How to Become a Successful Small Business Owner
If you’ve just started
or are thinking of starting a new business, you’ve probably heard plenty of
gloomy statistics about small business failure rates.
Often, this can lead
people to give up before they begin—a Gallup
survey found that a quarter of Americans had thought about starting a
business but decided against it. Of those people, 66% said they were influenced
by “worry that the odds of success of a new startup are very low”.
But you don’t have to
give up on your dream, nor are you doomed to add to the gloomy
statistics. If you do things right from the start, you can become a successful
small business owner, running a thriving, profitable company that serves both
you and your customers.
In this tutorial, I’ll give you some tips on how to achieve this and how to move forward effectively from the start. I’ll look at some of the questions you need to ask yourself, how to get support (both moral and financial), how to get money coming in quickly, and more.
By the end, you’ll be equipped with some practical strategies to use as you run your business, and I hope you’ll also feel inspired and confident that you and your company can be a success.
1. Ask Yourself Some Simple Questions
When you’re starting a business, it’s
natural to be excited about what you’re doing and want to jump right into
creating your first product or service right away. But it pays to take the time
to ask yourself some questions first, so that you have some clarity.
Here are some of the most important
questions to ask yourself. It’s best if you write the questions and answers
down somewhere and save them to refer to later on.
Why Are You Starting the Business?
It may seem obvious or unimportant, but
this is a crucial question to start with. If you answer something like “Because
I hate my job and want to be my own boss” or “To make money”, that’s a good
start, but push yourself further. Why this
business? What attracted you to the idea? If you’re wildly successful, what
will it look like?
The idea here is to get clear about what’s
important to you, where exactly your passion lies, and what the point of the
whole venture is. As a small business owner, it’s easy to get caught up in the
minutiae of paying bills, writing the website copy, changing the website copy
several dozen times, filling out tax forms, and so on. Don’t lose sight of the
What’s Your Offer?
In one sentence, what exactly do you do?
How is it different from what other companies already do, and why will people
Your answer will be something like the
famous “elevator pitch”, or maybe a mission statement. It doesn’t matter
whether it’s perfectly polished yet, but it is important that your answer is
clear and easy to understand. If you were talking to your neighbours at a
barbecue and they asked you what you do, would your answer make their eyes
light up or glaze over? Would it make them ask for more details, or hurriedly
excuse themselves to grab another burger?
As an example, here’s Amazon’s mission
Our vision is to be Earth’s most
customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and
discover anything they might want to buy online.
Whether you love or hate Amazon, that’s a
pretty clear mission. Come up with your own, and as you’re doing so, try to
focus not so much on the mechanics of what you do as on what you’re offering to
customers and how it will improve their lives.
Who Will Buy It?
Once you’re clear on what you’re offering,
ask yourself who will buy it. Get as specific as possible here, creating a
detailed “customer avatar”—a profile of your ideal customer, including their
name, age, gender, personality, likes, dislikes, hobbies, dreams, and more.
Customer avatars have become quite popular,
so maybe you’re familiar with the concept already. If not, or if you want more
details, check out this tutorial on getting
to know your customers.
What Are You Good At?
It helps if you’re good at what you want to
do in your business. For example, if you’re setting up a web design studio, it
would help if the answer to this question includes the phrase “designing
But to be successful in business, you’ll
need other skills too. You’ll need to communicate, negotiate, promote your
business, sell yourself and your products, keep the accounts, stay organized,
and much more.
So run a self-inventory here. The answers
are for your eyes only, so be completely honest. What are you good at, and what
are you not good at? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
If you identify areas of weakness, you’ll
need to make a plan for dealing with them. If you don’t have a head for
figures, perhaps you could partner with someone who does. Or you could hire an
accountant, or improve your own skills by checking out some of our super-simple
accounting tutorials or doing other training. If you’re no good at
designing websites, hire
someone to do it for you.
The key here is to make the most of your
own strengths, and to make sure you get the necessary support to compensate for
You can find more important questions to
ask yourself in the following tutorial:
2. Get Help
Speaking of getting support, you’ll need
plenty of it if you’re running a business. Other people have been there before
and made many of the mistakes that are common among new business owners, and
they can help you avoid them. They can also provide inspiration, help you
develop strategy, and even introduce you to new opportunities.
A great way to do this is to find a mentor.
Many of the most successful entrepreneurs have relied heavily on mentors.
Here’s a quote
from leadership expert Bill George, referring to Facebook founder Mark
People always ask, How does
he have the wisdom of someone 20 years older? The answer is, he sought out
really good mentors, early on.
One of those mentors was Steve Jobs, who
himself was mentored by Bill
To find out how to identify and approach a
mentor and how to manage the relationship, see Lisa Hunter’s tutorial on How
to Find Great Mentors.
You could even appoint a “personal
advisory board” of several trusted advisor. And the support doesn’t end
there. Find local business associations and networking groups, and reach out to
people on relevant social media or other websites.
Don’t forget self-help either. We have a
large and growing library of business tutorials here on Envato Tuts+, so you
can get up to speed on some important business topics:
3. Fund Your Dream
In that Gallup survey I mentioned earlier,
the top two reasons for not starting a business were connected to lack of
But it doesn’t have to be a barrier. There
are plenty of sources
of business funding you could explore, and you could also apply the bootstrapping
approach, keeping expenses tight and developing your business with limited
Keep in mind that it can take
some time for a business to become profitable. You can work out how long it
will take for you to break even in my tutorial on creating
a financial model for your business.
Even if you’ve created a model and
think you’ve got enough saved, it may still be worth exploring funding. That’s
because of something the Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.
The last part is often translated as “often
go awry”, and I’m sure you understand the sense: no matter how carefully you
plan, things rarely go as expected. We live in a complex, interconnected world,
and even if you do everything right, your business could be knocked sideways by
a sudden economic meltdown, a real estate crash, a war on the other side of the
world that raises prices for your raw materials, the sudden entry of a powerful
competitor into your turf, and much more.
So it pays to have a comfortable cushion,
just in case things don’t pan out as expected. And it’s much easier and cheaper
to arrange funding when times are good than it is when you’re desperate. Of
course, you don’t want to be paying interest on unnecessary debt either, but
there are funding options, like lines of credit, that you only pay for when you
activate them. In any case, it’s worth researching your options early on.
4. Jump-Start Cash Flow
When people are just starting out, they
often focus on keeping expenses tight because they don’t want to burn through
their initial funds too quickly.
That’s a valid strategy, but another way to
free up more money for the business, of course, is to get revenue coming in
A common strategy, particularly with
internet startups, is to build and launch a product much more quickly than
traditional businesses would have done. Instead of making something perfect, create a
Minimum Viable Product (MVP), release it to the world, and start improving it
gradually as you go along.
This can be an efficient way of developing
new products, but it also has the benefit of allowing you to bring in money
quickly—assuming your product is “viable” enough that people will pay for it!
For more on this, see my tutorial The
Lean, Agile Way to Build Your First Product.
But even if you’re not an internet startup
or these techniques don’t feel right to you, you can still take steps to get money
coming in quickly. If you run a service-based business, you can structure
contracts so that clients have to pay a certain amount up front or at agreed
milestones, instead of all at the end. With long-running projects, this can
make a big difference to your cash flow. You can also offer special discounts
and limited-time offers for people who sign up as early customers.
The more money you can get coming through
the door in the early days, the quicker you can break even on your original investment, and the
more funds you’ll have available to invest in growth.
5. Get the Word Out
For a small, new business, there’s an
obvious problem: nobody knows you exist.
Overcoming this problem is easier than it
used to be, thanks to the plethora of marketing opportunities on the internet.
Many of them, of course, are free or low cost, but don’t forget that your time
is also an investment. So don’t make the mistake of signing up for every social
media site out there and letting your valuable time dribble away in tweets and status
Instead, get strategic. Make a marketing
plan that identifies what you want to achieve and sets out the strategies and
the channels you’ll use to achieve it. Take advantage of free opportunities, of
course, but don’t neglect opportunities that can save you a bunch of time for a
For more on this, see our marketing tutorials
on Envato Tuts+, such as:
6. Hold Yourself Accountable
We live in an age of data. Back in 2010,
Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously said that
every two days, we create more data than we did from the dawn of history up to
2003. And our data production has continued
to grow since then.
While your small business will probably not
be creating exabytes or zettabytes of data, there will still be plenty for you
to analyze. You’ll have detailed financial records, customer records, website
traffic, social media engagement, click-throughs, conversion rates, sign-ups,
and much more.
Of course, you can’t track everything, and
you’d go crazy if you tried. So pick some key metrics that are most closely
aligned to your overall business goals, and make a plan to track them on a
regular basis. For more help with this, see my series of tutorials on the key
metrics every business should track.
Also make sure you have a structured
process for setting measurable objectives, reviewing your progress, and adjusting
the objectives or setting new ones. A good way is to keep a simple monthly
checklist of the most important items. All of this should be driven by your
overall business plan (you do have a business plan, don’t you?), and you should
use the data you collect to help you keep the plan constantly updated.
7. Grow and Diversify
Often, a business starts out with one
product. If that product is a success, it can be tempting to stick to doing
what you do well. But that can also be dangerous, particularly in a world of
Here’s an example from Envato, the company
that runs this site. Envato started out ten years ago as FlashDen, a
marketplace where creators could upload Adobe Flash assets and people could buy
them to use on their websites.
It was hugely successful and grew rapidly
for the first few years, even after it was forced to change its name from
FlashDen to ActiveDen. It would have been easy for the company’s founders to
have kept investing in that one site, focusing on becoming the best Flash
marketplace out there.
But they didn’t do that. Instead, they
diversified into multiple income streams, creating marketplaces for lots of
different products, from WordPress themes
to royalty-free music, graphics, and more—as well as a freelance
marketplace on Envato Studio, and
tutorials and courses here on Envato Tuts+,
In retrospect, that was a very good
strategy. Use of Flash
has declined from about half of all websites in 2011 to less than a quarter
in 2015. As usage of the marketplace declined too, Envato announced the closure of ActiveDen
If the company founders had kept all their eggs in one
basket, the decline of Flash would have pretty much smashed all those eggs, and
they would have been left bemoaning their bad luck. But by creating multiple
income streams, they ensured that the company would still be successful even if
one of its main products went into decline.
So think about how you can diversify your
own business. Think about the risks you’re subject to, the technologies you’re
dependent on, and how changes in the competitive landscape could blow you off
course. Then come up with ways in which you can create multiple income streams,
so that if one product or service is no longer popular, others can pick up the
Your Journey to Small Business Success
This has been a high-level overview of how to become a successful small business owner. You’ve learned how to get clear on your business’s goals and your own strengths and weaknesses, how to fund your business, how to get the word out, how to measure success, and more.
We’ve touched on a lot of different topics, of course, and I’ve linked to more
tutorials so that you can dig into the details in each area. I’d encourage you to read some of those
tutorials to go deeper into the key subjects, and to subscribe to our newsletter (there’s a form down in the
footer) to stay up to date with the latest business tutorials published here. We’ve got plenty more on the way!
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