Small Business Networking

As a small business owner with a traditional storefront there are numerous avenues for promoting and marketing your business.  Many of the obvious ones such as newspaper ads, direct mail and radio/TV spots all share a common problem, they usually cost alot of money and there is usually a mediocre return on investment.  Networking and cross promoting with other small businesses can be a great and inexpensive way to get the good word out about your business.  Other small businesses may not feel the same zest for marketing success as you do and this is what I wanted to discuss in this article.

When I opened my first small business I was dizzy with all of the marketing possibilities available to me.  I dreamed about forming key partnerships with other like minded business and dreamed how we would all ride our wave of success straight to the top.

I made a list of about 50 local businesses that I would go and visit during the first few weeks after we opened.  I devised a great introductory letter introducing myself and my business and how we could both help each other achieve success through join promotions and networking.  I remember setting a schedule where I would visit 5 businesses a day until my task was completed.  I remember my first day building my “Networking Empire” fondly.  The owner of the first business owner I spoke with was very nice.  She listened with a smile as I told her about my ideas and said it sounded great and she would look over all of the information.  I was ecstatic as I left thinking about when I would make my follow up visit.  As I got into my car I saw her at the front counter as she ripped up my letter and tossed it into the waste basket.  I felt like I just got dumped.  As I drove off I dismissed her as an oddity and moved onto the remaining 4 businesses on my list.  To make a long story short, not one was interested in any kind of networking and some treated me with disdain like I was an encyclopedia salesman or something.

So what happened?  According to all of my business books, blogs and presentations I have seen, every small business owner wants to build a successful business.  Why wouldn't someone want to join forces with another business to share customers and grow their business to new heights?  I have learned 3 things about small business owners, especially ones with traditional brick and mortar businesses.

#1  Many of them do not read and study about small business success, leadership, marketing or anything else.  Not everyone has a passion about learning new ways to grow their business or how to be a better manager or anything for that matter.  It sounds strange but it's absolutely true.  Many people go into a new business venture knowing what they know and they think that's all there is to know.

#2  Many small business owners who at one time showed a passion and enthusiasm for their business have since lost it through the daily grind of work, bills, boredom, disappointment and so on.  It's easy to become cynical and jaded when what you dreamed your business to be looks nothing like the one you show up for every day, and take home with you every night. There is never time to set aside for a new marketing venture or a course in great customer service because they are too busy minding the store making sure nobody steals anything.

#3  Customer service is a foreign language.  Many small business owners identify their business with themselves, if you don't like the business then you don't like me.  They treat every complaint as a personal attack and usually respond in kind.  The attitude, “If you don't like it then go somewhere else” is prevalent  in many small businesses.

So what can we learn from this?

#1  Your small business can't grow unless you are growing too.  Keep educating yourself and be open to trying new things.  Don't let yourself become the biggest roadblock for your business.

#2  Stay optimistic.  Your going to have high and low points in your business.  Sometimes it's stomach churning, that's why owning your own business is not for everyone.  Building a successful business is really hard, which can be a good thing because if it were easy then everyone would have one.

#3  Your business is all about customer service.  It doesn't matter if you sell tires, mop floors or deliver newspapers, your in the customer service business.  Your business will grow in relation to how you treat your customers.  Treat them well.

To end my story, out of the 50 local businesses I visited, only 4 were interested in any kind of networking.  Over the next 2 years I created several joint promotions with those 4 businesses that led to lots of new business for all of us.  In one business, their  best customer became mine and it led to several thousand dollars in sales, through them and the referrals they brought in. Networking can take up alot of time and effort. It may be frustrating and time consuming walking around and knocking on doors and most will have no interest in what you have to offer.  Just keep in mind that for every 10 small business owners who have no interest in your offer, there may be one who is ready jump in and try something new with you.

organize operations manual with bindersI have been on struggle street for years when it comes to organization for myself and my workspace.

I usually run into the same problem most of us half-assed, partially organized people do. I start neat and orderly and slowly degrade into a rat's nest within a few weeks. I eventually get fed up and organize myself again only to repeat history time and time again. I have tried almost every method to organize myself one can think of, including PDA’s, a pocket full of post it’s and dozens of online to do lists and organizers.  All of these attempts usually last about a month before I slowly stop using it and revert back to scraps of paper in my pocket.

I have been trying a new method for several months now and this one seems to be working. It is using a combination of tried and true paper and an integration of technology. I keep a small notebook with me everywhere I go.  For this I use a nifty little notepad ( 4×3 inch) pad from Moleskin(Moleskine Square Notebook Pocket), it’s great.  Whenever I’m out and about and get hit by my next million dollar idea (to date I have had a total of none), I just pull out my nifty notepad with mini pen attached and quickly write down my ideas before the thought of lunch pushes it from my memory forever.  Every few days I will log into my own personal Wiki website and log everything I want to keep on my long running idea list.  I currently use Google sites for this as I am an avid user of Google Apps.  The great thing with using this method is when I finally transfer my thoughts and ideas from paper to web, I can include additional resources to each idea in the form of links and file attachments.  Neat!

A recent addition to organizing myself is Evernote.  This is an all-encompassing archive for everything you ever want to remember, sort of like having a second storage bin for your brain.  I have the Evernote app for my IPhone and use it everyday.  The app allows you record your thoughts and ideas through pictures, text and audio.  I won’t go into all of the features here as there are many but you can read more about Evernote Here.  The great thing about Evernote is that it compliments my current organization method instead of replacing it.  I use Evernote when I see something I want to reference later and take a picture of it or when I’m driving in the car and want to record an idea I have.  It’s also great for taking a picture of written text, like business cards for archiving.

Currently I have reached a semi level of harmony when it comes to organizing myself, but I have only been using it for a few months now so I will keep you updated as things may change.  I would love to hear how you keep yourself organized so post your comments below.

Managing employees takes practice and patience.  Being an effective manager is a skill that can be learned if you’re willing.  According to the ground breaking book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.  This is absolutely true as a great manager can turn even mediocre employees into fine tuned productivity machines.  Below are my top five tips to start you on the road to becoming a great manager.

1-      Learn to manage yourself first.  The key to managing yourself is to become what’s called “self aware”.  This is realizing what you are doing, while you are doing it.  Being able to catch yourself “in the moment” is the fundamental starting point to helping you manage employees better and to make yourself a better all around person.  You may not immediately be able to stop yourself from being the office know it all but at least you can be aware of it.  The easiest way to get started is to review your interactions with others.  Objectively think about each conversation you have and analyze what was said, how it was said and how the other person may have taken the information.  You may realize you have been acting like a jerk to your employees….ouch!

2-      Trust your employees.  They are going to make mistakes, and yes, they probably won’t be able to do it as well as you (at least in your mind), but they still need to get their job done.  Like children, employees need to be able to make mistakes and not fear your wrath when they make them.  Give your employees guidelines and training and let them work through the minor mistakes without you micromanaging every detail.  Think of yourself as a coach who is there to provide support and guidance but still needs his team in order to actually play and win the game.

3-      Don’t micromanage.  One of the things employees like least about a manager is one that is always looking over their shoulder.  This is a trap many small business owners cannot get out of.  They are so used to doing everything themselves that they find it hard to let their employees do their job.  Provide training, coaching and expectations of outcomes and let them figure out the path to get there.  Respect the fact that everyone does the same thing slightly different.

4-      Praise your employees.  Just like parenting, we are always pointing out the things our child does wrong and rarely for what they are doing right.  Look for opportunities to show genuine appreciation for you employees and always be on the lookout to catch them doing something right.  Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” is a great read for how to really motivate your employees.

5-      Communicate with your employees.  Instead of waiting for annual performance reviews to have a real conversation with your employees about their goals, expectations and concerns, ask them on a regular basis.  A casual “how is everything going?” or a “Is there anything I can do to make your job easier here?” in the halls can be much more effective than waiting until the end of the year to learn your star employee has been disgruntled for the past six months and is about to leave.

So here are my five tips for managing employees.  There are many other tips that aren’t listed here, these are just my top five.  I would love to hear yours, so leave a comment below!

I have just finished reading and enjoying Daniel Pink’s latest book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” It discusses what really motivates employees.  The ideas present in the book show us many of our traditional ways of rewarding employees is totally wrong and sometimes destructive.

What drives any of us to perform at our best? Is it money, fear of punishment, reward or is it something more than that?  Once I started reading “Drive”, I realized that Pink was on to something. It was time to upgrade my “Operating System” from one that has been too narrowly focused on reward and punishment to one that appealed to something bigger inside all of us; our intrinsic need for autonomy, mastery and purpose.

If you are a small business owner or in a position to manage others, this is a must read.  It will show you that money is quite often not what motivates employees but intrinsic motivations.  The book will discuss how to use this intrinsic motivation to create a great work environment and a happy work force.  The video below is a great talk Daniel Pink did at a TED conference a few years back.

How do you motivate your employees?  I’d love to hear your comments.

*Update!  In June 2012, Google announced that they are transitioning existing Google Places pages to Google+ for local business.  If you have an existing Places page, the content will automatically be moved over to the new Google+ page for your business.  If you don't have a Google+ page for your local business, you can create or claim your Google Plus page here.

Google Places (formerly Google small business center), is a wonderful tool for your small business.  The best part about it is that it’s totally free.  Too many small brick and mortar businesses are not taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity to create an online presence for their small business.  With the soon to be death of traditional yellow pages, and in most areas, print advertising, you cannot afford not to be online.  Customers today mainly are looking for what you have to offer online.  If you do not have a website yet,  you have to, at a minimum set up a Google Places account.  Did I mention that it’s Free?

Some really great features that have been added with the launch of Google Places are:

Service areas – Businesses who travel can show the geographic areas that they cover. Those without a storefront can make their address private.

Advertising with Tags – For 25 bucks a month, businesses (in certain cities) can use Tags to highlight their listings on Google.com and Google Maps. These are yellow markers that let you promote important aspects of your business. They can be used for things like coupons, photos, and other select features.  They don’t affect the rank of search results, but they give customers more information and may prove beneficial. You can expect Google to increase the number of cities where this option is available.

Business photo shoots – Businesses (again, in certain cities) can request a free photo shoot from Google to have the interior of their business photographed and added to their Place Page. We've seen Google do this in the past. Now we know what they're doing (learn more here). You can upload your own photos as well, just make sure they are of good quality.  Sometimes local photography schools will come in for Free and do the work since it is practice for them.

Customized QR Codes
– Google is providing customized QR codes from the Google Places Dashboard. The code will take customers to your place page, and can be used on business cards and other marketing materials. Customers can scan them with their smartphones.

See below for an introduction to Google Places

Google also gives businesses using Google Places great tracking stats they haven't been able to see in the past, like who'searching for them, how they're finding them, and where they're coming from.

Google is really making a push into the local search market, which is great news for the mom and pop local business.  “One out of five searches on Google are related to location, and we want to make sure that businesses are able to be found and put their best foot forward,” says Google Maps, Earth, and Local VP John Hanke.

The standard rules still apply to Google Places. Every listing must have a mailing address and there can't be more than one listing per physical location. Even physicians with multiple practices and services that cover multiple towns shouldn't have two listings. Google recommends in these cases that businesses use the description or categories to explain the different services offered. Google's quality guidelines can be found here, and may be helpful to businesses with questions about their listings.

With such a great Free resource for your Small Business, what are you waiting for?  It should take about 15 minutes from start to finish so get going today.

Are you using Google Places?   Share your experiences here.

Mr Productivity

Mr Productivity

I love to read, more specifically I love to read quality business books.  As a small business owner I feel like I am always short on time and can barely skim over a two page article let alone a 300+ page book.  I was speaking about this subject with a friend of mine who owns several small businesses and he suggested audio books to me.  A light went on in my head.  I commute nearly 30 minutes to and from my business each day, what a way to make more productive use of my time.  Instead of earning my graduate degree in 80’s Hair Band lyrics, I was inside my own mobile classroom..  Fast forward 24 months and 48 audio books later.  Today I feel like a knowledge sponge, having listened to books I otherwise never would have had time to read.  I have even expanded into awesome business pod casts and audio lectures.

Who would have known a simple suggestion would have opened up a whole new world of learning for me, I even discovered that i'm an auditory learner, making audio books even more impactful.  I learned two things from this experience. #1, when you meet a successful person, pester them (in a good way) about everything they know. #2, to become a success at anything, you need to have an obsession for it and a hunger to learn more.

Sites like Audible.com make it super easy and inexpensive to download and listen to audio books. Becoming more productive can lead you on a road to small business success. Give it a try, you may give yourself an MBA education during your once boring commute this year.

How do you make productive use of your time as a small business owner?