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Common startup problems and some tips to help

Starting a new business is thrilling. It’s a dream realized. You’re making it happen — for real!

Of course, that thrill can sometimes turn into terror when you encounter the inevitable challenges common to new small businesses. Finding customers, hiring the right people, ending the month with enough money to keep going — sometimes it can enough to make you want to toss in the towel and cut your losses now.

Don’t jump ship just yet! The good news is a lot of small business owners have been here before you. Here is what they have to say about how to take on these challenges head on and come out stronger for the fight, with a Thriving Business.

You built it, but will they come?

Finding and retaining customers is one of the biggest obstacles new business owners face. Unfortunately, flipping your welcome sign and throwing your doors open is not going to net you the customers you need to sustain your business. You need to build a loyal customer base that will return and recommend you to their circles.  

One tried-and-true tool is marketing. You could toss out a huge net and hope you catch some good customers. However, this is a low return-on-investment tactic. Instead, spend some time and resources determining your target market. (Hint—your target market is not everyone in the known universe.) You should be able to describe your ideal customer and why they need and will benefit from your services.

Once you have defined your most likely customer, you can determine what they are looking for and what messages will resonate with them. What will drive them to (or away from) you? What are their priorities when it comes to your service? Where will they be most likely to hear or see your message?

Spending a little time defining your market will result in more efficient and effective marketing, which will ultimately have a better return on any investments you make. This is also useful in your lead generation and brand building.

Another effective tool is building your customer base from those who already know and love you. Make sure your professional and personal contacts know about your work and how they can refer their friends and customers to you. Let your existing customers know about your other products when you are following up on a sale or discussing their other options. Referral incentives can entice friends, family and loyal customers to send others your way as well.  

Finally, become a subject expert and show off your knowledge in professional groups, trade shows, speaking engagements, or even social media and blogs. This lets people know you are not only open for business, but they can trust you and your product. It also gives people a reason to engage with you and your business, and they will grow to associate their positive experience with your product — a key element of brand building.

Hiring the right people

Finding and keeping a good team is as important as finding the right customers. The right employee will help your business thrive, while the wrong one—or even just a “good enough” one—can cost you productivity, time and even money.

There are certain basics when it comes to hiring people to work for you. Most of us have been through this as either a hiring manager, part of a hiring team or a candidate. First, you will need to determine the type of employee you need and write an effective job description. Then recruit for the position, prescreen and interview candidates, conduct background checks and make sure you are following all applicable state and federal employment laws.

But how do you choose the right employee from a pool of (we hope) good candidates? One recommendation is to let your brand shine through your job description and to be honest about the position — including both challenges and opportunities. The right candidate will be excited to work for you and be ready to handle whatever the position brings.

You also need to consider if the employee is a fit for your company’s culture. Just because an employee can do the job, it does not mean they will enjoy doing it. Be honest with yourself and the candidate about what it is like to work at your company, and ask the right questions to be sure they will fit with your company’s leadership, team and work styles.

Another tip from experts is to create a “candidate persona.” This is ideally done as part of your job description. A candidate persona is a tool for you to determine what type of skills, personality and other personal factors will shine in a position.

One statement of caution: However you narrow down your candidate pool, there is always the risk of racial, gender or other bias. Make sure anyone conducting interviews or assessing candidacy is trained on how to avoid implicit bias and that any criteria you use passes through an equity lens to ensure you are not excluding groups of people illegally or unfairly.

Time is money… right?  

Small business owners face a lot of pressure to do it all and make it look good. Unfortunately, there often are not enough hours in the day to get everything done. Pushing yourself to work longer may get the job done, but you will soon exhaust yourself. But you cannot just leave tasks on the table, can you?

Actually, you can. The trick is learning the difference between “clock time” and “real-time.” Clock time can be measured in seconds, minutes and hours. It is what you track in timesheets and how you bill your time. Real-time, however, is how time feels. It is what makes a boring or difficult task seem like forever and time spent on a task you enjoy fly by.

Think of time management as balancing your clock time to make your real-time more effective. Plan and set goals that are achievable, time-sensitive and specific. Then, break down the goals into monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists that help focus your tasks on the big picture.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all of the work of working—planning your projects instead of working on them, balancing your books instead of earning money, searching for customers instead of serving them—seek outside help. Freelancers, consultants and even delegated employees are great resources to take on the tasks that drag. If it is just you, check out some great technology resources to plan your days and save you time (and headaches).

Finally, focus on a Healthy You. You are your business and you must sustain yourself for the long run. Think of yourself like a battery that has to be recharged with things that power you when you’re feeling drained. Spend time each day working on what you love, at least a little bit. Surround yourself with people who drive you, not drain you. And, as always, take care of your non-work self.

At the end of the day, we are all in this together. There are thousands of women who have been where you are right now and can help you get out of the weeds. If you need help, reach out to NAWBO Iowa members, attend a NAWBO event or connect to others within your own industry. And never forget, we at NAWBO Iowa believe in you!