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What To Do If Your Business Is Stuck Or You Feel Stuck

First let’s look into the problem of being stuck as a business owner:

  • What does it mean if a business is stuck or of a business owner is stuck?
  • What are the symptoms of being stuck?
  • How does “being stuck” fit into the cycle of business growth and decline?
  • What can you do to move from being stuck to being unstuck?

What Does It Mean If A Business Is Stuck Or If A Business Owner Feels Stuck?

If a business is stuck, it means that it has lost its forward momentum:

  • The rate of growth in sales and profits has slowed down, stalled or perhaps even gone into a small decline.
  • It’s become harder to convince customers to buy because you’ve lost key factors of differentiation that gave you an edge over your competitors.
  • If you don’t get unstuck, your business is likely to go into decline and the future of your business may be threatened. The amount of time you have to take corrective action depends on the buffers you’ve built up in  terms of cash and reserves of profit and the rate of decline in cash and profit.

If you feel stuck as a business owner;

  • You may have lost a sense of direction for your business, either because you’ve achieved your original vision or you’ve discovered that you can’t get there as you’re currently operating.
  • You may have lost that “feel good” factor of being your own boss. Instead of waking up energised and excited by the challenges ahead, you may find it hard to get to sleep because of the accumulated stress and worries and when you do start a new day, you do so with a feeling of dread.
  • You may be frustrated because you’ve hit a major blockage or constraint and you can’t see a way around it.
  • You’re unsure what to do. You may have too many ideas or too few or you may not feel able to commit to changing anything because it feels too risky.
  • Your work-life balance might have become an issue for your family. You might be working too many hours or you could be grumpy nearly all the time. You might have become so absorbed in your own problems that you’ve lost touch with what’s going on in the lives of your husband or wife, your children and your wider circle of family and friends.

The Symptoms Of Being Stuck

I’ve written a separate article on the symptoms of being stuck in your business but I’ll reprise the highlights.

Not all of these may apply to you yet but this could be where you’re heading if you’re stuck in your business and you stay stuck for an extended period.

  • You’re in trouble with your existing and potential customers. The feedback you get is mainly negative as customers complain about your “high” prices, your lead times, your service levels and particular mistakes. You’re constantly under pressure to make more concessions, just to keep the business you’ve had in the past.
    New customers are much harder to convince to buy even a trial order. You may not know it, but your reputation in the trade is falling and competitors are eyeing up your best customers.
    Ideas for new products and innovations have stalled or you can’t take your ideas through the development and launch stages successfully. The percentage of sales you get from products introduced in the last two years is falling.
  • You’re in trouble with your employees. Your employees depend on the success of your business and they will be keeping a close eye on what is happening around them and they’ll be sharing their knowledge and beliefs with colleagues, family and friends.
    Certain employees may be the reason why you’re stuck because their bad performance and attitude can drag you and their co-workers down if you fail to respond effectively. Or your employees may be innocent victims who underperform because they are confused and uncertain because you haven’t clarified their goals with clear actions and responsibilities nor given regular feedback.
    Either way, if they sense you or the business have lost direction, they will start worrying about their own futures and their behaviour inside and outside work will change. If they feel very unsettled, they will start looking for other jobs and, inevitably, it’s the better employees, the ones you can least afford to lose, who have the most success in the job market.
  • You’re in trouble with your suppliers. There are two main ways that you can mess around with suppliers. One is to delay payments and push them into financial trouble. The other is to demand impossible lead times for supplies because you’re late ordering and then to change priorities of supply as you firefight your customer service problems. Everything becomes a special favour as you threaten to put the relationship on the line.
    Just as you may have “bad customers” who cost you more to serve than the profit you earn on their sales, you can become a bad customer for your suppliers. Don’t be surprised if suppliers suddenly stop dealing with you or demand large price increases to tip the balance back in their favour. You may find that you depend on a few suppliers more than you thought, and especially if your credit rating is poor.
  • You’re in trouble with your bank manager or HMRC (UK tax authority). Cash flow is one of the first areas where you may see the symptoms of being stuck.
    Receipts from customers may be delayed because of unresolved problems, invoices may have been issued late, credit procedures may be lax and you (or your staff) may not have the time to chase money overdue.
    Sales may be declining or, if you’ve managed to sustain volumes, you may have had to cut your profit margins, which will ripple through into the cash you generate or consume each month.
    To meet your payroll commitment to your employees, you may have missed the due dates to pay the tax authorities the PAYE/NIC (payroll taxes and social security) or VAT (sales tax).
    If you already have an overdraft limit, your bank will pick up the fact that money goes out as soon as it comes in and your balance is always just under the limit whereas it used to peak and trough during the month. Requests for an increase won’t be received favourably as the bank will perceive their risk increasing so it will cost you more in the interest rate paid and in the security provided. Worse your request may be refused and the bank may even decide to call in the existing overdraft.
  • You’re in trouble with your family. The time you spend at work has become a big issue and you get frustrated because your spouse and children always want more – more money to spend, more holidays, more time together but you don’t have more to give. You might start to dread going home because you know there is going to be another argument.
    An insolvency practitioner once told me that behind many business failures he had seen, were intense personal problems caused by the husband or wife having an affair as they looked for relief from the pressures of family life caused by a struggling business. That’s a scary thought!
  • You’re annoyed with yourself. You feel as if you’ve lost your edge and you might feel as if you’re not supporting the business, the employees and customers, and most importantly, your family as well as you want.
    Your time disappears. You get to the end of the day and you can’t see where it has all gone. You’ve spent too long firefighting today’s (or even yesterday’s) problems to think much about tomorrow, next week, next month… let alone do the things you need to do.
    You feel lonely and isolated, unsure who you can talk to about the problems you face. Either your husband or wife doesn’t understand or you want to protect them from the stress you feel. Your pride might stop you from talking to friends who have their own businesses and you know friends who are employed won’t understand the pressures you feel.
    You used to feel confident about where your business was heading and how you were going to get there but now your mind is full of doubts. You hesitate over decisions and you worry too much about the consequences of decisions you’ve already made but can’t change.

Hopefully you’re nowhere near this doomy picture you’ve painted but you might recognise the early pressures in these directions. It’s time to take the steps to get unstuck, now!

How Does “Being Stuck” Fit Into The Cycles Of Business Growth And Decline?

There are various stages of business growth and decline:

  1. At the beginning, your business is focused and you’re energised. You’re doing well, the business is growing and you feel successful.
  2. Things start to slow down. Your growth rate slows and for every two or three new customers you gain, you might be losing one. You decide that this is the natural cycle and you can’t expect everything to go right, all the time.
  3. Things become more difficult. When you compare your results with last month or last year (in a seasonal business), the comparison isn’t as good as you expect. You’re likely to rationalise this as a “blip”, something that will right itself in a month or two. Unfortunately it might be the start of being stuck.
  4. The business has stalled. The “blip” has been going on for months and shows no sign of changing. Things feel different to you and your employees but you’re not sure what to do about it. The business is stuck.
  5. You’re no longer able to hold on to what you had. Sales and/or profit are falling. You are behind where you were last year. There are a few key questions to ask:

    • Is the decline in line with a drop in the national economy? If so, when the economy returns to growth, will your market also grow? You may operate in a business which is “pro-cyclical” (like house sales), where changes in the economy lead to exaggerated peaks and troughs in your market. In lean times, things are tough but when the market picks up, you should be back to a boom.
      Or your market may be under pressure from new substitute products in the way that tablets like the iPad have replaced some PCs which replaced electric word processors which replaced typewriters. Changes in technology and customer needs, wants and expectations can send markets into long term decline and condemn firms in them to a battle to be the “last man standing” or to find other markets.
    • Is the decline in line with a drop in your product-market? Are competitors likely to be seeing a similar drop in the level of their business or are you losing market share? If so, why have you lost your competitive edge and what can you do about it?
    • You need to decide if this decline is:
      • temporary and you can live with it because you’ve got sufficient spare reserves of cash and accumulated profit,
      • temporary but you need to take actions to improve your situation or
      • permanent and you need to make bigger changes in your business.
    • At this stage,
      • some businesses won’t do anything when they they should be taking action, rushing them to stage 6.
      • some businesses will wrongly diagnose the problem and do the wrong things, consuming some of their surplus cash and again taking them to stage 6.
      • other businesses do what needs to be done so they head towards stage 7.
  6. The decline is longer than you expected and the drop in sales and profit is more significant than you expected. You may be heading for a crisis if your business isn’t already insolvent.
  7. Recovery is the turnaround situation. Depending on what caused the business to get stuck, the business may be refreshed but still heading in the original strategic direction or renewed with growth in new product-markets.

What Do Do About Being Stuck – How To Get Unstuck In Your Business

Here are a few ideas but I should say that not all of these will apply in all situations.

  1. Get Outside Help

A big problem with getting unstuck when you or your business are stuck, is that it’s very difficult to do it on your own. You need to see your situation with fresh eyes and that’s why I believe that a third party intervention is an essential part of getting unstuck.

Unfortunately our minds plays tricks on all of us. Our personal view of reality is tainted. We see what we expect to see and I’ve known business owners and directors who have been too optimistic when they had serious issues ahead or too pessimistic when there were good opportunities. This happens because of confirmation bias, where our brains accepts information that is consistent with our beliefs and rejects information that is contradictory.

If your business is based in the UK, you can ask me for a free Business SOS (that’s a Second Opinion Session) where we can look at your issues together. This may involve looking deeper at the symptoms to diagnose the cause of the difficulties or it may be more focused on the cure, the prescription of actions you need to take to free yourself and build up positive momentum again.

2. Get Clear On Where You Are And Where You Want To Be

Being stuck can be like being lost when you’re driving your car. You don’t know which way to turn for the best.

When you’re lost, you need to find out where you are and that may change where you are going and how you can get there.

If you’re going to work out how to get from A to B, you need to be clear on the two locations. In business, your vision or future direction can change because of circumstances or you may have already reached your original goal and you need to set a new target.

However, where you’re going may also depend on where you are. In business, as you try new things, you’re getting feedback from the market all the time and where you find success may not be where you expected to find it.

Only when A and B are set, can you plan your journey.

This also applies to getting clear on what you want from your life in general and the relationship between you and your business. I believe business owners have the freedom to live life intentionally but, to do so, you have to be clear on what you want.

3. Getting From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be

This is the start of your action plan, which you’ll probably think of more as your business plan or strategic plan.

This is where you need to determine how you can fix the problems that caused you to get stuck, either by removing the barriers or by finding alternative routes around them.

In my free report, The Profit Tipping Point, (this link takes you to another of my websites called Differentiate Your Business), I refer to five different pathways to prosperity or decline that work together in your business.

These pathways are:

  1. The attractiveness of your market – a good, growing market will help you to grow and prosper whilst a market in decline puts you and all your competitors under pressure.
  2. The competitiveness of your market – some markets are divided into different niches which allow different businesses to excel but other markets suffer from customers treating the products and services as commodities, and that means they can easily swap from supplier to supplier. Unfortunately this can very easily lead to price wars or costs to service wars in a series of tit-for-tat competitive moves.
  3. The level of your competitive advantage or disadvantage – if you have or find a strong, sustainable competitive advantage then your profitability will be much better than your rivals who are disadvantaged.
  4. The effectiveness of your management, planning and control. A well managed business will perform better than a business where management skills are low. This probably doesn’t just depend on you. It can change suddenly if you are overdependent on a key staff member who leaves.
  5. The inner game of the business owner. You set the standards and the direction for your business and, if this area weakens for any reason, it quickly impacts on everything else.

I like to think of these five areas as different gauges for the business that can range from excellent to very poor. Weakness in one area can be papered over by strengths in others – for example, a well managed business with a strong competitive edge run by a focused and motivated business owner can still succeed in a market that is difficult. However significant weakness in several areas makes success less likely.

4. What You Need To Do To Prepare For the Next Three Years

You don’t want to get unstuck now and be stuck in six months time on an issue that could have been predicted.

I recommend that you look three years ahead and think in terms of your competitive Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats and how they could change. This is often called a SWOT Analysis.

It can seem difficult to look into the future without a crystal ball. Experts say that the rate of change is speeding up so I recommend that you look five years back and see what has changed since then. You’ll identify trends that are likely to continue as well as some that may stop or even go into reverse.

Here are some articles on my Differentiate Your Business blog that will give you some guidance:

You may also need to think in terms of different scenarios. For example, If you’re a British company that exports into the European Union, the Brexit situation is causing profound uncertainty that makes it hard to make decisions. The way to deal with this is to develop two logically consistent strategic scenarios:

  • A friendly Brexit, where many of the benefits of the single market and customs union are kept in place.
  • An unfriendly Brexit where negotiations collapse and the UK exits and reverts to World Trade Organisation rules.

You then have a view of two futures to use to test possible alternative decisions. What makes sense in both scenarios, which puts you in a strong position under one scenario and is it a risk worth taking.

5 Identifying What You Need To Change

You need to adapt your business to prosper in the market environment you can see over the next few years.

You can take your SWOT Analysis further and see:

  • The strengths that will be the foundation for your future success.
  • The weaknesses that you need to resolve so that they don’t become roadblocks to your plans.
  • The opportunities you believe are worth pursuing. Hopefully, you’ve identified more potential ways to profit than you need so you’ll need to be selective.
  • The threats that you need to take positive actions to defend against, the threats that you may need a contingency plan ready, just in case and the threats that you want to monitor.

6 Identifying How You Change And When

I’m not a big believer in huge, detailed business plans because they get out of date too quickly but you do need clarity on the early steps and the likely priority of actions.

For example, if you decide that there is a big opportunity worth pursuing with one of the products you sell, you need a marketing plan that forces you to clarify your intentions and objectives and think through how you can be successful.

If you decide that one of your weaknesses is that your products are too similar to your competitors, you need to investigate how you can differentiate successfully and cost effectively. This means looking at what customers really want and especially at any unmet needs or unresolved frustrations together with reviewing what competitors offer.

I realise this sounds vague but each business owner and business has its own issues to resolve.

How I Can Help You To Get Unstuck

If you and your business is based in the UK, I offer a free 60 minute Business SOS (Second Opinion Session) where we can talk through your situation.

Just email me at paul@plancs.co.uk and tell me a bit about your business and why you feel stuck.

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