Small businesses can learn a lot from the way their larger counterparts go about things, writes Mike Ashby.

Would small business professionalism benefit from adoption of a corporate culture?

I think it's about quality, efficiency and scale rather than image. Being small is no reason for being slack. Being small is no reason to be unprofessional - and if you're not a professional, you're an amateur. By definition, amateurs don't make money.

A Breakthrough Company programme member talked about how he had developed written procedures for his 25 most critical processes. He said: "I thought that as a small business I didn't need to do this, but I just got sick of reinventing the wheel every time." Most importantly, he freed up two days a week to get out and grow his business.

Does a corporate background help in the running of a small business?
I advise a lot of small businesses, and I find myself constantly drawing on my corporate experience. Corporates have achieved scale through their systems and processes, which is exactly what most small businesses aspire to.


But here's the thing: corporates didn't develop systems and structures when they got big: they got big because they developed systems and structures and kept developing them as they grew. Every big business started out small.

Here are some aspects of business management where structure helps:

•Governance - planning and monitoring business direction.

•People management - from recruitment to performance management.

•Systems - especially for lead generation and operational processes.

•Information systems - collecting real-time data about company performance.

How do you make your small business look big and is this dishonest or just good competitive practice?
I think it's a better idea to look better than you are, then work like hell to deliver on your promise. If you can imagine how you might look better, you're halfway there. If you're unprofessional in your approach and presentation but you don't know it, you can't do anything to improve it. The value of external advisers and programmes is that we bring the outside in, helping small business owners get a clear picture of themselves, a sense of what's possible and the occasional kick in the pants to keep moving.

What do small businesses do well that corporates could learn from?
Well-performing small enterprises do a few things better than corporates:

•Because they're less bound by legacy systems, markets, people and customers they are more agile and can readily change direction;

•They can be more responsive to customers, though it's hard to scale if you create unique solutions for every client.

•It's easier to build a team when an organisation is small, though this, too, is a double-edged sword: there's no escape from a small dysfunctional team. As someone said to me once, "An island in the rain is no fun."

Having experienced both large and small businesses, I think small firms have more to learn from corporates than the other way around. Most small company practices aren't relevant to big companies, but small firms can, with a little help, adopt and adapt big company practices to great effect.

Mike Ashby is the founder and director of professional development adviser The Breakthrough Company.