Archives for August 2013

Promoting your start-up business – Part 5 – Networking



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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Customer service, reputation and call-out charges

photoxpress_4931100In a professional service business a call-out charge is alien. If I meet a client for the first time just to get to know them, I am not going to charge a fee; that is unless I have to go half way across the country at the risk of being seen as a source of free information. However, generally speaking, the first meeting involves deciding whether we can work together, what we expect of each other, and agreeing a fee for the work or project. Paid work comes later in the relationship, and of course we need to manage that payment.

The situation is not the same as with those who visit our homes to fix things. I am talking about plumbers and electricians and gas fitters. I accept that if you have four or five appointments in a day and you do not know what is involved before you get to a customer’s premises, it is reasonable to say “I have a call-out charge of £50.” Otherwise you could have days of not much paid work if you were unlucky, and generally most customers will pay £50 for peace of mind even if the repair turns out to be trivial.

However, some traders repeat the mantra of the £50 call-out charge when something they are supposed to have fixed or replaced goes wrong within hours, a day or a week. That is when a customer is going to start to feel ripped off. One might have paid for significant work beyond the initial call-out charge. If something goes wrong with the initial work we should expect it to be fixed without a further charge. If there is another problem, of course we should expect to pay for it to be fixed.

Much of my own work involves dealing with Government departments. They are not very efficient. My service and on-line filings can be perfect (well of course they are :)) but the response from HMRC for example can be wrong and need correcting. I include the second bite of the cherry in the fee the client pays; in other words there is no more to pay and it is my loss if it takes me an age to sort matters out. Usually it does not.

Call-out charges need to be thought about carefully. The real issue is partly about business ethics, but mainly how the customer feels after her / his interaction with you. It is about your reputation. Will they be happy, use your services again and recommend you, or will they feel ripped off and tell everyone?

Fee management and charges affect not only our cash flow and current business, but also our future business in terms of repeat work and growth. It needs thinking about, doesn’t it?

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Payment issues and being the door mat

Pay for this before paying us?

Pay for this before paying us?

Everyone we meet in business is different; they have different visions, different ideals, different lifestyles and different ideas about paying their providers.

It is the different ideas about paying that concern us here.

My business is different from most accountancy firms, because it isn’t strictly an accounting firm. My business undertakes quite a few one-off projects. Normally I agree the fee in advance, the work is done, it is billed and the bill is paid, usually quite quickly. That should not be surprising. Generally you expect to pay for something when you have had it, whether it is a carton of milk, a car or a service such as mine.

However, one thing I have in common with accountancy firms is annual clients, or one might say perennials. We have them every year. With these clients, again their fees should be reviewed and agreed annually in advance. However, should they pay in advance?

Many firms have a monthly standing order so that their clients make easy payments towards their fees. A lot of clients are happy to do this. Some are not.

Yet what do we say to clients who know six months in advance what their fee will be and when it will be due, and then fail to provide for it? In the meantime they go away on holiday when you need to speak to them about something, and they put paying for their holiday in front of paying us. Should we press them for payment at the risk of having a frostier relationship?

I think we do have to press them and maybe appeal to any element of conscience they have. We need to stress that they are not the only ones with cash flow problems. Even if we do not have one ourselves (I hope we don’t) it is a perfectly true statement that they are not the only ones.

In the end, though, we have to say that we will not hang on for months every year waiting to be paid. Most will pull their socks up. Some will not, and we will need to show them the door politely.

I think that if a client does not think it honourable to pay on time, they are either unreliable or they are bullies, treating us like their doormat. Except in the face of their business being about to fail, that behaviour is unacceptable, and even then they might have warned us before commissioning more work.

How do you feel when your client doesn’t pay you promptly?

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More “how not to network”

English: I took this picture.

Attribution: Thesydneyknowitall at en.wikipedia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday I reported on Twitter a power supply unit failure in my office important computer-server. By the time I tweeted about the mishap my usual computer repair shop down the road had already repaired the machine and had installed a new PSU within the hour. I was a happy bunny. Great service!

However, it did not stop one of my Twitter followers, one with just the egg for an avatar, messaging me to up-sell me to their cloud systems so that I could not lose my data; as if I do not back up all my data to the cloud anyway.

Worse still, they then look up my telephone number on my website and call to press home their attempted sale.

So here is a little lesson in networking as I see it (and of course you may differ):

  • Never sell to me either via social media or face-to-face networking.
  • Try to get to know me.
  • Talk about your business in a non-salesy way and earn my trust and
  • you may get a referral or
  • I may value you enough to give you my business, but only if you never sell to me.

I never buy anything on-line or over the telephone unless I initiate the contact because I have made a buying decision. I bet you don’t either. Do you?

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