwing things away. Unless your organisation operates on very lean principles, chances are that you are throwing a lot of valuable stuff away. This will include packaging material scrap, damaged, stolen or obsolete goods, operational time, space, managerial time and a whole lot of other stuff. Start a ruthless campaign to cut down on waste. Pay particular attention to wasted time like idle time waiting for some needed thing to happen, wasted time making things which will have to be remade and wasted time in inefficient processes. Also pay attention to scrap and rework whether you are a manufacturer or distributor. Check the scrap bins and figure out ways to stop throwing away stuff you paid for. If you don’t have the right systems or training to manage that then buy them, it’s cheaper in the long term.
  3. Target a competitor. Pick your weakest competitor (you do have up to date competitor analysis, right?) and attack yheir weaknesses and cash cow customers with special offers, top rate service, better technology or whatever your business has which makes it different from and better than your competitors. (You do have a clear and distinct statement of your differentiation and advantages, right?). If you cannot do this chances are you either do not know what your competitors are doing or you have no clue why your customers buy from you. In which case fix that quickly before your competitor reads this and you become the victim of this strategy.
  4. Adjust prices up or down. Do this only on products where a small price change can mean a large change in demand (price elastic products). Often these are small items, consumables, service contracts, add-ons, some fashion items and minor luxury goods. The ideal is to identify a number of high volume price elastic products. Make a guess what would happen to sales at a couple of price points above and below the current price. Then draw a spreadsheet to show what the total gross profit will be at each price point. You will often find the best strategy is to increase the price rather than cut prices. The total margin may be higher and the costs lower because there are less deliveries and other unit sale related costs. If the cost to you is likely to change with volume then factor this in. Test the theory by changing the price on a few items and make sure sales follow your projections before making mass changes. Try to increase some items and reduce others so you don’t look greedy or desperate.
  5. Get rid of the junk. You probably have customers and products which are not profitable and suppliers and staff you support because of loyalty despite the fact they cost you money. Supporting loyal people and suppliers is a wonderful thing to do but then view this as charitable bequests, do not hide it in the mainstream of your business. You don’t need to be cruel in offering money instead of work, but helping suppliers to become competitive and finding more suitable employment for people who have outlived their usefulness in your company restores their pride and gives them new opportunities. You can now monitor the cost of your kindness. Then kill or replace the unprofitable products, even if it hurts (Keep thinking of Kodak, at one time the world’s second best known brand, which could never tear themselves away from film and make the switch to digital). Politely discourage the bad customers or sharply increase prices of the stuff they buy so at least you make some money from them.

Continue reading

Don’t slow down

2014_NovemberThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in November 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

November and December offer many opportunities for alert entrepreneurs

 

 

You will all have experienced it – the dreaded November slowdown, with many anticipating the year-end holidays before South Africa shuts down sometime in December. Entrepreneurs complain that it is impossible to sell at this time of the year. Many can’t wait for the start of the holidays.

How much are you contributing to this business slowdown? Are you demotivated by decisions being deferred to next year? Have you gone into pre-holiday slowdown mode, and repeated that this is an impossible time of year for marketing or sales? If you have then you are part of the problem, and this is a self-inflicted limitation on doing business.

Can you really afford to have one quarter of the year, from the beginning on November to the end of January as a time of minimal sales? Is it really true that nobody buys at this time of the year? The truth is there is an enormous volume of business available at this time, but it will not come to you if you ignore the opportunity.

Opportunities

There is an old saying that “everything comes to him (or her) who hustles while they wait”. Many successful entrepreneurs have had great successes during the slowdown by catching competitors napping in preparation for the holiday, or being the only bidder for profitable business. Tenders are published now to limit the number of bidders – really awake entrepreneurs take advantage. To get a slice of the millions spent in the next couple of months you must be alert, work hard and look for opportunities. You should also plan and execute an assertive sales campaign. Continue reading

The dreaded top of the “S” curve

2014_March This article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in March 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

A threat or a real opportunity?

 

 

Successful start-ups normally begin slowly, then grow rapidly. Growth is not usually a straight line, but can be compared to an elongated “s” curve, with a slow start then strong growth until it levels off. Think about a flat topped mountain – the lower slopes are quite gentle then the sides steepen until the plateau on top, where the business becomes static with little or no growth. Arriving there can be a problem where the company depends on growth to pay the bills, and if nothing changes then like the mountain example the only way from there is down. How can you avoid this trap?

Many S curve books focus on large corporates, getting to the plateau when they reach market saturation, but the slowdown can occur in businesses with less than ten employees, and in as little as two years from start-up. This is often attributed to running out of the friends and family the business relied on as customers in the early stages, or running out of working capital.

Running out of time

In my experience a frequent reason for getting to the top of the S curve is the management style of you, the entrepreneur. You often run everything, and do it very well. You learned this when the company launched and you had to manage everything – from sales to logistics. As the business grew you got better at them than anyone else, so there was no sense in delegating to others. One day you run out of capacity to do more work and the business stalls, limited by your available time. Continue reading

Staring at failure

13 May Cover

This article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for the South African edition of Entrepreneur magazine, as the My Mentor column published in May 2013 and is posted here by their kind permission.

 

 

That terrible time when it looks like the business cannot continue

 

There comes a time in almost every business’ life when failure seems inevitable, and the entrepreneur fears that they are unable to continue. His or her self confidence nose dives. Prospects for success or even survival appear to be extremely limited and a sense of hopelessness sets in. It is a terrible time, and often happens within the first year of operations, sometimes near the launch.

There is a real basis to this fear. Businesses frequently fail and start-up businesses are especially vulnerable, with many never getting beyond the first year of operations. Entrepreneurs may not have the skills, knowledge, risk taking ability or drive to manage their businesses profitably.

Rational thinking

The key to managing through this stage is to decide rationally whether the business is really doomed or whether the entrepreneur has just hit that painful wall that left so many others bruised and shaken but stronger and thriving. Many business owners quit in despair at this stage when with the right tactics they could have succeeded. Decisions have to be made only on facts and stripped of emotions, pessimism, and blame. This is extremely difficult for an entrepreneur to do alone at a time when they are swamped by doubt about the whole business concept, their own abilities and their fears of the consequences of failure including catastrophic financial loss and shame. This is a great time to have a mentor to turn to.

An old business saying suggests that the best loss is the one taken early. If a rational analysis of the state of the business shows that there really is no likelihood of the business succeeding then plans must immediately be made to close the business with as little damage as possible. It is not smart to continue to ride a failure into yet more debt and broken promises.

Finding out why

An assessment of the current situation is vital, write down cash resources, sales prospects, market reaction, product and service quality and fitness for purpose and all the things a buyer would look at it he were thinking of buying the business.. These must be compared to the business plan to see what has changed. Why were the expected returns not made? Are the causes fundamental or can they be reversed? Be certain that the real causes have been identified; this is not a place for rose tinted spectacles. Once the causes of the distress are identified it is a whole lot easier to make a close or survive decision. Often the crisis is brought about by something as simple and reversible as the failure of marketing promotions to attract potential customers, deviating from plans to satisfy unreasonable demands by early customers, trying to attack too many markets or spending too much time on product development and not enough on selling. This is where a mentor can bring an impersonal outsiders view, especially if the mentor has experience in managing similar situations. Continue reading

A test of customer relations

This article was first published as a Sanlam Cobalt Business Tips article. Sanlam great resources for entrepreneurs – I suggest you subscribe.

Take this light-hearted, but important test to see how your business is doing in providing great customer care.

 

 

  1. Do you have a written customer relations statement in any form – pledge, values, mission statement, incentive scheme, policy document or any other format?
    1. If yes, progress to question 2.
    2. If not, write down your understanding of the values and actions that your organisation believes in, or should believe in, then progress to question 2.
    3. Approach five random staff members or managers and ask them to tell you what is on the written document or in your notes. They do not need to be word perfect.
      1. If all of them get all or most of it right – full marks.
      2. If more than two of them get most of it right – half marks.
      3. If two or less of them get less than half of it right – fail.  You may have failed the grade. Go back  and start instilling a common culture of customer service in your organisation. Continue reading

Fighting the lowest price

pic courtesy of imageafter.com

This is the first of a series of sales and marketing tips drawn from my long experience of trying different things. Some could call these street fighting ideas…

Say you operate in a market with many small competitors. Price will become a major decision factor and price competition will be fierce. Some competitors will pitch their prices at levels where they cannot give the service they promise, but they will establish a low price perception in the minds of customers.

People in courier services, stationers, web site development car repairs and a host of other business types will have experienced this problem.

Your company wants to be there for the long haul and give good customer service, but you cannot compete with the prices offered by those who promise the world and don’t deliver, or those new entrants who are still to discover how costly customer service is. How do you compete? Continue reading