November 1, 2023


How to Take Your Business to the Next Level: Thoughts from Startup Founders

Small business owner sitting at table and looking at laptop

One of the most inspiring parts of entrepreneurship is getting to study other successful businesses and dissect their strategies.


What did they do right? What made them unique? What were the keys to their growth? Looking into other companies like this can give you tremendous insight into your own.


To help kickstart such a round of inspiration and insight, we interviewed the founders of three companies to learn more about their stories of building companies to help small businesses thrive.


We spoke with Michelle Songy, founder and CEO of the PR tool Press Hook, Steli Efti, CEO of the sales CRM Close, and Nicolas Cassis and Robert Petteruti of cashless tipping platform eTip. They shared how and why they got started, their favorite parts of entrepreneurship and small business, and their best advice for other business owners. 


Here's what they had to say about their own entrepreneurial journeys, growing a small business, and running it well.

Michelle Songy on agility and focus

Headshot of Michelle Songy, Presshook CEO

Michelle Songy, Founder + CEO, PressHook

If you were to ask Songy to describe her latest startup in only a few words, it would be “an AI-powered platform that helps small businesses get the media attention they deserve." While she recognized her entrepreneurial drive early, she took time to prepare instead of jumping right in.
"I recognized my entrepreneurial calling but also understood the importance of gaining business experience. This led me to roles at Coca-Cola and later American Express, where I learned essential skills like company structure and culture, laying a strong foundation for my future entrepreneurial endeavors," as she retold it.

In 2017, with over a decade of marketing and management experience, she channeled that experience into co-founding mobile payment platform Cake Technologies. When it was later acquired by American Express, she started looking for new opportunities that fit her mission.


A strong theme of her entrepreneurial journey is making modern technology more accessible to small businesses. “Founding Cake Technologies exposed me to the power of positive press and the challenges small businesses face in accessing it due to budget constraints," Songy explained. That's what inspired her to create Press Hook.

She recommends small businesses stay agile to adapt to industry changes more easily, something she experienced launching in early 2020.


They originally planned to target hospitality companies, but since that industry was so strongly impacted by lockdowns, they quickly pivoted. Songy recalled, “We remained agile, responding to real-time events, and expanded into new markets as lockdowns eased, promoting home goods, beauty, and fashion businesses."
Another example of agility and flexibility was the decision to raise funding. Originally planning to bootstrap the company, meaning to launch the business without any external capital, Songy said, “as we recognized our product-market fit and growing customer base, we realized that funding would accelerate tech development and team expansion.
"Finally, Songy stressed how important it is for small businesses to stay focused on a few things, as to not spread themselves too thin. “Focus on a couple of marketing channels that work best for you, double down on those, and invest more time in engaging with your customers," she advised.
The company is dedicated to helping small businesses grow through the media. “I'm deeply inspired by the resilience and determination of small business owners. A lack of funding and resources often hinders their ability to promote themselves effectively. Witnessing them gain the press coverage they deserve through Press Hook and witnessing the benefits it brings them is incredibly rewarding," Songy shared.

If you want to try using the media to help your business grow, Press Hook can help you create a captivating, media-ready press kit and connect with journalists in real time with a suite of AI-powered tools. Through the American Express Business Savings Suite, Press Hook is offering new customers a 30-day free trial plus 50% off the first 3 months of select Press Hook plans. Terms apply. You can learn more about the Press Hook offer here.



Steli Efti on knowing your customers and embracing your “small" status

Headshot of Steli Efti, Close CEO

Steli Efti, Co-founder + CEO of Close

Steli Efti is the CEO of Close, an all-in-one sales CRM built “by and for" small businesses. It can help companies improve sales rep performance and drive revenue growth through built-in email, calling, and SMS.


His decisions to start the company bootstrapped and remote-first have given the company a unique advantage when working with small business owners, allowing the company to put its people first, whether that's customers or employees.


Regarding bootstrapping, Efti described a “desire to be independent, to act and think long-term, to be self-determined, and be able to make major decisions with the best interest of our employees and customers—versus the best interest of an external investor." This has allowed them to avoid some of the pitfalls their larger competitors have experienced, like needing to hit metric milestones to keep investors happy.
And having a remote workforce lets them tap into a much wider and more diverse talent pool. "One of the biggest factors in our success as a remote-first company is that we've been able to hire exceptional talent from around the world," Efti explained.
One recommendation he highlighted was having a strong relationship with customers. He's noticed that some business owners are so busy in the day-to-day operations of their business that those relationships fall to the wayside. But this can make those operations harder. “Get closer to your customers. Customer intimacy can help solve many of your problems. So, if you want to understand how to grow, you need to understand the needs of your customers better," he advised.
He also believes most small businesses can lack confidence when competing with larger companies. It's easy to focus on the things those businesses can do that your company can't. But Efti recommends the opposite approach. “What you need to understand is that, as a small business, you can give a customer a high touch experience and a high level of service. You may already be an exceptional expert in your field," he emphasized, adding, "being small is beautiful. Being small offers real value to your customer."

If your sales process could use a boost, Close is a tool that could help to boost your sales productivity, and they love working with small businesses too.


As Efti put it, “We love small business owners. We truly believe that they're some of the most exceptional people out there. They're incredibly driven, resilient, and creative. My favorite part is that throughout the years, we've gotten some of our best product feedback, feature requests, and ideas on how to improve our CRM from the perspective of what salespeople need in order to sell more effectively—from our small business customers. “

You can start using Close through an offer with the American Express Business Savings Suite where new Close customers can get 60% off a subscription plan for the first year. Terms apply. You can learn more about the Close offer here.



Nicolas Cassis and Robert Petteruti on the importance of relationships

Headshot of Nicolas Cassis, Co-founder of eTip

Nicolas Cassis, Co-founder of eTip

Finally, we spoke to Nicolas Cassis and Robert Petteruti, co-founders of eTip, a platform that lets businesses offer cashless tipping. Both co-founders had backgrounds in financial products before launching the company. Cassis had founded a telecommunications company that built and launched products like prepaid debit cards and calling cards, and Petteruti got into fintech as a hedge fund manager.


Like Songy, Cassis is passionate about how technology allows him to create an impact. “I've always been a natural problem solver and out-of-the-box thinker, and I think the opportunity to deliver a broad impact with technology is the most exciting way to put that drive to work," he said.

This natural problem solving is how eTip got started.


As Cassis retold it, “During a stay at a San Francisco hotel, I discovered just how much a cash tip to my hotel housekeeper meant to her, reflected in a gracious note left to me (a note I keep on my desk to show to this day!). After speaking with more housekeepers and service workers, I realized that the decline in the use of cash was actually a microcosm of a slew of issues faced by millions of service workers. From that moment on, I knew there was a major problem to be solved, and the rest is history.

Cassis and Petteruti both stressed the impact of relationships in a small business's success, whether that's customer or employee relationships.


“There’s really no better alternative to spending as much time as possible with your customers, as they can teach you so much about what’s needed to accelerate growth bottoms up. For example, learning about what's important to your customers and the factors behind their purchasing decisions, even down to their particular values, will help your business to develop sticky, emotionally intelligent products that delight," Petteruti explained.
But strong customer relationships depend on strong employee relationships, Cassis stressed. As he put it, “I'm of the firm belief that businesses can nearly make up for lack of size, SEO, or brand recognition by investing in their employees because, ultimately, an engaged and motivated team will translate to the best service and authentic relationships between your team and your customers."
For the eTip founders, the best part of working with small businesses is the fast pace. “The most exciting aspect of serving small businesses is the urgency to deliver an impact. When small businesses need a solution, we fully understand they need the solution yesterday," Cassis affirmed.
Their cashless tipping platform helps small businesses counter “the hardships caused by the decline of cash transactions like tips, as well as digitizing an age-old and often onerous cash tip-out process for hourly workers," as he put it. This benefits the workforce and customers with increased convenience, and business owners with the growth that a more convenient experience can facilitate.

If it sounds like something your business needs, you can access an offer in the American Express Business Savings Suite on eTip for new customers – 40% off the first year of annual subscription plans. Terms apply. You can learn more about the eTip offer here

Headshot of Robert Petteruti, Co-founder of eTip

Robert Petteruti, Co-founder of eTip

A recurring theme throughout all these conversations was how important technology and strong relationships are to small business success. To that end, if you're looking to leverage better technology in your sales, tipping, or PR processes, all three companies featured have offers available in our Business Savings Suite for you to try out.   




This content was written by a freelance author and commissioned and paid for by American Express.  This article contains general information and is not intended to provide information that is specific to American Express products and services.



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