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. If you don't have a plan, or really care where you're headed, then any path will get you there. In that case, just make sure that you're walking down a path and not a plank.
But the smart entrepreneur knows that even the most rapidly reactive organizations can't keep up with the rapid and accelerating rate of change today - where each change shortens the interval between changes - and the next abrupt shift is on top of you before you've even dealt with the last. So, you've got to get ahead of the curve, anticipate the action, and skate to where the puck is headed. Trying to catch the train after it's left the station is a loser's game.
I'm not talking about some foolish New Year's diet resolutions or your desire to definitely get in great shape this winter; to read a book a week and clean out the attic; or simply to be a much better person in 2019. I mean thinking strategically about how you can make the next 12 months a lot more valuable and productive for your company.
Not enough entrepreneurs do this simple exercise. 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 in the long run? Does anyone outside of my friends, family, investors, and employees care about what we're doing? Here are a few hints to get that conversation with yourself going:
1) DON'T DWELL ON THE PAST
While you are thinking ahead, 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 have 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 "shouldas, wouldas, and couldas."
Besides, looking in the rearview 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 your 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.
2) FIND OUT WHAT CUSTOMERS ARE GOING TO WANT
You need to get out there and uncover what's going on 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 business to begin with. 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.
3) 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.