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What Still Works

Thursday, March 17, 2011
NASE Members Stick To Fundamentals For Long-Term Business Success

By Jan Norman

NASE Member Ron Wilson, owner of R&S Cleaning Service in Peoria, Ariz., has been cleaning commercial buildings for as long as the NASE has been providing services and products to help the self-employed succeed.

Thirty years.

That seems like a long time, and it certainly predates many of the tools that are now considered everyday basics for many micro-businesses. Consider:
  • More than 60 percent of small businesses use QuickBooks software to keep track of their financial recordkeeping. Yet the company that created it, Intuit, started just 28 years ago (1983).
  • Businesses of all sizes are almost expected to have a website, yet the World Wide Web, which made websites available as marketing tools, was created 22 years ago (1989).
  • The cell phone, which enables micro-business owners to stay in touch with customers and the home office from anywhere, wasn’t widely available to the public until 14 years ago (1997).
  • Social media help micro-businesses communicate and build relationships with customers; yet Facebook didn’t launch until 2004, and Twitter didn’t tweet until 2006.
Interestingly, Wilson is just now setting up a website for his cleaning service. And he doesn’t have a Facebook fan page or a Twitter account. All of these are merely the latest tools that help micro-businesses accomplish the fundamental activities that lead to success.

But the fundamentals themselves—such as marketing, financing and building customer loyalty—haven’t changed, Wilson says. Other NASE Members and business experts tend to agree.

Even after 30 years, the basics of business success still remain much the same.

Fundamentals Rule!

What is more basic to business success than a cell phone and a website? Service, for one thing.

“If you don’t do a good job, you’re out,” Wilson says. “All my business comes pretty much from word of mouth. My business depends on winning and keeping the public’s trust.”

Terri Carr, a business counselor with SCORE, a national organization sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration, agrees.

“The basic ideas of business success have not changed,” she says. “When I think of my clients, I realize that the truly successful ones have a great, unique product or service and have great rapport with their customers.

“However, there have been changes that make it easier to do some of the things than it was in the past. You can keep track of your customer on your computer; you can write and rewrite a business plan several times a day if you want.”

Brian Tracy, an internationally-known author and training consultant based in San Diego, Calif., elaborated on this concept in an article he wrote for Entrepreneur.com. He identified seven key areas that determine whether a business will succeed or fail no matter what date or decade the calendar shows.
  1. Sell the right product or service to the right customer at the right time
  2. Make and keep track of money
  3. Produce enough products or services with consistency and sufficient quality
  4. Deliver products or services to customers when they want them and at a profit
  5. Adapt to changing competition and customer needs
  6. Cope with laws and regulations, which continually change
  7. Find, train and keep the skilled workers needed (including outside experts such as attorneys and accountants)
As Tracy wrote recently on his blog, “All wealth comes from adding value in some way. All wealth comes from serving and satisfying your customers better than they could be served and satisfied by someone else.”

The Basics Never Change


Wilson reflects on some of the ways his business has changed in three decades.

The cleaning products are different, although he has been running a green cleaning service long before that term was fashionable. In addition, work processes have become more efficient.

“Thirty years ago we dragged one mop everywhere; now we have one mop per floor in a building.”

But those are things customers don’t see or care about, he adds.

“They’re looking for consistency. They’re expecting more for their money. And they’re caring about cost. We have to show them that green cleaning doesn’t cost more.”

Another NASE Member who says customers care about quality and consistency is Jerry Hogan, who has owned The Resource Development Group LLC in Warsaw, Ind., for 10 years. He provides training, development and consulting services to help client companies get the timeless fundamentals correct so that they can succeed over the long haul just as he has.

One essential of his business, Hogan says, is to “provide more to the client than he or she expects. We look for ways to provide the same or greater levels of service at lower cost.”

The payoff for Hogan’s company in delivering more than customers expect is invaluable referrals for more business. Customer referrals have been an unchanging tool for micro-businesses in every decade.

“They provide credible testimony for the work I do and open doors that otherwise would be closed,” he says.

Customer service is a timeless fundamental crucial to micro-business success, says NASE Member Stephen Bryant. He’s owned Bryant Office Supply Sales in Harrison, Ark., for 20 years.

“Customer service goes beyond being polite,” he says. “The more you do for customers, the more successful you’ll be. I’ve had some customers 15, 20 years.”

Bryant provides delivery services and personal attention that have been essential in keeping those customers, even as competition has grown from office superstores and other independents.

Financial Savvy Still Matters


That competition has led to lower profit margins, which points out the importance of another essential to business success that does not change with time—protecting the bottom line.

Bryant advises all micro-business owners to keep a watchful eye on finances and be careful about extending credit.

“Customers who pay on delivery are dinosaurs . . .,” Bryant says. “I deliver to a lot of doctors’ offices that
have signs posted ‘pay at time of service,’ but they are the ones who are 40 days late paying me. Yet my vendors are requiring my payments sooner. You have to figure a way to control your own cash flow.”

Judee Slack agrees. She owns Slack Tax Inc. in Fountain Valley, Calif., and is an enrolled agent who represents clients before the Internal Revenue Service.

“To be a success, a small business has to pay attention to the financial side of their business,” Slack says. “Good recordkeeping, whether it is a simple pencil-and-paper spreadsheet or sophisticated accounting software, is essential.”

From startup, business owners must set up the recordkeeping and then faithfully monitor those
records, Slack adds.

“How much income is coming in from each product or service and how much does it cost to produce that product or provide the service? Many business owners think the more they sell, the more money they will make,” Slack says. “So unless you know what your costs—including the overhead of rent, utilities and taxes—are, you cannot accurately price your product or service.”

NASE Member Ernestina Shepard says financial tracking is fundamental to her 10 years of successful ownership of Aprendi Interpreting in Denver, Colo.

“Managing cash flow is crucial. Covering payroll is a make or break deal for me . . . Happy, enthusiastic employees [are essential], and keeping on track with payroll is one aspect of happy employees. [To manage finances] the good old profit and loss statement works for me. I look at it monthly, quarterly and annually
to track trends and get a handle on spending.”

Shepard says her bank has been a great help in managing cash flow and payroll.

“The line of credit made available by my bank to me five years ago has been a godsend. Although for the past two years, it’s been rarely used, prior to that it was just the cushion I needed to keep the boat afloat.”

Adapting Is Key To Survival


Flexibility is another key to business success, no matter how times and techniques change, several NASE Members say.

“Office supplies are always changing, and I have to keep up,” says Bryant. “At one time I was selling floppy disks, and no one uses them now.

“Today many of my clients are in the health field, and records privacy is important. So they want locking storage for records. I need to match new products with more knowledge to answer questions that the [big-box retailers] can’t because they’re staffed with people who have never used the product.”

Cleaning service owner Wilson points out that being flexible in adjusting to the economy is mandatory for success. His business started during a recession and has survived four more.

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Wilson says. “We didn’t feel the previous recessions, but we did feel the most recent one because many of our [real-estate related] customers went out of business. I have four employees now. I used to have 10 or 12.”

Few business owners can foresee such economic changes years in advance, says consultant Hogan.

“Although vision, values and missions are critical, it is impossible to say what’s going to happen in two or five years,” Hogan says. “What’s critical is to do the right things right now.

“We are in an era of tremendous opportunity that is disguised as a recession. Opportunity grows for those who innovate and capitalize on the opportunities that still exist.”

That advice is as timeless as it gets for micro-business owners.


Jan Norman has learned in her 23 years of writing about entrepreneurs that fundamentals, such as customer service and good financial records, are essential to business success.

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