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You want to grow your farm business. But how?

Next Steps: These tools are a mix of business theory and practical on-farm wisdom, which is why they’ll help you find opportunities

In January’s column we looked at how the process of business strategy planning helps orient you on the goals map. But that still leaves a big question: How do you get there?

If you’re an existing farm, this means developing a growth strategy. In 1957, Igor Ansoff, known as the father of strategic management, established four main strategies for generating sustainable business growth: market penetration (sell more stuff to target customers), market development (find new markets and customer segments), product development (develop more products for your target market) and diversification (new products for new markets).

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There are several ways you can apply Ansoff’s principles to a farm business to increase the scope of revenue-generating activities:

  • Capacity expansion: “More of the same,” i.e. horizontal expansion whereby you acquire more livestock or acres to take advantage of economies of scale.
  • Replication: A form of capacity expansion where the existing operation is replicated at a different location. Used when expansion at the current location is not possible (e.g. livestock).
  • Intensification/modernization: Another form of capacity expansion where current assets are updated in order to create more efficient production through the same asset base.
  • Networking: A vertical or horizontal growth strategy which leverages current assets of a group of businesses through information arrangements, contracts or joint ventures to increase efficiencies and advantages that an individual business may not be able to acquire alone.
  • Integration: A vertical expansion strategy e.g. processing products/commodities or furnishing input on the supply chain.
  • Diversification: A horizontal strategy that adds new enterprises to the existing business.

The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) was clear in its 2015 report, “Diversify, Diversify, Diversify: A Key Growth Strategy for Small and Mid-Sized Firms.”

“Regardless of size,” the BDC report said, “even modestly diversified businesses outperform their less-diversified counterparts.”

The report also notes, “it is rare for a business strategy to achieve the goals of lower risk and higher growth simultaneously. Diversification is an exception, but deciding when and how can be difficult.”

Choosing a growth strategy or combination of strategies that are aligned with your overall business goals is a good first step, but there’s more to it than that. The type of strategy you choose will depend on factors such as finances, target markets and other important business resources (human, skills, etc.).

David Madié, founder and CEO of GrowthWheel International Inc., a visual toolbox and cloud-based platform used by business advisors to help companies make decisions and take action, suggests first jotting down your ambitions for different aspects of your business to determine what you would like to see happen in those areas.

“Strategizing is something farmers already do everyday. Whatever you call it — operational choices or strategic choices — once you have a collection of choices, that’s where you start to say, ‘These are the things I’m deciding on and these are the things I will consequently be doing to make them happen,’ and, collectively, that’s the way you’re going to make a better business.”

Ready…

Madié says that while the decision to grow and diversify your business is a very personal one, it all comes down to one consideration: “What would need to happen, and what situation would you need to be in, before you would consider a growth initiative.”

“There are lots of ways to define strategy,” he says. “For example, you might say, ‘When I reach this revenue, I’ll hire one more employee’ or ‘When I get that opportunity, I’m going to grow my business by asking for a loan.’ It will take some careful exploration for you to find out what are the triggers that make you ready for a growth scenario.”

He also says you shouldn’t just jump on the first cool revenue-generating idea you think of. “If we consider a growth strategy to be a series of choices, then you have to start by looking at the different kinds of things you make decisions about,” he says. “For example, do you have a choice(s) about how your project will be financed? Do you have an actual choice if you choose a diversification approach, meaning do you have the resources (human, skills) for that? Knowing your strategic choices and then knowing the alternatives for these choices will help you figure out what to do next.”

One Saskatchewan farmer who has doubled his herd and acreage in just five years told me recently that he makes a point of fine-tuning his opportunity radar. “We keep our eyes and ears to the ground at all times, and when we see an opportunity, we grab it.”

But remember, says Terry Kash, founder of Saskatchewan tech think tank Brainblender, you also have to consider your capabilities. “Where are your strengths and what could you reasonably do if you get everything you want tomorrow? Would you be able to fulfill that commitment?”

Set…

Madié says you should inventory and leverage current assets such as people skills, land, equipment and available cash. For example, BDC says to consider whether an existing office or building, machinery or staff can be used for other purposes without adding costs. “Appraising current assets will be helpful in generating your strategic choices, because you may have a situation where you actually have some money on hand,” he says.

“So, you say, geez, you know, I have $10,000 to spend on something. How should I use that money? Should I buy a new piece of machinery or hire another employee? Now we have a choice. Looking at your assets and realizing what you have is going to help you make better strategic choices and therefore a better growth strategy. And if, while assessing assets, you realize you don’t have or can’t get something (e.g. financing), then that’s a lot of choices you don’t have to worry about right now, so you can focus on X instead.”

Kash says be careful to only leverage what you are okay with losing. “Often with good planning, you won’t need to leverage much as you will have built in contingency plans.

The BDC report says you must address weaknesses and you should constantly stress test your business. Can the business protect itself from the biggest risks it faces? They also say it’s important to ensure that financial resources can sustain existing operations so that the business will not be compromised as you implement your growth plan. In terms of diversification, they say that there are lots of ways to diversify, and business owners should carefully consider the least expensive and least complicated options.

If weighing choices informs your strategy, then an action plan helps you carry out that strategy. Madié’s approach is to create a 30-60-90-day action plan based on a variety of proprietary, easy-to-use worksheets (you could stash a binder of them in the tractor for free moments or use the cloud-based version), but he says apps like Trello, Asana, the Business Model Canvas, an Excel spreadsheet, or even a notebook will work as well. “It’s a waste of time to do too much detailed planning, because when you can’t keep up or do it all, you just feel bad about breaking agreements with yourself,” he says.

Madié notes that it doesn’t have to be an academic exercise where you write a 50-page document; you just want to brainstorm ideas, create a list of action items for how you’ll achieve them, calculate the time you’ll spend on each, and assign dollar amounts to each action.

“If the numbers match activities, then I think a few pages is enough,” he says. “The point is that you don’t need to detail the planning process. By chunking your growth strategy into 30-60-90-day segments, you give yourself the flexibility and the chance to make smart decisions about changing priorities as you go along. ”

Jonathan Chan’s “Grow Your Business” blog says that there are six simple rules to keep in mind when figuring out which is the best growth strategy for your startup or existing business:

1. Product development should always be a logical extension of your core product.
2. Always refine and optimize your core business before diversifying.
3. The more you test, the faster you’ll grow.
4. Let customers lead your product development.
5. Growing too fast can kill your business.
6. Examine what your drivers of growth are and double down on what’s working.

And remember to take care of yourself when things start getting hectic. “This may not be on everyone’s radar but be sure your mental health is in it as you don’t want to take on something that overwhelms you; you want to enjoy the process and subsequent success,” says Kash. “As I tell everyone, if you work towards HAPPY you will be better for it and things will go a lot farther.”

Go!

As a business matures, or as the climate in which it operates changes, a farm owner may start looking at growth strategies for ways to not only generate more revenue, but to future-proof their business.

Keith McFarland, author of The Breakthrough Company, says that growth strategies are like a ladder: lower level rungs are less risky, but offer little impact in terms of growth potential. The higher rungs involve bigger risks, but the payoff is correspondingly huge. He suggests a small business should start at the bottom and work up.

An advisor who specializes in growth strategies can help you analyze the business from every angle and assess choices in order to select the strategy that will offer the most bang for your buck.

Madié says that if you’re working with a strategy tool and you don’t think it’s really offering any concrete action steps, it might not be the right tool for you. “The same goes for advisors: if a business advisor is not able to help you generate results you can see … then you may be better off working with someone else.”

The Saskatchewan farmer I mentioned earlier says once he’s found an opportunity, his recipe for growth success is based on three ingredients: a good mix of market research, being prepared and gut instinct.

Ultimately, your growth plan will be unique to your farm size, type, goals, finances, accessible markets and available resources, but support from your network (family, advisors and friends who’ve “been there, done that”) is crucial.

“It’s the voice of doubt inside our heads that kills more dreams than failure ever could,” says Kash, “so having someone who maybe even doesn’t know much about the idea, but who you can bounce ideas off of is a huge asset.”


What next steps can you take today?

  • First figure out if you have a prevention-focused or promotion-focused approach to identifying opportunities. As Heidi Grant and Tory Higgins write in their book Focus, the combination of ingredients you need to be an opportunity spotter is “creativity, open-mindedness, and the confidence to take chances.” While a prevention focus “is good for many things — careful planning, accuracy, reliability and thoroughness,” it’s a promotion-focused approach that helps build opportunity recognition skills. You can learn how to hone those skills here: hbr.org/2013/05/how-to-get-better-at-spotting.
  • Conduct a feasibility study of the growth model (including a budget) you’re considering to find out what pros, cons and potential outcomes are likely for your situation. This might include running small-scale tests. Our Saskatchewan farmer says that in order to find the sweet spot of where you’re comfortable on the growth scale, you’ve got to test an idea, adjust, and scale up or back until you get it just right. Both Terry Kash and David Madié agree: try things out on a small scale and scrutinize feedback and numbers before going all in.
  • Drink beer. Well, grab a bottle (or a coffee) with farmers you know who have successfully scaled up their businesses. They’ll be able to offer a lot of insight not only through a lens of success, but a lens of failure. Finding out what they would have done differently will help you make more calculated choices.

April M. Stewart is the owner of Alba PR, a brain-to-brain communication design firm, and the creator of “The Farmer’s Survival Guide: How to Connect With 21st Century Consumers,” a blog and workshops which look at communication impact boosters. She is also a sixth-generation Quebec dairy farmer, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture and a member of the Canadian Agri-Business Education Foundation board. You can find her on Twitter under @FarmersSurvival.

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April M. Stewart is the owner of Alba PR, a brain-to-brain communication design firm, and the creator of “The Farmer’s Survival Guide: How to Connect With 21st Century Consumers,” a blog and workshops which look at communication impact boosters. She is also a sixth-generation Quebec dairy farmer, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and a member of the Canadian Agri-Business Education Foundation board. You can find her on Twitter under @FarmersSurvival.

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