Attack, Don’t Wait for Uncle Sam’s Helping Hand

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama offered some help to the nation’s small business owners and entrepreneurs. Obama recited his version of the now-familiar line that “the true engine of job creation in this country will always be America’s businesses.” But he went a bit further adding that the “government can create the conditions necessary for businesses to expand and hire more workers. We should start where most new jobs do—in small businesses, companies that begin when an entrepreneur takes a chance on a dream, or a worker decides it’s time she became her own boss. Through sheer grit and determination, these companies have weathered the recession and are ready to grow.” There were also some actual proposals in Obama’s speech. He called for:

  • Taking $30 billion (from money repaid by the big banks) and using it “to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat.”
  • A new tax credit for small businesses that hire new workers or raise wages.
  • The elimination of “all capital gains taxes on small business investment.”
  • Providing a tax incentive to “all businesses, large and small, [that] invest in new plants and equipment.”
  • A National Export Initiative to help small businesses (and farmers) increase exports.

All this sounds terrific, and I truly hope it becomes reality. But in the meantime we entrepreneurs cannot sit around hoping the government will make good on its promises. I’ve talked to far too many business owners who have acted like a Disney princess waiting for Prince Charming to ride into town and rescue them. It’s time, heck it’s past time, to take action. General George Patton once advised, “Opportunities do not come to those who wait. They are captured by those who attack.”

Create a short-term action plan. What can you do in the next three months to give your business a boost? Maybe you’re not yet ready to start taking risks again (though I don’t think you can truly grow your business if you don’t), so let’s start with innovation. Don’t let that word scare you. It’s not just for big businesses or startup tech companies. All businesses can be innovative—restaurants can create new recipes; retailers can find new suppliers; all of us can come up with new marketing strategies. This isn’t rocket science; it’s really entrepreneurship 101—entrepreneurs are innovators. As Apple’s Steve Jobs (who also made quite a splash Wednesday with the introduction of the iPad) once said, “Innovation is what distinguishes a leader from a follower.”

Talk to your customers—even the ones who haven’t done business with you for a while. Ask how they’re doing, find out what they need or want. The idea is to uncover their “pain points” and see if (and how) you can make that pain go away. Even when the economy kicks into gear, customers will still be looking for good value, so make sure that’s what you’re providing.

Take control. This isn’t the same as taking action. It’s very easy to use the Great Recession as an excuse for declining sales. And maybe the economy is at fault. But maybe, just maybe, it’s something you did—or didn’t do. Did you decrease your marketing budget? Lay off some of your best employees? Toss aside your customer service policies? Turn to high-pressure sales tactics out of desperation? Try to uncover what’s changed, what’s gone wrong, and take responsibility for it. After all, you are the owner of the business and that proverbial buck stops with you.

Raise your profile. These have been trying times and many of us have lowered our profiles. You need to get out there. Take part in community activities. Spend some money on marketing. Join your industry trade association, your local Chamber of Commerce or even your college alumni group—and participate. Sure, you need to get active in social media, but don’t forget old media. You should cultivate a relationship with columnists or reporters from your local newspaper or radio station.

At the end of his speech, President Obama asked Americans to “seize this moment.” And that’s exactly what times like this call for. I have long believed that one of the factors that set entrepreneurs apart is our ability to see the risk, but seize the opportunity. There’s no time like now. The opportunities are out there; it’s up to us to grab hold and in the words of President Obama, “start anew, [and] carry the dream forward.”