The economy is getting better, but are things getting better at your small business? From the average entrepreneur’s perspective in the trenches, life might not look much different than during the depths of the recession—at least in terms of how hard you’re working. In fact, more than one-third of small-business owners are working more hours now than they were in 2008, according to a recent survey by Sage, a business management software company.
The Sage Reinvention of Small Business Survey reports that 37 percent of small-business owners are working an additional 11 or more hours per week than they were five years ago. (That’s up from 24 percent who reported the same in last year’s survey.) Of those, 68 percent report working both longer days and more weekends.
In addition, many small-business owners are now taking less vacation time. More than four in 10 (43 percent) say that they are taking significantly or somewhat less vacation compared to five years ago.
In addition to working harder, though, it seems small-business owners are working smarter. Sage asked what changes or improvements entrepreneurs had made to their businesses in the past five years to help them survive and thrive in a challenging economy. The top response was investing in technology (49 percent), followed by better cash flow management (48 percent), more use of mobile technology (44 percent), better inventory management (32 percent), more productive employees (30 percent) and better employee retention (18 percent).
What kinds of changes have you made in your business since the recession began? Take a look at some ideas drawn from the Sage list for inspiration:
Investing in technology: If you're still struggling with outdated computers, or if everyone on your team has different versions of software, now is the time to upgrade. Lagging technology slows you down and makes your business less competitive. Consider cloud software solutions, which simplify updates and often end up costing less than installing software on everyone’s computer.
Better cash flow management: Speaking of outdated, if you’re still using paper-based accounting, it’s time to get with the program. Accounting programs like QuickBooks simplify every aspect of accounting, including easily transferring data from your files to your accountant’s, tax preparer’s or bank’s. But their most useful function is enabling you to quickly see information at a glance, such as which accounts are past due or projected cash flow for the coming month.
More use of mobile technology: Tablets are getting cheaper and there’s a wider range to choose from than ever before. Your team probably already has smartphones, and you know how valuable they can be to your business, but tablets can enable you to do even more, such as making sales presentations on the fly or showing customers your portfolio of work (great for graphic designers, interior decorators, contractors or others with visually oriented businesses). The holiday season always means a raft of new tablet launches, so stay tuned.
Better inventory management: There are more online inventory management options than ever before. Work with your sales team to create sales forecasts that will help you predict demand and needs. But good inventory management isn’t just about tracking numbers—it’s about staying close to your customers (so you know what they’re going to want next) and maintaining good relationships with your suppliers (so you can get the best possible terms).
Greater employee productivity: Can you squeeze even more out of your employees? Yes, if you make sure they’ve got the tools they need to do their jobs (see “technology” above), the training they need to keep on top of changes in your industry and your business, and the support they need to stay energized. That includes listening to your team (they may have better ideas than you about ways to streamline processes and systems) and giving them appropriate flexibility and time off so they don’t get burned out. All of these will help with employee retention too.
There’s good news in the Sage results: Even if many are working longer, more than half (56 percent) of small-business owners polled truly believe they are living the American dream, and more than three-fourths (76 percent) say they never once contemplated giving up their business at any point in the past five years. Maybe small-business owners are working harder not because they’re trying to keep their heads above water, but because they’re re-energized and excited about the future.
Read more articles about the recession.