Founder and CEO of Alicia J Diamonds, Alison Cooper talks through what you can do as a business owner to start in a new market through the art of innovation and strategic planning.
As an entrepreneur, I make my business decisions based on intuition. Knowing whether I can make an idea successful is about whether I feel passionate and creative about it. If I do then I will make a success of it. Research is important, but I find that if you do too much research you can end up clouding your vision.
When I started my first big company, En Route, selling food products to airlines, people kept trying to put me off, saying, ‘You’re not a baker, so how are you going to create a successful supply chain of bakery products to airlines.’ But I saw the gap in the market and my response was always, ‘Just watch me!’ I made it a multi-million-pound success story. I look at an industry and see how it needs disrupting or changing.
So, once you’ve got your idea and are convinced it will work, there are a few key pointers I would suggest for starting a new business. These are my essential tips:
First, make sure you have a strategic business plan in writing. It should detail how you plan to achieve certain outcomes and a timescale. It also helps focus your thoughts. If you need to go out and raise funds, people will want to see it. Use someone who is an expert in figures to help you plan.
Ask Advice & Network
Scour LinkedIn and relevant trade organisations for experts who may be able to help you. There’s no harm in contacting someone who may have valuable experience and asking if they’ll spare 10 minutes to have a virtual coffee with you to ask some advice. Join those trade bodies and make use of any help they offer.
Don’t Let Things Slide
I’m very good at ensuring we do management accounts every month, and having business review meetings in which you go through the numbers. You need to know and keep an eye on where you’ve spent your money. Set up systems and stick to them. Don’t put all your invoices in a big pile and think I’ll get to that. Do it now – keep on top of the money. You’ll be amazed at how you then feel in control.
Keep your Eye on the Big Picture
Don’t work in the business, work on the business. Avoid getting pulled into all the tiny details of day-to-day operations, you need to keep your eye on the vision. These days, I take myself away from the office for a few days every so often to think creatively about the big plan and make sure we’re on the path to achieving it and not losing sight of it. In my first business, I used to constantly get called by coffee shop chains, hotels and restaurants, who knew about our bakery products because they’d read about us in magazines, asking if I could meet them. But I always said no. I knew I had a big enough market with airlines and I stuck to that. Otherwise, I’d have needed to split the sales and marketing teams and expand before we were ready. I’d done the sums and I stuck to my plan, rather than get distracted by running after different market segments.
How you cost your product is very important. Work out every detail that goes into bringing the product or service to market and factor those costs in before you work out your profit margin. And note of how you do this with each new product; it can be useful to refer back to if a similar situation arises. Once you’ve put things into production, recalculate what it actually costs to produce. Does your final calculation match your previous assessment? If not, adjust the cost. And if costs go up – as energy costs are at the moment – then adjust your prices.
Delegate & Hire Well
I know that I’m an extrovert, and if I hired a team full of people like me, we’d all be clamouring for the limelight. Hire a balanced team, and hire people you trust. You need some people focused on the small detail. I use personality tests like those from Myers Briggs tests and Thomas International which assess strengths and weaknesses, to make sure I’m hiring a balance of personality types, so I can assign jobs to suit those people. If things go wrong with personnel sort them out sooner rather than later.
Empower Your Team
I think it’s very important to empower the people who work for you. My leadership style is quite hands off. I talk about the vision and don’t necessarily lay out every step we need to take to get there, instead I ask them to move forward and report back. If something is going off course, I can easily step in and re-steer the ship. So, don’t be controlling, be empowering. I can see that millennials and Gen Z people I employ respond well to this.
Stick to a Plan
Plan well and don’t try to achieve too much too quickly. Have key objectives for the first six months and stick to achieving them. If you get pulled in different directions you won’t end up finishing anything. Resist and focus. For Alicia J, at the end of last year I sat down with my team and said, I just want you to concentrate on getting a new website. And that’s what we’ve done. We need the key tool of the website to work properly first, before we market ourselves fully. Divide things into bite-size pieces and achieve those.
Understand the Internet
Almost every company needs to utilise the web. Make sure you have people who understand the latest trends and ways people use social media. I knew, setting up Alicia J Diamonds, that the internet was crucial. People said, ‘No one will want to buy diamonds online.’ But I knew they were wrong. Of course, we offer a personal service, too – but there are many people, who once they know we’re legitimate, trust us to sell them diamonds online, using video calls, presentations and other methods. Younger people use the internet to shop for everything, including fine jewellery.
Don’t Ignore Sustainability
Increasingly, people are driven by green goals. They want to know that what they’re buying is sustainable and eco-friendly. As a diamond seller, I’ve connected with a lot of diamond mines and realised that they sustain whole communities. I have delved deep into the industry and know where and how to buy sustainable gems and diamonds. I can explain in detail to customers why our gems are ethical.