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Susan Cranston, Assistant Vice-President, Group Small Business Marketing & Advisor Services, Manulife Financial in Waterloo, Ont.

Small business owners are often so immersed in the hectic, never-ending challenges of each day that they put off building important parts of their foundation, says Susan Cranston, Assistant Vice-President Group Small Business Marketing & Advisor Services, Manulife Financial. There's no time like the present to begin addressing what you may have set aside until now, she says.

1. If you don't have a qualified financial planner, commit to finding one.

A financial planner or advisor helps with strategic advice and overall business objectives. A planner can help you step back and take in the whole business picture – not just one slice of it. Insurance, risk management, employee benefits, retirement planning and business succession are a few examples. A planner can be the trusted advisor to your other trusted advisors – bankers, accountants, lawyers.

One way to find an advisor is to reach out to another small businessperson you know and respect and ask for a referral. Other professionals may also be able to provide connections.

2. Protect yourself and your business with adequate insurance.

It's good to spend some time thinking about the people who rely on you: your family, your employees, and your employees' families. As an owner and decision-maker, you are accountable for protecting yourself and your business with insurance in the event you become ill. Imagine what would happen if you needed to take even a short-term leave? Would the business be at risk? A holistic approach to protecting against premature death, illness or disability, and to diversifying your investment portfolio, is wise. A financial advisor can help you determine your needs.

3. Create a business plan.

A business plan is one way to stay focused on long-term goals through all the day-to-day distractions. It's not enough to say your plan is in your head. Put it on paper or in your computer in case something happens to you. Then test your assumptions. Map out what you want to do (and why) in 2013, as well as in the next three years, five years, and even longer-term. Know how you will deal with competition; sustain your current business; attract new customers; access capital; generate revenue; deal with taxes; recruit and retain the best talent; manage turnover, illness, or disability; and whatever else may come your way as a business owner. Talk to your financial planner for advice on aligning your goals to the elements of your plan.

4. Develop a business succession plan.

Many business owners put off thinking about this, but it's never too early to start planning. You may want a short-term plan to build the business and sell it in its prime, or a long-term plan to wind the business down when you're ready to enjoy the fruits of your labour. Create contingencies. Who could take over for you? Work with an advisor to manage cost and understand how you can incorporate insurance products into elements of your plan. Owners may need years to deal with all the issues around succession, including tax planning and finding the right successor.

5. Engage in philanthropy.

When you're building your business, you're also building your community. It's important to do things that benefit the community in which you live and work. Community-minded business owners are often recognized for their efforts investing time and energy into giving back. They are seen as the kind of people who other people are attracted to and want to do business with. It helps build your brand, and helps entice new recruits who say "this is the company I want to work for."

6. Create a website and be present online.

If you already have a website, look for ways to improve it. Surprisingly, many small businesses have no presence, or a minimal one, on the Internet. Learn how to build your own web site (there are sites that help you and that don't cost anything), ask a friend, or find a local firm to help you get started. More and more, people research a company through its website. They want to know that a company has a website presence. It shows the company's ability to stay current and relevant. Explore the tremendous businesses opportunities being created through social media sites that can help you reach a global audience. It could help you take your business to unexpected new heights.


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