How to manage an agile online business
- May 25, 2017 | Patrick Foster
Running an online business is a challenge on the best of days. But when WordPress is acting up, PayPal decides to crash, and it’s time to file your sales tax, you may find your patience in particularly short supply. To enjoy managing your business more, why not adopt a more agile approach?
Agile is a term borrowed from software development. Agile methodologies place an emphasis on adaptive planning and continuous improvement; it’s all about having rapid and flexible systems. But agile isn’t just for software developers — it’s a mindset that works for a range of businesses. By investing in your agility, you'll be able to cope with sudden change and uncertainty, and complete more projects on time.
Here are some strategies to help you manage an online business that’s agile and optimized for both performance and delivery.
Outsource — but be smart about it
The digital economy gives you a unique opportunity to outsource the parts of your business that take up unnecessary time, or aren’t the best use of your skill set. Consider how strategic outsourcing can help you scale and grow your business.
- Remember, you don’t always have to hire a physical team in-house. Outsourcing repetitive business tasks or administration work to virtual teams can save you valuable time. A virtual assistant (VA) can manage your inbox, direct customer calls, coordinate social media advertising, and complete a whole host of routine business tasks. Be more agile with how you manage staffing to bring your overheads down — use virtual teams and freelancers as part of your strategy.
- Using digital outsourcing services like Upwork is the perfect way to grow your business, and you don’t have to wait until you build up loads of capital — most of these services are pay-as-you-go with no long-term commitments. You only pay for people when you need them. Be careful about sharing sensitive business details with people you’ve never met; share information on a need-to-know basis, and sign nondisclosure agreements when necessary.
- Outsource business processes that are unnecessarily taking up your time through software and automation. You can simplify plenty of business processes, from automated client and customer emails, to self-repeating invoices. A tool like Avalara will even help automate your sales tax process, saving you valuable time and money; sales tax can be a huge headache for brands that sell across states.
- Before you invest in any outsourcing tool, make sure you read the user reviews, and gauge how well they integrate with your existing software ecosystem. Avalara, for example, integrates with the popular accounting app Xero, helping you manage your end-of-year tax reporting and accounts in a much faster and integrated way. Always invest in reputable tools with good service and client records. Instead of paying out for loads of small suppliers, try to consolidate them into fewer bigger ones. Subscription fees all add up, so make the most of them!
Don’t get stuck on perfection
Agility is all about getting to market fast with an iteration of your product or service, then refining it in accordance with market response. Let your customers be your product development team (but that’s not an excuse to annoy them with subpar products). Get things moving fast and listen to feedback, rather than sitting on an idea until you get things “just right.”
This is exactly how Dropbox started: with just a simple explainer video and a call to join their email list. By the time they launched, they had created a hype and built a healthy email audience. It’s a great example of how it’s important to find your customer base fast, rather than keep things to yourself.
- Can you launch with an MVP (minimum viable product)? It might seem crazy at first, but that initial customer feedback is invaluable and may set you on a completely new, better path.
- Focus on developing a fast route to market. If you can get out there with a beta product and start building a loyal customer base, you'll build from an incredibly strong position.
- Tap into an existing demand as much as you can, and push boundaries. Think about new solutions to old problems, rather than solutions to things no one recognizes as problems.
Learn from others
The online world is full of success stories and failures — learn from other people’s mistakes in order to move faster. Attend webinars, join mastermind groups, and interview founders to distill years of solid online advice into your business plan.
Facebook groups are a fantastic place for subtle market research, surveys, and seeding your business ideas. They're also a great way to grow your social followers on other accounts, like Instagram, through follower threads.
Roman Khan and Jennifer Chong established a luxury brand using the Shopify online store tool, with funding they crowdsourced through Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Their commitment to clean and simple design principles and quality provenance positioned them for crowdfunding success when they launched Linjer. By being honest and transparent with their audience about their brand ethics and sticking to a consistent aesthetic, they were able to galvanize others around their business goal.
It’s a great example of how crowdfunding can work for product-based businesses, not just those that focus on ideas. Their story also shows how a website creation tool that allows you to build an entire store using movable templates lets product designers get closer to the consumer without the expense of a custom website build. Crowdfunding and doing things for yourself can set you up with a profitable business with minimal debt and overhead.
More tips on successful founder crowdfunding.
Hire a good team, then step out of the way. You won’t be able to scale and grow if you insist on doing everything yourself. It’s really important to hire good people you can trust.
- Don’t fall into the trap of getting burnout because you’re checking every tweet and piece of content that goes out. Implement guidelines and tone-of-voice documents so you can pass content production to a dedicated team. A big part of being able to scale is setting expectations, then giving the task to someone else.
- Know the value of a good team. Whether you have staff in the next room, or on the other side of the world, make sure you invest time in HR and staffing. From recruitment and training to rewards and promotion, you have to keep digital staff happy so they don’t go elsewhere.
Think five years ahead
In digital, you need to be innovative just to ensure you still have a business in a few years’ time. Things change fast on the web — you can’t afford to get complacent for one minute. Make sure you spend enough time on research and development (R&D).
- Invest in R&D immediately and work on your future today. Buy the latest tech, explore new platforms, read voraciously, interact with social influencers — start somewhere, even if it’s just a tiny design budget for some virtual reality (VR) experimentation. Through research and exploration, you may find profitable niches you weren’t aware of yet (and they are likely to be less saturated).
- Even if you’re still small, think about embedding a team culture now so that when you do grow, you have a structured and helpful framework already in place.
- Want to grow aggressively? Fast growth has its own challenges, from staffing to financials and taxes. Make sure your growth plan is sustainable and you focus on strategies that have longevity.
Some of your most treasured business assets are the contact details that people share with you. Whether it’s a promotional opportunity, or a lead for some potential new business, you have to learn how to pitch your business to a wide range of people. Being liked and respected is the easiest way to score new business.
- It's crucial to build an email list from day one, otherwise you'll have no one to talk to. Don’t grow a list to mindlessly broadcast to people; build a list because you have lots of value to share.
- Building a list starts with focusing on your core messaging and value propositions. Think about how you'll incentivize people to sign up. And once you have them, treat people like the precious commodity they are. Don’t spam them with emails they don’t want to read.
- Start networking and brand building close to home: leverage the people you are already speaking to for content partnerships and co-marketing.
- Relationships depend on content agility: you need to be able to integrate feedback and other people’s stories into your content plan. A structure that's too rigid will make your content seem overly corporate and bland.
Integrate and create processes
There is often an easier way to do things. Learn how to document your business and create processes, rather than just “winging it.” Processes will keep your business agile and versatile.
- Invest in airtight processes: they are the secret to a successful and scalable business model. (It’s something Michael Gerber highlights in his best-seller The E Myth). Map out every part of your business so you can hand most of it over if needed. Creating process documentation can take some effort, but it will save you so much time and grief in the long run.
- The best online tools and platforms talk to each other: search for solutions that integrate in order to build processes that will stand the test of time. There is nothing worse than designing a system that falls apart as you grow and start to introduce more complexity into the mix.
- Empower yourself with more knowledge about available platforms and tools: speak to the support team and try to get maximum value from all the tools you pay for.
Agility is a great way to ensure that your business runs on lean principles, allowing you to grow in the right direction. Whether it’s investing in tools, outsourcing, or MVP, embrace the power of agile. Agility is also about successful collaboration. Get different departments talking to each other, and make sure every part of your business remains flexible and primed for growth. The best businesses are the ones that integrate financials with company culture. Don’t let your financial future suffer because you looked the other way — always keep the business bottom line in sight. Shoot for a business that operates with transparency on all levels. What does agile look like to you right now?