First comes the idea, then a bit of follow-through and, ideally, in the end you have a business.
But if a company thrives, it's not because its founder filed all the right paperwork, got a P.O. box and had business cards made up. There's much more to building a successful business than those initial basics.
In fact, to make sustained growth more likely, small businesses need a smart, strategic plan. Whether a company is in its infancy or has been around for years, there are a few things every savvy small-business owner needs to keep in mind.
Identify your customers
It's important to share word of your business when you start out and as you grow in order to maintain a customer base. But instead of the cast-a-wide-net approach, try something a little more focused, strategic and rooted in research. Invest in market research—which you can either hire consultants to do or informally conduct yourself—to best identify who your customers are, then compare that data with who you would like your customers to be. From there, you can make an informed decision about where and how to reach them and launch a marketing initiative with a better chance of yielding a return on your investment.
Make sure you've got a professional keeping the books
If you don't think you're a numbers person, it'll be difficult for you to be a truly successful entrepreneur. If you're not qualified to keep your company's books yourself (and you should have an accounting background to do so if you expect any significant growth), you need to understand at least the very basics of accounting so that you can make a good hire of someone more adept to take on that work.
Foster good office culture
Retaining your talent is important for a number of reasons. It's costly (in terms of time and money) to train new employees, and it's be a huge burden to lose a staffer who's led projects for your company. One of the best ways to keep your people on board, and attract new hires, is to cultivate a solid office culture. You know, the kind of place people want to come to. As a small business owner, it's up to you to champion that welcoming, friendly, fun, productive environment. (Read more on creating a great office culture.)
Invest in the basics
Experts have said time and again that a business's success ultimately comes down to its people. Be prepared to pony up the time and energy it takes to vet, recruit, hire and train employees that not only are qualified but also fit within your organization. That means looking ahead to figure out which positions you'll need to hire for, and networking to find the best candidates. Another fundamental element of a successful company in 2012 is its website. Having an amateurish online presence will hurt your credibility and steer people to your competitors with more refined web content. There's a price tag on a good website, but its payback makes it worthwhile.
Listen, especially when you disagree
You started a business because you had an idea and a vision. But your business will only grow if you pay careful attention to your stakeholders and customers. Your board, investors, colleagues and customers can each offer you valuable insight, whether it's about the inner workings of your company or an outside perspective on its functionality and service. It's particularly important to listen when you disagree, like if a board member critiques your methods or a customer isn't happy. That's where you can best learn about your deficiencies and how to improve (translation: It's where you learn how to stay successful).
Do everything you can to avoid being surprised when you don't reach financial goals. Set realistic expectations, and have a clear plan on how to get there. Undershooting your revenue estimates will help ensure that your plans, which are based on how much money your business makes, won't derail the company. If you aim high and fall short of reaching your expected margins, it can be disastrous to your firm. (Get more tips on forecasting.)
Find a mentor
There are professionals, entrepreneurs and industry experts in your community who have already gone through the business-building process. Learn from them. They have suggestions to share and failures they've learned from that can spare you the pain and cost of making those same mistakes yourself. It's valuable to have an experienced, trustworthy advisor to review your ideas and help position you to improve and succeed. (Here's more on why you need a mentor.)