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The best advice we heard from businesses in 2020

Photo by Noorulabdeen Ahmad

Through all of the challenges and hardships of 2020, small businesses have exhibited more resilience and strength than ever. With that, this year has also produced an abundance of priceless advice and tips from business owners across the country. Check out the most valuable insights we heard in our interviews throughout the year. 

1. Be kind and celebrate positivity

“My mother gave me a small sheet of paper that said: ‘A smile and a thank you won’t cost you a dime, but not doing either may cost you later.’”
– Kianta Key, former food truck owner
From: Easy and inexpensive employee perks to motivate your staff

“I always try to put myself in the customer’s shoes. If somebody is upset, then something else is probably going on in their life, but they’re taking it out on you, and you don’t know what’s going on with them. You always have to step back and go over the top with customer service because we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.”
– Leslie Embry, The Blowout Co.
From: Behind the business: how Tennessee’s first blowout salon pivoted during the pandemic

“I love it when a reviewer specifically speaks of someone, and I read those directly to those people.”
– Jim Maser, Picante, on reading Yelp reviews at pre-shift meetings
From: Easy and inexpensive employee perks to motivate your staff

2. Be an inspiration for your community

“It’s important for young people, especially young people of color, to see people that look like us owning businesses—so that’s one thing that truly drives us. It feels only right to make sure that we do what we can to make the lives of the community better and to make it possible for other entrepreneurs.”
– Jermaine Perry, Sydney’s Sweets
From: Behind the business: why Sydney’s Sweets is having its busiest year yet

“Small business owners have great stories. Your clients want to know that story and understand your ‘why.’ This allows them to align with you and tell your story to others. Though I never want to be the sole face of my brand, telling my story to clients creates a special connection for them because they too may have a similar story of what brought them to our classes.
– Jami Stigliano, DivaDance
From: 6 steps to building an authentic brand

3. Stay engaged on social media

“I always look at social media as a way of engaging. Some people put up a post. A hundred people comment and respond. But yet, there’s no feedback to those people. So I believe in social media engagement. I could care less if you have a million followers. If you’re not engaging with your million followers, it makes no difference.”
– George Vlahos, Urban Griddle
From: Behind the business: how Takeshi Sushi and Urban Griddle are shifting during the Coronavirus

“I spend a lot of time on social media channels just telling people—this is what we’re going through, showing how we handled something this week, and this is what we’re doing now. There’s something about being open, about your flaws and your fears, because everybody’s going through it. Everybody’s in the same boat. We’re going to get through this if we’re together.
– Carrie Morey, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit
From: Behind the business: celebrating 15 years of hot little biscuits with Callie’s

4. Take care of your staff like family

“For many of them, it’s their first real job. We train them on everything, including customer service and how to take care of people. I’m very proud of my staff and how they’ve grown, and I always want to encourage them to go on to bigger, better things when they’re done with their schooling.”
– Julie Lim, OC Wine Mart, on helping her young staff learn the ropes of customer service, professionalism, and hospitality
From: Behind the business: how OC Wine Mart is adapting to COVID-19

“My staff is a true family, and they always know what to do to make clients feel great. I try to be at every interview to see that it’s a good person first because we can train you to do hair, but we can’t train you to be a good person.”
– Leslie Embry, The Blowout Co.
From: Behind the business: how Tennessee’s first blowout salon pivoted during the pandemic

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

“If you have a way that your community can support your business during COVID-19, tell them. Tell them on social media, on your website, tell them anywhere you can. It’s really so hard to go out and say, ‘We know there are businesses that are closing, and not surviving, and people who are out of work… can you give us money?’ But that’s what you have to do. You have to ask.”
– Kent Whipple, Unexpected Productions
From: Behind the business: Unexpected Productions transitions to digital

“When times of need come up, like now, people want to do business with other people, rather than a company. They just want to be part of your world, and they want you to be part of theirs. We’re all still in this with each other, and you need that.”
– Hope Green, Emojis Grilled Cheese
From: Behind the business: Food truck Emojis Grilled Cheese paves new path

“I’ve learned it’s important to work on your business and not in your business because if you can’t go out of town for 10 days, then you don’t have a business, you have a job. You have to build your business so that it can operate without you and so you can spend your time coming up with ideas.”
– Leslie Embry, The Blowout Co.
From: Behind the business: how Tennessee’s first blowout salon pivoted during the pandemic

“Stay in regular communication with your landlords and vendors. This is an opportunity to lean into your capacity for empathy. If the people you owe begin to see you as a caring human being and source of comfort and camaraderie, you’ll have built up months’ worth of goodwill before the time comes for negotiations. Be open about sharing where you are with your business and your finances, and always, always ask them how they’re doing—they’re probably struggling too. Offer to schedule regular calls to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
– Josh Kopel, restaurateur and entrepreneur, on why it’s important to stay in touch with your various business contacts when times are tough
From: The restaurant’s guide to surviving a pandemic

6. Dial into your purpose

“Finding the deeper meaning, finding the dominant emotion of how your brand can make someone feel is critical. If the visual is what catches the eye, the creative has to capture the heart.”
– Nic Faitos, Starbright Floral Design
From: 6 steps to building an authentic brand

“Wherever there is a need, that’s what I base my business decisions on. What is the problem that’s not getting solved? There are people out there looking for somebody to solve it. So once you become the person that solves that problem, then you’ve already got a built-in audience. And sometimes that changes too, so then it’s being flexible about what the world around me needs right now.”
– Hope Green, Emojis Grilled Cheese
From: Behind the business: Food truck Emojis Grilled Cheese paves new path

7. Define what excellence means in your business

“I came up with five core values. These values—once listed and explained—provided the only pillars my team would need to excel in their work:

  1. Southern hospitality: We exceed every guest expectation and work to make them feel welcome and valued.
  2. Enthusiastic about the details: Attention to detail is the difference between a guest feeling serviced and a guest feeling cared for.
  3. Clear communication focused on mindfulness and empathy: We are present in each moment and looking for those small opportunities to contribute.
  4. Strong work ethic: This job is hard work. If you don’t love hard work, this isn’t the job for you.
  5. Focused on growth: We are all looking for new ways to grow this company, both culturally and professionally.”

– Josh Kopel, restaurateur and entrepreneur
From: Lessons in leadership from a terrible manager

“When you open your first concept, the most important thing is to be there and to make sure that every guest leaves there thinking it’s the best place they have been. So for me, what I try to do is I try to hit every check mark. The food’s got to be good. The decor has got to be good. The service has got to be good. But then you got to go next level.

  • How’s the music? I hand select every song on my playlist because I want a certain vibe in there. I go extreme when it comes to music. I try to watch as many foreign films as possible just to hear new songs and new music that my next door neighbor will not be playing.
  • Do they have kids? Okay, great—I hand out toys to the kids. I have high chairs, and instead of having a high chair that looks generic and brown, I had a party and invited all the kids to paint the high chairs. 
  • Do they have dogs? Well, we make homemade dog biscuits every day. We give them out for free, and any dog that walks by gets them. We have a doggy menu.”

– Matthew “Kush” Kuscher, Kush Hospitality
From: Behind the business: Kush Hospitality and its eclectic celebration of Miami

8. It’s okay to be imperfect and vulnerable

“Don’t be scared to admit what you don’t know. I am in an industry where I didn’t know anything prior. My girls know more than I do about all this, and so I think it’s important to be humble. My job is to give them a place to do what they love and to make sure that they have clients and a beautiful salon that’s maintained with the supplies they need. If they’re going to do what they love, that’s what they need. I turn to them and never try to act like I don’t have questions.”
– Leslie Embry, The Blowout Co.
From: Behind the business: how Tennessee’s first blowout salon pivoted during the pandemic

“Stop putting the pressure on yourself for it to be perfect. It will never be perfect. Put it out as it is today, share it with the world, and be proud and willing to learn, grow, and embrace. The process is truly going to make you who you are. Even in today’s society, people appreciate the story of watching where it started versus where it came to.  

“People will grow with you, and some people will be lost along the way. We’ve lost some clients of course, but as people leave, more people will get on the train. Be willing to just start, put it out there, and think to yourself, today is the day. It won’t be perfect, but so what? Get it out there today.”
– Jermaine Perry, Sydney’s Sweets
From: Behind the business: why Sydney’s Sweets is having its busiest year yet

“One of the most powerful things I’ve seen during the Coronavirus is the competitive advantage that independent restaurant owners have when they’re willing to be vulnerable. Willing to say, ‘I don’t have the answers, but this is where we are today.’ You don’t have to have all the answers. The key lies in being honest and transparent. It’s truly the time of the good, the bad, and the ugly—and believe it or not, everyone wants to see all sides. 

“Our restaurant’s unrecognizable. It’s literally like a war zone. We’re a mini factory now, but there are chairs turned upside down, floor to ceiling to-go boxes. We’re using the front-of-the-house dining space to expedite getting orders out of the kitchen. 

“Instead of not showing that, we show that and that allows people to get an idea of what it’s like to operate a digital barbecue company. We don’t know how to do it, but we’re trying to figure it out along the way. Because of that, our customers are part of the journey, and they want to support us more.”
– Shawn Walchef, Cali Comfort BBQ
From: The future of restaurants: technology, trends, and transparency

“Being vulnerable and honest about your own fallibility empowers others to do the same with you. Doing this required courage—the courage to be honest and transparent with the staff about my own successes and failures. I wanted to give them the opportunity to learn from my mistakes. I wanted to teach them that resilience is the greatest virtue, not luck or intelligence.”
– Josh Kopel, restaurateur and entrepreneur
From: Lessons in leadership from a terrible manager

9. Balance quality and quantity

“We also constantly think of scale. A business is kind of like a buffet. If you go to a fine dining restaurant where everything is handmade, it’s going to take longer to make all the dishes. It’s going to be better quality. But as you scale, as you get bigger, you can become the old country buffet where you just start laying stuff out. What we’re trying to do is find that balance and be scalable but with quality. Be scalable without losing our core essence.”
– Malaika and Michael Wells, Do Well
From: Behind the business: Do Well’s commitment to the Black community and their South Side Chicago roots

10. Be open to new or unfamiliar technologies

“Too many companies have resisted virtual sales consultations because they believe it is too complex—but it doesn’t have to be. If the technology to run the virtual consultation intimidates you, remember that you don’t need anything beyond what a child needs to attend their virtual classes.”
– Madeleine MacRae, Business Growth Strategist
From: Making the leap to virtual sales for your home services business

“We are testing with texting. Instagram Live is our newest addition. I had been fighting the requests from my marketing director Tarah to do it for about a year. I kept saying, who in the world wants to see me cook? It just is not something that I felt comfortable doing. And before, I could always say, oh I don’t have time to do that. I’m so busy. But now they know I’m not busy because I’m at home! And so she kept pushing me, and so I did it. Then I thought just four or five people were going to show up. Nobody wants to see this. But everybody has really seemed to really love it. Whenever you push yourself to step out of your comfort zone and you conquer a fear, it’s always a good thing.”
– Carrie Morey, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit
From: Behind the business: celebrating 15 years of hot little biscuits with Callie’s

“Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, soft-spoken or loud, chatty or not, your energy level during virtual consultations has to be a little bit bolder than it is in person.

  • Use energetic vocabulary
  • Smile—a lot
  • Don’t be afraid to talk with your hands
  • Make eye contact with the camera (not with your own image on the screen)”

– Madeleine MacRae, Business Growth Strategist
From: 5 tips for successful virtual sales consultations

11. Be accurate and consistent at every customer touch point

“It’s all about triangulation. Imagine your customer is going to find information about your business online after receiving a referral from a friend. They’re going to be looking for reinforcing information that your business is their best choice. If they see your business through your website, Instagram page, and Yelp Page, you want those representations of your business to be accurate and consistent across the board. That starts with complete profiles and accurate information.”
– Carlos Rodriguez, Mr. Roofing
From: The best ways to build customer trust

12. Stay positive

“People are being forced to grow at a rate they’re not comfortable with, but they’re still being forced to grow. From an alert, neurological perspective, people’s brains are being rewired in a way that they don’t even understand. People are coming out of this more skilled, more resilient. Once you’re done with this, when life gets back to normal, you’re going to be a world beater. You’ll say, ‘Yeah, okay. I did that. I can do anything. Definitely.’ And you’ll have the skills to do it.”
– Bob Negen, retail expert and best-selling author
From: The future of retail with expert Bob Negen

“As a business owner, you can never show up to work in a bad mood. Your customers and staff will feel it. You have to be the most energetic and positive person in the room, even when you don’t want to be.”
– Alex Marin and Joey Conicella, Hungry Pants
From: Business insight and wisdom from 3 successful Latinx restaurateurs

“What is happening right now is the acceleration of retail. What I mean by that is, if you are good, if you hustle, if you are willing to try things, if you are a smart merchant, your success is going to accelerate. People have grown as far as their skills, their business models, their resilience more in nine months than they would have grown in three years had the pandemic not forced them to accelerate their growth.”
– Bob Negen, retail expert and best-selling author
From: The future of retail with expert Bob Negen

13. You don’t have to do everything yourself

“I probably opened my second ]location] a little too soon, but it really taught me that I have to delegate. I needed to put systems and processes in place because I couldn’t be in both locations at once. And although it was probably a little premature to open a second location, in the long run, it helped me delegate.”
– Leslie Embry, The Blowout Co.
From: Behind the business: how Tennessee’s first blowout salon pivoted during the pandemic

“What’s the point of having a world-class team if you micromanage everything they do, then take over the project you had initially delegated, only to ultimately postpone the project entirely because you’re too busy to handle it yourself? If you want something done right, have the right person do it.”
– Josh Kopel, restaurateur and entrepreneur
From: An honest take on work-life balance in the restaurant business

14. Think outside the box

“I go out of my way to hit the areas of restaurants that people don’t pay attention to and make those the focus points. For example, you usually just buy a urinal cake and throw it in the urinal. Well, we’re in Miami. So I have Fidel Castro in the urinal cake, a picture of him. So we throw it in there, and everybody loves peeing on Fidel Castro.”
– Matthew “Kush” Kuscher, Kush Hospitality
From: Behind the business: Kush Hospitality and its eclectic celebration of Miami

 “ABP—our principle is to Always Be Promoting. There is never a time where we would shy away from publicity or finding a way to wedge ourselves into a story or an event. How can this storyline benefit from flowers? How can this event be better because of what we do? We are constantly asking questions and seeking opportunities to leverage ourselves into circumstances where one would not think we would.”
– Nic Faitos, Starbright Floral Design
From: 6 steps to building an authentic brand

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