13 Mind-Blowing Small Business Success Tips

(Or, 13 strategies you didn’t read in the Harvard Business Review)


Through many dangers, toils, and snares,

I  (we) have already come;

Tis grace (our philosophy) hath brought us safe thus far,

And grace (our philosophy) will lead us home. 


The words of Amazing Grace say it all. Retiring after 30 years of building and running a very successful business, I’ve thought long and hard about what brought us through the “dangers, toils, and snares.”  What did we do right? There surely was no roadmap when we started PowerSpeaking, Inc. in 1985. 

So here,  in text, photos, and video, are the 13 most unexpected lessons I learned about how to run a successful small business (lessons that continue to inform the PowerSpeaking team, more or less, even after I’m gone).


1) Be A Quitter – As Kenny Rogers says, “Know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em.”


For every Silicon Valley story about a rich person who risked it all going into massive credit card debt at the beginning, there are hundreds of sad tales about those who did not know when to stop and lost everything. 

In business we must be able to know when something or someone is not working and make changes fast. Forget the “Quitters never win and winners never quit” nonsense. What crap.


2) Be a Pessimist – You will be happier


Years ago, it dawned on me that pessimists like me are never disappointed.If it doesn’t work out – just as I expected. If it does, that’s great. Recent research indicates that optimists are generally more depressed than pessimists.


3) Be Skeptical – Have a good “crap detector”


Like many fields, training and development has lots of sacred cows, that, when examined more closely, turn out to be total nonsense. Four come quickly to mind:

Albert Mehrabian: Your content is worth only 7% of your impact.

          Gets a 10 on the BS-o-Meter

Motivational speakers: People with written goals do better in life. Study done at Harvard, they say. 

          Gets a 7 on the BS-o-Meter

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP): Success comes by modeling the language and nonverbals of others. Total bunk.

          Gets a rip-roaring 10+ on the BS-o-Meter

Educators: You remember 20% of what you see; 30% of   what you hear; 50% of what you see and hear, etc.

          Gets an 8 on the BS-o-Meter

This last sacred cow is from a retired professor at the University of Texas at Austin, department of Chemical Engineering, named James Stice. He old me, “I just made up those numbers because they seemed about right.” 

You and your company should verify the accuracy of such “studies” or, better yet, do your own.


4) Be Slow to Hire and Fast to Fire


Our new technical software expert was a bull in a china shop. She insulted everyone, told us what was wrong with our company, and tried to intimidate the team. Fortunately, she was gone by the end of the first week. 

Often desperate to fill a void, it is easy to make a job offer too quickly without doing the proper background checking. When someone doesn’t work out, it is sometimes hard to fire them, which demoralizes the whole team. Take your time to hire, and be quick to fire someone who isn’t working out.


5) Be Unique – Take a (calculated) risk


In 1999, Palm came out with an ad for their Palm Pilot featuring a naked dancer holding the small device that said, “Simply Palm.” I loved it. Breakthrough. Creative. I decided to create an ad, “Simply PowerSpeaking!”

I went into the photo studio with my microphone and nothing else. Then our graphics guy made it look like the Palm ad. I was getting ready to send the postcard out as a marketing piece to our  6,000 person mailing list. 

Suddenly it occurred to me to check with the marketing department at Palm. I sent them the mockup. Two days later, I got a call, “You  don’t want to do this. The dancer will sue you. The photographer will sue you. The graphic designer will sue you. And, of course, Palm will sue you. We will squash your company like a grape!” Well, alrighty then. The postcard never saw the light of day.

Lesson learned: Be creative. Take risks… but do your homework.


6) Ditch the PowerPoint (or Keynote, or Prezi, or whatever)

“Death by PowerPoint,” ha, ha, ha. But, it’s not funny. In our Speaking Up program, we hear horror stories of careers careening off the tracks because presenters attempted to show decision makers their 30-slide PowerPoint deck.

Some companies are actually banning presentation software. They want discussions, not slide shows. A recent Stanford study compared PowerPoint, TED-type images of simple photos, and whiteboard presentations. The whiteboards were 17% – 20% more successful on measures such as retention and speaker credibility, among others.


7) Improvize – Benefit from your mistakes


In 2001, I coached a vice president to do what always works, tell stories. He got creamed at his C-level quarterly review by the senior team. Turns out we had no idea why speaking to top leadership is SO different than speaking to a general audience. 

We began improvising to discover what the secret was to success in the boardroom. We poured a huge amount of resources into finding a solution to this problem. 

Today more than 10,000 people have gone through Speaking Up, I have written a book about it, and PowerSpeaking is known for this expertise. 

When things go sideways, do what jazz musicians do – improvise. 


8) What it is NOT about: the money

From the birth of PS, we were clear that it has never been about the money. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a capitalist (sort of) and  want to make a profit, but I always felt that by focusing on higher-order issues like having a quality product, treating people well, and helping people grow, that the money will take care of itself. 

For example, a HP division had to cancel a program at the last minute due to financial cutbacks. I inquired if the REAL issue was financial, or simply a scheduling problem, or if demand for the program had waned. They assured me it was strictly financial. I then offered to do the program for free. They jumped at the chance. It cost us about $10,000 to deliver that two day program. Their gratitude was palpable. Three months later when the financial restraints were lifted, they booked a number of programs. I saw our costs as an investment in marketing. 

Another example: When the company was smaller and our bookkeeping processes were simpler, we paid trainers on the day of the program. We did not make them wait until we got paid by the client, which could take up to 90 days. Result: grater loyalty. Nowadays they get paid every two weeks – still different than much of  our industry.


9) What it IS about: relationships

Over the years, we’ve hired several PR firms to get the word out. Results = zero. 

In our small business, relationships are what create growth. We have consistently put on “client events,” invited clients to our parties, taken clients to dinner, or even taken them sailing on the bay. This is what creates long-term commitment to PS.


Example: A while ago, Brad Webb, one of the sailors on Oracle’s winning Americas Cup racing team came to me for coaching. Brad has a San Francisco business taking groups out on the Bay on his AC yacht. I suggested we trade services. He got PS training, and we took 20 clients out on the Bay. Beats money spent on PR anytime. 

For more info about Brad’s business: 



10) Vendors –Treat them like family

Lawyers, accountants, IT specialists, graphic designers, AV experts, HR consultants – all of these people are critical to keeping PowerSpeaking afloat. We depend on them. We never hassle with them about fees, and we pay them promptly. We invite vendors to our parties and client events. We treat them, in a word, like part of the team. Consequently when we have a crisis, they return our phone calls. 

11) Fire the Consultants


Before retaining a consultant, apply a heavy dose of skepticism (as mentioned earlier) and look closely at what their “solution” is. Oftentimes they’ll suggest using all manner of personality inventories like: the FiroB; MIR; Myers-Briggs; Strength Finder, Enneagram; maybe even dinosaurs like the MMPI or the Rorschach. 

The problem, they’ll say, is personality conflict. So the solution is to measure everyone’s personality type. Unlikely. According to business quality guru, W. Edwards Deming, the problems are rarely about the people. They ARE about the system and the processes. 

So, save money by making up your own “Personality Inventory.” All you need are two variables. This will create a four quadrant matrix that looks very scientific. What variables to use? How about: Weight: fat vs. skinny, or Height: tall vs. short, or Politics: liberal vs. conservative, or Religion: atheist vs. believer. BTW, have lots of money for the HR law suits that will follow all this. Maybe those fees can come from the money you save on consultants. Here is a model you can build on:


12) Use Humor – but with good judgment


Comedian Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” I always tried to lighten it up with humor, sometimes successful, sometimes not. Business transactions can be serious affairs. Time and money are not laughing matters. Humor, though can grease the skids.


13) Select Who to Marry

Scott McNealy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, once told a group of budding entrepreneurs, “The most important decision you will make is who to have babies with.” He went on to explain that you and your partner better be in alignment about what a full-on, high-octane career means for how your life turns out.  

My wife, Mary, and I have been on the same page from the beginning about PowerSpeaking. Can’t imagine it any other way. So, my final point is to choose the right partner in business. It will make your life better in the bedroom and in the boardroom.

4 thoughts on “13 Mind-Blowing Small Business Success Tips

  1. Bill Spaulding says:

    As the former owner of a small (three employee) Textile sales company with sales of over $40 million in our peak years, I can certainly agree with most of the points—especially #13. The old saying, Happy wife, happy life, cannot be more true than when you own your own business. Make her a part of it so she understands your problems/concerns—just do not compete with your sig other.

    I started everyday thinking that was the day I would loose my best customer, or when I was in corp life the day I was going to be fired. Ricks point #3. That was my motivation to do my best to be certain that was not going to happen that day..

    Also, deciding what to do in life is important. I had a MBA professor at Cal (one of two or three whose names I remember in 7 years of college) who wrote a book and taught a course in "Interstice Marketing" David Revzan. Find a nitch market and be the first and the best and you will be successful. My nitch? Precut Jeans pockets. I spent my first 15 years at Levi’s in the denim marketing area—Jeans. As we grew, we needed more production and consistency between factories was a real issue. The jeans are sewn inside out and the white pockets dictate the shape and fit in the waist and over the hip. If the pockets are not cut correctly the jeans don’t fit correctly. All parts were cut by hand (still are) and the inexperienced cutters were put on the cheap pocket fabric leaving the more experienced cutters to do the expensive denim. But when the sewers stacked the incorrectly cut pocket on top of the denim parts, the denim was sewn and trimmed to the pocket shape. We tried the theory of die cut pockets in one of the last U.S. Levi’s plants and it worked so well, they were rolled out worldwide. We had plants in the US, Mexico, The DR. Hong Kong and Pakistan making cut pockets—the same plants where the pocket material was made. The real plus was the print we added to the right pocket replacing the 5 cent "oilcloth" label that was tossed by the consumer with a permanent logo, resulting in a cost savings as well.

    One point Rick did not touch on in sales—let the buyer be invested in your ideas/products. You could have the best idea since sliced bread, but if he is not invested you will get nowhere—especially if ego’s are involved. Spend the time to mutually develop the new product idea by leading (or qualifying) the customer. " Would it be beneficial if we could improve the consistency of fit? How could you improve the accuracy of the pocket cutting? Tennis shoes are made from canvas, how can they be consistent? Die cutting the uppers? Hmmm".

    Get the idea?

    A note about consultants and when to quit.
    Levi’s hired Aurthur Anderson to assist in evaluating their suppliers. As one of their primary suppliers I was tasked with leading my side of the meeting when we were "in the barrel". Side note, I was an independent agent or rep, representing several firms in the textile business. So we met with the firm I represented at their N. Carolina plant, the top guys from my firm, Levi’s executives and the A. Anderson bunch. The AA guys asked a bunch of questions they probably took from a marketing 101 book. On product research—they asked how do you develop new products? We listen to the customers, ask what they need and how things could be improved. We take those comments and internally brainstorm things that fit our business model and present ideas back to the customer. Then the zinger—how do you quantify the success of money spent on product research. Simple—if the customer likes it and buys it it is a success. If they don’t, it is a failure. AA just could not accept that answer. Finally after 30 minutes of grilling me, Levi’s spoke up and basically agreed with me and shut AA down.

    The point? Stay away from consultants—if they were experts in your business they would be in it.

    When to quit? If it doesn’t sell, drop the item.

    P.S. Anybody heard about AA consulting lately?

  2. Mark Miller says:

    Rick, excellent advice, grounded in successful experience. As a former vendor, I can confirm that your "treat them like family" is 100% true. We loved working for PowerSpeaking! We would have jumped through hoops to help you in a pinch. Thank you for sharing your down-to-earth wisdom. Implicit in all of your advice is also impeccable integrity and humanity. Thank you.

  3. Louisa Rogers says:

    love the photo of you & Mary. Intimate elegance. And you’re spot-
    on about the symmetries between the bedroom and the board room!

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