This Week In Business

Where Are My Customers Online: Three Places To Start

Whether your target customer is a kid using their parents’ iPad or a senior citizen using their smartphone, there are significant numbers of the exact kind of person you want to find online. So how do you find them?

If you are here, where are your customers?

If you are here, where are your customers?

To make this easier to think about, let’s think of your customer going through a sales process.

Stage One: Investigation
Your potential customer is interested in what you have to offer. They are at the stage of visiting websites and getting information.

Stage Two: Interrogation
This is where you start seeing posts on Facebook like “We’re considering blah-blah-blah, who’s good?” or you get someone who fills out the contact form of your website. They’ve looked and are interested, and they have some questions.

Stage Three: Enthusiasm
Whether they end up buying from you or not, these people like you. They follow you online, comment on your stuff, share with their friends and, directly or indirectly, you’ll probably get a customer.

Clearly we’ve got people at different levels looking at our businesses all the time. So let’s look at some questions here:

Where is your target audience spending time online? (Investigation)
Source: (You’ll need to install the toolbar to get some of the data you want but trust me, it’s worth it)

It’s important to know where your customer is hanging out online. To paraphrase from Gary V’s book ‘Crush It’, money follows eyeballs.

Here’s an example. About three years ago, I looked at an office space above one very steep flight of stairs but I didn’t take it was that I thought my growing business would involve older people that couldn’t want to walk up stairs.

It turns out my best customers are business owners in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. In other words, looking at the data, the people spending money with Breaking Even are skewing younger than I was expecting. So I went ahead and got an even better deal on an office… and didn’t even hesitate when I saw it was up two flights of stairs.

Age demographics for social networks on Alexa. Among seeing whether a website skews to one age group or another, you can check out whether visitors will typically have kids, aveage household income, and more.

Age demographics for social networks on Among seeing whether a website skews to one age group or another, you can check out whether visitors will typically have kids, average household income, and more.

At first, you will guess who your customers are but after you have some data, you’ll actually know who they are. Where your ideal customer is, be there online. So if we look at the comparison above and see that Facebook and Twitter are skewing younger, Pinterest is in my target and LinkedIn is in my target and skewing older. If we look at other kinds of data (and more websites) where to be becomes more and more clear.

Take this idea beyond social media websites. Look at blogs, news websites, anything. Knowing where your customer spends time is knowing where you should spend time, and potentially buy ad space if it comes down to that.

Who is talking about my business online and what are they saying? (Investigation)

SocialMention, like Google Alerts but on steroids, allows you to see what keywords are being associated with a phrase, who the content creators are, and what blogs, Twitter status updates and more.

Hint: You might need to tweak results using the ‘Advanced Search’ function (see green circle upper right). Otherwise you may get a lot of extraneous results. I also recommend making a Google Alert for your business name and possibly your name, just to keep tabs on what’s going on.

Knowing who is talking about you means you can talk to them back… and potentially get even more ideas of what your customers are doing online.

Who is actively engaged in your brand/business?
Source: Facebook Insights (linked on your business’ Facebook page) or other metrics like Twitter retweeters, etc.

This statistic is a bit less straight forward. You can often collect names and sometimes contact information but this process is manual and involves individual followup if you are serious. But if someone is taking the time to repin twenty items of mine on Pinterest or retweet half my blog posts, the least I can do is make a personal connection by messaging them.

As social media stats get more robust, this will not be so manual as it is now but at the very least, it’s worth taking some time to pay attention. You may be surprised just who your enthusiastic advocates are!

So if you find your potential customers at the investigation, interrogation, and enthusiasm stages and keep in touch with your current customers, soon you should have a good idea of where places you can maximize your online time. Then do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

What about you: Where are your customers online?  And more importantly, how do you know?

Our Town Belfast Retail Website 101 Round Table

I was recently invited by Breanna Bebb with Our Town Belfast to come take part in their ecommerce round table. A mix of business owners and website people would form a panel and talk about ecommerce. The event was organized by Breanna and Mike Hurley.

The small business Belfast crowd hanging out at the Hutchinson Center... They had snacks, as advertised.

The small business Belfast crowd hanging out at the Hutchinson Center… They had snacks, as advertised.

What I liked was this came out of a downtown business survey.

“Two years ago in the annual downtown survey it was clear by an overwhelming majority that the businesses that had an active web and social media presence were much more likely to report that business was good or getting better… But less than 20% of downtown stores actually sell anything online.”

It was an excellent premise for a discussion.

Ellie Daniels of The Green Store, talks about her Wordpress website and how she uses photos to invoque a feeling. "Your website feels like your store."  someone later said. As it should!

Ellie Daniels of The Green Store, talks about her Wordpress website and how she uses photos to evoque a feeling. “Your website feels like your store.” someone later said. As it should!

Ellie Daniels, who owns The Green Store has a full featured shopping cart on her domain and has had an online presence for the business for over ten years. Her presentation focused on the importance of creating a pleasing online experience, technical and accurate descriptions for products, and keeping accounts like Facebook and the website up-to-date and complimentary of one another. One of her best selling bumper stickers ‘Oh no, not another learning experience’ can summarize what it is like to operate in this increasingly online world.

Carl at Bay City Cargo uses Ebay (and direct repeat sales from initial eBay customers) to grow business. His focus on customer service and finding customized lettering solutions has earned the eBay store a 99% satisfaction rating (he wants 100%). While he says some people may wonder about using an eBay platform ‘eBay is working for us’. (In case you’re curious, the eBay store costs $45/month plus $0.20/item and both PayPal and eBay take their percentages.)
Terry St. Peter runs BOSS (Belfast Office Supply and Services). To run the ecommerce section of his office supply site, he uses a third party system that specializes in office supplies (Red Cheetah). By letting customers combine shipping, he is able to offer customized service close to Belfast.  Their primary online marketing has been to offer Facebook coupons and coupons on a local newspaper website.
'eBay works for us,' says Carl Goodwin-Moore of Bay City Cargo. No matter what you use, only stick with it if it works for your business.

‘eBay works for us,’ says Carl Goodwin-Moore of Bay City Cargo. No matter what you use, only stick with it if it works for your business.

Mike Hurley, who runs a variety of businesses including Bay City Cargo, discussed free web tools that allow customers to set up ecommerce themselves like Shopify.
As the lone web developer presenting, I wanted people to know what a custom online store could and couldn’t offer. But mainly I wanted to encourage these businesses to get online in a real way, whether they could afford a custom solution or not.
What I liked most about the panel was there wasn’t one agenda. If there was one formula for success, one of us would have figured it out and replicated it to become millionaires many times over. At least I would have! 🙂
Terry St. Peter and Susan Guthrie of BOSS talk about how they use their online presence to extend local service. They aknowledge that, while their customers are local, they also want the convenience and cost savings online service can offer.

Terry St. Peter and Susan Guthrie of BOSS talk about how they use their online presence to extend local service. They aknowledge that, while their customers are local, they also want the convenience and cost savings online service can offer.

The important thing to do is:
1) Research what you need and separate that mentally from what you want. This will get you the best price/solution.
2) Implement and test. 
3) Analyze your data. If people abandon the shopping cart at the third step of the checkout process, figure out why. If you find the paid ad you bought isn’t sending website traffic your way, try another method.
4) Repeat 2 and 3. Over and over. 
5) Listen to your customers… but not too much. It’s important to make them happy but understand it’s you who know your business best. But make it as easy for them to buy from you as possible so they will.
6) Be yourself. As I told one woman who runs an amazing book store, Breaking Even doesn’t sell anything unique or at the lowest price point either (which was her worry). But people buy from us because they trust and like us. And as small businesses, that’s what we all have going for us. So work it.
I think this is one of the most useful events I’ve ever been a part of, if only because it showed how different people were ‘making it work’ online, some selling products and some services. The number of solutions was impressive and it was fun, interesting, confusing, and educational. In other words, it was a great night and hopefully those who came out came away with some great ideas about how they could do ecommerce.

Salesman or Consultant: The Price of Advice

Advice can be fun but when it comes to your business, it might be worth paying for. Photo:

Advice can be fun but when it comes to your business, it might be worth paying for. Photo:

As of three months ago, Breaking Even began warning people on our meeting booking page that we charge for consultation meetings. I expected a huge downturn in appointment booking off that page when we put this and other disclaimers on there, but it seems that they’ve actually increased business.

Weird, right?

Maybe not so much. Here’s why I think people might not be so hesitant to pay for advice anymore:

The Difference Between A Vendor And A Consultant: How To Know Who You Are Talking To

So someone comes into your office selling y service or x product. They tell you all the features, what the package includes, and what an opportunity it is for you. This person is selling something in particular is a salesman (or, to not conjure up vacuum cleaners, a vendor). The vendor typically makes money based on the sale of that product or service to you, often based on commission. To use a cheesy fitness example, a vendor might be a representative for the NordicTrack company.

When you talk to a consultant, the interaction is more conversational. You are asked questions about outcomes you may want or frustrations you might have. You may have specific questions to ask about choosing a particular product or service to ask the consultant. You may have information about your business that you want them to work with. You are recommended x solution or y approach by the consultant based on reasons from your conversation. If the consultant talked to your friend, they would come out of it with a different solution since it involves different information. You pay for the consultant for the advice and you can choose to do with it what you wish. In cheesy fitness example land, a consultant would be a personal trainer.

So you see in one case you are paying for a product (which there is some knowledge behind) and in one case you are paying for someone’s knowledge (which may or may not involve a product or service).

It helps to know if you are talking to a vendor or a consultant. Someone selling one product? Not asking you to pay for advice? Probably a vendor. Someone working with your point of view? Asking you to pay something? Probably a consultant. This is not to say there isn’t some overlap here but your gut reaction will tell you the difference when you see it.

Breaking Even is a consultancy. We always have been. We want to educate business owners and give what we think is the best advice. If suddenly a product we were using started to stick like rotten eggs, we’d want to be able to switch our recommendation without worry of consequences, financial or otherwise.

Maybe you are at a point of getting some advice. Maybe you are writing a business proposal or overhauling some part of your business or looking at your budget and cutting your three biggest doing business costs. Here’s why it might be a good idea to pay for advice:

Advice could save you time and money.

The reason people often pay for advice is to save them time and money in the long run. It may be worth spending some money figuring out which computer system would work best for your company, and someone who knows that space can ask you the best questions and get you to your answer quicker and often less expensively then you would on your own. Getting advice means knowing why you are making this decision and why you aren’t going with other options. Having to change course at some other time, while possible, can be a pain in the butt. And expensive.

Advice could save you a headache.

As much as I personally enjoy calling all the area catering companies to see their prices on ham and portabella mushroom sandwiches, I’d just as soon let an event planner deal with the headache of planning a lunch. Stick to the kind of headaches you enjoy most (mine usually involve Facebook).

Advice wasn’t gotten for free.

Your consultant did not get their advice for free. They spent hours learning it and practicing it. If it’s an industry like internet marketing, it is something that must always be kept on top of. That real estate agent knows the market, who is in it, who isn’t in it, where the best deals are, and how property taxes have changed in each area over time. To get their advice is not just paying for the time you sit face to face with them; it’s paying for the time they spent getting the knowledge you are now so easily accessing.

So to expect the person you are talking to for advice and impartial information and expect them to do it for free isn’t fair. Because of them, you are not having to reinvent the wheel and because of you, they get to spend some of their time keeping on top of the best information.

When have you paid for advice? And, more importantly, what did you do (or not do) with the information you got?

Want To Start Your Own Business? A Few Places To Start

A few friends who have been thinking about the self employed life have asked me how I learned what I know about running a business.

On the surface, I am a weird person to ask. I’m a geology major with a teaching certification. What do I know about running a business? Apparently enough!

Here are a few of my favorite resources to consider in terms of business development:

1) Earn 1K
So if you aren’t sure what you want to do in terms of work, this is the best place to start. Ramit Seti has a free idea generator to help you come up with business ideas. His online class costs $1000 but the idea is you earn that money (and then some) back over time. Among the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

2) Local Resources
If you are looking for long term support and your timing is right, WHCA here in Downeast Maine has a program called Incubator Without Walls.  Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development has a ‘Top Gun’ program running in the Portland area. These are both longer term programs (months to a year) that you do with a group of other people like yourself and people I know who have been through them really enjoyed them and got a lot of useful info out of them.

If you want something that’s a shorter time frame or just some one-on-one consulting to help you finish up your plan, you can try something like Women Work and Community whose ‘New Ventures’ class I took four years ago. 

Whether you live near me in Maine or not, you no doubt have some local business consulting resources supported by a local university, the government, or a business-related non-profit. Leave a comment with this blog post and let us know what you find in your corner of the world… you can help someone else out! 

3) Books
I joke around with my friends that if I ever wrote a business book it’d be really short:

1) Do good work.
2) Be nice to people.
3) Don’t spend more money than you make.

That said, there are lots of great books about starting a business out there. Personally I enjoy reading the biography type books. Like I got way more at of Poppy King’s “Confessions of a Lipstick Queen” (she starting a lipstick company out of high school) than I was expecting to when I paid $1.99 for it at Mardens.

I don’t believe you have to learn from people in your field necessarily, just sometimes hearing a concept put a different way can help. Right now, I’m working on “$100 Startup “.

4) Other People

There’s a fine line between listening to other people and letting them run the show. My initial instinct when people ask me about changing how I do something is “No!” But instead of saying that out loud, I take a breath and say “Why do you say that?”

Guess what? While I didn’t screw up anything in my business entirely (yet), I didn’t necessarily set it up to be the most well oiled machine possible. So when other people look at something and have an idea, it might be a good to listen to it. Alice coming on board has brought some great new ideas for example.

That said, if I know the rationale and something still doesn’t feel right in my gut, I won’t do it. I once heard somewhere that your brain takes in a lot more information than you realize you are processing so that ‘gut feeling’ you get is actually your brain taking it all into account and spitting out a valid answer. But understand what you are saying no to before you actually say it.

So with a combination of courses, self reflection, books, and other people’s opinions who you trust, you’ll get a lot of good information about running a business that’ll help in other aspects of your life. And while a business degree is helpful, don’t let not having one stop you from going after what you want. I didn’t. :^)

Fun Friday: How’s Business?

Sometimes on Fridays, I write about what I feel like. Because I can. :^)

“Hey, how’s business?” people ask me.

How I feel about this question is probably what every high school senior feels when they’re asked “So what are you doing next year?”

I get that the question is coming from a good place and that people are just curious and wanting me to succeed but when you hear something that often (and maybe secretly wonder what the ‘right’ answer is), you kind of dread it.

Here’s the truth, and I think it’s probably the truth for most small business owners.

Business is fine. Even if it wasn’t, I couldn’t tell you for one or all of the following reasons:

1) It’s depressing if things aren’t going well. (And I will tell you every business does have its bad months, no matter what we all say publicly.)
2) No one wants to hire a ‘failure’. Kind of like how desperate people can’t get a date, I’m not ever wanting to come off as desperate for work.
3) As the business owner, more than anything, I need to believe things are going to be fine if I am going to get up every morning and do this. I’m saying things are fine to myself as much as I am to you.

But regardless of the answer to the question ‘How’s business?’ you have to keep getting out there and being visible. Doing it when things are going awesome as well as when things are not is really important because people need to remember you exist. Whether it’s online marketing or old school in person networking events, you have to keep being in the ‘community’ of your potential clients. (You know those Business After Hours that Chamber of Commerce’s have where you get to schmooze and have wine and cheese? I LOVE those.  In case you don’t love them, here’s how to schmooze.)

And if getting online is your networking tool, be out there. Try taking part in a Twitter chat once a week or answer 5 questions a week posted in your LinkedIn group. The key is to be able to quantify the interactions, otherwise you won’t be able to keep yourself honest.

And finally, other than having to say things are fine and having to network to remind people you exist, it’s important to know that it’s ok to have a quick cry at your desk. I certainly do and don’t feel at all emotionally unstable for it. If I didn’t feel anything, it would mean I didn’t care about my work and it’s a good release. Any small business owner that says otherwise is either lying or may have some alternate release like going to the shooting range or screaming in their soundproof room.

So when you ask me ‘How’s business?’ I’m going to say ‘Fine.’ Because one way or the other, it will be.

Seven Tricks That Save Me Hours On The Computer

Over the last few years of sitting my butt in an office chair day in and day out, I am often asking myself how I can do more while sitting here less. This post is a collection of little tools I’ve found over the years. The beauty is:

  • You don’t need a fancy computer/smartphone to have any of them; they are mainly web based. 
  • They are mainly free. The most expensive in my list is $10/month.

Google Chrome (but basically any browser that involves not using Internet Explorer)

My friend Phil visited me a couple years ago and was browsing on my computer. “You use Internet Explorer?” he asked, in a tone that might have suggested he found something illegal or immoral on my computer. Google Chrome is faster and has just recently surpassed IE as the most used internet browser.

Besides its speed and lack of lameness, Google Chrome (much like Firefox) has extensions/apps that you can add to your browser bar. Three of my favorites:

Pick how much time you are allowed to stay on a website per day. Surpass that amount and Google Chrome kicks you out.

Pick how much time you are allowed to stay on a website per day. Surpass that amount and Google Chrome kicks you out. Brilliant.

Google Apps
I use Google Apps to run my business life on my domain. In addition to being able to easily create email addresses and email lists (like I could make email all my Facebook clients- and no worries that address doesn’t actually exist so good luck spammers!), I can also create and manage calendars, manage document editing and sharing, and otherwise feel like I am in control of my life.Here’s a video all about it. Since Google is really good at this kind of thing:

This is a Gmail App that works with Google Chrome. When I am writing someone an email, it pulls up their photo, our history of correspondence, and their latest social media updates.
Now you can congratulate someone at their new job or simply recognize them at the next Business After Hours. Literally puts a face to the name… er their social media avatar to their email anyway.
Smartrr may be borderline creepy but it helped me learn the names of just about everyone when I joined Rotary really quickly.

Smartrr may be borderline creepy but it helped me learn the names of just about everyone when I joined Rotary really quickly. Here’s what Alice’s info looks like!

These Computer Shortcuts

Control + A (Command + A on a Mac)- Select all
Control + Z (Command+ Z on a Mac)- Undo (go back one step)- This one has saved me a lot of heartache in particular
Control + C (Command + C on a Mac)- Copy
Control + V (Command + V on a Mac)- Paste (Control + P is print so that’s why it’s not that)
Alt + Shift + 5 (Command + Shift +5 on a Mac)- Strikethrough (because crossing stuff off on a computer list feels good too)

Control + F (Command + F on a Mac) 
Ok this is still included in the above list but should be separate and noticed. This can help you find a word on a long web page, a snippet of code in CSS, a file on your computer. Use your search functions my friends and stop the skimming/scrolling. It’s hard on your wrists… and your brain.

Automatic File Backup
So most everything I use is in ‘the cloud’ (which is just fancy for saying on the interwebs). I do this so I can access email, client files, Quickbooks, passwords, etc. from anywhere and also so it’s backed up.

I also have my main computer (with my fancy expensive software on it) backup up three times a day. Seems redundant? It is. But that’s the point. Think of what it would feel like to lose the album of pictures from your last vacation. Your taxes from the last five years. Anything that makes you freak out slightly while you are reading this. What’s it worth to you? $100? $500? Priceless?

This is the system I use for file backup (which is probably not perfect but works great for me):

Main computer– Backed up with Mozy
Other computers– External hard drive periodically (Files at the end of each day are added to Dropbox or Google Docs)
Client files (images, videos, any archives)– Backed up to Dropbox, stored on main computer which is backed up by Mozy
Client files (active documents)Google Docs backed up by InSync (more on Google Apps later)
Email– Imported into Gmail, backed up by Backupify and kept on my web server
Passwords– 1Password system (more on that later) installed on two computers in the office, including the main computer which is backed up by Mozy
Social Media updates– Backupify and Hootsuite

I pay about $500/year for the combination of these tools but I think of how much money as a business I would lose if I didn’t have redundant backups in particular of client stuff.

As an individual, you’ll pay under $100/year for Mozy and have 2G free with Dropbox. Very affordable and may one day save you hundreds of dollars and/or a lot of agony. So even if you back up with an external hard drive, have a backup in case you forget. You’ll thank me later.

A client asked me yesterday ‘How do you remember all these passwords?’ Everyone has several social media passwords, a website admin login, a web host login, and any number of other online services. Multiply that by 70ish clients, add our own individual stuff and you can imagine the hundreds of passwords I’d have to remember. And while my brain is great, I’d just as soon have a backup (see above)

1Password is $20 (or $50ish for three licences) and it will pay for itself when you are able to store your passwords, search them in the database, and create and store highly secure and encrypted passwords.

If you spend any amount of time managing social media profiles, this will save you so much time logging in and out of websites that it’s totally worth taking an afternoon to set up tabs and lists and otherwise make it work for you. Oh and it’s free for five accounts or less but we gladly pay $10/month to use it with all clients.

Collectively, I’d say these tricks save me five hours a week but it could be more. It’s hard to put a price on piece of mind and finding things quickly but in this crazy world of ours, we should spend less time chained to the desk and more time doing lots of other stuff…. even if we do run a web company.

Do you have anything that saves you time/money that I may have forgotten in my list above?