How to Rethink Your Business

Sometimes we all need a little push to do what we know we should do in our businesses. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day running of a business and not make time for guiding it.

I used to hear a lot of “this is how I have always done it” from owners but that seems to be changing. In this tough economic climate, “how I have always done it” is not enough to keep the doors open. For many companies, the little push to change how they do things has felt more like a giant shove. The good news: Many businesses are reinventing themselves in ways they never thought possible and are having fun doing it.

When business was booming, there often wasn’t time to step back and analyze what was being done or where you wanted it to go … you just went and did. The challenging economy over the last few years has given some owners a chance to really refine their vision for the company or start entirely new ventures.

How does the journey of reinvention begin? It starts with having an honest understanding of where you are as a business. This is done by having a thorough knowledge of your company financials and by identifying strengths and weaknesses. This is a good time to check if your impression of your business matches how your customers view it.

For examples of companies reinventing themselves, just look at your local business districts. Chances are you will notice some businesses, typically the smaller independent ones, have changed their look or the products or services they offer. I spoke to a couple of owners on the North Side of Chicago to find out what sparked their revitalization and how they started.

There were a couple areas that came up repeatedly:

1) Reviewing the core business products or services.

Understand what they are known for and do well. The businesses I spoke to had taken the time to understand their niche and where they could attract new customers. They looked at their sales numbers to know exactly what was selling and what wasn’t. This is a key point as many businesses have their favorite items to sell and are very reluctant to change product lines even when they are not performing as they had previously. Piggy Toes, a popular kids shoe store in Lincoln Square and Lincoln Park, reduced the number of European shoes they carried based on sales of those shoes. This used to be one of their core product lines, but over the years it declined in popularity and they were not afraid to reduce it.

Can you add a product or service to fill the needs of your customers? A need sparked a change or a new venture for a number of businesses. Chicago Soccer, a soccer specialty store, added the ability to produce banners and window clings in-house. They serve many schools and clubs and are often asked where to get such items. They are now able to serve not only those customers but to conduct more business-to-business sales as well. Thus opening up a completely new revenue stream.

Strategize. Cornell Erdbeer of Ludwig Interiors told me, “Besides working all the time we have to strategize.” He said he used to be so busy he could barely keep up but he knew a slowdown was coming and he just couldn’t get ahead of it. He also said suddenly he was looking for things to do and had to go back to the basics. He went back through his customer list and touched base with all of them even those he hadn’t worked with for years. He started participating again in industry events and revamped the look of his store. He is working to bring e-commerce to his business and create the premier showroom in Chicago for his industry. He said to do this he has had to break it down into bite-sized pieces as to not become overwhelmed. The pay-off has been worth all the hard work, the last two years for him have been up and he has a better understanding of where his business is and where it can go than he has had in a while.

2) How does your business look?

Aesthetic. The importance of aesthetic in a business cannot be overstated. Does it look stale and dated? Or does it look fresh and new? It is important to take a critical look as if you were seeing it for the first time. It is essential to solicit honest feedback from a loyal customer or peer base. For example, Planet Access Company Store is a clothing store but to quote one of the managers, “Looking at our windows you would think we were a plant store.” What was the most prominent feature in their window? A huge plant. The stores parent company is a not-for-profit and proceeds from Planet Access go to the charity. They have revamped their window to display what they sell and to help tell their story.

Creating effective change in your business whether big or small, all starts with being honest. Once you truly understand where you are and goals for the future, the steps to get there can be created.

Melissa Flynn is passionate about her community and passionate about her job as the executive director for the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce. For the past seven years she has been creating a sense of place that has helped to transform the Lincoln Square community. Flynn is a skilled and experienced executive with a proven track record of creating a successful business climate balanced by strong values of sustainability and community. Under her leadership in 2011, the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce achieved the highly coveted 3-star Accreditation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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