Small Business and Startups: 6 Traits of Great Businesses

A few weeks back I wrote about 5 traits of leadership and some of the characteristics that great leaders share. Today let’s move away form the individual(s) that lead businesses and discuss the businesses themselves, shall we? Leadership is all well and good (not to mention completely necessary), but there is more to a business than simply the person or people who lead it.

Organizations large and small can be strengthened and improved when certain business-wide traits are present or developed. Sometimes these traits are inherent to the business from day one, other times they are structural and need to be built over time, and sometimes the traits are intangible like values and culture which require time to mature and instill.

The reasonably strong businesses have one or several of these traits in common and while most managers do focus on one or two of these, it is rare that a venture  incorporates all six of these characteristics. Great small businesses and startups should keep these six traits in mind as they build, launch, and grow their companies and work hard to be:

1. Transparent. Mom taught us to always tell the truth, and that goes for those of us in business, too. And, no matter the audience, whether investors, customers, or team, truth can be measured by how transparent you are. Sharing performance and growth data, communicating clearly and openly, admitting to mistakes and failures – these are the hallmarks of an open, transparent organization.

2. Customer-centric. While I do not subscribe to the maxim that “the customer is always right” I do strongly believe that the customer is always first. Companies that keep the focus on their clientele build better products, offer better service, and experience stronger organic growth than those that, well, do not. This means that you need to be in constant contact with your customers: make it easy for them to contact you, survey them regularly, provide great content for them through your social media channels, and listen closely to what they have to say. Small businesses in particular rely on word of mouth and recommendations, so the better your relationship with them, the stronger your communications with them, the greater the WOM effect will be.

3. Disciplined. Focus equals discipline. This applies whether the focus is on product development, strategy, hiring, or positioning in the market. When we first conceived of crowdSPRING, Ross and I thought it would offer services across multiple verticals – it didn’t take us long realize what a mistake that would be and to slash our ambitions and focus only offering only creative services. The same idea can be extended to many aspects of your business operations, strategic planning, and your daily routine! Resist the temptation to overreact to external events or market changes and maintain your focus and discipline on your core strategy and tactics.

4. Flexible. In spite of what I just wrote in the previous paragraph, great businesses are flexible in everything they do. Managers should always be ready to respond to threats, make course corrections, and be constantly looking for new strategies and tactics that will provide the edge they need. Flexibility also extends to the workplace – work rules, vacation policies, individual’s schedules can all be approached with a mindset of flexibility and can lead to greater employee satisfaction, lower staff turnover, and higher productivity. Nice.

5. Strategic. Strategy does not mean complexity; sometimes strategy can be simple, forthright, even elegant, but no company can succeed, let alone be great without a strong emphasis on strategic planning and execution. A business plan is a great place to start and every business needs one. It doesn’t have to be 80 pages long, nor does it have to include 10 years of projected revenues and earnings; many great companies articulate their strategic approach in a one-page document or a 5-slide presentation. Same goes for execution: articulating strategy is all well and good, but a company that is not disciplined and focused can not hope to accomplish its goals.

6. Talented. Hiring the best and developing talent takes time and there is probably not a virtuous manager on this good earth who wouldn’t choose to hire the very best person they can find. But there is more to hiring than the old saw about “hire slow, fire fast.” Spotting talent is a skill, but this is the real world and sometimes a business needs to get a worker on the job and can’t afford the luxury of waiting for the perfect person with the perfect resume and the perfect skill-set to come through the door. Great talent can be bought, but great talent can also be developed in-house. The key is to build your team carefully over time, give them the training and resources they need to do their job, nurture and encourage them in their growth, and reward the behaviors and skills you desire. Hire smart, develop carefully, and incentivise wisely!

A Navy tug-of-war exercise, photo: Wikimedia Commons