business

Networking for Small Businesses

Our theme for July is “Independence Doesn’t Have to Mean Alone,” and in our last post, we shared a few ways business owners can delegate their work rather than spread themselves too thin. This post is about making connections as a small business owner, or, as some like to call it, networking.

For introverts like myself, networking can be a bit of a challenge. But I know the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Networking has a few different purposes. First, it’s a tool for expanding your business and gaining potential customers. Second, it’s a way to meet and share experiences with other entrepreneurs. When networking, I find it helpful to think, “I’m about to meet some people who are in a similar boat as me. I bet some of them have cool stories and I could come away from this with interesting, new connections.”

Here are four helpful guidelines for successful networking:

Set a Goal. Plan to attend a certain number of events per month and talk to X number of people at each event. Or, reach out to a specific number of new people every week via email. These goals can make the whole networking experience a bit more fun, too. Remember to follow up with your connections — that’s just as important as meeting them in the first place.

Remember to follow up with your connections — that’s just as important as meeting them in the first place.

Have Something Ready. One of my greatest weaknesses in networking — and meeting people in general — is that I can become easily flustered. Something as simple as “So what do you do?” will result in me doing a lot of mumbling and rambling — “ramumbling,” if you will.

Know that at any networking event, at least one person is going to ask you what you do. Be prepared with an answer. This may also be a good reason to work on your elevator speech. You don’t need to sound like a robot, but you should sound prepared.

Also, keep your business cards at the ready for anyone who may ask for one.

Participate in Groups. Online groups can be found via social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or even Twitter. Participation can occur in a few different ways. You can create your own post within a group in which you share a cool resource, ask a question about something you need help with, or seek opinions on a challenge you face. Also, read posts made by others and respond with comments that are helpful and/or pertinent.

Stepping away from the internet, you can join the local chamber of commerce, Rotary, or any other business-oriented or volunteer organization. It’s a great way to meet local people who do business within your community.

A warning: Don’t approach these groups with a sales pitch. Growing your business is a good goal, but networking is more about fostering relationships.

Stay in Touch. Congrats, you’ve met a ton of new people through your networking! But, how are you staying in touch with them?

Nicole has a favorite app for staying in touch, which lets her know when it’s been a while since she has reached out to someone. Or, you may create a system (spreadsheet, flowchart, sticky notes) just to reach out to people, follow up about something from your conversation, maybe invite them to grab a coffee.

As a shy introvert, I find that following up with others can be just as difficult as making the first contact. But I try to keep in mind that comfort zones equal stagnation. It’s like the advice on water sources found in the wilderness: Drinking running water is usually okay, but standing/stagnant water … you gotta watch out for that stuff. (Sorry for the digression — I’m ramumbling again.)

For those who need help with networking (like me), check out this video I made last fall about networking for the shy introvert:

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.

5 Things Every New Business Should Know

Starting a new business? There are probably some things that you find uncertain, and others you just don’t have the hang of yet. While there’s no cookie-cutter approach we can offer budding entrepreneurs, there are some general tips to keep in mind. Here are five:

Failure/Rejection (on small scales) are probably in your near future, and that’s a good thing. There are more lessons to be learned in rough waters than when it’s smooth sailing. Remember Newton’s First Law: An object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. A little adversity here and there will not break your business — depending on how it’s handled, it can actually help your business grow. There’s something to be said for a healthy amount of risk-taking, too.

The first 2 years are usually the hardest. This is a good stat to keep in mind as you develop your business plan, especially budget-wise. Remember — if things don’t go the way you planned, don’t worry. It’s fairly common for businesses to struggle in their early, formative years.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a small business owner, you’re probably used to doing things on your own. However, that doesn’t mean you need to isolate yourself. There are lots of resources for small business owners. Remember to ask people in your network for advice.

Take a look at our post on Automating, Delegating, and Outsourcing to develop ways to include others in your day-to-day work life.

Show, Don’t Tell. To build both your business’ trust and reputation, showing is better than telling. Marketing and advertising are important to spread the word about your business, but performance and delivering quality products and services are more important. No amount of advertising makes up for a poor product, and there’s no substitute for trust.

Learn to be efficient with your time. It can be easy to become a martyr for your business. But isn’t it better to work smarter, not harder? Part of this involves delegating and outsourcing as mentioned earlier. Take charge of your schedule in a way that’s productive but keeps your sanity intact. Develop systems, stay organized, and jettison anything that doesn’t serve a purpose.

Here are some posts we’ve written regarding efficiency, including systems and getting organized.

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.

Automating, Outsourcing, & Delegating

Being independent means you are in charge of doing it all, right? Sure…if you want to go crazy and lose sleep/hair over it.

The truth is, you may think of yourself as a “one man show” but this kind of attitude can a) get pretty lonely when things get tough, and b) can actually hurt your business rather than help it. Here are three ways you can let other people/businesses/services help you, so you can keep doing what you love and help your business thrive:

Automating

Automating is for the truly mindless things that no one needs to do in a real way. There is a love/hate relationship with automation in the content marketing world, but I think there’s room for compromise. You can’t automate everything, but you should automate some things.

Some non-marketing things you can automate for your business include:

  • recurring bill payments (i.e. utilities)
  • frequent orders (if you’re running a restaurant and go through a certain amount of napkins, salt, avocados, etc every month)
  • scheduling/booking
  • accepting payments
  • tracking purchases

Online, you can automate your social media content. We use social media scheduling software to get content ready for posting ahead of time. However, it’s really important to update/refresh content and log in to these accounts to stay up to date on activity. What if someone comments on one of your scheduled posts and no one has answered them? Every now and then you might want to update people with something time relevant like specials, recent orders, seasonal things-whatever you can think of. For more tips on automating social media, take a look at one of our old blog posts When Automated Marketing Goes Wrong. There are also tools like Zapier and IFTTT which can help you connect things up (ex: when someone fills out your contact form and opts in for email updates, they automatically are added to your email marketing list).

Delegating

Delegating is for something you’d like to keep ‘in the family’ but don’t want to do yourself. If you have employees or even part time/freelancers that you work with, delegating can be a great way to move some work off your plate so that you can focus on other things to grow your business. Going back to the social media updates, you could delegate the logging in and responding to inquiries to another person entirely.

Some things you can delegate include:

  • tasks you are inefficient at (ex: scheduling meetings)
  • tasks you need regularly
  • tasks that have little to do with your business (ex: cleaning the office bathroom)

Some business owners tend to feel a bit guilty and/or bottle-neck when it comes to certain tasks of the business. The tough love answer for bottlenecking is, unless you’re okay with limiting growth of the business, it’s not going to serve you well. For new hires and relationships with freelancers, you should definitely have a trial/training period, and set up some sort of annual (or other frequency) review process. When it comes to the everyday tasks, though, it’s better to hand over the ropes and be available as a resource without limiting the flow of work that gets done.

And if you feel “guilty” about delegating, think back to the early days of your business when it was you performing the gruntwork AND trying to grow a business. You’ve been “in the trenches” before, and I’m going to assume you’d be willing to jump back in if you needed to. The thing is, in order for you to take your business to the next level and keep growing, at some point you have to hand those things off to someone else (and be okay with it).

Outsourcing

Outsourcing is for things you either can’t efficiently or shouldn’t logically do in house. There are some things that are generally a pain, and that you’ve probably had to handle on your own in the early days of business. But at some point, there are certain tasks you can straight up outsource so that you don’t have to be in charge of them anymore. Some things you may want to outsource include payroll, logo design, bookkeeping, etc.

Think of the things you can do but maybe don’t enjoy doing or maybe just don’t love doing. Is it possible to hire someone else to take care of it for you? Again, don’t let guilt or the feeling of “well, I’m the business owner so I should care/be doing this myself…” stop you from outsourcing. It’s one of those things that will free up your time, which can go into other areas of your business. Outsourcing, just like delegating, prevents you from spreading yourself too thin and stunting the growth of your business as a result.

Stay tuned for our other posts about Independence and Business this month!

 

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.

Cross Selling With Others

So you’ve been reading our posts about selling more and I know what you’re thinking: “I want to make more money without creating the complimentary product/service myself; what are my options?”

The good news is, you can sell more online without the responsibility of creating a whole new product/service! Here are a few ways you can cross sell while working with other businesses or non-profits:

Figure Out Referrals

Looking through your contact form inquiries, social media comments, and email inbox, I’m sure there are some things that people are asking you for that you are unable or unwilling to do.

Let’s say you are a greenhouse but you get lots of comments asking where people can get sod. What you could do is contact companies and get their information and make it available on your website. “Hi Debbie, thanks for asking us about sod. We don’t sell it but Company X and Company Y both do. Here is a link on our website about their services, price points, and more: thewebsite.com/faq/all-about-sod.”

You can create a more formal relationship with a complimentary business in the way of an affiliate relationship, partnership, or joining a referral networking group like BNI.

No matter how formal or informal, working with complimentary businesses means you can steer your customer (or potential customer) in a good direction so they still feel taken care of by you and hopefully, that other company appreciates and reciprocates, either with a portion of the sale you generate or by sending referrals your way, too.

Consider The Subscription Box

Let’s say you sell something that goes well with other somethings… but you don’t necessarily want (or need) to carry it in your retail shop. Consider making a subscription box, where customers subscribe for a monthly price (or slightly lower quarterly/annual) price to get a box of stuff around a theme.

An excellent example of this is Willie Wags right out of Bangor Maine. They send out boxes of stuff collected from different businesses celebrating women entrepreneurs (they’ve recently moved to a retail location in downtown Bangor too but they could have kept it subscription box only if they wanted I’m sure).

Maybe you sell stationary and have connections with others who sell cool pens, stickers, etc. You could probably make some boxes including the products of your business friends (and yours) at a price that is lower than retail but allows you to get in front of new customers. (Aside: I’m not sure why no one has done a ‘Bar Harbor Box’ yet, I think that would kill!)

Host an event together

Events take a lot of bandwidth but they are good ways to attract new customers whether it’s an open house, a workshop, or something else.

Finding a complimentary business to help you host an event is a great way to not only divide the work but make the event more fun. For example, if you are a hardware store but you don’t do party rentals, it may be cool to have a cookout/block party with sales going on while you have a few rental pieces of equipment (bouncy houses and slush machines anyone) set up too. There’s also a likelihood of more attendees because you get the draw of two (or more) businesses- customers of one business may show up and decide to become customers of the other business, too (especially if there’s a bouncy house involved).

In other words, cross selling doesn’t just have to be your stuff. It actually works well when it isn’t. By figuring out ways to work with other entrepreneurs in a complimentary space, you can all win together.

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

BEC Retreat: How, What, Why

Back in March, we had our fourth company retreat. This means that Nicole, John, and myself all got together for an entire day to check in on current projects, things that are going well, processes that could use improvement, and some professional development (this is a very watered down version of the actual agenda).

Different people reading this probably have different ideas about what a company retreat looks like. Some will think “strategic planning” and power points, others may think a volleyball game between different branches or departments (I got that one straight from The Office). The thing is, a company retreat can really be any of these things (and more). While our company retreat didn’t involve volleyball, or Michael Scott for that matter, it was still a productive and fun day for the three of us, and will be beneficial to BEC in the future.

For small businesses like ours, planning something like this can be intimidating. How do you have a company retreat if you’re not even a big company? What if it’s boring? What if employees aren’t interested/engaged? Where should we hold the retreat? And so on. This post will give you an idea of what our retreat looks like, and may be helpful as you consider planning one of your own.

(You can also watch our Facebook Live video where we talk about company retreats 101 here:)

How

There are a few ingredients you’ll need to create a productive company retreat. First, pick a date in advance that everyone can commit to and puts in their calendar. We only have 3 people’s worth of schedules to juggle, but you may have more, which can make it feel a bit like scheduling a family reunion.

After scheduling, make sure everyone has that date/time blocked off in their calendars. Next you’ll want to plan the venue (more on that later). You may also want to make sure that customers/clients know that the retreat is happening in case you’re going to be unavailable for the day. Gather any necessary materials (big sticky paper and markers are a retreat must in our opinion), technology, snacks, and whatever else you can think of to make retreat day a success.

What

Circulating the agenda in advance gives employees a chance to not only prepare, but voice any other items they feel should be addressed during the retreat (this also saves things from getting off topic during retreat day). A few of the items on the BEC Retreat Agenda are here:

Overview of current and upcoming projects. This is where we touch base on things that are ongoing or will be starting soon. Even though there’s only 3 of us, I still find this section helpful because there are some clients and projects that I’m not necessarily working with, so it’s a chance for me to step back from my own work and see what the company as a whole is doing.

What things are going well. We’ve found that a “what’s going well” exercise is a good icebreaker because it gets the ball rolling on a positive note. People tend to be more comfortable sharing positive feedback, especially when the day is just getting warmed up. Plus it starts things off on a positive tone.

What things could use improvement. This isn’t a chance to complain about benefits or requesting longer lunch breaks. This is usually what could use improvement in terms of processes- maybe a better system for following up with customers, increasing staff members at a certain time of day, etc. After identifying two-three items that you want to take action on, create a plan of attack. One of the things that got brought up at our first company retreat was finding a decent password management system. We then made it a priority over the next month or two to research different password management systems, choose one, and do a ton of data entry to move everything in. Three or four retreats later, our biggest item on the list is organizing files better.

Professional Development. One way that we get everyone involved in the retreat (so it feels like less of a classroom lecture) is having a professional development section. As the agenda gets circulated, each of us has an assignment for a 10 minute presentation on a program or bit of software that the company uses. While I’ve never been a big “talk in front of people” person, this part of the retreat is awesome. It’s been incredibly beneficial over the years and I still use what I’ve learned in this section of the retreat in my day to day work.

Goal Setting. At the end, we set some goals for the company, as well as a few personal goals. By this point at the end of the day, we’ve gone through quite a bit of material and discussion, so it’s a chance to reflect and look at some big picture stuff. It encourages us to think about where we’d like BEC to be in a year, but also where we as individuals want to be in the next year.

Where/When

In terms of where to have the retreat, usually offsite is recommended. Sometimes a change of scenery can get people’s brains working a little differently. A few things that might help you make this decision are the number of people coming, technological needs (if you have a projector and screen, for example), proximity (how far are people willing to drive?)- that sort of thing.

Company retreats are often an annual thing. We usually do ours in the late winter/early spring since that’s a good time of year in our business to commit a day to retreating. The idea is not to schedule it during your busy season if you have one- that’s a lot of stress.

Why

From big companies to small businesses, company retreats allow everyone to “regroup.” You may gain a better understanding of a department outside of your own, other company projects, etc. Retreats are also give employees a chance to step back from their daily grind and look at the big picture of the business,  remembering what the actual mission is. Another big reason why is the improvements that get made over the years from dedicating even just one day completely to company focused thinking. As I said in the “What Could Be Better” area, the things we are working on now seem a lot smaller than the bigger issues we tackled after our first retreat. Your company/business could undergo a similar process after a few years.

And this article from Forbes perfectly articulates the ‘Why,’ especially for those who may be worried about losing an entire day’s work: “It’s almost impossible to overestimate the return on investment for a retreat that gets everybody smiling and working together.”

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.

Sharing is Caring

Leaving a review is one way to show your favorite businesses some online love. Another way is hitting that “Share” button (on Facebook, which translates to retweeting or reposting on other platforms, or just passing along information). As a business, there are ways to make it easy for people to share your stuff, which ultimately spreads your marketing to a greater audience than it otherwise would have.

There are plenty of ways to share on behalf of a business or organization you care about online. Some of the more common methods include:

  • Share as a status update, on a friend’s timeline, or in a private message.
  • Invite friends to an event on social media or share link to event registration.
  • Retweet (Twitter) or Repost (Instagram).
  • Forward a newsletter to a friend and/or tell them how to subscribe if it’s something they’re interested in.

Sharing as an individual is fairly straightforward. But as a business, what can you be doing to make your content more shareable? Besides being generally useful and interesting, here are some things to keep in mind:

On Social Media.

Whether you’re promoting a sale, sharing an event, or just doing general updates, there are a few things to keep in mind when considering “share-ability” of your post. Most shared content on Facebook includes a photo or video. If you have one or the other, consider quality (is it blurry or off-center? Is there unnecessary footage?) as you’re posting- fans want to help you promote your business but might not want to share a ‘meh’ visual. This goes for Instagram, too, since it’s an all visual platform.

If you’re making a flyer for an event, check out our post on How Not to Design a Flyer for tips on this particular type of visual.

Keep in mind that well over half of Facebook users are on their mobile devices, so double check your links (especially those that you share from your own website, if you have one) can be read on mobile. Test it on your own device or ask a friend to help!

On Your Website.

A lot of websites have plugins or extensions for sharing through email, social media, or even text messaging on mobile. Hubspot has an easy to follow guide for adding social buttons for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram. This is an easy way to let people share your material on a channel of their choice, not necessarily one that you’re active on. If you aren’t automatically publishing blog posts on your social media accounts, social sharing buttons on your website makes it easy for others to share them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

We’ve talked about this before, but if your website is where all the “big” things happen (sales, registration, donations, etc), having a responsive/mobile-friendly site is something you really want to consider. If someone is getting to your website through Facebook on their phone on the train, they might not remember “Oh when I get home I have to sit down at my computer to follow through with this.”

In Your Newsletter. 

In addition to social sharing buttons at the bottom of your newsletter (example pictured below), you can also add options for “Forward to a Friend.” True, a person can easily hit “Forward” on their own, but the idea is to make sharing easier for people.

In addition to making it easier to share, you can also give followers an incentive to share. Some businesses offer a “Share this post for a chance to win” contest on social media, which is a fairly simple contest to set up. Encourage people to share your content, be interesting, and have fun with it!

 

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.
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