No matter how successful your small business, no owner has all the answers. But knowing when to look for outside help – and who from – is a challenge in itself. We spoke to four business owners whose coaches and mentors gave their business a leg up.
Take a step back “Small business owners often don’t spend enough time thinking about where their business is going, as opposed to the urgency of the day job,” says Andy Mee, a “business doctor” covering the Oxfordshire area. Entrepreneurs need to spend more time working on their business, not in it, he says.
This was one of the lessons for Anthony Stiff, a landscape architect who’s been working with Mee for 18 months. “During the recession, for maybe five years, we survived but it wasn’t the happiest time. We thought we’ve got to do something positive and grow the business, and this was a way we could do that,” he says.
One lesson Stiff has taken away from Mee is to make time for the “golden hour”. “So on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon you should spend an hour looking at your business and reviewing the week that’s just gone by and planning the week ahead [...] Just being conscious of the goal that you set yourself. It’s very easy to lose sight of that.”
Build your confidence Whether or not you have a team around you, running your own business can be lonely. There is no one to turn to when the chips are down or to reassure you that you are on the right path.
For Nila Holden, who runs a luxury biscuit wholesaler, a mentor provided reassurance that she was doing the right things for her business. Holden was coached by Jo Densley, founder of Relish Marketing, over several months looking at potential markets, which to launch into and what that required.
“I have my aspirations for the business; I think about the sorts of places where we should be selling and the partners we should be working with. But I never had the confidence to do those things.” Holden thought her ambitions were just pipe dreams, but having a mentor tell her they were realistic goals gave her the confidence to take the business forward.
According to Mee, helping small and medium-sized business owners see where their businesses can go is a big part of consultancy. “We try and make [business owners] see what the opportunities are for their business. You become pre-conditioned by what’s happened in the past, not what can happen in the future,” he says.
Change your outlook
Like many small business owners, journalist Natasha Courtenay-Smith found herself running a small business by accident. In 2008 she launched an online press agency, Talk to the Press, selling exclusive news stories and real life features to national papers and magazines: “Maybe because my background wasn’t business, I didn’t massively grasp I was running a business,” she says.
She began working with a mentor after winning a spot at James Caan’s Entrepreneurs’ Business Academy and, for her, the greatest benefit was changing how she thought about her company. “It completely shifted how I looked at Talk to the Press,” she says. “It gave me the vocabulary and everything I needed to understand that it was an asset and it had value.”
Understanding her business’s value quickly led Courtenay-Smith to think about the potential for selling it, which she did in 2014. “I don’t think actually in the process of working with [my mentor] we started packaging it up for sale, I did that myself. But it did give me all the vocabulary and the understanding I needed so that when I came to sale I knew how to make it look really compelling.”
Focus your business From identifying new markets to turning your attention to your most profitable product or customer base, the objective view of a business mentor can be just what’s needed to get your company out of a rut or take it to the next level.
Nila Holden says her work with mentors was invaluable in turning her kitchen table baking business into a commercial wholesale venture. Through working with a mentor from the Design Trust Holden decided to focus on baking biscuits. “If you’re creative and you’re online, to have a really good business model you need to have a niche,” she says. “I never really understood that until I did that piece of work.”
Not long after she specialised, Holden received an inquiry from Fortnum & Mason for a Valentine’s day range. “It’s really tempting to want to do anything and everything. But I know now, when biscuits comes up people look us up because that’s what we’ve become known for,” she says.
Make marginal gains Like Team GB’s world-beating track cycling team, success in business is often about making incremental improvements across the board. Steve Callanan has seen revenues grow 120% at his video recognition technology platform Wirewax in the six months since he brought adviser Doug Crismen on board.
“There’s not one specific thing. It’s more lots of little things that have made an impact collectively,” says Callanan. “Doug says, ‘I just want you to make sure you’ve got these things in a spreadsheet up to date. Just do that for me today.’ You think that’s just a small task, but then later in the week he says, ‘I’ve gone through these numbers and these are the areas we need to focus on.’ And it’s just simple things you’re probably ignoring or think you’re in control of. It’s not until you get things down on paper and discuss it that you start identifying areas.”