Friday, December 12, 2014

Make conscious decisions about growing your small business.

Sophie Tucker
Article originally published in Succeeding in Small Business.

Entertainer Sophie Tucker (and others) famously said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

Some people would make a similar remark about owning a business, with larger being better. But is it always true?

As a small business owner, you may want to grow your company, and you may even have plans to do so. Before you put your foot on the accelerator, take the time to decide whether (and how much) you should grow your company.

What do you really want?

Do you very much want to scale a business? Have more employees to help carry the weight? Have the potential to make more money? Create something that is worth a great deal of money, or that changes the world? You have the entrepreneurial drive to build your small business into a large one.

Do you need to grow to appear competitive in your market? To have the budget to get the word out, make more sales, and become an industry leader?

Can you be successful as a boutique? In some industries, the Davids are giving the Goliaths a run for their money.

Do you want a business that comfortably supports you and also leaves time for you to be with family, pursue other interests or take vacations? You may want to grow but to control the growth so that you can enjoy what some people call a lifestyle business. While this term has been used condescendingly in entrepreneurial circles, there is also an increasing recognition that a solid lifestyle business can indeed be a great business to run. Check out 7 Reasons Most People Should Build Lifestyle Businesses, Not Startups.


What potential does your business have to grow? Some businesses are like finely tuned sports cars. They aren’t working at full capability unless they are on the track, racing forward. They are built to move fast and make things happen.

Other businesses are engineered for steady travel instead. Carpooling and family vacations, say.

How about your company? And are you happy with that Chevy or Lamborghini your company is today? Or do you want to reengineer your business for a different driving experience?


In a very small business, you do nearly everything yourself. As your business grows, you will delegate some tasks.

As you grow even more, or scale the business (see a nice explanation of business scaling in Fortune), your responsibilities are likely to change from doing or a blend of doing-and-managing to higher level managing.

Before putting your dreams of growth into practical steps, consider whether you like doing or managing or some blend of the two, and also whether the satisfaction you get from business is from the rush of entrepreneurial growth or from the day-to-day running of the company you have today.


Depending on how you grow and what type of business you have, you have the potential to make more money as the company gets bigger. Generally, this is one major motivation for growing a company.

It should be recognized that there are times when the larger business is not more lucrative for its owner. As you take on more employees, more infrastructure and more risk (see below) you also have more potential areas for poor performance and resulting reduced financial returns. Which brings us to risk.


Big leases, big loans, shared equity, a larger staff, and other potential demands of a growing business carry with them higher risk alongside  higher prospective reward.

A fast-growing business typically brings some loss of control as well as challenges maintaining quality, assuring profitability, and managing your (potentially also large) competition.

Be aware not only of your best-case scenario but also your worst. Are you ready to deal with risk?

This article from Inc., 5 Risks for a Growing Business, and How to Manage Them is a good primer for companies planning significant growth.

Salability of company

What will you do with your company when you are ready to retire or move on? Will your children run it? Will key employees buy it or take it over? Will you sell it? Will it end when you stop working?

Size is one consideration in this matter. Many small business advisors recommend that you fund your retirement while you are working, in the event that “you are the company” and that the business “dies with you.”

A business that is not overly dependent on you, and that can continue to make money after you move on, is typically a more saleable enterprise.

Unless you have a novel technology in hand, cash is king when it comes to selling a business, so if making a lot of money from the eventual sale of your company is a key consideration in your planning, you may indeed want to grow the business aggressively.

Small businesses that can run without you can be salable, too, since people frequently prefer to buy an existing business rather than starting their own. However, the proceeds are likely to be lower.


As a business owner, you have a unique opportunity to make conscious decisions about growth, based on the market for your services or products, and on balancing pros and cons of large versus small, considering your own management style, and reviewing how you want to blend business and life goals.

Whatever you decide, you have the privilege and the pride that comes with running a business. So many people would like to do what you are doing every day!

Monday, December 8, 2014

After 30 years in business, I'm learning from startups.

We all understand the need for fresh thinking and continuous improvement.


Of course, continuing to generate new ideas and improvements demands that one also seeks sources for inspiration.

I am fortunate in this regard to have found a wellspring of new and original thinking in the principals of entrepreneurial start-ups. In recent years, I’ve become involved in organizations whose mission is to further entrepreneurial success. One great example is Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), a Western Massachusetts organization providing “support to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

At VVM and other groups, I have the privilege of hearing early-phase new business plans that entrepreneurs are pitching or submitting for review. Sometimes, I offer counsel on launching ideas, products and brands. Often, I learn at least as much from the process as I impart.

Much of what is true for startups is also important to longer-established businesses. Lessons in “what makes for a successful startup” that have made a lasting impression on me include the following:

Focus is important.

Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, claims that the ability to focus is the primary predictor of both professional and personal excellence and success. The entrepreneurs who most often succeed demonstrate this ability to both see and remain committed to the overarching goals they set.

Flexibility is important, too.

Yes, focus is great, but focus at the expense of the ability to regroup, redirect and (to use an overused phrase) pivot can go beyond persistence to become foolish stubbornness. When do you know a plan is not working? Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Sure, but more often, 10,000 failures indicate that it’s time to seriously tweak, pivot or discard.

The best entrepreneurs combine the ability to focus with the ability to continue generating ideas.

This is why we see so many serial entrepreneurs, who develop a company, sell it, and then develop another. And if an idea doesn’t quite work, they can often refashion it into one that does.

No entrepreneur should be an island.

During business plan reviews, many a seasoned businessperson will offer advice – on concept, phasing, financials, regulatory and testing matters, competitive scene, and more. Not only does the entrepreneur learn something, the rest of the review participants often do as well. There are a lot of really smart people out there, with a great deal to share if you have the willingness to hear it.

This is still a great world full of wonderful ideas.

Many of the business plans I hear are confidential, so just let me say… world health, the environment, education, communication, and a multitude of other burning needs give us the opportunity to improve the world. If indeed the world does improve, I bet it will be in large part thanks to the efforts of focused, flexible, imaginative, and well-mentored small and growing businesses and, of course, their fearless leaders.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Reaching unreachable people

Image copyright 2004-2014 van Schouwen Associates, LLCI don't answer my phone at the office anymore unless I know the caller.

A lot of my email goes in the trash unread.

I don't even listen to my voicemails.

I can't possibly read everything I need to read.

Does this sound like your customers and prospects? Let's face it, many decision-makers are overwhelmed with demands, sales calls, interruptions, and urgent tasks. This is especially true with the ever-increasing number of channels contributing to information overload. The jaunty concept of the information superhighway is not only antiquated but far out of sync with where we are today; standing in the middle of a field in an intense information hailstorm, with little chance of respite or shelter.

Much as you may empathize with everyone who wants to shut down all the noise, you have urgent needs of your own.

There are customers and prospects to reach, new products to launch and messages and a brand to promote. How can you reach your particular "unreachable people" who have resorted to avoiding unwanted messaging? How do you compete in this crazy environment?

-Use multiple channels. We know that people are still reading, viewing and listening to some information - they are just skipping lots more. What exactly any one person is taking in varies, of course, although there are clear trends among specific groups. By employing, let's say, social media, content marketing, press visibility, select advertising, trade show and conference presence and engagement, and maybe even the surprise of a print (gasp) newsletter, you will get through with some percentage of your efforts.

-Be useful more than you are promotional. Remember, in an ideal world, your offerings solve a problem your prospect has. Give a little, in terms of information, advice or value, and you will enjoy better reception than you would otherwise receive.

-Remember that no matter how busy your prospects and influentials are, they take time out for social media or content that they think constitutes a a bit of a break from their primary pursuits. Since the new equivalent of water cooler socializing and coffee breaks is reading an article on LinkedIn, checking Facebook or reading a blog, be a lively and interesting participant online. Do communicate, on occasion, about something other than your own company and its products. Engage in give-and-take discussions about trends, industry activities, customer accomplishments, and more. People enjoy engaging a lot more than they enjoy being sold to.

-Make it a better world. Guide your company to develop or express social responsibility. Become involved in cause marketing. Sponsor important events. Mentor youth. Create truly green products. Save the environment. Whatever you do, do something valuable - and in the process, reach unreachable people.

-Don't waffle. How many companies start a project (and marketing outreach is as valid an example as any other) and then don't fulfill, change course, lose faith, or make crippling budget cuts? After three decades in the business, the vSA team can assure you that the most successful marketers are continuous, consistent marketers who don't try to grow chiefly by cutting costs.

-Put in your 10,000 hours. Author Malcolm Gladwell estimates that the world's best (at anything) enjoyed not only talent and good fortune but also put in an estimated 10,000 hours of effort before becoming so-called overnight successes. Whatever that true effort-hours number may be, a solid commitment contributes to the difference between mediocre and great results.

In short, it is indeed difficult to reach "unreachable" prospects and customers, but it must be done if you plan to maximize sales and business success. Make sure your message is meaningful, your methods multiple, your purpose at least in part noble, and your activity and motivation unflagging.

By doing ALL these things, you are likely to outperform many of your competitors not only in your reach but in reaching other key, quantifiable business objectives as well.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Too much sales advice and not enough sales?

[caption id="attachment_2194" align="alignleft" width="426"]Image copyright 2014 van Schouwen Associates, LLC Image copyright 2014 van Schouwen Associates, LLC[/caption]

How to develop and implement your own best practices - excerpted from the award-winning Succeeding in Small Business Blog

Not only can achieving sufficient sales be challenging, but the very process is further confused by the often contradictory counsel you’ll get from a myriad of sales experts.

The fact that various experts advocate what seem like completely different approaches doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody is dead wrong – although, in some cases, “experts” are simply peddling their own seminars and consulting services to you. Generally, finding which advice works best for you comes down to weighing factors including what you are selling (business services or  jams), to what types of people you should be selling, your own style and tolerance for specific sales approaches, and the amount of effort you are willing to devote to sales.

My own guidance as provided here is an amalgam of what I, too, have sifted from expert advice, tested by three (long!) decades of selling and supervising others who sell for my company. Let’s examine some common and somewhat conflicting sales advice:

A- Focus on A-list prospects OR
B- Work with a big network of contacts

B! Sure, you’ll focus and follow up where you see potential, but I’ve learned that even “sure things” can dissolve faster than sugar cubes in hot tea. You’ll be less crushed when this happens – not to mention more prosperous in the long term – if you “play the field” in sales, keeping a lot of conversations going at all times.

A-People buy when they are ready OR
B- Always be closing – and if they won’t close, forget them

A and B. Keep lightly in touch with prospects who you sense may become customers someday. Don’t call or email them constantly, or you will become an annoyance (yes, you). But, in my experience, prospects call with a need at unexpected times. By keeping lightly in touch, you help assure they remember to call you instead of someone else.

A- People buy from experts OR
B- People buy from people they like

Mostly A. Customers prefer to buy from people they like, but in the end they typically buy based on need and perceived value. Generally, clearly superior expertise or offerings will trump the old boy/old girl network, although we can all cite exceptions. “I was always well-liked,” claimed Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” Was he? Without proving himself valuable, whatever charm he might actually have had didn’t amount to much. That said, being nice and expert is really nice.

A- Sales is dead; social media and inbound marketing are the answer OR
B- Sales has never been more important

It depends on what you have for sale. It’s a marriage of A and B in many cases. Marketing opens the door, sales closes the deal. Experiment on how the two work hand-in-hand for your company.

A- If you want loyalty buy a dog OR
B- Don’t burn your bridges

B! Unless you have a scheme that involves changing your identity, nothing serves you better than a good reputation. That includes having former clients, employees, vendors, and associates consider you a fair and decent person. The worst salespeople are the sleazy characters who no one trusts, refers or wants to see again.

A- You must make your numbers each month OR
B- It’s a long-term game

B. I’m with Warren Buffett on this. If you are in business for the long term, learn to accommodate sales cycles, seasonal variations and economic ups and downs. Watch your numbers, but don’t fire yourself when there’s a dip for which you understand the reason.

In summary...

It really pays to develop a sales philosophy that suits both you and your company, and to evolve the resulting sales system based on your needs and experience. The next task is to sell, sell and repeat.

Wishing you great sales results.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

You Don't Have To Be So Fancy All the Time

If you have never experienced a cultural gap between yourself and a child, I venture to say you have never been a stepmother. Perhaps I am mistaken, but this is what I suspect.

For example, prior to venturing into A World of Children I Met Well After Their Births, I believed that I was casual and easygoing. I have recently learned that I am a crazy person, one who swoops in to pick up every peanut and every pre-chewed corn kernel that has landed on what used to be a kitchen floor but now more closely resembles an oversized Rice Krispies Treat.

I have learned that I am not as friendly as once, in my innocence, I believed myself to be, but instead am a person who strongly prefers that the front door of the house not be left hanging open all night ("Welcome, raccoon and possum!" my better self would have said).

I have discovered that I am a person who makes the mistake of reading the writing on tee-shirts, and that sometimes I do not like what the tee-shirts have to say. Perhaps I do not understand the tee-shirt jokes.

I do not like to find anyone's girlfriend's bra in the couch cushions.

I could go on.

But most of all, I have learned that I am "fancy" and that fancy is kind of weird.

"Fancy" is a person who says "don't bite your dinner plate, please" and "did you use your toothbrush today?" Fancy has never longed for a pickup truck, much less chosen a model and color.

Fancy reads books! And likes it! "Books," as one of the children informed me, "don't do anything. They just sit there."

This is true. They do. And when Fancy gets really, really tired, she just sits there, too.

©2014 Michelle van Schouwen, Longmeadow, MA
All rights reserved. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Entrepreneurship - Learning from start-ups

InnovationEvery few weeks, I have the privilege of hearing early-phase new business plans that entrepreneurs are pitching or submitting to groups for review. Sometimes, I have the honor and the challenge of offering counsel on launching ideas, products and brands. Often, I learn at least as much from the process as I impart.

A few highlights I find fascinating and applicable in business and beyond:

-Focus is important. Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, claims that the ability to focus is the primary predictor of both professional and personal excellence and success. The entrepreneurs who most often succeed demonstrate this ability to both see and remain committed to the overarching goals they set.

-Flexibility is important, too. Focus at the expense of the ability to regroup, redirect and (to use the overused phrase - pivot) can go beyond persistence to become foolish stubbornness. When do you know a plan is not working? Thomas Edison famously said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work." Most often, 10,000 failures indicate that it's time to tweak, pivot or discard.

-The best entrepreneurs combine the ability to focus with the ability to continue generating ideas. This is why we see so many serial entrepreneurs, who develop a company, sell it, then develop another. And if an idea doesn't quite work, they can often refashion it into one that does.

-No entrepreneur should be an island. During business plan reviews, many a seasoned business person will offer advice - on concept, phasing, financials, regulatory and testing matters, competitive scene, and more. Not only does the entrepreneur learn something, the rest of the review participants often do as well. There are a lot of really smart people out there, with a lot to share if you have the willingness to hear it.

-This is still a great world full of wonderful ideas. Many of the business plans I hear are still confidential, so just let me say... world health, the environment, education, communication, and a whole lot more have the opportunity to improve thanks to the efforts of focused, flexible, imaginative, and well-mentored entrepreneurs.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Four ways your small business must address climate change now

Tornado, courtesy NOAA

This post was originally published in the award-winning Succeeding in Small Business blog. It is re-published here to reach vSA Blog readers directly. Photo courtesy NOAA.

If you follow science, political and business news, or even global weather reports, you likely know that climate change is occurring. While anecdotal evidence and individual severe weather events should not comprise the entirety of our understanding of the issue, climate experts attribute the noticeable increase in extreme weather, including flooding, a “polar vortex” and extreme heat and drought, to a larger and more ominous pattern.

It is unfortunate but perhaps understandable that climate change has not become top-of-mind for many business owners. Climate scientist Dr. Richard Somerville published the enticingly titled article “Is learning about climate change like having a colonoscopy?” Somerville compares people’s desire to avoid facing up to climate change to the desire to avoid hearing unwelcome health information. However, we all know that not having a timely colonoscopy is risky. Ignoring current and pending climate change is similarly counterproductive for a company owner who intends to remain in business over the long haul.

Some large businesses are starting to sound the alarm. Paul Polman, chief executive of consumer goods giant Unilever, gave this April’s Annual Lecture at London's Imperial College Grantham Institute for Climate Change. He said, “Climate change is putting in jeopardy everything we have achieved since the 1960s in respect of poverty, food security, and social stability,” and cited cancelled shipping routes, destroyed power networks, reduced crop yields, and dangerous levels of air pollution. (Meanwhile, Coca Cola, Nike and other major corporations are responding to threats that climate change poses to their own bottom lines.)

What’s a small business owner to do? I suggest four categories of response: Preparedness, participation, purposeful change, and protest.

Preparedness: Volatile weather, economic instability including but not limited to stock market impacts, transportation interruptions, food supply glitches, and regulatory change are just a few of the likely short- and long-term business impacts of climate change. Lest you think I exaggerate the need to prepare now, let me recount our company’s June 1, 2011 experience with a Springfield-and-western-Massachusetts tornado system. The first and largest tornado missed our office by a mere mile. Post-tornado, our staff reviewed and revised our system for off-site data backups and preparedness to work off-site for days or weeks should a similar disaster take the office off the grid. This meant we were adequately prepared, four months later, for the devastating October Nor-easter and resulting seven-day regional power outage. (We were lucky, scant weeks before so-called “Snowtober,” to be on the minimally damaging edge of August 2011’s Hurricane Irene.)

Participation: By this, I am not suggesting you leave all the appliances running, idle your truck engine all day or otherwise become part of the problem. Climate change presents many new ways to provide value for others and to be a positive responder to emerging needs. For example, Environmental Leader details an opportunity that my team regularly promotes among our many construction and architecture-related clients, namely, “increased market demand for sustainable infrastructure and buildings, storm damage repair and reconstruction, energy efficiency retrofits and technologies and climate-resilient structures.” Businesses will also see new opportunities in data storage, alternate office space, travel insurance, business planning services, local food production, and much more.

Purposeful change: Conduct individualized business and personal planning to determine how climate change may impact your situation. At van Schouwen Associates, we now market clients’ sustainable business-to-business products and services such as renewable energy, green building and environmental planning. You may want to reduce your enterprise’s carbon footprint or you may seek new business opportunities that develop as a result of climate change. Your business plan, however you articulate it, should include your response to climate change as it affects your company, employees, customers, community, and region.

Protest: As a small business owner, you have a platform. Make yourself heard. As Unilever’s Polman, who clearly has a large platform, emphasized in his London address, “Climate change risks not only tipping the poorest into deeper poverty, but pulling the emerging middle classes back into poverty as well. Not only is tackling climate change compatible with economic growth, it is only by tackling climate change in a systemic way that we can deliver growth for the global economy in the 21st century." Climate change will matter to nearly everyone in the foreseeable future, so small business owners should be informed and involved. In her elegant essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” which was recently published in The New York Review of Books, writer Zadie Smith concluded, “I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?”

What can we do? Life and business will go on. Facts and planning are power. Using your own power wisely helps prepare you and your small business for whatever is ahead, and ideally, assures that the course you chart keeps our children and grandchildren in sight.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Here's to the long-term relationship

copyright van Schouwen AssociatesUnless your business model thrives by selling once to a customer and then moving on, never to transact with that customer again, you need relationships. Some of the best of these will be long-term relationships.

A long-term business relationship with a customer or client offers several likely benefits:

-Providing repeatable or likely-to-recur income

-Comprising one part of "a customer base"

-Ideally, because you know the customer, assuring relative ease of meeting its needs

-Providing referrals, references or a good word for you

-Sometimes, offering frank feedback on how you're doing, which is a good thing

What do you provide to this long-term customer in return? Ideally, we suggest:

-Always assuring fairness in service, pricing, product and service; in some cases, the long-term customer merits priority service

-Going the extra mile to understand the customer's business and, as appropriate, to assess needs and make recommendations

-Providing referrals, reference or a good word for your customer

-Extending the occasional olive branch, if there is a conflict

We feel this issue is timely because we so frequently hear that "the business climate has changed." We hear that customers want more for less. They consider doing it in-house, doing it for less... or doing without. They price shop, deadline shop, consider off-shoring, hire their incompetent cousin to do it. They buy it cheaper, buy it used, fix the old one.

All this and more makes the good long-term business relationships you have more valuable than ever. Treasure and nurture them.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Finding the spark: What makes business ownership fun?

A version of the following post was originally published in the award-winning Succeeding in Small Business blog, which I encourage you to follow. Succeeding in Small Business has an outstanding team of contributors covering topics of interest to every small business owner.

It has been a long, long winter. Previous to that, we endured a long, deep recession and a slow, stumbling recovery. As a business owner, how are you doing? Are you having fun?

It is possible that you have been slogging so long that you hardly stop to think anymore whether running your business is still fun. Or, perhaps you have paused recently and have wondered why you’re not feeling jazzed about getting up and going to the office.

Recently I came across a visioning summary I had written for my company right before the most recent recession. Coincidentally, it focused on where my company would be in 2014 in terms of focus, revenues, staffing, profitability, and my role. Some aspects of the document are spot-on today. We’ve focused nicely on B2B, on new ways of communicating, and on successful product and service launches. Other aspects of the vision bear less resemblance to current reality, including optimistic staffing predictions and, most notably, the freedom the company’s predicted staffing level gave me to focus on managing the vision and even (gasp!) taking some time off to enjoy life.

Instead, in 2014, the company’s outstanding but compact staff and I are working hard to leverage post-recession opportunities and get back to growing rather than just remaining stable. Significantly, the vision I painstakingly created a few years ago entailed different day-to-day responsibilities and pressures than I have now that the future has arrived. That being said, I feel it is imperative to make sure that my actual work and business reality is still fun, even if it is not yet exactly the kind of fun I had envisioned.

Do you agree that this is a worthwhile effort? If so, let me share some off-the-beaten-path philosophies that I’ve transferred to apply to business, with positive effect:

“Celebrate impermanence,” counseled my yoga instructor to the class last night.

“Take care of your marriage,” as many of us have heard said many times.

“Enjoy the ride!” A dear friend used to say to me during rough times when I was a young widow.

Each of these statements can apply to business as much as to life as a whole, marriage or times of personal transition. A small business may change often, demands a great deal of attention and care, and represents, for its owner, a journey as well as an occupation.

To celebrate, nurture and enjoy your business life, look for the elements of business ownership that you can actually enjoy today. Build them. Work toward changing or minimizing the elements you dislike.

What makes business fun for you? Examples may include: mentoring staff, making a sale, doing a project well, inventing something new, growing the company, or having independence. How can you spend more time, or at least more focus, on those rewarding pursuits?

What opportunities do you have that you should leverage? Two ideas from my own failure-to-leverage list: 1) I should leave early on occasion and let my very competent staff manage things while I take a hike. 2) I should more often delegate tasks that others enjoy and I do not.

What should you ditch? If the spark is snuffed every time you have to deal with an unpleasant customer, or when you once again see that your bills are larger than you are comfortable paying, give some thought to how you can change these negatives. It may be something you can do quickly or over time.

Why are you in business anyway? Do you remember why you wanted to do this in the first place? Does that reason still resonate? Take the time to decide what makes it worthwhile to be in business now.

Do you need to make small or large changes to get the spark back? Treat yourself with the respect you deserve. A small business should offer something to you, your family, your employees, and of course your customers. Make sure you and your needs stay on that list, even if that means making major changes.

Good luck, and happy pending spring.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Search engine optimization 201

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 12.49.26 PMMarketers often advise client companies to “lead with digital” in their outreach. Sadly, many companies have websites that are hard to find unless you know just where to look, making it tough to lead. All around us, optimized websites and micro-targeted digital outreach are revolutionizing marketing, sales, meetings, presentations, and a myriad of other business activities. Getting found online is not a finish line to be reached but an ongoing discipline to be managed and monitored continually.

 Enter search engine optimization (SEO). It’s hugely important and hugely complex.

Do not despair. Focus on what matters most to you. First, determine who must see your website. If the answer is “businesses that need fire protection systems for buildings in the Central Ohio area”, you’ve substantially narrowed your desired reach and defined your SEO needs. Second, learn (or get help learning) what search terms people are using to find your company and your services. Are they searching for “fire safety”, fire suppression” or “sprinklers”? Google Webmaster Tools, or a qualified SEO professional, can help you with this task.

Optimize on-page. Updating or overhauling your website? Make sure you or your developer is designing or updating it in a way that at the minimum does no harm. Banish obsolete design platforms such as frames and Flash. Remember that your site must work well on mobile devices.

Make sure you DO incorporate the factors that matter in SEO. Search engines (by which we largely mean Google, which dominates the market) look for content, performance, authority, and user experience. Use of an up-to-date, open-source content management system (CMS) in site development can simplify your work in optimizing SEO later on. We often use WordPress when developing client websites that will be easy to maintain and update, and that will be SEO-friendly to boot.

Optimize off-page. Off-page SEO includes organic and paid techniques.

Organic off-page SEO entails processes to obtain a natural (non-sponsored) placement on search engine results pages. Make sure you (or your consultants) engage only in “White Hat SEO” (defined by webopedia as the usage of SEO strategies, techniques and tactics that “focus on a human audience” as opposed to search engines and “completely follow search engine rules and policies.”) This avoids the real possibility of actively damaging your SEO results by going afoul of practices that major search engines (okay, Google) condones. Generally, with organic off-page SEO, you can pursue having your pages become the “go-to” for a number of relevant search terms and phrases, bearing in mind your likely geographic market and both the popularity and specificity of the terms.

Paid SEO includes sponsored listings or ads high on search engine results pages. For paid off-page SEO planning and program management, you will use web analytics tools such as Google Webmaster Tools to choose terms that are 1) frequently searched for your topic and 2) likely to be “buy” terms 3) hopefully, affordable. Remember that you are paying for clicks whether the visitor turns out to be interested in what you have for sale or not. Vague “non-buying” terms of broad general interest are typically not ideal for pay-per-click.

Monitor your efforts, trends and visitors. This should become part of your regular business routine. Fortunately, it can be interesting and rewarding.

They came! They left! Once a visitor has come to your site and then left after visiting defined pages, you can continue to target. Retargeting programs let you track visitors and then remind or incent them by presenting follow-up messages or ads, often on their social media sites. (You’ve probably seen the side ads on Facebook showing a product you just recently checked out on another site). These retargeting services, for which you contract, are available from several companies.

Call for help. If SEO is important to your company, you may be well advised to seek experienced consultants to guide you. The stakes are high and the playing field is constantly shifting. Having basic knowledge of the tools and techniques available to you is valuable, but having the right expert guidance may be the best way to achieve the results you need.

We’ve touched on fundamentals in this article. There is much more to know – and much more from which you can profit.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Become a marketing machine

Illustration by Steve van Schouwen.There's an irony we see regularly - companies that are resistant to taking on marketing ("it's an expense") but who are excited by the idea of "becoming a marketing machine."

Just as an individual is unlikely to get in shape without the day-to-day discipline of a fitness and diet routine, a company must take regular steps if it wants to achieve the considerable long-term benefits the right marketing can impart.

We can continue this comparison. Most of us don't transform from couch potato to marathon runner in a day, or perhaps ever. Both companies and individuals need to set goals they can - and want to - achieve.

Launch marketing is a great place to start: A smart company does not launch a product without marketing. Launch marketing is a great place to start because 1) it's exciting, 2) it's news and 3) it often makes the difference between launch success and failure.

Marketing can be done on the budget you elect: Okay, again, there are limits. Three jumping jacks do not constitute a fitness routine, nor do three posts on your otherwise anemic Facebook page. But you can start with manageable steps. Putting your website in order (get some outside opinions, on the likelihood you aren't seeing your own site through the prospect's eyes!), media relations (especially for product launches) and content/social media marketing (contributing to blogs, joining important conversations online) are excellent first steps.

Think SEO: Be seen, be found, be a player. Lead with digital.

Get help. It's worth it. Professionals, like the team at vSA, know how to get the biggest impact for your marketing investment. We believe strongly in the value of being a marketing machine, in the ways and at the level you elect.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Getting unstuck in the face of constant change

Michelle van SchouwenThe following post was the topic of a presentation I gave at University of Vermont Family Business Initiative's first annual Families in Business Day. The post was recently published in the award-winning Succeeding in Small Business blog. I hope you enjoy it.

My father once said to me, “Your job is great! You’re a CEO. You just sit there and think the big thoughts.”

Oh, if only that were true. Like most small business owners, I spend days upon days attending to the urgent rather than the important. When and if the time becomes available to “think the big thoughts” I may find myself feeling more like a gerbil on a wheel than a brilliant entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, for many business owners, this presents a problem in an unforgiving, fast-changing business milieu. Just since the turn of the millennium, we’ve seen two major recessions, accelerating technological advances, tightened bank lending, increasingly extreme weather, a new healthcare scenario, and many other shifts. The ability to manage change – or better yet to leverage it – is key to enjoying continued business success. Being stuck in the day-to-day doesn’t cut it, and in fact creates additional stress for already worried business owners.

I suggest that “getting unstuck” is every bit as important as addressing ordinary business demands. As president of a B2B strategic marketing firm, I have the good fortune to work closely with many company owners, presidents and managers and to witness firsthand the rewards derived from their best thinking. It is indeed possible to step outside the daily grind (and even to sidestep the attendant burn-out) to refresh, rethink and renew, and thus to deal better with whatever comes next.

Here are a few activities and approaches that can engender new ways of thinking and moving forward:

Take your pulse: It is all too easy to assume that business goals should always include growth, larger staffs, more products and services, and higher revenues. Push aside conventional wisdom. Take the time to determine what you want for your business and for yourself. Really, that’s the privilege of ownership, isn’t it?

Create a vision for the next several years: Find and then articulate your vision for your business and your life, and write it down. There are some great online articles and templates to help you create a “visioning” plan (and this doesn’t have to be a long, onerous process). Start by Googling “visioning process” and “visioning exercise.”

Don’t be an island…reach out: Being a business owner can be isolating. Many times, well-meaning family and friends can offer only limited support and advice. Consider identifying, developing and using the knowledgeable support resources you need right now. For example, business and life coaches can offer new perspectives and help you shake out the cobwebs. (I’ve been surprised recently to learn just how many successful business owners engage coaches.) The right CPA, attorney, business broker or M&A professional can provide insight on challenges relevant to their expertise. Creating a business advisory board can provide you with a personalized panel of experts. Attending good conferences or networking events can lead to new contacts and new ideas.

Read on: There are some great recent books that deal with thinking, decision-making and finding new ways to meet business challenges. Some of my newest favorites include Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work as well as Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, both by Chip and Dan Heath; Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam M. Grant; Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; and Leading Change by John Kotter.

Finally, don’t be afraid to throw out what’s not working anymore so you can focus on what could be serving you better: Obsolete services and products, counterproductive people and processes that waste your time have no place in a continually changing business environment. Determine what changes may help create a better future, and then to go forth bravely and make them.

Here’s to the big thoughts.