Four Strategies for Startups to Finish the Year Strong

Opinion

It’s that time of the year again. While many are looking forward to the holiday season and counting down to the end of the year, businesses are engaged in the planning process for next year. No matter the size of your business, now is a great time to reflect on the past year, evaluate what went right or wrong, and incorporate the learnings into the plan for the coming year. Doing this now can help you end the year strong, and get a head start on year 2016.

With that end in mind, here are four best practices that can serve as a guide:

1. Evaluate the Successes and Lessons of the Year Gone By

Conducting an annual post-mortem can offer great insight and clarity. Spend time assessing what your business was able to accomplish over the last year. Where did you perform well? What factors or external market conditions contributed to that outcome? What could you have done better? What do you want to do differently in the coming year?

Tap into the information you’ve accumulated over the last 12 months – be it the data you have around your revenue or operating expenses, customer and sales information, or insights from your marketing programs. Analyze this data to help identify which business strategies worked and which didn’t, and why. It is important to involve your employees in this retrospective analysis because they’re the ones out in the field interacting with customers and executing business processes. Their feedback is invaluable in understanding where and why the organization has succeeded – or failed. Additionally you will most likely determine that you don’t have all the information you need. Use this process to reassess what data you truly need. However, be careful and always consider the cost of capturing the data against the value to the organization.

Reach out to your customers as well, whether through a survey or a personal phone call. Understand how they are using your products and services. Get their direct feedback on what they like and what can be improved. Create pathways to ensure this feedback reaches the appropriate internal stakeholders. While everyone in the organization may be focused on serving your customers better, be sure your employees each understand their unique role. At MetricStream, we use the RACI matrix to support accountability and ownership.

Last, but certainly not least, get your books in order. Review your financials to ensure everything is accurate. Double check that you’ve billed customers accurately, and received all payments owed to you. Encourage your employees to get their expense reports submitted on time, and follow up on any outstanding invoices with your vendors.

2. Plan Ahead for Reduced Resources

With the holiday season just around the corner, many employees will start to request time off. How do you ensure “business as usual,” drive customer delight, and still meet tight end-of-year deadlines with fewer resources?

First, prioritize your deliverables and then tackle them. It is critical that everyone understand the deadlines at hand, that you have an inventory of your available resources, and are able to delegate responsibilities accordingly. Equally important, don’t commit to a project or a timeline you know is not achievable based on any known resource constraints.

Second, plan ahead. Ensure that colleagues who are out of the office have identified team members who are accountable in their absence, especially if they will be unreachable by phone or e-mail. If you think you will need to bring in extra support, or outsource key functions, ensure it is part of your budget and end of year planning discussions.

Third, when it comes to your employees, and especially those who will be putting in long hours during the holiday season, help keep the morale high. Some businesses host memorable holiday parties to celebrate their employees. Others offer overtime payments or end of year bonus incentives. But sometimes, it’s the little things that count – like taking the time to give feedback and praise. Helping employees understand the role of their contribution in the overall success of the project and the company is important, all year round.

3. Set Expectations for the Next Year

In 2014, Alex Turnbull, CEO and founder of customer support startup Groove, shared his company’s 12-month growth strategy. Their ambitious goal was to have 5,000 new paying customers in one year. To accomplish that, they established a clear business plan, including specific strategies around blogging, building communities, and improving their product.

Twelve months later, the company admitted that although they hadn’t been able to meet their ambitious target, the process of clear goal-setting, well-communicated strategies, and sound execution enabled them to accomplish a whole lot in one year – 2,000 new customers, a stronger product, and a steady revenue stream. That’s a lot to be proud of.

As you look ahead, it is also important to review your organization’s goals and financial plan for the next 12 months, including budgets for headcount, sales, marketing, and IT. Along these lines, also think about how you can leverage existing resources better or more fully – such as deepening your relationships with partners who can help you reach new customers, or serve your existing customers better.

Your employees are your biggest assets, so also be sure to revisit your firm’s recruitment and retention plans. Brainstorm new ways for the organization to broaden its network to ensure you are hiring from the most qualified and diverse talent base. Also, don’t forget to invest in your existing employees. For example, every year, MetricStream hosts an annual Sales Kick Off, where hundreds of our sales leaders convene for an intensive week-long series of workshops and training programs around innovation, teamwork, and customer focus. Think about your own employees and the skills they need to be successful over the next year. What training or learning opportunities can you provide? If your industry doesn’t have an existing community or ample learning opportunities, how can your organization help fill the gap? That’s exactly what we did over a decade ago with ComplianceOnline.com, which has since grown to become one of the world’s leading GRC training and certification portals.

4. Clearly Communicate Business Objectives and Priorities

Making everyone aware of the company’s goals each year is critical. To that end, many organizations, including Google, use the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) system, pioneered by Intel. It’s a proven management technique that allows the company’s overarching objectives to roll down across the enterprise into smaller, measurable objectives and results. This helps ensure everyone is on the same page. So, if the company’s overarching objective is to acquire 10 customers by the end of next year, Marketing will focus on generating new leads, Sales will focus on closing deals, Product Development will focus on designing or enhancing a product that customers want, and Services will focus on going the extra mile to ensure customer delight and satisfaction.

The key throughout this entire process is effective communication. Develop objectives that are clear and measurable, and communicate regularly and consistently. Communication with the board is also critical as you plan for the next year. Clearly articulate how your objectives and plan will translate into shareholder value. Be transparent, and don’t be afraid to ask the board for help or advice. Raise the three or four things that the company has identified as potential risks, and encourage the board to weigh in with their perspective. Proactive and transparent discussions like this are critical to resolving challenges as well as pursuing new opportunities for growth.

Especially towards the end of the year, it can feel as though everything around you is moving at a frenzied pace. The end of the year always proves to be a critical inflection point. As a leader in your organization, challenge yourself to take a pause to assess the past, and look ahead to the future. Have a plan. Know what your focus areas are for the next twelve months, prioritize key tasks, and align your resources and your team. And then go out and execute. The companies that do well, plan well.

Shellye Archambeau is CEO of MetricStream, a Palo Alto, CA-based company offering governance, risk, compliance, and quality management solutions to enterprises in the pharmaceutical, medical device, high tech manufacturing, energy, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, food and beverage, and automotive industries. Follow @metricstream

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