A guy I used to work with in public safety, Steve Mattoon, used to say, “In a critical situation, we do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”  That statement is as true in law enforcement and the military as it is in running a small business.   I remember a story told during my days in the law enforcement academy, detailing the specifics of a law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty.  This was a veteran officer, one that had had many days out on the range practicing and training.  Following a shootout with a suspect, he was fatally injured.  When first responders arrived at his side, they found clutched in his hand brass shell casings from the rounds he had discharged.  As the investigation into the incident progressed, it was determined that the training he had received through the years on the range was that of picking up his brass each time he emptied his weapon.  Thus, in the actual firefight with a suspect, he had collected his brass once his weapon was empty. This act had nothing to do with the skill of the officer, but more reflected on the type of training received through years on the firing range.

In my experience of owning a small business over the past 20+ years, I have found that, in many cases, when faced with a challenging decision or planning a major investment, there was a tendency to fall back on the way decisions had been made in the past.  Coming from a military and corporate healthcare background, I felt pretty confident in the way I made decisions:  Take in the information, assess the potential options, select the one that showed the most promise and move forward.

What I have found through my years at The University of Georgia SBDC, consulting clients across a wide range of industries and backgrounds, is that what seems like the best path forward may be based on inaccurate assessments or incomplete assumptions, many times drawn from the prior experiences we have had in the past.  When faced with really difficult decisions in business, those that require us to respond dramatically and quickly, in those critical situations, we may not choose the best business decision, but make the decision on the way our brain has been trained to respond through prior learning.  If that is the case, that we are not making the best, the optimal business decision, then how do we develop the ability to improve our business decision-making?  The Association for Strategic Planning, in their argument to support professional certification, puts it like this, “Most of us learn on the job.  When we learn this way, we grab the pieces of the puzzle that will solve our challenges quickly.  But we only grab a piece of the puzzle.  How do we learn that the rest of the puzzle may be more relevant than the piece you grabbed just to get you through?”

In the May 1983 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Neil Churchill and Virginia Lewis explored The Five Stages of Small Business Growth. The two authors go into extensive detail through their research into small business stages of the business life cycle and how their findings related to small business development and growth.  In my experience through working with some of my colleagues at the UGA SBDC, and using a more simplified version, I believe one can separate the life cycle of a small business into four phases, each defined by the needs of the business within each phase.  Defining the needs of the business owner (and the business) at each of these stages then gives insight into the type of training needed to grow and to be prepared for the challenges faced in the next phase.  These four phases are:  Foundation, Stabilization, Growth and Maximization.

Foundation is that point in a business when a business owner needs to build a strong foundation for their business. The owner could just be about to start their business or could have been operating their enterprise for 5, 10, 15 years or more, though had never really laid a strong foundation for their business.  The Stabilization phase is that point in the business life cycle where the business owner is working to develop a consistent profit stream and is identifying and developing systems and processes to help the business run more efficiently in preparation for growth.  During the Growth phase, the business is taking off, both in revenue and personnel growth.  No longer can the business be handled by the owner themselves.  The scale of operations and the time requirements demand a team approach.  As growth continues, the business owner then looks toward Maximization, maximizing the profits/value of the business and working toward their exit strategy.

In accepting that there are various stages in a small business life cycle, one can then determine, based on the volume of experience out there, the training needs required to prepare one to move from one phase to the next, a Business Training Continuum, if you will.  So, if we accept that these are some normalized phases of growth based on the needs of the business at various stages of the business life, then business training can be aligned to help the business owner and business prepare for those needs, creating a pathway of training from the start of a business to the end of a business, the exit of the owner and the profit they will be able to achieve at that point.  Within The University of Georgia SBDC, we are doing just that, developing training that coincides with the phase a business is in, helping train the business owner and leaders within their team, to prepare for the challenges to come.

Thus, Signature courses have been developed to address the needs of businesses at the respective stage they are in, within the life cycle.  Business owners have the freedom to choose the training courses needed to assist them and their team to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to move forward in their business.  StartSMART is thus not only a course for starting a business, but more, much more. This course provides value to not only pre-venture owners, but also those that have been in business for years, though now are looking to build a much stronger foundation to move to the next level.   A business owner graduating this course leaves with a written, well-developed business plan.  Where GrowSMART was the pinnacle of training for us for a number of years, it now becomes just one piece of the training continuum, helping business owners solidify their systems and processes, build a consistent profit stream, and stabilize and build the infrastructure within their business for the growth that is coming.  Follow-on models provide a framework for additional training, not only for the owner, but also the key leaders of the business, to help provide the training they need to build a stronger growth model for the business within specific operational areas of the business.  Additional training incorporates collections of courses that helps a business owner prepare to exit the business and maximize their profits in the process.

Michael Gerber, in his book, The E-Myth Revisited, relates the following, the Fatal Assumption, as he calls it:  “If you understand the technical work of a business, you understand a business that does that technical work.”  For anyone that has built a successful business, you realize that so often, a business starts because someone is good at the technical work of the business.  As the business develops, though, and if it is to grow, the owner must become proficient in a much broader set of skills, those required to run a business successfully. So, the questions for you to consider are:  What phase of the business life cycle are you in – Foundation, Stabilization, Growth or Maximization?  Then, what are the training needs required for you and your team to satisfy the needs of the business for that phase and to prepare for the next one?  Finally, what training offerings will help you and your team strengthen yourselves and acquire the skills necessary to move on to the next level?  Consider the training provided by The University of Georgia SBDC as one element to your preparation.  At the end of the day, as you face the battles you do as a business owner and make the myriad of decisions needed to survive in today’s economy, don’t be the one that is found with brass clutched in their hand from training that didn’t prepare for the demands required to grow.

Until next time…

By Mark Lupo, MBCP