Small business owners can sometimes get too close to their business — so close, in fact, that they struggle to do anything other than focus on the day-to-day operations and fail to work on the big picture strategy. (And many small business owners don’t know how to work on strategy because they are moonlighting or building their business organically from a hobby they have monetized, for example).
So I published a resource called 100 Small Business Strategy Questions. It’s a list of questions that any entrepreneur or small business owner can go through to help them take a deeper look at their business and figure out how to run it more strategically.
After I published that list of questions, I’ve been periodically taking each question and writing a blog post about specific steps or ideas that they the small business owner can use to work through that question.
SMALL BUSINESS STRATEGY QUESTION: WHERE ARE YOUR BUSINESS’ BLINDSPOTS?
I love the imagery of a business as a car and the business owner as the driver of that car. It perfectly captures the idea of what a business is all about: Heading toward a destination as safely and efficiently as possible, and making constant small and large adjustments along the way.
Continuing with the car imagery for a moment, is the idea of blindspots — those nasty sections around our car where we simply cannot see. (On most cars, they are typically an invisible triangle that extends out of the back left and right quarterpanels). There are also smaller blindspots elsewhere on some cars, depending on their design: Larger posts between the door and front window are blindspots in some cars. And a lot of cars (until recent design changes) had blindspots around the front and front right quarterpanel. These blindspots can hide hidden dangers that might suddenly leap out to damage your car and keep you from completing your journey.
If your business is like a car and you are like a driver, the idea of blindspots is just as relevant and just as dangerous. Business blindspots are those unexpected things that you simply didn’t see coming.
When driving, smart drivers check their blindspots and anticipate potential dangers based on the driving environment. In business, smart entrepreneurs likewise try to figure out what blindspots there might be and they do something about them. I think it’s impossible to completely and comprehensively handle every possible blindspot but the more you work on identifying your blindspots, the better.
One example of a blindspot is the newspaper industry. Frankly, they didn’t see the web coming and, when it was there, they didn’t realize soon enough the ability it gave people to share quickly and informally. Not surprisingly, the newspaper industry is struggling.
Another example of a blindspot took place in the automotive industry in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The American automotive industry boldly designed gigantic cars with enough sheet metal that you could run a hobby farm in the trunk of your car. In their blindspot was the social changes that took place as a result of the economy and the oil crisis and changing ideas about vehicles and that was enough of a foothold for Asian car manufacturers to enter the market.
Another example of a blindspot is in the finance industry. In the early and mid 2000’s, banks were flush with cash and happy to give out low interest, adjustable rate mortgages with (sometimes) aggressive or unclear marketing. They simply didn’t see what could (and did) end up happening when the rates adjusted and people could suddenly no longer afford their homes. (This wasn’t just a blindspot to the individual players in the finance industry but also to the whole industry and the organizations tha provide oversight).
Another example of a blindspot is with Blackberry. They led the market for years in portable email technology and then smartphone technology. But they became so confident in what they could see that they didn’t see the rise in consumer demand for smartphones, as well as the various functions people were buying phones for. Soon, Blackberrys became “corporate-only” devices… and then uncool altogether.
We see blindspots happening all the time in many industries and companies; and businesses of every size are impacted by blindspots.
But if you can identify as many blindspots as possible and prepare for them, you’ll be prepared.
Permit me one more example, this time from my own business: I was hired on a big contract for a company and it was drawing to a close. I knew there was talk about renewing my contract but that was still up in the air due to several factors. So at first glance, it looked like I would have two options: Either to renew my contract and continue with my client or to not renew my contract and stop working for the client.
But I wanted to be prepared for blindspots. So I sat down one day and tried to think of all of the other possibilities that could happen — including an offer to continue contracting, but at a lower rate, and an offer to become a full-time employee of the company. (There were others as well but those are the two I remember right now). I listed them and gave some thought to my choices and decisions based on all of those possibilities as well. Guess what happened: When it came time to talk about the contract, the first discussion centered around one of the blindspots I had identified! I countered it effectively, but I could only do that because I had prepared. Then the second conversation centered around another blindspot I had identified. Again, I countered it, only because I had prepared.
Blindspots can happen to any business, in any aspect of business, and at any time. The more you can anticipate them, the better.
So how do you anticipate them? Here are some ideas for you:
- Create a structure first, just to give yourself something to work with. Two good structures to use (I would use both) is the Business Model Canvas or the sales funnel. My Business Diamond Framework or McKinsey’s 7S model are also good tools to use. You can also mindmap all the different parts of your business (perhaps by activity — sales, marketing, etc.).
- Your structure might not be entirely comprehensive but if you pick a couple of these, you’ll have a good starting point. Once you have a structure to work with, think about what you currently do in that section. For example, maybe your marketing consists of activities like “online content”, “blogging”, “social media”, “face-to-face networking”, etc. It might not be easy to list them all but the more you list, the better. Yeah, it’s a big job but if it saves your business then all the better.
- Think about what would happen if any of these pieces was suddenly no longer available to you. You can get more specific than that (“what if technology changed so that I couldn’t use this anymore?”; “what if there was a better replacement?”; “what if clients didn’t interact with this anymore?”; etc.) but now you’re starting to think of nearly unlimited possibilities and who has the time for that!?! So start somewhat more generically by just thinking about what would happen if that one particular aspect of your business was something you could no longer do or use.
- Another really useful tool is Porter’s Five Forces, a strategic tool created by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter. The Five Forces are the things that threaten the survival of your business and they include changes in industry competitors, changes in buyers, changes in suppliers, new entrants to the marketplace, and potential substitutes that your buyers might choose. In each case, think about how changes in these factors can impact your business.
- Don’t forget to think in the same way at the industry level, as well as the local level. How might your business be affected if your industry was suddenly irrelevant? Or, what would happen if your local marketplace suddenly stopped needing your services?
- Confession: I feel like I’m being a bit vague here, but that’s only because there are so many things you could do and sometimes it depends on the business. (And they’re called “blindspots” for a reason. How do you talk about something you don’t know?). But ultimately what you are trying to do is break your mind of the habit of thinking “the current way is the only way” and train yourself to start seeing the possibility of watershed changes that can shatter current systems. You’re trying to see what can’t be seen. It’s hard to imagine specifics but you can think about the possibilities in general and prepare.
- Once you have thought about potential blindspots, you can start to prepare. In my experience, preparing for blindspots often means spending more time innovating, diversifying various efforts, seeking more clients and clients in new areas (who might use your product or service in different ways) and trying to stabilize your finances. Obviously this won’t solve every problem but it’s a good start.