Here, Anthony Main, MD of The Distance, an app development company, uses his personal experiences in business to provide some useful tips to small company owners to help them through difficult times.
Just two years ago, I was about to close my digital agency – I’d tried everything to save it, but it simply wasn’t working. I’d been forced to let six staff go and it was down to just me and one other.
Right at the last minute, we signed a key client and the company was saved. From there, I’ve built the company up from two staff and no income to 20 staff and an almost seven-figure turnover.
What did I learn along the way and what advice can I offer? Here are my 10 tips, based on my own experiences, to help you ensure your business can weather tough times.
1. Don’t stop marketing
We’d become too comfortable with the quality of our inbound leads. We had previously (Google) ranked well, and complacency set in. We didn’t monitor the rankings as closely as we needed to and simply slipped off the face of the web without realising.
TIP: Keep marketing, even when times are bad – you can’t build a business if no one is finding it. Visibility is key.
2. Track your competitors
Our early impact in the space made us naively confident in our market share and we hadn’t realised how many competitors had grown to the same degree. No longer did we have the first pick of the inbound leads; we had to work harder to reap the rewards.
TIP: Always keep an eye on the competition and ensure you’re staying ahead of them, not slipping behind.
3. Secret shop your competitors
It’s SO important to know what the competition is doing, from their inbound process to their offering and the quality of the documentation in between.
TIP: Create a dummy project and subtly go through the ropes of testing them out. Find out what they do well (integrate it into your process) and discover where they are weak (ensure you don’t do the same).
4. Understand market pricing
An important aspect of your competitor analysis is to understand both their pricing and how customers will perceive yours. They may want to know your rate to compare costs, so ensure you align with your market, even if you expect your quote to be much larger than your neighbour’s.
TIP: Get clear on your own pricing and that of your competitors.
5. Focus on a niche
Before our turn around we had an ambiguous company, offering both eCommerce and mobile apps, with no crossover customers. This didn’t work, so we divided the business to individually focus our marketing on clear customer propositions.
TIP: Find your niche and stick to it. Make sure all your marketing communicates your expertise in that niche, and don’t be tempted to try to be everything to everyone.
6. Data is key
Track as much as you can about the operational side of your business. You ideally need to create a data dashboard and update it at least monthly, so you can compare to previous months or years, looking for any trends which might raise a flag.
TIP: By understanding the numbers in your own business you can spot problems early and develop solutions using hard data – not guesswork.
7. Cash is king
All industries go through waves, often unexpectedly, and you need to be able to brace against them as best as possible. This often simply means supporting drops in revenue with a cache of finance for rainy days. Aim for at least three months break-even in the bank.
TIP: Don’t spend all your profit – keep some back to help you ride and survive the rough times. Softening the impact of risks allows you to take more of them.
8. Watch the economy
Whilst the UK’s decision to Brexit had a huge impact on us, it was going to be a 50:50 decision either way, which meant we should have been better prepared.
TIP: Keep up-to-date. Don’t be ignorant to wider scale events that might have a future impact.
9. Team of trust
Take your time to employ; we did and it’s really helped us flourish, but equally learnt from similar judgements. Surround yourself with trustworthy staff and give them as much autonomy as possible.
TIP: Build a great team around you by waiting to employ the right people – the right team will help ensure the business thrives.
As a creative agency, we are stereotyped with a certain culture and we embrace it. Flexible working; monthly company catch-ups (in the pub); bi-weekly retrospectives; internal Slack comms. All of this adds to the reasons our staff are committed to supporting each other to deliver for our customers.
TIP: Develop a company culture that suits your business and your team. Work isn’t just about productivity – it’s also about enjoying what you do and giving you a reason to get up in the morning.
Many businesses start and fail (often as fast), and it’s very important to look for signs that things aren’t as they should be. Don’t be naive; having confidence in your product and service can only protect you against so many things, some you simply have no control over, so be prepared!
Anthony Main is Managing Director of The Distance, an app development company. Anthony has been developing apps since the first iPhone, and with his UK based team of digital natives, The Distance delivers intuitive mobile solutions for clients on both iOS and Android.