I’ve always been a believer in going back to fundamentals when you’re struggling. I learned that first in sports, as a kid. And I’ve learned it in business repeatedly, sometimes the hard way, over three decades in business. Getting back to fundamentals brings you back to the center, but with a new focus. You restore the fundamentals and then you can grow and branch out again.
Since many of us in small business have been through some tough times, and things are starting to look better, this might be a good time to go back to fundamentals with a fresh new look at your business strategy. And I don’t mean that daunting elaborate academic strategy that takes teams of experts months of effort to move in big companies; I mean your strategy, down here in the real world, where we business owners and operators basically do it ourselves.
With that in mind, I suggest you first consider three factors, and then ask yourself two questions.
The three factors to consider:
1. Identity: not you necessarily, but your business, and maybe that’s really just you. Think about strengths and weaknesses. Think about what you do better than anybody else, and how you’re different. Think about what sets your business apart from the others. Imagine a customer talking with a non-customer about your business. How would she explain you to her friend?
2. Target market focus: you should know your target market well and be able to describe your ideal customer in a lot of detail. You should also know who isn’t in your market, and why. The narrower the definition, the better. Cut that pie into small pieces, and know which pieces are most important.
3. Business offering focus: what business are you really in and how well does it serve your customers’ needs. Understand the problem you solve, how the customers encounter that problem, and what other solutions might be available. Just as you should be able to describe who isn’t in your target market and why not, you should also be able to describe what you’re not doing, and why not.
The two questions to ask:
1. How well are these three factors aligned? Take a good look at those three strategy components, and ask yourself how well aligned they are. They should be all mixed up, enmeshed and interdependent, but at the same time, each one should be lined up with the other two. Take any one of those three factors and see how much sense it makes when you look at the other two. There should be alignment of any one of the three with the other two.
2. How well focused are you? Strategy is focus. It’s surprising how much of it is what you don’t do instead of what you do. It’s hard for entrepreneurs because we want to do everything for everybody. I know because I suffer the same problem myself. But we can’t do everything for everybody, so we have to focus on doing the right things, and the most important things, for the right people. Bill Cosby once said: “I don’t know the secret to success, but I do know that the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.
One semi-final thought: good strategy seems obvious after you’ve done it. Successes make it look simple. But often enough it doesn’t make sense until after you’ve done it.
And a final, somewhat paradoxical, but important thought: success is nine parts implementation for every one part strategy. Just so we don’t take this topic too far.
Tim Berry is Founder and President of Palo Alto Software, Founder of bplans.com, and co-Founder of Borland International. He is a Stanford MBA, and principal author of Business Plan Pro. He blogs at Planning Startups Stories.