As part of my job to help small businesses implement Saas software solutions, I have counseled thousands over the years. As a part of this conversation, I often came to know the business in more depth, and I have visited many of the great ones in person. These are the lessons I learned, which seem simple, but like most simple things, extraordinarily difficult to execute well. I have seen first hand the hard work and delicate balancing act entrepreneurs perform in order to create a successful small business. These business owners are my heroes, some of them are my friends, and this blog is written in honor of those things they do amazingly well every day.
First, Customer Service
As a small business, you cannot afford to be merely as just as good as the guy down the street. You have to be better. All other things being equal, the point of differentiation is the service you offer. Every single experience a customer has with your business is a part of customer service. If you have a storefront, or even just a virtual one on your website, it should be welcoming, open and inviting. Customers should be greeted warmly and given attention throughout their time with you. Time and care should be taken to understand their needs and to exceed their expectations whenever possible. Customer service is both a mindset and a skill. If you don't emphasize it, and spend time practicing as a team, your employees will grow complacent and service will suffer.
You don't have to know about every kind of marketing there is, or spend thousands of dollars on an expensive advertising campaign. Pick 1-3 different marketing strategies that make sense for your business and execute them thoroughly and wholeheartedly. Measure the results, and iterate on your approach. Even if word of mouth is your strongest marketing vehicle, find ways to amplify the voice, by using social media and implementing easy and rewarding ways for your customers to refer their friends. A strong set of return customers is important, but you need a steady influx of new customers to maintain a strong business.
Third, Measurement and Metrics
This isn't a place to go crazy, but you should know the financial fundamentals that drive your business, and what your biggest areas of both profit and cost are. At any moment in time, understanding your business is key to making adjustments that help move the needle in a positive direction. If you don't know how to get started with operational measurements, expand your relationship with your accountant. Having a small business accountant beyond your tax preparation needs, that can be your business advisor, is important enough that it should actually be a separate recommendation.
Fourth, Focus and Plan
These two things go hand in hand. When you know what you are hoping to accomplish for the upcoming year, you can evaluate opportunities that come your way with that plan in mind. A small business cannot be all things to all people, so you need to know who your customer is, how to reach them, and what you're capable of doing. Be sure to communicate this plan and ensure everyone is on the same page. That requires repetition of goals and fundamentals, measurement and acknowledgement of progress, and discussion about setbacks or changes in direction. It also means that you'll be more effective and better able to balance the many challenges you face on a daily basis.
Fifth, Know Yourself
This is true whether you're the owner of the business or an employee in a small business. Know what you're good at, what people think of you, what you're not so good at and where you're hoping to improve. Being transparent about this, and using others to fill in where they are strong and you are not, is key to moving forward. You should also know when you're reaching your limits; running a small business is really hard work! And it requires a consistent and constant level of energy from you to meet its goals. If you aren't such a self-aware person, be sure to surround yourself with people who tell the truth, and listen to what they have to say (even when it's difficult). Then learn from it, and learn to recognize yourself the way others do.
For many, networking is a dirty word that sounds a lot like a waste of time, small talk and a wine glass. It isn't. Or at least, it doesn't have to be. Networking is simply a way of keeping in touch with people who know things you don't, who are in the same or similar industry, or who have something to offer you in thinking about your business or personal growth. It can take whatever form you want it to. To maintain these relationships, simply reach out periodically to share something meaningful and try to make time to do it in person once a week. Responsibility for reaching beyond the borders of your own business to enhance what you are doing inside it is the responsibility of every business leader. As one idea, send your network this blog post, with the subject line "What do you think?"
Seventh, Evolve or Die
Sounds drastic, doesn't it? But anytime I hear a business owner say that they've been doing business this way or that way for 20+ years and they don't need any input or they don't need to change, an alarm bell goes off (silently) inside my head. Every industry has been completely transformed over the last 20-30 years; to pretend this isn't the case is to stifle and eventually kill your business completely. Keep in touch with what is going on with your industry and your peers, and when you have those after work beers, occasionally invite the new kids, who are just starting out. They'll benefit from your wisdom and you'll benefit from their fresh approaches. Seek out the people who are known for being modern and ahead of the curve. The surprising thing about people is, even when they're very busy, they really enjoy helping other people. You and your old-fashioned questions might just be the best part of their day. And if you're the new kid, don't be smug. Not every lesson has to be learned the hard way, and seasoned entrepreneurs have a lot to offer about what works and what doesn't.
A big thank you to my genius accountant friend Cathy Iconis, who after I had a version of this conversation with her, suggested I write this blog.