Over the course of my 25 year career I have sat down with thousands of small business owners to discuss their biggest challenges and how to overcome them. I’ve helped many business owners, and they in turn have taught me invaluable lessons about marketing a small business.
Here are the most crucial small business lessons I’ve accrued over my career:
- 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.
- Truly successful businesses have a marketing budget. I don’t say this because I’m a marketer, I say it because it is the truth. The number one reason small businesses fail is cash flow. The way to build cash flow is to continually bring in customers. That requires marketing.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The customer isn’t always right. Big businesses like Nordstrom’s can afford to give away the lot when a customer complains; 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.
- 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.
- 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 heartbreaking. 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.
- 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 25 years.