Finding the Right Medium

In any business, there is a preferred means of reaching out to potential client. One business might use newspaper ads, another might prefer radio or television, and yet another might focus on their online presence. A solid marketing plan, however, will not only target all of those mediums, but balance them against one another.

In an earlier article, I discussed how your marketing strategy needs to look at who some of your real customers are, and focus on their needs and wants. This should not be taken to mean merely what information to provide, but also through which medium to reach out to them.

For some audiences, the right information might be regarding competition – in other words, you don’t need to convince your consumer of the need for your product, but why your product is better than the alternatives. The right medium, however, would depend on where your ideal consumer looks for information.

  • Is your consumer already in the store to purchase? Then your information might need to be on the packaging.
  • Is your consumer buying online? Your information should be presented on your website.
  • Responding to an article in a trade magazine? Make sure your printed ads have the right information.

A small business will focus on one of these mediums. They may present their information very well in that medium. However, a larger business will have a presence everywhere. A business that wants to grow will, in general, have a solid presentation in all mediums, not merely the one the founder prefers, or excels at.

If you want to expand your business, you need to expand your reach. While that may mean you need to reach out more online, it can also mean that you need to reach out more offline.

  • Have you tried running a small series of ads in a community newspaper?
  • Do you post fliers on bulletin boards in community facilities?
  • Is your website well-built and easy to navigate?
  • Have you considered a small radio or TV ad?

Naturally, some of these options are more expensive than others, and therefore may be out of reach for some businesses. However, with most of these, there are ways to do this on a small budget, and gradually increase that budget as your business grows.

Remember, your customers don’t all hang out in the same places, so make sure they can find you wherever it is that they do like to spend their time.

My Customers Are Always Right

About a year ago, I wrote an article titled The Customer is Always Right… Sometimes in which I discussed how to handle customers who don’t agree with you or with your opinions. I realized, however, that the article only discussed half the issue, in that I talked about furthering your business, but not about furthering yourself.

The owner of a small airline phrased this quite well:

The customer is always right. But if you put down my employees, then you’re not my customer.

That’s not to say, of course, that you won’t continue to serve that person. However, when someone who pays you for a product or service crosses a line you’ve drawn, they are no longer considered to be a customer, because you don’t care if you continue to get their business.

As an example, if a passenger on a flight puts down one of the stewards on the plane, then the airline in question may not consider this person a customer. That means that while the person can continue to fly with them, the airline will not consider them to be in the right and will back up the steward in question. If the customer decides to take their business elsewhere, the airline does not consider it a loss.

What the lines are is not really relevant, but that the lines exist cannot be debated. I discussed a few weeks ago what a business should do to earn money (Anything for a Buck), so that might define your lines. At the end of the day, you want clients and customers who help your business grow. Those that waste your time and resources are not valuable customers, and while you might continue to provide service to them, they’re not your customers.

If they’re not your customers, then they aren’t always right.

That being said, you should still treat them with respect (even if you don’t feel they deserve it). You should be careful to address their concerns politely. But you don’t have to agree with them, and you certainly shouldn’t put their opinions before those of the people who will make a difference to the bottom-line of your business.

The Road Well Travelled

If you’ve studied any poetry, you are likely familiar with the quote below:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

The poem is an analogy for life – we can take the route that everyone else has tried, or we can explore new roads, which may be more difficult, but may also be more rewarding.

Last week, I posted the following message on various social sites I belong to:

Thanks to the various people who have expressed their faith that “this too shall pass” and the future is bright, even if I can’t see it now.

There was an immediate response from a variety of people, concerned that this had been triggered by some major event. I had to post a follow-up to that post quickly to indicate that this was not influenced by anything unusual, just life in general.

In life, most people will take the well-traveled road, whether out of fear of the unknown, aversion to risk, or merely a lack of interest in trying something different. However, there is another way to think about the two roads diverging in a wood.

Often we will find ourselves on a road, and see another running beside us. We don’t like the road we’re on, but we can’t jump the guardrail to the other road. We continue on our way, continually looking for a way to get to the other road, and not paying attention to the one we’re already on.

Enough abstractions – here’s part of my story.

I’m running a small advising business, helping small and medium-sized businesses get the technology they need to grow larger, run more smoothly, lower their operating costs. A normal client will walk me through their day-to-day operations, the infrastructure they already have in place, and some ideas for what they want to change. I’ll then draft some suggestions for improvements and change to that infrastructure, and, if the client agrees, assist in implementing those suggestions.

I don’t run with a given client for a long period of time typically. While implementation of a strategy can take 6 to 12 months from start to finish, there’s often not a lot of work that I’m doing personally during that stage. This translates loosely into low profitability during that stage of the project. While during the early stages I’m earning close to 100% of my billings, during the middle and late stages of a project it can be as low as 5%.

The effect of this is that my business requires a large number of clients at various stages. So when you close two accounts in one week, it’s tough.

However, this isn’t unusual by any means. While I can witness other businesses experiencing rapid and steady growth, not every business works that way. For some, the road to stability is littered with speed bumps and construction zones.

What’s important to realize is that to some degree, what you experience in your business has happened to hundreds or thousands of other similar business. I don’t believe that there is any business that can honestly state that the fundamental nature of its business model is unique.

Instead of looking to the businesses which have taken a different route, you need to look at the route your business is taking. Find another (successful) business that underwent the particular stage your business is in today. Look at what was done to get out of that stage and onto the next. See if you can apply some of the lessons to your own business.

However, you must focus on your own road, not on the road that others have been traveling on. It’s only that which will allow your business to reach the success that you envision for it.

Marketing Lessons from Interface Development

While in university, I took a course in User Interface development for writing software. One of the books that I read for course, from the suggested reading list, was The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. In it, he discusses how, when designing anything to be used by someone else, you need to put yourself in their place, to see the object from the perspective of the user.

Marketing is no different.

If you want to send a message to potential buyers, you need to envision yourself as a buyer. Not as your ideal buyer, nor as a theoretical buyer. You need to envision yourself as a real buyer.

What’s a real buyer?

A real buyer is anyone who might actually buy your product or service. However, rather than use an abstract example, you need to use concrete examples of such people.

For example, if you’re trying to sell a service that helps people publish in magazines, a theoretical buyer is an advertiser in that magazine, or an article writer who has articles regularly published in Magazine Y.

A real buyer, however, is Susan Smith, owner of a local flower boutique who advertises her store in a community newspaper, published once a week. She’s already paying $125 per publication, but her graphics are done herself, and look cheap.

Another real buyer is Jake Johnson, who recently graduated from a journalism program, and is writing a monthly feature in Small Town magazine. He dreams of getting picked up by The National Post, and wants to bring attention to his writing.

Both of these buyers are real people, although they are different from one another. However, when thinking of a marketing strategy, you need to look at the needs of real buyers.

Susan is not trying to make it big, but to remind people in her neighborhood that her store is around the corner, and what her weekly specials are. However, she might be interested in spending a couple hours cleaning up her ads so that she can look a little more professional.

Jake, however, is trying to move to larger magazines and newspapers. He may want someone to give him a comparison of writing styles from different magazines, or to help him adapt some of his articles to send in to large journals. On the other hand, he may appreciate having his own editor to give his writing an extra boost.

A good marketing plan would deal with these two buyers separately, since their needs are different. Trying to sell to both at the same time could easily lose both customers – approaching each on their own could easily gain two customers.

That’s not to say that every potential clients needs their own marketing plan. While that would work well for very small businesses, it’s difficult to scale. However, customers and clients need to be converted into small groups for the purposes of marketing, where the needs of every member of that group are being identified in the overall marketing plan for that group.

Setting Yourself Free

This post is inspired by the fact that tonight is the first night of Passover, when Jews commemorate the exodus from Egypt approximately 3500 years ago.

The story of the exodus describes an enslaved nation leaving their oppressors, and founding a religion shortly thereafter. Having worked as slaves for hundreds of years, the nation leaves the country, and accepts upon themselves the various commandments God gives them.

This is, perhaps, a difficult concept to understand. Having lived under the control of their Egyptian masters for hundreds of years, it is surprising that they would then choose to accept another master shortly after.

However, there is a fundamental difference between the two masters, and this has applications in everything people do.

In Egypt, the Jews did not choose their masters, but were born into slavery. (Granted, at an earlier time that choice was made, but it was not made by anyone in the generation of the exodus.) Therefore, regardless of the conditions, the fact that they had no choice in the matter made it all the harder to bear.

Once they were out of Egypt, however, and could choose their own destiny, they chose to obey God and the commandments. Since they made the choice willingly, it did not appear to be a form of slavery or suppression.

Life is like this in general.

If you dictate an action or behavior to someone, they will often resent it, regardless of whether or not the action is reasonable, or if they would have done it anyhow.

On the other hand, if you give people a choice, you will often see that they will opt for the more difficult or challenging path, and yet, enjoy the journey. Since they were able to choose, it doesn’t seem as difficult.

When possible, give people around you the ability to make choices. Not only do you demonstrate that you trust them to make wise choices, but you will also find that people go along with you more easily when they have a say in the matter.

As another example of this, think of how you get children to perform a particular task. You can order them to do the task, and expend significant amounts of energy trying to force the point. Or you can give them a choice, and let them live with the decision, and more often than not, achieving the same end result without the emotional investment.

Which way do you think is better?

The Road to Success is Always Under Construction

There is a saying that I had painted on a coffee mug:

The road to success is always under construction.

I used this mug during the end of high school and the five years I spent at university, which is appropriate, considering that education is often considered to be key to success. Granted that achieving success depends heavily on how you define success itself, but in almost every sense, education, formal or otherwise, will play a key role.

The reason this came to mind now is that I’ve recently been looking to expand my educational background, and have been hard put to decide what continuing education I want to pursue. I’ve been out of university for almost 4 years now, and have had limited formal education in the meantime.

However, those who will succeed will always be learning:

Who is wise? One who learns from every person.

Over the last four years, while I have not been learning in the classroom, I have been exposed to learning opportunities elsewhere – at home, online, at the office. I have tried to further my knowledge at every turn.

If you, like me, are looking to succeed, then you need to continue to learn every day. You need to somehow further your knowledge and understanding on a regular basis. This might mean taking a course, but it could also mean reading the newspaper every day (and not just the comics). You could read a selection of blog articles.

Personally, I’ve delayed making the decision to go back to school yet again. However, in the interim, I’m working to build a solid foundation for various concepts I’ve been exposed to, but never formally taught. Small and medium-sized businesses are comprised of a few functions, and I’ve taken it upon myself to learn the fundamentals of each section:

  • Marketing and Advertising
  • Sales
  • Inventory Management
  • Bookkeeping and Accounting
  • Legalities
  • Hiring and Payroll
  • Banking and Loans
  • Project Management
  • Product Research and Development

Naturally, this list is far from complete, and not everything in this list applies to every business. At the same time, I have a basic understanding of many of these concepts already. However, the aim is to increase that understanding by self-study, reading a selection of books on these topics, talking to people, and reading articles online.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be collating some of the readings that I’m doing in a resource section on this site. If you have some suggestions for other subjects that may be relevant, I would love to hear them.

Art of Negotiation

In any environment with more than one person, there will always arise a situation in which the two people disagree. It could be as mundane as where to order lunch from, or as serious as whether or not to go forward with a billion dollar deal. Bring two people together, and a conflict will arise.

One of the questions often asked by new business owners is how to resolve such conflicts without creating a rift between the parties involved. The best time to look for the answer to this question is well before the situation arises, since many of the techniques used for resolving conflict are more difficult to apply once the situation has been muddied. As such, I will discuss here some basics for dealing with such scenarios, and would recommend that you look for a seminar for some further suggestions if you anticipate being involved in such scenarios often, or know that you have a hard time dealing with conflict.

The first piece of advice actually comes from the readings I did prior to getting married, and was stated very simply:

Always remember, especially when disagreeing, that you’re on the same side.

We have a tendency, when disagreeing with someone, to move into the mindset of you versus me. In marriage, and in business, it doesn’t work that way. All the people involved have the same goal, which is, to make the marriage or business succeed. The disagreement is about the means to getting that success, not about the success itself.

This brings us to the next point – stay on topic, and don’t get personal.

When a conflict moves off the original topic of discussion, and heads into the jungle of personal attacks, a pleasant ending rarely ensues, and it makes future conflicts more difficult to deal with. If you’re trying to reach a decision, you need to focus on what’s relevant to the issue, and the fact that John barely passed his accounting course isn’t relevant to whether or not the company can afford a particular expenditure today.

After the particular issue is resolved, if warranted, the background and side issues can be discussed. However, they have no place in resolving another conflict, and only serve to sidetrack you from the main issues.

The last point is possibly the most useful, but also, unfortunately, the most vague. To prepare for a potential future conflict, prepare a process to resolve a conflict.

Basically, if you head into a discussion knowing how you’re going to resolve it, then it makes the discussion that much more productive. Remember, we’re discussing resolving conflict with a particular other person, not with people in general.

One idea you might want to try works like this:

Agree beforehand who is considered to be the expert on a given set of subjects. For example, if you have a software business with two partners, one who handles marketing and advertising, the other handling development, you could easily split out technology issues and publicity issues.

Agree on an approach and guidelines for discussing issues. For example, you might agree that both parties get a chance to present their opinion, and then a chance to respond to the other persons opinion, with the length of the discussion agreed to at the beginning of the discussion.

At the end of the allotted time, if the subject is considered to fall under the expertise of one party exclusively, then they get to make that decision. If it is not an issue with which one party in particular is considered expert, then you take turns deciding.

Hopefully, with this information in mind, you can head into your next conflict knowing that you have the ability to resolve it amicably and smoothly, and move on to making your venture a success.

Pouring the Foundation

Perhaps the most important decision you will make in a business is when you bring in the second person, either as a partner or as an investor. Done correctly, and your business will flourish; make a mistake, and the repercussions can haunt you for years.

Unfortunately, this fact is often ignored when selecting partners or investors. Quite understandable, when you consider that what’s being evaluated is the skills being offered or the amount of money versus equity being bartered. However, what is often overlooked is that few people have truly unique skills (although they may be unique in the particular combination, or availability) and that money is cheap.

Partners

There are a few reasons to have a partner in any business:

  • No one person has all the skills necessary to run a successful business, but with two people, you can get a lot closer to having all the needed skills
  • A partner can act as a sounding board for new ideas, and save you from chasing after non-profitable ideas while the money-maker is ignored

For the first point, you can solve this issue by hiring someone with the required skills. This on its own is not actually worth any equity in your business. (Note, you might give up equity instead of paying someone if you don’t have any money invested in the business which can be used to pay someone.)

The second point, however, is why you give up some ownership in the company. The partner is going to help you achieve success in your business. For that, you want someone who has a vested interest in your company, but also, you want someone you can work well with.

Investors

Like a partner, an investor, especially in the early stages of the business, brings more than just money to the table:

  • Cash, of course, is the reason you go looking for an investor
  • Experience is what comes along, with your investor becoming either a member of the board, or at least an adviser to your business

As I mentioned above, cash is cheap. If you have an okay credit rating, you can get a loan from the bank, not giving up any equity, but paying some interest instead. Alternatively, you can borrow money from family and friends to help get your business off the ground. For cash alone, there is little reason to give up any equity in your business.

Experience is different. A good investor will have experience running a company, and want to help you succeed. Of course, they’re also looking for a return on their investment, but a good angel will want to be involved, and you’ll want to listen to them. (That’s not to say that you will DO everything they suggest, but you should listen.)

Summary

As described, both founders and investors are there to provide suggestions and opinions. This being the case, you should be sure that the people you bring into your company are people you can work with. You need to be able to listen to them, and you need to be able to get along with them on a personal level.

If you do, you’ll find yourself with the advice and support that will help your business succeed.