The best aspects of small business are often the first casualties during periods of growth.
A strong customer focus, nimbleness, an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach and a culture of innovation are easily lost when you hire more people, define roles and introduce processes and systems to support increased customer demand.
Every organisation — regardless of size — can foster innovation and keep that small business mentality alive by following these five principles.
Buy a bus. Yep, buy a bus!
Nothing makes a business lose its focus on customers faster than unexpected growth. When Neto began to mature, we found close customer relationships were waning as the team became increasingly product-focused. All of a sudden our customers had gone from having a direct line to the CEO to speaking to a stranger on the support line. I was trying to work out how to bring back that customer-centric mentality and thought ‘why not buy a bus?’…literally.
Every week we send a busload of our staff to visit customers on-site, where they embed themselves in the business for the day. This means staff get to experience first-hand the problems our customers face and see how they use our retail management platform to run their operations. That knowledge comes back to Neto and helps us develop solutions that better meet our customer’s needs.
On the flipside, the customers get a lot out of the visits too; they feel valued, listened to, and they get a great deal of insight and recommendations to improve their business that they may not have received otherwise.
If buying a bus is a bit too much, you should at least make a point of speaking with customers (particularly the ‘difficult’ ones) every week. Someone once told me ‘if you want to innovate, just speak to your customers and innovation will follow’ and it’s true. Your clients will provide amazing insights if you are prepared to listen and provide an avenue for communication.
Minimise silos by staying cross functional
In small companies, everyone does everything – the CEO provides tech support and the lead engineer answers the phone. Then the business grows, new departments and silos are created, and inflexible lines of responsibility are drawn.
Maintaining a cross functional approach isn’t always easy, but if you get it right, you’ll minimise finger-pointing, avoid unnecessary delays and improve efficiencies.
The first step is to map out your customer journey – something many start-ups fail to do — then align your staff in groups that mirror that path. Neto provides software-as-a-service, so our customer journey is essentially; trial > subscribe > onboard > go live. Everything lives under one umbrella and is supported by cross-functional teams, which means customers aren’t thrown from one department to the next as they move along the continuum.
Value people over process
Systems are important, but people are even more crucial to business success. Nothing demotivates more than hiring smart people and having them function as drones, reducing their autonomy and stifling creativity, so avoid implementing process just for process’ sake.
Clearly define a way of working that involves every team member from concept to delivery and foster ownership by including everyone in the formation of these processes — especially in the design of internal systems and ways of working.
Providing documentation and training ensures that everyone understands expectations, but you also need to provide safe environments, tools and strategies that allow different personalities to be heard and working styles to be catered for.
Hire on cultural fit
I cannot over-emphasise this point. We hire on cultural fit first, experience second and credentials last. Everyone can learn, but not everyone will be a good fit. My dad once said, ‘if you can’t sit down and have beer with them, they’re not the right person to hire’. Simple, yet true.
At Neto, we’re looking for right-brained people who can innovate and come up with interesting solutions.
Communicate clear and achievable goals and objectives (and keep them top of mind)
I’ll admit to ‘borrowing’ this tool from Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff. Each year, I document Neto’s V2MOM (vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures) — essentially a one-page business plan for the next 12 months. I share this with the senior leadership team, then each person works with their team to create departmental V2MOMs.
This has aligned everyone in the organisation and helped new starters, as they can easily see what we are all working toward. It’s ‘people over process’ in action – the process is still there, but the focus is on the individuals.
And how do we ensure we meet our goals? We check-in every six months and either make changes needed to meet our vision and goals or give ourselves a thumbs-up. We conduct weekly wrap-ups, with the entire company in one room (including remote workers in our Asian, New Zealand and Australian offices via video link), where we assess the week-that-was and the week-to-come. We track success measures, revisit the overarching V2MOM, share ideas and everyone has the chance to give shout-outs to other staff members or have their say. It’s an incredibly valuable activity that keeps everyone focused and enthusiastic.
Growth is a great problem to have. Of all the potential business problems to have, unanticipated growth is probably not the one that keeps you awake at night. But if you want to remain focused on the things that made you go into business in the first place – solving problems, keeping customers happy or being an innovator — you’ll need to ensure you keep the best elements of small business alive.
Ryan Murtagh is the founder and CEO of retail management platform, Neto. Established in 2009, Ryan built the business based on a need for retail management platform that provides a complete solution for ecommerce, point of sale, inventory and fulfilment. A retailer himself, Ryan understands the industry pain points and provides a platform that can be applied to businesses of all sizes. Having owned and operated businesses since his teen years, Ryan’s passion and interest in retail has evolved into a thriving portfolio of success.