In many ways, keeping a small business running is drastically different today than it was for the mom and pop storefronts of the twentieth century. In our faster paced electronic world, in which competition is no longer defined by local proximity, how does a small business thrive and sustain itself in the long run?
There are pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout history and even pop culture that can help us answer this question.
Take, for instance, the movie "Saturday Night Fever." Some of my fondest memories from my youth in Brooklyn come to life in this accurate depiction of hard-working, middle class people struggling to survive and break out to find a better life. That sentiment is at the heart of entrepreneurship and being a small business owner.
The storefronts of the block serve as the backdrop in this iconic movie, with one real-life hardware store playing an important co-starring role that we can still learn from today. Many people don't know that this hardware store was a real family-owned business named Brothers Hardware and Paint. I lived on the very next street, shopped at the store with my dad and learned all about home repair and tools and attentive customer service--long before anyone heard of The Home Depot or Lowe's. It was a place where sustaining the business depended on finding the right talent, providing great service and delivering the personal touch.
In the movie, Mr. Fusco, the store owner, recognizes young Tony's natural sales ability and tries to talk him into a career selling paints. But Tony wanted to be a dancer and not follow in the footsteps of his laid-off construction worker father. In an effort to help Tony, Mr. Fusco tried to stress the importance of planning for the future as it could bite you when you least expect it. It presents a lesson in how one can dream and hope for a better life, but they also need to face reality without letting it extinguish their drive to live.
This is critical advice for today's small business owners who are living their dreams, but also must remember to properly plan for the future of their business if they want to thrive.
Beyond the fictional characters in "Saturday Night Fever," we can also look to quotes from historical figures for insight on what's needed to keep a small business running:
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." --Charles Darwin
If your business doesn't respond to changes in the market, economy, technology or other factors, it will simply go the way of the dinosaur. Your competitors are constantly evolving and your company must remain aggressive in the marketplace.
"You can always tell who is swimming naked when the tide goes out." --Warren Buffet
Those who have seen "Saturday Night Fever" know that Mr. Fusco's warning about planning lacked the polish of Mr. Buffet, but there was great wisdom in his expletive-filled admonishment. Small business owners need to ask themselves if they are swimming naked and just fooling themselves that things are great. Even if you have 110 percent faith in your business model, you need to plan for the worst and hope that the tide never goes out.
"Face the brutal truth…” --Jim Collins in "Good to Great"
Change and evolution can only happen when you recognize what is happening around you. The trick is to be educated about the market and face new challenges and opportunities head-on.
"When in doubt--attack!" --General George S. Patten
If you find yourself on the wrong end of a failing business strategy, you owe it to yourself to throw everything you have at turning things around. That doesn't mean wild and wasteful shotgun management, but instead a well-thought strategic plan that you can convert to surgically precise tactics.
After 50-plus years in business and more than 30 years since the movie, the little hardware store in the movie has evolved into Pearson's Bay Ridge Home Center. It is in the same location and serves the same market, and it sustains. That's because it recognized the growth of competition from mega-home centers, Amazon.com and the Internet, and it expanded to meet the needs of its neighborhood customers.
The hardware shop planned for the future. They adapted to change. They planned for the worst. They faced change head-on. They attacked when needed. They are sustaining.
When you walk past the store you might still hear it: “Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother, you're stayin' alive, stayin' alive. Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin' and we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive…..”