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.


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.

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.

The Food Truck Business Model

21 07 2010

It’s an understatement to say that food trucks are all the rage because it’s literally a “movement.” And really, this isn’t surprising as small businesses and entrepreneurial start-ups are thriving in this economy. Food trucks are the epitome of small, mobile, adaptable businesses going after their target markets.

Notably, a GPS-oriented Food Truck App launched this spring, debuted by the company that leased Kogi BBQ its first truck and helped kick off the nouveau food truck craze. Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ is also one of Food and Wine‘s Top Chefs of 2010 (check out his business tips). Additionally, the Food Network is premiering its new show Food Trucks later this summer on August 15, 2010. So it’s already been a big year for food trucks! And as cities across the county take pride in their favorites, this national sensation not only bolsters the local economy, tourists flock toward them too.

So what does it take to run a food truck? Well, the biggest seller for jumping into the market is mobility and a somewhat lower initial capital investment – over a brick-and-mortar restaurant. But as every entrepreneur will tell you, it’s easy to run after tangents that spider off of an original business model, that is if you have one. posted an informative article about “How to Open a Successful Food Truck,” which also included a number of operational considerations such as city permits, insurance, and parking fees. New York Magazine also published an article on “How to Start Your Own Food Truck,” noting start-up operating costs and acquiring/retrofitting a truck as significant measures to acknowledge.

Probably one of the most influential contributors to the making of a successful food truck culture in any city are the street vendor licensing and permitting requirements. The Seattle Times recently posted an article in its Retail Report about how the Mayor plans to recommend street food rule changes to the City Council. “Street Vendors” are even qualified as a characteristic of a thriving business district by the Seattle Office of Economic Development. Yet, a number of strict regulations imposed in the 1980’s have limited Seattle’s street food scene to a minimal number of trucks and a battalion of hot dog, popcorn, and espresso vendors. Check out the main changes being proposed here. There’s a mixed emotion for the relaxed rules, given the potential for increased business competition. And there may be a few learning opportunities from Portland’s street food scene.

Regardless, food truck entrepreneurs have mastered the use social media to create consumer demand and a loyal following. They’re experts at building relationships and communities of fans – who wouldn’t want to discover their tricks? (See Mashable‘s video and Forbes‘ article.)

In Seattle we’re fortunate to have a wealth of fresh, local, and creative food – it will be interesting to see how a bigger food truck scene reflects this. And with our successful farmers market culture, I wonder if the mobile CSAs of New York City will make their move West – will truck farming be the next movement?

Photo courtesy of ibeginz.

Small Business Resources in Washington

23 04 2010

Here are some great resources for entrepreneurs and small business owners in Washington. It’s always nice to have a go-to list, so here’s a start. And if you have any favorites that I’ve not listed, please comment and share! Think big and act strategically.

Start & Grow a Business in Washington:

  • Choose Washington – Providing technical and financial assistance to communities and businesses for trade and economic development, to encourage retention and expansion of employment and operations in the state of Washington.
  • Washington Guide for Small Business 2010 – This directory assembles, in one handy reference, information on organizations, services, and programs throughout the state to help Washington businesses survive.
  • Access Washington: Plan a Business – Understanding who to turn to for research and planning, business advice, financial assistance, regulatory information, and the basics of running a small business is vital to your success.
  • Washington Small Business Development Centers – Promoting economic vitality by providing advice, training and research to entrepreneurs and existing businesses statewide.
  • Washington State Office of Minority and Women Owned Businesses – Develops programs designed to improve the contributions of minority and women-owned small businesses to the Washington State economy.
  • Community Capital Development – A consortium of non-profit community development organizations that provide technical assistance, training, counseling, and loans.
  • Seattle SCORE – Providing free and confidential one-on-one business consulting  for interested individuals.

Legal Resources:

Local Networks & Connections:

News & Current Topics:

National Associations:

Photo courtesy of Topikito.

largest and most diverse network of influential business leaders in the Puget Sound region.

Hooray for Local Seattle Businesses!

1 04 2010

It’s well known that I’m a big advocate for small businesses. And today I’m even more excited about supporting the Seattle business community.

After the demise of Washington Mutual in 2008, Seattle lost the eight year sponsor of its 4th of July fireworks show drawing tens of thousands of people to the shores of Lake Union. Chase, which absorbed Washington Mutual, agreed to sponsor the show last year, but not again. (Ivar’s also pulled the plug on its annual “4th of Jul-Ivar’s” show last year after 44 years.) So when One Reel, the nonprofit that organizes the show, announced this week that it was not able to secure a corporate sponsor for the annual fireworks show this year – Seattle restaurateur and chef Tom Douglas pledged $5,000 to keep the show going and challenged other Seattle business leaders to do the same. Talk about a community effort – sidelining several other donors, Microsoft and Starbucks each doled out $125,000.

And the donations keep rolling in. Check out which Seattle businesses are pledging to save the show this year; the list is impressive and continually growing.

I first learned of Tom’s 4th of July donation efforts through his restaurant’s Twitter account. But it’s not unknown that Tom is acutely interested in developing a supportive business community – particularly a supportive food community. Whether you liken it as Tom Douglas University or the Tom Douglas Universe, as mapped out in the April 2010 issue of Seattle Magazine, think of the velocity effect of his ambition. With five restaurants, a bakery, a catering business, a radio show, a line of spice rubs, and a kitchen tool line on Amazon, he’s developed quite a business – and he’s opening two more restaurants!

It’s understandable that when money is tight, companies may choose to donate funds toward partnerships held in a different regard, and with less liability. But after an almost half a century long community tradition, it’s hard to muster the thought of not having a fireworks show in Seattle on the 4th of July. A community campaign seems fitting.

Cheers to Tom Douglas. And cheers to all the area businesses that are donating to support Seattle’s 4th of July fireworks show over Lake Union. Buying local can surely have an explosive effect – I’ll see you underneath the fireworks in a few months.

…If you’d like to make an individual donation, click here.

Photo courtesy of Jenine Anderson.

Small business owners, win $10,000!

14 03 2010

I’ve previously written about the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s “It’s Time for Business” campaign to promote regional economic recovery. And recently, the Chamber released another innovative opportunity for small businesses in their “It’s Time for Business with Office 2010 Video Contest.” The contest is part of an ongoing effort by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Microsoft Corporation to help small businesses increase productivity and profits through technology training and tools.

$10,000 is on the line for the best video/grand prize winner, with $1,000 each going to the best foreign language video winner and best video by a woman-owned business. Submissions will be judged on five criteria: originality, creativity, concept, information, and overall presentation. The contest deadline is Aprill 22, 2010. No purchase is necessary, you just have to be a small business in Washington state with seven full-time employees or fewer. (But just in case, here are the official contest rules.) [Disclosure: I’m currently working with the Chamber on some of their policy initiatives.]

Why not give it a try? No video experience is required, but you will need to take a few steps to enter the contest. With a $10,000 jackpot, it just might be worth you while. Get your camera rolling, “it’s time for business!”

Photo courtesy of Fabiofco.

Legal Resources For Startups and Entrepreneurs

5 03 2010

A couple of lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP write a Startup Company Law Blog that I’ve enjoyed reading. Legally speaking, this is a great hot spot resource for legal business information, particularly in Washington state.

However, it was just today that I noticed a link on their “Noteworthy Blogs & Sites” list: Legal Resources for Startups. This resource list is offered by Read Write Start, which is sponsored by Microsoft BizSpark, a program designed to help accelerate the success of early stage startups. So it goes without saying that there’s a bit of money and work going into what is presented. Regardless, this post has a really nice offering of blogs, articles, websites, Venture Capital tips and other online resources for entrepreneurs and startups. It’s important to have information like this at your fingertips. And I even enjoyed the site’s links to the “Top 10 Reasons Why Entrepreneurs Hate Lawyers” and “How to Work with Lawyers at a Startup.”

I hope this post serves to be helpful, and possibly a part of your business reference toolbox. It’s now a part of mine, in the “Go to the Source” list in the right column of my blog.

Photo courtesy of North Bay Biz.

Sales Tax Compliance.

6 02 2010

Alright, I’ve mentioned this before. In this era of increased economic sensitivity, governments are looking for further ways to ensure tax payment compliance. With regard to resident businesses, my recent post about paying use taxes is just one measure.  Sales taxes include another measure, and they can be tricky to determine.

Collecting sales tax is a monster of a time sink for small businesses to wrap their hands around, but an important one to figure out (especially if you don’t have a software system to do it for you). And as a reminder to Washington businesses, “reseller permits” issued by the Department of Revenue have replaced “resale certificates” as of January 2010. So to whittle down what may appear to be a complex issue, here are a few generalities a part of collecting sales taxes:

I hope this helps filter the relevant tax information applicable to your business. Washington state has several useful tools to help your business remain compliant – though, keeping up to date could be one of the hardest tasks; even big-box stores can’t get it right. For any further questions about filing your tax return, or new laws, rules, and notices, check out the Washington State Department of Revenue’s most recent Tax Facts publication (it comes out twice a year).

Here’s to regulatory success in the new year.

Photo courtesy of the Washington Office of the Secretary of State’s blog.

Are You Paying “Use Taxes?”

28 01 2010

Alright, every state is looking for ways to generate more money and ways to shave off superfluous expenses this year. Thus, it’s not surprising to hear that state governments are cracking the whip at resident businesses for not paying certain taxes. In particular, Washington state is after businesses that have not paid “use taxes,” and it’s trying a new approach – a gentle nudge toward voluntary compliance.

What are use taxes? A use tax is a state tax on goods purchased in another state (i.e., Oregon, where there’s no sales tax) for use in the taxing state (i.e., Washington), to make up for (in lieu) local sales tax. More specifically,

“States and municipalities impose use taxes on purchases or rentals that are made outside the taxing jurisdiction but would have been taxable had they taken place within it. Such transactions escape the normal sales tax collection because retailers outside the state or municipality are not required to collect the sales tax. The use tax protects retailers located in the state or municipality because it removes the incentive for consumers to shop outside that locality in order to avoid paying the sales tax.”

Basically, it’s a business tax that’s a complement to sales tax. Washington particularly relies heavily on sales and use taxes as the state does not impose an income tax. One study stated that one of the main reasons for noncompliance with the use tax is ignorance; it’s commonly misunderstood. So the Washington Department of Revenue’s Taxpayer Services Division has tried a new approach to informing businesses about use taxes, and encouraging payment thereafter. Starting in 2003, they sent letters.

The department knew that businesses getting these compliance letters would say, “It’s a lot of work to go through my records and see what I owe.” So, it looked at what the average company in each recipient’s industry owed, and told them that if they didn’t want to go through all their purchases, they could use this table that shows annual gross business income and average their annual use tax reported. For example, a company with $250,000 gross income tends to report $563 in use tax. Thus, companies could use this table to get current rather than go through their records.

Overall, collections attributed to this program have been in excess of $17 million over the past five fiscal years. And, for every $1 spent — mainly staff time, printing and postage — the department received $300 in return. Voluntary compliance as a result of sending “information” to taxpayers, instead of an “assessment,” is at the heart of the program. The letters mainly initiate the opportunity to catch up on past taxes without paying a penalty.

Have you received one of these letters?

Photo courtesy of