Growing Through Challenging Times

Growing Through Challenging Times

By Tim Sternberg
15 Min Read

I have always been sceptical about “rise to riches” stories – especially those published by businesses that are selling magic formulas for business success. They often skip over the “boring, but important” challenges and focus only on success. This creates an unrealistic expectation of what establishing and growing a business is mostly about.

At the Advisory Collective we believe that business success comes from doing the big and the small things right, in the right order. We never “sugarcoat” how tough it can be to grow a small or medium sized business. There are no shortcuts for good planning and excellent execution.

This article is a transparent, “warts and all” account of our own growth journey, covering the sometimes “boring but important” things you need to know when growing your business.

Why We Invested in Growth:

 

Focusing on Our Purpose & Customers  

Matt and I were tired of working in or for big corporates. We both preferred working with small to medium sized businesses, where we could help “level the playing field”.  To do that, we needed to have products and services that were valuable to those customers – and to figure out how to find and reach them.

Our Business Health Check & Advisory Services

From the start, we knew that our Business Health Check process would tell clients where to focus their time and resources, to seize their opportunities and manage their risks. Research confirmed that it is the most in-depth and comprehensive assessment of its type in the market.

The Downside of Early Success

Our launch clients gave us great feedback about both our Business Health Check and our follow up Advisory Services… however, we fell into the common consulting trap of “going narrow and deep” with a limited clientele. We were billing really well, and getting repeat business, but we had no time to attract more customers, or address residual start up risks.

Taking Our Own Medicine

It became apparent by mid 2020 that we didn’t have the right plan and tools to efficiently attract and convert our potentially very large target audience. It was also difficult to use traditional solution selling techniques in a marketplace distracted by COVID lockdowns and a recession.

It would have been easy to keep our costs low and service existing clients.  We would have earned well, and kicked our challenges down the road until COVID passes.  But we knew that if one of our clients had chosen that approach we would have disagreed with them.

We realised that the best way to become the market leader for business health, and create a valuable and sustainable business along the way, was to invest in an advertising lead generation campaign to reach business owners who needed our Business Health Check and Advisory Services. For that advertising to work we utilised Philip Ohren.

 

How We Planned to Invest

  • We Revised our Strategic Plan and Budget: Starting lean while we refined our business model kept our costs down – for example, I built our first website myself.  However, eventually we would have to invest in a more capable website and associated digital tools – so we set aside some of our early profits for investment.
  • Three Way Forecasting: We needed to manage our financial and other risks so that we had the confidence to proceed. To do that, we brought together forecast:
    • Sales Pipelines & Billings
    • Capital and Operational Costs
    • Delivery Capacity

into a dynamic “three way” forecasting model that we review together every week.

  • Advisers Need Advisers too! As generalists, we knew we really needed expert consultants to help us with our brand and build our new, improved website.  We sought out the right advisers, and made full use of their counsel – in fact, our relationship with Windsorborn has gone so well that they joined our Collective and became customers of ours.
  • Working on the Business: We allocated around 30% of our capacity to “working on the business” during the rebranding and website relaunch phases, and adjusted our other commitments accordingly.
  • Project Management Tools & Techniques: We needed to upgrade our project management technology and practices.

That list might not sound revolutionary – but, as you will recall, “most business success comes from doing the big and the small things right”.

 

Our Execution Challenges

Our plan sounds pretty simple, right? But even the best plans can come unstuck in the execution phase.

Lacking Confidence

It’s harder investing your own money rather than someone else’s. Especially when you are the sole earner for a young family. It would’ve been so much easier to just pocket the fees we were earning during the pandemic and delay investing time and hard cash into our business until “the sun shone again”.  But we knew that our opportunities might diminish if we procrastinated.

This is where our business partnership provided comfort – we could remind each other that we were making the right strategic choices, watch out for risks that the other might miss, and share the financial and task responsibilities.

We share Purpose and Values, but we are not clones –  we play off each other’s strengths. While I led the bulk of the Marketing and Technology investment work during this period, Matt’s CFO and Risk expertise has been incredibly valuable.

Learning by Doing

Our first round of advertising was not successful. We listened to the data and identified that we needed to better position our brand and offering with our customers. This meant a further investment earlier than planned. We needed an external perspective to first challenge and then help reset our brand, as a foundation to advertise from. This required a delay while we revised our positioning and then built a new website reflecting our revised offering and business model. I suspect it will take another six months to truly refine our attraction strategy, but we’ve learned a lot already. Early signs are positive.

The Urgent vs the Important

Sometimes we want to do a lot of urgent things, but we may have to postpone less important projects due to capacity limitations. It has certainly taught me that “momentum beats perfection”.

 

Has Our Investment Paid Off?

On balance, absolutely.

It has been two years since we launched the Advisory Collective, and we have already proved that our original business plan will succeed, provided that we make the required changes and investments along the way.

Some of our original thinking had to change, but we’re happy to say that we don’t usually make the same mistake twice.

Here is our summarised scoreboard:

  • Strategy – Yes! In fact, we reckon we are ahead of plan. Our brand strategy work has already created a more valuable and sustainable business, and reconfirmed our original Purpose and Values.
  • Customers – Almost. Brand aside, we now have a great product and services “roadmap” for the next two years to meet our customers needs, and much improved digital resources and processes. However, we had to sacrifice business development activity and thought leadership marketing (eg articles like this) when our website relaunch work peaked over summer.
  • People – Yes! We formally launched the Collective with our new website and are thrilled with the people we have onboard already. We considered delaying until later in the year, but Windsorborn advised us to bring this forward as an offering to our clients, and early feedback has confirmed their wisdom.
  • Finances – Not Yet! Bringing forward our investment plan used up some early profits.  However, we have now removed most of our strategic growth risks, so our sales growth from here should be both steeper and easier.
  • Operations – Almost. We are harnessing business process automation where possible. However, it takes time to set up, test and adapt these automations. We can make more efficiencies when we have more capital to invest and learnings to base those automations on.
  • Structures & Risks – Almost. OK, we are 90% there. We do have some more work to do on Intellectual Property over the next six months or so.

 

 

My Advice to You

When I first sat down to write this article I was worried that our followers might not want to hear about some of the hard lessons we have learned – and then I remembered that I wish someone had shared a story like this with us, when Matt and I co-founded the Advisory Collective.

So here are some final learnings that I would like to share with you before I go:

  1. Don’t let your business growth stall because of early, less sustainable successes.
  2. Be prepared to invest some of your earnings into making your business more healthy and valuable.
  3. A good idea remains a good idea even in tough times.
  4. All Strategic Plans need to be tested and adapted as circumstances change.
  5. A risk ignored will not usually go away by itself – material risks are best dealt with early.
  6. Opportunities, on the other hand, can disappear quickly, eg if a competitor takes your place.
  7. It’s ok to make mistakes from time to time – just don’t repeat them.
  8. We all worry about investing in our businesses at some point – but a good plan and the right partners and advisers will give you clarity and confidence.
  9. Never lose sight of your Purpose, Values, Customers and business partners.
  10. Be grateful for the success that does come your way, especially when you’ve earned it through a good plan and hard work.
Tim Sternberg

Tim Sternberg

Tim is an expert in sales, marketing, recruitment and leadership with a particular flair for helping his SME...

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