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Why Small Business Owners Need Support Systems, With Examples From 6 Small Business Owners

In Small Business, Big Lessons, season two, episode six, we detail how the owners of Harlow, SparkToro, Made With Local, Zingerman’s, Destination Unknown Restaurants and Paynter Jackets approach getting support as small business owners.

Nov 1, 2022 8 min readFlow
Photo of Hailley Griffis
Hailley Griffis

Head of Communications & Content @ Buffer

Starting and running your own business can be incredibly stressful. One survey of small business owners from Capital One found that 42 percent of them are currently experiencing burnout or have experienced it within the past month. This is why having a good support system is invaluable for entrepreneurs. Having a space to share the ups and downs of small business ownership and having people around you who understand your challenges can help make you more resilient and able to weather the storm that is small business ownership.

We spoke to several incredible small business owners who are juggling multiple growth challenges, growing families, and all the while being focused on ensuring they get the support they need to be the best version of themselves and take their businesses forward.

Holly Howard, a longtime business consultant says it best “I always say there's no business growth without personal growth.” She goes on to say, “it's about how we show up and how we take care of ourselves.” And the data supports it; in the same Capital One report, they found that more than half (53 percent) of business owners report that when they experience burnout, it is a barrier to success for their business.

In Small Business, Big Lessons, season two, episode six, we detail how the owners of Harlow, SparkToro, Made With Local, Zingerman’s, Destination Unknown Restaurants and Paynter Jackets approach getting support as small business owners.

Set healthy boundaries and intentional work policies

The first place many small business owners mention when talking about support is getting support through setting healthy boundaries. Those can be in the form of setting healthy boundaries for themselves, as well as supporting those boundaries through intentional work policies that protect their team from burnout as well.

Kelly Phillips, the founder of Destination Unknown Restaurants, a group of restaurants based in Washington, DC, knows that boundaries often start with her as the leader. “I am very respectful about time off and not texting, not calling, not emailing when I know people are off when they're on vacation.” She leads by example when she’s not working, “I try not to let myself get caught up into work when I'm off. I know that I'm a better leader if I have time to rest.”

Kelly is also focused on the environment that she cultivates at her restaurants. “I try to have a stress-free environment. Yes, it does get stressful. Yes, it does get busy, but I'm a big fan of lightening the mood by making a joke or, you know, giving somebody a high five or just saying something that's gonna perk them up a little bit and make them feel good about themselves.” This environment makes a difference when her team is more supportive of each other through the highs and lows, “We know it won't always be hard, you know, we're gonna get through this. We have to close the doors eventually, and tomorrow will be a new day.”

Intentional work policies can make a huge difference when it comes to burnout and cultivating a supportive network. Andrea Wildt and Samantha Anderl, co-founders of Harlow, a software designed to help freelancers with their business, know this first hand. They quit their nine-to-five jobs because those jobs didn’t work for them, so they built their business in a way that supported them and future employees. “So we have this saying actually at Harlow, that we believe that we are all better and more creative when we're living well-balanced lives.” Samantha shared about their approach.

They put into place policies to have limited meetings and a work culture that takes away the feeling that everything is urgent. The result? Both co-founders say they’re showing up as better versions of themselves. “Our brains don't function in this ‘on state’ for eight, nine hours a day. We need downtime, we need breaks. And I think that. A lot of corporate environments just aren't conducive to that at all. And so Samantha and I really wanted to build something different where we could foster more creativity.”

Read more about how Kelly Phillip’s approaches business in her post about putting employees first, not customers.

Build up a community of other founders and of your customers

Another way to get support is to build up a community around yourself — both of other founders who understand what you’re going through and are facing similar challenges, and also to look to your community of customers, who understand your business better than a lot of others.

Holly explains it as, “Who are those people that you can go to, that you can speak to about what you are going through?” She says that gathering can be really powerful because “everybody goes through the same challenges as an entrepreneur, and when we see our peers, and we have that camaraderie with our peers.” And this group environment is better for growth, too. “It's actually much easier to change than when we're isolated. So that support network of other people who understand what you're going through and you can lean on each other is really important.”

The co-founders of Harlow have been doing this since the beginning, proving that it’s never too early to start building a community. Samantha explained that they’ve been building up their community for the past eight years, it includes other founders and freelancers, and it has a very positive effect on them because, as it stands, Samantha said, “I don't think we ever have a problem that we need to solve, that we don't have somebody in our community that we're like, ah, we should go talk to that person.”

Community can also be found through more traditional business groups. Sheena Russel is the founder and CEO of Made with Local, a Canadian snack bar company and a certified B-corp. She’s found a lot of support through the movement. “I absolutely feel like we're part of an incredible purpose-led business community.” Sheena knows the importance of community through her own experiences, “It can be lonely out there as a founder and as an entrepreneur.” She looks not only to her community of other entrepreneurs but also to her customers. “We have an amazing community around us of other businesses, but also of our customers as our community.”

The theme with all of these business owners, as Rand Fishkin, the co-founder and CEO of SparkToro, is that he calls “an intentional investment in building a network of like-minded founders and like-minded companies.” There are a lot of ways to go about building up a support network through community, the key is just to get started.

Several members of the Made With Local team.

Join an existing network of like-minded people through groups or social media

Sometimes there is already an existing community where you can find support. Kelly is a part of an organization called Re: Her, a national non-profit driven by women restaurateurs. The organization’s mission is to empower women entrepreneurs, specifically in the food and beverage industry. She explains, “We have regular calls where we discuss issues in the restaurant community, and we have resources for each other. And even if it's just checking in to say, Hey, how's everybody doing? Oh, you know, prices have gone up on this. Does anybody have a good vendor for that? We really help each other.”

This kind of existing organization can be a huge advantage for gaining support and making like-minded connections. These groups can be found online through tools like Meetup, Facebook Groups, and LinkedIn Groups. You can also ask around in your industry to see what organizations others already know about.

Social media is another powerful tool for finding existing communities, groups, and resources. Sheena, who runs Made with Local from a smaller city in Canada, turns to digital platforms to connect. She shared, “If you're an entrepreneur that's struggling to connect with a community or with some mentors, I would say start looking online, honestly, through social media is an incredibly algorithmically driven way to find people that are doing things just like you are. Whether it be through Instagram or LinkedIn. It's a really nice way to figure out where your people are."

Samantha from Harlow has had the same experience. “I'm very active on Twitter. I'm very active on LinkedIn on Instagram. And so I am constantly making connections there.” When it comes to joining those communities, Samantha’s advice is: “People are there, and people are having the conversations, and you just have to throw yourself into it.”

Look for professional support through therapy

Support comes in many forms, and sometimes the kind of support that you need might be professional support in the form of counseling or therapy. Holly, who in addition to being a long-time business consultant is a trained therapist, explained that with her background, “often I end up recommending that clients go to therapy. And a lot of times for entrepreneurs, it's the first time they've had an experience of therapy before.”

Ari Weinzweig, the co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, has personal experience with getting this kind of support. “I started going to therapy, and then at that point, I was ready through pain, and I wish I would've gone at 10. I mean, it's like having a coach at the gym. There's nothing weird or wrong about it. Who wouldn't want a grounded, thoughtful, caring, slightly disengaged with your day-to-day emotional struggles, person to talk to?”

Ari is definitely not alone in seeking this kind of support. Rand has had the experience of looking to therapy after a particularly difficult time. “I am a few years away from my experiences with mental and emotional challenges, depression, and anxiety. And I'm very grateful to be through those times. But it was absolutely heart-wrenching and awful going through it. When I experienced that, I ended up stepping down from my CEO role at MOZ, and eventually away from the company.” Though Rand says that “talking to a professional coach and therapist helped“ he’s also hesitant to give advice on the topic because “I don't think that what worked for me will work for everyone. In fact, what I hear over and over again from other founders and other people who've been through this kind of thing is the solutions are often different, right?”

Now, Rand is taking a different approach to his mental health. “One of the things that I've done to try and prevent that same pattern from reemerging is to prioritize personal health and happiness over work, as hard as I can.”

Rand Fishkin alongside co-founder Casey Henry.

You can always pause as well

There are a lot of different avenues for getting support as an entrepreneur and small business owner. It’s important to remember that that support can sometimes also look like showing down.

Becky Okell and Huw Thomas, co-founders of Paynter Jacket Co, a company that creates limited-edition jackets four times a year, both have healthy perspectives on slowing down when needed. Huw shared, “When you get momentum going in your business and you sort of keep it going and the busy times become normal times one day.” He said he and Becky experienced this and realized they needed some time for themselves. Huw describes it as, “It's kind of being self-aware enough to realize, okay, you need me to pause and slow down a bit. Take a breath.”

Becky’s perspective on the busy times is that “There has to be peaks and there has to be troughs. Not everything can go at a million miles an hour and not everything is going to be perfect either.” Her approach and advice to others is, “you have to actually take time to top up your creative energy to, to make sure you're reading and getting an outside perspective.”

None of us can go it alone, and we all need support from others. Whether it’s specific knowledge, emotional support, a kind word, or just someone to listen to our rants, we rely on our communities to lift us up when we need it.

Want to hear more about getting support as a small business owner? Listen to the full episode of Small Business, Big Lessons.

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