Making room for entrepreneurship amidst the day-to-day demands of a small business

Last month I wrote about the importance of both small business management and entrepreneurship in sustained success. Entrepreneurship enables a business to adapt to significant changes in its environment, pursue opportunities beyond business as usual, and generally renew itself. Small business management handles the day-to-day challenges and enables the organization to operate effectively and profitably.

For an established business that is doing well it can be very difficult to make entrepreneurial efforts a priority. In his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship Peter Drucker observed, “The temptation in the existing business is always to feed yesterday and starve tomorrow.” This can happen if decision-making becomes too focused on the short-term or if those with new ideas are discouraged (or worse).

To strike the right balance, here are four practices for building entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial initiatives into your routine:

• Seek out new ideas and opportunities. Keep in touch with industry, market and economic trends so you can spot important developments early. Build a program to encourage employees to offer suggestions. In combination these efforts bring in ideas that can strengthen current operations as well as bigger opportunities that need a dose of entrepreneurship to grow.

• Form a team to nurture the entrepreneurial initiative. When the decision is made to move forward with a new initiative, picking a core team to work on it can be tricky. Even a very small team needs to be carefully staffed. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur) and leaders need to factor that in along with the skills needed, the impact on the current staffing plan, and whether new hiring is necessary. Ideally, it will be possible to create protected time and space for the entrepreneurial team to work on the project without being pulled into daily issues too much. Whatever the arrangement, it’s important to clarify roles and responsibilities at the outset, communicate the change to other employees, and continue to champion it.

• Explore different sources of funding. While it may make sense to fund a new initiative out of current profits, the entrepreneurial team should also consider new sources as well. Depending on the project, these could include angel investors, venture capital, debt financing, Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, or even grants from nonprofit foundations. Each one of these options has pros and cons that depend upon individual circumstances and details.

• Manage by milestones. Recognize that it takes time for entrepreneurial initiatives to yield results. Focus on milestones such as a prototype, interest from potential customers, signing a distributor, or receiving a first order instead of the numbers used to track performance of the established small business. This keeps the new initiative on track and alerts leaders to problems without imposing unfair expectations that can derail entrepreneurship.

Here’s how it could work. The owner of an established gourmet food truck in a small city got interested in using social media when an employee noticed that many customers were checking their smartphones while waiting for orders. This dovetailed with the owner’s reading on about similar businesses in Los Angeles and New York using Twitter to communicate with customers. Since one of her best young employees was already a social media wizard, she asked him for ideas. They agreed that he would set up a Twitter account for them and work with her to build a following that would enable them to attract more affluent customers, more repeat business, test new menu items, and choose locations more efficiently. To do this, he was given time off from truck duty. An expert was brought in to train them both on using Twitter for business. The next milestone is to attract 500 Twitter followers in three months. In the long-term the owner hopes that this will produce enough growth to justify more trucks. When that happens, she will ask a friend who has expressed interest to invest in the purchase.

As a small business leader, how do you balance entrepreneurship with day-to-day small business management? Please share practices that have worked for you.

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Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.

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