Never Say Die: Small Business Success In Tough Times

4 min read • Sep 11, 2013 • Ty Kiisel

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 7.58.04 AMThe following was published earlier this year on Forbes, but seemed appropriate for today. Having spent a few hours at ground zero I was moved by the bustle of the city and the businesses that were getting back after it. Always remember and never say die.

Early Monday morning a colleague and I landed at JFK and spent a few days in Manhattan talking to the media for Lendio. We made it a point to visit the memorial at Ground Zero and were moved by the beautiful fountains and the work they’re doing to remember those who lost their lives. I admit to being moved—but almost as powerful as the memorial itself were the sounds of new construction that accompanied us through the bustle of the financial district.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the evidence of putting things back together is all over the city. The positive energy associated with the sights and sounds of Manhattan are hard to miss. I can’t help but make the connection to all the small business owners who start every day with a never-say-die attitude as they attack the challenges they face head-on each morning.

I wish we could mainline some of that attitude into the policy-makers in Washington.

About this time last year, in an article published on the Huffington Post, Stanley A. Dashew described starting his first business in the midst of the Great Depression and half-dozen successful businesses since that time (not to mention 40 patents). He offers some suggestions to building a successful small business despite hard times—I couldn’t help but think of this article as I witnessed the resilience of New Yorkers this week.

Dasher described the process he went through to develop the plastic credit card in the 50s. Like most things, Dashew’s suggestions really aren’t new, but well worth considering.

  1. Identify the problem: “I made my first fortune in starting a company that automated the credit card industry,” he says, “because paper cards are really problematic and really grated on the nerves of bankers.” Regardless of the industry you’re in, learning (and understanding) the challenges your customers face is the first step. I can’t begin to tell you how many times a vender has tried to sell me a product or service without taking the time to discover what my challenges were. I don’t care how nifty your offering is, if it doesn’t solve a problem at a price I’m willing to pay, I won’t buy it. What’s more, I don’t think I’m alone. This simple step is missed by far too many businesses.
  2. Find the fix: “In the case of credit cards, the solution was clear: Create durable credit cards with data lines such as account number and expiration dates, name, street, address, city and state,” says Dashew. There are far too many products or services available that don’t solve any problems or meet any needs. Early in my career I learned that if the customer didn’t need a hole, it was going to be very difficult to sell him or her a drill.
  3. Connect the dots: “OK, problem identified. Check. Material (emboss-able plastic) found. Check,” he said. “Now what about all that data processing the bankers were wanting for their customers’ credit cards?” How does your product or service solve the problem? If Dashew had stopped at simply making the cards out of plastic instead of paper, he wouldn’t have really solved the problem. If you don’t connect the dots, your business won’t be a success in any economy—let a lone a struggling economy.
  4. Gather the troops: “OK, I’m not an engineer, but I have some engineering genes in me. Also, I knew some very talented engineers,” said Dashew. “This is why it is so important to form strategic partnerships with people who have skills which you lack.” Dashew leveraged strategic partnerships to fill in the holes of the skills he personally lacked. Regardless of the type of the industry or business, success requires the right people in the right roles. Years ago in a small business of my own, I tried to fill in the blanks with my own skills—and the business suffered. Although it’s tempting, don’t make that mistake.
  5. Roll with the punches:Business looked good for Dashew Business Machines in 1958, if only all the players remained in place,” he said. “Of course, they did not.” Owning a small business is not for the faint of heart. Situations change and plans need to be modified on a regular basis. Flexibility is an incredibly important skill. When times get tough, rolling with the punches is a skill successful small business owners can’t be without.

I’m a big fan of learning from the successes of those who have been down the road ahead of me. Dashew started out trying to solve the problem associated with a Diners Club card made of paper. Was he successful? Here’s what he says: “And here’s the cherry on top: Soon, American Express came calling and bought the company we had created to handle the Chase operations. The deal called for cash and a generous amount of Amex stock. Within a year, following the successful conclusion of a lawsuit, Amex stock skyrocketed.”

Is it possible for small business owners to find success in tough times? Yes. What’s more, it isn’t rocket science either. It’s a matter of applying fundamentals along with a New Yorker’s never-say-die attitude.


Ty Kiisel

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business financing and trends accessible in common sense language devoid of the jargon.