Let’s first sum up our collective feelings regarding 2018
Now looking to 2019 - The fallout of messy Brexit negotiations, US–China Trade Tariffs, slumping global stock markets, an apparent housing slowdown here in the US, privacy breaches on Facebook, the current US government shutdown—these are just a sampling of the major 2018 events that seem to have caused fits and uncertainty for B2B providers and customers. By in large macro-level events like these are out of our hands.
History has shown that through every slump or downturn on the macro-economic scale, fortunes are, and can still be, made by scrappy entrepreneurs. Thus, the trick becomes to focus on what we can control. Inside our businesses and communities we can set the stage to capitalize on changing tastes, new market dynamics, and advances in technology.
Companies react to downturns in different ways. Manufacturers typically ride out an economic rough patch by dumping poorly performing products and laying off workers. Lifestyle/luxury firms typically increase their investment in marketing and advertising to make the most of a dwindling supply of ready buyers. Some make bets to lock in low pricing for consumables well in advance. Take Southwest Airlines, for example: in the mid 2000’s they used a strategy of fuel hedging that locked in low future prices that allowed them to offer competitive fares and free checked bags while every other airline scrambled to adjust to $120 a barrel oil prices.
So what do we need in our back pocket as we head into 2019, the world in an uncertain state, but our drive stronger than ever? We need to be smart with our resources. We need to embrace the knowledge that even though our competition seems unbeatable, now might be the best time to strike. We need to — stick with me here — beat, or eat, the metaphorical elephant.
Your Competition Is Vulnerable
We’re the independent hackers — the perennial underdogs aiming to start a new business category or create and expand a niche within an existing one. Our competition is always bigger, always more established, and always better funded.
The juggernaut in your space seems invincible during the good times — their inertia alone may help them ride out any dip in sales or changing markets. However, that same inertia makes them very slow to respond quickly to changing environments. Their hefty size and scale is their greatest weakness in the context of warding off a scrappy startup like yours. Exploit this weakness to your advantage.
An elephant trudges along slowly through fog while a mouse, who might cover less ground initially, is unfazed. Don’t underestimate yourself if the future looks to be clouding up. Instead, seize it as an opportunity to be unfazed by the fog.
Speed, Agility, and Creativity are your weapons.
Flanking vs. Direct Attack
Do not make the mistake of wasting your precious resources (time and money) attacking your opponents head on.
Take a different, smarter approach by finding the aspect of your business category, or your competitors’ business focus, that is not being served effectively by existing solutions. Trust me, it exists — and it’s your first ticket to success. Your approach in 2019 should be to fill that space with your product or service and, most importantly, claim it with your positioning. How you communicate and position your solution in the competitive arena is vital to expanding your market share. Be smart here and take the time to well define that position.
If a buyer can make a side-by-side direct comparison of your offering with four others, the smaller or less recognizable players will likely lose that battle more often than not.
We’ve been providing WordPress hosting solutions for nearly 10yrs in the Managed WordPress channel we created. The market became saturated fairly quickly and to differentiate against the well-funded entrants - we elected to position as the high-touch, flexible, premium solution against their low-cost, high volume, one-size-fits-all model. The contrasts between us and them were made starkly clear and we prospered greatly in the less crowded premium service niche.
The key is to make sure you’re a part of the conversation, with a unique selling proposition (USP) that makes you stand out from your competitors.
Recently we announced, and are soon to launch a new application hosting service we are calling NorthStack. Here again we are staking our own unique identity away from the herd with a novel Serverless approach and pay-as-you-go billing model. Will it succeed? With all new concepts - time will tell.
Cash Flow and Net Profit > Revenue
To grow and prosper you first need to survive long enough to play the game.
Your cash flow is the money that moves in and out of your business, and you want to bring in more than you’re putting out to keep your bottom line, or net profit, in the black. Focus on this simple concept, hard as it may be to achieve, so you’re not distracted by revenue numbers that don’t account for expenses, giving you a false sense of success.
When we first started Pagely over a decade ago, we had to be profitable on the very first customer and on every customer after that. The reason being, we invented the Managed WordPress Hosting industry with $0 in the bank and no intention of seeking venture capital. Fundamentally, we could not afford to break even or lose money on customers. There simply was no money to burn.
We had a few stumbles here and there but we quickly figured out how to ensure that the growth of our customer base mirrored the growth of our gross and net profit lines. This allowed us to re-invest those profits back into the company to continue expanding.
We set a few best practices into place that we followed religiously. To sum those up into actionable ways you can do the same, take these things into account:
- Price your service/product based on ‘Value’ , experiment often
- Don’t overspend on “nice to haves”.
- Make small bets early, then increase bet size based on positive results
- Reinvest gains often
- Always maintain a cash cushion (cashflow)
- Track every penny until they become dollars, then track every dollar...
“Growth at all costs,” like the VC-backed companies practice, only works if you are literally burning money (hence the term burn-rate). Everyone else should carefully monitor cash flow and profit margins to build a pathway towards sustainability.
The key takeaway here? Create and run a profitable business first, then focus on scaling your revenue.
Focus on the Small Things
You’ve heard of this concept a hundred different ways, in many different forms like “the 80/20 rule,” or “customer delight.” At Pagely we call it “+1.”
The acknowledgement of a colleague’s efforts, the added UX detail, the touch of empathy in a customer interaction. By themselves these are small details that can easily be passed over. However, batch these small things together and they add up to drive your business, and most importantly, set you apart from your competition.
Doing the small things well for a period of time means you begin doing the larger things better, which leads to doing the big things best - your success compounds. This practice is an absolute competitive advantage.
How Do You Eat an Elephant?
Very early in my business career a business coach asked me an odd question: “How do you eat an elephant?” The intention of the question was for me to consider how, in business, we sometimes have to find a way to achieve what appears to be a massive and impossible goal. I am of course not condoning killing and eating a majestic elephant — it’s a simple analogy.
Most strategic business goals are daunting in size and scope, like an elephant is in relation to an average meal portion. They are defined on a company-wide or departmental level, with a goal-focused outcome that seems to ignore the myriad of smaller tasks needing attention along the way.
“Chunking” is the common approach to breaking a big goal down into smaller and more manageable sizes. Breaking things down to just the team or individual level, on a quarterly, weekly, or even daily basis. This is the correct, and often cited, advice for achieving large strategic goals.
After responding to my coach with various methods of chunking the consumption of such a massive meal into smaller achievable milestones, or assembling a team and workflow to process, package, and distribute…. he laughed, and said: “Stop. You are overthinking it. The answer here is: one bite at time.”
One bite, or in business — one step. That is the takeaway. To move your company in a direction towards a goal, you have to do it one step at time - regardless of what that step details. The first step may be setting the strategic goal. The second step may be chunking that goal down into smaller milestones. The next step may be assigning tasks and so on, to take dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individual steps.
Do not overly concern yourself with every possible future step; focus on the next 5 or 10 steps ahead of you and periodically check progress against the main mission. One step at a time and you’ll get there.
Never Compete on Price
If “low cost” is your value proposition, you’ve lost. Low cost plays only work at scale and there can only be one, maybe two, in any category. And honestly? Those most likely exist already, and probably dominate your category, so you really, really need to think again.
Up for a challenge? I implore you to raise your prices 30/50/100% right now. Price is one signal of value, and humans have been trained (thanks for that, marketing/advertising industry) to equate higher prices with better quality and value. If you do nothing else in 2019 to win, simply raise your prices right now. Your costs for acquiring customers (CACs) may be higher, but a higher average revenue per user (ARPU), and lifetime value (LTV) of those users, will more than make up for it.
You must, however, then focus on adding additional customer value to your product or service. Product features may add value for the customer, but beware of feature bloat and make absolutely sure that you are addressing customers’ specific needs or wants. Sometimes the additional value can be as small as a more actionable report, or as significant as staffing your support desk with more knowledgeable agents. Solve a real need for a customer and you can always justify a higher price.
Buckle Up for 2019
We’ve yet to see where 2019 will bring us. One thing is certain, however. Changes are on the horizon and we’ve got to roll with the punches as best as we know how. My hope here is that you’ll do as I have tried my best to do, and take the bull by the horns.
Adapt a few, if not all, of the strategies I’ve outlined here and you might see yourself getting ahead of the competition. Winning, even.
Ultimately, be confident in the value you offer as an entrepreneur and leader in your business or community. Understand that the future might be uncertain, but even with potential downturns in sight there is opportunity to come out on top. Recognize that what drove you to become an Indie Hacker is the same thing that will allow you to succeed in 2019, and I’ll be right there with you to see this year through.