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8 Signs Your Business Is Losing Its Edge

Business owners pay incredible attention to detail -- to even the most minute details -- during a start-up. A maturing customer base, reasonably steady cash flow, and added layers of management naturally create a shift in focus and attention.

That shift in focus can be a good thing... unless in the process your business starts to drift away from what made it successful in the first place.

Here are eight easy ways to tell your business may be losing its edge -- and jeopardizing its long-term future:

  1. The parking lot is empty at 5.30 p.m. Once there weren't enough hours in the day to get everything done; now there aren't enough hours in the day to maintain a "proper" work-life balance. Growing a small business requires tremendous effort, effort that doesn't always stop at 5 p.m. If you or your employees aren't staying late at least occasionally, that's a sign you've lost the drive and excitement that once propelled your business. Employees want to stay late when their work is meaningful. Start projects or initiatives everyone can rally around. Find an "enemy." Build a sense of mission; that's your job.
  2. Meetings are an end in themselves. When you started out you didn't have "meetings." You pulled people together to share news, you asked for ideas, you solved problems... but you didn't schedule meetings. Spending time in meetings was a luxury you couldn't afford. Now you meet regularly simply because that's what successful companies do; sometimes you meet just to decide if you need to have additional meetings. Any meeting that does not result in decisions, action items, and accountability isn't a meeting -- it's a social occasion. Get back to holding as few meetings as possible, take hardcore steps to make sure any meetings you do hold are effective, and otherwise stick to getting things done.
  3. Interpersonal skills are more important than results. Remember the programmer who seemed a little odd but built your first database? Remember the salesperson who was a little too demanding in-house but landed all your big customers? Remember the warehouse worker who seemed to have no friends on the staff but was amazingly organized and kept product flowing? Once upon a time you overlooked a few minor social faults; now you worry more about how individuals "get along" than about how they perform. (I can trace the turning point of a company I worked for to the day upper management decided how we as supervisors interacted with each other was more important than how each of us worked with our respective teams.) Some behaviors should not be tolerated; otherwise, manage through any interpersonal squabbles and find ways to build an effective team when that team includes a superstar. Talent deserves some -- not a lot, but some -- latitude.
  4. The lights are on... but no one is home. Early on you worried about every dollar; it was easy since you had few dollars to keep track of. You turned out lights, turned down the heat, re-used packaging and paper... you worried about every expense. Now your focus has shifted over a few zeros and you only worry about hundreds of dollars -- but if a dollar was worth saving when you had very few, isn't it still worth saving when you have a lot? Lights left on are always a waste. Heat left turned up is always a waste. Just because you have it doesn't mean you should spend it. When you lose focus on spending, so will your employees -- to an even greater degree than you.
  5. You say, "What we need is..." instead of, "What we should do is..." Early on you solved problems and overcame obstacles through ingenuity, creativity, and effort. Now you throw money at problems. "Easier" is not always better or more productive. I visited a company that spent $265,000 on new computers with faster processors, but since most employees only access spreadsheets and simple databases processor speed was a non-issue. They chose to buy new because new must be better and old meant employees "didn't have every tool they need to do their jobs." In a start-up every expense is justified on a cost-benefit basis. Should that ever change?
  6. New ideas seem too hard to even try. When the day-to-day feels overwhelming it can seem impossible to add new items to an already crowded plate... but a business that stays what it is today will not be in business next year. If you don't have time to try something new you're doing something wrong. Prune a few dead projects and plant new ones. Make "idea" a verb, not a noun. (If nothing else you'll have more fun.)
  7. You think in terms of customers, not individuals. When I first started writing for BNET in February I was lucky to get 50 page views a day, so it was easy for me to picture a person reading a post. (After all, there were so few.) I now average 350,000-400,000 page views a month, so it's easy to think of readers as a collective mass -- but the fact remains that behind every page view is a person. My job is to engage, inform, and occasionally (hopefully) entertain that person. Your job is the same: You may make thousands of sales each month but behind every sale is a person. When you first started out you were excited to land a new customer; you still should be, even if you add dozens of new customers every week. Never think of your customers as a collective mass; no matter how large your customer base, it is still made up of individuals. And speaking of customers...
  8. You think most of your customers are irritating and even stupid. Let me guess. Sometimes you say, "Jeez, that guy just doesn't get it." Maybe he doesn't because you haven't described your services well enough or explained how you provide real value. Or sometimes you say, "If I have to answer that question one more time..." Maybe you do because you haven't made sure the customer understands. Or sometimes you say, "I can't believe they are asking us to do that." Why shouldn't they? If they don't ask they can't receive. "Stupid" customers are the lifeblood of your business -- if they can do it themselves they don't need you. You've definitely lost your edge when you see customers as a necessary evil. Instead, find meaning in what you sell. Customers are the best friends your business has -- customers write the checks.
Related: Photo courtesy flickr user SuperFantastic, CC 2.0
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