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A Serial Entrepreneur Becomes A Millionaire From An Accidental Startup

Monis Rahman, serial entrepreneur, accidentally launched Rozee.pk when he needed to find more programmers for his startup.

Getting A Mentor

I had a strategy session with a business start-up owner a few months ago. She was six months into her start-up and needed some ideas during her development stage.

Simple Steps To Creating Your First Website

When you make that decision to start a business, you immediately become a multi-tasking maniac. Let's face it, you will have a lot of work on your hands.

Why 'Core Competency' Is Important To A Startup

Well, I like the answer that Norm Brodsky gives in his book, The Knack: "It was the one thing we had that our competitors couldn't offer, and by the time they caught up, we had a foothold in the market and were known for providing that service."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Economic Package & Small Business

Today I spent some time researching the Economic Recovery Package or Stimulus Package as we know it. Thanks to our government, with this bill, business owners were given a few chances to recuperate in this recession.

However, because the final decisions sometimes rest with different entities, we are beginning to see minor problems arise.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you remember that I blogged about the ARC loan earlier. To remind you, the ARC loan is the $35,000 loan created for struggling small businesses by the government in partnership with the Small Business Administration. With this loan, the Small Business Administration guarantees the loan 100%, the business owner does not have to pay on the loan until a year after receiving, and the small business owner gets help with credit card debt, payroll, or whatever need taking precedence at the moment.

Problem One: "The Bank." The loan has to be approved through the banks and banks are still hesitant. Bankers are still awaiting "banking guidelines" and upper-level skepticism is being filtered down. Banks think, "a program where we don't get paid for a year?!" "And if a business needs this money in the first place, they must be doing something wrong to begin with. Is this who we want to lend to?" They forget that some legitimate small businesses may need cash flow for a pressing need, may not want to use the cash they have set aside to pay bills, may not be in the financial frame to pay back any cash borrowed in less than a year, so a loan with no repayment until after a year could be the tool they were awaiting to keep their business afloat.

To most banks however, this seems ludicrous. After all, banks are in the business of making money first, then perhaps finding a compromise to helping struggling small businesses.

The ARC loan however is not the only Recovery Act problem. Stimulus money has now been released to various states. Among other things, the money stems to help create jobs, enhance the green movement, help small businesses, train people for more skilled employment, help the disabled, aid veterans, and help to educate and train youth.

Problem Two: states have the ability to control the placement of these funds. So each state now establishes their criteria and if you're in a conservative state....well, the criteria is most likely stringent.

For instance, some states are targeting entities that have already been state-funded. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, the one downside is that you have the same "old" programs and methods and "change" entities may not stand a chance in receiving funding.

Also, funds are being directed to non-profit institutions or educational institutions. So a for-profit green consulting group who may want to enhance their programs to educate more people and host workshops for companies and may think that Stimulus aid could be a way to do this, will learn that they are not eligible for this money.

While you savor this thought, think that one of the number one reasons for small business failure is lack of capital. So with the credit markets being tight for small businesses, plus the Stimulus package being tightened for some small businesses....Well, I believe you get the point. If tools are not in place to help this group, we may be repeating a similar cycle.

My advice to small businesses; particularly if you are a new one, is to research the programs thoroughly and find how you can place your business to qualify.

Here are three tips to help you:
  1. Know industry-definition. For example, a grant requirement could state, "business must be in the High-Growth & Emerging Industry Sector." Make sure that you understand where your particular business falls.
  2. Be grant-ready. You can't expect to get a loan when you have nothing in place. Quite frankly, you should not see a grant as a tool to own a business, rather it should be a tool to help you advance your business. Most of the Stimulus-focused money gives preference to activities that can be started and completed quickly. So make sure your non-profit is 501c3 ready, you have employees or contractors on stand-by, you have a business plan and structure, and you look grant-worthy.
  3. Educate yourself. You must be aware of the requirements and be ready to show how you meet those requirements. Research the proposal formatting and be ready to submit your Request for Proposal (RFP) within the allotted time. Make sure you follow all directions and are detailed enough to show why you deserve the award.
I've also listed three websites to help you:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tips for the Retail Startup; 7 Ways to Drive Traffic to your Store

If you own a retail store that is less than 3 years old, one of the questions you probably ask yourself is, "how can I get customers for my store?" Here are 7 Tips that you may find helpful as you seek to acquire new customers and get traffic to your store:

  1. Seek out guest speakers, business seminars or demonstrations for your store. If you own a bakery, you may want to demonstrate some form of baking or dough-related demonstration. People are generally fascinated by this. Or a used office furniture store owner could ask an interior designer to speak at his/her store. If you own a coffee or tea shop, business professionals may be drawn to your shop if you offer coffee or tea tasting and talk about your space available for events; this way, they get to see the space in its event setup mode.
  2. Hold a private sale. Customers love this and feel appreciated by it. Invite your best customers to a private sale, offer special discounts, and give them an opportunity to meet your other customers. They will appreciate the exclusivity and will appreciate you more.
  3. Have a raffle or drawing. This is a very essential tool in helping you expand your mailing list. Place a fishbowl in clear sight with the gift highlighted by it. Make sure that this is an enticing gift. Ask that people leave business cards or enter their contact information on a list that you keep private. Tell them that they will have a chance at winning this priceless gift. You will be amazed at how your database can grow by holding a drawing often.
  4. Don't forget to Mail or E-Mail. Customers and potential customers are reminded of your business and what you do when they get regular updates from you. Since mailing takes some time to build awareness, you want to do it often. Look for something exciting to mail. For instance, if you own a children's clothing store, send out postcards with cute kids dressed in your outfits. This will draw any parent's attention and they may make a mental note of your store. E-mail newsletters are another way to keep in touch with clients. Two popular forums that provide these email newsletters tools are Constant Contact and AWeber.
  5. Start a referral program. Ask your best customers to give you names and contact information of friends and colleagues who they think would be good customers. Then reward your referring customers with a discount or gift card. Send the referrals a promotional offer they can't refuse and get ready to give them the royal treatment when they enter your store with the offer. Sometimes a great way to do this is also by having stamped-ready-to-mail postcards handy so that all you would have to do is ask your customer while they're in the store, to just write the name and address of the referral on the postcard.
  6. Host parties or regular events. There's a local store close to me that I go to regularly simply because they're always hosting fun events. If you own a store, events or parties are a great way to drive traffic to your store. For instance, a shoe store may choose to have a drink-and-shop mixer. Guess what? If I were invited to this event, I will be having a girlfriend tag along. By hosting parties or events, you double the amount of guests you would have at your store and you increase your chances for potential customers.
  7. Remind customers that you exist and care about them. Keep a customer database to remind yourself of dates customers visited or events they attended. Call your customers once in a while when you haven't seen them; it creates an emotional bond in that customer's mind that is directed to your store. For instance, Lucy may want to call her customer Mary who attended her last chef demonstration to "see how you're doing since we haven't seen you at the store lately" and to remind her that the next demonstration would be in a week. Or she may send her an invitation that states, "glad you attended our last event, hope to see you at the upcoming event..." Calling customers personally or sending them non-generic mailings makes them believe that you care about them and reminds them that you still have a thriving business.

Cheryl Isaac is a business start-up strategist to service businesses going online. She contributes to Forbes here and blogs about Making Business Personal here.  

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Have you talked to your clients lately? Customer Relationship Management

Whether you are a small business with lots of cash flow to start, or a small business who lacks funding, having a client base with no client management is silly. Think about it: wouldn't you want your clients to feel loved and appreciated? How can they feel this way if you've dropped them off in a stack of paperwork or file after completing their project? Or if they have to call and remind you about to-dos or deadlines you discussed? You need a system to help you manage your customers.

Remember the guy who cut your hair last year in his small but clean barbershop? You actually liked his work a little, but where is he now? You had a great time while he cut your hair, you chatted about football and your new son on the way. You thought he was a decent guy...but what happened? Did he forget about you?

Or maybe you've thought about the lady who owns the cafe down the street from your house. You've visited her coffee shop a few times and lately, you haven't been in for about four months. Didn't she miss you? After all, you were there at least once a week....

Here's the answer: the owners of those businesses never initiated follow-up with you. They probably didn't ask for an email, an address, a phone number, asked you to sign up for a contest or invitation to events. And if they did, they probably didn't keep up with you. You were forgotten. How does that make you feel? I know, you feel insignificant.

Get a client management system! It's that simple. There is no excuse. Look for one that could fit your budget and pay for it. Quit being cheap! Your customers are your diamonds and should be treated as such.

What is a client management system? Well in simple terms: it is a way to get rid of loose paperwork. It is a method that helps you arrange your clients and their information into one database, web-oriented, easy-to-locate place for you, an assistant or virtual assistant, a business partner or employee to access together from different places and computers.

Why is it important?
  • It gives you some sense of automation. You can automatically bill clients, or send emails at various dates (i.e. we haven't seen you in 3 months, here's a reminder that it's time for your treatment).
  • It gives you control. You can control cash flow by controlling customer count. Imagine that.
  • It Decreases workload and Increases Productivity. Your client management system acts like an automated assistant for you. You may call a potential client to schedule a meeting. Maybe the client prefers to meet at a little date. A simple click of your mouse can have your automated assistant reminding you on that date to follow-up with that client. Can you imagine how much time searching through files and sticky notes will take in comparison?
  • It helps with conversion. You now can turn prospects into clients by following up with them and making them feel special. Or, you can have current clients buy different products or types of services. Sounds good right?
Well before you go looking at Customer Management database systems, here are some things to consider in your search:
  • Usability. How easy is it to manage? This will vary for most. There are tech savvy people who may have higher expectations. If you're like me, you want something easy and simple that already has an interface that seems user friendly. Go for what works for you and your business.
  • Business objectives. Are you using this system mostly to store information or to manage customers? Your answer to this question could help you choose the right Customer relationship management system (CRM).
  • Employees or none? Most of these databases have limits on the amount of users you can have so this should be a question you ask yourself before shopping CRM systems.
How does it work? Simple: you sign online everyday, you see all of your customers listed and the to-do's you have assigned for them. You can easily click to get a contact phone number or email to contact them.

One system I've used before is called SalesForce. For a small yearly price, I would log in to a secure platform everyday and send my clients reminders, see a list of tasks, view amount in dollars coming in every week, take automated payments, send emails, etc. Salesforce goes up to $65/month and has prices around $20/month (depending on your business and its needs)

I've called prospective clients 4 months after we talked and shocked them. They would ask, "What? You remembered me?" Yes I did. You know why? It was because I felt my clients were important enough to invest in a system/accountability partner.

How do you feel about your clients?

Here are a couple of platforms and client management software systems I came across:
  1. CenterBase. Starting from $39.95 a month, they offer a system to keep your client information in one place, capture all your emails sent through outlook and place them in your client's history, and they even have an option for you to host on your own server. Good news: there's a free Trial Version Download, try it and see if it works for you.
  2. Essential PIM. Starting from $39.95 a month, You can organize your schedule, contacts, mail, to-do, notes, etc in one location. You can also synchronize with Outlook, Palm, IPOD, Google calendar and any Windows-based device.
  3. Relenta. Starts at $25/month and gives you shared email, contacts and a way to manage tasks. Good news: they also have a 14-day Free Trial.
  4. Microsoft Office Live. You can get a FREE online workspace, way to share emails and documents on clients, collaborate on documents with your essential partners or employees, and a free website. And of course, the workspace works with any Microsoft document.
There are tons of different softwares and systems that work similar to these. I suggest you try finding the one that is the best fit for your small business needs.

About the Author: Cheryl Isaac is the writer of this blog and a Startup Business Consultant & Owner of Isaac Business Services, an agency that offers startup concierge & business planning services for small businesses

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How to let your Startup Business act like a Grownup

Trying to grow your startup business can be a daunting task. No one believes in you, yet everyone expects you to do a great job. At the end of the day, the "ball is in your court." Why did you really start this business? Where did you see it going? How do you ensure that it gets there?

If you can ask yourself these three questions on a daily basis, you will have started to transform your vision and dream into a formal business model and structure.

Learn from the founder of IBM. Once a startup, he learned to transform his business into this recognizable brand and model by following a few concepts.

When Tom Watson, the Founder of IBM, was asked about the attributable factor to the success of IBM, it is said that he replied,
IBM is what it is for three reasons:
  1. The first is that at the very beginning, I had a clear picture of what the company would look like when it was finally done. You might say I had a model in mind of what it would look like when the dream-my vision, was in place.
  2. The second reason was that once I had that picture, I then asked myself how a company which looked like that would have to act. I then created a picture of how IBM would act when it was finally done.
  3. The third reason IBM had been successful was that once I had a picture of how IBM would look when the dream was in place and how such a company would have to act, I then realized that unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there. In other words I realized that for IBM to become a great company it would have to act like a great company long before it ever became one...each day we attempted to model the company after that template. At the end of each day, we asked ourselves how well we did, discovered the disparity between where we were and where we had committed ourselves to be, and at the start of the following day, set out to make the difference. Every day at IBM we were devoted to business development, not doing business.
Are you looking at disparities in your business and trying to change? Are you constantly thinking development?

Startup advice: Let your business "act like a great company long before it becomes one."
Tip: You have to keep the "real reason" you started your business in the back of your mind daily. There will be opportunities that present themselves; making it easy to get sidetracked. Take this startup lesson from IBM: Remember who you are in business and the clients you serve, and your startup business will grow up to advance your vision.

Cheryl Isaac is a business start-up strategist to service businesses going online. She contributes to Forbes here and blogs about Making Business Personal here.  

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Follow Your Dreams: There's Never the Right Time to Start a Business

Years ago I was given a book to read. In this book was a chart. On this chart, a simple saying that read; "There are those who travel and there are those who are going somewhere. They're different, yet the same. Successful people have this over their rivals--they know where they're going." I tore out this chart from the book and I've carried it from office to office; when I worked in corporate America.

Today, I framed it and hung it on the wall of my very own office. The office where I have employees and will build the legacy for my very own business. See, I've always loved this saying because I've always been a planner, thinker and risk taker. When I worked for a company, I always knew where I wanted to end up.

I've always known that I wanted to be able to help make a difference in people's lives. I've always wanted to build relationships with people through personalized interactions. So it is probably no surprise that my business centers around these two passions: meeting people and planning. Today I am a business planner who develops new relationships with different people on a weekly basis.

I say this to say that when it comes to starting a business, there is never the "right time." Timing stems from an individual's place in life and his/her circumstance. If anyone tells you that "you're not ready" run! No one can gauge whether another is "ready" for business. The only thing that can be ascertained is whether you have planned properly--and this you can seek help with.

Meet Jeffrey Henderson. He is now a leading executive chef, has authored a bestselling book, and has sold his rights to a film to Will Smith's production company. Before that, he served ten years in prison for selling drugs. While serving on kitchen duty, he learned that he had a passion for cooking. Upon leaving prison, he decided to pursue his dream and worked his way up from dishwasher in an upscale restaurant, to line cook. He later landed the position of Executive Chef at Las Vegas' exclusive Cafe Bellagio.

In case you're not aware, an Executive Chef takes on the dual responsibility of making sure the meals are prepared tastefully plus overseeing an entire staff. Usually, they're responsible to come up with an initial menu; which for a restaurant, becomes the deciding factor for customers.

All of this is/was achieved by an ex-felon. A guy who had dreams and followed them. Read more about his story in My Journey from the Streets to the Stove.

How do you follow your dreams?
  • Step 1: Be confident in your abilities. If you have a desire to start a business, chances are you are better at something than the average person. If so, stand your ground and don't waiver because someone else thinks you're unqualified. Stay true to your talents.
  • Step 2: Learn about your craft: Education is key and comes through different forms. Read a lot of books on your subject. Talk to people in your industry. Learn from your industry leaders. Attend seminars and events. Take advantage of the internet.
  • Step 3: Stay true to your business idea. If you've started your business to fulfill a need or alleviate a pain, you've probably experienced that pain yourself. If so, why get distracted by "quick schemes?" Remember why you started and stay true to your vision. Eventually, others will follow.

About the Author: Cheryl Isaac is the writer of this blog and a Startup Business Consultant & Owner of Isaac Business Services, an agency that offers startup concierge & business planning services for small businesses (http://www.isaacbusinessservices.com/)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The SBA's New "ARC" Loan

I've been asked about this program a lot lately, so I thought I'd blog about it. Thanks to the Obama administration, the Small Business Administration (SBA) is now offering a brand new deferred payment loan for small businesses struggling to keep their doors open. The loan program, expected to last through September 30, 2010 and called the ARC loan (America's Recovery Capital) works like this:

  • A viable business that needs temporary financial assistance for working capital or employees gets $35,000
  • The business does not have to pay on the loan's principal for a WHOLE year, while the SBA makes the business' interest payment to the bank on its behalf
  • The loan is guaranteed 100% by the SBA (this is huge because they now guarantee 90%)
  • The loan is interest free
  • There are no SBA fees
  • Repayment period is five years
  • Proceeds can be used to pay on mortgage, unsecured lines of credit, credit card debt (as long as the debt was used for business purposes).
The catch? Well no one knows for sure who qualifies yet. A viable business could mean the SBA has some guidelines of its own. I will keep updated with my bankers regarding business criteria and will keep you updated. Stay tuned... To get more information, visit the Small Business Administration's 2009 Recovery Act.

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