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Main St. headwinds: Managing growth and hiring millennials

Small business headwinds
Small business headwinds

Hundreds of entrepreneurs from around the country recently gathered in Chicago to swap tales of success and challenges at the Inc. Magazine and CNBC iCONIC conference. However, the news isn't all rosy.

As the economy gain steams following the Great Recession, attracting and retaining top talent remains a perennial challenge among entrepreneurs, according to conference participants. Funding and crafting the right expansion plan also were cited as hurdles to growth.

Ryan El-Hosseiny runs AccessMedical Laboratories, a diagnostic testing lab based in Juniper, Florida. He started the company 12 years ago, but finds that keeping employees—especially millennials—can be challenging. Work expectations differ among generations, and continue to evolve.

"Millennials want more pay, more flexibility, more vacations, but they don't wan't to work as hard," El-Hosseiny said. "Employees are changing, and I think all employers and businesses are going to have to saddle up and adjust to that change. If you don't adapt, you will be left behind in the dust," he said.

Hiring in fact is a broad, persistent trend among small businesses.

About 53 percent of small businesses reported hiring or trying to hire, according to the April optimism index from the National Federation of Independent Business. However, 44 percent of those surveyed also said there were few or no qualified applicants.

Read MoreHow to make $100 million selling optimism

Size matters

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

For small business owners, scaling businesses at the right pace also is important.

Growth and finding the right relationships have been challenging for Mariela Santori, founder of Let's Play Please, a video chat platform for families. The Chicago-based entrepreneur has bootstrapped her company with a "lean" team and no outside funding. Yet she knows it's time to start growing internally.

"We have 250,000 using the platform around the globe, with zero investment in marketing," Santori said. "It's been word-of-mouth. We built a productthat works, but it's time to scale and do it quickly. We have to find the right partnerships to bring this to the communities we want it to be in."

Conference participants noted growth sometimes is not a straight shot, and projects can take longer than anticipated.

Just ask Mark Lawrence, co-founder of SpotHero, an app that helps users reserve parking spots in advance in select cities. "When we first started we had this idea that everything was going to happen so much faster than it actually did," Lawrence said. "We thought we were going to launch the website and the app, and it took a really long time to do both."

Like cockroaches

And sometimes the path to entrepreneurial success means overhauling the entire business model.

Moxie Jean Co-founder Sharon Schneider started as a subscription service, then ditched that approach in favor of reselling gently used children's clothing online. Customers—and growth—quickly followed suit.

Read MoreCuban's advice to entrepreneurs: 'Help yourself!'

Key speakers at the conference, this past week, included Mark Cuban. Other attendees included Bert Jacobs, who founded the apparel brand Life Is Good; and Eric Ryan, co- founder of Method, a cleaning products company.

"You're not going to tamp down entrepreneurship," Cuban told CNBC last week. "Entrepreneurs never die. We're like cockroaches, wecome back forever."