Editor's note: "The First 90 Days" is a series about how to make 2016 a year of breakout growth for your business. Let us know how you're making the first 90 days count by joining the conversation on social media with the hashtag #Inc90Days.​

With 2016 dawning, you have a chance to remake your business. And on this slowly growing globe, one of the most important challenges you face as a business leader is how to grow faster than your rivals.

Growth creates opportunities for your people to develop their skills, attracts the best talent to your company (and away from rivals), and creates wealth for you and your investors.

It's easy to set a growth goal but hard to achieve it. One huge company that keeps growing is Amazon--with $100 billion in revenue, it still manages to get at least 20 percent bigger every year.

Here are 14 questions you should ask yourself this week to accelerate your company's growth rate in 2016.

1. What is a growth opportunity?

A growth opportunity exists for your company if it passes four tests:

  • It relieves human pain--there is a chance to put a smile on the faces of unhappy people.
  • There is a big market--many such people in pain will pay for a product to make them happy.
  • You have the right skills--your company can design, build, distribute, and service the product.
  • You have an advantage--you are ahead of current and potential rivals in the race to make those people happy.

2. Can our company grow faster selling to current customers or new ones?

If you're already selling a product, you may be able to grow faster by selling new products to your existing customers. Or faster growth may come from selling your current products to a new group of customers.

To decide which is the better path, you may want to compare how long it will take and how much it will cost your company to capture the growth for each option.

Here are three steps to figuring that out:

  • Estimate the time needed and the cost for your company to identify a prospect, close the deal, and collect the cash.
  • Measure the time it took and the cost when your company developed and commercialized its last new product.
  • Pick the option with the lowest cost and quickest time to market.

3. What new products can we sell to existing customers?

If you decide that the best growth path may be from selling new products to your current customers, here are four steps that will help you build the right product:

  • Ask your customers to tell you their goals and the biggest barriers to achieving them.
  • Brainstorm new product ideas that would help your customers leap over these barriers.
  • Build a prototype of the best ideas and get customer feedback.
  • Turn the most promising ideas into your next product.

4. Which new customers should we target and what should we sell them?

If you decide that selling the same product to new customers is the way to go, which new customers should you pick?

They might be people who have the same pain as your existing customers--say people in New York City--who you have not yet tried to contact--e.g., Connecticut residents.

Here are four steps to get you started on sourcing growth from new customers:

  • Brainstorm four groups of potential customers.
  • For each of the four, conduct focus groups of six potential customers to explore the fit between their needs and those of current customers.
  • Estimate the potential revenue from the customer groups that fit.
  • Execute a marketing strategy to take share from those groups.

5. Should we seek growth by expanding into new countries?

A very common place to look for growth is by exporting. As I wrote in Export Now, your best shot at export growth may be in a country with a similar culture and approach to doing business.

6. If so, which countries should we target and how can we win in those new countries?

For example, if you think you've sold to almost every potential U.S. customer, consider expanding to Canada. If you can find a local partner to help you overcome the roadblocks to such expansion, you may have found a good source of new growth.

Here are five steps to get you started on sourcing growth from new customers:

  • List four countries that best match with your current markets.
  • Identify how your product can boost the profits of your distribution partners in those countries.
  • Ask potential end users of your product to rank the criteria--e.g., price, quality, service--they use to compare suppliers.
  • Analyze how well your company does on these criteria relative to competitors.
  • Position your product to outperform competitors on the ranked criteria.

7. Can we create new markets by applying our skills to different problems?

The skills at which your company excels may be a source of big growth if you apply them to a different set of problems.

Under Steve Jobs, Apple was great at product design, marketing, supply chain, and building content ecosystems. It first applied those skills to building a better MP3--building the iPod. With the iPhone and the iPad, it applied those skills to the cell phone and tablet markets, too.

8. If so, which problems, and how attractive would those new markets be?

Here are four steps to make this work for your company:

  • Make a list of skills at which your company excels.
  • Look at big markets where those skills could yield a better product.
  • Build a prototype of that product and get feedback from potential customers.
  • Estimate the time and cost needed to bring that product to market.

9. Are there new markets we could capture if we developed new skills?

Another source of growth is new markets you could capture if you develop new skills.

Netflix did this beautifully. It built a DVD-by-mail business from its ability to buy DVDs cheap, deliver them to customers' mailboxes on time, and keep track of all the pieces.

When the iPhone launched, Netflix saw that it should go after the online streaming market. To do that, it developed new skills--such as producing its own hit shows like House of Cards and partnering with broadband services providers to deliver that content.

10. If so, what skills would we need and how could we build them?

If you see such a growth opportunity, here are four steps to make this work for your company:

  • List the skills needed to succeed in the new market.
  • Assess the fit between those skills and the ones at which your firm excels.
  • Develop a plan to hire or partner to get the skills you'll need.
  • Manage the process of changing your company's skills.

11. Could we better tap our employees' new product ideas?

Another way to come up with growth opportunities is to encourage employees to think of them. 3M is famous for letting employees spend 15 percent of their time on projects that interest them--that's how the Post-it Note was born.

12. If not, how could we encourage our employees to identify new products and build new businesses?

If you are not encouraging employees to come up with new businesses, consider what Intuit does. It created a way for people to come up with new ideas and put them in front of customers in eight steps, which I detailed in this 2012 Inc. column.

13. Do we have enough employees who can identify and capture growth opportunities?

If you don't think your current employees can come up with growth opportunities, maybe you need to hire ones who can.

14. If not, how can we attract and motivate more such opportunity creators?

If that's what you decide, you might need to look at yourself and ask whether you have the right culture for attracting and motivating creative people. If not, look at what you can learn from companies, like Google and Apple, that do.

Here are four steps you can use to create a culture that will address questions 11 through 14 and help you attract and motivate employees to come up with new products:

  • Make a list of your values--one of which should be customer innovation.
  • Use a hiring process that favors people who share those values.
  • Give employees time to brainstorm new products that will make customers better off.
  • Provide resources to commercialize the best products and reward those who succeed--as well as the noble failures.

Start work this week on these 14 questions and growth opportunities will come into focus.

Published on: Jan 8, 2016