Bad news first: the coming year probably won't feel much different for you than the previous one. According to Discover's latest Small Business Watch index, more than half (52 per cent) of small business owners believe conditions will continue to grow worse for them over the next six months, while another 24 per cent believe things will stay about the same. More than half (51 per cent) also plan to cut business development spending between now and July, and 26 per cent will make no changes in investment.
In other words, most entrepreneurs aren't expecting the money spigot to open up and start flowing more freely anytime soon.
Now, the good news: There are ways to grow your clean technology business even in the current economic climate, especially if you've got a consumer-friendly product that's in hand, rather than still in development. Here they are:
- Find ways to do more with less. You can apply this strategy almost anywhere in your business: use less heat by turning down the thermostat, use less ink by printing less and emailing more, use your phone service less by using Skype more, use less petrol by driving less and taking the bus - or walking - more, use less electricity by shutting off computers and lights whenever they're not in use. Every little strategy might be just that - little - but together they can add up to a significant cost savings … money you can better use elsewhere in your business.
- Target cost-conscious individuals. Just as you're trying to cut costs, so are most other individuals - whether they're homeowners, students, other business managers or shop owners. Chances are they'll listen if you can offer them a mass-market-priced, easy-to-install-and-use device that can reduce their energy, gas or water expenses in a short time period.
- Branch out into developing markets. The world's developing economies - places like China and India - are bouncing back a bit more quickly from the downturn than other markets, and they're home to billions of potential customers. Again, the key is being able to offer them an inexpensive but beneficial technology that pays off quickly.
- Take advantage of available government funding. When the big banks stopped lending, the world's governments stepped in with billions in economic stimulus funding. Much of that money not only remains to be spent, but is focused on clean and green technologies, as well as on small businesses. US entrepreneurs, for example, should check out FedConnect or the US Department of Energy's funding opportunities for renewable energy.
- Keep it simple. Once you've found a business strategy or target market that seems to be working for you, stick with it. Trying to be all things to everyone takes up too much personal energy that can be better focused on your core area of expertise.
- Team up with local agencies. Local government agencies will also keep feeling the pinch as their tax revenues continue to decline. Approach them with a quick-return-on-investment way to cut their energy costs or other resource consumption, and you're likely to find an audience ready to write you a check.
- Localise your supply chain. The closer your suppliers are, the greener your business can be. Plus, being able to meet face-to-face with vendors who live and work in the same place you do makes for stronger and more productive business relationships.
- Disaster-proof your operations. If the financial crisis of 2008 taught us anything, it's that it's best to be prepared for drastic changes and Black Swans. That'll remain true in coming years, especially as climate and energy problems worsen. Plan now for ways to keep your business as resilient as possible, no matter what the circumstance. How, for example, could you continue working if you were to experience flooding akin to what happened in the Lake District last autumn? Or how could you keep running if you lost a major client? Whatever the possible problem, have a backup strategy ready.
- Go as green as possible. The problem with the shift toward renewables is that so much of the underlying industry, whether it's photovoltaics factories or wind-turbine manufacturers, is still dependent on fossil fuels. Finding ways to power your operations as sustainably as possible, even making an effort to go off-grid, will give your business an advantage … not only now, in terms of 'green cred,' but in the future that's likely to arrive with ever-rising energy costs.
- Build a community. The 'go local' movement started largely with food, but is expanding into new areas now with more and more Transition Town projects under way. As that movement's 'Cheerful disclaimer' notes, '(I)f we wait for the governments, it'll be too little, too late; if we act as individuals, it'll be too little; but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.' Make your business part of a community - of suppliers, of customers, of local residents in general - and you can help future-proof yourself more than the competition.