Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moving On

I am leaving the North Country SBDC to accept a position at a similar position in Grants Pass, Oregon.   Since this URL refers to the North Country,  I've created a new blog and migrated my old posts to:

For my few friends that follow this blog, please bookmark this new site.  Get me some more readers and I may post more often! 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Adopt a Family Business

 I wrote this article for Strictly Business magazine - 

I have to admit, it has my entrepreneurial spirit has been fired up again and I have been thinking about my next "family business."   What, when and where are questions that still need be answered, but I have a few draft plans in the works - stay tuned!!!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Show Some Love

My office keeps a Facebook Page.  We would love for you to "like" us, but more importantly, I recently posted a YouTube video that I would like you to watch, called "The Break Up."   This humorous little skit speaks volumes about marketing and the power that social media can play in your efforts.

It is not my goal in this post is not to talk about how to use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other social media sites to market your business.  There are plenty of social media wonks out there with blogs and articles on how to effectively utilized these tools.  Dr. Jonathan Slater, a colleague at SUNY Plattsburgh, keeps this Google Bookmark that he continually updates with fresh articles about social media.

The intention of my post today is to help you think about the foundation of your marketing strategy.  Whenever I discuss marketing strategy, I remind people that developing a message is not about sharing what you have; rather it is your ability to communicate what you have for the customer.  As that YouTube video demonstrates, the consumer doesn't want a one way conversation. They want the opportunity to share and be involved in the dialog.   Consumers want the producers to understand their wants and needs.

I can't stress enough the importance of emotion when it comes to purchasing decisions.  We don't buy things because we need that particular item or service; we buy things because of emotions that convince us we want these things.  Those who think low price is the only thing consumers care about are outright wrong.  Don't believe me?  Try to think about every financial transaction you made last month.  Were there other lower cost options?  If you really think about, the answer would be yes (choosing not to buy is a lower cost option); and if I asked you to justify why you purchase the things you do, my guess is there would be some emotional reasons that would be part of your answer.

As you develop your marketing strategy, my suggestion is that you start by thinking about why your customers would love to do business with you.  Come up with all the reasons why you are more special then your competitors.  To help you along, think about the 4 P's of marketing:
  • Product/service (perceived quality and friendliness)
  • Place (ease of possession)
  • Promotion (familiarity/trust)
  • Price (value)
Once you come up with some reasons why you are better, work on crafting your emotional message.  What can you do to make your customers feel better about your business?  There is nothing wrong with embellishing, as that as how you can develop a better emotional response; but you also want to be honest and sincere.

Most importantly, you want to monitor feedback and listen to your customers.  Are they understanding your message?  Are they telling you that they want something different?

This is where social media can really add value.  Not too long ago, it would take significant market research efforts to find out what your customers think about your products or services.  Now with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and YouTube, you have the power to quickly learn what your customers are saying about your business.

The business/consumer relationship, like any lasting relationship, should be based on communication and mutual benefits.  It is much easier to build a bond with someone if you show them you care.  Take that to the next level by showing your customers that you really listen...if you really want to stand out against the competition, use powerful emotional language and show some love. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

How Do I Get a Government Grant for My Business?

I decided to have some fun today.  This is a question that I get asked quite often at work, so I created this little video:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Navigating Uncertainty

I am back from my self imposed sabbatical on blogging.  I recently put together a presentation on growth strategies for small business and I have recently developed a forecasting template that analyzes past financial performance and allows a business to forecast different scenarios for the future based on managerial decisions business owners can make to increase profitability.  It begins with the basics:
  • Increase Margin (raise prices, reduce supplier costs, increase productivity)
  • Increase Volume (get more customers or get each existing customer to purchase a bit more)
  • Decrease Expenses (reduce operating expenses by eliminating waste and negotiating cost savings)
There is a simple law of business management that holds true as strategies are developed to increase profitability - Every decision will have a consequence.  Unfortunately, forecasting the results of decisions are based on numerous variables and unknowns.  There is no certainty in the future and developing business projections involves taking the logic and facts of past performance and stepping into an abstract world of possibilities and uncertainty.

I stress this fact because anytime I present growth strategies that involve raising prices or increasing volume to clients, the most common response I get is, "Are you kidding? In this economy?"  No, I am not kidding; whether times may seem good or bad at the present time, there will always be an uncertain future.

Our economy is a fluid that flows with the individual pricing decisions of producers and the purchasing decisions of consumers.  It changes constantly based on a sum total of a series of small decisions made by business owners of all sizes; it is not a year to year change, but literally an hour to hour change.  In the world market place there are many entrepreneurs who seek to chart a course to maximize their earnings in this great ocean of activity and there are others who just go where the currents take them.

Obviously, I support setting a course for action.  Still, some will say that the tempest of today's economy leaves too much uncertainty.  I struggle to understand that rationalization for inaction in business development.  When was the future ever certain?   Predicting the future will always be uncertain.  We can't control the consequences, but we certainly have the power to influence them with our actions.  

Business planning is about developing strategies to influence market share, and at some point an entrepreneur is going to have to take some risk and make decisions to increase market share and maximize profits.   Getting more customers to purchase from your business may involve investing in more marketing.  Perhaps there are more product/service lines that you can add to get more customers to purchase from your business, or you can increase your inventory to make sure you can have what your clients want, when they want it.  Or maybe your product and services are slightly under priced and you have the opportunity to get a bit more value from each transaction.  

Business is holistic process of decision making where you the producer develops a product or service that offers value to the marketplace.  Consumers make decisions based on value comparisons that include quality, trust, service and ease of possession;  while price certainly figures into that equation, it is not the be all end all determining factor.   This past article in Bloomberg Businessweek sites an example of a combination of pricing strategies, marketing and quality propositions that have contributed to one businesses' continued success in making them a market leader, even in the gloom and doom world economy represented by our media.  While I don't agree with all of the strategies noted in this article, it makes some interesting points about consumer behavior to stress that price is not the only influencer in purchasing.

As you develop your set of growth strategies, be mindful that what you hope to happen may differ from what actually happens.  Any decision can have negative consequences if efforts made to increase profit come at too great of an expense.  Pricing strategies need to account for a potential loss of sales volume, marketing plans need to produce results and production efficiencies need to be properly managed.  No growth action plan is bullet proof.  

So how do you control your businesses' destiny with so much uncertainty?  Setting a course of action with clearly defined expectations of performance is the heart to any successful plan.  Measure those results and make adjustments if the market reacts differently than expected.   While this may sound too simple to be effective, I have found that few small business owners actually go through this process.  When I ran my own businesses, many of my decisions were based on intuition and my judgment on effectiveness of decisions were often based on rationalizing success (who wants to be wrong?), rather than a fair analysis of actual net profit performance efficiencies.

I've since learned that a more frequent review of your P&L Statements and Balance Sheets will provide indications of whether your strategies are working effectively.  Growth strategies should be based on a combination of profitability and return on investment efficiencies.  Your financial statements tell a story of the past and improving performance is an exercise of replicating those successes and repairing any inefficiencies found.  I can't stress enough the need to review return on investment in your growth strategies, as well as profitability.  There are many tools at your disposal to increase growth and if you take a small net profit increase and look at that as a complete success, you may be missing other opportunities for growth that can give a larger net return on your efforts.

Another point I would like to stress is that profit growth strategies are as fleeting as the future; once realized, they are past history and the future will bring new challenges and opportunities.  Business planning is a never ending process and it's never wise to fall asleep at the helm.

Vincent Van Gogh once said, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”  Most business owners see a prosperous future in the stars, but it those who make a plan to reach for them who are more likely to achieve success.

Friday, September 10, 2010

In Memory

I have spent my last three Septembers in Plattsburgh, NY.  Each year during the second weekend in September, we remember the Battle of Plattsburgh, a pivotal battle that ended the final invasion by British troops in the northern states during the War of 1812.  Each year we have a battle reenactment, a parade and a weekend full of festive events in Downtown Plattsburgh.  The actual battle took place on September 11, 1814.

So tomorrow I will be out with fellow members of my Rotary Club at a series of events.  I just got back from decorating our parade float.  Tomorrow we will be preparing the track for our Roducky Derby and then sponsoring a Bed Race, both fundraisers that raise money for various local community service projects. 

Of course, tomorrow is a day that is more nationally recognized for something else and my guess is that most people outside of Upstate NY know very little about the Battle of Plattsburgh.  It is a day that will forever live in infamy and I still am personally haunted by the horror we experienced nine years ago.

For the rest of my life, I will never forget what happened on that day.  We all have our own ways of dealing with that tragedy and I can't help but to get emotional on this day every year.  I still feel sadness and vulnerability.  Mostly, I still feel confused.  I cannot fathom that there were people that would take such sophisticated measures to senselessly murder so many innocent and wonderful people.

Another thing that confuses me is how our society has responded to this.  There is so much that I have heard over the past nine years that just doesn't make sense.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion and their own way of dealing with a tragedy such as this, but that doesn't mean that I have to understand or approve of it.

There is always quite a bit of noise in the media this time each year and most of it just annoys me or makes me sad.  What can I do about it?  It is out of my control.  Still, the phrase "Nine Eleven" makes me cringe every time I hear it.  It has become too much of a catch phrase  and I personally have a hard time with that.  

I believe it should be a day to honor those who lives were ended prematurely.  It is a day to remember how special those people were and and a day to comfort those who are still struggling to deal with such a tragic loss.

I choose on this day to remember one man who perished.  He was not someone I knew very well.  He was just a nice person who used to visit my place of business on occasion and who had some nice conversations with us while there.  I happen to remember one conversation in particular, because it was shortly after the birth of my daughter.  He took the time to congratulate me when he noticed the birth announcement by our cash register.  He told me about his two daughters and how special they made him feel.  

This man, Vic Saracini, passed away on September 11, 2001.  He was a special person who shared a kind thought and I will always remember the way he spoke of how he loved his family.  How can someone senselessly take the life of a person who had so much kindness in his voice, such a friendly smile and the sparkle of love in his eyes when he spoke of his beautiful children?  Of course there is no answer to this, yet it happened.  That is why I will always be confused.

There is a Garden of Reflection in Yardley, PA where people can go and remember Vic Saracini and some of the seventeen other loving people from Bucks County who perished on September 11, 2001.  

"The events of this day cause every thinking person to stop their daily lives, whatever is going on in them, and to ponder deeply the larger questions of life. We search again for not only the meaning of life, but the purpose of our individual and collective experience as we have created it - and we look earnestly for ways in which we might recreate ourselves anew as a human species, so that we will never treat each other this way again." Dalai Lama

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Priceless Opportunities

This is an edited version of an article I wrote for the July issue of Strictly Business magazine:

Recently, our family had the good fortune of sharing a wonderful dinner with some friends who have a beautiful house on Cumberland Head in Plattsburgh.  It was a gorgeous evening with the clouds shaded hues that ranged from bright orange to pink in contrast with the dark, blue water of Lake Champlain.   From our location, Clinton Community College, the former Champlain Hotel, looked majestic sitting on top of the hill on the other side of the lake from Valcour Island.  

Our gracious hosts grilled some sesame-encrusted tuna and served it with a nutty, Caribbean style rice and some blanched green beans in seasoned garlic butter sauce.  With our meal, we enjoyed a glass of a full bodied, Lodi Zinfandel and spent some time sharing stories of our history, travels and children’s follies.  To paraphrase the popular MasterCard commercial, Groceries - $40.00; Cookbooks - $40.00; bottle of wine - $18.00; a memorable evening – Priceless.

Why am I sharing this experience?  Because there is a price that we are willing to pay for memorable experiences and this fuels a major driver to our economy.  In New York State, the hospitality industry generates of $50.9 Billion in direct revenues.  It employs over 650,000 workers and pays over $26.4 Billion in salaries.   It is estimated that over $3.2 Billion in State and $3.5 Billion in local taxes are generated from this industry.  According to a NY Department of Labor report releases in 2008, the tourism industry accounted for 4.9% of local jobs in the North Country and 12.8% and 15.4% of the employment in Essex and Hamilton Counties respectively.   Similar ratios of what the hospitality industry contributes to the economy can be found in many other locales.

From an entrepreneur’s perspective, the attraction to the food and beverage, accommodation and recreation industries is very appealing.  The reason behind this is that many prospective small business owners believe that they have the culinary talents or they have built accommodations in a beautiful setting that any visitor would appreciate.  They may have detailed knowledge in their favorite recreational hobby and think they can be a guide or run a retail store selling and renting the supplies visiting enthusiasts need.   The thought of profiting from doing something we love in a beautiful setting is a very enticing draw to self employment in the tourism, hospitality and recreational industries.

Unfortunately, these industries also tend to have some very high failure rates.   There is much more to running a successful business than knowing how to cook, make up a room or providing recreational support. Successful business models require significant planning to develop effective pricing strategies, detailed market and competitive analyses and focused advertising strategies.  

Adding to the difficulty of successfully operating tourism related businesses is the fact that many of the experiences can be effected by unpredictable variables such as the weather, natural disaster, human disasters (oil spill) and even disease outbreaks (Alaska lost a huge chunk of visitor traffic with the SARS epidemic in 2003).   Tourists also tend to travel in groups, bringing different personalities, abilities and interests; many would agree with Jerry Seinfeld’s sentiment that, “There is no such thing as fun for the whole family.”

Despite these challenges, the opportunity remains for businesses to prosper from the wealth of hospitality and recreational opportunities in this country. The key to developing a plan that leads to sustainable success is to remain focused on creating exceptional guest experiences. Looking at some of the more successful restaurants, lodges and outfitters in the travel industry, there tends to be a bit more to success than just providing quality.  It takes some talent and thought to develop something that provides the intangible value to make a guest experience special.  

I can think of no person who best embodies the core to success in the hospitality industry than the great Walt Disney. There are certainly theme parks with better amusement rides, hotels with more comfortable accommodations and restaurants with higher quality food than what you can get at Disneyland and Disneyworld.   Still, the vision and imagination of Mr. Disney created a brand that revolves around delivering memorable family experiences. 

Walt Disney once said, “The era we are living in today is a dream of coming true.”   For small business owners, opportunity has no boundaries for those who can imagine ways to provide guests with priceless and indelible memories.