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Ants & Small Business Owners

Written by CMG News Contributor, Doug Carleton

The World Financial Center at 200 Vessey Street in New York was designed by internationally-famous architect Cesar Pelli. It was severely damaged when the Twin Towers collapsed. The Winter Garden Atrium, the 10-story atrium attached to the building was nearly destroyed. During the reconstruction Mr. Pelli saluted the workers with a metaphor from the natural world:

“When you destroy an ant’s nest, immediately the ants start rebuilding it. And though the destruction is very fast, and the reconstruction is very slow, the ants always win. A sense of purpose and determination wins in the end.”

That metaphor to me is a beautiful description of the small business owner fighting to survive in today’s economy. Picture your business as your ant nest. Hopefully your nest is still intact but the world all of us live in has been severely damaged. Many of your customers or suppliers may be gone. The value of every customer has now gone up. How has your customer changed and how do you meet their needs? New customer acquisition is often expensive and time-consuming. What can you and your business do to increase your value to your customers? Communicate more often? Discounts? Notes to really valuable customers if you had their address? Several years ago I got a hand-addressed envelope. It was a note from a banker that I had helped. I was stunned, and have remembered it ever since. How many hand-written notes of thanks have you ever gotten? How might one of your customers feel if they got one from you?

One idea that might yield unexpected benefits is to call owners of similar businesses in other cities. Ask them what they are doing. How are they handling problems? Small businesses are often willing to help each other if they are not directly competing with them in the same town and are happy to share ideas. They could also learn from you. As bad as the economy is and unemployment so high everybody is pretty much in the same boat. These are just several random thoughts. You may be able to come up with ideas for your business that you had never even thought of. But now one of them might be the key to survival or future growth. You’re the foundation of the economy. What would “Main Street” be without you?

A sense of purpose and determination wins in the end.


This blog entry is a slightly edited excerpt from Doug Carleton's 'The Daily Life Of A Small Business Owner' series. Doug is a mentor with SCORE, Startup Virginia, and Lighthouse Labs, and has 25+ years of experience in small business finance including 12 years in SBA lending. To contact Doug directly, please email him at

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