Opinion: Higher Highs and Lower Lows in 2012

This guest column was written by John Krubski, an entrepreneur and research advisor to The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute.

By any account, 2012 is going to be an interesting year and a time for as many opportunities as challenges — particularly for the most nimble and resilient of America’s small business owners. That old adage “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” still rings true — and now is the time to get a move on, as you prepare your business for 2012.

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Look for a lot of ups and downs in the economy. Election years have a history of creating additional uncertainty in the markets — and this next election is likely to push the highs higher and the lows lower. According to The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute’s latest data, nearly half (44 percent) of America's small business owners say the economy is the one single thing standing between their business and growth.

What can you do about the economy? You need two kinds of plans to work through the economic rollercoaster. A long-term plan will keep you on track over time if you stick to it. A short-term plan will equip you to respond to opportunities and challenges as they come.

Elections also mean negativity in the air. Candidates and the media tend to give air time to what’s “wrong.” That can have a negative impact on you, your staff, your industry and your customers. What you can do is think positive, act positive and radiate positive. It’s the secret for how entrepreneurs overcome “impossible” obstacles.

On the financial side, the big question is where can you use any money you borrow so that it will do your business the most good. According to The Institute’s data, business owners responded that the best thing to do with borrowed money is upgrade equipment (91.2 percent), followed by covering short-term cash flow (81.3 percent) and using it to beef up marketing (78 percent).

There’s no question that down economies can push marginally successful businesses over the brink. One in seven small business owners responding to The Institute’s survey said they would probably close up shop if things got much worse. The best way to get through the lows is to be smarter about using technology as an enabling tool — being more efficient on the one hand, and extending the things you can do for your customers on the other. It’s also the right time to think about the people who work for you. With the right people aboard, you can be in a better position to benefit from the customers who become available when competitive companies do leave the marketplace.

In times like these, larger companies are more likely to “poach” the customers they once considered too small. The best defense is an offense. Figure out how your company (possibly collaborating with other small companies, including competitors) can go after the less-satisfied customers of the bigger companies. The big guys are vulnerable to better, more personal service and more responsive ways of doing business that smaller firms can offer. Think like an entrepreneur and look for new ways of doing things. The time is right for benefitting from such initiative.

Finally, 2012 will be an ideal time to “zero-base re-plan” everything from the way you provide services and products to the way you deal with your own suppliers. There will be no better time to rethink how each dollar you spend helps or hurts your business. Your customers and prospects will be doing the same thing — and that offers opportunities for re-aligning your own costs while you also figure out ways to keep your current customers, make your business more profitable, and possibly offer new prospective customers “the offer they can’t refuse,” the one they’ll appreciate now more than ever.

John Krubski is an entrepreneur and research advisor to The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute, part of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.

email: patricia.orsini@nbcuni.com