8 Strategies to Stay Ahead of Your Competitors

plot your own small business future

If I might be excused for mixing metaphors: If you’re the kind of small business owner who typically jumps on the bandwagon, there’s a good chance that ship has already sailed!

As I’ve traveled and met small business owners, I’d have to say that too many are sheep and just following the pack. For true success – the kind that allows you to build real value – you need to avoid the herd mentality.

It’s not easy. It takes the uncommon combination of creativity and discipline. It’s especially hard for small business owners because they can become so easily entangled in day-to-day operations that they cease looking toward tomorrow. (I wrote a piece for MasterCard Biz that detailed three leadership strategies to help you get above the daily chaos. If that’s a problem for you, you need to head over there.)

Once you have the ability to achieve charity of thought, consider these eight strategies to keep you ahead of the competition:

1. Ideate. Here’s a funny word you may not be familiar with but can probably guess what it means, which is: Formulate ideas. Leaders are always coming up with new ideas. Many never see the light of day. The goal is to develop the habit of coming up with ideas and capturing them in a notebook or an online tool like Evernote. The best entrepreneurs have a thousand more ideas than they’ll ever act on.

2. Imagine the future. Consider where trends are going. Develop different scenarios. What areas will be important for growth tomorrow? Think in all kinds of terms: markets, geography, pricing, demographics, and others. Here are a few examples:

  • Will Millennials want what I’m selling as it is formulated today?
  • Will the new international trade pacts give me new opportunities?
  • Can my product or service be slightly altered to appeal to a new market?

3. Study today’s disruptors. Some areas of commerce are being shaken to their foundation today. Study those examples and ask yourself is such a monumental shift is possible in your market. If so, how can you lead it?

4. Understand your competitors. It’s critical that you thoroughly study both the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors. Their strengths are usually easy to see – you run headlong into them every time they beat you in the marketplace. You have some important management decisions to make here. Should you bolster your business in the areas where your competitors are strong or should your bigger effort be made to better exploit the weaknesses of your competitors?

5. Choose generalization or greater specialization. Should you broaden your market or more deeply mine the riches available in one market segment? This is a balancing act. If you select a more narrowly focused market and it shifts, you’re in big trouble. However, a precisely developed solution to a major problem can command high margins.

6. Consider acquisitions. Above I suggested that you imagine the future. Consider acquiring a related company in many of the same terms. Is there a company you could buy that would open up new geographic or demographic markets or allow you to change your pricing?

7. Give your business a facelift. This may seem superficial, but frankly much of our modern lifestyle is superficial! Update your logo. Redecorate your office. Revamp your retail sales floor. When you present yourself to new customers or clients you want to look like you’re the current leader. If you walked in to interview a new accountant for your business and he looked like Scrooge sitting behind an old desk, you would turn around and leave.

8. Never be satisfied. This is perhaps the most important rule if you want to stay ahead of your competitors and anticipate (or even set) the new direction of your business or industry. You can’t be completely satisfied by things the way they are today. You need to have a certain restless attitude that keeps you looking to the future and asking yourself all the “What if” questions.