strategic

Sharpening Your Strategic Focus: How to Take Your Startup to the Next Level

According to a national survey of small business owners from Constant Contact, the majority of entrepreneurs and small business owners (63 percent) only plan strategically a year or less in advance. How many opportunities are missed because you are focused on the short-term all the time?

Every business owner knows how important it is to stay on top of day-to-day operations, but when you get stuck in a pattern of “short-termism” and are constantly putting out fires or are solely focused on the needs of the day, you may miss out on opportunities to think bigger, to lay the groundwork for future success and crucially, to really take stock of how things are going and understand what’s working and what isn’t.

Short-termism quickly becomes a habit, and like all habits, can be challenging to break. However, if you are serious about growing your business, the effort is absolutely worth it. Just think about the alternative. When you are hyper-focused on the day-to-day, you stop thinking about longer-term strategic partnerships or developing new products or services, and you generally don’t track your financials closely enough to keep a pulse on where you are actually making (or losing) money.

My advice for breaking the short-term cycle and honing your strategic focus?

Learn to let go, make a plan and stick with it.

Your plan should have the following three time horizons:

  • Short term (1 year): What you must deliver now to stay healthy and maintain cash flow
  • Mid-term (3 years): How you must develop new programs, build profit and enter new markets
  • Long-term (5 years): How you grow impact, scale your business or excel in brand awareness

Some business owners put the long-term horizon at 10 years or more, but with rapidly shifting technology, unstable political climates and new emerging markets, that might be longer than you can reliably predict.



Learn to let go

Entrepreneurs and small business owners often put everything into their work. That passion and dedication is a great asset, and many times the reason their business exists in the first place, but it can also become a stumbling block.

When you live and breathe something long enough and are used to doing everything yourself, it becomes difficult to let go of the little things to free up enough time to think big.

The same survey that revealed the scope of the short-termism problem also found that nearly a quarter of small business owners (22 percent) identified not having enough hours in the day to get it all done as their single biggest business challenge.

We’ve all been there, but to take your business to the next level, something has to give.

One way to begin letting go of doing everything yourself is to analyze essential tasks you take care of that are not aligned with your core skills and strengths, or regular activities that do not require your input once initial input and training are conducted (things like bookkeeping, answering standard customer questions, designing materials or qualifying leads).

If you are hesitant to hire a full-time employee, start with a freelancer or contractor who can deliver a specific set of deliverables for a fixed period of time. I recommend committing to at least three months for something like bookkeeping.

Once you get used to using someone else for core tasks, you can look for more things to delegate. Remember to use your freed-up time for tasks that only you can do; i.e. product development, strategic business development or brand evangelism.

For smaller businesses where there isn’t an option to lean on staff to handle day-to-day operations while you focus on the bigger picture, I encourage maximizing digital resources that can work hard for you.

Digital tools like AI and automation can free up a lot of time. For instance, you can automate common processes like scheduling and responding to customer questions, or preparing marketing materials. With the right software, these things can be surprisingly fast and easy and make a big difference in your time and business results.

Make a plan

Breaking the cycle of short-termism is a lot easier when you put yourself on a schedule. Once your to-do list is a little lighter, make a plan. Set regular times each quarter, and each month, to take stock of your longer-term plans, review financials and evaluate new opportunities.

Here are specific things to ask yourself as you plan for the short-, mid- and long-term:

Short-term

  • What are the current prospects in my funnel that need follow up?
  • What are lingering projects that need completion?
  • What are operational fixes that must get done?

Mid-term

  • What are new products or services that I need to develop to address pressing customer needs?
  • Which areas of my business are generating the most profit, and how can I maximize these profits?
  • Which strategic partnerships do I want to identify, grow or strengthen?

Long-term

  • What are my big goals, and how is my yearly progressing toward these goals?
  • What role do I want my company to play in my market, and how are my business and brand-building efforts contributing to that role?
  • Which tangible assets am I building in my business that do not require my personal attention, time or energy to sell? How am I building infrastructure and teams to scale and sell these assets?

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Stick with it

This type of planning and to-do list streamlining isn’t time or labor intensive, but it can make a big impact if you stick with it. Whether your goal is to boost the customer experience, drive quarterly sales or execute longer-term business plans, setting regular times to evaluate past performance and determine what is coming down the pipeline can save precious time and resources in the long-run.

Entrepreneurs who create truly valuable, sustainable and successful brands master the balance of short-term and long-term planning. Schedule your planning time and stick to it. Your business is worth it!

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