5 Pillars for a Better Business

It’s not just about the money. Here’s how embracing five principles can help you manage both product and people.

5 Pillars for a Better Business - Apr/May 2024

Crafting a winning strategy should be every business leader’s goal. Yet transforming larger-than-life ideas into concrete steps is often easier said than done, and figuring out where to begin can be daunting. Business strategies are built upon five different pillars: product or service, marketing, finance, management and operations. If you’re not sure about your firm’s position on each of these pillars, we can help. In this article we’ll dive into each one to help you better understand where your business currently stands, with advice from Victoria-area entrepreneurs. 

Does Your Product or Service Answer a Need?

Successful businesses have a strong focus, a raison d’être, and offer a product or service that supports it.

For example, Victoria-based cosmetics manufacturer Elate Cosmetics has a specific goal and solves a problem. “Every beauty [company] wants you to buy more, more, more,” says founder and CEO Melodie Reynolds. “That creates a cycle of overconsumption that ultimately ends up as extra waste.” In Canada alone, some 773 million plastic cosmetic and personal-care product containers end up in landfills every year, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. 

To help remedy that problem, Elate packages cosmetics using 95 per cent reusable, recyclable or plantable packaging. It has helped save over 697,000 packages from landfills. “I started this business in 2014 to disrupt the status quo,” says Reynolds. “Now sustainable beauty is more mainstream, and companies like mine are gaining traction.” 

Beyond solving a problem, it’s important that you care about your business. “If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, you’re not going to do it well,” says Al Hasham, owner of Victoria-based courier company Maximum Express and home furnishings store Max Furniture. “Whether it’s a product or a service, you’ll be able to sell that well because you yourself believe in it, and it’s something that you’re passionate about.”

Marketing Matters Now More Than Ever

Entrepreneurs can’t expect to grow their business if nobody knows it exists. That’s why marketing is crucial to success. 

“[Marketing] shapes what kind of customers you’ll attract, how people perceive your business and what actions they’ll take to engage with you,” says Amanda Wilson, co-founder of marketing, communications and community-engagement agency Spark Strategic Group.

Having worked with businesses to hone their marketing strategies, Wilson knows well the mistakes entrepreneurs make. The most common is thinking about marketing as a risk, not an investment. “They’ll pour their money and resources into product and service and staff, but leave marketing until last, and think a social media campaign will do the trick,” she says. “It won’t — you need to put as much thought, time and money into marketing as you do into developing your product or service.”

Chances are, you’ll know when your marketing efforts aren’t working. “You’ll see stagnation across the board and a lack of conversion,” says Wilson. “Your sales won’t go up, your web traffic will stay flat or decrease. Or, if traffic increases, you won’t see a corresponding lift in calls, visits or sales.”

If your marketing strategy isn’t working, and you can’t figure out why, consider a brand audit — a process whereby an outside expert looks for kinks in everything from management to marketing.  “Usually that includes surveying key staff and stakeholders, who often provide valuable insights into how customers really feel about your business and what changes need to be made,” says Wilson.

Finance by the Numbers

Finance refers to the body of funds and credit on a business’s books. Finance is required for purchasing assets, goods, raw materials and also allows companies to purchase these out of their immediate reach. Thus a solid financial plan is critical to ensuring profit. 

Hasham used to mentor entrepreneurs on a local TV show similar to Dragon’s Den. The first thing he would ask them was whether they were making money. Many of them, including entrepreneurs who had been in business for a decade, simply didn’t know. Without an understanding of your finances on a level as basic as that, building a profitable, stable business can be difficult.

Beyond profit, “you have a fiduciary duty to make sure that you’re paying your taxes correctly, that you’re paying your people correctly,” says Blaise McDonald, owner/operator of MAC Island Construction. “You need to understand what your labour burden is, what your costs are, if you’re charging enough — you owe that to the people who are depending on you for a living.”

Finances should be built into your business plan, but if you’re having trouble managing them, speak regularly with a financial adviser to help unscramble things. Hiring an accountant to keep your books and, depending on the size of your business, a financial controller or a chief financial officer is also worth considering.

What Makes a Good Manager?

Simply: Manage as you would be managed. Management is about getting things done through others — a crucial part of business success. Structurally, management depends on the size of the business and industry. That said, good managers are good managers, no matter what.

As a manager, give your team credit for successes and take responsibility for failures. Ask for feedback, acknowledge your blindspots and admit that your team may know better than you do. If so, consider yourself lucky.

Promote your company’s values (such as diversity, sustainability, transparency, respect and teamwork). McDonald, for example, encourages integrity above all. He says that helps his team know that honesty and ethical decision-making are valued. Values like these can also attract like-minded employees and decrease the time you spend helping your team make decisions.

“Leadership is earned, not bestowed,” says McDonald, and thatʼs why you should embrace learning opportunities. Active listening, time management, adaptability, public speaking, conflict resolution, delegation, emotional intelligence, decision-making, mentoring — no matter your level of managerial experience, there are always areas to improve. Consider shoring up your skills by registering for courses, finding a mentor or hiring team members with more experience than you. 

You can’t see into the future, but you can be adaptable, which can make dealing with unforeseen circumstances easier if/when they arise. “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, reflect on what went wrong and make changes for next time — how fast you can do that [will determine] how successful you’re going to be,” says McDonald. 

Operations: Managing the Day-to-Day 

As with management, operations — the day-to-day tasks involved in delivering your product or service — differ from company to company. Employees, however, are the ones who execute daily operations. That’s why building a solid team is important.

One way to start thinking about team-building is by assessing your strengths and shortfalls. “Building a business, you absolutely have to be able to count on other people who are able to shore up your weaknesses,” says Reynolds. That can help ensure you build a team with unique skills and viewpoints.

Once you’ve built a team, encourage open communication. Your team members may have insights into your day-to-day operations that you don’t. For example, Wilson has learned the most about businesses from talking to their staff. “They’re the real world expression … of the business’s brand — so they’re best equipped to point out challenges, blocks and missed opportunities,” she says. If, instead, you disincentivize communication, your team may avoid coming to you when things aren’t working, which can make them feel like you don’t care about their concerns and negatively affect your business.

If you’re not going to manage your team, consider hiring an operations manager. A good one will look for places to improve business processes and hire, train and supervise team members so you can focus on the bigger picture. 

The Secret Sauce: Holistic Thinking

A holistic business approach is a strategy that connects every department in a business to help them work as one team, to achieve an overarching goal. The five pillars don’t just support your business, “They support one another,” says Hasham. “If one is not working, then you’re in trouble.” If you think holistically about the pillars, and take each one into account, you can dramatically improve your odds of success.