My wife and I support small business in a big way. We spend thousands of dollars a year on wine, food, books, gifts, and merchandise from the independent stores that line our historic downtown. I’ll do my part on Small Business Saturday, too. Small businesses owners are the foundation of our economy and the face of American entrepreneurship. While their customers ‘Shop Small’ on Saturday, business owners should think big the rest of the year.

I’ve seen many small businesses come and go. As an author of books and columns on communication and customer service I study which ones make it and which ones don’t. Small businesses owners who thrive share one common trait—they think big.

For example, I used to visit a small coffee shop on my way to the office. The owner was friendly, the tables were large and the coffee was okay. In other words, average. But as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reminds us, in today’s ultra-competitive business environment average only guarantees below average results. Eighteen months after the coffee shop opened the owner told me she would be shutting down.

“Why?” I asked. “You told me that sales were going up every month.”

“A new grocery store is opening next door and they’ll be serving coffee,” she responded.

I was perplexed. A new grocery meant new life, more traffic, and fresh opportunities to reach a broader market. But this particular owner was thinking small. The grocery store did open. It’s very nice and the parking lot is full of customers, reinvigorating an old strip mall that was badly in need of a makeover. Yes, it does serve coffee, but it’s not very good and the service is average at best. Thinking small had prevented this business owner from seeing a big opportunity.

Now let’s travel to Santa Monica, California. Regular readers of my column might remember an article I wrote about an independent coffee shop that sells an $80 cup of coffee—Funnel Mill. The particular coffee is served by appointment only and the beans sell for up to $1,000 a pound. The price isn’t the point since you can buy a $4 espresso drink as well. The point is that the owner was thinking big, traveling the world and studying coffee for five years before he opened the store. He committed himself to specializing in rare coffees and teas and using innovative preparation techniques to create the best cup of coffee his customers had ever tasted. Today Hollywood actors, agents, and producers frequent the independent coffee shop when they could easily walk into the major coffee chains down the street. The chains didn’t scare the owner because he wasn’t thinking small. Instead he asked himself a big picture question: 

How can I offer my customers an experience they won’t get anywhere else?

I was once invited to deliver a keynote speech to business owners for a small group of independent sporting good stores. These leaders knew they couldn’t compete with the national brands on price or selection so they chose to focus on creating an exceptional customer experience. They shared some internal data with me. When a large sporting good store would open in town, the independent store’s sales took an immediate hit. However, within two to four months, sales would gradually rise, eventually surpassing where they were before the big box store came to town. Why? The big store drew new customers but it couldn’t compete on service.

Once again the small business owners asked the big question:

How can we offer our customers an experience they won’t get anywhere else?

Sometimes thinking big means learning from big brands and then doing things a little better than your competitors. In the area of customer service the Disney Institute offers professional development courses in leadership, employee engagement and customer service based on the time-tested principles of the Walt Disney company. The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center offers courses on creating an exceptional customer experience.

Speaking of The Ritz-Carlton I was enjoying dinner at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Atlanta. The young man filling my water glass was friendly and talkative. I struck up a conversation and learned that his dream was to return home and open his own restaurant.

“So why are you serving here?” I asked. “You’re 1,000 miles from home.”

“I want to learn from the best,” he said. I regret not asking for the server’s contact information because I’m sure he must have made it big precisely because he wasn’t thinking small.

If you’re a small business owner, I sincerely hope that you do well on Saturday and make a lot of sales. As I said, I’ll do my part to help. But I urge you to get up on Sunday morning and ask yourself the one question that will attract customers all year long: How can I offer my customers an experience they won’t get anywhere else?”


This article was written by Carmine Gallo from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.