As the year draws to a close, it's a good chance to catch your breath and spend a few hours just thinking--and not doing anything but thinking--about the year ahead and where you want to take your business. 

I'm not talking about some foolish New Year's resolutions (like Zuck's optimistic, but stillborn, daily "thank you" plan) or your desire to definitely get in great shape this coming year or to be a much better person in 2015. Rather, I mean thinking strategically about how you can make the next 12 months a lot more valuable and productive for your company. 

Not many entrepreneurs do this simple exercise these days (we've all got plenty of explanations and excuses for why this is) and, as a result, too many lose sight of the critical things they should be doing and the most important questions they should be asking: Why did I get into this business in the first place? Am I doing any good and/or making any difference that matters? Does anyone outside of my friends, family, investors, and employees care about what we're doing? 

Don't dwell on the past

While you are thinking strategically, I wouldn't waste much time reflecting on the past 12 months since: a) there's nothing you can really do about them; b) you ought to already know what you did right and wrong--and hopefully learned a lot from the experience; and c) fretting over mistakes and missed opportunities doesn't really move anything forward. You can't build your future on regrets and "shoulda, woulda, couldas."

Besides, looking in the rear mirror is distracting. It makes it easy to run off the road or smack into something big and ugly that could have been easily avoided if you had been looking ahead. That involves paying attention to the outside world and, even more important, to what your customers are doing and saying about their own pressing needs and their current desires. Customer expectations are progressive. If you're not on top of these needs, you'll soon be at the bottom of customers' lists.

And the most important reason that you don't want to get all wrapped up in analyzing the past is that doing so is almost always an invitation to spend your time navel gazing, making excuses, and bemoaning the bad breaks. And that's not where you need to be focusing your energy as you try to get your business set for the New Year. 

Know what customers want

You need to get out there and find out what's going on now outside the four walls of your business, because that's where your future will be found. Remember, you will never get straighter or more useful answers to your questions than the ones you get directly from your customers. The truth--with all its wonders and warts--comes from the consumers and the users of your products and services. They don't have an agenda (apart from always wanting a lot more for a lot less), and they're the real reason you got into this startup, so pleasing them and addressing their needs seems like the obvious thing to do. But it doesn't happen if you don't do it. 

When you take the time to look, think, and ask, you might just discover that there's a bigger and better opportunity right under your nose that you've been practically tripping over for months or years without ever noticing. One of the startups in our 1871 incubator, We Deliver, thought it was in the delivery business for small merchants until it discovered that what those merchants really needed was a mobile ordering app for their products and services, which they couldn't afford to build for themselves. So We Deliver rolled up hundreds of those businesses into a one-stop mobile ordering app that consumers quickly learned about from the individual merchants. This basically created a destination platform (with critical mass) that has also made life a lot easier and more efficient for thousands of shoppers who can now bundle their purchases from multiple sellers into a single transaction. And, by the way, all those additional products don't end up delivering themselves--so the new platform approach drove the basic business to new heights as well. 

Five questions to ask yourself

If you're ready to take the plunge, here are a few of the main questions to ask yourself. It's a pretty simple process, but, as you'll see, the results can be game-changing.

  1. What's the problem you initially set out to solve?
  2. Are you trying to solve the same problem today or doing something different?
  3. Is the problem still important to your customers and worth their paying you to solve?
  4. Are others offering cheaper, quicker, or easier solutions to the problem?
  5. Are there new, more important, or different problems to be solved?

You'll notice that all of these questions address the customers' problem(s) and not your products or solutions. This isn't just a question of semantics. If you don't understand the pressing problems of your customers, you have no chance at all of building a successful product or service to solve them. You can keep building the greatest software never sold or discovering the cure for no known disease, but you won't be building a business that will be here at the end of next year. 

Published on: Dec 30, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.