Friday, December 19, 2008

Internet Marketing book recommendations

A good friend of mine, and IT compliance consultant, John Avellanet is managing director for Cerulean, LLC. John has been working on improvements to how he connects with his customers via his website.

He sent me a couple reviews of books on website marketing, and his comments were so clear - and trenchant - that I asked him to allow me to print them here for our readers. With his permission...

" Okay, from what I’ve seen so far here are the best two out there:

Susan Daffon and James Byrd’s "Web Business Success: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Web Sites that Work"

What I like:  Excellent “base” resource with clear diagrams, very succinct and blunt advice on when to look for a web designer and when not to (plus what to look for and what the red flags are to make you run the other way), straightforward explanations of why to do one thing (e.g., use a white background for your site) and why not to – ALL explained in terms of presenting a professional image, making it easy on visitors and encouraging them to be comfortable with you…and thus buying your services or product.  Also, very focused on service / knowledge-based companies (not on small businesses selling widgets on-line).  Well worth at least 2-3 times its price.

What gave me pause:  There are about 3 areas where they slyly draw the reference to their own business – but frankly, if I weren’t actively hunting for that, I’m not sure I would’ve even noticed.  Also, they seem to have some slight biases toward different technologies and vendors NOT to use, but don’t really go into why.  However, not really a big deal and in comparison to other books that are just shameless self-promos, this book couldn’t rate any higher than a 1 on a 10-point self-promo scale (and is probably about a 0.5).

Tom Antion’s "The Ultimate Guide to Electronic Marketing for Small Business"

What I like:  This book is so full of good ideas and tips that – only halfway through the book – I can already tell you it will take me a good six months to put all the ones that I like (not all of them) into play.  Unbelievable resource, full of examples – both figures in the book and websites to go check out that exemplify what he’s discussing (good and bad).  Also a lot of comments throughout reminding the small business owner to not waste time thinking his/her site will be like the sites of the big boys – so here’s where you’ll get your biggest ROI instead.  I hate putting this book down knowing there are still more good ideas in it; and I hate picking it up knowing that my brain is already about to explode from the ideas I’ve read so far….  Probably worth at least 3-5 times its price.

What gave me pause:  Okay, some of the points he makes are seriously cheesy and I would never adopt, but that’s a personal thing.  Also, because it was written 3 ½ years ago, bits and pieces of it are out of date (frankly, if he wrote a 2nd edition, I’d pay $100 for it).  Just like the book above, some bits of self-promotion are in it, and definitely a bit higher on the self-promo scale (maybe a 1.5 or 2 out of 10) – but part of that is he only has so many clear examples to illustrate what he’s discussing that he has no choice but to point you to his sites or sites of his clients or his colleagues."

-----Thanks John for the great comments!--------

About Cerulean: "Cerulean specializes in helping executives simplify and streamline quality systems and regulatory compliance, minimize their risks and liability, lower costs and put in place intellectual property and trade secret theft protection.

We have particular expertise in GLP, GMP, ICH and GHTF biotech, pharmaceutical and medical device product development, laboratory compliance, startups, FDA Quality by Design, records management and IT compliance (including FDA Part 11, EU Annex 11 and HIPAA)."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas time of year


It is the Christmas season, and this is the time to be extra vigilant you do not fall into one of two traps for entrepreneurs:

1. Business is great: holiday shopping or end-of-year orders, either way, you are busy as can be. That means your regular customers and customer service might slip...if you are spending most of your time filling orders, who is paying attention to whether all these customers (new or existing) are getting the right level of service? This is a great time to impress them! Get a college student or temp to help fill orders - you watch the service and maybe deliver some product to a customer directly.

2. Business is lousy: whether because of the economy, or because your product or service is not in demand during the holidays. This means you might decide to enjoy the slow time with family, or check the internet - or read blogs! :) Even if this is off-season for your business, it is a great time to get organized. Clear out some clutter, or update some marketing to better position yourself as we go into the new year. And if it is slow, and you are scrambling, it is going to be harder to get into accounts, since they will be readying for the holidays as well.

Season's Greetings to you. Keep at it!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Great Software Blogs


One of the best ways to stay on top of hints, information and insight into running your own business is to track blogs in whatever industry you are in. With a RSS feed, you don't even need to actually check each site, you can just peruse the new links as they come in.

Since I come from a software background, here are some great blogs that I follow regularly:

Ack/Nak: when he writes on product management, his insights are very good, and he often has advice on what to do about it. His posts on design are very interesting as well, though lately he has not been writing much on the blog.

Paul Graham: Software entrepreneur, founder of Y Combinator. Each month he bosts a couple essays on topics ranging across the board. Usually very insightful on starting a business and a great writer, even if you disagree with whatever he is writing on.

Business of Software Network: The Business of Software conference spawned this network site. Contains all sorts of goodies for small software (particularly SAAS software). Also networking opportunities.

Joel on Software: If you work in software, you know Joel's site. Another great writer, and much like Paul Graham, even if you disagree, he gives good ideas and advice.

Rands in Repose: Great from the engineer/developer manager point of view. Really understands what is going on in your coder's head. If you are going to manage creative technical people, he is a great resource.

Cranky Product Manager: Humorous, but insightful postings on product management.

Over the next few weeks I will bring in some other sites, links or blogs I find useful.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Overcoming Discouragement


Keeping positive - overcoming discouragement - is critical in all our careers, but especially for an entrepreneur. Most entrepreneurs are by their very nature optimists (otherwise why would they open their own business), but inevitably an account will go south, or a client won't pay, or something happens - maybe even in one's personal life - where you become discouraged.

There is no mantra, no easy way to just say "let's get back at it!". Instead, think to why you are doing this - why run your business. That perspective can help. It can also help to discuss with other entrepreneurs. You might find your situation is not uncommon. Just having peers can be very helpful.

For example, our Stillwater Entreprenuer Breakfast is this Thursday morning at 7:30. No cost, just time to meet with other business owners and commiserate over donuts and listen to a speaker.

Overcoming discouragement is not through a happy face calendar, but understanding why you are in the game in the first place.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Hitting your Target Market


How well do you know your target market? If you are marketing your product or service to a particular customer - are you hitting that market?

Example: if you operate a guitar shop, I would assume you would want to target people who can afford to buy guitars. Most of them would be working during the day. Yet how often do you find that a guitar store opens at 10am and closes at 6pm. Think about that for a minute: the target market are people at work from 8-5 (and probably later). Consider Bob - played guitar in college, has a good job, driving home from a hard day one evening at 7pm - sees the local guitar shop: guess what - closed!

If you don't arrange your product/service/company to hit your target customers, how will you be able to stay in business?

Better to open the guitar store at 2pm (ready for the high school kids) and close at 10pm (hey, catch the musicians going off to their next gig).

Banker hours (or defining your hours to your customers) won't hold any longer - there are too many alternatives.

Don't miss your target market - it is hard enough to come by a new customer as it is!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Capital Before Starting


Ron Conway, best known for making very early and very lucrative bets on Google and PayPal, but he's also known as one of the most adventurous angels of Bubble 2.0, and has invested in 130 companies since 2005. His advice: “I would tell (entrepreneurs) to keep their day job until they got one year of funding, and if they couldn’t get that, then they’re not meant to start that company right now."

One year of funding - even for a local business will be a great help in this tough climate. If you start your business undercapitalized from the start, you are constantly on the edge for cashflow. If business starts slow, or you have a couple early accounts pay slow, you can find yourself out of business.

The point is: if the first year of a new business is the most dangerous for continued success, why not have sufficient resources for that first year?

"But Brad, I am going to get a loan (or have investors, etc)."If you have no capital, and you are unable to save funds sufficient to get started and through the first year of your business (and your business plan should show how you are going to get there!) - then why would a banker loan you the money? What have you shown him or her that would prove to them you would be a good loan risk?

Showing discipline is a great advantage in our tough economy, and also increases your credibility with others you need on your side.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Economic Development


I had a chance to attend some sessions for a Economic Develoment conference in Oklahoma City this week. Traditional Economic Development activities basically meant going and finding companies that want to move - usually manufacturing - to a new location. They then schmooze them and get them to your community.

This really had nothing to do with entrepreneurs. And it still does not have much for early stage ventures. Yet, there is a greater realization that the small business already in your community could be a driver of employment and economic development. That means you might actually have some cause - particularly if you are growing and anding jobs in the local community - to stop in to the local economic development office.

While there are still a few dinosaurs that might send you away, most economic developers are looking to show they have brought additional jobs into their community - and if you can help them show that - they can help you. For example, in Oklahoma, there are some site opportunities, help you with locating employees, community development funds. None of it is pure cash on the barrelhead, but it can be a little extra to help!

Again, this is an area you don't want to devote a large amount of time. If you have a good #2 or even a product manager, that might be something for them to investigate and get back with you.

With the economy tough all around, you might find some community doors more open than have been in the past. Plus if the local economic development people get to know you, other opportunities may arise in the future - maybe a company in a related field is looking for a specific partner? It can't hurt to be aware of those possibilities.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Are you a Must Have?


Is your product or service a 'must have'? A 'must have' is something your customers won't give up - even in a tough market.

Do you create outragous loyalty to your product - for example, a customer would pass a competing store to get to you? Or your service stays in the budget even when other things are cut?

On the low cost end, can you improve your experience so customers think - "I can't get through my day without my [X]!"

On the higher end, how safe is your product or service against the downturn? From a B2B market - when the boss comes down and tells the team to cut 10% of expenses...are you in that 'easy to cut' category? When I managed advertising for a large consumer goods company, it was easy to cut 10% from print advertising - an advertisement here, another in a different journal, cut a tradeshow - bingo, my 10%. But there were always some accounts, shows, journals I hated to cut. They were my 'must haves'.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Credit and Cash Flow


In a recent article from the Daily Oklahoman, they discuss the effect of the credit crunch on local builders. They remark that credit has dried up for construction subcontractors, 'with lenders no longer making loans based on accounts receivables.'

If you are running a business or thinking of opening a business that depends on getting a loan to do work, then using the sale of that work to pay off the loan, this tight credit market is going to be very difficult to work within.

Now is the time to reevaluate your recievables: are there any good customers whose bills are starting to age much longer than usual? You might need to call them to find out what is going on. Hopefully they are just being careful, but if they are struggling, it is better to know now, than have an uncollectable later.

Sometimes as small businesses we think 'I can't be tough on my outstanding bills because I am small' - but that is deadly. Larger businesses would not expect to give you extra time to pay your bill - you must act big, even if you are not.

Remember cash flow - if you are giving net 30, but then not sending a bill notice until 35-40 days, then not getting paid until 60 days - you are giving 60 days of free money to your customers. In a down economy, those extra 30-45 days waiting for payment could cripple your ability to meet payroll, purchase equipment or inventory or ride out the tough market.

It is no help to you or your business if you are generous with terms, yet cash flow negative.

It is also time to reconnect - or if necessary, get started connecting - with your local banker. You need to have a good relationship with your banker before you need to come in on a Friday afternoon needing a bridge loan. Bankers are just like the rest of us: they feel more comfortable dealing with someone they know.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Strategy and Tactics


"When in doubt, challenge the strategy, not the tactics". Seth Godin

"When a manager says to me that the strategy is fine, they just need better execution - I take a good look at the strategy."*

I list both of the above quotations to tackle a difficult issue: how do you as a business owner evalute the cause of a problem.

For example, if your products are always released late, is that because of

  1. Having the wrong people (knuckleheads can't get things done on time)
  2. Unrealistic deadlines

Once you are no longer involved in every detail of the business, it is essential that you can evaluate success (and failure). It is easier to blame the employees (tactics) than it is to blame your strategy, but consider this: if it is the wrong people, then changing them should result in success. If you fire them, and bring in others, how will you know if they will do it correct? How then was it that you have the wrong people in the first place? You hired them!  Maybe they are who you can afford. But if that is true - why expect them to achieve the goal?

As a manager - and as a business owner - it is your responsibility to remove obstacles to success, not create them. If you constantly find yourself berating your employees for failing to succeed at whatever strategy you've set, take a moment to be sure the failure is not you.

* I have lost the reference for this quotation - if you know, send me a comment.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On Hiring the Right Employees


When I graduated from college, I took a job as a restaurant manager for Red Lobster. I was a terrible manager, and did not last very long (I could not distinguish breaded fish and shrimp!)

One thing that struck me in my youthful enthusiasm was that it was very difficult to get employees to buy into whatever plan or action I wanted to take. If we were to work especially on cleaning the kitchen area, the next morning I would get a call that something had not been done - I remember feeling betrayed - "how could John not have cleaned that area?" I mean, if we all work together, we get home faster, work is easier, etc.

As I said - I was naive.

You have a vision of how things are to get done - and in what manner. You certainly are driven (why else open a business). And one of the first shocks of being a business owner is that employees might not have the same enthusiasm as you in doing things.

That is why hiring the right people is critical. As a restaurant manager, I had no idea how to hire a good waiter or kitchen cook - and at minimum wage. I had no idea what motivated someone to take that job.

Too often we look at salary or wages as the only determinant in hiring good people. But of ten kids who come to look for a summer job, one or two are likely to be much more diligent and hard working - for the same wage as the other eight. Of ten admins you might hire, one or two will do more and be more productive..

If not salary, then what? One idea is whether they buy into your own enthusiasm. Not that they gush about how excited they are to work for you - but do they carry their own independent enthusiasm for what you are excited about? Do they carry a spark? Are they inquisitive? Do they try to understand how something works - and maybe how to make it better?

I was a terrible manager for Red Lobster because I had no enthusiasm for it, no interest in seafood or seafood restaurants. Employees could tell I was lost, and reacted accordingly. If you can transfer some of your enthusiasm to new employees it will help your business to grow.

If you cannot, or you cannot recognize the difference between telling you what you want to hear, and real interest, you are going to have a hard time staffing.

Any ideas on how to differentiate the two?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Is your product or service a 'must have'?


Is your product or service one that is a ‘must have’: something your customers won’t give up – even in this difficult economic crisis?

If it is not - what can you do to make it more important? And how quickly can your product ingratiate itself into people's lives?

I remember distinctly when all the youth in our church youth group started showing up with Ipods. One Sunday, none of them had one; it seemed the next Sunday, they all had one. Of course, it did not happen that quickly - but it sure seemed like it.

I had a prospective client come by who wanted to open a business here in Stillwater. Within an hour of this business were at least three others performing the same service, and another 5-10 with overlapping services. Guess how many of those competitor's she had visited, used, or otherwise investigated?

If you don't know what the market is like - how are you going to make your product a must have for the possible customers? To refer back to my post on Jason Fried's comments from the business of software conference, Jason said "Target non-consumption – people who want to buy a solution to a problem, but don’t because of cost or usefulness". Well - how are you going to target them if you don't know why they won't use existing solutions?

If you cannot give a good reason why your product is a 'must have' then you are leaving value out in the ether - value that someone else will take advantage of.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Taking Advantage of Slow Sales Periods


Sonic, a chain of drive in restaurants popular in the south, is running a half price special on drinks from 2pm-4pm. At our local Sonic drive in, every bay is full during those two hours – it is a madhouse. They sell a bunch of drinks – which even at half price they make money on. And they take a slow time of the day, and turn it into a profitable time. Starbucks has tried the same thing: buy a coffee in the morning and receive a coupon for a $2 frozen drink during the afternoon.

Are there soft times during the day in your industry or segment – or certain days of the week that are slow? What can you do to increase traffic during those times?

For example, a children’s clothing store could run a “Grandma special” from 10-11 am: show a picture of your grandchild and get 10% off. What grandmother could resist?

Marketing does not have to be expensive – it just has to be focused on your target: what can you do to better reach them (and make them go out of their way to get to you!)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Business Plans and The Business of Software

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Business of Software conference. I heartily recommend future versions of this conference if you have a small software application – particularly web based – that your company is selling.

Jason Fried of 37 Signals  was the most provocative speaker. He spoke on how to get your small software company up and running without going to venture capital – in essence preaching a ‘small, profitable and sustainable’ model for business.

  • Momentum is key
  • Use very short projects, this keeps up enthusiasm
  • Planning is overrated: no projections, specifications, roadmaps (Planning gives the ‘illusion of agreement’ – that people all understand the specification in the same correct way – when they don’t). Or as Steve Johnson from Pragmatic Marketing says: “Friends build products, enemies build documents”
  • Get rid of abstractions
  • Optimize for now – decisions are temporary
  • Danger of Red flag words: need, can’t, easy, everyone, nobody. These words represent abstractions of underlying beliefs – get to what is really behind them.
  • To create requires uninterrupted time = productivity. Make that happen
  • Focus on what does not change – what is a problem today and 10 years from today?
  • Under doing
  • Target non-consumption – people who want to buy a solution to a problem, but don’t because of cost or usefulness
  • Find simple solutions to basic problems
  • Follow the example of Chefs: out teach, out share, out contribute
  • What do you share?
  • Imagine if your software was a physical product. What would it look like?
  • Give up on hard problems – there is an abundance of easy problems out there
  • Compress your days into doing only what matters – that increases productivity and gets you out of the office (not about working all the time)
  • Build it while you use it

I’m still digesting all of his points – kind of like listening to Tom Peters. But since we at the incubator place a great deal of emphasis on planning your business, I wonder about the application of point 3 not to software development, but to business planning. Am I sending new entrepreneurs down the wrong path when I ask for a business plan? Do they just need to go on and do it?

Certainly the standard VC oriented business plan is not going to be of much use for most entrepreneurs: they don’t need to be messing with EBITA outcomes on spreadsheets, or locating influential board members. But you still must answer fundamental questions such as: “is there a market?” “What problem does it solve?” “Do I have enough money to keep going?”

Jason makes the same point really when saying “focus on what does not change” and “build it while you use it”. The easiest market to understand is you – as long as you are representative of other members of the same group. In fact Jason was adamant to not work on a product in a sector you don’t already know – you don’t really understand it, and if you aren’t an accountant (or interested in accounting), writing accounting software is going to be a real grind.

I think there is a realization that people have been stressing too much over the BUSINESS PLAN (ominous music playing). Tim Berry of Business Plan Pro software has recently come out with a book entitled “The Plan-as-you-go Business Plan” – a seeming paean to not writing a traditional business plan, by someone whose software helps you write a business plan.

In response to Jason, I might say when I ask someone to develop a business plan I am trying to judge the fortitude or tenacity of a new entrepreneur sitting across from my desk. It gives me some means to tell if a person has thought at all about this business idea he has – and how he reacts to the request. If he says “who can I pay to write my business plan?” that tells me something about the person. If he says “I am too busy to write a business plan – I just need someone to give me money!” then again, that tells me something about the person. (Maybe Jason would say I am just abstracting away from the real issue.)

In my role as an incubator manager, I have to figure out, with very little information, whether someone would be a good candidate for admission, or at the minimum, how I can help them. I need something more than them coming in and talking breathlessly about their new idea. And requesting a business plan is a nice way to let someone know they need to think through a bit more their idea. Perhaps to make it more obvious, I should ask a prospective entrepreneur to answer a set of questions: “tell me about the product?”, “Who will buy it? Why?” “What is wrong with competing products?”

If they can answer the questions clearly, then I can learn how I can help them be more successful with their business.

As Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Tax Man Cometh!


At the CBD we spend a great amount of time on business planning, market studies and helping you get your business started.

But it is very important not to forget the basic steps when starting a business – for example, registering with the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

The tax man always gets his money!

Some Oklahoma college students learned this lesson the hard way when they were confronted with a $320,000 tax bill from the Tax Commission. The students had a ‘party business’ that rented space in local restaurants and bars, hired DJ’s and then marketed the events. Of course, they did not collect any sales tax on those events and due to their web site, the state noticed them.

See article in Daily Oklahoman

The person interviewed said “they never really thought about Kegheadz as a business, so they never filed any paperwork with tax officials”.

Guess what? They were, and their error will cost them.

A smaller point easily missed is that one of the businessmen who rented space to the Kegheadz group is himself being included in the tax trouble. So if you are a business owner and contract with another organization – you’d better be careful to ask to see their tax registration form (non-profits have their own form that shows their status).

Good news is that the Oklahoma Tax Commission runs free classes regularly throughout the state – and really makes it easy for you to do the basic paperwork (of course LLC’s and corporations require a bit more work).

And we at the CBD are hosting a workshop by the Oklahoma Tax Commission on October 16th from 9-12 (registration required).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Now linked to the Web site

This blog can also be accessed from the Meridian Web site

New Superintendent Named

Dr. Doug Major has been selected as the new Superintendent/Chief Executive Officer for Meridian Technology Center by the school’s Board of Education.

Major will assume the role on Nov. 1, filling the position left vacant by Dr. Andrea Kelly’s resignation in June.

“The appointment of Dr. Major ensures a continued commitment to excellence,” said Randy Kellogg, president of the Board of Education for Meridian Technology Center. “He is a well-respected member of both the state and national career and technology communities and we are pleased he has accepted the position. Doug’s progressive spirit and forward-thinking philosophy have been evidenced by his many accomplishments at Pioneer Technology Center while superintendent for the last eight years and we are eager to have his leadership at Meridian.”

Major is currently superintendent/CEO of Pioneer Technology Center in Ponca City, a position he has held since 2000. Prior to that, he was Assistant Superintendent for instructional programs at Meridian Technology Center. Major joined Meridian in 1987 and served in numerous roles including: Student Services Director; Adult Short-Term Programs Director; and Business and Industry Services Director.

Major has an extensive background in education, having started his career as an agriculture education instructor at Anadarko Public Schools. He holds doctorate, master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Oklahoma State University.

Major has been actively involved in the Ponca City community, with current and past positions including: member of the Ponca City Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors; and founding trustee of the Ponca City Development Authority. He is a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Campus Life and Safety and Security. He also represents Oklahoma on the National Leadership Institute and is a member of Leadership Oklahoma Class XXII.

A native of Kingfisher, Okla., Major is the son of Charolette Major of Kingfisher. He and his wife, Sandy, a teacher at Blackwell Middle School, have four children: Phillip, a junior at OSU; Sarah, a senior at Blackwell High School; Marc, a seventh-grader; and Austin, who is in the fifth grade. They currently reside in Blackwell.