Friday, September 9, 2011

Seasons and business

I work from home and as I look out of my office window I see new growth and blossoms on fruit trees that, only a short time ago, were dry sticks. The camellias are putting on a magnificent show; orange and cream clivia flowers are appearing from clumps of green leaves and my vegetable garden is alive with ingredients for summer salads. The strawberries are looking good, too. It’s a great time of year!

Yesterday I was talking with a small business owner who’s going through a hard time. Despite having a reputation for high quality work performed on time and within budget – a reputation earned over many years – sales are down and cash flow has been negative for some time. No matter what he tries in order to generate new business, nothing seems to work and although his core customers continue to be supportive, he is feeling tired and frustrated. “Its hard to maintain enthusiasm and motivation when you feel that nothing’s working,” he said to me.

Business can be like that – especially when you’re a one-person operation and have no internal support. Most small business owners can understand the feeling.

The small business owner with whom I was talking has been in business for 5 years. He’s very well qualified and has an impressive CV. His customers love him for his honesty, his integrity, and the quality of his work. But the nature of his expertise means that he is brought in to deal with specific problems which, once resolved, require no on-going constant relationship. So he needs referrals and new customers for growth and regular cash flow. But in today’s economic environment demand has dropped and he is struggling.

I suggested there was a message for him from the seasons.

1. Its not always summer!

Summer is the time for the beach; for barbeques with friends and family; for enjoying the warmth and sunshine.

For the last couple of years the man with whom I was speaking had been experiencing a “summer” in relation to his business. He had done the hard yards. He had marketed his expertise and had developed an impressive list of satisfied customers. Cash flow had been good and he and his family had enjoyed a high standard of living. Life was good.

But all summers end eventually and an important aspect of summer is to use this time to prepare for autumn and winter. If you’re a farmer, it’s the time for harvesting the grass that has flourished over spring and for making the hay and silage that will feed your animals over the winter months. In addition to everything else, it is a time to think of new ideas and to dream new dreams.

2. Winter can be a ‘downer’.

When its cold, wet, and miserable its easy to get despondent. The days can close in on you and sometimes there seems to be more darkness than light. This is a time when tempers can become frazzled and little irritants can escalate to become “bigger than Ben Hur”. But this is also the time when one needs to prepare the gardens for the coming seasons. It is a time for pruning the fruit trees; removing the remnants of past crops and getting the soil ready for new ones.

The man with whom I was speaking was in the depths of winter. We spoke of the need to re-examine his business model – to prune and prepare before moving forward. We examined possible changes.

3. There is always a spring.

Sometimes spring is late arriving – but eventually it always arrives. You plant the garden in late winter in the hope that about 2 weeks later new seedlings will appear, thinning can occur, and the summer crop is under way. But sometimes the spring rains and warmth are delayed; the seeds fail; and you have to sow again. Annoying but not disastrous.

You change your gardening practices to suit the conditions secure in the knowledge that eventually the conditions will be right for the seeds to germinate and grow. The important thing is to not lose faith that the right conditions will emerge.

We ended our conversation by considering the business conditions that are emerging now and what he will need to do in order to take advantage of these.

We’ve got another meeting organised for next week when we can plan the way forward for my frustrated small business owner. He’s starting to learn from the seasons.

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