SMALL-BUSINESS SURVIVAL GUIDE
What does it take for a small business to not just survive, but to thrive? Easy answer: work smart, work hard—and seek resources, many of which are free. Some answers come harder, and are more complex, as you’ll find here in our deep examination of small-business activities in Whatcom County.
By Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy
First, what constitutes a small business? The national definition of fewer than 500 employees (source: Small Business Administration) doesn’t fly in Whatcom County. Here, businesses with as few as 80-100 employees live large, with many investors and with international reach.
Meg Weber, Director of Marketing and Business Development at VSH CPAs in Bellingham and former head of the local Technology Alliance Group, defines small as about 25 employees. We’ve used that as the standard for this entire issue, which is dedicated to small business. That fits with how Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) categorizes small business: 10-50 employees, and usually (but not necessarily) looking to grow.
Our sources concurred that companies in that sector have a lot of potential. Weber said, “Between their second and fifth year, they’re running the basics well—producing a good product, making payroll, renting decent space. As a community, if you can offer tools to them, it can accelerate their growth.”
Those community “tools” could include, for example, an introduction to a banker, a commercial broker, or an organization like the Whatcom Business Alliance.
Our report revealed several sources that counsel small businesses, openly sharing resources and practical advice, often pro bono. Some to consider—all offering practical advice and various forms of support:
The SBDC provides a comprehensive service for existing small businesses. The center operated by WWU is situated in a downtown office. (Read the guest column on Page 28 by its Director and Certified Business Advisor CJ Seitz.)
The Northwest Innovation Resource Center, based in Barkley Village and operating a recently opened location in Everett, offers guidance free of charge to early stage entrepreneurs and inventors.
The Service Corps Of Retired Executives (SCORE) is a national organization comprising 10,000+ volunteers and 300+ regional offices. Whatcom County has a strong local chapter of volunteers who offer low- or no-cost business coaching. The organization also produces free seminars online (score.org).
Meg Weber also offered these tips to small-business aspirants:
- Create budgets and cash flow for the fiscal year, or other time periods, whenever possible. A budget forces the question, What are we going to invest in this year? It makes you create a plan to steer by.
- Surround yourself with friends and colleagues who push you. Owners can get caught up in day-to-day operations and lose sight of the long-term future. A peer group and accountability partners keep a proprietor abreast of best practices.
- Understand where your money’s coming from. Look at profit by product or service. What costs the most? What brings in the most?
- Keep discovering what your customer is willing to spend on. Businesses sometimes avoid asking customers what they want, afraid they might not be able to offer it. Blend your abilities with market research and knowing your customer.
- SBDC is an outstanding resource for industry reports and consumer intelligence from our local economy. It’s a way to check on how your business stacks up.
Jeri Andrews, owner-operator of Andrews Tax Accounting in Bellingham, specializes in managing books for small companies (i.e., sole proprietors, limited-liability entities (LLCs), and DBAs (doing business as). She said she always reminds small businesses to check their balance sheets carefully during their early years.
“They’re looking at profits and losses, but might not know what a balance sheet is,” Andrews said. “Their accounts receivable or payable might have a negative balance, or things might be entered incorrectly, or they might be missing deductions.”
Weber said, “It’s often easier to grow revenue through existing customers than by creating new customers.” One example she offered is a restaurant server who knows just what dessert to suggest, or offers a bottle of wine in a way that makes the customer feel better served. “It’s not pushy, just better customer discovery, in a gentle way,” Weber said. “A lot of companies could use support mastering this skill set.”
This is an area that somebody new in business might overlook. Further examples:
Tap information from the federal government, such as the U.S. census website or pertinent publications. Never overlook local government, either. One company researched city-planning records to find businesses that were seeking permits to expand. “Rather than sending a bulk mailer, you possibly can use free resources to figure out who’s expanding, and hunt them,” Weber said. “That goes back to knowing your customers and potential customers.”
Use existing research to sort out what works. For example, a restaurant can find free ratios online for how to price a plate, and compare the cost inputs to profitability. “If you’re not looking at that, you could be way off in pricing. Changing prices once your customers are used to them is difficult,” Weber said.
Regardless of the industry or company, a variety of local and regional resources exist to help small businesses create revenues and jobs. Much of this “economic gardening” comes at no cost to the user, making the forecast for small business throughout Whatcom County sunny, indeed.