Jennifer Cullenbine knows a lot about trust. Jennifer is the CEO and founder of Family Giving Tree, a small non-profit business in Silicon Valley and one of our BILL customers. They make it possible for people to gift targeted donations that make wishes come true. For example, if a donor sees that an 8-year-old wants a Star Wars Millennium Falcon Lego set, they can make that wish happen for the child.

To do this, they’ve built on an ecosystem of partnerships with companies, community leaders, and individuals to bring in and deliver donations. Without the trust of donors and recipients, Jennifer couldn’t do what she loves—bringing joy and changing lives.

The last few years have thrown curveballs to businesses like Family Giving Tree. A global pandemic, macroeconomic fluctuations, changing supply chains, and most recently, debate about the health of the economy. Through it all, Family Giving Tree has been resilient.

As CEO and founder of BILL, a software company that automates finances for small and midsize businesses (SMBs), I talk to a lot of small business leaders. Over the last 12 months, I’ve heard from many of them that it’s been tough. We’ve also seen SMBs doing what they do best— adapting and proving resilient.

I put this resilience down to a few very simple facts: SMB owners run their businesses with grit, determination, creativity, and a drive to succeed. And at the heart of their resilience is trust.  Trust in the market. Trust in customers. Trust in suppliers. Trust in employees. And most of all, trust in themselves.

The U.S. needs small businesses to survive and thrive 

First, let’s take a look at some facts about small businesses. There are more than 33 million SMBs in the U.S. Every single one of these businesses is important, and collectively, they are essential to our economy and way of life.

According to the Small Business Administration, SMBs (defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees) make up 99.9% of all U.S. firms and more than 46% of employed private sector workers. Among small businesses, sole proprietors or businesses with no employees other than the owner, make up 81% of all firms. SMBs accounted for 66% of the jobs added to the economy in the last 20 years. The number of SMBs continues to grow. This year in the first quarter, 1.31 million new business applications were filed.

Small businesses also play a key role in the social fabric of our communities, from your local coffee shop, to a high-tech start-up, or the family-run trucking company that moves goods around the country. These are the businesses that our families and friends run or work at. For tens of millions of people, small businesses represent the American dream.

We need these businesses to thrive. And in turn, SMBs need partners and networks they can rely on and trust. I’ve been around and served SMBs for more than 30 years, and in that time I’ve seen many SMBs succeed or fail by trusting the right—or wrong—people or businesses.

If you’re an SMB, how do you know who to trust? The answer will differ for every business, but here are the three types of trusted partnerships that I believe every SMB needs in order to be successful.

Trust in each other, and trust in yourself

When I started my first small business, Paycycle, I quickly learned the power of a network. I leaned on this learning when I started my second small business, Cashview (which later became BILL). Cashview’s business model relied on other small businesses signing up so they could view, pay, and receive invoices. I knew that for my business to succeed, I needed to earn the trust of my fellow SMBs. I also needed to trust myself not to disappoint those who had trusted me.

This is a common experience for small businesses. No small business, regardless of its sector or industry, operates alone. SMBs are part of an ecosystem of networks that serve, and rely on the service of other businesses, whether as vendors, suppliers, advisors, or service providers.

The size of this SMB ecosystem in our economy is remarkable. BILL has a network of more than 4.7 million SMBs across the U.S., and from this we are able to see unique data trends over time.

The data map below, for example, shows the networks among small businesses and vendors in the manufacturing sector. The circles represent BILL network businesses and merchants, and the lines between these represent connections. The colors represent transactions that originate in the various U.S. states.

This network map shows us the extraordinary web of connections between millions of small businesses that are working together in partnership. It also demonstrates the extent to which small businesses rely on each other to grow and thrive.

A simple analogy I like is that small businesses are not lonely islands floating in the ocean. Instead, they are part of an archipelago with established trade routes and a shared understanding of what it means to trust and rely on one another, so they can grow together.

This ecosystem and these networks can be the difference between success and failure for small businesses. I’ve also seen firsthand how these trusted networks help small businesses be resilient time and time again.

Understanding that you’re not alone, and that you’re part of a much bigger ecosystem of other businesses, also helps build and preserve that trust in yourself, in your business, and how you serve your customers.

For small businesses starting out or SMBs looking to scale, building your ecosystem takes time, patience and, of course, trust. It’s one of the best investments you can make in your business.

Customers’ trust in them

One of the most important trusted relationships for SMBs to develop is with their communities and customers.

Over the last few years there has been a decline in trust in our society. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows this decline in our broader community, but the report also shows that business still commands trust. In fact, business was the only institution seen as competent and ethical in the report.

While the results do not bode well for the other important institutions in our country, it is good news for small businesses. And when you look at the impact that small businesses have in their communities, it’s heartening to see this vote of confidence in them.

How do SMBs establish trust with their customers and communities to optimize their success? A lot of it comes down to delivering on what you say. I like to call this the “say/do ratio.” The closer you get to a ratio of 1:1, the higher the trust you build.

Your values are also an important compass that can help guide your business through decisions, strategies and crises. When you are consistent and stay true to these values, it fosters understanding and empathy with your customers. In turn, this strengthens the bonds of trust between you and your customer.

Trust in the businesses that serve them  

Just as small businesses rely on their networks and customers for support, so too must SMBs be able to trust and rely on the companies and institutions that serve them.

For example, small businesses put their trust in multinational and regional financial institutions every day. With ongoing discussions about the banking system, and events like the shuttering of Silicon Valley Bank in March, some SMBs called that trust called into question. While the impact of these recent events was of a vastly different scale and severity, I recall a similar lack of trust in our financial system 15 years ago, by many more small businesses during the global financial crisis.

Small businesses also rely on the services of many infrastructure companies to help them achieve their business goals. Technology and software companies, for example, are crucial partners for SMBs because we provide services and automation that can help their business grow efficiently. At BILL, we do this by staying true to our values and our commitments to accountability, by innovating and delivering tools that SMBs need and love, and by integrating a customer-first mindset through every aspect of our business.

These are also the traits that I encourage all SMBs to look out for when they are considering which companies or institutions to trust: A company or institution that honors accountability and transparency; one that offers services to empower you, and gives you more control over your business; and a company or institution whose values resonate with you.

Supporting SMBs 

Our society is built off the innovation and risk inherent in starting and running a small business. We have thrived because of our constant support of SMBs across the country. SMBs are the glue that bind our communities together. They are the job creators and innovators that will help power economic growth and our shared prosperity into the future. At the heart of SMBs’ ability to succeed is a foundation of trust.

Without trusted networks and a business ecosystem, SMBs cannot deliver for their customers. Without the trust of their customers, small businesses cannot survive. And without trusted partnerships with the companies and institutions that serve them, small businesses cannot thrive.

Whether you are an SMB, a consumer, or a large company or institution, we all have a role to play in fostering greater trust in our communities. In doing so, we can help support the resilience and success of SMBs—and this is a good thing for everyone.


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