It’s tough to run a small business. It’s even tougher to grow it, turning it into a sustainable revenue and income machine. Tough, but not impossible. You just have to know how.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20% of small businesses fail in their first two years. Expand the timeframe to five years, and that percentage rises to 45%. In 10 years, two thirds of them will have failed.
Needless to say, you want to be in the (smaller) percentage of businesses that don’t just survive, but thrive. To do that, it pays to look at how other organizations and businesses manage to become and remain successful over the years.
That’s what we’ll focus on in this article. Join us for an examination of the 15 things all small businesses have in common, starting (of course) with a definition of what ‘success’ actually means. Let’s dive in.
What Makes a Small Business “Successful”?
Before we can dig into the similarities of successful business, let’s begin with the obvious question. Business success can mean something different for every entrepreneur, depending on their innate goals and values. To provide some examples:
- A serial entrepreneur will define success as quickly growing a business to the point where it can be acquired.
- A socially conscious entrepreneur will define success as making an impact on the local community.
- An entrepreneur finally following through on a lifelong idea and dream will define success as seeing that idea realized.
- A small business owner just looking to provide for their family will define success as a steady income stream.
Of course, there are more comprehensive ways to look at the same question, as well. As one expert on the topic told Business News Daily,
“Success is running a profitable firm that conducts business with honesty and integrity, makes meaningful contributions to the communities it serves and nurtures high-quality, balanced lives for its employees. As business owners, we must think outside our own doors. We must think about the potential impacts we have on those around us as well as future generations.”
In other words, it’s truly a combination of all the above. The first exercise here, as a result, should be to understand exactly what success means for you as a business owner. The answer likely lines up closely with your core business goals.
15 Things All Successful Small Businesses Have in Common
We’ll start with a note: the exact definition of success as it relates to you will not impact the items on this list. They apply, regardless. That definition, though, might impact the prioritization of them. In other words, some may become more or less important depending on what you’re aiming to accomplish. Still, aiming to achieve all of them in your own business is your best chance at success.
1. A Comprehensive (but Adaptable) Business Plan
Every business needs a business plan. It’s the guiding document that helps you from the moment you begin to think about logistics. Banks need to see it, and so will potential partners. It even helps in the early hiring process, allowing you to showcase your vision to potential employees.
That business plan, ideally, should include everything from your core business goals to your target audience, along with a defined strategy on how you will reach your goals and grow your customer base. At the same time, it should also be flexible enough so that if the environment or your customer preferences change, you can adapt and still thrive.
2. A Clear Value Proposition
What, exactly, is your business about? What value do you provide your audience?
Successful business can answer those questions in a single, simple phrase. It’s not a phrase they’d ever use in their marketing, but an internal mantra that serves as the guidepost for any strategic decisions.
In other literature, you might see the value proposition referred to as a brand essence or mantra. The concept is the same. It’s the north star of your business, like Nike’s Authentic Athletic Performance or Disney’s Magical.
3. Differentiation Amongst its Competition
The value proposition defines your business. But you also need to make sure that your business is well-positioned within its competitive environment. Successful small businesses have carved out a niche, a unique place in the eyes of their audience in which they can deliver a product or service unlike anyone else.
Differentiation is not just functional, either. It’s all about the perception. Take a look at your competitors, and try to define what makes you truly unique. Then, see if your core audiences agree. If they do, you’re on your way to successful differentiation.
4. Simple and Clear Marketing Messaging
Both of the above steps are internal, and they’re crucial. But can you turn them into effective marketing messaging? If you can, your chances of success (however you define it) increase drastically.
The best marketing messaging, regardless of channel, consists of a few key ingredients:
- A succinct message that can be summarized in 10 words or fewer.
- A clear value proposition that outlines exactly what makes you special.
- A way to engage your audience enough to stop in their tracks and read your message.
- A strong call to action that prompts them to take a natural next step.
Spend some time on social media. Pay special attention to the ads, and which of them grab your attention. That alone can help you understand which brands are successful in this step, and why.
5. A Focus on the Right Marketing Channels
Of course, even the best messaging matters little if you don’t build a presence where your audience actually spends their time. A video game store looking to attract teenagers will gravitate towards very different channels than a luxury car dealership.
This comprehensive breakdown of social media networks by audience demographics is a great place to start. But don’t limit yourself to social media, either. Start your target audience, and where they like to spend their time. That’s where you should advertise, regardless of your own familiarity level.
6. A Systematized Sales Process
What process do you use to actually sell your goods? Is it an ad-hoc approach that just takes the situation as it comes, or a more systematic alternative that takes it on strategically? For successful businesses, the answer is almost always the latter.
Remember: Sales is the part of your business that actually brings in revenue. That’s why it needs to be a priority. Approaching it strategically means taking a data-focused approach, focusing on SMART goals and audience preferences. It also means making sure that your entire business is optimized towards sales, with everything driving towards that revenue goal.
7. A Singular Drive Towards Business Goals
In the first step, we discussed the importance of a business plan. In that business plan, you’ve likely defined your business goals. Most small businesses have those. What really makes the successful ones stand out, though, is just how much they strive to achieve the goals.
You need to believe in what you do, from the bottom of your heart. Your business needs to be your passion, not just your day job. This is where entrepreneurs who are working towards a lifelong dream absolutely have an advantage, but they’re not the only ones who can succeed. As long as you internalize your business goals and do everything you can to drive towards them, you have a shot at success.
8. Strong Connections for Potential Opportunities
Businesses survive and thrive on word of mouth. That includes both the word of mouth of your customers, who will tell each other about your business and leave positive reviews if they truly love it. But it also consists of your ability to build relationships over time that can pay off later.
There’s a reason entrepreneurs tend to be people-focused. They know how to network, gaining industry connections in the process. Their strong professional networks, in turn, help them build strategic partnerships, strengthen the supply chain, and even unlock new markets. If you’re looking for why small businesses are successful, look to who they know and how much they prioritize it.
9. Excellent Hiring Skills
At some point, no entrepreneur can run a growing business by themselves anymore. That means hiring others who can help the business thrive. Who you hire, though, is a core predictor of whether your business will continue to be successful.
The best staff you can hire is obviously skilled for the position you need to fill. But especially for small businesses, they also need to hit on a few other topics:
- Cultural fit. Small business teams need to get along well. Hiring for cultural fit means making sure that they onboard and bought into your strategy of managing employees and working together.
- Belief in the mission. Do they believe in your business goals and vision as much as you do? If they do, they’ll do everything they can to help the business succeed. That’s a major plus.
- Long-term satisfaction. Most small businesses cannot survive on the cost and effort required by constant turnover. Look to hire employees who are willing to stay with you for the long haul.
10. A Customer Service Focus
Customer service matters. In fact, it’s even essential. According to a recent Salesforce study, 47% of customers will stop doing business with a company if they have a single subpar experience. How they’re treated, from first contact to repeat purchase, will drive their purchasing decisions and, in return, your revenue flow.
That’s why successful businesses have a customer service focus. They make sure that the customer is treated well, helped promptly, and always feels welcome. Problems are investigated, solved, and improved upon. It’s extra work, but that extra work could play a major role in helping you succeed long-term.
11. Consistency in Every Part of the Business
When you’re just running a business out of your basement, consistency is simple to achieve. As your business grows, it becomes more difficult. Still, achieving (and keeping) that consistency will be absolutely vital in making sure that your business is successful in the long run.
Consistency matters for all the points made in this article so far. In marketing, for instance, consistent messaging can help you make a more significant audience impact. In customer service, consistency maximizes your chances of those positive experiences. And in hiring, consistency more reliably brings in better employees.
Of course, consistency also matters as you produce your products or provide your service, setting reliable expectations for your audience, who know exactly what they’re walking into.
12. A Strong Command of the Books
Too many businesses fail because, despite a great idea or a strong audience base, they just don’t handle the finances well enough. This is, without a doubt, the most complex and least intuitive part of running a small business. Still, you have to get it right by taking control of your books.
Do you know how high your costs are every month? How many of those are fixed, and which are variable? Are your revenue estimates based on reliable data, or just educated guesses? Do you have a dedicated marketing budget, and are you accounting for taxes at the end of the month and year?
These are difficult questions to answer. If you’re not comfortable running your own books, find someone to work for you who can. Your business can only succeed if you have a strong command of your bookkeeping at all times.
13. A Positive (But Realistic) Mindset
Almost without exceptions, small businesses will encounter struggles. Look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended the plans and strategies of countless organizations around the world. It’s impossible to make it through these struggles if you don’t keep a positive attitude, looking for solutions rather than despairing at the problems.
At the same time, you need to stay realistic. Reasonless positivity can be just as dangerous as negativity or pessimism, leading to dangerous and fatal choices in ignoring challenges rather than addressing them. It’s about keeping that balance between positivity and reason to make sure that you can steer the business through challenges and continue to thrive.
14. Intuitive, Flexible Organizational Structures
Another important characteristic of successful businesses is their organizational structure. That structure needs to be designed to help the business thrive, which–above all–means flexibility.
Yes, you need clear definitions of individual positions, tasks, and responsibility. But beyond them, your employees need to be flexible enough to help where needed, jumping to the right spot rather than only performing singular tasks.
For that reason, successful businesses have increasingly adopted ‘flat’ organizational charts with few formal reporting structures. There needs to be some accountability, of course. But within that accountability, there also needs to be freedom to help each employee thrive and contribute.
15. A “Get Stuff Done” Attitude
Finally, let’s talk about the entrepreneurial mindset. It’s about strategy, positivity, and enthusiasm, sure. But at the end of the day, it’s also about getting stuff done without delays or hesitation.
That ‘get stuff done’ attitude is especially common among owners of successful businesses. They know when to strategize, but they also know when they just need to attack. And, just as importantly, they’re willing to do what it takes to get there.
That includes some of the points mentioned above. Flexible organizational structures can help the owner jump in and help out where needed. The ability to network and form relationships is that much more effective when done without hesitation. The right attitude can go a long way towards willing a business to success.
How to Commit to Your Own Business Success
That’s it—follow these 15 steps, and your chances of success increase drastically. You’ll be able to separate yourself from your competition, build a strong customer base, and continue to grow and thrive.
Of course, that can be easier said than done. None of the above steps is easy to accomplish. If you’re lucky, just a few of them come naturally to you. Then again, running a business is complex, so it stands to reason that ensuring its success only adds to that complexity.
That said, you don’t have to go through it by yourself. Instead, find the help you need to help your business succeed. That might mean hiring full-time employees, getting the right software systems in place, or looking for a virtual assistant to help with some of the day-to-day tasks. Prioritize building a team and system around you that drives you towards small business success.