The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between me and USA Today columnist and small-business expert Steve Strauss that occurred on LinkedIn Live in March of 2021. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel B. Lee: Steve, you know more than anybody that it’s been quite a year for our small businesses. And you’re writing about this all the time! What are some of the hot topics you’ve been writing about on USA Today?
Steve Strauss: It’s been a challenging year to say the least, but what I love seeing is that so many small businesses have gotten really creative, figured out how to pivot, and done things they haven’t done before. The good news is that as the pandemic starts to recede, a lot of these small businesses are going to have new skill sets they can take with them.
Let me give you a good example from my column today. About a year ago, when everything went to heck, my oldest daughter said, “I know you love doing yoga”. My studio had just closed, so she found this woman on YouTube, Adriene Mishler. I did a series of classes with her; they were fantastic, and then I ended up doing a column recently about Adriene. What I love is that she started her yoga practice online a number of years ago, but during the pandemic it exploded. She went from 200,000 to 10 million subscribers! And the turning point was something that any of us can do. Several years ago, her and her partner wanted to figure out how people were searching for yoga classes on YouTube. Are they searching for “free yoga”? It turns out that people were searching for very specific yoga classes: “Yoga for seniors, yoga for weight loss, yoga for back pain” so then she started creating those classes. All of that was just a little pivot that helped her reach a much broader audience.
RL: What I loved about what you just talked about was SEO and being smart with those keywords. I think that something a lot of small businesses aren’t familiar with is the power of SEO and social media. Can you talk a little bit about businesses that have shifted to fully online? How have they done that, and what are some of the tools and strategies you’ve witnessed?
SS: So you mentioned my book “Your Small Business Boom” is coming out in September at a bookstore near you, and I have a chapter in there called “Do the Opposite.” I think for a lot of small businesses, we need to do the opposite. We are used to doing our business in our own way, but this pandemic has really changed everything. When I say you have to learn some new skills, this idea about learning SEO, learning keywords, learning about search, learning how to pivot online is just critical. It may not be comfortable for everyone but it’s a new skill set and something we’ll have to learn. It’s very important since we aren’t going back to the way we were, and we are definitely going to have this hybrid offline-online work world. Whether it’s our employees working more remotely or businesses doing ecommerce that they haven’t done before (for example, dropshipping when you can have a virtual store and not even stock the shelves), there are all sorts of ways you can go online to not only survive your business, but grow your business. But it’s a matter of doing the opposite and taking advantage of some tools that are out there.
RL: What have you observed that have been some of the pitfalls or mistakes that small businesses have made throughout this pandemic as they’ve been trying to shift?
SS: The biggest one is staying where you are, getting “analysis paralysis” and not figuring out what you need to do differently. The economy is set to boom and so I think the biggest challenge or mistake is if you don’t get ready for it. People are pent up—they’re going to want to buy, they’re going to want to shop, and to go out, so that means for these small businesses, they can pivot, they can be personable. I call it our small-business superpower. We can talk to people, be friendly and listen. Let’s see Apple do that! Big companies move very slowly, small businesses can move very quickly, but we have to listen to the marketplace and see what’s going on.
RL: Now you have to tell me about the book, because you clearly have some insights into the next six months, and what’s happening then and beyond?
SS: The book is called “Your Small Business Boom: Explosive Ideas To Grow Your Business and Take It to the Next Level.” Each chapter is going to be a different strategy for how you can grow your business, and it can be things like creating multiple profit centers, getting bigger clients, creating clickable content, digital media, and all sorts of different ideas. Small business is great because it’s so personal to us—we love our business like we love our children. But people go into business for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it’s because you love flowers and open up a floral shop or a garden center. But just because you love flowers and are great at growing and arranging them, doesn’t mean you know how to run a business. If you’re going to run a business, there’s two parts to it: The thing you love to do (and you’re great at that, nobody can do that better than you), but then there’s everything else. The law, the taxes, the insurance, the market, hiring, firing—you have got to learn all those other things. So being an entrepreneur and being excited is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills. It is learning those business skills that’s going to make the difference and allow you to do the fun part of your business.
RL: Love it. But what if you really didn’t like accounting? If these just aren’t your core skills, what do you tell small businesses? Outsourcing? Or software? I feel like this is where tools and technology can be helpful.
SS: That’s exactly the right answer—outsourcing and technology. Don’t you think?
RL: I do! Some entrepreneurs and business owners are still getting acquainted with technology but I think to your point, you have to get uncomfortable. When we start using these tools, you’ll be more productive, you’ll save more money and time, which is a big one.
SS: Large companies spend an enormous amount of time, money, effort, and resources to make tools for small-business people. There are some incredible technology tools available, if we take advantage of them. And not just buy them and spend 15 minutes learning the basic things. If you spend a couple hours with the tutorials that any of these companies have available, you see that they do so many things that allow us to be smarter, better, work faster, and make more money. But a lot of people don’t take advantage of them because they don’t want to take the time, or there is an intimidation factor, but boy, I don’t think it should be that way anymore. You can outsource, but I love software solutions for sure.
RL: Absolutely. Are there any examples of businesses that you saw using a tool that helped them pivot quickly or a story where a specific technology was helping a business facilitate their pivot.
SS: I have a friend who owns a software company. This is going back ten years to what I call the “not-so-great recession,” and when it hit, he realized he had two options. He could streamline his business by firing a bunch of people, but he wasn’t very interested in that. He decided he was going to create a virtual business. Instead of firing his people, he fired his office. He got out of his lease, sent everyone home, and created a virtual business 10 years ago. He used all sorts of tools to figure out how to make that work. It was texting, it was email, Slack, phone calls, and they’d still meet in person about once a week. There are so many tools that allow you to run your business virtually, and it’s sort of silly not to utilize them. They can save you so much money—it’s also green, good for the environment, cuts down people’s commute by having less people travel to your office. It’s a winner all the way around.
RL: Absolutely. I think it’s so fascinating where businesses are headed with remote work and more businesses are saying, “I don’t need a physical location, and this can reduce my costs.”
SS: Here’s another good example of a company that pivoted. They’re called HigherDOSE—they were in New York and had these ultrasonic spas. When the pandemic hit, they had to close their locations; what else were they going to do? They pivoted online and became a product-based business where they invented these ultrasonic wrap-around blankets where you can sweat out toxins, and it became their actual online business which ended up being more successful than their in-person event business. And that’s because they thought outside the box a little and realized where things were trending. Now that the pandemic is ending, they’re going to have one or two spas open as showrooms for their products! People are doing amazing things to make it work.
RR: I think one thing people are realizing is that this pandemic took a lot longer than we expected, and the behaviors are going to stick. It’s not like we did something for just a month; we’ve really changed the way we go to work, and we’re at home more. It’s not like the future of work is remote—it’s here. Some of these things happened exponentially faster than expected in a really positive way, and those that pivoted and continued to push digitization are the ones that are ultimately going to accelerate their business as the economy picks up.
SS: For my small-business brothers and sisters out there, besides just thinking about digital and going online, look at bigger and different customers. If you do business-to-consumer (B2C), you’re limited. If you do business to SMBs, that’s also limited. Think of going business-to-business (B2B)—look for bigger corporate clients and customers. They have bigger budgets. You can keep your same consumer base but also get a little creative and think about which businesses you can sell your products or your services to. There’s all sorts of ways you can pitch and find different companies. LinkedIn is the best for this! It’s the B2B marketplace! It’s an easy way to find more customers and gain more money.
RL: Absolutely, now you’re talking organic social media tactics. You’re right, LinkedIn is a treasure chest, and most people just put up their resume or are just spamming you with random connection requests and selling you immediately. If it’s done correctly and in a human way, there’s tons of opportunities. Are there any other tricks or trends you are seeing for small businesses right now?
SS: So there’s one thing you just said: “Keep it human.” I think that’s so important, especially now that we are pivoting online. It’s easy to go to Facebook, put up a bunch of ads, and think that’s going to give you business. But what works instead is engagement. You can go to Twitter and do some pithy tweets, but really what you can use the platform for is to find people in your business that you didn’t know before, have engaging conversations with them, give them some tips or some strategies, and all of the sudden, you are making a new personal connection with someone.
RL: And that will be something that never goes away: Real conversation and working with people is ultimately the be-all and end-all goal of success. One hundred percent.
SS: For the trends portion, remote work, digital, and all these things we’ve been talking about. I do a “Top 10 Trends” over at USA Today every year, and the trends of this year are going to be the trends in two years. I have no doubt that this isn’t a one-time thing, and it’s how things will last. So things like how to create a remote team that has a culture is a little harder when people are working remotely. People are trying to figure that out and will continue to figure that out.
RL: Absolutely. So much good stuff here. Steve, we always like to end our interviews with three things that, if you’re a small business listening right now, you should pay attention to or go and do.
SS: One thing I would suggest is creating multiple profit centers. Starbucks, for example, started selling coffee at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, and then they started selling other things. Amazon started out selling books—they were the world’s largest bookstore. Now for us mere mortals, creating the earth’s largest bookstore would have been fantastic, right? But not for Jeff Bezos! Those guys were just figuring out how to sell everything. This is what small businesses can realize: We have our own little strategy for how we make our money, we have our own recipes for making dough. Our problem is that we can get stuck in the couple of recipes that have always worked, right? What really works is trying some new recipes. Come up with some new ideas, some new profit centers. Usually it can be very inexpensive to try out a new profit center. Offering more things for your customer base will allow you to reach them in different ways, different places, and they’re going to buy more things from you, making your business successful as a result.
RL: Steve, this has been super helpful to hear—the stories, the strategies, your excitement is awesome. How can people keep up with you? Obviously, they can read USA Today, but how else?
Are you a small business? What’s your take on how to grow your business in today’s world? Leave a comment below!