Is Your Idea a Business or a Dead End?

Ha! So you think you have an idea that you can parlay into a good business, whether it’s a cutting edge technology or a tried and true formula, like a car wash.

Regardless of the industry that you’d like to enter, there is a more or less standard checklist of factors you should consider before investing your money, time and hopes. Before fantasies of entrepreneurship carry you away, do yourself a favor and answer these questions first. You’ll know how to proceed from here, whether it means that you meet with the Branch Manager at your bank to learn about business financing options, or you take a trip back to the drawing board.

1. Who are the target customers and what is the size of the market?

Define your market demographic. Who will pay to buy what you plan to sell? Is this a product or service that is growing in popularity, or maintaining its broad appeal, or is there a shift in customer preference on the horizon as those who would be your customers learn about a new choice that may persuade them to switch to The Next Big Thing?

In addition to demand for your intended product or service, are there enough customers in your location to support the business? By the way, how are your competitors doing? Do they appear to be thriving?

2. What is the problem that target customers want to solve or avoid when they do business with companies like your proposed venture?

Understand the back story of why customers would buy the solutions that you plan to sell. What is it that they’d like to achieve or avoid? One calls a window washer when the windows are dirty because clean windows demonstrate the owner’s desire to protect and enhance the value of his/her home.

3. How are target customers meeting their need today?

What businesses would be your primary three or four competitors? What factors persuade their customers to do business with them—a convenient location, exceptional product variety, discount pricing, the right relationships?

What advantage can you offer that customers might be drawn to—more convenient hours of operation, for example? Can you provide a product or service that meets a need that is valued but not currently addressed?

4. What is your solution (product or service)?

Describe your proposed product or service. You should be able to easily and clearly describe (and sell) your product. Develop an off-the-cuff sales pitch, record your delivery of it, then listen and evaluate. Would you buy this product or service?

5. How will you reach your customers?

If your business is B2C and requires a physical location, can you afford to set up shop in an area that potential customers will visit? If your business idea is B2B, do you have a plan to access customers and referrals? If your plan is for e-commerce, how will potential customers learn about your website?

6. Do you have the credibility and credentials to do business in this industry?

Especially if you plan to enter the B2B sector, be certain that your education and experience will command respect and trust. If obtaining certain licensing, certifications, or an educational degree is vital (even if not required), investigate the process, plus the time and money involved.

7. Do you have the funding to launch the business?

Research the expected business start-up costs and think objectively about how long it might take you to start making sales you can live on.

Pay your bills and get your credit score. Build up your savings. Whether you expect to self-finance, ask to borrow from friends, family, or your retirement account or apply for outside funding, you will need a lump sum of cash on hand when you launch a business.

Thanks for reading,
Kim

Photograph: Financial District, Boston, MA. Kim Clark, September 23, 2018

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The Art of the Sale: How Marketing, Branding and Advertising Help Revenues

Today, I respectfully offer you a tutorial. Our inquiry will focus on the essence of doing business: selling. The purpose of starting a business is to generate sales, produce revenues and earn a profit.  If a business cannot generate a certain threshold of sales, business expenses cannot be paid and the owner’s investment will be negatively impacted. To curtail mounting debts, the business must close.

Over the past 10 years or so I’ve noticed, sometimes with amusement and other times with dismay,  that the word selling seems to make people feel uncomfortable.  I noticed that frequently, aspiring business owners and Freelance solopreneurs, who must find customers and earn money that is derived from the exchange of money for the products or services that their ventures would produce and provide, avoided the word sell. Instead, the word market was substituted.

Many self-employed professionals are uncomfortable with the process of selling, so they’ve decided to banish the very word. It’s as if selling is now perceived as crass or pushy. That is a shame.  The sales profession is one of the oldest on earth and honorable. Selling is one of the foundations of civilization and selling skills are among the most useful anyone can have; it is the ultimate transferable skill.  Selling makes the world go round, because we wouldn’t have much of a world without it. The ability to sell is far more valuable than the ability to code (yes, really!).

So we can agree that the success of a business is dependent upon sales?  Now, let’s go back to the process of marketing.  The American Marketing Association defines marketing as:

The activities and processes for creating, communicating and delivering information about products and services that have value for customers. Marketing is a set of processes that are interconnected and interdependent with other business functions aimed at achieving the interest of (prospective) customers.

Marketing consists of using information, in words or pictures, to promote products and services and persuade potential customers to make purchases.  Customers have an array of motives that drive their purchases.  Marketing campaigns are designed to appeal to the motives of selected customer groups (e.g., parents, young professionals, adolescent males) that research has shown are potential customers for the product or service in question.  The purpose of marketing is to communicate with and appeal to targeted customer groups and persuade them that (your) products and services will satisfy one or more of their needs or desires.

So we can agree that generating sales is dependent upon marketing campaign promotion that is directed at the most promising customers for your products and services? I hope we can also agree that marketing and sales, while on the same continuum, are not one and the same.  Let’s move forward on the path and consider branding.

Branding campaigns are designed to enhance and expand marketing messages by differentiating and distinguishing the reputation of products and services available in the marketplace.  Products, services and individuals can, through an effective branding campaign, acquire a powerful reputation, recognition and loyalty among customers, fans and the general public.  That reputation is known as the brand.

A company logo is usually associated with products that have acquired sufficient popularity and sales to be considered a brand. That logo is instantly recognized and conveys the essence of the brand to its loyal fans, as well as those who may not use the product.  The product name itself will come to symbolize a powerful brand, as does Coca-Cola.

Now let’s take your marketing and branding messages to the public and that brings us to the next stop along the marketing continuum, advertising.  There are more ways to advertise than ever before, thanks to the digital age,  but do not underestimate the value of traditional methods.  The century-old medium that is radio remains a highly effective advertising tool, as do billboards.  Taxi cabs and city buses (and bus stops) announce local events, such as the circus coming to town.  Newspapers and magazines continue to be packed with eye-catching ads.

Content marketing, which many call the new advertising, continues to grow in influence.  It’s approach is indirect and it is presented as relevant information.  Content marketing is stealth advertising that uses primarily written information conveyed in blogs and newsletters to provide information about topics that would be of interest to prospective users of the products or services sold by the company.  The purpose of content marketing is to build an audience of regular readers who trust the source (you) and would feel confident enough to do business with you.

Then there are the social media platforms that are now in the mix. Regardless of the name social media marketing, when used for business purposes it is advertising: the Instagram photos of your wedding venue, the video clip of you accepting an award at the Rotary Club, the webinar posted to your website and LinkedIn profile.

If your marketing strategy and campaigns have been effective and enabled the development of a trustworthy brand and memorable advertising campaigns, your business will attract paying customers. Your business venture will generate sales and you can declare yourself a winner.  Let’s sum up our tutorial:

MARKETING:  How you envision and describe your company. The verbal, voice and visual messages used to promote your products or services. The business owner identifies the market positioning strategy for the company, based on populations predicted to  become customers: mid-market, luxury, or bargain, hipsters, seniors, adventure travelers.  Product positioning impacts all marketing campaigns and messages, the branding strategy and advertising choices.

BRAND:  The company reputation, what it is known for. How others perceive your company.

ADVERTISING:  How and where you portray and describe your company to the public: in print or digital, visual or audio formats placed in Popular Mechanics, Harper’s Bazaar, subway stations, flyers tucked onto car windshields, or Twitter.  Advertising usually costs money.

SALE:  The ultimate goal and final step of the marketing process.  The exchange of money (or another valuable item or service) for the purchase of a product or service.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph of Cher by Richard Avedon (1986)                                                                 Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, LA

Fatal Flaws in Your Business Plan

A business plan is the blueprint, or road map, that guides aspiring entrepreneurs as they build their business venture. Business plan writing is about getting the details right as you keep in mind the big picture.  I’ve taught business plan writing since 2008.  I was invited by the program manager of an SBA-affiliated women’s business development  organization to teach a 20 week course that met once a week for three hours and students wrote their plan week by week.

A couple of years later,  I developed a six hour workshop that does not ask students to write their plan but rather, I present material that shows them the information that will be included in a good business plan: a marketing plan (including customer identification, branding and pricing), financial projections, operations processes and other elements.  We talk about how to do research and how the information discovered will help them build a successful business and if desired, attract investors as well.

When envisioning a potential business concept or writing a business plan, it is possible that unrealistic expectations or flawed thinking could influence the process.  Sometimes, one is just so excited about the great business idea that has surfaced that the adrenaline “rush” distorts clear thinking, such as the ability to see potential stumbling blocks that would require precautions to avoid.  Below are a few scenarios that entrepreneurs-in-the-making should beware.

Unrealistic expectations about the need and value of your products or services

While it is sometimes true that starting a business with yourself as the profile that represents the target customer is a smart idea, since you understand the value and availability of that product or service,  you may misinterpret the size of the market and the traction that can be achieved beyond a select group of true believers.

Insufficient information about target customers

Whether or not the target customer is modeled on you, research must be done to verify the number of potential customers who have the money and motive to do business with you,  regardless if this is a B2B or B2C enterprise in the making. You must identify the need for your products or services—what problem will you solve, what solution will you provide?

Furthermore, you must understand the buying process—who is the usual decision maker (the COO or the head of maintence?),  how will purchases be made and what is the tolerable price range? Lastly, from whom are your potential customers obtaining these products and services now? You must also identify and investigate competitors.

Vague about how to access customers

Especially in the B2B sector, access to customers is everything.  Some fields really are a closed shop. You may know who the ideal customers are,  know and describe well how your products and services fit their needs and know how to price and deliver them.  But if potential customers do not have the confidence to do business with you because you have not received an endorsement from a source that they trust, you will starve.

Overestimating cash flow

Usually, a business does not achieve desirable gross sales, and hence will not show a net profit, in its first year of operations.  Businesses that require high start-up costs especially will require a longer ramping-up period. The business plan must acknowledge the potential for negative cash flow and demonstrate how fixed and variable expenses will be met during that period.  One must know how inventory will be financed,  how payroll will be met and how the store or office rent will be paid.

When writing a business plan,  conservative financial projections are strongly advised.  Acquisition of paying customers may take longer than you expect and the size of their purchases may initially be small and infrequent.  Moreover, it is entirely possible for a venture to be profitable on paper and still suffer from cash-flow problems, because customers do not pay their bills on time.

Underestimating start-up costs

Developing a reasonable estimate of how much it will cost to get the venture up and running is essential.  If certain permits must be in hand, if certain tools or equipment are must-haves, then you must know the costs of securing all of the above.  If you’ll need to hire employees,  it’s essential that you have a good idea of the staffing needs up front (you can always hire more as customers increase).

“Magical thinking” business model

The business model is the design for how your venture will become profitable.  Well thought-out interactions between marketing, financial and operational processes will promote and sustain profitability and you must map out how these will occur. The business model describes the core fundamental actions of the venture.

The value proposition of your products or services will be described.  The resources that your enterprise will have to promote and defend the value proposition— the intellectual property that you’ve developed,  or patent rights, key relationships, or capital—will be accounted for.  Sales distribution channels will be detailed.

Getting to Plan B, a 2009 book by Randy Komisar and John Mullins, describes key business model components and advises business plan writers to segment the business model chapter into sub-headings such as:

  • The revenue model,  which describes what you’ll sell, the marketing plan and how you expect to generate revenue.
  • The operating model, which will detail where you’ll do business and how the day-to-day will function.
  • The  working capital model, meaning your cash-flow requirements.  Cash-flow means that you’ll know when money will be in hand to meet expenses like rent and payroll. It is subtly distinct from revenue.  The business can generate adequate revenue and still suffer from intermittent cash-flow problems.

Your business model keeps you organized and your priorities realistic. Matters such as quality control,  collecting accounts receivable,  inventory management and identifying strategic partners mean much more than your number of Facebook followers, for example. Best of luck to you as you work to launch your new business!

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Don’t Screw-up Your Start-up

John Osher has business in his blood.  During his 7 years as an undergraduate college student,  Osher started and sold a vintage clothing store and an earring outlet.  On his way to building ConServ,  his first major business venture,  he worked as a cab driver,  plumber and a carpenter.  Second venture Cap Toys,  where sales volume reached $125 million,  was sold to Hasbro in 1997.

When formulating the strategy for his third venture,  which became Dr. John’s Products,  Ltd.,  Osher wanted to start the perfect company and so decided to make a list of everything he had done wrong as he built the previous two.  In 1999,  he used this list when he started Dr. John’s SpinBrush,  an electric toothbrush that retailed for $5.00.  Maybe you had one?  The SpinBrush became wildly popular and in 2001,  Proctor & Gamble bought him out for $475 million.  Enough said!  Below are more pearls of wisdom from John Osher’s list of start-up screw-ups:

7.    FAILING TO HAVE A CONTINGENCY PLAN TO ADDRESS A SHORTFALL IN SALES PROJECTIONS

“Even if you’ve been realistic about your ability to enter and penetrate your market,  sales projections and start-up and operating expenses,  there are things that happen when you start a new business.  These aren’t a result of poor planning,  but they happen.  Bank rates could go up.  There could be a strike.  You need a Plan B to cover yourself should things not work out within the timing that you want.”

8.     BRINGING IN THE WRONG OR UNNECESSARY PARTNERS

“There are certain partners you need.  If you need money,  you’ll need money partners.  But too many times the guy with the idea takes on his friends as partners.  Many people don’t provide strategic advantages.  Before people are made partners, they have to earn it”.

9.      HIRING EMPLOYEES FOR CONVENIENCE RATHER THAN SKILL

“In my first business or two,  I hired relatives,  but in many cases they were wrong for the job.  It’s hard to fire relatives and friends.  Spend time to handpick people based on skill requirements.  It bogs you down when you hire people who can’ t do the job”.

10.    NEGLECTING TO MANAGE THE ENTIRE COMPANY AS A WHOLE

“You see this happen all the time.  They’ll spend 50% of their time on something that represents 5% of the business.  Too often, the business owner doesn’t have a view of the whole company.  They get involved in part,  but don’t manage the whole.  Whether I handle this aspect or another,  whether I hire someone to do what I can’t,  I consider how it all fits into the long-term and short-term big picture.  Constantly try to see your big picture.

11.     ACCEPTING THAT “IT’S NOT POSSIBLE” TOO EASILY, RATHER THAN FINDING ANOTHER SOLUTION

“I had an engineer who was very good,  but with every product we developed,  he would say  ‘You can’t do it that way’.  I had to be careful not to accept this too easily.  I had to look further.  If you’re going to be an entrepreneur,  you’re going to break new ground.  A good entrepreneur is going to find a way”.

12.    FOCUSING ON SALES VOLUME OVER BOTTOM LINE PROFIT

“Too much of your management is often based on sales volume and market size.  There’s too much emphasis on how fast and big you can grow the business,  rather than on how much profit you can make”.

I’ll conclude with the final five elements next week. Thanks for reading,

Kim

17 Start-up Screw-ups

Serial entrepreneur John Osher has developed numerous consumer products,  including an electric toothbrush that became America’s best-selling toothbrush in just 15 months.  He also started several businesses,  most notably Cap Toys,  where he built sales to $125 million a year and then sold to Hasbro, Inc. in 1997.

Osher’s most important contribution to American business may not be the companies he’s started and profited handsomely from,  but rather the business advice that he’s willing to share. His list  “17 Mistakes Start-ups Make”  became a Harvard Business School case study.  See what you can learn from his entrepreneurial experiences and use it to create your version of the perfect Freelance consulting business.

  1. FAILING TO ADEQUATELY RESEARCH THE IDEA TO ENSURE IT IS VIABLE

“The most important mistake of all.  I say nine out of ten businesses fail because the original concept is not viable.  You want to be in business so much that you don’t slow down and take the time to do the up-front research,  so the business is doomed before the doors open.  You can be very talented,  but your business will fail because the concept is flawed.”  Go to the library and do your research.  Read blogs,  journals and newsletters that pertain to the industry you plan to enter,  so that you’ll know what’s going on.  Develop a credible business model.

  1. MISCALCULATING MARKET SIZE, TIMING, EASE OF ENTRY AND YOUR POTENTIAL MARKET SHARE

“Most new entrepreneurs get very excited about their concept and don’t look for the truth about how many people will want to buy what they they’re selling.”  Take the time to research and understand targeted customers and get to know why they will want to buy from you or hire you.  Calculate your potential to penetrate the target market and grow a client list you can live on.

  1. UNDERESTIMATING FINANCIAL REQUIREMENTS AND TIMING

“Based on inadequate research noted in Mistakes #1 & #2,  fledgling entrepreneurs operate from the premise of over-stated market size and their ability to enter it.  They then start spending more money than they should on start-up costs,  creating costs that require those inflated sales projections to be met,  so they run out of money”.

  1. OVER-PROJECTING SALES VOLUME AND TIMING

“You have already miscalculated the size of the market.  Now you over-project your portion of it”.  Always another way to run out of money, no?

  1. UNDER-PROJECTING EXPENSES

“Cost projections are often far too low.  Part of the problem is that you’ve projected market share and sales volume that are too high.  There are always unknown reasons that come up to make expenses higher than planned”.

  1. OVER-SPENDING ON AN OFFICE, OFFICE EQUIPMENT AND EMPLOYEES

“Now you’ve got lower sales,  higher start-up costs and then you layer on too-high operating costs.”  I have seen colleagues maintain fancy offices when they have the ability to run the business from the kitchen table at home.  If you can take clients out to a restaurant for meetings,  then why pay for office space?  You can get a telephone answering service to personally take messages,  so it looks like you have a secretary.  I’ve done it for a dozen years.  Besides,  no one answers the telephone these days,  especially not in major corporations. When you need another pair of hands to take on a big project,  hire in another Freelancer and spread the wealth.

More next week.  Thanks for reading,

Kim

Market Research: Benchmarking and Your Positioning Strategy

Every few months it makes sense to do some benchmarking and find out how your services,  marketing message buzzwords and delivery systems compare to that of competitors.  Whether you are a start-up or a veteran entrepreneur,  market research in its many forms is an important barometer of the environment in which your business operates.  Fail to keep your finger on the various pulse points of the marketplace and you can miss the boat on either a lucrative opportunity or a shift in business practices or customer priorities that will leave you out in the cold and scrambling to catch up.

As we approach the fourth quarter,  it is useful to start thinking about the new year and how you can refine and confirm your services offered,  targeted clients,  business model and delivery of services.  The results of your benchmarking research can be used in the marketing or operations sections of a business plan,  to create a marketing or operations plan or to measure the success of a current ongoing plan.  Start the process by following the advice of the late,  great business strategy guru Peter Druker,  who famously noted that getting the right answers begins with asking the right questions.  Some important questions to pose include:

  • What drives targeted clients to hire outside help  (that is, Freelancers)  to perform the types of services your organization provides?
  • Who is providing that service for them now and what is the level of satisfaction with the deliverables?
  • What would those clients like to see included in the service itself or in its delivery that is not now being provided?
  • Does the client anticipate any changes in demand for this service within their organization?
  • What does the client feel is a fair price to pay for these services?

In market research,  there are primary and secondary sources of information.  Primary source information emanates directly from the client or competitor. Secondary sources are anything that has been published.  Because Freelance solopreneurs typically do not have market research budgets,  a DIY low or no cost strategy will be necessary.  Primary information can be collected from current and prospective clients through surveys and questionnaires that either appear on your website or are emailed separately to those who you feel will respond.  Provide an incentive to participate,  such as a free half hour consultation.  Also,  clients,  prospects and referral sources can receive from you an invitation to have coffee or lunch,  so that questions about their organizations’ needs and priorities as relates to your services can be asked and answered.

Competitors are another source of primary information.  If you attend a seminar outside of a competitor’s working geography,  he/she will likely be comfortable about sharing information.  Over time,  certain competitors that you encounter on a regular basis at business events may drop their guard just a bit and share a couple of pearls with you.  It is for that reason that establishing good relationships with competitors is a smart idea.  What they share will be limited,  but it could be beneficial.

You may want to begin your research with secondary information.  The easiest DIY market research tactic is to visit the websites of four or five of your closest competitors,  that is other Freelancers who offer similar services to clients that could be yours,  if you play your cards right.  It’s a good idea to monitor the sites over the course of months or even years and make note of any additions or deletions of services.  Changes in the available services of more than one competitor could very well indicate a change in client priorities and should prompt you to start asking some questions of your clients.  Periodic explorations of client’s websites is also a good idea.  A new service could suddenly appear and give you a new opportunity to make money.

Take your secondary research a step further and do an internet search of clients and competitors. You may find articles and press releases that yield useful information.  Periodic checks of competitor’s LinkedIn profiles is also a great idea,  especially if the two of you share a connection.  That will grant you access to a competitor’s page without making that person a connection.  Lots of juicy details about the competitor’s activities may await you.  How can you create a second degree,  strategic connection?

Give your business an important reality check with some good market research.  Obtain information that helps your business identify niche markets or glean more billable hours from current clients.  Use the December Christmas build-up weeks to conduct your investigations and make plans that will set you up for a successful new year.

Thanks for reading,

Kim