Ask SCORE: 10 big-picture tips for running a small business in 2014

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 16, 2013 

Question: Well, hello loyal readers. For today's column...there actually isn't a question. After three years and 115 "Ask SCORE" columns for The Bellingham Herald, this is my last one for a while. I'd like to close out with some thoughts for starting or running your small business in 2014. Today we'll look at 10 big-picture suggestions which I offer to aid in your success next year. Let's talk about this.

Begin with the end in mind. This advice, from the excellent book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is about life in general. And for businesspeople, it's right on the mark. You need to have a vision for how your business will look in two, five, or even 10 years. Having a long time-horizon helps you focus your decisions on things of enduring value, like your mission statement. And having a specific termination plan (an "exit strategy") is really important for maximizing the value of your business.

Work from a written business plan. As I'm fond of saying, if you are running a business without a written business plan, you don't have a business - you have a hobby. The evidence is crystal clear: the SBA and SCORE estimate that startups with a written business plan have a success rate five times higher than those that don't. There's loads of help available online. Locally, look to Bellingham SCORE and Western Washington University's Small Business Development Center.

Make full use of the Internet. Many business-related sites like entrepreneur.com, mindtools.com, bizfilings.com/toolkit/ and businessknowhow.com have extensive libraries of articles and further information on general business topics. For other issues, it's quick and easy to do a Bing or Google search of a few key words. For example, a phrase like "inexpensive advertising ideas" or "motivating employees" will generate thousands of results. With some experience, you can pretty easily pick out sites with credible, quality content.

Form an advisory board. It's pretty tough to go it alone. Successful small businesses are run by teams. Early on, you likely won't have much formal input from high-power professionals. But as your business grows, you'll be well served if you have an informal network of mentors and advisors. Four valuable areas: accounting; legal; banking; and insurance. Note: this is especially important if your primary skill-sets are technical, and your actual business background is thin. Search "create business advisory board" and see what fits.

Be sure to monitor your work/life balance. In the early startup years, you have to think of your business as a newborn child. It will demand your attention 24-7. A crying infant at 2 a.m. can't be ignored. Just the same, a call at 2 a.m. telling you that the security alarm at your business is going off needs immediate attention, too. The good news: as your business grows you can outsource some of these functions to others, and back off a little.

Add "innovate" and "pivot" to your vocabulary and your daily planning. You'll succeed by continually trying new products, services and methods. Be sure to have a Plan B for what to do if the innovation isn't working out as expected by a predetermined date. That's when it's time to pivot to another idea of higher value.

Join a trade organization. Nearly every type of business has at least one trade association. These publish trade magazines which are available free to legitimate businesses. For a directory go to freetrademagazines.com and see what's of interest to you. It's a great way to find out about trends and upcoming events, like business-to-business trade shows and new product intros.

Manage your cash flow very carefully. If you're not familiar with this, get help. Most business advisors agree that weak cash flow management is the number one cause of business failure. As I'm fond of saying, "If you're chronically out of cash, then pretty soon you're out of business."

Beware of the two-year bump. It's pretty common for a new business to work through a difficult first year. Then year two seems much better, which is fine. But don't let that initial success lead you into making hasty and unwise decisions. Remember you're still a young business, and you're learning every day.

Become comfortable with delegating. This is a huge challenge for many new businesspeople. But if you can't delegate and supervise, you can't grow. The whole process of recruiting, hiring and managing that first employee is critically important to your success. For some pointers, go to sba.gov and enter "first employee" in the search box.

So...what will you do differently in 2014?

ABOUT SCORE

To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit SCORE.org.

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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