Tuesday, June 30, 2009


10 Lessons Learned for Small Business Success

I attended the fantastic first Small & Special conference this afternoon, with more than 100 other small business owners (some just weeks into their new venture) and several excellent speakers. The energy was palpable, and the agenda was inspiring.

It was clear throughout the afternoon that starting and succeeding with a small business involves a lot of hard work, but for nearly everyone that spoke it was a true labor of love.

Several themes developed throughout the afternoon, which I believe make up ten critical lessons or rules for succeeding with a small & special business. Here's what I took away:

1. Do What You Love (Follow Your Passion)
Fleurish was started with a $15K loan from a friend, and is now a highly-successful floral arrangement and consulting business. A gentleman whose business is laser engraving spoke at length about the history and usefulness of lasers, which culminated in a trivia contest about lasers for samples of his products. He's that passionate about lasers!

Moral of the story is to start and work on a business not because you think it's something that can make money, but because it's something for which you're truly passionate.

2. Past History, Education or Experience Doesn't Really Matter
Eric LeVine started CellarTracker.com without much experience or knowledge about wines at all. Just a growing passion for wine, and a knowledge of how he wanted to help other collectors organize their cellars. Rachel Venning now teaches sex ed in addition to operating four sex toy shops across the country, but admitted she didn't know much of anything about "that" (her word) when she started.

Others may know more than you now. But if you're passionate and willing to learn, it's your oyster.

3. Overnight Successes Take Years
The current revenue and margins for many businesses presenting today was impressive (to put it mildly). But most of those stories were preceeded by years of hard work oftentimes while still losing money or barely breaking even. Oliver Chin of Immedium spoke of hos important it was for his wife to have a "day job" to keep good health benefits for him and their two kids. Others spoke of difficult and lean early times (and early years) before they caught their stride.

If you're passionate and determined, you can get there. You just may need to be patient.

4. Be Open to New, Unexpected Opportunities
Joe Mansfield of EngraveYourTech.com stumbled upon an opportunity to do custom engraving on Moleskine notebooks. It was a new business like with hockey-stick growth until he realized the toxic PVC impact of lasering Moleskine covers. A promising, fast-growth business came to an immediate halt overnight.

Undeterred, Joe started experimenting with engraving on other media, including tech devices such as laptops and iPhones. He actively posts his new creations on Flickr, which generates significant new business on a regular basis.

Be open to new opportunities, especially when existing opportunities shrink or vanish. Your business likely won't evolve the way you think, but opportunities are everywhere.

5. You Can Start Now
Start it part-time. Several business owners spoke of doing research and starting initially during nights and weekends. Eric LeVine wrote code until the wee hours of the morning while keeping his day-job at Microsoft before deciding he was ready to take the plunge full-time.

Rachel from Babeland wrote a business plan, but really just got started. She said the advantage of "just doing it" gave her much better on-the-job learning, and better visibility into opportunities emerging in real-time. If you have a business idea or passion, start exploring it now. Do it for fun, start it as a hobby. You may be surprised how quickly you're ready to make it a full-time focus.

6. Ask For Help
Rachel had long admired a popular sex shop in San Francisco called Good Vibrations. She cold-called the founder to ask for advice, and that founder ended up serving as a quasi-advisor to Rachel and her partner as they launched and grew their own business. A successful founder helping a prospective competitor!

You'll be surprised who will help you - with advice, with their time, even perhaps with their products and services. It never hurts to ask.

7. Work With People You Love
Some speakers recommended finding a good partner. Steven Bristol from LessAccounting.com said his partner was critical to the success of the business, if for no other reason than they help each other "say no" to things they don't really need (helping them maintain focus and keep costs low).

What's more, working with people you love makes it fun! Andrew Bennett from Deneki Outdoors realized one day that he was working 50 weeks a year to spend two weeks a year doing what he really wanted. He now spends most of the year managing his fly-fishing lodges and working with people who share his passion.

8. Execute, Every Day
Jon Rimmerman from Garagiste talked about the importance of working hard, every day. You may occasionally hit a home run, but successful businesses are build from hitting a lot of singles. So, as the analogy goes, keep swinging. Keep a good attitude, keep your head down, and execute.

9. Embrace Competition
Steve Bristol loves competing against bigger brands like QuickBooks and Quicken. Competition is scary, he said, but it's important. When there's no competition, there's no market.

What's more, embrace your role as an underdog and you'll draw customers to you.

10. Focus On Your Customers
Last but probably the most important. Every single successful business speaking today not only had this as a central focus of their business, but they did it not as a proactive initiative but as a natural, critical part of doing business.

Jon Rimmerman talked about the conversation he has with his customers, not at them. He writes his wine emails (sent daily to nearly 100,000 recipients) as if he's writing a 1:1 correspondence.

Steven Bristol talked at length about the loyalty customers will have when you treat them right. Even if you screw up occasionally, loyal customers will stay with you if you treat them right. Make something people love, and you'll create long-term passionate users who tell your story to others.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Don't read this book

Most business books take an entire 200-300 pages to make a single point.  Oftentimes, the book’s length helps make the point with examples, case studies, explorations of different components of the primary point, etc.  But sometimes, what you really needed was something short – just 2-3 pages perhaps to get the gist.

That might be why I liked David Meerman Scott’s new book World Wide Rave so much.  It’s a relatively short book, with a focus on how to get our customers – your fans – to spread your ideas and share your stories with those they know.  It’s an excellent treatise on how to create and drive word-of-mouth for your business or brand.

And what makes it even better is that you don’t have to read it.

Pick up the book and flip to a random page.  You’re likely to landing on the start of a new, short topic that will spark your creativity.  This book is full of short but powerful ideas, examples and inspirations related to spreading the word about your products and services virally.

When I first picked up a copy, I didn’t have time to dig in and read it right away.  And thank goodness.  Over the next couple days, I literally would pick it up every once in awhile and just flip to a page.  Tons of great content and ideas in a short, easy to follow, quick-hit format.

For marketers especially, I highly recommend this book.  Just don’t read it (at least not like that).



It's about customers, not technology

Amidst a great post on social media execution strategies within large organizations, Jeremiah Owyang from Forrester reiterates an important point about what social media is really about:

"80% is Strategy only 20% is Technology. Eighty percent of social media success is dependent on understanding customers, defining an objective, and assembling the right strategy that encompasses: plans, roles, process, budgets, measurement, and training --not a focus on technology.

"The faster brands can realize that approaching social marketing and collaboration isn't about technology, but about process and change management the better off they are."

Friday, June 26, 2009


Don't call it a white paper

Just heard a radio ad for an online university that offered a white paper to listeners as a lead generation tool.  The content of the white paper, given the ad’s intent and intended audience, was pretty good.  The fact that they called it a white paper, however, was off the mark.

The concept of white papers is more often seen in B2B marketing, but the idea of giving consumer product customers access to free, educational information isn’t exactly new.  It’s just that smart marketers never refer to those offers using industry lingo.  Instead, you’ll more often hear things like “special report”, “free money-saving tips”, and the like. 

Even with some B2B buyers, the term “white paper” isn’t exactly going to resonate.  For some audiences, IT buyers for example, an explicit white paper offer might work.  For retail managers or small business owners, probably not.

Reminds me of a Subway radio ad a few years ago that literally referred to its customers as “consumers.”  For internal planning, fine.  For creative, never.



A lesson in transparency

This post from Matt at SmallBizBee was humbling.

But my first reaction after reading it was actually, "Gee, my handwriting really is awful!" , followed by a re-read of how he had both interpreted and shared our communication exchange from earlier in the week.

Everything we do, say and write can come back to help us or to haunt us.  Every element of our communication reflects and shapes who we are, and how others perceive us.  This goes for communication outside your company - to customers, prospects, vendors and partners - as well as those you work with inside your organization.

It speaks to the importance of consistency and respect as much as anything.


Hiring (or firing) the right people

Jim Collins has written extensively about who you should take into battle with you each day in your organization. He's written mostly about finding the right people, but his rules equally apply to ejecting the wrong people.

Take his list of criteria for the right people below, for instance. Think about the people in your organization right now who exhibit the exact opposite characteristics. Can you afford to keep them around? Isn't their drain on the organization exacerbated in this economy?

  • The right people fit the company's core values
  • The right people don't need to be tightly managed
  • The right people understand that they do not have "jobs" - they have responsibilities
  • The right people fulfill their commitments
  • The right people are passionate about the company and its work
  • The right people display window-and-mirror maturity (i.e. they give credit when credit's due, and take responsibility when things go awry)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Hyatt is trying too hard (why loyalty is earned)

Going the extra mile for customers is a hallmark of great brands worldwide.  The Ritz Carlton has become famous for it.  More recently, so has Zappos.com.

Last week, Hyatt Hotels announced they'd really like to be known for doing extraordinary things for their customers as well.  CEO Mark Hoplamazian announced a program called "random acts of generosity", in which the hotel chain will randomly pick up the tab for various amenities and services during your stay.

The concept is good, but Hyatt's trying a bit too hard.  And it probably won't work.

Why is the Ritz Carlton known worldwide for exceptional, above-and-beyond service?  Because it's core to their brand DNA, it's something they practice daily with every single employee, and it's something they've been doing for years.

Zappos.com has less of a history, but is equally committed to an organization-wide customer focus.  Read anything from their CEO (or even their employees) and it's clear this is not a random or new initiative.  It's just how they do business.

These are enviable positions, but they didn't come easy.  They were earned.

Hyatt's not there.  This program, ironically, could work the opposite of how they intended.  Say you're sitting at a Hyatt bar, and the guy next to you has his tab picked up by the hotel as part of the program.  You, however, are still paying.  How does that make you feel?  What are you going to tell your friends?

Even the guy who had his tab picked up can't guarantee his friends the same service when they next visit a Hyatt.

Stay at the Ritz, or buy shoes from Zappos, and the same high bar for customer service applies to everyone.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Hiring the right people

Hiring the right people in your business is possibly the single most important factor in achieving success. Yes, external and other factors (some outside of your control) play a huge part too. But the right people can take those factors and make the necessary adjustments to help your business grow and thrive.

This point seems to have more consensus than the method by which you filter and evaluate those prospective hires. The book Topgrading, for example, recommends lengthy interviews to get at the heart of a candidate's true potential.

But Chip and Dan of Made to Stick fame argued recently the exact opposite point - that interviews are largely worthless (at least in terms of predicting future performance), and that work samples, job-knowledge tests, and peer ratings of past job performance are far more valuable.

Read here to see more of their point and a few examples.

I don't think there's a right answer leaning exclusively on either side of the argument, but focusing on work samples and the like first will likely serve as a time-saving filter on candidates that clearly don't make the grade, and weren't worth your time to interview to begin with.

Focus your time on the remainder, and you're far more likely to be speaking primarily with candidates who can make a difference.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


How would you make baseball's draft more relevant?

Major League Baseball’s annual amateur draft is this evening. The game’s best amateur pitcher in years is guaranteed to be picked first by the Washington Nationals. Several top draft picks could be playing for your major-league team in just a year or two.

Yes, despite other sports that receive weeks of hype and hours of TV coverage for their drafts, many baseball fans likely don’t even know that today is draft day.

Why the difference for baseball? For a game that has deeper roots than any other major sport, experiencing a surge in popularity and ticket sales in recent years, the draft is still not a very big deal.

Traditionally, this likely had more to do with the draft’s near-term impact on major-league clubs than anything else. In football and basketball, top picks are all but expected not just to make the team, but to contribute in their first year. Therefore, NFL and NBA drafts have a direct impact on the following year’s season.

Baseball draft picks, by comparison, have traditionally taken years of seasoning in the minor leagues to be ready for The Show.

But that’s starting to change, thanks to Moneyball and the way most big-league clubs are picking their amateur talent. With more and more college players chosen in early rounds (instead of high schoolers), draft picks are better seasoned and can be faster to rise to the major league level. Tim Lincecum was a top draft pick in 2006 out of the University of Washington, and won the Cy Young in 2008. That same year, Brandon Morrow was drafted by the Seattle Mariners from Cal and was throwing 100+ MPH heat in the Seattle bullpen the next year.

So let’s look at this from a marketing perspective. The relevancy of baseball’s draft on a big league team’s near-term roster has improved significantly. If you’re a marketer for MLB, how do you increase the draft’s fan impact? How do you use draft day to promote the game in general? How do you help market draft picks as the stars of tomorrow - both for the game overall as well as each major-league club?

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Which team looks familiar?

Take a look at this chart (click to enlarge) summarizing typical team behavior (especially at the executive level) for companies on their rise to the top, as well as companies on their way back down.

It's from Jim Collins' excellent new book, How The Mighty Fall, summarizing the traits of companies on their way up towards the pinnacle of success, as well as traits that typically symbolize an organization in decline (whether or not they know it yet).

You'll probably recognize behavior on both sides. Changing the "on the way down" habits in your organization can be difficult, especially if they're baked into the current culture. But hard doesn't mean impossible.

What are the things you could do - this week - to get your teams thinking, and acting, more like the column on the right?

Friday, June 05, 2009


Get people talking

It doesn't take much to get your customers talking - to each other and to you. Just give them a reason!

The Tully's Coffee in Lincoln Square in Bellevue, Washington tapes the day's Seattle Times crossword puzzle on the bar where customers pick up their drinks. Cumulatively, throughout the morning, their customers finish the puzzle.

Along the way, they're talking to each other, engaging the baristas, and have a fun reason to keep coming back to that shop whenever they're close (there are literally seven other coffee shops within a 1/4 mile radius).

What are you doing to stand out (even a little) and get your customers talking? It clearly doesn't have to take much.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


After the survey

Let's say you do a survey. Customers or prospects. You're gathering satisfaction levels, testing a new product concept, messaging angles, whatever.

You get results. They're helpful - giving you product or messaging direction, indicating which customers really like you, which are really pissed, etc.

The vast majority of companies do nothing with that data. Some may make the product or messaging changes (a surprising number do not), but most miss the huge opportunity to respond (directly or indirectly) back to those same responders.

Let's say your customers send a clear message about something they want different. How do you let them know you've heard them? How do you respond, react and change?

A segment of your customers say they love you. How do you react? How do you leverage that love? How do you reciprocate that love to strengthen the bond between customer and your company, and encourage more of those evangelists to tell fellow customers and prospects about how great you are?

Most marketers focus their time thinking about the survey before the survey goes out. What are the right questions? In what order? How many? Are we sending it to the right people? What should the email say?

Few think about what to do after the survey. And that opportunity is far more important.

Monday, June 01, 2009


How to write a PR strategy

Don’t worry about press releases, media lists, blogs, PR firms, any of that. At least not up front.

Building a PR strategy doesn’t start with tactics, it starts with business fundamentals. To write a PR plan, start with these questions:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is your overall business objective/strategy with them?
  • What role do you need PR to play? What objective should it drive towards?
  • What message do you need PR to deliver? What action do you want your target audience to take?
  • What are the PR/communication channels available to reach the audience, and communicate that message?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you have the tools to start thinking about tactics.

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