By Joe Sevcik
Marketing is your lifeline – if you have a great product but no one knows about it...well, it’s similar to the tree in the woods scenario. If no one knows you exist, do you really exist? Well, of course you do – but foot traffic is going to be very slow!
Developing a marketing plan may seem intimidating, especially if you don’t have a marketing background. Even with a marketing background, it can be challenging to figure out how to talk to people about your products and services. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years that might help you get started.
Establishing Your Brand
The first thing you should do, if you haven’t already, is take the time to figure out your brand proposition. What do you do differently, or better, than the competition? What’s your sweet spot? Why did you start this business? Most small business owners didn’t start their company because they thought they could do something as well as someone else – they probably thought they could do it better! Find the answer to that question, and then make sure every single customer who comes through the door knows it. Put the foundation of a solid brand in place, and the rest of your marketing strategy will fall into line.
Once you have your brand established, there are several things to consider:
- Don’t try to be all things to all people. You don’t have to be on television, in the newspaper, on the radio and have huge billboards all over town to have a good marketing strategy. Focus on what medium will best get your message across and where your target audience is to get the most bang for your buck.
- Be consistent! Once you’ve established your brand identity, create supporting messages and use those in all of your marketing. If you keep changing your brand identity, you won’t build up any equity – you’ll always seem like a new business. Stick with a consistent set of messaging and graphics, and over time it will help establish your brand.
- Be deliberate. Look carefully at what your competitors are doing – the services they’re advertising, products they’re pushing. See where they have a vulnerable spot that you can fulfill, and drive that message home.
Here at Sun Life Financial, we market ancillary workplace benefits like disability insurance, dental and vision plans. One of my biggest challenges has always been how to talk about these products in ways that people understand and care about. We realized that our sweet spot is our customer service and claims philosophy, which is to never deny a claim that deserves to be paid, so we have made that message a focus in many of our marketing materials.
Yes, marketing is an investment. You’ll have to put in time and money to achieve your desired results. But it is a necessary expense. The money you invest now will pay off in dividends down the road. Think about another small business you admire and how they’ve gotten to where they are. Chances are they did some kind of marketing campaign. It might not have been expensive or elaborate, but in order to be successful a brand must invest in marketing.
What About Social Media?
Most any small business will always be competing against bigger companies and national chains, and one place I think local business has a unique advantage is in social media. Your customers want to know you, the owner. They feel a connection to you, and engaging them in social media is a way to make them invested in your success. Large national companies can’t create the same emotional connection with their consumers.
The best thing about social media is it’s free. It just requires some time. Create profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and use them. Use them a lot. See what features are easy, where people respond or comment to others, what people are saying. All these social media sites may not be the right place for you. You may discover that LinkedIn is a great fit with your business and Twitter is not, but in order to play in the social media space, you have to understand it first.
A marketing plan doesn’t have to be intimidating. I know I’m biased, but I actually think it is pretty fun. And it forces you to really get to know your audience, which can only make you more successful as a business owner. Have you come across any unique marketing solutions? Did anything here spark some ideas or questions? I’d love to hear about them – shoot me an email and let me know how you’re tackling marketing as a small business owner.
By Jane Applegate
With steep price hikes boosting the price of everything from gasoline to bread and airline tickets, smart business owners are pinching pennies, nickels, quarters and dollars. Rather than chastising your employees for spending money, why not challenge them to come up with new ways to reduce expenses?
Here are some proven cost-cutting tips to get you started. Once you implement whatever works best for your business, hold a contest for the best cost-cutting idea and reward the winner with a gift certificate to a high-end restaurant or a weekend at a cozy bed and breakfast.
- If you have empty office space, consider renting it to a home-based small business owner who is yearning to get out of the house. If you can provide a comfortably furnished office with high-speed internet access, you can charge at least $50 a day. Better yet, rent the space month-to-month. But don't just rent the space to anyone; interview the person to make sure he or she will be quiet and respectful of your employees and customers. Find out what kind of business they run to avoid sharing secrets with a potential competitor. Set everything up on a trial basis so you can ask them to leave if it isn't working out.
- Trim your travel budget by taking advantage of web conferencing and conference calling services. It's easier and cheaper than ever to communicate via web cams from your desk or conference room. If you are conducting important negotiations or planning a project, try a conference calling service that offers a digital recording of the conversation. Global Crossings has an extremely affordable conference calling service which includes a recording feature. Right after the call, they send via email, a MP3 audio file of the call. This way, the information is easily downloaded and shared. There are many affordable conference calling services that make it easy for you to set up a call and pay the tab. Microsoft Live Office has a free trial offer if you want to check it out. For cheap long-distance calls, sign up for an account at www.Pingo.com.
- Check out the extensive variety of online training courses instead of hiring a professional trainer. For technical training on software programs, visit www.Lynda.com. The site offers 428 different video training classes taught via 28,000 QuickTime files. A monthly subscription is $25 per person; annual subscriptions are $250. For hundreds of one-hour seminars on marketing, management, sales, human resources and just about any business topic you can imagine, check out a new site, www.businessexpertwebinars.com. The site offers PowerPointTM-based hour-long classes for about $79 per person, per class.
- Stop shipping overnight parcels and head to your local post office. The U.S. Postal Service has gotten more competitive and more reliable in recent years. Overnight Express Mail is often a bargain compared with FedEx, DHL or UPS. If you need to send digital information, check out: www.YouSendIt.com, an affordable service set up to securely send large files via the internet.
- If you are reluctant to sign long-term cell phone contracts for employees, consider the month-to-month programs offered by many phone companies. My husband, Joe, loves the Trakfone® phone he bought at Wal-Mart for under $20. You purchase 30, 60, or 90 minutes of talk time a month and pay a small monthly charge to keep the service going. The minutes don't expire and because Joe rarely uses the phone, it costs him about $8 a month. (It's perfect for emergencies or for people who don't need to make dozens of calls a day).
- Take advantage of tremendous bargains on office furniture, computer equipment, tools or supplies. It's crazy to buy new things when there is such great used stuff on the market. It's sad when a big or small business goes under, but if you buy what they don't need anymore, you will be helping the former owners walk away with something. (I'd bet there is some pretty swanky office furniture for sale at mortgage and securities company headquarters all over the country right now).
- Speaking of financial matters, sit down today to review your credit card accounts. If you are paying a high annual fee plus steep finance charges, call the issuer and ask to speak to a supervisor in the retention department. Politely ask them to waive the annual fee and reduce your finance charge or you will be forced to close the account. I recently tried this tactic to drop a Visa card that accrued airline miles for an airline I rarely flew anymore. Reluctant to lose my business, the supervisor happily switched me to another Visa product that accrued 3 miles for every dollar spent. Better yet, the miles could be redeemed for tickets on several airlines. It may be worth paying off and closing an account if you can apply for one that offers thousands of "free" miles or a free companion airline ticket. Before you transfer a balance, read the fine print. There are often charges to do this. Do everything you can to pay off your balances every month. The finance charges really expensive and can take a big bite out of your profits.
- With all the money you'll save by trying these tips, why not reward all your employees? Visit a warehouse store to stock up on lots of snacks for the team. Granola bars, dried fruit, licorice and fresh fruit are always popular. My employees also liked when I bought packs of sugarless gum and something really decadent—five pounds of snack-sized candy bars.
By Jane Applegate
Does your office feel smaller? Is it dimly lit because files are blocking the windows? Do you risk breaking an ankle every time you head out for coffee because you have to step over boxes? If so, it's time to force yourself to conduct a serious spring cleaning.
No matter what kind of business you're in, the electronic age has generated more—not less paper. Every day, we print out important emails and need to file them. We have stacks of reports to read, trade journals to review, personal bills and letters to contend with and assorted piles of stuff growing bigger by the hour.
It's normal to feel overwhelmed by the mess and defeated by the chaos. But, ignoring the problem doesn't make it go away. That's why I've created a proven, affordable clean-up strategy for any size business.
If you've ever tried losing weight, you probably know that having support, either from a friend, spouse or weight loss group, is critical to success. The same goes for organizing. Don't do this alone. You have to engage your employees or your family in the process. You have to take the lead and set a good example.
Over the years, I've interviewed several top organizers. They all take a slightly different approach, but most agree that the 'shock and awe' approach is the best way to jump start the process.
Step 1: Schedule a staff meeting to announce that a top priority for the week will be an all-office clean up. They will insist they are too busy, too stressed or too important to waste time cleaning up the office. That's when you have to put on your “I'm the Boss” hat and take a stand. Point out that working in a messy, chaotic environment is stressful, creates unpleasant working conditions and is bad for morale. If customers or clients drop in to visit your messy office it can hurt your bottom line. Insist that everyone must participate in this effort and everyone will be rewarded.
Step 2: Establish a deadline and schedule. No one wants to hear this, but it's best to do an all-office blitz on a Saturday or Sunday (unless those are your busiest days). It's tough, but you need to pay everyone to work on their regular day off. To avoid a mutiny you might want to schedule the clean up for two half days over two weekends, rather than one full day.
Step 3: Show true leadership by cleaning up your office first. Stay late one night or start very early in the morning. When people walk in and see how great your office looks, they will be inspired—and shamed into doing something about their sloppy workspace.
Step 4: Buy all the necessary cleaning and supplies. Buy trash bags, rubber gloves, non-toxic cleaning supplies, paper towels and sponges. Buy lots of cool new organizing stuff---racks to hang files on the wall, brightly colored “in” baskets, etc. Take orders and make a list of everyone's favorite junk food and don't forget the carrot sticks and fresh fruit for the healthy eaters. Remember, free food is a great motivator. If you don't have a good music system and speakers in the office, bring in a boom box. Upbeat tunes are essential for lifting everyone's spirits while tossing out piles of junk.
Step 5: Add some competition to the task by setting a time limit. Give everyone two hours to toss out the trash and clean off their desks. Take a break and then send them back in to devote two more hours to organizing files, sorting and tossing books and magazines, etc. Present a gift certificate for a family dinner or movie passes to the person whose office was the most transformed. Present everyone with a new green plant to celebrate their tidier office.
Step 6: After everyone has cleaned up their personal space, hire professional cleaners come in and tackle the real dirty work. Book a big crew to deep clean the public areas, lunch room and rest rooms. Hire an industrial carpet cleaner to scrub the carpets or clean and polish the floors.
Despite the screaming and shouting, I guarantee everyone will be proud of their efforts. Now, it's time to plan an open house and invite your best clients and customers to visit your clean and organized office!
By Jane Applegate
As the new year approaches, we often resolve to do things differently than last year. But, New Year's resolutions rarely work, especially if the list is always the same: lose 10 pounds, be nicer to our family, spend less and save more.
Many of the resolutions below were suggested by the successful entrepreneurs I've met and profiled in the past 15 years. In these stressful times with the U.S. economy in a spin, energy prices spiking and American soldiers at war, focusing on what really counts is a great way to begin 2008.
Buy a 2008 calendar or use your scheduling software to book at least three, three or four-day weekends in 2008. Then, plan at least one week of vacation (including the weekends on either side). The most successful entrepreneurs I know work hard and play harder. They frequently get away from their business to think, exercise and have some fun.
Ask your spouse, companion or kids for three dates when they want to spend time with you. It may be a birthday or anniversary, but it could be ‘take your kid to work day' or the school Halloween carnival. Note these dates in ink and do not miss these appointments.
Forget losing 10 pounds. Instead, resolve to spend at least 15 minutes a day stretching, walking or just moving around. Work up to 30 minutes a day. Try to limit your junk food intake. Fill your desk drawer with healthy snacks like flavored rice cakes, granola bars, protein-rich nuts and dried fruit. Bring a light lunch to work instead of going out. You'll save money and calories.
Plan a one-day offsite retreat. You don't need to fly everyone to a Caribbean island. Hire a temp to answer phones and reserve the private room in a restaurant or rent a hotel room. If you have more than 10 employees, invite only the department heads. If you can afford to hire a meeting facilitator, great. If not, ask a couple of employees to create an agenda that includes problems that require immediate attention; challenges that require long-term solutions; short term sales goals; long-term company goals and personal career goals for employees. Use flip charts and provide lots of markers and munchies. Post the meeting notes on a wall back in the office so everyone can monitor the progress made after the retreat.
Set your ego aside and ask for help. The most successful entrepreneurs rely on an informal group of advisers to help them make smarter decisions. Avoid advisors in your industry. Although I'm a writer, consultant and producer, my advisors include the CEO of a $100 million food company, a real estate consultant and a retired partner in a stock brokerage. I love that they provide me with a completely different perspective on life and business. If you can't meet with your advisors in person, schedule a quarterly call. Don't bother them with small stuff. Focus on the big issues. Listen to what they say, but do what your gut tells you to do.
January is the perfect time to contact everyone who owes you money. Don't let emotions get in the way. We tend to give more slack to the people we like doing business with. Send letters (not email) requesting immediate payment. Include a full accounting of what they owe. You might offer a 10% discount on the balance due if they send a check within 15 days. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope to increase the guilt. If the amount due is over $1,500, don't accept any new orders or new work until the bill is paid. A customer who doesn't pay isn't worth keeping.
Cross-train your employees. Assign teams of two or three people to learn the basics of each other's job. This helps staffers understand how their work impacts their colleagues. It also makes life around the office easier when someone is out sick or on vacation. Before you begin the cross-training process, ask everyone to write down their job duties. You'll probably be very surprised at the difference between what you hired them to do and what they actually do all day. Most people morph their job to fit their skills and preferences. This exercise also helps you re-assign responsibilities and can help boost productivity.
Lock the office supply closet and give one person the key. This sounds draconian, but it will cut expenses. Set up recycling bins for white paper. Ask employees to print on both sides of the paper when possible. Use old documents as scratch paper and turn file folders inside out to double their life. Install a water cooler to reduce the number of plastic bottles used. If you don't offer free coffee and tea, consider it. It's an affordable and morale-boosting perk. At Bloomberg LP, the global information company, free snacks, fresh fruit and beverages keep workers in the building which definitely increases productivity.
By Jane Applegate
Unless you are a banker, you shouldn't be lending money to your clients or customers. But, when you agree to be paid over time, you are acting like a bank and often create serious cash flow problems for your business.
If you've always given customers time to pay their bills, it may be tough to change gears. But, it's not impossible. The first step is to ask for a deposit or down payment before placing a new order or providing services.
You don't think twice if a tradesperson asks you for a deposit before tiling your bathroom or fixing a brick wall. Painters, contractors and sheetrock installers traditionally require a deposit to purchase materials and make sure that at least a portion of their labor costs are covered.
So, take a page from their book and from now on, ask your clients or customers for a deposit. For example, I speak professionally, in addition to my writing and consulting. When a client books me to speak at a conference or meeting, I ask them for a 50% deposit. This portion of my fee covers the research and writing since every presentation is customized. I also ask them to book and pay for my airline tickets and hotel rooms to avoid reimbursements.
I haven't lost any business due to my deposit policy. If you work as an interior designer, you wouldn't think twice about collecting a deposit before ordering fabric or rolls of carpet. So, what's wrong with charging a deposit if you are a software developer, marketing consultant or structural engineer?
I realize that if you've never charged a deposit, it may feel a little awkward at first, but you are running a business, not a charity. Keeping the cash flowing is essential to your success.
Rather than explaining your new policy, I recommend sending a letter (not email) explaining how your new deposit policy will apply to all orders or projects after a certain date. If you lose a client or two because you are being prudent, I'm sure you'll replace them with more financially stable clients.
Another easy way to boost cash flow is to open a merchant credit card account. Although you have to pay processing and bank fees, you will soon learn to love being paid immediately. Banks are happy to set up these accounts, although most work closely with an outside vendor. There are many credit card processing companies that serve small companies, but talk to your banker first.
Even if you start charging deposits now, what can you do to encourage deadbeats to pay up? First, stop doing business with them. Don't take any new orders for customers who owe you money. It's a tough stance, but it will get their attention. If they take their business elsewhere, you will probably be better off in the long run.
Next, ask your bookkeeper, controller or accountant to call the deadbeat on your behalf. Let them be the bad cop. You should be the good cop, especially if they do pay up and become a good customer again.
If a friendly, but firm phone call doesn't yield results, send a certified letter outlining exactly how much money they owe you and detailed records of their past due account. Suggest a payment plan, perhaps $150 a month until the balance is paid off. Be cordial but firm. You can write something like:
"It's come to our attention that your account is overdue. While it may be an oversight, I'm enclosing copies of the unpaid invoices, etc. etc. for your review."
You might consider offering a 'quick pay' discount of 5% if the bill is paid in full within five business days. Enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope with the demand letter is a good tactic. Sending the letter and invoice attached to a pre-paid Fedex or UPS slip is a great way to increase your chances of being paid. Using bright red envelopes is also an attention-getter.
If these strategies fail, turn up the heat. Ask your attorney to draft a letter demanding payment. Be sure to mention your intention to take the company to small claims court.
Unfortunately, sometimes a debtor is drowning in debt and will never be able to pay you. After trying to collect for a few months, it may be time to write off the loss. Check with your tax professional for the rules affecting bad debts.
Just remember: if you are not a banker, don't act like one when it comes to running your small business.
By Jane Applegate
Every day, big and little things go wrong in business—and life. Yet, it seems to me that most people will do anything to avoid saying, “I'm sorry.” Instead, they look around for someone to blame rather than accept responsibility.
I've been thinking about this based on what happened recently while writing and producing a television show for a production company. There were a few small, but critical details that needed attention while I was working day and night to meet a very tight deadline. Several times, I asked the executives in charge to assign someone to help me. My request went unheeded. One small, but critical task was making sure we had secured the right to use a series of still photographs in the television program.
The in-house counsel, who is responsible for all legal matters handed off the task to a student intern. They assured me the intern knew how to do this important task, but I was worried.
Sure enough, while we were reviewing the program before it was sent to the network, we found out the intern had downloaded an unlicensed image from a website, rather than purchasing the rights from an approved vendor. The result, I was blamed for the mistake.
This led to a very unpleasant situation with screaming and yelling. We eventually found the source of the photograph and obtained the rights to use it, but I was upset at what transpired. I guess I was naïve. Someone had to be blamed and it was so much easier to blame the outside consultant than for a company executive to admit they made a mistake.
I share this story because I think it's important for anyone in business to promote a culture of responsibility and accountability. One way to do this is to make sure everyone understands what they are expected to do every day and how they will be help accountable. It sounds simplistic, but many business owners would be surprised by what their employees were hired to do and what they actually do every day.
To avoid mass confusion, take time to review and clarify everyone's job description. The easiest way to do this is to ask everyone to write down what tasks they are responsible for accomplishing every day or every week. Ask them who they communicate with and who they go to if they are having a problem. With this detailed information, you'll be able to create a realistic organization chart and follow a chain of command.
Left unsupervised, employees have the ability to adjust their job to accommodate their strengths and weaknesses. For example, when I was a financial reporter I dreaded writing the stock market report because I had to compute the percentage a company's stock went up or down. I was so unsure of my ability to do the calculations, I bribed a colleague with freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies to check my math. She blames her lifelong weight problem on me, but the truth is, I needed her help to keep my job. When workers are faced with adversity they can be very creative.
Take a close look at the job descriptions you receive. I'm sure you'll be surprised at how far some people have strayed from the job you hired them to do. With all this information in hand, try adjusting the duties to better reflect people's skills, interests and strengths.
Next, spend time training people to cover for each other. In many small companies, when someone is ill or on vacation, their work just waits for them to return. This system hurts productivity and creates piles of work for the person who took time off.
It's better to make sure a few people can do at least part of every job. This cross-training may inspire some positive changes around the office. If someone is bored and thinking of quitting, they may want to swap jobs with someone who is looking for a new challenge.
Clear communication is essential to success. If everyone understands how things should work, it makes it easier to handle problems as a team. Encourage people to ask for help before they make mistakes. Emphasize how important it is to take responsibility for mistakes and be quick to forgive and forget.
By Jane Applegate
A shoebox filled with receipts does not represent a good small business bookkeeping system. If that's what you planned to drop off at your tax preparer's office, it's time to get organized. And remember, savvy business owners rely on their tax advisers year round, not just when the tax returns are due. So, what should business owners be doing now to make their tax preparer's life easier?
"First, obtain all 12 months worth of business bank account statements with cancelled checks or the images of checks," says John M. D'Aquila, a CPA based in New Rochelle, N.Y., who advises many small and growing companies. "Start getting organized now so if you are missing any records, you can request them from the bank.
D'Aquila told me the U.S. Congress and the Bush Administration has been very supportive of small business owners this year. Congress created a new manufacturing deduction designed to lend a hand to U.S. software, engineering and construction firms. To qualify, a company needs to make products with at least 20% of its labor and overhead costs spent here in the U.S. This new deduction covers 3% of qualifying income from domestic production activities in 2006 and will increase to 6% in 2007.
Income is defined as gross receipts from a qualifying activity reduced by the cost of goods sold and related expenses. The deduction is also limited to 50% of W-2 wages paid during the year. For more information on this and other deductions your business may qualify for, visit the IRS site at: www.irs.gov. It's very easy to navigate and provides a wealth of information and downloadable forms.
Another tax benefit: a provision of the new energy law allows commercial buildings to earn deductions by upgrading existing energy systems and constructing energy efficient buildings. There is no dollar cap, but it is generally limited to $1.80 per square foot, per building.
Congress has also approved a new sole proprietor 401(k) retirement plan. This means a sole proprietor can establish a 401(k) and deduct 25% of his or her income to the plan. This limit may be higher than competing pension plans.
If you need to buy any equipment or supplies, do it before December 31. In 2006, the Section 179 allowance increased to $108,000, meaning you can totally write-off the purchase of new or used equipment for your business. Businesses are entitled to the write-off as long as their total purchases are less than $430,000, D'Aquila explained. Remember though, the total Section 179 deduction cannot exceed the taxable income generated by your business.
I asked him what is the biggest mistake most small business owners make when it comes to handling their taxes?
"The biggest mistake is to not have a professional tax preparer on their team," he said. "Today's complex tax rules, combined with a tough penalties and interest simply do not justify a business owner going it alone."
He said relying on a competent tax professional also frees you to focus on other aspects of your business, including marketing and managing your employees and strategic relationships.
Stephen Fishman, is an attorney and author of 12 books for small business owners, including "Lower Your Taxes in Seven Easy Steps," set to be released soon Nolo Press.
Fishman suggests delaying receipt of fourth quarter payments until January so you can keep your income as low as possible for this calendar year. You can invoice clients, but ask them to send the checks in January.
He said if you have a SEP IRA, you can set aside a maximum of $44,000 in 2006. IRA contributions for people under 50 are $4,000 and $5,000 for business owners who are over 50 years-old.
Fishman also suggests booking a year-end business trip, but remember that entertainment and meal expenses are still only 50% deductible. You can deduct the entire cost of a company holiday party, so plan something soon!
"The tax environment right now is very good for small business owners," said Fishman. "I don't think we'll see any more huge tax cuts with a Democratic-controlled congress in power."
The Nolo Press website, www.nolopress.com has a variety of resources for small business owners, as well as excellent, affordable and easy-to-understand books about tax deductions and strategies.
By Jane Applegate
Well-intentioned employers often forget an important step when it comes to offering the right mix of employee benefits: asking the employees what kind of benefits they need and want.
Big companies know that employees appreciate having a say in what type of benefits are provided. When the concept of "cafeteria" benefits was introduced several years ago, it was warmly embraced by employees who liked being able to pick and choose their benefits, rather than being forced into a one-size-fits-all benefits program.
The ability to offer a variety of benefits to individual employees is not beyond the reach of small employers if you work with the right insurance providers. Offering some type of coverage, even if you split the cost with your employees, is a powerful way to retain and attract good workers. In these competitive times, when you can't offer high salaries or other perks, you need to offer employees some sort of benefits.
In many cases, people who choose to work for a small business can afford to do so because their spouse or partner provides the family with coverage paid by their employer. While having a spouse or life partner who has benefits is a blessing for many, it won't apply to every employee. That's why it's important for you to offer something as an incentive to reward your staff.
Before you speak with an insurance broker or consultant, ask your employees what kinds of benefits they would like you to make available.
You don't need to hire a market research firm to get the answers you need. I recommend creating a small committee of employees (no more than 3) to conduct a brief, written employee survey. While there should be a representative from the personnel or human resources department, be sure to invite a cross-section of employees from different departments to help with the survey.
The goal is to determine precisely what type of coverage employees need, whether it is dental insurance, accident insurance, disability or medical coverage.