Small business owners come from different backgrounds and, many times, different skill sets. Regardless of whether your background is in sales, marketing, or a technical background, there are some things I’ve observed every small business owner needs to learn to successfully run a thriving business.
Over the course of my 35+ years in small business, I learned about some of these things the hard way, some just made sense and felt natural, and some I learned by observing others. This list is not all-inclusive by any means, but merely a list of some of the most important lessons I believe are critical to building a successful small business.
Leadership Makes a Difference:
I’m convinced there is a big difference between leading people and managing them. Don’t get me wrong; the ability to manage people and process is an important part of running a growing business. What’s more, I believe this applies to the restaurant down the street, the bodega on the corner, or the merchant on Main Street as much as it does the high-tech standout across town. Nevertheless, I’ve observed that most people want to contribute to something a little bigger than they are. More than a paycheck, the mission and vision of your business, and your ability to inspire your employees with that vision, are what gives them a reason to show up every day, give their best efforts, and help you run a thriving business.
Fortunately, I think anyone motivated enough can learn what it takes to become a great leader—even if they don’t feel like they have the natural charisma or qualities of those they associate with leadership. A few years ago, my oldest son gave me a copy of Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last. When you open the cover, the first thing you’ll read is:
Leaders are the ones who run headfirst into the unknown.
They rush toward the danger.
They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future.
Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours
And they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs.
This is what it means to be a leader.
It means they choose to go first into danger, headfirst toward the unknown.
And when we feel sure they will keep us safe,
We will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life and proudly call ourselves their followers.
I was drawn in by this description of leadership and you should know, leadership isn’t randomly at the top of my list. I’ve worked with some great leaders over the course of my career, as well as some horrible leaders. And, I have to admit I’ve even noticed myself on either side of that continuum a time or two. What makes a great leader? Read the above list again.
See the Big Picture, but Mind the Details
I’ve observed there are basically two types of people who tend to be at the helm of failing small businesses. Those that focus on micromanaging the minutiae of running the day-to-day affairs of their businesses at the exclusion of giving attention to the big picture; and those that see the big picture, but fail to pay attention to the details. The most successful business owners, those that run a thriving business, seem to be those who can see the big picture, but are mindful of the details.
This can be a big challenge in a small business where, as business owner, in addition to everything else you do you balance the checkbook, manage all the employees, are the chief salesperson, do the marketing, and pay all the bills. It can be very easy to get bogged down in the daily grind of things you need to do and forget to think about your vision of what your business can become. It’s also just as easy to put off all the nitty-gritty and focus on grand visions.
I met Dick Cross, one of the smartest and most intuitive business leaders I’ve ever met, when I interviewed him about his book, Just Run It! He argued that being the CEO (or the business leader) was an important job and required that person to spend time doing it. In other words, if you want to run a thriving business, you can’t sit on the sidelines. He suggested that most CEOs spend their time in sales, operations, or other parts of the business where they feel the most comfortable. He asserts that spending at least one hour every week away from all the distractions of email, the phone, etc. to just think about the business was the first step to being a good CEO.
He also acknowledged that it’s hard to do. Putting down the phone and stepping away from all the other things you might feel you should otherwise be doing might feel like it’s not doing anything, but investing the time to really think about your business is a critical part of success. I think he would agree; that you need to spend time thinking about the big picture, but mind the details.
Your Brand Matters
I’m not talking about your brand in terms of your logo or your corporate colors. Those are just the superficial window-dressing to your brand. Your brand is your values, and how you act on those values at every point of contact with your customers—and your employees.
I think anyone in business would agree that it’s important to treat your customers well. But, you can’t stop there. The really successful businesses also understand that when they put their customers’ needs first, they build lasting relationships that are more profitable in the long run. It doesn’t really take very long before your customers will recognize whether or not you really have their best interests at heart.
This also applies to your employees. Why is that important? In many ways, your employees are a reflection of the things you value. Not necessarily the things you say you value, but the things your actions demonstrate you really value. And, how you treat your employees will be reflected by them to your customers.
Here’s how it works. A friend of mine once told me about a situation where he had to scold his daughter. She didn’t take it very well and shortly afterward she pinched her younger brother, who kicked their dog, who then snapped at their cat. He said he had to step outside because he didn’t want his kids to see him laugh at them—although the chain of events was a laughable snapshot into human nature. In other words, you need to demonstrate the behavior you want your employees to exhibit to your customers by modeling it by how you interact with them. Your brand matters.
Paying Only What You Can Get Away With is Too Expensive
There’s a big difference between paying someone fairly, based upon what you’re able to pay, and paying someone the least amount you can get away with. Having been both an employer and an employee, I’ve learned that people want to be treated fairly and nobody likes to think they are being taken advantage of.
I once had an incredibly talented employee who was being recruited by another company that could afford to pay him a substantial bit more than I could. I was paying him as much as I could afford to pay him for his level of expertise and I agreed he was worth more, but I just couldn’t afford it. As a result, I tried to find other ways I could make earning a little less worth it for him.
As we talked about the new job offer, I told him I couldn’t match the offer, but reminded him of the other things I was trying to do to make working for me worth the few dollars more he could make someplace else. He decided to stay with me. He knew I was paying him fairly, that I wasn’t trying to cheat him, and he trusted me. I learned then that you don’t need to offer the highest salary as long as it’s fair and your not trying to get away with paying as little as you can.
Paying as little as you can get away with can be expensive if your best employees find others who are willing to pay more. Many times, being fair and as generous as you can be is the way to keep your best people.
I’ve been very fortunate to have great mentors and employees over the course of my career who helped me learn these lessons. Some of them are probably things you’ve heard before or lessons you’ve even learned yourself. I’ve observed, over the years, that these lessons are fairly universal and embraced by many successful business owners.