Focus on what makes your business attractive to customers

Women entrepreneurs often spend too much time worrying about the competition, and not enough time focusing on what makes their business more attractive to customers in the marketplace. It’s a common trait, but one that needs to be avoided. Competition is a reality, but how you approach it is what sets you apart in business. Celebrate what makes you and your business unique, and remember that no other company or entrepreneur has your story, so leverage that fact with your customers. Acknowledge that we live and operate in a new economy, one that celebrates sharing and collaboration, so perhaps instead of seeing other entrepreneurs as competition, explore whether there is the opportunity to share expertise and collaborate to win new business.  And importantly, stop comparing your efforts and results with those of other entrepreneurs. Everyone has a different business building journey they are on, so learn from others, celebrate and be inspired by other entrepreneurs’ success, and focus on your own journey. It’s a mind-shift that is needed, but one that is worth the effort.

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Creating a great customer experience

Have you noticed how much broadcast and social media talk, and how many newspaper and magazine column inches, are dedicated to talking about innovative technologies like AI and blockchain. And there’s no doubt that these have a lot of potential. But there’s a tendency to forget that the biggest trend in business is on how we understand and treat our customers and ensure we continue to meet their needs. New UK research indicates that consumers place a significant value on human interaction in the customer services process, with 87% reporting they tend to stay more loyal and increase their business with companies that offer a real person to talk to at the right stage of their customer journey. So while all this talk about innovation is exciting, there is no substitute for world-class customer service delivered by people who really care about the customer experience, who are responsive and open to listening to what customers really need. It’s why there’s nothing quite like the human touch.

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Co-working helps to build a sense of community for entrepreneurs

Co-working is rapidly becoming the norm in the world of start-up businesses. And it’s interesting to see how big business is also starting to tap into this way of thinking, with many of them setting up satellite offices for their innovation or intrapreneur teams in trendy co-working spots. As a result, co-working spaces are not only providing a sense of community for the independent entrepreneur who is looking to be part of a like-minded community, but also an inspirational environment for employees who want to think more like entrepreneurs. It makes for interesting and often dynamic spaces. Because they are often accessible 24/7 and people can come and go as they please, these collaborative spaces encourage interaction on what can often be an isolating entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial journey. Co-working is now a part of our entrepreneurial lives and thinking, and whilst it may not suit everyone, that sense of community created in these dedicated spaces is definitely a draw card for many. That’s why many businesses are now incorporating co-working into their strategies, seeing the value that can be generated from the experience.

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Managing stress when the going gets tough

There’s a big difference between starting a business and then successfully running and growing that business over time. It can be a hard slog with continual stress, pressure to effectively manage finances through the inevitable peaks and troughs, managing and developing your employees, retaining your existing clients and finding new ones, and still finding the time to innovate and develop new products and services along the way. It can be a lot to deal with, and unlike corporate employees, you can’t simply leave it all behind at the office each day when you are an entrepreneur. Stress management amongst entrepreneurs is a continual challenge. That’s why you need a really effective support network of fellow entrepreneurs, friends, family and people who can be there when you need them, to offer advice, a shoulder to cry on, a familiar face to have a moan to when the going gets tough, and a cheerleading brigade when you have something to celebrate. 

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Are you creating products or services that customers really want?

What makes some businesses succeed and others fail? Well, according to the CB Insights Survey, the top reason for failure is creating products or services that consumers don’t actually want or need. Tackling problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was cited as the No. 1 reason for failure in 42% of cases amongst the companies surveyed. Product "pricing/cost issues" and "user-unfriendly products" were near the top as well. Businesses fail when they are not solving a market problem and when they don’t understand what consumers need and want. It sounds simple, but if it was easy then everyone would be doing it. Success comes from solving a large enough problem, need or pain point that can be addressed with a scalable solution. As author and business guru, Seth Godin says, “Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers.”

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Build trust in your business

Building trust in your business, particularly amongst your employees, is a critical foundation stone for success. As the founder of your business, it’s so important that those around you have trust in you, your judgement, and your leadership. When your employees, your shareholders, your suppliers and your customers trust you, they are more likely to engage with the business. And that’s where transparency comes in - if as the founder of the business you are transparent in your leadership and your decision-making, then that in turn will inspire those around you to adopt your values in their own working lives. It’s really all a matter of practicing what you preach. It sends a message that openness, sharing, and collaboration are all core values in your business and ones that are adopted from the top down in the business. So if you want everyone to join you on this entrepreneurial journey and fully engage in all aspects of the business, then transparency is key to building that all essential trust that is needed for success.

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Are you talking to your core customers?

When asked to define your customer base for your business, are you one of those entrepreneurs who responds by saying, ‘everyone’? If so, then you are probably fooling yourself! At its heart, every business has a core target audience, and its critical to know what that audience looks like, what it needs, what it likes, how it makes buying decisions, and every one is different. If you are in a competitive business environment, you need to do your homework and get to understand your customer target market in depth. You need to give them a reason to buy your products and services over and above other brands; you need to persuade them why they should choose your idea over something they already spend time and money on; and importantly you need to give them reasons to switch their loyalty to you, and to stay with you thereafter. So if you are not dedicating quality time each week in your business to keep yourself educated on your core customer base, talking to them, getting their feedback, monitoring their buying patterns, then remember that someone else probably is!

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Africa’s women are taking their small businesses and brands global

Read any global socio-economic development report and it will point to women playing a significant role in regional economic integration. But one of the most interesting trends beginning to emerge in Africa is the rise of women micro-multinationals. The digital world has made it possible for women entrepreneurs with small businesses and brands to expand not just in their immediate country markets, but also regionally and increasingly globally.  Online retail has opened up opportunities to connect with wider markets, to build customer bases and distributor networks, and to export the goods and services produced to those expanded markets. This trend is good news for a new generation of women micro-multinational entrepreneurs who are digitally connected to a global marketplace, but who manufacture and produce their goods and services locally. This means that local and national economies in Africa benefit from this approach, as it strengthens global trade and positively impacts communities closer to home. This trend is reflected in the growing number of women entrepreneurs in the Lionesses of Africa community who are successful examples of micro-multinationals and who regularly tap into the Lioness Lean In events in different African countries and Startup Night! Africa events in European cities to connect to new global markets. 

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Small businesses have the agility to stay ahead of the competition

In today’s increasingly competitive world, small businesses can sometimes feel that they are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting ahead, but there is one factor that they underestimate, and that is agility. Small businesses are naturally agile, they have to be. After all, when market conditions change, or customer preferences shift, entrepreneurs think about how they can respond by changing strategic direction, or creating new products and service offerings, often at a moment’s notice. This ability to remain agile is a real competitive advantage for any small business. Bigger companies and organizations find it much more difficult to continuously innovate and adapt quickly in response to market changes - they are like the proverbial oil tankers trying to turn around quickly, it doesn’t happen at the speed they would like. Agility has long been a benefit of the small business as there are no vast entrenched processes and strategies to deal with, or bureaucratic systems to overcome. It’s easier to pivot at a moment’s notice if necessary. So start seeing your small business as agile and use it to your advantage.

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Every business starts with a vision and a mission

We all know that every business starts with a vision and a mission, it helps to create a solid foundation for the company and give direction to all those who have a vested interest in its success. But as an entrepreneur, do you have your personal mission statement to guide you on this crazy business and life journey you are on? Just as any business puts in place a strong mission statement to keep everyone focused on the end game, it also makes sense to do the same thing in your personal life. So what are the benefits of crafting your own personal mission statement? Firstly, it provides direction and motivation. Secondly, it keeps your eye on the ball during the craziest of times. Thirdly, it forces you to be honest with yourself and encourages you to ask difficult questions that are essential for the business. And finally, it reminds you each day of why you became an entrepreneur in the first place. Just as an example, Oprah Winfrey articulated her own personal mission statement as, “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” So, have you written your own personal mission statement yet?

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Getting your brand to stand out in a crowded marketplace

If your business is operating in a busy or congested marketplace, how do you find a way of differentiating yourself and your brand from everyone else around you? How do you make that all important connection with customers when they are being bombarded with rival brands, products and messaging 24/7? No matter what product or service you want to provide, it’s all about doing your homework, studying the market and whose playing in it, watching to see what brands and products are connecting with customers, and then importantly finding practical ways to differentiate your offering. You can do this in various, equally effective and impactful ways - personalize your products and take a more bespoke approach; change your look and feel to reflect a completely different and more cutting edge brand persona; change your customer service approach to offer something that none of your competitors are doing. How you differentiate is up to you, but at the end of the day it’s all about standing out in the marketplace and getting those potential customers to notice you and your brand, and importantly make that purchase. 

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Make an emotional connection with your customers

In today’s business world you can have the best products and services, but if your brand ethos is not built on a foundation of a caring company, one that does business but also does good, then your business may not be sustainable. Many research studies have found that today’s consumers are much more likely to make conscious purchasing decisions based on their connection to brands that are caring and committed to good causes. This is certainly the case for the increasingly influential millennial and Gen Z consumers, who take a very different approach to their purchasing decisions. You only have to look at the huge success of purpose-driven brands such as Toms, Warby Parker and Patagonia to see that their back-stories resonate with and influence these consumers directly. Social responsibility makes an emotional connection with customers and today it’s not a nice to have, but a must-have in business.  

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Keeping your business on the right track

Pick up any business self-help book and amidst the wealth of information and advice about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur you will see a number of key building blocks. Obviously, it all starts with a great idea, product or service that fills a gap or meets a need, but that just gets you out of the starting blocks. Running a successful, sustainable business takes much more than that. Here are five startup building blocks to put your business on the right track. Firstly, put the right people in place and build your team, based on complementary and needed skills that can all contribute to the bigger goal. Secondly, a laser-like focus is key, and every member of the team needs to share that focus and know their role. Thirdly, any successful business needs great customers, so invest in creating a strong customer base that you can grow over time. Fourthly, without sales a company can’t survive, so ensure the sales strategy is strong and the sales team is focused and incentivized. Finally, as the old saying goes, cash flow is king, so make sure that every dollar counts and is made to work for the business. 

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Impact Investors are supporting positive social and environmental change

Pick up any magazine or newspaper, or flick through the reports from some of the leading entrepreneurial conferences this year, and the rise of impact investing continues to be a key talking point. A number of interesting industry shifts seem to be indicating a new direction for impact investing in the year ahead. One of those shifts seems to be in the area of wealth transfer, where it’s estimated that in the US alone, around $40 trillion in wealth will be transferred over the next 30 years to women and millennials. Both of these groups have expressed strong interest in investing aligned with their values, with millennials demonstrating they are deliberate about the social impact of their retirement funds.This could signify an interesting potential opportunity for women owned businesses in Africa who are looking to find socially responsible global impact investors to support the continuing growth and development of their businesses. Increasingly, investors are also focused on ensuring that they are “actually doing good” and that their investments are having a positive social or environmental impact. This industry shift could prove to be a real ‘win-win’ for both women owned growth businesses and investors alike.

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Women entrepreneurs are natural skills coaches and job trainers

An overlooked benefit of women’s entrepreneurship to their economies is their natural strength as skills coaches and job trainers. Women are not only creating much needed new jobs through their businesses, but are also heavily invested in training up their staff. It is often said that the best kind of training is that received on the job, and it is here that women entrepreneurs are making an incredible contribution to training and skills development in their communities. It stands to reason that having created a job the entrepreneur has every reason to ensure the new hire is able to do that job productively and to the very best of their abilities. So whether it is a new sales person, a new machinist, or a new admin assistant, women entrepreneurs are not only creating the new job, but are also training up the new hire. And, because these women know people are their most valuable asset, they are more committed to training people than just about anyone else. In a nutshell, women entrepreneurs across Africa are not only job creators, they’re also great job trainers. It’s time policy makers start to recognize this fact and start to better support women entrepreneurs.

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Family businesses lead the way

So here’s an interesting fact! Did you know that most businesses in the world are family businesses, and that’s certainly the case in the US, where most small businesses are family businesses and, to the surprise of many, most large businesses are also family businesses. You may never have heard of them because they tend not to be traded publicly, and they do not go out of their way to advertise who owns these companies. But strong families and values are behind their success. In these businesses, the family relationship is as vital to the success of most companies as any other factor. So why are family firms more productive than their non-family owned peers?  Well, it seems one key reason is that family owned firms tend to see not only higher employee engagement levels from staff, but as a result of this, they also secure higher productivity levels as well. There is a personal connection between employees and a family owned brand where the founders live the vision and mission of the business and set the right example for everyone to feel part of.

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Celebrate and harness your inner maverick

They often say that it takes visionaries and mavericks to make change happen, people who are not afraid to buck the system, or challenge the status quo in order to get new and exciting things done. Entrepreneurs tend to be such visionaries and often build businesses, products and innovations that go against the grain of the status-quo. And, they are definitely maverick - it’s part of their DNA. They have an inbuilt ability to envision what doesn’t yet exist, to challenge existing ways of doing things and ask tough questions about why things are made in a certain way when they could be done differently and better. It can be tough being a maverick in business and when your ideas fall on deaf ears in the early stages of getting your products and ideas out to market. But the important thing to remember is that most of the groundbreaking, trend bucking  businesses that have shaped our world today, were created by mavericks that were passionate about what they were doing and who believed in their ideas despite all the naysayers in the early days. So, celebrate and harness your inner maverick, and surround yourself with others who share your approach to life and business.

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E-commerce is an exciting opportunity for Africa’s women entrepreneurs

The role that e-commerce plays in international business and commerce continues to grow, both in numbers and in importance, with total worldwide ecommerce sales expected to reach $4.5 trillion by 2021. The fact that e-commerce continues to grow at this rate suggest that online business represents exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs to tap into growing global markets. Despite the battle for market share amongst existing big online retailers, the African continent still has an attractive consumer base waiting to be unlocked. Commenting on whether e-commerce is going to be profitable in Africa, given the continent’s socio-economic challenges, Emilian Popa, CEO of Groupon explained, “There are 175 million online shopping users today and there will be 600 million users in 2025. Internet penetration is 16% today and will be 50% in 2025. There are 57 million people who have smartphones in Africa and there will be 360 million in 2025. There are clear opportunities.” The bottom line is that e-commerce represents an exciting mechanism for Africa’s entrepreneurs to get their unique products and brands out into new and exciting global markets, and to do good business. The planning needs to start now!

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Collaboration can generate stronger business outcomes

In an ultra competitive business environment where the challenges for women entrepreneurs trying to break through into key markets still exist, collaboration could be the key to generating stronger business outcomes. Collaborative, win-win partnerships with like-minded women can open up new business opportunities, strengthen business offerings, put additional power behind pitch situations, and ultimately speed up growth. When thinking about embarking on any partnership arrangement, many women entrepreneurs voice concerns about trust - they worry about potential partners possibly stealing their ideas, poaching their customers and their employees. But ultimately, successful partnerships are built on trust and loyalty, and it should be remembered that behind every successful company and entrepreneur, there is a network of supporters, strategic partners, and mentors. They appreciate the power of partnerships to bring something fresh to the business table, to fill the gaps where key skills and experience are needed. That’s why women entrepreneurs should perhaps look to complementary partnerships being the smart business decision to make.

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Women entrepreneurs have to work harder

So here’s a fact that we probably instinctively knew already - women entrepreneurs have to work harder than their male counterparts to make a success of their businesses. According to a Centre for Entrepreneurship study, almost one in five women say they lack the technical knowledge required for their business compared to only one in 20 men - meaning they have to learn as they go. And, a quarter of women entrepreneurs say they don’t have the networks necessary to build their businesses, while fewer than one in ten men say this is a problem. But these challenges are no longer barriers to success, if anything it makes women entrepreneurs more resilient, more open to learning and collaborating, and more tenacious. And here’s the good news from the study - in a marked contrast to normal pay structures, it would seem women entrepreneurs in their own businesses take home twice as much pay as the men.

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