12 Important Lessons Small Business Owners Learned This Year

It’d be easy to keep writing blog posts about what businesses should and shouldn’t do, but we wanted to know what was happening for our customers in the trenches. So, we surveyed some of our customers to find out what they were doing and what they’d learned on several topics that are close to our heart. We divided our questions up into distinct topics with several questions each.

We had a great response and many thoughtful answers. We’ve compiled what you told us, and are sharing your real-world advice for the rest of our customers to learn from. Below are the 12 important lessons small business owners learned this year.


While we didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on marketing questions, we did want to get an overview of what our customers were using for their business.

1. Was social media a part of your business this year and how did you use it?

100% of those surveyed used social media as part of their marketing, with 60% specifically naming Facebook as their go-to tool.  Facebook was used to:

  • Promote events
  • Share new offers
  • Communicate important updates
  • Create targeted advertising

Additionally, Instagram and Snapchat were used to for in-the-moment photos or visual impact.

2. What’s the best way to attract new customers?

When we asked our customers how they attract new customers, the general response seemed to fit into this list:

Genuine Enthusiasm: Be enthusiastic about your own brand or products so that when you talk about it, that shows.

Customer Experience: Provide great customer service and a great customer experience so they tell their friends about it. This means a knowledgeable and friendly staff, having products in stock, and having customer-friendly policies. Word-of-mouth was crucial in 33% of survey responses, meaning there had to be something great for the customer to be talking about.

“Provide an amazing customer experience. If you provide an amazing customer service, people will talk, and people will refer.” — Thomas DeLadurantey, You Move Me

Goals and Standards: Set goals of excellence and create standards that best fit your business and your target audience. It’s easy to get caught up in the advice others give you, but when it comes to the goals you decide on, they must be specific to your business.

“Always working towards excellence and not letting other standards set my standards. We know we can always improve.” — Alisa Kuppe, Soccer Shots

Keep Things Fresh: Making sure that your products, displays, programs, or services are periodically refreshed (or something new is offered) can help in keeping current customers but also in attracting new customers. This will look different depending on the industry you are in, but survey respondents were aware that even though customers like to know their favorites and standbys are available, something new is always a draw.


When it came to asking our customers about sales, we wanted to find out if promotions had been a successful tool.

3. Did you run promotions this year? What did you learn from them?

We got some interesting responses from those who took our survey regarding special promotions and sales. Some said that though their customers asked for specials, they didn’t take particular advantage of them. Some acknowledged that they needed to take different approaches in advertising and marketing when it came to promoting their specials. Some said that their customers preferred specials in which they received a percentage off instead of other incentives.

What’s the takeaway from these responses?

Promotions aren’t a guaranteed cure-all for slumping sales. You can’t count on them to fix problems that stem from not knowing your customers’ wants. But in a related note, even a “failed” promotion has a return in that it helps you find out what your customers do or don’t want.

“We are able to see what our target market values.” — Whitnee Allen, The Reserve at Columbia

One customer made an astute observation, however, and that is that relying on splashy or gimmicky promotions isn’t the way to build a loyal customer base.

“Sales don’t drive loyalty, service does.” — Brett Knight, Amer Sports

Employee management

We’ve written about employee management extensively this past year, but we wanted to find out what our customers were experiencing.

4. What was the hardest employee issue you dealt with?

It’s a topic most business owners don’t want to talk publicly about, but are probably dying to know from others. You may not want to reveal what’s going on in your business, but at the same time, you want to know if other businesses are having the same employee struggles. Recognize any in the list below?

Blatant Disrespect: This one is tricky. If disrespect isn’t dealt with, it turns into a poison that causes other employees to lose respect for the leader simply because they didn’t deal with it. Disrespect leads to bad management, bad customer experience, and all around failures across the board. It is a particular poison like no other that morphs into a lot of the other employee problems listed here. Disrespect leads to a few specific issues that some of those who took the survey noted:

These are the actions of people who don’t respect you or your business. Disrespect has a high price.

Unreliable Employees: We’re talking about employees who show up late, leave early, wander about the shop, don’t communicate their absences, and in general can’t be counted on to get their work done. Ultimately, this is a form of disrespect not only of you, but of fellow employees. If changes aren’t made after attempting to sit down and talk to the employee, it’s probably time to let them go. One survey response described giving an employee repeated “second chances” but to no avail. Firing was the only solution.

Finding Quality Employees: It’s tough, during the hiring process, to find quality employees. That quality is entrenched in everything, from reliability to actual useful knowledge to employees who are able to adopt your business’s core ideas. As one survey respondent pointed out, you want employees who can make your principles their own.

Student Workforce: Depending on your location and your business, you might find that you have a lot of student employees. For some ages, this brings extra challenges (teens wanting to be on their phones all of the time, for example). There’s nothing wrong with student employees, but they present a challenge in regards to high-turnover due to class schedules and ending school years. It’s important not to be negative towards them. Remember, if they’re great employees, those same changes might mean they can work a different semester or can recommend friends who would be a good fit.

“We work with a lot of students, so we see a lot of turnover just from things like graduation or they take off a semester to focus on school. It’s always tough to lose great folks for reasons beyond our control like that, but we always want our students to focus on the reason they’re here!” — Jessica Outten, Mayborn Museum

5. Did you learn anything about how to motivate your employees this year?

Employee motivation seems to be an ever-moving target. Differences in personalities, company culture, generations, and more all have an impact on whether or not an employee feels motivated. Our customers had some great tips.

Be Personal: Be present, in real life, and talk face to face. Impersonal communication is easy–sending a text, an email, or a message on a system is efficient, but impersonal. Being personal also means being readily available, and not treating an employee as a mere transient appointment on your calendar.

“Face to face conversations go farther than bonuses, days off, emails, phone calls, gifts, or anything else.” — Tiffany Paino, Vertical Endeavors

“Motivation, no matter how hard you push for it, resides in the person receiving your time.” — Joseph Guiragossian, Arc’teryx

Reward Usefully: What your employees find useful is what they tell you is useful. For many, a monetary bonus is much better than any kind of prize. In order to know, however, you need to ask them. You need to literally gather your employees and talk about what they prefer. Many survey respondents preferred monetary bonuses, but some noted their employees (who were students) preferred food! Be sure you know what your employees want.

Give Public Recognition: Let people know publicly how valuable an employee is, and what a good job he or she did. One response we received talked of a bulletin board where employees could post encouragement and notes for their fellow employees. Public recognition can come from more than just management, and when it does, it’s a double win. You let employees feel good about encouraging others, and you help employees feel encouraged.

Be Accommodating: Flexibility and grace, when it comes to your employees, is vital. Rigid and unforgiving schedules and requirements have a de-motivating effect. Granted, you don’t want your customer experience harmed, but as long as that remains solid, there’s no reason to avoid some flexibility.

Be Accountable: Few things demotivate employees more than management who won’t practice what they preach. You must follow the same rules you set or the behavior you expect from your employees.

“Money is always a good motivator, but treating people with dignity and respect and following the same guidelines you have for them is a big help.” — David Porto, Blue Plate Catering

6. How did you find and hire new employees?

40% of those who took the survey said they use referrals in finding and hiring new employees, whether they come from current staff or from other sources, including the local university. One customer told us that they use Facebook to find and hire new employees.

7. How did you retain your employees?

As it turns out, our customers rely on several different ways of retaining employees, including using bonuses for excellent work. Beyond those types of bonuses, however, customers relied on more personal approaches:

  • A great culture that employees want to be a part of.
  • Empathy and a listening ear.
  • Giving employees personal autonomy and showing you trust them.

“Being able to let employees manage their own group and run the program on their own with updates to owner.” — Sara James, Pinnacle Athletics

Tools And Processes

We’re always curious what our customers are doing to improve efficiency and their bottom line. It helps us as we continue to build When I Work into the best tool it can be, knowing what they’ve discovered needs changing or how they prefer to use it.

8. What tools were most beneficial this year?

We’re happy that our customers told us that When I Work was one of their beneficial tools this year, of course, but that seemed to be part of a larger picture of finding automatic tools that replaced paper. Whether it was a clock-in, clock-out app that reduced paper cards, or a point-of-sale system for better inventory management, our customers found benefits in updating the tools they’d used and moved away from manual procedures.

One survey response stood out, however, in its different approach. That customer found that webinars, blogs, and articles had helped them this past year. We love to hear that! Always be learning.

9. What processes do you want to change next year?

The responses to this question were varied and interesting, impacting both employee and management, ranging from the specific to the general.

Trimming And Tightening: Several respondents noted they wanted to pare down various processes simply to get rid of bloat. Such bloat creeps in easily if, at the end of each year, you don’t review your processes. Often a system is put in place to deal with a particular situation and ends up staying in place even when you don’t need it anymore. It’s a good idea to dump administrative tasks or other processes that simply don’t serve any particular purpose.

Accountability: Some of those surveyed wanted to make changes to processes that would affect accountability, particularly in leadership. One intended to do so through compensation structures, but whatever method (or whatever team level affected), adjusting current processes to increase accountability sounds like a win.

Scheduling Issues: 29% of those we surveyed were most interested in revamping the processes they used for employee scheduling. Some concerns were based on issues they’d had (employees asking for too much time off, for example), but others were more about streamlining or simplifying.

Automation: Nearly 20% of those surveyed wanted to improve their current processes by automating more. They wanted software or computers to have more of a role with the hopes of making the processes that were still needed more efficient. This raises a good point: suppose you find a process you need, but is taking too much time to perform? Can you automate the process and reduce the effort it requires?

“When I Work” Tips And Tricks

It’s a bit like peeking behind the curtain, finding out how our customers recommend other business owners optimize their use of our app. Without asking our users how they actually use When I Work out in the wild, we’d never know what we’re doing right or wrong. For new users, or those who have just dipped their toes in, these kinds of tips can be useful in getting the most out of When I Work.

10. What tips would you give people using When I Work?

We were obviously pretty interested in this survey feedback, and we imagine that those of you who use When I Work are as well. The unifying thread was to let the automatic features of the app have a bigger role to save you time.

Know The App: Seems obvious, but it’s a good recommendation: know how the app works before you devote too much time to setting up schedules and other sections of the app (hint: check out our help center with ample videos and articles to learn more).

“Understand the difference between Sites, Locations, positions, etc. before setting up your entire schedule.” — Alisa Kuppe, Soccer Shots

Buffer Zones: Some responded to the survey by noting that they need to build in some “buffer” zones when scheduling an employee. This can go a few ways:

  • Set up When I Work so that employees can’t clock in before their shift.
  • Schedule an employee to start 5 – 10 minutes before their shift so they will actually be there at the time they are needed.

Employee Responsibility: The app makes it possible for employees to take some ownership for their shifts, and several survey replies encouraged business owners to use that fully.

“Create stipulations for how your employees utilize the drop shifts and time off. Manage them closely and hold them accountable for their own shifts. The platform makes it easy for them to do so.” — Tommy Hamilton, Goldfish Swim School

Use Templates: Save yourself time and build templates. One user recommends creating repeating shift templates to reduce repeating your efforts every time you go to set up the schedule.

Improve Communication: Making use of the built-in communication features of When I Work was another common response. It’s easier to use one common system that trying to accomodate all of the messaging apps your employees are using.

“Utilize Work chat, it’s super effective for mass messages and also voting on certain things as a group.” — Joseph Guiragossian, Arc’teryx


Our first question to customers, regarding their business, might seem like a downer. We wanted to know what their failures were, but for a positive reason: you learn a lot from failure. We got some of our most thoughtful responses to this question, which shows you how powerful a failure can be.

11. What were your 3 biggest failures this year and what did you learn from them?

We received a variety of answers to this question. Here are the top three categories:

To Change Or Not To Change: Several survey responses to this question were about change, with a takeaway of both its good and bad aspects. Change works (or doesn’t work) based on everything from timing to geography.

“Changing things all at once; it is best to do it gradually and easier on everyone.” — Courtney Skiles, Pulse Fitness

“Not letting go – I believe I learned the value of cutting ties when the time is right. The important thing is sticking to your decision and following through when you know it’s right for you.” — Joseph Guiragossian, Arc’teryx

“A new pricing and sale structure was implemented and didn’t go over well with customers in the other state we have facilities in. I learned that we need to make a larger effort to cater to the differences in other communities.” — Tiffany Paino, Vertical Endeavors

Managing Time And Team: Probably the most difficult things to manage are your time and your team. We received a variety of responses, including some regrets about confronting employees and choosing to handle such things differently in the future, or placing too much trust in a management team only to watch them walk and leave the business in a bad place.

Take a look at some of our responses:

“Forgetting to help other people when I had told them I would. I have people write things down for me now.” — David Porto, Blue Plate Catering

“Thinking I still had time. Time moves too fast.” — Brett Knight, Amer Sports

“Leaning on employees that showed bad habits and thinking they would change.” — Dan Canfield, Bellies to Babies

“We did not monitor our finances as carefully as we should have – we will adhere to a budget much more closely next year.” — Alisa Kuppe, Soccer Shots

Taking Stock: Make firm plans to review what’s happening in your business. Review data, output, efficiency, employee issues–all of it. Always be aware of what is working and isn’t. As one respondent said, “fail fast” and then make adjustments as you learn from that.

“When managing a business with countless moving parts failures are inevitable. The key is to fail fast. Realize your mistake and quickly make the appropriate corrections and always put actions and processes in place to make sure the mistake is not made again.” — Tommy Hamilton, Goldfish Swim School

12. What are your goals for next year?

We got some great responses to this questions, and they can be grouped into what turn out to be classic foundational categories with a common theme: growth.

Personal Growth: When the management chases after personal growth, it’s a win for everyone on the team. Several of those surveyed indicated a desire to improve their skills for the coming year.

“Become an ever better Leader and Manager than 2017.” –Joseph Guiragossian, Arc’teryx

Employee Growth: 33% of those surveyed were aiming for employee growth, both in actual increased numbers and in employee opportunities.

“My goals are to foster a community where staff at all levels get the information they need in a timely fashion and can know that their feedback is heard.” — Tiffany Paino, Vertical Endeavors

“To help staff become more engaged, and improve customer service.” — Catie Rutkowski, Kansas Children’s Discovery Center

Customer Growth: As would be expected, business owners who responded to our survey want to see an increase in the number of customers they have. But mixed in with that were hopes to improve customer service and be more connected to the community.

“Grow 50% YOY. Partner with our community more, and develop a culture that further empowers our employees to reach their personal goals.” — Thomas DeLadurentey, You Move Me

Hopefully, you realize one other takeaway from this, and that is the value in taking the time at the end of the year (at the very least) to go back and talk to your own customers. Find out what did and didn’t work for them. Listen instead of talk. Just as this information was helpful to us (and you too, hopefully), your own customers have much you can learn from.

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