No matter how you feel about the U.S. political climate right now, there’s something interesting – and important – happening among mom-and-pop stores in America. According to Bloomberg, the “Optimism Index” for small businesses in America has surged to its highest level since 2002. And what exactly does that mean?
There’s a group called the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and in a survey that lasted through Dec. 28, the NFIB found there’s more confidence in the small business climate than there has been in 15 years. Half of all respondents said they expect better conditions in 2017, and that’s 38 percentage points higher than the same index in November, according to Bloomberg.
Why am I telling a bunch of people in the middle of Houston about this?
Well, one of the things I’ve come to learn about our small chunk of this huge city is that folks in the Garden Oaks, Heights and Oak Forest areas all feel like we have something special where we live. What’s special is that we might be in the middle of a big city, but we feel like we get many of the perks of small-town life.
We are a community, more so than maybe any other part of Houston, and what gives us that feel is that we aren’t completely littered with big-box retailers. We love to shop at local stores. We support local artists and home-grown craft brewers because that makes us unique. We have farmers’ markets and, if we lose one, we start another. We patronize as many local restaurants as we do chains, and we cheer when a pub on Wakefield or 20th Street is more popular than a national sports bar.
If you were to define why our area of this city is so special, it’s because we have a vested interest in seeing our neighbors succeed. For that matter, I believe the people in this community are the only reason The Leader is a respected newspaper – you all love local news and you support it. If that’s not true, I can’t figure out why more than 1,000 people, out of the goodness of their hearts, sent money supporting their local paper last month.
Small businesses matter to our community, which makes the story from Bloomberg even more important to us. If the climate is right for our area to get more of what we love, then we have the opportunity to create a group of neighborhoods that is even more unique than any other in the Greater Houston metropolis.
But there’s a problem with this number, which is actually the purpose of today’s column.
In 2016, our newspaper, The Leader, worked with more small businesses in this community than any other organization, save maybe the Greater Heights Chamber of Commerce.
Last year alone, 794 small businesses advertised with The Leader. We probably talked to another 400. That’s not to flaunt our reach. Instead, it tells you that we are fortunate to work with so many of the mom-and-pop stores in this community because we offer an affordable way to market to more than 70,000 readers each week.
If we’re all going to ride this wave of optimism among small businesses, I’d like to offer a few observations for those of you who own – or want to own – your own business. This is based strictly on what I’ve seen from our experience with hundreds of businesses like you.
First, there are a lot of you who could stand a mentor. We all have wonderful ideas, but we need people who can share their failures as much as we envision our successes. If there’s a small business out there that doesn’t have a friend to call with questions, you might consider buying a couple of lunches and learning from those who have weathered the storm you’re about to face.
Second, the best small businesses don’t figure out what works best for the owners. They figure out what the customers want and do that, instead. If the customers like it, owners will reap the rewards.
If small businesses don’t learn how to pick up the phone – even in off hours – the phone will eventually stop ringing. I’ve seen too many businesses in the past year fail because the owners aren’t responsive to customer and their needs.
If small businesses don’t spend 5 percent of their revenue marketing to new customers, your business will never grow. Whether you do that through social media, radio, TV or even The Leader, it doesn’t matter. Too many businesses rely on word-of-mouth, and that limits you to friends of your friends.
If small businesses can’t handle the work, invest in new workers. I’ve heard too many small business owners say they have too much work already. I’ve never heard Apple say they make too many iPhones or Coca-Cola say they make too much soda. But too often, small business owners place a roof over their opportunity, and it’s not until they lose a few shingles that they realize they could have plugged the leak with a few new customers.
Here’s a funny story: My wife and I needed some work done around our house last year. We needed the trees trimmed and some landscaping done. We called six landscaping companies and four tree trimmers.
Guess how many of those businesses answered the phone when we called. Zero.
Guess how many of those businesses called us back the next day. Zero.
Guess how many of those businesses called us back within a week. Zero.
It wasn’t until we made a second round of calls and we had a friend of ours put in a good word before we got one call back from a tree company and one call back from a lawn company. We literally wanted to hand them both money, and we couldn’t get local, small businesses to answer the phone.
All indications are that small businesses in our community have the opportunity to have a stellar 2017. That won’t happen if they can’t serve the customers in this area who want to support them.