NEW YORK -- The economy is showing signs of life and that makes it a good time for small business owners to re-evaluate how they are running their companies.
Now that crisis mode has passed, owners need to make sure they're ready to take advantage of growth opportunities on the horizon. Experts say it's time for owners to think about taking some risks and to make sure that they are taking care of employees.
There's evidence that owners are more confident. Nearly half of small business owners say there will be growth opportunities in the coming year, according to a survey taken in June and July by the National Small Business Association. That's up from 38 percent six months ago. And the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index of small business confidence, compiled from a July survey of owners, jumped 9 points to 25 from the start of the year.
Of course, the economy still has soft spots, including manufacturing and sales of new homes, which fell sharply in July. And many owners are uneasy because they don't know what health insurance will cost under the Affordable Care Act.
But owners shouldn't give into uncertainty, says Paul Sarvadi, an adviser to many small business owners.
"I wouldn't let the negative news and negative backdrop rob you of that innate risk-taking advantage and edge that you have," says Sarvadi, CEO of Insperity, a Houston-based human resources provider.
Here's a look what small business owners should be doing right now:
Owners should take a break from the day-to-day grind and think about the future.
"Back away from the business and look strategically at next year and ask, `what can I do differently?"' Sarvadi says. "Look at your (business) plan. Are you going to beat it or be behind it?"
Owners should think about how they get their sales.
"You have to aggressively make sure you have your best foot forward on every sale, especially those most likely to come in," he says.
Keeping costs down should remain a priority because customers are willing to bolt to another business that offers lower prices, says David Rosenbaum, president of Real-Time Computer Services, a technology services company based in New York.
"You need to be putting an additional emphasis on figuring out how to less expensively deliver what product or service you're delivering," Rosenbaum adds. "You may not be able to charge what you did before."
Owners also need to help customers understand that their products and services are more valuable than what competitors offer.
"They have to figure out ways to communicate that they're different," Rosenbaum says.
Owners should take an honest, hard look at their companies and see if there are fundamental changes to make, recommends Kathleen Allen, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.
"You need to really analyze your business and say, what are the products or services I'm selling that are doing well? What are the ones that are not? And can I substitute them with something else?" she says.
Throw caution to the wind (sort of)
This is the time to take risk.
Surveys over the past year have shown that owners are playing it safe because of the economy. These days, many owners see hiring even one employee or investing in an expensive piece of equipment as risky. But that strategy isn't always the safest bet.
"To do nothing is to take a risk, and more often than not, it's as great a risk as taking calculated action," says Dennis Ceru, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.
Consumer spending and the economy can rebound quickly. Companies that can't jump on an opportunity because they don't have the staff or equipment may lose out to competitors.
"To be caught unaware and unprepared is as bad or worse as stepping into the pool before it's up to temperature," Ceru says.
Not moving forward because of uncertainty about the health care law is a mistake, USC's Allen says.
"They will not get all their questions answered for some time to come. Do you stand and wait for everything to be figured out before you do anything to grow your business?" she says.
Show employees that you care
As the labor market improves, many people will look for new jobs. Retaining staffers is key, says Maria Martinez, owner of Respira Medical, a company that provides respiratory and other medical equipment.
Martinez, who has 60 employees, uses incentives like flexible scheduling and tuition reimbursement to reward and keep staffers. They can come in late or leave early when necessary. She gives each employee four days a year with pay to volunteer at charitable organizations.
"It could be the simplest things that could make a difference," says Martinez, whose company is based in Linthicum Heights, Md.
Martinez also believes in helping any employee who's struggling with personal or financial issues. She arranged for dental care for a staffer who couldn't afford it. The man never smiled because he was ashamed of his teeth, and when he got dentures, he began smiling at work for the first time. Martinez also fired a worker who belittled the man because of his teeth.
Owners who had to cut 401(k) contributions or other benefits because of the recession and its aftermath should start restoring them, Insperity's Sarvadi says.
"I would consider, if not all at once, then incrementally bringing some things back," he says.