What 9000 Small Businesses Taught Me

As anyone over 25 knows, life moves swiftly.  It seems like only yesterday that I was fresh out of college and pondering what in the heck I would do with my life.  But it wasn’t yesterday; it was 21 years ago.  20 years ago I was Small Business lessonsblessed to fall into a sales career that quickly gave me the opportunity to manage a small business.

I had no idea what I was doing.  But I was smart. And I liked people. And it turned out that I was good at sales. I was also blessed that the owner of that business was pretty damned smart as well, and quickly taught me business principals learned IN REAL TIME that may have taken me years to learn in a classroom.

This was all fortuitous for me, because that business owner was my boyfriend, and when I decided to leave I had to leave the career as well.   I ended up as a wholesale sales rep. and my journey over the next 15 years would result in putting me in front of thousands of small business owners.  By my conservative calculations I have spoken, one on one, with approximately 9,300 small businesses over the past 15 years.  I don’t mean a trip to the ball park speaking, I mean I’ve had the opportunity to speak, face to face, about the workings of small business with thousands of owners and managers.

All of that knowledge has given me a nearly intuitive ability to know, quickly, what businesses are successful and which ones are struggling, and why.

Here are the most crucial kernels I’ve taken away from it all:

  1. Business Planning is not optional.  Yes, I’m talking to you Mr – I’ve been in business for 30 years.  You can only run your business if it’s not running you.
  2. Truly successful businesses have a marketing budget.  I’m not saying this because I’m a marketer; for much of my career I was selling wholesale.  You may be downright shocked at how many small businesses rely entirely on word of mouth.  The ones that last through the bad times spend money building their brand awareness.
  3. Family businesses are very vulnerable when the 2nd generation takes over.  There is often resentment about ‘how much my parents worked,’ and a total lack of understanding about how many hours it takes to run a business; if you’re generation #2, beware and be smart.  You need to think like a business person and not as the child of business people.
  4. Partnership agreements are a necessity. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve seen friends and even relatives destroy their relationships when a business splits up.  Plan for how you will part first and it may very well save your relationship in the end.
  5. Staccato marketing is worthless. You can’t expect stop and go marketing to work; having a successful month and deciding to ‘try’ something one time will give you zero results.
  6. People matter more than anything.  I have been in businesses where employees are part of the ‘family,’ and in others where the owner literally steals points off the salesperson’s commission.  Guess which ones have fewer headaches and therefore much less wasted profit due to poor quality control? Don’t give employees a reason to steal from you.
  7. The customer isn’t always right.  Big businesses like Nordstroms can afford to give away the lot when someone whines; those sort of gimmes aren’t in the budget for small business.  The way to manage a bad customer is to have strict quality controls and procedures to document them.  Small claims court is a reality for many small businesses; you can avoid it if your policies and procedures are crystal clear and followed.
  8. Everyone is in Sales. This is as true for BIG business as it is small, but if everyone isn’t perfectly clear that their paycheck is paid BY THE CUSTOMER, then we have a problem.
  9. You can’t stand still. The number of times I’ve seen once great businesses whither on the vine because they stopped adapting to a changing marketplace is mind boggling.  The ability to honestly assess your business’ place and path forward in your marketplace is essential. If you can’t do it, bring in outside help.
  10. Honesty wins. It has become obvious to me that dishonest business managers lie to themselves; they pretend things are better (or worse) than they are in many segments of their business.  When you do that, you can’t measure and adjust your strategy.

Of course there’s a lot more where that came from; the US is built on the backbone of small business.  I look forward to learning even more over the next 20 years.