CHICAGO (MainStreet) — ‘Tis the season for year-end wrap-ups and Top 10 lists. While condensing a year’s worth of events into a single Best Of list can be daunting, looking back can also give us a fresh perspective. In that spirit, we’re highlighting some major themes that came up in our small-business coverage this year.
While it’s impossible to make a single pronouncement about the overall state of American small business in 2011, a few general observations hold: The business climate is still fairly bleak, as is the mood of many owners. Few companies are planning hiring sprees for 2012, and the hurdles to growing a business (weak customer demand, tougher credit requirements) remain daunting.
That said, start-ups still started up this year and business owners still invested in new ideas and strategies. Here are some of the other small-business topics that resonated with us this year:
1. There’s power in numbers
No small business can afford to be an island, especially during challenging economic times. Through merchant associations and city-funded initiatives, companies are getting the word out about buying local, finding it’s more effective to market themselves as a group. State and local governments have created all sorts of incentives to strengthen their business base (and boost their “job creation” credentials). And business incubators are providing workspaces and mentoring to help start-ups move to the next level. If you need help growing or maintaining a business, there are plenty of people out there — often in your own community — who want to help you succeed.
2. New technology can dramatically shift how a business is run …
Every new gadget is hyped as being potentially life-changing. In a few cases, that’s actually true. Apple’s iPad, which at first appeared to be a leisure-time entertainment accessory, turned out to have significant business applications as well. The tablets allowed some small businesses to save money on computer costs and create a more mobile workforce; in creative fields, showing off samples and videos on an iPad became an instant status-booster and conversation-starter.
An Internet-driven model for raising money also could revolutionize how start-ups are financed. Though legal hurdles still remain, the growing buzz around crowdfunding could make it easier to start a business, by allowing larger numbers of investors to fund promising ideas.
3. … but the fundamentals haven’t changed
This was the year every business had to decide once and for all whether it made sense to have a Twitter presence. (The quick answer? Not necessarily.) Social media continued to be a cause of stress for many businesses, as they experimented with Facebook strategies or lamented nasty comments on Yelp. Yes, the rise of social media has changed how a business approaches marketing. But it hasn’t altered the basic framework of what it takes to run a successful business. Business plans still matter, for established companies just as much as start-ups. Even business cards, which seemed destined for the trash in an age of electronic address books, are still an effective branding tool.
4. There is no “best” place for businesses
The Best Of list is a mainstay of Web sites and magazines. But when it comes to ranking states for their business-friendly qualities, the rankings can shift dramatically depending on which factors are considered. Are taxes the main criteria? Or should innovation, such as the number of patents issued, count more?
In one “best for business” study that came out this year, California and New Jersey were among the five worst states, yet another study ranked them among the top 10 “New Economy” states, where knowledge-based, entrepreneurial businesses thrive. The takeaway? Some states may tax businesses more than others, but companies spring up every year in every single state. Location is no predictor of success.
5. Business owners deserve a break
Yes, December is a great time to pore over year-end statements and get all those tax documents in order. But if there’s one thing small-business owners need, it’s a vacation. Not only it is good for your health, it’s good for your business. Taking a mental break from everyday tasks frees you up to think more creatively and consider issues from a different perspective. So go ahead, take some days off, and think of it as an investment in the future of your business.