8 Tips for Small Business Success Learned in Our 8 Years in Business

Happy birthday to us! On January 29, Montage turned eight. *Throws confetti*

Like every birthday, anniversary, or milestone, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate—if for no other reason than we’ve made it. But this year, eight years, feels different. We’ve found ourselves on the other side of a global pandemic bigger, stronger, and more capable than ever before.

We’ve fundamentally changed how we operate—offering as many digital marketing solutions as physical while investing heavily in assets to grow our live experience and logistics capabilities. We’ve won several new contracts and landed a top spot on the list of federal marketing and communications movers and shakers. And we’ve reunited locally while expanding nationally, registering the company and employing team members in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

As we blow out the candles this year, we have two wishes: The first is to continue our momentum and impact. The second is to see more small businesses, particularly small woman- and minority-owned businesses like ours, thrive.

Today we’re sharing eight important lessons we’ve learned throughout our eight years in business. If you’re thinking of starting a company, in the early stages of growth, or navigating daily challenges, these are for you.

1. Lean Into Community

We’ve all heard the doomsday statistic that fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. Within the proper context, however, that stat tells a much more compelling story: 99 percent of businesses, a whopping 33.2 million companies, are small businesses. You are not alone. There are millions of people navigating similar challenges and creating demand for assistance, guidance, and support. And fortunately, many organizations have answered the call.

CEO Mercedita Roxas-Murray and fellow entrepreneurs attend a 2019 event hosted by the Maryland Women’s Business Center.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is a smart place to start. At SBA.gov, you can explore avenues to access capital, learn how to pursue government contracts, and find your local Small Business Development Center. Among the business centers listed in their directories are many dedicated to helping veterans and women start and grow their companies. The Maryland Women’s Business Center, for example, was instrumental in helping us get Montage off the ground, providing both strategic guidance and a collaborative community.

Local business associations are also a seedbed for opportunities close to home. As active members in the Montgomery County Small Business Association we have connected with local talent and trusted support services, secured new business, and gained invaluable insights on government programs affecting the commercial sector as well as how to do business with the County. We have also found a network of cheerleaders who want to see us succeed. What more could you ask for?

Other sources of support include local and demographic-based Chambers of Commerce, the SCORE Mentors program, trade associations, and the National Federation of Independent Business. All these groups exist to foster the success and amplify the voices of small businesses. They also provide a much-needed sounding board and support network.

2. Get Certified

Another group of organizations that have fueled our growth are the certifying bodies for women- and minority-owned businesses. The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) act as ‘growth engines’ for certified businesses through connections with major corporations and government entities.

We completed both WBENC and NMSDC certifications in 2016 to help lay the foundation for future success. We also qualified for the SBA’s coveted 8(a) Business Development program. And my have these investments paid off!

The team receiving one of Montage’s Top 100 MBE awards from the Capital Region Minority Supplier Development Council.

Certifications provide legitimacy. All certified companies undergo a third-party vetting process, helping buyers know they are making a good investment. Certified businesses can access exclusive benefits and services including networking events, procurement opportunities, mentoring, executive education, and other business tools and resources. Being certified also qualifies us to compete for certain recognitions. For example, we have twice received a Top 100 Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) award and twice been named Supplier of the Year by our regional NMSDC affiliate, the Capital Region Minority Supplier Development Council. These awards distinguish us as corporate and community leaders, making it more attractive for companies and government agencies to do business with us.

Perhaps most significantly, certification provides both informal and formal avenues to compete for new business. Many leading corporations engage woman- and minority-owned businesses to achieve their supplier diversity goals. Similarly, government agencies often set aside contracts to ensure more equal distribution of federal contracting dollars.

If you are seeking a platform for business growth, we highly recommend getting certified. Find out more at wbenc.org, nmsdc.org, sba.gov. There are also certification programs for veteran-owned businesses, LGBT business enterprises, Small Disadvantaged businesses, Asian American-owned businesses, and more.

3. Team Up

One of the best things to come out of our memberships and certifications is the opportunity to build teaming partnerships. Teaming with other companies enables us to complement and expand our capabilities and compete for work that may have otherwise been out of reach.

We frequently team with fellow minority- and woman-owned small businesses to bring more capacity to our clients. Alongside partners like Pyxis Partners, BETAH Associates, Clyde Group, and JDC Events, we have co-led projects for the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. We’ve also had the privilege to team up with recognized powerhouses like KPMG and Deloitte Digital on work with the Department of Defense, Amtrak, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Establishing a business and pursuing a sustainable yet manageable portfolio of work can be daunting. It’s important to learn that you don’t have to go it alone. Spend time cultivating partner relationships the same way you would pursue new business opportunities. Good things come to those who collaborate!

4. Mix and Mingle

Old school as it may seem, there is no substitute for meeting face-to-face to establish relationships and build trust. Along with the opportunities made available through membership organizations like CRMSDC and the Montgomery County SBA, we attend several national, regional, and local gatherings each year to connect with potential partners, clients, and peers. We carefully select what we choose to attend to use our time wisely and truly nurture the relationships that we want to develop.

In 2023, we plan to attend a few big events such as the National 8(a) Association 2023 National Small Business Conference and Event Marketer’s Experiential Marketing Summit. National gatherings like these are great for learning what’s on the horizon for the industry and generating leads. But we have just as often found that it’s local networking happy hours or annual meetings that stimulate growth. Don’t overlook the everyday chances to connect and build relationships, even if new business opportunities aren’t immediately available.

5. Build the Little Wins

Small contracts add up to big results. And for early-stage businesses, they can be the difference between making it into year two, three, four, and beyond.

We were incredibly fortunate to work alongside several small and emerging companies in our first few years. Clients like Display America, NanoTouch, Fannie Mae, Garage Force, and the Hispanic Access Foundation tapped into our core strengths and helped us establish a foundation for future success.

Particularly when competing for government contracts, past performance, work completed within the past three to five years, can make or break your ability to compete. By building a portfolio of work and delivering meaningful results for these clients, we could forge ahead and eventually pursue larger, long-term, game-changing contracts.

Maybe, like us, you’re departing a big corporate or agency job where you played alongside Fortune 500 companies and massive budgets. Well done for taking the leap! Life as a small business leader is a big shift, but we can attest that you’ll find great people and great opportunities in your fellow entrepreneurs. Each contract—small or large—provides a chance to showcase your abilities and take a step toward a sustainable business future.

6. Find Your Purpose

The Montage team at our all-staff retreat in August 2022.

Most of you know our story. Founders Mercedita and Teresa reached the top of their respective careers only to realize they wanted something more. They decided to build a new type of agency dedicated to driving positive impact and forging strong connections. This purpose—to improve the lives of others, build communities up, and elevate the voices of those who have been underrepresented—has informed every business decision since day one.

Determining your purpose as a business and making it the filter through which you determine the work you’re going to do, the people you’re going to hire, and the companies you’re going to choose to support your own, is like finding the north star. When everything around you is spinning, you can look to it for direction.

Several of the companies we admire most also center their business around purpose. And it looks different for each of them. Inspira Marketing donates a portion of annual revenue and time to help find a cure for pediatric cancer. BETAH focuses on projects that address issues of social equity. Pyxis Partners work at the intersection of policy, advocacy, and engagement to tackle problems others can’t or won’t solve.

7. Put People First

We’ve learned a lot when it comes to people management. And the most important lesson is this: Put people first. Your team is the lifeblood of your business. Their engagement and enthusiasm will determine your business success.

Invest in them and they will invest in you. Pre-pandemic, nearly half our team worked in the field. The abrupt halt to live events then forced a decision: Do we let folks go or help them find success in another role within the company? We chose the latter and provided training to ease the transition. And they, in turn, helped us establish a new area of expertise.

Give your colleagues opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills. Within our client services team, employees move into new roles as our business portfolio grows and changes. By diversifying their responsibilities, keeping work fresh, and creating new avenues for collaboration, we have enhanced knowledge sharing across teams, improved employee relationships, and extended our average tenure.

Being a business owner brings new meaning to the adage, “Good people are hard to find.” The truth is we’ve found a lot of good people. Often the real challenge is finding the right person for the right role at the right time. Sometimes things just don’t work out. But when someone has a positive attitude and an appetite for learning, there is no better investment.

8. Be the Change

While attending the NMSDC Conference and Exchange last fall, our CEO, Mercedita, was struck when the former mayor of New Orleans, Marc Morial, asked: “Do you have a mindset of scarcity or a mindset of abundance?” What he meant was do you get bogged down in all the reasons you can’t? Or do you think about all the reasons you can?

He offered that when he gets stuck, he thinks about what Harriet Tubman faced—crossing swampland in the dark, no flashlight, no GPS, no phone, often no food. Yet, she persevered and made that crossing over and over, saving hundreds of people. When facing a ‘no’ from the bank or a potential client or a prospective employee, he challenged those in attendance to channel our resolve and find another way.

As small businesses, it can be exhausting jumping through hoops just to do what we’re great at. But when the going gets tough, remember this: We can be the change we want to see. When we do exceptional work, we demonstrate that success doesn’t depend on having a big agency or big corporate partner. When we team up, we elevate each other into growth and opportunity. And when we live our purpose, we change the world as we know it.

Watch the video below and celebrate eight years with us!