One thing I've learned while running a small business is that it's hard. Another thing I learned is that it doesn't always pay to do everything yourself. By crowdsourcing parts of the process you free yourself up to focus on the core of what you're building instead of getting lost in the details.

Sometimes you can even help build your community by turning over certain parts to them. Crazy, right?

Here are a few ways small business owners can grow their business with the help of smart crowdsourcing. I'd love it if you'd share how you've used crowdsourcing in the past and how it worked (or didn't) for you.

Feedback Collection
What does your plate look like right now. It's looking a little crowded, isn't it? I feel your pain, so is mine. You want to redesign; you want to add threaded comments to your blog; you want to revamp your site content; you want to implement new features; and, God, you were really hoping to put out a training course in 2011. Where do you start? If you need help prioritizing, ask your customers for help. After all, they're the people who will be responsible for buying what you're selling, right?

UserVoice is a crowdsourcing app that's recently been put on my radar. The number of forums and people who can vote depends on the subscription plan you choose, but there's lots of options. What I like about UserVoice is that it allows you to prioritize what's most important to your community so you can make better decisions. You'll need a good sample size so make sure you drive traffic to it. It also comes with analytics and, of course, a UserVoice WordPress plugin.

Product Naming
If we're being honest, not everyone should be allowed to name their own products (or children). I mean Bing? Google Hotpot? DuckDuckGo? Whoever is responsible for these nightmares needs their creativity stick taken away right now.

If you're having difficult honing in on the perfect name for a new product or service or want to jumpstart your own creative juices, a service like NamingForce can help you. Remember though, when your brand is on the line you never want to go with an idea just because the community decided it was good . You may remember when Kraft tried to crowdsource the name of their Vegemite product and the general public came up with "isnack 2.0." (It was later canned.) However, it can give you a good jumping off point.

Logo Design
You decided to leave the corporate world to start a catering business because it's your true passion and the only thing in life that makes you happy. Awesome. You need a snappy logo to use on your Web site, your social online presence, printed materials, etc. Unfortunately, you have absolutely zero creative skills. No worries, services like CrowdSPRING can help you by allowing you to name the price, the length of the project and any other requirements. Creatives then work on spec, submitting their ideas and vying for the award price offered. The site provides full legal contracts so that you can be sure you own the logo that was created for you.

Caution: Don't just pay for the "prettiest" logo or design. You'll want to get a bunch of different designs that you can test to see which convert the best to avoid becoming the next Gap.

Getting Leads
In the olden days, businesses would get leads from hitting the pavement and relying on referrals from happy customers. Today we're not just going online, we're even outsourcing the task. Services like LeadVine let you post the type of lead you're looking for, have their community find it for you, and then you pay a referral fee. If the community can't find what you want, you don't pay for it. You can also subscribe to RSS feeds to track queries that come in based on keywords. Who says the Internet can't do everything?

Usability Testing
While I wouldn't necessarily trust complete usability testing of your new mobile application to a bunch of strangers, crowdsourcing usability while you're still early in the project or if you know what you're looking for can provide a lot of insight. Crowdsourced online usability testing should be used as a complement to an already established test cycle, and isn't a replacement. And to help you do that, there are applications like uTest which will allow you to do survey-based and full-service usability testing on Web & desktop applications.

Images
As a small business owner you need images for your Web site, you need them for printed materials, you need them for blog posts, and you need them for a million other reasons. However, you probably don't have the budget to hire a photographer or graphic designer to create the perfect image for you. So crowdsource the task and use Creative Commons licensed Flickr photos. There are quite literally millions of photos to choose from courtesy of the kind strangers who upload quality images to Flickr. You may never have to pay for another image again.

Small Tasks
Need a photo of yourself turned into anime? Want to analyze your customers' signatures to see if they're crazy? Need help choosing wedding colors? No problem, just post it to Fiverr and let the community help you out. Would I recommend this for anything that had a substantial impact on your business? Probably not. But if you need someone to record audio versions of your blog posts and you're too afraid to do it yourself, hey, this may be a way to go.

Crowdsourcing is a great way to help move your business forward, while allowing you to pay attention to actually running it. You just want to remember a few things:

  1. You get what you ask for: The better you are about identifying exactly what you're asking people to do, the better they'll be able to meet your criteria. Always offer more information than you think they need, not less. Otherwise, you get back something completely different than what you were hoping for.
  2. You get what you pay for: While it's important to make projects cost-effective, don't be a Scrooge and expect someone to do a full day's work for $5. If you're only paying five dollars, you're only going to get five dollars worth of work.
  3. You get what you give: Designers thrive on feedback and recognition. Make sure you're staying involved and giving them the feedback they need.

How has crowdsourcing worked for your business in the past? Any pleasant surprises or horror stories you're willing to offer up? I'd love to hear them.

See Also:
Top 10 Rules For Crowdsourcing Business Ideas
Four Things Small Business Owners Must Do In 2011
5 Reasons NOT To Delete Negative Reviews

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