* This article was originally posted on Forbes.com *
I’ve spent the majority of my life working for and with small businesses, so as I launch two new ventures this year, I’m being reminded of all the stumbling blocks that exist during this especially sensitive phase. In the early stages, it’s often hard to determine where to place your focus.
Establishing priorities and executing on the right initiatives can make a huge difference in your long-term prospects for not just success, but survival. In my opinion, there are three key steps every young business should take to ensure that it’s laying the groundwork for optimal gains and sustainable growth.
1. Get Clarity
Every small business has a thread of wish lists and to-do’s that seem to grow easily out of control. We’ve all been in the room with an eager new business owner standing proudly by a whiteboard chock full of ambitious goals. But at the end of the day, your time is a finite resource. You can only do so much, so you have to get a bit ruthless.
As a new business, it’s very unlikely you’ll have a bottomless war chest, so you have to be pragmatic and clear on the things that your business needs to grow. And often, those aren’t the things you actually want to do. Rarely are they the “fun” things on your list.
Typically, this phase is all about building the ugly foundation that makes the pretty stuff work. It might feel boring, but honestly, it’s not about what you want at this point. To take a page from my parenting book, this is the time to focus on what the baby needs. And if you listen, it will tell you what that is.
As an extension of getting that clarity on what your business needs, you also need to clarify responsibilities for your team. New hires have to check all the usual human resources boxes (experience, a good fit with the team, etc.), but you also need to make sure you understand and are clearly communicating the specific needs for each role to the candidates upfront.
It can be tempting to bring someone on board because you like them and then try to align your business needs with their skill set, but it has to be the other way around. They should be laser-focused on the job that needs to be done first, and their role may be able to expand from there. Once your backyard is clean, you can go out and play!
Once you get clarity on what needs to be done, you may realize you’re not ready for a full-time hire. That’s okay; you have other options.
2. Consider Your Resourcing Options
With my current businesses, I have found myself in a place where there may not be any one cohesive “job” that needs to be done, but there are scores of little things adding up on a daily basis. I’ve discovered that leveraging on-demand resourcing can help fill the gaps.
This may come in the form of a virtual assistant, marketplace freelancer, part-time subcontractor or service provider. They can be brought in on a long-term basis or as needed for one-off projects. Approaching hiring in this way has allowed me to avoid overcommitting.
It’s also helped ensure that I get the very best understanding and knowledge from people who are experts in their space. I may generally know that I need a website designed, for instance, but if I contract with a specialist, they’re going to know all the minutiae of that process, the latest trends in colors and platforms, and exactly how to optimize my site for growth.
The main benefit of exploring this kind of resourcing is that you’re not investing full time in something you may not be ready to support. You’re also learning in detail about what you do want from that role. This way, when you’re ready to hire someone full time (if that day ever comes), you’ll have audited the role and know exactly what needs to get done.
3. Establish Systems And Habits
Once you have clarity on what initiatives you should focus on and you’ve staffed appropriately, it’s time to support that upward trajectory with a solid and accessible infrastructure. You can do this by putting efficient systems in place and reinforcing good habits.
If you did go the route of not hiring full-time staff, having an on-demand workforce means that quality digital tracking and project management are mandatory. A lot of freelancer marketplaces have their own built-in systems, from process documents to budget trackers and chat groups. But if you are working with independent contractors, there are a ton of great project management tools out there, as well as software that will allow you to collaborate online with ease.
The goal of these systems should be full transparency for everyone involved in any project. Who is accountable for things? What’s the history? When is it due?
This information should be in an easy-to-digest format. Again, it’s all about setting and enforcing expectations.
Most people would argue that installing the plumbing for a home is a lot less fun than choosing paint colors and furniture, right? But doing the less glamorous work at the beginning is the only way to get to that pretty end result. When your goals and expectations are clear, and you’ve put the right resources in place, supported by a thorough set of standards and procedures, you’ll be in a place where you truly have your hands on the wheel.