Posts Tagged ‘Growth’


Go Find the Thin Places in Your Business

Wide avenue with trees on each side forming a shaded tunnel.When was the last time you felt inspired and then fundamentally changed your view of the business world?

In the hustle and thickness of every day, it is rare to have a transformational experience. Most small business owners see their days as a list of to-do’s they must check off. Typically this provides nothing more than a sigh of relief or a sense of frustration at the conclusion of every day.

This is one reason why taking scheduled breaks to recharge from the daily routine is so important. It can thrust you into places where you can have new experiences and gain totally different perspectives. These are called thin places.

Characteristics of a Thin Place

According to Eric Weiner, cultural traveler and writer for the New York Times, thin places can be charming, enchanting, and awe-inspiring. They can be calming, yet stir feelings and emotions. Time passes pleasantly in these places, without feeling a need to track it. They are places where one can’t help but marvel at beauty, efficiency, and the power of everything. Thin places are where wisdom just sits. They prompt you to ponder rare and new thoughts. They help you make thought associations that have alluded you.

In his article, Weiner explains that thin places are not necessarily tranquil, beautiful, or fun. They usually aren’t places like Disney World or an awards dinner. Thin places are where there is not agenda. They can be natural places like the Sonoran Desert or the ocean. They can be man-made parks or city squares. For some people, thin places can even be an airport or a local bookstore.

Purpose of Thin Places
Thin places give people new perspectives. They don’t necessarily provide “spiritual breakthroughs”, but they do change the way one sees the world. They disorient, confuse, and transform. People leave as different, yet perhaps more authentically themselves, after encountering a thin place. They see themselves and their business from a different place.

How to Get to Thin Places
Usually, thin places are just stumbled upon. In order to increase the likelihood of encountering thinness, you must start by having no preconceived notions. Thinking you will walk out with a brilliant idea or revelation will probably mean disappointment. There are no guidebooks to take you there since thin places are not the same for everyone. Each person must discover what thinness looks like to them.

Whether you are traveling the world or a local neighborhood, be open to new places and experiences that don’t exist inside your office or your company. It’s not so much the place itself as it is how you feel in that place. You must find the places where you feel thin – where you feel really you.

My thin place is at Wallace Desert Gardens in Scottsdale. Where are yours?


Mondays with Mike: Why Pivoting Can Kill Your Business

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If you’re anything like me, you’re perpetually trying to improve your business.  I read a lot of material produced by other entrepreneurs to make sure I stay on top of trends and the most current research that can help me be a better business owner.  My companies are my babies, and I want to be a good parent.

We have to be wary consumers of entrepreneurial advice, though, and there’s one trend that is particularly troubling to me because it eats away at the core reasons you and I had for starting our companies in the first place.  Pivoting can be lethal to your business, and here’s why.

Pivoting, explained simply, is finding out what your customers want and altering your product until you satisfy your customers.  Now in theory, trying to please your customers doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right?  Here’s the problem, though:  assuming that you started your business because you had a philosophy and a product that you believed in, pivoting can end up being nothing more than incremental steps that carry you further and further from your vision.

In fact, not only can pivoting move you away from your vision, but it can also do real harm to your bottom line. 

I’ll share a story that illustrates how dangerous pivoting can be:  When I wrote my first book, The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, I thought I knew exactly who my target audience was.  I was absolutely certain that my readers would be male, recent college graduates.  I’d created marketing plans with that reader in mind, and I was shocked when I didn’t see immediate sales to my expected demographic.  I’d missed my mark, and for whatever reason, my book wasn’t selling as well as I’d hoped … at least not to the people I thought it would.

As it turned out – before I could revise the book and re-release it, hoping to get the readers I’d hoped for – I discovered my book did have a market – a really good one.  It just wasn’t what I expected.  I was shocked when I started getting feedback from middle aged women who were telling me how valuable they’d found my insights.  I did have natural readership – one who identified with and valued my methods – and if I’d revised my book to chase after another set of readers, I’d have lost the ones I had.  Had I pivoted … altered my product … I’d have missed out on the customer that already existed – for the product I really believed in.

So pivoting can not only mean that you’ll miss out on the natural customers who want what you’re producing, but there’s also a principle at the core of pivoting that’s a problem.  You’ll see advice about producing a minimum viable product (MVP) to test market customer reception.  The problem with MVPs is that they’re necessarily watered down, poorer quality offerings than what you’d produce if you were really going all in with a product launch.  It’s my position that if you’re truly invested in a product you believe is a unique, high quality offering, then you’ll find your customers.  Putting out a lousy representation in order to test the waters will ultimately damage your brand and dilute the effect you’re trying to create in the marketplace.

My advice when it comes to pivoting – or any other entrepreneurial trend – is to remember why you started your business in the first place.  Any trend or new concept that moves you away from your vision for your company deserves closer scrutiny and a skeptical eye.  Finding your authentic customers and then earning and keeping their confidence is a much sounder course than shifting your direction in search of an easier road.


3 Tech Tools That Make Your Small Business Seem Much Larger

11-13 shadowBusinesses no longer are forced to lease office space and hire multiple employees to start and grow. Thanks to the many technology tools that are available today, even a one-person startup operating out of a home office can interact with clients and customers. Best of all, these tools are often affordable, utilizing the devices an entrepreneur already has.

By choosing the right selection of tools, a professional can grow slowly, giving customers the impression the business is located in a large multi-story business suite. Here are three great technologies that can turn your small enterprise into a complex business, complete with customer service representatives and administrative assistants.

VoIP Call Forwarding

As a small business owner, your cell phone is your lifeline. Today’s cloud-enabled VoIP phone systems offer a wide variety of features to facilitate communication as you grow. Using an online interface or a desk phone, a business can forward calls as needed throughout the day.

As a business adds employees, additional users can be added, with calls being routed to employees whether they’re at home, in the office, or traveling from one meeting to the next. These systems can also be set to ring multiple phones at once, so a professional can have a desk phone, cell phone, and home phone ring simultaneously to ensure no call is ever missed.

Cloud Services

Cloud service providers have served as the great equalizer in the business world, giving SMBs access to technologies traditionally only available to larger businesses. Companies pay a monthly fee for access to software, file and application hosting, and web hosting from any device. Cloud services providers employ some of the best IT professionals to provide the highest level of security and reliability.

In addition to providing storage and software functionality, the cloud has also made it possible for businesses to rethink the traditional approach to getting work completed. Instead of committing to a full-time employee with salary and benefits, a business owner can contract with an online virtual assistant to help manage tasks, as well as graphic designers, application developers, marketing professionals, and other workers. This work can be done on a paid-per-job basis, with workers potentially living on the other side of the world.

Billing and Payment Solutions

Invoicing is an essential part of any growing business. During the process of building and growing a startup, an entrepreneur doesn’t have the time to dedicate to sending invoices, collecting payments, and tracking funds. Automated solutions give business owners the opportunity to automate the process, saving time and preventing costly errors.

Newer solutions also offer the opportunity of setting up a portal through which clients and vendors can view and pay invoices, as well as view the status of pending payments. These tools cut down on the number of phone calls for information and give a business an even more professional, big business appearance.

Technology has opened up many possibilities for businesses, including giving small businesses the ability to appear much larger. By setting up the right infrastructure from the beginning, an SMB can give itself a competitive edge in its field.


How to Establish and Sustain Your Competitive Advantage

horse racing smallNo matter what industry you’re in, I’m willing to bet it’s pretty competitive. You constantly have to be on your toes and know what the other players in your field are doing. However, it helps if you have a strong competitive advantage. This is that je ne sais quoi that makes your brand unique and attracts customers to you. If you don’t know what your competitive advantage is, this article will help you find it, as well as help you keep it.

Defining What Makes You Unique

Not sure what your competitive advantage is? Here are several examples:

  • You offer products no one else does
  • You focus on quality products
  • You offer stellar customer service
  • You charge less
  • You offer a unique experience

If you were to ask your customers why they come back to you again and again, what would they say? Don’t be shy to ask them this exact question. Sometimes you’re too close to your business to see what your advantage is, and your customers’ answers may surprise you.

Shifting Your Mindset About Your Competitors

Even if you’ve got an amazing competitive advantage, it’s important to not rest on your laurels and assume you will always be on top. It’s easy to mimic those benefits your company offers, and if you’re thriving, you should expect that other companies will do just that.

When business is booming, it’s easy to think you’ll never be anywhere but #1. When your competitors are light years behind you, or you put all your energy into one large client, you take your focus away from that competitive advantage. But you shouldn’t. Have the attitude that that advantage is something you have to fight for, every day.

Sustaining That Edge

Once you accept that your competitive advantage is something you can never take for granted, you’ve got to be diligent to stay on top of owning it. If your advantage is offering the best product on the market, make sure you’re paying attention to all other players and the quality of their products, as they’ll likely improve over time. Continue to innovate on your own product so it’s constantly evolving too.

If customer service is your strong suit, make sure your staff has continual training, and that you monitor a few calls to ensure they’re following your high-quality customer service protocol.

Remember: sustaining that competitive advantage takes effort. If it’s truly important to you to own that advantage, put energy into maintaining it every day.


News You Can Use for Small Business

Young man sitting on a sofa reading a newspaperIf you own a small business, there are a number of things that likely fall to the bottom of your “to-do” list.  However, keeping up with “the news” shouldn’t be one of them.  It may seem like a grind, but keeping abreast of certain types of news and trends is essential to business success.  Here are the best ways for you to use the news to enhance your own business.

Find Competitor and Industry Opportunities

While you don’t have to turn into a bona fide spy, you can glean insights and opportunities from your competitors and the industry. Stories about customer reactions to anything from competitors’ products and services to their websites teach you what to do — and what not to do- in your own business.

Also, competitor and industry news can lead you to explore great collaboration opportunities as well. If you make chocolate-covered pretzels and you learn that another company is introducing chocolate-covered beer, you can contact them to consider cross-selling beer and pretzel packages.

Read the News, then Make Some News

Many stories you read are bound to generate your own thoughts. What did the XYZ Company do wrong to cause a sudden reduction in sales? How does your company avoid a particular problem? Don’t let those thoughts go to waste — consider writing an article that offers valuable advice — and gives your company great PR.

The recent news about the horrendous Comcast customer service phone call went viral, and the savvy CEO of Nextiva, Tomas Gorny, capitalized on the newsworthiness of the story. He used it as the jumping-off point for a great article in Entrepreneur containing helpful customer service lessons. That article has undoubtedly helped many entrepreneurs while gaining free PR for Nextiva.

Stay on Top of Your Key Vendors

No business is an island; you count on any number of vendors or service providers to get your product or service to the public. News that your main parts vendor is moving to a lower (or even higher) grade of plastic can instantly affect your pricing decisions and many other aspects of your day-to-day operations. The sooner you know the news, the more time you have to formulate a backup plan.

Go Local

Even chiropractors and real estate companies take booths at local food fairs, so why shouldn’t your company be represented? Any event that draws the public can be a low-cost marketing tool. Whether you set up your own booth at a festival, or even if you just hand out leaflets or promotional items at a parade, you have a golden opportunity to get your company name out to the public. So, watch for news of upcoming local events and find out how you can participate.

Keep Abreast of Technology Changes, including Social Media

The social media outlets that you use to promote your business are not stagnant. They add features and change the rules in ways that can positively – or negatively – impact your business. You don’t have to learn every new feature or tool, but you do need to stay apprised of changes that will directly affect your business.

Let’s say you sell women’s lingerie. If you advertise on Facebook, their current policy says you cannot show too much skin in your images. If you learn that they have further tightened their policy, your models may have to button up. Not knowing this information up front could cost you dearly in both wasted photo shoot dollars and lack of exposure (pun entirely intended).

Find Efficient Ways to Stay Informed

You can really use the news to better your business, so find technology solutions to help you minimize the time-sink. TweetDeck or similar apps can alert you to the tweets with information on your key competitors. Similarly, Google Alerts notifies you of news stories of interest, such as industry-related stories. And, the old standby, RSS Feeds, lets you create a custom news page that you can scan quickly each day. These tools set up quickly, while generating a big return on the time investment for your small business.


Mondays with Mike: How To Get Your Entire Business Running On The Cloud In One Day

Stocksy_txpe7e51ee740B000_Small_134978A lot of business owners put off making big decisions – like transitioning their company to running on the cloud – because they fear change.  They’re reluctant to undertake a major overhaul because they know that difficulties will arise, and there will be a learning curve for their staff.

 

For the most part, they’re right.  Change is a struggle.  But it’s a struggle worth taking on.  My advice to entrepreneurs considering making the switch to a cloud-based office is to take a deep breath, get a few things in place ahead of time, and dive right in!  If you follow these steps, your transition will be smooth and will put you on the road to flexibility you’ve only dreamed of.  

 

The key to a seamless transition to the cloud is doing your homework and making a workable plan.

 

First, you want to pick your date.  There actually is a very best day for major business transitions – January 1st.  While everyone else in the world is sleeping off a hangover, you have a full day to make you changes and start working out the bugs before the world returns to work.  A new fiscal year makes record keeping easier, and since you’re likely to do little actual business, you’ll be able to focus on your transition.  Working out the kinks on a slow day lets you troubleshoot without the stress of impatient customers.

 

Next, you’ll want to make a list of all the applications and programs you use and sort them into three categories:  apps you use daily, ones you use monthly, and ones that you use occasionally or only for special purposes.  How frequently you use an app will determine exactly how you transition it.

 

For apps you use daily – word processing, phone service, accounting – you’ll ideally want to port all of your information directly – say, from QuickBooks to QuickBoooks Online.  If that’s not an option, you’ll need to find a full replacement.  Keep in mind that any replacement will have differences, and you’ll want to familiarize yourself with those differences ahead of time.  Apps you use monthly can be replaced by cloud-based alternatives, and apps that you use infrequently may not need to be cloud-based at all.  It doesn’t make sense to spend the time and money looking for alternatives for programs that you seldom use.

 

Once you have your cloud-based applications selected, you should select your test users, and I strongly recommend that you don’t rely on your IT people for this task.  You want to get a feel for how the folks who will actually be in the trenches – the ones who will have to use the new tech to do their jobs – will interact with the new programs.  Once your test users are comfortable, you’re ready to roll the cloud out to the rest of the company, using your new experts as support staff.

 

If it’s possible, you should plan to run parallel for a few weeks.  Now I know that running parallel is double the work, but if you have a problem, you’ll be glad you did it.  Keeping the old system up for a brief period ensures that your customers don’t experience any troubles getting the same great service they’re used to.

 

Finally, since your business is now cloud-based, you need to develop an emergency plan – figure out what you’ll do if something goes wrong.  Think I’m overreacting?  When Superstorm Sandy swept through my neck of the woods, I managed to keep my business running from an emergency shelter.  How?  I’d already planned and tested how my office would handle needing to work in less-than-ideal circumstances.  Knowing that if the power goes out you can still do business is key.

 

Is it a lot of work to get your business up and running on the cloud?  You bet!  Is it worth it to get flexibility and increased productivity?  Absolutely.  While making the transition in a day may not be ideal, it is possible, which demonstrates that you shouldn’t be afraid to make the leap.


Business Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis

From the beginning, the 266th Pope showed the world that he would somehow be different.  Pope Francis declined fancy shoes, a palace apartment, and the protected “Pope Mobile”. He said, he opted instead for more modest loafers, the Vatican guesthouse, and a bus ride.

Pope Francis’s model of leadership is one of authenticity, commitment, and understanding. He leads from a place of humility in order to serve the greater good and is an example for all leaders to follow.

Here’s what small business leaders in particular can learn from Pope Francis about leading:

  1. Master self-leadership first. Each person must be able to lead themselves before they can lead others. This self-leadership ability comes from a deep understanding of who they really are. This includes examining both their good and bad attributes. They then need to identify other people that can fill these gaps. The second step is to have courage to always be oneself. It is key to become a direct and authentic person that employees respect, admire, and want to follow.
  2. Commit to development. Never stop learning how to be a better leader. Just like every company should never become comfortable with profits or market position, a business leader should never settle on “good enough” leadership. All leaders need to look to who they can learn from inside and outside the organization. This includes not only other managers, but other individual employees.
  3. Work directly with the team. Small business leaders spend a lot of time with their customers, so they know what their problems are. In the same way, small business leaders need to work closely with their employees in order to understand their particular issues and goals to be able to match those to the company’s objectives.
  4. Lead selflessly. Effective small business leaders put their own self-interests aside in order to serve the greater mission their business has. When their interests diverge from the company’s, this is where that business begins to fail.

Pope Francis’s leadership is a reminder of what a great leader looks like. With authentic and humble leadership, every team will work harder, be more loyal and make it easier to grow a profitably company.

VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCE

What non-business leaders have you learned from?


Building A Customer Experience that is (and isn’t) “Just Like Home”

About this series: This series of articles from Nextiva will help you grasp of the essentials of customer service: the principles and guidelines that will serve you well in any era, regardless of trends, changing technology, and a constantly evolving customer base. Our guide is Micah Solomon, customer service and customer experience consultant, author, and speaker.

A secret to creating a great customer experience is to get in the homebuilding business.  As in: You’re creating an environment/product/process/service that “feels like home” to your customer.

Now, if you think about it, customers don’t actually want the place they do business with to “be like home”– dirty dishes in the sink, deferred maintenance up the yin yang.  So I use this “home” term advisedly and with some apprehension.  What I mean by “like home” is an experience that is like being a kid in the home of a caring parent: your preferences are attended to (there’s food in the fridge that is to your taste), you’re missed when you leave and sincerely welcomed back when you return, the maintenance is done without you even noticing.  This is what “just like home” means to a customer and what can turn a customer into a loyalist and ambassador for your brand.

There’s a lot involved in creating a true loyalty-building, “homelike” situation for your customers. But I hope the homebuilding metaphor, which is supported by research done at the Ritz-Carlton, will give you a place to start. When you conclude an interaction with your customer, let her know that it matters to you that she come back soon (I’m assuming here that you’re not a surgeon or an undertaker). And when that customer returns to your business after an extended absence, let her know that she’s been missed. And, work on fulfilling, in that great phrase of The Ritz-Carlton, “even the unexpressed wishes” of your customers, as if you know them like they live here.  Customers shouldn’t have to draw you a diagram to get across what they want from you. Figure it out yourself by really getting to know them.  It’ll be worth it.

Technology can make homebuilding easier

Child's house drawing (c) Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

Child’s house drawing (c) Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

Technology can make homebuilding and homekeeping simpler and better. For example, custom-tailored, automated anticipatory messaging helps you respond in advance (‘‘pre-spond,’’ I suppose) to customer needs and would have been impossible before the digital communications revolution. Anticipatory design, used so well by companies like Apple and Google, can help simplify your customer’s life. Well-designed ‘‘My 

Account’’ and other self-service technology has made it so that many customers are willing, even eager, to do much of the work for you to keep track of their preferences and other details—information that, in turn, makes anticipatory customer service easier to pull off. Customers will let you know how to improve more directly than before if you keep your ear to today’s available electronic listening channels, thus facilitating a much quicker feedback loop for future anticipatory service.

And, once you delight your customers with anticipatory customer service, they can spread the word much more quickly via social media than was ever possible in the past.

People who help people

But technology is almost never the entire story.  A kid raised by a kiosk would hardly get the warm home feeling I’m aiming for here.  The fact that an actual human cares (mom, or dad, or both) makes all the difference.  In the world of commerce, it’s more or less the same: Automated, fake friendliness will never have the same emotional power for a customer as knowing that she’s coming back to the place where the people themselves care about her and remember her.  Absolutely, those people should be using technology to keep track of credit card numbers so the customer doesn’t have to dig out the card and recite that number a second time.  Absolutely, a business should offer technology that lets the customer update her home address correctly, rather than forcing the customer to laboriously dictate it to a clerk who most likely will mis-enter it.  But the human service provider still needs to care, sincerely and visibly, for the magic to truly work. 


Mondays with Mike: How To Prep Your Business For Sale In 90 Days (Or Less!)

I know a thing or two about selling businesses.  I’ve done it both hard way, and the easy way, and it’s not hard to figure out which way I prefer.  Even if you plan on turning your company into a legacy that your children will run after you’re gone, the best time to get your business ready to sell is today!  Before you ever want or need to sell your business – that’s when you should start.  Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Identify strategic buyers.  Strategic buyers are those who want your business for some reason other than just your company’s revenue.  They may want your customers, your intellectual property, or even your employees.  If you can identify these buyers, you can learn which of your assets are most desirable – and you can protect them.
  2. Resolve any legal troubles.  Buyers won’t want to touch a business that has lawsuits or liens against it, so you need to clear up any old business and get your company in the clear. 
  3. ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Focus on profitability, rather than debt.  Businesses are often valued by a multiple of their profit, so you’re better off directing extra revenue toward measures that make you more profitable.  Paying down debt with your extra money doesn’t add nearly as much to your value.
  4. Protect your key employees’ positions.  We all have those staff members who are critical to our survival, and it’s smart to make a plan for what you’d do if one of them left.  Whether your discreetly cross-train employees or keep a list of potential new hires, you want to make sure that if one of your key employees leaves, that your business goes on as usual.
  5. Get out of the office.  Not only is your business more valuable if it can run in your absence, but you also need to be out in the marketplace as the face of your company.  You need to continue running your business as if you’re going to hand it down to your children, and that means cementing relationships with important clients and maintaining your market share.  Don’t slack off!
  6. Cut costs.  You’ll boost your selling price if your company is lean, efficient, and profitable.  Make sure you trim unnecessary expenses and eliminate anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the health of your company.
  7. Work with a business broker or investment banker.  You’ll want to make sure your business is ready to sell when you tackle this step, but you’ll often find that brokers have a stable of businesses looking to acquire others.  Not only can you sell your company more quickly, but a broker can also help you get top dollar for it.
  8. Be hard to get.  If you appear to be desperate to sell, your value diminishes.  Cultivate a field of buyers and watch your price go up.  You want buyers to have competition in order to ensure that you get every penny you’re worth.
  9. Keep it quiet.  The news that you’re looking to sell your company can potentially frighten off employees and even deter new clients from signing on with you.  You want your business to continue to grow and flourish … just in case a sale falls through.

The time you spend preparing your business will give you one additional benefit other than just getting you ready to sell, and it’s actually a huge one.  Your business will be healthier.  Much of the advice I’ve listed here is stuff you should be doing anyway – measures that make your business more efficient and profitable, in addition to making it more attractive to buyers.  




 
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