What works for us



Remember what works

When I started my businesses I took an ad in local monthly pamphlets which go out to probably about 20,000 homes. It worked quite well, but although I was at one time advertising in four of these booklets going to different areas, over the years I have found that two local towns did not want to buy from me. I do not understand why, but I stopped my ad in those particular pamphlets. I still have ads in the other two booklets because they do work and they reinforce my local presence.

I used to do a lot of breakfast networking. You may remember I even ran a breakfast group for a while. That helped my business locally. However, for family health reasons I backed away from that scene, and I cannot say that my business has suffered to any degree. Maybe that networking had stopped working for me, so I do not feel a great need to re-engage.  I do network face-to-face at meetings later in the day.

What works for me now in getting business is my on-line presence both through my own websites and through that of an alliance where I pay for my profile via commission when I close business received through that “external” website.

I have tried to recognise where marketing does not work or has ceased to work, and close it out. I will always try new methods too. We have to test and see what works, and notice what has stopped working, otherwise we end up wasting money and our valuable time.

Do not be lazy with your marketing because it can be expensive. I know myself it can be easy to let it slip.


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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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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Time wasting and fog

Front fog lights of Ford Focus Mk I.
Image via Wikipedia

I believe we should always be at least fine-tuning our business models and especially our marketing of course. Whether the New Year is the time for a good clear-out or the business should have a good spring-clean it is necessary sometimes to think about what we are doing and especially what works for us.

Misty Nights

As I write this I am thinking about misty nights which have encouraged many car drivers to switch on their fog lamps. A few wisps should be hardly enough to make the fog lights necessary. Indeed they are no help at all unless the weather is very foggy, and actually can be dangerous to others dazzled by the unnecessary brightness. They are at best a distraction. I can’t remember when I last deemed it necessary to switch on my fog lights in anger.

Of course there are some drivers who think that they need fog lights on crystal-clear nights on the basis that they can say “Hey, I’m brighter than you”. We all know that they are not so bright as they think they are.


Many people allow themselves similar distractions from the real purpose of their business. They advertise in Yellow Pages even though there is no evidence that they get any return on investment. They may pay for expensive premises they don’t need. These are mere fripperies in business terms. They may not have reviewed their utilities or their telephone contracts and be paying more than they could. They may be paying for a whole raft of services which add nothing to their business offering and detract from the most important aspect; the bottom line. They may offer some products or services which are not much in demand so have a higher underlying cost and therefore a lower profit margin.

The road is clear

It is not failure to regroup, to review costs, or to stop selling something that makes no money. It is a positive step to look at what can be done to increase profit and be more successful.

If your business fog lights are on and you don’t need them, you know where the switch is, don’t you? You will be able to concentrate better on the important stuff and see better where you are going.

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Don’t repeat costly business mistakes

Mistakes. We all make them. In the early years of a business, inexperience may lead us to make quite a few. Don’t worry about that. It is important to learn from mistakes and move on.

Starting out we are going to be telephoned by the business directories such as Yellow Pages and Thomson. If we have a plumbing business or a car repair shop that may be just the way to get business in the early years before our good reputation gets to spread around. What we don’t need to do is persist with paying large amounts of money for directory listings which don’t work. A couple of years is quite enough and if there is no result, move on.

There are people who keep trying things in the hope that somehow things will change and something will start working. This reminds me of one of my colleagues who had once been my boss. He tried hard with his IT which was to his credit, but I remember over about a week he was trying to do something in Word 97 or with Windows 2000 and it didn’t work. Of course that was because he was making the same error over and over again. The software didn’t know what he was trying to do, so it just didn’t work. My colleague should have asked someone what he was doing wrong, but he was just too proud to until a staff member just happened to notice his predicament. Yes, it was comical, but demonstrated the need to get help, and how stubbornly some people resist asking for it.

We must not beat ourselves up over our mistakes. We must learn and move on and know when we need help, and the value of that for which we pay.

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Businesses should be careful what they say

Why the title? Well, some PR material you see on-line and off-line is quite discouraging to the prospective client or customer.

Quite often I need to look at the websites of firms of accountants, who, though they may provide the some of the same sort of services as my own business, you will know that I regard as colleagues. We are all earning our keep and often co-operation is an advantage.

I do shudder though when I see certain phrases. “We are the largest in Essex dealing with this subject”. Well, the firm in question has two offices. I would rather suggest the personal attention the client would have to ease their pain than plant in the mind of a prospect that they would be just one of many clients of a certain sort.

On another accountants’ website is “we have moved into prestigious new offices in the High Street”. That just implies they are likely to be expensive. I don’t suppose they are and I congratulate them on their success, but I would recommend them to emphasise the value and savings they can deliver to their clients and not crow about the posh offices.

There is another firm of accountants whose website home page has a photo of the partners standing knee-deep or more, depending on height, in a field of a mauve-flowered crop.

One’s first reaction is “what are they doing?” I suppose they want to appeal to the farming community, being provincially based, but the photo damages the overall impression of what would be quite a nice website. I confess I had a giggle, which is a shame because I think they are a good firm.

We all get things wrong. You could say about me “people in glasshouses…”. Go on, why don’t you? However, we do need to make sure that our offering is clear and valuable, and we do not have more than a few seconds of attention-span to get the message across.

Have you seen any mixed messages from businesses recently?

© Jon Stow 2010

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How will your customers find you?

It struck me the other day while I was waiting for a hair cut that there are different ways of attracting customers. Some businesses are totally passive in their marketing, some can get away with only a little marketing, and there are those who will not be noticed without taking the trouble to market in the ways that suit them.

A men’s hairdresser (barber if you prefer) on a main street may come into the first category. They open a shop, potential customers notice it and decide to give it a try. If they have a good experience they will come again and will recommend the place to their friends. Following on from having a business in the right place for its type in geographical terms, a good service will bring its rewards. A convenience store in a good location has the same attributes, but in a popular location this sort of passive marketing has its cost in the rents or cost of the premises.

Then there is the sort of business that needs recommendations, but also needs a fairly central location, though not necessarily in a prime position to catch passing trade. A firm of solicitors (lawyers) or indeed a useful hardware store might be in this category. They need to advertise, could do with some networking to build a reputation, and have to provide great customer service to get great recommendations and word of mouth referrals. No one just drops in to a firm of lawyers on the off-chance. People go because of a name they have heard through advertising, or on recommendation.

Then there is the third type of business. It does not have the main street location. It may be out-of-the-way. It relies on the ability of the owners and employees to provide a great product or service. It might be a country restaurant, it might be a firm of accountants and it might be a country farm shop selling local produce. Then, there will have to be very active marketing to get known, a concerted campaign, publicity, networking with many other businesses, a good website and so on. Again, great customer service is essential to build reputation and gain word of mouth referrals, but a business like this needs to get customers in the first place.

All this seems obvious, but many new businesses do not understand which category they are in. Across the road from the men’s hairdresser is a new gift shop in place of a jewellers which went out of business. On the same side of the road as the hairdresser was another gift shop which also went out of business. Are the new gift shop owners marketing as they should, getting out of their premises to meet people to tell them about the business and helping others along the way?

The trouble is that what might be a prime location for a hairdressers with ready-made business and trades people passing is not a prime location for a gift shop, which is less likely to benefit than the hairdresser. A gift shop needs to differentiate itself from the rest, perhaps rely on the personality and personal touches of the owners. If people don’t know about it the business will fail. Are they treating their marketing seriously?

It worries me and when I have a minute I will visit the gift shop to see if I can help.

Do you agree with my perspective? What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

Related post:

Why we need to have the right business in the right place

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Some things start-up businesses need to know about

When we start our business, most of us have a good idea and a plan to carry it out. Everyone should have a plan, but we need to be flexible enough to alter it according to circumstances. What no one tells us if we don’t ask is about all the mistakes we might make which can cost us money. It is always useful to be armed with a few tips, so here are some things I have learned.

1. When thinking about advertising and marketing, consider the best strategy to promote your business. What do others in your area of business do, and does it work for them? I thought that it would be useful to be in Yellow Pages (or the on-line equivalent, Yell.com). It cost me a fair amount of money until I worked out that these sorts of directories are really only effective for tradesman and specialist retailers. This leads me to:

2. You may find that one of the best ways to find new business is to go out networking. This involves getting out of your comfort zone a little, especially if you have been an employee and you are an introvert.. There is plenty on this site about networking and vast amounts of information available on-line, so look at BNI and other breakfast groups, and think what most suits you in terms of networking: formal, less formal, morning, lunchtime and evening.

3. Do not be afraid to ask for advice. If you have a problem, it is not a failure, just a learning process. Most people will be happy to make a suggestion.

4. Going on from item 3, many of those who can help are in your business. Do not look on them as competitors. They are colleagues who have the same issues.

5. There are quite a lot of nuisance telephone callers. I do not mean the cold callers in general. They have a job to do. However, deal firmly with the really pushy ones, because they will often try to sell you something you don’t need. If the product or service sounds useful, do some research and call back.

6. Never give your credit or debit card number to a cold caller. It sounds obvious, but it is an easy thing to do in a weak moment.

7. Some cold callers are out-and-out scammers, or crooks. They will try to sell you advertising in a police or fire service magazine or in a magazine of a charity, or ask for a donation to help the poor children in your area. Any of these is a red flag. The magazines probably don’t exist or if they do, they have nothing to do with the scammer. The charity for children will be a fiction too and someone has your card number if you are not careful. If you are suspicious, ask for a number to telephone back, or ask for the name and address of the company calling and the name of the owner. Any resistance to this and you know you were right to be suspicious. I fell foul of this trap once, too.

8. Do not borrow money against your house, and if you do borrow make sure that the payment terms are reasonable and your plan really supports the repayment schedule. Don’t chance it because the worry isn’t worth it.

9. If you are not up to keeping your accounts in apple-pie order, get someone else to help. Do not leave it to your accountant at the year-end because completing a year’s accounts from scratch can be costly. A good bookkeeper is well worth the investment.

10. Make sure you have all the insurance you could possibly need. Of course things shouldn’t go wrong if we are careful, but sometimes they do. If we are insured it should not be a problem, at least in financial terms.

None of us gets everything right. We learn and move on, and we ask for help when we need it.

One thing we can say is that running a business is never dull. What pitfalls have you seen along the way?

© Jon Stow 2010

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More imagination in customer service

Having been frustrated with the lack of interest in new business exhibited by local event venues and hotels, I have to be fair and mention that one of them telephoned back after a week to say that they could meet my proposal for the amount per head for each of my breakfast group, but they would need to charge an extra amount (actually quite a lot) for our use of a room at their establishment. Quite why they thought this would be satisfactory when clearly I was looking for a particular budget, which they disregarded in adding the room cost, I just don’t know. It is not as though their room would normally be in use between seven and nine in the morning, and since my business group is not in the habit of trashing every room in which we have a meeting, I doubt whether there would be a significant cost even for cleaning beyond a brief run round with the vacuum cleaner.

Presumably they wanted the business; why come back with this when basically I had given them a take-it-or-leave-it proposal with a known outcome and no real downside when they would have had staff in anyway to prepare breakfast for hotel residents? There is a distinct lack of business nous frankly. Obviously I declined their offer.

I was feeling a bit disappointed, but driving back from a meeting on Thursday I heard an ad on the local radio station for a restaurant I had not considered; I had not been aware they were open except in the evenings; apparently they are under new management. The commercial said they served breakfast, lunch and dinner, and hosted events. Naturally when I got back to the office I gave them a call. The duty manager seemed very business-like, she thought they could accommodate the group and was happy on my price proposal, subject to the approval of the owner, which she got. As they do not normally open for breakfast until nine, they are going to get their chef in early or the owner might be in the kitchen, but we are giving it a trial on both sides.

It is refreshing to get a great attitude from someone prepared to give a try to something new in the way of business. Maybe they will decide breakfast events are not for them, but they have an open mind. That is how we in business should approach 2010 and in particular business in a downturn: with an open mind. Otherwise we will assume doors are closed which many just be open a little and only need a push from us. At least, that’s what I think. How about you?

© Jon Stow 2010

Why we should deal with the present to look after the future of our business

We are coming to the end of another year, and of course all the predictions for 2010 and beyond are already upon us. As with the social media “experts’” forecasts, most of these will be wrong or else they will be stating the blindingly obvious. We really do not know what will happen in six months’ time or on a micro-management scale, even tomorrow. However the pundits earn their living doing this sort of thing and I have no more faith in them than I do in Mystic Meg (sorry, Meg!).

We hear forecasts that the economy will improve at the beginning / middle / end of 2010 or by 2011. One of these might be right, but it is akin to saying during a period of rainy weather that the sun will come out soon. Of course it will, but if you have a leaky roof or are under threat of flooding you should be prepared and take necessary measures.

In terms of your business, you may have a damaging cash flow problem. It needs to be dealt with now before you get swept away. Tighter and more forceful credit control (I don’t mean sending the boys round) may be the answer, or perhaps talk to your bank or a proper hands-on business adviser about short term help.

Marketing people will tell you that you should do just as much marketing or even more than you did when times were better. That is absolutely true, and they will also tell you to keep testing new ways of marketing and know what works and what doesn’t so that you do not waste your valuable time and worse, your money. Depending on your business, it may be online marketing, off line activities or networking. Take advice if you are not sure.

Make sure that your business is efficient as it can be. Cut your overheads including utility bills, and if you do not know anyone who can help you do this, then ask me or any business adviser with whom you feel comfortable.

The point of this piece is not to lecture about specific issues. You have enough on your plate, as we all do, to have to put up with someone going through the basics.

Relying on the economy improving is akin to Mr. Micawber saying “something will turn up ”. He went to debtors’ prison. We have to look after ourselves and our businesses now. The economic sunshine will come out, but we need to be there to enjoy it when it does.

© Jon Stow 2009