“ The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones.”
– Steven Pressfield
I find that many entrepreneurs find it hard to transition from amateur to professional and it is something that seriously hinders the growth of small businesses. It is in fact a construct of the business ecosystem in which we exists and we can see it reflected in the amount of capital raised by our tech startups compared to what is happening in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tunisia, and Egypt. When you operate a business in Cameroon, you soon find out that being professional can lead to short term profit loss, and the is not only in Cameroon by the way. Most times, a better service or product offering is costly. The fear of those short term losses makes many business opt to remain small or local in what becomes a disservice to their future growth. Here are a few things that I believe small business can apply to bring a more professional look on themselves and position themselves for eventual growth:
I remember someone reached out to me to work on a project (marketing) and I wanted them to send me a little document which was basically a Request For Services (RFS) and their response was “Document for weti again norr. No na we this this talk already?” I asked for this document because I have since decided to do much more to be professional in my business dealings. This document was going to the be first of many, the last of which was going to be some sort of service level agreement (SLA) that states what services I will offer, when the services will be offered and when I will be paid for said services.
I have seen so many situations that such a document would have ensured unnecessary problems and blame throwing when something goes wrong during the project. Such a document will make everyone understand their responsibilities and make it easier for people to accept that responsibility when things go south. If you are going to have a business partner, a written document stating the job description and expectations from each partner will help you when you have conflict and will cause everyone to be more responsible.
B. Setting Business Rules:
Business rules are usually there to help you avoid losses both to the business and to the customer. If you work in a Supermarket, you cannot just decide to pick a container of milk and take to your aunty at home who has promised to give you the money the next day on your way to work so you can pay. Yes, that might bring some extra money for your employer at the end of the month but the risk is usually way higher that the reward. I have certain payment before service rules in my business and I cannot tell you the number of times a customer wants you to ‘just trust them.’ They will tell you they know what it means to run business or they have a business and they cannot in their right mind disappoint you. Do not be sweet-talked into going against your business rules it is hard but that is just part of the journey to being a professional. You might be leaving some money on the table in the early days of your business but in the long run, you will build a brand that is more professional.
C. Implementing Standard procedures:
We are mostly acting like kids who wont grow up. Very many of us have never worked in a professional setting in an established company to know about necessary bureaucracy. I am one that is naturally against bureaucracy but a certain amount of it is important in building and scaling businesses. I know in my business, I need a form that people fill every time they have to go withdraw money from my account. Ideally I would love to digitize the process but it must exist in some form. Many times, I think at the end of the day I will be able to sit down and do the math but it is hardly ever the case. We are not in a culture of receipts for everything, that could have helped too. But if I call my photographer friend to work with me on a project and I ask him to fill a form before I transfer him some money, we’ll hear “ This Tino di member na weti with doci dem left right. “ But you see, without proper accounting, I am missing out on a lot of information that I can use to make sound business decisions. What I have found to work here is tellingl the party that is not willing to follow procedures why those procedures are in place to make sure they get a better service.
When you go to MTN for service, you most likely have to see a receptionist, explain your issue, pick a number and wait for your turn to be called. There are so many issues that could arise that this standard procedure solves. First of all, the customer can judge when they will served and you don’t have customers fighting over each other -and Nancy can’t just spot her cousin in the crowd and make her skip the line to be served before someone who was there before her. I don’t think I need to explain this further.
D. Separating Business and Friendship:
This in fact might be the hardest and most important because it is that friendship that usually makes it hardest for you to follow the other points listed above. In the beginning stages of our business, it is usually easy to deal with friends and family but as we try to become more professional, those same friends begin to drag us back with their demands for special treatment.
I believe the best way to support your friend’s business is not only by spending your money with them but also by respecting and following their business policies and business procedures. If your friend has a restaurant with rules for customers and you visit the restaurant and decide to disrespect the rules because it is owned by your friend; doing so in front of other customers, you are not helping that friend build. You are making their other customers uncomfortable and you are ruining their future business.
E. Obtaining Legal Status:
I really want to talk about getting your company registered but for many people just starting, I actually believe it is a waste of your money especially if you are a service business and you don’t expect to have big clients like the government and multinationals that will need to see some tax clearance certificates and all that to deal with you financially. I spend about 500,000 FCFA at the beginning of each fiscal year just to get my taxes in order and keep my corporate bank accounts operational. This year, it had not been worth since the one transaction I have done that absolutely had to go through my bank account did not give me enough money to be able to cover my banking fees and taxes. Thats excluding the monthly tax declarations and payments. I’m glad I did not get registered until I absolutely had to. I would be happy paying all these taxes if we had a government that was putting the money to great use. Even as a small business, you can find yourself with opportunities to tender for public contracts. Even if you come across such a deal and you don’t have a legal status, there are many people with clean company documents that you can use to bid for the contract. Nothing pass arrangement but then again , so see how you could be giving away proof of portfolio of work to another persons organization. For this point, it will entirely depend on the resources you have and what type of business you are operating. Wherever possible, get you business registered. Either way, you will have headaches.
Summarily, documentation, business rules and standard procedures are what create an environment of professionalism without which you will continue to run an amateur shop and deny yourself opportunities for growth.
- Norbert Foy