As a small business owner, it’s important to be a lifelong learner, says Tim Ross, president and founder of UpSwell Marketing. “You’re going to face failures and challenges each day, but you can learn from these and build a stronger business in the future,” he says.

Ross started out as a small business owner himself and now helps thousands of business owners like him grow their own successful organizations. Below, he shares six tips he has learned along his journey that can help you succeed.

 1. Build a comprehensive business plan to serve as your guide.

A business plan is as critical to building a small business as a blueprint is to building a house. You need to be able to clearly articulate your services or products, identify your target audience and your competition, illustrate your competitive difference, establish your marketing plan, and determine your financial projections.

Ross advises asking yourself tough questions such as:

  • Do I have the correct margin set to make this business profitable and competitive?
  • What are my ultimate goals for revenue growth?

You should also decide whether yours will be a lifestyle business (meaning its primary purpose is to support your desired lifestyle) or one that you intend to grow and sell in the future. In addition to your revenue goals, your business plan should include items such as staffing needs, vendor partner needs, and capital needs that will help you be successful.

Revisit your business plan monthly to see if you’re still on track or need to make adjustments, Ross says.

2. Prioritize quality and diversify your services.

To grow your business, it’s critical that you offer good initial service so that customers return. Providing good service will also help you generate new customer referrals.

It’s equally important that your business offer a diversity of services. For example, an auto repair shop that does oil changes can also sell tires. A fitness center can offer machine weights, personal training, and group exercise classes. Dental offices can offer exams, X-rays, fillings, crowns, and teeth whitening.

“Make sure all your services are anchored in your core business,” Ross says. “But don’t be just OK at a lot of things. Be really good at a few things.”

 3. Know when and where you need help.

At first, you might do almost everything for your small business: selling, hiring, accounting, marketing, and much more. But whenever possible, Ross recommends leaning into your strengths and finding help with the rest.

“Put your ego aside, ask for help, and get back in the trenches,” he says. “A business owner needs to know how to find people who can get the organization to the finish line.”

If hiring staff isn’t possible, look for free or affordable resources such as books, classes, and mentorships. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know and ask the “dumb” questions; your success relies on it.

“You always must be learning. I don’t care how successful you are,” Ross says.

 4. Take frequent, honest stock of your finances.

Too many small business owners avoid taking a close look at their finances, which is often a fatal error, Ross says. He compares it to being reluctant to get on the scale after eating a holiday meal. Denial won’t change the reality of the numbers.

Owners need to have a firm grasp on all of their business costs — rent, insurance, marketing, salaries, taxes, supplies, and more — and be intimately familiar with their margins, expenses, balance sheets, and profit-and-loss statements. Don’t run your business out of a checkbook, but do invest time in creating professional accounting statements that will help you keep a close eye on the health of your business.

“Many small businesses are broke because they don’t know their numbers,” Ross says. “If you don’t know your numbers, you’re going to go out of business.”

Not everyone is comfortable with accounting or business math, which is why it’s important for owners to educate themselves and to hire qualified bookkeeping staff whenever possible, Ross says.

 5. Don’t forget to market your organization.

Marketing is often an afterthought for small business owners, but it’s critical to establishing and growing a business, Ross says.

“One of the No. 1 mistakes I see is people open up a business and they don’t market it,” he says. Business owners need to market their business with their growth goals in mind, which requires planning and budgeting.

The first step is to identify your target audience and where they are located. Next, determine how much money the average customer is worth per visit and per year so you can calculate the number of customers you’ll need to reach your revenue and profit goals. Lastly, you can work with a marketing partner to help you determine the best ways to advertise your business: postcards, paid search, paid social, broadcast, or some combination of tactics.

Ross recommends that all business owners use postcards and paid search for lead generation to help them quickly build a customer base. Other advertising methods can be layered on as needed.

When budget allows, partner with a marketing agency that will learn your business inside and out and measure the return on every tactic.

“Challenge your marketing partners to show you the return you’re getting and to be able to optimize and adjust along the way,” Ross says.

 6. Prepare for pain, but keep your goals in mind.

Everyone knows that starting and growing a small business is intense, difficult work, but until you do it, you might not understand the depth of the sacrifice, Ross says.

He calls it the “iceberg effect.” From the surface, you can see the business growing, but you can’t see the much larger mass underneath — “the hard work and effort and hours and sweat and tears of running a small business, where you’re the last one who gets paid and you’re the one who has to make payroll,” Ross says.

In the short term, he says, small business owners will have to be the main driver of the business, which translates to personal sacrifice and long hours. But if your business plan is strong, your service is valuable, and your customers are happy, you can grow a successful and profitable business.

“My motto has always been: I am doing things today that most people will not do so I can do things tomorrow that most people cannot do,” Ross says.

Looking for a partner to help grow your small business? Contact the team at UpSwell for a free marketing assessment.

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