Photo of shop local small businesses on main street

How to Put Your Small Business in the Top 10% of Businesses in the US

Photo of Laura Gallagher. Laura is a community, local and national business leader serving successful entrepreneurial companies and nonprofit organizations primarily in Wisconsin. She is the 2019 SBA's Women's Small Business Champion of the Year.
Graphic National Small Business Week

Yours, Mine and Ours - Why Small Businesses Are Vital

Small Business Week is here! Each and every one of us encounters a small business throughout our daily lives whether it is in the neighborhood you live or online. Small businesses are woven into the fabric of this country creating diverse, creative and interesting experiences for all of us. I would hope to never live in a ‘Big Box’ world where one company determines the experiences we all have.

I went to a large chain home improvement store over the weekend, reluctantly, and thought about the massive impact they are making and the number of customers. It's impressive, but as a child, we went to the lumberyard and the local Coast to Coast and Gambel's store, which were both owned locally. The business owners were also the same people you would see at the basketball game on Friday night or at the grocery store, which was also locally owned. The Kortes’ owned the grocery store on Main Street and the Hartzell's owned one at the end of town.

Photo of shop local small businesses on main street

Growing up, three of my Uncles owned businesses in the town five miles down the road. If you wanted a burger, to fill up with gas or to get groceries, you were doing business with one of my dad's brothers because they owned one of the restaurants, the service station and the grocery store in Apple River, Illinois. Two of the three lived on the premises too. The community depended upon these business owners and the business owners depended upon the community.

In my Madison world, I thoroughly enjoy visiting Macha Tea on Johnson Street in Madison where I can talk with the owners about their teas which are carefully curated and my favorite, the bakery, which is all made fresh that day for customers. I also like to stop by the music store, Spruce Tree Music, and jewelry store, Bernie's Rock Shop, on Johnson Street. I feel so fortunate to have so many lively businesses close to my home. Small business is the lifeblood of any thriving community.

The Creative Company, a digital advertising and web development company located in Madison WI is celebrating 30 years in business.

This year, I'm celebrating my 30th year as a small business owner, which means I have successfully outlasted 90% of the people who started companies the same year I did. Later this week, the Small Business Administration and SCORE will present an award to me as the Women's Small Business Champion of the Year in Wisconsin. This is for my work, primarily with women entrepreneurs, as a USA Ambassador for Women's Entrepreneurship Day, a global movement that supports, celebrates and inspires women from around the globe. I brought the movement to Wisconsin, creating a conference experience that has positively affected the lives of nearly 800 women directly and many more through the statewide campaign we ran.

When I accept the SBA Award later this week, it will be my second lifetime achievement award. The first was from the Governor on behalf of the State of Wisconsin as a Trailblazer in Wisconsin in 2016. There are fewer than 90 women who have received this award. It's an honor and a privilege to represent ALL women in business in Wisconsin in these moments.

Photo of books on a shelf

My own entrepreneurial journey started at the age of 21 when I was a senior in college. I launched my company with 21 books from the Madison Public Library and some intern help from my friends, the only people I knew who were willing to work for $6.00 an hour. I didn't know anyone starting a company. I just felt compelled to try. This was during a time when a more traditional path would have been to go to work for a big company like GE or Chrysler. I chose the road less traveled. There was something about it that grabbed my interest like nothing else had.

I just learned last year that it wasn't until 1988, the year before I started my company, that a woman could even legally get a business loan, in Wisconsin, without a man's signature.

According to the Small Business Administration (SBA) there are 30 million small businesses in the United States. Women-owned firms (51% or more) account for 39% of all privately held firms.

One in Five of these firms doing over $1 million a year are owned by a woman. *

Here are a few pro tips from my 30 years in business that I hope will help you to achieve your goals.

  • Resiliency and commitment matter. Times will get tough, and when they do, you need to be resilient enough to stand strong amidst some really strong winds.
  • Find the best mentors and role models that you can. Most of mine came from books, especially in the early years, but even now as well. You have access to some of the greatest minds with an easy download and a click of a button on Audible or by listening to a Podcast. Do this, and do it often.
  • People aren't actually that nice, and they’re also very nice. It's not one or the other. It's both– and. Have a backup plan. Never put all of your eggs in one basket, meaning in one employee or one client. No one person is more valuable than the team. No one client is worth sacrificing the whole company for. Be careful not to get too top heavy and always have people in mind to bring on board next. We live in a fickle world. Plan accordingly.
  • Don't rescue people. Clients or potential staff that need to be rescued are likely needing to be rescued for a reason. Run in the other direction. Say no. Quickly. They will drain your resources, time and money.
  • Your team is your most valuable asset. Make sure there are no superstars. Each one is as valuable as the next. I read a story recently about a basketball recruiter that brought someone on to the team that was a solid player but not the star player he could have brought in. People were disappointed, but what he understood was that they didn't need another big ego. They needed someone who could get everyone to play well together. That's who they hired and that's how they won.
  • Stay close to the numbers. They tell you a story you need to pay attention to. When I was accepted into the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City program, which was taught by Harvard professors, I was frustrated with how much I didn't know. Here I was, practically a small business veteran, and yet, no one had ever talked to me about some financial calculations that were really necessary for me to understand my business.
  • On that same subject, what matters most isn't the gross number, but the net number; how much profit is in your company. Without profit, you can't invest in people or equipment. You can't give to your favorite charity. You can't sustain or grow your business. By putting profit first, you're securing the future of your company. Check out the Profit First Task Management System I use, here: Mike Michalowicz Profit First Resources
  • Focus. I returned to school to a rigorous entrepreneurial program two years ago. It was tough on me and tough on my business. Adding 16 to 20 hours a week to study and travel back and forth to Boston was difficult. I learned a lot, but I'm also glad that's over.
  • Innovate. Some of my boldest decisions that have paid off have also been my riskiest. But without innovation, I would still be working from my kitchen table. Watch out for new technologies and get in early. Spend time with smart people who aren't afraid and if you have to, do it scared, but do it. I realize these two ideas - focus and innovate might seem to be in conflict with one another, but as long as it ties to your mission, innovation is necessary for growth and they are the same.
  • Make a plan to work on that which you are uniquely gifted to do. For me, there are two things I'm sort of exceptional at, but if I'm not careful, much of my week ends up being about things I'm only average at. You and I both likely need to get that time to do that which only we can do, on our calendars, in ink. For me, that's writing and meetings/networking. If you find me in the office for an entire week, you can bet money that our sales will drop a month from now. The best place for me is not behind a desk, unless of course, I'm writing.
  • 80% of your time needs to be on bucket filling activities and 20% on the things that drain you. When it gets flipped, your internal system should start flashing red lights until you get it turned around again. For many, the red lights aren’t flashing, and this leads to burnout. Try to be awake to it every day.
Graphic of small businesses on main street.

National Small Business Week 2019 - Small Business Administration

Below are some opportunities for you to learn and grow more thanks to the National Small Business Week Virtual Conference as well as the SBA and NRF. The other thing you can do this week and all year long is shop local whenever you can. Years ago, Creative Company was working with a regional healthcare provider. The new CEO came in and hired the same agencies he had worked with out East. All of my employees owned homes and paid taxes in the community though. That healthcare org was spending close to $100K a year with us which made a big hit in our business. We secured other clients but when the healthcare provider asked for a donation to their annual golf outing, I suggested they contact their agency out East. With no ties to the community, they didn't donate. No one was surprised. To us, it was a big client whom they didn't give a fair shake to. For them, it was a "business decision". But that $100K was multiplied many times over in that community. I always think of the fictional character George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" whenever I tell that story. I wish more people thought as George Bailey did.

Here's your list and if you have any other suggestions, feel free to add them in the comments below!

Tuesday and Wednesday, May 7th and 8th

Participate in the FREE National Small Business Week Virtual Conference on May 7-8 from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET. This virtual conference will offer exclusive educational webinars, mentoring sessions, networking opportunities, downloadable resources and prizes. You will hear from industry experts, such as Visa, Chase, Constant Contact, Square and Google about the latest business trends and best practices. Register now.

The live webinars include: 

  • The U.S. Economic Outlook and Its Impact on Small Businesses
  • Making Sense of Online Marketing: A Simple Checklist for Success
  • Mastering Control of Your Cash Flow
  • Creating Effective Online Ads
  • The Culture Imperative: Drive Growth with Customer Obsession
  • SBA Funding Programs Explained
  • How to do Business with the Federal Government
  • Disasters Happen: How to Prepare Your Business and Recover

Friday, May 10th

Join SBA (@SBAgov) and industry experts for the National Small Business Week Twitter Chat on Friday, May 10 at 12pm ET on how to start and grow a small business. We’ll be sharing tips and tricks to help you along your business journey. Join/follow the conversation with #SmallBusinessWeek.

In retail, more than 98 percent of all retail companies are employing fewer than 50 people. The National Retail Federation (NRF) is a great source to learn more about how to be an advocate for your small business if you're a retailer. Their Small Business Retail Council is a great way to stay up to date on policy issues. You can join here:

Photo of Laura Gallagher is a community, local and national business leader serving successful entrepreneurial companies and nonprofit organizations primarily in Wisconsin.

About Laura Gallagher

Laura Gallagher is a community, local and national business leader serving successful entrepreneurial companies and nonprofit organizations primarily in Wisconsin. She is the 2019 SBA's Women's Small Business Champion of the Year.In 2016, she was recognized by the Governor as a Trailblazer in Wisconsin. She is the founder and CEO of The Creative Company and is a 2017 Alumni of Babson College's 10,000 Businesses Program with a Certificate of Entrepreneurship and a 2016 graduate of Harvard Professor Michael Porter's Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. The Creative Company is certified by the State of Wisconsin as a Woman-Owned Business Enterprise.