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Entrepreneurship Marketing Uncategorized

3 Ways to Destroy Your Small Business

I’m going to make an assumption: you want your business to succeed.

That’s usually how entrepreneurs feel. And while there’s no shortage of advice (including our own) on how to achieve that success, the vast majority of it is positive.

“Wait, what? Positive advice is a good thing, right?”

Well, yes. But so is negative advice.

Lost among the positivity and optimism are those crucial “DON’Ts.” As independent business people, we need to learn what to avoid just as surely as we need to learn what to aim for. We need to understand the pitfalls, snares, and other terrible things that can (and do) crush entrepreneurial dreams every day.

But we don’t want to sound negative, so we avoid talking about things like that.

Well, dear readers, I’m gonna bite the bullet. I promise to return to my upbeat, yes-you-can, “DO”-style advice just as soon as this blog post is done. But it’s time we talked about the monsters under the bed. It’s time we slayed a few demons that regularly slay new businesses. It’s time we faced the dark places.

It’s dirty work, but it has to be done.

There are three things I’ve seen people do that are guaranteed to destroy any business. These things won’t hurt your business, or slow its growth — they will destroy it. Permanently.

Some of these things may seem a little obvious (especially to more experienced business people). Some may be surprising. Some may be things you’re aware of, but with twists or applications you haven’t considered. Either way, burn them into your business brain. Tattoo them to your memory.

As you go forward, never forget to not do these things.

1. Neglect Your Audience

Inviolable rule of marketing: no audience = no business.

Every minute and every dollar you put into outreach is an investment in the foundation of your business. You could have the greatest product in the world, the best customer support, even the best advertising. But if no one hears it, it’s the proverbial tree falling in the woods, not making a sound.

The very first step in building a viable business isn’t necessarily creating a product. Yes, you read that right. The product shouldn’t come first; the audience should. Too many would-be entrepreneurs think that coming up with the Next Big Thing guarantees success. It. Does. Not. Period.

Instead, engaging with your audience is the first crucial move. Your business — and your product —  should be guided by a conversation, not a monologue. And that conversation starts with you giving something, not selling or advertising something.

It starts with a little thing called content.

Content is what you offer your audience, in exchange for nothing. You offer it to build your authority, credibility, and good will. Blogs, videos, webinars, etc. are the way you start the conversation that ultimately creates your following. Most importantly, content creates something to which your audience can respond.

Once your audience is engaged with your content, you’ll start to hear back from them. You’ll see what resonates and more precisely identify the problems they’re struggling with. That, in turn, will allow you to tailor your product to their needs.

Give, give, and give some more.

The more valuable content you offer, the more engagement you’ll get. The more engagement you get, the more leads you’ll get. You’ll use your content to capture email addresses, and your email contact list to generate sales. Long story short: a percentage of your audience will ultimately become your customers, so neglect that audience at your peril.

2. A Bad Price/Value Ratio

We can summarize centuries worth of marketing, advertising, and sales advice in a single sentence. You can read all the books, get the highest level degrees, and spend decades in business, but all roads of business knowledge lead to the same universal truth…

People buy products for the ROI (Return on Investment).

That’s it. Consumer or business, all purchases are about one equation: is this thing worth it? This simple truth cuts across every variable, from price to competition to cost of production, from age to gender to nationality, from Monday to Friday, Winter to Summer. People either see the price of your product as a worthwhile investment, or they don’t.

Crazy as it may seem, it doesn’t matter whether the price is high or low.

You can be McDonald’s, and sell things for absurdly low prices, or you can be Apple, charging out the wazoo. What matters is whether the perceived benefits outweigh the cost. People buy McNuggets and iPads for the same reason: they feel like those things are way more valuable than the money they’re handing over.

Apply this basic fact to your product. The customer does not care how much it cost you to produce the product. They care less than you think about what your competitors are charging. All they want is a good deal. Your profit margins are irrelevant.

For example, take our SaaS product, WebinarNinja. We base our pricing on the value that our webinars produce; that is to say, lead generation. At most product price points, if a given webinar converts even a fraction of the audience into leads, and a fraction of those leads become sales, the monthly subscription has paid for itself!

That’s the ROI. For the cost of our monthly service, a subscriber can generate several times that cost in sales. It’s a win, potentially a huge win depending on the business.

Wins are what people really buy, not products.

You can make the same argument about The $100 MBA. The ROI is in the title — you can spend roughly 12 gagillion dollars on a university business education, or you can get the training you need for less than the cost of a night out. The math does half the selling.

3. Forget Old Customers in Favor of New Ones

Speaking of ROI, we all want growth. We all want to add customers to our lists. But the ROI of chasing down new business is nothing compared to the ROI of treating your current customers well.

Your absolute, hands-down greatest sales asset is your current customer base. These are the people who already trust you, who already see the benefits of your product. Depending on the business, it can take relatively few of them to sustain a company indefinitely.

Think about the following statistic: about 69% of all Apple sales come from (you guessed it) existing Apple customers. 69%! Over two thirds of sales come from people who already own an Apple product, because of course they do. These people are already invested in the company, and they’re happy. Selling to them is like shooting fish in a barrel.

About a decade ago, a blogger named Kevin Kelly wrote a legendary blog post called 1,000 True Fans. In it, he broke down the math on customer retention and revenue. Kelly simply pointed out that an entrepreneur can reasonably expect to source $100 per year in revenue from a given customer — but only if that customer is a true believer, a die-hard brand loyalist.

Multiply that by a thousand, and you have 6-figure annual revenue.

The goal, therefore, is not to chase down as many customers as possible. It’s to build a sustainable “fan base” and keep those fans delighted, year after year. The ROI on catering to loyal customers blows the ROI on marketing and advertising expenses out of the water.

To put it another way, look at your “churn” rate, the rate at which customers leave your business. If your customer base is growing by 5% every year, that’s great. But if 10% of your customers are falling away at the same time, your business is shrinking. You’d be better off devoting your resources to retention than marketing!

Then, factor in evangelism. Your customers aren’t just your most reliable source of revenue;  they’re a reliable source of new business. Word of mouth, testimonials, and those oh-so-important customer reviews are priceless.

Now more than ever, consumers trust other consumers more than they trust marketing and advertising…by far.

There are plenty of ways to hurt your business, but the three no-no’s above will do worse than that. They are absolutely guaranteed to strangle your new business before it has a chance to reach its potential.

Develop your product, hone your skills, and continue your entrepreneurial education. But for success’s sake, remember what not to do.

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Entrepreneurship Marketing Uncategorized

2 Way Marketing: How to Have a Conversation With Your Audience

Of all the questions we get at The $100 MBA, I’d say about 80% of them concern marketing.

In one way or another, everyone is asking the same thing: how can I build my brand to the point where buying my product is a no-brainer? Companies have been asking this question since the dawn of commerce, but recently the answer has changed. Gone are the days of “blasting” information about your business into the public sphere and hoping for the best.

Marketing is different now. It used to be a speech; now, it’s a conversation.

Marketing Now

The internet created incredible new marketing opportunities, as email, social media, and the web opened countless avenues by which to reach consumers. But for a while, marketers still used outdated strategies: blasting info into the digital space, sending countless (mostly unwanted) messages to anyone they could reach.

These were the days of “spray and pray” marketing: just yell your message as loud as you can, and hope customers hear it.

Now, that strategy (or lack thereof) will get you nowhere. If your marketing isn’t intentional, strategic, and precisely aimed at the right niche, you won’t last long.

It takes work, but intentional, conversational, 2-way marketing is very doable, no matter how small your business is. It’s just a matter of finding your specific audience, and doing the one thing truly great entrepreneurs always do first: listening.

Ideally, you start marketing before you create your product. Yes, you read that right. Your product should be influenced by your marketing efforts, not the other way around. That’s because conversational marketing is about giving consumers what they want instead of what you want to give them.

Now, if you already have a product, it’s not too late. You can still market the right way, and you can align future improvements to your products with your marketing insights going forward.

The Strategy: From Stranger to Customer

2-way conversational marketing isn’t some radical outside-the-box strategy. It’s the proven method, used by businesses big and small.

It’s often referred to as “inbound” marketing. Whatever you call it, the general principle is the same: replacing a company-centric approach with a consumer-centric approach. Stop trying to convince people to buy what you’re selling. Instead, show people what you can do for them, and let them decide to reward you for it.

Different marketers divide the stages of this approach to their liking, but generally, it looks like this:

  1. Identify consumer problems you can solve
  2. Offer consumers free valuable content
  3. Engage consumers in a conversation
  4. Educate consumers about your solution to their problem

Let’s take a look at each stage.

Identify Problems

First things first (and this is why we recommend you start marketing before you actually produce your product): get to know your audience.

In conversational marketing, listening is just as important as speaking. Join social media groups focused on your industry niche. Ask questions. Engage. Interact. Become a part of the community you want to serve, if you’re not already.

One exemplary trick is to use Amazon as marketing research tool. Go to Amazon, and search for books on the topic of what you want to sell. For example, if you’re a weight-loss coach, look for the most popular books on weight loss. Then — and here’s the crucial trick — read the reviews.

Skip the 5-star reviews (they’re not likely to mention any “pain points,” which is what you’re looking for). Skip the 1 and 2-star reviews (they’re likely just on the “hater” end of the review spectrum). Focus on the 3 star reviews. These reviews come from people who found some value in the instruction, but still have needs that aren’t being addressed.

That’s where you come in.

If you can identify a problem that isn’t being well-addressed by others in your industry, that’s your niche. You’re looking for an opening in the market, a place where you can help in ways that others can’t, or won’t. Maybe all those fitness books lacked good advice on working out while traveling, or eating well on a budget.

Whatever it is, it’s there somewhere.

There are other ways to engage in the “listening” part of conversational marketing. Create surveys on social media (easy, fun, and invaluable for gathering info on people’s pain points). Host a strictly Q&A webinar — no pitching, no persuading, just make yourself available to consumers with questions.

Set a timeframe for the listening phase. After a few weeks or even months of gathering intel on what your audience wants, you’ll have an idea of where to steer your product development and your marketing.

Offer Valuable Content

Content marketing is increasingly popular, almost standard procedure at this point. That’s because it’s the absolute best way to engage with discerning, picky, consumers who insist that you demonstrate your credibility before they’ll consider hearing a sales pitch.

Blogs, videos, podcasts, webinars: they’ve all got a single purpose. Your content should be a gift to consumers that builds trust, credibility, and good will.

Of course, you can’t just “spray and pray” your content, either. Don’t write a hundred blogs just to write a hundred blogs. Don’t clog YouTube with video after video just because you can. As in many things, quality beats quantity.

Or in the case of content marketing, specificity beats quantity.

No one cares about your general musings on weight loss, or horse training, or baking. What consumers want is help. You have to produce valuable, useful, applicable information and insights that make consumers feel informed and empowered. That means addressing the specific problems you identified in the listening/research phase.

Build your content library thoughtfully. Take a month or so, and devote yourself to producing a solid amount of blogs and other content. Then, commit to a regular content schedule. The more content you produce, the greater your reach. The more useful the content is, the greater your credibility.

Never sacrifice quality for quantity, but balance both.

Whatever medium you choose — video, podcast, etc. — don’t forget to blog. Blogging not only forces you to articulate your message thoughtfully, it’s the key to growing your reach and bringing traffic to your website via SEO (Search Engine Optimization). For now, search engines still rank sites primarily by the written word, so get writing!

Remember, you’re going to need practice producing great content. Writing, recording, and otherwise producing the good stuff isn’t something you learn overnight. Personally, I can’t listen to the early episodes of The $100 MBA Show, or read some of my first few blogs, because they’re simply awful.

Really, just awful.

Engage Consumers

Once you’ve put the content out there, it’s time to hear back from your audience. You listened in the first research stage. You responded in the content creation stage. Now, it’s the audience’s turn to take the next step. That’s where CTA (Calls to Action) come in.

CTA’s are the entire point of content.

If your blog, video, or podcast doesn’t include a next step for the consumer to take (sign up for a newsletter, download another content offer, etc), then you’ve wasted your effort producing the content! Use links, buttons, oral instructions; whatever’s appropriate and available to you given the platform. Get the reader/listener/viewer to move the conversation forward by taking action.

The most important aspect of this stage is collecting email addresses. We’ll say it ‘till we’re blue in the face: email is the most effective marketing and sales tool online.

When you send an email, the recipient has to engage on some level, even if it’s just to delete it. That means you always have at least a chance to keep them interested. A quality email list will ultimately be your primary source of revenue.

Of course, you’ll have to give the consumer a reason to trust you with their address. Again, we rely on content. It could be as simple as asking people to subscribe to your blog, podcast, or channel. Or, you can offer exclusive content that’s “gated,” accessible only to those who opt in with their email address.

Once you have that address, you have the power to continue the conversation. When they get your emails, it won’t be the digital equivalent of a flyer stuffed in their physical mailbox. It will be something the consumer asked for and has ownership of.

That’s the biggest advantage a marketer can have: engagement by choice.

Educate, Help, and Sell

Now that you have a conversation going with your audience members, it’s time to really give them a reason to trust you. Your job is to educate them on the benefits of your product or service, so that they take ultimate ownership of the decision to buy it. This is where you really demonstrate your value, before asking for a sale.

It’s critical at this stage to be specific — you should not be sending the same emails or making the same offers to everyone.

Instead, you’ve got to tailor your emails to the recipients based on how they opted in. For example, if your blogs on equipment-free exercise caught the attention of people who travel often for business, they may have opted in by exchanging their email address for an infographic on, say, strength moves you can do in a hotel room.

The people who opted in for that particular piece of exclusive content have different needs than people who opted in to get, say, an e-book on nutrition. Therefore, those two groups should not be getting the same follow-up emails and offers.

Even if you’re ultimately offering both groups the same thing — a free trial of your fitness coaching service — you should appeal to their specific needs.

Fortunately, pretty much every CMS (Content Management System) and email platform out there includes the ability to track opt-ins. Your website, CTA’s, and email systems should be integrated such that you always know what brought the consumer to you, why they opted in, and therefore, how you can help them.

In fact, “How can I help you?” may soon be a barely-remembered phrase from the distant past, because modern online marketers aren’t like floor salespeople talking to strangers. Modern marketers already have an idea of how they can “help you,” because the consumer already told them!

Whatever your industry, whatever your talent, whatever your product, remember to have a conversation. Listen, learn, and be responsive to your potential customers. That will get you a whole lot further than shouting into the wind.

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Entrepreneurship Marketing Uncategorized

Smarter Social Media: How to Narrow Your Focus for Better Results

 As General Custer learned the hard way, you should never divide your forces.

All too often, entrepreneurs think that in order to market effectively, they have to maintain a strong presence on all social media platforms. We Facebook, we Twitter, we Insta and we Snap, but we just don’t get the overwhelming results we hoped for.

We think we have to build huge followings everywhere from LinkedIn to YouTube to iTunes, yearning for that one big “viral” moment.

In truth, if you’re spreading yourself across multiple platforms and dividing your efforts across too many channels, all your hard work is going to waste. Worse, it might even be counterproductive. To create the best chance of marketing success, it’s a better idea to choose your battles, niche down, and focus on one or two platforms you can truly dominate.

The Multi-Platform Problem

Don’t “divide and conquer” yourself! Being everywhere is likely to get you nowhere. Here’s why:

It’s time consuming. You can only create so much content in a day. Creating 5 platform’s worth isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what are you neglecting while you’re crafting all those clever Tweets? There just isn’t time for a busy entrepreneur to spend all day interacting across multiple channels.And before you go thinking you can just “repurpose” content for multiple platforms, think again. This is almost guaranteed to come off as robotic and insincere, which is why most content marketers eschew the practice – and why platforms like Twitter are cracking down on repurposing.Remember, genuine content beats the mass-produced kind, every time.

It creates option overload. Whenever I see the bottom of a blog, email, or business card crammed with social media icons, I’m smh. When it comes to marketing, giving your audience too many options can lead to them choosing “none of the above.”If you want them to follow you on your preferred platform, by all means include your Twitter or Facebook handle in your content — but that’s it. Do you really need to include your G+ profile? Do you actually have a G+ profile?

It’s harder to convert. It’s much easier to funnel followers from one platform to your website, rather than from 4 or 5.If you have a strong following on Instagram or Facebook, you have a great chance of drawing them into your space, which is the only real value of social media. The ultimate goal is to bring people to your website, get their contact info, and start moving them down the funnel to a sale. Speaking of which…

Keep Your Eyes On the Prize

All the “Likes” in the world won’t grow your business if your audience is scattered across half a dozen websites that aren’t yours. Your website, not Mark Zuckerberg’s, will ultimately earn you sales. It’s the content you create and the value you offer under your own domain that turns someone into a contact, a lead, a customer.

That means we should never overestimate the value of social media.

We certainly shouldn’t spend too much time chasing casual affirmations of our content like follows and likes, which really don’t move the relationship between you and your audience forward. Instead, we should focus on turning one or two social media platforms into a traffic feeder for our own URL.

Remember: effective social media marketing isn’t just about throwing posts and updates into cyberspace and stopping there. To really utilize any platform, you should do more than just post — you should interact. That means thoughtfully cultivating your following in a way that’s designed to get them off the platform and into your little corner of the Internet. You can only realistically do that on one platform at a time.

Go All In

Instead of being a jack of all platforms, we recommend you make yourself a master of one. Choose a single platform that’s best suited to your business, talents, and audience preferences. Then, consolidate your efforts there.

For example, a fitness instructor might take advantage of image and video-based platforms, dominating Instagram with before & after pics or short workout tutorial vids. A writer might offer clever commentary or interesting articles on Tumblr. A club promoter might use Snapchat. A great photographer might not want to focus on text-based platforms, while a great writer would.

It all depends on what you’re selling, and what medium you’re most skilled in.

It’s all about finding where the Venn diagram of your talents, your type of product, and your audience’s preferred platforms meet. If you’re chasing hip young millennials, you might not find them on Facebook. The opposite holds true if you’re selling to Generation X (remember them?).

Once you’ve identified the platform where your content will have maximum impact, go for it. Don’t waste your time on other platforms. Instead, cultivate your following and tailor your content for the one platform you can best excel in.

Then, move those followers onto your website, capture their email addresses, and start the real conversation — the one that goes beyond Likes and Shares.

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Entrepreneurship Sales Uncategorized

Customer Self-Cancellation Policy: Good or Bad for Business?

Unfortunately, you just won’t keep all your customers forever.

If your business is a SaaS or other recurring service, you’ll eventually have to deal with the unpleasant reality of cancellations. But how you deal with cancellations can have a big impact on your business’s overall growth, customer retention, and churn rates.

So, should you let customers self-cancel, or should staff handle cancellations — and maybe try to convince the customer to stick around?

We’ve tried both approaches for our monthly membership SaaS, WebinarNinja. Having gone both ways, we formed a pretty good picture of the ups and downs of each. Which policy will benefit your business, however, depends on a few factors.

Self-Cancellation, Pros and Cons

Letting customers cancel their own membership has its advantages. Believe it or not, letting your customers slip away with no attempt to stop them might make more business sense — because trying to stop them requires time and resources. How much time and resources are worth putting into something that, frankly, isn’t likely to succeed?

It’s all about the ROI.

Obviously, customers prefer self-cancellation. People are generally non-confrontational. No one likes to have to speak to a rep, to break the bad news to a human being. It’s almost like breaking up. Think about it: if you could just click “Cancel” to get out of a relationship, there would never be another “It’s not you, it’s me” speech delivered for the rest of human history.

It’s easier for both of you to allow self-cancellation. The customer doesn’t have to suffer the awkwardness of explaining their decision to leave, or — worse — endure the hassle of a customer service rep trying to convince them to stay. As Comcast has shown us, that can get ridiculous.

More to the point for you, a customer service rep’s time isn’t free. Every second you or your rep spends on the phone with someone is a second they’re not doing something that may have a better ROI, like dealing with customer dissatisfaction before it reaches cancellation level.

Of course, the counterargument to all this is easy: what if the customer service rep can stop the cancellation? What if the problem the customer has is easily solved? If the customer’s dissatisfaction is rooted in, say, their own lack of user knowledge, a rep can fix that. Perhaps the problem is a glitch that can be referred to support and easily sorted.

Even if the customer service rep can’t save the membership, they can identify common complaints or shortcomings, allowing you to perfect the product and avoid future cancellations with improvements and upgrades.

All things considered, it’s always possible that the customer doesn’t really want to cancel. They just don’t realize that the product can meet their needs with a simple tweak on their end or yours. That’s worth a few minutes on the phone, right?

Maybe.

Frankly, dissatisfaction based on user error should be headed off before it happens, with good customer onboarding. Technical glitches are unlikely to produce immediate cancellation, unless they go unresolved or repeat incessantly — in which case you have bigger problems to deal with.

Ask yourself: what percentage of cancellations are really based on something resolvable?

Most cancellations are due to reasons over which you and your business have no control. The customer simply doesn’t need your product anymore, or can’t afford it, or doesn’t think it’s worth the cost. Whatever the case, they’ve concluded that your product doesn’t have the ROI to keep them around. That’s not a conclusion you’re likely to talk them out of, unless you or your customer service reps are extremely sales-oriented.

Even then, it’s a long shot.

Our Experiment

When we built the first version of WebinarNinja, we didn’t want to make it easy for customers to cancel. Who wants to give up business without a fight? Originally, if you wanted to cancel your membership, you had to get on the phone with customer service, and we’d try our best to keep your business — or at least analyze what turned you off, so we could improve the platform.

We thought requiring this dialogue was a no-brainer. And we weren’t exactly wrong. But in the end, the numbers showed that requiring a pre-cancellation talk had a point of diminishing returns.

First, it didn’t save that many memberships. In any given stretch of time, we found that on average, less than 5% of people who called to cancel were talked out of it. From a bottom-line perspective, that wasn’t worth the time and resources spent (mostly) talking to people who were leaving no matter what we said.

Our reps’ time was better spent preemptively addressing customer problems, so they wouldn’t make that cancellation call in the first place.

Second, the data gathering was useful at first, but only for so long. We kept a spreadsheet of reasons for cancellation, so we could track and analyze what exactly was costing us customers. In the end, it helped us identify areas of improvement, and helped us better our product.

But we didn’t to spend hours on the phone to get this information.

If a shortcoming in our product caused someone to cancel, we fixed it the first time! We didn’t need to register the same complaint from 20 other customers in order to make our platform better. More importantly, it didn’t require a live conversation to identify any given problem or shortcoming.

That’s what forms are for.

We switched to an automated cancellation procedure over which the customer had control, but wasn’t as simple as clicking “Cancel.” To end their service, the customer simply had to tell us why in a brief, low-hassle exit survey.

The customer got to leave without having an awkward conversation. We got the data we needed to improve, and  saved the money it cost to pay someone to acquire it.

As for talking people out of canceling…that was never realistic in the first place. In the end, we were happier to give the customer a pleasant exit experience that didn’t leave a bad taste in their mouths, leaving the doors open to both improving our product and potentially earning their business back in the future.

Deciding Factors

Of course, just because self-cancellation works for us doesn’t mean it’s the right move for you. WebinarNinja, like most SaaS products, is a relatively low-cost monthly membership service. That’s to say we depend more on the volume of repeat customers than on revenue generated by any single customer or payment.

Other services work differently. Pricier memberships, like certain expensive courses or mastermind groups, can run thousands of dollars for membership. In those cases, it may be well worth the time and money spent to try talking a customer out of cancellation.

The decision all comes down to math. Broadly speaking:

  • If losing a single customer will hit your revenue hard enough to make a conversation worth the investment, by all means don’t let customers self-cancel.
  • If your business model is about landing thousands of small-to-medium sized fish rather than a few whales, go automated.

If you do choose to allow self-cancellation, make sure it’s customer-friendly and leaves the door open for a future relationship. Make the exit survey quick, easy, and upbeat. Be magnanimous, and make sure any automated emails or messages make it clear that their success, not your revenue, is priority one.

If you don’t allow self-cancellation, make sure that your customer service reps take a sales-oriented — but not pushy — approach. Their goal should be to educate the customer on the product’s value to them, not the customer’s money’s value to you. Above all, make sure that your onboarding and pre-crisis customer service are optimized for customer retention, so fewer cancellation calls come in the first place.

In both cases, keep the customer’s account active for a full billing cycle. Whatever they already paid for, deliver.

We learned which approach works for us the way we learned everything else: experimentation, mistakes, corrections, and experience. You may have to make tweaks to your onboarding, customer service, and cancellation policies as you go.

Don’t be afraid to try things. Your customer retention and churn rates will improve as your customer service experience grows. Keep your head up, and keep moving forward.

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Entrepreneurship Finance Uncategorized

Increase Your Profits Immediately With One Practical Method

It may sound like over-promising, but it’s true! You can significantly increase your profits in less time than it takes to watch a movie (especially a long movie like Batman v. Superman, which you shouldn’t be watching anyway when you could be making money to spend on better movies). It’s not a “hack” or a trick. It’s a relatively simple exercise in evaluating and readjusting your ledger.

We personally do it about every 6 months, because why wouldn’t we? Businesses of any size can do it. It’s a simple matter of looking at one part of the standard two-part profit formula: revenue minus expenses. While revenue can be generated in any number of ways, the easiest way to widen the profit gap is to focus on expenses.

Some expenses may seem fixed, but they’re often not. While there are certain non-negotiables, a lot of what you’re spending can be decreased, if not eliminated.

Step 1: Make a List

Write down every single expense your business has, right down to whatever you pay yourself. Order them from biggest expense to smallest. To use our software company WebinarNinja as an example, our list-topper is usually our server provider. Your business will have similar “big” expenses. Suppliers, materials, server space, rental space; whatever they are, tweaking them will be key to saving your business money.

While they may appear un-tweakable, a pleasant surprise may be in store. It’s all about the art of the ask. What if all that stood between you and more profit was just the will to ask? By starting with your biggest expenses and working your way down the list, you can make a massive difference— even if you can only lower some of them.

Step 2: Negotiate

This is the “tough” part, though it’s not so tough. While things like rent or materials may seem non-negotiable, you have to remember that whoever’s on the other side of the table wants to keep your business! If you’ve been using a certain service or supplier consistently and you’ve established a long-term relationship, that’s a major point in your favor. Much of the time, they may be willing to give you a break in order to maintain the relationship.

You have nothing to lose by asking. The only thing that stops most people from asking is inexperience overcoming the awkwardness of negotiations. In that case, it’s never too soon to start practicing! Your odds of catching a break are higher than you might think. I negotiate discounts for our businesses all the time. Sometimes, they’re only in the 10% range. Other times, they’re much more. Month to month and year to year, these discounts add up!

Remember that whoever you’re negotiating with has very good reasons to offer you a price cut. It’s in their best interests to keep long-term customers around, even at a slight short-term loss. A discount may even be offered in exchange for a longer commitment or for bigger volume. Either way, you both win.

Take payment processing fees, which I regularly renegotiate. If you’re bringing in more customers in your second year than in your first, your payment processor can see that. They can see that lowering their cut is worth keeping you (and all your customers) around. If your business involves shipping, there’s lots of opportunity to score a better deal. When I ran a clothing company, I was on the phone with FedEx, UPS, and the USPS every few months increasing my revenue.

While you can accept “no,” there’s always plenty of reasons for them to say “yes.” All it takes is a phone call, perhaps a meeting. It’s always worth asking. Consider all the deals and discounts offered to new customers by various services. If it’s worth it for companies to give breaks for the possibility of a long-term customer, why wouldn’t they do the same to keep an already established one?

Sometimes, the “request” can even be indirect. If you’re consistently in contact with your various service and materials providers, that relationship can lead to offers and discounts you haven’t even asked for. We’ve been using Baremetrics for our analytics for years. In that time, I’ve been in constant communications with them, consistently offering feedback. Eventually, when a new feature was added— one I’d been suggesting to them for a while— I was offered a major discount on it without my having asked at all.

Eliminate Waste

Most of your expense-cutting will come in the form of paying less for various things. However, it’s a good idea to regularly check your list for things you can eliminate altogether. What was necessary 3 years ago might be superfluous now. Services that once came from separate providers might now come bundled (the feature in question from Baremetrics was a way to address missed payments from customers, something I’d had to do separately before).

The only thing I’d suggest not cutting, if it’s at all avoidable, is salaries. Your team needs to feel supported in order to give their best, and adjusting your ledger by adjusting their pay is no way to earn their loyalty. If you have to eliminate a position, or one has become redundant, that’s another matter. But if someone is valuable enough to keep on board, they’re valuable enough to treat right!

With a little organization, a little luck, and— most importantly— the willingness to ask for a better deal, you can keep profits on the rise. Make it a habit, and your business will thrive in the longer term.

Categories
Entrepreneurship Marketing

Why You Should Start Building Your Email List Right This Very Second

Yes, this second. Well, not this second exactly, but very shortly after reading this! Email addresses may be the most valuable form of personal information you can obtain from customers. They’re more valuable than social media follows (yes, you read that correctly), even more valuable than phone numbers. When it comes to marketing, chasing emails might be the single best use of your time.

The reason for this is simple. Email is the most effective form of direct marketing. Statistically, every credible analysis shows that email campaigns convert better than other kinds of marketing, including the consistently-overrated social media kind. Customers can ignore tweets and Facebook updates; they’re only voices in a crowd. But emails have to be engaged with. They have to be addressed, even if it’s only to delete them!

The psychology behind it is fairly straightforward. The overwhelming amount of content online conditions us to scan, skim, and mostly ignore what we see (even fantastic small business blogs). However, because our email inboxes are more personal spaces, we’re more likely to give that extra fraction of a second’s attention to whatever’s in it. Whatever it is— even advertising— it was sent directly to us, as individuals. Because we have to at least delete it (even if it’s from Google’s convenient “promotions” tab), we are forced to engage with it just long enough for it to have a chance of getting through!

As the online business world moves forward, I predict that email addresses will be worth their weight in gold. They’ll be something people are less willing to give out, as even the average consumer realizes their value. Companies, then, will be willing to pay more and more. Consider how your browsing habits are already being sold to the highest bidder, with more of that likely to come. Imagine what businesses who pay to know what you’ve Googled would pay for your email address! As an entrepreneur, you can take a page from this playbook.

How To Use The List

Putting the targeted ad schemes of big businesses aside, how can you as an entrepreneur use email addresses to your advantage? It comes down to relationship-building. By having regular email interactions with your audience, offering them valuable content (not just ads), and otherwise engaging with them directly, you can create “true fans.” You can foster the kind of relationship with your audience that sustains independent business.

In fact, building your email list should be one of the first stages of building a business— even before you build a product! Using your expertise to become a trusted voice in your industry is step one. Then, turning the people who listen to you into the people who buy from you requires two things: valuable content, and bringing those listeners to your website. Note that I say your website, not your Facebook page, not your Twitter account, not your Etsy account. Your. Website. Wherever you find followers, you’ve got to take them away from the 3rd party platforms and migrate them to your own corner of the ‘net.

Email is crucial to this. If you can get email addresses, you can have more intimate conversations. It’s the difference between talking to someone at a table in a quiet restaurant and yelling to them in a crowded club. By creating useful content and offering it in exchange for an email address, you can start the relationship. By creating useful content and emailing it along with links to your own website (and the occasional sales offer), you can convert!

Creating Customers Through Email

Start with your website. If you have a business of any kind, physical or online, you need a website. Then, fill that website with useful, genuinely valuable content. Have videos. Have infographics. Have pdfs or e-books. But above all, have text. Blogs and other written content are the key. Not only is it often more convenient to consume than other media, it’s also crucial to SEO.

Next, add opt-ins. Your website, chock full of goodness as it is, should be asking for one thing from every visitor: their email address. In fact, it’s a good idea to offer some extra content in exchange for an email address. Access to a free course or webinar, a bonus goodie like an infographic or short e-book; whatever it is, make it well worth the simple act of typing an email address. Use an email marketing service like Sumo for your opt-ins; it’s perfect for independent businesses (including ours).

Then, go out into the great wide Internet and find your audience. Engage on social media (but don’t worry too much about collecting follows). Go to conferences. Speak at live events if you can. Guest-blog on websites in your industry. Podcast, host webinars. Do it all! But whatever you do, remember the goal: to get those sweet, delicious email addresses and bring everyone to your website.

*For some truly great advice on the best “lead magnets” to offer customers in exchange for their email address, check out this episode of our podcast featuring Leadpages founder Tim Paige.*

The process of building your email list is a long one. There are strategies, but there are no “hacks” or tricks to getting the volume of qualified email addresses you’ll need to really sustain your business. It takes a consistent, long-term effort. You’ve got to make yourself valuable, credible, and worth corresponding with. My only regret regarding my email list is that I didn’t start building it far, far sooner.

The good news is that the longer you do it for, the easier it gets. Your first 100 emails will be harder to get than your first 500 or your first 1,000. It’s worth the time, and it’s worth the effort. Your product can change. Your advertising and marketing can change. Your team can change. But a purposefully built, long-standing base of true followers is irreplaceable. That’s the heart of your business.

Categories
Entrepreneurship Marketing

The Entrepreneur’s Guide To Approaching Product Hunt

Product Hunt isn’t a household name, but its growing influence is impossible to ignore. Its impact on a certain segment of the market makes it especially crucial for entrepreneurs. This segment is one that most of us should lust after: early adopters. It’s a community of savvy, open-minded consumers constantly looking for the next great solution. If they believe in your product, you’ve got an inestimable leg up.

The site is usually compared to Reddit, appropriately. Users discuss various products in a linear format, up-voting the products they like and down-voting the ones they don’t. The more upvotes your product gets, the higher it (literally) rises. If it rises high enough, the multiplier effect kicks in and your product takes off. The community values feisty startups and creative thinkers, and prides itself as being a true meritocracy. If you’ve got the goods, Product Hunt users will reward you.

A Little History

Product Hunt was founded in 2013 by Ryan Hoover, an infectiously enthusiastic millennial entrepreneur who decided to parlay his love for innovative tech into something marketable. His Reddit-style approach to tech review was backed by the powerful and influential startup incubator Y Combinator, and quickly took off. By 2014, Mashable described Hoover as “The 27-Year-Old Who Tells Investors and Reporters What’s New in Tech.”

Since then, PH has been acquired by AngelList. Its community continues to grow in its influence on the market, but the beauty is that it hasn’t been hijacked by powerful corporate interests. Anyone can submit a product, and only the judgment of the community— not advertising or marketing— determines how high it rises.

The site divides submitted products into four categories: tech (including software, apps, and hardware), games (on various platforms, including mobile), books, and podcasts. The best become “Top Hunts” for the day (each day’s “Top Hunts” are archived), and the best of the best become “featured” products.

Getting Your Product on Product Hunt

All you have to do to submit something is sign up and provide the name of the product, a tagline, and a URL. It’s that simple. Whether or not a product actually gets reviewed by the community, however,  is up to Product Hunt’s team. They sift through the submissions and approve or reject each, usually within 48 hours.

This brings us to the tough part: most submitted products never make it to the discussion. Product Hunt gets hundreds of submissions daily, and they only post what the team considers to be the cream of the crop. That generally adds up to about 1% (yes, one single percent) of what hits their inbox. Literally almost everyone gets rejected.

Don’t let that discourage you. If you believe you’ve got something good, there are a few strategies and resources to increase your odds of being in that 1%:

 

  • Be scrappy. Product Hunt isn’t about helping big companies advertise. They’re about rewarding pluck and merit in entrepreneurs who need (and deserve) a helping hand. If you’re the “little guy,” you’re not at a disadvantage.
  • Only submit finished products. No prototypes, no beta versions. Only submit completed products that are on the market and available to the public. If the product is worthy, the team and community will want to help. But you’ve got to have been selling it yourself first.
  • Have your own presence. If the only place you sell your product is on third party platforms like Etsy, you’re not likely to make an impression. Make sure your website is eye-catching and has creative, original copy.
  • Be original. When 99% of submissions are headed for the scrap heap, the only way to be noticed is to be different. Whatever you’re selling needs to be cutting edge. The best way to approach Product Hunt is from well outside the box.

Once Your Product Is Up

With your product up and eligible for review by the community, you’ve got to get in on the conversation. What’s most important to remember is that you cannot— cannot— advertise. This is a community, not an ad space. If you want to convince anyone on Product Hunt to give you upvotes, you’ve got to do it as a genuinely respected member of that community.

Start early. Join PH well before you submit a product, and start interacting. Make yourself known as a functioning user with something valuable to say about different products in your industry. Be genuine. If you show up to the forum with nothing to offer but a pitch, you’ll get nowhere. It’s better to already be a known (preferably trusted) quantity.

When your product is up, simply comment to say that you’re available to answer questions. No pitching. Obviously, encourage your own followers to join Product Hunt, but be very clear with them in saying that you’re not asking them to flood the forum with compliments. Even your own loyal fans should be asking questions or commenting on specific features of the product, not flattering you. An army of supporters artificially inflating your rating won’t be appreciated by the community, and you won’t last long.

Lastly, be sure to offer some special incentive to Product Hunt users. Whether it’s a bonus or discount is up to you, but showing the community some love goes a long way.

Whatever you do, don’t approach Product Hunt as something you can simply use (or, goodness forbid, hack) to boost your sales. You can’t. The only “trick” to getting something out of the community is to be a contributing member with a genuinely great product.

For further help with Product Hunt, I strongly recommend listening to Ashish Walia of LawTrade’s interview with Top Hunter Bram Kanstein. I also recommend picking up The Product Hunt Handbook by Justin Jackson. With an original product and a willingness to engage the community, nothing is impossible.