Small-Business: How to Survive Big Competitors (Whitepaper)

Small businesses fear the big players. This is common across industries.
Aspiring and existing small business owners have many misgivings about how to survive.

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Or continue to read it here… We welcome your comments below.

Small businesses cite limited resources in assets, capital and manpower as the major drawback
in the midst of very big companies. This can be overcome.

Many of these SMEs give up at the slightest sign of turbulence.
Other intending promoters with good ideas simply shy away, from founding their own enterprise.

However, there is an advantage in the size of a small business.
Big businesses have their own peculiar challenges too.


This paper will remove the misgivings and reveal how SMEs could have their own breathing space
and survive into the future, even in the presence of the big market leaders.

This paper will show scenarios of a few small and big businesses,
on how they have fared across some industries; to highlight some issues.

The paper also gives the basic action points that small businesses should apply for success.
For clarity, the action points are further categorized into internal and external environments.

Other cautionary points are identified to minimize errors and failure.
Credible sources and references are supplied to buttress relevant points raised.


What is meant by size?
Does size matters — either big or small — in business survival and profitability?

The size is of a business is determined essentially, by the number of employees,
the amount of revenue it generates as well as the size of its assets, rights and obligations.

However, these attributes differ from industries to industries. In some countries, the definition differs, slightly.

Micro-enterprises have one or less-than-ten employees.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),
small enterprises would have less than 49 employees.
The medium sized would be between 50 and 249 employees.
The big companies would fall into the category of 250 and more, as their workforce.[1]

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)
posits that size could also be defined by the monetary value of government contracts,
set aside for different sized businesses, by the government.[2]

While being attractive, big size comes with its load of responsibilities.

However, the personal goals and the philosophical posture of a small business owner
would determine which direction he or she would over time.

Some choose to remain lean and yet are perpetually profitable.

Others aspire to be big.
As an aside, in some industries, being big is a safer option to take.

Here is a case of two smaller banks that chose to be big but came out with different results.

In Nigeria, a small bank, as at 1990, Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) was founded at a turbulent period.
By the year 2011, it had become the biggest bank in Nigeria,
by market capitalization displacing even century-old competitors.[3]
As of 2018, it still ranks amongst the 10 topmost banks in the country–with outposts in some countries. [4].

Across the shores, in the UK, an erstwhile smaller Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS),
founded in 1727, had acquired all it could just before 2008.
It briefly became the biggest bank in the world, but post-2008, it ran into big trouble.

Quoting a BBC documentary in 2018.
“Ten years on… the Royal Bank of Scotland collapsed and
almost took the entire UK banking system down with it.
[5] [6]

Sadly, the bank’s huge assets couldn’t help its precarious liquidity situation amongst other causes.[7]

Small-medium businesses that desire to scale must realize
that it demands high responsibility, disciplined leadership and top-notch management practice.
There must be a sacred respect for the unseen future.

This must temper decision making in business.

The latter, the more serious for SMEs, that rarely have any support,
that could get them out of the woods in case of any eventuality.




*China Construction Bank, China

*JPMorgan Chase, USA

*Berkshire Hathaway, USA

*Agricultural Bank of China, China
*Bank of America, USA

*Wells Fargo USA

*Apple USA

Revenue Range: $102B - $247B
Employees: 123,000 - 487,000
World’s Largest Public Quoted Companies (2018) [8]
* Colorado: $10.2M – 39 ee

*HED Cycling, Minnesota: $10M – 48 ee

*Motawi Tileworks, Michigan: $3M – 33 ee

*OnceLogix, North Carolina: $4M – 15 ee

*Menlo Innovations, Michigan: $4M – 43 ee

*Turnerboone, Atlanta: $21M – 24 ee

*Barefoot Books, Massachusetts: $5M – 20 ee

*OptiFuse, El Cajon, California: $4.5M


Forbes Small Giants 2017:
America's Best Small Companies [9]

ee: means Employees

*MCI WorldCom

*Eastern Airlines


*Trans World Airlines
Five Fortune 500 companies that no longer exist [10]
*Sedna Wireless


*RealTime Worlds


Business Insider: 33 Startups That Died Reveal Why They Failed [11]

The table or matrix above is only for illustrative purposes.
The verifiable and credible resources that were found
are skewed towards main businesses in the United States.

Other countries could make their own inferences.

The table gives a simple picture of realities of success and failure
in any business of whatever size—small or big.

No size of any business is immune to any of the two extremes.

A business may continue to enjoy longevity whether it is big or small.
Any business could also close shop whether it is a day old or decades in existence.

Some of the companies picked for these illustrations are well known, public, private or unknown.

Detailed financial performance and the workforce are not being investigated here.

A business could make a lot of revenue but its costs of doing business over time
may deplete the profits which could result in bad cash-flow; that’s a disaster waiting.

A small enterprise could have a good and repeatable positive return
on its limited assets/resources,with a disciplined philosophy on costs management,
going for it.


This will be broken into two sections.

The Internal and External environments of a business.
It, however, may not be clear-cut, but for the sake of clarity.

These action points are in no way exhaustive and are in no particular order.
They simply highlight what should be done from a vantage position.


  1. Unique Selling Proposition

    What is the USP of the business?
    An SME to a large extent shouldn’t generalize at the growing stage.
    It is better to be known for one singular attribute that sets it apart in its industry.
    Big businesses tend to have more things to deal with
    and this can be challenging to handle in terms of human and material resources.

  2. Innovation

    SMEs should be innovative. It doesn’t have to be radical.
    Their relatively small size gives room to quickly try new ideas
    and validate if such would be profitable or not.
    Innovation can be either tangible or intangible.
    However, it takes a longer time for some big businesses to come to a decision;
    to innovate.

  3. Financials

    These are figures in the books that shows how alive the business is.

    Asset velocity, which is how fast a business uses its asset
    to spurt out net profit must be given due consideration.

    A net asset that yields impressive revenue with quick turnaround
    of the working capital or inventory.

    However, asset velocity ratios defer across industries. [12] Working capital and cash-flow management must not be neglected. [13]

  4. Goals and Metrics

    The business must have a set of relevant objectives which must be measurable,
    such that the attainment and otherwise would give a clearer picture about what is going on.

    Adjustments would be made immediately if the metrics
    as designed are not being met, when and how it should be. [14] [15]

  5. Processes and Systems

    Every activity should be documented across the different units of the business.
    These processes are thereby arranged to build a system.
    These two factors are some of the pillars of ensuring
    the business could stay as an entity outside the presence of its founder or manager.

  6. The Power of Small Size

    The nimble nature of a small business is an opportunity
    to walk around the flanks of big companies, to increase its market share.

    Big businesses get slowed down because of bureaucracy,
    internal politics and misplaced ego of some of the leaders.
    These make them complacent and vulnerable over time.

    The small size makes for quick action and reaction.

  7. Measured Pace

    SMEs must try their business activities at a “slow and steady” pace
    in to avoid an unpleasant outcome.

    The smart idea is to be focused and inch gradually into the marketplace.
    At the growing stage, the onus is not to compete directly against the leaders.

    When the financials and other indices are right –depending on the goals of the owners –
    the business could scale up. But speed without control could kill a business.

  8. The Business of People

    The bedrock of any business regardless of size is about giving due diligence to human beings.

    Business is simply about people.

    Any other factor of production cannot exclude human beings;
    granted there are in the offing, the use of Artificial Intelligence and other tools of technology.

    In the beginning, smart small businesses are more employee and customer oriented —
    for success – more than in big companies.
    This is not to disregard premium placed on capital, assets, technology, systems or tools.

    Because these factors of production might be few and far between at the growing stage.
    A carefully sourced team members – that the business can afford —
    must be well motivated and trained, every time.

    Small businesses need more care in hiring because human errors
    can be more costly for them.

    Big businesses can absorb this in a better manner.

    Hiring slowly and firing quickly uncommitted employee —
    within the legal terms of the agreement –
    are the philosophical foundations of good human resources management.

    The relationship between suppliers, customers and regulators must also be well managed.


1. Industry Analysis

To make an inroad into an industry deserves a good SWOT analysis
of the big players and the small ones. It has to be a continuous exercise.
But being customer-focused gives more power to feel their pulse. [16]

2. Barrier to Entry

Realities of the day and the resources at hand would determine
if a small-business could enter an industry and thrive within its own narrow lane.

Barriers to entry in different industries and geographical locations places
must be well understood if there is a chance to start or continue in that line of business or not.[17]

3. Trend and Timing

Determine the trend and the timing that beg for value.

What are the target customers really saying?

A bit of caution:
Timing in business may force a good idea to be shelved since consumers
would not appreciate the product or service at the material time if such is launched.

Big companies are slow to react.

Smaller businesses can capitalize on it.
(See the example of the Nigerian bank above.)

A small business could change the rules of service in an industry.

Though this takes more imagination than having surplus capital.

Accenture says disruption need not be complex; but simple.
They found that:
“While 93 percent of executives say they know their industry will be disrupted
at some point in the next five years, only 20 percent feel they’re highly prepared to address it.
It (disruption) has an understandable predictable pattern”

That would be a welcoming impetus for aspiring or existing small-medium enterprises.
They should initiate and test new sets of offerings within their niche market.

But a small business must find out before dabbling into an idea or industry,
must watch out for the inflection point in their respective industries and geographical location.
This to avoid failure after execution of new ideas.

According to Investopedia;
“Certain unforeseen events can include major economic downturns,
such as the financial crisis of 2008, or natural disasters that affect a particular business
or industry in a meaningful way” [19]

4. Technology Shifts

SMEs must be on the lookout for the evolving and turbulent world of technology.
To some extent, it is a leveler for small businesses and the big ones.
It could also be a catalyst that could retire some traditional businesses or suffocate them at the least.

As young entrants, Amazon and Uber had used technology to shake the publishing and
the transportation industries respectively.
And there are many ongoing examples.

5. Regulators

Government and regulators and their policies must be well understood as they affect all businesses.

Small businesses don’t have the power or the resources to lobby these powerful entities.
However, big businesses are more influential within the corridors of political power.

SMEs must work within the regulatory rules – ethically — to survive.
This needs more creative imagination for survival at different locale, towns, and places.

There are also the subterranean and infamous authorities –
who by their arm-twisting nature — must be well taken into consideration.

6. Sales and Marketing

The publicity drive of a young SMEs should be different, creative.
The approach should be under the radar from the prying eyes of the big players.
Small-businesses can’t compete with the big businesses on the heavy advertising budget.

This would work for two reasons.

1) The activities of the small enterprise wouldn’t be noticed at onset by the bigger players.

2) Due to this restricted approach and limited funds for advertising,
the situation stimulates a more creative approach that could impress the customer segment

6. Imitate the Leader

If some funds are made available, a small-business could experiment
and imitate the big leaders in some chosen aspects of value creation.

This would be done in a gradual manner to strengthen the small business
and thereby making it stronger than other smaller sized businesses.

7. Customer Relationship

The small business owner should initiate and build a good network of prospects,
both online and offline.
There should be a well-managed system of communication and engagement.

For some businesses, this would involve physical engagements
within the neighborhood, town, city or state.

Not all customer relationship could take place on the internet.
The reason why customer care in the real world must be solid for some businesses.

8. The Zero Moment of Truth

There is an opportunity to provide content and dialogue with prospects on the web.
Many big businesses have not yet capitalized on this new consumer behavior.

Winning customers these days could be initiated from the internet
—irrespective of the business is online, a brick and mortar or a hybrid in service delivery.

Prospective customers roam the web even for physical products they desire to buy across the street.

With their ubiquitous phones or other devices,
they want to learn and review products and services – first hand–
on the web, before coming to a conclusion.

Google calls it the ZERO MOMENT OF TRUTH.
According to Google, 80% of consumers do this across all industries.

Quoting Google…

“At Google, we call this online decision-making moment the Zero Moment of Truth,
or simply, ZMOT.

The ZMOT refers to the moment in the buying process
when the consumer researches a product prior to purchase.” [20]


SMEs need to be more focused on goals they can achieve.
They need disciplined leadership, imagination to optimize their limited resources.

They also need to be aware of the business environment from the internal and external perspectives.

Small and medium businesses would go far in serving personalized services to customers.
Specialized and customized products are easier for them to churn out than big companies.

They have more of the advantage of flexibility and adaptability,
whereby effective and quick decision making could be made.

The big businesses struggle with these attributes.

SMEs as employers should be much closer to their fewer employees.
Therefore they can know how to motivate and build closer relationships; which would eliminate bureaucracy.

Small businesses can capitalize on their geographic specialization
since they tend not to spread too far and wide. [21]

Therefore with the aforementioned, they can hold their own
in the marketplace irrespective of the bigger players.


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9 Best Customer Retention Strategies of Three Small Businesses In 27 Years

Here is my personal research on customer retention. (Audio version)

As a small business owner, we worry if customers are not forthcoming.
Because without customers or clients, then there is no business!

I am sure you do worry. Don’t you?

Let me be honest. I do, all the time…especially when there are bills to be paid.

As small-business owner-managers, we desire steady inflow of clients.
But when things are not going the way we expect, we get into the panic mode.
What most of us would probably do, is to think up quick solutions.

One of which, is to create more publicity to bring in new customers.
Therefore, you may grudgingly spend some money on advertisement.

Then you wait for the results…

And then what happens?

Alas, it is taking forever for new clients to come on board.
And for the new prospects that trickle in, they are not even buying as expected.

You worry the more…Yet your current customers are reducing in number.

You wonder if you are doing something wrong.
You wonder how other small businesses like yours seem to be doing well.
You wonder if you should blame the unpredictable economy.

There is no doubt every business setup and industry has its own peculiarities.
These facts shouldn’t be taken for granted.
However, some businesses – especially the small ones – still get it right.
They have actually found a way around maintaining a steady inflow of customers.

You will agree with me that, customer loyalty can be a very fleeting experience.

But many companies know how to earn customer loyalty and how to keep it!

There is stiff competition across many industries. Be it online or offline.

So, how do you retain your customer’s interest into the future?

Join me as I take you through three small businesses that I have interacted with for many years
as an ongoing customer and as a former employee.

These businesses have been around for over 27 years!
These businesses have developed a following, amongst their target customers.
These businesses have grown with the founders’ aspirations.

They must be doing something right. Obviously…right.

So come with me – on these case studies. I will be brief on each one.
Thereafter, you can pick a nugget or two from their collective lessons.

The Customer Management Techniques of The Three

Two of them are at the micro level. The Tailor and the Barber have no single employee.

The third business is a modest eye hospital or clinic with just few employees.

So, what do they share in common?

Many things!

Here are three quick ones…

  • They are not located on the high street but for the clinic that used to have a second office.
  • They do not engage in formal advertising, whatsoever. There are no screaming signposts.
  • They are of the brick and mortar type – that is, they are not even online.

Now let’s profile them one by one.

  1. The Eye Clinic

This practice had been in existence years before I joined, as an employee – an Optometrist – in 1990.
I left there in 1994 to pursue my personal goals.

This clinic was initially made up of two locations at different parts of the city of Lagos.
But one was closed down just a few years ago. You will get to know about that, later on.

The founder has been a well-known eye surgeon — and amongst the best in the country.
Quite elderly now in his late 80’s and therefore, his workload has drastically reduced.
However there still remains a very small supporting staff, including an eye surgeon who comes in, only when needed.

The premises was neat but nothing extravagant.
It did not have its own surgical room for major eye surgery, yet many surgeries were done.
You will get to know how this was accomplished, successfully.

Patients cut across the lower middle class to many elites of the society.

Fees were not the cheapest but they were slightly less than those charged by other top eye surgeons in the country. Clinics hours were fully loaded though.
Same cautious pricing approach is still applied till date.


  1. The Barber

As for my barber. I have been having my haircut there since 1990 till date.

It is a small shop.
You have in a corner, a pile of old and latest Saturday edition of a popular newspaper.
This I enjoy.

A radio resting high up – permanently switched on.

He provides checkerboards or draughts as you might call it.
Some customers who are waiting for their turn, play rounds of games at his doorstep.
Other bored men – passersby – drop by to play.

The barber is inside doing his job…

When he is not barbing, he joins the noisy chaps outside, to play as well.
This has been the pattern for years.

Over the years some customers have relocated but they still come around like pilgrims.

I am one too.

Others who are busy or live very far do invite him to render “home services” for the family.
This comes at extra fees.

Over time, some salons around have stayed and others have closed shop.

Of late, one or two salons with more attractive ambiance have opened shop – charging higher price. But it appears he has taken note of this.

Just a month ago, I noticed the exterior and interior had a new coat of paint!
My eyes also sighted the old paper with the price list – now replaced with a new one.
I looked intently at this, as I took my seat on the swivel chair to have my cut.

He noticed – as he was putting the apron around my neck and body.

He smiled and said… “The price has not changed, Sir”.
“Uh, Ok”, I replied.

I know he will increase the prices someday, considering the ravaging inflation.
He deserves it.

Now, that takes us to my equally talented tailor in the same part of town.


  1. The Tailor

He has been making my Nigerian/African outfits since 1990 as well.

The shop is located at a very obscure part of a neighborhood.
Yet, you have a heap of customers’ fabric deposited for sewing, in his small shop.

He is always busy.

You may be wondering by now why I like small businesses.
Because they give you quick and essential service.

Over the years, he has become a friend of sorts.

Many old customers have relocated from the neighborhood but he still sews for them.
He has been able to keep tab on them by phone and through visits when his services are needed. The clients pay extra charges for this, as well.

What I have discovered is that on such visits, he displays his love for small talk, on different topics. He bonds with his clients.

Whenever you are in his presence, you never get the impression that he is marketing his business.

Assistants or apprentices are difficult to come by, as he claims; so he does most things on his own. That gives room for occasional disappointments at times.
But if an outfit is needed in a hurry, you can see that he gives personal preferences to old clients.

Their Nine Keys

The lessons presented is a common thread that runs across the 3 of them, with little exceptions.
All the same, they have been able to use these tactics to create their own fans.

  1. Know Your Customers’ Perception of Value

    Determine what matters most to your target customer.
    Other frills of the business should be secondary.

For these businesses:
A correct diagnosis and treatment, a happy patient.
A good haircut, a happy customer.

A well-fitting dress, a happy customer.

They concentrate on the essential.
Immediately you sit down, my barber even knows the height of my haircut.
My tailor knows my measurements.
I don’t even need to visit him after sending the fabric.

  1. Improve Your Skills With Quality Products

    Your honed skill or competence would make up for other weaknesses.
    Therefore you must strive for excellence in delivery. Be an expert in your niche.

    You will continue to have customers that will gladly use your products and services,
    if they fall within acceptable standard.
    And they will be more than happy to spread the word

You can charge premium, on your own terms.
Your expertise gives you control over your business to a certain extent.
For instance, the eye clinic works less hours than its competitors.
And the other two businesses operate from affordable locations.

  1. Know The Limitation Of  Your Business

    From onset, you must have a solid and clear idea of what your business model ought to be.
    It means, how you want to operate and engage with your customers.

There might be some modifications over time, though. But you get my drift.

The amount of resources at hand should be in tandem with what your business can offer.

Know the factors that work for your business and you as a business owner.
This will dictate at which level you want to run your business and yet make it profitable.
You must know the customer’s segment that you are capable of serving.
You can’t serve all consumers in your industry.

  1. Watch Your Profit — To Sustain Your Tactics

    No matter what you do or plan, your finances must be well understood.
    No matter how basic or sophisticated your business is, your total expenditure must always be less than your revenue.

And this is profit!

If your revenue cannot be shot up fast enough, then you need to control your cost baseline.
It is a simple arithmetic.

Because if you increase your selling price or fees every time due to the mismanagement of your running cost, your customers would move elsewhere with time.

For many years, the eye clinic used a nearby but bigger hospital, to perform its major eye operations. It paid a fee each time it used this external facilities.

By so doing, that eased its cash-flow for years, thereby ensuring stability in the surgery fees. So the prospective patients knew what to expect to pay.
However, the clinic eventually bought a small building nearby…now does everything in-house.

Likewise, my tailor started from his modest residence for some years until he leased a small shop to continue his business.

5.      Be Mindful Of Your Personal And Business Objectives

Before you contemplate growing to a bigger size, be sure you have all it takes.
Scaling should be done only when you have enough resources – including human capital.

The eye clinic closed its long-existing second outlet – located on a high street.


Because a major federal government establishment – a solid cash cow for many years –
that used to refer its employees, relocated to another part of the country.

A few years ago, my barber had additional hands but the latter couldn’t get the job done.
He told them to go.

My thinking today is that he doesn’t have the know-how to manage employees.
The same scenario applied to my tailor; his apprentice messed up customers’ fabrics.
He had to let them go as well.

  1. Be Patient To Earn Customers’ Trust

    It takes time for people to know about your competence, or quality of your offerings.
    There will be pains of delayed gratification.

You only need the best customer management techniques

Many of the patients of the eye clinic belong to the high economic cadre of the society.

Most of these discerning patients would not rush to patronize a newly opened clinic,
even within their rich neighborhood.
But they would come downtown, to a place where they are sure of its reputation, the modest ambiance of the clinic notwithstanding.

It takes time to build trust.

  1. Avoid Greed And Giving False Impression

    Be true to yourself and your customers.
    The image you project must be supported with what you have.
    Say the truth and don’t promise what you can’t offer.

Your clients will get to know if your business is not as endowed in your delivery,
as you claim. Therefore, know what you can offer and don’t be shy about it.

All these businesses never for once, make claims they cannot prove in their positioning.
So, no surprises for their customers or prospects.

As long as you can start at the minimum entry level in your industry and render acceptable value, you are good to go.
Otherwise, you have to wait until you are able to do so.

8.      Seduce Your Customers In An Ethical Manner

The eye clinic rests on its competence and its popular perception of giving premium services, even to the elite.
But it charges slightly less than its upscale peers of surgeons.

The barber and tailor utilize not in-your-face tactics.

The barber makes checkerboards and free newspaper available to all and sundry.
What a way to give indirect attention to his business?
His mannerism is calm and you get sucked in.

On the other hand, the tailor is fond of starting a small talk and not being pushy.
He might even offer you a drink if you go to his shop.
He never seems to be on your neck but deploys this behavior of servitude.

Therefore, you can come up with ideas or programs outside your business, to make your customers find your business worthy.

You would feel obliged to reciprocate a good gesture since all these businesses make you feel special.

  1. Nurture An Enduring Customer Relationship

    The tailor and barber over the years have been truly friendly with their clients.
    Robert Cialdini’s findings reveal that you can easily influence people who like you.

For instance, there are social events where I have seen my barber being invited to,
by his clients.

Where there is a low barrier to entry, into any business, a good customer relationship comes in handy. Your skill can only take you far.
It is the same thinking if you are retailing a common product.

After advertising has played its role, a good customer relationship does the rest.

Good relationship improves customer retention and it is a good antidote against the competition.

Take Away

As a small business owner, we worry if customers are not forthcoming.
Because without customers or clients, then there is no business!

All the three businesses have had the best practice retention strategies in place.

We all want a steady inflow of customers. Now you know what to do.

You can do it. Have your retention strategy plan as you set out.

Take note of these lessons.

They are quite basic. Very subtle, therefore you might miss their importance.
But they are powerful and have stood the test of time – at least for these businesses
and still counting…

Study these points and eliminate your fear.
Now you can chart a clear path to create your own committed fans or following into the future.

Now, you can retain your customers.

Now, you can make steady profits while doing so.

Now, you can manage your strengths and weaknesses.

Give these lessons a try and modify them as necessary, as I have done for my small businesses.
You will be pleasantly rewarded in their outcome for your small enterprise.

Let me know how far this goes with you – with your comments…

How to easily sell to customersIf you haven’t yet received our FREE report  on “How To Easily Sell To Customers”
This is a simplified checklist how to convert customers to buy. No HARD-SELL tactic.
Click this link for it. Lets read your comments after using the ideas here.