From the top 23 October 2018

The 4 lessons I learned from more than a decade running a business

“Being resistant to trends and movement in your sector will simply mean you’re left behind.”

From people to pragmatism, Kevin Lyons, director at structural engineering firm Lyons O’Neill, reveals the key lessons learned after running a business for over 10 years.

We recently reached the end of our “tin” or “aluminium” year in business. Though this sounds fitting for a firm of engineers, it’s also a huge achievement. In business years, over a decade of trading is a precious accolade, with the RSA Insurance Group estimating that 55% of businesses fail to reach even half that time. And the RSA’s report even singled out the construction industry as the sector which struggles the most, with five-year survival rates of companies set at 44%.

When it comes to business anniversaries, we like to think that getting past ten (soon to be eleven) is the diamond standard.

But that’s not to say the past eleven years have all been plain sailing. The construction industry can bring with it choppy waters and, as with any business, there have been obstacles along the way. Challenges have been navigated, business lessons learned and wisdom acquired. So, as our 11th anniversary dawns, what are the lessons we’ve learned from over a decade of doing business? Read on for my top tips to reach ten years.

  1. Be willing to adapt

Business is all about adapting – there’s a reason Darwinian evolutionary theory and “survival of the fittest” is used to describe its process. Just because a particular industry may be traditional and have a long history, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be open to innovation and change. The latest technology isn’t just the preserve of new app start-ups and the construction industry is a perfect example of this.

Kevin Lyons

BIM (Building Information Modelling; using computers to map a project in 3D) is becoming big in the sector, helping architects, engineers and construction workers plan and execute a project with maximum precision and efficiency.

Change may be uncomfortable and even scary but being resistant to trends and movement in your sector will simply mean you’re left behind.

And, keeping at the forefront of developments will attract others to your business, helping you stand out from competitors and demonstrate forward-thinking.

For example, we recently used a new 3D communications software called Kubity, on a £35m project. Kubity is the first mixed reality multiplex, using AR and VR to model structures and their specifications, and adding QR codes to each of our drawings to allow them to be easily accessed on tablets and phones, both in the office and onsite.

Pioneering this new technology on the project was unchartered territory, but resulted in significantly fewer Requests For Information and even led our contractor to extend its use to other projects. Refusing to adapt to change won’t make it go away, so you must constantly seek to innovate.

  1. The people make the team

Yes, business is about profit margins but it’s the people on your team who will keep you in the black. Hiring a team who not only gel together but also bring with them a diverse set of skills and backgrounds is key to keeping your company dynamic and successful. Creating a positive work environment is crucial and I’ve found that encouraging collaboration is key to this.



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We ensure all our projects have director input, meaning no one feels at sea and that instead of a tense hierarchy there’s a real team atmosphere. In fact, some of the best ideas on projects have come from discussing projects as a full team.

As an employer, it’s also important to recognise the supportive role you play for your employees, and we offer a flexible office environment. Investing time and effort in your people is one of the most significant ways you can foster growth in your business.

  1. Practice pragmatic optimism

All businesses will have their ups and downs and it’s naive not to expect this. But this doesn’t mean you should have a pessimistic attitude about your company and its future – in fact, this is a sure fire way to see it fold. What you need to practice is pragmatic optimism: believing in your business and your people but keeping your eyes open to any current as well as future risks.

It’s not a sign of weakness to admit problem areas or seek expert help for certain situations; it is weakness to let your pride stand in the way and refuse to take steps to strengthen your company.

When you’re running a business, it’s easy to get caught up with the day-to-day projects but it’s vital to have a sight of the bigger picture and where you company is going as a whole. Schedule in time to discuss this with the rest of your management team, not just to make sure everyone’s on the same page but that you’re really capitalising on each opportunity which comes your way – or which you make.

  1. Results rely on relationships

Anyone in construction – and business – will tell you that a company can live or die on its client relationships. This is more than schmoozing or flattering a client, as anyone can see through you where there’s no substance. It’s about maintaining open lines of communication, being honest about any issues, and being proactive in seeking out solutions.

Repeat business with a client is the holy grail, not only because it secures future revenue, but because it makes the whole process much more enjoyable. Awards may be nice (and I’m not complaining when we win them!) but real industry recognition comes from happy clients who become your business ambassadors and spread the word on your behalf.

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