15 steps to 15 years: A road map to a successful small business

In January 2014, SmartSign marked 15 years in business. In 15 different blog posts, we reflect on the lessons learned, good experiences, and company-wide changes that helped us reach this milestone. Check out the entire series below, with a new post appearing each day over the next few weeks.


1. Keep up employee morale

Great companies are separated from good companies through the foundation of strong company culture and employee morale. One of the most fundamental aspects of company culture is the employee perspective on what it’s like to work for the company. SmartSign does a lot to ensure a good relationship with its employees: sick days, floating holidays, casual dress, and vacation time all allow for a nice work-life balance.

brand identities

2. Individualized brand identities

SmartSign adopted an individual brand name strategy during its 15 years of growth. In Marketing, Richard L. Sandhusen describes this kind of strategy: “a brand name is applied to each product in the line and the company name is de-emphasized. The advantages are that brands can be targeted to specific markets [and] failure of one brand doesn’t endanger others.”


3. Budgeting: not a burden to innovation, but a way to brainstorm new ideas

Some creative types balk at the idea of sitting down and figuring out the nitty gritty budgeting parameters of the next new project or business, but Bryan Bowers, SmartSign’s CFO, says that budgeting can be “an essential source of new ideas rather than a hindrance to creativity.”



4. Value your vendors

In e-commerce, being successful depends on a number of factors, but chief among them is the quality of the product offered. Sites like SmartSign would be nowhere near as successful if they did not have strong relationships with the vendors who manufacture the products they sell.



5. 5 reasons to get a business partner

Don’t go it alone. When starting a company, you’re likely to need all the help you can get, and quite simply, having a business partner allows you to do double the work. Here are just five more reasons why having a business partner is essential.


hire young

6.Hiring young and hiring smart

Hiring is a meticulous process. Even if potential candidates have appropriate work experience, not everyone is the right fit in the organizational puzzle. To that end, SmartSign’s founders employ a valuable lesson that they’ve learned over the course of their hiring experience: hire young, hire smart, and trust in youth.



7. Micromanaging puts a muzzle on your business

Over 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln said, “The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust.” And over the past 15 years, SmartSign’s leadership has been committed to cultivating a company culture rooted in self-accountability. SmartSign Employees are expected to be their own managers in several respects.


knowing your customer

8. The key to good customer service is knowing your customer

In the words of SmartSign’s CEO and co-founder Blair Brewster, “Where do all the ideas for new products come from – the customer of course.” Successful companies know their customers and companies that don’t focus on their customers often fail. Without understanding why your customers choose your company, how can you create and implement a sustainable growth strategy?

multimedia9. Use multimedia early and often

B2B companies are increasingly testing the waters of incorporating images, infographics, videos, and more into their marketing content. The amount of online content is becoming more and more overwhelming to consumers, resulting in shortened attention spans and a need for eye-catching material. SmartSign is not immune to joining the growing multimedia trend by way of videos, photos, quizzes, and live chats.


10. The first commandment of customer service

As one of SmartSign’s longest tenured employees, Tahyna Colon, our call center manager, knowscustomer service and sales. She’s the senior member of a team responsible for around half of all the business our websites do, so if anyone knows how to keep retail customers happy, it’s her.



11. Personality is your biggest asset

When you’re looking for a new job, it might feel like your resume is your life raft. If you’re just starting out, it’s all about getting the right experience to demonstrate specific skills, bolstering your technological know-how, or even just cramming the whole thing full of buzzwords.


cash flow

12. Cash is still the undisputed champion of a business

SmartSign was birthed from custom technology, and our founders saw the opportunity to apply this technology to tags, mats, and parking permits. It simply made sense. But, part of the reason we were able to successfully enter those markets is the flexibility that comes from effectively managing cash flow.



13. Handle with care: when customers blow up

As any customer service pro knows, one of the biggest challenges to the job is maintaining an unruffled, professional demeanor, even when you have someone on the phone who might be abusive or difficult.



14. Three lessons about the competition

Starting a successful business doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The biggest thing that’s going to keep you awake will be “the other guy,” both your existing competition and the young upstarts that come in swinging once you’re an established brand.

15. Boost your e-commerce business with nonprofit partnerships

Let’s be honest, though: a smaller e-commerce company’s every move is unlikely to make headlines by itself. We don’t wield the ad budgets that a Coke does, we don’t have a built-in megaphone like Upworthy, and our profits aren’t such that an owner funneling them into a radioactive cause is likely to get much attention, either. But the reasons to invest in nonprofit partnerships go far beyond PR for e-commerce companies.