Start Small Win Big 2015: The First 4 Steps to Success

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I am honored to head up SUCCESS magazine’s third Start Small Win Big challenge. I’ve been an entrepreneurship and small-business advocate, adviser, journalist and consultant for more than 30 years. I’m eager to share what I’ve learned with you.

For instance, when I started my own company seven years ago, you wouldn’t have expected me to make any rookie mistakes. But you’d be wrong. We all make mistakes; that’s part of how we learn. The key is not to make the same mistakes twice.

One initial and costly misstep: When my partners and I started our business, we rented cheap office space from friends of mine. But about two years in, I realized we spent most of our days on the phone or on our computers, tasks we could do from our homes, so we went virtual. The three of us now work at home and meet once a month at a restaurant to catch up. Thanks to technology, we’re never more than a text message away from talking to one another. The move saved us thousands of dollars on expenses such as rent and utilities, and because we live in Southern California, the traffic-jam capital of the U.S., we dramatically increased our productivity by not commuting.

Another, harder lesson: Running your own business will not save time or make your life less complicated. Business ownership is not the best route to work/life balance (which I don’t believe is ever attainable, but that’s another story), spending more time with your family, or working without pressure or stress. For many—including me—it’s the opposite. I’ve never worked as hard or slept as little as I  have these past seven years.

I’ve also learned:

 That while people (or companies) might mean well, good intentions don’t pay the bills. Action must accompany intention.
 How important it is to surround yourself with positive people. Your days will be pleasant, and a can-do spirit means productivity.
 To reward yourself for small victories as a way to maintain momentum.
To get as much advice as you can, but realize, at the end of the day, the responsibility for making the right moves lies with you.

Speaking of advice: For the next two months, that’s why I’m here—in the magazine and on We’ll talk about the most important elements of starting small and winning big. And whenever I say startup, that term isn’t limited to brand-new businesses. The startup phase, which can last about three years for many business owners, is different for all entrepreneurs; we bring varying amounts of knowledge, skill and expertise to our businesses. So no matter where you are in the startup cycle—whether you’re still looking for your breakthrough idea, or you have an idea but need tips for taking it to market, or you’ve been in business a while and want to take a leap—the contest advice and steps will help you launch, learn and grow.

I’m here to inspire you, to tell you things you never knew and remind you of some you might have forgotten. In this issue and again in the June issue of SUCCESS, we’ll take an in-depth look at eight specific aspects of starting small and winning big.

But before we dive in, I want to address one question that’s been around for decades: Are entrepreneurs born or bred? For far too long, many people have refrained from starting businesses because they feared they didn’t have what it takes—they weren’t “born entrepreneurs.” If this sounds like you, stop worrying. Almost anyone with strong desire, initiative and persistence can be an entrepreneur. Now that that’s settled, let’s explore what it takes to win big.

1. Preparation

If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
—Yogi Berra, baseball icon

You need to prepare for each stage of entrepreneurial growth. For some, this means writing a full-fledged business plan; for others, just writing the executive summary of a plan will suffice. To learn more about business plans, go to This website suggests writing a precursor to a business plan, a one-page pitch, which is similar to an elevator pitch; both lay out your business strategy in an easy-to-understand format. The real benefit to writing a one-page pitch is it helps you to distill your thoughts and to focus on your endgame.

To do this, you need these key pieces of information: your definition of success, your goals and how you plan to accomplish them, who your target market is, what crucial components you need (partners? employees?), and how much money you need.

If you decide to write a complete business plan—a must if you plan to raise money—the one-page pitch will make a great outline. And you can use its concept to plan other components of your business, such as introducing a new product, opening another location or creating a social media action plan.

2. Innovation

When you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts.
—Larry Ellison, Oracle founder

Innovation scares people. Many believe it’s a mysterious process that only a few are capable of achieving. That’s bunk, but what is innovation? I once took issue with an academic study that declared innovation was rare among small-business owners because they don’t spend money on research and development and don’t file for trademarks or patents. As I wrote on at the time, “That scenario leaves no room for reinvention, for creating a bigger or better wheel.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that innovation only means starting from scratch. Innovation is really about doing something differently than it’s been done before. Yes, that could mean inventing something. Or it could mean recreating something—even something as ordinary as a hamburger (Ray Kroc of McDonald’s) or a cup of coffee (Starbucks’ Howard Schultz).

Innovation could be as simple as adding new items to your restaurant’s menu or selling jewelry made by an undiscovered designer. You don’t have to spend hours reinventing the wheel; just figure out how to make the wheel a bit different.

3. Brand-Building

Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.
Jeff Bezos, founder

Branding is not just about marketing. Bill Borrelle, senior vice president of brand strategy at Pitney Bowes, says branding “starts with knowing who you are and what you do” and continues with being able to tell your story succinctly. He says that focus is key to ensuring a brand message is effective: “Commit to one main message so that it sticks.” In the world of branding, Borrelle adds, “Consistency is important. Find one idea and repeat it over and over to create the greatest impact. Don’t try to be all things to all markets.”

Ultimately your brand is not what you say it is, but about what your customers believe it represents. “Know what makes your customers say wow!” Borrelle says. “Use that to help create advocates for your new brand.” Establishing a trusted relationship with your customers and clients is essential in brand-building, and that means delivering on your promises.

One caveat for startups: Don’t invest a lot of money in brand-building at the beginning. While it’s important to create a look and feel for your new business, you don’t want to cement that image in customers’ minds until you know your initial business plan is on track, so you won’t have to pivot too often or rebrand too soon.

4. No website yet? why not?

Websites promote you 24/7. No employee will do that.
—Paul Cookson, author/speaker

I’m shocked by how few small-business owners have websites for their businesses. The bottom line: If you don’t have a website (Facebook doesn’t count), then you’re making it difficult for consumers to discover you. Plus, according to a study from The Boston Consulting Group, businesses that actively engage clients online can expect to grow 40 percent faster than they would without an online presence.

It’s relatively inexpensive and easy to build a website. Consumers don’t expect anything extraordinary, just a list of products and prices, phone number, physical address, and hours of operation.

Your website must be mobile-friendly. Why? For starters, mobile-optimized sites are ranked higher by Google and other search engines. And Skava, a digital marketing solutions company, offers these statistics for mobile motivation: 80 percent of consumers search the web via smartphone, and another 47 percent search via tablet. If your site is not optimized for mobile viewing, 33 percent of consumers immediately head to your competitor’s website, 36  percent give up on purchasing what they were looking for, and 30 percent will never come back to your site.

Ask your web host or designer about a “responsive-design website,” meaning one that works on computers, smartphones and tablets of all sizes.

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