Big mistakes small-business owners should avoid


I often say that I got my MBA the hard way, by starting and losing a few businesses. Believe me, it was also more expensive than any Ivy League MBA!

When speaking to other entrepreneurs, I discovered that the mistakes I made were far from unique, but I wish I’d had the benefit of someone else’s wisdom beforehand.

If you are a start-up or in the ideas phase, check yourself against this list of don’ts to give your business, and yourself, a head start:

1 Don’t do something you love

I love reading … of course, I can make a bookshop work!

Experience? Trade contacts? Knowledge of the market?

We are told to follow our dreams and do something we love, but that’s not always feasible. It may be more practical to do something that you are good at, that you are interested in ... especially something that other people are prepared to pay for. Play to your strengths, learn and gain expertise, but don't assume that a passion is necessarily a good business idea. (It’s equally important not to do something you hate!)

2 Don’t skip the business plan

'Chance favours the prepared mind. The more you practice, the luckier you become.' – Richard Branson

Taking the time and effort to do your homework in terms of researching your product, supply chain, market, distribution channels, financing and profit margins may seem tedious and an exercise in guesswork. But guess what ... it’s better to find out how much you don’t know before you start the business.

3 Don’t partner with the wrong people

Saverin and Zuckerberg, Clark and Rockefeller, Murdoch and Lightoller …  were all partnerships that foundered because of a lack of trust and different visions.

People are at the heart of any business. Developing healthy relationships with your partners built on trust and open communication is essential. Family and friends can be great in business, but they can also blur the lines or become toxic.

Don’t assume that people have the same values, ideology, emotional intelligence, work ethic, etc.

4 Don’t think small

'Make no small plans for they have no power to stir the soul.' – Niccolo Machiavelli

Too many people aim to be ‘just a …’. If you do not aspire to be more than just another baker, stylist, designer or builder, then it’s likely that that’s all you will achieve – and even that is doubtful in a highly competitive market.

Instead of asking yourself what you can do with the little resources you have, ask yourself what it is that you need to realise your goals.  

5 Don’t be stubborn

'Most great people have attained their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure.' —Napoleon Hill

While tenacity is a great characteristic, stubbornness is its ugly sister. It takes a strong person to admit that their idea isn’t working. Too often we hold onto a business or an idea to the point that we suffer financially and emotionally far more than what we would, had we faced the truth earlier. If failure is on the cards, fail fast. Limit the damage, learn the lessons, and start again.

6 Don’t try to do it all

Under-capitalisation and a fear to delegate are two factors that play into the common belief by entrepreneurs that they must do it all. This may be true in the early stages, but the sooner we can bring in a support team, the better. If we spend our days focusing on the ever-growing ‘to-do’ list, it means there is no time or energy left to focus on the business. Trying to do it all means we fail to look up, strategise and adapt where necessary.

7 Don’t ignore the competition

Many small businesses have failed because a larger business opened down the street or because they failed to keep up with technology changes.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Covid-19 pandemic have completely changed how customers shop, meaning we have to be agile and responsive so that we can adapt to future changes. Picture this: A grocery packing warehouse in the UK has 1 000 robots packing across an area the size of seven football fields. Online shopping is now on a scale that most South Africans can't begin to imagine, and we must be able to operate in the same world.

8 Don’t forget the numbers

Accurate record-keeping, detailed budgeting and account reconciliation are often the stuff that give business owners nightmares. We procrastinate and ignore it until suddenly there’s not enough cash in the till. The numbers tell a story, and we are wise to listen to it! 

9 Don’t get complacent

Providing an excellent, personalised and pleasurable service experience is the one area in which small businesses can usually distinguish themselves … and yet, so many don’t. Concentrate on making your customers feel good, and give them a reason to choose you, even though your larger competitor is cheaper, quicker or better known.

Mistakes are a fact of life, but take the time to make smaller ones in your business!

'No matter how many mistakes you make or how slow you progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying.'― Tony Robbins

By Janet Askew

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