“Work to your strengths. Outsource to your weaknesses.”
This is a good maxim to follow when you’re a small business with limited resources. When Mike Koch and I started Neoventus Design Group in the summer of 2005, we were like most small startups. Our special skill set allowed us to provide a value proposition to our targeted market, but we also had a skill deficit we hadn’t thought much about. While it takes positive thinking to make that step into the unknown of a new business, it takes evolution to keep it going strong.
We felt that we could make a difference and were eager to prove ourselves to the world. With a fickle economy contributing to hiring uncertainties, we knew we could find a niche in providing the sort of just-in-time design skills that engineering companies needed. As it turns out, we were right.
For the last five years Neoventus has been able to maintain revenues with modest but steady growth, even through the latest severe downturn. We’ve built a small but very loyal customer base through the age-old method of going beyond expectations with the electronic design and support services we provide. Despite this, the move from surviving to thriving has been elusive. Revenue has been cyclical , driven by too few clients.
Mike and I have been designing and debugging electronic systems for various large and small corporations and government entities since the mid-1980s. We were fortunate to have the contacts and reputation within the industry to help get the business rolling with those critical first jobs.
But what becomes evident after that initial glee of receiving the first contract is that you can’t grow a business appreciably through past contacts alone. We found that we needed to expand our circle of influence, further distribute our name and reputation, build brand recognition, and grow a positive public image. Being the introverted and inner-focused engineers that we were (and still are), it became apparent that we needed another point of view.
Corporate organizations rely on the combined skills of many employees. Small organizations have to be clever in how they find and employ the skills they're lacking. Being able to recognize and admit where your weaknesses are becomes one of the vitally important skills small business leaders must possess. In Neoventus’ case, sales and marketing skills were sorely lacking and inhibiting the ability to get our message into the market place.
Hiring someone with the real-world experience we needed would take a six-figure salary—not even a remote option for us. However, finding these skills proved to be an exercise in finding the right people and leveraging their knowledge, while finding the right balance of the use of their time.
FINDING THE RIGHT PARTNER
Through online searches and referrals, we were able to find a management consulting firm, Third Eye Management, that could instill the confidence that we sought. Even though it wasn’t local— we are in Charlottesville, Va., and Third Eye Management is in Florida and Atlanta— we felt comfortable with what it had to offer. The model we agreed upon appeared to alleviate problems caused by the distance. We needed expert knowledge and coaching, which we all felt could be accomplished through phone conferences and e-mail .
Nearly a year later, we’ve developed a coach/student relationship, which gives us the tools we need at a price we can afford. We’ve set up weekly conference calls with the principals and cover items including presentation material, research about which trade shows to target, effectively presenting our value proposition to prospects, development of contact lists, newsletter material and format, review of proposals, and long-term planning. We’ve also discovered some gems : welcome advice on business operation and the extension of Neoventus’ engineering skills into new services. We take pride in our abilities, expertise, and knowledge, but the addition of an outside voice has helped tremendously.
Continue on next page
Outsourcing your needs is a good strategy, though it’s not always possible for small budgets. With this relationship, Neoventus is still doing most of the work, but we’re not floundering to learn the ropes the hard way. Our efforts are focused and proving effective by outsourcing for the knowledge we needed, while providing the labor ourselves.
The initial concern over the distance from Charlottesville has proven to be a non-issue. The “telecommute model” truly works in this case. We recently met face to face at a show in North Carolina and are working on a brainstorming session this fall. The in-person meetings are there when needed, but the value of remote coaching has proven to be a big win for us.
To date, our requests for quotes are up approximately 20% over the previous 12 months, and we’ve added several new clients. Revenue has risen slightly, which, given the economy and hesitancy of the market to invest in new development, is a win.
It’s not easy learning new skills. But if there’s a place where it’s absolutely essential, it’s small business. Sometimes exercising these new skills will push you beyond your comfort zone. This is a good and necessary thing. In seeking the right partners to outsource your needs to, exercise due diligence in finding the coaching and support to make it work.
The Mind of the Entrepreneur is a joint venture between Electronic Design and VentureOnLine. VentureOnLine is an online community that connects entrepreneurs with technology and business experts, as well as funding opportunities.