You probably started your business because you love and excel at the central aspect of it—whether that’s cooking, building houses, crunching numbers, or just talking to people. But like all small businesspeople, you also wear lots of other hats: You may have to manage employees, handle the books, and try to drum up new business, among other things.
Those tasks might not come as naturally as your company’s raison d’etre, but they’re just as important—especially when trying to sell your services to the government. “One of the main challenges for small business owners is understanding that the business has to do more than deliver its service or product,” says Susan Martin, business coach and owner of New York–based consulting firm Business Sanity. “They often put off other important functions until something reaches crisis.” For example, if you’re a landscaper, you’re not going to win a government contract by walking around a job site with your contact, throwing around imaginative ideas, and demonstrating a love for your job. You’ll need to clear numerous paper-based hurdles before you can begin more imaginative work.
To get on top of the other aspects of your business, start by identifying each one. Defining the different categories of tasks you need to accomplish, and learning how to think and talk about them, can help you run your business in a more mindful, purposeful way.
Identify each hat you wear
While some functions will vary from company to company and industry to industry, almost every small business owner has to manage the following:
- Sales and marketing. Depending on your company, this set of tasks may cover advertising, networking, media outreach, and promotions.
- Financials and accounting. This is one of the most important categories, but one of the least appealing for many business owners. It includes cash flow, billing, paying vendors and employees, taxes, and all other money matters.
- Human resources. This includes planning to meet staffing needs, devising strategies to attract and retain good people, evaluating and managing employees, and firing when necessary.
- Technology. Keeping abreast of new technologies for everything from managing customer relationships to tracking expenses may give your company a competitive advantage—and is essential to prevent you from falling behind.
- Business planning. It’s easy to get so caught up in day-to-day business that you don’t think about how to position your company for the future. Taking time to plan can help you set your business on the course you want it to go.
Clearly separating out each of the various tasks that are required to run your business will help you make sure you address each one on a regular basis, and address specific parts of a government bid with the right attention and mindset. “Think of your time in discreet segments,” says Martin. “You can address each category of task at a particular time. For example, you might deal with financials on a particular day.” Identifying the different jobs you have to accomplish can also make it easier to create effective and efficient systems for managing each one.
If you haven’t previously paid much attention to non-core business processes, obtaining a government contract may require you to get up to speed on the language used to describe them. Knowing the lingo can help you conceptualize your systems. For example, you need to understand the differences between cash flow, income, revenues, and receivables to plan your company’s finances effectively.
Just as important, you’ll find it easier to talk the talk with potential investors, lenders, regulators, partners, vendors, or even clients, who may ask about your processes for handling particular elements of your business. “When someone calls me and doesn’t use the right terminology, it stands out like a sore thumb,” notes Vicki Lynne Morgan, owner of business strategy firm Russmor Marketing Group in Califon, New Jersey.
You can pick up the jargon you need from a wide range of sources. Talk to mentors, trade association representatives, and professionals such as accountants and attorneys, and read trade publications, Web sites, and books on small businesses.
Paying this much attention to parts of your role other than making products or providing services may feel like a distraction at first. But the government is less likely to tolerate quirks and seat-of-your-pants management than a small, private client might be. Also, the better you become at giving each role the attention it’s due, the more confident you’ll feel—and you’ll be more successful building a business doing the work that attracted you in the first place.