How much time have you spent learning the ins & outs of online business?

Go ahead. Take a stab at it.

10 hours? 100 hours? 1,000 hours? More?

If you’re like most of the small business owner members I run into at CoCommercial, you’ve no doubt spent countless hours to learn marketing, service delivery, product development, customer service, operations, and management. There’s also a good chance you’ve spent thousands of dollars on this training, too.

And still, you have questions about how to grow, run, and manage your small business.

What I’ve learned over the last 10 years of watching small business owners learn and grow, is that the questions that persist are the ones that only you can answer.

The missing piece is rarely a “how to” but instead a conscious, intentional, strategic decision that only you can make.

Unfortunately, most small business owners–maybe you, too–are still missing information to make that decision. They’ve invested their time and money into how-tos instead of the boots-on-the-ground experience that makes choosing a path (and sticking to it) much easier.

Once I realized where so many small business owners were going wrong with their training and support, I set about trying to solve the problem. Instead of contributing to the deluge of how-tos and blueprints for success, my company started to build a platform where members could easily and affordably access that boots-on-the-ground experience so that they could answer their business questions for themselves.

Now that we have hundreds of small business owners utilizing that platform on a daily basis, I can see even more clearly where small business owners go wrong with the questions they seek answers too:

  1. They’re gathering how-tos and information to make the ultimate “to do” list for running their business. The more information they have, the more action they can take to make it work.
  2. They’re still seeking a formula, blueprint, or framework for success… even if they know that none exists. They’re–understandably–attracted to the idea that someone has already figured it out and they just need to recreate that success.

Either way, small business owners end up fixating on what doing the right thing instead of defining what the “right thing” is in the first place. Nilofer Merchant, a brilliant thinker on innovation and business strategy, put it this way

“Perhaps people fixate on execution (‘doing what’s required’) instead of finishing up strategy (‘choosing the direction’) because it’s easier to see progress during execution than during strategy formation and development.”

Sound about right?

You keep going back for information because information tends to give you a relatively tidy to-do list. You ask questions that fill up your task list. You complete the tasks and that means you’re hopefully doing something right.

It is not nearly so neat and tidy to sit with big questions about the direction of your business, how you’ll achieve your goals, and how you’ll compete in the marketplace. Of course, taking the time to do just that is the difference between short-term success and long-term frustration… and long-term success and short-term frustration.

Below, you’ll find 5 of the business questions I see most often plus a different question to ask so that can get the information you need to make the best decision for your own business.

Which launch formula should I use to sell my product?

Every digital marketer has their own formula of emails, ads, webinars, and free content that add up to a sold-out campaign. The truth is that they all work–and it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the options.

Of course, while they all have the potential to work, none of them are right for your business if you don’t first know who you’re selling to, why they want to buy, and how your product solves their problem.

That’s why these launch formulas so often fail, even when they’re executed well. Any effective sales process starts by defining the most foundational elements of the buyer’s journey–not by laying out a magical mix of emails and video content.

Instead of asking Which, try asking How.

How do you want to connect with the right people?

Forget about learning specific tactics for a while and consider the type of relationship you want to have with your clients. Think about how you want them to feel. Factor in how you’re best able to help them get results.

Then write down a description of what that connection looks like.

Most small business owners actually want to develop very human, rich relationships with their customers or clients. They don’t want people to feel like cogs in a marketing machine. Even when they’re selling at scale, they want to maintain a sense of connection and personal caring.

Creating a sales campaign that captures this isn’t hard–and it doesn’t start with a formula. Plus, there are businesses marketing like this all around you! Watch how they’re nurturing relationships, crafting two-way conversations, and elevating their brands instead of following someone else’s formula–or better yet, ask them how they do it

How do I build an online course?

Most small business gurus would like you to know that building an online course will solve all your problems. So the next logical step must be learning how to create one, right?

Sorry, building an online course is probably not the answer to your problems. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that creating a course is only going to cause you new problems.

Creating and marketing an online course can dramatically change the positioning of your brand, the market you’re trying to serve, and the relationship you have with the people who already trust you. Before you even think about an online course as a next step, there’s a much more important question you need to ask about what to sell…

How could my customers get the best results?

I like to say, “function before format.” You need to know how the product is going to work, what it’s going to do before you can determine the form for delivering that result.

When you start with a preconceived notion of what the final product needs to look like, you miss out on opportunities to innovate, differentiate, and stand out. Plus, your customers miss out on their best bet for getting the results they’re really looking for.

Instead of following someone else’s business model playbook, talk to people in your field and find out what’s working for them. Talk to others in adjacent fields who deliver their products or services in unique ways. Talk to people whose businesses look nothing like yours but with whom you share customer bases.

Gather information on what gets the best results and create something original from there.

How do I hire a Virtual Assistant?

You’re overworked and out of energy… and everyone is touting the virtues of hiring a virtual assistant. It’s tempting to think that hiring a VA could help you win back time, money, and sanity.

And, it could. But it might be a much better move to hire team members who can contribute value to your business in much more specific ways.

I see plenty of small business owners hire a Virtual Assistant with high hopes, only to realize they don’t know what their new assistant is supposed to do. They haven’t thought about the help they need or how someone else could actually create value for their business.

These small business owners often end up paying top dollar for data entry because that’s the only thing they can think to delegate.

That’s why it’s much more effective to start with a different question:

How could others create value for my business & my customers?

Small business owners most often think about hiring help as a process of delegation. They hand off what could be done by someone else and hold on to the things that “only they” can do.

What happens in practice is that the notion that there is work that only the owner can do is reinforced. Instead of seizing the opportunity to create systems and scale, the same old bad habits persist. The short-term gain of getting some help is quickly overcome by the long-term hassle by having to manage someone who can only do the basics.

When you consider how others might contribute and create more value for your business, you’re really thinking long-term. These are the kind people and roles that can actually replace you in your business. They find new ways to support your customers, sell your products, and manage your operations.

Now, this might seem like a dream scenario–in other words, that it’s only possible in your dreams! That’s why it’s really important to talk through this question with people who have already accomplished this. You don’t know who you should hire first (or next) until you’ve seen how others have actually freed themselves from their business.

What tool should I use for my email list?

I love technology. I love how many digital tools we have to run our small businesses today. 

Heck, most of us wouldn’t be entrepreneurs in the first place if it wasn’t for the copious amount of tools that make it possible! 

That all said, deciding what tools to use can be overwhelming. At CoCommercial, we often see members asking for recommendations for software and apps.

Luckily, most people don’t just spit out their tool-of-choice in response. They dig a little deeper and ask questions that get to the answer of this question:

How can I use technology to create the best experience & results for the people I want to work with?

The reason this question works so well is that the answer is essentially a shopping guide for the technology that’s going to work best for you.

Let me give you an example: I was a devoted MailChimp user for years. All the years, really. I knew I had outgrown them but I didn’t leave because I loved them so much. (I still recommend them for many business owners, by the way.)

As my email list grew and grew, it became harder and harder to manage to send the right campaigns to the right people. The question, “How could I use technology to create the best experience for my readers?” became ever more important.

The answer to the question is that if I could use technology to better understand what my audience wanted to read, what problems they were facing, and what offers they might be most interested in, I could create an amazing experience for them.

So when Nathan Barry called me up to talk about ConvertKit and explained how he designed the software to do exactly that, I was hooked.

It took time to set up and I’m still getting the hang of creating those experiences. But, I love it!

Focus on how technology could improve experiences or results for your customers (and you too!). And then go looking for something that does specifically that. You don’t need to compare what everyone else is using—the best solution for you might be something you’ve never heard of.

How do I use my podcast/blog/YouTube channel to sell more?

Alright, last question. You want to know what to put in your blog posts, emails, podcasts, videos, and Facebook updates to get more attention and more sales.

Again, totally understandable. Content marketing is super important, right?

Unfortunately, there’s no prescription for content. There’s no formula to tell you exactly what to write or talk about that will get you more customers. 

But you can learn how to anticipate what content will move more people toward buying if you consider how they buy and what insight they need to take action.

How is my customer already shopping and where can I meet them where they’re at with content?

If you haven’t stopped to consider how your customer actually goes about buying, you’re probably missing a big opportunity for your podcast, blog, or YouTube channel.

Most small business owners work hard to get customers to buy the way the business wants them to buy but fail to take into account how the customer is already shopping. Are your customers searching on Google? Are they asking for referrals? Are they signing up for demos?

There’s a good chance your customer is already well aware of their problem (on one level or another) and in the market for a solution. The sooner you can make your podcast, blog, or YouTube channel intersect with that search, the sooner you can make a sale.

The good news is that there is plenty of information to be had here. You can talk to other business owners in similar fields or with similar customer bases to find out how their customers learned about their offers and made a purchase. You can pay attention to your own buying habits and learn from your process. And, you can talk to your own past customers to see what process they used to decide to buy from you.

Find the right business questions.

Maybe I addressed a question that’s been on your mind in this post and maybe I didn’t. But hopefully, you see that for every question that is bound to add 67 to-dos to your task list, there’s a better question that streamlines your tasks and clarifies your strategy. 

You won’t find the answers to these questions on Google. But you can find them in the space you make for strategic thinking and the conversations you have with other small business owners.

If you could use more space for strategic thinking and rich conversations with business owners who have been there, done that, check out CoCommercial. We’re making it easy for small business owners to work together to answer questions like these and to overcome daily challenges, solve big problems, and achieve even bigger goals. Click here to learn more about CoCommercial.