If you’ve read any of my blog posts before, you are probably aware of the fact that I often focus on the whole “David vs Goliath” world of competing as a small business against the giants, like this and this and this

And of course, I am Team David.  And I’m sure my fellow small business owners out there clearly support other small businesses whenever possible.  But we certainly can’t avoid doing business with organizations that are larger than our own business, whether as customers, suppliers, sub-contractors, or partners.  And it seems to be harder and harder to stand out as a small business when the digital world is run by tech giants who are constantly adding new products and services, absorbing any small business that poses a potential threat, and tipping the scale in their favor with every move.

But I haven’t given up hope that small business owners will find a way to combine forces and really give big business a run for its money.  The challenge is that the best way to see these opportunities to grow your business is to step outside your plant, office, factory, shop, or wherever you’re working and look around you.  When you are inside, it’s too easy to get sucked into phone calls, emails, and “just one quick question…” distractions to set aside time for strategic thinking. 

Consider blocking off time on your schedule for an hour each week to step outside of your day-to-day distractions and give some thought to how to grow your business.  I know that there are some key issues right now that are very pressing, like finding more help and dealing with supply chain delays.  I don’t propose that you can solve those issues with an hour of reflection.  But you can alter your perspective and help plan for progress with the three Ps of small business growth.

Personalizing

As a small business, it’s much easier for you to connect one-to-one with your customers, vendors, and employees.  And that matters.  Larger businesses don’t have the bandwidth to make these personal connections, and we all recognize a that mass email personalized with our names is not the same as one that is legitimately from the person running a small business.  Some great examples of the advantage of personalization:

  • Free snack with purchase – One electronics design firm I know finds it entertaining that they receive a single bag of microwave popcorn in each order they place with a small electronics distribution firm. Like they’re getting a message, ‘Take a break and enjoy some popcorn on us before you unload this box of supplies.’
  • We can do that – An electronics firm that manufactures and sells its own printed circuit board-based products has offered to make slightly customized versions of the standard product to better meet the needs of key customers, who are in turn quite loyal to them.
  • Welcome aboard! – An engineering firm I know makes a point of welcoming new hires by ensuring they have a desk, computer, name plate, email address and business cards on the first day. This comes after one of the owners had a sub-optimal onboarding experience at a much larger firm.

Pivoting

Think of your business as a powerboat that is much smaller than the cruise ships and container ships out there – and so much more able to change direction quickly.  If you recognize a need or a shift in demand, you can pivot much more quickly than a larger firm that has to let the information work its way up and down the chain of command.  Some great examples of small business pivots I’ve seen:

  • Pandemic pivot – The most obvious pivot example comes from all the small restaurants that found a way to sneak in outdoor seating in and around their building, and to offer online orders when they had never done that before. Sure, the big chains did that as well, but the smaller venues could modify as needed much faster.
  • Shifting markets – My very first client from many years ago saw that there was much more opportunity in commercial construction than the home building he was currently offering. So, he put a plan in motion to pivot from one market to the other and has seen tremendous growth since then. 
  • Find the need – A digital marketing and brand expert I’ve worked with noticed that his small business clients were more focused on hiring employees than on increasing sales. Seeing an opportunity to use his marketing skills, he pivoted his services to help small businesses recruit new employees, and launched a whole new set of services using the same skillsets.

Perceiving

This is a somewhat more time-consuming process than personalization and pivoting.  But if you can really take the time to explore what’s going on around you and your business, you start to see similarities, patterns or signals of change that can lead you down a new path to future profit.  This could certainly be a pivot in your target market or key services or products, but it might also open you up to the potential for collaboration with key partners, a purchase of a company that complements yours, or a whole new line of business that fits nicely with your existing products or services or with your current customer base.  A couple examples:

  • Know your customers – A store owner I know in a tourist town has learned to recognize the different customer types as soon as they walk in the door (local, vacation homeowner, vacation home renter, yacht owner). She makes sure to focus her sales efforts on the right price points and products for each customer type to increase her chance of a sale.
  • Wow your customers: Sensing the need to compete against Amazon, online musical instrument and audio equipment seller Sweetwater assigns a “dedicated sale engineer” to each customer to help address any questions they might have when making a purchase decision. This service could certainly also fall under personalization of the sales process, but it shows that the company understands where they can stand out from the more ‘commodity’ ecommerce sites that might offer lower prices but no service at all.
  • Plan for a successful future: I have worked with many small businesses that have years of experience in their field.  Sometimes they have a gut instinct that something is going on in their industry – a signal that something is changing that they should be paying attention to.  This is the key to being successful through perceiving – being the first to market with a new service or product that is just starting to become important or popular.  And if you are paying attention, then you can move faster than the bigger companies with this new offering.

The Key to the Ps

The key to each “P” is to be paying attention to what’s going on around you.  If you spend all your time tied to your desk taking Zoom calls, putting out fires, and running from meeting to meeting, you won’t have the time to make the observations that can lead to a successful process for standing out to your target customers (or new hires).

The best way to focus on this is to block off time each week.  Close your office door, turn off your email notifications, silence your phone and put up that “Do not disturb” sign.  Or leave the office altogether and find a quiet spot where you won’t be distracted.  Read some of the articles or newsletters that you keep setting aside to get to later but never do.  Reflect on your current customer base and how you can show gratitude for them or offer more personalized service moving forward. 

Spend some time envisioning your business in one year – or five years.  What do you see coming down the pike that could affect your business, your suppliers, or your customers?  How can you prepare yourself?  And how can you help your customers be better prepared because they are working with you?  Remember, you’re a small motorboat so you can maneuver fast compared to the large cruise ships out there.  But you’re also a super friendly boat that is well read.  Okay maybe that analogy goes a bit too far?

My point is that we need to play to our strengths as small business owners.  Focus on personal connections more so than giant spends on digital advertising.  Don’t be afraid to seek out and embrace change to follow the opportunity.  And trust your gut instinct to help guide you toward new opportunities.  But it won’t work unless you set aside the time to make it work.  So take the first step now.  Go into your calendar and block off some weekly time for focusing on these 3 Ps.  I set aside 90 minutes every Friday afternoon.  How about you?

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