Grow with the flow – The key to a successful business

By at home

You’ve set up your business, working on your own, and you’re doing all right. The time has come to set new targets. Here’s our guide to hitting the bullseye, and running a successful business.

Let’s say, two years ago, you started painting murals on your children’s bedroom walls and before long, their friends wanted one, too.
Soon, you’d set up your interior decorating business, specialising in paint effects for children’s rooms. So where do you take it from there?

Let’s look at it another way. You could determine from what you’ve just read that our painter had a skill and capitalised on it. However, it could be described like this: a gap in the market was identified, so our entrepreneur leaped in and filled it. And there was your first lesson in marketing – word of mouth is a powerful tool. Now it’s time to analyse the market position, see where other demands are not being met and move in to dominate a new niche sector.

Simple marketing is one of the keys to success, and the best place to start is with your established clients. It’s vital that you keep in touch, even if it’s only with a Christmas card. Our artist may decide to keep a note of the children’s birthdays (and their appropriate ages) and send greetings. After all, what self-respecting 14-year-old doesn’t cringe at teddies and dolls on their walls? The card is a gentle nudge that they can be replaced.

This is known as ‘relationship marketing’: what’s more, it’s comparatively cheap and effective. And telling everybody you meet what you do is free and productive – if you’re at a social gathering, talk about it. The fact that you’re the friend of a friend puts you on a positive footing already. For example, the best man at a particular marriage ceremony was the brother of the groom – and a financial adviser. He mingled and chatted sociably with the guests he’d never met before, making sure he spoke to every person over the age of about 25 in the room. After all, one of the first questions anybody asks in such a situation is: "So what do you do for a living?" If they didn’t ask, he did and naturally the guest reciprocated by posing the same question. It was a subtle yet highly lucrative tactic. The guests remembered him positively because of his association with a delightful occasion, not to mention the family link, and all it took was a phone call to the happy couple to get the adviser’s number. Months later, the groom confessed: "He made a fortune out of my wedding."

If you don’t keep in touch, you don’t know what your clients are planning, and somebody else may step in while you’re not looking. This is particularly important when you diversify into new areas. Use your client database to keep everybody informed of updates. But how about expanding your current circle?

Directing your marketing to the appropriate audience is vital. People want to see the product, so keeping a portfolio of clean samples is essential. And a few positive references from satisfied clients don’t go amiss, either. In effect, you’re investing in advertising, which doesn’t have to incur a huge outlay. Research your target audience and be tactical in how you approach them.

Keeping focused is essential. It’s easy to order reams of headed notepaper, rent office space or buy a flash, new computer but it’s essential to prioritise your requirements and develop a strategy that takes logical steps towards making sound financial progress.

All your hard work is lost, though, if you price yourself out of the market, or if you’re not fully prepared. Do you need specialist knowledge for your new role? Are you really up to date with the latest technologies in the market? Consider a training course not least because you become more competent, but also because it’s a great way to make new business contacts. When it comes to marketing your strong corporate identity, be better and cheaper than any perceived competition. Ask yourself who else might encroach on your targeted sector, how much they are charging and what their weak points are. Approach their clients and suggest yourself as an alternative. While face-to-face meetings with prospective customers are a definite foot in the door, getting that far can be the problem because cold-calling isn’t exactly productive for a small business. It’s labour intensive and without another way in, it can involve a lot of legwork for little gain. Today’s answer is to get wired.

The internet has revolutionised the way we demand and supply goods and services; it’s open 24/7 and potential customers can browse without feeling any pressure to take things further. You can advertise in full colour globally, updating and reviewing your presentation as necessary. Setting up your own website has never been easier, but maintaining it is what counts. Do it yourself, taking a training course if necessary, or pay someone else. Just make sure every detail is right, everything’s spelled correctly, it’s up to date and, believe it or not, legible. While you may think that shocking pink type on a bright blue background is eye-catching, it’s extremely hard on the eyes and with about 20 seconds to persuade your viewer to read on, you can’t afford poor presentation. Can potential customers get in touch with you easily? Is your location important? How quickly can you respond to queries?

As a follow-up, compiling a database of respondents’ email addresses is the electronic version of keeping in touch with your customers – at least those who have checked the box on your web page to confirm they’re interested in finding out more. Keep your messages short, to the point, and relevant. When it’s a casual enquiry, nobody wants to be plagued for weeks afterwards with daily updates about stuff that doesn’t interest them.

However, what really swings the balance for many people is being able to buy over the net. While it’s not suitable for all types of business, if you’re keen to go ahead with it, you really do need a professional to guide you through. Do you want people to supply a phone number for you to call back and get credit card details, or will you only accept cheques? Are you prepared to take online credit details? These matters call for financial specialists, so do your research before diving in.

You know by now that communication and preparation are the two foundations of your revitalised business. You’re fired with enthusiasm and look forward to a new phase in your career. You’ll enjoy it even more if you avoid these little traps.

Being too optimistic. There will be pitfalls, so expect the best and prepare for the worst. If you spend all your loose change on bright, funky office furniture, what happens when your supplier goes bust and you have to pay through the nose for a speedy delivery from someone else?

Employing friends or relatives in key positions. While you may feel you can rely on your best buddy to set up your website for next to nothing, what do you do if the result’s a mess and the updates never seem to materialise? Auntie Maureen’s just finished an accountancy course and wants to try out her skills on your books, but that’s a real leap of faith on your part, no matter how much you like her Christmas pud. If you need something done quickly and properly, pay someone else and keep your friends.

Ignoring the sums. They won’t go away and if you get them wrong, you could find yourself in big trouble. Financial housekeeping is vital to keep your business flourishing.

Timing is everything. You’re rushed off your feet – great! The paperwork’s backing up and you didn’t jot down absolutely everything but it’s all in your head. You’ll sort it later. Then you stop and look at the calendar and it’s empty for the next six weeks and you haven’t a clue what those receipts were for. Balance what you’ve done, what you’re doing and what you’re planning.

Taking somebody’s word for it. Just like you, your suppliers and customers are making themselves look good. If a client says they always pay on time, find out from other suppliers if that’s accurate, and whether your idea of ‘on time’ matches theirs.

Diversify, innovate, promote your business cannily and keep your customers happy. Invest wisely, keep on top of the market and you’re good to grow…

Need Help?

www.angelmarketing.co.uk
Angel Marketing’s guide to online business strategy

www.businesslink.org,
www.scottish-enterprise.com,
www.businessconnect.org.uk,
www.ledu-ni.gov.uk
Small-business services provided by the government

www.flyingfish.com/fishtales/business1.cfm
Colourful experiences of a small Australian brewery firm

www.knowthis.com/management/marketstrat.htm
A US marketing virtual library

www.mmp.co.uk/strategy.htm
Market Management Partners’ information on marketing

www.smallbusiness.co.uk
Lloyds TSB’s dedicated site

Publications
Lloyds TSB Small Business Guide
Sara Williams £12.99 ISBN 0-9540812-0-X

Successful Marketing for the Small Business
Dave Patten £14.99 ISBN 0-749435-240

The Business Plan Workbook
Colin Barrow £16.99 ISBN 0-749434-996

Where are you going?
10 things you need to establish so your business will flourish.

1 Are you ready for extended business?
2 Are you needed – have you analysed the market?
3 What’s the competition doing wrong?
4 Is the industry growing?
5 If it goes pear-shaped, what is your Plan B?
6 Have you established short-term goals?
7 Have you established long-term goals?
8 How versatile is the structure of your business?
9 Are your finances in good order?
10 Are you on the Internet?

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