10 Lessons for Small Businesses in 2010


CHICAGO (TheStreet) — For some, the New Year can't come soon enough. Business owners across the country who watched their sales and revenue slide downward month after month are hoping 2010 brings a fresh start.

Painful as 2009 may have been, it also taught us some valuable business lessons. Before bidding farewell to a rough year, take a look back at what we've learned:

1. Every penny counts: Resourceful businesses re-evaluated and re-negotiated every cost on their balance sheets this year, from payroll to rent. One place they couldn't strike a deal was with credit-card fees, which have been rising even as more Americans use them to charge ever-smaller amounts. Expect the controversy over "swipe fees" to continue into 2010 as independent businesses try to recoup some of those costs.

2. Sorry, no bailouts for small business: Despite politicians' eagerness to promote themselves as "pro-small business," they offered no grand rescue packages for the nation's smallest companies. Goldman Sachs (Stock Quote: GS) announced a $500 million program to help small businesses, but money will fund educational programs, not help owners stave off bankruptcy. This year, small-business owners had to face the harsh truth that no one was coming to their rescue.

3. The price must be right: Customers were relentless in their search for bargains this year. The few companies that saw sales rise (Wal-Mart, teen retailer Aeropostale) were those that promised and delivered low prices. If you can't offer rock-bottom prices, make a strong case for why your products are worth a slight premium, as Whole Foods (Stock Quote: WFMI) managed to do relatively successfully.

4. For financing, go local: The credit crunch hit small businesses especially hard. Even companies that got through the year relatively unscathed are still having trouble financing future expansion. The one bright spot were independent community banks, many of which remained well capitalized. The smaller the business, the less likely it is to get financing from the mega-banks.

5. When things go wrong, lead by example: Most small businesses were hurt by market forces outside their control, which led some owners and managers to take a don't-blame-me attitude. But the true leaders made personal sacrifices to help shore up their companies.

General Electric (Stock Quote: GE) Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt, for example, publicly accepted responsibility for the company's poor performance, declined his annual bonus and bought 50,000 shares of stock as a show of confidence. Sure, he still got his $3 million annual salary, but few other CEOs were as openly contrite.

Business owners who were in the trenches with their workers, putting in long hours and declining perks, should reap the benefits of low employee turnover and strong company loyalty in the years to come.

6. Reward workers any way you can: Widespread layoffs left many employees overworked and overstressed. While raises or bonuses were mostly out of the question in 2009, owners had to find other ways to reward their best workers. Extra time off, flexible schedules or simply heartfelt, meaningful praise are all ways to make the best workers feel valued. Without such rewards, your workplace stars will be the first to leave when the job market improves.

7. Support free speech: You can't stop employees from writing about their jobs on Facebook or their personal blogs. But if you keep them happy, they can be your best marketing tools. When Six Flags declared bankruptcy earlier this year, the CEO encouraged employees to spread the word about the company's underlying strengths. Be upfront and honest about your business struggles, and empower workers to be part of the solution.

8. A great Web site drives sales: Every company needs an Internet presence, but a simple electronic order form won't bring in many new sales. Nike (Stock Quote: NKE) set up a site for designing custom shoes and saw online revenue jump. Netflix's (Stock Quote: NFLX) movie site -- filled with reviews and personalized recommendations — helped attract more users than ever. Customer reviews, behind-the-scenes stories and an engaging layout can all turn casual browsers into shoppers.

9. "Made in the USA" marketing is back: As unemployment rose, Americans became more conscious of how their purchasing decisions affect local manufacturers. Small businesses that make their products in the U.S. found they had a powerful marketing tool. The new "Made in America" movement is not about politics or free-trade agreements. It simply encourages shoppers to play a small part in reducing national unemployment. These days, that's a pretty strong pitch.

10. Keep hope alive: Amid all the doom and gloom, some small businesses managed to create jobs, innovate and grow. Let's hope they're joined by many more success stories through 2010 and beyond.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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