Small businesses have long been recognized as the lifeblood of American cities. Starting and running one is a labor of love, and the business owners are inherently focused on their local communities. A people-centric mindset pervades small business and this creates an experience where care, quality, service and culture are more naturally important.

But these principles aren't exclusive to small businesses. Developing a people-centric mindset can apply to companies of all shapes and sizes, and the lessons below can be a good reminder to larger companies, because at one point they too were small businesses.

Here are three core concepts from small businesses that every company can learn from:

1. Know your customers

For many small businesses, customers are won or lost based on the human touch--a smile, a handshake, the willingness to listen to feedback and constantly strive to improve. There are tools that can augment this interaction, like social media and surveys, but they need to be done with a human touch. It's not just about collecting data. These interactions with customers make your business possible. Small businesses get this because they are mostly seeing the customer in person, but that same mindset should apply remotely as well.

Businesses can take many approaches to know their customers, but there are no shortcuts. It requires time. Larger companies like Salesforce, HubSpot and Airbnb host annual user conferences so they can engage with their customers in person. The gatherings are a fantastic way to collect feedback and enable teams to create direct relationships with who they serve.

A big part of why my co-founders and I started Gusto was the frustration we had felt while running our prior businesses. Things like payroll and health insurance felt unnecessarily complicated, and we have family who have run small businesses for a long time. To ensure we stay connected to our customers as we get bigger, we've put several programs in place over the years. For example, during onboarding, every new employee spends time with our customers regardless of their role. We want everyone to hear our customers' questions and concerns firsthand to better understand how to serve them. We also look at our NPS (Net Promoter Score) for feedback and engage with our customers on social media whenever they ask questions. In addition, we regularly host customers for lunch or dinner at our Gusto offices to get to know them better.

2. Build a community within your company

The customers a company serves form a community, but so do the people inside a company. Every company is a community and employees care more deeply about their work and think more like owners of the business when their company takes that approach. They also become better ambassadors for the company since it means more to them than just a paycheck. Trader Joe's has over 450 stores and more than 10,000 employees across the country, yet the company consistently garners praise from their happy employees. Their secret? Hiring people who care about customer experience and enjoy working with each other.

As a company grows, it becomes difficult for founders and executives to interact with every person in the organization, but there are ways to stay engaged in a personable way. One example is to hold "AMAs," or Ask Me Anything sessions, where employees can ask questions about the company or whatever else is on their mind.

Another example is doing new hire workshops that speak to the core values of the team and the mission of the business. These workshops span a wide scope of topics, including marketing tactics, sales strategy, engineering philosophy and company values. At Gusto, each new hire is also assigned an onboarding buddy (OBB) from a different department to welcome them to the team and help them get up to speed on the business.

3. Participate in your neighborhood

Small businesses engage with their local community because it is who they spend all of their time with, and it is the right thing to do. Larger companies are spread across multiple regions but the local teams that make up the company can follow the same philosophy.

By engaging with nearby businesses, schools, and joining various local events, a business can become more than just an office address with a large sign. It is now a participant in the local culture and this can help the business when it comes to recruiting and growth because people will better understand the company's values and philosophy.

In closing

The most important thing to realize is that every business is made up of people, and exists to solve a problem. These lessons around knowing your customers, spending time with them, building community inside your business, and engaging with your neighborhood are applicable to companies of all sizes.

Small businesses exemplify these traits and it is a key part of why they serve such a foundational role in society. As you strive to grow your business, take time to reflect on what kind of company you want to build. It's worth remembering what made you special when you started, so you can maintain those principles as you scale.

Published on: Jan 19, 2016