An MPA grad shares tips for how to get your business past that pivotal 5-year milestone

Lolita D. Cleveland

After more than 15 years of working with small businesses on staff development and strategy implementation, Lolita Cleveland ’12 developed a clear picture of why nearly half close within 5 years: Founders don’t focus on creating a solid plan for their companies. That’s why she founded Open Hands Outreach Consulting Corporation in 2012, connecting business owners to training and resources. Here, the Alumni Ambassador leads business owners toward brighter beginnings.

Start with strategy. First, we need to define what you want for your organization. Is your goal to generate revenue? Land a certain number of clients? Then we discuss what kind of legal designation fits. Should you incorporate? Become an LLC? Finally, I ask about the biggest challenges you think you’ll face. Are you concerned about marketing and advertising? Lack of revenue? Once we answer those questions, we have the beginning of a solid plan.

Get techy. Most small businesses don’t start with many employees. Sometimes, it’s just one (often overwhelmed) person. But good time management, plus some free or inexpensive business tools, can keep you grounded. I frequently recommend scheduling software—such as Simply Appointments; financial tracking and accounting apps like OneReceipt or Mint; and low-cost marketing tools, such as YouTube, which allows you to easily embed videos in your website or LinkedIn page.

Never stop learning. Learning shouldn’t end with the completion of your degree. Always look for ways to increase your knowledge of your field and of general business practices, whether you are seeking a new certification or considering taking your business on a new path. Search on LinkedIn or Meetup for local business owner groups, attend conferences hosted by associations you aspire to be part of, and keep up with new information in trade publications. Expand on the professional development opportunities you discovered as a student and continue to unearth as a business owner.

Find a mentor. Every small business owner needs to bounce ideas off of someone, preferably a mentor or coach. I’ve owned my own business for a few years, and I still have a coach. Sometimes we talk daily, other times we just meet based on my needs. Finding and retaining adequate personal support is a huge benefit to any leader, no matter how much you think you already know.

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