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3 things I wish I’d known before starting a small business

In 1982, Steve Miller started out buying and selling automotive equipment from the back of his station wagon, often making 1,000+ mile round trips to make a deal. In 1985 he opened Miller Tool Inc. in Kansas City. Today the store is thriving with 14 full-time employees plus a few part-timers.

We talked to him about what’s changed, what he’s learned, and what he wishes he’d known when he started out. 

Here are the three most important things Steve told us after 35 years of running a small business:

1. Only work with service providers who understand and value small businesses

Steve admits to making an early mistake in starting his small business: picking the wrong bank. Wrong, but conveniently located only two blocks away.

“You need to look for the ones that really want small businesses, and want to help,” he stressed. “Some banks are only interested in big corporations and mid-size businesses. They don’t want to help people starting a small business — if you’re not interested in borrowing big money, they’re not interested in you.” 

And having the wrong bank, who weren’t interested in helping him grow the business, also made Steve sceptical about borrowing. 

“I tried to borrow as little as possible – even if there were a couple of times when I probably should have borrowed, I didn’t, and that made it tough when I was just starting out.”

It always pays to shop around, whatever you’re looking for. Whether it’s a bank, insurer, or internet and phone provider, it’s worth finding out who are the best for small businesses, not just committing to somewhere easy and local.

Speak to more than one adviser, and find someone with expertise in the small business arena. Speak to other small business owners and find out who they use, and why. Don’t rush into what should be a long-term partnership — choosing businesses to work with is an important decision. 

It can be a costly and time-consuming hassle to change. So it pays to get it right first time, and forge strong relationships with suppliers who can support your business along the way.

“You have to work with people who know their customers, how they work, and what they want. People who deal in honesty and integrity.” 

2. Embrace technology but do your research first

You don’t survive nearly 40 years in business without adapting and changing with the times… 

Technology has allowed Miller Tool to do things like connect with more customers by phone, accept mobile payments and bring in business via the website. 

“I was one of the first businesses in the area to have a website – back in ‘98. But we’ve had to re-build it 5 times, first because of Y2K, and then just to keep it up to date. It doesn’t bring in a huge amount in direct sales, but customers will often find us online and browse the website before coming into the store or getting in touch.” 

Steve also pioneered using a cloud platform to unify business voice calls, meaning he can take business calls remotely, wherever he is. “I was also one of the first Dialpad customers in the Kansas City area. It was super-easy, all done over the phone, and way cheaper than my previous deal with another company. It also came with 6 phones and iPads, which made it much easier to adapt to having a larger inventory. 

“I’d say to anyone starting a small business now — get rid of your landline and use an internet phone instead. It’s much better and cuts your bills way down. I take a lot of sales calls over the phone, and using Dialpad means I don’t really miss calls, which I used to before the technology was there.” 

“If you’re not there when they call, and they need to take your cell number from someone, then they don’t call back, you’ve literally lost business right there. It’s easy to transfer calls both ways so I can be in direct contact with customers, which I have to do all the time, even if I’m not in the office.

“I’d say customer service has definitely become more important in the last few years, and technology has made it much easier to respond to that.”

Steve has had ups and downs with his technology investments. Some worked right away (like local Google ads for targeting local automotive businesses) and some didn’t (a few mistakes in computer and software purchases that didn’t perform as advertised).

But Steve was clear that it’s important for anyone starting a small business to invest in technology. In order to avoid costly mistakes, remember:

  • Shop around before you buy
  • Do your research first, online or through speaking to people who’ve done it before
  • Only buy from people you trust and who understand what you’re looking for 

3. Play to your strengths

Local businesses will always be competing with national online companies. 

To compete, Steve plays to his biggest strengths: local knowledge, expertise and experience.

Steve’s business—selling and servicing heavy duty automotive equipment—requires expert knowhow. No amount invested in advertising, marketing or flashy technology can replace that – and his hundreds of auto dealer and repair shop customers know that. 

“Selling specialist equipment, you become an expert in your area, which any online competition can’t actually compete with. So people who buy from elsewhere often then come to us for servicing, and end up using us for future purchases because of our expertise, and the quality of our service.”

Steve highlighted his relationship with a Chevrolet dealership who have been using his services since 1988. “Because of the sort of products we sell, one sale often means a lasting relationship with the customer,” Steve points out. Which makes it all the more important to get that customer experience right the first time.

“Strong products, and guidance, and expertise, will keep people coming back.”

With all his experience, we asked Steve what else he’d say to someone starting a small business today, and he offered the following solid, practical advice:

  • Speak to someone who’s done it all before – online research is great, but it’s not the same as hearing it directly from someone who’s gone through exactly the same thing.
  • Know exactly what suppliers and manufacturers will expect from you, and vice versa.
  • Research your competition, the state of the market you’re operating in and the sort of margins/cashflow you can realistically expect.
  • Recognize that business is changing fast because of the internet, and look for opportunities to improve your business and customer experience.
  • Look carefully into all financial services when you start out – read the small print and make sure you’re getting a good deal.

We hear you, Steve.

Find out more about how Sprint Dialpad has helped Miller Tool thrive, or get in touch with 1-887-633-1102 to find out how Sprint could work for your small business.