Charles Caleb Colton, an English cleric, writer, and collector, may not be well known to most people, but one of his aphorisms, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” certainly is. Although Colton was most likely not referring to management procedures in 21st-century corporate America, his famous quote seems to resonate with how some small business entrepreneurs are finding an extra jolt of inspiration by emulating the best practices of top brands. With apologies to Google, Starbucks, Virgin, and other major corporations, the following are a few pithy lessons that have helped shape a slew of small business ventures.
To streamline operations, be willing to invest in technology
Although small business owners might balk at spending additional money on software that’s not revenue-generating, that would be a mistake says Ashley Kalus, who uses her experiences as a former consultant at Accenture, the global management consulting firm, as a blueprint for her current role as manager of the small Chicago-based JW MedSpa.
Kalus, whose husband Jeffrey Weinzweig is both owner and plastic surgeon at the couple’s two- and a half-year-old clinic, says that she learned from her stint at Accenture how important it is for small businesses to invest in software technology that will facilitate the operations. “We have found by investing early in an integrated platform for scheduling, marketing, and reporting, we are able to use the system to answer business questions that shed light onto our growth, [like] who our patients are, and how much we are growing,” she explains. “As a result, we can be more responsive and make decisions based on data.”
And according to Kalus, applying the practices of top corporations to her business has been an inestimable boon. Not only has the business roughly doubled each year during a difficult economic period, but, she adds, “we are quickly becoming one of the biggest plastic surgery practices in the Midwest.”
Shaun Walker, creative director and co-founder of the small New Orleans ad agency HERO/farm says he and his colleagues greatly admire how Virgin, Richard Branson’s multi-national venture capital conglomerate, makes forays into industries in which they don’t have a previous footprint. Walker, who started his firm in 2009, cites the launch of Virgin Airlines or Virgin Mobile as prominent examples.
“While every one of their ventures may not be successful, Virgin utilizes Branson's mantra of trying something new, going in with guns blazing and not looking back,” says Walker, whose company has been the recipient of several honors, among them the 2011 Business of The Year from IABC New Orleans. “We truly believe in testing new things as much as possible and failing fast. It's one of the first ideas we seed in all of our clients. Just like a fighter pilot, with proper preparation, it’s better to make an incorrect decision and be moving than to make no decision at all. The fact that a company is small is not a fault; it means they're more nimble, quicker to market and able to execute tactics at a rapid pace.”
Virgin’s zeal for experimentation in uncharted areas seems nearly analogous to coffee franchise giant Starbucks’ yen for thinking outside the box. The latter brand’s “industry cross-training” is a particular source of inspiration for Mimi West. In May, West My Dream Teacher, a nationwide directory that helps students find music teachers in their area. The site also features blogs and forums that offer advice to music teachers, students, and parents.
“Rather than merely copy what other coffeehouses do, Starbucks is always looking for unconventional ways of increasing sales,” West says. “In the 90’s, they started selling CD’s. They also expanded sales fronts into mail-order catalogs, airports and the Internet.” These efforts work, she says, because the company’s awareness of other industries allows them to capitalize on areas that their competitors have given no heed.
West, a longtime performer and voice coach, has applied these same practices to her startup by working primarily with classical musicians, many of whom she says, “have a hard time seeing themselves as anything but musicians. In fact, they don’t even consider themselves to be entrepreneurs or even business people at all.” By helping her clients rebrand themselves and diversify their offerings, West gives them the ol’ Starbucks treatment that would make company CEO Howard Schultz proud.
Make personalized customer service a priority
Tara Vaziri heads communications at Blank Label, a three-year-old custom dress-shirt business in Boston. She says a key takeaway that she borrows from department store giant Nordstrom is that clients must be completely satisfied with every purchase.
“We’ve followed suit with a committed customer service team that actively pursues customer satisfaction with quick replies to any questions or concerns e-mailed in,” says Vaziri. “Even though every single shirt we make is custom made, if there’s anything about it that a customer doesn’t like—fabric, fit, style—we’ll remake it from scratch. And domestic and international return shipping is free.”
Have a recognizable brand and logo
Some logos, like Apple’s silhouette of an apple with a bite taken out of it, have become so instantly recognizable, that the public very often forges a deep and visceral bond with the brand as a result. So, having an readily identifiable brand can help small businesses achieve consumer engagement on a level mastered by the Fortune 500 companies.
“Accenture and other top companies ensure that all their employees and all marketing materials are mindful of communicating their brand,” says Kalus. “We have created a brand for our company and all of our employees understand what the brand stands for. We visually communicate our brand—by using the logo and one name—in all of our materials. People have started to recognize our logo even when it is shown without the name as a result of our dedication to creating and developing our brand and communicating it in the same way through multiple mediums.”
Be simple but strategic
When West’s My Dream Teacher website was in the incubation stage, she looked to the Google homepage, with its stark and unabashed simplicity, as a model. “You can’t get more basic than [that],” she explains. “When designing my website, I deliberately stripped it down to the bare essentials. I didn’t want too much clutter to confuse visitors.”
West also notes that even though Google boasts a plethora of products and services, many of these offerings were introduced slowly, over a period of time. She, too, has a multitude of services in the pipeline but says she will be releasing them one at a time in a way that “makes sense to my customers. Google is strategic, not sloppy and I’m building my business around that maxim."