Having worked with businesses of all sizes, I've seen tactics work as often as I've seen them fail.
Big businesses and corporations have usually grown to their current stature because of intelligent decision-making, endurance, and a willingness to think outside the box. Small businesses may have more modest budgets and markets, but they can still learn a lot from their larger comrades.
1. Strategy is king -
It's easy for companies to get caught up in putting out fires. It's harder to force yourself to focus on long-term strategy, but this is where you should be devoting most of your time and resources. Failing to get buy-in from key internal groups is one area where many people fall short. Many times, a group publishes its new "blueprint for success" and it fails miserably, because the people who can make the plan work were never consulted on the front end. If your plan involves operations and sales, they had better be at the table when you create it. If they feel ownership, your chance of succeeding increases dramatically. In addition, strategizing involves reviewing your choices, determining how your methods are performing, and considering the market's reactions. If you're not satisfied with what you're seeing, make a change. As a small business, you have the benefit of being agile; you can react faster than the big guys. Take advantage of this flexibility.
2. Do your homework -
If you don't have the information to help make strategy decisions, GO GET IT! Spending your time and money on quality research always costs less than taking a risk that fails because you didn't anticipate the outcome. We had a great new concept for the mattress industry, but we wanted to check some consumer research to make sure we had it right. It turned out that our idea finished dead last when we asked consumers to rank several different concepts. We spent $75,000 on that research, but it saved us the $250,000 we would have spent in a failed launch. We also tested the concepts with 6 top retailers in the U.S. without telling them the consumers' favorites. They all got it wrong, too. You should be guided by good data; as a small business owner, you can't afford to make decisions based on bad or missing information.
3. Don't follow the leader -
One very common mistake that small businesses make is following the leader in their market. I recently interviewed staff from a small company in Chicago and as I was reviewing their advertising, I asked the owner why he consistently gave consumers the exact same incentive to buy, week after week. His response was that the biggest retailer in his market did it, so he assumed it was right. News flash: the guy you're keeping up with may not be very bright, or he may not have done his homework (see #2). People generally follow someone else because they are lazy and don't take the time to think creatively, they are risk-averse, or they assume that everybody else must be right. Don't downplay the value of being original. The truly great companies out there achieved success by plowing the road, not by following the one already laid out.
4. WOW somebody -
Having a small budget can be a wonderful thing; it forces you to be creative. Call your top 5 staffers together and ask this question: how can we wow our customers today? If you answered "great prices" or "great service," congratulations -- you are giving the same boring answers everyone else is! How do you really impress them? Southwest Airlines and Zappos.com are excellent examples of companies who make inspired decisions regarding their customers. Do you make emergency service calls at 3:00 a.m. so night shift production doesn't halt? Do you meet your customer at his loading dock when he's short-handed? Do you send handwritten notes to customers to express how important they are to your company? (Emails don't count!) All of these things let the people who keep you in business know just how important their business is. Smaller businesses have the ability to be personal, and people expect it. Don't let them down.
5. Challenge everything -
If you're in a leadership position in your company, set your ego aside and allow -- scratch that, encourage! -- your people to disagree with you in a healthy way. Don't be the fool in the room who insists he always knows more than anyone else. Real magic happens when people are comfortable suggesting alternatives.
Conversely, if you are working your way up the ladder, be bold.
Strive to be the person constantly coming up with new ideas. Early in my career, I was reluctant to do this because the culture didn't encourage it. If the ideas you propose are well-developed, thoroughly researched, and sold with passion, you have no reason to doubt yourself. Take inspiration from a guy from Zimbabwe I met at a coffee shop. He was finishing his dissertation; once he finishes his doctorate, he is going home to a country with 92% unemployment. He is going to challenge his people to think like large countries with big economic engines.
All you have to do is challenge your small business to think like a big company. That puts your challenge in perspective, doesn't it? Remember that selling anything, whether it's a product or an idea, is nothing more than the transfer of enthusiasm. The people in your company hired you to make a difference; fulfill that promise.
Above all, challenge your thinking.
Consider the ideas utilized by your larger counterparts; don't be afraid to think big. Small businesses aren't limited to small ideas; don't let yourself be, either.
Photo credit: getentrepreneurial.com