Hitting the pause button on your company is rarely an option. A small-business owner’s day is filled with countless decisions and things to do, all with the future hanging in the balance. Making time for big-picture reflection might not seem like a priority.
But not taking time to ruminate on what you could do better would be a missed opportunity. Unless you constantly think about improving and growing your company and forming deeper connections with customers, someone else out there might suddenly disrupt the entire market.
What could happen if you looked at your small business like it was a startup again? Better yet, what if you had a program staffed with seasoned business veterans and experts sharing their own insights to help your business?
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To help create that kind of opportunity, OPEN Forum followed two businesses at Boomtown, a Boulder, Colorado-based business accelerator that helps startups reach their next stage of growth. But even if your business is already established, you can still take advantage of the key lessons Boomtown's startup participants have learned to help your company run more successfully.
"There's a lot to be said about how a small business can learn from startups," says Toby Krout, Boomtown’s co-founder and co-director. "At a high level, small businesses can gain a competitive advantage by adopting many startup practices such as lean methodologies and experiment design. This keeps businesses focused on solving real customer problems, while reducing non-essential tasks."
The Accelerator Experience
Each year, startups across the country compete for spots at Boomtown and other accelerator and incubator programs like it to build and improve their business concept. Participants typically spend several months in an incubator refining their products or services and defining core customers, pricing, distribution and marketing. Many programs provide startups the chance to present a pitch for their ventures to potential investors.
[image-with-info caption="bottom-left" url="https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/guides/boomtown-accelerator/?linknav=us-of-ImageChapter2toGated" source="Lumenati" alignment="left" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Boomtown-Chapter2-Sidebar-GatedOPT.jpg"]Click here to learn more from Boomtown mentors, including Bret Fund, faculty director of Deming Center Venture Fund[/image-with-info]
A key selling point of programs such as Boomtown is bringing a network of experienced, business-minded mentors together who can challenge startups to rethink every angle of their venture to give it the best chance of success in the open market and with investors, Krout says.
“Once you get into our program it all boils down to focus,” says Krout, “and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. That’s how you can achieve breakthroughs.”
Boomtown's fall 2014 class included two startups that used the three months to make more than a few changes in their businesses, and the lessons they learned could apply to many small businesses. One of them, Kickfurther, a startup using crowdsourcing for business inventory financing, changed its name (from Ouiby) after talking to potential customers and finding out people had a hard time pronouncing it.
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Bitsbox also participated in Boomtown's fall 2014 class. Two former Google employees started Bitsbox as an innovative approach to teaching kids how to code. Like Kickfurther, the company's co-founders started the program with a different name and the intention of publishing a monthly magazine for subscribers. However, with help from Boomtown mentors and a trademark lawyer, they not only pivoted by changing their name, they also changed their business model to literally incorporate mailing a box of coding goodies to subscribers—something they've helped fund since leaving the accelerator through a massively oversubscribed Kickstarter campaign.
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A Fresh Take On Small Business
Most small businesses can't afford to take three months off to achieve their own breakthroughs. But they can take away key lessons from startups such as Bitsbox and Kickfurther, accelerators such as Boomtown, and business mentors such as Krout who staff them.
Areas that accelerators such as Boomtown dive into include:
Generating ideas and innovations. Small businesses need to constantly develop and explore ideas and opportunities. How can you accomplish that on a regular basis? One tip: Hold regular brainstorming sessions with your staff. The best ideas can literally come from anywhere.
Finding and connecting with customers in new and meaningful ways. At Boomtown, mentors stress the need for participants to get out and interact directly with customers. As a small-business owner, it can be easy to get into a routine where you find yourself stuck behind a desk all day. If you do, though, you could miss key opportunities by not meeting with customers in person.
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Striking a balance between work and your personal life. Life in an accelerator program is intense: The goal is transforming an idea into a business in a short period of time. The pressures of owning a small business also can make you feel constantly on the edge, but finding time for life outside of work is essential because it makes you more productive when you're on the job.
Identifying, tracking and managing the most important numbers in your company. When the subject of accounting comes up, many small-business owners run for the door. It's not enough to delegate monitoring your company's financials to bookkeepers. As a business owner, you need to take an active role in making sure you're hitting the numbers that matter most to your business.
Crafting a compelling elevator pitch or story about your business. A pitch should include what your company does, and why customers, employees and investors should be a part of it. While your small business might not be angling for investor capital like many accelerator companies hope for, you can still benefit from honing your elevator pitch, which is the ability to explain what your business does, and why, in a nutshell.
As a small-business owner, you can't go back in time to when you started. But you can move forward by incorporating lessons such as these to help propel your company to new heights.