Every idea, no matter how grand, starts in the head of a single person. And most businesses, no matter how large, started out the same way.
For small teams with big ambitions, the first step toward growth is establishing a stable, rich foundation of tools and talent. But time and resources are limited. And you can’t just think about immediate needs, either; the foundation you lay down must be fertile enough to foster growth and elastic enough to keep pace. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
In recognition of Small Business Week (April 29–May 5, 2018), the Evernote team linked up with Upwork, the global freelancing platform, to think through some of these issues. The result is a short ebook called Go for Growth: How to Scale Up Faster, a guide to trends, tools, and talent that growing businesses can take advantage of right now.
For the latest episode of our podcast, Taking Note, the authors of the ebook sat down to talk through what they’ve observed and shared some of their favorite tips.
Taking Note: S2 E3 — Growing a Small Business Takes Tools and Talent
Length: 49 minutes
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What are some of the common challenges and the pain points that you’re seeing right now across the small business landscape?
Rich Pearson, Upwork: I’ve talked to a lot of our small business customers. The most frequent challenge they cite is figuring out how to grow cost-effectively while remaining lean. These aren’t companies that have a ton of budget or a whole lot of employees, so as a small business, you’re always seeking to grow in a smart way.
This is one of the reasons why small businesses are embracing flexible work arrangements because it’s such a win-win. Businesses get access to talent without having to compete directly with some of the larger established companies that may have more money in perks, and then talent gets to work when they want, where they want. With the improvements in communication and collaboration, technology with tools like Slack and Evernote, small business are no longer limited to the talent pool that’s 30 miles from their headquarters. In this way, really, the internet is becoming the road to work.
Michele Don Durbin, Evernote: We also love talking with our small business customers. Having tools like Upwork that bring together people who are experts in their area exactly when you need it and for what you need, combined with the democratization of IT, new innovative tools, affordable apps that don’t take a 12-month implementation, and ubiquitous connectivity means that small businesses actually can compete with larger, established enterprises. Because they tend to be smaller, they also tend to be a lot more nimble, and they can react to trends in the market, they can react to changes in their own base, and they can put out new innovations at a faster pace.
What actually ends up happening when we think about challenges for these small businesses are actually very similar challenges to some of the big enterprises. Our GM of EMEA for Evernote, Dr. Beat Bühlmann, just wrote a paper called The Challenge of Triple Overload. Interestingly enough, because we’re so connected, because we have so many pools of talent and information to pull on, every kind of knowledge worker, every kind of business, small and large, is actually dealing with what we are calling a triple overload.
We’re seeing people overloaded by data, spending up to two and a half hours a day searching for information. We’re seeing them overloaded by different types of communications. I think one Harvard Business Review study recently noted that knowledge workers spend about 80% of their time communicating or collaborating through email, messages, chat, and so you can’t really get to that deep work. Then all of that results in a cognitive overload. And that just ends in burnout for everyone. Being able to have the right tools and pick the right resources are going to put you at a much better advantage.
We often hear about how technology is accelerating at this exponential pace. What I hear you saying is that information is also growing at an exponential rate, and I assume that would mean that challenges for business leaders are growing at an exponential rate. Rich, would you say that reflects your experience?
RP: Absolutely. I agree completely with what Michele said. As more information comes in, for all of us and particularly small business, our to-do lists get longer and longer. And that’s where as you look at maybe the bottom third of your to-do list, you can go find an expert who’s able to either pilot something or validate a thesis. That’s where I see the advantage that small businesses have. Whereas in a larger company, that might become a task force where they’re going to study it for two months. Then you have to wait for head count in order to really take advantage of the recommendation, at which point, the momentum is lost and you never get to do it.
What are some of the other qualities or practices that in your view can help a small business succeed and grow?
RP: I think it’s not unlike any business. The key pain is really how do you get an edge? I think we have a lot of tools to level the playing field, but what’s going to help you differentiate yourself and stand out in your customers’ minds?
So for example, my dentist has a pug in her office that sits on my lap when they drill on my teeth. That might be a little silly, but you get the idea. That’s one of the reasons why I go back. And her customer service allows me to contact her at any time, schedule an appointment. Those are the things that small businesses, being closer to their customers, are able to focus on and really effectively combat larger businesses.
MDD: I need Rich’s dentist, because that sounds like the perfect way to be at the dentist. He’s totally right. At a larger corporation, there are these defined rules and responsibilities. At a small business, everybody wears a lot of hats. One of the things that I’ve seen work and I’ve put into practice, even within my team in a larger business sort of acting like a small business, is stepping outside of your own company and your own industry and asking questions.
We get caught in the day-to-day of growing our business. We get caught in the day-to-day management of people and challenges and things that come up and we don’t really set aside time to say, hey, what are the trends, what new research exists, what assumptions have I made that may or may not be true anymore? There’s this example that I heard, I was just speaking with some folks internally and somebody came up with a stat: do you know that 40% of revenue from baby products actually comes from households that don’t have babies?
It makes sense if you think about it. When a family has a baby or has kids, other people, aunts, uncles, grandparents, godparents, friends, they always show up. Nobody wants to show up empty handed, and so these households without children are actually buying a lot of baby gifts.
If you look a little bit deeper, it turns out that those households driving 40% of revenue are actually accounting for 60% of the profits. The reason is, if you have a baby, you tend to be a little bit more price sensitive. But without the baby, they might be willing to pay that extra $2 to get the Spider-Man version of the toothbrush rather than something else, because the gift is what matters. The interesting thing is, in the past, I think you’d have [internal] research teams and dedicated groups. This research literally took two and a half minutes to find on Google.
This talk about data calls to mind something else. Small businesses nowadays have to think about tech in new ways, too. It’s almost like every company is a tech company to some extent. How should small businesses approach that change?
MDD: As I mentioned in the beginning, it’s the democratization of IT, right? The cloud, apps, connectivity, this has all brought really interesting tools and services into the hands of everyday people. The way that we like to think about it is the bring your own device, bring your own app kind of movement that’s happening. Because at the baseline for any company, productivity is personal.
There’s never going to be one ubiquitous tool. You can’t buy one laptop or one mobile phone and think that it’s going to suit the diverse workforces that we have today. If you can let your employees use their own devices and use their own tools for work, you’re going to see engagement go up, you’re going to see satisfaction to go up, you’re going to see productivity go up, all of these things that are going to help you continue to grow.
Where a small business would really just need to be aware is: let’s leverage the good that’s coming from technology and making us a technology company, but let’s also make sure that we’re doing what’s right for our business. For example, if you let this go unmetered, you might end up with a shadow IT force, right? Like there’s just things that are happening and you don’t really know what’s going on. Just take steps to make sure that security and privacy are maintained, and that there’s an official policy that’s simple and helps your workers work with what they want without putting anybody or any data at risk.
What about people? Not only is there this profusion of tools available, but there are also more and more specializations, more and more skills. How do you figure out what the right mix is of skills that you need to bring on, and how do you balance bringing on permanent versus freelance people?
RP: That’s a great question and something that we live every day at Upwork. Within marketing, for example, on the design side, we have three full-time designers and 12 distributed designers. That enables our team to have access to a motion graphics expert, a video production expert, someone who is an amazing graphic designer, and really build a team that I am using for their specialized skills. At the same time, you need a core strength and a choreographer in order to manage that talent.
The small businesses that I know, the owners and their teams are really master choreographers. They have to wear so many hats. Their ability to understand what needs to be “core” or inside the company and what they can tap into is changing. If it’s privacy related or something that’s your IP, you probably want to continue to have that in-house. But if it’s something that’s tactical or a pilot program, there’s another way of doing it.
The other trend that we’re seeing from small businesses is hiring is harder than it’s ever been. We do a survey every year on this and small businesses specifically said it’s three times harder this year than it was last year. As a result, 45% of small businesses are using flexible talent or freelancers today and 65% expect to use it going forward. As it gets harder to bring on full-time talent, small business have a decision to make especially with technology changing so fast.
There’s bit of a chicken and egg situation here. Because you have a group of people that are already in your company and you need to find tools that can fit them in the way they work, but then you also need to find people that can fit the tools that you bring in. How do you put a strategy around all of this? Where do you start?
MDD: When you’re first looking for tools, it’s actually pretty straightforward. There’s some basics that you can follow. First, ask some good questions. What are the biggest pain points, what are the processes and things inefficient, what needs to be automated?
People doing the work are the ones best positioned to judge how a new tool or system is going to impact their daily routines. If those people involved are distributed workforce that’s coming in, then we need to talk to them.
Then think about scalability. You have a certain place in your business plan where you sit right now, where do you want to be? When you narrow down your list to your top solutions and where you think you’re headed, the real questions are things like, does the company who makes this tool have a track record for innovation that applies to where your business is headed? How flexible, how scalable is it? Does it integrate with tools that your workforce is already using and already loves? That’s the only way it’s really going to work for you.
Then, obviously, a business case is going to be really important. Put it down in dollars and cents, what are your long-term and short-term goals. Because after you implement it, you want to actually be able to go back at some point in time and say, we thought we were going to get a million dollars’ worth of savings, did we do it, didn’t we do it, where did we miss on our assumption, is this is actually not the right tool for us, is there something else wrong?
RP: I think a great practice is to look at your current behaviors, what you’re doing on a regular basis and where you’re adding the most value and where maybe you’re spending more time than the value that you’re delivering, and then think about how tools can help you do that.
Personally, I’ve always been kind of a maniac about to-do lists and found that was something that I was spending a lot of time personally doing. Until I found Evernote, where I was able to get a lot more organized on how I manage my ideas. And then as you start scaling that across an organization and a team, it gets really powerful as teams are building on each other’s ideas in real time.
This makes me think about workflows, because this is where tools and talent all have to come together. How can a team that is already trying to go at warp speed pause and create some of these workflows?
RP: I think the most important thing is to start. And specifically to start with smaller projects that can show success, at which point you can then scale as you see that success. Another key component is making sure that the person leading your project or who’s starting is very comfortable with online collaboration tools and new technology. Having somebody who is fluent at leading that can be a great way to achieve success.
Then, over-communication. Now this is more about hiring distributed teams. Maybe you didn’t have a workflow that made sure you had to check-in every day. That’s something that we’ve seen, is making conscious, intentional check-ins with your distributed team and including them in the meetings that you have.
Then as you see success, before you scale, make sure that you’re assessing what worked and what didn’t. In most cases where we see small businesses going from one customer service agent to 10 and really scaling entire teams, that’s where the magic happens.
MDD: Yeah. I totally agree with Rich. Communication is a cornerstone for that. I run a global team, so, again, those differences in languages, the differences in cultures, those nonverbal cues, they’re all going to be different. How and when to communicate, there are all sorts of unspoken expectations around priority, urgency, response time.
It’s so important to just lay that foundation and have that standardization from the beginning, and we actually apply that as well to workflows. Using something like Evernote which lets you create sort of a shared organizational structure for the way that you manage projects, for the way that the workflows happen, for the way that documentation and decisions are all recorded in a sort of a centralized, but totally accessible area, it basically helps you measure results and maintain efficiencies and quality as well as accountability, so that when your team is growing and processes get more complex, the workflows actually remain, in some cases, ridiculously nimble.
Michele Don Durbin is VP of Global Go-to-Market at Evernote. Rich Pearson is Senior VP of Marketing and Categories at Upwork. Together, Evernote and Upwork have produced a free ebook called Go for Growth: How to Scale Up Faster.
To hear our complete conversation, click the player above or download Taking Note from iTunes, SoundCloud, Overcast, or your podcast platform of choice.