Insider Insights: Executives from UPS, Airbnb, Mastercard, and More Share the Secret to Growing Your Small Business
Small business owners know that every day brings a deluge of decisions about technology, finances, marketing, service providers, and overall business strategy. So where to begin? Well, you could ask leaders at large companies — because they’re often seeing the macro trends that play out in micro ways for smaller entrepreneurs. That’s especially true for the leaders at companies on our 50 Champions of Small Business list, where there are programs specifically designed to work with and help small businesses.
We called 10 companies on our list of 50 and asked their executives what small business owners need to know now, given today’s changes in technology and industry. Here’s what they said.
Become 10% more efficient.
According to the chief sales officer at Intuit
Up until a few years ago, small business owners could bet on a number of things staying true: Inflation was low, labor costs were low, and costs of goods were low. The only real constraint was an entrepreneur’s ability to create products and services, and bring them to market, says Rich Rao, chief sales officer at Intuit.
Oh, have times changed. Today’s small business owners must focus more than ever on bringing deflationary forces into their companies in order to offset rising costs on everything — a goal that Rao says technology and automation can help to achieve.
That can sound difficult and abstract, so Rao suggests a simple benchmark: 10% more efficiency.
First, he says, consider all you could achieve if your operation gained just 10% more efficiency. Then look for small changes to get there.
“If you’re a restaurant, and before, people had to call in a to-go order, that would take five minutes,” he says. “The employee and customers are spending time doing that. If you take the order online, you get the time back from that worker. When you add up those 10% gains, you end up with very material resources that can be applied in various ways.”
Build a broader network.
According to a vice president at UPS
“A lot of small business owners feel like they need to know everything and do everything themselves,” says Ayana Green, vice president for physical and emerging channels at UPS Ignite, the delivery service’s program to help diverse small businesses. That’s an especially crushing feeling today, as technology and market demands are constantly changing.
Green’s advice: Don’t try to do everything. Instead, focus on your strengths — and build a network to complement your skills.
This won’t sound easy. Many small business owners don’t have the same connections that better-resourced business leaders do. But that’s all the more reason to focus heavily on building a network, which is a resource that scales with you.
To start, she says, look beyond family and friends. Seek out people with skills opposite of yours. Trust your gut, but also measure results with data. Tap into free resources like seminars and public grants through your local Chamber of Commerce.
And always tell your story, so potential partners can find you: “Figure out where your audience is, and celebrate your successes.”
Get your money faster.
According to the North America small business lead at Mastercard
Most failing small businesses have cash flow problems. Mastercard sees that in its data. What’s the solution? “Many people say you should borrow money,” says Ginger Siegel, Mastercard’s North America small business lead. “But another tip is that you can work harder to get your own money in faster.”
Let’s say you run a plumbing business, and you fix a sink in a home. With paper invoices, you’ll have to complete the job, go back to your office, write up the invoice, send it out, and then wait for the money. This process can take weeks.
Technology — such as contactless payments, tap-on-phone systems, and keeping credit cards on file — can speed up that process. The idea is not to force customers to pay in only one way, but instead to offer choices that improve cash flow.
“It really is about customer choice,” Siegel says. “Small businesses don’t always have the right advice and guidance about what to do, so they need education.”
Be innovative with funding.
According to a vice president at Macy’s
The problem is well-known: Small business owners, and particularly women and people from diverse backgrounds, struggle with access to capital.
But the solution is often not well-known: Instead of banging down the doors, start exploring the increasingly large number of programs out there designed to fill in the gap.
Many companies, including Macy’s, are launching alternatives for capital designed specifically for small businesses and diverse founders. A program Macy’s recently launched, called SPUR Pathways, offers direct funding opportunities and also helps train entrepreneurs to make the most compelling case to more traditional lenders. “It’s meant to give them a little more equity and opportunity to present themselves,” says Michelle Wang, Macy’s vice president of lease businesses and retail diversity strategy.
To find these programs, don’t just think about your funding needs — because some of them include ways to think about funding as a component of bigger-picture thinking.
Think more about privacy.
According to a vice president at LegalZoom
The work-from-home movement has been great for convenience — but it’s not so great for privacy.
Erica Gartsbeyn has seen that firsthand. At LegalZoom, where she’s vice president of product marketing, research, and insights, about two-thirds of the clients are now solopreneurs. And because a lot of those people work from home, their businesses are often registered at their home address — and their work is conducted on their personal devices. As a result, they’re at much greater risk of their personal information seeping out into the world.
Gartsbeyn’s advice: When you’re setting up your proper legal entity, think about services that go beyond the basics.
“We acquired a virtual mail service a couple years back, so it can serve as your business address,” she says. “Or maybe you want to travel and work from anywhere — you can receive all of your personal mail that way. In virtual mail, you also have the option to choose a prestigious address. Maybe you want to say your suite is on Park Avenue or Market Street. We have some premium addresses available.”
Prepare, prepare, prepare.
According to a partner at Accenture
Before someone meets with Kathryn Ross, they should know a few things. For example, at Accenture, she’s a partner — currently the Black Founders Development Program lead and global lead of Liquid Studios, which provides rapid technology development services.
And yet, time and again, she meets with entrepreneurs who haven’t researched Accenture at all.
“There is a level of due diligence that, in today’s age, with access to data, needs to be more thought of,” Ross says.
That applies to understanding your own worth, too, she says. “If you’re prepped in your pitch, you can have a conversation that targets the person who’s across the table very specifically,” she says.
Also, you can be honest. Lately, Ross says, all kinds of entrepreneurs are claiming they’re working with generative AI systems like ChatGPT when, in fact, they’re not. This breeds distrust.
“You’re asking us to do something for you, whether it’s write a check, sign a contract, or introduce you to someone,” she says. “So we’re putting our neck out for you. We want to make sure we know you.”
Become very financially literate.
According to the president of the Tory Burch Foundation
“You have to admit what you don’t know,” says Laurie fabiano, president of the Tory Burch Foundation. And many entrepreneurs — particularly women — do not know finance.
The statistics prove it, Fabiano says. Women tend to have less generational wealth, along with more college debt and wage gaps. When they pivot into entrepreneurship, they’re often coming from careers that didn’t require financial literacy. As a result, they’re less comfortable talking about and navigating money.
That’s why the Tory Burch Foundation, which focuses on helping women entrepreneurs, keeps pounding this message: Study up ASAP.
“Even if you don’t need money now, prepare for funding before you need it,” Fabiano says. “You might get a gigantic order and need a bridge loan, and you’ll need the connections and knowledge to get it.”
She urges women to attend Chamber of Commerce meetings and meet with local bankers. “Do everything you need,” she says, “so if you need capital, you’ll be in a situation where you know what to do.”
Remember the little things.
According to the director of global partnerships at AirBnB
If you’re running a small business, you have a serious advantage over the big guys: You’re often involved in people’s lives at intimate moments. And in today’s economy, where customers are stressed and stretched thin, those moments might be a little fraught.
Now, think — what small gesture will show them you care? Because they’ll remember it. Airbnb sees this all the time. Their “Superhosts” — hosts who have high ratings and meet other criteria — are often masterful at adding small but meaningful gestures.
“I have a friend who’s a Superhost, and he just leaves a bottle of wine,” says Marisa Moret, Airbnb’s director of global partnerships. “Or he’ll leave milk if he knows they’re getting in late and will want coffee in the morning.”
Not every business offers something as intimate as housing — but every business knows something about its customers. If you reduce their stress by even a little, you’ll earn their loyalty for a long time.
Beef up on cybersecurity.
According to an executive vice president at AT&T
AT&T’s largest customers think a lot about cybersecurity. But its small businesses are often too busy.
“The bad guys know this,” says Jennifer Van Buskirk, AT&T’s executive vice president and general manager of mid-markets business. “Forty-three percent of cybersecurity attacks are on small businesses. Seventy percent are unprepared to deal with them.”
Entrepreneurs really need to make this a priority. Think not just about your own company, she says, but also your entire supply chain and anywhere there might be a weak link.
“Creating a vulnerability map is a good starting point,” she says. “Is there software at risk? Is there social media exposure? Is training for employees a way to break in? How can you protect online payments and safely manage credit card transactions?”
In some cases, she adds, hackers may even take an old-school approach, such as reaching out to a call center and trying to get employees to reveal passwords.
“These schemes are constantly changing or evolving,” she says.
Invest more in the digital pivot.
According to the president of the PepsiCo Foundation
The pandemic taught small businesses a hard but important lesson: If they aren’t prepared to help themselves, they’ll be reliant upon someone else’s less-than-perfect help.
That was especially true for digital solutions. Many local restaurants had no website or delivery systems, so they turned to food delivery apps — which took a huge chunk of their incomes.
C.D. Glin, president of PepsiCo Foundation, says small businesses need to be more proactive about these things. “Some of those customer acquisition skills, you don’t think about that when you’re selling your grandmother’s empanadas,” Glin says.
It’s why the PepsiCo Foundation is helping small businesses build online ordering systems and better delivery capacity. But entrepreneurs can also do it themselves by researching options, learning new technologies, and talking with peers.
Either way, the outcome is the same: The more a small business owner knows, the more they’re prepared to adapt.