Best Practices of Award-Winning Small Businesses

Mar 31, 2007

By Tom Sawner, Ed.D.

You've seen photos of me in this publication before-I'm exuberantly holding up the Small Business of the Year Award during a shining moment for my company at ACCESS 2006: America's Small Business Summit. During the past year, this award has been a source of pride, recognition, and, of course, more business.

It represents not only what's right about my company, but everything that's right about small businesses across the nation that exemplify America's spirit of entrepreneurship.

I began thinking about the other winning companies I met at the Summit-the 60 Blue Ribbon Small Businesses-and how their stories could serve as a veritable textbook of best practices. These companies hold answers to questions that keep small business owners up at night: What benchmarks should my business strive for to rise above the competition? How can I demonstrate both excellence and concern for my community while keeping an eye on my bottom line? I was determined to give back to the small business community by researching Blue Ribbon Small Business best practices.

My extensive review of the winning applications uncovered best practices that any small business can implement in its quest to join the winner's circle. Here are a few of my key findings. I'll share the rest during a plenary session at America's Small Business Summit 2007, May 23-25, in Washington, DC, and unveil a Blue Ribbon Small Business checklist to help participants propel their businesses to the top.

What Blue Ribbon Small Businesses Know

  • The overwhelming importance of relationships-Relationships with employees, customers, and your community are the lifeblood of your small business. Start by looking within. The best way to have happy customers is to have happy employees. I discovered that creative employee benefits, such as a cafeteria plan, are a key tool used by small companies to drive performance and inspire their staffs to go the extra mile.
  • Stuff happens-Natural disasters, 9/11, and a big-box competitor showing up on your turf are just a few examples. When life takes unexpected turns, a small business feels the effects, usually more so than their larger counterparts. Without corporate coffers to buoy small business owners in tough times, they must use their wits-and often their wallets-to pull through. A number of Blue Ribbon winners had inspiring, often bittersweet, stories of beating the bad times.
  • Your values follow you to work-Your values become the fabric of your small business. If you genuinely value and model superior customer service, your employees will follow suit. Infuse honesty into everything you do and your business will become known for it. But the opposite is also true-unethical practices become cancerous. The Blue Ribbon Small Businesses are in touch with their core values ' is yours?
  • Caring-Thinking about others ultimately benefits both your customers and your community. It's no surprise that successful small business owners engage in their local chambers and civic groups. But I uncovered an interesting link between the boards on which they sit and the actual impact of a small business on the community. Do you invest all your time in trade organizations and networking groups, or do you reach out to deserving nonprofits, schools, and charities that need your expertise?
  • Flex your flexibility-Small businesses have agility that corporate giants can't touch. Smart small business owners know how to capitalize on unique opportunities and realize "big company" results. This means staying alert, reading up on technology how-to articles, and networking with colleagues who know business shortcuts. These activities vie for your limited time, but a Blue Ribbon Small Business finds ways to make them standard practice.

Dr. Tom Sawner is the CEO of Educational Options, Inc., a Virginia-based educational technology company.

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