Your business may be small, but your brand can be big. And your footprint can be, too.
In today’s business environment, small businesses are uniquely positioned to leave a big mark. There’s reason to be very optimistic.
Why? Because the current business environment favors us, and the way we do things.
There’s no one better to talk about this phenomenon than Becky McCray, co-author with Barry J. Moltz of Small Town Rules: How Big Brands and Small Businesses Can Prosper in a Connected Economy (affiliate link).
Her book outlines all the ways small businesses are uniquely positioned to succeed in the current environment. Now — perhaps more than any other time — small businesses have an advantage over large organizations.
Becky agreed to be interviewed here. It’s a great conversation!
Power to the customer
PAMELA: One big takeaway I got from reading Small Town Rules is that our customers are more empowered than ever. They can easily speak to one another directly through social media channels. This may make big businesses nervous because they can’t control their marketing message the way they used to.
Why should small business embrace this change, and how can they use it to their advantage?
BECKY: Embrace this change because it’s good business and good practice. It forces you to be at your best as often as you can with every customer. You know that word will get around.
In my hometown, a friend of mine used to manage an auto parts store. As we stood in my store discussing our mutual retail management challenges, he looked me square in the eye, and said, “Customer service is all you got.” He’s right. In this small-town like environment, customer service is your only sustainable competitive advantage.
As a person with a small business, your natural inclination is to connect with people as people. The natural inclination of people in big business is that they have “room to hide,” as a friend said to me recently. That’s not a good way to connect person to person. As long as big businesses continue to broadcast from the balcony, you have a big advantage in meeting people and picking up customers in the crowd down below.
Opinions count more than ever
PAMELA: Buyers rely heavily on community opinions when making purchasing decisions now. Whether it’s a review on a shopping site, a comment on social media, or a testimonial from a trusted source, social proof is more important than ever. This isn’t a change at all if you do business in a small town.
How do the most successful small town businesses use social proof, and how can we apply this concept to our own businesses?
BECKY: You’re absolutely right that this isn’t a change at all for small town businesses. All of my customers can talk to all the rest of my customers down at the coffee shop or at any community event. The most successful small town business people probably never think about social proof. They think about meeting the needs of their customers, or going above and beyond to exceed their needs.
There are some good examples out there. My local independent grocery store ran an ad showing all the local eateries that buy their produce there, rather than at the big Walmart Super Center. It was social proof for both the grocery store and the eateries, showing they cared about choosing their produce. You can use this idea in your own business by featuring your most picky customers and why they chose to work with you.
If I have one piece of small-town advice for “using” social proof, it’s this: be worth talking about. Do the things that are memorable, go the extra mile to improve the experience, and involve others in your story. If you’re not worth talking about, then they won’t talk about you.
Plan for zero
PAMELA: I love the “Plan for Zero” concept. You say that marketing doesn’t automatically lead to sales, and we have to plan for zero or very low income times. This is one of those painful truths that those of us who teach marketing don’t like to dwell on.
But you offer an alternative, and it’s one that small businesses are uniquely positioned to implement. Would you talk about that?
BECKY: Once you accept that there will be times when you have zero income, you can plan ahead to survive. It’s tough to have that long-term perspective, but it’s necessary. No matter what your business is, it’s possible for you to have an off week, month or even a full year.
I think the easiest answer is to remember the seasons and cycles. You know that in farming there are seasons, a time to plant, time to grow, time to harvest, and time to rip it all out and start over. When you remember that, you can take a long-term perspective. You can better question the assumptions about your business.
This is much easier to do in a small business than a large one. Big businesses may have more resources or a larger cash cushion, but they can’t change an institutional mindset that says, “sales will always go up!”
So ask yourself right now. What would you do if you had that year of zero income? When you start finding the answers, you’re building a stronger future for your business and for yourself.
Doing business in a small town makes us creative. We don’t have the deep pockets of larger businesses. We have to face tough challenges, and often without much money. So we get creative and we get frugal. We’ll find a way to solve a problem without throwing cash at it. To some extent, all small businesses are like this. We spend our brainpower before we start spending dollars.
Find your story
PAMELA: The section of Small Town Rules where you talk about reducing startup costs by using free and inexpensive software had me shouting “yes!” at my iPad. I believe businesses should work on their branding from the very beginning, so they can harness the power of time to help cement that brand in their prospects’ minds.
But the branding doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can do most of it yourself!
Would you talk a bit more about this concept of a “brand to get started,” and how it can evolve over time?
BECKY: I look at this backwards, I think. Instead of looking ahead to some distant future and building your brand around that, I look to what brought you to this moment. That is the most compelling brand you can have.
Even on day one of your business, you have a founding story. There is a reason you’re here. Why did you choose this business? Why this town? What makes you excited about how this will help people? That’s your most authentic, real starting brand. It’s not about building some slick, corporate branding platform. It’s about sharing the story of why you are here with other people. And any “branding” you do should help tell that story.
Be proud to be small
PAMELA: Small Town Rules is full of examples of what small businesses can teach large companies, and you share a very optimistic outlook for the future.
Would you tell us your favorite examples of how small business are uniquely qualified to succeed in today’s economic environment?
BECKY: I’m glad you see the optimism! Since we start out chapter 1 with how the financial crisis has made our economy more like a small town, it’s not a very cheerful beginning! But we are optimistic. Small town businesses are tough. We already talked about planning for zero. It may sound pessimistic, but it’s actually optimistic to say that your future is worth planning for.
One story that illustrates how small businesses are in the right place and the right time to succeed in this changed economy is United Linen in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Scott Townsend is their marketing smart guy. He uses online and offline tools to better communicate with his customers.
For example, when they change a delivery schedule, they print it on the back of invoices, they write about it on their site, and Scott does great videos of him drawing the changes on a calendar. It’s a great way of connecting with the customers.
When enough customers asked about how to reload the paper towels in the automatic paper towel dispensers, they made a video demonstration. Perfectly practical. Except the big company that makes the dispensers asked them to take down the video, because it didn’t match their branding. Of course, the big company still to this day has not made a video demonstrating what customers need to know. And United Linen goes on experimenting with online tools, combining them with offline communication, and doing everything they can to live up to their tagline of “We Bring It.”
So the big company is still worrying about branding, but the small company is busy succeeding.
PAMELA: Thank you, Becky McCray, for sharing your insights!
Let’s keep talking
What do you think? Do we have reasons to be optimistic about the future of small business? What are you doing to make the most of the current business environment? Head on down to the comments and let’s talk. 🙂
12 thoughts on “Tiny but Mighty: Becky McCray Talks About the Power of Small Business”
Terrific interview and advice. I’ve already shared it with several local businesses in my rural area.
Thanks, Kat. Becky was very easy to interview, and the book gave us lots to talk about!
I’m very optimistic about the near future, though that’s certainly not true of everyone I know. Some entrepreneurs retired in the last few years rather than wait out the recession. I think you can only tread water so long. It’s nice to be able to have the retirement option but sad if you really wanted to keep going. I love running my businesses but I too am feeling the call of the road and the urge to buy that RV!
Charleen, this goes back to the seasons. If you don’t want to wait for the next spring, it may be time to rip it all out. The longer I’m an entrepreneur, the more I realize that seasons and cycles are big factors in business.
Small is fast. Small is fun. Small is smart.
And small is scary.
All good reasons to do small.
Great stuff. Thanks to you both.
Mike, intentionally walking toward scary is the only way to grow. Thanks for your comment!
In the near future, I plan to finish and launch my very overdue “Baby”. I first launched NB in 1992, two months after moving into an empty apartment my fella built me bentwood furniture from the brush behind our complex for Christmas. We’d been homeless for some time. I picked up a book on bootstrap marketing and broke down our apartment every time I had a sales presentation.
We were in the rustic furniture business with our first order, my first presentation. Went International to preview our work in Japan the following year, but passed on taking even one test order. We could not deliver the quantity wholesale and knew we would save face. How we got that far in one year was sheer drive and knowing that we couldn’t go back to the street after seeing Paree.
I think my hesitation this time is— The risk’s far less than the first time out, but the internet media is still foreign to me. Yet, if I study to find just the “right” strategy another year, the internet is sure to morph into new formats and tools that I should study another year, and so on and so forth. The internet today seems too physically and financially effortless— at least in comparison to what feels now to be, a ‘horse-and-buggy’ system, of taking a niche product to a global market 20 years ago.
I drove three wrecks into the ground our first year, for a documented total of 33,000 miles, showing the next prospective town the furniture I was delivering to the town closer to home. Our “exclusive dealers” only had to meet our company’s two-part criteria; (1) place our minimum order (1-grouping of three different designs) and (2) refer the name of their competition, 15-30 miles down the road, away from their own retail location— or (2) referrals within the next town.
This system worked like a charm for several harrowing months. It was a combination that worked until we were servicing our dealers into three states. We then learned to modify our designs to fit the boxing of our minimum collection, 5 coordinating pieces within one freight-ready box to justify the new dealer’s high cost of freight.
Our marketing graduated to my flying cross-country to exhibit and write orders at National trade show’s— Even doing multiple day show’s alone, cost twice as much as another wreck had cost, including gas and motel. Building an artisan product-based business was extremely expensive AND we had opted for going the wholesale route. Automating our books in 1996 to take a loan out to stay afloat, we received some bad news. Our cost of marketing was 85% of product cost. We were out of business by the following year.
Anyway, this is just one small business owner’s perspective of how wonderful the internet opportunities could be. Trying to make the transition, I’ve found that for me, there are too many choices. Discovering, then feeling confident that I’m taking my niche’s best pathway is my most difficult dilemma. The new launch is Naturally Bent News, sharing original, eco DIY designs— others and my own, as information products, with Creative Commons Licensing (personal and commercial). These products will be available through diverse media.
No more wholesale for me, that lesson is clear.
My mission: expedite a cottage-craft evolution— an eco-artisan’s guild (cooperative) in support of unique options for creativity and self-sufficiency for women-at-risk, and including emancipating foster youth, battered women with or without children and/or unemployed, seeking alternative occupations. The purpose of our cooperative is to market and distribute our collective designs (with inherited design royalties).
Thanks, Pamela, I’ve found ALL your newsletter’s and free workshops to be most helpful, consistently. Great Job!
Thanks for the kind words. You’ve had quite the journey! I enjoyed reading about it, and appreciate you sharing it.
It sounds like you’ve learned a lot from the experience so far, and are clear about what needs to happen in the future. Best of luck as you move forward. 🙂
Eve, you have a terrific story, and I hope you’ll share it more widely. This is worth documenting and sharing with others. All the best!
What a great interview (prompted me to finally order the book). I’m sure Becky and Barry’s work will be referenced in the future as a milestone in business literature, and a sign of these changing times we live in.
Thanks, Nando. Small Town Rules is rich with inspiration: I think you’re going to love it.
I am a small business in a small town, this article really speaks to me. Reposting to my fb page and pinterest to share the joy! Small is beautiful!
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