Your guide to a successful online business!

Nick Leech, group director digital at 123-reg

Nick Leech, group director digital at 123-reg

Disclaimer: In this post when I say “boss” I mean “MD” and “CEO” and “founder”. They’re interchangeable. Bear with me…

“Another round?”

I groaned internally. Another round of drinks? It was already way past my bedtime, yet no one else wanted to leave.

“Sounds good. I’ll get them,” I answered.

What choice did I have? After all, everybody was my guest; clients of the agency I was running. I could hardly leave them high and dry.

Having entertained our core customers at a football match, I offered to carry on talking in the restaurant afterwards. Dinner led to drinks, which led to midnight.

‘Why me?’ I thought as I stood at the bar. But the answer was obvious. I was the boss, that’s why.

As a boss there are some things that you can delegate, and other stuff that you have to do yourself. Fostering closer relations with clients is just one of them.

They aren’t roles in the traditional sense: marketing, HR, legal, finance. They are initiatives that are all encompassing. Here’s what I think they are and why only you can do them.

1. Strategist

If it’s your business, you need to set the strategy. No one else can take this vital role. It’s down to you.

Of course you may need some help doing this – an internal team or some paid-for outside help. But in the end it comes down to you: making some important decisions about what your business is all about.

Strategy is about understanding what your business does, what it’s good at and where the problems are; a list of strengths and weaknesses. And then it’s about creating an audacious goal, and deciding how to reach that goal.

Many businesses have no strategy at all. What they have are ‘operations’. People work in the trenches, doing “the stuff” every day, week and month. But they have no idea where they’re headed.

When you’re running a small business, at least once per year you need to be able to step back from the day-to-day fire fighting. You need to think about where you want your business to be, and to work out how you’re going get there.

Once you’ve worked out the strategy, it’s your job to make everyone in the business understand your plan, and how they can contribute to it. No matter what the role, everyone works better when he or she understands the big idea.

2. Prioritiser

One thing is clear, when you start and grow a small business, you have to think carefully about your time. You need to spend it on activities that deliver the highest measurable return.

You need to consider every hour of the day, and do the activity that creates the most value for your business. There’s almost certainly more worth in entertaining clients than in formatting presentations. Unless you’re a designer that is.

And that’s because the biggest source of capital in your business is your time.

This means that you need do the stuff that delivers the most value.

It’s often the case you that you have ‘stuff’ that you want to get done. And other people (customers, suppliers, employees) have stuff they want you to do.

It’s your job to decide what’s important for you and to resist doing what is urgent for other people. Make sure it’s a choice that you make rather than one that is made for you.

That usually means creating a list of priority tasks and working through them. This will always come above working through you email inbox. (Unless you’re on customer service, that is!)

Anything you don’t have time for, find someone to do that for you, whether it’s an employee, a freelancer or supplier. These are activities that have a lower return, so can be done by someone you pay less than yourself.

3. Chooser of collaborators

As the boss you need to be the person who chooses the right suppliers for your business.

And when it comes to startups, suppliers are usually freelancers rather than established limited companies.

Freelancers have the potential to create huge value for your business.

At the very least they do the job that you hire them for. But more than that, the right freelancer can create new opportunities for your business. They have a fresh perspective and can more clearly see how you could be better at what you do.

They often have skills and contacts that you didn’t hire them for, which you only realise once you’re working together.

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The flipside is that the wrong freelancer can drag you right down. Dealing with a bad one can be a drag on your time, and a pull on your focus. And they can even damage your reputation if you give them responsibility for representing your business.

I’ve started a few businesses over the last 15 years, and there are some techniques that have always helped me find the right freelancers.

My first tip is use your network. Sometimes that’s about trawling through your LinkedIn contacts for freelancers who fit the bill. Even if you don’t remember straight away, you’ve probably met someone who’s right for the job at some point in the past.

Mostly though it’s about reaching out to trusted ex-colleagues, business partners, customers and other suppliers. Ask them to recommend. They’ll be flattered that you value their opinion, and wrack their brains hard.

But whatever your method – whether you use business listings or just search online, in the end its going to end up with a face to face meeting. And it’s down to you to make the right choice.

There’s no magic formula, but there are a couple of tricks I have always relied on.

1. Hire freelancers you like.
If you like them, you’ll be prepared to sit spend time showing them exactly what you want. Your relationship will be enjoyable and productive.

2. Hire people freelancers are sharp.
I deliberately didn’t say bright here. I think being bright is about your capacity to think academically – to take on new ideas easily.

But sharpness is about a combination of intelligence, organisation and lateral thinking. A freelancer who has a mix of these is always going to be an asset. They’ll intuitively know how to give your business what it needs.

4. Customer experience champion

Looking after customers is the cornerstone of sustainable growth. I reckon it’s more important than winning them. Yet it seems that few businesses get this right.

Forrester research from April this year suggested that less than 1% of businesses delivered an excellent customer experience.

And why is that? There are three basic reasons:

1. Most businesses don’t listen to their customers. They try to guess what the customer wants. Everyone focuses on doing stuff better without getting feedback from the most important person in the room.

2. Most businesses don’t give customer experience any priority in their business. They think about their products, their marketing, or their employees. But they overlook the experience this cocktail serves up to the customer.

3. They don’t make anyone responsible for customer experience. And no-one grabs the role and makes it their own. Why would they, when they’ve got so much other stuff to do?

So what can you do as the boss?

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Turn this around.

1. Listen to your customers. Whether that means taking their calls, or getting out and about and meeting them face to face, make time to engage. Send them a survey. Understand what they like about what you do, and what they don’t.

It’s especially important to get feedback from those that have decided to leave.

Its only by gathering this direct feedback that you’ll really understand what its like to be a customer of yours.

2. Make it clear to everyone in your business that the customer is the priority. Circulate the best and worst customer feedback that you gather to all. Show the connection between what people do and what that means for the customer experience.

It’s also good to get each employee to meet at least a handful of customers. If they can connect directly with a customer, your employees will start to appreciate what their experience is like. It will get them thinking differently about the work they do.

Make sure your employees also know what its like to buy from your business, as actual customers. Get them to give feedback on their experience.

3. Give a senior person the role of customer experience lead. Focus them on the tasks that understand and then improve the customer experience. Make sure they have your ear.

Creating a relentless focus on your customer experience will elevate your business above your peers, guaranteeing a long term future.

5. Salesperson

This where all founders start out. From the get go, you need to be able to sell what you do to customers, potential investors, and employees.

You’ve created your business because there’s a problem that needs solving. You understand that certain people have a need, and you’re there to address it.

There should be no one who understands the problem better than you. And there should be no one who better understands how your business solves that problem than you.

You should be able to talk eloquently, unprompted, about the key benefits your business brings. In less than 30 seconds you should be able to make a convincing, clear and compelling argument about why customers should buy.

Through our events at Enterprise Nation I’m lucky enough to connect with lots of folks about to launch their business. The most common question I ask is “So what will your business do?”.

If I’m still scratching my head after 30 seconds then I bet other potential customers will be too. For me it’s a warning sign that your business isn’t going to work.

So as the boss you should be able sell the benefits of what you do better than anyone else. It should be in your DNA. You are the big gun that other sales people bring out to close the deal.

The enthusiasm that you bring to that narrative should spread like wildfire through your employees.

And yes, that sometimes means that you’re at the bar when you’d rather be in bed!

6. Culturist

As the boss you’re employee zero. You are the business, the employees and the product. With your very first recruit, everything changes.

From that point you need to decide: what kind of workplace do I want for my business? How can I use culture to create the most profit for my business?

Profit? What does culture have to do with profit?

A lot. There is a direct link between a business’s culture and its profitability. Amongst many examples, company culture is credited with Southwest Airlines’ market share grab in the 90s.

A workplace that has the right mix of fun, dedication, ethics and creativity can add multiples to value. Get it wrong and it could sink you.

It’s not easy to create the right culture for your business. It has to do with leadership, communication and focus.

And there are clear signs that show that your business has a good one.

Companies with great cultures have lots of applicants for jobs. Staff turnover is low, and there’s an absence of gossip.

Everyone believes in ‘the plan’, people seem happy, and staff do more than just work together. They hook up outside of work.

As the boss you are responsible for the culture of your business. Creating the right one could turn out to be the most important job you ever had.

That’s about it

Whether it’s being the best salesperson on the biggest motivator, there are things that only the boss can do. Taking these six on and doing them well is critical for the success of your business.

Are there any other roles you think a boss should always have? Please let me know in a comment below.

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