Is there a specific formula to being a successful small-retail entrepreneur? Not necessarily. Some perfect their businesses by having a targeted plan of action, and others formulate a plan as they operate.

But one common trait for successful owners is the ability to know their customers and what they want. Small-business retailers separate themselves from the bigger stores in providing superior customer service; customers, in turn, value the relationship that they can often build with the retailer.

One challenge common to all small-retail businesses is the need for exposure and to find the best way of distinguishing their product from the sea of competition. Regardless of what the retailer is selling, however, it's always helpful to learn from others who have been there.

Learn by Doing

Gabriela de la Vega, president of high-end jewelry line

Gabriela de la Vega Designs, didn't have any prior experience in the field. She learned entirely by doing; de la Vega started making pieces with less expensive Swarovski crystals and then quickly upgraded to the precious stones she now uses in her collections.

Seven years ago, she started selling her unique pieces in trunk shows -- essentially private sales out of people's homes.

Crafting her own small business wasn't the original plan. "I didn't know I was starting a business. I didn't have a business plan. I learned every lesson the hard way," de la Vega says. "Everything I know I learned from doing it or by asking about how to do it."

Clearly, experience was not the deciding factor for her success. Her company now earns an impressive $100,000 to $300,000 a year.

What has been key is adaptability and attentiveness. De la Vega learned early on what it takes to have a successful trunk show, and to listen to what customers want.

"You have to be very organized. You have to promote

the show enough to make enough people come to make it worth your while. You have to take credit cards. Packaging is important; it doesn't have to be fancy, but it is essential. Basically,

you must avoid any obstacles that prevent your customers from being able to buy your product," de la Vega explains.

De la Vega also prides herself on her accessibility. As a small business owner, she can offer personalized customer care, by always returning calls and emails, and can guarantee high quality. She will replace one earring from a set, for instance, and the customer "won't have to wait four weeks for it," she says -- a service that most commercial jewelry makers won't match.

Of course, even successful businesses have their bad days. But as de la Vega counsels, "the difference between the people who make it and those who don't is

persistence." She still works 10 to 12 hour work days.

Where Experience Matters

Another successful small retailer is Tony Marinelli, president of

A. Marinelli Shoes, which he started in 1997.

Unlike de la Vega, Marinelli did have experience on his side: He previously co-founded popular shoe design and distribution company

Unisa in 1973.

As such, Marinelli was already very aware of the challenges for small retailers, especially from the big players like


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. However, that didn't deter him, and his Miami-based company now grosses approximately $11 million a year.

"It's difficult for fresh new blood to enter established stores like Macy's, which only want to do business with the big boys. They don't want to deal with small businesses because they want guaranteed results that you are going to perform," Marinelli explains.

At the same time, there has been some support from other retailers like


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, though, which has given Marinelli some of the opportunities necessary for the small players to compete. At Nordstrom, the retailer is able to approach the divisions of the company separately, which is different than at Federated.

And although discount retailer

T.J. Maxx

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is interested in well-known name brands, it also has shelf space for small lines -- Marinelli has designed an exclusive line of shoes just for its stores. "These companies are allowing the small businessman to thrive and flourish," says Marinelli.

In terms of future growth, Marinelli is continuing his worldwide focus. "I want to continue to grow in Europe and hopefully to small stores in Asia. We have to search for the ... independent customer, as it's difficult for us to sell to big organizations," he explains.

Attention to customers, knowledge of the industry (or a willingness to learn) and persistence are essential for small business retailers. But for all entrepreneurs, the first order of business is cultivating the qualities necessary for survival. "Whatever kind of business you start, whether it's a restaurant or retail, most don't survive the first three years. It's a difficult thing to start something from nothing ... It takes a lot of effort and willpower," says Marinelli.