Managing Employees

3 Team-Building Secrets of Successful Small-Business Owners

3 Team-Building Secrets of Successful Small-Business Owners

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Small businesses depend on talent: finding it, nurturing it, and retaining it. But what does that mean, exactly? In honor of National Small Business Week, we spoke with a few successful entrepreneurs to learn about their team-building strategies.

As more than one founder told us, getting the right people is just as important as having a compelling vision and making sure the bank account has enough to cover payroll.

“I believe the CEO of a small-to-medium business has three major duties: to make sure there is money in the bank; to get the right people in the right roles; and to guide the long-term vision for the company,” said Nick Gray, the founder and CEO of Museum Hack, a team-building company in New York City that counts major brands, including Facebook, among its customers. “After that, I try to get out of the way and let our team do their best work.”

In fact, we found a few common themes among these entrepreneurs.

First: Make sure you hire the right talent. Second, create an environment of mutual trust and respect, so people can do their best work. And third, invest time and thought into developing processes to help those people (and your growing company) accomplish things as efficiently as possible.

Here’s what these business owners told us about each of these principles:

Hire the right talent.

When you have a small team, each new person has a proportionally large impact on your company and its trajectory. Whether you’re talking full-time employees or contractors, you need to find the people who can best help your company grow.

For Holly Cardew, the CEO of photo editing company Pixc, “always be hiring” took on new meaning when she started her company.

“I thought I needed money [first] to hire key players, however, in fact, I should have been making a list of amazing key players that I wanted to have on the team, ready to hire as soon as we grew.” If you don’t do that, she said, you waste too much time once you do have an opening: Recruiting, vetting, interviewing, and deciding. You can move much faster if you already have some amazing candidates in mind.

Hiring to address shortcomings in your current team’s skill set is an ongoing process, not just something you do when you have enough cash to open a new position. Even if you’re not going to hire staff, you can contract out work.

Related: Build Your Business on Your Strengths, Hire Your Team to Cover Your Weaknesses

Sometimes that means making judgments about what the current team is capable of -- and what it’s not so good at. “I'm not afraid to say if we aren't good at something and we need to call in someone to support our needs,” said Nicole Snow, the president of Darn Good Yarn. Darn Good Yarn won last year’s Community Excellence Award presented by the US Chamber of Commerce, so Snow is definitely doing something right.

And that brings us to our next point.

Empower your team to make decisions.

Once you have talented players, you want to give them the freedom -- and the respect -- they need to do their best work and to bring in others when they need to.

Snow told us about a “magic question” she makes a habit of asking her staff: "How can I help you right now?" Asking this has empowered her team to evaluate and uncover issues she would otherwise have not known about. “It's a great time to stop the bus and take a step back. From there a business owner can help empower an employee to evaluate the root cause of an issue and come up with a system to catch it from occurring again. Thanks in part to this approach, Darn Good Yarn’s revenue jumped by 170 percent in 45 days this year.

Michael Branco, the CEO of Fireminds, a software development and IT shop, underscored the importance of trusting staff with the most critical aspect of a business: The relationship with customers. “The success of our business is dependent on our staff,” Branco said. “It may sound cliché but great staff and great customer care are the key to success.”

“Quality people keep a company alive,” Chris Huntley, the founder of Huntley Wealth & Insurance Services, a small, independent life insurance agency, told us. “Without their talents we would cease to exist. So I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to create an environment of mutual trust and respect.”

Related: 5 Qualities VCs Look for in Your Startup Team

Invest in people and processes.

Once you have the right people in place, and you have entrusted them with their missions, you need one more piece: Process.

Even the most talented people get frustrated if they have to solve the same problem over and over. And well-defined processes are the key to growth, because they make it easier to get new contributors on board and up to speed.

Nate Ginsburg, the founder of Onset Interactive, an ecommerce and manufacturing business, said that nailing down processes was essential to maintaining growth once the company gained traction. “Once we started to get some traction, in order to continue to grow it has been essential to get processes down to manage our main business tasks. After the processes are in place, filling the roles to manage those processes has allowed us to continue to grow and grow faster,” he said.

Cardew, of Pixc, echoed these sentiments, speaking from the experience of someone who didn’t get on the “process” bandwagon quite as quickly. “I wish someone told me about all the tools and processes that I should be mapping and using along the way,” Cardew said. “It would have saved a lot of time."

Related: A 3-Step Guide for Creating a Smooth Work Flow

And for Fireminds’ Branco, focusing on metrics is what helps him manage his business successfully. Branco constantly reviews the sales pipeline, monitors the profitability of each ongoing project, and tracks a few key performance indicators (KPIs) such as customer call response times and customer satisfaction ratings.

Bring it all together.

When you’re starting a business, it takes a while to figure out what combination of products and services, what pricing, and what processes will work best.

Ginsburg told us that identifying what works and acting on it quickly was essential. “When you find something that works, move as fast as you can to blow it up as much as possible. Business can change quick,” Ginsburg said.

And don’t forget about the big picture.

“Think about how you, as a business owner, want to impact the world,” said Darn Good Yarn’s Snow, who has made it her mission to create opportunities for other people and small businesses within her supply chain. “A small business is an amazing way to serve and leave an impact on the world you live in.”