This Week In Business

Focus On A Small Business: Growing Smart

The following is the last post of a four-part series called "Focus On A Small Business". I'm profiling local small business owners Renee Johnson and Chris Roberts, owners of Barkwheats, an organic dog biscuit company. I took them out to lunch and picked their brains. Here's some of what I learned.

Ideally, a lot of people out there would be happy working for themselves in a microbusiness (that's a business that employs less then ten people, which is a lot of businesses out there!). But many businesses also want to grow their impact and be able to hire other people and make bigger profits. And if you don't plan for growth, bad stuff is going to go down.

Make measureable and attainable goals that align with your mission statement.

Does a line of organic dog food fit into Chris and Renee's vision for Barkwheats? Absolutely. Does selling little cat toys? Not really. This is where having a solid business plan allows you to not scatter your energy in a million different directions. Because of their dog food in development, Chris and Renee are further reinforcing their mission statement of bringing wholesome and nutritious food to dogs, and isn't that what a business is all about?

Get help!

I've been saying this throughout this series so I won't belabor my point.

I know it can be fun to say you did it yourself but you can say "We did it" much sooner and with less stress so why not? Find mentors, friends, and family resources that'll help you grow. 

Box stores aren't all evil.  

This was a very interesting part of the conversation for me. I'm always trying to buy local (well mostly anyway) and avoiding box stores altogether. Chris and Renee as small business owners have come to a much healthier view of box stores that makes a lot of sense. Here's an example of the reasoning:

"…HonestTea sold 40% of it's shares to Coca Cola, which has much better distribution… I mean go to a remote part of Africa and you'll find Coca Cola… Part of that distribution will bring organic teas to so many more people who would otherwise be filling their systems with colas or high sugar fruit juices…If everyone should eat organic, you need to sell where all the people are…" (which is to say, big box stores)

So besides working with box stores to increase distribution of a good product (like Barkwheats), box stores are taking steps to be environmentally responsible, often to save money. Another example:

HonestTea was selling a three pack of its teas at Sam's Club. The warehouse company, however, realized that the product had too much packaging to fit in their trucks. With Sam's Club working with HonestTea, the packaging for the teas was reduced by 40%, not only saving resources but reducing shipping costs because more product could fit in a truck. Did Sam's Club do this to save money or help the environment? Well, the real question is, does it matter?

As Chris said "Everyone could be doing more, but everyone (ie large and small companies) has to take single steps."

So if you are going to grow, you may have to find a way to work with the Walmarts of the world. And that can be ok.

I could write another four days of posts about what Chris, Renee, and I discussed in an hour: that's how interesting the conversation was. So whether you are just starting to think about starting a business of your own or have had one for years, I encourage you to take someone you admire out to lunch with a vocie recorder and a few questions. I'm certainly glad I did!

And a special deal on Barkwheats for Breaking Even readers. When you visit put in the promo code nopf1208 in your shopping card for 20% off your entire order. Oh and there's free shipping on orders of six boxes or more.

Read part one of this series: The Little Things…
Read part two of this series: Learning More…
Read part three of this series: Getting The Word Out…

Focus On A Small Business: Getting The Word Out

The following is part three of a four-part series on calling "Focus On A Small Business". I'm profiling local small business owners Renee Johnson and Chris Roberts, owners of Barkwheats, an organic dog biscuit company. I took them out to lunch and picked their brains. Here's some of what I learned.

The reason I initially contacted Chris and Renee for this series is that I've seen them all over the place. A feature story in the Bangor Daily News last fall, then the start of their blog on the Ellsworth American website, after a mention on an eat local Maine blog followed by meeting them at the Full Circle Fair in Blue Hill…in short, everywhere. I couldn't believe Barkwheats is only two people; they have really seemed to get their message out!

Get the word out online in a way that works for you.

Renee was getting frustrated with some of Chris' short blog posts so she set up a Barkwheats Twitter account. "I just couldn't figure out at first what a I supposed to be telling all these people!" Chris said about the whole microblogging thing initially but it has proven a good medium for him.

If you don't want to commit to a blog for your business (at least initially), maybe a Facebook page would work for you or getting a local blogger/writer to do a writeup about your business could be a good way to start. It is pretty easy to get addicted to social networking but just because you do one thing doesn't mean you have to do it all. (For example, I find Myspace much more effective for musicians and artists then other businesses just because of the crowd it draws. So does your small accounting firm need a Myspace page? Um, no.)

The great thing about online is that the playing field is much more equitable for large and small businesses. You may not be able to afford a Superbowl commerical but you have equal chance of getting fans on YouTube as any of the ginourmous companies.

So get yourself out and online however you can, even if it's a small way to start. When people Google you, you want them to find something good!

Involve other people. (AKA It's not all about you.)

I have unsubscribed to several websites that give an "all about me" vibe. No one likes that. If you know a real life person like that, I'm guessing you make your best efforts to avoid them socially at all costs. The same rules go for communicating about your business. It's a fine line to walk (and talk) between selling yourself and being gracious.  

Like Renee articulated "We have a good story to tell but we'd like to involve other people and have it not just be our story." When communicating about your business or ideas, people pick up on that genuine desire to put yourself out there, not as the knower of all but as sharer of what you know.

Take the time in telling your story to not only give the people who helped you lots of credit but people you admire lots of air time. It makes you come off as more genuine, and you want to be the kind of business that people would invite to a dinner party. Well, figuratively anyway.

Follow up with people you meet.

After meeting Chris and Renee, Renee sought me out on Twitter and Facebook and left several followup comments on this blog. In doing this, I felt Renee really cared about me and took our relationship beyond what I could do for her (more good press) and she made it clear she was interested in what I was doing too. How flattering but also exactly the kind of business I want to deal with. Because Renee reached out, the next time someone asks me what I give my dog for a snack, I am much more likely to say Barkwheats and give glowing reviews.

So if you chat someone up on a plane, send a quick email to follow up. If someone calls you about your product, respond in a timely way. It's common sense I know but you'd be surprised at what manners people exhibit in their commucations and how it effects how other people view their business.

The last article in this series (tomorrow) will be about growing a business smart. Barkwheats will not be a two person operation forever; they've got plans to expand their line and do a little hiring. So if your business wants to grow, check this out tomorrow! (Hey, that kind of rhymes…)  

Read part one of this series: The Little Things (AKA Some Subtile Stuff About Business Plans)…
Read part two of this series: Learning More…

Focus On A Small Business: Learning More

The following is part two of a four-part series on calling "Focus On A Small Business". I'm profiling local small business owners Renee Johnson and Chris Roberts, owners of Barkwheats, an organic dog biscuit company. I took them out to lunch and picked their brains. Here's some of what I learned.

Chris and Renee certainly have a successful small business but that doesn't mean they're done working on it. It would be easy to stagnate once things are going well but Chris and Renee get being innovative and are always trying to learn more. Where do you start? Um, everywhere:

Look at what you've admired about places you've worked before.

Both Chris and Renee speak with great respect about the companies they've worked for, which I really respect. Not only does this attitude make Chris and Renee look classy (and not catty) but it also means that all their work experience is valuable since they are willing to examine it. "Our expectations are high because we've worked for cooporations (that have set a high bar)…we're going to be at that bar or better."

For example, Renee has had a lot of nonprofit work experience, which may not seem applicable to business at first glace. What she got out of her nonprofit experience is "good work flow…making sure we're not wasting time", which has contributed to such choices as getting effective project management software.

Your family (and friends) can help.

If anyone in your family has run a successful small business for any length of time, there is something to learn from them. Plus they'll be flattered you asked. (I've got to get my ducks in a row and talk to my mom and brother-in-law; they've been so helpful in my little questions so far, even though I'm not selling hardware like they are.)

Find out what's important in your industry and go for it.

Chris and Renee just got B Corp certification and are the first pet product company to do so. (Other companies who have it that you may be familiar with are Seventh Generation and Method.)

Looking at the website, I now understand not only the official and legal hoops there are to jump through for this certification but also why it is important for Barkwheats to have this certification.

P.S. The B Corp website has some free downloads to help improve the social and environmentally responsibility of your company. Click here to check them out.

Have professional development experiences… and revisit them.

Chris and Renee attended The Coop America Green Business Conference in San Fransisco and got a ton out of it. As a matter of fact, they continue to learn from it: they audio recorded the seminars they went to so they could revisit them. "I think a lot of it was relavent, we were really inspired and came away from it with a bigger vision then what we had. But then to go back and listen to it three months after we implement something…I think we'll understand it even more."

Small businesses I think are hesitant to invest in professional development but it is really quite valuable, especially when you continue to revisit the ideas from it after it is over.

I think if you're the kind of person to learn from just about everything you do, I think you have the open mind to be an entreprenneur: the flexibility to be successful, the knowledge to improve, and a growing network of people and resources to draw from.

The next post: Getting the Word Out. It's the aspect that most impresses me about Barkwheats because for being a two person operation doing all their own manufacturing, these folks spend some well invested time in online marketing!

Read part one of this series: The Little Things (AKA Some Subtile Stuff About Business Plans)…

Focus On A Small Business: The Little Things

The following is part one of a four-part series on calling "Focus On A Small Business". I'm profiling local small business owners Renee Johnson and Chris Roberts, owners of Barkwheats, an organic dog biscuit company. I took them out to lunch and picked their brains. Here's some of what I learned.

A Strong Business Plan Will Do A Lot More Then Help You Get A Loan

I know, I know. If one more person tells you that you have to have a really good business plan, you going to stop taking their advice. It's so obvious. And there's a time of resources on the Internet that will help you write a business plan if that's what you want to do. But talking with Chris and Renee reminded me of some subtleties behind this big fundamental idea.

1. A good plan helps you make good decisions, especially about those important little things.

Barkwheatsboxes Having a very detailed business plan can really help business owners make the decisions they need to make. Chris and Renée do not have the same anxiety about making decisions as a lot of people that I know:

"We make decisions quickly, in part because it is just the two of us. We're not afraid to make decisions."—Renee

In making their decisions, from choosing business cards (80% post consumer recycled paper printed with soy-based ink) to the wood fiber compostable film they use in all their packaging, all decisions must go back to their green, pet friendly business plan. These all seem like small decisions but collectively they help reinforce the business plan Chris and Renée made a year ago (and continue to revise I'm sure).

And because both Chris and Renée around the same page about what their company is and where it's going, they can both make decisions and have an equal stake in the company. And to me, a married couple being able to accomplish that is pretty cool. And it's all because they are very clear about their common vision.

2. Build a community of people to help you, likely and unlikely.

A few months ago, Chris and Renée flew to San Francisco to attend a conference of green businesses. An expense of money and time like this is not one some businesses would make (for one person or company let alone the two people who run the whole company) but they both got a ton out of the experience:

"Sometimes being here in Maine, we feel very little. We have a big vision for what we want to do… and it can get really hard to see that vision because we"re in Maine and our business is so small. There is not an abundance of really green business models to emulate… so to go all the way to the other side of the country and be able to sit with all these people and hear their stories made it feel like "we can do that"."—Renee

When I asked them further into the conversation is either their families were involved in small business, Chris mentioned his family had restaurants when he was growing up. I was thinking "what does that have to do with anything?" When Chris said that it had been really helpful from the perspective of food safety to know someone in the restaurant business. And this is why I was buying them lunch.

They also mention they had been part of WHCA's Incubator Without Walls program, which they thought very valuable from the standpoint of being accountable to a group of people moving their business plan forward.

Multimillion dollar green business owners, family, and a group of people who wanted to develop small businesses: that's quite a diverse group, all with a valuable perspective.

3. Set goals for the future.

Chris and Renee may not only have a good product (my dog Sadie loves their stuff) but they have plans for their company to go further.

Their business was launched last November, perfect timing in regards to a right place right time situation for growth. Pet products and organic products industries are "growing like gangbusters"(Chris) while the green movement has really taken off in the last year. If Barkwheats hadn't planned for growth initially, when they started doing really well they may have frozen, asking themselves what they were going to do next.

They begun setting themselves up to produce dog food which is still in the beginning stages but clearly it's part of the plan. They know that as their business grows and the higher help, it may not be able to make every single decision. But a very solid foundation with clear goals will help other people do what Chris and Renée would do.

The Mainebiz Book of Lists: Maine By Money

when my father was alive he used to love getting the annual Mainebiz Book of Lists, which usually comes out around this time of the year.

What this magazine does it rounds up a lot of Maine's financial figures and puts them in list form. Here's some interesting stuff:

Largest nonprofit organization: Bowdoin college at $895,629,000

Highest-paid nonprofit professional: Director of the Jackson lab $452,390

Highest-paid public company executive: Pres. of TD Banknorth $2,050,410

Highest-paid healthcare professional: Pres. of Maine Medical Center (Portland) $1,151,520

Largest employer: L.L. Bean (8000 to 9500 employees—I'm guessing there's some seasonal employees)

Largest farm subsidy: farm in Clinton $89,220

Largest Maine-based brewer: Shipyard Brewing Company, producing 69,700 barrels of beer

Largest hotel: Bar Harbor Regency Hotel with 278 rooms

There's obviously tons more information in this magazine. It's interesting to see not just who is on top but the other people and businesses that make the list. (Like the fact that a few professors at my old college made the list). The other thing to keep in mind is that these numbers are a couple of years behind. It'll be interesting to read this Book of Lists a few years from now to see how the economy really affected Maine.

It's easy to see that the nonprofit economy is central to the state of Maine (though sometimes I have a hard time seeing how multimillion dollar organization can be seen as a nonprofit but that's just me). As someone from Aroostook County, it's also interesting to see the information on farm subsidies. I just see how the center of commerce and industry is in southern Maine only and I wonder if it really has to be like that.

Even considering the southern part of the state, Maine doesn't have a lot of large businesses but in this economy, maybe it pays to be small and diversified.

If you want to get your own copy, the magazine costs about $20 but there's also lots of information on the Mainebiz website if you're interested in reading further. I'm actually wondering if other states have this kind of information available… I hope so because if your numbers person, this is a fun afternoon read!

Mainebiz's Lists on their website…(you can also buy the whole book at this link)

It's An Entrepreneurial Thing

Welcome to my week-long women's series. It's no secret that one issue that I'm passionate about is female empowerment. I used to answer a domestic violence hotline, coach cheerleading, lead a girls technology club in my local middle school, and met with a monthly girls book club. I'm currently on the board of our county's domestic violence program and doing some writing for the Maine Women's Fund. My point is it's certainly been a common thread in my life no matter where I am or what I'm doing.

So this week, it's about the ladies, and of course money (as usual). Enjoy!

Leslie Harlow is a local business owner in Ellsworth Maine. She not only owns the coffee shop The Maine Grind but also has a thriving website and blog called It's A Maine Thing. As a businesswoman and great person, I asked her a few questions.

Full disclosure: Leslie is one of my Internet PR clients.

 Mainegirlatthehelm Please summarize the idea of your online business in a few sentences.
I have lived in Maine my entire life where I have been captivated by it’s mystique, people and the landscape. Recognizing that many other people who either live here or live outside of the state have the same feelings I thought that an ecommerce web site, my services and keeping my audience in touch through my blog would be a good business idea. I did not model after anyone else’s site as this type of lifestyle marketing is fairly new.
What or who inspired you to start your own business?
I have always been self-employed and run my own businesses here in Maine since 1976. For 16 years (1990-2006) I was involved in the start-up and eventual success of Sullivan Harbor Farm Smokehouse in Sullivan where I ran the enterprise, along with a B&B, with my live-in male partner. After building a new building for the business in 2005 I ended my relationship with him. I attempted to work with him, but the situation fell apart over time. Do to the technical nature our financial relationship I was forced out of the business by him. Maine does not have Common Law in regards to protecting partners in longterm relationships so after I left I had to figure out what I was going to do. A crummy settlement was not going to provide me with the financial foundation that I expected to have by this point in my life (I am 54). Family and friends were very supportive and encouraged me to act on my creative side, but also recognized that my entrepreneurial spirit was still intact. Hence the hatching of my web site.
Sailorbag How did you bring the idea of It's A Maine Thing from business plan to thriving enterprise? Perseverance. Reached out to smart, experienced people. Understood from the get go that mistakes will be made. Parked my ego at the door.

In what way(s) has your business turned out differently then what you are expecting?
Building a web site and management of an e commerce site takes a lot of time which I was not expecting. Initially  I figured that it would take a few weeks, maybe a month, to build a site. Boy, was I mistaken! I am a hands-on person who was used to instant results so the tedium and detail work that e commerce requires has been a challenge for me. Frankly, I do not enjoy that aspect to my business.
What was one unexpected challenge you had, and how did you overcome it?
Fear. A year ago I developed an idea to begin a blog that would keep my audience up to date with happenings, musings and personal escapes that I encountered around the State of Maine.. I was certain that I could not write, but as time has marched on I have discovered that I can write well, I have fun doing it and am rewarded because people actually read my blogs.

What have been the most popular online items? Sea Bag Sail Bags, Klean Kanteen water bottles, art work
If someone was interested in starting their own business like yours, what advice would you give them?Breath deep. Eat well. Accept that you will be sitting on your seat for hours on end working through problems. Recognize that you will spend A LOT more money than you expect getting it started. Sign up with a reputable outfit to handle your credit cards. Hire a pro…not friends who “can create a web site”. Hire an experienced web site builder, preferably someone young who has had FORMAL training. Take good pictures or hire someone who can do it for you. Be friendly to your customers. Don’t be afraid of your own ideas, not matter how outlandish they may seem. Personalize your site. Wear lipstick when having one on one meetings. It’s all in the details. (I am finally at a juncture with my site where I have to begin listening to my own advice…). 
What question do you wish I would have asked? Feel free to write it down and answer it!
Do you have employees? I did have a part-time staff person for 5 months who helped manage my site, but she left for a full time job. I did not hire a replacement which forced me to learn new skills…a good thing. Currently I have a person who helps me on occasion with my blogs and I use the services of my web master from time to time. I could use a very part time person to help me handle the technical details of my site like changing pictures, adding products, etc.

Photos: Leslie, the "Maine Girl" at the helm, and the best selling sail bag