Why Business Management is Important

It’s 11:30PM and I’ve been at the SGV Business Group, LLC offices for the last 3 hours getting all of our 2012 paperwork for Strategy Partners prepared to file, and stay compliant.

The reason I’m writing this, is because although I’ve been here for 3 hours, Robert at SGV has been prepping all this paperwork, and getting everything set up for at least 4 times as long, and is finding really interesting and awesome ways to keep us protected. Stuff we would have never have figured out without doing tons of research ourselves.

This probably goes without saying, but I’m surprised how many times over at Strategy Partners, we’ll start working with a new client, and they have no one handling the business management or operations. We’ll they have someone working on it, but it’s just not their core strengths and they miss stuff.

I can honestly say that my core strength is finding a holistic strategy that integrates design, technology, and business into a company’s presence. Staying compliant with government regulations, and making sure that everything required to keep our company in good standing with the Federal and State government, makes my head hurt.

What I’m getting at is that every business has 2 kinds of costs, real- tangible costs (like the stuff you pay money for) and opportunity costs, the things that cost you money, but you never had to pay anything for. The last year, I can genuinely say that I had a handful of awesome partnerships, and missed some huge opportunities, because I was busy handling knucklehead stuff because I did not want to pay someone else to do it for me.

Huge mistake.

By my count (and I’m sure I’ve got clients that share similar stories), Strategy Partners lost about $8,000 in revenue due to opportunity costs. The moral of the story to stick to your core strengths, and in the areas where you’re week figure out how to outsource it to someone with the domain expertise. Trust me, most of the time the “I can’t afford it” excuse it not going to be a relevant one, when you take the time your would have spend doing it yourself, and invest it in finding new business and building new relationships.

 

Are you throwing your marketing budget into a black hole?

Where are you allocating your marketing Dollars? Are you paying and praying?

Today’s marketing and advertising world is noisier than it’s ever been.

So, are you just another voice at a raging party, or are you sitting around a table at a coffee shop having an intelligent conversation about your industry?

I’m not a big fan of mass media, unless you can seriously afford it or it extends a conversation. GoDaddy is one of the best at extending the conversation. Almost every commercial that I’ve ever seen them run on TV hooks you into going to their website to see what happens next. The best thing you can do with traditional media is get free exposure (earned media).

Traditional forms of advertising (TV, Radio, Print) are raging parties. Yes, they have huge audiences, but the music is on too loud, and everyone’s talking over each other.

Go niche or go home.

Niches online can be millions of people, and the beauty of niche marketing, is that you’re targeting your potential users directly. Best of all, the cost of accessing these users is low or free, depending on how much effort  you want to put in.

Here are a few suggestions to get started:

  1. Know who you want as customers
  2. The problem most people have with marketing is that they believe that everyone is their customer. While that may be theoretically true, it never works out. It’s best to narrow your focus down an inch wide, and drive your message and engagement a mile deep. Otherwise, you’re going to end up spreading yourself thin.

    It’s extremely important to fabricate characters who fit the profiles of your customers and potential customers. Once you’ve got these characters created, start thinking about what their life is like, where they spend their time, what they want out of life, why they would interact with your brand, and what they are interested in. Once you’re figured that out, go find the communities where those people belong, and start interacting and engaging with them there.

    If you already have a big list, use Survey Monkey to create a questionnaire to gather information and reward your users for filling it out.

  3. Viewers and Users are different
  4. This goes back to adding loads of value to your community, and why you need to have something that gets people coming back to your site. Viewers are passive, and while users are engaged. Gary Vaynerchuk explains it the difference in detail on the video below.

    http://www.viddler.com/player/3464c6eb/

  5. Own your niche
  6. Become an authority within your community. Every site needs a blog to get people to come back to it over and over again. Make sure you provide loads of value to your users.

  7. Make sure your site incorporates your marketing and sales strategy
  8. If you’re going to pay for traffic, or work for it, make sure you have a way of capturing it when it comes back.

  9. Sponsor a blog or a podcast
  10. Once you’ve determined what your users like, advertise in the communities they belong to, or on social networks based on their interest. Try to use Pay Per Click advertising whenever possible. This way you’re paying for leads, not just impressions.

If you’re using Social Media for customer service, something went wrong

I know that title sounds contrary to what tons of people preach about social media. Heck, I’ve been known on 1 or 20 occasions to tell clients and anyone who’ll listen, that Social Media can be one of the best customer management tools around. And it is. The social web, is by far the best listening station that has ever been created for new customer acquisition, client management, and customer relations, but is it the best primary channel for customer service? I think it should be part of your overall strategy, but it should be secondary.

Here’s the thing, if someone has taken the time to pull out their phone and fire off a tweet, status message, or anything else, something’s already gone horribly wrong at your business and you’re now having to do damage control out in public, if you can find it. People argue that when you take the time to resolve a customer’s problem online, it only goes to show how much you care. They are not wrong, it certainly helps, but here’s the real question, “Why are you solving a problem that happened inside your business online?”

There’s really only 2 reasons this happens.

The first, is that people are conditioned to vent and share negative experiences online. It sucks, but that’s where things are. As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to find those negative remarks that people make about your business, and square them away. And, no, just deleting them does not solve the problem, because you’ve still got an annoyed customer who’s had a bad experience. Connect and engage with them, and try to genuinely address their problem.

The second reason, is that people don’t feel that there is an effective system to privately raise a concern, or complain. I’ve sent emails to businesses and never gotten a response, and I don’t trust that someone wont run interference on complaint notes. It’s you’re responsibility to create a system that your customers will want to use to privately communicate with you, otherwise they’re going to use the channels they use to warn other people to stay away from your business.

Here are a few suggestions for how to get started:

  • Put a contact form on your website that goes straight to your personal email.
  • Setup a voice mail transcription service and prominently display the number. This way people can complain discretely.
  • Keep a database with all your customer emails, and periodically email them and ask how service has been. Reward those who respond.
  • Integrate GetSatisfaction on your site
  • Set twitter up, so that if anyone mentions your business name, you get a text message

image by: Jason Ippolito

Things Everyone Should Know When Hiring A Consultant or Freelancer

This particular post has been a long time coming. After 2 years of consulting I’ve really think I nailed down the things that everyone needs to know when hiring a consultant.

1. Be specific about what you want

The majority of problems that arise in the Client-Consultant relationship start here.

The majority of problems that arise in the Client-Consultant relationship start here.The client needs to be specific about what they want. The more specific the better. This includes setting goals, objectives, and determining metrics and milestones to make sure that you’re getting there. Most clients, though, will only be able to give you a broad end goal or target for what they want. This is unfortunate, but the reality is that clients don’t really care about the process, they care about the end result.

While it’s the client’s responsibility to know what they want, it’s the consultant’s responsibility to help them get there. The best thing you can do is develop some sort of a project planner (here’s mine) that can act as a road map between where you currently are, and where you want to end up. A tool like this will make it way easier to outline your service agreement and define your milestones.

2. There’s usually more to it than you think

As I stated earlier, most clients see the end result they want, and think that the path from where they are, to where they want to be is a straight line. It never is. The reality is that there’s always more to it than you really think it is.

Since I’m in the web development space, let’s use that for an example. Let’s say you’re hiring me to build you a website that will do your business justice. We’ve now met, and you’ve filled out and returned my project planner. These are the things that I’m going to figure out how to integrate before I can deliver a product to you:

  • Your Branding (colors/logo etc)
  • Your Brand Message
  • Your Target Audience
  • Marketing Concepts
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Social Media Strategy
  • Social Proof
  • Your Content
  • Content Layout
  • User Experience Design
  • User Interface Design
  • Calls to Action
  • Analytics
  • Plugins/Extensions/Custom Coding

3. It takes longer than you think

The process that I described in the example above is similar for just about every single project that you’ll ever hire a consultant for. There’s tons of background work that needs to be done before a product can be delivered, and often these individual steps take time to figure out, get implemented, and get user tested before you see them.

4. You’re paying for their time and expertise

If you’ve got a small budget, be upfront and tell the consultant. Most good consultants will either point you in the right direction so you can do it yourself, or figure out some way of working with you. Personally, I love it when my clients take the time to figure out things on their own. This usually frees me up to handle higher level strategy-type work.

As consultants/freelancers we understand that many markets are being commoditized, and there’s tons of products and services out there that are driving the cost our services down. As a potential client, you need to understand that many of those products are essentially self-serve, meaning that the only knowledge that’s going into them is your own. What makes these products cheap is the lack of knowledge and expertise.

Whatever you do, just don’t be like these people:

4. Outsourcing is more expensive than you think

Outsourcing projects can be one of the most cost effective ways of getting things done that I’ve ever heard of. If you know exactly what you want done and have great project management skills to follow through, you can have your project done for about a third of the cost.

The major problem with outsourcing, is that you have to have full knowledge of what the other person/firm is building for you. I’ve heard and seen horror stories of what comes back from India, and trust me, it always ends up costing more money, because someone’s going to have to redo all the work, or spend hours trying to figure how the work was done, and then more hours getting it right.

13 Common Mistakes Small Businesses Don’t Correct

Small Business that went bustThere is a significant difference between being frugal, and and being cheap. People that are frugal always try to get their absolute best bang for their buck, while cheap people simply just want to pay the least amount of possible for anything. Over the last couple of years, I’ve sort of beat myself up over what I believed was my ability to convey the value that I bring to a business. Recently thought, I’ve realized that it’s not me, the business owner is just trying to save money in the wrong places.

I do realize that I’m in the web development, and marketing space, so I don’t blame you if you take this with a grain of salt.

Website

There is significantly more to building a website than just putting up some text, images, and navigation between pages. There are graphic design, marketing, branding, technical, and user experience elements that have to be considered when building a site. When I sit down with a potential client, one the first things that I ask is about analytics. Usually I get a blank stare back.

The trade or profession specific cookie cutter designs are the worst thing that a small business owner, or professional can buy. Even worse are the generic cookie cutter ones, where the only variation is color scheme. In my opinion, these are a complete waste of money. You are buying a generic cookie cutter website, that was been slightly modified for you. Most websites for realtors, dentists, and insurance agents fall under this category. Usually, you also get charged a higher monthly fee for hosting it and worse performance, than if you bought the hosting yourself. And heaven forbid that you ever have to hire someone to work on it.

It’s hard to blame these folks, when they really don’t know any better, and the alternatives have obnoxious prices attached to them. Ask a graphic designer to design you a basic website, say like 5 pages. It will be beautiful, and the price will have 4 digits in it. Most graphic designers a taught to make beautiful things, but generally speaking don’t take marketing, SEO, user experience, or anything like that into account. There are designers that can built beautiful sites, that have a CMS, and are engineered, but we’re still talking about a 4 figure price tag. Please don’t for one second think that I’m putting graphic designers down. They get paid to build beautiful things and they deliver, but they deserve to be paid for their time.

The ultimate goal of a website is to make sure that you stand out, and are memorable. Your site needs to be customized to you, and your brand, while incorporating marketing elements, and good calls to action. If you’re technically capable and have the time to learn via trial and error, I suggest that you take a shot at doing it yourself. Get a hosting account with someone, and setup a wordpress install. I’m a fan of Blue Host(affiliate link). I’ve had to work with other shared hosting providers, and bluehost hasn’t given me a headache like the others do, and you get a free domain for a year. Once you setup your wordpress install, browse through this list of 100 free themes on Smashing Magaznine, install it, and then you’re off to the races.

Marketing

When things get tough, like in the current economy, small businesses tend to shy away from marketing. This is a mistake. You have to be more scrappy, more efficient, and you have to look at using other channels, but you need to double or triple down your efforts. If you’re competition is cutting their advertising, then you’re just been given a golden opportunity to pick up market share. The bottom line is that you have to hustle. I could write a whole post on how to get more exposure out of your current overhead and marketing expenses, but that will have to be another post.

Your website has to have an opt-in form, and you must have an email marketing strategy. Next to having someone’s phone number, email is the closest form of contact you can have with a person. When you pay for traffic, you have to do your best to try and collect an email address, this means you have to offer a killer value proposition, and deliver value each time that you email these people. Having someone’s email address is not a license to spam.

Renegotiate Your Contracts

The reality is that everyone is hurting right now. You should be tracking your expenses using a spreadsheet, quickbooks, quicken, In Dinero, etc… Look at what expenses you can either cut, or renegotiate. If you can get 1/3 of your vendors to cut their costs by 10-20% the savings really add up over time.

Ask your landlord for a 20% rent reduction. If you’ve been on the premises for 3+ years (depending on the location and contract) you might be off the hook for any normal wear and tear, and they’ll have to refund your deposit. Commercial real estate is staying vacant for longer, and rehab costs can easily be in the thousands of Dollars to get it in rentable condition. The cost of renovation plus a few months of it being vacant, will be more than giving you a discount. Other than staff, this is usually a company’s largest expense. Cutting this by even 10% can save you thousands of Dollars.

Buy good coffee beans. Either find them online, or go to an independent coffee shop and have them sell you a blended pound. 70% Medium roast, and 30% espresso is an awesome blend. This may get pricy depending on the size of your business, but the productivity boost of saving your employees a trip to Starbucks will make it more than worthwhile. Stay away from soda, it makes your employees crash.

Find open source alternatives to software that you’re paying licenses for. It will take you a short while to get used to the new menus, but it could save you tons of money in the long run.

As old school as it might sound, look and see if there’s ways you can trade for things that you need. Essentially you’ll be trading wholesale (or sweat equity) for something that you would normally pay retail for.

Move Your Business Online

If you’re in retail business, consider setting up an e-commerce solution. If you can’t set it up yourself, you’ll incur some expenses, but putting your store online essentially allows you to open up location numbers 2,3,4,5,6… you get the point. Remember that niches online are millions of people.

Social Media

Everyone’s talking about how every business needs to be on social media, and they should be. The real key to doing social media correctly is to realize that you need to exercise leadership principles online, and not be a spam factory. I suggest you read Crush it! by Gary Vaynerchuk, and The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell

Twitter Searches will be your best friend to find and connect with people that are local, or in your vertical that you can start relationships with, and even a few that may be looking for your product or service. Remember though, that you have to lead with value. People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Social media is a slow burn process. It can lead to spikes in traffic if your content is good and shared, but it’s really all about building and engaging a community. When you build a community and have added tons of value into it, then you’ll have the ability to influence them to buy something from your more easily.

People don’t like to hear it, but every business needs to be producing content. I don’t care if you run a liquor store, or a gym, you need to be producing content. On a side note, I’d always thought it’d be kind of cool to have a liquor store owner review every product that they have in stock. If you don’t have time or the staff, find someone to write the posts for you (this should be a last resort), but you have to set the agenda and be involved in the creation process. Blindly outsourcing this process, or trusting your community to someone else, is downright dangerous. It just goes to show that you don’t care, and heaven forbid that your community finds out that you’ve got no involvement in how your business communicates and engages with them. This is where looking at where your staff spends their time comes in really handy. A handful of employees collaborating together using Google docs, can turn 20-30 minutes a week when things slow down, into really interesting blog posts.

Additional Reading

If you’re a small business, I highly recommend reading this post by Tj McCue. He went around to 71 small businesses, and recounted his experience.

Local Small Business meets Local Search meets Secret Shopper

The Fork in the Road

I truly do apologize for not updating this in nearly a year. I’ve had issues with the .net and .com domains being split and running separate versions of the site. The good news is that I do have tons of posts, and I will be updating for frequently. Again, I apologize.

I’ve been thinking for a few days about some things that friends and colleagues have been saying for the past few months. They’ve been talking, well mostly complaining, about how the shifts in technology, media, and generally speaking modern culture have destroyed their businesses they businesses’ profit center. I know they’re not the only ones. They’ve just hit a fork in the road.

The world is moving faster and faster every day. We can’t just walk, or jog anymore and expect to keep up. Running is a must now. The point that I’m trying to get at, is that there comes a time when a business has to look at where it’s revenues are coming from, and double down on what’s working, and looking for fruit on the tree that you may have missed before. It’s sounds really simple, but you’ll be amazed how many people don’t see it. There’s many reasons for why people can miss it, but the most common one that I hear when I meet with people, is that they get caught up in the “we are a [blank] company” mentality. They’ve essentially given up in their mind, or they are just unwilling to acknowledge that they’re too lazy to change.

When you do hit a fork in the road, and you have to make a decision to shift, here’s a few things to ask yourself:

  • What’s working?  Why is it working? Is this a fad, or is there an undercurrent here that’s going to lead to a bigger shift?
  • Be careful with that last one. Don’t judge too early. Do your homework, and get feedback. There’s all kinds of people out there that have discounted social networking, mobile technology, or that people just don’t behave in a certain way any more, because they dismissed the shifts as fads, not undercurrents.

  • What’s not working? Is it just us, or is everyone else getting hit too? What’s going on in the market that may be causing this?
  • The real danger on that last one is to fool yourself into thinking that something is temporary, when it’s actually a trend towards something more permanent.

  • What are we really good at? What are out core assets?
  • Technologies change, and so do platforms. The companies that shift successfully are always the ones that think about what they are good at in abstract and intangible ways. Essentially it’s the difference between being able to design an good logo, versus being very good at branding.