Strategies: Like Obama said, 'Pull up your pants!'

— -- I've heard a lot of doom and gloom from small-business owners lately. After all, the economy stinks. Headlines scream at us: Consumer confidence is down, unemployment is up. Housing prices are down, business closings are up.

In the face of all that, I have a piece of advice, "Pull up your pants!"

Heck, those of us who have small businesses don't have to read the news to know times are tough. We see what's happening in our own businesses. Costs are up, sales are down. We have fewer customers, and the customers we have place smaller orders.

Nevertheless, I say again — in the words of President-elect Barack Obama — "Pull up your pants!"

In an interview with MTV during the campaign, Obama made news by admonishing young men wearing underwear-showing baggy jeans to "Pull up their pants." He was speaking literally, but his directive was interpreted figuratively as well, along the lines of: "Stop complaining, pull up your pants, and make something of yourself."

Now, small-business owners are the ultimate example of people who've pulled up their own pants and made something of themselves. In fact, a widely used term for people who build a business from scratch — like most of us have — is "bootstrapping," meaning we've made it without any outside effort. In other words, we've pulled ourselves up from our own bootstraps. (Of course, most of us don't know what bootstraps even are any more.)

So you've already proved you know how to create something from nothing, to invent an income for yourself, create jobs for others. You've got the skills. You've got the experience. You just need to regain the can-do attitude that led you to start your business in the first place.

I'm here today to remind you that you can do it. You can survive this downturn. We're going to go through this together and come out ahead.

I'm no Pollyanna. Heck, I own a publishing company. Have you seen what's been happening to book sales lately? I have one sister who's in sales; her business has dropped dramatically. And I have another sister who's a mortgage broker; her business disappeared entirely. On top of that, I know four people who got laid off last week.

I'm not sugarcoating anything. But I also know that many of the great companies we see today were started during recessions, that companies that continue to market during downturns come out of recessions with larger market share, and that your competitors are weaker and more discouraged than ever. All this means there's opportunities out there for you.

Here are ways to pull up your pants, roll up your sleeves, and survive, even thrive:

• Sit down and plan. Get over being discouraged by coming up with a thoughtful plan of action. Bring employees (if you have any) together, look for where you can cut costs, increase sales, find new markets, retain current customers. No employees? Talk to customers, advisers, colleagues, Small Business Development Center counselors.

• Look for new markets and new customers. What potential market segments are countercyclical — meaning they do well in down economies? What customers of weakened competitors could you go after?

• Retain current customers. Put particular emphasis on customer service and working with current customers if they need to cut costs. Better to keep them yourself then lose them to a lower-cost competitor.

• Position yourself as the less-expensive alternative. Go after prospects who currently use more expensive solutions or who spend a lot of money with your competitors. They'll be more receptive to you now.

• Look for digital solutions. You're likely to find many ways to save money on operating and marketing costs by looking for digital or online solutions.

- Get out there and make sales. Remember when you first started your business, how hungry you were? Get hungry again.

Most importantly, make up your mind: Are you going to be one of the fatalities or one of the survivors? Are you going to let the times overwhelm you or learn to change with the times? If you want to be one of the winners instead of one of the losers, it's time to roll up your sleeves and pull up your pants!

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her newest book is Successful Marketing: Secrets & Strategies. Register for Rhonda's free business tips at For an index of her columns, click here. Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2008.