Super Selling! High Stakes, Smart Bets, and the Path to Small Business Success

April 2024

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) drive a large part of the American economy, providing jobs, opportunities, and innovations that have defined the American dream for generations. While much has been written about SMBs, and they have become a favorite talking point for politicians and businesses alike, the inner operations of modern SMBs are poorly understood by those who haven’t worked at or led one.

The entrepreneurs and operators who take the leap of small business ownership are serving on the front lines of a transformation in the American economy. Their stories–of successes, savviness, trials, and triumphs–help us understand the fabric of America today and serve as a guide to leaders navigating tomorrow as technology, information, and society continue to challenge the status quo.

SMBs are broadly considered businesses with fewer than 500 employees. In reality, most of these businesses have fewer than 10 employees. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), there are around 33 million SMBs in the United States, comprising 99.9% of all American businesses and employing almost half (46%) of private sector employees in the country. This makes every business problem a small business problem.

Small business owners don’t allow potential failure to prevent them from trying to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams. Leaders of successful SMBs are resourceful, taking advantage of the wide variety of tools available to them. Smart SMB leaders use a plethora of different strategies to source, market, sell, and deliver goods to customers, including both traditional methods and newer digital ones. Contrary to some popular myths, virtually all SMBs utilize multiple selling methods–both online and offline.

SMBs typically spend more time and effort finding and retaining customers than larger or more established companies, and the element of chance plays an outsized role in a business’s success or failure. Every SMB owner will tell you about the unique challenges and complicated decisions they face every day.

Excellent publicly available research exists covering how contemporary SMBs operate, particularly examining how they market and sell their products. Our own publications include two seminal reports, Super Selling: How Contemporary Small Businesses Reach Customers and Sell Products and Super Selling: Exploring the Diversification and Potential of Rural Small Business Retail Sales. However, not everyone learns best by reading reports, and even excellent reports miss the nuance, character, and–frankly–the reality of talking to SMB leaders about their experiences.

Seeking to address the lack of engaging and immersive materials for small business education, we created an educational video game rooted in both research data and authentic stories from SMB owners themselves. This became SUPER SELLING! Over the last four years, the Data Catalyst Institute has interviewed dozens of SMB owners and surveyed thousands, from California and New York to Texas and North Dakota and virtually every city, suburb, and rural area in between. This report highlights the stories of nine diverse SMBs that inspired our game. They are based in states across the United States and sell in a variety of product categories. These SMBs sell both online and offline via online marketplaces, direct-to-consumer web stores, social media, wholesale, traditional brick-and-mortar retail, and more.

Most importantly, their stories are real; their anecdotes range from the happy to the sad, the challenging to the easy, gold rushes of opportunities and slow-and-steady growth, the roles of family and friends, in-laws, employees, business partners, vendors, dumb luck, education, raw skill, hard work, and simple perseverance. We are excited to share insights about the inner workings of SMBs and the challenging decisions their owners make every day with you.

Super Selling! High Stakes, Smart Bets, and the Path to Small Business Success

The Data Catalyst Institute

April 2024

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