Need to Pivot? How to do SME Business Planning Under Pressure

I thought it was time to write something about the journey I’ve been on this last 6 months as I’ve learned a lot about the highs and lows of running a business.

I think this post will appeal to business owners and sole traders of both service oriented as well as product-driven business, especially those who run early stage businesses, and particularly if you’re going into your 3rd or 4th year and things behind the scenes might need a bit of an overhaul.

I work in a co-foundership on a service-oriented business that sells career development experiences direct to consumer. We have a small team of freelancers who support us to deliver and our customers want to travel, share their skills, and more specifically, learn about social enterprise as a potential new career avenue. Between 2015 to 2016 we had sold around 120 placements on our programmes and things were going well.

But by summer 2016 what we found was this:

  • There wasn’t a defined market place to source our prospective customers. We’re not selling products on ebay or amazon, we don’t appeal to a certain’s newspapers readership directly – it’s niche, and our digital marketing wasn’t working
  • Our main source for customers, our well effectively, started to dry up for reasons beyond our control
  • Our team, who are based in different countries, were going through some big life changes which affected our agility to just pack a bag and go and deliver a programme anywhere that we wanted to run one
  • After doing some financial planning, based on the above, it also didn’t look like the numbers quite stacked up

It was time to pivot or we ran the risk of failure.

Sometimes when running a business we get so caught up in the doing part that we force the business planning at a time when our heads are so invested in certain revenue streams and plans that the strategic thinking is emotionally driven by the plans we’re already caught up in. Leaving the decision making to come from a place of bias.

True business planning, the big stuff that is, especially when a pivot might be required, needs to come out of a period when you’ve had some real headspace so you can objectively, boldly, energetically and strategically move forward.

Here are my top tips for approaching – and doing – key strategic business planning for your start-up, especially if you’ve found yourself needing to do a bit of a u-turn:

1. Give yourself some breathing space

Once you realise you might need to pivot, don’t make any speedy (or reactionary) decisions. The big stuff needs to come from a place of rest. If you’ve been burning the midnight oil on your business, struggling to make ends meet or have been getting snowed under all the orders, processes or service delivery (or lack thereof) and you are unsure about whether this the right way to continue in future then it’s important to get some perspective. Any work you do on the planning after a mental and physical break will be far more sustainable, come from a better place and be objective and unemotional.

2. Buy yourself some time

Don’t feel like you can take a pause? Automate as much as you can and give 3 weeks annual leave to you and any other founders so that you can feel the real benefits of what happens to the mind / brain / body once you’ve pulled yourself out of the trap of the day to day.

Beyond that, buy yourself some serious time. Go part time. Drop to 4 days a week, or stop working weekends and after 6pm. Whatever it takes. Redesign what you can internally to give yourself a break from being so hands on. Make an investment on an amount you’re willing to lose in order to regain control, and hire someone in to help you. Get a virtual PA. Outsource to a volunteer. Trim the fat at the back end. Reduce process and automate, automate, automate.

Set things up so you can take a strategic and intentional pause.

Once you create more time in your life and you stop thinking about your business all the time, you’ll free up more space in your brain to find the much needed answers. In fact, you’ll get a better grip on the challenges first for which the answers will naturally follow.

3. Be ruthless: lose anything that doesn’t make you money or make you happy

Linked to the previous point, and just in case you’re still not convinced and are thinking that you can’t take a break from your business – just bear in mind that being bogged down in the day to day activities of running your business means you can’t properly prepare or plan for the future. Of course it’s fine if what you’re doing is working, making you money and you’re happy. But then I suppose this post wouldn’t have caught your eye…

  • Is what you’re doing working?
  • Is it making you money?
  • Are you happy? 

Here’s the great news. Being an entrepreneur means you are in the driving seat. You get to design a business exactly how you want it, to work with your rhythm and in alignment with the lifestyle you want.

If you’ve moved even slightly away from feeling like you have the business you always dreamed off, if you’re feeling like you are back in that place of having a job, working long hours and unsure of where it is all leading to, then review what you’re doing and ask yourself these tough questions.

Then find a way to lighten the load ASAP because you’re going to need to kick some serious business planning butt and pivot your little tooshy off.

4. Gather research, gain new knowledge

So you’re now hopefully working 3 or 4 days a week and generally have a lot less on your plate. Whoop!

This is the perfect time to go through all that customer feedback you’d been collating which you haven’t properly had time to go through and reflect on. Read your old impact studies, dig out all the surveys people have filled out over the years and start to make sense of it, spot the patterns, look for unusual trends.

Then do some additional quantitive research, contact your existing customers and find out their loves, their loathes, and their experience of being one of your customers. Use this to fuel any future insights and planning work. Don’t react. Just observe.

Use your new found spare time to gain additional knowledge in key areas of the business – marketing, finances and product development.

“I signed up to several online courses in digital marketing, I taught myself new email marketing tricks, we spent a bit of budget on hiring a specialist to teach us about considered-purchase marketing, and I went back to college to learn about politics and current affairs. It was important for me to have a vocabulary beyond business talk.” 

Attend regular networking events filled with people from your sector. Stand up and talk about your business to anyone who will listen. Notice how people respond? What feedback do they give? And more importantly, how do you feel?

5. Acknowledge your emotions

Any feelings/thoughts/concerns you have that feel particularly strong, whether positive or negative, write them down on individual coloured post-its. Write the negative feelings down on one colour, and the positive feelings on a different colour, concerns on another. Pop them up on a wall, and observe them for a few days.

  • When you get a quiet moment, ask yourself, which feelings/thoughts/concerns do you need to acknowledge and which ones can you ignore? Which ones do you still care about? Which ones might have been reactionary or impulsive?

Then discard all the post-its you think are unnecessary to bring into the equation of your pivotal business planning, and with the rest, have a brainstorm around what they mean. Give them a score out of 10 if you fancy that in terms of how important those emotions are to you as far as your business is concerned. Then discard anything that scores low.

6. Get away from everything

Good business planning requires a bit of planning. Clear the diary for in a month or two’s time, whether it’s one day or a week. And arrange to take yourself, your team and anyone else who might be relevant to a creative space that’s away from your usual place of work.

7. Enlist someone neutral

A facilitator will expertly guide you and your team through what can be quite a difficult, but incredibly eye opening process. You can try and do this yourself, but you won’t be impartial.

By enlisting the help of someone neutral you might unveil challenges in your business you didn’t know exist, you may discover something new that you couldn’t have discovered yourself, and you’ll be able to surrender yourself to the process as opposed to thinking more about controlling the outcome.

8. Write a good brief

When you have found someone to support you through your planning session, the key is write them a great brief.

Do’s – set up the context. What are the challenges keeping you awake at night. What emotions/feelings/concerns are important for you to address?

Don’t tell them what outcome you’re hoping to make. Don’t give instructions on the direction you want the business to go in. This is a great opportunity, irrespective of the outcome, for you (and your team) to indulge in some blue sky thinking. You don’t have to write next year’s business forecast based on the outcomes of the planning – so just go for it and see what comes out of it!

9. Get input from your customers and prospective customers

Do your planning with the people who already know (and love) your business. But why not invite some outsiders, prospective customers perhaps, people who are your target audience who will be able to add valuable insights as to what they want, how they want it, and to what extent they usually go about getting it?

10. Seek help: there isn’t an Entrepreneur’s Anonymous but there ought to be

Running a business is hard, especially when things don’t go according to plan. Once the honeymoon period is over, after you’ve take a bit of a battering through lack of sales, or if things went wrong, became stressful or you are overwhelmed; then it’s very common to feel sad about that. Frustration sure, but you never go into this entrepreneurship journey aware just how much this process can be painful.

But things will, and do frequently, go wrong – especially in the most successful of start ups. And whatever way you look at it, being in business will teach you a lot about yourself. Humility. Resilience. And it will build confidence. Force you to change.

So when the fan paints your walls brown, reach out to someone who’s been there. And don’t be afraid to admit those feelings of defeat if you have them. You might just realise it’s not as bad as you think. You most certainly will realise, it’s just business.

Would you like to support a start-up with their business planning? _SocialStarters are looking for experienced professionals from a variety of backgrounds to share their skills with entrepreneurs who are tackling social and environmental issues through business. Check out to find out more.