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Five tips for growing a small business

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When you start a small business, you'll probably discover that what you learned in business school doesn't cover everything you need to know as a business leader.

That's what Michael Alter, SurePayroll president and CEO, discovered during his 10 years leading the company. He's put together five tips for growing a small business that you probably won't learn in business school:

1. Don't be afraid to make new mistakes.
Mistakes are one of the most valuable learning tools I've ever come across. You can't learn anything if you're afraid to try something new, or worried about letting your staff do things differently.

As a small business owner, you can't afford to fall victim to "the paralysis of analysis." That doesn't mean you should change how you run an aspect of your business without doing your due diligence. But the longer you wait to try something new, the longer you'll wait to learn something your competitors might already know.

Develop a culture where you and your employees feel comfortable trying something new and embracing an entrepreneurial spirit. "At SurePayroll, we give a 'Best New Mistake' award that's our equivalent to the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The winner walks away with $400 - the largest prize we issue to any employee," Alter says. You'll be pleasantly surprised how much you learn, and how entrepreneurial your employees can be, when you give them the freedom to err.

2. Saying "no" to new business is one of your most powerful assets.
Taking on new challenges and doing practically everything yourself is the hallmark of a small business owner. But rather than accepting every new opportunity that looks like it might be helpful with your business, start saying "no" to things that aren't strategically aligned with your business.

Be sure "no" is part of your vocabulary so you can say "yes" to focusing on your core business.

3. Use negatives as positives.
You may never have the big marketing budgets, huge cash flow, or large infrastructure that your big competitors will. Most people will tell you that's a negative you'll have to overcome (or a "challenge" you have to overcome, if they're being nice). Rather, think of it as a positive - an opportunity you need to seize.

Working with abundant resources is always more cumbersome. When your competitors want to change, they have an army of employees to retrain, technology to reprogram and at least a few big wigs who'll need to sign off on it - usually after a lot of convincing.

As the owner of a small business, you are able to change quickly. Use your nimbleness to your advantage. Turning your idea into a reality quickly is much easier for you than for a colleague who works at a large employer.

4. Play to your strengths, not your weaknesses.
In past jobs your bosses probably tried to help you by identifying skills or traits you should improve when they conducted your performance reviews. But, time is the one resource you can never get more of. So why waste time trying to improve something you're not good at - and probably don't have any passion for - when you can outsource your weaknesses?

If you're buried in receipts and your general ledger, struggling to keep the books accurate, find an accountant or bookkeeper so you can free up your time to focus on growing your business. If you're great at selling your service or product but can't help customers with questions, get a customer service representative on board so you can focus on what you're best at.

When you're in the middle of doing something you hate, pass the buck to someone else.

5. Use technology to improve everything.
The advances in business technology over the last 15 years have leveled the playing field. With the right technology, you can revolutionize how your business and service works - and even what your market expects.

Find the technology that can help you improve operations and free your staff to work on tasks that generate more revenue. If your employees are still digging through mounds of paper files and different spreadsheets for customer and prospect information, put everything in a central online customer relationship manager (CRM) solution like SalesForce.com. And when your employees are on the go, ensure they have smartphones with apps (such as a document and spreadsheet viewers) they need to work from anywhere.

Smart technology investments always produce a strong return on investment.
"Following these principles has helped me in every step of my career," says Alter. "But they wouldn't matter if I didn't adhere to one overarching goal: Keep learning and remaining open to change. Markets change, consumers change, needs change. You need to provide the change businesses and consumers demand."

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