hall of fame
Dan Antonelli

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” — David Ogilvy

Having worked with over 600 small businesses owners in the past 15 years on their small business marketing and advertising needs, I’ve learned a few common characteristics that extremely successful businesses owners share. And conversely, it becomes very clear what the characteristics of the mediocre businesses are.

My Own Path to Success

Having grown up lettering signs and vehicles, I had a passion for letters and sign design. After graduating from college with a degree in Communications & Advertising, I knew my life would revolve around type and design. But I had this notion that as long as I was doing what I loved, the money wasn’t that important.

Soon after launching my company, a few events transpired which changed my focus on my business, and caused me to rethink my priorities and direction. First, at a few industry conventions, I had the opportunity to meet some super-talented designers. While the awe of meeting some of these folks was inspiring, what stuck out to me were the financial difficulties that most were experiencing. That really hit home, and frankly, scared me. Because I thought to myself, “Man, I couldn’t hold a candle to these guys – how am I going to ever make it?”

The impending birth of my twins was the other event that caused me to rethink my focus. With a wife unable to work and a mortgage, health insurance and car payments to make, I knew I needed to make myself a businessman first—and an artist second.

I also didn’t like where I saw the sign and graphics industry heading. It seemed to be becoming much more commoditized, and I knew that I wanted to avoid that. So I slowly began to formulate my plan to offer our clients more—and to become more of a small business advertising agency.

Those events transpired over 13 years ago. Today, my NJ advertising agency is doing exactly what I set out to do. We stand as an 8-person advertising agency, focused on the marketing needs of small businesses.

While there are many factors that led to our growth, the two primary reasons were (1) putting my ego aside for the sake of the company, and (2) aggressively marketing the business to attract the type of clients I wanted to work with.

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

What does ego have to do with success? For me, it has meant never being afraid to hire people who are better than myself. Like Ogilvy says, I’ve built my own version of a company of giants by surrounding myself with some very creative people who complement my own skill sets.

What does ego have to do with success? For me, it has meant never being afraid to hire people who are smarter than myself.

Take Jeffrey Devey, my Senior Illustrator, as a perfect example. Jeff is a brilliant illustrator and logo designer. While typography and brand implementation are my strengths, illustration is not my forte. Together, Jeff and I make a great team when it comes to building small business corporate identities. So instead of using my lack of illustrative ability as a crutch to explain mediocre work, Jeff has allowed us to produce great work together.

Each hire has been a methodical and conscience choice to bring another expert on staff. Whether it’s a writer, web designer, programmer, marketing strategist or SEO expert, each team member succeeds in making the company better. Had I chosen to be afraid of hiring people who were smarter than me, there’s no way I’d have built what I’ve built today. Instead I would have only had myself and my ego to blame for my lack of success.

Marketing Yourself to Build the Right Business

Over the years, I’ve invested a significant amount of resources into the marketing of our business. It’s one area we’ve been very aggressive with, whether in a good economy, or more recently, a bad one.

I’ve made it a priority for the company to reinvest in both online and print initiatives, both of which have brought back huge returns on investments. And it’s a constant, ongoing, aggressive strategy. Because no matter how successful our efforts are, they can always be improved upon.

Our recently redesigned site is a perfect example. Our last site, which was previously redesigned 4 years ago was generating about 20-25 leads per week. So why would you change it? First, it didn’t represent our best work and abilities. Second, it didn’t represent the image I wanted to portray, or a medium that I felt would carry us for the next 3 or 4 years. It didn’t communicate who we were, and more importantly, where I wanted us to go. I also wanted to be prepared when the economy really gets going. So I made a tremendous investment in time and money to redo it – to the tune of over 300 man hours. To do the math on that—at our hourly creative rate of $125/hr—it amounted to nearly $40,000 in billable time that I put back into the company. And the results have been what I expected: better-qualified leads and an improved ability to attract the right type of clients.

The Successful Business Owners Mentality

I’ve witnessed firsthand the common characteristics of Successful Business Owners because I’ve had the pleasure of working with them on building their businesses and helping them become even more successful. Much of their success goes back to ego. They’re not afraid to work with other professionals who are experts in their chosen fields—and who allow business owners to focus on what they do best: running their business.

“Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it. Look for people who will aim for the remarkable, who will not settle for the routine.” – David Ogilvy

Successful Business Owners are also not content or complacent, because they realize that staying on top means constantly reinvesting in their business and anticipating the future. That means surveying the lay of the land, and taking concrete steps to work toward specific goals. They’re forward thinking, constantly staying on top of trends in their industry. They’re also constantly educating themselves about their clients and market conditions. They work on their business, not in their business—and they’re graet at planning and executing strategies for the future instead of being reactionary. They know where they want to go, and they’re focused on putting together the team to help them get there.

Successful Business Owners also keep company with others who are successful, sharing that can-do mentality while purposely avoiding those who instead insist ‘you can’t’. And they hire people to support their mission to build a great company.

The Mediocre Business Owners Mentality

While it’s very easy to blame the economy for many businesses failing (and surely that may be the primary reason for many), smart business owners took steps to prepare themselves for a rainy day. It’s easy for people to make a living in a good economy, but when that fails, you quickly see which businesses continue to survive—and even thrive—because of their planning.

What happened to these businesses that are hurting today? For many, they let their own ‘success’ blind them to the realities on the horizon. I call this the ‘complacency syndrome.’ This concept runs through an owner’s psyche, impacting nearly every decision they make. One classic example we see frequently involves poor branding and logo design. Countless small businesses have poor logos and brands, and have for years, underestimated its importance and how it impacts their business. The Successful Business Owner grasps the importance, and is ready to take their business to the next level and invest in better marketing tools, starting with the basic foundation: their brand. The Mediocre Business Owner is blind to how their branding is hurting them because their own ‘success,’ in their mind, validates their poor brand identity.

One of my favorite quotes around the office is ‘success in spite of a poor identity is not a valid reason to perpetuate it.’

The Mediocre Business Owner generally refuses to pay anyone for services they think they can do themselves. They instead waste valuable time doing things that they don’t do well, and at the same time, they fail to understand how that mentality is poor use of their time. It also usually reflects poorly on their business, especially when it involves marketing.

Take web design for example. It’s the storefront of your business, and should be the primary way you advertise your business (via effective search engine marketing). So instead of working on income-generating tasks, many attempt to build their own site. But just because you theoretically can build a web site, it does not make you a web designer. Again, their ego has gotten in the way of a rationale business decision. And while I applaud their interest in learning new skills, it sometimes comes at the expense of their own business.

Think of the irony of a contractor paying $40,000 for a new van, thousands of dollars for tools, and then failing to properly invest in marketing that line of business. That Mediocre Business Owner instead sees spending $5000 or so on a site that represents his business well—and generates leads—as something he doesn’t need. Where’s the logic in such thinking?

And when it comes to employees, the mediocre business owner usually can’t see hiring anyone who is better at tasks than they are, because doing so would only serve to remind them of their own shortcomings. And no one likes a daily reminder of their own shortcomings, so it’s much easier to surround yourself with mediocrity. After all, it’s better to feel superior around people whose skills aren’t up to par with your own. And this only reinforces their ego. They know everything, and everyone else knows nothing. After all, they’re the boss, right?

Ready to Grow Your Business and Become a Smart Business Owner?

Are you prepared to help your business grow? You’ll need to ask yourself the hard questions and answer honestly about yourself and your own skills. Create a checklist of critical business tasks, and rate your abilities. Maybe you won’t like what you hear. The real question is: What do you with your newfound wisdom, and can your ego handle the obvious solutions? Consider checking yours at the door, and maybe you’ll start down the path of building a company of giants.

At Graphic D-Signs, we’re proud of our history and success stories in working with Smart Business Owners. We share the passion they feel about their business, and we live for their successes. We’re about building their businesses cost-effectively, and at the same time, having fun doing it.

Graphic D-Signs, Inc – The Small Business Advertising Agency is a New Jersey based advertising agency and marketing agency in nj providing the marketing needs of small businesses with logo and branding creation, web design and online marketing, print design and collateral development and traditional advertising and consultation services.

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