If, as Julius Caesar said, experience is the teacher of all things, small-business owners picked up a lifetime's worth of knowledge in 2010.
The past year was anything but a picnic for many small businesses. As the economy stumbled along, lenders continued to be tight with credit and consumers remained gun-shy about opening their wallets.
But there was, indeed, much experience to be gained. And since no one is better positioned to talk about those lessons than small-business owners themselves, Business on Main asked them to share what they learned in 2010, as well as what knowledge may prove particularly valuable in the year ahead.
Here's what they had to say:
"Be genuine. Today is full of people who tell a story that has no past and no future. Be real with your customers. There is a reason that women go to see the same hairstylist for years. It is because they have developed a real relationship with that person, which translates to thousands of dollars a year."
— Ricky Burns, nightclub owner
"My greatest lesson from 2010 was the importance of goal-setting and planning for the year. Most business owners take this step for granted or only focus on one portion of their plan. For me, it's about writing down my goal, sub-goals and action steps mapped out for each quarter of the year. The key is to revisit and tweak these goals over time based on changing circumstances."
— Steinar Knutsen, marketer
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"This year, we changed our processes so that students have to pre-order their gear, and we ourselves don't order it until we've received payment. It sounds like such simple advice, but that one small change has made a huge difference to our bottom line."
— Carmen Sognonvi, martial arts studio owner
"I think one of the biggest lessons from 2010 is to be flexible. Always consider the possibilities and don't get so stuck in your ways that you find yourself 'waiting for the economy to improve.'"
— Diane Helbig, business coach
"You can't rely on traditional marketing tactics to drive new customers to your business. The old telephone game where a friend tells a friend can work if you begin to grab the social media opportunities provided with this new wave of technology now found on the Internet. Just make sure you are creative and do something different than the business down the street."
— Marc Joseph, online wholesaler
"Hire slow and fire fast. Interview carefully and ask pointed questions. I make myself available to people for informational interviews and I often find my best people through those interviews. My most recent hire came to us that way."
— Bibby Gignilliat, chef and corporate team builder
"If you need to make your cash flow farther, analyze the extra you will pay in penalties if you pay invoices late. Some leasing companies have penalties as high as 15 percent if you are one day late with your payment. If collected annually, that is comparable to 150 percent interest. This is not the best place to stretch. Penalties will kill you."
— Mary A. Redmond, consultant
"Nothing is more important than revenue. If you have to make a choice on where to spend money, always default to activities that directly relate to an increase in sales. If no one is coming through the front door, it does not matter that you repainted the walls."
— Jeff Bogensberger, online game developer
"The most important lesson I learned this year is that the next step in growth for a small business is not [to go] from one full-time person to [hiring] another full-time person. It's not realistic to double in size like that. Instead, the next step is to delegate work and tasks, whether through part-time help, interns or experts such as accountants."
— Meghan Ely, wedding consultant
"I've learned that I have to value my time and work; if I don't, my clients won't either. … And I've learned to budget my time carefully and make time for fun."
— Kimberly Gauthier, photographer
"2010 was a train wreck. But like all wrecks, the pieces get picked up and the trains do run again. The best lesson is that things are getting better and that now is the time to prepare for it. Invest in new capital equipment, inventory and staff so that when the stats show a huge uptick in consumer confidence and spending, you will be ready to meet the pent-up demand for goods and services."
— Alan N. Canton, insurance agent
Good advice, straight from the front lines. Thanks to all who participated, and a prosperous 2011 to all.
Jeff Wuorio is a veteran freelance writer and author based in southern Maine. He writes about small-business management, marketing and technology issues.