The winner of America’s Top Small Business for 2023 is Elderly Instruments, a family-owned music store based in Lansing, Michigan, specializing in used and vintage instruments.
Elderly Instruments CEO Lillian Werbin was presented with the grand prize check for $25,000 at the Gala.
“It’s surreal. There are so many businesses that are deserving, and we feel really honored," Werbin said.
Elderly Instruments won for its ability to embrace change, adapt to challenges, and constantly innovate while remaining true to the company’s 50-year legacy and heritage. The second-generation store was one of seven finalists, all impressive small businesses that are an asset to their communities.
Established in 1972, Elderly Instruments buys, sells, trades, consigns, and repairs fretted instruments and accessories. The store’s passion for assisting musicians at every stage—and sharing the history and cultural heritage behind the instruments they are selling—has remained constant even amid a recent transition to the second generation of ownership.
The store played a vital role in the revitalization of Old Town Lansing when they expanded their brick-and-mortar footprint, breathing new life into the district. They sponsor and participate in numerous community music festivals, camps, and concerts that add to the vibrancy of Old Town Lansing and increase tourism to the state’s capital.
Elderly Instruments is a member of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and has over 40 employees. It recently implemented new, employee-driven core values to serve as the cornerstone of the company’s culture.
Congratulations to the entire Elderly Instruments team and all this year’s finalists. You make us proud to represent small businesses.
America's Top Business Summit and Awards Gala
After a record-breaking pool of over 15,000 applicants, the naming of the 70 top small businesses, and the selection of seven finalists, the winner of America's Top Small Business was finally announced.
The seven finalists gathered at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the ceremony. Earlier in the day, the finalists all participated in the America's Top Small Business Summit.
The Summit included success secrets from the finalists; exclusive insights from executives at Google, Walmart, and Meta; and innovative strategies for running and scaling up your small business.
Watch the America's Top Small Business Awards Gala below.
The Chamber's Small Business Impact
Small businesses are a priority for the U.S. Chamber every day of the year, not just during the Summit.
The vast majority of our members—90%—are small businesses and state and local chambers of commerce. The U.S. Chamber’s Small Business Council, also meeting here this week, is a key way the organization stays informed about what small businesses need. It consists of 100 small business owners from across the country who visit Capitol Hill, meet with lawmakers, and steer our work fighting for policies that make running their businesses easier.
The U.S. Chamber also works with and advocates for small business in other ways, including:
- Working shoulder-to-shoulder with our federation of state and local chambers of commerce across the country to advocate together with one strong voice on key policy matters.
- Partnering with MetLife to survey small businesses on a quarterly basis with the MetLife and U.S. Chamber Small Business Index—to inform our advocacy and help us tell policymakers how they can better help small businesses.
- Launching our Prompt Pay Pledge, calling for companies to pay their small business suppliers more quickly so they can invest and grow. (Intuit, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citadel, Siemens, AGCO, Alpha Technologies, and more than 25 other companies have already signed onto this pledge.)
- Helping more than six million small businesses a year start, run, and grow their small businesses through our small business digital platform, CO—.
Highlights: America's Top Small Business Summit
The Summit is another opportunity the Chamber provides for small businesses to connect, learn, and grow.
To access all the panels and speeches, watch the livestream below and see more highlights under the video.
U.S. Chamber CEO Highlights Work on Behalf of Small Business
First up at the Summit was U.S. Chamber President and CEO Suzanne P. Clark.
“Small business owners truly understand what a job means to an individual and a community. It means a steady paycheck, financial security, and support for a family. It means dignity, self-determination, accomplishment, and hope,” Clark said.
Clark spoke about the staying power America’s small businesses have shown again and again in the face of daunting challenges on the global, national, and local scale.
“It takes courage and sacrifice to start a small business. It takes grit and determination to keep it going. And it takes ideas and ingenuity to change the world,” Clark said. “You are the dreamers, the doers, and the innovators—and the Chamber exists to help you keep dreaming, keep doing, and keep innovating.”
Clark also highlighted the U.S. Chamber policy priorities for small business including fighting efforts to raise taxes, immigration reform to address the worker shortage, and international trade.
“When it comes to trade, more than 97% of the 270,000 American companies that export are small and medium-sized businesses, and they generate about one-third of U.S. merchandise exports,” Clark said. “That’s why the Chamber continues to push for a bold trade agenda, which would produce big benefits for working families and our small business job creators.”
Suzanne Clark: Read and watch her full keynote address
Clark also recalled her own time as a small business owner, adding that it helps drive and sustain her own personal commitment to representing America’s small businesses.
“Representing hundreds of thousands of small businesses is one of the most impactful things we do here at the Chamber,” Clark said. “It’s also something I’m deeply passionate about because I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve sat where you are sitting. We believe any business of any size should have a fighting chance to prove their value in the market, and we advocate tirelessly for the policy environment that allows you to create jobs, growth, and opportunity.”
Small Businesses Share How They Never Stop Evolving
During panel discussions during the Summit, the seven finalists for America’s Top Small Business shared their thoughts on how to start, grow, and expand your small business.
Many of them emphasized the importance of continually adapting and changing to meet new customer needs and seize new opportunities.
“My husband and I were building a business, we thought, for people like us. I was thinking about customers like me, and we realized early on that that was not who our customer base was. We had to teach our community and build our customer base and show them that we have an outdoor recreational community,” said April Peterson, co-owner of River Rock Outfitter. “Our superpower is that we can adapt and be flexible.”
Mark Estomin, owner of Calgo Gardens, said expanding out from the business of a “typical” garden center was one key to his small business’s success.
“We always asking ourselves: ‘What are we?’” said Estomin. “People don't associate a garden center with wellness and art. We do a lot of non-profit events. We give back to the community by bringing these non-profits in.”
The State of Small Business in 2023
Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber’s Executive Vice President, Chief Policy Officer, and Head of Strategic Advocacy, provided an update on where small business stands currently. He noted that despite challenges, including inflation and labor shortages, small business continues to persevere.
“Business is strong,” Bradley said. “We saw the second highest number of new small business starts in our history. So, every day, people are waking up in the midst of political chaos, global threats, 40-year-high record inflation, and they're saying, ‘I have a really good idea, and I have a plan, and I'm going to turn that into a business. I'm going to put my own capital and time on the line to turn that into a reality.”
Another topic Bradley was passionate about was the impact of organized retail theft on small businesses and how government must step up to protect businesses.
“Government has a really important role to play,” Bradley said. “And one of the most important roles is public safety and the protection of property. If you can't operate a safe store, if you can't be confident ... that people will be deterred and if not deterred, apprehended and punished for robbing your stores, for disturbing your customers … that's really hard to operate.”
Big Businesses Can Help Accelerate Small Business Growth
Leaders from Meta and Walmart took the stage to talk about how their companies have been helping small businesses in creative ways.
Ciara McCoy, Head of SMB Advocacy for North America at Meta, notes that one of the biggest ways Meta empowers small businesses is through social video, especially with Instagram Reels.
“Fifty percent of people spending time on our platforms are consuming video,” McCoy said. “That's what they're doing right now. And so we're continuing to invest in Reels, which allows businesses to create fun videos and tell their stories and then share their products.”
Walmart is another big business playing a critical role in serving small businesses, with the recently launched Walmart Business providing an ability to extend reach and sell to larger markets.
“Ninety percent of the U.S. population is within 10 miles of a Walmart store in this country,” Ashley Hubka, General Manager and Senior Vice President for Walmart Business, said. “And so that reach is really critical for people in small businesses to be able to get the items they need, whether that's walking into the store, it's pickup, and delivery from that store.”
How Small Businesses Are Building Community
Small businesses also discussed the importance of building community—whether the community is with their customers and employees or the wider community where they’re based.
Caitlin Drayna, Events & Community Engagement Coordinator, Shakopee Brewhall, a brewery and coffeehouse based in Minnesota, said she helps coordinate beer pairings with local restaurants and coffee pairings with local bakeries.
“We are trying to bring business to our downtown space…It boosts everyone,” said Drayna.
Denise Einkauf, Owner and President of Waggin’ Tails, an all-inclusive pet resort for cats and dogs in Fulshear, Texas, said her employees work on relationships with clients every day.
“We have to build trust. If people don’t trust us, they won’t trust their family with us,” said Einkauf.
Lillian Werbin, CEO and Co-Owner of Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Mich., said that her clients were more like family than customers and that they go to the same music shows and listen to the same albums.
“I have 25 employees that have worked with us for over 25 years,” Werbin said. “An instrument isn’t necessarily a family member—but it is a unique item, and it’s often a piece of art. So, the conversation that puts a unique instrument in someone’s hand is very personal. All our employees do understand that.”
How Small Businesses Are Finding—and Keeping—the Right Employees
Throughout the day, many of the small businesses spoke of their success and challenges finding the right employees. A task made even harder by the ongoing worker shortage.
“The type of people that we’re hiring, we have to be able to entrust them to go into someone’s estate or place of business and treat those assets as if they were their own,” said Dan Newman, founder, CEO & principal auctioneer, Alaska Premier Auctions & Appraisals, a full-service auction house based in Anchorage, Alaska. “If our clients don’t have the time, manpower, expertise, or desire to deal with this—they’re going to call us up. We have to be as bespoke and white glove as we can be.”
Will Chen, founder and CEO of P.L.A.Y. Pet Lifestyle and You, said finding the right workers is foundational to his company’s success.
“For us, the most important part is the recruitment process,” said Chen. “If they’re passionate about what they’re doing—they’re a good fit for us.”
Newman said taking care of employees helps ensure customers are treated well.
“We try to invest in our employees as much as possible,” Newman said. “The more we can help them be the best that they can be, the longer it’s going to pay dividends for our company…If we don’t take care of our employees, there’s no way they can take care of our clients.”
Google Leader Talks AI Solutions for Small Business
Wrapping up the series of panels for the Summit, Matt Madrigal, vice president and general manager of merchant shopping at Google, shared some tips for integrating AI into a small business’s daily operations.
With 23% of small businesses reporting that they are already using AI, Madrigal had some tips for small businesses looking to incorporate artificial intelligence in customer-service chatbots and other technologies.
“First, be super clear what problem you’re trying to solve,” Madrigal said. “Second, what are the success metrics that allow you to really measure how you’re doing once you integrate AI?...Do you feel like the service and response that you get are up to the standards for the way you want to talk to your customers in-person, in real life?”
Madrigal pointed to Google Lens, an image recognition app developed by the company, as one example of how AI is making shopping seamless between the “offline and online” worlds and has the potential to boost the typical brick-and-mortar retail experience.
Madrigal added that AI has the potential to radically transform how small businesses market and sell their products and that Google was on the cutting edge of developing new AI tools.
“We’re at this really exciting inflection point where we can leverage AI to be even more helpful for everyone,” Madrigal said. “We have to be both bold and responsible, and we acknowledge that there’s a healthy tension between the two.”