Business growth in 2020: A guide for owners

Small business owners are doing everything they can to stay afloat amid the economic effects of the coronavirus.

QuickBooks Live Bookkeeping surveyed 1,068 small business owners1 to find out whether coronavirus has forced them to shift and where they’re focusing most of their efforts. The QuickBooks Live survey reveals why many are struggling to find effective business growth strategies right now, and we offer some pro tips for getting started on your own growth plan.

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Survival first, growth second

With the unprecedented events of 2020, many businesses have gone from growing to just getting by. While 85% of survey respondents say revenue grew from 2018 to 2019, three-quarters (75%) say their business has been hurt by COVID-19, which impacts their bottom line.

Changes in revenue mean changes to everyday operations.

The overwhelming majority of the survey respondents (88%) says COVID-19 has affected their business operations. This means almost 1 in 4 (23%) business owners are personally taking on more day-to-day tasks as they adapt to survive.

Too stuck in the weeds to focus on growth

The study found that small business owners spend, on average, 31 hours a week on day-to-day business operations. But almost two-thirds (65%) say their businesses would be better positioned for long-term growth if they could take a step back and look at the bigger picture again.

Even so, 97% of small business owners say they personally manage at least one area of business operations.

These are the top six business operations most likely to be managed personally by business owners, according to the QuickBooks Live survey:

  1. Payroll 49%
  2. Sales 42%
  3. Human resources 41%
  4. Marketing 40%
  5. Customer service 40%
  6. Bookkeeping 34%

Pro tip: Identify your growth stage and set your priorities

The growth stage you're in dictates where to invest the most time and energy. In the Harvard Business Review, Neil C. Churchill and Virginia L. Lewis describe five stages of business growth: existence, survival, success, take-off, and maturity.

Many businesses have been pushed back into the

"existence" and "survival" phases in 2020 - where the owner shoulders many of the operations responsibilities. Michael E. Gerber describes this phenomenon as working "in" your business not "on" your business. Are you currently working more in your business than on it? How could you better align your priorities with your daily work?


The overwhelming majority of the survey respondents say COVID-19 has affected their business operations.

97% of small business owners say they personally manage at least one area of business operations.

Top 3 growth strategies, according to business owners

Business owners would rather make big plans than take on tasks like bookkeeping and payroll.

98% of respondents say they'd prefer to focus more of their time on business growth or searching for a competitive advantage.

81% agree that focusing on business planning and growth is a better use of their time than day-to-day operations management.

These are the top three ways business owners prefer to spend their time, according to the QuickBooks Live survey:

  1. Developing business strategies 36%
  2. Making a direct impact on customers 31%
  3. Innovating products and services 31%

Pro tip: Get real about your strengths and weaknesses

For some, success means stability. For others, success means freeing up time for new ventures or rapid expansion of their existing business. The former may keep you more involved in day-to-day operational planning, while growth, according to the HBR analysis, requires strategic planning and delegation to managers. Know your weaknesses as a leader as well as your strengths.

Ask yourself, "Would I hire myself to do this job?" If the answer is no, consider delegation or outsourcing.

Delegating to ease stress and boost growth

It's one thing to know the secret to business growth is getting out of the daily grind. But the benefits of operating above the fray extend far beyond growth.

Nearly half (45%) of business owners surveyed say the top benefit of taking a step back would be less stress, and they'd expect to be less stressed within 30 days if they were able to outsource or delegate some of their work to others.

Pro tip: Choose your growth strategy and take a step back

Picking a strategy requires taking a meaningful step back to prioritize the future over everyday tasks. In his book "The Breakthrough Company," Keith McFarland analyzes six potential growth strategies: market penetration, market development, alternative channels, product development, new products for new customers, and acquisition.

How do small business owners spend their time?

The dream

  1. Strategy
  2. Impacting customers
  3. Product/service innovation
  4. Selling to customers
  5. New partnership opportunities
  6. Securing investment

The reality

  1. Payroll
  2. Sales
  3. Human resources
  4. Marketing
  5. Customer service
  6. Bookkeeping

45% of the business owners surveyed say the top benefit of taking a step back would be less stress.

Many are reluctant to let go of the reins

Plenty of business owners - even those who think they're delegating appropriately - have a tough time getting out of their own way.

The majority of business owners surveyed (97%) say they consider themselves good delegators who know when to assign tasks to others.

Even so, 96% of the survey respondents admit they are reluctant to let go of the reins and delegate. That's even harder when cash flow is tight and it's hard to find potential customers.

The top three reasons small business owners give for not stepping away from the operational side of their business are:

  1. I prefer to keep it under my control 36%
  2. I enjoy doing it myself 31%
  3. It's critical that I have a grasp on it 31%

Pro tip: Understand what good delegation means

What does delegation mean to you? Good delegation isn't a total absence of responsibility. It's a mindset that allows managers and their teams to make mistakes and learn from them, according to the HBR. With clear guidelines for what is and isn't considered acceptable performance, you can better define what good delegation means to your business, and take another step toward faster growth.


of the survey respondents admit they are reluctant to let go of the reins and delegate.

The secret to business growth today and beyond

1. Keep sight of the big picture

When you're running a business, it's easy to get pulled away from big-picture goals and into day-to-day operations. Take a step back to track your business's progress against your goals.

Then prioritize your time around activities that get you to the next growth stage fastest. If you're stuck in survival mode, what processes can you streamline?

Dedicate time to invest in strategic thinking and participate in activities focused on growing your business.

2. Delegate what you can

You might be better positioned if you leave everyday business tasks to the experts, sooner rather than later. Remember, 65% of business owners say they'd be better positioned for growth if they freed up time by working on fewer business operations themselves.

Get a clear understanding of where your strengths - and weaknesses - lie so you can get the support you need. Who's best suited to take care of tasks like payroll, sales, human resources, marketing, customer service, or bookkeeping? Some options could be re-assigning job duties, hiring a new staff member, investing in a do-it-for-you software solution, or outsourcing.

With more tasks off your plate, you'll be able to shift your focus back to business growth.

3. Trust your experts to do good work

Small business owners are proud of the businesses they've built. 38% say they wouldn't't want to outsource business operations because they prefer to keep them under their control. But many business operations are challenging and come with heavy consequences if someone makes a mistake.

Perhaps that's why so many business owners want help handling their finances. 22% would prefer to outsource payroll to a vendor, 17% would outsource tax preparation and filing, and 16% would outsource bookkeeping. Are you ready to step back, hire good people, and trust them to do a good job?

Looking toward the future

At any time, a small business's growth is dependent on its leader's decisions. But leaders can inhibit their own growth by spending too much time in the business and not enough time developing the business.

As your small business recovers from COVID-19, consider the leader you want to become and your hopes for the future. The time you spend building strategies today could be what makes your business stronger tomorrow.

To learn more about the ins-and-outs of bookkeeping take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Bookkeeping. If you want to free up time to focus on business growth, you can learn more about virtual bookkeeping here.

Focus on your business, not your books.

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