What are the foundations of a good business?
“You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation. You must have a solid foundation if you’re going to have a strong superstructure”
Gordon B. Hinckley – American religious leader
Deciding to go into business is the first step. The second step is to ensure that from the beginning the business has solid foundations. This is critical and is relevant whether your business is a start-up, or you are purchasing an existing business. Like a building constructed on solid rock, a business with a solid foundation will have a better chance of surviving the inevitable challenges, than one built on unstable foundations. Cracks will inevitably appear in a business over time, as they do in a building. By solid foundations I don’t mean a market niche, systems and processes, skilled employees and loyal customers which can be easily found in ‘how to’ management books, and on the internet.
When my partners and I were going into business, it involved a management buyout of an unprofitable business. We were eager to ‘have a go’ on our own and prove we could build a successful business. This leap of faith meant mortgaging our houses to raise the capital, not an unusual practice for funding new businesses. This certainly focussed our attention. Failure could mean losing the family home and all the implications associated with family life.
As with an elephant’s legs supporting the world’s largest land animal, having a solid foundation on which to build and support a business is essential. Luckily the previous owner had an excellent financial director who provided us, with some practical and useful advice;
”Protect your assets and limit your risks and liabilities”.
We also sought advice from external experts. As owners and managers, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Seeking external expertise is essential. From our experience in setting up in business, the disciplines where external assistance is required in the following disciplines:
- Legal advice in setting up the business’ legal entities, including each owner’s private company which were shareholders in the business, establishing corporate structures that reduce the exposure to legal claims from avaricious ambulance chasing lawyers, completing shareholder’s, agreements, terms and conditions and suppliers’ agreement.
One of the lessons learnt was whilst the structure of the founding team set out the entitlements of each founder, we did not clearly outline our roles and responsibilities which lead to. performance and accountability becoming issues and was complicated by two family tragedies. This could have been managed more effectively if roles and responsibilities had been more clearly set out and a company board that held the executive team and founders to account had been established.
- Financial advice from a chartered accountant on business related finance issues, including insurance, taxation, banking and recommended corporate structure in combination with legal advice .
The main lesson learnt was to separate the business entity from personal affairs is essential. Unfortunately, I have witnessed some businesses getting into financial difficulty by not separating private and business affairs as well as a lack of discipline and no clear understanding of the importance of keeping this separate. This is particularly relevant to family businesses.
- Strategic business advice from an advisor with business owner experience. There are two issues here;
- seeking external advice
- ensuring it comes from a consultant or advisor who has practical experience in managing and owning a business.
Too often there are consultants who do not have this experience and do not understand what it is like to have their money and house on the line.
In retrospect we should have sought in our logistics business external assistance in strategic planning. Our annual budgets were built from the ground up and served as our business plan. The weakness became apparent in the vital areas of values, vision and a mission statement which underpin the budgets and business plan. These were missing. We did not recognise their importance. Values, vision and mission statement were only created when we established a webpage. We would have benefited immensely from engaging an external advisor earlier in the piece. The business although profitable would have been more profitable and would have developed more strategically. Professional external advice would have opened up opportunities through identifying strategic long-term customers, obtaining government grants and developing new networks.
In conclusion, the message is seek advice from those with expertise so the business has solid foundations, so when inevitably the storm comes the business has a greater chance of survival. Seeking external advice is not a sign of weaknesses. Elite athletes and sporting teams all have coaches. A business is no different. Also as a manager and business owner, on-going education is essential for continual success.