The signs were everywhere. “Store Closing” and “Going Out of Business” banners covered the doors and windows of small businesses across the country. However, for several local small firms, these signs waved like flags of opportunity — proof that even in tough times, a small business can make it in a big business world.
In August, according to Ramussen Reports and the Discover® Small Business WatchSM, the economic confidence among small business owners climbed to its highest level in 18 months. The confidence index jumped to 89.8 — the highest level since February 2008 — and up 7.7 points from July, showing small business owners’ faith in the U.S. economy was growing and they’re ready to hit the ground running.
Esther Foster, founder of creative services and marketing communications firm Foster Creative Inc., saw the tough economic times and the upcoming months as opportunities for growth even though marketing tends to be the first budget companies cut during tough times. “At first we said to ourselves, ‘What are we going to do? We have to survive,’” Foster recalls. “We knew that if we were going to start losing business to the economic current, we were going to have to be able to pick it back up and fast.” Foster and several other small business owners who have successfully weathered the economic storm have found a few strategies they believe will keep their business ahead of the economic curve, positioning them as leaders in their industries as they head into 2010.
Beth Coyle, chief executive officer of Coyle Engineering Inc., sees partnering as a strategic move to explore new opportunities, grow her business and build upon her 18-member team.
“Big engineering firms have cut or are cutting their staff 50 percent to 75 percent,” Coyle says. “These firms are now realizing that instead of hiring a bunch of people back, it is better for them to partner and to leverage each other. That puts us in a great position to work with new groups.”
For those looking to hire, the down economy left many unemployed and scrounging for steady income, opening an opportunity for businesses to selectively hire and employ the best of the best. For those not in a position or those without a need to hire, this is an opportunity to focus on the strengths of your company’s current employees. Working to strengthen each employee’s assets is not only cost-effective but also creates a working environment more prepared for the future and ready to take on new challenges.
An important aspect of retaining enthusiastic employees is creating a workplace built on collaboration. Being able to respect one another and understand each person’s area of expertise will help employees truly listen to one another, and it creates an environment people want to work in. By preparing employees internally, companies can develop methods to manage whatever the economy brings.
“If you invest in your employees, you are investing in the future of your company,” says Barbara Greene, founder and CEO of Greene and Associates Inc. “Coaching them on how to handle the changes within the company will work to grow and develop the internal talents and leadership of the employees, essentially preparing for the future potential of the business itself.”
Keep On Top Of Things
During an economic downturn, consumers inevitably cut back. For small businesses, these losses are amplified. Taking advantage of the changes in technology will help keep small businesses on the cutting edge of their industry.
Social media communication methods, like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, have become major business tools for reaching new consumers and helping small businesses monitor their competition. Utilizing these cost-effective communication outlets gives small businesses the chance to have open and collaborative conversations with current and prospective consumers while keeping costs down.
“People find opportunities no matter what the situation is,” Foster says. “The immediacy of social media gives companies the opportunity to reach out and find out what other people are doing in your industry on a local, regional and even national level.”
Another business-growing opportunity is networking. Not only is it a means for communication, it is a way to stay keyed into your business community and to foresee what changes may be coming. Professional business organizations, like the National Association of Woman Business Owners (NAWBO), give members the chance to hear from other business owners and see the economic landscape from their point of view.
“It is important to surround yourself with people who know business, listen to them, ask and answer questions and stay ahead of the trends,” Coyle says. “That is one of the great things about NAWBO. It helps us keep our finger on the pulse of what is going on in the industry and our community.”
Build a Solid Reputation
The recession has forced many small business owners to be more efficient, innovative and creative with their coping methods. A customer-focused outlook reinforced by capitalizing on current trends can help businesses stay ahead of the curve. Keep in touch with current and potential customers to keep your company top of mind. Remind them that you are still around and are prepared for the future. Maintaining the company’s position, especially as the market rebounds, will help keep your company’s brand visible.
Caryn Hasslocher, owner of Fresh Horizons Creative Catering, has kept her specialty company in the market and in the minds of customers by reaching out to the community. “Our focus has been continued visibility through participation in community events,” Hasslocher says. “We have continued to reach out to new sales markets by participating in new market promotions and placing ourselves in the community as much as possible.”
“The companies that weather a storm like this are the ones who look for a silver lining,” Coyle says. “Use the down time for professional development, polish up processes, get your marketing message very sharp and defined, and get out there and look where you can be nimble.”