Small Business Performance

When I am asked about measuring small business performance, my first inclination is to quote Lewis Carroll. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice comes to a fork in the road and asks:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

In other words, if you do not have a plan for where you want your business to get to, performance measurement does not matter much!

Management dashboard

Small businesses come in various guises and hence it is difficult to generalise when it comes to individual performance management. Metrics (also called Key Performance Indicators or KPI’s) can range from Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses focusing on Lifetime Value (LTV) and churn rates, to hotels measuring occupancy levels and average room yields. However the old adage holds, ‘What gets measured gets managed’, so it is important to have some metrics in place. A good starting point would be to try and understand what are the typical metrics that define success in your particular industry. After that, it’s a case of adding some additional metrics to the mix to ensure that all bases are covered. The following represent a list of some of the more common elements that can make up a “management dashboard” which combine to help you manage performance. Of course, some may argue that profitability should be the main bellwether as to the performance of a small business. While there is merit in this view, it is better to use a combination of metrics which all support the primary goal of trading profitably while growing year on year. This way you have early warning systems in place, as an assessment of profitability based on financial statements can take some time given the reporting time lag.

It all starts with a plan

Creating a simple business plan is vital for all small businesses regardless of whether the business is looking to raise money or not. Planning is essentially about having the foresight to plot and manage your own future, in stark contrast to reacting to accounting data with its emphasis on past performance. While business plans have many purposes, they are not often associated with performance measurement, despite the fact they are a very useful tool with which to measure performance. By committing your thoughts to a business plan you can ensure that you (or your team) know what the priorities are, what activities need to be done, who needs to do them and by when. A business plan brings a lot of transparency to the business with accountability in the form of names, actions and dates.

Cash-flow management

Careful management of cash flow is a fundamental requirement for all businesses. The reason is quite simple–many businesses fail, not because they are unprofitable, but because they ultimately become insolvent (i.e., are unable to pay their debts as they fall due). If you are a “cash-only” business, you can bank the income immediately. However, if you sell on credit, you receive the cash in the future and hence may need to pay some of your own expenses before that income hits your account. This will put a further strain on the company’s solvency and hence a well structured business plan will help you manage funding requirements in advance.