Lowes for Pros

*This article was originally published in Lowes for Pros

A brand is a major differentiator among small business owners in the same industry—it’s a way consumers and even competitors identify a business. But creating a solid brand strategy is no easy feat. In part one of a three part series, learn how you can brand your business for success.

For many small business owners in the building industry, pondering the launch of a brand can seem like an abstract concept—like examining a piece of modern art for the first time and having no clue as to what it’s supposed to be.

Maybe it’s puzzling because it’s supposed to look simple, but still convey the essence of your company. An effective brand represents a tidy mini-portrait of what you want your business to be. It should instantly convey a clear image that resonates with customers. It should even project an engaging personality that draws repeat business because of positive, associated experiences with you and your crews. In the end, your brand-launching strategy will impact everything from the way you train your employees to your marketing/advertising methods and the visual images that are stamped on your trucks.

Here are five simple steps small business owners in the construction industry should take when launching a brand:

1. Define who you are—and what you want your business to be. It’s not enough to identify yourself as a residential or commercial builder or remodelerplumberelectricianproperty manager or landscaper. Nor is it enough to say that you “specialize in remodeling upscale homes” in a particular region. Potential customers need to know what you can do for them—right now.

“You need to target a very specific type of customer—not just a market, but a market niche,” says Yoon Cannon, a Philadelphia-based business consultant. “You need to find the subsets within the subsets.”

So if you use your marketing materials to focus on that upscale, local market, push a message that highlights a winning niche. Maybe you’ll provide homeowners with gorgeous lawns and gardens—and chemical free. Or you provide countertops that represent the latest and most elegant designs of any local kitchen-remodeling business. Or you’re the plumber who can install fixtures that will turn a drab bathroom into a luxury spa worthy of a five-star hotel. Whatever your niche is, run with it.

2. Learn everything you can about your competitors—then brand yourself as something else. You can’t launch a brand without researching first what your competitors are selling. Are they fixated on price? If so, you need to latch upon something other than price, like value or service. One way to get a sense of this is to go online and seek public forums where the levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with completed projects are discussed.

“Learn everything you can about other builders and associated industry support companies that serve your area,” Cannon says. “Know their philosophies, approach, strengths, weaknesses, brand positioning and marketing plans.” (Look for more about distinguishing your brand from competitors in next month’s Branding for Success Part 2: Differentiating Yourself.)

3. Create marketing/promotional materials to constantly reinforce your niche. Once you determine who you are, then you need to align this focused message in all of your marketing efforts, whether online, print, radio or television. Keep the message clean and streamlined. Also, come up with a logo that’s simple and memorable. If you need to hire a brand or marketing consultant to advise you on your logo or messaging, do it. Since this brand is intended to last forever, it should be a one-time fee.

“Ultimately, you need to nail down a message that explains in a few words why your business is the smartest solution,” says Cannon, whose business, Paramount Business Coach, provides service companies with branding, business management and sales training. Then make sure all company materials—from printed materials to the shirts your crews wear—convey these words and images. This extends to everything that’s associated with your business, even your email address. So rather than use generic free accounts provided by Internet companies, provide your employees with email addresses that use your company name as the domain.

4. Come up with a story. A business isn’t simply a collection of tools, trucks and buildings—there are people behind it. Perhaps there’s a compelling story about how your company came together. The easiest way to engage customers is to share that story, whether in your promotional materials or your Web site’s blog.

“Every business has a different story, a history and background,” says Caitlin Sharp, a consultant at Design Management Company, a business management firm with offices in Los Angeles, New York City and London that works with residential/commercial development companies, among other clients. “Use that to make your company stand apart from all the others. Bring that story into your message.”

5. Get employees’ buy-in. Your staff needs to get on board too, so train them on the proper way to convey your brand identity. After all, the way they approach customers, perform jobs and follow up all speak to your brand.

“Your brand identity needs to stay the same and be conveyed effectively, no matter what form you’re talking about,” Cannon says.

Mobile Gadgets Are The Backbone Of Entrepreneurship

Small Firms That Run Almost Entirely on Mobile Gadgets

Created on June 2014 Written by Chuck Green
Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal June 11, 2014

Yoon Cannon leans on her phone and tablet when she’s on the go. Can you run an entire business from the palm of your hand? Some entrepreneurs are giving it a shot.

For these early adopters, mobile gadgets like smartphones and tablets don’t just help them do their work—they’re the backbone of the business. Entrepreneurs use them to do everything from ringing up sales to creating pitches and promotional videos to coordinating far-flung employees.

Of course, that kind of extensive setup won’t work for every small business. But looking at how these mobile pioneers do it can give any entrepreneur some ideas about ways they can bring mobile technology into their everyday operations.

Here’s a look at some early adopters and how they’re using mobile devices.

tab15
iPads in the Aisles

Montreal-based LXR & Co. sells vintage luxury products—like purses, bags, belts and wallets—from outlets in Beverly Hills, New York and, soon, Toronto. Staffers also go to clients’ homes or hotels to complete deals.

That need for mobility is why the company decided to run its operation with iPhones and iPads. Using a tablet loaded with a cloud-based point-of-sale system from LightSpeed Retail, a member of the sales staff can meet with a customer one on one and “swipe a transaction,” says Fred Mannella, founder and chief executive.

“When we go to clients’ hotel or home and process a $15,000 transaction, it goes fast,” he says. “These people don’t like to wait; when they want it, they want it right away.”

In stores, meanwhile, staffers can use mobile gadgets to complete sales wherever customers happen to be. Managers can also order items for customers that are in the warehouse but not in the store.

Moreover, Mr. Mannella can remotely track sales at his stores. “We get to know—at any given point in the day—when a transaction went through and the volume of sales. It’s made our life so much easier,” Mr. Mannella says.

Downtime? Not Anymore

Yoon Cannon, who runs Paramount Business Coach, in Doylestown, Pa., stores company records on her laptop and prefers to use it when she has a lot to type. But when she’s on the road—which is some 40% of the time—she relies on an iPhone and iPad.

“I’m in the car a lot for both work and family,” Ms. Cannon says. “I have voice-activated apps that read me info I need to review from websites. Voice-activated apps like Dragon Dictate or Siri will also convert my speaking voice to if I need to get out some urgent responses.”

The gadgets also help her manage her five to eight remote employees. A collection of apps like Podio let her organize their email correspondence, oversee projects and give them feedback.

Likewise, she can stay in touch with clients. For instance, she can use Skype to videoconference with them over her phone and let them see what’s on her screen so she can show them information quickly, among other things. She can also record and edit videos from her phone and put together presentations and proposals.

Still, the setup isn’t perfect. Once, an alert reminder went off while she was in the middle of a client call—and kept beeping every few seconds for the rest of the lengthy call. “The other person on the call can’t hear the beeps, but it was really distracting and I couldn’t deactivate” it, she says.

Content on the Run

For Holly Shore,mobile technology makes her business possible.

She writes the bulk of the content for Integrative Mom, her nutrition and lifestyle site for mothers, on her smartphone, as well as taking pictures and uploading them to the site.

“I always have my phone with me and am able to work in any bits of spare time I have throughout the day. I am a very busy home-schooling mom, and do not have the time to sit at a desktop computer for any length of time,” says Ms. Shore, of Austin, Texas. “If it weren’t for my smartphone, I’m not sure my website or blog would exist.”

Using her smartphone, “I can write whenever I’m inspired—which can include at the playground, at the grocery store, or while I’m waiting in my parked car for the napping baby in the back seat to wake up,” Ms. Shore explains.

Of course, “there have been times writing on a desktop or laptop would have been quicker, or maybe a photo could have been placed a little better,” Ms. Shore says. But “if I was confined to a desktop or even a laptop, I would be writing and posting a lot less often.”

Growth Strategy

*This article was originally published in Fortune magazine
Written by Elaine Pofeldt
Published on October 31, 2013 @ 10:50 AM EDT

innography-growtherightway-300x168

Not all small-business owners intend to stay small forever, but few take the time to map out how they plan to grow. A recent survey by the National Small Business Association found that most don’t have a new ad or marketing campaign in the works, and one in five has absolutely no growth strategy in place for the coming year.

Instead, many entrepreneurs move toward new opportunities like a plant seeking sunshine, going where the light is most easily found. Some never slow down to consider whether those jobs are profitable, rewarding, or ultimately efficient uses of their time.

The key is not always to think big at the start — it’s to focus. With these tips, you’ll learn how to hone your strategy, cultivate the growth you want, and pay for your build-out safely and wisely.

FOCUS YOUR GROWTH STRATEGY

Even if it means turning away business.

To create a business capable of blossoming for years, you’ll have to prune it from time to time. Working with customers or offering products that can’t achieve healthy profit margins can sap time and stifle growth, says Nat Wasserstein, managing director of Lindenwood Associates, which helps turn around small and midsize businesses. So thin out ventures and customers that bleed your energy.

1. Figure out which services are worth it. Giving clients what they want is important, but it should never be your only criterion for the products or services that you provide.

When architect Bruce Wentworth considered expanding his 12-person company — Wentworth Inc. in Chevy Chase, Md. — he thought about what his firm excelled at: combining transitional-style interior design, which blends modern and traditional finishes, with detail-oriented construction. And he discovered there isn’t enough profit in projects below $50,000. “By the time we get involved in design, construction drawings, pricing, and permits, it’s not the most efficient use of time,” he says. The firm’s sweet spot is in the mid- to high-end market — kitchen remodeling, for instance, ranging from $70,000 to more than $300,000.

2. Rank your customers by their “value.” Pay attention to the quality of your clients: Are they high or low profit? Are they high or low maintenance? “You want to retain those customers who represent your highest profit margin,” says Yoon Cannon, founder of Paramount Business Coach, a small-business consulting firm in Pennsylvania. Even better: Find ways to cultivate more business from those clients.

Start by calculating the “value” of each customer, according to what they bring in annual profits, revenue, and effort. Then rank them, and focus like a laser on the top 20%.

3. Prioritize potential clients too. In 2008, Harry and Barb Haagen, who run a house-painting company with six employees, began to worry when sales dipped by more than 10% in the economic downturn.

The couple, from Doylestown, Pa., came up with a counterintuitive fix: They looked for ways that they could winnow the business even more. Harry recognized his strength was in craftsmanship, not low-cost jobs. So Barb, who handles the phones, began screening callers. To those interested only in price, she explained the added value Harry provides. If that didn’t hook them, she moved on, freeing up time to focus on customers willing to pay for premium services. The strategy has paid off: Sales are up 15% this year.

ATTRACT THE GROWTH YOU SEEK

Use these online growth strategy to target clients.

Digital marketing can be a cost-effective way to stand out. Yet a recent survey found that few small-business owners think that using social media (11%) or search engine optimization (6%) is that useful. Don’t let such opportunities go to waste.

Follow this checklist:

Choose the right platform. Everyone uses Google AdWords to advertise online, but that can be pricey. The average cost per click in the business category was recently $1.98, according to a study by Adgooroo. For a cheaper alternative (91¢), try the Yahoo Bing Network.

It’s no bit player. Yahoo Bing accounts for nearly a third of all online search in the U.S. And while Google generally delivers more ad impressions, Adgooroo found that the lead is not that great in four of six major categories: business, computers, education, and travel. In finance Yahoo Bing actually leads. Yet costs per click were 23% to 63% cheaper. For B2B firms, LinkedIn is another cost-effective ad platform.

Select the right words. Seeking to grab customers using search engines to find businesses like yours? Incorporate strategically throughout your site words customers are apt to look up, says Heather Lutze, CEO of Findability Consulting & Speaking in Denver.

One way Jeb Brooks, CEO of the Brooks Group, a sales training firm in Greensboro, N.C., identifies those words is simple: He asks clients when he meets them. One recent post on his blog was called “The Value of Public Sales Training: Getting Coaching and Ideas From Outside Your Industry.”

Pick the right crowd. Social media is all about finding the right fit. Offer visually oriented services or products? Then Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest are good places to hang out, says Evan Bailyn, author of Outsmarting Social Media. Interested in B2B? Then use LinkedIn and SlideShare.net, which let you introduce yourself to clients through posted research and presentations.

Stand out visually. Use some of your Facebook budget to create videos, says Ben Landers, CEO of digital-marketing firm Blue Corona. Research by the social media firm Zuum found that videos were shared 11% of the time, vs. less than 3% for status updates and under 7% for photos.

Track your results. More than half of all small-business owners fail to measure the results of their marketing efforts. So they don’t see what’s working and what’s not.

Yet for just $200, Landers notes, you can hire a developer to customize the free Google Analytics program for you to identify the precise channel through which each visitor came to your website.

FINANCE YOUR GROWTH WISELY

Be relentless when it comes to preserving your cash.

If you grow faster than planned, even a momentary cash crunch can have a lasting effect. “Not stocking enough cash is probably why the majority of firms go out of business,” says Bill Klein, president of Consero Global, a financial consulting and outsourcing firm that works with small and midsize companies.

To avoid a cash crunch, take a page from SpareFoot, an online search firm based in Austin that is trying to become the Hotels.com for self-storage space.

1. Monitor your cash flow maniacally. Part of making your firm attractive to a lender down the road is ensuring that there aren’t wide gaps between money flowing in and out. At SpareFoot, owners check their cash flow statement every day.

Then they do something rather unusual: They let all of the company’s 88 employees look at those financial reports too, says CFO Lucas Walters. That way, when it comes to spending decisions, “everyone on the team is rowing in the same direction” — and focused on savings, he says.

John Egan, editor-in-chief of SpareFoot’s website, agrees. “Because we know the financial situation and feel like we have a stake in it, we are careful with how we spend our money,” he explains. “If I have to book a plane ticket, I’ll look for the best deal. Why wouldn’t I?”

2. Keep staffing costs as low as possible. Since labor is one of your biggest expenses, maintaining tight cost controls over your payroll will go a long way toward protecting your cash. Sure, you can always hire full-time staffers now and lay them off down the road should business slow. But that approach can get expensive, says Jaime Klein, president of Inspire Human Resources.

SpareFoot’s owners avoided this by relying when they could on temporary workers and by outsourcing early on. When the company did need to add permanent employees, it tried them out for 90 days — without benefits — before committing.

Today, as SpareFoot plans to increase its workforce to 96 by year-end, “we still evaluate every position to determine what solution makes sense, including outsourcing,” says Walters, who himself started out as an outsourced CFO for the firm before joining permanently later on.

3. Line up financing before you expand. The time to position yourself for a low-interest bank loan isn’t when you’re running out of money and struggling, says Klein of Consero Global. Obtaining credit is a lot like landing new customers. You have to invest time and effort to build a real relationship with potential lenders — and you have to cast a wide net.

SpareFoot’s owners did just that. They kept deposits in several local banks for years knowing that they’d eventually need financing for expansion. That day came in 2012, when the firm required a seven-figure loan to pay for two acquisitions (one of which it did not complete). By maintaining relationships with lenders for years, says Walters, “we got the loan on more favorable terms than we could have otherwise.”

6 Essential Tools for Scaling Your Business

6 Essential Tools for Scaling Your Business

The proven process of scaling a business is a slow and winding one, and is more involved than basic growth. As a small business owner, it can be difficult to remember that every Fortune 1000 company started just as you are. And while it may be tempting to seek out shortcuts and quick schemes that promise to speed up growth, your results will likely be as fleeting as the path was to get there.

To ensure you’re taking the right steps for long-term success, we’re highlighting six essential tools for strategically scaling your business.

Also, remember that you don’t need to overwhelm yourself – Work Less and Achieve More Growth in Your Business.

1. Chatbots

Success stems from customers. Happy customers are more likely to become repeat customers, and oftentimes can also be your biggest advocates. 

However, given that business growth is only sustainable with a reliable customer base, a decline in customer satisfaction can have a significantly negative impact on your growth plan. Keeping this in mind can make all the difference in the speed at which you scale your business.

For this reason, establishing a strong customer service model is essential. This allows your team to provide the service your customers have become accustomed to, while also catering to new customers.

Many small businesses, particularly ones with plans to scale, have begun implementing chatbots. This eases the workload of increased customer queries and also maintains high-quality service.

As chatbots become increasingly more advanced, more and more businesses are relying on them for the bulk of their service requests. This not only enables businesses to successfully grow their customer base (and, thus, take on larger workloads), but it also meets modern customers’ requests for on-demand service. In fact, more than half of consumers would rather talk with a chatbot, than a human, in order to save time.

2. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) System

A dedicated CRM system can be a big help as you grow your customer base. It cohesively manages all of your company’s relationships and interactions with new and existing customers. This allows your team to effectively work toward improving business relationships as you grow.

Along with the increased customer connections, a CRM system can also aid in user data management and improve team collaboration—particularly between your marketing and sales teams.

CRM software for SMBs

When selecting the CRM software best suited for your small business, there are a few key qualifiers to help you make the right decision. 

  • Budget: Seek out cost-efficient options capable of growing with your business without breaking your initial budget.
  • Customization: Certain datasets are more relevant than others in the early stages of growth. So, tools that allow you to look at the bigger picture can reduce the sense of overwhelm. 
  • Integration: Make sure the system you choose integrates well with other tools.
  • Customer support: Overall, SMBs have smaller teams. Therefore, a reliable support system helps get you up and running with the new technology. 

HubSpot CRM is a popular free option for small businesses, thanks to its easy to use built-in interface. Since everything is deployed in the cloud, there is no need for complicated installations and/or navigational training.

Salesforce CRM is another excellent option, for it’s easy integration with external business solutions and sales assistance tools.

3. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) System

Organizational software can make all the difference when it comes to achieving your business scaling goals. Generally speaking, small businesses can get away with simple record-keeping processes, and basic accounting solutions. However, as you scale, you’ll likely grow out of these preliminary tools. Therefore, an ERP can help automate and coordinate the growing number of complex business processes that your scaling business will inevitably accumulate.

Since the introduction of cloud-based systems, top quality ERP systems, once only available to large corporations, are within reach of smaller companies—both financially functionally.  A modern ERP cloud solution can help streamline operations, ensuring your entire organization is working in sync, and on pace with technology.

For business scaling in particular, software that you can both, trust to update autonomously, and grow with your business, is essential. You can avoid any unnecessary complexity by choosing a solution that is specific to the cloud, as opposed to the on-premises solutions that have been rewritten to service in the cloud (for instance Infor ERP products).

Today’s industry leaders recognize the power that small businesses hold. As a result, they are increasingly targeting small and medium sized businesses with cloud-based versions of ERP software. Depending on your specific business environment and goals, there are several available options to help you meet your scaling goals.

4. Inventory Management Software

Increased volumes of business are expected when scaling. As is the amount of inventory and information you need to keep track of. Although a spreadsheet may have been suitable as a small business, the larger you scale, the more difficult effective management becomes.

Inventory management software relieves this pressure by simplifying the tracking process of whatever it is that makes your business function. Comparing inventory management software, based on their offerings, pricing, and your specific business needs, can help you make the right choice for your business.

5. Email Automation

A digital marketing strategy is fundamental in modern business success. As you scale, however, your traditional marketing efforts will likely need a reboot.

Automation is a lifesaver when it comes to scaling a business. Extending your reach without additional effort is possible through the many tools designed to help automate marketing tasks. Mailchimp, for example, is an easy-to-use platform for email automation.

To build your customer base, it’s important to put adequate effort into spreading your message. This means alerting all potential and existing customers of your latest offering, and generating new conversion whenever possible.

6. Social Media Automation

A strong social media presence is critical to successfully promoting your business. However, in the early days of your scaling, you probably don’t have a dedicated social team.

Not to worry, though. Social media automation tools have made it easier than ever. They can pre-schedule content to share across your various networks and profiles, track performance, collaborate with fellow social media users, and manage a consistent reposting schedule.

Tools like AgoraPulse and Hootsuite are very popular platforms that can help you improve your social media presence while also saving you time.

Ultimately, There is no one-size-fits-all method to scaling a business. As you go through the process, you’ll recognize what works for you, and what your business needs to achieve success.

QUESTION: Which of these tools interests you the most? Let us know in the comments below!

You Don’t Need to Build Your Business Alone

build a business

Running your own business is hard. Running your business all alone is even harder.  😩

There’s so much advice out there it’s hard to know what to do and what to focus on first. You’re worried about following the wrong advice, or just as bad …. The right advice at the wrong time.

You can commit to working harder …. But, what if you’re working hard on the wrong things? You’ll easily waste months and even years spinning your wheels. 😭

Your friends and family don’t know what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. They don’t understand the challenges you face running your own business or how to solve the problems that keep you up at night.

Right now, you have no one to talk to who can give you meaningful support and actionable advice. 

📍You need to FIND YOUR PEOPLE. 

Take the first step … right here … right now.

✅ WHAT IS ONE DECISION YOU NEED TO MAKE IN YOUR BUSINESS RIGHT NOW?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. By sharing a decision you’ve been delaying to make or a challenge that’s got you stuck … not only could you receive some 💡great ideas 💡 to help you … you’re also helping so many others who are facing the same challenge in their business.