Entrepreneurship / Main Street / Small Businesses

The 3 Key Questions to Ask Business Owners in Your Community

By Luke Ramsay, CEDIK Economic Development Extension Specialist

The Business Retention and Expansion Program (BRE) is….a mouthful.

However, when it’s boiled down to its most basic components, BRE is a way for communities to engage their businesses in an approach that leads to growth and stability. Simple as that.

Usually, we think about BRE as an event. A research-type study where business owners are interviewed, data is collected and evaluated, and reports are made to decision makers so that they can take action to address the concerns of the businesses. It’s tempting to see BRE as a silver bullet. Of course, that’s not really possible. Economic growth and development is a slow process, with lots of moving parts.

So what is an economic developer to do?

Start thinking about BRE as a process or a cycle. It’s a series of targeted conversations designed to help YOU keep tabs on what is happening (or GOING to be happening) in your business community.

You can also start to think about BRE by rearranging the phrase. Instead of “Business Retention and Expansion”, think “How My Businesses Thrive and Grow”. THAT’S a process you can start today. You, personally, can start finding new ways to help your local businesses thrive and grow. And sometimes, it’s as simple as asking the right questions.

Below I’ve included three questions that you should make sure you’re asking every time you sit down with a business owner. Whether that’s at the post office, over a cup of coffee, in their factory, or at the grocery store. Keep these three questions in mind.

Question #1: What’s your 20%?
welder-673559You may have heard of the Pareto Principle. It says that 20% of your activity will account for 80% of your results. Or, you may have heard it talked about in terms of business as, 80% of your profits will come from 20% of your customers.

So when you ask “What’s your 20%?” you’re trying to get that business owner to look hard at their bottom line and recognize where their most valuable activities are. This is a GREAT question to help owners zero in on where their time is best utilized, and where their time is wasted.

There is something about being an entrepreneur and small-business owner that makes people think “I’ve got to do it all.” Not only is this not true, it’s also a huge barrier to growth. By asking the “What’s your 20%?” question, you can help your neighbors identify how to become more efficient and productive.

Question #2: Are you thinking about relocating?
dsc_7076.jpgThis may seem abrupt, but it’s critical. From a BRE standpoint, this may be the most important question on the list. Business RETENTION and Expansion is all about keeping businesses local. When a company moves, it takes away a tax base. It takes away the service or product that had been provided. It takes away jobs. It lessens the robustness of your community.

Asking if a business is thinking about relocating, you’ve done a couple things. First, you’ve established that you care. You want to know something about the business other than the product or service they offer. Second, you may have just short-circuited a thought process that would have led to a business leaving. Finally, you’ve opened the conversation up so that you can now learn what might be done to prevent the business from leaving.

market-3244792Question #3: If our community could do one thing to help you grow, what would it be?
I use this question whenever I visit a business. It’s my favorite single question to ask a business owner. This is a question I use when I only have time to ask one question. You’ll be surprised by the answers.

Some owners see this as an opportunity to air their grievances about local government, their neighbors, their competition, or anybody else they see as responsible for their hard times. And that’s okay. The venting process can give you some really interesting insights into the overall health of the business community.

Some owners will give you their ideas about ways the city can be improved through infrastructure improvements and developments. Again, a great response. Enough of these conversations and you’ll have a clear view of where the passions and priorities of the individual businesses in your community are.

That’s it! Keeping these questions in your hip pocket will ensure you’re not only meeting business owners in your community, but listening to where their pain-points are as well. Understanding those concerns is a huge first step in retaining and expanding your local businesses.


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