11 years in the life of a small business

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

By Michelle van Schouwen

Succeeding in Small Business celebrates 11 years this spring. Founder Jeanne Yocum and core contributors Mark G. Auerbach and I are taking the opportunity to reflect on life in business since 2010.

For my part, it has been quite a ride. 2010 – much like 2021 – found small business owners digging out of tumult (then, the Great Recession, now the COVID-19 pandemic). I’ll share here some of the key challenges and aha moments of my last 11 years that may resonate with other small business owners. I’ve included links to some of my related Succeeding articles. (Even my very first Succeeding post indicates that running a small business is far from a breeze!)

Company evolution: Over that 11 years, I honed my small marketing company: 1) Defining our ideal client base (business-to-business clients launching new products or initiatives or making other transformative moves) and 2) seeking clients promoting environmentally positive products or services, for example, those that address climate change. This was useful both in making money and keeping me happy.

Sales and client development: Whether coming out of a tough time or surfing waves of prosperity, the dominating issue in running my small marketing firm was connecting with the RIGHT clients – okay, let’s call it sales. The hardest part? I – personally – am good at it, and when times got tough, it was too often ME, speaking, networking, emailing (or, in the old days, calling), meeting, and being on the road. I believe the business of sales is evolving, with more online relationship outreach and new ways to network. We have better pipeline and customer relationship management tracking methods than ever before, whether homegrown or leased. But in certain businesses, someone still has to close the sale, and being able to develop great, intelligent salespeople who can do it without you being there is golden. Having salespeople who care nearly as much as you? That is a feat.

Evolving relationships with staffing: I’ve always tried to be a good boss (fair, not too annoying ) but after a couple of knock-one-on-the-head economic downturns, I concluded that every employee must provide serious value or a small company will suffer. I learned to train people better, and I learned to fire problem employees without feeling (too) terrible about it. I also realized that having truly invaluable employees is great in some ways, but requires that you have a back-up plan, and that some jobs are best handled on a contract basis. I also realized that, when it comes to selling a business, your employees may or may not be considered an asset (more on selling the company below).

Marketing and the loss of consumer privacy: We did it. Retargeting (you looked at a slimming bathing suit or ED medicine online and it keeps popping up wherever you go). Effective, eh? But pinpoint data analytics and the ability to reach way into an individual’s life was also one of the changes to the marketing business that felt too much like fishing in a barrel for me. Small business owners have to be ready for the future. Sometimes, that future urges them to pivot a business or to define its “why.”

Selling your baby: In 2017, I sold my marketing company of 32 years. I was ready. I learned that you need to find the right buyer for your priorities. (I did. I wanted my clients and staff to find a good new home, and I didn’t want to work for the new owner. Selling to another marketing company in my region was the perfect fit.) What’s more, I was able to fulfill a dream, finding new balance, taking my skills and expertise and creating an “Act 2” as a climate change communicator and environmental advocate. I also support current and future entrepreneurs. I’ve written a guide to Act 2 companies here.

What was your last decade-plus like? Please let us know.


Michelle van Schouwen is principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5 Analytics.org. For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc.  of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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