A realtor once told me that “curb appeal matters, but foundations matter more.” I think that’s sound advice for people buying and selling property, but also for anyone working in any business.
If you’ve ever tried to sell a home, you’ve probably heard the phrase “curb appeal.” That’s the idea that a home should look attractive from the street, not just when you’re roaming around the interior. If it’s appealing on the outside, potential buyers are more likely to want to come inside and take a look around.
But of course, having an outwardly-attractive house isn’t the only thing that’s important. A building needs to be functional, it needs to be sturdy, and it needs to be priced appropriately. And if those things aren’t done, the curb appeal probably doesn’t matter at all.
This is a big issue in business as well. I hear statements all the time from employees and small business owners that show a focus on outward appearance without any awareness of the fundamentals. For example, imagine a company where people are saying things like:
“We should redesign our logo, it’s getting outdated.”
“We need to get business cards for more of our internal employees.”
“Let’s do competitive research to find out more about other providers in our market!”
Those might seem like exciting, forward-looking ideas. But imagine them at a company which also has people saying one of the following:
“We have cashflow problems and are constantly delaying paying our bills.”
“We have high turnover; our employees keep leaving and we don’t know why.”
“We have no backups of our data or IT systems, and no security to protect our essential assets.”
It might seem like it’s important to balance these things. But in truth, it’s more important to do the fundamentals.
Here are the the four tasks that every company should be doing, in their order of priority:
1. Maintain ongoing marketing efforts to communicate value to current and potential customers.
2. Ensure adequate cashflow to pay current and immediate future expenses.
3. Have systems or resources in place to deliver on promises to customers (both current and those you’ll have in the immediate future.)
4. Invest in growth through training, consulting, strategic planning, market research, or other speculative efforts.
All of these are important, and it should be no surprise that long-term, relatively high-cost investments should be the lowest on the list. Those aren’t nearly as important as keeping the lights on. But the order of the tasks might surprise you. Why is “maintaining ongoing marketing efforts” right at the top?
Always be Marketing, No Matter What
The reason is that if you’re not doing the type of work you have been doing to let current and potential customers know you are in business, you’re not going to have customers for long. That’s what marketing is: letting the marketplace know what you’re up to as a business. This doesn’t need to be expensive. It might be as simple as making sure the lighted sign is still working. It may be getting your email newsletter sent out on a regular basis. It might be consistent posts on social media. Or it might just be reaching out to your current clients to check in and see how they are doing.
If you don’t do this, you might continue to make money for a little while. But you’re going to go under eventually because you’ll have no market presence and no customers, and you won’t realize why until it’s too late. Marketing takes time to have an effect, so you have to always, always, always keep doing it.
Cashflow: Money in the Bank, Communication You Have, Promises You Keep
You’ve got to have cash on hand to pay your bills. Too many business owners don’t watch their cashflow. This doesn’t necessarily mean always having months or years of expenses saved up. Work with your accountant to see if you should use credit. But it means you have to have a plan, and you have to be in communication with your vendors, and you need to keep your promises. And if the problem is how quickly the money comes in, recognize that there are lots of ways to get paid sooner.
Delivering To Customers: Systems and Resources
Every business provides different kinds of products and services, but all of them need to have systems and resources in place to deliver. If that’s employees, you must be sufficiently staffed. You must ensure your team members are satisfied, qualified, and motivated. If it’s vendors whose services you are reselling, make sure they are healthy. And don’t be afraid to make a change if you must: everyone is replaceable, including you.
Planning for the Future
Learning new skills, developing new strategies and working with outside experts are all the kinds of things you should do once you get your house in order. Or, if you can’t figure out how to do so, it might be time to ask for help from some outside experts. But in general, long term thinking needs to be addressed after you’ve got the foundation resolved. Then you can focus on curb appeal, adding value, and growing the business.
Good luck! And remember: right the ship before you chart the course.