10 Questions to ask yourself when you are small

Most of the people who have mentored me tell me that it’s not always the right answers that help – it’s asking the right questions.
There was a discussion a few months ago on whether being small had its
advantages – agility, speed etc. My response then was that it all
and I stick to the same opinion even today. While being small
has its advantages, it has its disadvantages too – especially if you
are a small technology business.

For those companies, I created this list of questions. Some of the questions may have broader applicability.

1. Do you have a sound business model?

Silicon Valley is fun. When I am at Starbucks
having coffee, I know that in the same room there are at least a few
other people discussing new ideas, hatching business plans and crafting
their visions etc.

A few weeks ago, I met an old friend and he mentioned to me how
frustrated he was coming to San Jose Downtown as there is a lot of
trouble finding a reasonably priced parking spot. That frustration made
him think through a business idea which revolved around creating an
online business to compare parking lots and deals on parking spots. He
said lot of people like him will flock to the site.

Long story short. The idea was shot down by the end of the coffee
session as there was no viable business model surrounding that idea. I
am using this as an example where this entrepreneur cut his losses
time at the idea stage) but there are probably thousands of other
businesses where there is no viable business model and while the
passion and dreams are great, if there is no business model to support
it, it’s not worth your time.

Answering the first question with absolute honesty is key.

2. Do you have the right resources to execute on the vision?

Starting a business is the most easy
part. I see people starting businesses all the time. They tell me that
they have contacts that can give them the business. What they don’t
realize is that not all personal contacts want to do business with
them. They are happy to be your personal contacts but they won’t bet
their company’s future on a startup. Also, you will run out of your
personal contacts soon. So, just depending on personal contacts is not
a good enough reason to start a business.

The key resource is people. Do you have the right team to run the
business? If not, can you afford to get the right team and what are you
willing to give up to attract the right team?

The next key resource is money. Do you have enough for now and for the
forseeable future. If not, do you have visibility to get that money
when you need it?

Note: When you are small, you make compromises on things (just because
you can’t afford everything on a limited budget) but when you start
growing you have an option to not compromise. Just being aware of this
will help.

3. Are you willing to change?

They say change is easy as long as you
are not part of it. As your business grows, there will be some changes
that won’t affect you directly and there will be some that will affect
you directly. What is your appetite for change?

What is the extent to which you are willing to change? If it requires
that you need to unplug yourself from the business for the good of the
business, would you be willing to do it?

4. Can you influence the influencers?

When you are small (or in general for that matter) it is always a great idea to have a plan to influence the influencers.
Most people prepare and always look out to get to the decision makers
when the journey can be a lot smoother by going after the influencers.

5. Can you scale?

While not having enough customers is
one problem, having too many too early and not being prepared for it is
another problem. Do you have a  plan in place if (or when) such a
thing happens?

6. Can you think “systems”?

Systems thinking is one of my favorite
topics and if you are a small business, it is even more important to
understand systems thinking.

Systems thinking is a way of understading the inter-relationships
between the parts of a system and the impact each part will have on the
whole system or on the other parts. When you build a business, you get
plugged into an eco-system that comprises of at least:

* employees
* customers
* partners
* government
* suppliers
* competition
* consultants
* world

You need to understand how each part relates to the other within the
system and should be able to quickly understand the impact of change in
one or more of the parts.

The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge provides a great introduction to
Systems Thinking and if you are an entrpreur or wanna be one, you got
to read it and digest it.

7. Do you have the right tools?

If everything remains same, the person
or the company that has better tools will win. Tools may be something
that will save you time, money, share knowledge, increase productivity
or improve efficiency. Have you thought of what tools you need to have
to run this business in the most optimum fashion?

What is your plan for acquiring these tools? What is your plan to
implement these tools? How do we make sure that everyone uses the tools
that are already in place?

8. Do you now how to market in the new world?

The advertisement model of yesterday is
almost dead. The new world requires new ways of marketing or reaching
out. Have you explored blogs, podcasts, viral marketing, word of mouth
marketing etc. Your particular business may require something totally
new altogether to get it going? How willing are you to experiment?

The keyword for today is findability. Clients will find you rather than you finding them. Are you findable on the web?

For starters, Take a look at Dave Taylor‘s new book “Growing your business with Google

9. Are you willing to kill your darlings?

Sometimes we hang on to something good
for too long. Selling ice was a good idea at some point in time. When
the world changed and refrigeration started showing promise, it was
time to move on even if there was a good business going. Now this
example seems like an obvious one. What if one of your offerings was to
sell ice when someone was developing refrigeration technology out
there? Are you watching the trends and innovation outside of your world
to see if there are things out there that can impact your business?

The bigger question is: When you do find that your biggest offering is
losing relevance, are you willing to kill it or commodotize it and move

10. Is your business GYM-proof?

I think GYM is a term coined by Robert Scoble
– stands for Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. The question is “How do you
know that one of these big companies come up with the same offer as
yours but give it away for free?”

Recently Google announced “Google Analytics
– a simple, sophisticated Analytics solution for the web for free. I am
confident that a few boutique firms whose bread and butter was to sell
these solutions are worried like hell. It is hard to get information on
what all projects that these companies are working on but sometimes
they give a hint. For example, it would not be a good idea to work on
something that is already being showcased in Google Labs
unless you are pretty sure that you have some amazing technology and
you know that your solution will be far superior than whatever Google
will eventually come up with.

On a lighter note:

When I shared this with one of my close
friends, he said, “Raj clear this list. I have only one question to
replace the whole list – What are you doing today that will ensure that
one of the GYM companies will pick you against others in their next
acquisition spree?”

This list is in no way complete. However, I have to end this post somewhere 🙂