Small Business Resolutions

8 01 2012

Have you made your business resolutions for 2012? This is a great time to reevaluate what went well last year, what didn’t, and what is worth your time going forward. Sure, year-long plans inevitably get trumped here and there, but you can do a few things in the first quarter to set yourself up for success over the long-term. For the sake of a brainstorm, I’ve listed a few below.

    1. Figure out what makes you money. It’s really a simple concept, but if understood, it will guide your decisions. Your business certainly brings in cash, but what does it profit from? What enables you to cover your costs and cushion your bank account? Identifying the products and services that you not only sell the most of, but provide you with the largest margin of profit to work with. Check out this USA Today Money article for more tips.
    2. Figure out who makes you money. This is a tip I gained from a mentor of mine a while back. Start listing the referrals and resources that direct business your way, and the type of business you receive. If applicable, continue to map second and third degree referrals directing you business. This too will illustrate where your efforts might best be placed when trying to deepen your clientele.
    3. Utilize your contact management system. If you don’t have one, now’s the time to develop it. And if you have one, it’s time to use it creatively. How? The premise is not just about what software to use, but how to develop a system of maintaining relationships with your customers. This Bloomberg Businessweek article explains this premise, and offers a few links to further resources. It’s all about finding a system that you and your team can incorporate into daily routines, otherwise there’s no value to having one.
    4. Strategize your marketing plan. A marketing plan starts with telling the story of your business, see this Entrepreneur article for a 60-second pitch guide. Once you know how your business is distinctive and the solutions that it offers, it’s time to build a community with your customers. The key is to think strategically about engaging with the right audience, leverage online tools, and interact by providing value. Here are a few ideas for orchestrating your plan:
    5. Know how to close deals. With a marketing plan in place, customers will be familiar with your products and services. However, it all falls flat if you don’t offer incentives and opportunities for them to make a purchase. Knowing how to close the deal is crucial as it is always more expensive to pursue new customers than to retain existing ones. There are a variety of sales methods, and it may take a few trial approaches to find out what works best for your business. Here are a few articles showcasing the options available:

Take a moment to think through what proved successful in 2011, and what fell short despite your greatest efforts. We often get caught up with trying to do everything at once and immediately in an attempt to capture opportunities we think will prove fruitful. With a little strategy and foresight, your 2012 business resolutions just might prove even more successful and profitable – and it might not be worth doing everything either. Enjoy the process and don’t forget to celebrate the little milestones along the way.

Photo courtesy of Accessories.


The business of the holidays

30 11 2011

The holidays are officially here. And for many businesses, it’s one of the biggest marketing and sales opportunities of the year. But have you thought about utilizing this time for improving your business relationships? This Small Business Support Network article, “The Business of Christmas,” got me thinking about how the heightened degree of social gatherings and merriment during the season is a prime opportunity for bolstering your business and personal relationships, as well as making new ones.

Sure, as a business owner, ‘receiving’ a boost in business during the holidays is a great mood enhancer. It’s something many count on. But through the old adage of ‘giving,’ you can also view the season as a time to build upon lasting relationships with colleagues, partners, vendors and the like. This has less to do with giving presents as it does with giving your attention and time. And in the end, your generosity towards others will hopefully strengthen your base of business activity throughout the next year. As an example, reuniting with someone and strengthening your relationship can lead to a strategic alliance that previously didn’t exist. Here are some easy ways to foster relationships during the holidays:

  • Attend another company’s holiday party. Particularly if your business is compatible with the host company, this will grant an opportunity for you to interface with more people than your main point of contact. Plus, every host appreciates a crowd at their own party.
  • Host a holiday party. A holiday party is a great way to say ‘thanks’ to those who have worked hard to support your business’ success over the year.
  • Follow-up. Collect business cards and remember the people you meet at various holiday occasions. This is a great time to connect and reconnect.
  • Give referrals. Listen for how you can help others and give referrals that solve problems.
  • Appreciate your customers. A simple “thank you” goes a long way, and this is the time of year to let your customers know how much you cherish their business. Notes of gratitude, VIP sales opportunities, catered service, etc. go a long way.
  • Send holiday cards. This is yet another touch-point to keep you and your business top-of-mind.

Enjoy the holidays and enjoy rekindling friendships. Though the holidays will surely be busy in many respects, taking time to focus on others will undoubtedly be rewarding. And if you don’t make it to the party, try to connect with someone for five-minutes each day. Sometimes it’s reaching the mini-goals that help champion our greater efforts.

Photo courtesy of Tiny Prints.

Will Bake for Food: Charitable Bakers

13 11 2011

This weekend, I was fortunate to participate in an annual baking charity event called “Will Bake for Food.” It’s a bake sale orchestrated by Jenny Miller and Jenny Richards, and comprised of a community of Seattle food bloggers selling their sugared sweets to support the Emergency Feeding Program of Seattle and King County. Supporters not only came in droves to buy holiday sweets, they also contributed canned goods; in total the bake sale brought in $2,571 and several huge barrels of food to donate. Pretty impressive for a four hour bake sale!

As far as bake sales go, this was certainly one to attend. There were homemade marshmallows, pumpkin cheesecakes, brown-butter Nordy bars, savory and sweet popcorn bundles, bread pudding made with apple-fritter donuts, and chorizo caramel sauce. But what I appreciated most was all of the unique gluten-free items for sale. Because I do not eat gluten myself, I notice these things.

Gluten-free baking has become big business these days. This Reuters article offers a great aggregate summary of recent gluten-free business opportunities – did you know that gluten can be found in McDonald’s French fries and some lunch meat and lipstick? Making gluten-free products presents huge profitable ventures these days and the nation’s largest food conglomerates are looking to cash in on what was once a tiny niche. Though it is impressive to see how what was once a small business is now capturing corporate interest.

So what did I make to contribute to the bake sale? I made a salted birdseed brittle, perfect for human consumption. I adapted a recipe by Jess Thomson in the November 2011 issue of Edible Seattle magazine. What caught my attention was that brittle is a great sweet treat that simply is gluten-free; it’s made from sugar, butter, and a crunchy filling. So often gluten-free baking is an attempt to make common gluten-filled food without the use of wheat, barley, rye, etc. – and it just doesn’t compare.

Now for the recipe. My only adaptions from the original Edible Seattle recipe were to exclude emmer (as it is a wheat grain), increase the volume of the quinoa, millet and sesame to compensate, and generously salt the surface of the brittle for a sweet and salty flavor combination.

Salted Birdseed Brittle – Directly adapted from Jess Thomson’s recipe in Edible Seattle

1 1/4 cup quinoa

1 1/4 cup millet

1/4 cup sesame seeds

1/4 cup bonus mix of quinoa, millet and sesame seeds, or substitute sunflower seeds – in lieu of emmer

2 cups sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup water

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ pieces

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon sea salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Spread the quinoa, millet, and sesame seeds evenly on a baking sheet. Toast seeds in the oven until lightly browned and fragrant, 10-12 minutes, stirring once or twice during cooking. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Combine the sugar, corn syrup and water in a large sauce pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil, then stir in the butter. Cook the mixture over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until it measures 290 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant-read thermometer. Stir in the toasted seeds and the baking soda, then return the heat and cook until the mixure boils again. Immediately pour the mixture onto two rimmed baking sheets, dividing it evenly between each sheet. Working quickly, use a small spatula to spread the mixture into an even layer about 1/4″ thick. Generously sprinkle the sea salt over the surface of the mixture. Let it cool until completely hard.

Break the brittle into bit-sized pieces, then store in airtight containers at room temperature, up to 2 weeks.

This is an easy treat to make over the holidays and nice to bring to parties and potlucks too. Enjoy the brittle and continue to think of how to support others in need.

Engaging Millenials

11 11 2011

Millenials. There is no clear definition to the bracket age range of Generation Y, or the Millenial generation, but it is said that they were born sometime between the mid-1970s to the early 2000s; they are the children of baby boomers and are thus also called ‘Echo Boomers.’ And in the U.S., there are a lot of them. In fact, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, the new Coca Cola CEO, Muhtar Kent, stated that the U.S. in particular is a great growth market for Coca Cola because: “It’s the only Western nation with a young demographic that is growing. By 2040 only a quarter of the U.S. population will be over the age of 60, compared with 30% in Europe and 40% in Japan. It’s a diverse, enterprising, entrepreneurial population.” I love that last sentence.

Here’s the tough part, Millenials have faced the highest unemployment rates among the nation’s four living generations and they are more likely than other generations to report a recent job loss; add in two wars and the threat of global terrorism. Moreover, according to the Pew Research Center, because they’re still developing their core values, these effects can be pretty influential.

Yet, the huge wave of Millenials flooding the workplace remains incredibly optimistic and driven. They are digital natives, they are accustomed to ongoing dialogues about their integration in the workplace, and they expect coaching in different forms and with several people. Most importantly, they see education and learning as a currency to cash in for opportunities – and if an organization does not have a pipeline of next steps for career succession, Millenials are willing to move on, even if they have yet to conceive of a Plan B.

On the subject of leaving, a recent study by Mercer noted that nearly one-third of U.S. workers are at least considering leaving their present employers and that younger employees (under age 35) are most at risk in the current environment — 40 percent of employees age 25-34 and 44 percent of employees age 24 and younger are considering leaving. On the flip side, a Towers Watson report indicated that most organizations surveyed expect employees to work more hours than before the recession, and that over half expect this to continue – it also mentioned that organizations underestimate the effect work-related stress and work/life balance have on employee retention, and do not recognize the significance of job security in attracting top talent. There’s a win-win to be found in the integration of reward and talent management programs, now’s the time to get creative and really understand your business, your future, your employees, and a succession plan for all.

Here’s a list of articles to read as a quick bootcamp for engaging the Millenial generation and harnessing their talent:

Millenials truly believe in the total work experience and how it impacts their career succession and personal aspirations, in addition to opportunities for influencing the future growth of their employer and the communities to which they live in. It’s a full-sweep bottom line approach given the social and financial perspectives, but a differentiated approach as to how an organization can retain and attract talent as well. The Millenials are certainly changing the game in many realms, it’s time to utilize their strengths.

Photo courtesy of The Millenials, a documentary by two Clemson seniors.

Business Lunch: Heinz Ketchup

7 11 2011

If you prefer a brand of ketchup other than Heinz ketchup, we’re going to have words. First introduced in 1876, Heinz continues to dominate the market; Heinz has a 59 percent share, dwarfing store brands, which account for 21.8 percent, and Hunt’s, with 15.1 percent. In his 2004 article in The New Yorker, “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Malcom Gladwell stated that ketchup appeals to all fundamental human tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami – a condiment that pushed all five of the primal buttons. However, just as any business must evolve and mature over time to strengthen its brand and generate loyal customers, Heinz is a great example of a longstanding successful company to learn from.

Ketchup with balsamic vinegar, launching November 14, 2011. Not only is it interesting that Heinz is producing a new version of its ketchup, but it’s also trying out a new selling tactic as well. As the label states, “Heinz tomato ketchup, blended with balsamic vinegar,” is the first new Heinz ketchup flavor variation in almost a decade. Do you remember the Heinz “Blastin’ Green,” “Funky Purple” and “Stellar Blue” ketchup colors featured in EZ Squirt bottles? Then Heinz admitted to a likely cannibalization of existing products, but it’s now claiming that the new balsamic ketchup is unique enough that consumers will buy it in addition to the bottle already in their refrigerator door. As for the selling tactic, it will only be available for sale through the Heinz Ketchup Facebook page before further distribution in December.

Dip and Squeeze packaging, launching January 2012. Heinz for decades has searched for better single-serve packets and has landed on a new version aimed to solve existing complaints about its packets being messy, hard to open and not providing enough ketchup. Heinz believes that this new packaging will increase orders for fries at drive-thrus and hopefully dramatically expand its market share by having McDonald’s feature its brand of ketchup. Apparently, a supply spat between Heinz and McDonald’s during a 1973 tomato shortage resulted in a Heinz lockout from most McDonald’s U.S. locations; more here on Heinz’s courtship with McDonald’s. (Interesting too, here’s a tasty bit of trivia on McDonald’s brand of ketchup.) Trouble is, the new packaging is more costly to produce, and when ketchup is generally thought of as free to customers, an increase in cost matters a lot.

Worldwide condiment domination. This year more than 20% of Heinz’s revenues will come from emerging markets such as China, India, Indonesia, Russia, and Brazil, versus less than 5% a few years ago. From soy sauce in China to a ketchup in the Philippines made from bananas, longtime Heinz CEO Bill Johnson describes his strategy for growing sales in developing economies through different modes of due diligence and a focus on diversification that helps mitigate not only the political risks but also currency risks. With such a mature brand, and one that is so successful, it’s interesting to learn how Heinz continues to evolve by entering into new markets around the world. Click here to see an acquisition timeline, it’s amazing to see how they’ve distinguished the core condiment for each culture.

From a small business perspective, there’s a lot to emulate from Heinz’s operations. Heinz may be an incredibly large and financially successful business, but it continues to develop new products, adapt its packaging to meet market demands, and expand its reach globally to access new customers. None of these concepts are foreign from what a small business owner thinks about daily, it’s just that Heinz has a lot more money to play with when doing so (and they play on a much larger playing field). Not every move that Heinz has made has been a home run, but it’s interesting to acknowledge what they thought about going into each tactic and what they learned from the experience. It’s often hard to rest with the fact that, even though we have an immense amount of information at our fingertips, time and experience grants answers so many questions. And with Heinz, it has had a lot of time to mature.

Video courtesy of The Early Show.

Tourism: Washington vs. Montana

31 10 2011

You must have noticed Montana tourism advertising in Washington state, at least around downtown Seattle. (The photo above is at a vacant storefront on University Way.) They are taking siege, knowing full well that Washington doesn’t have a whole lot to combat their big gorgeous illustrations of wildlife and clever marketing aimed at wooing Washington residents to the “Big Sky Country.”

And who’s to stop them? As voiced in the New York Times, Washington officially became the only state in the union without a tourism office this year. Due to budget cuts, there is no more state money to promote tourism within or outside of the state. Archived property has been transferred to members of the Washington Tourism Alliance, formed this year with the goal of taking over statewide marketing coordination. This nonprofit group includes big agencies like Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau and smaller operations like Indian-owned casinos and ski resorts. With tourism as the fourth largest industry in Washington and a year-over-year upswing on visitor spending and international visitors from 2009 to 2010, Montana clearly sees market share to capture.

If the grand billboards weren’t enough to make you realize Montana’s success, the tipping point for me was a recent radio commercial promoting Montana by Washington’s own Warren Miller. (He lives on Orcas Island.) It’s in this 60-second radio spot that Mr. Miller attributes Montana as the perfect destination for winter adventure, and likens settling in Montana to that of the early pioneers who ceased their travels upon landing in Montana – because it was just that perfect then too. Heck, surrounding this year’s Warren Miller film alone, look at Montana’s tourism efforts to raise awareness:

Montana-focused tourism is also a political issue requiring advocacy within the state. Montana currently has a dedicated funding source for tourism promotion, a 4% Lodging Facility Use Tax commonly referred to as the “Bed Tax.” This tax was enacted by the 1987 Montana legislature and is collected from guests of hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, guest ranches, resorts and campgrounds. And just like Washington’s new Tourism Alliance, Montana has a coordinated group of regional organizations dedicated to educating the public about the power of tourism, and value of the tax.

While Washington doesn’t have a state-initiated tax to promote tourism, there are some already enacted city-mandated bed taxes to fuel support for city specific tourism. (See the City of Olympia for example.) Downtown Seattle hotel owners have proposed a $2-per-night room tax to fund advertising that would promote travel to the city, particularly in slower months. If passed, that fee will add to the 15.6 percent tax Seattle hotel guests already pay in sales and room taxes, which go in part toward paying off debt on the Washington State Convention Center and promoting Seattle as a business and convention destination.

The good news for Washington is that despite dismal efforts to market the state, tourists do seem to keep coming and spending money. We also have a great state tourism website at too. So there’s already a foundation for the Washington Tourism Alliance to grow and succeed, not to mention a grounding of support from hotel owners looking to advocate for new funding resources to expand the tourism industry. The tough part, particularly in this economy, is advocating to the public why this issue so important – over countless others – and how the numbers work out to our advantage. Enter the challenge of consensus building.

Until then, enjoy drop dead gorgeous images of Montana. They’re a nice diversion from the reminder of vacant storefronts regardless.

P.S. I’ve also been fascinated with Oregon’s tourism campaign too.

Photo courtesy of Montana’s Office of Tourism.

Business Lunch: The McRib

28 10 2011

Scarcity. It’s a great marketing tactic to create demand, and McDonald’s does it well with the McRib. You can’t get this sandwich whenever you want, it’s only offered once a year and at specific locations at limited times. And unlike the In-N-Out secret menu, which you can order from at any time of the year, the McRib is truly a marketing engine playing off of the basic economic principle of supply and demand – and, well, quirkiness since the McRib actually contains no ribs.

Per this TIME article, the McRib was introduced in 1982, disappeared in 1985, and then periodically introduced again and again in McDonald’s here in the states and abroad. The McRib hadn’t been sold nationally since 1994 until it was formally reintroduced last year in November. It’s a chemistry lab creation of 70 harmonious ingredients, including 980 mg of sodium, 26 g of fat, 10 g of saturated fat, and 500 calories. And this saucy number is all the rage.

Here’s an interesting tidbit, the the guy who won McDonald’s $1 million Monopoly grand prize last year was ordering — you guessed it — a McRib.

Interestingly enough, it’s up to McDonald’s franchises to determine when and if they want to sell the McRib, except in Germany where it is always available. Have no fear, there is a McRib Locator that tracks its availability nationwide.

So what product or service in your business can you promote with a little scarcity? Scarcity can give you an opportunity to deepen customer loyalty and offer you the chance to highlight and reward your VIP customers. Regardless, the perception of value and differentiation is of utmost important and it’s imperative that you follow-through on the offer. Beyond that, using scarcity as a marketing tactic is simply that, at tactic. And some work better than others.

…And sometimes, playing ‘hard to get’ is just plain fun.

Photo courtesy of geekosystem.

Debit card merchant and usage fees

10 10 2011

FYI. As of this month, merchants will now be paying higher merchant fees for debit card transactions. The cost of transactions has jumped as of October 1, 2011 as merchants must now pay the maximum allowable fees under federal law for purchases under $15; 21 cents to 24 cents, instead of  6 cents to 7 cents per transaction. What does this mean? These fees may end up coming out of your wallet.

Debit cards have been under hot debate lately. At issue is the fee that retailers pay to banks to process electronic debit card payments, otherwise known as interchange fees. Previously, interchange fees were set by the payment card networks, such as Visa and Mastercard, as part of the contracts that allowed merchants and their banks to use the networks to process electronic payments. The networks argued that interchange fees helped pay for the electronic processing, fraud prevention and convenience that go along with accepting a debit card payment. Merchants used to pay interchange fees of about 1 to 2 percent of each transaction, or about 44 cents on the average purchase. Now, the credit card networks have eliminated the interchange fee rate schedules and the merchant discounts on small-dollar purchases and set all rates at the maximum allowed by law.

And if you think you might fair better opening a merchant account with a small regional bank, you might ask further into their policies. Apparently, banks with less than $10 billion in assets are exempt from the debit card swipe fee limits, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not opposed to charging fees. Thus, these small banks can charge higher interchange fees for using their cards, particularly as they’re finding it harder to generate loan income otherwise.

What about all the press on the ‘customers’ of banks paying more for using debit cards? That’s true too. Banks are now charging ‘activity fees’ for accessing your own money, the New York Times recently ran through a few banks’ fees as well. Check out the new debit card swipe fee rates in effect.

  • Chase: $3/month service fee on debit card use.
  • Wells Fargo: $3/month “debit card activity fee” charged to GA, OR, WA, NM and NV customers a part of a test program.
  • Bank of America: $5/month for debit card use, starting in 2012. Cancelled as of November 1, 2011!
  • SunTrust: $5/month for debit card use, starting in 2012.
  • Citibank: No fee, as it would be a source of irritation for its customers.

President Obama is blasting Bank of America for charging fees. Banks are trying to defend their position. Retailers are on the road to discriminating against debit cards. And small businesses may end up scrapping credit card transactions all together in favor of cash. Regardless, accessing money this days costs money. Finding the most efficient way to do so is the name of the game, but at what cost to your business?

Photo courtesy of BizMology.

Business Lunch: Pumpkins

6 10 2011

October has set upon us, Halloween is just around the corner, it’s pumpkin season.

But pumpkin farmers are a bit wary this fall. Unfortunately, those on the east coast have experienced a season of drenching storms from Hurricane Irene causing farms to throw away waterlogged pumpkins molding faster than usual. Scorching hot temperatures this past summer also sliced the Texas pumpkin production in half. For most of the nation, the hot dry summer ripened crops early and the rains in the early fall drenched them. Simply put, pumpkins will cost more this year. And because of the wet fall, they’re not going to last very long either.

All the more reason to embrace the the spirit of supporting local. We’re lucky in Washington to have local farms selling pumpkins and businesses thinking seasonally.

Celebrate the season and support your local farmer! Particularly how weather dependent this season has been, local farms certainly appreciate your support. Make the time to visit a farm, get in the dirt and have fun ‘picking’ your pumpkin. It will make you smile every time you walk up to the front door.

Photo courtesy of The Telegraph, it’s a 1,647 pound pumpkin found in Shoreline, WA.

Business Lunch: Food Truck Consulting

4 10 2011

Find an obstacle, create a way to lower the barriers to entry. That’s what Matt Cohen of Off the Grid did. Originally wanting to start a food truck business serving the ramen noodle dishes he learned to prepare in Japan, he encountered obstacles when trying to obtain permits to operate his business. Like many cities trying to engage in and regulate the food truck revolution, he ran into city bureaucracy that made it more difficult for him to move forward. Instead, he built a for-profit food truck business that supports a rapidly expanding network of about 100 mobile food vendors at weekly events around the Bay Area.

Reshaping the way food trucks operate, Off the Grid is a soup-to-nuts, vertically integrated operation, assisting mobile food vendors with everything from location scouting to social media tricks to truck aesthetics. His consulting arm has even won the hearts of the city as his clients receive expedited permits. Off the Grid also works with the local Parks Department to open spaces for food truck events, creating even more business for its clients.

In Seattle, operating a food truck business is just as tough. However, this year the Seattle City Council recently voted in favor of new rules, which allow food trucks to sell beyond private lots. For a breakdown of these new, more relaxed, regulations, see this Seattle Times article. Prior to this new regulation, I also wrote about food truck business models.

Time and time again, we’re confronted with obstacles that challenge our vision or progression forward with an idea. The real challenge is possibly refocusing and changing direction. Sometimes the obstacle itself may present an unmet need, as it did with Mr. Cohen. While it may be frustrating to shift gears, the process of thinking through alternatives might highlight a profitable avenue for both you and your customers. It may just become your win-win cash cow.

Photo courtesy of Off the Grid.