Archive for 2012

Do You Have a Plan B … and Plan C?

Do You Have a Plan B … and Plan C?

by Judy Dahl

Small-business owners have to be ready for anything, be it a change in your personal financial situation or an outside trend that blows you out of the water. You have to forecast events as much as possible and have a plan B. Even more important, you should have a business model that gives you the flexibility to adapt when the unexpected happens.

Too many eggs in one basket

To my chagrin, I’ve learned this lesson the hard way—twice—in recent years. I don’t blame myself for not predicting the recession. If top-notch economists didn’t see it coming, how would I?

In 2008 my solo freelance writing/editing business was sailing along. The previous year, my fifth in business, had been my best ever. I was busy and confident, adding new clients, serving existing ones, and planning my growth strategy. Then, boom. Economic Armageddon.

Hmm, let’s see. When businesses take a financial hit, what’s their first step? Cutting discretionary spending, of course. Things like training, travel, and communications. Oh no.

I would have been OK if two clients hadn’t comprised nearly 75% of my business. About halfway through the year, one “revamped” its communications plan to send fewer, more targeted pieces. The other stopped using freelance writers altogether through year-end.

I belatedly started an aggressive search for new clients—marketing, networking, you name it—but most, if not all, businesses were in the same boat. Our family cut back spending—no easy task with a graduating high school senior about to head off for college and a high school junior who played (expensive) hockey.

After exhausting cash reserves, we turned to our credit card (we only have one, thankfully), our home equity line of credit, and even our overdraft protection accounts. That sentence bespeaks another article about the bad financial behavior one finds oneself indulging in when under stress. Why didn’t I call a nonprofit financial counselor and get a real plan in place? But I digress.

Fortunately, by mid-2009 both clients were better positioned financially and using my services again. At home we put in place a strict budget and dug out of the hole. But—lesson learned—don’t concentrate too much of your business with too few clients.

No benefits, no business

By 2011 it was again smooth sailing for my business. Then, without warning, my husband lost his longtime job and its sweet, sweet benefits. I was sure he’d get a new one very shortly, with his statewide and national connections and stellar work record. But that hasn’t been the case. Know anyone who wants to hire a good—strike that, GREAT—entomologist?

Anyway, as time passes I realize my business model doesn’t work long-term if we have to buy our own health insurance, especially with our two young-adult daughters still dependent on us for health care.

So, we pay $800 a month for catastrophic care, go to the doctor only in grave emergencies (knock on wood), and cut spending. Again. (No loading up the credit card, etc. this time, though. Ahem.)

And, I’m looking for a job with benefits. I’m excited about it, really. One reason I went into business was to be available to my daughters, and they live across the country now. The dogs (my interns) and I get a little lonely in the home office. And I miss having coworkers. I figure I can work fulltime and still keep the freelance business going—but only with my favorite clients.

Lesson learned again: Structure your business model so that if something out of your control changes, you have a way to stay solvent. So I had to learn the same lesson twice.

It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, you know?

Judy Dahl is a small-business owner in Madison, Wis., who now has a Plan B, C, and D, and three accomplished canine interns. Also an entomologist husband and two New York daughters.


Build Your Brand on Your Strength

Build Your Brand on Your Strength

Building your business brand goes way beyond marketing and sales tactics. A brand must be an authentic representation of who you are and what you stand for. In order to achieve this, you must identify the characteristics of yourself and your business that embody this, and embrace them to create a long-lasting brand that people remember. Here are some steps help you do just that.

  • Define your strengths. When doing so, don’t just consider the various skills you have, but also think about the different facets of your personality. Are you witty and able to think on your feet? Do you have a knack for showing others they can trust and confide in you? Do you have a strong creative side? Any of these strengths can be used to build a business brand, so it is important that you take the time to define your strengths realistically.
  • Identify what makes you unique. What is something that people always remember about you or the experience you provide to others while doing business with you? This is a very significant question because it can separate you from the competition. If you don’t know where to start, go back to your list of strengths and figure out how you demonstrate those in way that no one else does or can. You are your business, so evaluating yourself in this way is a necessary part of building your brand.
  • Ask yourself how you can make your industry better. What is missing or lacking in your industry? In what ways can you improve it? Even the smallest things can make a big difference. For example, the photo processing industry has certainly changed since the availability of digital cameras and online services such as printing and scrapbooking. However, one photo lab owner noticed the growing trend of customers taking their memory cards and flash drives or even uploading their pictures to large chain pharmacies for printing. This is convenient, but the results are often pictures that come out underexposed or grainy since there is no longer a trained printer at the helm adjusting the prints. His solution? Offer a service where customers can bring in their pictures printed from anywhere else and he will make the necessary improvements. His small part in improving an industry weakness helped build his unique brand.
  • Focus on one thing at a time. Building a brand can be an overwhelming project to undertake, so be sure to focus on only one aspect at a time. For instance, you may begin with increasing your level of engagement with your customers by increasing and engaging more with your social media presence. Once you feel you have built some great momentum, go ahead and tackle something new. This also prevents you from stretching yourself too thin and burning out. If you want to build a brand, you need to commit to it for the long haul.
  • Build on each success. Use each success to bring you to the next level. Using the example above, when you have effectively learned to engage with your customers, you will consequently have increased your following. So now give them a reason to continue talking about you. For example, you might provide an incentive like a special discount for your online community, or create a fun contest where your online customers can win free products. You should also celebrate your accomplishments to reward yourself and keep moving forward.

Taking a good, hard look at who you are and what you want your business to be is a necessary part of building your brand.

How do you build your brand? Please share your ideas below!

How to Make Connections

How to Make Connections

Making connections with others is an essential part of growing your business and continually moving it forward. It is in your best interests to master this skill, which involves much of what you likely do already. Tap into your social/personal side and have fun connecting with others. Many of these connections will help lay the foundation for a more definitive business relationship.

  • Keep the greeting short and natural. Whether you are meeting in person, on the phone, or via social media, make sure you greet him or her with a brief and natural exchange of introductions. Some make the mistake of launching into some kind of sales pitch right from the start, which is almost a surefire way to make sure the other person tunes you out. Greet the person as you would anyone else, keeping it short, to make a solid first impression.
  • Stay humble and approachable. You’re without a doubt a busy person, but adopt an attitude that your door is always open for others to approach you with whatever they may need. Avoid the common mistake of trying to impress others with your business owner status; you may unknowingly come across as conceited instead. A humble person is almost automatically likeable, and you’ll get much more of a response from others when they feel you will welcome their questions and concerns.
  • Focus on the other person, listen, and then reply naturally. Focus the conversation on the other person’s interests rather than your own. People generally respond very well to sincere attention to themselves. Carefully listen to what they are telling you and reply naturally where appropriate. A good idea is to find some common ground to help make your connection. When you do, remember to refocus the dialogue back on the other person. He or she will come away with the impression that you truly listened to them and will remember you in the future.
  • Be yourself. People can see through a fake demeanor, which is an immediate turnoff. Know your strengths and use them to socialize and build relationships with others in your business. It is nearly impossible to keep up appearances that are not based in reality anyway. Embracing who you are, faults and all, will only benefit you in the long run.
  • Find out as much as possible in the given context and time. Evaluate the situation to figure out what you can actually accomplish in your exchange. If you are running into an acquaintance at the supermarket, chances are you don’t have a ton of time to have a long conversation. However, if you are in a scheduled meeting with someone, that might be a time when you can delve a bit deeper. In any situation, find out as much as possible to help you focus your efforts in connecting with the other person.
  • Don’t try to sell anything or yourself. Your ultimate goal may be to acquire a new client or pitch a new product, but while making that initial connection is probably not the time to do so. Without a good sense of who you are and the knowledge that you are interested in them, people won’t want to listen to you go on about what you’re selling. Your main objective is to make that connection now, so you can have a contact later on.

Making connections can be a fun skill to practice, as it allows you to learn about others and yourself. Being yourself and listening to others are the two most important ways to do this.

How do you make connections? Please comment below with your ideas!

Make Every Day Successful

Make Every Day Successful

When you are self-employed, you have the wonderful opportunity to take charge of your professional life every single day. Small business ownership has its challenges, so it is of utmost importance that you set yourself up for success with each new day. Maintaining a positive outlook can really strengthen your resolve and keep you motivated. The following are some suggestions for making every day successful.

  • Start the day with 10 minutes of inspirational thoughts/readings/music. Just as breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it fuels your body for what lies ahead, inspirational thoughts can do the same for your mind. Find your inspiration in any number of places; the most important thing is that you connect with it on some level, whether it be your favorite song, a poem, scriptures, or even a free app on your phone or tablet that provides an inspirational quote each day. Anytime you get stressed out or just need a mental pick-me-up, you can reflect on that morning’s inspiration to help you continue.
  • Remind yourself of the deeper “why” of your work. Why did you decide to run your own business? What is the reason that this particular line of work interests you? How does it fulfill you? You may have answered these questions a long time ago, but reminding yourself of those answers can get you back on track when you may be having a hard time. Success most often begets success, so remember that you’ve already achieved more than many others ever could, and remind yourself why you love what you do.
  • Put on a smile (even if you don’t feel it)…because after awhile, you probably will! If you’ve ever spent time with someone who is often smiling, you’ve probably noticed that you smile as well. When you smile, you exude a positive feeling, and others feel comfortable and happy to be around you. This is true and important not only for your customers, but also for colleagues, staff, family, and friends. Giving others a pleasant feeling is a very important element in the world of business.
  • Keep your conversations positive. When someone asks, “How are you today?” your answer should be a positive one, rather than a play-by-play of everything that’s gone wrong so far. People feel good when others have positive things to say, so choose your words carefully in order to stay upbeat.
  • Do the most important things first. Prioritizing that undoubtedly long list of to-do’s focuses your energy and sets you up for success. There is no way you would finish a lengthy list of tasks in one day, so choose one or a few to do first so that when you complete them, you’ve actually succeeded in doing what you set out to do that day.
  • Maintain a good work/life balance. It’s true that success comes from hard work, but a life without other fulfilling things can really bring you down and negatively affect your business. Make sure you are spending quality time with family, making time for hobbies you enjoy, or even finding some time just for yourself on a regular basis. A proper balance of professional and personal fulfillment is the key to overall success. You are not a one-dimensional person who only needs to work and nothing else. Embrace your well-rounded nature, and give yourself time to do what you love to do outside of work.

Making every day a success requires a positive mindset above all else. You’ll benefit with more confidence and a greater enjoyment for what your do professionally.

How do you make every day successful? Please share with us in the comments section!

DSEF & CBBB: Always Getting Better: Applying Sports Theory to Business

DSEF & CBBB: Always Getting Better: Applying Sports Theory to Business

Continuous Improvement and the 2012 Olympics

Top Olympic athletes and their trainers achieve continuous improvement with constant examination and measurement. The proof of their success can be measured in seconds, inches, pounds, or, in the case of the 2012 Olympics, in personal improvements and world records:  44 new world records, 117 new Olympic records. In business, teams can adopt a similar philosophy in order to identify and confront key issues.

Kaizen vs. TQM

Kaizen is a Japanese word that translates to “continuous improvement” in English. The Kaizen philosophy points to a disciplined process of systematic exploration, controlled experimentation, and adopting new procedures.

The Kaizen philosophy is only the Japanese version of what business professionals the world over call Total Quality Management (TQM).

TQM incorporates continuous improvement though increasing quality and performance in order to meet (or hopefully exceed) the customer’s expectations. This is done by integrating key functions and processes throughout the business and examining overall quality measures used by the company.

How is this done? Lots and LOTS of data. Big Data.

BIG Data

Today’s Olympic athletes are “big data,” in that every facet of their health, diet, and performance are measured to the smallest increment.  They are the most quantified athletes in history; the so-called quantified self.

In business, recent advances in technology provide easier access to more robust data and different kinds of digital dashboard software available. You can measure your company’s health and performance too: it simply comes down to choosing the right software in order to measure your data.

The more data you have about your company, the more you can drive a culture for continuous improvement. The more you measure your business processes, the more you learn about how the customer is affected by each process.

Bring it on Home utilizes a number of different techniques for managing and improving our customers’ experience such as call center software, emails, and live chat.  Each one can be measured in terms of success and overall customer satisfaction.

Measuring our customer’s satisfaction with surveys provides customer-specific feedback and allows us to take into account specific issues that matter most to the customer and improve them to provide the best possible experience. Just like a professional athlete, we measure our success and then strive for perfection.

Record-breaking 2012 Olympics

Over the course of time, we can see that athletes who compete in the Olympics are getting better, stronger, and faster than their previous counterparts. For example,Usain Bolt’s incredible 100m world record breaking time was worlds away from any gold medal winner’s time back in the early 1900s.  In fact, today the top U.S. sprinter in the 8 year old age group, would handily beat the gold medal winner from the early 1900s’.  Amazing.

The 2012 Olympic competitors broke 44 world records and 117 Olympic recordsthroughout the games. This would not have been possible without a philosophy of continuous improvement. Every four years, records are broken and new ones are set, which means, Olympic athletes are only getting better and better.

To continuously improve your business, you must think like an Olympic athlete in terms of getting better.  Nothing is more indicative of ways to improve then measuring your own performance.

Improving Your Outlook Will Improve Your Business

Improving Your Outlook Will Improve Your Business

Have you ever imagined that something in your situation is different? Perhaps while waiting outside for the train in single digit temperatures, you hold your coffee cup tight and visualize yourself on the platform in the middle of summer with the sun shining in a cloudless sky. For those few seconds or minutes, you’ve distracted your brain from the biting cold and survived your wait a bit longer.

This same concept can benefit your business. Here are some suggestions for improving your outlook in order to improve your business.

  • Think of everything as a gift.  This includes events you host or attend and experiences you have in your business. Instead of approaching it like a job, go into it like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This change in mindset will allow you to get the most out of the situation and maximize your enjoyment. For example, you’re about to meet with a potential client. Don’t think of it as another sales call; do think of it as a chance to get to know someone new, to talk about why you love your job, and to learn something from another person that you’ll eventually take with you to use in the future. You’ll find yourself feeling more cheerful and more grateful about your professional life. This positivity will rub off on those around you for a more fulfilling and successful business.
  • Do things that make people smile. Tap into your desire to please others and your inner sense of humor. Even the smallest things that can make someone smile can make you feel good as well. Compliment your partner’s new hair cut, or leave some snacks and a handwritten note of appreciation for your custodial staff. When you take even a little bit of time to show others you care or are thinking of them, your attitude improves and you become motivated to continue – not to mention that it makes others appreciate you as well. These positive effects on your business will be demonstrated in staff morale, increased drive to succeed, and happier customers.
  • Write down 3 positive things every day. Post your list somewhere in plain view, like on the refrigerator, and revisit it often. No matter what obstacles you face throughout your day, focusing on the positive is an effective way to get yourself through. Sometimes just the reminder that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff can be enough to re-energize yourself and take on the day with determination and pride.
  • Consider everyone you meet a potential friend. Think of some of the important people in your life; how did you meet them? There’s no doubt a funny story about how you met your best friend or how you came to hire your valued assistant. You never know when that next experience is right around the corner. No, you won’t become friends with everyone you meet in the true sense of the word. However, by considering the possibility, you will always put 100% into every interaction with clients, prospects, and staff. Those you meet will recognize and appreciate your attitude that you are truly glad to meet them. From there, relationships can be built, which are the backbone of your business.

In what ways does your improved attitude benefit your business? Please share your comments below!

What You Need to Know if You’re New to Sales

What You Need to Know if You’re New to Sales

A career in sales can be a rewarding one. It is an opportunity to harness your enthusiasm and excitement for a great product line, and embrace all that lies ahead. If you’re new to selling, however, there are some basics you’ll need to master in order to get in the right mindset and reach your professional goals. Read on for some tips on how to get started.

  • Ask questions to quickly find out what the problem is and/or what the customer needs. The product or service you’re selling is secondary. No one wants to feel like they’re being “sold to.” Your objective should be to find out what problem the customer has that needs solving. Do this right away, and as soon as you identify it, quickly explain the solution that your product provides. Your customers will be more open to what you have to say once they realize that they could benefit from what you’re selling.
  • Use language that is simple to understand. Don’t make the mistake of using business jargon or uncommon words in hopes of impressing the customer. Speak to them in a natural, conversational tone just as you would a friend. Remember that you’re building a relationship, so choose your words carefully and make a connection with the customer. Perhaps you both follow the same NFL team, or maybe you both have a child the same age. Use easy-to-understand language when describing your product just as you would while talking about the Broncos or your 2-year-old.
  • Create and describe a picture for the customer. Tapping into your customer’s imagination can be a very effective way to demonstrate his or her need for your product or service. For example, you’ve identified that the customer’s problem that needs solving is that the family dog constantly sheds year-round. Encourage your customer to visualize the dog hair on the couch that’s nearly impossible to vacuum, the daily morning ritual of de-linting his suits before leaving for work, and the feeling that the house is never truly clean because of dog hair dust bunnies that always appear even after the floor has just been swept. Now, when you propose your solution of more consistent grooming and a complementary de-shedding tool, you can create a different picture of a hair-free couch, clean suits, and shiny wood floors. By creating pictures, you’ve helped the customer compare their lives with the problem to what their lives could be with the solution you offer.
  • Ask more questions and listen carefully to their answers. This is especially true when you’re faced with objections or hesitation from the customer. Ask specific questions that get to the heart of the skepticism and truly listen to the answers. Some salespeople call this “getting to the no.” Instead of being afraid to hear the word “no,” get right to it so you can begin to address the customer’s concerns and overcome objections. Careful listening will help you focus your discussion to the customer’s specific needs.
  • Think of yourself as a guide. As a guide, it’s your job to lead the customer to the solution. Help him or her navigate the roadblocks such as price points, time commitments, or value. Don’t get your prospect lost by losing your focus and going off on tangents about irrelevant topics. Address each concern and demonstrate the effectiveness of your proposed solution. Putting yourself in the role of guide will give you a more personable approach to sales.

The art of selling is one that is developed over time. The more experience you gather, the more confident and capable you will become.

What else do you think should be added to our list? Please share your ideas below!

Get the Most Out of Your Networking

Get the Most Out of Your Networking

Networking is a valuable tool for small business owners. Its benefits can have far-reaching effects on your business such as new clients, opportunities for growth, and professional development. Your time is precious, so you’ll want to make the most out of any networking you do by being prepared and having set goals in mind. Follow the suggestions below to get started.

  • Get background information on people you’ll be meeting and events you’ll be attending. Perhaps you’ve registered for an industry convention; plan ahead by creating a schedule of seminars you’d like to attend and/or vendors you’d like to meet. If one of those events is a Q&A session with a panel of experts, for example, research those members of the panel so you can ask them specific questions and take advantage of their individual experiences. If there’s a Twitter hashtag set up for the event, take a look at the profiles of the people using that hashtag leading up to the event. Make note of any people you’d like to connect with in person, and begin interacting online ahead of time, so you’re familiar with each other at the event, and look forward to meeting each other in person.
  • Use scripting that is natural and enhances bonding. Informal networking situations call for you to think on your feet more often than not. This can be done more easily when you have a foundation for the message you want to send to others. Create a script ahead of time, allowing for many variations to fit different situations, and practice saying the words in a natural, conversational tone. Consider role-playing with a colleague while recording the exchange to get an idea of how you sound to others. Make sure your script includes something positive and memorable, like a poignant story about why you started your business or how you’ve really connected with your community through your business. You should definitely have an idea of what you’ll say, but speak from the heart and your sincerity will shine through.
  • Listen to others in order to find ways to make introductions and help others with their needs. Listening is a large part of successful networking. Most people love to talk about themselves, so use that opportunity to learn who they are, what they want/need, and how you can help. Ask personalized questions. For example, in an informal gathering, a fellow workshop attendee mentions that he wants to find a souvenir for his young daughter while visiting the area. Ask him how old his daughter is and share some of your favorite local shops where he might find what he’s looking for. Now that you’ve broken the ice, continue with a conversation and you may have just acquired a new contact. Always have your ears open for networking opportunities.
  • Follow up and keep in touch regularly. Acquiring new contacts is half the battle, but keeping them is the other half. Implement time in your schedule dedicated to following up with your contacts. Depending on the situation, a brief email might suffice, but other relationships may benefit from a handwritten note or phone call. Keep a log of whom you contacted and when, and make a note in your calendar of when to follow up with them again. A system of regular correspondence will ensure that you never lose touch with your contacts.

You can have successful networking experiences with some research, planning, and commitment. Maximizing the time you spend networking will help you grow your business and reach your professional goals.

Do you have something else to add to our list? Please comment below with your ideas!

DSEF & CBBB: New iPhone App May Help Us Say Goodbye to Our Wallets

DSEF & CBBB: New iPhone App May Help Us Say Goodbye to Our Wallets

The tech industry is buzzing about a new iPhone app that may one day be able to function as our virtual wallet.  The app is called Passbook, and is currently being used as a central hub for all of consumers’ digital coupons, tickets, and loyalty cards.

Over the past few years, companies like Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and Google have been working hard for widespread mainstream adoption of mobile payments, but the technology has not yet caught on.  Many tech analysts like Shaw Wu, believe that Passbook will be Apple’s vehicle for mobile payment once it catches on and becomes mainstream.

According to Gartner research, the mobile payments industry will grow to over $600 billion by 2016, so it may not be long until the only thing we will need when making a purchase will be the swipe of our phone.

To read the full article, visit

DSEF and the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) foster honest and responsive relationships between businesses and consumers—instilling consumer confidence and advancing a trustworthy marketplace for all.

About the Better Business Bureaus
As the leader in advancing marketplace trust, Better Business Bureau is an unbiased non-profit organization that sets and upholds high standards for fair and honest business behavior. Every year, more than 87 million consumers rely on BBB Business Reviews® and BBB Wise Giving Reports® to help them find trustworthy businesses and charities across North America. Visit for more information.

Four Ideas to Innovate

Four Ideas to Innovate

Every once in awhile, it’s a good idea to incorporate fresh, new elements into your business. Finding ways to inject something new into your business is definitely within your reach. Tapping into your own creativity as well as reaching out to available resources are great ways to start. Consider the following four ideas to bring innovation to your business.

  1. Review client feedback on a regular basis. Sometimes, the best way to generate new ideas is to acquire a different perspective. Pursuing customer feedback allows you to look at your business through their eyes. For example, you may have an online payment system that works well on your end, but customers find it difficult to use if they just want to browse products instead of ordering something specific. Reaching out to your clients for honest feedback and taking the time to review it will help you figure out where to begin implementing new ideas.
  2. Incorporate competitors’ ideas. Who says you have to reinvent the wheel? Research your competitors and tweak their ideas to fit your own business. Of course, you want to be careful not to infringe on any copyrights or trademarks, but their logistical ideas and even marketing strategies can help you breathe some fresh air into your own business. Perhaps the competing stationary shop across town has begun offering their customers the opportunity to receive texts when their orders are ready or when certain products debut or go on sale. If you find that a good amount of their clients are taking advantage of that convenience, then it could be time for you to incorporate that as well. Staying on top of what your competitors are doing is a good idea anyway, especially to prevent customers from leaving you for them.
  3. Continually brainstorm to improve upon existing ideas. Reflect upon your own ideas. Ask yourself what works really well and what could use improvement. Don’t be afraid of some trial and error when looking to improve certain areas of your business. If something isn’t working as well as you had hoped, scrap it and try a different approach. You might, for instance, experiment with different layouts of your retail area, revisit your training process for new employees, or overhaul your professional development events for your colleagues. When you make it a habit to constantly pursue improvement, your business will always benefit.
  4. Look to other industries for new ideas. Don’t just limit yourself to what others in your field are doing; other industries or even bigger businesses can be wonderful resources for generating new ideas. If that clothing store nearby holds a monthly customer appreciation event that attracts a large amount of new prospects, begin to implement a similar idea for your restaurant, salon, or gift shop. Businesses across all industries have many common goals, so think outside the box by paying attention to what other industries do to achieve success.

Inspiration for new ideas can come from a variety of places. The key is knowing where to look and not limiting yourself to the usual and the comfortable. Take the initiative to acquire feedback, research competitors and other industries, and reflect on your own ideas.

How do you find ideas to innovate your business? Please share them with us in the comments section below!