Small Business Owners Share Their Secrets to Success

It’s a grim statistic: About 20% of small businesses fail within the first year and 50% within the first five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But what exactly is it that separates businesses that succeed from those that fail?

To put a finger on that intangible element, five small business owners weigh in on how to start a business and keep it going through the inevitable ups and downs. They’ve overcome challenges like the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, worker shortages, difficult customers, the logistical headaches of business ownership and even feelings of impostor syndrome to find success. Here’s how.

— Your mindset matters.

— Be mission-driven.

— Lean on your community and partners.

— Be willing to pivot and adapt.

— Take advantage of virtual events and online opportunities.

— Be true to your unique vision.

— Realize there is no exact blueprint to success.

Keep reading to learn more about their journey to small business ownership and what’s been their secret to success.

Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee

Independent bookstore Parnassus Books is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and co-owner Karen Hayes says it’s taken creativity and a willingness to adapt to achieve that success.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced the bookstore to close its doors to customers, and at times even curbside pickup didn’t feel safe, Hayes said. So to survive, the store embraced online sales and used social media as a tool to bolster sales.

“Online is very important,” Hayes says. “Our virtual events are broadcast on Facebook, and that allows us to have an archive that’s easily accessible to customers. We can repost other partners and publishers and authors. It’s a way that we can connect with our customers. I don’t know what we would do without it.”

Hayes says her partnership with co-owner Ann Patchett, author of “The Dutch House,” also contributed to the store’s success, particularly by generating interest in the store during its early days. Finding a partner that brings a complimentary skill set to your business can increase your reach and ability to grow.

[READ: Small Business Grants to Jumpstart Your Plans.]

Your Personal Gardener & Arborist in Mukwonago, Wisconsin

For James and Natalie Chesebro, failure is not an option. Even though James, owner and CEO of Your Personal Gardener & Arborist, started the business more than 11 years ago, he still says every day is a challenge. Managing difficult customers, maintaining equipment, hiring and retaining high-quality employees — he says his work never feels finished.

“You have to have a no-fail attitude. You need a mentality that puts you above your peers. It’s not always going to be easy or perfect,” Chesebro says. “At the end of the day, if you are looking for a challenge that will never be fully complete or finished, then self-employment might be what you’re looking for. You need to believe in growth and overcoming challenges every day.”

When problems do arise, he says business owners should maintain perspective and be the best representation of their brand possible. Investing in employees and always doing right by customers has also been key to his success.

[Read: A Crash Course in Starting Your Own Small Business.]

Grit Fitness in Dallas, Texas

Grit Fitness started with $30,000, five trainers and a 1,200 square-foot studio. It was profitable within six months and now has four locations across Dallas. Brit Rettig Wold, CEO of Grit Fitness, says success didn’t come from having the best equipment or facilities but rather from building a community.

“There’s a whole mentality now that if you dream it you can do it. That is true, but so much of success is just showing up every day. You need to be the most committed person,” Wold says. “It was a model of community that happened naturally. Everyone had a full-time job; we were doing this because it was fun, not to be the next Instagram trainer.”

To other small business owners and prospective entrepreneurs, Wold says your business should aim to solve a problem for customers.

“One of my best friends told me the best person to understand is yourself, so solve a problem for yourself,” Wold says. “For me, as a Black girl living in Dallas in a very affluent area, every time I went to a boutique fitness studio I was the only Black girl there, always felt out of place, and I was also the only bigger person there, and I just wanted to create a place that was nice but there were other people who looked like me, that was fun and relaxed. I solved that problem for a lot of women in my community, and that’s what keeps people coming back because we’re so different, so unique.”

Love So Wild in Madison, Wisconsin

No two photographers’ work is exactly alike, but Paige Casazza, owner of Love So Wild photography, says that’s where she’s found her strength as a business owner.

“Ignore what everyone else is doing,” Casazza says. “At the end of the day, everybody has their advice and what works for them, but that’s how you stand out and find your niche — by being yourself. Each business is so personal and different, there’s no perfect formula for success in business.”

Her business started slow, like many do in the early days. Getting her first paid client was a challenge, Casazza says, but the business has exploded in recent years.

“I didn’t have a lot of success early on. For the first six to 12 months I had to take a lot of pro bono work, put my name out there, go to workshops, prove myself and demonstrate why people should hire me,” she says. “I had to learn to be myself and let my work stand out.”

Pushing past imposter syndrome is still a challenge for Casazza, one that many business owners may experience at first. Finding your confidence and reminding yourself of the real value you offer can help.

[Read: 13 Small Business Ideas.]

Brainchild Studios in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Chicago

If you’re just beginning to form your small business and its concept, Kiley Peters, founder and CEO of Brainchild, suggests starting with a Venn diagram: One circle represents your professional skills, and the other represents your values as a person. The sweet spot for small businesses, she says, is where those two circles overlap.

“Running a small business is a 24/7 job. It’s impossible to turn it off. If you’re going to commit to that, commit to something you think matters,” Peters says. “To find the greatest fulfillment, you have to make sure your words and actions are aligned with your personal values. Take some time to understand yourself.”

At Brainchild, that’s just what Peters has done. She credits her mission-driven approach with the success of her internationally recognized business and ability to create a team of employees with a true excitement for the business. She says business owners must have a clear vision for what they want to build. At Brainchild Studios, for example, Peters says she aimed to create an audience research and content strategy business that embraces values like feminism and curiosity.

However, she also says, “give yourself grace knowing the path toward that vision is not a straight line. Keep a pulse on the industry you’re in — of course, COVID changed everything for everyone. So you have to be willing to pivot, let go of your ego, and admit you made a mistake but find a better path forward.”

And perhaps most importantly, she encourages small business owners to lean on their community and never try to do it alone.

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