Referrals Are a Solopreneur’s Gold

This post was written by Patricia Frame of Strategies for Human Resources, our guest author for our solopreneur blog series.

Referrals are a Solopreneurs GoldMost of us know that referrals are a wonderful source of business. And we hope for them. But do you have an active program to help you get referrals?

Even a brief online search yields articles by the thousands. Why is referral marketing so critical? For solopreneurs there are several important aspects. People who are referred to you already have some trust and belief in your capabilities so it is easier to convert them into clients. Having existing clients, other business owners, and friends refer potential clients is very cost-effective.

What are you already doing to actively encourage referrals? Many of us know we want referrals but actively seeking them is not something we do well, if at all. Hoping for referrals is not a real program.

Building your referral business effectively requires a plan.

Step 1: Identify those existing clients and people in your network who are the best prospects to provide referrals.  You want people who think your work is great and those who know you and your work well enough to be a trusted reference. Remember to consider past bosses or peers and people from volunteer work  you do plus those contacts you have built in other businesses. Trust is a critical element in all referrals. No-one wants to jeopardize their relationships with a poor referral.

Step 2: Define the specific types of referrals you want – who are your preferred clients?  You must develop a simple profile to ensure your network knows who to refer to you. Although I work primarily with founders and CEOs to help achieve their strategic goals, many other people assume what I do is recruiting. A profile of your desired client helps the people you ask for referrals understand and remember who is a good candidate for your services or products.

Step 3: Review all your existing marketing materials.  What do you have which you could use to help your referral program? Think: LinkedIn profile, website, blogs, newsletters, brochures, business cards, and so on. As you create your plan, you want all your materials to support this process.

Step 4: Decide how you will ask each person you identified in step 1 for referrals.  Is this a phone or email or in-person communication? That is likely to vary among the people on your list. What will you provide to help each remember your ideal client and understand your business — so that they have something to refer to?

Step 5: How will you thank people for referrals?  Big companies and retailers often have contests and rewards but that is not usually something a solopreneur does. A simple written thank you letter or card is very effective. You might also consider, when there is a client who consistently refers you to others who become clients, sending a simple gift or offering a discount on one of your services or products to them.

Step 6: Define your actions and time-line.  An effective program is not built overnight. Trying to contact all your potential referrers at once is more likely to lead to poor follow-through than great results. So create your plan and time-line carefully. Then ACT!

Top Tips

Each month in this column, we will feature Alexandria solopreneur’s tips to help you be more effective in your own business. We encourage you to consider networking with the people whose tips you see here.  If you are willing to contribute a tip, send them to [email protected] and identify them as such. We will use your name and your business name along with the tip.

To jumpstart this, we have two tips this month:

“Don’t operate in a vacuum. Collaborate (your only competition is ignorance) and network with other business owners for exposure, relationship-building, providing and receiving counsel, and cross-referral opportunities. As with all successful business leaders, solopreneurs will know to whom to reach out when needs arise and those same people are likely to respond in kind. Give, get, and thrive.” Peter Baldwin, MarketForce Strategies

“The very best networking experiences I have had come from meetings, lectures, book launches, exhibit openings, etc., where I am truly interested in the event/subject matter/topic. These events attract people with whom I already have something in common, so I have a guaranteed ice-breaker. That way, every networking evening is a winner! Even if I walk out with fewer valuable contacts than I would like, I have been enriched, challenged, engaged by the experience.” Ann Timmons, Communications Artist

The post Referrals Are a Solopreneur’s Gold appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Choosing a Contractor for Your Small Business

Choosing a Contractor for Your Small BusinessWhether you are opening a new business in the City of Alexandria or expanding the physical location of an existing business, it is important to be aware of the City’s build-out requirements.  The permitting process may be easier and smoother if you choose architects and contractors who are have done work in the City of Alexandria and are familiar with the State and City regulations and processes. The helpful folks at the Multi-Agency Permit Center will explain the process and requirements to you and your contractor, but you should do some research before you choose your contractor.

When choosing a contractor, be sure that your choice carries the required license for your size and type of project.  Contractors in Virginia are regulated by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. As stated on that site, the Board of Contractors licenses businesses engaged in the construction, removal, repair, or improvement of facilities on property owned by others.  The Contractors License consists of two parts:  the class of license (A, B, or C) which determines the monetary value of contracts or projects that may be performed, and the classification specialty, which determines which type of work is allowed.  You should be aware that any job valued at $1,000 or more requires a contractors license.  Those who hold a Class C license are permitted for jobs valued between $1,000 and $7,500; those with Class B licenses are permitted for jobs up to $120,000; and contractors for jobs valued at more than $120,000 must hold a Class A license.  You can view the state contractor requirements and check the license class of individual contractors on the website of the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation.  There are several documents on that site that can assist you. Each of these documents is recommended reading before you choose a contractor for your small business in Alexandria:

Consumer Information Sheet

10 Tips for Making Sure Your Contractor Measures Up

What You Should Know Before You Hire A Contractor

The contractor also needs to have a City of Alexandria business license. Often, the contractor is licensed with the state of Virginia but does not have the required City business license.  This can be obtained at the Multi-Agency Permit Center at City Hall.

Of course, in addition to ensuring that your contractor holds the required licenses, you will want to check references, particularly with other local businesses for whom they have done work.  Talk with those business owners about the quality of work as well as the timing.  Was the work completed on time and on budget?  Did the contractor work with the permit office or did the business owner do that themselves?  Did the contractor communicate well with the business owner? Did the contractor arrange for City inspections to be done in a timely manner and was the contractor present at those inspections?  Overall, would the small business owner hire this contractor again for future work?

Do your research, choose a good contractor and follow up on the progress, and you will be on your way to apply for your Certificate of Occupancy to officially open your new space – congratulations!

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Drive Sales By Making Your Location A Destination

Drive Sales By Making Your Location A DestinationThis post was written by Paul Williams, marketing expert and founder of Idea Sandbox and the do-it-yourself local store marketing website LSMGuide.

When you think of a destination, what comes to mind? Probably a vacation spot. A place worth going out of the way to get to. A place worth planning to go. A place you’ll brag about going to.

“We’re taking the kids to Florence this summer.”

When you return, you’ll brag about the visit to friends, family, and co-workers. And, you’ll show-off your pictures on Facebook and Twitter.

Wouldn’t it be great to have your business have these qualities? To be worth going out of the way for? Worth the wait? Where the experience is so out of the ordinary, people take pictures and tell their friends?

It is possible. You’ve been to restaurants and stores like that yourself.

So, what does it take to be a destination?

There are two situations…

  1. Either you’re perceived as the first, the best or the only in what you offer. Customers already go out of their way to come to you. Or,
  2. You’ve got to make yourself the first, best, or only.

First, Best, Only

The first bakery to serve a cronut? The best home theater store in the area? The only authentic Korean restaurant in town?

If you are the first, best, or only – good for you – now you need to promote that specialty to drive people to your location and transform that traffic into sales.

More than likely, you’re like most of us. Not the first, or only… And, while you may think you’re the best, your customers do not necessarily perceived you that way.

So, for us, we need to do programming and host regularly scheduled events that help us stand out. (And ultimately, help you become the first, best or only).

Destination Events & Programming

There are at least seven different types of programming you can host, and countless events. Every day offers an excuse for hosting events, programming, or other fun ways to entice customers to your location. Consider…

Special Days & Holidays – If not traditional celebrations like Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, First Day of Spring and Thanksgiving, consider that nearly every day of the week, and every month of the year has some special occasion. In June alone we have…

  • Iced Tea Month,
  • National Doughnut Day (3rd),
  • Strawberry Shortcake Day (14th),
  • World Gin Day (15th),
  • The First Day of Summer (21),
  • and more…

Use dates like these to promote and host fun in-store events. Visit the Marketing Holidays Calendar for more ideas.

Insider Events – Host invite-only special events. Use your eNewsletter and hand-delivered invitations to build awareness. Everyone loves to be treated as a VIP and receive exclusive offers.

Educational Events – Offer classes related to your products that help customers gain expertise. Wine tasting, knife skills class, dress for success, building a home theater, how to make a latte at home. Share your expertise and help customers become experts.

Games & Contests – Host trivia nights. Invest in a few Wii Game Consoles and host virtual leagues – bowling, darts, etc. Have fun prizes and have teams compete weekly. Buy a bunch of classic board games – the ones best for groups to play. Have your staff keep them happy with drinks and munchies!

Arts & Culture Events – Host in-store music, author readings, or bring in a table magician to wonder and delight your customers. Use your wall to exhibit the work of local artists. Do this and, each time you change out the artwork, you can host an Art Opening, which is an excuse to bring people in and sample your new products and offerings.

Charity & Giving – Find a local group or charity in need that matches with your brand, and partner with them on a long-term basis. Host in-store events and events around the community.

Groups & Clubs – If you’ve got the space, allow local groups and clubs to reserve space in your location. If you don’t rent it to them, create special offers for your products and services while they’re there. Give them special access to what you do.

Transform Traffic

Terrific, now you have events to host at your location. But, getting people to the entrance and into your shop is only half the job. The second part is transforming that traffic to something meaningful.

And, it is important to add, it may not be transforming directly to sales…

Prior to making the sale, you may need first to build trust and reduce perceived risk. So we recommend:

Trial: Sample and Demonstration - Auto dealers sell cars through a test drive. Homes are bought via house tours. The expensive brand of pasta sauce flew off the shelf when they sampled at the grocery store. Letting customers try before they buy reduces perceived risk. Even sampling a low-priced item, like a seasonal flavored latte, often needs sampling because people don’t want their day to start on the wrong foot with a cup of coffee they may not like. Sampling, and allowing customers to test products, allows them understand – without the risk – that they do like the product. Sampling and demos lead to increased purchase rates.

Create Insiders: Newsletter Sign-Up - Offering a newsletter, sent monthly by email is a great way to get potential customers to know you better and keep existing customers engaged. Create a way for your customers to sign-up in your location. A simple page printed with “Name” and “eMail” will do the trick. By signing up, customers are giving you permission to communicate with them. In every message to your customers find a way to provide value to them. I don’t mean a coupon or sales offer. Give them what they want to know. If you sell stereo equipment, keep them on top of the latest trends. If you are a bakery, give tips to hosting great kid’s or office parties. Sure, let them know you have a special offer on stereos or cupcakes, but make your sales message a second priority over helping customers feel good about themselves.

Make The Sale

Everything mentioned so far leads to “making the sale.” The important thing to remember is that the “sale” is the end result of doing the right things for your potential customers. Creating meaningful, relevant reasons for them to visit you.

On a final note, of course, any event needs to be supported by awareness-building tools. Make sure customers, and potential customers, know when you’ve got fun programming. (But that’s the topic for another article!)

By implementing these ideas, your location will become a place worth going out of the way for. A place worth planning to go. A place your customers will brag about – to their friends and via social media!

The post Drive Sales By Making Your Location A Destination appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Getting a Trademark

Getting a Trademark

Getting a Trademark

As one of the smallest businesses in the City of Alexandria, VA, I never really considered getting a trademark.

My previous employer, a small software development firm applied and received trademarks, but it was always an expensive and lengthy process that was accomplished by the law office that represented the company.

In the summer of 2013, I decided to maximize the use of my home and increase my income. My home and garden became an AirBnB. And the first guest to stay with us was an attorney for the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, just down the street. We hit it off right and were friends. He stayed with us for over a month while searching for a permanent place to live.

After moving here and getting settled in at his new office, our friend offered to help file my trademark application. At that point, I figured it was a great opportunity to add creditability to my small business. And receiving inside help with my trademark meant my application went through the full process without any problems in just five months, they had a four month backlog when I applied.

Looking back, the biggest issue with applying for a trademark is that it is public record. There are entire businesses set up in the City of Alexandria to trick you into thinking you are getting information updates about your application from the Patent Trade Office (PTO), which includes payment requirements that are the exact amounts PTO will soon be charging for your trademark. These fake communications come in emails and U.S. Mail with titles and addresses very similar to the real PTO. If you’re not paying attention, you fall for it. Several times I sent these along to our friend asking if it was real or fake. PTO knows this is going on and some clients do not have the funds for their application because they’ve already paid the fake businesses, not knowing. For now, you just need to pay close attention to not fall victim to these scams.

As a small business, be open to finding new ways to build your credibility. Recognize a great opportunity when it presents itself. It may not always be within your timetable.

What a retail architect really does.

The "Retail Store Prototype"  is a free publication telling what a retail architect really does.It is probably safe to say that many people know little, if anything, about what  a retail architect actually does. How, then, can one benefit from an architect’s, or other design professional’s, services when faced with planning a new store? We have found that the most successful projects happen when our clients have a clear understanding of the architectural and store planning process. To that end, we are introducing the following free publications:

“From Idea to Bricks & Mortar Store – The Retail Store Prototype: What is it and why do it?”

This is a 50 minute power point presentation, so allow enough time, or start and stop as time permits. Also, a transcript is provided if you prefer. A comprehensive view of the architectural process required to build a new retail store is first outlined, and then related to the business plan. It has valuable information for anyone seriously considering opening or expanding a retail store.

“Seven Mistakes Expanding or Startup Retailers Make When Building a New Store”

This is a one page document that outlines major catch points that can cost new or expanding retailers time, money or both. It is a good quick reference for any startup or newly expanding retailer with a building project somewhere in their future.

Please select the link to receive these “must read” free publications, especially directed towards expanding or startup retailers.

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

Roundtable Recap: Productivity Tech Tools for Task & Project Management

Productivity Tools for Task & Project MgmtThis week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC.

The famed Pareto Principle, named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto for his studies of wealthy landowners, can be summed up as, 20% of your efforts produces 80% of your results. And this principle has been used in corollary after permutation after derivation in a multiplicity of industries, studies and other principles. While the principle (also called the 80-20 rule and the law of the vital few) doesn’t work out as an exact ratio in all these areas, for the business owner trying to be more productive, it’s a great Litmus test. And, keeping track of that all-important 20% is more consistently done using paper or digital tools like task list managers and project management software in Small Business.

As I said in last month’s blog post (but it’s always a good reminder), every month, Alexandria Small Business Development Center hosts the Business Development Roundtable, where Small Business owners and their representatives come to discuss topical business issues. We learn, network, share and grow together as business in the Alexandria, Virginia, community. January’s Roundtable was a continuation from the success of our November Roundtable on using productivity tools (that you already have) for greater time and email management. We discussed in January issues relating to task and project management in Small Business, that we didn’t have enough time in the November Roundtable to examine. We had a great group who discussed ways for managing by customer, project and task.

One of our Roundtable participants shared that he used Insightly, a CRM (customer relationship management) solution, to manage his sales. I mentioned one of their competitors, Contactually (which is Washington, D.C.-based), also. These tools are really useful when your business is heavily focused on many and frequent touchpoints with your points of contacts (potential, current and past clients). This can be used in conjunction with task and project management software too. In 2014, as part of the Virginia SBDC’s Beyond Google: Marketing & Managing on the Web Webinar series, I presented on the topic, “How to Choose a CRM for Small Business,” if you’d like to learn more about that.

A major struggle with several participants was juggling the paper and digital infrastructure. Some believed it was necessary for them to transition from paper to digital, but it’s been difficult for them to make the leap. Stepping back and noticing what your operational duties, systems and workflows are, this can really help you start to see where paper tools or software that you already have can be utilized, or where new tools may facilitate more productive management of your customers and projects.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 and NeatReceipts Mobile scanners were brought up as ways to help ease the paper to digital transition. These tools extract the data from your paper and puts that into your proper tools, along with an image of the item that you scanned (whether a receipt, contract or letter).

Reggie Holmes of Enthuse Creative (one of our Alexandria Small Business bloggers) uses Basecamp in his brand strategy firm. Another Roundtable participant is using Trello for managing her projects and tasks. Evernote came up as a tool. Executive Director Bill Reagan has been using Evernote to scan his business cards. He also uses a paper day planner and spoke about what works for him. Evernote was also lauded for its quick ability to share/synchronize notes with your other computers and mobile devices, as well as others in your personal and business life.

On the task side, many participants were wedded to their paper planners and calendars for writing down and tracking tasks for the day, week. It was pointed out that having the tool, whether physical or digital, accessible and on you during your work hours is a critical success factor in building the habit to collect tasks and projects but also in doing them when you have a moment here or there to review your outstanding items to accomplish.

Having a backup systems if you have a digital system is important. If you lose power or your system has a problem, you should still be able to run some or most of your business operations in those circumstances. Cloud services (like Dropbox, Evernote and Trello, all mentioned earlier) have their own backups of your data, but it makes sense for you to have your own locally or somewhere else in the cloud; there are several services coming out to help you do that such as

Microsoft Project was also mentioned as a project management tool of many larger companies, but that can be used in smaller companies and organizations as well. As luck would have it, I also recently did a Webinar on Productivity Tools for Small Business and covered many project management tools in there. As soon as the archived version is available, I’ll add it to the comments below as a link!

The conversation closed with discussion of Web browsers and how you can set it up to load your online calendar, task manager, project dashboard, email and more all at once. The tabs can be scheduled to open whenever you open your Web browser, or have it open it every day at the start of your workday. As well, don’t forget to tile or cascade windows on your operating system (it’s a pretty easy right-click function on Windows computers, and you can resize and tile windows manually on Mac quickly once you get the hang of it); this can save you oodles of time from toggling back and forth when looking at one window and trying to data-enter into another. Remember, that 20% of your efforts should be spent most wisely to achieve 80% of your business success!

This month (February 17th at noon at the Alexandria SBDC) we’ll be discussing “Multimedia Marketing” at the Business Development Roundtable, so that will be a great discussion if you have ever wanted to do video, photo, audio (e.g., podcasting), or other kinds of media publishing for your business. Bring your lunch or a beverage if you want!

The post Roundtable Recap: Productivity Tech Tools for Task & Project Management appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

The Importance of a Professional Headshot

Your headshot says a lot about you. Do you look like a confident person? Do you take care in your appearance? Do you seem like a professional? These are all questions that hiring departments may think of or clients may wonder when choosing you. Whether they are looking at your LinkedIn profile or choosing your services based on the quality of your business card it may have more to do with your headshot than you might think.

Stand Tall No one sees confidence in a person that slouches. Stand up tall when having your headshot taken so that your posture is expert. If this is difficult for you, try squaring your hips and lifting your chest. Then imagine a string pulling you up like a balloon lifting you into the air. Nothing says confidence like good posture.

Smile Like You Mean It Some of the best headshots come from your natural radiant smile. Like the kind of smile where you just laughed. So fake it. Laugh and you will find your natural smile comes shines through.

Color Palettes for Your Skin, Hair and Eyes I love power colors for those in leadership roles, or those seeking leadership roles. Reds can come off as very attention grabbing and classic. Oranges however, depending on the skin tone could be very off putting. When choosing your palette look at a variety of options and hold the colors up to your face. To they make you look washed out or on the contrary do they draw attention to your eyes and make them pop? You want to find out what your color palate is first and then create your look from there. Do you look best in vibrant colors or earth tones. If you are uncertain which color palette best suits you, bring a few options to your session and go over them with your photographer.

Professional Headshots

Simple is Best Again, play up the textures and add in a necklace, some earrings or a nice watch but make sure you are remembering “simple”. You can really over do it with loud patterns like stripes or circular patterns on your shirt or blazer. For those of you that wear makeup, this is a time for the lipstick and mascara. Clean makeup is best as well. Leave the glitter and shimmer at home and opt for matte colors that accentuate your natural look.

High Resolution vs. Web Resolution If you want to print your headshot for promotional purposes make sure you get a release to do so as well as high resolution images. Likewise, if you would like to use your headshot online you will want a web resolution image. Make sure you are clear with your photographer to ensure that you get the images that you want at their best quality for the purposes that you intend them.

Your Photographer Can Make You Lose Weight Instantly Before you get too excited, understand that your photographer is not going to accompany you the the gym or prescribe you a cleanse for days leading up to your session. But, your photographer does know some tricks of the trade that can make you appear more thinned out. For example, say that you have been blessed with not one but two chins, we can remove that for you. And I am not talking post processing so much as when we take your headshot we can manipulate your profile to remove your double chin and overall bring the viewer into the image. A good photographer can photograph you in a way that makes the observer look for a few seconds longer at your headshot.

And sometime those extra seconds, that make you stand at the forefront of all the other applicants, make all the difference.


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Retail Architect 2015 Trends: between new and passé is timeless

It is possible to think of this shop as “timeless,” as a quick look says a lot about their customer. Doubtless a romantic woman who places feminine style before budget and appreciates a bit of drama. Take a guess at the location and date? Then follow the link for the answer.

I started 2015 by attending and event about a subject near and dear to retail architects and those of us intimately involved with the retail trade. Namely, “Marketing Trends for 2015,” a worthwhile presentation sponsored by the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, and given by Maurisa Potts, CEO and Founder of Spotted MP Marketing and PR. I left thinking that voluminous amounts of available market data make it possible to predict future buying habits of the American public and even help define a narrative about their expectations in terms of both on and offline shopping environments. Knowing how those shopping environments will end up looking is something else entirely.

Jeff Green writing in Chain Store Age summarizes events of 2014, saying that retailers are being squeezed by rising real estate costs, increases in the minimum wage, and online shopping. Furthermore, the last of these leads to value shopping and, at least partially, defines the challenge of 2015, which is for a retailer to successfully optimize sales over all distribution channels. A tall order, addressed to the extent possible by author and “Retail Prophet,” Doug Stephens when he tells us 2015 will find retailers thinking of their sales force as either highly skilled brand ambassadors or clerical type order processors. There will be no room for mediocrity as it applies to, not only product, but also staff and the physical environment. New “brick and mortar” stores will be seen as places of collaboration, customization, and experience. I have found some of this to be underway for awhile. Certainly creating an “experience” focused shopping environment aimed at a target market has been an emerging store planning goal for at least 2014 and probably beyond. Stephens says the trend is being further fueled by tech and media savvy shoppers with an insatiable appetite for something new and translating in a tendency toward shorter leases and popup shops, even to the extent that Stephens referred to future mall managers as curators. As a retail architect I see this manifesting in specialization and variety and suggest a degree of caution, as straddling the line between new and passe is timeless, always a goal, not often accomplished.

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.