This editorial feature on decision makers’ tips and “secret weapons” is sponsored by HP
Running a small business can be exceptionally rewarding, providing the opportunity to be your own boss and create jobs. But it’s also incredibly difficult, and success or failure is yours to bear alone.
For a little insight and inspiration, we talked to several successful, highly motivated small business owners to find out how they make it work every day.
Founders and business owners from around the U.S. shared their “secret weapon” that’s helped them succeed. For some, it’s a must-have technology. For others, it’s a key management technique or a personal productivity hack. In all, it’s the thing that sets them apart and gives them an edge.
Pure Fix is a Burbank, California-based producer of customisable bicycles. Schau says his secret weapon for business success is SumAll, a tool for small-business analytics.
It helps provide data on the impact of social networks like Facebook and Instagram, as well as analysing the profit spread between wholesale and retail credit card purchases to see if customers were affected at all by a website relaunch.
'SumAll for us is simply a tool that helps us to quickly spot issues and make sure we are on the right track,' said Schau. 'It gives us immediate insights, which we can use to adjust our marketing tactics or implement other changes that help us serve our customers and grow our sales.'
Polachi has co-founded three different executive firms. His current business started in 2002.
His secret weapon is remarkably low-tech and helps keep him focused:
'When I drive to work or walk around Boston, you'll often see me speaking aloud,' Polachi said. 'And while many may look at it as if I'm speaking to myself, I'm actually using a dictating machine to create my 'to-do' items. Once in the office, I'll transcribe the list into a spiral notebook and prioritise the list.'
He breaks the list into groups:
A. Must do, top priority
B. Hope to do, medium priority
C. If not done, no big deal, low priority
'This is a weapon I've been using for years,' he says. 'With the prevalence of smartphones, it's as easy as ever for someone to dictate notes and thoughts whenever necessary, but is still often overlooked. Being able to organise and prioritise the day is a skill most successful entrepreneurs exhibit.'
BlueGrace, a Riverview, Fla.-based logistics franchise, has grown a whopping 394% since its founding in 2009.
Harris, the founder and CEO, says his secret weapon is a culture that puts a premium on trust. He won't hire anyone he doesn't trust to access the company's files or social media accounts.
The active Twitter account is used by all employees and isn't monitored by leadership. Everyone in the office, including Harris, switch offices and cubicles with one another and leaves company information unlocked. At BlueGrace, Harris says employees are trusted to act like adults.
Boomershine founded cinda b, a handbag, tote, and accessories company, in 2004.
Her secret weapon is the Kaizen Method, the famous manufacturing system developed by Toyota, which focuses on continuous improvement and eliminating waste. It's completely changed her business, she says.
'We began implementing the Kaizen Method (Japanese for 'change for the better') several months ago,' Boomershine says, 'and it has dramatically improved every aspect of the business, from manufacturing the bags to developing sales collateral. It has also helped streamline our systems and processes, giving us a more predictable work flow and improved efficiency across the board.'
'Implementing this method wasn't easy -- change never is -- but in this case, it was well worth the effort,' she says.
Kelvin Natural Slush, a 4-year-old food truck and wholesale business started by ex-lawyers Zack Silverman and Alex Rein, has grown from one truck to selling their slushies around the country.
For their core mobile business, Square has been absolutely essential.
'Our favourite app, one we're huge fans of, on the retail side, is Square. I think Square is amazing,' Silverman told us. For small businesses on the go, it's a better bet than traditional point-of-sales systems, he says.
'I think we're a great example of how technology makes it easier for small businesses to compete,' Silverman says. 'Two years ago, we were looking at $US2,000 touch-screen computers, and $US2,000 sales software. Frankly, the touch-screen computers weren't very good. Square came up with Square Register, which is free except for credit card fees, and now instead of $US4,000 worth of software hardware, we buy $US400 iPads. We put Square on it, take credit cards, and we can download reports. It's a big money saver.'
FlexJobs is an online jobs resource that focuses on jobs that offer a high degree of flexibility.
Befitting a site that helps people find jobs that fit their personal schedule, she says her secret weapon is operating a virtual business without an office.
'A huge part of our success -- and a great secret weapon -- is going virtual as a business,' Fell said. 'Being a virtual company enables us (a) to focus on hiring the best people, regardless of location, and (b) empower them to work where (through telecommuting) and when (with flexible schedules) they are most productive.'
Rodnitzky's 3Q is a San Mateo-based digital marketing agency founded in 2008.
Rodnitzky's secret weapon is treating every person and company he deals with in the same courteous manner that he would a client.
'Thinking about everyone as your customer has been our secret weapon,' Rodnitzky says. 'Clients, vendors, employees -- we treat them all like customers and make them feel like they matter (because they do!). As a result, we didn't hire our first sales person until Year Five of the business but have grown 95% year over year through referrals and word of mouth.'
That means even prospects get the sort of treatment that customers get, which has supercharged client acquisition.
'We were introduced to a company that was having trouble with some YouTube advertising,' Rodnitzky says. 'Although we had not signed them up as a client, we went ahead and sent our YouTube expert over to their office and helped them with their problem. We were successful in getting them up on YouTube. Since then, not only have they become a large client, but they've also referred us to five other clients.'
Ali Peña, CEO of Forums Event Design and Production, fosters peer-to-peer recognition with a kudos board.
Peña's company, which was founded in 2000 and runs events for tech giants like SAP and CISCO, recently landed on the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing companies.
Her secret weapon is the way the company treats its employees, focusing on teamwork and ownership. One example is the company's 'kudos board,' where employees publicly congratulate each other when they've done well.
'The kudos should not go to the owners of the company but to the team members,' Peña says. 'Employees don't just want to be recognised by their managers, they want to be recognised by their peers as well.'
Employees are also encouraged to send out an email, recapping their events and highlighting how team members have helped and what they've done well.
'The most powerful tool for motivating employees is saying thank you,' Peña says. 'Most employees will value the recognition more than a raise or a bonus.'
Marc Brownstein, CEO of The Brownstein Group, operates by the philosophy 'evolve before you have to.'
The Brownstein Group is the longest-running, independent, brand-communications agency in Philadelphia, entering its 50th year. Brownstein took over 16 years ago from his father, who still serves as chief creative officer and chairman.
Here's what Brownstein had to say about his secret weapon, passed down from his dad:
'A simple notion that my father instilled in me is to 'evolve before you have to,'' Brownstein says. 'In our business especially, you can't wait around to adapt to new technologies and practices, you have to forecast, to move one step ahead of times and trends.'
It's one of the things that's helped the company stick around so long.
'The best example of this notion put into action was when we took a leap and founded Fingerprint Interactive in 1999,' Brownstein said. 'At a time when businesses were just discovering the need for these things called 'websites,' we launched the first digital agency in Philadelphia for building and marketing websites. Without a playbook, we created a digital practice that took off like wildfire and immediately set us apart from the pack. Microsoft was our very first client, and eventually Fingerprint Interactive grew large enough that we folded it back into Brownstein Group and became the fully integrated agency we are today.'
New York Computer Help has been around since 2000 and employs 20 technicians as part of a drop-off repair service and IT business.
Silverman's secret weapon is an essential iPhone app.
'I cannot live without my iPhone Scanner Pro app,' Silverman said. 'I am able to sign agreements on the fly and scan and email them over. It comes in handy when dealing face-to-face with potential customers. I am able to have them and myself sign the agreement on the spot and use the app to send copies to us. It's a quick way to strike while the iron is hot.'
Aarra is a strategic sales-management agency that helps connect brands with the digital agencies and production shops it helps support.
Since 2004, O'Brien, the company's founder and president, has grown it from a one-stop-shop to representing 14 different companies.
The secret to his success is not leaving client interaction to impersonal emails, but instead relying on the sort of 'old school' service that's disappearing, even though his company focuses on the digital. That means phone calls, meeting at restaurants, meeting in person, and fanatical attention to detail on every project.
In addition to being a former NFL superstar and Hall of Famer, Tarkenton is a serial entrepreneur, having launched 20 companies over the last 30 years. Most recently, he launched smallbizclub.com with Office Depot, which serves as a resource and community for small businesses.
Tarkenton's secret weapon is a focus on people, which includes asking them questions, listening to their responses, learning from those responses and applying them. He shared with us where he picked up this idea:
'The person I learned the most about business from was, in my opinion, the greatest entrepreneur that's ever lived: Sam Walton. We became great friends, and I ended up regularly riding in his pickup truck as he drove from store to store. I asked him question after question and just let him talk, absorbing his wisdom and thinking from decades in business.
'And when we were at the stores, I watched closely as he interacted with his employees -- he called them associates. He asked them what was selling and what wasn't selling. He asked them what they thought the company was doing well -- and what they would change. And he listened carefully and kept track of everything they said, so that when he met with the leadership, he presented them with specific, actionable ideas of what they might do next.
'No matter how big the company got, it was important to him to genuinely engage with and listen to every single employee. I try to run my businesses like that -- and that's just one of the many lessons I learned from talking to and watching Mr. Sam. It was a unique opportunity for me, and one that inspired both the way I approach business as well as the businesses I've created.'
Coleman founded VIA, an ad agency, in 1993, despite having no advertising experience. The small Portland-based agency has big national clients like Sam's Club, Perdue Farms, and Welch's.
He has two secret weapons that he applies to himself and his business: workday disruptions, like spontaneous dance parties and performances by a house band, and frequent excursions outside the office.
He also says he periodically disconnects completely. For example, taking two weeks on a beach in Belize helped Coleman work through issues that seemed overwhelming in the moment, in order to return to work with more energy and a broader focus.
Sabina Ptacin, CEO of Tin Shingle, uses Google doc to-do lists, daily meditation, and photo app Fotor.
Sabina Ptacin is a serial entrepreneur who has been in business for herself with two companies for the past nine years. Her most recent project is Tin Shingle, a community and resource for small businesses.
She shared a few of the secret weapons she swears by:
1. A Google doc to-do list: 'Have this open on your computer at all times,' she says. 'Not only does it help you prioritise weekly and daily objectives, it helps remove things from your head and put them onto virtual paper. Whenever I have an idea, something I want to do, something to follow up on or a task to do, I add it to my Google doc list. I can access it from anywhere.'
2. Daily meditation: 'I believe that to have a healthy and successful business you must be internally healthy, and for me, meditation is key to achieving that. It keeps me grounded, focused, calm, and is pretty much the only part of my day when I'm completely alone and at peace. When we start a business we give up a lot of that personal time for peace, and this helps me get it back.'
3. Fotor: 'I live for this app. It's like Photoshop for those of us who aren't tech savvy. People love imagery and visuals. When you're doing anything from a PowerPoint or other presentation to a Facebook post, Fotor makes creating those easy and stress free.'
Alpert is a partner in Fresh Restaurants, a Toronto vegetarian food chain.
After the system he used to track applicants kept crashing and losing employee data, Alpert found a secret weapon in Recruiterbox, a recruiting software solution and applicant tracking service.
'Recruiterbox is reliable and stable,' Alpert says. 'We moved our entire application process online and can now keep job postings active to continuously collect applications, organise applications accordingly, and pass them on to other managers during the hiring process. I can't imagine not having it -- it's become essential.'
Runyan is the owner of multiple franchises of GameXChange, a video game retailer, throughout Connecticut. He was named Connecticut's small-business person of the year earlier this year.
Among his secret weapons for success is being able to do all of the things you used to have to outsource to another company, using free services.
'I'm really into systemizing things,' Runyan says. 'I have my time organised using my iPhone, the calendar, Google docs, Google drive. 10 years ago think of how much money you'd have paid a local IT company to set up a domain and server. Now, it's so easy. As you grow, there'll be a need to scale it. It's been pretty incredible. It's essentially free.'
Sawyers' company 7Delta has been in operation since 2005 and provides IT services to the department of defence and other government agencies.
As the company's grown rapidly, Sawyers says cloud technology that enables a virtual workforce has become absolutely essential.
'When I started the company, a lot of the work was at the government or customer site,' Sawyers says. 'In 2009, the government started expecting the contractor to do more work outside of the site. So, I could acquire more office space myself or let people work from home.
'We kept a small back office for HR, recruiting, accounting, and allowed our folks who do the IT work to work from home. Cloud computing technologies have allowed us to put our products in the cloud. We also use SharePoint technology and virtual teleconferencing. Our folks can work from anywhere in the U.S. or the world. We're currently in about 20 states with employees, each team can be between two and 15 people. They meet daily, weekly, virtually to allow them to collaborate and do work in a seamless manner. About 60% to 70% of our employees work from home.'
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