Learning by doing

When starting or growing a new business, many entrepreneurs worry that they lack the right skills or knowledge. Don’t worry, says Sage Business Expert Jon Stow. The best way to learn is just by going out and doing it.

A confession

Jon StowI used to work for a large firm of accountants once. They actually called themselves “Accountants and Business Advisers”. The firm held itself out as specialist accountants for small businesses and “SMEs” (Small and Medium Enterprises). Quite honestly, I am not sure we staff were much good as business advisers because we had never been in business. I doubt whether many of the hundreds of partners knew much about business either. They all specialised in something. Only a few partners actually managed the firm’s business; the Managing Partner of the whole firm and maybe one partner in each office. The others did what they did and shared the profits, but they did not run a business day-to-day.

When I left my employment, I spent a lot of money training as a “business adviser”. I learned how to call for specialist help if I found that a small business needed it. Of course they needed to be convinced they needed help, and if they accepted they did, that they needed it from me. I was not initially at all successful in getting work. That was when I really learned what running a business was like.

Hard lessons

It was a hard lesson too with no money coming in. Cash was very limited. I had to find something I could offer that businesses actually wanted. I also readjusted to think what I could offer the public as well. I had to get some money in.

I decided to combine my knowledge acquired over many years as a tax specialist, and look for opportunities to advise both on tax and business matters. I had acquired a much greater knowledge of what businesses need to work well. The most important is cash flow of course. I also had learned along the way how to market my own business. That helped me to see what marketing other businesses needed.

I am not an specialist marketer. I know a few people who are pretty good at that, so I could refer on my trusted clients. Over the years I have acquired more skills myself, but at the same time found others to help my clients.

Linked out

In the UK there used to be something called Business Link, which was a government initiative. It was partly staffed by various people retired from their jobs, such as ex-bank managers. I am sure they were all well-meaning, but they had never run a business. They made suggestions, but never saw any issue from the business owner’s perspective.

If you offer a solution to most small businesses the owner will say:

  • How much will it cost?
  • What is the value to my business (what’s in it for me)?
  • What is the risk (that it will not succeed or that I will lose money)?

Of course if we are offering a solution, we know that the way to get past the cost issue is to show the value. However, it is the risk that any business owner will worry about. Whether the “solution” will cost more than the benefit, and most importantly, what is the risk to cash-flow and profit. A bank manager would not understand that, and neither would most partners and staff at my old accountancy firm.

Practice makes perfect

We learn from others in business and we should always look to do so. We should know when we need help and ask for it. However the only way you, I and everyone else can know what it is like to run a business is by doing it. That is the biggest lesson of all, don’t you think?

Jon Stow, Sage Business Expert

Jon Stow helps business owners and landlords find their way through the maze of tax legislation in which they find themselves, and writes and advises on tax and difficult business issues. He markets his own business mainly through social media. His tax practice website is Jon Stow Consulting, and his business blog is onourbikes.com.