Many long-time small business owners would agree with the line from the 1970s song by the band Faces: “I wish that I knew what I know now.”
Over years of running a small business, owners inevitably gather many lessons about how to grow and run a business more effectively. Thankfully, many of these owners are more than happy to share their insights.
Here are seven tips from several successful small business owners that are worth paying attention to:
1. Build a Support Network
For Laura Kelly, being a business owner can be an isolating experience at times. “Especially if you’re a solo business owner, you can lose touch with other business owners,” says Kelly, who 15 years ago started The Handwork Studio, a Narberth, Pennsylvania-based company that runs needlework camps and classes for kids in 10 states along the East Coast.
The crucial solution for Kelly has been to stay networked in the larger business community. That means meeting with her personal business coach for an hour every four weeks. The coach has helped her find solutions to problems and work through tough decisions with her business. She also networks on Facebook and Linkedin from the comfort of her own home.
“She walked me through some visualization exercises,” Kelly recalls. “Just that sheer exercise of removing myself from the business and looking down on it really helped me see the problems that were bothering me. In an hour’s time, I walked away with clarity and an action plan to move forward.
And then there’s the mastermind group to which Kelly belongs. She and her fellow women service business owners get together over a conference line. “We discuss problems and solutions, and we talk each other off the ledge.”
As a busy business owner, It’s tough to find time to network, but getting better at networking and making contact can pay dividends in the future.
2. Be Very Specific With Your Goals
Another lesson Kelly has learned over the years: break big goals into smaller ones. “I have 10-year goals, I have 3-year goals and 1-year goals, and I have quarterly goals for my business,” she says. “When it come to revenues, I will break them into smaller numbers so they’re easier to obtain. If I know I need to make a couple hundred thousand in revenue in the first quarter, I say, ‘What does that mean in terms of camp sales? How many campers do I need to obtain?’ If I know I need 800 campers to reach the revenue goal, then it’s easier to figure out how to achieve it. These kinds of really specific goals can drive your actions.”
Every employee at The Handwork Studio has a dashboard with their goals on it which shows their progress toward those goals. It helps keep everyone focused, Kelly adds: “I can tell you at any exact moment how much revenue we have, the traffic of our website and how many Facebook likes we have.”
Building a performance-driven culture all starts with being very specific about goals– for yourself and your employees.
3. Delegate Whenever Possible
When the Marks Group, a technology consultancy, started in 1994, it was just Gene Marks and his dad. “He was doing sales and I was doing service,” Marks recalls. Then his dad died. “When he passed away, I took it over and realized I couldn’t do it all, and hired some new employees. I’ve learned that you can make a lot more money when you have other people doing it for you.”
As he hired more people, it dawned on Marks that he had been doing work that he was pretty bad at doing. The revenue of the business soared as he brought on new people because he was hiring people who were better than him at certain jobs. “I just sort of learned the hard way: focus on what you do best, and delegate the rest.”
4. Keep Your Overhead Low
Eight years ago, it dawned on Marks that he was just sitting in an office costing nearly $30,000 a year in rent, while his employees were out working with clients. So Marks got rid of the office in suburban Philadelphia and made his workforce virtual. Along the way, he replaced the landline with an Internet-based phone that cost about $10 a month, and he ditched computer servers for the cloud, too.
Lowering the overhead brought Marks some peace of mind through the Great Recession. “When things turn bad, you don’t have to panic, because you can take a cut in revenue,” Marks says. “Even in the brunt of the recession, we never lost money. Cutting down overhead really gives you that peace of mind. If your overhead is low, you can make pricing decisions that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to make.”
5. Find Your Best Niche—and Stick With It
Trying to do too much too soon? Feel like you need to be all things to all clients? Maybe diversifying isn’t always the best strategy. Sometimes, it’s good to replicate the magic if you have something that works really well. That’s been the successful strategy for Ace Apparel, says Marc Mathios, who along with his two brothers are the third generation to run the 78-year-old family business.
“One of the industry silos that we’re really good in is parking garage operators,” Mathios says. “The reason that parking garage operators like to work with us is because we manufacture our own line of jacket that’s suited for parking garage companies. … We’ve duplicated that success with 30 different parking garage operators across North America.”
Finding your niche and continually innovating around that niche is a path to success.
6. Keep Your Day Job Just a Little Longer
It is a common trap: A person gets excited by a small business idea, quits his or her day job—and then runs out of money and fails.
Spanx founder Sara Blakely credits her success to the fact that she actually kept her day job as an office equipment salesperson for two years, learning to work with minimal sleep as she got her form-fitting shapewear company off the ground. Blakely did not want to resign from her day job until she was absolutely sure her small business idea would work, according to Forbes.
By the time Blakely resigned in 2000 from what was then office equipment supplier Danka, she had already spent countless nights and weekends studying pantyhose design and existing patents. She would drive from her Atlanta home to North Carolina, where she sought out hosiery mills willing to make the product.
“There were days that I’d be at Danka all day and the semi trucks would drop boxes of Spanx outside my apartment. … I resigned on October 14, 2000. I quit Danka and two and a half weeks later I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show,” Blakely says.
7. Avoid Distractions at All Costs
A few years ago, Seattle-based content marketing company AudienceBloom was operating so swimmingly that its founder and CEO Jayson DeMers decided he could get away with focusing on a second startup that he was intrigued with. DeMers would come to regret the decision.
“Running a company ‘just fine’ is not what an entrepreneur’s job is,” DeMers says. “Successful entrepreneurs don’t do the minimum for their company; they constantly work to grow it, evolve it, and prepare it for the future. Because I was splitting my team between the two startups, growth stalled at my first company, and I didn’t have enough time to dedicate to the new startup to make it successful.”
Eventually, the second venture failed. AudienceBloom was able to grow again once DeMers was able to focus his full attention on it. “I learned that a successful venture requires 100 percent attention, focus, and effort. Secondary ventures need a full-time manager or else they’ll just distract you and derail your existing efforts if you aren’t careful.”
Avoiding distractions applies to managing yourself so you get stuff done on a day-to-day basis too. “I know when I’m smart and when I’m dumb” says Marks. “I save the big tasks for the morning when I’m smartest, and do the monotonous ones when I’m dumb at the end of the day.” Keeping yourself organized and on-task is the real key to small business success.
Next Steps: You’re busy. We get it. So why not let us do some work for you? By signing up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter, you’ll receive hand-picked articles, How-Tos and videos covering the latest in small biz tools and trends. We’ll do the research while you spend your time where it counts: managing and growing your business.