Tick-tock. Whoosh-whoosh. That's the sound of time rushing by as one year ends and another begins.
For many small business owners, this time of year is one of the busiest. But there's one more task entrepreneurs need to add to their 2013 calendars: Create a road map for the next 12 months.
"The weeks before the new year is a great time to spend just reflecting on all the things that happened in the business in the past year and then mapping out a strategy," says Carolyn Lawrence, president of Toronto-based Women of Influence, which works to advance high-powered, senior executive women.
"It's so tough to carve out that time. But if you plan now, when the new year comes around you'll be just jumping out of bed and ready to go."
Entrepreneurs are often too busy working "in the business instead of on the business," says Chris Griffiths of Fine Tune Consulting, a Toronto business-strategy consulting firm. For these time-starved operators, spending a few days at year-end to prepare for the coming year can spell the difference between strategically advancing the business or just maintaining the daily grind.
Besides having little time to dedicate to planning, some business owners also don't know how to go about creating an annual strategy, says Mr. Griffiths.
"Most of my clients with $10-million or less in sales, they're not doing this type of planning unless they're prodded and guided through it," he says. "That's not a criticism – it's just the reality of the day-to-day responsibility of keeping a going concern going."
Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Griffiths, both judges in this year's Small Business Challenge Contest sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp., offer some advice on how entrepreneurs can get ready for 2014.
Pull out the master plan
Remember your business plan – the one you wrote when you first started your enterprise, and perhaps updated when you needed to apply for a line of credit? Time to take it out of the archives. An annual plan, says Ms. Lawrence, should be part of a long-term strategy. Entrepreneurs who haven't looked at their business plans lately may find they need to be updated to reflect the company's current and future path.
Put some tactics behind your vision
Entrepreneurs are known for being visionary, but they need to back up their oracular schemes with a clear plan of action. It's great to say, for example, that 2014 will be the year the business hits the $5-million mark, but how exactly will you get there? What resources will you need? What steps do you need to take and who's going to do what? "Your new-year strategy should be a combination of vision and tactics," says Mr. Griffiths. "Without tactics, you may end up with a great strategy that cannot be executed, and when your team shows up on January 2, they'll just be spending their time reacting to all the noise in your day-to-day operation."
Make it a team effort
Strategic planning shouldn't be a solo pursuit, says Ms. Lawrence. She suggests gathering partners, managers and employees together for a brainstorming session where the entire team can look at the good, the bad and the ugly from 2013 and come up with ways to grow in 2014. But she also cautions against dwelling too much on the negative. "It's the end of the year and your employees are tired and wanting to know they're valued," says Ms. Lawrence. "So put more focus on what went really well and what can be improved."
Pick and choose opportunities
Success can be a slippery slope for businesses. One day you're helping clients with search engine optimization, the next you're designing and writing their websites because they asked if you could – and you said "yes." While it's important for entrepreneurs to seize business opportunities, there's a risk the company might be taking on more than it can handle or, in some cases, pursuing opportunities that distract from the core strengths of the business. Year-end planning sessions, says Mr. Griffiths, are a good time to assess what business to keep and what to divest. A good rule of thumb for this exercise: if an opportunity isn't moving you along the path you've mapped out in your annual and long-term business plans, then it may be a good idea to take a pass on it.
Put it in your calendar
So you've got your visionary strategy and your plan of action. Ms. Lawrence says it's time to start filling in your calendar. For example, if expanding into the United States is part of the big vision for 2014 and you've identified the actions you need to take to achieve this goal, then slot these actions into your personal and company calendars. Ms. Lawrence starts with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets where she details her vision, beliefs, action plan and even her job description. She breaks down her action plan into quarterly periods and links the spreadsheets into her e-mail calendar on Microsoft Outlook. "I find this makes it easier for me to follow the plan all year long," she says. "Whereas if I put it in a book, the busier I get the less I'm inclined to open it and check our progress."
Prepare to track and tweak
As they're developing their plan of action for the new year, small business owners should also be thinking of how they'll measure their progress and success against this plan. Ms. Lawrence says it's a good idea to start identifying performance indicators to be tracked in the new year. Depending on the business goals and plan of action, these indicators could include sales figures, size of customer base, geographic reach, or results of customer satisfaction surveys. Entrepreneurs following a plan should also be ready to make adjustments as the year progresses, says Mr. Griffiths. "As with any strategy the only thing you know with complete certainty is that at some point something will be wrong. Track your progress and plan to pivot."
Recharge your batteries
Once you've finished your 2014 strategy, relax and enjoy what's left of the year. "First you reflect, and then you recharge," says Ms. Griffith. "It can be quite intense to hammer out a business plan for the year, so do it now then you can unwind and recharge during the holiday break and be ready for the new year."