Leveraging a small-business mindset for long-term success

We hear a lot these days about disruption. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a new disruptive technology. Talk of well-established companies being overtaken by new and nimble startups is commonplace. Large multinational corporations worry if they can move fast enough to respond to the next big thing.

But the threat of disruption — as well as the opportunities it presents — is every bit as relevant to small businesses. That’s because small business owners know better than anyone how thin the margin of error is between success and failure.

So how do the best businesses adapt to stay relevant and thrive over the long term?

First, they’re never complacent. They’re always adapting and finding new opportunities in the face of potentially daunting disruptions.

Second, they focus on every detail, almost like an engineer pushing for efficiency during each step in a given task.

Companies of all sizes must keep in touch with new definitions of success, watching how their competitors adapt and flourish in a rapidly changing world. This is especially true for small businesses that have limited brand-building and marketing resources.

Success today requires a fine balance. When companies find it, they must be careful not to lose sight of what got them there. But, they also can’t be obligated to maintain time-honored approaches that eventually become irrelevant.

Constructively dissatisfied

There’s a term we use at UPS: constructively dissatisfied. That basically means we’re never content. We’re always looking for areas of improvement. And perhaps most importantly, we’re not inhibited by the fear of failure.

Thomas Edison once said, “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.”

Today, our company delivers more than 4.6 billion packages a year in more than 220 countries and territories. We owe much of our success to UPS founder Jim Casey, who said the most vulnerable companies are those where the management was “old or self-satisfied or both, and did not work as hard as the more aggressive newcomers.”

UPS’s early growth can be traced back to this thinking. When the telephone took off, Casey saw the newfound potential in home deliveries, completely overhauling his business model.

At several times in our company’s history, we have needed to recall Jim’s counsel. One of the first examples came after World War II, when our home delivery service faced a critical test of survival. A growing number of Americans owned cars and began picking up their department store purchases themselves. UPS had to change.

So Casey again changed his business model, focusing on deliveries for catalog retailers and facilitating business-to-business shipments. Re-invention is no easy feat. But as Jim proved, it’s necessary for survival.

The age of online shopping is another transformational moment. I would love to hear Casey’s thoughts on how e-commerce caused a resurgence in home delivery and how UPS is deploying new technologies to meet those needs.

With technology effectively speeding up innovation — and the speed at which we do business — the cost of not responding to changes is felt earlier than ever in the business cycle. Consider that the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has decreased from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today. Failing to adapt is a death knell for large enterprises.

Complacency is equally threatening for small businesses. They need to be nimble and innovative or they quickly fail. Many startups will pivot and radically change their business model, multiple times if necessary, until they get it right. Their vision, energy and attitude are inspiring.

Finding that sweet spot for adaptability can be difficult because it changes over time. But seeking out change, no matter how minor it might seem, keeps you ahead of the inevitable evolution of any industry or business segment. From that perspective, disruption is more of an opportunity than a threat.

To the small business owner, I’d say, never forget the early days at your company and the inspiration that drove its inception.

For some businesses, success seems to be their downfall, especially if it comes early. Revenues and recognition can lure some into a false sense of security. Management figures it has all the answers and gets comfortable.

And yes, you should actually sweat the small stuff.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “A small leak will sink a great ship.”

Big-picture ideas too often overshadow the smaller details that make any business hum. Construct strategies with every angle in mind or else you’ll find yourself wondering what went wrong when a small detail trips you up again — and other companies pass you by.

Ellen Ewing is vice president of small business marketing for UPS.