Tag Archive for 'Small Business'

5 year-end steps to take while you’re closing out this year

Fourteen hundred and forty - the number of minutes in a day.

Since we can make more money, arguably the greatest challenge of any small business owner is balancing the demands of the forces that compete for those minutes.

“What is the best use of my time right now?” is the constant management question on Main Street. And in no other part of the year are we more time-management challenged than in December, when we’re faced with allocating time to two very powerful management imperatives: The tactical focus on closing out the sales year as strongly as possible, while simultaneously taking strategic steps to set the business up for a fast and clean start on January 1.

In his book, Blue Highways, William “Least Heat Moon” Trogden said his Osage Indian grandfather once told him, “Some things don’t have to be remembered, they remember themselves.” It’s a natural law that the year-end sales push doesn’t have to be remembered, it remembers itself. But as we come to the two-minute drill in the last quarter of the marketplace game our business plays all year, committing precious time and energy to preparing for the future requires the discipline to remember it ourselves.

There are many areas to focus on this month to help you start the New Year clean and fast.  Here are five to get you started.

1. Throw stuff away

Even if you’re not a pack rat like me, you’ve accumulated stuff you don’t use anymore.  For example, one of the markers of a 21st century office is the digital graveyard. Unused or broken computers, monitors, etc., may have some value, so call a tech recycler and convert it into cash. If you can’t sell it, give it away or throw it away, because it’s in your way.

2. Empower producers - cut the dead wood

Year-end is also a great time to take stock of employees who’ve demonstrated leadership and engagement. Recognizing the performance of those individuals will motivate them to a fast start in the New Year.

The only thing worse than firing someone is letting an unproductive employee hold your team’s performance hostage for another year. A byproduct of identifying those who perform is it also shines a light on those who don’t. You owe productive people the most effective organization possible, which means you have to let the unproductive pursue their careers elsewhere.

3. Classify customers

Classify customers by gross profit into four groups, from the most profitable As to the least profitable Ds. Worship the As, cater to the Bs, encourage the Cs and teach the Ds about self-service. When the cost of a customer’s expectations encroaches on your profit margin too much, allow them to join your unproductive employees - elsewhere.

4. Purge inventory

As with customers, take a new look at your products and inventory by identifying the most profitable As to the least profitable Ds. Stock all the As, a few of the Bs and maybe a couple of Cs. But never let a D spend one night under your roof unless it’s paid for. Remember, profitable inventory management means just-in-time, not just-in-case. And write off obsolete and damaged inventory. Take the hit now.

5. A/R reality

Take another hit by writing off uncollectable accounts receivables now, so you can start January with a clean list. A/R write-offs are tax deductions this year, and if you wind up collecting them next year, it’s gravy. The only thing more troubling to a banker than uncollected A/R is a customer who doesn’t have the discipline to deliver a clean balance sheet.

Each New Year deserves to have the maximum opportunity to be successful, so don’t saddle it with obsolescence, waste and bad decisions. By taking these steps - and others from your own list - you’ll prove to yourself, your team you’re your banker that you have the discipline to make the critical decisions for which successful managers are known.

Write this on a rock … Have the discipline to set up your New Year for a clean and fast start.

The wonderful world of small business niches

One of the things Sears Roebuck is famous for is their Craftsmen tools, especially their mechanical socket wrenches. Once, while buying one of these, I was confronted with the options of “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” a strategy for which Sears is also famous. Asking about the difference, I was told that the Best model had more notches, or teeth, inside the mechanism, allowing for finer adjustments when tightening a bolt or nut.

For the past 30 years, the marketplace has increasingly become like that “Best” socket wrench: every year, it acquires more notches, except in the marketplace, notches are called niches (I prefer “nitch,” but some say “neesh” – tomato, tomahto). And just as more notches in a mechanical wrench allow for finer adjustments, niches create finer and more elegant ways to serve customers, which they like – a lot.

Webster (and Wikipedia) defines a niche as, “a place or position perfectly suited for the person or thing in it.” If ever a concept was perfectly suited for something, it is the niche and small business. Indeed, as one small business owner creates a new niche, another is creating a niche within a niche. It’s a beautiful thing.

Rebecca Boenigk is the president of Neutral Posture, Inc., a Texas company she and her mother founded in 1989. This small business manufactures REALLY comfortable and ergonomically correct office chairs. As a guest on my radio program, she told me they attribute their success to filling a niche: Their chairs aren’t for everyone, just those who are willing to pay a little more for a chair that promotes the best posture at work. Many small business fortunes have been made with the Neutral Posture model of being the best-in-niche, rather than trying to conquer the world.

The mother of niches is what Adam Smith called “the division of labor,” which today often manifests as outsourcing. Outsourcing is when individuals and businesses spend more time focusing on their core competencies and contract for the other stuff. For example, there are more professional lawn businesses today because folks are increasingly realizing they can earn more by sticking to their professional knitting, than it costs to hire their grass cut.

And across the marketplace, it’s become an article of faith that the best way to stay on track is by outsourcing non-core tasks to a contractor – often operating in a niche – whose core competency is that task. I’ve long said that the best thing that ever happened to small business – after the personal computer – is outsourcing, because it manufactures niches, which are pretty much the domain of small business.

As niches have increased in number, so have entrepreneurial opportunities, resulting in the most dramatic expansion of the small business sector in history. It’s difficult to say which one is the egg and which is the chicken: Have entrepreneurs taken advantage of niche opportunities presented to them, or have they carved out niches while pushing the envelope of an industry? The answer is not either/or, it’s both/and.

In the future, there won’t be more mass marketing, mass media or mass distribution, but there will be more niches – lots of new niches. Even niches of niches. And that’s good news, because more niches means a healthier small business sector, which I happen to believe is good for the world.

Write this on a rock … Most small businesses will find more success by creating and serving niches.

Can you make teleworking work for you?

Here’s a scenario that every small business owner fears: A key employee resigns because he or she cannot continue to come to your place of business to work for reasons out of their control, such as an illness or a family issue. Is there another answer besides accepting the resignation?

With the exciting recruiting resources available today, you might discover that the best prospect for a job opening you have lives in another state, or even another country. What if they don’t want to move? What’s your next move?

One word answers both questions: Teleworking.

New technology and evolving management paradigms make stories like these have happy and productive endings through teleworking.

A marker of the 21st century workplace, teleworking is where an employee works off-site full or part-time (aka tele-commuting), most often from home. But in order for such an arrangement to be successful, two things must happen:

First the easy part: You must have the necessary technology and tools, which you will have to provide your teleworker.

  • Computer capability and Internet connection are the minimum.
  • Your teleworker will need the right set up, like office furniture, etc., to make their off-site working environment as productive as possible. And it’s not unreasonable to ask to see how the space is organized.

Now the hard part: Can you handle such a management relationship? Consider these four ground rules to execute a teleworking relationship.

  • Find out if, and what work can realistically be done off-site.
  • Determine how to coordinate all work, off or on-site.
  • Establish expectations for scheduled communication, plus production, execution and delivery of work.
  • Talk with other employees about why this employee is being allowed to work remotely, so they can support the new plan. If handled properly, you’ll get major points for being such a cool, 21st century manager.

Execute your teleworking plan with the expectation that adjustments will almost certainly have to be made. So schedule periodic reviews with your teleworker to discuss how things are going.

By the way, if you’re still having trouble imagining having an employee who’s not sitting under your roof, add up how many hours in-house employees work and communicate without actually seeing each other. I’ll bet that number will surprise you.

It might make you feel better knowing that the teleworking model is now being implemented by thousands of small businesses like yours every day.

Write this on a rock … Teleworking can work. Can you make it work for you?

Four IP questions to tell if you get it

One of the most interesting aspects of the marketplace is the evolution of how businesses leverage assets. For most of history, business leverage came from these three categories in this order:

1. Muscle power (human or animal);

2. Tangible stuff (raw material, inventory, tools, etc.);

3. Information (intellectual property, or IP).

Historically, the strongest cavemen, the biggest horses, the fastest ships, the largest factories, all had an advantage over lesser competitors. We’ve all seen this: “Largest inventory in the region.”

But here’s the interesting part: As the marketplace has evolved, the order of importance and the value of assets has inverted. Studies show increasing emphasis is being placed on IP and the ability to leverage it with less emphasis on leveraging tangible assets.

And what about muscles? Increasingly in the global marketplace, human brawn is number four on a list of three.

The good news is small businesses are joining this global trend of leveraging IP more and tangible assets less. They’re increasingly using technology in exciting new ways, doing more virtual business and are as likely to develop a strategy for doing business across an ocean today as they did across town 20 years ago.

Regarding how essential IP is to a small business’s 21st century competitiveness, more and more small businesses get it.  The bad news is there still are far too many who don’t. As an example, incredibly, almost half of small businesses still don’t even have a website.

To see if you “get it,” consider these four questions:

1. If I gave you for free (a) a truckload of inventory or (b) a special technology that would help you serve customers better, which would you choose?

2. Do you spend more time (a) thinking about products and services or (b) finding technology to more effectively serve new customer expectations?

3. Do your employees (a) use the same technology in the direct performance of their jobs today that they did 5 years ago or (b) different technology (not just new machines)?

4. If you purchased another business, which would be more valuable to you: (a) the inventory and equipment, or (b) the digital records of their customers: names; contact info, including email; what they buy; when they want it; why they buy it; and how they use it?

If you chose (a) for any of these questions, it’s likely your business’s performance is on a declining trajectory. But if you chose the (b) options, congratulations, you get it about IP.

Write this on a rock … In the 21st century, leverage intellectual property more and tangible assets less.

Six steps to grow your business with referrals

Do you have enough customers? Here’s a better question: Do you have enough of the right kind of customers?

Do you agonize and strategize over the marketing plan you’ve designed to position offerings in front of your profile prospect? What’s the right message, platform, frequency, etc.? And do you then pray that the precious cash you’ve commit to marketing crosses over that pivotal line from expense to investment?

Agony and prayer; not a great strategy, right? But if this sounds familiar, you’re in good company. Marketing legend, John Wanamaker (1838-1922) once lamented, “Half of my advertising budget is wasted; I just don’t know which half.” It’s true, marketing metrics have come a long way since Mr. Wanamaker’s time, but that emerging science has been somewhat marginalized by increasing pressure from the digital marketplace. Indeed, getting customers on the proverbial dotted line is still challenging in the 21st century, especially for small businesses.

Beyond marketing, perhaps the primary reason for our customer acquisition challenge can be attributed to a human trait that’s at once primordial and unfortunate: We make things harder than they have to be. There are many examples, but arguably one of the most dramatic is also one of the simplest to fix: failure to ask for referrals.

Business referrals are now, and have always been there for the picking. And they’re as old school fundamental as they are new school relevant. So why don’t more people take advantage of this low-hanging fruit? It’s that can’t-get-out-of-my-own-way thing. Too many salespeople and organizations don’t have a referral strategy and teach referral practices.

Even though getting referrals is fall-off-a-log easy, there are specific practices to follow. Here are six I recommend to help you get started with your strategy.

  1. Spend as much time developing a referral strategy as you do a marketing strategy. When you do, two things will happen very quickly: you’ll gain new customers you weren’t getting from marketing, which will take performance pressure off of your marketing plan.
  2. Identify existing customers who like what you do. Each one is that valuable asset called a center-of-influence (COI).
  3. Explain – in person – that you need their help and how they can help you. For example: “Mr. Smith, thank you for your business over the years. We’d like to have more customers like you. I’m sure you ask your customers for referrals, and would like to ask if I may do the same with you.”
  4. Ivan Misner, founder of Business Network International (BNI) furnishes the next critical question: “Who do you know who …has your high standards?” “…uses the products we offer?” “…you would like to help do business with good companies like ours?” (Your “Who do you who …” here.)
  5. When you get a referral, thank the COI profusely before, during and after the subsequent contact, especially if you get the business. One thing I always say to my COIs is, “If a referral is a friend (or customer) before I contact them, I promise they will still be after I talk with them.”
  6. For millennia, business referrers have been paying it forward. As Ivan Misner says, “Givers gain.” The best way to have a sustainable referral strategy is to be an active referrer yourself. It’s much easier to ask someone for a referral to whom you’ve just given a referral.

If you’re still not sold on referrals, look around and you’ll see many successful businesses that grow only by referrals – essentially no marketing. There’s one primal reason why referrals can be more productive than marketing: People are hard-wired to want to help other people when they’re asked.

Get out of your own way and make a full commitment to creating and executing a referral strategy.

Write this on a rock … Referrals are low-hanging fruit just waiting for you to harvest.

The power of brainstorming with adjectives

How dull would our world be without adjectives? You know, those handy words or terms we use, as Webster says, to “modify a noun.” Indeed, without the descriptive power of an adjective, a noun is nothing more than a bland commodity – like broccoli without hollandaise.

If I offered you a soybean, you would probably be less than intrigued. But what if I said it was a “beautiful soybean”? You’d want to see such a bean, wouldn’t you? A change of attitude, all because of the power of an adjective.

Adjectives can be powerful and useful in your business when they help you take a look at your company, products, services, etc., in an honest, creative, competitive and critical way. One method of pursuing the power of adjectives is through brainstorming.

My friend and Brain Trust member, Floyd Hurt, author of Rousing Creativity, says brainstorming is a great way to get organizational creative juices flowing. And creativity is the mother’s milk of powerful adjectives. Everybody knows that! So get your team together (if you’re a one-person shop, your support group) and conduct a brainstorming session. But first, it’s important to know the Floyd Hurt rules of brainstorming below, followed by my comments.

Free wheeling
There should be virtually no restrictions. Floyd says if you’re pursuing how to pep up the showroom and someone says “Let’s put an elephant in there,” the next comment should be, “Are we talking African or Indian?” And don’t worry that your idea isn’t complete. Even partial ideas can spark the other half from someone else.

No criticism
Some adjectives may not be positive, especially when you’re working on constant improvement. Everyone must feel that what they say will not be criticized, and that all brainstorming contributions will be considered constructive.

Combine and improve
This is where you put some of your brainstorming ideas, including the half-baked ones mentioned above, together to make a better idea. After this kind of synergy clicks the first time with your group, buckle up, because your brainstorming will probably blast off with new energy.

Judgment of ideas
Which one of the ideas will you work on first? This is the culling process. Everything idea is not a keeper – at least not today. But don’t throw anything away. Keep the unused ideas and adjectives for the next session. Ideas are like seeds: sometimes they need time to germinate.

Quantity
This is where the power of adjectives really comes into play. A brainstorming session MUST have LOTS of ideas complete with powerful adjectives. Write them ALL down! EVERY ONE!!

The immortal Adam Smith identified the written word as one of the three greatest human inventions. Besides the brainstorming power you’ll generate, never underestimate the power of having your ideas on paper, looking back at you.

Write this on a rock … Use brainstorming to unleash the power of adjectives.




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