Training programmes for owners of small to medium enterprises have just about become as commonplace as Starbucks in the US: one on every corner. Actually to be precise, almost everyone in the US lives within 161kms of a Starbucks. (There’s a fun fact to pull out at awkward networking events when you’re done with the weather, the sailing and the economy.)
Back to the business training, there are more services of this type around today than ever before. We can go to a free seminar run by our local bank/accountant/tertiary institution/economic development agency this week on marketing, next week we can learn about HR, the week after financial management. We can learn how to do spreadsheets in Excel, how to conduct employee disciplinary procedures, how to get the most out of social media, how to create a ‘brand’. It’s all there for us, everything we need to learn in order for us to run our businesses better. So why isn’t New Zealand’s abysmal small to medium enterprise survival rate improving? Despite this abundance of information being right at our fingertips for a number of years now, the statistics being bandied about continue to suggest up to 50% of SMEs fail within the first five years of being in business. How is this? At what point do we stop and wonder what it is we are missing? All this training available and still there are more SME deaths than births. Something’s obviously not right here. And don’t blame the economy. According to HorizonPoll research, every second person over the age of 18 in New Zealand now has a smartphone. Don’t tell me there’s no money out there.
Where are we going wrong? We’re telling SME owners they can do everything themselves and we’re trying to teach them how to do it. We have this culture in New Zealand where we think we will save money by doing everything ourselves, from producing the product or service we sell, to calculating the GST and everything in between. Fun fact no. 2: we can’t. There is not a human on this earth who is capable of performing every task to the standards required for the business to remain profitable long-term. And why would we want to? A workshop owner no more wants to spend his work-time designing an advertising campaign than a graphic designer wants to be figuring out how come the IRD keep sending overdue notices for PAYE he paid four months ago.
Here’s a question: how did we become this way? Was there not a time when we worked together, me performing the tasks I’m really good at, you performing the tasks you’re really good at, and the both of us trading services as needed in order to achieve our goals? This country (or any country) could not have been settled without the early pioneers’ solidarity, cooperation, and trust in each other. Yet now we seem to have this idea that we can do everything for ourselves to save some money so that our businesses can perform better. The words on paper in that sentence alone just don’t seem to make sense.
Here’s an idea. Oh yes, by the way, golden rule: if you’re going to criticise something, always have an idea for improvement. It doesn’t have to be ‘the’ idea, but do at least have ‘an’ idea. Instead of focusing our efforts on teaching SME owners how to do everything themselves (file that idea under “Things that actually are impossible”), help them to build the team they need in order to ensure that every single thing that needs doing in that business is getting done the best it can be done by people who are passionate about whatever part they are doing, from producing the product or service, to marketing it, to managing the finances. Phew. That was some sentence. And some idea. “Yes but...” I hear you say. “Yes but that costs money that I don’t have.” “Yes but I actually can do everything and I know my business better than anyone so I should be the one to do it.” “Yes but...”
We can “Yes but...” as much as we want. The fact is trying to do everything ourselves doesn’t work. The fact is that when it’s a matter of survival (as it was for the pioneers), we find a way. If your business means that much to you, if you are absolutely and entirely passionate about what it is you do, the only way to make sure it not only survives, but is profitable long-term, is for you to focus on what you’re passionate about and get other passionate people to do the bits you’re not so hot on. Starbucks was founded by a team of three guys with $8,000 cash between them. We don’t need more training. We just need an environment where we can develop cooperation and trust in order for us to build the teams we need to provide us with a greater chance of business survival. Somewhere with great coffee sounds like a start...
Annette Kendall lives on a sheep and beef farm in the Tararua District and is currently undertaking research into the development of innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration within rural communities.