The first rule of strategy: know your market

The foundation for any business strategy is to know your market.  Every day we should learn something new – and that applies directly to any entrepreneur planning the future of their business.

And just as learning shouldn’t finish when you leave school or college, neither should doing your homework!

Researching your market, in terms of your product or service, geography and customer demographic, is essential. Without it, you might as well take your wares and go home before you even pitch for your first sale.

So often, it  is the case that entrepreneurs are focused on their ‘killer idea’ that they don’t consider the strategic issues that will build a robust business.

When I started Pimlico Plumbers in 1979 I knew I wasn’t the only plumber in the phone book so I had to make sure I stood out from the crowd.  I knew I could do the job well – in part thanks to an excellent apprenticeship – but in a tough economy, as was the case then as it is now, I knew that wasn’t going to be enough to make me succeed.

When I was looking for somewhere to base my business I knew I wanted to be close to the customers I wanted to serve such as the businesses and affluent homeowners across areas of the Capital including Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Knightsbridge. The basement of an estate agent’s building in Pimlico was the perfect location and so Pimlico Plumbers was born.  While being in the best location gave me quick and easy access to these areas of London, it didn’t automatically give me the right to win any customers.

And this is where my strategy really came into play.  In the past plumbing has a pretty bad reputation among the public.  Thankfully, on the whole, the industry now has a much better image and I’d like to say I’ve played a part in changing that perception.

In the late 70s and early 80s, though, the stereotype of a plumber was of a man in dirty clothes, including, of course, half-mast trousers, a gruff attitude and battered van. If I was to persuade the people who lived in my target areas to use my services then I had to challenge that perception immediately.

By ensuring that every engineer I employed turned up in a sparkling clean van, wearing a neat and striking uniform and had as much skill in dealing with the customer as they do with a wrench, we quickly set ourselves apart from the competition and our reputation established.

Of course, in any business, opportunities and market changes can and do affect a strategy.  However, opportunity should never drive strategy, but instead inform it.

Again, don’t jump in with both feet; research the opportunity to see if it will really take your business forward.

When I bought my first villa in Marbella I saw there was an opportunity to provide my plumbing and home services to the local ex-pat community.  It would have been easy to set up a man-in-a-van operation in Andalusia under the Pimlico Plumbers’ banner; however that’s not my strategy.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Spain or Surbiton, I have to be sure that I can deliver the level of quality and service that my business is renowned for, which is why, six years after first considering the idea, I launched Pimlico Plumbers in Marbella.

We are blessed with some very entrepreneurial people in the UK, and for this we should be very proud.  However, alongside that enterprising enthusiasm has to be a clear and executable strategy to make sure that a business can succeed.

Entrepreneur Charlie Mullins, who contributed this blog, is Britain’s best known plumber. Founder of Pimlico Plumbers, Charlie started his business with a bag of tools and an old van.  The company now has a turnover of £18million and employs more than 200 people.