Articles

Three Lessons from Small Business Leaders

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

When Julie Busha went from a career in marketing to selling Slawsa — a cross between a slaw and a salsa, based on an old Southern recipe — she got a crash course in running a small business. A passionate foodie, she’d gotten into this line of work because she loved the idea of marketing a healthy relish innovation that wasn’t found on grocery-store shelves.

But as she watched many other start-up food manufacturers struggle, spending beyond their means to promote their brands, she absorbed an important lesson: She had to be very selective about how she invested her start-up money and profits. That meant diving into financial details — like the return on investment for an in-store promotion or advertising opportunities — that were a lot less fun than coming up with new slaw flavors.  

Many entrepreneurs find that the experience of running a small business offers career lessons you won’t get in any school. Here, three leaders share what they’ve learned on the job.

1. Saying “no” to a business deal is okay.

No entrepreneur wants to turn down work but agreeing to projects beyond your core capabilities can backfire. Carlos Hidalgo, founder, CEO, and principal of ANNUITAS, a 10-year-old, 25-employee B2B marketing firm based in Atlanta, has learned over time that it is best to focus on what his company does best: helping big organizations generate demand for their products through ANNUITAS’s marketing campaigns.

No entrepreneur wants to turn down work but agreeing to projects beyond your core capabilities can backfire. Carlos Hidalgo, founder, CEO, and principal of ANNUITAS, a 10-year-old, 25-employee B2B marketing firm based in Atlanta, has learned over time that it is best to focus on what his company does best: helping big organizations generate demand for their products through ANNUITAS’s marketing campaigns.

“We’ve had many phone calls to say, `We’re really not going to be the right vendor for you and this is why,’” he says. But then his team goes above and beyond, suggesting vendors who might be a better fit. That honesty pays off when potential clients return to him for the services in which ANNUITAS specializes. “Our approach is that if we are going to work with these companies and ask them to trust us, that trust has to be there on every level,” Hidalgo says.

To make sure you are saying yes to the right engagements and bowing out of the wrong ones, do an analysis of the key projects your team has tackled in the past year. Pinpoint the engagements where your team both delighted your customers and added value to your business, and keep track of pain points, too. Use the information you uncover, such as common threads among successful projects, to help you navigate projects to take on and ones you should pass on.

2. It’s okay to kick back.

When you’re starting out in business, it’s tempting to keep your team working hard all the time, but sometimes taking a break is the best thing you can do for your team’s productivity and cohesion. Ask Ricky Wingard, who has run Econ-o-bug, a 21-person residential and commercial pest control business in Lexington, South Carolina, for 34 years. To make sure his employees know how much he values them, he holds a monthly meeting where he and his team break bread while they discuss business. And every quarter, Econ-o-bug holds a fun offsite get-together, like the recent cookout at a local park for his team and their families.

If you need ideas for activities, check out your local business journal. Many run “best places to work” lists that highlight employers that have built an exciting workplace culture. Look to what other small and midsize companies are doing for inspiration.

3. Don’t do it all yourself.

In the early days of your career as an entrepreneur, it’s a time to roll up your sleeves and do what needs to be done yourself — whether that’s marketing or taking out the trash. But as your business grows, staying too hands-on can work against you. Ask Hunter Stunzi, who co-founded the small business lender SnapCap in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2012.

During his first few years in business, Stunzi was very involved in operations and functions like sales. But as SnapCap grew, investors and those around him came to realize that Stunzi needed to focus on other pursuits, such as raising capital. “Entrepreneurs as a breed tend to overextend themselves. They are very self-reliant, confident people,” he says.

Spreading out some of his former duties to his employees opened him up for more opportunities, and that is helping SnapCap grow. “You have to learn to delegate,” Stunzi advises. “I had to be pushed by my investors to shift my focus away from operations.”

If you suspect you are too hands-on, you’re not alone. A 2014 Gallup study revealed that 75% of employer entrepreneurs that were examined had limited or low levels of delegator talent. If you don’t know where to begin, start small by making a list of your day-to-day tasks. Then rank them to identify responsibilities you can hand off.

Back at Slawsa, part of Busha’s strategy to grow her company into a successful business has been to be knowledgeable about every part of the business. But, like Stunzi and other peers in the small business community, she knows her limits. For each of these leaders, a firm vision of the company and its capabilities, an obligation to keep employees happy, and a strong network of partners have helped turn a business idea into reality.

Windstream, a leading provider of advanced network communications, knows there’s nothing small about leading a small business. Windstream supports small business leaders and the communities they serve through flexible solutions catered to individual needs.

For more information on Windstream services for small business, visit smallbusiness.windstream.com.