Friday, April 3, 2009

Take care of yourself

Starting a company can drive a person into the ground in many different ways. You may gain weight—or lose too much of it. You may begin to eat too much of the wrong foods, or you may barely eat at all. Pay attention to your health.

If ever there was a time to take better care of yourself, now is it. I know what you’re saying. “I can’t afford to get sick, so I won’t.” I hope you’re right, because combined stress and long work hours are going to put your health at greater risk than ever. Stress can make you more susceptible to common ailments such as colds. That’s no problem because you can work through things like that. But more serious stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure can occur, and you won’t be able to ignore them. Also, you don’t have the luxury of turning the reins of the company over to a crackerjack staff while you recuperate. If you’re out of commission even for a week, it could seriously jeopardize the future of the company.

If you already exercise regularly, maintain your schedule as much as possible. If you don’t exercise, now is the time to start. Take walks, go for light jogs, ride a bicycle, rake the leaves, or mow the lawn now that you can’t afford to outsource the job to the neighborhood 14-year-old. Do anything that remotely resembles exercise but in no way resembles your normal work. Sure, you can’t help but think about the business while you’re exercising, but that’s OK. Do whatever you can to keep yourself in at least nominal physical shape. If you’ve never been in good condition, get there now. You won't last long, nor will your company, if you don’t. Exercise is often a nice way to free your mind enough think of creative business solutions. Just consider it multi-tasking.

You are the most important asset your company has. Protect your asset.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Long?

Good things will eventually come from our current economic mess. Millions of Americans are getting kicked to the street. But among them is a host of talent waiting for the right moment to start new businesses. The loss of steady income isn’t the “right moment” they had in mind, but it’s the way many successful businesses have started since—forever.

Many of these new ventures will offer wholly new products and services. Others will provide new approaches to old problems that other companies have been unwilling or unable to fix. Many startups, if not most, are destined to fail. But a lot will succeed. And when each new business calls on its first prospect, they will worry about getting THE QUESTION: “How long have you been in business?” In turn, the new business will answer: “In minutes or hours?”

The fact is, that question doesn’t get asked as often one might think. When it does, don’t sweat it. A business’s age is important, but not critical, to its ability to deliver the goods. It certainly doesn’t guarantee the company will be around long. Disagree? Consider these companies:

AIG: Established 90 years ago

Lehman Brothers: Begun in 1850

General Motors: Started 101 years ago

How much confidence does the typical American consumer have in those companies today?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Be Logical

If you want to get a couple of salespeople flapping their gums at each other, ask them when the right time to talk price. An old sales "rule" says you shouldn't give the price until you've revealed all the dazzling features and benefits. It's like considering the price of a car. If someone wants to sell you a car for $20,000, you don’t know if it’s a great deal until you drive it, learn about all its options, and experience its quality. Twenty grand would be a great price for a new German import, but a terrible deal for an old Yugo with 200,000 miles on it, assuming any Yugo ever made it that far.
The thing is, withholding the price may be an acceptable approach for some types of sales, but not necessarily yours. Don't adhere to certain sales "rules" just because that's the way others have done it. As you try to snag your first customer, some things you hear and read will strike you as illogical. You’ll be advised to do things a certain way because they’ve always been done that way. But that doesn’t make them right for you. You may hear about various closing techniques that can help you land your first customer.
Look for the logic in things. If something doesn’t seem logical to you, examine it closely no matter how many so-called experts tell you otherwise. It may not be the right approach, at least in that particular situation. You find yourself in the position you are today—starting a company—because you have desire and smarts. Believe in yourself before you believe in anyone else. If something that I’ve written here doesn’t make sense in your situation, then question it closely. It may not ever make sense for you. Suspect any advice that presents itself as being the right choice in any case. With the exception of being truthful, there’s no such thing.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Tell them, and then tell them again

After graduating from college, I worked as a television reporter in Kentucky. Being a TV reporter was the biggest deal in my life to that point. I was on television. I was covering big news stories every day. Thousands of people turned on their TVs nightly, anxiously awaiting my balanced and comprehensive take on the noteworthy events of the day. At least, that was the warped perspective of a self-important 22-year-old. I assumed my exciting life was a big deal to those who knew me best back home in Missouri. But when I spoke to folks back home, the question always seemed to be the same. “So, how do you like working for that radio station in Tennessee?” And later, “you still a radio reporter?” It was a bit of a disappointment to learn most people weren’t sitting around the fireplace, wondering aloud what story I was reporting on the TV that night. I eventually realized that the things that consume my thoughts don't consume the thoughts of anyone else.

Admittedly, when I tell a lot of people that my company sells online registration software, their first reaction is something like, “Computers, huh? Maybe you can take a look at mine. Can’t figure out how to turn the thing on.” They may not understand the nuances of web-based registration immediately. But if I’m patient…

When you start a company, no matter how many times you’ve explained to Uncle Harris or cousin Diane what you do, explain it again. They won’t mind if you repeat yourself because they may not remember anyway. They have a lot of things on their minds and therefore don’t fully understand your business, but they may understand it enough to send a potential customer or two your way. They want you to succeed.

You can relate an anecdote that illustrates what you do. For example: “Boy, you won’t believe the size of opossum we extracted from the sewer the other day using the patented PossumGrabber® I invented in my garage.” When they have a passing understanding of your business, your friends and relatives might even know THE potential customer—the one that will make all the difference in your success. Unless you’re selling something that nobody in the world wants (in which case you have a larger problem than identifying prospects), you know somebody who knows somebody who could use your service. And unless all your friends and colleagues are doing hard time in maximum security, their word probably carries some weight with their friends and acquaintances, which just might be your future customers.

One of the best ways of getting your first customers is to be a blabbermouth. This may not be your style unless you are a born self-promoter, but it is exactly what you have to be. Nobody is going to be more excited about your company than you. If you can’t promote it, nobody else will. It is quite possible, depending on how narrow is the niche for your creation, that you do not know anybody who would want or need your service. But I'll bet you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Enjoy being the underdog

If you think the deck is stacked impossibly against you, you are going to find it harder to land your first customer. In fact, you have lots of avenues rich with potential that you should explore before you even think of contacting someone whom you’ve never heard of and who hasn’t heard of you.

In America, we root for the underdog. That's you. Truth is, you will never be a greater underdog than when you start a company from scratch. You may not even realize it, but a lot of people are rooting for you to succeed just because you’re trying to do something most of us are too afraid to do. Some of the folks in your cheering section are people you know well. Others are people you don’t know yet. But you'll have the chance to know them because of your connections. Either way, you can leverage those new and existing relationships to find your first customer.

If you have investors, they want to see you succeed for obvious reasons. Also, they may have been in your shoes at one point and can empathize more than anybody with what it takes to get your first customers. They became successful enough to invest in your company in part because they know a lot of people. Their contacts may need exactly what you’re selling. Don’t assume your investors are automatically thinking of such relationships, however. Just because they’re smart and they’ve read your business plan does not guarantee they fully understand what you do. Millions of dollars are invested all the time by people who don’t completely understand the business they’re investing in. It’s possible that your investors are committing as much to the potential of you as they are to the promise of your company.

Therefore, your company will benefit if you give your investors, during regular meetings or investor updates, your vision of who your ideal customer is. And then ask your investors if your description fits anyone they know. If they don’t suggest anyone the first time you ask, ask again a few months later. As your notion of your ideal customer changes, share that with your supporters, too. Sooner, if not later, they will provide important names. Those may be some of the best leads you receive.

If you borrowed money to start your company, your loan officer also has a vested interest in seeing you succeed. She wants to improve the chances of getting her bank’s money back—along with all that interest you’re fretting over. She comes into contact with other business owners every day. The same type of regular email or phone call updates that trigger an investor's thoughts can also work for a loan officer. It’s like being the squeaky wheel, except you’re informing rather than complaining. If an investor, loan officer or other money person hears from you once in a while, your situation—and need for prospects—will be top of mind. And remember, you’re not asking these people for anything material. You’re only helping them protect their investment and their reputation by providing a connection to prospects.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Give and then give some more

If you start any relationship interested solely in what you’ll get out of it, you’ll get out of business sooner rather than later. Giving more than you receive in a business relationship creates a high level of confidence and respect by your prospects, and subsequently, your customers. At every turn, seek ways to rise above the prospect’s expectations. It’s the direct route to a happy customer. And once the prospect becomes a customer, do even more. Surprise them. Delight them. Impress them.

Consider what information, advice or service you can offer a prospect—at no charge—that will reinforce your industry expertise. You don’t have to give anything that’s isn’t already free in the strictest sense of the word. You just have to make it more readily available to your prospects and customers. A lot of information on nearly any topic is available on the Internet. But you make it easily available, with attribution, on your letterhead or your own web site. If you do, you'll provide your customers something of value that they will associate with you.

Your prospects will associate you with smarts. If you weren’t already a pretty smart cookie, you wouldn’t be involved in a new company. You wouldn’t be where you are now if you did not have a lot going for you. The prospect probably already assumes that. Sharing a bit of your knowledge, without expecting something in return, will help confirm it.

You, as the expert, can share a little bit of your knowledge, positioning yourself as a leader while easing possible concerns about the newness of your company. Some easy ways to do that include:
· Regular newsletters with articles and tips that avoid blatant self promotion.
· White papers about industry trends that prospects may not be aware of.
· Tips on how to take full advantage of products or services like those you offer. Better yet, offer tips on how to avoid overspending on services that the prospect may not need.
· A free analysis of a prospect’s current processes with no obligation to choose your offering.

You can probably think of several other tactics related to your industry. You know things that the prospect wants to know. Even more likely, you know things they need to know, but don’t realize it and don’t have time to get it.