Tag Archives: small 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!”

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How does a small ad agency manage to launch an iPhone app?

APP-001-ScreenshotPageOne-v1bBack in April, I read an article in the New York Times titled “The iPhone Gold Rush” and came into the office the next morning mumbling about how we should try making an iPhone app. Yesterday, Tribe‘s first iPhone application launched in the App Store and on iTunes.

This is a perfect example of how quickly a small company can do something that would take a large corporation months of meetings before they even got going. A small team of talented and capable people can move mountains — or in this case, launch an iPhone app in something under six months.

Here’s how it happened: We took it one step at a time. First, we kicked around ideas for the app and decided to start with a mini-version of a printed product we’d recently developed for entrepreneurs. The Start Your Own Company deck, from our Starter Cards division, is a stack of 52 cards that breaks down the process of launching and building a business into manageable steps.

Second, we started poking around for partners who could supply the programming skills we don’t have in-house. Through a friend, we found a team of developers who wanted to try their hand at an iPhone app. (Extra kudos and love to those programmers: Stephanie Baird and Ladd Usher.)

Next, we went through the process to be approved as a registered member of the Apple  iPhone Developer Program. It’s a somewhat daunting application, but between our designer, our accountant and our programmers, we managed to fill in all the blanks.

Then our creative team worked to design and format all the screen shots required and the programmers did their thing. We went back and forth on whether the screens would flip or slide and if the type should be a point size larger or smaller, and eventually arrived at a design that pleased us all.

We submitted the Start Your Own Company app, and sat back to wait. In less than a week, we received word that it was approved and ready to be launched in the App Store on September 10. In the past few days, we’ve whipped out press releases and shot a demo video for YouTube and figured out how to submit the app to reviewers.

Like many projects in a small company, this one was touched by every hand in the house. I tossed the idea out there on the table, but the team took over from there. Here are what I consider to be some interesting lessons in this process.

1: There is great momentum in making a decision. We didn’t hem and haw about whether to do it or not, and we didn’t overthink what that first app would be. Sometimes there are many right answers, and there’s power in picking one and moving on.

2: A good size for a team is the number of people you can get in a room right now. If you’ve got to coordinate several departments and calendars, you can spin wheels for a long while. A smaller team is less cumbersome and more efficient.

3: It  helps to have a range of skill sets on the team. This particular team included a writer, an art director, two programmers, an account manager, a traffic manager, an accountant, a president and a CEO. That covers a wide range of strengths.

4: If you need outside help, create a win-win situation. We couldn’t have done this without Stephanie and Ladd. We needed people who could program, and they were interested in adding an iPhone app to their resumes, so the partnership worked for all of us.

Start your own company — with your iPhone

APP-001-ScreenshotPageOne-v1Now would-be entrepreneurs have a new tool to make launching a business easier: the Start Your Own Company app for the iPhone. This .99 application offers a streamlined, step-by-step approach to becoming your own boss — and is the first iPhone app to actually walk users through that process.

The Start Your Own Company app  is like a series of flash cards, with a basic step on the front  of each card– and more information on the back about how to tackle that step. (You can see a video of our young copywriter doing a demo of the app on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/startercardvideo .)

The app is actually a mini-version of the printed Start Your Own Company deck we developed for Starter Cards, the division of Tribe we opened recently to develop tools for entrepreneurs. If this version is well-received, we’ll release the full 52-card deck as an iPhone app down the road.

APP-001-ScreenshotPageOne-v1aAnyone who’s ever started a company knows there’s no shortage of information out there about starting a business. Enough information, in fact, that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Our goal with this app was to present the information in bite-sized pieces, so that it’s easier to see the bare bones of the plan. Like any major goal, launching a company can be broken down smaller, more manageable tasks. Take the process one task at a time, and before you know it you’re up and running.

Our other goal was to offer some help to the many people who now find themselves accidental entrepreneurs. Some of us always dreamed of running our own show, but in the current economy, many frustrated job seekers are deciding that the best way to replace their income might be by creating it themselves.

Know someone who’s been kicking around the idea of starting a company? This app could be a great first step for them. And if they have any comments or suggestions for improvement, we’d love to hear them.

Jobless at 58 sounds like an entrepreneur to me

Yesterday the New York Times ran a headline that read, “At 58, a Life Story in Need of a Rewrite.” The article was about Michael Blattman, who’s been out of work since January of 2008. Blattman is a 58-year-old MBA with a strong resume in financial services who once earned $225,000 a year.

After a year and a half of an unfruitful job search, it seems obvious that this guy should start his own gig. It’s unlikely that the financial sector will be in a hiring frenzy anytime soon. Blattman has applied for 600 jobs, according to the Times, and has scored exactly three interviews, only one of which was in person. It doesn’t look good for him being gainfully employed at a hefty salary anytime soon.

startercards.0626When I hear about people like Blatmann, first I want to shake them and then I want to find their address and send them a deck of our Start Your Own Company cards. He clearly has experience and expertise to share, having worked with the Federal Reserve and the Sallie Mae student loan program, as well as teaching business classes at the University of Maryland.

Why is he not starting his own company, or at least hanging out his shingle as a consultant? The cost of going into business for yourself needn’t be much of a hurdle, in an age when you can incorporate online with LegalZoom for $139 and launch a website with a free template. Perhaps there’s a growing need for guidance in applying for student loans, or maybe he could consult with schools on some aspect of providing financial assistance. Or it could be that his real passion is wine or carpentry or backpacking or piano and this is his chance to start a company doing what he loves.

He’s clearly got time on his hands that might be put to better use. He mentioned to the Times reporter that he had “zero” planned for the coming week, and he admits to driving two towns over for groceries, just to kill an hour or so. Blattman is divorced, but has given up on computer dating sites for now, because women apparently don’t show much interest in 58-year-old guys who are unemployed. It seems his life could use some positive momentum.

Blattman comes across as intelligent, likable, capable. He has years of contacts and a strong reputation in his industry. Why not use the thick skin he’s no doubt developed over his 18-month job search to sell the services of his own company, rather than trying to get hired by someone else?

He may have excellent reasons for continuing to job hunt rather than creating his own income. But I wonder if he just doesn’t realize that starting a company doesn’t have to be that hard. When I run into someone stuck in that spot, I want to get up on my soapbox and shout about how Starter Cards take you through the process, one manageable step at a time.

This is the era of unintentional entrepreneurs. People who never considered themselves the entrepreneurial type are creating their own work when they can’t find suitable jobs. But unintentional or not, every entrepreneur has to summon the guts to take that first leap.

Like anything else, launching a business can be broken down into a series of smaller tasks. If you know a Blattman out there,  send him or her to the Starter Cards website  for that Start Your Own Company deck. And if you’re Michael Blattman, give me your address and I’ll mail you a deck as my gift.

Thanks to social media, big businesses are learning what small businesses have always known

images-2I always say social media can turn your whole world into a small town, and that’s true for companies as well as people. Most small business owners figure out fast that word of mouth can have a significant impact on the bottom line, whether it’s happy or unhappy customers doing the talking. Now, thanks to social media, dissatisfied customers can reach a wider audience with a more powerful impact than ever before. United Airlines has learned that the hard way.

You may have already seen this hysterical YouTube video making the rounds, titled, “United Breaks Guitars,” because nearly 5 million people have. Ravi Sawney posted a Fast  Company blog last week on singer-songwriter Dave Carroll’s experience with United’s customer service — and the stunning impact his funny video had on United’s business, to the tune of a $180 million stock loss.

How to start a blog for your business

necktie mouseWriting a blog is nothing to be afraid of. Sites like wordpress.com make it incredibly easy to put together a professional looking blog with a minimum of effort. My third-grader has put together his own blog page. I think my 79-year-old father could manage it too. If you can run a business, I feel pretty certain that you can post a blog.

Here’s why a blog is good for business, and why the blog should be written by you, the business owner. As Michael Gass, social media guru to the ad agency world, says, “People don’t build relationships with entities. They build relationships with people.” And of course you know everyone prefers to do business with people they know. A blog is one more way to connect with your target audience, and to build strong relationships with your clients or customers. 

They also say blogs help your SEO. My understanding is that the search engines are constantly changing their equations for what appears at the top of a search, but some experts say writing a blog greatly increases the chances of people finding your website. 

If you’re not even sure what a blog is, take a look at a few. Just get online and see what other companies are doing. You might be surprised at the companies with thriving blogs. Of course, if your competitors aren’t yet blogging, you’ve got a chance to get out there ahead of the pack.

My favorite small business blogger lately is Robanne Shulman of Plaid Monkey. Robanne is a personal shopper, and her company is named for the little monkey in the plaid jacket that belonged to the shopping mall organ grinder when she was a kid. I would imagine demand for personal shopping services are down in the current economy, but Robanne’s blog does a great job of creating need. If I get her blog about latest trends and she mentions that maxi dresses are a must-have, then I suddenly must have one. Boyfriend’s jackets? Get me one of those while you’re at it. Her blogs are short, filled with information I actually want and include plenty of photographs so I can see what she’s talking about. 

Ready to give it a shot? Here are a few tips to make it a little easier.

1. Write in first person. This is not a book report. This is just you talking to your customers. Don’t be too formal or institutional. Think friendly and person to person.

2. Be authentic. Robanne’s blog is filled with slang and silly expressions that would make me cringe, if they weren’t pure Robanne. Go ahead and be yourself on your blog. Don’t think of this as a brochure or some official communication from your company to the public at large. If your blog feels too slick or polished, it actually loses points.

3. Give your audience tasty little morsels. Writing a blog is not about bragging. It’s about helping. It’s about offering your particular odd knowledge to people who can use it. What do you know that could be  helpful to your customers? Package it up into short paragraphs and send it out as your gift to the world.

4. Don’t worry about being perfect. Blogging is an extremely forgiving medium. It’s similar to the difference in what we consider okay in a quick phone text as opposed to a typed business letter. Besides, if you spend too much time making your blogs perfect,  you’ll never get around to blogging as frequently as you should.

5. Blog often. Putting up a blog once a month doesn’t count. It makes it look like you tried to join the social media movement but then got distracted. Make a commitment to blog at least once a week, but maybe as much as every day.

6. Blogs can be short. You don’t need to write a book. Most blog posts are between 250-500 words, but some are even shorter. Sometimes brevity is appreciated. 

7. Do not sell on your blog. The blog is for engaging your customers, not hammering them over the head with a sales message. Just develop the relationship, and let the sales process happen in other channels.

Small Business Strategies: Dealing with tough economic times

guy leaping cliffsThey say desperate times call for desperate measures, but there’s no reason to panic. My recommendation to business owners worried about the economy is to adjust to current conditions as needed, but without losing sight of the long term. This recession won’t last forever. The first goal is to make sure your company is still standing when the tide turns, and the second is to be prepared for rapid growth when it does. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years, in most cases the hard way.

1. Don’t postpone layoffs. If you know you’re going to have to lose people, do it sooner rather than later. The only difference is that if you do it earlier, you stop the leak in your payroll expenses that much more quickly and you can probably afford to offer better severance packages. If you’ve lost a big client due to the recession, cut your staff immediately. That makes it much easier for them to connect losing their jobs with the company losing that business, and not because they weren’t performing.

2. This is a good time to prune dead wood. Ask yourself if there’s anyone on your staff you would not hire today, knowing their work habits, abilities, attitude and suitability for where your company is now. If there is, you might want to gently release them. If you’re afraid they couldn’t find work elsewhere, maybe you ought to give them a little more credit. You’d be surprised how often business owners offer a huge severance out of guilt, only to find their former employee gainfully employed almost immediately. Yes, even in this economy. 

 3: When business is slow, do something. Anything. In my experience, it doesn’t really matter what you do to stir up new business, as long as you’re putting some energy into it. Pick up the phone to call a few prospects or brainstorm some new way to market your company or just take someone to lunch. Somehow the sheer force of that activity shifts something somewhere out there and suddenly the phone starts to ring with business. Often not with the people you’ve been calling or wining and dining but from someone completely out of the blue.

4: Say no to clients who aren’t right for you. One of the hardest things for business owners to do is to turn down a paying customer. Especially when times are tough. But it’s crucial to building the business you want. Decide what sort of clients are a good fit for your company and then be ruthless about turning away the ones who aren’t. Refer them to some other company who would love to have them and it becomes a win for everyone. 

 5: If no one ever balks at your prices, you’re not charging enough. Unless you’re trying to be the next Sam Walton, the low price leader is not a prize you want. Set your fees reasonably for the value you provide and then expect some people to tell you they’re too high. The ballpark number I use is that one out of 10 prospects will think we’re too expensive. We’d rather work with the other nine.

6: Use the lean times to do less visible work. Slow times are the perfect time to add a new expertise to your service offerings, to research a new part of the industry, to learn something you don’t have time for when you’re busy — like social media, for instance. Take a cue from nature. In the winter, when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind blows cold, the roots are down there underground doing their thing. Then when spring arrives, the plants are ready to burst out with vibrant green leaves and beautiful flowers. That abundant growth could be just around the corner.