Keys to Running a Profitable Small Business: Successful Entrepreneurs

As entrepreneurs and small-business owners have shown, a traditional business or finance background isn’t a prerequisite for success.

Cosmetologist Martha Ellen Mabry, who skipped college to move to New York City and cut hair, admits that she “was not prepared” when she launched her first salon out of a basement at age 21. The owner of two bustling Brooklyn locations told Business Insider : “I didn’t go to business school. But I did know hair.”

A couple who perfected a flour tortilla recipe out of their kitchen turned a pop-up breakfast taco side project into a thriving brick-and-mortar that has a line out the door more often than not.

“I think we both have strong entrepreneurial instincts, but we don’t come from a finance or a business background,” said La Tejana cofounder Gus May. He worked in the food and beverage industry for years and got laid off at the start of the pandemic, while his wife Ana-Maria Jaramillo is a full-time pediatric speech-language pathologist.

Each of these entrepreneurs has evolved alongside their businesses and become more and more business savvy through trial and error. Still, they credit some non-business-related strategies and mindsets to their success. Here are three.

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1. Use your (small) size to your advantage

Fitzgerald, who considers Amazon to be her No. 1 competitor and also competes with popular chains like Barnes & Noble, is working with a lot less space. There’s only so much inventory her 1,400-square-foot shop can carry.

She doesn’t necessarily see that as a disadvantage, however. As a customer, sometimes it’s easier to walk into a space where there are 10,000 books to choose from instead of 10 million. The way she sees it, there’s less sensory overload.

She also has the advantage of having a tiny, hand-picked staff.

adah fitzgerald msb

Adah Fitzgerald, owner of Main Street Books.
Courtesy of Main Street Books

“What we seriously bring to the table is a staff that reads a huge number of books and has expert, intuitive opinions about books and is very good at talking about books and matching people with books that are way beyond the algorithm,” she said, adding that some of her staff members read more than 100 books a year.

Another advantage of running a small, independent bookstore is that it can create a unique, memorable atmosphere.

“We’ve kept the old sign and it’s definitely a 90s-style situation,” said Fitzgerald. “I think people come in with expectations set a little bit lower than what they actually encounter when they get inside the store, so there’s an ‘oh wow’ moment for a lot of people and I think they really do enjoy that piece of it. “

2. Prioritize being ‘human-first’ over ‘business-first’ on social media

Like many business owners, Jaramillo and May have leveraged social media to grow La Tejana, noting that “a lot of the business is just built off Instagram.” But their approach to posting on platforms like Instagram looks a little different.

They describe their social media voice as “human-first, rather than business-first,” and choose to take pictures of and showcase their employees and customers.

May wrote most of the captions, “and he really wrote from the heart.” Jaramillo said. “People read the captions, and they connect with the story, and they share it, and they post it, and they comment.”

By humanizing the content, they get more engagement than other business accounts with a similar number of followers, said May: “We don’t post as frequently but the posts that we do get a crazy amount of comments and impressions and reshares.”

It’s helped them connect on a deeper level with the Mount Pleasant and greater DC community, which makes a difference.

“We’ve been able to use the shop as a vehicle for building a community that, in turn, pays itself back by bringing more people in and then buying our tacos and being part of that community,” said May.

martha ellen mabry headchop

Martha Ellen Mabry, pictured styling hair at her original salon, Headchop.
Samuel Robert Bullen

Mabry has found success with a similar approach to social media. When she organizes photo shoots, “I don’t hire models. I use our people, our clients,” she says, and it ends up being a win-win. “They dedicate their time, and we give them a gift certificate and they get to be on our website. Those are the photos that people pull up on their phone and they’re like, ‘I saw this on your website. I really like this cut. I really like this color.'”

3. Create a friendly atmosphere among staff that trickles down to customers

Good customer service is what brings people back, said Jaramillo: “You can have an incredible product, but if you have the worst customer service ever, people will not go back.”

They want each customer to not only enjoy their tacos but to share a joke or a laugh with one of their staff.

“There’s a certain value to the human piece that you get when you come to the shop,” said May. “It’s not like everyone’s going to have this momentous experience but there’s enough people who like the kind of vibe that they get when they come through and that’s part of them returning.”

Jaramillo and May have established a culture of respect among their staff that “trickles down into the interactions that our staff have with each other, first and foremost, but also in the way that they interact with the customers that makes the customers feel respected.”

As for retaining great staff, Neeter has a strategy: He offers flexible, part-time hours, which is particularly enticing in a place like Los Angeles where “everybody’s got three different side hustles,” he said. “‘Tennis pro’ is a great position for an aspiring actor or an aspiring writer, where they can have a schedule that is flexible and makes good money for little windows and then do their other things.”

Neeter also prioritized creating a work environment with “a special vibe,” he said. “It’s a cool place and the clients are great, so staff members often stay longer than they probably should.”