Making It Personal: Your Small Business Superpower

Steve Strauss, USA Today Small Business Columnist and Author

standing out from the crowd

What makes a small business special? What is that ineffable je ne sais quoi that makes you want to go back time and again to that little shop, and even pay a tad more than if you just went to the big box store down the street? It’s personal. 

Nora Ephron’s memorable movie “You’ve Got Mail” is a great example. In it, Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, a man who runs a chain of giant bookstores akin to Barnes & Noble. Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, the owner of a beloved quaint bookshop nearby. Fox plans to move into the neighborhood and put that little shop around the corner out of business. When Kelly first confronts him about this, Fox replies: It’s not personal, it’s business.”

Later in the movie, after Fox succeeds, he and Kelly have this exchange:

Fox: “It wasn’t…personal.”

Kelly: “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway? Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”


Unlike Fox, Kelly was selling more than books. She built her business by creating personal relationships and experiences with her customers. 

Oh sure, you can head over to the chain store and easily find what you need and get it for a fair price. But do you know the owner of that chain store? Do they know you? Does he or she even live in your town? Does the owner greet you by name and suggest that you might like a new product that just came in? Does the salesperson stay late for 15 minutes because you are running a tad late and really need to pick up a gift on your way to a birthday party?

Great Small Businesses Are Personal

When a customer—or even co-workers—emotionally connect with a small business, it is a unique and special thing. Author and marketing strategist Seth Godin calls this phenomenon the creation of a “tribe.” In his book “Tribes,” Godin recalls how he discovered that creating a stronger connection with a small business—in this case among co-workers—made it personal.

While working at a small software company called Spinnaker, Godin was assigned to acquire science-fiction stories for the company and then help turn them into games. But he wasn’t given the resources to get the job done right. 

What to do? Godin says he knew that he had to create a tribe of people within the company invested in his mission and his success. So he made it personal by sending out a weekly, internal e-newsletter highlighting the work of those working on his products, featuring their breakthroughs and sharing their groundbreaking progress. 

“I chronicled the amazing work of our tiny tribe,” he writes. “The newsletter… turned a disparate group of career engineers into a community.”

“Within a month, six engineers defected to the tribe. Then it was 20. Soon, every person in the entire department was either assigned to my project or moonlighting on it.”

How did Godin perform that magic act? It was a lot more than a newsletter. “They switched [because] they wanted to be part of something that mattered. It was that shared passion.” He made it personal. 

Making It Personal: Your Small Business Superpower

All too often, small business owners do not realize their superpower because they are too preoccupied to see it. But once you realize that superpower, and use it, customers will beat a path to your door. 

Making it personal can be done in many different and valuable ways:

  • Reflect it in your marketing.

Maybe you’re funny, or super friendly, or goofy—traits that you could emphasize in your social media. Leaning into your personality gives you a much better chance of connecting with your customers and leaving an impression. People will like and return to a social media feed that is personal, real, and authentic.
  • Give customers a personalized experience.

Birchbox is a subscription-based service that delivers personalized beauty and grooming products to customers. Its founders, Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna, wanted to make it easier for people to discover and try new beauty products.

To make it personal, Katia and Hayley create videos and blog posts in which they share their own beauty tips and insights. They also highlight the fact that a Birchbox team of experts personally select items for customers based on the customer’s individual preferences.

  • Get local: Participate in events and support causes.

Small businesses that are active and visible community members can create a sense of belonging that, again, larger businesses have a tough time replicating. You could participate in local parades or events, or sponsor a youth sports team, or open your store as a community meeting place.
The late poet Maya Angelou was not talking about small business when she famously said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

But she could have been.

By using your small business superpower, you can make people feel great. You can right wrongs, make customers happy, give employees a break, have a sale, raise wages, give time off, or inspire loyalty. All you have to do is remember that Joe Fox was wrong. 

Business is personal.

Learn more small business tips at Index by Pinger.

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Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is often called “the country’s leading small business expert.” A best-selling author and USA TODAY’s small business columnist, Steve is a thought leader, global speaker, spokesperson, content creator, and author of 18 books.

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