Thursday, April 30, 2015

Marketing tips

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     to help you better manage your small business.

     Markets continually change. Keeping up with what's going on in the marketplace is part of running your small business. In today's fast-paced world, it ain't easy.

     The key is simple. Always give the market what it wants. Customers and clients give you the clues. It's up to you to find ways to be successful.

     Example: Alex is a struggling artist. His large abstract paintings have attracted attention, and he has made sales. But buyers are few and far between. He is confident that in the long run he will be successful. The problem for Alex was how to get through the time it will take until he sells enough of his work to support his family. The answer came unexpectedly at a show he was attending. He overheard several people saying that there was nothing inexpensive enough to be considered as gifts for friends. It was a clue to a market segment Alex had not considered. He began turning out small paintings, quickly done, framed, and at reasonable prices. These began selling on his website, at shows, and to gift shops. Now he doesn't worry about income while he concentrates on his larger, more expensive, abstracts--still his long-term goal. 

     Example: Nicole is a Pilates expert. She has her own studio where she sees clients. To exploit people's growing interest in fitness and wellness, she got her instructor's certification. She now teaches Pilates to others interested in the field while still seeing private clients. It is an extension of what she was already doing, but the teaching sessions bring in additional income and have resulted in referrals of more private clients. 

     Example: Mary inherited her mother's small consignment shop. It was long-established and filled with vintage collectibles, games and toys, jewelry and small antiques--no clothing. Mary expanded the shop's market reach by using eBay and Etsy to sell long distance. With an eye to the marketplace, Mary turned a local destination consignment shop into a healthier business. Consignments still come from a wide, but local, area. But sales are to customers far and near. The marketplace Mary now serves is very different from her mother's pre-Internet days. 

     A big part of managing your small business is staying on top of the ever-changing marketplace. The market is not stagnant. Sometimes, the change is in what people want. Other times, it's technology that is changing the marketplace.

     Your clients and customers move with the times. To keep up, to stay on top of it, to get ahead, you must be willing to take a step beyond today.

     Your clients and customers tell you where the market is headed. They usually do not say it outright. You must read between the lines. Watch. Listen. The clues are there.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Disaster planning

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     Disasters happen. Fires, floods, burglaries can strike at any time. A key employee can fall down stairs at home and be laid up for weeks.

     Running your own small business means that you are your own back-up. It will pay off to think about disasters ahead of time. Before the electric goes out for a week, how will your business survive? If your landlord serves you notice to vacate the building, where will you go? If Facebook changes the rules, how will you promote?

     Anything can happen. Big companies have deep pockets and other resources to ride out disasters. But your small business depends on your ingenuity in facing the unthinkable. 

     Example: Jim runs a small computing services firm. The main component of his business is to continually monitor the operating systems of larger firms, assuring them of uninterrupted and problem-free service. He is set up to electronically repair computing problems remotely. He has three employees. One morning, the husband of a key employee called Jim with bad news. The wife had fallen and broken her back--she would not be coming to work for several weeks. Now, with only two employees, Jim was left with a major problem on his hands. He had to scramble to cover the work she would no longer be doing. Her technical knowledge meant that Jim had to substitute himself during her absence. It was a valuable lesson--when she came back to work, Jim set about cross-training his small staff so that each of them could jump in on a moment's notice. 

     Example: Mary is an expert in massage. Over several years, Mary built up her client base and went looking for bigger space. She was careful not to consider ground-floor space because the river sometimes flooded the Main Street. She didn't want stairs involved because some of her clients could not manage stairs. She found suitable space accessible by a ramp in a building with offices that were several feet above ground level. Mary's careful planning paid off. When the river suddenly flooded, Mary's offices were high and dry.

     Example: Ella runs a small graphic arts firm. The business was going well when suddenly the landlord informed her that she had 60 days to vacate the space. The lease gave the landlord that option. It also provided that the landlord would buy out the remaining months of the lease--a clause Ella had insisted on when she signed the original lease. Since there were two years remaining in the lease, Ella received a sizable cash payment from the landlord. She used the money to move, buy new equipment, and add an employee. The disruption in on-going work was significant, but Ella turned disaster into a positive growth option.

     Thinking ahead and planning for the unthinkable can help you sleep better at night. Now, what will you do when the electric goes down for a week? 

     Fire and flood, even key employees, can be covered by insurance. But the best insurance will be in your planning ahead for any eventuality.    

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Promote, promote

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     Small business should never be static. Either you're growing or you're in danger of falling behind. Treading water is not a good option.

     The business environment, like the weather, is always changing. What worked last year might not work as well this year. Keep your ear to the ground and try new things. 

     Example: Dale is trained and certified in acupuncture. He set up a place and has a growing list of clients. To grow more, he set aside a large room where several people can lie down, relax in a communal setting. These are short, inexpensive, stress-reducing sessions. It's quiet and no electronics of any kind are allowed. Individuals pay $20 for a short session. To attract more attention, Dale offers discounts to those who bring along a friend. He posts pictures on Facebook and short explanations on LinkedIn. Many of his clients are corporate types looking to relieve the stresses of their work. They spread the word and more referrals come in. Best of all, it's working to bring in more private clients with problems that require longer sessions.

     Example: Cheryl runs a fitness center. She tried joining several networking groups with limited results. She knew she could do better. She went on and formed her own networking group for people looking to lose weight, get in better shape, and deal with post-surgery problems. Her monthly sessions have become a popular community gathering. Regulars look forward to interacting with others, and they bring new attendees. Cheryl spreads the word on Facebook, LinkedIn and MeetUp. The result has been a great deal of publicity for her fitness center, and she has signed up additional private clients.

     Example: Vicky runs a small neighborhood restaurant. She serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. She knows that her reputation is spreading because new people are showing up. To speed up the process, Vicky had coupons printed offering one dollar off any meal. These are printed to suggest the size and color of real money. (You cannot print a dollar bill unless you want a visit from the Treasury people.) Vicky hands out these coupons every time someone pays their bill, encouraging everyone to take a couple extra to hand out to friends. Her regulars gladly promote Vicky's restaurant. One dollar coupons work much better than percentage off coupons.

     Inexpensive promotional ideas are everywhere. Try something and build on it. Notice that these examples cost the business owner little to put in place. But the results are real. 

     Promoting your business is an on-going activity. And promoting can take many forms. I frequently write about promotions that any small business can use--see previous write-ups. 

Starting up

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     Hobbies and interests can point to starting up, or expanding, a small business. It's a matter of figuring out who you are and then targeting the marketplace.

     Example: As he was growing up, Bill worked in his father's auto repair shop. When his father retired, Bill took over the shop. But Bill's interests extended beyond replacing alternators and exhaust pipes. He began taking on collision repair jobs, establishing a body and paint shop on the grounds next to the repair shop. This got Bill into a much bigger market. Gradually, he grew even more by taking on restoration jobs--returning an aging muscle car built in the 1970s to its former glory. Today, Bill still handles repairs and collision work, but muscle car restorations are the main thrust of the business. This market extends far and wide--well beyond the area where his business is located.

     Example: Dawn loved jigsaw puzzles and board games, and she hated her corporate job. She had collected hundreds of these over the years, and her husband encouraged her to open a small shop. They found a place on a side street in an up-and-coming town and rented it. He built shelves and the two of them painted the place. They found a large farm table, fitted it with a glass top, and surrounded it with chairs from thrift shops. Dawn searched yard sales for more jigsaw puzzles, board games, and video games. Soon the shop was filled with things that attracted customers. Two nights each week, Dawn convenes a community event around the big table--generating interest and bringing in referrals. She generates more interest using social media and by selling on eBay. It's taken some time, but Dawn now equals her paycheck at her former corporate job--and she is happy running her own operation. 

     Example: Bob was a CPA working in the tax department of a large company. He often wondered how he came to be stuck in his position. His interests were in gardening--in his spare time, he raised many vegetables in the big yard behind the family's home. He decided to make a change--with a transitioning time. He built raised beds in the yard, covering them with plastic, and planting several types of lettuce. When the lettuce was ready, Bob gathered several bundles and went calling on local restaurants to see if there was interest in farm-fresh, organically-raised greens. What he found surprised him--every bundle was sold in an hour or so. Bob came home with more orders in hand. He is now in the process of expanding his raised beds to cover the back yard, and he is looking forward to the day when he can do what he loves and leave the company job behind.

     Many people in corporate America have exchanged their hearts and souls for a regular paycheck doing something they don't like to do. Many are also discovering the joys of being their own boss by setting up a small business. 

     Making the transition is not easy, but it is possible. Working hard in your own business is much more satisfying than working hard for someone else. 

     Do a personal inventory. What interest of yours can form the basis for a small business? Remember, if you're interested, others are as well--and they are your target market. 

     Keep in mind that several giants in computing technology never finished college and they started out tinkering in their garage. Your interests might not revolutionize technology, but a small business can support you and your family, and it might grow into something larger.   

Friday, April 24, 2015

Paths to growth

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     There are two ways to grow a small business. One is slow, the other is quick.

     Growing slowly means you can expand at the rate your business generates excess cash. You can plow the money back into the business--buying equipment, hiring an employee, or renting a bigger space. 

     Growing quickly means you might need to borrow the money to grow on. Or find another way to get where you want to go. 

     Example: Bill is a massage therapist. He got his training, license, and certification and began to build a client base. He worked alone, and that suited him. He networked and offered free demonstrations at events to attract more clients. Soon, he was giving massages full time. His was a single operator business, limited by his own efforts. To grow, he had to increase his prices--finding clients willing to pay more.

     Example: Ed is also a massage therapist--trained, licensed and certified. He wanted to get established and then grow into a larger operation. His long-term plan was to operate a wellness center offering massage and other holistic therapies to a wider client base. To this end, Ed began bringing in other single-operator therapists--nutritionists, yoga specialists, hypnotists specializing in pain management and eating habits. He rented a larger space and brought the specialists with him. Today, Ed is operating a growing wellness center--with plans to purchase the building. 

     Example: Judy, too, is a massage therapist. She also began by working alone, but she had ideas to expand. Using her client base developed over several years, Judy began contacting other wellness specialists, gradually putting together a group of single operators on call for their particular specialty. This resulted in an organization of certified experts in various wellness fields. Then she provided these services to medical doctors, wellness centers, spas, corporate health centers, and others. With only a website, social media and a home office, Judy now manages a growing group of specialists--on call to provide their services. She has grown with very little money outlays.

     Working alone in your small business, you are ultimately limited by what you alone can do. Time puts the damper on expansion. You can alleviate this to some extent by targeting high income clients and charging more. But, ultimately, that, too, will limit your growth and income. 

     Pathways to growth, however, are open to you. And growth does not necessarily mean an input of funds from a loan. Patience, ingenuity and creativity can help you find your own road ahead. 

     To find pathways to growing your own small business, consider all the alternatives. It's a matter of deciding where you want to be and then working out the map to get you there.      

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Managing money

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     Managing a small business means managing money. If all your expenses and payments add up to less than income, you can point to a healthy bottom line.

     Even so, there is never enough money to do all the things you want to do. It comes down to a juggling process--matching income with expenses. This is like a juggler juggling only two balls. 

     Good business people juggle three balls. That third ball is the money that's left over after all the bills are paid. That third ball is growth capital. It's the excess dollars you can use to expand your business.

     Example: Nancy runs a flower shop. Income exceeds expenses, but there is little left over after all the bills were paid. She decided to make a big push for Mother's Day since it represented the biggest day of the year for flower orders. She blasted out emails to current and former customers. She took dozens of pictures and posted them on Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. She reminded people of Mother's Day on Twitter. With little expense, Nancy put her flower shop in front of hundreds of people in the area. Orders began arriving and Nancy had to hire several part time helpers to handle the work. With the excess bottom line dollars generated by Mother's Day sales, Nancy planned to add a big new line of silk flowers and arrangements. This would expand her business to include corporate offices, banks, and other organizations looking for revolving flower arrangements to beautify their establishments.

     Example: Alex runs a home improvements business. Projects typically run $5,000 to $25,000. He requires 1/3 at contract signing, 1/3 when an agreed-upon milestone is reached, and 1/3 at the completion of the project. The projects are therefore almost self-financing. Alex is careful to separate the accounting for each project, and he is very much aware that the bottom line excess, or profit, is in that last payment--not upfront. This money management scheme has allowed Alex to grow confidently--those last payments have funded his addition of new equipment and workers. 

     Example: Judy is a certified Pilates specialist. She used her personal credit cards to get into business--paying for training and equipment. It took many clients, both private and group sessions, to pay off the bills Judy had run up on her credit cards. Using credit cards means borrowing money, and that means paying interest charges. It's a higher rate of interest than you might get with a bank loan, but sometimes, it's the only way out. Do this only with your eyes wide open, and when there is no other way. Judy has a long term plan to eventually establish her own wellness center. It will take many months to pay back all the credit card borrowings, but with self discipline, Judy will eventually be able to realize her dream. 

     The general public, politicians, and all your friends and neighbors believe that owners of small businesses are millionaires. Of course, they have no idea what it means to run a business, having never done it themselves. They know little of business or economics.  

     In business, you learn to manage money or you won't survive. You understand cash flow. It's the acid burn in your gut when there's not enough money to pay the bills. It's also the good feeling you get when there's money left over after all the bills are paid every month. That's the money you can use to grow and expand. 

     Managing money in small business takes ingenuity, creativity, and a willingness to take risk. Taking a risk is not like rolling the dice. Taking a risk is seeing a likely path forward--no matter the obstacles.     



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Using catalogs

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     Catalogs have a long and colorful history. For more than a century, catalogs brought the world to the mailboxes of Americans everywhere. In the past, you could order an automobile or a whole house from a catalog. 

     Times change. Today, you are more likely to find a catalog in your email inbox than in your mailbox. The basic idea of the catalog has moved with technology.

     Example: Oscar has been running a garden center for years. He expanded by putting up greenhouses and growing annuals and perennials, herbs and vegetables--serving the local retail and wholesale markets. When competition became too stiff, Oscar made a change. Today, he has eliminated the former items and concentrates on unusual plants in the greenhouses. In the fields, he grows many types of hostas and daylilies. His catalogs are online, accessed through his website, and he ships anywhere in the country. He uses social media (Facebook, etc.) to point people to the catalogs. 

     Example: Mary has an upscale gift shop. She makes jewelry herself--one of a kind pieces that appeal to her regular customers. To expand her reach, Mary decided on two approaches. (1) She invited a select group of artists to consign handmade items in her gift shop. This gave the shop a broader appeal. In addition to the jewelry, she now offers selections of fiber art, paintings, photographs, glass pieces, and woodworking. (2) She established her gift shop on Viewers far and near can browse through her catalog of items online and place their orders. The catalog is easy to update and maintain. 

     Catalogs can be useful in many businesses. Products can include women's fashion, gifts, trendy housewares, furniture, unusual plants, cigars, chocolates, coffee, teas, and more. In addition there are catalogs offering courses of instruction in various subjects. 

     You can catalog your items on your own website or you can use sites like Etsy to offer your goods to a wide audience. 

     Printed catalogs are expensive to produce and mail. But you can avoid this by using today's social media combined with your own website, or one that reaches a wider audience. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Health expansions

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     Pathways to better health offer good business opportunities. After all, everyone is looking to improve their health. 

     The medical field is wide open today. People are looking beyond the pill popping solutions of the recent past, and they are eyeing alternative methods to feeling better, living longer, and tackling ills. Healthy living has taken center stage.

     Specialists of many types have entered the health arena. Chiropractors, nutritionists, herbalists, wellness and holistic practitioners and more are rushing in to fill the void. Small businesses are being structured around life coaching, aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, massage, yoga, and many more possibilities. 

     Traditional medical establishments, clinics, and others in the fields of health are taking note. Integrative medical offices today regularly bring in experts in various wellness modalities to offer patients a wider range of healthy alternatives.

     Example: Cheryl is a chiropractor. She opened her office and immediately began looking around to expand. Networking her way through the holistic and alternative health communities, she homed in on several specialists--experts in massage, nutrition, yoga and the use of hypnosis to help people lose weight or stop smoking. Separately, these small businesses struggle as independents. Together, Cheryl convinced them that they could form a wellness center that would appeal to a wider public. It has been a successful expansion, and she is now adding a licensed acupuncturist to the group. The new wellness center's website is comprehensive but easy to navigate. And a social media presence brings in referrals.

     Example: Massage therapists, nutritionists, hypnotherapists and holistic practitioners can benefit by coming together in a shared location. Justin offers various types of massage. He brought together several different therapists in a single location. Each of the experts has a private office in a building that was formerly a dentist's offices. They share the common areas (restrooms, receptionist, waiting room and utilities) and the expenses of the building, including the monthly rent. The arrangement amounts to a wellness center operating as a cooperative, and it offers each of the specialists more than each might be able to afford acting alone. They regularly hold talks and demonstrations, free and open to the general public. This, along with social media, brings in more and more people concerned with their health.  

     Example: A local medical center is run privately by the medical doctors who see patients there. They regularly bring in alternative practitioners--acupuncturists, Pilates experts, nutritionists, hypnotherapists, experts in Chinese medicine, and others. These additional specialists can be particularly helpful with post-surgery patients, pain management, exercise and healthy eating habits. It is working out well for both the traditional medical establishment and the newer alternative medical specialists. Events and seminars attract a public thirsty for information. 

     Health concerns by everyday people are driving an expansion in the medical field. No specialist will ever be on call to remove your appendix on your kitchen table. But delivering babies at home? It's already being done. 

     What's old is new again. I was myself delivered in my mother's bedroom--assisted by a neighboring farm wife acting as midwife. And every spring I gather dandelion leaves and cook up a pot of greens as a seasonal tonic.

     It's foolish to leave behind everything that worked in the past. Some things have been tested through trial and error over generations. Re-examine? Yes! Discard? No! And that's what's happening in medicine today. 

     Business opportunities for therapists and other alternative medical specialists are opening up at a fast pace. Step outside your specialty, and look around with your business eye.     


Monday, April 20, 2015

Starting decisions

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     Deciding what business to go into is a perplexing problem for many. It need not be. If you are sorting through several possibilities, you need to step back and take a fresh look at yourself.

     You have several interests that you are passionate about. For some, it's physical fitness. For others, it's gardening or video games or music or dozens of other pursuits.

     So you begin with yourself. Among your interests, is there one that can be made into a business? The answer is yes. Any interest can be turned into a business. 

     Next question. Can the business be grown into a size that I will be comfortable managing? Now, this is when the difficulty begins. Be honest with yourself. Do you want to work alone as a one-person business? Or do you want to grow into a multi-employee business?

     These questions must be answered before you begin your new business.

     Example: Jesse began playing guitar as a youngster. In high school he was a member of a band. That was 10 years ago. He decided to turn his interest in guitar into a small business built around music. He began teaching guitar to others and built up a following. He decided to open a small music shop where he sells and repairs guitars. Today, he is still a one-person business, supporting his family. He still plays in local bands. 

     Example: Matt loved sailing. Whenever he had time away from his corporate position, he was at the local lake. Deciding he would make a transition, Matt began offering informal sailing lessons to others. His reputation spread. He got himself certified as an instructor in water safety. He began giving group as well as private lessons. When he was ready, he quit his corporate job and set up a small sail shop at the lake. Today, he sells sailing gear and supplies and sailboats. It took several years to make the transition, but today Matt is happy. 

     Example: The arts and crafts field offers many opportunities to establish a small business. Artists and artisans today offer painting and pottery, fibers and wools, beads and beading, wood turning, basketry, quilting, glass, metal work and many others. They can work alone or ban together to work with others--the choice is theirs. They set up websites and are on social media, attracting widespread attention. Some are members of co-ops which attract more attention from the buying public than single studios. Others offer their creations through gift shops--or they establish a high end gift shop themselves. But all of them turn their passion into a business. 

     Deciding where to start can be frustrating. The answers to starting decisions are inside you. Start with what you know and what you are interested in. Then you build. 

     Deciding what business to go into is similar to the young person's complaint--I don't have the experience to get the job I want, but I can't get the experience without having the job. This is a lame excuse at best. Just do it. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Percent vs. dollars

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     Every business can use sales to build traffic and move goods and services. Sales can take different forms. Inventory can be marked down, dollars-off coupons can be offered, and then there is the "50% off everything" banner strung across the entrance.

     "Dollars off" and "percent off" notices attract the attention of your present clients/customers as well as people who have never done business with you. But what's the difference?

     Example: Gretchen runs an upscale shop specializing in women's clothing and accessories. From time to time she held a sale, putting much of the merchandise at 20% discount. She decided to try another approach. She put the word out that certain items would be offered at dollar discounts. Some items were $20 off, others $50 off. When she used "dollars off" as opposed to "percent off" the results were noticeably better.

     A variation of this occurs with big ticket items. New cars are frequently advertised with "$1,000 cash to buyer" at the time of sale. It draws more attention in a more positive way than offering a percentage off the price of the car. 

     Example: Gustav runs a small auto repair shop. He uses coupons to attract attention of current and future customers. Side by side, coupons offer $10 off an oil change and 10% off other auto services. His coupons appear in print (ads, flyers, postcards) and on the Internet (social media, website, emails). The $10 off coupon brings people into the shop, and the 10% off coupon brings them back. 

     Percent vs. dollars off is all about the perception created in the minds of the people you want to attract. It is next to impossible to pass by that $10 bill you see on the sidewalk--so you bend over and pick it up. Not so with percent off. 

     The next time you want to do a little promotion, try the "dollars off" method. A coupon that is worth a dollar is a coupon that is just like the dollar bill in your wallet. It's perceived as money. Either people use it themselves, or they pass it on to a friend. 

     Get creative in promoting. Use both percent and dollars off and test out the results. It might surprise you and get you onto another way to grow. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Business back-ups

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    Customers and clients don't want to hear about your problems. They have problems, too. This means that your small business cannot afford to go dark. No reason is good enough.

    Equipment breaks down. Employees call in sick. Suppliers suddenly go bankrupt. Many things can go wrong. It's up to the business owner to anticipate problems that can occur. And have in place business back-ups.

    Example: Elena specializes in finishing kitchens and baths with tile, granite, marble, slate and other materials. Most of the work is with ceramic and porcelain tiles imported from all over the world. She must know and stay in contact with many suppliers who can vary widely in products, availability and price. She has made it part of her business model to keep abreast of the market and maintain alternate suppliers. A client-specified porcelain tile might be in inventory at one supplier at a high price, but it can be delivered in two weeks at another supplier at a much lower price. Elena juggles suppliers against need, price and schedules. 

     Example: Eric runs a rug and carpet cleaning service. He serves residential and commercial accounts. Jobs are scheduled days in advance, and Eric sends two employees to each job in fully equipped vans. He cross-trains his employees in cleaning techniques and use of equipment--this gives him flexibility and back-up. Sometimes, employees call in sick the day of a scheduled appointment. This means Eric must substitute employees to meet schedules. When he runs out of substitutions, Eric jumps in the van himself. 

     Example: Dan runs a mid-sized printing operation. He has anticipated equipment breakdowns by having duplicate presses and computers to handle jobs without interruption. He also made arrangements with a friendly competitor--if his shop had a big problem, jobs could be farmed out to the competitor and vice-versa. Both realized that getting the job done on time was more important than competition. 

     There is never an excuse good enough to let down a client. They have their own problems, and you must fit into their schedules.

     Backing up your operation is critical to ultimate success. You back up employees, equipment, suppliers, and anything else that can interfere with on-time deliveries. 

     Business back-ups include your clients as well. Sooner or later, you'll lose every client you have. You back them up by having a stream of new clients coming on board.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Choosing a business

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     It seems everybody I've ever met has dreamed of starting a business. It's a common phenomenon. Then the dream gets lost in the weeds.

     They think about a dozen different businesses. This might work, but I don't have the money. That is a good idea, but I don't know enough about it. Gradually they talk themselves out of every possibility. 

     In short, weeks turn into years and they keep showing up at their day job. It's easier than making the break. And, besides, I'm too old to start a business. 

     Your age has nothing to do with when you might start a business. Neither does money. You can still start a business in your home, in your spare time, with little money. 

     Starting a business has to do with you, your passions, your interests. You can start a business built around the things that interest you.

     If you are interested in something, others are also interested. They represent your market. The business you establish brings together your passion with the marketplace. Your business matches your interests with the interests of customers and clients.

     Easy examples: (1) Jason collected post cards--you know, the picture post cards showing buildings and bridges. They were popular 50 and 100 years ago. Every city and town had post cards showing the sights. Jason's day job was in accounting, but his nights and weekends were spent chasing down small collections of post cards. When his collection numbered over 10,000, Jason quit his accounting job and spent full time buying and selling post cards--at conventions, on eBay, and directly to other collectors. (2) Roberto had many LPs from the early days of rock, blues, and pop. He was passionate about the sound that LPs produced and had several stereo systems on which he played them. His LPs dated from the 1950s to the 1990s. Suddenly he discovered that there was a wide spread interest in older LPs. He set up a website and put the word out on social media. Today, Roberto's business supports his family. He sells to a marketplace that is world-wide. (3) Jennifer has done a similar thing with beer cans and bottles. (4) Margaret concentrates on items made of glass. (5) Bill is into old tools. (6) Jon turned his matchbook collection into a business.

     Harder examples: (1) Ruth turned her interest in gluten-free foods into a small store that offers all sorts of food specialties. Her customers are people who want nut-free, sugar-free, GMO-free, lactose-free and other foods. (2) Carl is one of Ruth's suppliers. He set up his bakery to provide the types of foods that health-conscious customers wanted. (3) Gwen decided that pizza had another life. She set up her pizza shop with all imported inputs. Her oven came from Italy, and the flours, tomatoes, garlic and herbs come from there as well. 

     Your small business might never turn into a Microsoft or Apple, but the principles are the same. Do what you are passionate about, target the marketplace, and never look back. 

     Choosing the business to go into is not an easy task. But you always begin with yourself. Start with what you're passionate about and build out from there to find your market.      



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Galloping technology

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     Technology moves at an incredible speed. Getting a website for your small business was an early concern. But we've moved far beyond that first website.

     Today's technology offers many alternatives to finding and keeping clients and customers. There are many choices. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and more--all these represent paths to growing a business. 

     Then came the app. Many big companies try to reel us in with apps. But the big boys are still learning the ropes. Some do a good job, others not so much.

     Apps differ drastically from the older website. Content on websites is usually lengthy and requires some navigation. Content on apps is very brief and to the point.

     Example: Justine runs a restaurant serving people from a wide area. Many of these customers come from local corporations, businesses, and professional offices. In the past, Justine sent out faxes to regulars showing the special of the day. This brought in diners for lunch who otherwise might have gone elsewhere. But faxes are so, well, yesterday. Justine discontinued the fax in favor of an app for mobile phones. This has taken ordering to a whole new level. Customers now order ahead and their meal is ready when they arrive. Justine still posts on Facebook her mouth-watering creations, and the website still shows the entire menu. But the app has captured the attention of many more.

     Today's tech-savvy customers do not waste their time trying to find you. Today, it's more and more about them, not you. They lose interest with anything that's hard to navigate, that takes multiple steps to get what they are looking for, or that lose track of where they were when they interrupt the experience. 

     Examples: Apps have exploded in popularity. If you are not quite ready to have your own app, consider the other social media. Facebook offers an easy alternative for small businesses. You can post for free or you can buy ads. The list of users is endless--restaurants, dress shops, cafes and pizza shops, fitness centers, gift shops, chiropractors, holistic practitioners, auto repairers, galleries and artists and artisans. Quick pictures uploaded to your social media pages attract customers and referrals. 

     Get on board today's galloping technology. If you already have a website, take it to the next level with Facebook.  Consider having your own app. Hey! You have to keep up. Apple is changing the way you'll get paid in the future. One day you'll be explaining to tomorrow's kids just what a credit card was. 

     The marketplace is on the move. Galloping technology provides the horsepower today. Are you still driving a stagecoach? How about slipping behind the wheel of a Lamborghini?   

Monday, April 13, 2015

Speeding up referrals

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     Everyone in business knows the value of referrals. Referrals come to you on the wings of another's reputation. Mary mentions you and your work to Janice who calls you. 

     Referrals happen quite naturally. And they happen all the time. People love to talk to others and your business can come up in their conversations. 

     You can speed up this process using all sorts of methods. Today's social media can put older advertising methods to shame. Facebook is much quicker and more effective than an ad placed in the local newspaper. 

     Example: John is a plumber. He did not renew his telephone book ad when it ran out. Instead, he put the word out on Facebook--posting pictures now and then showing leaky faucets. The pictures were reminders that everyone needs a plumber--sooner or later. John got calls as the referrals went around the neighborhood.

     Fitness centers, salons, wellness centers, bakeries, garden centers, and others use social media to extend their referral reach these days. But some older methods still work beautifully.

     Example: Takisha opened her small neighborhood restaurant offering meals based on her mother's recipes. After the initial grand opening activity, business settled into a ho-hum routine. She knew that, if she could get more people through the door, they would become regulars--and bring even more people. To spread the word, she had some special cards printed. One side showed a colorful picture of a plate overflowing with food. The other side was printed like a coupon--present the card and receive any menu item at half price. The card was not to be used by the customer but passed on to a friend, and there was an expiration date. Soon the cards began to come back in, and Takisha saw faces she had not seen before. For the price of one half-price menu item, she doubled her customer base by putting regulars to work in the field. She continues using this method about 2 or 3 times each year. 

     Example: Robert runs a small construction company. He handles projects small and large. To grow he actively follows up with clients by visiting them, ferreting out any problems they might have, nails down any future work they might be planning, and he asks for referrals. These follow-ups enhance Robert's reputation and keep his construction capabilities fresh in their minds. Many of his customers refer people to Robert, especially since Robert reminds them what he can do by following up. 

     When you go looking for ways to speed up the referrals, don't ignore methods that have worked in the past. Social media can be very effective, but older methods can still work. The trick is to get the balance in place that works for you and your business. 

     Asking for referrals still works. If you have a good relationship with your clients and customers, they won't mind being asked to refer others to you. As with anything else, don't become a pest about it. 


Friday, April 10, 2015

Goodbye corporate

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     Leaving corporate America to start a small business can be an education in itself. I know, because I did it.

     Lucky for me, I grew up in a family of small businesses. Drawing on that past experience, I was prepared for the daily activities of running a small business. 

     In corporate America, you don't worry so much about absent employees, finding new clients and customers, cash flow shortfalls, and cleaning the place up on a regular basis. In small business America, you are your own back-up. 

     Example: Catherine had a successful career at a major corporation. When the company offered early retirement packages, she took advantage of it and left with a substantial payout. She took some time off and looked around for a small business. She homed in on a fast food franchise, joined the local chamber, and proudly held a grand opening. Then the hard lessons came--fast and furious. She dealt with kitchen inspectors and signage people, she mopped the floor when the cleaning people didn't show up, she calmed upset customers, she jumped in the cook fell ill. Exhausted, Catherine sold the business. Today, she makes pottery in her garage studio and is building a business she loves.

     In corporate America, other departments are at your beck and call. Someone else can handle all the small problems. If there is a big problem, you hold a meeting. 

     In small business America, you are it. You handle whatever comes up. The hands you depend on are at the ends of your own arms. And there's no time for meetings. 

     Example: John also took an early retirement package from a major company. He had long experience as a company sales representative, and he had built up a substantial list of satisfied clients. John invested his payout in municipal bonds. Then he started a one-man business as an independent manufacturer's representative. He was careful not to compete with his former employer, but the clients knew him and he knew them and they needed other products and services. John used these relationships to quickly build a business of his own. 

     Most of the people I ever knew in corporate America have thought about leaving. There is something about being your own boss that is very appealing. 

     When you decide to leave, look in the mirror. Are you up to running your own operation? Do you know the business you are considering getting into? Do you have enough money to last at least a year with no paycheck? And, most importantly, what is the market for what you are considering? Where is that market headed? What is the competition? With the marketplace in mind, can you see your way clearly ahead? 

     The market for your products/services forms the basis for a business plan. All the pieces of your business plan come down to the bottom line. Numbers don't lie. 

     Corporate America and small business America live on different planets. They speak different languages. The culture is completely different. Before you jump, consider it carefully. 

     If you leave corporate America to establish your own small business, make certain that it is something you love. You must be passionate about the business you go into. That way, you won't mind all those dirty little details--like mopping the floor.   

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Exploiting trends

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     The marketplace and the economy, regulations and competition, galloping technology--you're sailing your small business boat on an ocean full of sharks. But the biggest and badest shark is the marketplace. 

     The marketplace can put the wind at your back or it can rip your sails apart. The marketplace can change directions with the slightest breeze. Fads and fashions come and go, but longer term marketplace trends give you more time for success. 

     Some marketplace trends are more stable than others. They last longer. While last year's phone can suddenly appear dated, other trends take years to develop, peak, and decline.

     Example: Doris saw a business opportunity long before others did. Many years ago, she noticed that people were increasingly concerned with the foods they ate. She investigated the beginnings of a market for healthy foods, and she decided to take the plunge. She established a small health foods store, carrying natural and organic foods. As the market caught up with her, she added gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free and other specialties. She offered foods imported from Europe where they seemed to be ahead of this market curve. Her customer stream was thin in the beginning, but her regulars spread the word for Doris. When she added non-GMO foods, she held an open house and brought in a nutritionist to explain and answer questions. Today, Doris promotes her operation on social media and regularly schedules talks at the store. 

     Example: Tom was interested in farming. Not the traditional farming like his father pursued, but the newer technology of hydroponics. When his father died, Tom inherited the family farm, sold it, and bought the empty building that once housed a factory on the edge of town. Here, Tom began installing hydroponic equipment and set up his beginning farming operation on the first floor of the building. Today, he grows many types of green leafy vegetables including a dozen different lettuces. He is adding tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers on the second floor. In the basement, he has a mushroom operation underway. His farming operation is immune to changes in the weather. 

     Examples of marketplace trends are everywhere around you. Some are short-term while others are longer-term.

     If you are starting out, catch the longer-term wave and ride it to success. If you are already in business, use the short-term trends to increase your customer/client base and grow your operation. Either way, you are exploiting trends in the marketplace. 

     The marketplace is made up of customers and clients, a restless bunch. They are always on the move. Keep up with them. Better yet, get ahead of the curve.  


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Party promotions

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     A big splash draws more attention than a private conversation. Bringing many people together creates excitement. It gets people talking and it sets a new base line for attitudes and outlooks. 

     Gatherings can be an important activity to promote business. They can be small and intimate or they can be large and expansive. 

     Example: Jason runs an upscale salon. His regular clients keep him busy, but he wanted more. He trudged up and down the sidewalks in the town, talking to other shop owners and office managers. He engaged everyone, talking them into participating in a town wide event. Business owners bought into Jason's idea--every shop agreed to hold demonstrations, have drawings for merchandise, offer gift certificates, give out free samples, or provide children's activities, and more. Jason also arranged for sidewalk musicians who would perform for free, and craftspeople agreed to set up on the sidewalks demonstrating their crafts.  The big day came and the event attracted widespread attention, bringing new people into the town where they discovered shops new to their shopping experience. 

     Example: Anna runs a small bakery. Her bakery attracts people with health concerns. She offers all sorts of items--gluten-free, nut-free, sugar-free, egg-free, lactose-free, and more. She met Susan the nutritionist at a MeetUp networking event. Anna and Susan put together an event of their own at Anna's bakery. She set out a big table of goodies and Susan talked about nutrition and answered questions from the attendees. The event attracted new customers for each of the women. They plan to hold a similar event every couple of months.  

     Events can be held by two businesses working together. Or they can involve a whole community. By partnering with others, you can attract much more attention than you can by acting alone. 

     Fun happenings bring people together. Informational sessions get people thinking about their problems and realizing that your business and expertise can help them. At the same time, events help you promote your particular business. 

     Many businesses hold events acting alone. You don't need to partner with others to hold a successful event. Think about passing out information and answering the general public's questions. Get the word out on social media to attract the attention of new customers for your products and services. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Handling emergencies

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     Bakeries, gift shops, lawyers, landscapers, salons, repair shops, therapists, restaurants, caterers and every other business can suddenly have a disaster on their hands. Every business person deserves to have thought about the possibility ahead of time--and planned for it. 

     Fire, flood, wind, blackouts and robbers can shut you down--whether you have a shop or an office or work at home. When the unthinkable happens, go into action with that plan you've already thought about.

     Example: Phil runs a small auto repair shop. When the electric suddenly went down, he had to close operations and lost some repair jobs. There was no power for three days. Phil quickly installed a generator to supply power to part of the shop and this salvaged some jobs. He also made arrangements for a larger, more powerful generator to have on hand in case of future power outages. Some customers were understanding, others not so much--they moved on.

     Example: Diane runs a small neighborhood convenience store. After she was robbed twice, she decided that it was up to her to defend herself. She bought a handgun, went through the proper licensing and training, and now keeps the firearm handy. She hasn't shot anyone yet, but she did send a knife-wielding robber on his way when she pointed the firearm at him. In the past, Diane was terrified of guns, but today she has the means to defend herself while awaiting the arrival of the police. She is much more confident--especially when she is in the store alone.

     Example: Jill runs a gift shop located on Main Street in her town. The river is blocks away, but it flooded one night in November. With little warning, Jill rushed to her shop to get things off the floor as water began seeping in. The next day, she sloshed her way through several inches of muddy water to survey the damage. Everything the water touched was ruined, and it took two weeks to clean up the mess. Customers and townspeople were generous with their time helping Jill get the gift shop back in operation for at least part of the holiday shopping season. Jill had flood insurance which paid for much of the clean-up, ruined stock and fixtures. But the lost sales were gone forever, and the shoppers who came had to put up with flooring contractors and sheet rock installers. 

     Emergencies are not unusual in business. Power outages, flooding and storms can come with little if any warning. And robbers can show up anytime. Be prepared. 

     With some forethought and a little preparation, you can ride out just about any emergency. In business, you are your own back-up. How will you manage your business if you fall and break your leg? 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Riding the waves

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     In business, it's you. You roll with the punch. You ride out the storms.

     Economic downturns, endless regulations, employees who do you a favor by just showing up, cash flow problems--it's enough to get you depressed. But depression is not an option. You keep going.

     Example: Ella runs a yoga studio. She holds classes and offers private sessions. When her lease was almost up, the landlord notified Ella that the rent would be doubling. She had sixty days to solve the problem. Her alternatives were slim--pay the new rent amount, find another space, or find a compatible business partner. Ella proposed sharing her space with a massage therapist who worked from home and was building a client base. Together, they found a new space, large enough to accommodate both. By splitting the space and the rent, Ella's half was less than she had been paying before the move. 

     Non-competing small businesses can hold down expenses by sharing space. Artists and artisans, holistic practitioners, chiropractors, medical specialists and others frequently make use of this. Sometimes it is a formal partnership. At other times it is just an informal arrangement. 

     Example: Ed began his small baking operation by renting a local restaurant's licensed kitchen on days when the restaurant was closed. Here, he baked brownies, cookies and other goodies. Over time Ed built up his business by selling his bakery goods to local corporations, organizations, and other businesses. Suddenly, the restaurant owner announced that he was planning to retire and move away. Ed had six months to make other arrangements. He scrambled to find a suitable place, negotiate a lease, locate and buy used baking equipment, get it installed and inspected, and transition to the new place. Today, Ed's bakery offers a wide variety of bakery items to local restaurants, caterers and others. He built his customer base first, only then worrying about establishing a place of his own. 

     Finding ways to grow and expand takes creative planning. And time. When the road ahead goes dark, get busy. When storms roll across the ocean you're sailing, ride it out. Never give up. There is always another way.

     Unexpected disasters and economic downturns test the metal you're made of. Sudden loss of a major client or a valuable employee means getting busy, not giving up. Plan ahead and roll with the punch.  


Friday, April 3, 2015

Professionals expand

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     Therapists, accountants, lawyers, consultants, medical practitioners and others can find it difficult to attract new clients. Today, one reason is that they have been slow to take advantage of and use social media as a promotional tool.

     Example: Sue is a CPA specializing in taxes. After getting permission from some of her clients, she took pictures of them when she announced they were getting big tax refunds. The surprised and smiling faces of clients now pop out on Sue's website. She posts them on Facebook as well. The word spreads and calls from referrals come in. It's not just about tax season. Businesses have on-going tax problems throughout the year. 

     Example: Frank is a business coach. He helps business owners with cash problems, growing pains, product branding, and more--advising them on ways to streamline their operations and grow. He put his profile on LinkedIn, and he followed up by posting a series of questions and answers that typically concerned owners of small businesses. This resulted in comments and more questions from readers. He answered all of them, directing them to his profile on LinkedIn as well as to his website. All this activity has resulted in some new clients. 

     Example: Tom is a young attorney. He spends several hours a week at his computer. On his website, he writes a brief blog two or three times each week. Here, he discusses in general terms the problems people can face--what to do with traffic tickets, getting sued, the differences between types of business organization--partnerships, incorporation, LLCs, etc. No legal advice is given out in his write-ups. They are designed to educate and inform. He drives prospective clients to his website, and to the blog, with a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others. New clients regularly call his office.

     Other professionals can use social media to find new clients. Therapists, dentists, chiropractors, consultants, engineers, designers, medical practitioners and others are today tapping into the public's thirst for information.

     You attract attention and provide useful information on social media. You are at the beginning stage of forming a relationship. Social media is all about the reader, not the sender. What you post should be about them, not you. Be brief, but always provide a way for them to reach you.

     Many additional examples of using social media are scattered throughout these write-ups. As a promotional tool, social media can provide professionals many ways to grow and expand.