AP Business Writer

NEW YORK — The signs might be obvious, like a surge in the number of phone calls and e-mails from prospective customers. Or subtle: a staffer gets a job at a competing company because business is picking up throughout the industry.

Many small business owners are optimistic about 2011 not because of the economic reports that come out each month. They're getting the evidence from what's happening in their own businesses.

The holidays are usually a slow time for many public relations firms, including The Boreland Group. But owner Jennefer Witter had a surprising busy month.

“Never had I had new business outreach in December,” said Witter, whose company is based in New York.  Another surprise: The inquiries came from a variety of businesses, including a construction firm, a non-profit group, a skin care company and a hedge fund.

PR agencies are often good indicators of how the economy is doing because marketing is one of the first budget items a customer cuts in tough times. It's also one of the first things customers think about when they're ready to start prospecting for new business again.

“There's a lot of business planning for 2011,” Witter said.

So instead of being off the last week of December, she spent the time writing marketing plans for prospective clients.

In an entirely different business, retailing, Renee Wood found December to be busier than expected too. Wood's firm, The Comfort Co., sells gifts and mementos for people who have lost loved ones. During the recession, she saw her sales fall as customers bought cheaper items. Instead of spending $45, she said, they tended to spend $35 or $25.

But, during the summer, customers began spending more. “It did lead into a strong fourth quarter for us,” Wood said. That included the company's best December ever.

Although there are some concerns that consumers may cut back their spending now that the holidays are over, Wood anticipates that January will also be a strong month. The fact is the death rate goes up the first month of the year.

Janice Brown is also optimistic about 2011, even though she thinks “people are still a little bit on the cautious side.”

Brown owns Chicago-based Tails Pet Media Group Inc. which publishes print and online magazines about pets, rescue and adoption in 17 cities. She has seen fewer commitments from national advertisers than she estimated but said “we still have many proposals pending — far more than last year at this time.”

“We know that it'll pick up in February-March,” Brown said, adding that “bigger companies take longer to come in.”

Jack Kelly, who owns a Screenmobile franchise in Sarasota, saw his revenue from screen windows and doors cut in half during the past three years as the housing market plunged. He's cautiously optimistic now that the Republican Party will control the House of Representatives. He believes the change in Congress will help consumers feel more confident, which will, in turn, help energize the housing market.

“Before they start purchasing new homes and new condos … they're going to begin the process of renovating so they can sell,” Kelly said.

Right now, though, Kelly isn't having the busy season he should normally have during the winter, when the homeowners known as snowbirds arrive and spruce up their homes. But many people don't go to Florida until January, so he's hoping for an uptick then.