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The Art of Growing Your Small Business

I just finished reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, founder of Nike Inc. I recommend that anyone with a business dream reads the book because through his story, he relays the many trials and tribulations entrepreneurs experience until they get to the top. I found myself relating to his story on many levels. Cash flow problems, increasing debt, risk of business loss, ill treatment from your partners, debating on whether to or not to bring in new investors and above all, bringing the right people on board. Success is impossible without a shared vision. We all need to be rowing in the same direction unless told otherwise. I now share a few things that stood out for me after my read through the book. 

Your business should be led by value 

To blow your competition out of the water build your business model around value. This should be practiced both internally and externally. Through their employ, your staff will gain an income, but their provided services should be a critical building block to the value you’re trying to create. It is one thing for you to be the visionary of your enterprise. To win you also need to have an implementer who will live out what you have imagined and add to that dream through feedback on how you can further progress or do better. The relationship that Mr Knight with his first employee, Johnson is worth a mention here. Johnson’s commitment to the cause is a rare quality and Mr Knight realised this through several redeployments of his No. 1 to all the new and strategic things that Nike rolled out as they grew and progressed. The opening of new branches, the running of a new factory, setting up in different geographies – Johnson got to do it all. This is because he saw value in what the business was bringing to its customers. It wasn’t only just about selling shoes. It was the feeling one got when wearing the shoes. The fact that the shoes were also being designed by an athletics coach and former college athletes added to the value equation, that is, shoes being made for us by people like us who have lived experiences like ours. Who better to design and recommend what shoes to wear than them? So, to win in the marketplace, ensure that you always lead with the value you bring to the table – be it a product or service you’re offering. 

Your business should embody commitment 

Life is moving faster for most if not all of us. One minute its morning, the next minute its morning again. We often find ourselves juggling way too many balls and this leads to a loss of focus. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Commit to a main cause, which is to please your customers and keep your suppliers / partners satisfied always. Your clients should always commend you for your undying devotion to exceeding their expectations through each interaction. From a product standpoint, (re)invention and innovation should be a priority that is practiced again, and again, and again. The novelty brought to the fore should be championed by your pursuit to understand your customers’ need and how you can make a difference in their life for the longer term. As an example, Phil Knight’s partner and former coach, Bill Bowerman was committed to getting better performances from his athletes. He was convinced that some of the outcomes had a lot to do with the shoes they wore. So, in addition to training his athletes hard, he also designed and redesigned the shoes they wore and through Nike’s initial partnership with Onitsuka Tiger introduced shoes into the market that were ahead of their time. A borderline obsession on getting it right is critical to winning in today’s congested marketplace. The results you bring to the table reflect how far you will go to bring nothing but your absolute best to the fore. Your best should in turn result in your client always having a smile on their face. 

Your business should take risks

You can’t get ahead without taking risks. Big ones too. These risks could include taking on debt (reasonably, I must emphasise), bringing on new staff, entering into partnerships, being open to new ideas, and expanding your goals and ambitions. You can’t sit in one place and opt for the safer route. Dream big. Back those dreams with thorough research on their feasibility and viability. Plan accordingly and roll out per your plan, closely monitoring your wins and losses as you execute your plan. Based on his graduate research, Phil Knight got a loan from his father to travel to Japan and met up with the leadership team of Onitsuka Tiger. Blue Ribbon Sports was still a concept, an experiment but he positioned it as a business that was on the up and that would bring value to Onitsuka Tiger through a partnership. The risk taken there resulted in a distribution agreement which over time became exclusive. After nearly being coaxed into selling Blue Ribbon Sports to Onitsuka Tiger based on the anticipated boom in demand from the US market, Blue Ribbon Sports decided to go it alone. This came with a lot of trials and tribulations but by the time they got to 1980, Phil Knight was worth US$178 million after going public. I must admit that taking risks should come with a strong disclaimer. Don’t take gigantic risks that if you fail will leave you in a worse off position than when you started. Take risks but ensure they’re informed by a strong body of evidence on the potential outcomes. 

Your business must swarm with likeminded people 

In as much as many people believe that they appoint themselves captain because they were born to lead. This isn’t so. It takes a village to raise a child. The same must apply for a business as well. Businesses thrive based on nurture. Nurture doesn’t come from one person. It comes from a whole team of people. If likened to a family, in as much as your parents are your primary caregivers, there’s a lot to be learned from your uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, family friends, peers, juniors and seniors. For your business to thrive, hire wisely. Get people on board who first buy-in to your vision, believe in your leadership and feel counted for their contribution. If north is the direction that needs to be taken and everyone is steering that way, the journey is pleasant. Root out those who will say they want to go north but their minds are in the south. That inertia is unpleasant and not necessary for the business. Constructive debate is centred around identifying problems and solutioning around the problem because no one is looking to lose if they’re all buying into the cause. If they do lose, it is a dust yourself off moment which makes the team stronger and better prepared for what tomorrow will bring. So, choose wisely and use selection criteria aligned to the business’ long-term vision. Success will be hard to come by if you’re working with people who are often caught in two minds. 

James is the Chief Growth Officer of Valora. Article originally appears in Mail & Guardian.

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