Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books.
For the past three years, I have run a small publication with a staff of 12. We are in the business of print journalism and I’m sure you know by now that we are a dying breed. I am constantly questioning if I should fold the company, or keep forging ahead. At best, I break even, and I fear that things will never improve. I feel like I am constantly engaged in an uphill battle and I’m left feeling very uninspired and unmotivated to move forward. I’m not asking for advice on whether or not I should keep going, I’m asking for advice on how to approach this situation. Please help.
Perishing in Print
I really like your question because I think it is full of possibility. When we see failure in our business, we are very quick to point out the external reasons for things not going the way we wanted them to. I’m sure it feels easy to point fingers at the digital media and create a long list of excuses about why you can’t compete in today’s market. And though external factors may contribute to the decline of your business, I believe that the quicker we take responsibility for our shortcomings, the quicker we can turn them around.
First, make sure you have a clear snapshot of where you’ve been and where you are going. You mentioned that you have been breaking even, so you must keep a pretty close eye on your numbers, that’s good. You must be clear on your financial standing above anything else. Here you will be able to see if you’re over budget on any line item or if you’re just not getting the sales you need to meet your goals.
Second, I would review your marketing plan. A lot of times in business, we adopt the Field of Dreams philosophy, “if you build it, they will come.” Now, I am a Kevin Costner fan, but I think that falls short as a business philosophy. This publication was probably a labor of love and you very much believed in what you were doing and assumed that readers would believe in it as well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way and we realize that we need to invest significant amount of time in educating consumers about our product, i.e. marketing. We tend to think that if our product is the best, it will fly off the shelves. This is rarely the case and marketing can be the most important aspect of your business. Ask yourself, have you invested the necessary resources to devise a marketing plan and bring it to light? Or are you simply relying on the field of dreams philosophy?
Third, make sure that you have laid out clear goals for your company and communicated them to all of your staff. Is your publication merely breaking even because your staff isn’t clear on what the expectation is? At times, as business owners, we set goals and expectations but fail to communicate them to all of our staff and remain vigilant in seeing that they are constantly being worked towards. It’s not good to set a goal, communicate it once and then not follow up with it throughout the year. You must constantly keep the business goals in everyone's sights. That is part of your responsibility as the leader. Give your staff a clear path for success.
Finally, I would consider your role as the leader. As small business owners, we tend to overlook the importance of leadership in business, in fact, it is my experience that a lot of small business owners don’t have a clear understanding of what their role as a leader should look like and why it is so vital. You mentioned feeling uninspired and unmotivated to move forward. As a leader, you set the tone for your company. If this is the way you’re feeling, I’m sure it’s what your staff is perceiving and they too are left feeling unmotivated and uninspired. This could contribute to your companies lackluster performance. Know that as the leader of the company, you are solely responsible for cultivating the inspiration and motivation you desire.
Again, before you make a decision to press on or throw in the towel, take time to honestly assess these areas of your business and whether or not you have done your best in each. Good luck with your process and congratulations on the success you have had in breaking even your first three years.