Hard work and small businesses

blog picsnov 10 010It seems obvious that you have to work hard to make your small business successful. Of course it is true that you have to apply yourself to the essential tasks needed to keep the business running smoothly. What you need to remember is that if you are working 24/7 all the time, or it seems like it, you are probably doing something wrong.

I cannot deny that when you start a business you are often trying to meet a deadline when you want to open your doors for business, physically or metaphorically. You might then “work all hours”, but if time passes and you still have no time for other things, you have a problem.

  • Are you making a profit?
  • Have you priced your offerings correctly with a decent margin?
  • Are there really potential customers for what you offer?
  • Is your marketing targeted properly?
  • Are you wasting time on office chores which someone else could do for you?

Ask yourself those questions if you realise you have hardly any time to yourself, and ask other questions too. If you think you are too busy even for that, you cannot deny you have private time to think if only it is just in the bathroom.

If you have made yourself a slave to your business, even a minute or two’s thought should show you what changes you need to make. Why don’t you try it?

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Monetising your hobby

Have you lost your job and cannot find a new one? Do you have a job but want a small business to make extra income which could perhaps become your full-time business.

Sometimes it is difficult to do business in the area which you have been working before. That’s tough. But wait! What other interests do you have? Do you have a hobby which has taught you a lot about a different area of work?

  • If you collect stamps you might know enough to buy and sell them for serious profit if you had or made time to do it.
  • Do you know about antiques?
  • Can you write a good report on any subject you are set?
  • Are you a good enough amateur artist that you could sell your work? Have you already sold the odd piece?

You get my drift. You could have a business doing something for which you already have a real passion. Your job might have just been a job and nothing more. Why not try doing something you enjoy and make money out of it?

After all, business should be fun, shouldn’t it?

Over-reaching in your business

Over-stretching

One of the easiest mistakes to make in a small business, and especially in start-ups, is to take on every new prospective customer or client who walks in the door.

The other day a small group of us (actually my parents and my wife and I) went out for Sunday lunch in a country pub. We had booked in advance.

When we arrived my father spotted the lady who turned out to be the manager standing behind the bar. My Dad gave our name and said we had booked a table for four. This drew the response “Can you wait, please? We have a table for nineteen just arrived.” Despite the “please” this response sounded rather terse; in fact rude.

Feed us!

After about ten minutes wait, and ten minutes after our booking, we were seated. We then sat there for fifteen minutes or so waiting to give our orders, and then waited getting on for an hour for our starters. OK, we could have left, but we would have been hard pressed after the time that had elapsed to find anywhere else to serve us.

When the starters arrived, there were only three. They had forgotten about the fourth, but when bringing the three the waitress did not notice we were one short, or did not think it odd. We thought she just could not carry the fourth rather than it had been forgotten, so we had to call her back when it was apparent it would not come on its own.

So the lunch went on as did our frustration. By the time the entrées, well, roasts had been eaten we had been in the place for over two hours. We did not have the stamina to wait for any further orders, so we skipped dessert, asked for the bill and left.

Too little, too late

When we were at the door the manager came and apologised for our poor service, said they had two very large tables, and had a lot of “walk-ins”. I suggested they should have turned away the “walk-ins” they could not cope with. At least they would know to book next time.

The food when it came had been really quite good, but the service was so chaotic that it is unlikely we will return to the pub-restaurant as they say “any time soon”.

Promises, promises

Our family has not been having much luck in this area. Recently we consulted a professional firm (not accountants or tax advisers) about an issue. Despite assuring us on our initial visit to their office that they would accept our instructions, following which we furnished a lot of information, they did nothing for weeks. They were thoroughly unresponsive, ignoring emails and did not get back to us in response to three telephone calls in five days asking for an update. I suspect they were out of their depth.

We have the impression that they did absolutely nothing, either because of lack of organization or because they lack the resources. Even though we have now informed them in writing that we will go to another firm, we have not even had the courtesy of an apology for their failure.

Yielding to temptation can cost reputation

Of course it is exciting when there are lots of people walking through our doors asking us to work for them. We do all need to think whether we have the resources to service the new business, or can get that support so that we deliver on time and efficiently so much so that we build our reputation.

The pub and the professional firm are ruining their reputations by failing to deliver quickly and efficiently It is such an easy mistake to make. Have you experienced this problem when doing business with others?

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Promoting your start-up business – Part 6 – Making business friends

 

Widen your market

Widen your market

Most start-up businesses start with one person – you. You might have one or two part-time staff or subcontractors. However there is a danger of feeling rather lonely. After all, you have to make all the decisions, and while you probably have experience of working in someone else’s business, the buck definitely stops with you now.

The good news is that you need not feel lonely. You should make some friends in your own line of work, preferably others running small businesses. Do not worry that they will try to take your clients away. There are plenty of fish in the sea. I have found that you can pick up ideas from others and perhaps you can help them too. Maybe they can help out with certain types of work you are not so keen on, do not enjoy or are simply not to skilled act. Perhaps you can help them out with their less favourite areas which you enjoy.

So that means you have a potential for getting business from your friends and acquaintances. How do you find those people?

Networking is the obvious answer, but a local trade association or professional group would serve well too. I can vouch for this. My monthly lunches with fellow professionals not only helped me feel part of the local community in my line of business, but we shared and still share problems that we come across. That sense of belonging to the group is a positive and valuable asset.

Another way of finding support from fellow-professionals and others in your business is through social media. I value greatly the friendship and camaraderie from people in my line of business with whom I have connected on Twitter. Sharing repartee and swapping business has been very valuable for me and Twitter is a great asset. Of course I have shared business from people in other lines of business through Twitter, and gained work from them as well as having subcontracted to them. Any way you can get known is useful marketing.

I talk to people through LinkedIn too and contribute to the discussions with specialist forums, but Twitter has built my on-line community rapidly, and I have added many to my LinkedIn contacts later. Twitter and LinkedIn have helped my businesses transform from local to national and beyond in terms of where my clients are located.

Consider having a Facebook page for your business and make sure you are active with a business page on Google+, not only to build your community but also because Google will help people to your website and your business once it knows where you are.

The more people you know, the better it is for support for your business and the more business will come your way. If you remember that as with face-to-face networking it is a matter of “give and take”, with perhaps more giving of referrals than taking, actually you will receive a great deal of business.

Get out there virtually as well as physically.

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Promoting your start-up business – Part 5 – Networking

 

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Don’t be a networking butterfly (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

What is networking?

What do we mean by networking? It means getting to know people. We are a social species, and of course some are more social than others. I am quite a shy person by nature, and really had to push myself to get out and meet people when I started my own businesses. Other people, such as my wife, are natural networkers and real social animals, knowing large numbers of people in the local community without thinking about it.

Of course what I am concentrating on here is business networking rather than general social networking.

It is not possible to categorize or talk about every sort of business networking opportunity. Meeting any other person in business, or who is a potential client, is business networking. However, I will discuss the different types of organized meetings which are available in most towns and cities.

  • The one category of business per group / chapter.
  • The several category of business per group type.
  • Networking lunches usually with a talk from a business person.
  • General gatherings organized by chambers of commerce or small business membership organizations, representative and lobby groups.

BNI and others

What do I mean by “one category of business per group”? This is the model started really by Ivan Misner with Business Network International (BNI) in the Eighties. The format is that in every “Chapter” each type of business is represented by one member. There are no duplications of businesses.

Originally all the meetings were over breakfast, although some are over lunch now. The emphasis is on the networking, not the meal. During the meeting, and often during the meal, each member has perhaps one minute to talk about her / his business and the types of referrals wanted. The talk-time is strictly managed and the whole meeting is very much to a format.

Members often take turns on a rota basis to have a whole ten minutes every few months to talk about their business in more detail. Towards the end of the meeting, each member has an opportunity to pass referrals from their referral pad, and all referrals are monitored for quality and success by the Membership Co-ordinator (I have been one, as well as run such meetings myself).

When I first started out with a business no one knew about, and the Internet was less advanced, my coach suggested I tried BNI.  I am very glad I did. It gave me confidence to speak in front of other people and to present my ideas, and most importantly I got to know other local business owners almost immediately. I gained some business and referred quite a lot to the accountant, the solicitor, the carpenter, the web designer, the heating engineer and the financial adviser.

BNI was not hugely successful for me at the time in terms of business gained, but the confidence gained was invaluable. Long after I left I got a huge amount of business from another ex-member.

BNI is great when you start out. I think my BNI “life” of about three years was typical, but some still benefit hugely after a decade or so.

Non-exclusive groups

There are some membership organizations which run breakfast or lunch meetings, like BNI require a significant joining fee and membership subs, and also like BNI are franchised to local organizers. Unlike BNI they permit any number of people in the same business to go to the meetings and indeed to go to multiple meetings in different towns. Whether this works very well is hard to tell. It helps you meet others in your own business as well as many others, but may produce conflicts in terms of getting referrals. 4N is typical of such organizations in the UK. There will be many varieties around the world. Try them out and see how successful they seem. Many will allow trial membership.

Business lunches

I mentioned networking lunches, usually with a talk from a business person. These groups are also often part of a franchise. They have an advantage in that they are focused on networking and you will get good opportunities to talk to the people around you at length. You never know who you might meet who could be an ideal referrer (you might be theirs) or even the perfect person for a joint venture.

The general gatherings I mentioned, organized by chambers of commerce or small business membership organizations, tend to be less focused, in that there is no real format. You may be fortunate to find and gain business at one of these, but especially if they are free at the door or there is simply an entrance fee and no on-going membership required, people turn up to sell. They tend to go to every meeting of this type so that you keep on bumping into them, when you really do not want to see them. I call these people who turn up at every meeting to sell networking butterflies. They never settle and probably never get or receive business, so they waste their time..

It is most important in business networking not to sell, but to be interested in other people and listen to what they have to say. That way you will get more respect and more referrals.

Less useful lunches

As for Chambers of Commerce lunches, I guess it is worth trying one or two, but you may be out of luck if the primary stated object is not networking. I have nothing against pensioners. I am related to pensioners and am going to be one myself one day, but I have found Chamber lunches to be the domain of the retired. If they are not in business any more they are not likely to be able to help you, and are unlikely to think about referring you to their friends.

Get out there

I enjoy getting out to network. I like meeting people, which BNI trained me to do. I have since run a “BNI clone” group. I have tried different sorts of groups, and you should try various types too, to see which you like and which might work for you.

Do not be disappointed if results in terms of business gained are slow to start with. You have to persevere, get known, gain the confidence of other business owners, and show that you really do a great job for your customers and clients. Remember not to sell. Business will come from networking, and maybe years afterwards as it did for me from an ex-BNI colleague.

I would wish you good luck with your networking, but you should not need luck if you work on it and give it time.

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Promoting your start-up business – Part 4 – Your Website

 

Photo by Peter Hires Images

Photo by Peter Hires Images

I write this with trepidation as everyone has an opinion about websites, what they should include, and what they should look like.

There are plenty of choices. Of course a lot depends on your budget, what sort of business you have, and whom you consider your target customers to be.

If you are selling stuff I would always recommend you talk to a professional web designer familiar with shopping carts and all the other bells and whistles required to make an on-line shopping site run smoothly. Ask around and get recommendations.

If you are mainly selling your expertise, I would still recommend you ask a professional if you are not confident with the free and paid-for software available to build a website, or if you simply do not have the time to do it yourself. It comes back to that old adage that you should concentrate on working on your business (that is doing what you do best) and not working in your business just trying to do all the chores. If building a website is a chore, don’t do it. If it is fun and almost recreational, then go for it.

There is quite a lot of free software available and most of the hosting companies have an assortment which can be installed automatically as you wish. I will not say that it always goes to plan. Sometimes you will need a support ticket because your host ran the wrong routine, but generally it works.

I do not have experience of anything other than WordPress. There are plenty of free themes available, and quite a few firms have premium paid-for themes you can try, but if you need a WordPress tutorial there are better teachers than I. Email me if you need help finding someone.

What about the content of your website? If you trade in a particular niche product area or if you are sell particular services or knowledge, you should post articles showing your expertise. Some people worry that if visitors to the website learn how to do something from reading your articles they will not buy from you. Actually these will be people who would not buy from you anyway. They will go away and mess up in an amateur way because they did not realise you cannot write the entire manual of your expertise on a website.

You will get customers who buy from you because they have a particular problem and they have read your articles and know you are the person to solve their problem. That is called content marketing. Writing in a niche attracts people who use the search engines to ask questions. Believe me, I know it works.

Talking of search engines, in WordPress and other website software you can get tools to help your Search Engine Optimization (SEO); to get your website found. You do have the option to hire an SEO specialist if you wish. As always, if you do not know what you are doing, get specialist help.

I believe virtually all businesses should have websites. They are our on-line brochures, they help us be found and if our potential customers have already heard of us, they can learn more about us. Then, when they call, they will have qualified themselves to buy already.

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Promoting your start-up business – Part 3

blog picsnov 10 001Advertising

Advertising is a difficult subject for most small businesses, because there are many choices, but most of them will not be right for you.

If you have a shop or any sort of retail premises, then in advance of your opening your doors you might try handing out flyers along the lines of “Grand Opening” stating the date and any special offers. Of course do not lose money with any of your special offers in case you keep the habit later on.

There are other ways to advertise for both retail and service businesses, but you do have to think about these carefully.

Soon after you register your business you will get calls from the traditional paper directories which now have on-line presence, by which I mean mainly Yellow Pages and Thomson. For a small business these were fairly ineffective ten years ago and I believe have very little value now.

It is true that if you have a plumbing business your advert might be the first one someone sees when they have an emergency such as a burst pipe, but even then, they will probably call the firm with the biggest display advert, which is one you cannot afford. I think that even for someone as valuable as a plumber, the paper directories will not bring enough business to pay for your advert, let alone contribute towards your profits.

If you are going to advertise on paper you need to target your audience. If you have a specialist business such as in fishing equipment then you should advertise in fishing magazines or whatever publication attracts your potential customers.

If you have a business anyone might need, such as carpentry or decorating or accountancy, try advertising in one of those booklets that go out to your area once a month with the free newspaper. You could try advertising in the free newspaper itself of course.

One good lesson about local advertising is that you need to be in the publication regularly. If publication is once a month, you need to have an ad every month. That is because people will have noticed your ad and remembered something about your business, but will not look to call until they have an immediate need. They might have thrown the last booklet away so will look for you in the next one. You need to make sure you are there.

Of course you need to monitor your success from this sort of advertising, so always ask when someone calls where they found your name, or the name of your business. You do need to know how effective your advertising is, but give it a few months to start working and pull the plug if it does not. Do not be afraid to ask for feedback from people you know and alter the wording in the next edition.

One point to make about paper advertising, and also web advertising and marketing which I will cover later on, is to say what your business does and how you will make your customer’s life better. Don’t sound as though you are patting yourself on the back with “We maintain a proud tradition” or “We have the highest qualifications”. That sort of thing is not what will make people call you. They may ask about qualifications if relevant when you have met them and they are in a mood to buy from you, but none of that will get them through the door in the first place.

Remember that customers will buy because you have something they want which will make their lives better. So:

  • Target your ad to specialist magazines and / or to small local directories and pamphlets.
  • Sound attractive and welcoming.
  • Tweak your advert as necessary.
  • Always ask where a caller found your name.
  • Place regular ads for a few months, but make a change if they are not working.

I have had and still get good business from this traditional advertising. I am sure you will too.

 

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Promoting your start-up business and attracting customers Part 2

 

 

Help your customers find your business

Help your customers find your business

The first press release

You need to make the announcement that you are open for business. Ideally you should get your press release out before you open your doors, but of course there is no reason why you should not send on out later or at any time. You do need to plan it carefully and write it in a way which will appeal to your target market.

  • Will your business appeal to a specialist market or to a wider audience? Plan to send your press release accordingly, whether to a niche magazine or to the local newspapers, or either or both.
  • Head it “Press Release”. State the obvious so that there is no mistake.
  • Space the text so that it is easily readable.
  • Have an eye-catching headline.
  • Don’t write too much. It is a bit like writing a blog post so try to confine yourself to 400 words or so, or even less.
  • Get all the important information in the first two or three sentences, and then expand on it in the rest of the piece. Remember a journalist may only use the first paragraph.
  • A press-release is not “one size fits all” so use the style of the publication you send it to. That may mean several re-writes if you are sending it out to different papers and magazines.
  • Quote yourself or a business partner or employee. e.g. “Jean (Smith) said: “I am really excited to be offering my interior design skills in the local area and sharing my life’s passion with the people of Townsville”.
  • Read your release carefully to make sure it really sounds interesting. Ask your friends if they think it is lively and engaging.
  • Check for spelling and grammar and ask someone else if you are not sure.
  • Make sure you know the copy deadlines of the publications you target and send in your article well in advance.
  • Do not forget to include your contact details at the end.
  • Find out who is the best person to whom you should send the press release.
  • If emailing a photo, check the required format though it may not matter too much. If posting, then check in advance on the form required.

You should now be all set to launch your business into the world.

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First steps in marketing your start-up business Part 1

Successful Business People.You are about to open your doors to the public, whether that is literally if you have retail premises or consulting rooms, or figuratively if you are working from home and are more likely to be visiting your customers.

How will your potential customers know you are there? You will have to tell them!

There are a few simple ways of announcing your presence. I will list a few and expand on some later in this series.

  • Prepare a press release. It is very important to get this right so I will discuss this in the next chapter.
  • Have an attractive sign if you have business premises, and make sure it says what your business does. Do not leave people to guess or have to find out by peering in your window.
  • If your premises are not on the main drag get an A-frame sign board and ask a nice shop owner in the busier area if you can put it outside their place. Many will be happy to help direct customers right up your alley.
  • Give careful thought to advertising. Many new business owners get this wrong and I will help you later in a future post.
  • Plan to network. That means making a point of going out to meet people in other businesses, and perhaps get an introduction to public speaking. Don’t worry. It will only be a minute or so and you will be surprised how quickly you get used to it.
  • Make as many friends as you can who are in the same business as you. I know from experience that camaraderie with others in a similar line is very helpful and that your “colleagues” will be happy to share tips.

Starting a business can be very daunting, but also the most exciting time in our working lives. Running a business ought to be fun. Don’t you agree?

 

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Purchasing mistakes for small businesses

Vostro 1000 with Windows 8My salad days, when I was green in judgement

Remember when you started your business, whether it was a few months ago of a few years? You wanted to buy computers, tools and gadgets. You needed to buy in services. There was so much choice, but what did you need?

When I started my business more than a decade back, the web was not quite what it is now. It seemed logical to advertise in paper form. Not long after I started up I had calls from Yellow Pages and Thomson Directory. I signed up at quite considerable cost, by which I mean £1,000. I thought it was bound to work.

Of course just being in a directory does not work for every business. I wish I had known that. It does work for a plumbing business for people in urgent need of help, and probably for the local electrician, but in professional services potential clients look for recommendations. I might have had one engagement in my three wasted years with Yellow Pages. I had no business at all through Thomson. I had the wrong sort of business to succeed this way.

Out with the old, be careful with the new

Now paper directories have gone out of fashion and have shrunk to small booklets., but still general directories do not work. We are all in Yell.com for free, and having your business listed in Google Places probably helps your SEO, but in themselves they do not help service businesses much. It is certainly not worth paying anyone for a big ad on Yell. AdWords may get you more clicks on a search, but you just cannot beat a recommendation, so don’t spend your money unless you are a plumber etc..

Shiny jewels

Our other big temptation is in buying office equipment. What do we actually need, as opposed to what we really fancy to polish our egos? I run a “professional office” from home. I would love one of those wonderful big touch screens as a client of mine had even a couple of years ago. She paid about three times what she needed to to have a functional machine running bookkeeping software and spreadsheets. Paying for that really cut into her cash-flow as a start-up, at a time when she needed to purchase stock to sell.

I have a couple of Windows desktops in my office and an old ex-Windows one running Ubuntu and which I did not fork out a bean for. I am tied to Windows by specialist software, at least for now. I have a laptop which I take when I am out of the office. I need all these.

I also have a netbook which was an impulse buy a couple of years ago. I didn’t need it. With hindsight I should not have bought it, but I liked the one my granddaughter had. I use it for business purposes because it has no other use for me, but I could well have done without it.

Taking the tablet or swallowing a bitter pill?

I am not the only one to make these mistakes. I might have bought a redundant iPad. And yes, I have an Android tablet which, fortunately, was a freebie. I could write letters, work on spreadsheets, emails and all sorts of things, but without a proper keyboard it is not nearly as convenient as a laptop. I sometimes check my email when I am out, but can just as easily use my phone. I don’t need a tablet at all. I use it only on Twitter and Facebook and then only during leisure time. Paying for one would have been a waste of money.

All new purchasing needs thinking about carefully. Do we need the product and will it serve us well? Is it cost-effective? Have we read the reviews or asked a business friend?

I have made expensive mistakes in the past. Have you?

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