The best advice for small business owners (and how to avoid bad advice)

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It’s 2021 and everyone’s a critic—or, they’re at least trying to be.

When you talk about your business, do other people try to weigh in, even if they haven’t the faintest idea what your business is about? Or maybe they know some surface-level information, like your business deals with “investments—or something” and are just trying to help? Friends, relatives, and loved ones all chime in with what you “should do” even if they aren’t business owners themselves.

It’s only natural that you want to reach out and test your business theories. Seeking advice from others is a good way to reaffirm the validity of your business idea and help you understand if your new idea will work out. The question is, are you asking the right advice from the right people? A concert pianist has fantastic skills and works at the highest level in their industry, but you wouldn’t ask them to change the spark plugs of your car, so why ask friends who have always been in 9-5 employment how to grow your business? 

When it comes to dissecting advice from friends and family who’ve never actually been at the helm of a business, tread lightly and manage your expectations.

Family and friends, unless they have successful ventures of their own, often have a psychological bias called the false consensus effect, where they believe their opinions or preferences are shared universally. If they say they wouldn’t ever use your product or service they believe that they’re speaking for everyone, when the truth is, they’re probably not even your target audience in the first place.

As tempting as it may be to ask for advice, it's best not to tell friends and family your business ideas. Even though they mean well and have your best interest at heart, there are people out there who have the actual know-how and can steer your new idea in the right direction.

Get small business advice from an expert

To get the best business advice, you need to go to people who have been where you are now. Business owners (or even ex-business owners) have experienced that same anxiety and excitement of a new business venture and have already overcome the obstacles you have faced and will face. They know work-arounds, have proven solutions, and will have actionable suggestions for you to take on board.

The road to business success isn’t an easy one—trust me, I’ve been there.

As avid cyclists, my mates and I always looked for the best equipment and gear we could find to be fast on the road. I was passionate about cycling and this passion turned into a business idea that I soon started to run, all from my kitchen table. 

Before long, I was operating Seight, a seven-figure custom cycling wear business and feeling good about its trajectory. We were thriving and I had achieved it all before the age of 30.

Things were so good I decided to leave my job to take the helm of Seight full-time, and that’s when everything went downhill. My wife decided she was leaving our marriage, partly because of all the time and money I was devoting to my emerging business and I was in the weeds, personally and professionally. The business sunk and I was $200,000 in debt, flailing around, making poor business decisions, my ego knocked down a few pegs.

By going back to business fundamentals, refraining from shiny new tactics and getting advice from others who had run successful businesses, we were able to bounce back and get the numbers we previously had—and then some. 

When I felt the time was right, I made the difficult decision to sell my business and take a much-needed vacation. While I was taking my hard-earned rest, it occurred to me that plenty of business owners will probably go through that same harrowing process without the guidance of someone who’s walked the walk. And while they may have loved ones supporting them, they’ll need professional advice, like I did. 

Which is why I thought to pay it forward and became a business coach. Unlike plenty of business coaches out there who secured a degree or certificate but have never actually run a business, I’ve been where you are. I know what you’re feeling. As an experienced business coach, I can help you identify your vision and how you can achieve it. 

The worst small business advice you can get (and should avoid)

Your friends and family may mean well, but bad business advice can greatly affect the health of your business, even if it comes from the heart. These are just some of the bad advice one-liners you may get in your stint as a business owner (pro-tip: it’s best not to listen to them).

“Always stick to your business plan, you developed it for a reason!”

True or false? Business plans are crucial to your success—true. They lay out your vision and outline the goals you need to achieve—also true. They also never change, at the expense of veering away from your original plans—false, (in big red capital letters). 

Remember: Businesses either adapt or die. Business plans do have to be edited as you go, taking into consideration changing mindsets or even the circumstances you’re in. You need to revisit business plans when your processes have become inefficient, or else you risk running it into the ground. 

Revising your business plan is important because the world won’t be the same way it was when you first crafted that plan. Things change, curveballs are thrown and you can’t keep swinging like it’s the same pitch you got in your previous at-bat. 

“Stop aiming too high and settle for what lands on your lap.”

When someone tells you not to shoot for the stars, you probably shouldn’t take them seriously. You absolutely should search for the best for your business and avoid settling, especially when it comes to hiring your team.

While it’s true that every employee can grow and develop, hiring someone that doesn’t meet your standards can harm your business. You have those standards for a reason, rushing the hiring process for your team can result in a massive ripple effect within your business. If you take on someone new and haven’t taken the time to accurately gauge their skillset or expertise, you could be spending a lot more time babysitting them than actually running your business.

By ensuring you find the most stellar talent with can-do attitudes, you can secure your business and ready it for growth. 

“You’re too ‘young’ or ‘old’ to start a business now.”

If you’re met with skepticism followed with an adjective that’s supposed to be the all-encompassing reason you shouldn’t start a business, it might be time to pull out those inspirational Time magazine articles about business owners under X age, over Y age, or who braved the endeavour in spite of the odds being stacked against them. 

Friends and family may mean well saying it to you, but it’s ultimately unhelpful. No one is too old, young, or inexperienced to try their hand at business as long as they’ve got a well-structured plan, grit, and the capital to do it. 

These negative criticisms (as they’re not really advice, some may even think they’re thinly-veiled insults) may end up clouding your judgment and cause you to be insecure, making you more tentative about executing important decisions. They’ll slow you down, get you questioning yourself and your actions, and make you feel discouraged. It’s easier to shut those ideas out. Plenty of business owners have attained success even against all odds. Who’s to decree that you’re too much of something to do the same?

The best advice for small business owners

As a business owner, I received all kinds of wisdom nuggets from people who have danced the same tune as I have (and as you will). These three are some of the most valuable things I was told and I eventually learned for myself. 

Offer a solution rather than a product

Instead of focusing on a product’s specs and capabilities, you need to highlight how it solves your audience’s problem. Why would I be fussed about how “incredible” the thread count of a dish towel is? I just want to clean. 

With solution selling, it’s better to focus on how you can solve your audience’s problem rather than the product itself. You’re selling a result, something people are looking for. Instead of a bike, it’s a way to get around quicker. It’s not just a phone, but a way to stay connected. Audiences aren’t looking to hoard products just to say they own them, but because they believe they’ll need those things to solve something or make things better.

Don’t overcomplicate things

You may be thinking that if success was so easy to come by, you and everyone you know would’ve reached it by now. How can it come so easy when business leaders always seem to be fighting an uphill battle? Surely, things aren’t that simple, they must be incredibly complicated.

What you’re doing with those mental gymnastics is overthinking things, making them more complex than they need to be. Just because success is hard-fought doesn’t mean it has to look like a convoluted spy thriller montage. Overcomplicating your methods will only make things worse. Keeping your processes and your goals simple and achievable is all you need to do to keep your momentum going.

Know your numbers and work with passion

Maths may not be your strong suit and that’s okay, no one’s asking you to be Einstein here, but staying on top of your numbers is important to ensure your business idea is profitable. You don’t need to know the theorems behind number sequences or anything, just some of the basics to calculate your revenue, how much you’re earning, what percentage of it is profit, and any other important equations you need to diagnose your business’ health. 

You also need to remind yourself why you’re doing what you do. Don’t burn yourself out and forget why you started doing it in the first place, reinvigorate yourself. Find that passion and keep it ignited in order to keep pushing forward and find the drive to solve problems and work around any setbacks.

If you succumb to the stress and can’t remember why you started the business, revisit your earlier days, your excitement at what was to come. Look at how much you’ve grown and let that be the push you need.

There’s plenty of terrible business advice out there, a good chunk of them not even from people in the industry. Everyone wants their voice heard, to be almost Buddha-esque in the proverbs they believe they’re sharing, but if you sift through the noise and find the counsel that is worth paying attention to, you can hit the ground running and get your business out there much faster and more efficiently.

If you’re looking to succeed with your business and need further advice, please join our Facebook group, The Business Evolution. I’d love to help you out as an experienced business sherpa and give you the advice you need to kickstart your business journey.

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