Roundtable Recap: Do You Really Know Your Target Market?

This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC. 

Do You Really Know Your Target Market-On April 21st the Alexandria SBDC Business Development Roundtable tackled the evergreen topic of determining your target market. We started the conversation off with defining the target market.

Some of the responses were:

  • “customers”
  • “the people who want to buy your product”
  • “customers that provide you the most business…repeat business”
  • “different slices of all of the people who can buy from you”

Alexandria SBDC Business Analyst Jack Parker stated that it was important for you to work out whether they were a startup or a growing business. Startups sometimes have a more difficult time to identify their target market(s), and growing businesses have data about who they’ve done business with and can further refine their target market based on that.

Retail Architect Bridget Gaddis asked how to help someone define their target market when they haven’t successfully done it so far. Several people mentioned seeking guidance from marketing experts, including SBDC and SCORE counseling, and experimenting with different target markets until you find your ideal client profile.

After we discussed defining target market, we pivoted the conversation to this idea of refining your target market over time. Many times the target market you’ve identified and started marketing to infrequently are exactly the target market who ends up buying from you. It was important to many of the Small Business owners at the Roundtable to pay attention to the customer service experience and sales to decide whether certain target markets are right for their business. Over time, you learn to turn away certain kinds of business instead of other target audiences that fit your company well.

Others found that they started out with a larger target market and with good intentions to help that audience, but found that they weren’t ideal for them because of lack of funding to support their business. So, they needed to change course and work with a smaller market with larger budgets to be able to pay for their business. This gives the businesses opportunities to help lower-paying clients when they have time available, but being able to still pay the bills.

Target marketing is important not only for initial defining the marketing efforts of your business, but also, as several Roundtable participants noted, you need to continually take “snapshots” of your business. These snapshots help you take pause and review the state of your target market, mistakes and potential opportunities to grow into new target markets.

We rounded out the conversation discussing target marketing on the Web today. We chatted about collecting data from our visitors, paying attention to keywords (the specific, unique words people search Google to find your business, not just your business name), and searching social networks for data about our ideal target markets.

Next month we will be back at the Alexandria SBDC Roundtable with a discussion on “Time to Tune Up Your Branding.” As the mid-year approaches, this is the best time to re-assess your branding (visual, written and experiential) that’s happening in and around your business’ marketing efforts. So, on May 19th, bring a beverage or your lunch, grab a seat and join us for the next Roundtable to talk about branding in your Small Business.

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Health Care Rules Under the Affordable Care Act

This post was written by Patricia Frame of Strategies for Human Resources after encountering many small business owners who were not aware of changes in health care rules under the Affordable Care Act.

Changes in Health Care Rules Under the ACAMany small organizations provide pre-tax or post-tax payments to employees instead of offering a group health-care plan. The IRS has now reminded small employers that you no longer can do this. If you provide an allowance or reimburse employees for their health care costs, directly or through a Health Reimbursement arrangement (HRA), you must stop this practice by June 30, 2015.

You have options for your next step but need to decide on these quickly.  You may:

  • Find a group plan via the federal SHOP exchange for small organizations
  • Work with your insurance broker to find group coverage that works for your situation
  • Include some or all of the payments for health care coverage which you have been making in the employees’ regular pay rate or salary

There are exceptions to these rules for Subchapter S Corporation employee-shareholders and retiree benefit plan beneficiaries.  Please check with your insurance broker and lawyer on these.

If you continue to provide such allowances or reimbursements after June 30, 2015, you will be subject to a fine of $100 per employee per day.

For many small businesses, this will create an employee morale issue.  It is vital that you learn your options, make your decision, and clearly communicate to each currently covered employee what you are doing and what their options are if you will offer any.  We are available to discuss this with you.

Although this IRS rule, under IRS Notice 2015-17, was issued in February, the Alexandria SBDC has recently become aware that some small business owners have not been aware of this change, hence this post.  You should consult your insurance broker, employment lawyer, human resources advisor, or CPA for further information.

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Mistakes of a Solopreneur

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

Mistakes of a SolopreneurOne of the best things about longevity is that you have already made all the mistakes possible in your business or have seen them among your network.  Some years ago I even teemed with a young entrepreneur to speak about our biggest mistakes at a conference.  What can you learn from my mistakes?  From those of other solopreneurs you know?  Lots!  Ask your network.

Business Planning

Well, of course, I did not need a business plan.  I was not going to build the next Google, I was just going to consult.  And so I did.  The early years were often rough.  I tried a lot of approaches.  But I did not do a business plan.  Mind you I have taught them to entrepreneurs, studied them as part of my MBA, and so on.  But I never thought one might help me.

But doing a short, even a simple one-page version, business plan can help you flesh out a lot of ideas and information that will speed your success.  Your basics are

  • What do you really want to do, what is the market, what do you offer?
  • Who is your target market specifically and how will you reach them?
  • What is your ‘hook’ to attract business -why are you better/faster/whatever?
  • How will you sell your services or product?


Early on, I met and hired an experienced marketing manager who was starting a solo  marketing business.  We had a chat or two and she proposed a huge scheme, far outside my budget or needs.  I gave up, assuming I could not afford a more experienced marketer or company,  and went on with trying but nothing really worked well.

Marketing can be done on your own if you are really ready to invest the time and energy in learning its many aspects, what works in your business arena, how to test your ideas, and so on.  But reading an article on the different audiences between Twitter and Facebook is not cutting it.  Start certainly with the education aspect.  Attend some of the marketing seminars and round-table discussions at the SBDC.  Do some online research.  But do not limit yourself.  Ask your network for recommendations and talk with some experts to find someone you can work with.  Build a budget and try some of their recommendations.  Smart marketing support not only helps bring in the business but it also reduces your burden in trying to do everything

Doing It All

Like far too many consultants, coaches, and freelancers, I started out ready to do almost anything in HR a client might want.  And thought I could run my small business entirely on my own too.  But there are aspects of HR which I do not enjoy.  And there are needs which clients have but which would require expensive investments in software and survey data for me to do.

Don’t ask how long it took me to start referring potential clients to others for affirmative action plans or survey intensive work.

Plus surely I could learn all I needed to run my business with all the modern software, systems, and such – presentation graphics, IT, book-keeping, etc.  It was only when I wanted a website that I really hired help.  Don’t ask me how many virtual assistants I knew/met before I actually hired one myself.

Take a clear look at your value.  You and only you can sell yourself and do the actual work you want to build your business on.  In the beginning it is hard to convince yourself to spend money on others’ services.  It is easy when you are not busy with clients to think you can fit in all the other aspects of your business that need to be done.  Then you get busy and it all stops.  Or you hit a problem you cannot fix and it is always at the wrong time.  No computer ever fails on a ‘good day’, they all fail on deadline or at the start of a big engagement when you are already slammed.

You need to make investments in your business, just as any company does.  Yours may be on a different scale but some services and systems are really worth spending on.  A great logo, someone to properly set up the book-keeping software and process, some basic marketing advice are just a few examples of good investments in your success.  Look very carefully at what you need and how you will fill each need.  Consider all your options, do not just assume you cannot afford assistance.  If you really cannot invest in your business, are you actually in business or are you just trying to keep going while you look for another job or is it really a hobby?

Firing Clients

We want them, we need them, but how do we manage them?  Some freelancers and consultants start their businesses when they are laid off but offered a consulting gig or are converted to independents by their employers.  This can provide great support and income in the beginning.  But you must diversify if you want to build a longer term business.  Significant dangers exist for any solopreneur when one client is the mainstay of the business – what happens when that client suddenly moves in a different direction?

Other clients are so time-consuming that the revenue they produce is far less value than the effort they require.  These are clients you need to fire or, at least, to transition over to others whose work styles are more likely to match.  Wow, is that hard the first time!    But it is a skill you need to learn.  Developing and managing a range of clients requires constant effort and management on your part.  Learning to let go is difficult but vital to your business success.

TIP of the month

“The best tip I received was learning how to play to my strengths instead of doing what text books told me about building a business. A coach did help me sort through some of this, too- so asking for advice and doing some self assessment would be part of the tip.

For me, has meant being involved as a volunteer with organizations I like and care about, which in turn lets people see how I work; also going to events and program that I find interesting rather than going to simply network and sharing information and strategies and news about the field.” Jennifer Ayers,

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Preparing for a Disaster

Preparing for a Disaster“A business continuity plan is an essential factor of a small company’s long-term success and will contribute to the community’s economic recovery in the aftermath of a disaster.”

Maria Contreras-Sweet
Administrator, U.S. Small Business Administration

As we enter the season of storms and power outages, it is necessary for small business owners to get ready. The following information comes from a recent SBA webinar.

Are You Prepared?

Generally, it takes several years to build a successful business, but minutes or hours to be destroyed by a disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates 40% of businesses do not reopen after a disaster, and of those that do reopen, 25% fail within one year. Disasters don’t just include earthquakes and tornadoes. They also include things like hail storms, power outages, and pandemics. In order to prepare for the worst, business owners should:

  • Understand their vulnerabilities
  • Plan for a disaster
  • Periodically conduct drills to test the effectiveness of their plans

Are You Disaster Ready?

Getting back to business after a disaster depends on how prepared you are today. Small business owners invest significant time, money and resources to make their ventures successful. Emergency planning is important but may be put on the back-burner in the face of more immediate concerns. For small business owners, being prepared can mean staying in business following a disaster.

Are You Taking A Risk?

If you don’t have insurance, you’re gambling with your business. Even if you do have insurance, there are still several things that a business owner should consider:

  • What does your policy cover?
  • Is your coverage adequate? Insurance should be sufficient to cover the cost to repair or rebuild your business or home. Replacement cost of your property is not the same as its real estate value. Coverage should include attached structures, such as a garage, storage building or deck.
  • Flood coverage and business interruption are normally separate policies.

Prepare a Business Disaster Toolkit

Every step that you take to prepare for a disaster allows your business to be more resilient should the worst happen. Here are a few easy suggestions to prepare for an emergency:

  • Check insurance coverage, including business interruption.
  • Communicate your disaster preparedness plan with all employees.
  • Back up computer records often and store critical paper and electronic records off site.
  • Make sure you have essential phone numbers for insurance agents, employees, vendors and customers.
  • Consider using a website to post information about your business, so vendors and suppliers can stay informed.

Prepare a Disaster Survival Kit

In addition to the above steps, business owners should also physically prepare for an emergency. Begin by creating a disaster survival kit that is both waterproof and fireproof.  Update it regularly. Include:

  • Cash
  • Nonperishable food (3 day minimal supply) including a can opener
  • Water for each person/pet (1 gallon per day, per person)
  • First aid supplies and medications (eye glasses/contacts)
  • Radio, flashlight, batteries, blankets
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Sanitation supplies
  • Basic tool kit

Disaster Planning Resources

Look at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety website and review the “Open for Business – EZ toolkit.”  The information helps small businesses take the steps needed to keep functioning in the event of a major disaster or a smaller disruption.

Each month, Prepare My Business hosts free, educational webinars. Attend these virtual live courses to learn more about how to plan your business continuity and disaster recovery strategy. The more you know, the more you can help reduce your business’s risk and quickly recover in a disaster.

Helpful Websites provides disaster assistance resources. provides business-focused disaster preparedness and planning tools. has emergency preparedness publications available to the public at no cost. is a free program from the American Red Cross that helps businesses, schools and organizations become prepared for disasters and other emergencies. from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety advises home and business owners how to prepare for disasters.

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Make the Most of Tourist Season

Make the Most of Tourist SeasonThe weather is warming and the National Cherry Blossom Festival has begun. Spring is finally upon us, and Alexandria soon will notice an upswing of visitors to our community.

Our colleagues at Visit Alexandria tell us that tourism generates millions of dollars in revenue for local businesses and city government and supports thousands of local jobs. Alexandria gets 3.3 million visitors per year, and they spend $738 million in our community. That generates $24 million in local tax revenue, which reduces the tax burden for each of our households by $300.

There’s definitely an economic return associated with crowds of visitors, but there’s so much more to consider. Alexandria’s vitality and cultural richness is sustained by tourist dollars, and our quality of life is enriched by the appealing places where we can shop, dine and explore.

Cities that are tourist destinations also tend to spur creative economies. Alexandria attracts highly desirable creative businesses, and the very charm and vitality that lures owners here also helps them recruit skilled workers. As we recover from sequestration’s downturn in government spending, Alexandria’s economy is becoming more diversified and less dependent on the government, and our hospitality industry has helped support this recovery.

Our assets also nudge us to be better citizens. We live in a highly desirable location — Extraordinary Alexandria, as described by Visit Alexandria — and we are compelled to be good stewards of our treasure. We don’t take our community’s extraordinary features for granted and have worked hard over the years to enhance and promote its history, culture, infrastructure, and quality of life. Without the stimulus of tourism, we might be more complacent.

Unfortunately, it is easy to find communities that contrast with Alexandria — where tourists once visited but now streets and stores are empty. Locals try many approaches to lure visitors with contrived festivals and quirky museums. We are fortunate to have an authentic atmosphere that draws visitors and we should embrace visitors and their support of our city.

What can we as individuals do to enhance this good fortune we are blessed with? The first step is to be welcoming in every way possible. Maybe you have traveled and sensed the locals looking at you warily or, contrastingly, giving you a welcoming nod. How did you feel when someone noticed you looking at a map and stepped up to ask if they could help? This goodwill and ambassadorship goes a long way to promoting Alexandria as a tourist-friendly city.

Visit Alexandria is developing training on the city’s attractions for businesses that serve tourists, as visitors often turn to salesclerks or waiters to ask questions. When an employee shows enthusiasm and directs visitors not to miss certain attractions or restaurants, that’s not just friendly service: it’s branding that results in visitors staying longer, spending more, and heartily recommending Alexandria to others.

Spring has sprung, and it’s a great time to get out and enjoy our community — and let our enthusiasm become contagious to visitors.

This article first appeared in the Alexandria Times on March 30, 2015.

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8 Small Business Tax Preparation Mistakes to Avoid

This post was written by Caron Beesley and first appeared as an blog on April 2, 2015.

8 small business tax mistakes to avoidTax time brings with it a sense of urgency and pressure, and mistakes inevitably follow. Tax deductions go unclaimed, paper trails go awry and costly surprises can result.

Here are eight of the most common tax preparation mistakes that small businesses make, plus some tips for mitigating them.

Start a business last year? Write off the expenses

New business owners can write off the expense they incurred before technically opening their doors for business. Don’t overlook this important deduction. Read more in How to Write Off the Expense of Starting your Business.

Car deductions

A lot of confusion exists about what constitutes a legitimate business driving deduction. SBA guest blogger Barbara Weltman clears the air in her blog “Driving for Business.” What is business driving? “When you travel from your office to see a customer or vendor, this constitutes business driving. Whether travel from your home to another location is a business trip depends. If you commute from home to your office (and back), this is a nondeductible personal expense. If, however, you work from a home office for which you claim a tax deduction, then travel from home to any business location (and back) is treated as deductible business driving.”

The mileage deduction for tax year 2014 is 56 cents per mile.

Another big mistake that business owners make is to limit their deductions to mileage. If you can prove that they are business expenses, you can also deduct other costs including gas and oil, tires, insurance, lease payments, tolls and parking fees. Read more.

Don’t forget the small stuff

Petty cash purchases, magazine subscriptions, educational classes and more. These “small” expenses can add up quickly. Make sure you track all your expenses and check with your tax advisor about what you can and can’t deduct.

Don’t exaggerate your deductions

Your accountant can ensure you don’t overdo or exaggerate your deductions – something that can raise the possibility of an IRS audit. For example, many small business owners mistakenly assume that they can deduct 100% of meal costs while traveling or client gifts. They are actually only partly deductible.

Likewise, if your expenses are a lot higher this year than last or not considered typical for your industry or business type, the IRS may get inquisitive.

It’s not all about the IRS

The IRS is only one piece of the tax pie; don’t forget about your other tax obligations – property, payroll, local taxes, excise tax, self-employment taxes, etc. These can all come back to bite you if you aren’t compliant in a timely manner.

Separate personal and business

Intermingling your personal and business bank accounts is a big cause of confusion around tax time, making it hard to track income and expenses. Furthermore, if you operate a home business, make sure you keep that space distinct and separate from the rest of the home so that you can correctly claim the home office deduction.

Avoid payroll mistakes

Payroll tax compliance is something that many small business owners struggle with. The financial consequences of getting it wrong aren’t pleasant either. Statistics show that approximately 40 percent of small businesses incur an average of $845 per year in IRS penalties. To make sure that your payroll taxes are deposited correctly, outsource your payroll function to a payroll company. The benefits often far outweigh the fees. Read more about the five payroll tax mistakes to avoid from Barbara Weltman.

Keep your records up-to-date

This is a common problem for small businesses and often leads to missed opportunities for reducing your taxable income for the year. Make sure your expenses are reconciled, tracked and supported with receipts (the IRS requires it). Spend time each week to review your accounts – receivable, payable, credit card transactions, cash flow, etc. if your business is growing, consider accounting software (which synchronizes all your financial transactions and activities in one centralized dashboard) or retain the services of an accountant.

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Retail Architect: pattern, color and scale that delivers a marketing message

BBW store
I took this photo of a new Bath & Body Works store in a recently renovated local mall because the project is instructive on several levels. First there is no doubt about who the retailer is. The name is perfectly highlighted on the front of the main entry fixture, again above the wall display, and of course on the storefront sign, there but not shown. Some landlords try to limit the number of times a retailer can repeat their logos in the line of vision. As a Retail Architect, I find that, recently, this practice has been giving way in favor of more flexible design guidelines, possibly in response to tighter retail markets. Either way, repetition is good for the brand.

This project is about more that the name though. It is about delivering a marketing message, which is done here by the clever incorporation of text into the very context of the store. Let’s consider the context first. The checked wall covering is extremely busy and could have, in a different application, gone totally wrong. It is working here because the high contrast both attracts attention and supports the message in terms of scale. In fact, it functions as a connection between the blocks of small merchandise and the actual text messages which are all offset in large solid color fields. These solid color blocks show up as more that just backdrops for signage. They are used in the back of displays, as plain color coded markers used to define categories of merchandise, and even as fat text turned into color blocked display fixtures. The result is interesting and completely readable.

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.

Podcasting for Small Business

This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC. 

Podcasting for Small BusinessTerrestrial radio started in the early 20th century when broadcast technology became a reality for the first time. It was then that wartime broadcasts could literally be heard around the world and were taken by the United States military for its sole use. Commercially viable radio followed just a few decades later. In 1990s Internet radio broadcasting became a reality, through an now-ancient but then-innovative process of recording and pushing audio to the listening audience in far off places that couldn’t be touched by local broadcasting radio waves in the past. Fast-forward to 20 years ago and a new form of Internet broadcasting was developed out of a need to access audio broadcasts when Internet might not be available and wireless broadband was in its infancy. Podcasting (a portmanteau of Apple’s “iPod” music listening device and “broadcasting”) was born; although, it was called netcasting (as the iPod didn’t exist, combining the words “Internet” and “broadcasting”) until podcasting became the term of popular choice.

Podcasting allowed you to download audio files through a Web feed (think, how a syndicated newspaper column  is placed in many newspapers around the country with modern technology called RSS) into a computer or a mobile listening device. From there, you are able to disconnect from the Internet and consume the broadcast. Podcasting had a heyday because of the unique circumstances (say, technology limitations) of the era. When broadband and the proliferation of streaming audio took off over the next decade, interest in podcasting waned. Many but the ardent podcast listeners thought the medium was dead. And they were wrong.

Podcasting since 2008 has nearly doubled in listening audience, specifically here in the United States and I’m sure those numbers are much larger if taking into account the developed and developing nations. The waxing nature of podcasting comprises several possible factors, including American love of urban sprawl and increased work commutes to our increasing demand for customized news and entertainment. With podcasting you get to choose the programs you listen to, and when you can subscribe to shows as specific as a type of cuisine and as broad as how to fix your car, the options seem endless. Therein lies the business case for podcasting. This cultural and technological Renaissance provides a fantastic opportunity to market your business. Businesses are able to emotionally connect with your audiences one-to-one. You’re literally in their ears and have a good portion of a listener’s attention; in a world of fragmented focus it’s like a California miner striking pay dirt during the Gold Rush Era.

On March 19, Alexandria Small Business Development Center held its first workshop focused solely on podcasting for Small Business. The day was built around helping business owners get most of the requisite strategy and technical/technological skills (or know which they need to further develop them) to launch their first podcast. It was an intense day full of downloading information about Web presence and content market strategy combined with copious laughter, seeing a podcast episode recorded live as a demonstration, and a few tears of sorrow as business and organization leaders read their heartfelt scripts in their rough, first drafts.

The Podcast Workshop was refreshing, and yet surprising.  I knew social media was a powerful platform, but it was not until I took this workshop that I realized just how much this form of communication reaches the masses.  Ray’s enthusiasm while explaining how this method of connecting with millions was infectious.  By the end of the day, I, too, was excited by the many possibilities for my small business using podcasts as well as the opportunity to work with Ray on this next step in growing my business.

Laetitia Pryor, Owner, My Time Feminine Care

If you haven’t yet contemplated podcasting for your small business or organization, the playing field is ripe for local and national Web presence building. The time to invest in a multimedia, multi-channel marketing and engagement strategic campaign is hard work, and totally worth it. You can impact your local communities, increase your brand exposure, and add profit to your bottom line with podcasting. Here’s an free, introductory course on YouTube to podcasting to get you started.

[Watch the entire playlist of podcasting tutorials. It’ll only take an hour!]

Podcasting will only grow over the months and years as more smart technology is infused with the ability to download and play rich media like audio and video in almost every environment you spend time: cars, kitchen (in your refrigerator), smartphones, bathrooms even, and more. Take advantage of this time and prosper by doing so. I look forward to listening to you on my smartphone while running or driving soon.

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