Is your business struggling to meet its goals? It might be bottlenecked.
The term ‘bottleneck’ originated in manufacturing, referring to a jam on the production line. A business bottleneck forms when a process fails to flow smoothly from one step to the next because an issue causes it to falter along the way. It leads to a backlog of work, and slows production down until the issue is spotted and resolved.
Eradicating bottlenecks will save you time, energy and resources. So I’m going to explain how I identified bottlenecks in my business and devised a plan to remove them.
Spotting Bottlenecks In A Small Business
My aviation business, FlyGA, was struggling to get off the ground (no pun intended) due to company limitations — time, mainly. For the business to progress, we had to identify the main bottlenecks, and work towards unblocking them.
The FlyGA company vision is simple: to provide aviation students with the equipment and resources they need to become a pilot. Our focus so far has been on manufacturing the basic stationery required by all student pilots.
Starting out went relatively smoothly. The website, branding, product designs and ‘flight school finder‘ (a first in the UK) came together quickly, and the concept was very well received by the aviation community.
However, it didn’t take long for other areas of the project to stall. In particular, the physical products were not being produced at the speed, quality or quantity that we needed. And there were several entities, myself included, that were at fault for this.
But you won’t always notice the obvious weaknesses while you’re caught up in day-to-day tasks.
To get to the root of the problem, to expose the inefficiencies and determine exactly what was slowing this business down, I firstly considered all barriers between us and the company’s established goals. From there it was easy to spot the common themes.
Problems In The Business
You have to be highly critical to identify barriers preventing your business from meeting its goals. This means looking at yourself in the mirror as much as everything, and everyone, else involved.
Here’s a list of the barriers I identified:
- Supply: Order quantities were too low to meet an increasing demand.
- Inconsistent pricing: Prices were inconsistent between batches of products purchased from the supplier. This meant there was no way to accurately project future profits.
- Inconvenience / Wasted time:
- Inventory pickup: For some of our products, delivery was not an option. This meant putting aside valuable time to physically collect stock from a supplier’s workshop.
- Packaging: most products needed to be packaged separately from the supplier. Again, this wasted our time and created additional steps in producing the finished item.
- Lack of customer interest affecting some products:
- Low sales: Several physical products were generating little or no sales.
- Lack of digital product downloads: Nobody showed an interest in our Exam software, “AeroExam” — even when we offered it for free.
- Programming: Excessive programming time was required to create our digital product, AeroExam, which left little time to design new physical products.
- Under-performing blog posts: Blog posts were not gaining the readership we’d anticipated, and there was little free time to create new posts (to cast a wider net), or to focus on promoting those existing ones.
- Misplaced focus:
- Business partner: his strength lies in branding & designing new products, but he was increasingly focusing on (a) programming, and (b) marketing.
- Myself: my strength lies in writing, marketing (SEO in particular), and product research. But I was increasingly focusing on (a) programming, and (b) manual labour & handling inventory.
Summary of Bottlenecks
The barriers listed above can be summarised as bottlenecks.
- Unreliable supplier: cannot meet demand, cannot streamline our manufacturing process, wastes our time with no delivery option.
- Ourselves (how we spend time):
- Programming: takes up too much time and does not enable us to focus on what’s working best in the business: creating useful physical products.
- Research: we’ve seemingly misjudged the popularity of several products. We need to invest more time into designing ones that’ll generate more interest.
- Writing: articles are not helping us to sell more products. Furthermore, they take around 1-2 days each to write. The backlog of proposed content is piling up.
- Marketing: products and blog posts have been given little chance of meeting their potential. More promotion is needed. For example, PPC, SEO, Social Media, newsletters, outreach, etc.
So the bottlenecks in the business predominantly stemmed from an unreliable product supplier, and ourselves.
I devised a plan that would enable myself and my business partner to increase productivity while devoting the same amount of time to the project.
Plan of Action
In particular, I wanted to free up as much time as possible to enable myself and my business partner to play to our strengths.
Bare in mind that, at this point, our company didn’t have the funds to employ fulltime staff to fill the gaps. The only viable solution was to increase efficiency.
Here’s what I came up with:
- Change the supplier. Work with a more reliable factory.
- Put programming on hold. AeroExam is not crucial to the immediate growth of our business and we don’t have the skills or resources to complete it within a short timeframe. Focus on physical products for now, with a view to re-address it later on. This will free up a huge amount of time.
- Develop more physical products. Focus on producing products similar to the ones that are working well. Scale up using the new supplier(s).
- Stop marketing low-selling products.
- Focus on the products with a higher potential upside.
- Offer weaker products at a discount, or give them away in promotions to avoid Amazon FBA storage fees and recoup losses.
- Switch to evergreen content. Move away from writing blog content about current affairs (which needs constant attention). Instead, focus on writing about topics that’ll remain relevant forever. This reduces pressure and frees up time.
- Increase marketing efforts. Invest more time into marketing in order to give all existing products the maximum chance of success.
Has It Worked Out?
It’s a working progress. Implementing the above plan has taken a lot of force. Plus new roadblocks continually appear along the journey.
But the business is undoubtedly in a far stronger position than it was before. Following through with this plan has helped us establish a platform to build an array of aviation products.
The important moral to all of this is that sometimes you’ve got to change course to improve productivity. And that might mean taking a temporary step backwards, abandoning certain ideas you had, or adjusting your vision to achieve it.
If you run a small online business and want to want to make some adjustments, my advice is to acknowledge your limitations, know your weaknesses, and play to your strengths.