Picking a Small Business Niche That Will Grow in 2013

Some business owners just started their enterprises since the 21st century “great recession.” Others have been in business considerably longer. Whether new or “seasoned,” most want to know what trends their businesses face. Knowing growth rates of a market sector can be very helpful–if for no other reason than benchmarking one’s own performance against the average of one’s peers. A company that compiles a lot of research data on small businesses in my own back yard of Raleigh, North Carolina is Sageworks. In an interview with Catherine Clifford of Entrepreneur.com, Libby Bierman of Sageworks said that a recent study by her company showed the average growth rate of small businesses across all industries was 8% in 2012.

While growth is a very good sign, there are winners and losers in every statistical average. Certain sectors, however, performed poorer than others. According to the research, the slowest growth industries for U.S. small businesses in 2012 were:

  1. Skilled nursing care facilities: -3.29 percent
  2. Printing and related support activities: 1.86 percent
  3. Automotive repair and maintenance: 2.81 percent
  4. Offices of physicians: 3.00 percent
  5. Highway, street, and bridge construction: 4.24 percent
  6. Insurance agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities: 4.32 percent
  7. Lessors of real estate: 5.07 percent
  8. Other miscellaneous manufacturing including jewelry and silverware, sporting and athletic goods, dolls, toys, and games, office supplies other than paper, and signs: 5.55 percent
  9. Offices of health practitioners other than physicians and dentists, including chiropractors, optometrists, mental health practitioners, speech and occupational therapists: 5.98 percent
  10. Other amusement and recreation services including bowling centers, golf courses, and recreational centers: 6.03 percent

As I reviewed the list above earlier today, it occurs that personal services, low technology manufacturing and discretionary spending-based businesses have been it hard. Why would this be the case? In terms of  the personal services businesses, many of them are healthcare related. The Affordable Care Act may have a lot to do with this poorer performing sector, as many have shunned making decisions to invest capital in an arena that is in extreme flux. Many before me have written about the loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas competitors. In the United States, we have become less competitive in manufacturing that is not highly customized or based on a technology. Whether infrastructure projects or amusement, spending is down on items that don’t seem necessary. Take note if you have a business in any of the above sectors. While you may be able to outperform your sector, you may consider how your sector as a whole is not growing as quickly as others. How should you respond? This question should drive your strategic planning.

Professional officeHowever, the list of fastest growing sectors (below) identified by this research highlights some additional trends and opportunities. Many who have the flexibility to diversify or move their efforts to one of these sectors should seriously consider doing so.

Fastest-Growth Industries for U.S. Small Businesses in 2012

  1. Residential building construction: 14.77 percent

  2. Building custom software and servers for businesses: 14.29 percent

  3. Machinery, equipment, and supplies merchant wholesalers: 13.75 percent

  4. Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: 12.31 percent

  5. Architectural, engineering, and related services: 11.40 percent

  6. Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors: 11.37 percent

  7. Building finishing contractors who make additions, alterations, maintenance and repairs: 11.32 percent

  8. General freight trucking: 10.41 percent

  9. Services to buildings and dwellings, including pest exterminators, janitorial services, and landscaping: 10.11 percent

  10. Other specialty trade contractors, including site preparation activities and other specialized trades: 10.04 percent

Most of these businesses, as Bierman mentions in her interview, require very little capital to get going. They do not require the purchase of expensive assets and can be successful based on the strength of human capital. As a result, business services firms are performing strongly and should continue to do well.

 

 

 

 

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Be Bold and Flexible In Leading Others

One of the challenges that leaders face is the need to customize their approach to individuals under their charge, at the same time as driving corporate performance. Far easier is it to try a singular approach–either one we’ve seen others before us model or one that is very comfortable. To be observant and empathetic enough to notice what others need, in what measures, and at what distinct moments delivered in ways that are point is a skill–particularly if you as a leader are able to do this consistently for many who look to you for guidance, direction, and nurture.

Nick Petrie from the Center for Creative Leadership wrote, “Hindsight does not lead to foresight since the elements and conditions of the system can be in continual flux”? Understanding what we should have done in a particular situation does not, as Petrie indicates, bode well necessarily for interacting with others going foreward. 

Jane Perdue, in a blog post last Friday, says that “it’s time to hang up on heroic leadership — the notion that a single person has all the answers — and embrace a new orientation to leading yourself and others: flexibility.” She quotes Scott Yorkovich, adjunct faculty at Capella University, in defining  flexible leadership as the “ability to receive and process diverse and potentially conflicting sources of information, the openness to implement a variety of strategic solutions, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.”

Perdue  writes that “getting comfortable with ambiguity is a must in a turbulent business environment filled with perpetual transitions. Having a boundary-spanning mindset is crucial for successful personal and professional leadership.” She recommends the tips below to assist in developing a leadership style that is adaptive and connecting:

contrarian

  • Be the water. The past’s linear lessons have questionable applicability in today’s hyper-connected, technology-driven, multiple-generations business world. The mental scripts we’ve written based on our past experiences can limit our ability to think and respond creatively, a performance gap that can render us obsolete. Flexible leaders are fluid — managing to drive change and innovation while still preserving a core of stability.
  • Transcend ego. Agile leaders naturally think less of “me” and more of “we,” having long ago abandoned command-and-control power trips. As Ben Dattner, adjunct professor at New York University, advises us, “Twenty-first century leaders might benefit from thinking of themselves as being in the center of a web rather than on top of a pyramid.”
  • Keep the number of rules, policies and procedures to a minimum. Four-inch-thick policy binders foster rigidity and stifle innovation. Flexible leaders know when to go by the book and when to take a risk. “If you want to encourage more risk-taking in your company or your unit, you’ll need to reduce the conflicting signals and create an environment where the benefits of taking a risk outweigh the costs,” writes Ron Ashkenas, an organizational transformation consultant.
  • Embrace the contrarian. We’re rewarded for and conditioned to rely on our strengths, a default position that sometimes prompts us to marginalize ideas generated by those with whom we disagree or discount. The trouble is that over-reliance on a strength can become a weakness. Flexible leaders seek out those with alternate points of views and listen closely to what they have to say before things go wrong.
  • Think paradoxically. Managing contradictions and opposites are the power breakfast of flexible leaders. One’s leadership focus may be on task completion, yet there is still an understanding that building and maintaining relationships is equally important. Flexible leaders are both strong and vulnerable, provide both structure and managed chaos, and value hard and soft skills equally.

 

Demand Leadership Innovation Like a SEAL

My son is a senior in high school. He has his mind made up on entering the special forces. His top choice would be the Navy SEALs. Many, many, many of our conversations are about the SEALs these days. Recently, I came across the Navy SEAL Creed: “We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me. My training is never complete.”  

Anyone who knows much about the Navy SEAL job requirements would not be surprised that the training required to be selected is extremely rigorous. Physical and mental training beyond compare prepares one a recruit to join the ranks of the “elite.” However, as former Navy SEAL Brent Gleeson writes, “you realize you are just another new guy in an already well-established organization. And it only gets tougher from there. The training never ends, and every single mission is rehearsed.”

Seal subWell-run businesses are very similar. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Dan Cathy, the current president of Chick-fil-A. Cathy discussed  the extensive training they provide every new hire and how they try to help the employees to anticipate needs rather than simply wait for them to be expressed. 

Gleeson described key characteristics of leaders:

1.     Leaders define the mission. A clearly defined mission starts with the leadership, is ingrained in the team, and is constantly reviewed. Mission success relies more on training than it does on planning. Rarely is a plan executed exactly as it has been laid out, because external forces prevent this. Thus the leadership and team must be ready to adapt. Adaptation requires ability, and ability comes from training.

2.     Leaders set, and reset, the vision. It’s up to leadership to know when shifts in a company’s vision must happen. The organization’s ultimate direction may not change but how you get there most certainly will. That means having a keen understanding of industry trends, economic cycles, and competitive movement. Leaders must be constantly acquiring knowledge and looking to the future.

3.     Leaders build the team. As a company grows it will require different types of talent. If you find the right people and train them accordingly, they will stick around and the business will thrive. It takes good leadership to identify who to hire and the roles to put those people in. This too requires ongoing knowledge development.

4.     Leaders embrace the necessity of growth, both personal and professional. If the mind and body are not in a constant state of growth, eventually things stagnate and progress stalls. Instilling the importance of learning in the team is one thing, but leadership has to embrace this first. Great leaders are always seeking knowledge, developing their minds, and maintaining their bodies. Mental and physical wellness is essential for optimal leadership.

5.     Leaders execute. An organization’s strategic plan means nothing without exceptional execution. As a company grows, the methods of mission execution will change. So will the way in which products and services are provided. The leadership has to build this into the culture, provide the team the proper resources, and remove obstacles. Companies that fail do not fail because the plan wasn’t good enough. They fail because the leaders didn’t execute.

All of these are great guidelines for leaders. What I want to return to from the SEAL Creed is the expectation of innovation. This expectation is something I’d like to see more businesses embrace. The fact that they don’t creates a need for great leaders to champion culture changes. 

 

 

Risk a Mistake; Earn a Valuable Lesson

 

Entrepreneurship is about taking risks. With risk taking comes the chance for failure. Failures, however, need not be a detriment to success. Quite often, they can be the building block. Matthew Turner is currently writing a book called The Successful Mistake: inspiring tips, tricks & tales from 250 successful entrepreneurs. The premise, he writes, is to interview business people and discuss their mistakes and how they turned them around. In a blog post for under30ceo.com, he shared some of the thoughts that will be in the book and a story of struggle from Richard Branson:

Mistake Or Valuable Lesson?

Having interviewed dozens of inspiring individuals I’m beginning to connect some rather important dots. Often the difference between a successful person and everyone else is how they react to adversity.

Bad things happen from time-to-time, and we’re often left with a rather simple decision: Fight or Flight

Yes, that natural instinct of fighting or fleeing comes to mind, and those successful entrepreneurs that build empires are often those that fight…fight…and fight some more. Success is rarely handed on a plate, and I’d like to share (a) Famous Entrepreneur who had to find success the hard way:Mistakes

Richard Branson

In 1971 Richard Branson was just starting to grow Virgin Records, and although things were going rather well, money was tight and tough times lay ahead.

His mistake began when he won a contract to export records to Belgium, and after a few things went wrong, he realised he could avoid certain UK taxes by appearing to export but never actually doing so. His debts would soon be cleared and all would be well, but this little idea was illegal, and as with all illegal matters, the risk is high.

As you can imagine the Tax Man came knocking and Richard Branson spent a night in jail and was forced to pay a rather hefty fine. Yes, the same Richard Branson that so many people idolise (including me).

What Richard learned was that his reputation is his biggest attribute, and no amount of fame or fortune can replace it. He vowed in that jail cell that he would never return, and this mistake helped him build a certain set of values that he’s since lived to. As with most wealthy people he’s no doubt faced occasions where bribes and ‘loopholes’ could have been taken, but he’s learned his lesson from a rather large and potentially devastating mistake. This error in judgement could not only have ended his business, but tainted his entire life.

Mistakes can shape our destiny. As you can see in Branson’s story, there are people who can take the proverbial lemon and turn it into lemonade. Clearly, his experience has shaped his drive to become the dynamo businessman esteemed by many today. Think about your own experience…what have you done that, when it happened, you wished you hadn’t, but in retrospect would not trade the lesson learned for anything?

Moving beyond mistakes in the past, think about your current situation. Does fear of being wrong or making a mistake hold you back in a key decision that you are considering? Are you paralyzed with apprehension about what may go wrong with a pending strategic move? There must be a balance between due diligence and postponing risk taking for fear of failure. We can overcome most failures and become better for the experience. Are you willing to risk it?

Pieces of 8 Need to Become All of 8

Have you ever heard the phrase, “work on your business instead of in it?” Michael Gerber (he of the E-Myth book notoriety) popularized this concept if he didn’t invent the phrase. Gerber chastises business owners for trying to do everything instead of doing the strategic things that will grow the business. He points out that the “jack of all trades,” “chief cook and bottlewasher,” etc epithets are crutches and should not be celebrated. Instead, he recommends systems over personalities and methodologies in lieu of gut instinct. 

Many years after writing the E-Myth, Gerber is still speaking, writing, and training. A blog post earlier today at Inc.com addressed what he considers to be the 8 Essential Parts to a Business (And How They Work Together.) He begins by saying that one “must understand that a small business is a system in which all parts contribute to the success or failure of the whole:”Model T assembly

Like Henry Ford understood the relationship between the Ford Motor Car and the Ford Motor Company (which manufactures, sells and services the car), you must understand the connection between all the parts in your business and how your company relates to the world.

Here are the essential parts of your business:

1. Consumer

Perhaps you’ve spent your life working in an industry. You know all about that industry from the inside. But building a business requires going outside. You must consider your customer’s needs first and foremost.

2. Competitor

Every customer is being pursued by other companies in competition to yours. They are all making offers to solve the same problem your business solves. Your job is to analyze those solutions, and know how yours is better.

3. Channels of Distribution

There are numerous channels of distribution available to you, but you need to know which ones are most effective for your business. The channels you ultimately choose will determine your reach and your cost.

4. Media

How will you get the word out about your business? You could get on the news by doing something newsworthy, or by buying advertising. Get yourself out there as often as you can.

5. Financial

This involves capitalizing your new venture. Likely, your first steps will be bootstrapping–or financing through yourself and those you know. Down the road, investors may be a possibility, but all the pieces of your business must be running smoothly.

6. Strategic

The strategic part of your business is what happens inside it. They include Strategy, Marketing, Operations and Finance–the four essential functions in your business.

7. Tactical

The tactical aspect of your business overlaps into Marketing, Operations and Finance. This is the execution of the strategy that you have created.

8. Incremental

All the work done by the workers in your business falls into this category. The tactical part lays out the tactics, the incremental part performs them.

You can tell that Michael Gerber is no novice when it comes to entrepreneurial matters. He has a keen ability to cut through words and phrases that are over used, and therefore meaningless, to succinctly get a point across. His entire hypothesis is that a business is an organization of many individual parts that work together in processes not unlike the human body and its respective systems.

When one component part is malfunctioning or misguided, it affects the other parts. Collaboration, synergy, and harmony arise when we achieve coordination of effort. Such clarity masterfully improves operating performance!