Self Rebranding

If you have not yet noticed, my site has a new name (“Advice for Small Business Owners”), along with a new slogan (“Helping small business owners solve the issues they face on a daily basis”). Other things are changing as well – I’m starting to display some information about my site on my site. I’m having new business cards designed. I’m thinking about how my newsletter should change, and how I’m going to go about doing that. I’m thinking of changing the look of this site (no, not the content, but perhaps a more cutting edge design).

I’m looking more into finding ways to promote my business, and I’m doing it with a whole new look. In short, I’m rebranding myself.

Why? Because this site represents my journey over the past couple years, but does not represent my future. It represents what me and my business have done, what we want to do, but not where the business is going. It’s time to change that.

This isn’t really about just me and my company though. It’s something every business should go through every once in a while. Similar to goal setting, which I’ve discussed here many times, this is about seeing your future, and showing it to the world.

When was the last time you truly showed your customers where it is you want to go? When have you demonstrated to your clients how your business works, and where they in particular fit into the grand scheme of things? When was the last time you even thought about these questions?

Going through a rebranding exercise can make you do all this and more. When you rebrand, you’re looking for the image, whether visual or otherwise, that best represents your company both in terms of where you are today, as well as in terms of where you would like to be a year or longer from now. You’re trying to represent yourself to an unknown audience, without being there. You’re giving away material, but you aren’t there to explain it.

What does your brand say about you? What do your clients think your brand is? If the answers aren’t the same, you should take a close look at how you present yourself, and why others don’t see your image in the same light that you do.

True Cost of Mistakes

It is human nature to avoid acknowledging mistakes. Some of us are more susceptible to this than others, some of us are more aware of this fact than others. When we err, we try to save face, and often this translates into dragging out a mistake longer than may be necessary, thereby exacerbating the costs associated with the mistake.

Rarely does one face a problem that is truly unique. What is usually unique is the particular grouping of problems faced by a particular individual.

As an example, in website development, there are many approaches to any single problem. It is the rare case that a single requirement can or should only be met by a single potential solution. As a result, 5 businesses trying to solve the same need will likely end up with 5 very different websites. That being said, however, there are certainly some very wrong solutions to those same problems.

It is not uncommon to see a business approaching their problem as though it were truly unique. This is a very rare situation, and the mentality of being unique can lead a business to pursue a faulty line of development, culminating in a solution that is neither effective at solving the problem, nor as cost-effective as a more standard solution.

However, it is not uncommon to see such behavior, of a business insisting they know better, or that their situation is special and the standard solutions do not apply to them. They continue to sink large amounts of time, effort, and money into the sinking ship, without considering the true costs.

It is better to be aware in the middle of a project that you are heading in the wrong direction, then it is to bury your head in the sand. Sometimes, the true cost of admitting a mistake is that you learn from the experience, or you do a better job the next time around.

Are you afraid to own up to mistakes you might have made? What strategies have you adopted to help ensure that you don’t exert more energy, time, or money into a path you’ve come to realize is not the best one for your needs?

Take a Chance and Reduce Risk

A few times over the last few months I had been thinking about risk, and the entrepreneurial lifestyle. I’ve held discussions with various people, and while I have not had any great epiphany, I have realized that it’s only once you think about this that you truly understand.

Before working exclusively for myself, I worked for a few years at a company with about 1000 employees. I thought I was taking the safe career route – regular paycheck, nice benefits, regular work schedule feeding a healthy work-life balance. How could I make the jump to work for myself? I needed regular contracts, 20-30 billable hours per week. I needed to promote myself, chase after prospects, close deals.

I then acquired a client who committed to 2000 billable hours over the course of a year, or 40 hours per week. This was what I had been hoping for, and it gave me the final push out the corporate door to enter the world of self-employment. Yet, I was still taking a risk, as I lost my benefits, and still don’t know what will happen at the end of the year. The security was suddenly gone.

Then I came to a realization that finally I had actually reduced my income risk by working for myself. As an employee, not only did I have less control over my career and job, I was also poorly equipped to handle a sudden change in my employment situation. Were I to have been fired, I was not trained to seek other employment, as this is something employees try not to do very often.

As my own boss, however, I have been forced to learn the skills of finding clients, chasing prospects, and closing deals. I’ve had to learn to make work appear on a regular basis. Were one client to disappear today, I’ve learned the skills to find another. Marketing myself and making sales? I’m getting it done. Finding sources of income? I know how to do it.

Basically, being self-employed has reduced my risk by putting myself in the driver’s seat of my career. I now control my own destiny, control the direction my work will take me. Where will I end up? Only time will tell, but now I can help time bring me to where I want to be.

Is it for everybody? Certainly not. But for some people, who can learn these skills necessary to survival as your own boss, the risk is likely not nearly as profound as you might otherwise think.

Go Anywhere – Just Go Away

I was informed today that starting in October, I will be back playing hockey once a week. This was not prompted by myself, but by my wife, who suggested that having taken 2 years off from playing, it’s about time I get back on the ice.

No, this isn’t about me having a sedentary lifestyle (though I don’t exercise nearly as much as I should). Nor was it about the fact that I don’t spend much time hanging out with friends anymore.

It was about the fact that I work too much.

That’s not to say I’m a workaholic, but rather that significant portions of my day are occupied with work. If I’m home for the evening, chances are I’ll spend most of it in front of the computer finishing off projects for clients, writing proposals, or doing work-related research. My life revolves around my work, even when I’m not actually working. If I get together with other people, sooner or later the conversation moves to work.

This isn’t particularly good for anyone, and hence the return to the arena. A casual game in which conversations are limited, time relaxing afterward, mostly talking about the game, anything but work. Plus, I get in a good amount of exercise that evening, which gets the week off to a good start.

How about you? Do you find your life is revolving around work too much? What are you doing to take your mind off your growing business?

Parks and Membership

There are several amusement parks within a short distance of my home – a few zoos, a waterpark, Wonderland. The cost of admission for a single day is quite expensive, up to $75 per person per day. The cost of a season’s pass, though, is quite cheap by comparison, costing in the area of 2-5 days admission.

At first, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. After all, with the price of the pass being so low, it’s likely that many people will buy the pass rather than pay each time they visit. The park is therefore losing money on most of the passes being sold.

In truth, however, the revenue of the parks does not come from admission (though it does make a small contribution, of course). It comes from the concessions, the games, the food stands. As such, the parks are more concerned with bringing people into the park than they are with how much they charge to do so.

The same system can be applied to many businesses. Stores will place items on sale for below the cost value, just to get customers in the door. While there will certainly be those customers who only come to buy the sale items, many will purchase other items at the same time, having only entered the store because of the sale items.

As a business owner, it is therefore important to understand that there will be times when the price paid for your product or service are lower than you might like. However, you still continue to sell them at the low price, because it brings in more clients. Even if you are losing money on the initial sale, later sales will ultimately pay for that loss.

As an example, a web development company might take jobs to build small websites at low cost to the consumer. This, in turn, results in the name of the company being displayed around the web, and being referred to others. In the long run, the dollars lost on the job are the cost of advertising, and ultimately will pay off.

How are you using loss-leaders to bring in more business? Do you find it to be effective?

Good Customer Service

I just got off the phone with my cell phone provider having had a very good experience. This is what customer service should be like – reasonable, helping me figure out what I need, and then getting it for me at a reasonable price.

I’ve been with Telus for seven years, and have always had a positive experience. With the onset of no contract plans and removal of system access fees, coupled with the influx of unlimited plans in Toronto, I felt I could do a bit better than what I was currently getting. Every month, I would worry that I was about to go over my minutes, and quite often I would, resulting in me paying over and above my budgeted amount.

When I first got my plan, it was considered to be quite good, and really serviced my needs, with its unlimited incoming feature. I had a land line available to me, so I could cut the number of outgoing calls to a minimum. Now that my new office doesn’t have a phone, though, my cell phone is my line to the outside world during the day.

I called Customer Loyalty and Retention and explained my new situation. I explained I could get everything I need from a slightly lower quality provider for about $35 per month. I asked what he could do.

He looked at my usage, and figured out how many minutes I would really need, then added some for padding. He gave me early evenings to cut the time that I would rely on my minutes. He tossed in voicemail and caller id. He tossed in a new phone (standard with a contract, I know, but with the other provider, I would have had to buy a phone).

In short, he gave me what I needed, at a price I was okay with paying. He worked with me, and so Telus not only retained me as a customer, but gained another as I switched another account over to them because of the good service they provided.

Why does this story merit a mention here? Simply because it’s important to realize how customers feel when they are treated well, and to laud those companies which learn to treat their customers right.

Are you treating your customers well?

All Roads Lead Home

In life, there are many paths to take, and many paths for others to take. The reality is that you cannot know in advance which paths will be taken, and which will be ignored. As a result, you must guess which paths will be most traveled, and put your advertisements there. This is akin to placing ads in newspapers – you don’t know which page will be read by your ideal client, but you try your best to predict this information, and hope that you get it right.

Unfortunately, this is not a terribly effective way of reaching your audience. You reach out to one place at a time, and then see whether or not it worked, and then you try something else.

The alternative is to work outward from the destination, and make the target larger. Similar to practicing shooting, you can aim better, or you can get a bigger target. In the same vein, it is also much easier to get a bigger target.

In your business, how do you make yourself a bigger target? Simple – you make it easier for yourself to be found.

I had a discussion with an SEO programmer who explained the difference between on-site and off-site SEO. Essentially, you want to advertise your website better. What performs the actual searching for your website is a program, so you must make that program think your site is a valuable resource on a given topic. Many people referencing your site will do this, but that’s very time consuming, and can take a fairly long time to work. Making your site friendlier to the search engines, however, can have fairly quick results.

In your business, is it clear what it is your business does? Do you have easy ways for people to contact you? Do you provide answers to the questions people typically ask?

Or are you hunkering down and hiding so that you can get some work done?

Question Behaviour

There are hundreds of sites for asking questions – some focusing on particular areas such as programming or building a business, others which are open to any type of question. In recent weeks, I have spent time browsing through questions and answers, looking at the way in which people phrase their thoughts.

What struck me as interesting is that there are two types of questions, leading to particular types of answers. On the one hand, there are questions posed which are carefully crafted to avoid leading the answers. On the other side are the questions in which the author has a clear opinion, and is leading the answers down a particular path.

A side effect of these two general types of questions is the nature of the question itself – how well does it indicate to the reader what the true question is?

As an example, a question might be posed regarding ettiquette of exchanging business cards (I asked this question a few weeks ago on Linked In) and the answers to this question will be diverse. The question posed a particular situation, and the answers, for the most part, stayed on topic with people not only saying what they might have done, but also explaining why.

On the other side, I asked another question regarding networking styles, both online and offline (also on Linked In). The answers to this question were not what I was expecting – while they all were connected to networking, they didn’t answer my question. I later went and added a clarification to the question, hoping to get the information I was really seeking.

Does this mean I don’t always ask good questions? Perhaps. Except that I’ve noticed that I’m not alone in seeing this situation.

Does this mean that people aren’t good at expressing themselves well when asking questions? Certainly a possibility.

What I think is the true issue has to do with the first statement I made regarding the two types of questions. When we are being truly honest with ourselves and seeking information, we will try as hard as possible to not bias the answer. However, we can often be a little too good at that, resulting in a loss of information that would help clarify the question to the audience.

When asking a question, there is going to be a balancing act happening between the not cluttering the question with irrelevant facts, and providing sufficient information so that the audience understands what is being asked.

So, if you’re looking for something you can teach others, try teaching people how to ask questions. It’s a need that, when satisfied, will help people communicate that much better.