This year my small business celebrates its fifteenth anniversary. Pop open the champagne because we’ve beaten the odds. According to Dun & Bradstreet, businesses with fewer than 20 employees have only a 37 percent chance of surviving four years and only a 9 percent chance of surviving 10 years.
This made me consider why some small businesses succeed while others don't. Some may be a result of the experience and skill of the founder or startup team while others are heavily influenced by market factors, such as timing or chance.
Here are my top 15 lessons that have helped me survive and grow my business for the past 15 years.
1. Treat your customer’s business as your own.
Your time is their money so be efficient.
Many agencies use heavily designed presentations to report results or recommend strategies then bill the client thousands of dollars for design services. I typically supply these items in simple but detailed Word documents at no extra charge.
Additionally, in the event that there is a miscommunication, leading to either work done incorrectly or outside of scope, I swallow the cost of the extra work. I consider this an investment in our relationship and a learning experience.
2. Build and maintain a great network.
This will help you generate new business opportunities.
When the Great Recession hit several years back, many of my client contacts were laid off. I devoted several hours each week to help place talented PR and marketing professionals in new positions. While this support was offered out of genuine concern for my colleagues, it has paid dividends with several new business opportunities coming from these past clients and colleagues.
Additionally, many of my former team members remain friendly and in contact as part of my business community. Some of my best client referrals have come from past employees.
3. Assemble a strong support team of talented professionals.
It takes a village to run a business so assemble a strong support team of talented people.
It is a pleasure and a professional asset to know a lot of talented people. I’ve built a modular team with experts dedicated to working with me on each client engagement. To make sure we are leaving no important ideas and opportunities on the table, I often reach out to other experts I know for functional expertise related to specific industries and business situations.
4. Establish a group of advisors.
This can be a board of directors or an informal peer group.
Either is a way to either expand the pool of people with a vested interest in your success. It's also a great way to exchange expertise without hiring consultants for advice on finances, human resources, contracts, marketing and other areas.
5. Invest wisely.
Avoid the temptation to overspend on luxury items, like office space, and try handling administrative tasks yourself if you are comfortable doing so. Look for opportunities to share the cost of tools and services. For example, I share a group subscription to databases and research services, which saves me hundreds of dollars each month.
6. Establish reasonable and manageable payment terms.
You shouldn’t be financing your clients. Over the years, numerous large corporations have asked me for terms beyond 30 days, stretching to 60 and 90.
I have held a line and even rejected business and RFP opportunities with prospects offering terms greater than 30 days. My time should be spent doing great communications work and not chasing receivables or paying interest in order to pay my own staff.
7. Don’t try to do everything.
Trying to be all things to all people just to land a new client distracts from your reputation and can dilute your focus on being effective within your core competencies and building your client base. Provide customers with what you do best, and refer or hire others with expertise you need but don’t have.
8. Stay current with your professional tools.
Be sure whatever technology and services you use are up-to-date and compatible with your customers.
Throughout the past 15 years, my technology tools and capabilities have often exceeded those of my largest corporate clients. I make it a point to update my main office computer every couple of years, run the newest version of software available and have a recent model smartphone. I’ve also found it vitally important that I be able to access my company server remotely from tablet, laptop, smartphone and other desktops.
9. Be a valued team member.
Working as a valued team member enables you to be kept in the information loop so you can perform effectively.
Although I am not required to do so, I often sit in on client’s quarterly earning calls to be sure I am embedded in their organization’s information loop. I attend seminars in my client’s industry even if they have no staff going in order to keep both myself and the client abreast of the most current news and information in their industry. This helps me provide the best service and at the same time gives the client a feeling that I am more than just a contractor.
10. Exceed expectations.
Exceeding expectations with clear deliverables and smart and hard work leads to retention and referrals.
A few of our large corporate clients have historically retained big name global PR firms, while at the same time engaging with ICCC.
For one such company, ICCC handled North American crisis communications. Our work, developing a crisis communications plan, was so strategic and thorough that when the big agency’s worldwide crisis plan was compared with ours, the ICCC North American model became the master plan, and its strategy and tools were pushed out to all of the other regions.
11. Offer something before asking for something.
Educate your existing and prospective client base through activities, such as blogging and public speaking to build trust.
12. Make referrals for others.
Connecting the people you know to others in your network reflects your ties to talent. It also shows your understanding of others’ needs and creates possibilities for reciprocation.
13. Build strategic alliances.
This can expand the scope of your services and help keep you going even when your core avenue of business is slow.
For example, we've brought in market research, video production, legal counsel, social media analytics and other firms or consultants to help clients or deliver on a project. ICCC doesn’t charge for coordinating these services. Helping to provide these suppliers means clients know they can count on us beyond our core competencies, and it also helps us market to bigger competition.
14. Contact former customers.
Just because a customer is no longer with you does not mean they may not need you again in the future.
A client that engaged ICCC to develop thought leadership content approached us at the completion of that project and asked about our employee communications expertise. We ended up developing an internal communications strategy and campaign to influence attitudes and behaviors. Another client contracted us for media relations and came back to us later to develop a portal and communications tools to engage their brand ambassadors and licensees.
15. Be a student of your business.
In today’s world, tools and methods for doing business across many industries are evolving at a rapid pace. Keep learning about your industry to stay on top of innovations, and find new ways to be more effective and productive.
Every year I identify topics that will give me exposure to new thinking or enable me to strengthen my knowledge and skills.
I have attended conferences on topics, ranging from trade with China to social media and millennial trends. These are give-and-take experiences, where I share my expertise and simultaneously learn about innovations in software, data mining and industries from health and tech to travel, finance and education.
The knowledge I gain from these opportunities assists me in my current dealings with clients and helps me position my business better when pitching new clients.
While most of these tips can apply to any type of business, I would encourage you to glean those which you think are most relevant to your business and goals. Also, don’t underestimate the value in learning from other entrepreneurs’ experiences and using that knowledge to build your own business.