It’s a fundamental paradox for small business owners: How do you expand your revenues, grow market share and maintain optimum production and service levels without disrupting cash flow or sending operations into a tailspin? Thankfully, even for the most time-, money- or manpower-deprived entrepreneur, a wealth of apps, gadgets and online solutions exists that can help you broaden your reach without biting off more than you can chew. Looking to give your business a sudden boost of upward momentum? Try the following five high-tech tools and services, all of which could potentially prove vital resources in your ongoing fight to score more customers and send profits soaring.
1. Build an Online Presence – Need a professional-looking website, but don’t have the time, cash or technical know-how to get started? Try Onepager, which makes it possible for beginners to establish an attractive online presence in no time flat. Using the site, business owners simply type their company name, tagline and body text into a number of preexisting templates, to which photos and visual styling can be added. A point-and-click interface further makes it easy to introduce newsletter signups, service rundowns, social media links and contact information. Once complete, the site helps you register a domain name, monitor customer behavior and otherwise enjoy the benefits of marketing to the online world. Providers like Intuit and 1&1 also offer easy off-the-shelf solutions.
2. Secure Venture Capital – Have the perfect idea for a new electronic gadget or restaurant chain, but lack the funds to quit your day job, let alone mass-produce consumer products? Do what today’s smartest entrepreneurs do: Beg strangers for spare change. Crowdsourced funding sites such as Kickstarter, RocketHub and IndieGogo let you post details of your dream projects, complete with colorful descriptions, photos and videos, then source pledges from the general public. Rather than equity, investors typically receive personalized or product-based incentives for their kindness (e.g., a $5 donation nets a copy of the movie you helped fund’s DVD, while $500 scores a personal thank you call from the director). Group seed capital programs such as Grow VC and fundraising platforms like Crowdrise may also prove a handy alternative to romancing fickle angel investors or handing over 30% of your company for minimal return.
3. Start Taking Credit Card Payments – From everyday consumers to major corporations, many customers prefer to pay via credit card. Letting them do so on-demand using a solution like Square, which lets you connect a plastic card reader accessory to your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Android mobile device isn’t just simple and convenient. It also makes good business sense, allowing you to instantly swipe their American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover and secure down payments, project milestones and up-front advances on the spot. Charging a single 2.75% flat fee on each transaction, and letting you setup custom inventories of items with personalized photos, names and prices, it can streamline and simplify billing for businesses of all sizes.
4. Land Free Publicity – Every entrepreneur dreams of making headlines or enjoying time in the spotlight. Help a Reporter Out (HARO) offers the opportunity to do so in seconds – and without spending a single dime on marketing or advertisement. A matchmaking service that pairs journalists with subject matter experts, simply submit your name and email to receive a daily newsletter from members of the media who need commenting sources. Think you’re the perfect fit to field calls for a professional organizer or whiz in the field of cloud computing? Just respond to the queries that show up in your Inbox, and you could find yourself quoted everywhere from CNN to The New York Times.
5. Create a Custom Virtual Store – The most direct way to put e-commerce to work: Add an attractive online storefront capable of effortlessly handling myriad payment solutions that’s chock-full of must-have goods. Multiple options from Goodsie to Shopify, Volusion and BigCommerce can help, making it possible to set up both basic solutions that require minimal to no programming, and more complex and sophisticated virtual bazaars. Note that while it’s tempting to go big on features and selection here, the first-time builder is advised to keep things simple. Start by staying focused on practicality, convenience and popular high-margin goods, then expand organically, rather than risking overcomplicating your user interface or overwhelming shoppers with frivolous alternatives.
Small Business Expert
Essential hints, tips & business advice for startups & entrepreneurs.
Want to increase your small business’ sales, expand market share and boost your year-end profits? Consider doubling down on custom marketing programs and online solutions. Thanks to the magic of high-tech, from unique value-adds to creative contests, giveaways and online deals, a variety of novel campaigns can quickly be assembled to match any budget. Looking to give your enterprise the gift of record growth? The following expert online marketing guide – complete with hints, tips and strategies for entrepreneurs, startups and local neighborhood stores – can help you bolster your balance sheet without breaking the bank.
Social and Affiliate Programs – Given word of mouth’s growing influence on today’s household purchasing decisions, it pays to turn fans of your business into evangelists. The best way to recruit them: Incentivize conversation by providing eye-catching offers and savings, and compensate those that generate direct leads with exclusive discounts, gifts and cash rewards. Using software tools such as those offered by providers like Extole, DirectTrack and ReferralCandy, you can create customized referral programs for almost any industry. (Refer a pal, get $20! Click here to send Facebook friends a code for 60% off!) Distributable via social networks, widgets, apps and email, white-label solutions not only offer wide flexibility across devices, platforms and promotions. They also make it easy to track ads from click to purchase, and conscript an army of credible sales associates working on a strictly commission basis.
Mobile and Location-Based Marketing – Over 420 million smartphones were expected to sell in 2011 alone according to IMS Research, many containing built-in GPS devices that actively monitor users’ locations. Letting you speak to customers at the right time and place when they’re in a shopping mood, mobile and location-based marketing services like Geotoko, Placecast and Xtify can potentially help close more deals. Providing users with discounts, giveaways and specials via text message, pop-up alert or email, you can also integrate marketing with services like Foursquare and GoWalla to tie campaigns to specific stores or locations. From unique apps that send notifications even when closed to search engines that serve up special offers based on zip code, choices continue to grow. Letting you reach customers right when they’re weighing their options, location-based services can help you steal a sale right out from under a competitor’s feet.
QR Codes – Another handy feature many smartphones and tablets with built-in cameras such as the iPhone and iPad enjoy: The ability to scan Quick Response (QR) codes. These high-tech symbols, which operate similar to retail barcodes, can beam over instant savings or provide access to useful online information. Add them to signs, print ads, business cards and brochures, and customers can quickly access coupons, download menus on-demand or even see how low your prices compare to rivals’. Simple bonuses they offer might include providing free seasonal recipes to go with every dining set, complementary festive music downloads for that new stereo or videos showing products you’re selling in action. Letting you offer everything from suggestions on complementary accessories to go with that scarf to driving directions, potential applications are endless. Just be sure each offers customers meaningful rewards and tie a call-to-action to programs (take our survey to win a beach vacation!) to maximize performance.
Discounts and Deals – With value still paramount for millions of households, many entrepreneurs are increasingly coupling door-busting offers with regular distribution through daily deal services. Providers like Groupon, Living Social, Amazon Local and Google Offers can potentially put savings in front of millions for a slice of each purchase. Letting customers register to receive arresting bargains on spas, restaurants, movie theaters and more via email, all offer opportunities to help marketing programs connect with households trying to stretch every dollar. You can even set minimum purchase quantities required before discounts activate. Likewise, savvy marketers are also leveraging bargain-hunting services like FatWallet, RetailMeNot and DealsPl.us to reach today’s most price-sensitive buyers. Providing discount coupon codes, printable vouchers and unique presents for gift shoppers themselves (free holiday sampler with purchase) can help entice cost-conscious customers back into the fold.
Custom Content and Publications – Resourceful entrepreneurs can also give shoppers the gift of more precious moments to spend with friends and family by providing time-saving hints and advice. Email marketing services ConstantContact, iContact and MadMimi let you send custom digital newsletters (and even expert online marketing guides – how meta!) straight to shoppers’ inboxes for a fraction of the cost of print mailers, and enable content sharing through social networks. Popular service MailChimp even allows gorgeous, customized mailings to be sent free in small quantities, while upgrades allow you to track viewers’ social media profiles and send targeted emails via Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or LinkedIn. Couple with links to bargains, storefronts and online videos (free to upload and host on providers like YouTube, Vimeo and Metacafe, then embed on your own site) to enhance SEO and user engagement. Beyond highlighting your expertise, all can enhance your reach, keep holiday bargains top of mind and help alleviate shoppers’ stress while building brand awareness.
For many businesses and startups today, less can actually be more. Credit the increasing popularity of minimum viable product (MVP) theory, a business strategy which advocates shipping smaller and more polished, yet less expansive and robust products more rapidly. Using its principles, businesses are able to rightsize products or services, bring them to market faster and more quickly generate stable income that can be reinvested into new iterations. Unlike crowdfunding (a popular form of online investment), MVP theory doesn’t ask consumers for funds; it does, however, provide considerable opportunity to solicit feedback and generate excitement among smaller target groups, letting you build better businesses and products.
According to advocates, it’s far preferable to produce a less complex product that’s built around a few artfully-realized features versus spending time and money on a far-reaching venture that tries to be all things to all people. By doing so, proponents say, you’re able to produce sharper results on tighter turnaround, offer more timely responses to market developments, and bring cash in the door faster, allowing for healthier, more organic growth. Moreover, once on the market, initial products can be used as an interactive focus test unto themselves, providing the chance to source consumer feedback that can be directly incorporated into future iterations.
Here are a few hints, tips and strategies for designing a product around this philosophy.
- Plan Extensively Up-Front and Keep Production Cycles Manageable — When scoping out a product and plotting a production calendar, by all means strive to innovate and push boundaries. However, a lot of companies undeniably kill their products through over-ambitious designs – a problem more commonly known as “feature creep,” or trying to cram in too much. One product can’t hope to please everyone though, and focus produces enhanced results. It’s far better to serve a niche with a brisk, but polished product with a handful of innovations than it is to produce an incredibly complex product that does many things poorly. Before entering active production, make certain to trim every bit of fat from concepts and designs, and allot extra time for building and testing prototypes that offer a vertical slice, or working sample, of the end product. This will allow you to quickly get a sense of how well concepts are coming together, create a working demo that’s ready to wow onlookers, and ultimately produce a clean, polished product that makes consumers happy and gets them talking. Be sure to source customer feedback as you go too, so that you can make adjustments to product designs and craft marketing strategies accordingly.
- Release in Parts Versus One Big Whole — Spending upwards of 12 months to develop a grand-scale product means that you’re taking a huge gamble. The virtual equivalent of reading tea leaves and hoping you’ll correctly divine where the market’s headed months hence, you might as well throw darts at a board and hope they’ll land on the correct guesstimate. Stakes are higher than ever today for those speculating on cultural zeitgeists as well. Fail to accurately interpret market forecasts, and your product effectively exists in limbo burning overhead for no good reason, only to flop when it’s eventually released. Instead of attempting to project so far out with ambitious designs, consider releasing more limited versions of your product in waves over the course of the same time period. That way, consumers can have access to the product sooner rather than later. This allows you to discern if a project’s connecting out of the gate at less expense, start the process of brand building and bring in revenue streams more rapidly that can help fund future projects. Moreover, a more piecemeal release schedule makes it far easier to respond to breaking developments in the marketplace, and tailor future versions of your product around direct fan feedback. Too many entrepreneurs spend millions up-front creating lavish websites, apps and services that hinge on consumers pressing a single button or answering a specific call to action. As MVP strategies illustrate, perhaps it’s wiser to see if you can cause any action whatsoever first before committing to thousands of man-hours of production, or piling more expensive functionality on the back-end.
- Expand Only as Progress Dictates — It’s important to get a polished, functional version of your product into the public eye as quickly as possible. But from there, you should also make a point of growing organically according to actual cash flow, and criticism and compliments from consumers. Expanding too fast or launching a huge product with a “bang” can potentially overwhelm your financial wherewithal or overwhelm the customer. Instead, it’s often smarter to grow at a slow and steady pace so you don’t needlessly inflate head count or monthly burn, and give a product the chance to evolve and find its core audience. Too many companies start with an overambitious plan which they’re pre-committed to adhere to, or push too far too fast in the hope of growing rapidly to meet investors’ expectations. The wiser goal: Work to build a small, loyal fanbase and stable recurring revenues, then reinvest in expanding your product and company. Once stability’s been established, you can see what’s working and adjust strategic roadmaps and plans for expansion or acquisition accordingly. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once observed that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” As battle-hardened executive generals leading their troops to war well know, being flexible and able to turn on a dime is crucial to survival, today moreso than ever.