Essential skills every small business owner should develop

Having worked with over 20,000 small businesses and their owners over the course of the past 40 years, I see patterns that many other people aren’t privileged to see.

I see patterns in the businesses that succeed, and I see patterns in the ones that crash and burn.

I’ve spoken about these in my column before, and have made some of them the subject of my YouTube videos, particularly “Three Personality Traits All Entrepreneurs and Small Business Owners Must Develop.”

People starting out in business can seem overwhelmed by the sheer number of things they need to know to make a business successful. But be assured, you don’t need an MBA degree or a CPA license to run your own business.

Sometimes the less you know about the academic stuff, the more likely you are to succeed.

Having said that, there are three essential skills I think every small-business owner or entrepreneur needs to develop.

Skill No. 1: Marketing/Selling

Make no mistake about it. Successful people in business are always — always — good at selling and marketing themselves and what they do. In business, nothing happens unless a customer says yes. And customers don’t say yes — heck, they often don’t even know you’re there — until you reach out to them on a steady, ongoing basis.

Especially in a service business like mine, the phone doesn’t ring unless I make it ring. That is why — even after 40 years of practicing law and a database of over 20,000 active clients — I spend at least 10 hours a week giving talks and webinars, writing articles, calling and sending LinkedIn invites to people who can refer business to me. All of them are activities for which I cannot charge.

Most (normal) people are afraid of selling, not because they cannot do it (virtually everyone can), but because, let’s face it, when they think of a salesperson, it is usually not someone they want to become.

The good news is that virtually anyone can learn how to sell effectively without becoming “that person.” To learn more, check out my award-winning YouTube video “How to Sell Anything to Anybody.” It’s 60+ minutes that just may change your life, as it has for over 250,000 people around the world.

Skill No. 2: Negotiating

To grow a small business, deals need to happen — with customers, suppliers, advertisers, landlords, strategic alliance partners, professionals and others. To get deals done, you need to learn to be an effective negotiator.

Most (normal) people are afraid of negotiating because it involves confrontation, and there’s always the risk of losing a deal by bargaining too aggressively. Most of my clients are not in strong negotiating positions when doing their deals, so we spend lots of time on the phone discussing what’s worth fighting to get, and what isn’t.

A lot of books have been written about negotiating, and most are sheer nonsense. This is a skill anyone can learn with a little time and patience. To learn more, check out my YouTube video “Negotiating Basics for Attorneys, Entrepreneurs and Others.”

Skill No. 3: Bookkeeping

Back in the 1980s, when I was practicing law on Wall Street, occasionally I would run across an entrepreneur or business owner who told me her philosophy of running a business is to “make it, sell it, and don’t try to keep track of it.”

Sadly, that is not good advice for running a business. Sooner or later, you must show a profit, and all small businesses boil down to numbers and performance metrics. They vary widely from business to business, but you must know them. If you don’t, you have no way of knowing what works and what doesn’t. Business literature is loaded with case studies of entrepreneurs who sold tons of stuff but eventually had to shut their doors because they were actually losing money on every sale.

There is a language successful businesspeople must master, and the language is called accounting. The difference between bookkeeping and accounting is often a subtle one, but basically:

A bookkeeper is someone who takes the raw data of the business (invoices, receipts, bank account statements) and organizes them into a spreadsheet called the chart of accounts. An accountant is someone who takes what the bookkeeper does and turns them into financial statements that tell stories about how the business is doing and what needs improving.

A good small-business accountant is worth his or her weight in gold, but you always benefit from doing your own bookkeeping. By looking closely at what really happens in your business day to day, you will get insights you wouldn’t otherwise.

You do not need to sit for the CPA exam to learn this language — a couple of basic evening courses at your local community college should teach you what you need. To learn more, check out my YouTube video on controlling costs.•

Cliff Ennico ( is a syndicated columnist, author, and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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