You don’t need me to tell you that we live in times of huge upheaval and uncertainty. The institutions that we once felt we could rely on are crumbling in the face of the biggest environmental challenge human beings have ever faced, and the ongoing Brexit crisis. The pace of technology is exponentially speeding up and no one can predict where all of this is going to land in the next year, let alone the next decade.
So how do we live each day and run our businesses when we are faced with such changes? And how do we rise to the challenges that the world throws at us? The answer may be more significant than you think. I feel that now more than ever before business will have a major role in finding solutions to the current crises we find ourselves in and that those solutions are mainly going to come from the micro and small business sector, rather than the big corporate structures.
In this blog we are going to look at the place that micro and small business inhabits in this changing world, how we can use our businesses to meet all kinds of societal challenges and how we can identify and communicate our values and what we stand for.
Entrepreneurs are, by their very nature, a rebellious crowd. They don’t like being told what to do and have always sought answers to difficult questions throughout history. Just this week I have been working with clients I would describe as innovators, people who are not afraid to go out on a limb when detractors tell them they are crazy. How many innovators have been told by someone at some point, “That will never work” only to prove them wrong?
Small and micro entrepreneurs are also generally much more connected to their local economies, as they employ, network and collaborate with local folk, as opposed to taking their business out of the area they are in, and here their role is critical as localism may well be one of best strategies in dealing with the fallout from Brexit, as well as meeting environmental issues. Because the micros generally work where they live, they know what is going on in their area and they are connected to networks that are responding to local issues.
I would also argue that small businesses are more accountable than their corporate counterparts on a local level because they are more invested in how people view them, whether they have a good reputation. Are they good to work with? Professional? Are they a good employer? Do they pay on time? And so on.
I’ll give you an example from my hometown of Lewes. This town has always had a mainstay of independent businesses on the high street and, until a couple of years ago most of the shops were locally owned and run with very few chains. That balance has now shifted as rising business rates (due to austerity measures) have made it harder and harder for small businesses to stay profitable.
So now we have more chains filling the gaps on the high street. But generally those chains are not as connected to the area they find themselves in. Yes they employ local people (although some of them don’t even pay a living wage and put those employees on zero hours contracts) but that’s where the connection ends. Only a handful of the high street chains make a contribution to the Christmas lights that illuminate the town so beautifully every year; that is all funded by the now dwindling independents, yet the chains obviously benefit.
I’m not saying that the corporate world is not doing a good job in some ways (although they are also responsible for causing a lot of environmental problems too), but their sheer size can prevent them from responding to issues quickly and they are less accountable to the local communities they operate in. [I’ll give you an example of a big company doing an awesome job later…]
On the other hand small businesses are more nimble and flexible, and are generally open to doing things differently and working in harmony with others. Their spirit and values reflect their desire to challenge the status quo. So they stand for something different.
So let’s look at how you identify your values and, crucially, how you can communicate those values to others.
Forget USPs. Think about values.
When I look at many of our current political leaders, I see that values are in short supply. It’s hard to differentiate between different parties when what they stand for seems so opaque. And it can be the same with our businesses when everyone seems to be saying the same thing. The way that we can help customers understand how we are different from others in our field is through communicating our values.
So what are values?
Values are about what we prioritise. They are the ways in which we judge whether our life is a success. Although our values are fairly stable, life changes will cause us to re-define our values, what is important to us and these may change. Therefore checking in with our values is never time wasted and is a lifelong exercise.
When I work with business owners who are unsure of what direction to take with their business, or whether to throw it in and do something completely different, I will often get them to do an exercise where they tell their life story. You may say, “That sounds like pretty hard work!” and it is, but it’s often not until we go back that we can identify what is important to us right now.
Also, doing this exercise is a lot easier and takes a lot less energy than living with a situation that just doesn’t feel right year after year, so identifying what our values are, what we stand for, helps us figure out how we want to live, what difference we want to make in the world and how our business fits in to that.
Your brand utopia
I am currently going through a re-branding process (watch this space, it’s going to be good!) and I have been working with my esteemed colleague and friend, marketing and PR expert Sophie Isachsen. At the beginning of this process she asked me “What is your brand utopia? If you could work with everyone in the world, how would the world be a better place?”
That is such a brilliant question for several reasons:
It immediately connects us to the community of people we wish to serve and helps us define what problem they have and how our business can help solve it. All businesses are a response to a problem. Being clear about what that problem is, for who, helps you communicate what you do.
It helps us to think about the end game. Why are we choosing this as a priority? Why this way of expressing ourselves through our work, as oppose to something else?
Many business consultants will talk about identifying gaps in the market or focusing on your USP in order to help you communicate what you do to our audience, or target market. I say, it all starts with your legacy. What will you have created through your work that will leave a lasting impact?
Finally, this question crucially connects us to the story of how we came to be running our business, the narrative, what happened in our lives to lead us to this point. When we understand that progression it helps others to make an emotional connection to what we do because they understand why we do what we do and it helps them make the decision to work with us as oppose to someone else.
This question is so brilliant on all these levels because it forces us to think about our values, what we stand for, why this is so important, and why now.
Small is beautiful, but big can be good too!
Here is that example of a big company doing great things that I mentioned earlier.
Oat milk company Oatly started in the 1990’s in response to increasing numbers of people who were lactose intolerant. Since then they have extended their range of products and are on a mission to convert people to a more plant-based diet in a bid to address climate change. They are also committed to holding the food industry to task around the issue of carbon footprint and food production. Here is what they say about themselves:
So while I am passionate about helping micro and small businesses, I am also inspired by the big businesses who are taking others to task and using their influence to encourage us all to do the same. As Oatly say, they are not perfect, but we do understand what they stand for and because we are clear about “WHY” they do what they do, it makes our job as customers easier. Oh and the products are great too!
Madam C.J. Walker
Finally, I want to leave you with a story about the first female self-made millionaire in America, Madam CJ Walker.
In 1867 a girl named Sarah was born on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. Thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation, she was the first in her family to be born free and not in to slavery.
When she was fourteen she worked as a washerwoman during the day, and attended school at night. During that time she began to lose her hair (common to washerwomen of the day) and experimented with different products and treatments to help it grow back. But none of them worked so she developed her own products.
Her husband, who worked in advertising, suggested the name change and so the “Walker System” was born. Sarah started travelling the country to promote her products through demonstrations, which became so popular that she started hiring other women – the “Walker agents.”
“I am not satisfied with making money for myself. I endeavour to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”
Sarah’s success inspired many other women to start their own businesses and she supported many charities providing educational opportunities for African Americans.
Be sure of what you stand for and go and change the world.
Communicating our values can be hard so if you would like some help, find out how coaching can save you time (and money!) and book a 30 minute phone or Skype consultation here.