Tag Archives: small business success

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.

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.

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.

“Have you made any money from your blog?”

Webinar1_25Yesterday, we gave a Webinar on how to start your own blog. We talked through the business reasons for having a blog, worked with participants to help them define the topics of their blogs and then walked them through establishing the beginnings of their blogsites on WordPress.

Afterwards, one of the participants called my office and asked me, “Have you made any money from your blog?” The short answer is no. A blog is not a direct sales channel.

But the answer would be yes, if she’d asked a slightly different question. Has blogging been good for our business? Definitely. Has blogging helped us connect with people who are key prospects for our company? It has.

One of the most important benefits of blogging is that it changes the dynamics of the sales process. Instead of making cold calls, trying to set meetings with people who’ve never heard of you, blogging allows you to reach out as more of a peer. Instead of trying to force your foot in the door, you start out as part of their community already. As a blogger with a special expertise in your narrow niche, you’re beginning the relationship as someone who has something to offer, as opposed to someone trying to get them to buy something.

A blog also can give you a great excuse to introduce yourself to a key prospect. Call them up and ask to interview them for a post. If someone is a highly desirable prospect for your company, that person probably has plenty to say that would be interesting and helpful for the readers of your blog. Rather than having your first conversation with a prospect be all about you and how wonderful your company is, you begin the relationship by listening to what they have to say. Just like your mother always said, one of the best ways to make new friends is to ask questions that get them talking about themselves.

Social Media for Old Folks, in Five Easy Pieces

SM FrontPlenty of reasonably (or even exceptionally) intelligent people still resist social media. Some don’t see the value in it; others just can’t quite figure out how to jump on that escalator. Social media keeps moving and changing every day, so it’s not easy to figure out where to start.

One problem is that there’s so much information out there on how to use social media. Try Googling “Using LinkedIn,”  “How to Facebook,” or “Learning Twitter,” and you’ll find yourself millions of links to explore. Not hundreds of links, not thousands, but really — millions. Most reasonably busy people will decide they don’t have time for that.

What you need is someone to break it down into simple, actionable steps. You don’t have all day, but maybe you could spend an hour a week. If you didn’t have to go anywhere. Like while you’re sitting at your desk.

That’s where the Social Media for Old Folks Webinars come in. If you’re young enough that you grew up with a mouse in your hand, then a lot of this material will be too basic for you. But if you’re one of those who remember when a fax was the new cool thing, then this might be right up your alley.

We break it down into five one-hour webinars, each Wednesday for five weeks. We’ll walk you through how to build your brand with social media, from a basic overview of the landscape and etiquette to specific, actionable steps to get yourself set up on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and finally, to start your own blog. (You’ll also learn why you really do need your own blog.)

You’ll be sitting at your computer and be able to see and hear us in real time. As we’re talking about various steps, you can complete many of them right then and there. When you have questions along the way, we’ll stop and answer them.

We’ll show you how to use social media for two important goals: to build your connections and to showcase your expertise. Think it would be presumptuous to consider yourself an expert? We’re not talking about having a Ph.D. in something; Your expertise is the narrow niche about which you’re passionate, the area of your deep experience, the problems friends come to you to help solve. It’s not about bragging, it’s about what you have to give.

If  you run your own business, or are in a corporate job and want to increase your visibility in your industry, then social media can be a powerful tool for you. It doesn’t have to be that hard. But it does take some effort. The Social Media for Old Folks Webinar is the easiest way we know to get you up and running. By Thanksgiving, you could be blogging and linking and friending and tweeting like someone half your age.

For more details, just click here. Or feel free to email (elizabeth@tribeinc.com) or call me (404-256-5858) with questions. (If you register today -Wednesday, Oct 7 – you can use the promo code EARLYBIRD for a $50 discount.)

When can entrepreneurs stop worrying about winning more business?

growth“My business seems to be successful,” said the new entrepreneur, “but when do I get to quit worrying about enough work coming in?” Jo Ann is an accomplished marketer, with 20 years of experience under her belt and an MBA, not to mention gorgeous and personable. She left her post as VP/CMO at a venerable brand to start her own marketing consultancy.

“Never,” was all I could tell her. In my years of running my own companies, I’ve been able to come to a strange peace with that fact, but some days it requires a certain amount of zen not to completely freak out.

I gave her my rock climbing metaphor. When I was just starting my first ad agency, I  asked that same question of my friend Bill, a wildly successful illustrator who has run his own business for decades. Bill’s personality is about as low stress as mine is high, and I would never peg him for a worrier. (One night at some industry event, I remarked to Bill that it had been a gorgeous afternoon. He agreed, and revealed that he’d turned down a job to do a Newsweek cover that afternoon so he could go hiking instead. I was impressed, but he laughed and said, “I’m thinking I made the wrong decision.”) Bill told me the same thing I told Jo Ann: never.

Bill said he still worries all the time, but he doesn’t view worry as a negative. He suggested I try to enjoy the fear, the same way I enjoy the fear inherent to rock climbing. “Think of it as exciting,” he said. “It’s scary, but it’s kind of fun.”

Here are my four best tips for maintaining perspective:

1. Redefine worry. Worry can be useful, if it wakes you up in the middle of the night with the realization that you won’t be able to make payroll unless you collect that big receivable that’s running late. Worry can make you get up the next morning and get your client on the phone to help push that invoice through their accounting department and get you a check. Instead of telling yourself that you’re worried, maybe you’re actually just “aware.”

2. Remember how much is in your control. Although you can’t control the economy or a potential client’s budget cuts, you can control your efforts. During slow times, ramp up your networking, your outreach, your marketing. In your own business, you truly have more control over your success than you would working for a large company.

3. Give seeds time to grow. For the sort of professional services many small businesses are selling, the sales process can stretch out for years. If you don’t get a piece of business you pitch today, that doesn’t mean you won’t win some work from that client somewhere down the road. At Tribe, we got our first project from UPS a full two years after I’d sent an introductory letter to a heavyweight there. He’d kept that letter in his files until he had a need for us. Similar story with our Chick-fil-A clients. Life is long.

4. Don’t slack off in good times. When a small business is busy, it’s usually all hands on deck to get the work done. It’s very difficult to come up for air long enough to formulate any sort of marketing efforts. Just don’t let your business development machine grind to a complete halt. Keep pitching. Stay visible. Be in touch.

I’m sure some of you out there have tips to add to that list. How do you deal with the relentless need to keep drumming up business?

The Romance Of A Startup

King PlowThere’s nothing like the excitement of starting your own business. Most entrepreneurs have a certain nostalgia about the early days when their companies were only a few steps beyond those initial notes on a legal pad — or a cocktail napkin.

When I launched my first ad agency, we really did start with a cocktail napkin. My business partner and I were teaching classes one evening a week at an ad school, and afterwards we’d meet up the street for a glass of wine. We would plot and plan and scribble thoughts on paper napkins, as we discussed our vision for the agency we would eventually call Match. Before we decided on a name, we practiced at the same bar with their cloth napkin rolls, wrapped around knifes and forks. We’d pick up that napkin roll and hold it to our ear saying, “Hello, thanks for calling Albert & Baskin.” No, that sounds like an ice cream store. “Hello, thanks for calling Magnet.” Okay, maybe. Until we finally tried, “Hello, thanks for calling Match,” and decided that was the one.

Our first office was two rooms in a renovated plow factory. We would spend the days pitching business and going to see clients, and then about 5 or 6 the phones would simmer down and we’d start doing the creative work for whatever deadlines we were trying to meet. I’ll never forget how it felt to be there working late, with the glow of lamplight on the dusty red brick walls and the rumble of trains moving past our open windows, almost close enough to reach out and touch. We’d have good music on the stereo and our dogs at our feet and after awhile we’d start to have some good ideas. It was heady stuff.

At first, we couldn’t afford much furniture and most of what we had was hand-me-down. Our desk was a borrowed dining room table we shared, facing each other across our laptops. We splurged on a pair of new swiveling desk chairs at the Office Depot, but hadn’t yet sprung for any rugs, so the chairs would slowly roll away on the warped old hardwood floors if you didn’t keep a good grip with your feet. One late night I was sitting cross-legged in my chair, writing on a pad of paper in my lap. I heard my partner B.A. talking to me, but she sounded far away. When I looked up, I realized I had rolled downhill all the way across the room. After that, we got some rugs, and they also helped with the noise of the trains which was so loud it was beginning to make our teeth rattle around in our heads.

Eventually, our little startup was employing ten or 12 people and working with an impressive list of clients. We grew out of our two rooms and knocked down walls to expand into three connected studio spaces. We bought furniture and returned the desks and tables and other pieces we’d begged and borrowed in the beginning. We put in a sophisticated phone system. We started a 401(k) plan. In short, we became a real business. Our startup worked.

But I wouldn’t trade anything for those early days. There’s nothing like the feeling of making something out of thin air. One day, Match was a stack of cocktail napkins covered in Sharpie. Then suddenly, there was a company that didn’t exist before, doing good work for clients, supporting a number of people in doing work they love, and giving other would-be entrepreneurs the confidence that they could do it too.

Several years later, a woman I’d worked with a decade before asked me to lunch to discuss the company she was about to launch. Over our Caesar salads she said, “I told my business partner, how hard could it be? If Elizabeth and B.A. can do it, anyone can!”