Traits of an effective small business owner
edited August 14 2014

I’ve been running — or been run by — a small business for several years now. I once thought that having your own business was something that anybody could do and everybody should do at least once. I mostly thought that before I had actually had my own small business.

I’m not particularly successful at it, but it has paid my rent for the last several years and each year gets a little bit better than the one before it. So, even though I haven’t yet developed all of these traits myself, here’s what I’ve identified as the traits that you need to have if you’re going to dive in to having your own business:

You have to be detail oriented. The fit and finish of your facilities, products, and services can make a huge difference in the success of your business. Apple understands this better than most: they can charge a premium because their products are shiny, tastefully designed, and packaged nicely. You have to make sure your staff are maintaining your standards of quality, and when you’re not doing that, there are a litany of business details to attend to, like paperwork.

But you also have to be a visionary. I don’t mean this in the grand Elon Musk sense of the word, but you do have to have some idea of what makes your business different from the competition and what you want it to look like in five years. It doesn’t help much to be detail-oriented if you don’t know what the details should be.

You have to be good with people. I am introvert; that doesn’t mean that I can’t be good with people, but it does mean that it’s exhausting for me. You will have, every single day, a parade of customers, vendors, partners, suppliers, potential customers, and others that you’ll have to interact with. Sometimes you’ll have angry customers, even if you haven’t screwed up. You have to be able to talk them down from being furious enough with you to make it their mission to ruin your business, and in today’s hyper-connected social media world, one pissed off customer can do a whole lot of damage.

You have to be knowledgeable. You don’t get to have just one job anymore; marketing, advertising, customer service, finance, business management, inventory management, insurance, telecommunications, computers, software, social media, websites, email, facilities maintenance, these things are ultimately all your responsibility now. You might pay other people to do some of them — you won’t get very far if you don’t — but you have to understand what those people do, because when they make a mistake or ask you a question, it’s your job to sort it out.

You have to be energetic. When you rest, so does the business. To some degree, this happens at all sizes of business; the longer the business owner or person-in-charge is absent, the more the daily business operations will slow down. For small business owners, you have to be more than energetic, you have to be tireless. Owning a small business is a 7-day-a-week, 52-week-a-year job. It is very difficult to take more than a day or two off here or there without it impacting the business, and even when you’re away, you’ll probably still be thinking a little bit about the business. Unlike most regular 9-to-5 jobs, you don’t get to leave it at work. Work will tend to come home with you, and that can affect you and it can affect your relationships. And, when you finally do schedule a vacation, almost without fail someone will call with a really big need-it-now emergency 6 hours before it’s time to leave.

You have to be decisive. Nobody knows how to make the right decision all the time, but your day will pretty much consist solely of making decisions. Should you hire someone else or try to give your current employees more responsibility? You’ve made some extra money this month, should you sit on it or reinvest it in the business? What if next month is slow? What if it isn’t? Should you order a new product line? It’s fine to take time to consider your options and try to make an informed decision, but at some point you have to simply make the decision and be able to accept the consequences.

You have to be powerful. On a regular basis, someone somewhere will try to screw you over. They might not be malicious about it; maybe they’re just trying to save their own skin, or save themselves some money. You have to be able to handle confrontational situations elegantly and get them to work out in your favor. If you have more than a couple of employees, this could evenbecome a daily obstacle.

You have to be practical. Idealism is something that a lot of businesses could certainly use a little more of. But, if you’re too idealistic, you’ll find it difficult, maybe impossible, to build a healthy business. There are some costs that can’t be circumvented, some corners that can’t be cut, some realities of business management that will force your business in certain directions.. You might set out to sell only the best products at only reasonable prices, only to find that you can’t sell enough volume to cover all of your other costs because there aren’t enough people willing to pay extra for a good-quality product. You have to be willing to compromise or you could be forced to close up shop. (Some of the most successful businesses, like Amazon, Wal-Mart, Costco, and Apple, have found a single shortcut that allows them to do things that other businesses cannot. Amazon built the best inventory management system in the world, which allows them to rapidly ship a large number of different products with very little overhead; Wal-Mart developed an aggressive relationship with its suppliers based on high sales volume that allowed them to negotiate lower prices; Costco discovered that people would be willing to pay a monthly fee to shop in a store; Apple found that the more they controlled every aspect of their product development, the more they could charge for a unified end-user experience.)

You have to be healthy. The healthier you are, the easier it is to maintain the energy levels and focus that a small business can require throughout the day. You want to be good at getting regular exercise and eating well. You don’t have to be a health nut; going out occasionally and drinking with friends is a great way to unwind and forget about business for a while. But, you should also be able to see the benefits of a gym membership or a physical hobby or sport and a decent diet. I periodically fall down at this, and when I do, the business can seem overwhelming. When I’m taking care of myself, I can handle it with ease.

You have to be resourceful. Occasionally you’ll encounter some problems that dont have obvious solutions. Develop a network of people that you can go to for advice, and practice coming up with creative solutions to challenges. The more resourceful you are, the harder it will be for any one problem to entirely sink your business.

Most small businesses stay small. There are a lot of franchises, corner stores, mom-and-pop shops, and holes-in-the-wall that can support a few people nearly indefinitely. You might not need all of these traits; you might get lucky, and meet someone else with a complementary set of traits that would like to be your business partner.

If you’re interested in trying to build a business with greater long-term goals, I recommend Guy Kawasaki’s book, “Rules for Revolutionaries”.