Get a Plan, Stan

Operating a small business is exciting, terrifying and overwhelming all at the same time. As the owner, you’re trying to be everything to everyone – the sales manager, the accountant, the problem solver and the face of your brand. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you’re probably so busy juggling balls that you’ve sidelined the one thing that’s most important to you, your business and its future. You've forgotten about the plan.

Recently, I sat down with a group of a dozen small business owners who I was working with to establish their business plans. Some were start-ups and others had been operating for 10 plus years, but every one of them was at the session because they realized that they lacked a solid strategy to get them from where they were to where they wanted to be.

Just like any program, admitting you have a problem is the first step, and, in my opinion, not having a business plan is pretty big problem. But the solutions available to entrepreneurs don’t make it any easier. In my experience, the templates you find online are intimidating and ask for information you’ll probably never need, and will spend ages trying to figure out. The financial questions can be confusing, and the demand to have a perfect, concise yet comprehensive vision for your business can be completely overwhelming. Then, if you actually complete the plan (or pay someone else to do it), it ends up sitting in a desk drawer collecting dust because it’s so full of assumptions and high level nonsense that it becomes redundant and all together useless. So why bother?

There is only one reason to write a business plan, and that is to give you, the owner, a roadmap and direction for the future of your business. There are other kinds of business plans, like the ones written for investors that will make or break you depending on if “the money” likes what they see. But the business plan I am talking about is the one written by you for you, where you lay out your vision and the “who, what, when, where, why and how” that will take to get your business to where you want it to be. This kind of business planning isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t be daunting either. It should be exciting, inspiring and it should take you less than a day to complete. 

So where do you start? First, forget about everyone else and start thinking about you as the owner and your vision for your business. If you could write one sentence about where you want to be in three to five years, what would it say? Mine would say that I want to have a marketing company that helps small business owners by providing tools and solutions to help them learn, grow, and ultimately kick butt. How about you?

Your vision doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should touch on why you have chosen the entrepreneurial road less traveled for yourself. Do you want to provide a solution that makes people’s lives easier? Do you want to disrupt the market with something new and innovative? Do you want to spend the rest of your days earning a living by doing something that you love? Whatever it is that sits in your gut and makes you get out of bed every morning; that should be your vision. It should be the reason you made the choice to become a business owner instead of just getting a job.

Once you have your vision, it’s time to hunker down on the financial, internal and people outcomes you need to build on that vision. If the vision is the why, the outcomes are the what. They lay the foundation for your business and what you want to achieve, whether that’s to make $50 million dollars, or create a staff culture that loves your brand with as much passion as you do. The outcomes are the definition of your vision.

Of course, just like any small business owner, you can’t do it all. So once you have solidified your outcomes, you need to pick a few priorities to concentrate on. Once you have a focus, you can start to define some strategies to help you deliver on the outcomes you've prioritized for yourself. A great business plan will also be a practical one, so your strategies should be followed by an action plan that will get you focused on what you need to do to make your long-term vision and short-term goals a reality. 

Just like any big picture planning, sitting down and defining the future for your business can be intimidating. But don’t let fear take the wind out of your sails. Everything you need is already in your head; you just need the right direction, a little bit of focus and a whole lot of passion. 

If you’d like more information about business strategy and our half-day practical planning sessions, get in touch

Starting Up on the Cheap

One of the most terrifying things about launching a start-up (and there are many) is the amount of capital needed to get off the ground. Most entrepreneurs assume they won’t be able to get a proper paycheck for at least a couple of years, so with lots of bills and no income, how can anyone afford to start a business?

If your idea involves the manufacturing and distribution of a product, there is no getting around the need for initial capital. But if you’re in a service-based industry and your product is essentially you, your brain and your brawn, there are ways to get going with a little bit of cash, a whole lot of motivation and some smart marketing strategies.

Make It Real

If you want to build a business, no matter if it’s a lemonade stand, a real estate start-up or a fashion label, you’re going to need a place where people can go to get information about you. The easiest way to do that is a website, or at the very least, a standout Facebook page. Your website your shop front and it’s the first thing people see when they start to do research about the services you provide. A good website has lots of great imagery and enough content to explain who you are and what you do without being overwhelming or complicated. It’s a good idea to make sure your website answers the 5W’s of your company (who, what, when, where and why) and most importantly, “how” – as in how you can help your potential customers. If you don’t know the first thing about building a website, there are plenty of solutions at your fingertips. If you’re patient and have a bit of creative flair, platforms such as Squarespace and Wix provide all the tools you need to get something simple up and running in a day.  Websites on Squarespace cost as little as $12 a month and getting a domain name is usually around $10 per year, so it’s not going to break the bank.

Get Social

Once you have your website sorted, it’s a good idea to take advantage of the free megaphone that is social media.  Create separate business accounts for Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and any other platforms you like to use and make sure that the content you’re posting is relevant to your business and audience.  I run a marketing and PR consultancy for small businesses, and I like to use a mix of curated and unique content which is a fancy way of saying that I like to share articles that I think small business owners would find interesting, plus I write a fair few of my own.  Make yourself relevant to your audience in both the content that you share and the platforms that you use. As an example, if you’re a personal trainer, offer your expert advice and opinions about at-home workouts, healthy recipes and ways to keep fit on the go. If you’re an accountant, don’t focus all your efforts on building a Pinterest board because let’s be honest, it’s going to be tough to inspire people to use your services by posting pictures. Rather, use a writing focused platform like Medium, where you can publish long-form articles on topics such as how small businesses can keep their incomings and outgoings organized.  Whatever you decide to talk about and whatever you use to do it, never ever bombard followers with sales pitches.  Give them news they can use that has an appropriate connection to your business. Otherwise, they’ll get bored and give you the flick.

It’s Not What You Know…

With your web presence locked and loaded and your content trickling through, it’s time to start shouting about your business from the rooftops. The best brand advocates are often family, friends, and people who, well, like you. If you’re just starting out, contact your internal network and let them know a little bit about your venture with a quick and friendly “about us”. Introduce them to your new business’s social media profiles and pages, and invite them to like and follow you. The beauty of social media is that it can be wide reaching with just a few shares, and you never know who you might be loosely connected with that is in need of your services. When you first set up your profiles, it’s tempting to jump right to this step before deciding on your content strategy. My advice is to hold off until you have at least a few posts up and live. Not even your mom is going to recommend something with a whole lot of nothing in it.

Marketing Magic

After you’ve covered your bases on the home front, it’s time to start getting out there and into the real world. I am a huge fan of free marketing and there are a number of great ways to get the word out about your business without spending a fortune.  Here are my four favorites:

1. Become an advocate.

When I was first starting out, I looked for bigger businesses and opportunities that I could leverage to help me get the word out about my brand. Because I do marketing and PR for small businesses, I found a global brand that was looking for ambassadors to promote an event that spoke directly to my target market. By volunteering my time and energy, I got to meet all the local businesses in the area and introduce them to my business, all while giving them an opportunity to participate in an event that would boost their sales for free.  If I am being honest with myself, I know that I’ll never have the advertising power or reach that this mega brand does, but through my partnership with them, I got a little slice of their pie for my own business.

2. Donate (and it doesn’t have to be dollars).

In my area there is a non-profit that helps high school kids get ready for the working world with a specific focus on business ownership. I don’t know about you, but my high school somehow skipped practical business life lessons, like how credit cards really work and what an interest rate is. Through this non-profit, I volunteer my time to teach young people about basic marketing and PR, which I absolutely love and feel great about doing. On the flip side, being involved in the organization also gives me access to a network of potential clients through the school system, which for someone without kids, probably wouldn’t be an avenue I would normally explore. There are great non-profits and charities that rely on businesses for help, and a lot of the time, expertise is more valuable to them than money.  So get involved.

3. Get in with the media

I’ve been doing public relations since I was 17 years old and while it’s not the easiest way to make a name for your business, it can be one of the cheapest. One of my favorite PR tactics is pitching a column to the local newspaper. I did this for my dad a few years ago, and he still considers it to be a changing point in his business. He is a remodeling contractor who, while having 30 years experience and an excellent reputation in our hometown, was finding it hard to stand out amongst a growing sea of competitors. We pitched the local newspaper on the idea for a weekly column, highlighting home improvement Q&A’s from local readers. All of a sudden my dad’s name and face had a page of its own every week, directly opposite to the cluttered page of three-inch ads from the 25 other remodelers in town. There isn’t a day that goes by when he doesn’t get a call from a potential customer who is ringing because of that column. It has continued to build his reputation as a trusted expert in the area, which is the kind of recognition that no advertisement could buy, regardless of the cost.

4. Offer free (or cheap) workshops and classes.

One of the biggest mistakes new business owners make is not valuing their own expertise. I used to work with a large group of financial planners who I had to constantly remind of the uniqueness of their skill – an expertise in money – the one thing that people are most confused about and fearful of.  As a business owner, you have to recognize your expertise, and instead of thinking of yourself in the sense of a profession, start thinking of yourself as an expert. If you’re a financial planner (or money guru as I like to call it), offer a low-cost seminar unveiling your top 10 tips to retire by the time you’re 45. If you’re a personal trainer, promote a free butt blaster class for new moms. If you’re a florist, create an architectural arrangements class for brides-to-be. The point is, get creative and get yourself out there. With online platforms such as Meetup and Eventbrite, organizing and marketing a get-together can be a breeze, and by using free event spaces such as a library or a park, your investment can be minimal. Remember, meeting 10 new people is better than meeting none. Just don’t forget to think about your hook and how to introduce your business in an organic way to keep people coming back for more. It’s great to offer something on the cheap but always remember the long-term goal - to generate new business.

If You Spend, Spend Wisely

I religiously trial a minimum of six marketing activities per month and at least half of them cost me nothing. But there are a few things I’ll foot the bill for, which helps me to stay relevant and on top of potential clients minds.  One thing I love to do is good old-fashioned mailings, which take some time but in my experience are well worth the cost. If you are above the age of 30, you’ll remember a time when you’d get more snail mail than e-mail. My how times have changed! Nowadays, a personal letter is a rarity, and, ironically, a point of difference in this digitally driven world. Each piece of mail I send out, which includes a branded letter talking about my and a business card, plus labels, envelopes and postage cost $1.34 per piece. I send out about 100 per month, and then follow them up by connecting with the recipients on social media, giving them a call on the phone or popping into their business or office to introduce myself. It’s a silly little tactic and by no means groundbreaking, but in a time when marketing revolves around the smartphone, a good old-fashioned letter can go a long way.

Final Thoughts

For my business, I base my marketing budget on approximately 15 percent of my revenue, which of course doesn’t account for the things I do to build my business for free. What I make sure to do is acknowledge the time it takes to execute what I call active marketing, which while free is also much more time consuming than simply dropping an ad onto Facebook and waiting by the phone. I have built this time into my business plan and you should too because as they say, “time is money” and just like anything else, it should be accounted for.

If you can’t get the idea of starting a business out of your head, but are frozen by a lack of funds available to get going, change your thinking. There are thousands of great resources available to start-ups, and with some research and the right attitude, anything can be possible.

The 30-Day Business

In my 33 years, I have held down one marketing job after another; from writing ad copy for a real estate agency when I was 16 years old, to building the brand for a successful, listed start-up in Australia – and just about everything in between. It wasn’t until this year, after a six-month hiatus and journey around the world that I realized it was time for me to go out on my own and start a business.

I’ve always been a go-getter and a bit of a cyborg when it comes to building businesses. So from the day my partner James and I settled down in Los Angeles after our 16-country spin around the globe, I set myself a challenge to have my vision for a marketing consultancy standing on its own two feet in just 30 days. One month later, I am living to tell the tale. Here is how I did it:

Very Boring, Very Necessary

I am good at what I do, but I’ll be the first to admit that anything with a legal or financial tinge tends to fly right through my brain at the speed of light. I knew the very first thing I needed to do was to decide what kind of business entity I was going to operate, but I wasn’t sure about the pros and cons of sole proprietorship versus limited liability and bibbity bops versus blah blahs, so my first call was to a lawyer who did. The idea of even having a conversation with a “legal professional” freaked me out, so I did some research and found one that specialized in start-ups, and had a cool Instagram account to boot. You might be thinking that social media is no way to pick a professional, but I couldn’t disagree more. I wanted to find someone who I could “click” with, someone I could trust who was interested in my business. It was important for me to find a lawyer who also had personality and a business philosophy that was similar to mine. Most of all, I wanted someone who would explain the things I wasn’t sure about in a way I could understand, and who didn’t make me feel embarrassed about my shortcomings. My guy, Grant in downtown L.A., ticked all the boxes, and kept me in the loop about cool events and start up get-togethers that I wasn’t onto yet. He made the legal talk palatable and took something that I would normally dread and made it easy for me to understand. If you’re a small business owner you’ll agree that those little things can make all the difference when you’re starting out. It gave me confidence in my project and a transparent direction for my future.

Once I was clear that sole proprietorship would suit my business needs, I had to get a bunch of licenses that would allow me to operate. The Small Business Association (SBA) was a great resource, and it helped me to understand that I needed to file what’s called a DBA, which stands for “doing business as” and is required if you’re operating your business under any name other than your own. In addition to the DBA, I also had to get a local business license to operate in my area on the east side of Los Angeles. The DBA took a few weeks to come through, but the local license was quick and they both cost me under $200. As a new business owner, it can be difficult to understand the licenses you will need to operate, but doing the right thing and getting the proper paperwork sorted is necessary, not only from a legal perspective, but even for the little things like getting a business bank account. It’s not the sexiest part of the job, but it’s a non-negotiable too.

Now that I was legal and licensed, I wanted to make sure that I had the right protection in place. The word insurance is anxiety inducing for me, but I knew I needed a plan that would have my back if anything unexpected went down. When I first moved to L.A. a little more than a month ago, I jumped on Google and haphazardly typed in some details to get a quote on my renters insurance. I fielded many calls, but I couldn’t go past Zach who “got me” right away. He explained my options and while his policy wasn’t the rock bottom cheapest, he took the time to listen to me, which seems to be exceedingly rare these days. When I needed to know what my requirements were for the business, I got Zach on the phone again, and he took the time to explain what he thought was imperative based on my cash strapped start-up status. Just this week, I even rang him out of the blue to get a referral for a good local accountant, to which he gave me two recommendations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you’re running a small business, you need to have experts around you who care, and are also great to deal with. I always look for likeminded professionals to surround myself with, especially for the things that I can’t operate without.

Beauty and the Brand

With the boring bits locked in, I could turn my focus to the customer facing aspect of my business. I am a marketing person and brand means a lot to me. I knew I wanted my business to be a reflection of me and because I love to travel, I wanted it to inspire my clients with images and stories that showed them I was on my own journey, and that I understood theirs too. The name for my business - Journey Communications - was a no-brainer, and once I knew what I wanted it to feel like, I started focusing on the impression that it would give to my potential customers.

Building a website can be hugely daunting. For many businesses, it’s their shop front; the first thing potential customers see when they’re considering a product or service. I was keen to build my website on my own to keep costs down, and I decided to use Squarespace, a popular platform which enabled me to build the site in just a few days. I chose imagery that reflected my own journey and showcased beautiful pictures that made me feel happy, energetic and inspired. I am lucky that my sister is a brilliant photographer and I was able to create a library of photos that reflected my business and gave my brand the personality it deserved, without having to tap into stock photography. I paid a lot of attention to the navigation and content on my site, ensuring that it was easy to use and comprehensive without being overwhelming for the reader. I wanted people to learn about my expertise and understand how it could help them build and enhance their own businesses. I also wanted a place where I could publish my ideas and provide value to readers through various tips, tools and tricks of the marketing trade. I love sharing and I wanted to make sure anyone, not just clients, could access resources that might help them learn and grow on their own.

After the website was done, it was time to put my brand identity down on paper. My partner in crime and great friend Iolanda is a masterful graphic designer, and I am generally a control freak when it comes to bringing my vision to life. I had the brand identity perfectly conceived in my brain, right down to the exact font, but it took an expert to bring what was in my head to life. In just a week, my design doyenne had my logo, letterhead, social media profile pictures and business cards in my inbox, which worked perfectly with the imagery I had chosen for my website. It was at this point, only two weeks into my one-month race to the finish, that I truly had a brand.

After implementing my new assets onto my website and ordering my business cards, I began creating the various social media accounts I needed to give me a voice. I am not a social media disciple, but I do think it is a great way to reach an audience, provided you have something relevant to say. You can find Journey on just about every platform, but I have a slow and steady approach to my social media, and I am careful about building a following that is relevant to my business. There are a lot of folks who measure success in numbers, but I pay much more attention to the engagement factor, and I plan my content and topics based on what my audience - small business owners - need and want to know. And heck, I’m a sucker for a beautiful sunset photo every once in a while too.

The X Factor

Now that I had a face for my business, I could turn my focus to the guts of it and what I really wanted to achieve. I know so many small business owners and startups who have either never done a business plan, or have written one filled with high-level garbage to satisfy some potential investor. Part of what I do for my clients is business planning, so I wanted to make sure that my own plan really delivered for me and defined a roadmap for my success. I probably wrote and re-wrote the plan ten times, but in the end I walked away with a tactical, practical strategy that dug right down into how I was going to operate and grow my business, both financially and rationally. I also made sure that the plan suited the way I wanted to work and left plenty of time for me to find new business and educate myself on the latest tools and technologies. My plan is a live document that I use every day and it is one that will grow as my business grows. It’s an indispensable part of Journey and I can’t imagine operating without it.

It probably seems funny that a marketing business needs a marketing plan, but just like any start-up, I needed a solid strategy to generate leads and find new customers. I set myself an initial marketing spend of 15% of my projected revenue and committed to a minimum of five different activities per month. I am a firm believer in diversification and I handpicked activities in the areas of traditional marketing, online marketing, social media, public relations and events, knowing full well that some activities would generate activity and others would fail miserably. That’s the thing with marketing; you have to try a little bit of everything and measure and monitor them with ferocity to get the best bang for your buck. I track my spending weekly and analyze my cost per lead with a magnifying glass, all while giving each activity enough time to find its groove. Some of my marketing tactics are high cost, while others are completely free; some can reach thousands in a clip while others are painstakingly individualized. I can’t say yet what’s working and what’s not, but I know I have to be open to a mix of different activities, I have to monitor and measure the crap out of them, and I have to swap the ones that aren’t working for something new. I preach the same marketing philosophy that I follow myself, which is to set a marketing plan that matches your personality. If you have thumbs the size of sausages, don’t put all your eggs in the social media basket. If you’re terrified of standing up in front of a crowd, don’t base your plan on networking breakfasts and public speaking engagements. Be honest with yourself and set a strategy that you’re comfortable with. Otherwise marketing will become a task you dread and will soon fall right off your to-do list.

Once I had my plans in place, I was feeling confident with where my business was headed, which meant I needed to find someone who would tear me to shreds.  Being a small business owner is a roller coaster and I wanted to have someone who was going to keep me honest, someone who was going to ask me questions that I never thought of and didn’t have the answers to.  I wanted to find a mentor, but not someone who was going to pat my head and tell me I did a good job. I needed someone who was going to make my business better by pulling it apart. During week two, I went to a networking breakfast to learn more about the services that were available to small businesses and start-ups. The presentation was given by the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and on the stage sat two gentlemen. One was a small business owner who had built his business vision into a reality and attributed much of his success to the man on his left, a small business mentor appointed to him by the SBDC. The business owner was not shy in vocalizing how his mentor beat his business to a pulp and over the course of a year, pulled him way out of his comfort zone and forced him to make difficult decisions that ultimately paid off. Their relationship was jovial and respectful, but you could tell they had been through some conversations and decisions that left the small business owner uncomfortable at best. After that day, I knew I had to have a mentor who did all of those things for me.  And with a little luck and some awkward stalking, I got him.

Next Steps

Not every business can be built in 30 days. I didn’t have a product to manufacture or capital to raise and pretty much everything I needed came from my own brain and from some amazing people around me.  But in the midst of doing all my launch work, I was also able to introduce Journey to over 100 local businesses, attend six networking events, give a business planning presentation to a group of eager start-ups, create a series of Facebook ads, maintain 20 updates on each of my social media channels every week, write a half dozen blog posts, and create a groundswell of new business opportunities; which are now converting into customers.  I’m not going to pretend it has been easy because it hasn’t, but entrepreneurs don’t choose to build businesses because it’s a walk in the park. As the saying goes, “where there is a will, there is a way.” The only question left is, are you up for it?

Writers Note: The information written above is for guidance only and is not to be interpreted as advice. Each individual will have his or her own needs and requirements, which should be researched appropriately before starting a business.