Small business survival requires fresh thinking

As the economy continues to struggle and America tries to reclaim its place in the global economic and financial markets, small business once again is left holding the proverbial bag.

As attorney and author Steve Strauss asked in his Aug. 8 column in USA Today, how do we pump the entrepreneurial well even deeper in the face of so much legislative, political, and global red tape? With unemployment constantly hovering around 9 percent and fear grasping every American from Main Street to Wall Street, how does the small business owner stand a chance of survival, let alone the ability to grow and prosper?

Business leaders and elected officials have responded to that question by calling for tax cuts (or, alternatively, tax increases to pay for the deficits government itself has run up), reductions in red tape (or, alternatively, more regulation), cultivation of business start-ups (or, alternatively, a hands-off approach to business growth) — in short, opposing solutions that, like the debt ceiling, have been debated back and forth with no real solution forthcoming.

With that in mind, the time has come for small businesses to develop a commando-like mentality and refuse to surrender to the status quo of, "We have influence and connections, but no power." These small companies — making up more than 99 percent of the country's businesses, employing more than half of all U.S. workers and creating 80 percent of new jobs — have forgotten that our elected officials work for us, not the other way around.

The only way back from the rapidly declining economy, and resulting loss of hope and vision, is for small businesses to band together. Small business must let go of tried-but-failed models and take advantage of new ways to do business, from harnessing social media to establishing personal connections to asking for help.

To do that, small-business owners should take a hard look at the way in which they have always done business and honestly evaluate what is and isn't working. Is your product or service still as viable as it once was, or has it outlived its usefulness? Who are your customers, and are you still able to meet their demands for convenience and value? Are they still loyal? What does your business need to do to survive and prosper?

With honest answers to those questions, small businesses will be better able to play to their strengths by focusing on core competencies and identifying the best sources for business.

For some business owners, it may be time to turn the reins over to the next generation. Small businesses also need to be on the lookout for employees who want to be in business for themselves, just not by themselves. Seek out those who want some "skin in the game."

Small businesses also need to be willing to ask for help. Not from the government or from the banks, though. If the business has been supported by loyal customers for years, those customers will have a stake in its success. Open yourself up to inviting — and accepting — suggestions and criticism. Reach out to other small-business owners in similar positions who live and feel your pain. Join a support group; take a new-technology class. Connecting with others who can bring us business is key to success in this economy.

The one ingredient it is impossible to teach anyone is your level of passion. Is it possible that you are in business because it's all you know? If you do not really love what you do, your customers will know. Be honest with yourself and those around you. Perhaps your best role as the business owner is behind the scenes and not working with customers. Introspection is key. Surround yourself with the best people you can assemble, empower them to do their jobs, and support them in that effort.

This model goes back generations, to when everyone knew those with whom they were doing business. As the world and economy have become more complicated and less personal, businesses that recognize people are begging for old-fashioned customer service will survive and prosper.

Bob Paff, a Baltimore-bred entrepreneur and communications expert, is a featured speaker at the Small Business Survival Summit, being held Sept. 7-9 in Baltimore. His email is

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