Small Business Strategy: The Power of Reflection

It’s amazing what you can get done getting still. Most small business owners, myself included, spend most of their days moving as fast as possible, getting things done, checking things off the list. But the most important work happens faster when we stop.

Once a year, my business partner and I go to Arizona for several days to think about the business. We take a thick workbook filled with questions about every aspect of the business, from our business development strategy, to how we define our company brand, to how we think each employee is doing.

For the first few days, it may look like we’re not doing much that’s productive. We go on hikes, have massages, take yoga classes, take naps. This year, Arizona had an unexpected cold snap and we spent a lot of time in our rooms sitting by the fire.

Then, ideas begin to surface. New-found clarity pulls everything into focus. Suddenly, we see business opportunities that we hadn’t noticed before. We notice things we need to change that we’d been moving too fast to see.

These annual trips are where we set our vision for the company. There are all sorts of important milestones in our company’s growth that can be traced back to an idea we had during Shiatsu or sitting by the pool on our Arizona retreats. If we hadn’t done these trips consistently through the years, there are plenty of times we would have veered off course and not caught it.

The trick is taking the time, even when you think you don’t have it. Or when you think the company can’t afford for you to spend money going away somewhere to loll around.

Our trips are definitely expensive, but I’d say they’re one of the most important items in our annual budget. My business partner and I were talking yesterday, after our most recent Arizona trip, about how we could have spent that same amount of money on an executive coach for the year, or joining a CEO roundtable group, or any other sort of professional development that most business people would find a reasonable investment.

But for my money, the best bet is giving yourself a chance to sit still until you begin to see where you need to go next.

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Do you treat your clients like Tiffany customers?

No matter how good your company is, sooner or later you’re going to mess something up. You won’t mean to, but you’ll do something that upsets a client. Maybe you’ll miss a deadline, maybe costs will come in higher than you estimated, maybe one of your employees will unintentionally offend a client with a stupid joke. The question is not whether or not something will go wrong in a client relationship. Something always goes wrong.

The real question is: what do you DO when something goes wrong? A trusted business advisor once told me that it’s always a good strategy to overreact to a mistake. Don’t assume that just because the client says it’s no big deal that it’s no big deal.

Here’s a great example of the right sort of overreaction from the little blue box of high-end retail: Tiffany. A friend’s husband ordered her a necklace from the Tiffany website as a Christmas present. He selected a shipping method that would get it there by Christmas Eve. For reasons that may or may not have been Tiffany’s fault, the necklace didn’t arrive on time. They assured him it would arrive the following week.

But in the meantime, they overnighted — for Saturday delivery, no less — a complimentary gift card for $100. I don’t care who you are, a hundred dollars for free makes an impact. It’s a heck of an apology. My friend says she’d never really been a big fan of Tiffany before, but now she’s a true believer. Her husband, who had planned to have another jeweler knock off a celebration ring Tiffany makes to save a little money, now feels it’s imperative that he buy that ring from Tiffany, regardless of cost. His takeaway: “I know Tiffany will do it right.”

Of course, the reverse happens often enough. There’s a dime store in Atlanta that has been here for about three generations. It’s a well-loved institution. They’ve built their reputation one happy customer at a time, year after year after year. It’s the kind of place where parents take their kids for a ride on the same mechanical horse they rode as children. A ride on the horse still costs a dime.

One day I watched a cashier eradicate all those decades of goodwill, at least for the one customer she was serving. This guy handed her a clapping monkey he wanted to buy. You know the one, with the striped trousers and the brass cymbals. The price tag on the monkey said one price. The register rang it up at a higher price. The customer said he wanted to pay the price on the price tag. The cashier said, well, I can’t sell it to you for that, because the register says it’s supposed to cost such and such. They went around and around and around until finally the customer said, you know, I’ve been shopping here for years, but now I’m not coming back again. What’s more, he promised to tell all his friends what happened with the clapping monkey. And he walked out — monkeyless and not happy about it.

Wouldn’t it have been worth the few bucks difference in price to keep a long-time customer happy? I like to think that if the owner had been there, he would have apologized profusely to the customer. And then given him the clapping monkey for free.

Checklist: 7 quick ways to promote your blog after every post

If a tree falls in the blogosphere, is anyone there to hear it? Unless you already have all the readers you want for your blog, you’re going to want to promote your new posts. One of the best ways is to develop a standard system of the things you do each time you publish something new.

Here’s a handy checklist of the steps I take:

1. Ping it: Ping-o-matic is a free service that updates search engines so you don’t have to. Visit pingomatic.com, and go ahead and bookmark it. Then every time you post something new, just click on that, and it will do the pinging for you.

2. Tiny it: Next thing I do is make a shortened version of the URL for the blog page where my new post appears. I  use bit.ly, but there are plenty of other options.

3. Tweet it: Then I send out one tweet to let my followers know there’s some new content they might be interested in. Some people like to do several tweets about one post, or even many tweets a day promoting an inventory of past posts. In the tweet, I’ll include the shortened URL to take them straight to the post. (If you use WordPress, you can also set it to auto-tweet your new posts.)

4. Digg it: To use this content sharing service, you’ll first need to register at digg.com. Then every time you post, you can go to their Add New Content page and submit your post. Check the box for news article if it’s a text post and the video box for a vlog, of course. You also might want to poke around Digg to see what other people have posted and give the ones you like a thumbs up, just for good karma.

5. Stumble it: Stumble Upon leads visitors directly to websites that match their interests, out of a list of nearly 500 possible topics. So it helps more like-minded people discover your blog. Again, you’ll need to first register as a member and download the toolbar into your browser. Then you can give your blog posts a thumbs up and submit them for other people to find.

6. Contribute it: You might find a few websites out there that allow you to post content, usually as an article or a blog. These will generally be sites that focus on a specific audience, like working mothers or budding entrepreneurs. Depending on the topic of each of my posts, I may or may not contribute it as content somewhere. When you do contribute content, you generally are allowed to tag the post with a brief description of who you are and what you write about, along with a link back to your own blog site.

7. Link it: This last one is so easy, you only have to set it up one time and then your blog becomes part of your LinkedIn account. Install the free BlogLink application and then it will automatically add your new posts to your profile page, and also let your contacts know every time you post something new.

5 Tips: How to Increase Employee Engagement with Workplace Wellness Programs

The key to a successful workplace wellness program is employee engagement. The reverse is also true. That is, one way to increase employee engagement is a successful wellness program.

Yesterday we were in a client’s break room, waiting for a meeting room to open up , and I noticed several flyers on the bulletin board about various wellness offerings. I was surprised by my initial reaction, which was, “Who would sign up for those?”

Why did they strike me as loser offerings? Because they seemed preachy and goody-goody and completely devoid of anything fun. One sounded like the school nurse was going to take you through a lecture on the five food groups. I’m not suggesting that wellness should be a barrel of laughs, but a good program creates energy and involvement. The more employees you can get to participate, the stronger your program will be.

An effective wellness program will do more than just increase productivity because people feel better and have more energy. It also gives co-workers a chance to do something together that’s unrelated to their usual work roles. It equals the playing field, so to speak, in a way that lets junior employees spend some time on an equal footing with those who rank above them in the company hieirarchy. It will also build relationships between people in different departments, which helps smooth the way to better teamwork and increased collaboration.

So how do you create a wellness program with plenty of employee engagement? Here are five tips:

1. Ask the employees what they want. Particularly in a small company, you can solicit input from the group. You can do a survey, if you want, but it might be easier just to ask people about their wellness concerns. Are they looking for ways to find time for exercise? Do they really wish they could quit smoking? Are they trying to eat healthier?

2. Get their help in constructing the program. Give some influential employees ownership of developing the program. If the group wants a yoga class at lunch, let an employee track down a good yoga instructor willing to do a class in the conference room. If they’re interested in a buddy-system diet, let an employee research South Beach vs. The Zone vs. WeightWatchers.

3. Make sure management joins in. The top level people in the company need to suit up and show up. If you give the impression that the boss is too busy for exercise, for example, employees might interpret the fitness program as something meant only for those who aren’t as serious about their work. Besides making it clear that you’re committed to wellness, it adds extra motivation for participation, at least by those employees who want more chances to rub shoulders with the boss.

4. Add an element of competition. Put together a contest with some level of cash prize, or a free day off, or something employees will see as worth their while. Look for a way to compete that doesn’t automatically give an advantage to the fittest among the group. For instance, instead of a contest to see who can bench press the most weight, compete on who can complete three workouts a week for the most weeks.

5. Create a collaborative goal. If your group tends to get a little too competitive, choose a goal they work towards together. Maybe after the employees collectively walk or run 10,000 miles, the company donates $1,000 to a worthy cause. Or let the collaborative goal benefit the employees more directly. After they lose so many pounds as a group, you’ll hire a massage therapist to give chair massages on Friday afternoon.

Ride the wave of love for startups — and existing small companies

If you’re an entrepreneur — or are thinking about becoming one — take advantage of the prevailing national pride in small business. America has always had a love affair with the Mom and Pop Main Street shop, but now, more than ever, the country is depending on entrepreneurs of every ilk to play a large role in our economic growth.

During the dark days of this recession, small business owners everywhere watched the big banks and car companies in the news and joked, “Where’s my bailout?” If it’s lonely at the top, it’s especially desolate at the top of a small business, where entrepreneurs have struggled alone with all kinds of tough decisions, from whether to lay off valued employees to if it might be time to file for bankruptcy. Plenty of small companies have folded, but many more are still standing.

These business owners, and the new entrepreneurs joining their ranks, are poised to become the national heroes of the American economy. For one thing, they provide half the jobs in the country and create up to 80% of all new jobs. Lawmakers and business reporters are now pulling out all the classic metaphors, like small business being “the backbone of the economy” and “the engine driving our economic recovery.”

If you own a small business and survived 2009, or if you started a business last year, you deserve some high praise. No doubt it required sharp business acumen, not to mention bravery, to pull that off. The people around you, in your company, your community and even your country, appreciate what you’ve done to help keep your employees working and your vendors in business. People with income can spend, which creates more income, and more spending, and eventually, the economy will be thriving again.

This is what I’d like to see. I’d like to be sitting on a plane sometime soon and have the airline attendant stand up and grab her microphone to say, “Ladies and gentleman, we have some small business owners on board with us today. Let’s give them all a round of applause to thank them for their part in stimulating the American economy.”

Small Business Strategies: Starting a workplace wellness program might be easier than you think

Meditation room at Tribe

What can you do in the new year to improve employee morale and productivity without spending a ton of money? Easy answer: start some level of wellness program in your office. If you’ve ever considered doing something like that, this might be the perfect time.

Wellness programs allow you to give employees something they find meaningful without handing out big pay raises. Many small companies froze salary increases last year. In others, employees watched people in their company lose their jobs, and were understandably meek about pushing for their own salary reviews. But don’t think that means they’re not thinking about what they give the company for what they get. A workplace wellness program can be a very good way to let employees know you value their contributions.

Of course, it’s also the beginning of a new year. The perfect time for fresh starts, healthy new habits and lifestyle improvements. Your employees are probably already thinking about what they can do in 2010 to be healthier. A wellness program can help support them in their individual goals. It’s also a powerful way to bring new energy into the workplace.

How do you do it? You don’t have to build a company gym or pay for an on-site spa chef (although you could). Think in terms of providing flexibility (time) or resources (access). You can pick one element of wellness, like fitness or stress management or healthy eating and focus your program around that area. Or you can put together a small smorgasbord of wellness offerings. Here are a few examples:

• Allow employees extra time for lunch two or three days a week so they can fit in a walk or a run. At Tribe, we tell employees they can put up to three hours a week on their time sheets for exercise during the workday. We’ve found that whenever someone manages to fit in a workout or  yoga class during the day, they’re likely to come back to the office with a good idea or solution for something they’re working on. If nothing else, their energy level is higher that when they left.

• Use one of those empty offices for a meditation room. Move the desk out and put a small couch or a comfortable armchair in there instead. Or just put out a few yoga mats or some big floor pillows.  Add a few meditation CDs and a CD player, and you’re good to go. If employees feel comfortable spending 20 minutes meditating in the middle of the day, alone or with a coworker, that can go a long way towards reducing stress levels.

• Put a bowl of fresh fruit in the break room, and stock it weekly. When employees hit that pre-lunch or mid-afternoon slump, being able to skip the vending machine and grab an apple or banana instead can be a highly appreciated perk. Supporting wellness in the office can actually come down to some very simple (and inexpensive) changes.

The biggest thing employees are looking for in a wellness program is a way for the workplace to support them in living a good life. As a business owner, you do that by providing meaningful work and fair compensation. But lately, many companies have been asking employees to work harder without the hope of a big, fat salary increase. Especially in this economic environment, one of the best things you can do for your employees is to provide the flexibility and resources for them to take care of their own health.

How a tough year for your business in 2009 might mean a fantastic 2010

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but 2009 was actually a great year at Tribe. And I’m thinking it might have been at your company too.

Of course, we did lose our largest client, due to the slump in the housing market. We had to lay off a few talented, hardworking people that we’d hire again in a heartbeat. We cut back on some perks, like having a fresh flower in everyone’s office each Monday and providing free takeout for lunch five days a week. We froze salaries for most of the year. We gave a somewhat smaller holiday bonus than usual.

On the other hand, we’ll enter 2010 ready to compete on a much higher level than ever before. We’ve used this slow year to reinvent, and to move into some new territory. We’ve expanded our internal communications practice area to incorporate social media and engagement tools. We’ve created some interesting initiatives in new media, for both consumer audiences and employee ones. We’ve developed expertise in some key research areas, like the widely varying perspectives of Gen Y, Gen X and Boomer employees in the workplace, and recession spending by affluent couples. We’ve dabbled in creating our own content and products, like our “Start Your Own Company” card deck and iPhone application.

Other small business owners I’ve talked with seem to have done their own share of reinventing. This year has been about accepting that the recession is real, having time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t about our companies, and exploring some new areas we might not have had time to spend time on before.

Everyone’s talking about how companies are stronger for trimming expenses and figuring out bow to do more with less. Thinking small is a good exercise.

But an even better way to think is how we could get bigger. Ways we could expand to serve other types of clients than we have in the past. How we could fill some new need that’s not being met. What we could do next that would make us wake up excited about getting in to the office.

Nature moves in cycles, and business does too. New moon to full moon. High tide to low. Winter to spring. 2009 has been a good year for sending our roots deeper and in new directions. Soon, hopefully beginning in 2010, certainly in the next few years, our economic downturn will swing back in the other direction. The economy will grow, our clients will grow, our companies will grow. The quiet reinvention so many small businesses have done in 2009 will position us well to reap all the benefits of the next boom time.