What helps a small business make a big impression?


As the driving force behind Small Business Saturday and a National Business Awards judge, Michelle Ovens MBE shares her unique view of Britain’s dynamic SMEs and shares her tips to stand out from the crowd – starting with an unlikely source of inspiration.

Michelle Ovens MBE has been Director of Small Business Saturday in the UK since it began in 2013, and is also the Director of strategy consultancy Ovens&co. In 2015, she was awarded an MBE for Services to Enterprise.

Michelle Ovens

Michele Ovens - at a glance

Sonny Kapoor, the slightly clueless hotel proprietor played so convincingly by Dev Patel in the 2012 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, isn't the most obvious example of an inspirational entrepreneur. Yet Michelle Ovens believes that all small business leaders can learn from his philosophical observation that "Everything will be all right in the end...if it's not all right, then it's not yet the end."

In her role as judge for the National Business Awards, this passion and positivity is what really makes an entry stand out. There is, she remarks, "a clear difference between businesses that are run by people with a real passion for what they are doing, and those who are just trying to keep the lights on."

Heart and soul business

Whilst acknowledging that strong business models, longevity and market insight are the hygiene factors she looks for in any nomination, Michelle asserts that by far the biggest differentiator is: "Really strong leadership – an individual or team that really puts their heart and soul into the business, believes in it and commits to it."

As a consultant who advises organisations on growth strategies, as well as being the driving force behind the UK's Small Business Saturday campaign, Michelle has helped many small and medium-sized businesses over the years. What she finds particularly rewarding about her role is the people she meets. "With SMEs it's very much about the people," she says. "They are building these exciting businesses and creating something out of nothing. They are getting up each day and making it happen. It's so inspirational - the passion, the commitment, the enthusiasm and the relentless spirit."

Inspirational vision

One of the key aspects that emerges from strong leadership is the need to communicate passion to inspire colleagues across the business. According to Michelle: "Developing a clear and well-communicated vision and recruiting people who can be advocates of that vision makes a real difference to the culture within your business. It makes a difference to how your staff act and it makes your staff stand taller and act in a more passionate way themselves."

But, Michelle is keen to point out, being a strong leader doesn't mean being bullish. In fact, she says, one of the biggest barriers to business growth is, "being closed-off to new ideas or closed-off to help and advice from other people." Which is probably why one of the most common characteristics shared by successful businesses, in Michelle's experience, is having a mentor.

Open-minded, flexible approach

"Finding someone who has been there before, who you can sense-check what you're doing and bounce ideas off can make a huge difference," she says. "Often businesses that don't do so well, are those with a tendency to think that they've got all the answers or that theirs is the only way.

"Being willing to listen to the advice of others can be the difference between failure and success," she continues.

This same degree of open-mindedness and flexibility is important when it comes to strategy, Michelle points out. "Businesses in search of growth need a strategy that is ambitious, but realistic. So have that vision and the strategy to take you there, but be willing to respond to change and adapt where necessary."

Keep the faith

In 2015, Michelle was awarded an MBE for services to enterprise, an achievement that she justifiably ranks as a career highlight. So what have her extensive experiences of working with businesses taught her to date? "You've got to have a bit of faith in your vision and your plan," she observes. "Building up a business can test the dedication of even the most resilient individuals, but a dose of realism, flexibility and the tenacity to bounce back allows you to keep going and at some point, you do all the right things and it will work out. You've just got to have a bit of faith. I think running a business is as much about faith as it is about anything else."

Standing out from the crowd
Michelle's top tips for growing a business

  1. Have a solid plan, but be prepared to create a new one if circumstances change.
  2. Get a mentor. Find someone who has been there before, who will help you sense-check plans and brainstorm ideas.
  3. Find a next-generation viewpoint. Don't assume that only older, more experienced people give good advice. Young people can offer a fresh perspective.
  4. Keep talking – to government bodies, trade bodies, your bank, your accountant and your peers. They are all great sources of insight and expertise.
  5. Learn from your mistakes, and those of others. There are as many lessons to be learned from failure as there are from success.

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