To most business owners who have spent years and thousands of euros building their brand and developing a client base, chucking it all away to reinvent your business probably seems like the height of insanity. And if you do it on the fly or haphazardly, it probably is. But there are many reasons to tweak your business model, or to try out a whole new one, that make perfect sense. If you do it thoughtfully, it could be the best business decision you ever make.
Here’s our guide to reinventing your business, one smart step at a time.
Know When to Make a Change
The first step is deciding if it’s the right time for a change. Carol O’Kelly, a strategic marketing specialist and business development mentor says she sees a pattern with small-business owners. “Most people who come to me have been running their businesses for about seven to ten years,” she says. “They spend the first three years absorbed in getting things started. Then they’re in a growth phase for three or four years. Then they hit a hole, can’t sustain the business or don’t find the work challenging anymore and want to try something different.”
Many factors can push a small-business owner toward reinvention – it may be a market driven push, the need to spend more time with family or lack of financial sustainability. You may just be bored. All are legitimate reasons for change. But you need to be practical, too. Any change involves risk. You need to set out very clearly why you feel you want to change and be specific about it.
Decide What You Want
After the decision is made to change, you need to decide what type of change is necessary to meet your goals. “Once you decide there’s something you can do better, you need to decide whether to make a little tweak or a major overhaul,” O’Kelly says. “You have to decide what’s best for your brand. It’s a matter of looking at your core competencies and concentrating on what you’re best at.”
“Entrepreneurs have more ideas than they have time for. The absolute first stage is deciding to cut off all those other ideas and focus on one. Making a decision to make a decision is the hardest thing for entrepreneurs to do.”
The easiest way to figure out what to change – and at what magnitude – is to work backwards. Are you chiefly interested in reducing the hours you spend in the office? Are you sick of selling office supplies and think running a dog bakery is your destiny? “Once you have clarity on your goals and values,” O’Kelly says, “you have a compass to guide you and help you decide which ideas are good and which are simply the desire to do something different.”
Follow the Plan
The next step is something every business owner should be experienced at – developing and following a business plan. You need to approach each change as if you’re starting from scratch. You need to think it through thoroughly, figure out who the competition is, how you are going to beat them and what the costs are.
Entrepreneurs and owner/managers tend to rely on intuition a lot, but you need to make sure other people think your plan is a good idea. Sit down with a mentor for an hour and justify your proposed changes.
Make the Switch
During the transition, you’ll likely be running two businesses at once as you phase out the old business model and ramp up the new one. “Sometimes reinvention means running two businesses simultaneously for almost a year,” O’Kelly warns. “It’s overwhelming, and business owners are often so excited about the new model, they want to let go of the old model. It’s not fun.”
The solution is to create a detailed exit strategy. Allow time to negotiate new leases, bring on new employees or train current employees. Be transparent through the whole process with vendors, customers, employees and, most important, your family. Give everyone notice that changes are coming, when they will happen, what it means for them and why it is important for you.
Mentor and Manage
Even those committed to sticking to their business plans can start to deviate. O’Kelly suggests bringing in outside help. “Business owners sometimes need people to bounce things off of to keep them from going off in crazy directions,” she says. “Some people go through a grieving process. They’re letting go of a piece of something they’ve built and need to process that. There’s a lot of stuff to deal with, but if you don’t, it will come back and bite you hard.”
Although the process can be rough, reinventing your business can be a rush. “It’s an exciting place to be.” O’Kelly says.
Once you’ve decided you want a business mentor and understand the value of having one, how do you go about finding the right one? It all depends on how selective you want to be. A number of Web sites and organizations offer free mentoring. Some will offer a great deal of information about your potential mentors, while others simply match you with whoever is available. That doesn’t mean they’re any less qualified, of course.You can find a mentor in any number of ways:Many professional associations offer mentoring programs. If you are looking for a mentor in your industry, this is the first place to look.Next, explore your network: distant relatives, friends of the family, former bosses or professors, people you meet through professional associations or networking groups, or even online social networks.If you are a first-time entrepreneur, you are going to have a lot to learn from any mentor. You of course want to be compatible with them, but it doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. If you have already started your business, it is more important that you go ahead and get a mentor and get started, rather than spending a great deal of time searching right now. As your business takes shape, you can always move on to another mentor.On the other hand, if you’ve been down the entrepreneurial path before, you may have a much clearer vision of what you are trying to accomplish and how a mentor can help you get there.Here are some steps you can take to help you find the right mentor for you:
- Define a list of your top goals for the mentoring relationship
- Brainstorm a list of prospective mentors
- Research any available information about them or speak to people they have worked withSelect the top candidates who are aligned with your goals
- Contact the mentor and ask for a a meeting. You do not have to divulge at this time that you are interested in a longer-term relationship with them, just that you are interested in getting their input on what you are doing
- Prepare a short list of questions regarding their feedback on your current situationMeet with them. If they’re willing to take time away from their office, that’s best. (You pick up the tab!)
- Ask them about their history, current situation, and goals
- State your goals and ask your questions. Take notes!
- If you like their responses, you can test the waters with them regarding an ongoing relationship, e.g., “I really appreciate your input on this, and I’d greatly value it on an ongoing basis. Would you be willing to meet with me again next month to follow up on what we’ve discussed today?”
- The day after the meeting remember to thank the mentor for their time
- Review your notes and draw up a clear cut action list
- Take action on their suggestions
- Call or email to keep them up to date on the results of those actions and request a second appointment (assuming you’re still interested)
- Propose a mentoring relationship. Be sure to spell out your goals and expectations, as well as your commitment to them. A written agreement will show you are serious about the commitment and investment
Keep in mind that while a mentoring relationship generally lasts more than just one or two meetings, neither of you is locked in. You continue the relationship only if it continues to serve you both well.
A mentor will become not only your advisor, but your friend and confidante. That doesn’t happen instantly—building trust and personal interest takes time. You set the tone at the outset of the relationship by demonstrating your commitment to the process.
How can you best establish the base on which to build a solid mentoring relationship? Carol O’Kelly of Redstorm, a Marketing Strategy company based in Dublin, Ireland and a leading provider of business mentoring and coaching, says consistency and preparation are essential. “Frequency of contact is important in the relationship to keep the learning process moving forward. Each new discussion with the mentor should include updates from the mentee on items the mentor recommended in the previous meeting.” Carol stresses that the mentor needs to be involved in the big picture, not just the details. “Working together to set goals can be pivotal. Not only should the mentor/mentee talk about current specific issues, they should also focus on short and long term goals together with all the surrounding business noise.”
Come to every meeting prepared. Take time to review your discussion and to set action items. Before your next meeting, review those items and ensure you have actively moved your status forward. Bring the notes to the next meeting for discussion. O’Kelly, who has spent years working closely with entrepreneurs, stresses that there’s more to an effective mentoring relationship than organized meetings, and has some great advice on the interpersonal aspects of the mentoring relationship:
Take an interest in the person as a human being. Get to know them not just through mentoring activities, keep in touch during daily activities… this goes both ways – regular and informal communications are key to building this relationship. How did the work out go? Was the London weekend fun? I saw this and thought it’d make you laugh… etc. All very simple, all very effective at gaining a deeper understanding of the other persons click points – which leads to a deeper relationship and more valuable mentoring.
Don’t say, “I’d like to pick your brain.” My brain “has been picked dry” and I start feeling bored when I hear those words. I know the time I spend with that person is going to be nothing but an interrogation. Instead say, “I would really value your opinion.” It’s much gentler and I get the sense that it will be a more pleasant conversation rather than an interrogation with harsh lights shining down.
Don’t try to monopolize a lot of your mentor’s time at first. Connect in a way that’s quick and easy. Schedule meetings in advance. Email is great as I can deal with it immediately, or if I have a lot on I will get back to you when I have a minute but I don’t feel threatened and hassled. Don’t suddenly arrive at the door expecting to get a mentor’s time, you’d be surprised how often it happens.
Be clear about what you’re doing and what you need. There is so much “murky thinking” in the world. I’m amazed that people feel they have to write five pages to express one idea. That means you don’t really know what you’re talking about. Work on developing a clear elevator speech and mission statement. Think about one or two specific questions you need answered and think about your words and how to ask those questions clearly. Put questions and issues down on paper first, it’s a good trick to help you think through an issue you may be able to deal with yourself which gives you a feeling of achievement and frees up your mentor meeting for something you really need help on.
Listen, listen, listen to what they say. Don’t think about all the reasons why you can’t. That’s part of the reason why you’re not there yet. Say, “I’m dealing with yada, yada, yada – how would you suggest overcoming those obstacles? And then let your mind listen without the automatic “Can’t do it that way” response.
Thank the person for their time. Tell them what you’re going to do and then when you take action, be sure to let them know what you’re doing. Always, always, always tell them when you take an action step – keep them in the loop, without this any mentor is operating in the dark and you will not get any value from working with them.
Reciprocate once in awhile. If you see a great article that you think your mentor would enjoy – send it on with a quick note. If you have a trade or a skill and can offer to help him out in some way – offer it. Don’t say, “How can I help you?” Then they have to figure it out. Even if they never take you up on it, they will appreciate your offer.
Learn to make the link between cause and effect. Don’t put your mentor in a position where he/she has to figure it all out for you. You’re not a child. The job of a mentor is not to take you by the hand every step of the way. It’s to give you some guidance as you’re on your way. Your job is to make the link between what you are told and how you will apply it to your life. With mutual respect, demonstrated through action as well as attitude, your mentoring relationship can be mutually extremely rewarding.
Your friends and family, the Web, periodicals, and even casual acquaintances can provide you with a steady daily flow of information regarding news, industry developments, and opportunities. Industry analysts, consultants, employees, and good networking contacts can share their expert knowledge with you regarding particular situations and needs you may encounter. But only a mentor can truly share wisdom with you on an ongoing basis.A mentor is someone with more entrepreneurial business experience than you, who serves as a trusted confidante over an extended period of time. A true mentoring relationship also works in both directions—they learn about new ideas from you just as you learn timeless wisdom from them.But whatever the benefits to the mentor, the benefits to you, the entrepreneur, are even greater:Where else are you going to turn? There’s no boss any more to turn to for advice or direction—maybe not even any employees yet. You’re flying solo. But you don’t have to. Everybody needs a good reliable sounding board, second opinion, and sometimes just emotional support.They’ve “been there, done that”. Learn from others’ mistakes and successes. They don’t have to have experience in your particular industry. They don’t have to be up on the latest trends or technology—you’ve got other sources for that. Their role is to share with you lessons from their experience in the hopes that you can learn them a bit more quickly and easily.Expand your social network. Your mentor, being an experienced businessperson, is likely to have an extensive network, and can offer you access to far more senior decision-makers than you currently have. And they will be far more willing to open that network up to you than some casual acquaintance from a networking meeting.A trusted, long-term relationship. Your mentor has no ulterior motive—no service or product to sell you. That combined with their experience creates a good foundation for trust. And as the relationship develops over time, that trust can grow even stronger. Also, your time with them becomes more and more efficient as they become more and more familiar with you and your business.As you can see, the rewards are many. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by finding a good mentor. Every entrepreneur should have one.