The Two Things Your Small Business Success Depends On

If you’ve got a great product or service that satisfies a need in the market, but things just aren’t falling into place for yourProcess diagram small business, you might have a problem somewhere in your processes and systems. No matter how small or artsy your business is – and even if you don’t have them written down – your processes and systems are there. While they might sound like yucky, boring, stick-in-the-mud stuff, you should give them some thought and attention. They affect every success and failure you experience.

What is a “process” and what is a “system”?

According to Merriam-Webster online, they’re defined as:

Process – “a series of actions that produce something or that lead to a particular result”
System – “a group of related parts that move or work together”

It stands to reason that to get results, you need processes. And you need systems to help you execute and maintain your processes.

Processes and systems applied in a small business

At the start of 2014, I joined a small online mastermind group, that’s got me looking at my business in a different way. It’s challenging me to think about the systems and processes behind my freelance company and how they affect my success. In a way, I’m rediscovering by business by thinking in these terms. While I hadn’t acknowledged or officially defined all of them in the past, virtually everything I do in my line of work is guided by processes supported by systems.

I have processes for:

  • Managing my blog
  • Fielding and qualifying leads
  • Prospecting for new business
  • Creating proposals and estimates
  • Maintaining working relationships with clients
  • Executing project work
  • Executing hourly work
  • Marketing
  • Invoicing clients
  • Receiving client payments

My systems to support my processes consist of a variety of platforms and tools:

  • WordPress
  • My bank
  • My credit card
  • Email (Gmail and Google Apps)
  • Social media platforms: Linkedin, Twitter, Google+, Facebook,
  • Social media apps: Hootsuite & Buffer
  • Quickbooks
  • Evernote
  • Trello
  • Toggl
  • Memberships to various local networking groups.
  • My calendar
  • My smartphone
  • My whiteboard
  • Sticky notes

Essentially, everything that goes right or wrong in my business can somehow be traced back to a success or failure within my processes and system components.

While you might drive yourself to the brink by trying to lay out everything you do into perfectly-detailed processes, it can help to at the very least recognize your business functions that involve multiple steps and identify the systems/components that support your efforts to accomplish them. That way, you can objectively look back on what you did and how you did it to discover why something fell through the cracks and determine what needs to be fixed or removed from the equation.

So the next time your check book balance isn’t matching up with your accounting records, or you’re falling behind on project deadlines, or your engagement on social media has plummeted, or you’ve missed out on an assignment because you responded too late…look a little deeper. There’s probably a process or system that needs some tweaking.

Special thanks to my mastermind cohorts, Rachel Strella, Jennifer Grigg, and Terry League for their insight and support. 

By Dawn Mentzer
Another Insatiable Solopreneur™ post

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Nixing Negativity for the Good of Your Business

Negativity is a downer and productivity drainer – just like Dan Waldshmidt points out in the article I shared inThumbs up, Thumbs down my G+ post below.

At least it works that way for me, but in that G+ comment stream, one of my connections pointed to an article on Lifehacker (originally posted on Linkedin) which indicates that isn’t the case for everyone.  While “strategic optimists” look ahead to the best outcomes when planning to meet their goals, “defensive pessimists” envision what could go wrong and plan how to avoid those things.  How are you wired? Good news: studies showed that both types of people are equally capable of achieving. They just find their motivation to act in different ways.

Personally and professionally as a solopreneur, negativity makes me less motivated and less productive. I stay conscious of hurdles and risks, but envision a positive outcome.  And while it’s not always easy or possible, I do my best to minimize exposure to chronically negative people.  You know the type, the chronic complainers who can’t seem to find anything good about anything or anyone.  Thankfully, they’re fewer and farther between than they are plentiful!

I agree with Waldschmidt that avoiding negativity is a must – but we should never lose sight of reality in the process.  Those “Pollyannas” who are sunshine and rainbows forever…well, that’s just not natural! It’s not a weakness to feel down at times, get frustrated, or feel scared. It’s human nature. But dwelling on the downsides can be a major anchor to your small business if you consistently focus on what’s wrong rather than doing what’s in your power to put things on the right path or move in a new direction. 

Are you a strategic optimist, defensive pessimist, or somewhat of a hybrid? What impact does negativity have on your motivation and productivity in your business?

Image courtesy of anankkml / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

By Dawn Mentzer

Be Like a Tree in Autumn: Shed to Grow Your Business

Right now in Lancaster County, PA, the leaves are in the process of turning from green to hues of orange, yellow, and brown. Autumn leaves Fall is a beautiful time here…and it’s a season that offers a lesson in professional and personal development.

Solopreneurs: Don’t be afraid to “lose leaves.” Shed to grow!

Just as trees need to shed their old leaves to advance to the next stage of their lives, so do we need to at times shed to grow and prosper. Not everything  – no matter how well it suits us at one time or another – can continue to be an ongoing part of who we are and what we do. Sometimes we have to let go to move onward.

As a solopreneur, I think it’s particularly important to know when enough is enough and to recognize when something has run its course.  You have limited time and attention as a solo biz owner. There’s no time for what no longer serves you and your business well.

Just as the trees are undergoing defoliation and ditching what they no longer need, I encourage you as a solopreneur to take careful note of what’s hanging from your branches. Do you see any “leaves” you should drop to become a more effective and efficient solopreneur?

  • “Busy work” you can eliminate?
  • Services that don’t align with your business vision and goals?
  • Clients who create more stress than is worth the income they’re bringing your way?
  • Colleagues who serve to deflate your confidence rather than build it?
  • Networking groups that don’t deliver a return that’s worth your time and effort? (Note: You first have to spend some time and effort on them before you can judge!)
  • Online social networks you can’t keep up with?
  • Personal habits – or lack of good habits –  that are holding you back (not getting enough sleep, eating junk all the time, not exercising…)?

As the leaves of Lancaster – and wherever you are – continue their transformation this season, think about what you might change to make your personal and professional life a little lighter.  You might not find it easy to say “goodbye” to certain practices or people, but find the strength to do it. Change is vital for realizing and reaching your potential!

What “leaves” might you shed to make your business move forward?

By Dawn Mentzer

5 Action Words Every Solopreneur Needs to Act On

The only way to find success (however you define it) as a solopreneur is to take action. Being passive and hoping that potential clients happen to stumble upon you by chance won’t take you very far – if anywhere at all! Action is all about doing and here are a few action words (a.k.a. verbs) that solopreneurs and small business owners can practice every day to make sure they’re not keeping their businesses in an idle state.

Create
Let the eye rolls begin as I mention what you see and hear about 100 times each day. Content! Whether you’re in an inherently creative field or not, creating content in some way, shape or form to demonstrate your expertise in your industry is essential to expanding your reach. Producing – or not producing – your own content will differentiate you from your competitors. Your choice: create or become invisible.

Help
Every day, aim to do something to help someone else. Going the extra mile to assist a client, prospect or colleague doesn’t have to take up much of your time and it doesn’t mean you have to give your work away for free. Email an article that you know someone will find interesting or helpful, connect two professionals who seem to have synergy, refer someone looking for a service to someone you know who will deliver it well. It’s easy to help…and your good deeds will give you a reputation for being that professional who truly cares about others. That’s the type of professional I choose over others when presented with similar services – and I think most other people have that in common with me.

Interact
In this digital social world, it’s not enough to push your message; interacting is equally important. ALWAYS reply to comments on your blog posts and social media updates…even if just to say “thank you.” Also, when appropriate for your audience, reciprocate by commenting on and/or sharing others’ online content. And never let emails – particularly those from clients or prospects – go unanswered for more than 24 hours unless you’re on vacation. Social media has made it so very easy and convenient for solopreneurs to build good will, but it’s up to you to take action and harness that potential.


Reflect
In my opinion, this action is way underrated! While “reflect” seems passive, it’s anything but. As you work on building your business, take time regularly to review what is working and what is not.

  • Which social networks are providing the best exposure?
  • Which networking events and affiliations are leading you to the most prospects?
  • Which types of projects are delivering the best return?
  • What do you enjoy most and least about your work?
  • What process improvements can you make to serve clients better and use your time more effectively?

Adjust
Perhaps the most important verb all solopreneurs should put into practice is “adjust”! Clients’ needs and wants change, tools and resources change, the business climate changes…we change. To keep up and stay relevant in the dynamic world that is small business, you need to fine-tune your ability – and willingness – to evolve.

What other verbs do you think solopreneurs need to act on to be masters of their own destinies?

How What You’re NOT Can Successfully Set Your Brand Apart

As solopreneurs, we put a lot of thought into what we are to customers – and into how that makes us different from our Apples and Orangescompetitors. That’s very important, but what if you’re in an industry that’s borderline commodity. What if you do a fine job for customers, but the type of service you provide or business you’re in in really doesn’t lend itself naturally to differentiation?

Story Time!
One of my clients, owner of  a local marketing and design firm, shared a story with me about one of his clients who faced that very challenge.  Being in the pet food distribution business, his client was in a market where products offered and price points were pretty much the same everywhere.  When asked how he differentiated himself from his competitors, he said something to the effect of, “I make sure that I’m not an a_ _ hole.”  (I’ll let you fill in the blanks!)

Quite a point of differentiation, eh? As I understand, because very little competition enters that industry and customers don’t have a lot of options, some distributors were acting like jerks toward their clients.

So, my client’s client found that not being an a_ _ hole was his key point of differentiation.  His unique selling proposition wasn’t centered on what he was. It was all about what he WASN’T!

What does that mean to us as solopreneurs?
My thoughts…

  • Sometimes you have to think about more than just the bells & whistles of what you offer. The personality behind your brand is what clients will gravitate toward and connect with – especially when you’re offering services that aren’t overwhelmingly different from those of your competitors.
  • ALWAYS treat clients with professionalism and respect. Don’t be the “a_ _ hole”  your competitors are taking business away from.

Time for you to share! Is there anything that you’re NOT that has set you apart from your competition? Have you seen business owners sink their own ships by being jerks to their clients?

Image courtesy of Suvro Datta / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What Do Your Customers Want? The Same Things You Do!

Whether you’re just starting out as a solopreneur or have been running your small professional services business for a Confused manwhile, you’ve probably at some time wondered, “What do customers want?”

That will be different to some degree depending on the particular industry you’re in and your specialties, but there are some universal things that all prospective customers are looking for. And they’re not in any way mysterious or elusive. In fact, they’re the exact same things that you likely look for when choosing a professional services provider.

  • A solution – Customers choose a professional services provider to satisfy a need. They reach out to you because they’re unable to solve a problem or accomplish something on their own – either because of lack of resources or skills.

 Tip: Think about and be prepared to communicate clearly about the problems/needs that you’re able to solve.

 

  • Expertise – Expertise doesn’t always equate to years of experience – though that can give you an edge in establishing credibility. Expertise is knowing your stuff and having the capability of delivering quality to your clients.

Tip: If you’re a new solopreneur and struggling to get business because of your lack of experience, get some volunteer projects under your belt to build your portfolio and list of references.

  • Honesty – Clients expect (and rightly so) honesty in a professional services provider. They don’t want empty promises that can’t be fulfilled. They want you to do business ethically and to be honest about expected outcomes.

 Tip: Be realistic from the beginning about what you can deliver and when you can deliver it. “Pie in the sky” promises won’t earn you points when they don’t pan out.

  • Reliability – Consistent quality and performance are the keys to getting repeat business from your customers. If they know that they can depend on you to do the job well, they’ll be more inclined to give you more work.

 Tip: Repeat clients are the ultimate source of testimonials and referrals. The fact that someone has come back to you time and again stands as a testament to your reliability. Ask your repeat clients for testimonials and recommendations on Linkedin.

  • Fair rate – While some clients are 100% driven to decision based on price, the majority are willing to pay a fair rate for quality services. Most recognize that we often get what we pay for.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to charge what you’re worth. Don’t gouge your clients with excessive costs, but do be aware of your strengths and set your fees so that they’re favorable for you, yet fair to the customer.

  • A sense of caring – Customers expect you to care about the work you’re doing for them, the results that you deliver, and your relationship with them.

Tip: It’s not difficult to demonstrate caring, but you need to pay attention to the opportunities to do so. In your emails, on phone calls, and in meetings, tell clients “thank you” often and tell them that you appreciate the opportunity to work with them.

  • Responsiveness – Clients expect you to respond promptly to their questions and concerns. Responsiveness demonstrates what we talked about in the previous bullet point, caring. And it can set you apart from your competitors.

 Tip: Always try to respond to clients and prospects within 24 hours – even if just to say that you received their message, and will be getting back to them soon. In urgent situations, respond as close to immediately as possible.

 

  • No unpleasant surprises – No one likes “bait and switch” tactics, discovering hidden fees, or missed deadlines.

 Tip: Prepare and plan before proposing or starting projects for clients. Get a grip on – and communicate – the scope of what you’ll do, when you’ll do it, what you’ll need from the customer and how much it will cost them.

Pleasing customers doesn’t require a Magic 8 Ball, but it does take understanding their fundamental wants and needs. And fortunately, you have the means to do that quite easily. Simply tune into what YOU look for in a professional services provider – and deliver on those things!

Your turn! What do you look for in a professional services provider? How has your own experience as a customer shaped your approach to working with clients?

Image courtesy of grauer codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Business Networking 101: Tips for Making Small Talk Less of a Big Deal

Unless you’re a natural born socialite, walking into a room full of professionals at a networking event when you know ID-10067400very few people can be unnerving. In fact, it can be outright frightening for solopreneurs. But solopreneurs have to at times step outside of their comfort zones and step into uncomfortable environments to make connections and grow their base of business prospects.

That doesn’t mean networking has to be a painful experience though. By learning how to hold your own in the art of “small talk,” you can feel more calm, cool and collected and exude confidence as you meet and greet.

Small talk is that ice-breaking chit chat that opens up the door to more substantive conversations. And it’s not all that easy. I can attest to that! But the more you do it, the more second nature it becomes.

Not quite sure what to talk about? Here are some ideas for making conversation – and making small talk less of a big deal – at your next networking function:

  • Offer something notable about the host organization – Do a little research in advance so you can share some tidbit of info about your host when talking with others. Your host is the common denominator between you and other attendees, so focusing on them when starting your conversation will seem natural.
  • Remark about the venue – Pay attention to your surroundings and make positive, observant comments. Just like the host, the venue is common ground shared by you and others. Talking about it will instantly put you on the same page with whoever you’re chatting with.
  • Ask questions – One of the most effective ways to ease the unease that comes with trying to think of clever things to talk about is to simply ask questions and let someone else do the talking. If you’ve just met someone, keep your inquiries centered on the company they work for and what they do professionally. As your conversation progresses, you’ll probably find yourself talking about non-business topics like family, sports, and hobbies. But don’t get too personal right out of the gate.
  • Talk about news and current events – Look online, read the paper or watch the news so you’re in the know about what’s happening in your community, the nation, the world. Just steer clear of sensitive subject areas like politics and religion.

But small talk isn’t all about your topic of conversation. It’s bigger than that! Your success at small talk also depends on your persona and demeanor. It requires an open, positive attitude that’s welcoming to others. Get in the right frame of mind before networking events and make up your mind to:

  • Be warm and friendly – Smile and be personable.
  • Be inclusive – Don’t leave people out who obviously want to engage in conversation.
  • Make good eye contact when talking with someone – And make eye contact with everyone in the conversation, not just one person.
  • Not monopolize any one person’s time – Mingle – and let others do the same.

With just a little preparation and the right mindset, you’ll more easily and agilely start conversations when networking. Although you might find that it takes some time to find your groove, with practice and repeat exposure you’ll be a savvy small talker ready to take on any crowded room of professionals.

What are your tips for making small talk at networking events? How do you break the ice with people you don’t know?

Image courtesy of David Castillo / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Taking a Break Without Breaking Business Momentum – Tips for Making the Best Use of Time on a Road Trip

Thrilled about taking a holiday break, but stressed at the thought of projects falling behind and work piling up? If you’ll On the roadbe one of the many small biz pros on the road (literally) to an extended weekend over Easter, relax! There are ways to get away from it all and manage to stay on top of things.

Consider these ideas for taking care of business without officially punching the clock while you’re road-tripping it…

  • Take note – Traveling gives you uninterrupted time to think about things and brainstorm – take full advantage of it! Bring a notebook to capture ideas. If you’ll be behind the wheel; ask someone else to take notes for you.
  • Load up on apps – Before you leave for your journey, make sure your smart phone has got essential apps loaded and ready for action. A few I wouldn’t leave home without: WordPress, LinkedIn, Evernote, Facebook Pages Manager, Google+, Twitter, Hootsuite. If you haven’t use any of them recently, do a quick check to confirm that they’re not asking for updated usernames or passwords…things that you probably won’t have on hand after you leave your local environs.
  • Read up! – I’m guessing you’ve got a list of “do business better” books that have caught your attention, but that you haven’t found time to consume. During a road trip, take advantage of your status of captive audience and read (or listen to in e-book form) one from your hit list.

Remember, the point isn’t to work a lot while you’re taking time away – but keeping up with a few little tasks and taking care of some to dos can help make your return to business as usual a much more smooth  and less-harrowing transition.

Enjoy your weekend! And I welcome your thoughts on ways to make productive use of road trips!

Image courtesy of seaskylab / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Learn First. Blog Second. How to Turn “On the Job” Lessons into Posts that Appeal.

Consistently pinning down blog topics that will provide value to readers presents a challenge to busy solo professionals. Blog keysIn fact, it’s one of the main reasons why many of the solopreneurs and small business owners I know haven’t started to blog.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We think that unless we’ve got something monumental or expertly detailed to share, we won’t be providing anything worth reading. Fortunately, most readers aren’t looking for us to leap over tall buildings and solve all of the world’s – or their businesses’ – problems in a single post. What most are looking for is genuine advice, guidance, and information garnered from walking the walk and lessons learned.

As a solopreneur, does a day go by when you haven’t learned – or realize that you need to learn – something new or something more? Of course not! So, if you’re struggling to come up with compelling topics for your blog, start thinking about…

  • What you’ve learned “on the job” as a small business owner in your industry.
  • What you’re continually learning and the skills you’re developing every single day.
  • What you need to learn to run your business better or provide better services or products.

Keep in mind that you probably won’t need to go into great technical detail (unless your audience is very technically adept), and you don’t have to make your posts all-encompassing to include anything and everything on a topic. The key is to stay on point and inform, educate and even entertain by sharing what you know through your own efforts to learn more and do business better.

So what types of stuff might you focus on?

  • Trends in customer preferences and demand for the types of services or goods you sell.
  • Rules and regulations that affect your industry and their impact on what you sell, how you sell it, and what they mean to the consumer.
  • Technology tools that you’re using to improve the quality of your services & products.
  • Technology tools that you’re exploring to help build customer relationships.
  • Up and coming developments in products and services within your industry.
  • Services and products that are complementary to yours – and that will enhance the customer experience.
  • Upcoming events where prospects and customers can learn more about products & services in your industry (and ideally where they can connect with you one-on-one).
  • Credentials and expertise that customers should look for in a business within your industry.
  • Ways that customers can maximize the value of the products and services that they buy from you.

Basically, if you want or need more information about an industry topic, provided there’s a customer angle in there somewhere, you’ll have the makings of a blog post that can attract readers and give them a worthwhile takeaway. Just be sure that while you’re sharing what you’ve learned, you make the post about them. The “What’s in it for them?” needs to shine through in the finished product each and every post.

What types of things have you learned “on the job” that translate well into blog post topics? Please share your ideas!

Image courtesy of Idea Go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Making Your Mark as a Solopreneur – Trademark Basics

As a business owner, you work hard to make a name for yourself and to find ways to set yourself apart from your Registered Trademark competition. One of the more obvious ways to do that is to visually suggest that particular wording, symbols or designs – in and of themselves or in combination with each other – belong to you.

When you’re defining and differentiating your brand, a trademark (brand name) can help you create and maintain distinction. “Trademark” is often used to refer to both “trademarks” and “service marks” – which are similar, but slightly different.

Trademarks are used to identify and distinguish the provider of goods.

Service marks are used to identify and distinguish the provider of services.

When Can You Use Them?
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), “Any time you claim rights in a mark, you may use the “TM” (trademark) or “SM” (service mark) designation to alert the public to your claim, regardless of whether you have filed an application with the USPTO.”

So you’re allowed to slap the “TM” or “SM” to your name or logo without filing any documentation. Doing that lets others know that you’re claiming the particular verbiage or symbol or design, but legally you don’t really have much of a leg to stand on if someone else starts to use the same thing to represent their business offerings.

The official federal registration symbol is ®. Don’t ever put that on your name, logo or anything else unless you’ve taken the step to get your mark approved and registered by the USPTO. Even if you’ve got a registration application pending, you need to stick with the “TM” or “SM” designation until you’re official.

What’s the Big Deal About the ®?
In a nutshell, your brand name gets some legal protection and benefits from registering with the USPTO. To name a few from the agency’s website:

  • Public notification that you’ve claimed ownership of the mark.
  • Legal presumption of your ownership of the mark.
  • Exclusive right to use the mark to represent the goods or services that you’ve listed in the registration.
  • Ability to bring legal action in federal court if someone uses your mark without authorization.

How Do You Register a Mark?
If you do choose to file an application to register your trademark, it’s smart to do a search in the TESS (USPTO’s Trademark Electronic Search System) to make sure no one else has filed an application for the same mark.

And because registering a trademark is a legal proceeding, it would be wise to consult an attorney to guide you through the process.

Costs associated with registering vary depending on a few different factors:

The application form that you use
There’s a “regular” ($325) and a “plus” ($275) form. The plus version costs less because it comes with more strict requirements on what goods and services can be registered.

How many marks you’re registering
You may only request to register one mark per application.

The number of products and services classes your mark will be associated with
Say you want to sell hats and blankets under your service mark. You’d need to pay double the fee because those items fall under different classes.

Of course, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg, so I suggest visiting the USPTO website where you can review their comprehensive list of FAQs and other information relative to trademarks and service marks.

And you might have noticed that “The Insatiable Solopreneur™” has had the “TM” behind it for some time. There’s a reason for that – but I’ll wait to share it a little later in the year. 😉

Have you officially registered any trademarks or service marks for your business? Please feel free to share your tips and advice on the topic here!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net