What keeps you awake at night?


Running a small business is a job for the bold and the brave… and those who don’t require a lot of sleep! The good news for those of you who lie awake counting sheep is that you are not alone. A straw poll of local small business owners (from a one-man service business to a high tech business processing firm) revealed the following issues as being the main sleep deprivers:
  • Compliance, paperwork and government regulations
  • Attracting and retaining the right staff (competent and engaged)
  • Cash flow
  • Recession or shrinking markets
  • Increased competition


“Compliance to regulations has added huge costs to the manufacturing process and they are impossible to recoup as a small business.”

“Compliance is a nightmare and it’s getting worse!... Reading contracts, complying with POPI and other Acts when you are not a lawyer, takes a significant amount of time.”

“The tax man. I once calculated that between my personal and business tax matters, I have 20 interactions with SARS every year.”

Clearly, this is a significant stressor and while one cannot avoid the demands, taking the time to put well-considered policies and procedures in place, will save time and pain later. Lawyers and accountants are expensive and may be necessary for specific businesses, but there are legal build-your-policy websites, which are cost-effective and usually adequate. What is important, is to adhere to your own policies.

The Right Staff

“Getting the right fit, at the right price.”

“A few years ago, I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, having taken on so much work that I did not have enough hours in the day to get through it all…”

“When kids are ill and business is busy and there is only one of you, and there is no toilet paper in the house and order goes awry and you don't know which direction to turn to first!  Put box of tissues in the Loo, sort the kids out first, keep your customers abreast of the delay and tell your staff to rise to the occasion and take action.”  (I loved this one!)

The decision to hire and expand is fraught with worry that the person/s will not work out and it increases the stress levels because now you are responsible for another person’s income. South African labor laws are tough on the employer, it is hard to hire and fire. Before you make that offer of employment, ask yourself how much that person can realistically contribute to the bottom line. Is this someone you can work with and depend upon?

When it comes to retaining staff, money is only one factor. People want to feel that what they do matters. Increased involvement and responsibility build engagement, while a heartfelt thank you can build a sense of being appreciated. Sometimes letting go results in building up.

Cash Flow

“Cash Flow is a problem, especially if you operate in the SME space where your client’s cash flow problems carry over to you.”

“If big corporates are slow to pay, we land up funding their project. Having good financial controls in place is essential… A good costing system and month end analysis is essential albeit time-consuming. Then you really know if you are making any money or not.”

Rigorous and disciplined controls are the best defense to cash flow woes, along with developing good relationships with suppliers so that you can carry minimum stock but depend on delivery.

Increased Competition and Shrinking Markets

“I lost a big, long term client six months ago that could no longer afford my services. I had not taken the time to nurture my network or look for other opportunities, just in case… It was only when I was faced with the reality that I finally got myself going.”

“Constantly having to re-strategise not annually but almost daily to deal with these issues. It’s relentless.”

“Are we focusing on the right things, at the right time, with the right resources?”

Getting money in and actually making a profit are the main culprits for sleepless nights. The majority of the business owners I spoke to said they use that time to think and analyze rather than trying to sleep. “It’s quiet, no disruptions and I can actually think.” Even the act of simply jotting down what is on your mind allows your mind to relax. Your idea may be worth pursuing in the morning…or not!

It is important to know where the business is making money and where it is losing and to ensure that resources are allocated accordingly. It is equally vital to stop a project that is not making money and unlikely to do so quickly enough. When we allow stress to dominate our thoughts, we are literally incapable of logical problem-solving. By “doing thinking” (answering what-if questions and facing the problem) and then recording that thinking, we are accessing our ability to really think. A clear-eyed approach to the challenges will help find solutions.

Author: Janet Askew


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    Cash Flow is the biggest concern for me. Money problems in their various forms are top of most lists of company woes and for small businesses the major worries are clients stalling payments unexpected outgoings and outstanding bills that won’t wait to be paid. There are some tried and tested money management tools that can help you to manage cashflow multi-talented apps that can create budgets calculate VAT automate bill payments alert you to unusual outgoings and provide a free credit score. Using online invoices and reminders is also a powerful way to persuade reluctant clients to part with money. There is great software out there that can do this for you which providefree invoicing and can accept payments and automatically charge clients.
    I also battle with fatique...It’s tempting to try to do everything if you’re a small business owner and long hours add pressure. Fatigue can leave you disorganised forgetful and cranky not paying as much attention to clients as you should and making mistakes. Business owners have to pace themselves which includes embracing strategic delegation something that for any highly motivated individual isn’t an easy ask. Start by identifying business elements that don’t require your expertise such as mailing and take on an assistant even part-time to help out – after all it’s an investment that frees you up to do what you do best! You could also consider delegating tasks that are outside your skillset to specialists such as accountants or legal experts – the results will likely be more professional and can save you endless headaches. You could also invest in automation of simple functions for instance by using customer service apps like Zendesk or financial management solutions like Netsuite. It’s important to get on top of these things because taking time out is critical for your health and wellbeing not to mention family relationships. Get into the habit of segmenting your day – analyse when and how you work best the time you’d like to put into leisure or family and create schedules that identify key activities and how long they’re likely to take.
    There is a business adage that you need customers with a problem only you can solve and it’s for you to identify that unique selling point and communicate it clearly to your would-be customers. You can start by researching your customer base and identifying the characteristics of your existing best customers (those with the highest volume of sales and the most repeat custom). Make sure you integrate into this analysis any costs associated with particular customers so you have a clear view of their net value to you. Once you’ve done this you can focus your energies on attracting new clients from your most profitable segment carefully differentiating your offer to ensure it appeals directly to this type of customer. To understand what customers want you can ask for feedback from current best clients which also counts as part of your follow-up engagement – another ‘must do’ when you’re looking at keeping valued partners. Find out what forums or other types of social media these customers use and make sure you’re in there and taking notes.
    Once you start employing employee buy-in is very important for small businesses in particular as there tend to be fewer of them and apathy has a greater impact. There’s a real need to understand what employees want (other than a million pound paycheck) and there are a few possibilities to boost employee engagement for when this isn’t an option. Ensuring employees are happy and productive means communicating clearly and being approachable. Good companies foster a relaxed atmosphere where staff feel able to talk to management. Perks like free tea and coffee free biscuits or fruit and staff Christmas parties cost relatively little and can really help create a favourable impression. You should also ask for employee feedback on their needs – this is not an option it’s a must. Too many businesses don’t look at what their employees want assume everything is fine then wonder why they have a high staff turnover.
    Overheads are a big small business issue and excessive overheads have driven many otherwise good companies to the wall. Resolving them involves paying close attention to what customers actually want and providing products or services sharply tailored to suit. This means working out what customers need and trimming back gold plating or unnecessary services or elements of products that they won’t use or aren’t interested in. Analysing your transactions and asking existing customers what they want is helpful. Where you add value make sure that it doesn’t increase overheads (for example through well-judged deals on less-popular products or other offers that benefit both you and the customer). And don’t forget to ask yourself hard questions such as whether you need that new car or printer or whether it’s just for show…
    Small business owners can be so busy they forget to keep up with what’s current in their sector. It takes so much time just to keep on top of the work that blue-sky thinking can seem an unnecessary burden. Nevertheless you need to keep up. When you’re scheduling your week don’t forget to allocate time to track competitors and undertake awareness-raising activities such as reading (or writing) blog posts. Create Google Alerts use Twitter hashtags to keep up with what’s trending and mine the wealth of free and very targeted online information out there on sites. If you can schedule days out to go to sector conferences and exhibitions the payback in terms of contacts and potential sales can be massive. Research events thoroughly to make sure that their target audience is precisely your target client group. If an event is really important you could also investigate becoming a speaker positioning yourself as a thought leader among your peers.
    So although it may seem overwhelming overcoming the main challenges that small businesses face involves a number of key actions: 1. Use software to manage your cashflow and keep money rolling in 2. Delegate automate and set aside time for yourself 3. Target your most profitable customers to maximise your returns 4. Work hard to create employee satisfaction 5. Ruthlessly cut back your overheads 6. Keep your finger firmly on the pulse of your sector With forethought and tenacity there’s no issue that can’t be overcome. As a small business entrepreneur you already have these skills in abundance and applying them to boost your business should come naturally. What other challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
    Cash flow is defiitely keeping me awake at night. My biggest challenge is getting clients to pay on time while trying to keep abreast of my own expenses. I have resorted to incentivising clients to pay which although it makes me grit my teeth at least it brings in the cash!
    Recently a friend was introduced tohttps://www.freshbooks.com/ and says that it has radically changed her small-business life. Being on top of your billing and having auto-reminders sent to clients has meant an instant improvement in bills being paid on time.
    A great quote I heard a long time ago was Grow as fast as you can but as slowly as you need to. The first part of that comes naturally to most entrepreneurs but the second part is the struggle. Growth isn't automatically a good thing and saying no can be the best long-term decision you can take.
    A regular and measurableprocess of hearing from your happy and unhappy customers is a very good idea. Here is a simple tool to try for free:https://www.promoter.io/. It can be very satisfying to work on improving your customer experience and then watching how an objective measure improves.
    This is one of my favourite books about employee engagement:https://www.amazon.com/First-Break-All-Rules-Differently/dp/1595621113/ It also explains the Q12 engagement survey which is something that can help measure your team's engagement and give practical things to work on.
    A useful mantra is to let sales drive expenses and not the other way around. It is much healthier and less risky to make a sale and then decide that you need a printer or new car to fulfil it rather than buying the new car and printer because you believe it is needed.
    @andrewctn I hear you! We had to recently take the decision to slow down growth because we simply couldn't fund it. Not an easy decision but actually the only way to ensure we don't trip over ourselves.
    @TheTastyChef I agree. I think fatigue is one of the business deadly sins. It is so hard to stop worrying and to stop doing & when money is perennially tight it usually seems cheaper & quicker to do it yourself rather than hire help. I think it is essential to switch off and leave the laptop shut.
    A famous Tom Peters story that about a steel company that was doing fine despite the fact that the US seel industry was dying at the time. Tom asked the president how he could run a company with 1200 people with no job descriptions. The president answered “We’re trying a new management technique.We talk to each other.” I amy not have the quote exact but it pretty much sums up the approach: engage with your staff and listen to them. Money gets people to work on a Monday but it does not make them work well.
    We have actually had to let go of certain products or lines that we personally loved because either the profit margin was too small or there was simply not enough interest from our customers. It's particularly hard when you have a great relationship with the supplier and love the product but your customers are not buying. It's so important to take that step back and to allow the customer to engineer the sales process.
    This is where I rope in help from family & friends who are happy to feed me information on interesting trends they have observed. I also subscribe to various online newsletters relevant to the industry and the interests of our clients e.g. the environment natural health etc. This way a quick scan of the headines & I can get a feel for what people are interested in.
    We are a family business and although that is great because there is high trust it also means that we are a little too cavalier with the way we treat each other sometimes. Also it is essential to keep the business and the family relationships clear & separate from each other. The best way to ruin a Sunday Roast is to bring up gripes from work!
    Tax paperwork compliance - it is never ending time consuming and downright irritating. We try to allocate work according to each other's strengths & weaknesses but as none of us are good at admin - this is a challenge! We do outsource what we can but costs don't always match the perceived benefit.
    Given the current political & economic instability facing South Africa recession is a very real threat. Now is a good time to reduce any debt (interest rates are likely to rise) and to be ruthless about reducing costs.
    Stress and sleepless nights go hand in hand. Make the time to do what is good for your body your mnd and your soul. I have literally resorted to diarising time to catch up on reading to gym etc. The philosophy is simple: if it is in the Outlook diary I have to come up with a reason why I'm not doing it and those Outlook prompts are useful!
    It is so very easy to assume that 'no complaints' means 'no problems'. Customers rarely bother to let us know how they feel unless they are really upset or really pleased. We need to be actively seeking feedback on what makes it easy to business with us as well as what makes it difficult. Every transaction with a customer is a golden opportunity to ask how are we doing? What can we do better?
    These sites discuss what it is that makes certain companies great places to work. To attract the right kind of employee we need to be attractive employers. small business can rarely compete on salary and package with large companies but we can compete in the experience we offer. Is it a fun place to be are employess involved in a meaningful way are we providing the opportunity to grow and stretch... https://businesstech.co.za/news/business/117210/these-are-the-best-companies-to-work-for-in-south-africa/ https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathryndill/2015/12/14/the-best-places-to-work-in-2016/#64400990ceee
    I have often been advised that the best time to start (or grow) something is during a dip in the market. It forces you to remain lean and efficient and if you can survive at this time then you know have you a solid business. When the market picks up which it almost always does you stand to benefit. The opposite is starting something during a boom and then not being prepared for when things take a downward turn.
    That is so true – having the discipline to not work is often harder than having the discipline to work! Another tip is to exercise/relax with a friend so that you are less tempted to skip the session and keep on working.
    It is amazing that there are people in the world who love admin and compliance but they do exist! It might be hard to put a price on your peace of mind and freed up time but perhaps we should all be valuing that more and hiring that sort of person.
    Even if you don't work with family it is also achallenge to work with friends. It is much nicer to spend 8 hours a day with people you know well and enjoy spending time with but it does make conflict or performance issues trickier to deal with.