Tips For Small Business – The Dos and Don’ts

In today’s tough economy with layoffs and slow economic growth, many people are looking to start their own small businesses. Over 600,000 new businesses were started last year. An alarming number of these businesses fail within the first year. The main reason: lack of money. Another significant reason: poor advertising and marketing. There are those lucky few companies that develop a great product or idea and can manage great success without a lot of advertising. But for the rest of them, they have to do significant marketing. In my experience I’ve seen some good ideas go to waste due to poor advertising and marketing efforts. Small businesses don’t need to suffer as much as popular belief would tell you. You could actually be successful in a short amount of time if you follow some steps and learn from other’s mistakes.

Here are some common mistakes that I have seen:

Inconsistent branding. I have seen new companies suffer from major identity crisis by not having a consistent brand. No logo and different names everywhere. You don’t have to be Starbucks to have a solid brand. In this one case, their web page, Facebook page, and Twitter account all had different company names and no logo. It was very difficult to establish what the actual name of the company was. In fact, the owner’s business card had a @yahoo email address. Nothing says “I’m a small unestablished business” like a freemail address on your card. His DBA even had a different name on it. It would be the same as introducing yourself to every person you meet with a different name. Establish the brand and be consistent with it, everywhere. Get help from a professional graphic designer to help you design and build a logo and identity. Just because you own a copy of Microsoft Publisher does not mean you’re a graphic designer. Let a professional do it. They know what a good logo and identity can do.

Another one, no marketing at all. Just simply relying on the premise of “build it and they will come” doesn’t work. Word-of-mouth advertising can only work so well. Not to be confused with Social Networking word-of-mouth, which we’ll talk about in a minute. I have seen a company with no web site and virtually no web presence at all and relied primarily on referrals. They couldn’t understand why their growth was so stagnant. Today’s small businesses have to market in the space where their customers reside, which for most businesses is on the internet. The Yellow Pages are all but dead. People these days go to the internet first to look for business and product information. That’s why the large companies are there! Sites such as Yelp are a great place to find information about local businesses. Even despite their recent legal issues, there is still some great information on their site. You have to get your word out to the masses. Build your presence. Build it where your customers reside. Get a good web site. Work on your search engine optimization so you come up high in search results. As mentioned above, get a good graphic designer involved.

Some best approaches:

Just because you’re small, doesn’t mean you have to act and think small. Developing a consistent brand, as discussed above, is not just for big companies. Your brand is your identity. It’s who you are. Make a strong statement. Be aggressive with your marketing. Get involved in social networking. It’s not just for big companies. Many small companies have shown great success with Facebook and Twitter strategies. A Los Angeles-based bakery called Kiss My Bundt is a great success story using social media to build their business. Over 75% of internet users are involved in some form of social media. Once again, your audience is there. According to a recent study conducted by ROI Research, over 33% of Twitter users talk about a brand at least once a week. 32% give recommendations and 30% seek advice or recommendations. With over 100 million users on Twitter, that’s a lot of brand talk. That’s real word-of-mouth advertising and that’s just on Twitter. Facebook is now the #1 visited website on the internet. With close to half a billion users, imagine how much talk about brands there is on Facebook. Build a Facebook fan page (or Like page as some like to call them) and engage yourself with your audience. Make sure your customers are talking about you, but obviously saying good things. One of the great things about social media is it allows you to listen in to your customers comments and engage with them and respond to the negative comments as they happen.

Spread your message as far as you can. Take advantage of free press releases and free blog posting sites. Use HARO (Help a Reporter Out). You never know what kind of exposure you can get from one of the reporters.

Some of the worst approaches

See Inconsistent branding example mentioned above. When the owner of this business was calling on new prospects, many of which were old contacts he had, he wasn’t even using the company name. He was introducing the company with his name because even he had no idea what his brand was and thought his name had more weight than his company.

Other suggestions to build your business

Network as much as possible. Attend local networking events. Check meetup.com for events in your area. Tell everyone you know that you’ve started a business and ask for referrals. Maybe even offer a referral fee or reward program for referrals. Customer loyalty programs are great way to encourage repeat business. Social network site Foursquare is making this easy. Expose your business as much as possible. Be thorough. Get everything in place before you launch, for example your website, your business plan, and your marketing strategy. Be prepared to hit the ground running and think big! Think and act like a bigger company would. That includes heavy exposure and marketing. A company with the best product in the world will fail if no one knows it’s there. Write blogs that demonstrate you’re an expert in your industry. Write press releases to tell the world you’re there. You never know where it might get picked up. Then, follow through on what you promise. Deliver what is expected and more. Under promise and over deliver. Run you business with honesty and integrity. This one I can’t stress enough. Especially in the beginning, dishonest practices will absolutely kill your business. Negative words will spread faster than positive words and your business will be dead before it can get started. Cheaters never prosper!

So Mr. and Mrs. Small Business Owner, don’t be afraid to make that dream of being a business owner a reality. But please do it right! Don’t be a negative statistic. Market yourself correctly! Build a solid and consistent brand. Get involved in social media. Encourage your customers to tell others about how great you are. Spread your word. If you don’t know how to do it, seek out workshops, seminars, or even consultants. Use whatever resources you can to help you succeed.

Top Ten SEO Tips For Small Businesses

Search engine optimisation is something that all business owners with a website need to be aware of. If you’ve got a site and want to drive relevant traffic to that site, you need to know what to do to help the search engines get a good understanding of your business, so they can rank it for the terms you feel are most suitable for visitors. It’s not about tricking the search engines, or trying to boost traffic numbers in general. You need to see an increase in relevant traffic to you site (10 relevant visitors are far better than 1000 non relevant visitors, who leave your site straight away), and Google wants to provide searchers with a list of high quality sites, relevant to their search query.

1. Research your keywords: Make sure that you know what people type into Google and the other search engines when looking for your products or services. Research into how competitive these phrases are – are there any phrases that are relevant, but aren’t quite so competitive? These are more likely to give you the results you want. Also think about plurals and synonyms.

2. Make sure each single page on your site has a unique title tag. If you’ve done your keyword research, you should also aim to use keyword/phrases in the title tag too.

3. Additionally, make sure that all the meta descriptions for each page are unique too. Since the search engines mostly show the title and description of a page in the search results, make sure your descriptions correlates to your title, includes keywords, and has some kind of call to action that persuades the searcher to click on your link rather than the result above or below you.

4. Using your keywords and phrases, look at the headers within your pages. Headers tags are like the headlines of a newspaper – your H1 header should contain your primary keyphrases, with any H2 headers containing your secondary phrases.

5. Look at your copy– does this contain keyphrases? Make sure you don’t keyword stuff your copy though – aim for about a 3% ratio of keywords to copy. The content of your site should be written with your visitors in mind first, SEO second, so make sure it still makes sense and adds value.

6. Analyse your website structure. Do you have a lot of deep pages, hidden within subfolder after subfolder? Aim to keep the architecture of your site nice and flat – you don’t want to make it difficult for search engines or visitors to find content. Try and keep everything within two clicks of the homepage.

7. Going back to content – how fresh is the content on your site? Google and the other search engines love new and unique content. So try and update your website on a regular basis. This could be through a blog, press releases, or new product pages. Just keep it fresh – no one likes anything stale!

8. Linking…. oh linking, everyone is always going on about the number links to your site…why? Because it’s important! Each link is like a vote of confidence in your site, so the more you have (from reputable, high quality sites), the better. Building the number of quality links to your site takes time. Register with industry directories, local directories, become active in social media, make the most of social bookmarking, create amazing relevant content that people will want to link to, create articles and post them out to article sites, comment in forums… there’s so many activities you can do to increase the number of links to your site. It’s an investment – in time and sometimes money, but it’s worth it.

9. Register with Google Webmaster and submit your xml sitemap. This is an xml file includes all the pages of your website in a way that makes it easy for Google to reference and index. Google Webmaster will also tell you if there are any errors with your site, what some popular keywords are surrounding your site, some of the links pointing to your site and more.

10. Register with Google Analytics and start using it on a regular basis to monitor your site. Google Analytics is a free piece of software that enables you to track all the activity on your site. It’s actually a bit scary the amount of information it can give you. But for a small business owner, or marketing professional, it’s an invaluable tool that can help you improve your website performance and growth.

This is just the tip of the SEO iceberg – there’s so much to SEO and it’s constantly changing and evolving. At the end of the day though, it’s all about creating a quality website, adding regular quality content and being active in the world wide web. It’s not rocket science, but it does take time.

Small Business – Growth Stage 3b – Meeting Demand

Yes, crazy demand is a problem that you want to have. But when you are in the trenches, there is nothing fun about it (Well it is for me, but I’m a freak). Things are going crazy, you are going crazy – You are simply too busy to think, never mind think strategically.

In this phase, it will seem like everything has gone to crap – Probably because it has.

I would love to be able to write an article that shows you how to meet demand across any industry, but the truth is, there are so many case specific scenarios that this post would be better fit for a hardcover book, than a few page blog post.

What I am going to do for you however, is tell you about a few things that you really need to watch for during this phase. These are all from my own experience and are serious issues regardless if you sell yourself as a service, manufacture a product, create information products, or are a marketer and drop-shipper.

Step up or Step Aside – Leadership needs to come in

This is a problem for lots of people, and there are two main reasons. First, to most, the business is their baby and represents their own blood, sweat, and tears. You have been in from the beginning and the success is directly the result of your effort, and your decisions. The draw of having your hands in the cookie jar and being in charge of everything is just irresistible. It’s hard to step out of that role.

Second, some people are just not good leaders. The skill set that is required to develop something is not the same as the skill set required to lead the troops and keep your head up in the strategic clouds. I believe you can learn to be a good leader, but to be a great leader, it takes both practice and an innate ability.

Whichever the case, someone is going to have to step up and away from the day to day and start to worry about the big picture. The simple truth is that there are just not enough hours in a day to do everything that needs to be done. If you try, you will fail and probably burn out in the process. To make matters worse, it is nearly impossible to wear both the strategic hat and the “doer” hat at the same time. I’ve tried several times and failed miserably in every case.

If you choose to become the “big picture guy” yourself…

Find some bright folks you trust, and put them in charge of that area you used to head up. Early on, their ability to communicate and make you feel comfortable are going to be more important than the actual skills they posses to do the job. Once you are OK with the concept of not being hands-on anymore, you can worry about finding the exact right person for the job.

If you choose to bring in a “big picture guy”…

Frankly, this is where people like me come in. You will want to either hire, or most likely partner with a person who can come in and help you to the next level. The reason I recommend partner is, because at this point, you REALLY want someone worth their salt, and they are not cheap. Players in this range are used to the six-figure income, and are not likely to join you for less than that. Bringing them on as a partner allows you to either pay substantially less as a base salary with a percentage of sales as the remainder, or even bypass salary all together for a flat percentage of sales (how I usually do it). The percentage they demand will be higher, but on the upside, if you don’t make money, they don’t make money.

The key to bringing on a new player at the stage is trust. Start small and shift more and more power over to them as you feel more comfortable. Do not micromanage or tell them how to do their job. Remember you brought them on because your DON’T know how to do it. Let them do their thing and come back to you. They probably won’t do it the same way as you, but their way will probably be better.

I haven’t really pitched myself in about 1000 pages of articles, so I might as well now. Seriously, give me a call. I might be able to help.

Strategy and systems will save your ass, not manpower.

Simply throwing more bodies at a problem is rarely the answer. It might be PART of the answer, but without organized systems in place, the utility of each new player added to the team will decrease the productivity of ALL players by an order or magnitude. Roles will overlap, things will get lost in translation, morale will plummet, and productivity will be a fraction of it’s true potential.

Here’s how you do it.

Have your strategy person, either you or me (hint hint) start evaluating your business model. Are there any things that could be done that will simultaneously increase your profit margin, reduce costs, and reduce the time to sale. If it’s all 3, then that is your low hanging fruit. As that subsides, start to look at the things that might satisfy 1 or 2 of the criteria and start attacking them.

I’m not saying that bring in more people is not a good idea. I usually is. What I AM saying is that blindly throwing more bodies into the works usually makes things worse.

An example from my questionable past

A few years back I partnered with a rockstar investment real estate broker in exactly this stage of the game. Sales were skyrocketing, demand was through the roof, but there was simply not enough hours in a day for him to get it done.

He was a super intelligent guy and a true freak-of-nature salesman, but he was definitely lacking in both the big picture view and leadership role.

After meeting him a few times and tossing some ideas around he agreed to bring me on as a partner. Because throwing me a salary would be too much for him, we agreed that I come on as a limited partner at first with 1/3 of the future net profits going to me. Once we doubled his sales, we would become full 50/50 partners. It was a pretty big leap of faith for him, and I appreciate his trust, but ultimately it wasn’t too much skin off his back since ultimately if I didn’t produce results, I didn’t get paid either.

His niche was selling properties (usually condos) in the $100-150k ballpark to both investors and parents/students of UF. The market was hot enough at the time that if you bought a condo your freshman year and lived in it with a few roommates, the rent and appreciation on the unit would pay your entire tuition for 4 years and still leave you with about $40k left over. It was an easy sell, and he sold LOTS.

The problem was that all real estate sales take about the same amount of time for the broker, regardless if it is a $100k sale or $1M sale. (In truth, usually the bigger ones are easier because buyers at the level are pretty familiar with the game. More legal, but less drama)

I realized right away that this was not a sustainable growth model.

After a bit or research and planning, I created a plan to take on no clients unless the property was over $500,000 and we had a very good chance of getting both sides of the commission. As you can imagine, for a top producer this is a HUGE change. He was ingrained to take any business, anyway he could.

My logic was that because he was so fantastic at converting calls to qualified leads, we set up a referral program to front our tier 2 prospects to other agents in exchange for 25% of the final commission. That allowed us to keep in place turnkey marketing programs targeted to smaller profit centers, and still earn a healthy side income on very little work.

With this strategy in place, we were allowed once again to focus on a new marketing plan to help roll in larger, more profitable clients.

We still continued to get calls every day for smaller clients, and many times, we had the perfect buyer ready to roll within the hour on the sale, but we had agreed to only focus on larger clients, REGARDLESS of how quick or easy we knew the sale would be. For weeks he would look over at me with puppy dog eyes begging to take on this easy client, and I would point to our business strategy on the wall. Eventually he got the idea and stopped whimpering.

As things began to take off, I began to further refine our strategy to squeeze every penny out of our time. We hired one assistant to take first tier phone calls and to set appointments freeing up his time. We also hired another general assistant that would do much of my front end marketing work and to keep track of all the new developments and marketing metrics. We finally brought in another new realtor who had just graduated with a degree in finance to manage many of the showings and to add another level of granularity to incoming prospects before they made it to either Tom or I.

The result:

Year 1 sales: $200k

Year 2 sales: $400k

Year 3 sales: $1.2 Million

It’s important to note that we didn’t bring on any help until year 3. As you can see we were able to DOUBLE sales with no additional help other than me. That was refocusing strategy and tweaking systems. But we did need to bring in help to take it to the next level. As I said, there is a time and a place to throw in more bodies, but it has to be to support the plan, and just not for the sake of more manpower.

Stay tuned. Next Article is going to be about declawing your competition.

Stay cool

JJ