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SBA St. Louis District Director’s Corner – September 2013

Looking back, current, and forward, the last few months of the year are an ideal time to reflect on past activities, evaluate where you are, and look at where you want to be in the future. Sometimes small business owners have so much to do that they can’t find the forest for the trees—in other words, they get so involved in their day to day operations that they can lose focus on planning for their business’ success. Here are a series of questions designed to help you re-focus on successes, failures, and strategies.

First, take a look at the last year and/or at the last several years.
 - Has your trajectory changed? Is it a change which makes you happy?
 - Have your estimates been on target or have they been off? Are your sales higher or lower than projected? What about your costs?
 - Is your profit margin where you would like it to be? Which items/services are out of line? Were your plans unrealistic, or were there unforeseen circumstances?
 - Have you received an increase/decrease in customer complaints?
 - Have you had supplier delays? Production delays?
 - Did you somehow wander off course and what will it take to get you back?
Let your business plan be your map. Sometimes taking a different path takes you to a better opportunity, but sometimes it will take you down a dead end trail.

The next step is to evaluate where you are right now. You may or may not be where you thought you were headed. That may be good, it may be bad, or it may be neutral. Take a good, hard look at everything involved in running your business. Ask for opinions from people you trust.
 - How do you feel about where your business is today?
 - How is productivity? Are there barriers to achieving better productivity?
 - How is business morale?
 - Are you bogged down in the minutiae of your business? If you have employees, could some of those tasks be delegated? If you’re a sole proprietor, could there be a better way to do things; could you contract tasks out?
 - Are your customers happy with your products or services?
 - Are you happy with your suppliers?
 - Where do you stand compared to your competition?
 - If you have a website, are you happy with it?
 - Are you ready for tax time?
 - Where are you excelling? Where could you make improvements?
 - Do you have mentors or a support group? If you don’t already have a mentor, this would be an ideal time to get one. (SBA resource partners; SCORE [St. Louis SCORE and Mid Missouri SCORE], Missouri SBTDC, Grace Hill Women’s Business Center, and the Veterans Business Resource Center provide free mentoring and low cost training.)
 - Are you current on your loans or are you having trouble paying your loans on time? If you are starting to have problems, now is the time to consult with your lender (and your mentor). If you wait too long, you may be less likely to save your business.
 - Is your insurance up to date?
 - Do you have off-site record back-ups? Do you have employee, vendor, and customer contacts available 24/7?
 - Are there laws you need to come into compliance with?
 - Is your business plan still an accurate representation of your busines and where you want it to go?
If you don’t have a business plan, please write one; if you have one, you may need to bring it current. (Those referenced SBA resource partners will be able to help you with your business plan, too.)

"Those who fail to plan, plan to fail." This quote has been attributed to many people and all of them were correct. Try to forecast your business’ future and the steps you need to take to get there.
 - Where do you want your business to be in six months, a year, five years?
 - What steps are you taking to get where you want to be?
 - Do you see yourself with the same suppliers?
 - Do you want to export? (SBA and SBA resource partners offers export assistance, including SBA guaranteed loans.)
 - Will you start offering health insurance?
 - Do you currently or want to start using social media?
 - Do you want to sell to the government? (The federal government has set-aside programs for small business contracts and SBA can help you with certifications.)
 - Do you know how to do what you want to do? If not, is it something you want to take on, do you want to contract out the work, or will you need to look at hiring?
 - What is the learning curve for a new employee and how long will it take an employee to reach full productivity?
 - Is your market niche still the best place to be? What are the trends in your market? Don’t get left behind because you haven’t taken your eyes off the minutiae long enough to realize what is happening around you. (If you’re still selling VHS tapes in a digital world, it may be too late to catch up!)
 - Do you need to put new systems in place?
 - Do you need to improve your record keeping?
 - Do you want to expand? Do you need new equipment or buildings? (If you need a loan, SBA guaranteed loans could be your best option.)
 - Do you need to fund your retirement?
 - Do you have a succession plan in place? What happens if you are incapacitated for any length of time? Do you plan for your children to take over your business? If so, are they ready?
 - Do you need a disaster plan? (SBA offers website training and webinars on disaster preparedness.)
This is the time to plot out your business’ future course and make course corrections if needed. Take a look at the training available on SBA’s website, talk to a mentor, or attend training offered by SBA and SBA resource partners. While planning can never cover every contingency, better planning almost always equates to better outcomes.

Although people who go into business usually possess a high level of specialized skills, very few know everything they need to know to run a successful business. You might have brilliant technical skills, but be lousy with record keeping. You might be an awesome sales person, but terrible at accounting. You might not be good at managing your employees, but you’re terrific at putting together a website. Many of these skills can and should be learned, while others are better left to experts, depending upon your personality and skill set. In conjunction with a mentor, you are the best judge of what you can and cannot do.

In order to figure out where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going, you’ll need to take some time looking at the forest instead of the trees or in some cases focusing on the leaves. If you think you could make some improvements to your business’ operations, connect with a mentor. You might be surprised at what that second set of eyes might see that you’ve been missing. Plan to succeed. Your business needs your hand at the helm, with a destination in mind rather than adrift in a sea of uncertainties.

Best of Luck in business!