Small business strategy: 23 startups on the best changes they've made
Every startup has room for improvement. In fact, most have so many potential changes to make, it can become paralysing.
When you'd like to change everything, you end up changing nothing. So why don't we just focus on one important reform? One thing that could make a real difference to your business now.
We asked 23 real startups or small businesses for the single best change they ever made, and why they're so happy they made it. These include:
New organisational structure: How aligning teams and creating better processes made a big difference.
Changing the office vibe: Why remote workers can be so valuable.
Rethinking meetings: You probably hate them, but meetings have value. Learn how businesses get more from them.
Revising how business gets done: How to remove distractions and focus on what matters most.
Improving customer acquisition: Steps to find the right target buyers and zero in.
Getting the help you need: Why choosing a mentor was the best decision one entrepreneur made.
Involving your community: How to listen to customers and get influencers on your side.
This post is long, so feel free to jump straight to the most interesting sections. Otherwise settle in and learn how these startups found success thanks to one small change.
In many startups, organisational structure can be a little haphazard. It’s natural - you began with one or two founders, and slowly added teammates one-by-one.
Once the business gets to a certain size, there’s no escaping it. You need an organisational structure that gives each team ownership and autonomy, but in which the sum is greater than the parts.
Too many buzzwords and catchphrases? Here’s what actually worked for a few startups.
Create a growth team
Sales and marketing alignment - also known as Smarketing - is an incredibly hot topic in the startup world. Both teams have essentially the same role: bring in new business. But to make acquisition as efficient as possible, both teams have to be on the same page.
quintly found a simple solution to this issue: just combine the two teams!
“We merged the marketing team and sales team to create one Growth team,” explains Marketing Manager Nils Herrmann. “This helped us a lot to identify the needs and wishes of each specific department.”
It actually makes a lot of sense, especially if your business uses the inbound methodology. You can have sales and marketing identify targets together, with one creating supporting content and the other closing the deal.
“The result of this collaboration was that we learned to set common goals, created Marketing/Sales buddy systems for specific countries, and overall improved the alignment of both teams.”
“For us, definitely one of the most important steps in the last year.”
Make your marketing match your revenue streams
Marketing teams wear a lot of different hats. And while every one of them can seem vital, the truth is that their number one job should be to bring in new business.
So first, you need to know your best sources of revenue. Then simply focus your marketing efforts on these.
“We recently restructured our marketing team of 14 people to align with lead indicators of revenue growth,” says Nathan Ellering of CoSchedule. “Working backward, we discovered that to help more customers find CoSchedule, we needed to double down on increasing website visitors, email subscribers, trial signups, demo requests, and calls scheduled.”
“By aligning teams to this ‘funnel,’ we've given each team member an area on which to focus. That gives them autonomy to develop their own ideas that will boost results, in areas we know ultimately lead to company growth.
“That ownership means each of us feels the win, knowing the work we do is the best for our customers and the company. It's a win-win-win.”
Truly prioritise content
For inbound marketers, this may seem old-hat. But so many businesses don’t make the most of their communication channels, especially blogs.
For Userlike, the biggest change was “focusing on creating high quality content on our blog. Before, we had a blog, but only used it for company announcements like new updates.”
“Then we decided to turn our blog into a valuable resource for our target audience, and from this point we finally started growing significantly again. Many of the benefits were direct, the most significant ones SEO-related. But a high quality blog also offers many indirect benefits, like thought leadership and a more thoughtful way of developing our product and leading our company.”
A focus on content can be hard to truly embrace. It’s not a quick win, and requires real commitment from across the business.
“All I can say is that quality content is worth the investment.”
Make smart product improvements
“There are always thousands of ideas to improve a product - the challenge is prioritising them.” This is a common problem for tech startups. There are so many things you’d love to build and add to your core product. And every team member values them slightly differently.
For Joseph Fitzgibbons of Clickmechanic, having a way to prioritise ideas made all the difference. “We use the ICE method. Each idea is scored, for Impact, Confidence, and Ease, and a hit list is generated with the overall total.”
This gives the business a semi-scientific way to choose what to build next. “It has not only significantly improved our efficiency, but has also helped to make our process more transparent and accessible to the wider company."
Double down on marketing
For plenty of young businesses, the most urgent need is to attract customers - fast. And for some, that means stepping up their marketing game. That was the case for Nightwatch.io, as CEO Aljaz Fajmut explains:
"It took us a while to realize that having an outstanding product is not enough, and marketing is what helps you keep moving things forward. Clearly defining and organizing our marketing activities turned out to be a game-changer for us in the long run."
So what does that mean in practical terms? "We created a small but agile team which started working on the outreach as well as our social media presence. We worked hard on creating a smooth workflow - ensuring that each member of the team is assigned certain task and deadlines. We started using tools such as Airtable to track our progress and make necessary adjustments which helped us stay productive and efficient."
"The main takeaway is to not only strive to be a fit in the market but also to ensure that people know about you straight away."
[Get Nightwatch's free local SEO checklist]
Changes to office culture
“Startup culture” can be a loaded phrase. For many, it means a fun, fast-moving workplace. For others, it means long hours and low job security.
But modern startups are placing a greater emphasis on the office vibe. And there was one fairly simple change that several of our respondents stated.
If it works, go remote!
Flexible work arrangements are fast becoming more popular. Companies know that, if they want to attract the best talent, they need to let employees work in the environment that suits them.
And for many, that means not being in the same office, the same city, or even the same country.
“Within our small team of 12, we have 2 employees who are full time remote,” says Thibaut Davoult of Livestorm. “Both of them are developers. It would have been impossible to get them to move to Paris full time, so we definitely wouldn't have been able to hire them specifically.
“I'd dare say it's been a life saver for us when it comes to attracting talent.”
Viseo found the same thing - that the quality of candidates improves when you allow remote work. Oscar Sandström says that this “gave [them] the possibility to hire English speaking people all over the world. Such a huge impact!”
For Mailshake, the change was even more drastic. The company ditched its office altogether.
As Marketing Strategist Mark Lindquist explains, “we were already partially remote, and most of our team had experience with temporary remote stints. We also were doing 2 - 3 days remote even when we had the office.
“When the lease came back up we decided to give it a shot, and we're never going back. We still meet once a week and Skype/call at least every day, but it gives everyone the chance to work on their own schedule and dedicate uninterrupted time to tasks in a way they couldn't before.”
It all sounds incredibly appealing. But no doubt most small businesses will feel that remote teams are too hard to manage, and they’ll have to sacrifice efficiency.
So how does Livestorm manage? “Number one on your checklist should be communicating often, possibly even 'oversharing.' This goes both ways for us: from the Paris offices to everyone, and from the remote locations to the Paris offices. We also prioritize live video communication as soon as discussions get a bit deep or technical.”
“All in all, going remote as an early stage startup was easier for us than it is for mid-sized or large companies. Making the switch also brought clarity in how we operate within the office, which is a huge positive side effect for us!”
Meetings, meetings, meetings
When we sought submissions for this post, one issue kept coming up: meetings. In particular, how to keep meetings as efficient as possible, while still letting team members contribute and interact.
Because let’s face it, meetings can feel like the enemy of output.
And yet, meetings are unavoidable. You want your teams on the same page, to know what the organisation is doing, and how to attack the next challenge. And that means, they need to meet.
So how are startups making their meetings more successful?
Institute daily standup meetings
Standup meetings are already a staple for many businesses. A quick daily round-up helps everyone in the team know what the others are working on, and keeps team members accountable for their tasks.
It’s also just a good excuse to talk to one another.
For NGP Integrated Marketing Communications, this is still brand new.
“Believe it or not, we've only just implemented standup meetings everyday for our team,” says SEO Strategist Lord Gideon Marin.
“It helped by basically forcing everyone to get a list of what they did and what they need to do for the day. This gave team leaders a chance to see if a team member was being under or over-utilized.”
“Tasks that are not as urgent as the others were also pushed back to make way for more important ones.”
Make your meetings more interactive, and more productive
One simple way to make meetings more effective is to make sure that everyone has a role. When your business is still small, this is a valuable way to give team members ownership over their work.
Stefan Debois of Survey Anyplace says this small change has led to better execution throughout the business. “During the weekly meeting, I used to do all the presenting myself with a Q&A/discussion at the end.”
“Now, this has changed and we have each team presenting:
Their upcoming tasks
The issues that are relevant for the others to help out or to be informed.
“Since this change, we have not only seen more involvement of the team but also observed a better completion rate of the tasks, thanks to the commitments people make during the meeting.”
Further reading for startups!
Changes to day-to-day business
A lot of startups operate a certain way, because that’s the way we’ve always done it. But as you strive to grow and scale, you need to bring in new processes and improve the ones that are already working well for you.
Here are a few great tips we received.
Take real steps to focus on what’s most important
Helping your teams remain focused is a real challenge. Most startups have Trello boards and to-do lists, but there’s always an email request or urgent task getting in the way.
And while it’s easy to talk about increased focus, it’s pretty hard to actually achieve. So a few smart startups have put processes in place to create change.
For example, Web Analytics Hub uses the the 90/90/1 Rule: “For the next 90 days, devote the first 90 minutes of your work day to the one best opportunity in your life. Nothing else. Zero distractions. Just get that project done. Period.”
According to Pravin Singh, that laser focus should reflect the biggest needs in your business today. “The one thing that you focus on can be widely different depending on where you are in your journey. The focus should be on important things not urgent things.”
“If you just landed your first client, the important thing would be to do such amazing work that they’d never want leave and would be start recommending your service. If you have just 1-2 clients and want to grow your business, your focus should be on finding a specific niche in your area and working towards getting more projects with new clients on a consistent basis.”
Keep one day clear of distractions
Whereas Growth Analytics Hub sets aside 90 minutes daily for pure focus, Growth Studio prefers to keep one whole day free. “The game-changer for us was banning all external meetings, calls, clients every Thursday,” says Co-Founder Paul Finch.
“One day each week to enable us to focus on work, brainstorming, future planning, clearing the decks, etc. It is written into our business contracts and has made a huge difference to our productivity and quality of work.”
There are endless distractions at work, and every employee has countless tasks they could be doing. You may need to make focus part of your company’s routine.
Block out time for things that need it
We know that focus is tricky. And even if you think you can manage all your priorities in your head, things easily get out of hand.
"This might sound really simple, but blocking out time in the calendar has been tremendously helpful for protecting my time and prioritizing energy.” Stephanie Ciccarelli, Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Voices.com, finds that forcing herself to assign time slots gives each task renewed focus.
“I give a task 15 minutes, 30 minutes or 60 minutes depending on its demands and complexity. I've discovered that there is freedom in planning and a delightful flexibility that comes with achieving tasks ahead of schedule."
Outsource where possible
Small business owners often find themselves doing everything. But there are now countless services - including SaaS tools - that take the annoying parts out of your hands.
Yes, you have to pay for them. But you’ll save so much time and effort that you’ll easily make up for it elsewhere.
From Ocushield.com Founder Dhruvin Patel: “Outsourcing our fulfilment procedures from in-house to a third party that lives and breathe fulfilling orders for businesses is the biggest change we’ve benefited from.”
“It leaves more time for us to focus on other areas of the business, happier customers due to faster shipping, and fewer customer queries.”
When you're very young, that can mean core processes like accounting or paid advertising. Growing businesses also regularly rely on Salesforce consulting companies or a HubSpot agency to promote growth.
There are always aspects of the business that you just aren’t built for. So why not give them to someone who is?
Tracking and reporting on key metrics
Every business wants to be data-driven. But it’s one thing to talk about it, and another altogether to put robust reporting in place. Creating dashboards is essentially a fulltime job.
And before you get that far, you need to actually what you’ll be tracking, and why it’s important. This is no easy task.
Identify key performance indicators
Even Klipfolio, the well-known dashboard tool, didn't have the right metrics from the start. And this led to their one big change.
“We implemented an OKR (objectives and key results) process to ensure the things that mattered the most were being delivered and measured,” explains Jonathan Milne. “This ensured every team member had full autonomy of their activities while staying aligned to the corporate goals.”
It’s so important to be able to clearly state the metrics that matter to your business. “The end result was creating an environment that encouraged velocity and trust by focusing on the things that mattered the most.”
Pravin Singh had the same challenge at Web Analytics Hub. “Being a data analyst/data scientist, one of my main roles is to help my clients understand the right metrics for their business and help them in tracking the same.
“However, I am guilty of not doing this for my own business for the first six months! One big mistake.” As we said, it’s always easier to talk about what’s important than actually implement it.
“I realized this and I created a spreadsheet on which I now spend 5 minutes every week. It’s an in-depth tracking of my single most important goal and all the right metrics related to it, all aligned with my business objectives.” This lines up with the 90/90/1 Rule, which Pravin introduced us to above.
Improving the customer acquisition process
Finding new customers is near the top of every company’s wishlist. And that usually leads to attacking new market segments, buying ads, and lots of online hunting.
But several of our startups told us that changing the way they approach new customers led to the best results.
Stay focused on the right niche(s)
“We used to go after any industry. But once we niched down to just two industries we were personally passionate about, things began to change.” This is the experience of Dan Honkanen of Rugged SEO.
“We spent less time in prospecting and more time in pro bono work. We gave out free advice to the business owners in those industries and became a regular face in the industry circles (ie. FB groups, forums).”
“Now, we're having our best year because people come to us, not the other way around.”
Find your sweet spot in the market
It’s not only important to target the right industries. You also need to focus on market segments willing to pay enough to justify your efforts.
In other words, don’t make your product or services too cheap.
Pete Reis-Campbell, CEO and Founder of Kaizen: “The smartest thing I ever did in our early days was double our prices. We were charging freelancer day rates, but had grown our client base too fast as we were too cheap.”
For service-based companies, this price increase can actually add prestige and make your business seem more worthy.
“Besides tripling our revenue as a result of the change, it helped us attract better, upmarket clients and get a grasp on our workload. “It wasn’t just a matter of doubling prices that increased revenue, it allowed us to stop working with the small clients, and put more time into larger brands, which in turn attracted more clients.”
Dale Davies from Exposure Ninja found the same phenomenon. “We focused on our highest paying customers and reduced the quantity of highly-demanding, low-paying customers to free up hours.”
Optimise your onboarding
If you’re not in a position to hike up prices, your next option is to become more efficient in dealing with clients. Lots of smaller customers add up to a few larger ones - as long as you can handle the workload.
This was the case for Cheap Web Design. Given the name, increasing prices wasn’t really an option. “We operate a high volume, low-cost model, and as such we make sure that the projects are handled quickly and with a systematic approach, says Managing Director James Thurlow-Craig.
“Web design and development is notoriously tricky to project manage and without efficient processes in place, we'd be dead in the water!”
“We switched from handling initial project briefs via email to using a series of simple online forms. This prevents customers sending via email, WeTransfer, post or any other way imaginable. We've worked with some clients who'd have sent their briefs to us via pigeon if they could!”
“We save hours via the telephone and email and it's boosted productivity within the team.”
Leaning on outsiders for help
No entrepreneur has it all figured out from the start. But when the company is your vision and your baby, it can be hard to hear that you need help.
But bringing in someone from outside the business can be invaluable. Maybe they’re able to solve a particularly sticky pain point you’ve discovered.
Or maybe you ask for help early, to make sure you’re building a great company from the beginning.
Find a mentor
“The one thing we did was get a mentor. They made so much difference it’s unbelievable. Focus, targets, a shoulder to cry on and some really great constructive criticism.”
This is Tom Passmore, CEO and Co-Founder of Dsposal Ltd. “Before Dsposal, we were both office, admin workers. Now we were expected to have shareholders, board meetings, strategy sessions. Then we were expected to understand online marketing, HR, payroll, insurances. The list kept growing.”
The mentors asked Tom and Co-Founder Sophie hard questions.
“Why does Dsposal need to exist?”
“Why does it have to be you?”
“Why will people use it?”
“Why will people pay for it?”
“Why hasn’t it be done already?”
“Why don’t you go to somebody that does something close, pitch them the idea and work for them?”
“These are tough questions to answer and over months I answered them and they solidified in my head. That became our vision, which is the backbone of our mission. Then we found our voice and created our brand guidelines.”
Using your community for ideas and promotion
The web and social media have made it easier to know what users think of your business. They’ve also given us new ways to reach potential clients, wherever they might be online.
So how do smart businesses engage these online audiences for growth?
Get user feedback
There’s one group of people whose feedback should really matter to you: your users. Their advice helps you improve your products, and they also provide an acquisition channel on their own. But more on that shortly.
Feedback from users doesn’t only help you build better products. It’ll also tell you if you’re targeting the right buyers and marketing your services correctly.
“You don’t have to brainstorm for hours to figure out your unique selling proposition. The smartest way to do this is to get feedback from your customers, employees, partners, or clients.” So says Vinoth AJ, Founder of Apoyo Corp.
“We asked our clients what they expect before requesting a quote from us. We comprehensively answered all of their questions, and included that directly on our quote page.”
What's a clear example of this? “In our industry, most Clients felt better to know the hourly rate before they request a quote. So we embraced this by displaying it as our first FAQ. As a result, we've seen a huge change in traffic to conversion ratio. The bounce rate of that page has reduced significantly.”
Find out what matters most to your current buyers, and use this to attract the next batch.
Work with influencers
Influencers are one of the trendiest topics in the marketing world. You’ve probably seen all sorts of claims of huge return on investment. And of course, some of this is untrue.
But for some businesses in certain industries, influencers really are a powerful resource. That’s what Tom Bourlet of activated charcoal beauty brand Procoal discovered:
“We weren’t staying on top of social messages, email enquiries, and general requests. One day, [we saw that] there were about 5-10 messages per day from influencers, small and large, requesting the Procoal products to try for free on their profiles.”
“Considering we’re talking about Instagram influencers with 10,000-1,000,000 followers, it seemed like a definite win. It was beauty influencers and make-up artists who were really intrigued about the product, so it felt like a perfect match.”
“We started being featured on a huge amount of social accounts, which heavily jumped our sales figures, as well as site traffic.”
Ella Rauen-Prestes, Founder of Fitbakes, found something similar. “We stopped spending our marketing budget on food shows, sampling and ads, and focused 100% on Instagram influencers. We decided to go this way 10 months ago and sales grew 400%!”
Ella was quick to state that this is a lot of work. “We don’t pay influencers, nor do we go through an influencer agency. We search for the influencers on Instagram ourselves.”
But for Fitbakes, the proof is in the (low calorie) pudding. “One Instagram post with a link to a blog sold more cakes than an ad in a big magazine, and all it cost us was the samples! I couldn’t believe it. When a lady that lost 5 stone on Slimming World tries a low sugar cake and says it tastes amazing, it’s much more valuable than a Love Islander talking about it.”
“We have now 20,000 followers on Instagram and have sold over 100,000 cakes!”
You're never too successful to learn something new
Hopefully these stories have given you new ideas. Or inspired you to make changes you've long put off.
While change for its own sake is never best, your business will no doubt have areas that could use a little improvement.
If those areas include restructuring teams, getting more from meetings, finding clients more efficiently or working with influencers, you've got some great advice above.
If you happen to need help with the way you and your team pay for and process expenses, we're here to help.
What's one major change you made for your business? How did it lead to real results? Let us know in the comments.