Whether the economy is up or down, no matter what is happening in the world, most small business owner’s work hard anyway. It’s never been easy to start a business, nurture its growth and succeed in any line of business. It’s competitive, more so in some industries than others, but every butcher, baker, candlestick maker or software developer started the same way – small.
There are an astronomical number of variables that are involved in any business success, certainly, but there are also some truisms that seem to apply always and everywhere. The primary ingredient in success, of course, is not genius, creativity, a college education or a lot of working capital. The key is persistence, pure and simple.
Of course, it pays to be persistent with some genius, creativity, a college education and a lot of working capital, plus a few other things. If you are starting or running a small business, much can be learned from those who have gone before you. Whether their firms grew to be international conglomerates or found their sweet spots as a profitable SMB (Small- and Medium-sized Business), business owners that have taken their companies from “smaller” to “bigger” can impart a great deal of useful information to you. You can learn a lot from them.
The following big business secrets to increase your small business success are not in any particular order. They do share a few things in common. They don’t cost any money, not directly at any rate, and most are related to your attitudes, work habits and way of thinking. There’s a proverb that says, “As a man thinks, so he is,” and there is much truth in it. Your attitude is one of the most important ingredients of your business success formula, assuming that you follow up the thinking and planning with action and energy.
1. Business plan: Just about every big business achieves and maintains its success by following a business plan. If you don’t have one, you are courting disaster. A thorough business plan, besides being required by bankers and investors, is your map to the future, your primary operations manual and a major component of your firm’s very identity. If you don’t know how to create one, there are many free templates and much good advice on the Internet, as well as from the Small Business Administration and other sources.
2. Strategy: The business plan will contain an overview of your company’s strategy and goals, but you should flesh these out more fully for yourself (and other employees, if you have any). One business analyst compares these strategic documents to a battle plan, indicating where to focus efforts and allocate resources, as well as pointing out the challenges and obstacles ahead. You need to learn how to think strategically.
3. Tactics: Tactics differ from strategy, in that they are the actual action steps that you take to execute the strategic plan. The strategy may be to capture business for your photography studio by marketing your service to schools in your area, while the tactics may involve personal visits, phone calls, e-mail, flyers or (better yet) some combination. Big companies have entire departments (marketing) devoted to developing promotional tactics.
4. Negotiation: Big companies negotiate everything, and some small business owners erroneously think that GM or GE can do so simply because of their size. But that is only part of it. Everything from financial matters to employee relations can benefit from firm, honest negotiation, regardless of the amount of money involved. As far as dealing with your own vendors when buying supplies, raw materials, etc., don’t be afraid to negotiate everything – the price, discounts, delivery charges, restocking fees or any other cost. The same attitude should prevail in your dealings with your employees, if you have any. Good negotiators, like good salespeople, cultivate their listening skills, and listen even more than they speak. Listen closely to people, and they will tell you what you need to know to sell, manage or persuade them. They may not do so directly, so learn to “listen between the lines.”
5. Professionalism: It is great to have a comfortable, even casual workplace, as far as dress code and first names and so forth. The most successful big businesses have learned, however, to communicate to their employees the importance of professionalism. Although the term applies to several things – appropriate clothes, polite language, respect for others, etc. – primarily it has to do with an employee giving their employer a day’s work for a day’s pay. The balance is often hard to maintain in small firms, where everyone knows everyone else and people are in close proximity to one another. But excessive visiting, gossiping and talking on the phone are real profit-killers. You and your employees should all be subject to the same rule here, which can be reduced to a simple, “Work during work time, visit during breaks and lunch.” It’s tough to break old habits, but productivity will suffer if employees are not attending to their tasks.
6. Efficiency: While professionalism means, among other things, working when you’re supposed to be working, efficiency is achieved by working “smart.” One good example goes by many names, but the “4F Method” is catchy and easy to remember. It has to do with paper handling, which is not restricted to white-collar office workers. Shipping and receiving personnel deal with mountains of paper, too. Big businesses teach their employees variants of the 4F Method, which gives you four choices of what to do with a document that comes across your desk (or forklift) – Finish, Forward, File or Flush. You would Finish the report your boss gave you, Forward the memo about the meeting, File the receipt for the supplies you bought and Flush (throw away, shred, burn, whatever) last week’s flyer for the receptionist’s baby shower. Another big business tip that has grown in popularity concerning paperwork instructs workers to “Handle it once.”
7. Clairvoyance: All right, you’re correct – no one can really predict the future. However, big businesses put a lot of brainpower into staying abreast of developments, and not just in their own industries. Obviously, companies whose management teams were aware of the problems showing up in various economic indicators last year (freight indexes, purchasing agent reports, manufacturing volumes, etc.) were at least somewhat better prepared for the credit crunch and layoffs of 2008 and 2009. You cannot bank on any psychic help (why aren’t all psychics richer than Gates and Buffett?) but you certainly can stay on top of things, the most important of which are (1) what’s happening in your particular industry, (2) what’s happening in the U.S. and the world (economics, politics, trade, etc.), (3) what’s happening with your finances and (4) what’s happening with your customers’ finances. Stay informed, stay involved and you will be able to navigate somewhat more easily through economic turmoil.
None of this is easy, and nothing is guaranteed to bring you riches. The list of “big business tips for small business” could go on for many pages, of course. If you adopt some of the thinking that has worked for others, however, you stand a better chance in the always competitive, always unpredictable world of business – whether your company is big, small or in between.