A prescription for success, in small (and all) business

Where everybody knew your name: Personal connections with customers distinguished old-school Maiman's Pharmacy in Brooklyn -- a small-business lesson taken to heart by Intelligent Product Solutions cofounder Mitch Maiman.

What could working in an old-school neighborhood pharmacy teach you about running a cutting-edge tech firm?

On the surface, these two wildly different businesses have nothing in common. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that I learned many of the rules for growing a successful business working in that drugstore as a kid.

My family owned a neighborhood pharmacy in Brooklyn. Maiman’s Pharmacy was off Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, on Franklin Avenue, and it was a neighborhood fixture. My father and uncle were business partners and known by virtually everyone in the neighborhood, and even in an era of growing chain pharmacies, Maiman’s Pharmacy thrived.

Customers treated the place like an extension of their doctors’ offices. My father and uncle spent a lot of time chatting with them, often about things unrelated to prescription medications. They knew their customers personally. When was the last time you had a pleasant conversation with the CVS pharmacist?

My father and uncle never studied business management. There was no formal brand strategy, no client-retention plan or sophisticated pricing strategy. But their practices led to long-term customer loyalty, despite the encroachment of major corporate competition. There was something special going on at Maiman’s Pharmacy, relevant to any entrepreneur at any business, large or small.

I did every entry-level job at Maiman’s Pharmacy – and I was immersed in the reality of small-business ownership, learning the keys to success.

Mitch Maiman: Bringing yesteryear to the cutting edge.

In 2008, Paul Severino and I founded Intelligent Product Solutions, a services company helping clients create and launch new technology products. We’re a team of designers and engineers that have achieved a high level of success.

I was fortunate to have grown up in a small-business family. By watching and listening, I learned about the rewarding and painful sides of small business (the stressful underside of entrepreneurship is rarely mentioned in inspirational articles). A few things I learned:

Build and sustain relationships: Today, even with all our sophisticated communications tools, building a business is still about client relationships. To have ongoing business with any client, one has to perform and sometimes exceed expectations – but as the old saying goes, “people still buy from people.”

Just as with the pharmacy business, customers always have options. They will take their business elsewhere if you underperform, of course – but they’ll also find reasons to go if the personal interactions are unfavorable. A genuine, personal relationship will help keep clients coming back.

A small company can thrive against big competitors:  It’s tough to beat big competitors at their game. In the case of Maiman’s, you couldn’t win using pricing as the differentiator – a small business doesn’t have the buying power of a major pharmacy chain.

So, you need to find gaps where you can thrive. The winning strategy at Maiman’s was the relationships built in the community. People came because they could speak directly with my father (“Dr. Henry”) for as long as they wanted. He and my uncle were trusted advisors and their pharmacy was not just a place for prescription fulfillment.

IPS has large competitors, some based in Asia, some with thousands of engineers. Our team is relatively small. And their cost of labor is far less than ours, which is often reflected in pricing. But if a smaller company can excel at the job while providing a high level of personalized, face-to-face service – as IPS does – it can survive and even thrive.

Marathon, not a sprint: Some startups go from zero to 60 just two seconds after launch. Those are rarities – most have a long, hard slog before they achieve success. Be prepared to run hard, but pace yourself for the long haul.

Not everyone gets rich: My family made a bit more than a “good living” through Maiman’s Pharmacy. IPS gained attention and was acquired in 2018 (we’re still here on Long Island, as a subsidiary) – not exactly like winning the lottery, but the company has done well.

Most small businesses don’t evolve to huge cash-out events. Success is sometimes defined as generating a nice income with some eventual liquidity for the business. We had reasonable expectations of how to define and measure “success” at IPS, but it was always an interesting and fun place to work. Many small businesses measure success this way.

Go all in: Owning a family business or entrepreneurial enterprise means betting all your chips on your dream. You have to be prepared to do anything and everything necessary.

Late one night, we received a call that the burglar alarm was going off at Maiman’s Pharmacy, and my father and uncle had to drive into Brooklyn in the middle of the night. At IPS, when times were tough, my partner Paul and I had to dig deep into personal assets for payroll cash.

If you’re not prepared to be 100 percent committed, your probability of success is radically reduced. And you may have extreme difficulty getting investors to back you.

Maiman’s Pharmacy and IPS are two radically different small businesses, but they’ve shared similar formulas for success. Owning and running virtually any business successfully always requires you to value the human connection – to your customers, to your team – and to commit to the business itself.

Mitch Maiman is co-founder and CEO of Intelligent Product Solutions, a premier product-development consultancy in Hauppauge. He will speak as the 2019 Master of Innovation at Innovate Long Island’s 2019 Innovator of the Year Awards, March 26 in Woodbury.