I am a young man working for a small business. I have only ever worked for small businesses. I am a customer and an employee. I buy products with my paycheck and I do it like everyone else I know. I look for the best quality I can get. I find that brand, and if I can’t afford it I might save up for it, or simply find the next best option, depending on quality and affordability. The difference between saving up or moving on depends on the narrative the company or the community can sell me. I am not going to buy a Master Lock because the community of locksmiths (as well as random people on youtube) have shown that they provide only the illusion of security. The lock might be cheaper but it does not work. I am going to buy an Apple computer because I have used other PCs and they do not work as well. It is significantly more expensive, but the quality and support is unmatched. But these companies are large, giants in their industries. So why am I talking about them? This is an article about small businesses.
What is a small business?
The question to ask is, what makes a business small? It starts as a vision and it continues into a mindset. If you want to know how a small business is legally classified you can find out the industry standards and criteria on the US Small Business Administration’s (SBA) website. It just comes down to revenue and the number of employees you have. So why am I talking about buying Apple Computers and Master Locks? Apple (as everyone has heard a million times) was founded by two people. Master Lock was founded in 1921 by one man and two investors that were just friends of his. The hard truth is that there are no small ideas, just small minded people, and there are no small businesses, just businesses that have yet to succeed, and sadly those that have yet to fail. Type “80% of small businesses” into Google and you will not see a rate of success. 8 out of 10 businesses fail in the first 18 months. That is a stat you can measure, just look at businesses that file for a small business license and look for those same names in 18 months to see if they are filing for bankruptcy. That is just 18 months. Inc.com sums it up when they talk about the struggles that are constantly mounting on businesses when it comes to healthcare, the EPA, OSHA, etc. If you are not growing you are going to run out of slack, and those problems never stop coming. So when we talk about a small business we are talking about a business that is on the precipice. A company on the brink. So what is the future?
What is the future?
Well to paraphrase the Dread Pirate Roberts, no one knows the future “anyone who says differently is selling something”. But you can trust in this: the government bails out the biggest names on Wall Street, and they bail out the largest car companies in the US. The government does not bail out Tesla Motors and they do not pay stockbroker start-ups off when they fail. Smaller companies are simply not protected. Institutions are maintained and innovators are left to their own devices. The future of a small business is to fail if they cannot grow. Stagnancy breeds complacency, and that is the curse of the ineffective. But the very nature of a small business is to be effective. They affect the nation by providing more than half the jobs. They are what fosters the growth of technology and the economy. Small businesses are by very definition, the future of the country. They are small because they are new, and they exist because they know they have an answer people are looking for. Small businesses are what will become our future institutions, as long as they continue down the path of success.
How to succeed
Much like the predicting the future, no one can tell you how to succeed, because if success was replicable based on precedent everyone could be a millionaire. The most important thing is to talk about those that did it right and apply what you can and ignore the facts that do not apply. Everyone needs to make their own way, and finding that way closes the door for the next business. Forbes wrote a very interesting article about why 80% of small businesses fail, trying to give you a success guide. The writer’s points boil down to 2 reasons that businesses fail, which are communication and business sense. Communicate with your employees/customers and have a solid business plan. If you want to know how to do both of those things you should read Neil Patel’s Advanced Content Marketing Guide (which is a pdf that is completely free). But that is the easy stuff. You can buy a book or read a how-to guide, but at the end of the day you are going to need to make something or provide a service that people not only want to buy, but that they want to buy from you. What is the difference between Plated and Blue Apron? To me, the only difference is that Blue Apron marketed itself on podcasts and offered some great deals. They are very similar brands (and have eerily similar websites), but I would recommend the one that I know patronizes the things I love, and has deals that anyone could capitalize on. So how do you become the brand that people recommend?
Defining your difference
You have to define what it is about you that provides something that no one else has. With that said, there are two “simple” (relatively speaking) ways to do this, and an infinite number of more complex and unreliable ways (more on that later). You can do one of two things, have undeniable quality, or a price that cannot be ignored. We will tackle these both one at a time:
With undeniable quality, you could be Tesla Motors. People cannot stop talking about this company, and with good reason. Type in “Tesla S outsells”, hit enter, and you will see an entire page of links filled with articles detailing the ever-growing sales of what is probably the best car on the market (drive, safety, speed, handling, etc.). Another thing about Tesla is that they do not advertise. They made the best product and let the reviews speak for them. 60 minutes added an engine sound to their footage of the Tesla S and Top Gear wrote a script detailing problems with the Roadster before they had even tested the car. Press releases and other journalists cleared this up for the company. People told lies and a loyal group of fans cleared the air.
A price that cannot be ignored is also very easy to rally behind. We will stick with cars again for this example because people like cars (including me). My personal favorite upcoming car company is Elio Motors, and they are going to be huge if they can handle the business end of the company. They are committed to affordability with no compromise in practicality. Their car is priced at $6,800 and gets 84 MPG. It is engineered with the highest safety standards. And it is built in the US. Granted it is only a 2 seater, but it is designed for the everyday commuter. A new car for under $7,000 is staggering compared to the average price of a new car ($33,560). If they can pull it off it will sell like Ikea furniture because people respond to practical affordability. If you can sell at a lower price, people will have to notice you. If your product is high quality and well priced, then you will succeed. The trick is not putting yourself into debt (which comes back to business sense) and not getting greedy. Because the thing that both these companies have in common is that people want to root for them. Being the underdog is the greatest advantage of being a small business. Embrace what you are and show your customers not only that you are listening, but also that you are a human that has the same hopes and dreams as them.
When it comes to the harder ways to stand out from the crowd, relatability is as difficult to attain as it is too keep. I think that this is more of a natural product of the internet age then it is a solid marketing strategy. Being relatable comes about as a happy accident more often than it does by design (just look at failed sitcoms). People can show their personalities to the world, but that personality needs to be likable. This type of celebrity is very tricky to maintain, especially as your words are captured, cataloged, and reviewed. With that much scrutiny, it is difficult to keep up any facades.
It can also be very effective to build a company identity that other people want to associate themselves with. You would not expect this method to be as difficult as it is, but very few companies pull it off. You can make your products more appealing by making people want to work for your company. Google and Apple (at least in the US) are some of the best examples of creating this corporate culture. As a millennial, knowing that a company is treating their employees well gives me a sense of duty to make sure those jobs stay there. As long as a business that is fair stays in business, there will be fairness in the ever shrinking job market. Ethics is a big part of a brand and a company. Things you stand for, more in practice than on paper, give a customer a deeper sense of loyalty. Just standing for something is not enough because this generation loves action. Toms Shoes was built on charity, and Bombas is following close behind with their similar message. One of the things that a lot of people forget is that humans do not get tired of humanity. The more you show that your company is comprised by people that care, the more people will care about your company.
What to do
The easiest thing that you can do is never lose your humanity, and never forget the people that make your business possible. More so than that, never forget that with your money comes the trust of your customers. If you abuse that trust as a small business, you will fail. There is less margin for error, but there is a greater margin for growth. Losing sight of this at any time might cost you everything. Be humble, be human, and show that you care (and genuinely do care). The era of the shrewd business man is fading. The new customers don’t like the hard sell. They like hope and they love seeing the chance for a better future. Small businesses are the future, so all you need to do is be better.
There are no easy answers for businesses, just hard truths. That is what makes them a beautiful thing. Any search for a simple solution is going to come up dry or lose you a lot of money. If it was easy, then everyone would do it, and more people would succeed. So be different in a superior way. Mean something to the world in more than what you offer in products and services. Use the stories and examples of people’s success to get your own ideas flowing, because you do have something to offer. A good idea is nothing without the ideas necessary to make it happen. Everything is an interconnected web and by acknowledging your role in it all you will take the first step in making your brand integral to what binds us all together. Know that it is not too late to change your ways and move into the new age. You can rebrand and connect just like these younger companies. The playing field is only as level as the ingenuity that you have.
Listen to what I have to say, because I am your customer. When I talk about people I am speaking about them not as if they were chattel. The people I am talking about when I say people are humans with feelings and fears. People like me are the ones that want you to succeed. These books written by people that study humans like lab animals are not going to teach you how to truly succeed. In this age, there is nothing to gain from seeing your audience as a group to exploit. How-to books, on success, cloud the mind and shield it from greater importance. Compare the book sales of The Secret in the US to the number of millionaires in the World. There is a reason for the disparity. That reason is because listening to reassuring words from people that seem certain is easy to hear. It is tough to hear a complaint and know it is up to you to find your own answers. So embrace that the path you have chosen is hard to walk. Become an innovator. Commit to helping not just your customers, but to helping the world. It is a dawn of a new age. We have entered the era of accountability. Everyone with a phone or a laptop has a platform to praise or crucify you. The trick is not giving your attackers and defamers a leg to stand on. Similarly, you must build a following of loyal customers that will defend you and help you grow. You must be able to stand by the logic of your decisions, and if you can do that you can never truly fail.