Solopreneur’s Challenge: Professional Development

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

Solopreneurs_Professional DevelopmentI recently got an invite to an interesting looking one-day event directly relevant to my interests and, with discounts, the price would only be $1600 plus expenses! I was talking with another consultant about all the events coming up in same week and she lamented how much was available locally that she wanted to go to compared to her available time.

Most of us realize it is important to stay current in our field. All of us need to learn new skills and technologies. Some fields require seminars, classes, or continuing education credits for licensing or recertification. Finding ways to keep your professional development a priority while funding it as well as making the time are challenges many solopreneurs find difficult.

When you are busy with clients or customers, it is hard to make the time. When you aren’t, you worry even more about the costs. Yet polishing your skills and knowledge is critical to your continued success.

Review Your Options

What is available locally? Take a look at professional associations in your field and what local chapters offer. Consider community college classes or university run seminars. Many professional groups and training companies offer programs in the Metro DC area, which cuts out travel and lodging costs.

The Alexandria SBDC runs a wide range of programs to help you learn new skills or keep up with changing trends. Many of these focus on marketing, retail, contracting, and employee issues. Also, the SBDC offers access to professionals who provide a wide range of free advice and consulting assistance each month to SBDC clients, including a lot of solopreneurs.

Local Chambers of Commerce and area business associations offer speakers and events that provide development options. Perhaps a Meetup group has what you need. There are a variety of small business, technology, women and veteran focused organizations offering great programs.

Check out online options. The SBA offers a myriad of online training programs. The Virginia SBDC Network does webinars on many topics, too. Consider a MOOC – many big name universities offer them and many also offer podcasts and webinars. Look at the various YouTube, podcasting, and webinar options – a little searching turns up a wide range of interesting programs.

Ask your mentors and others you trust for leads. You may find great events you would never hear of otherwise, I certainly have.

Make your continuing development a priority in your business plan. Set aside time and money each year to learn something new, keep up with changing technology, and develop new skills. This is easier if you are keeping abreast of trends in your field via books, trade publications, general business publications, professional associations, newsletters, and other similar resources – both online and off. In my field and many others, an annual legal seminar is critically important. Sure there are some quite expensive options but there are also local law firms which often offer less expensive or free legal updates. Your IT vendors and software providers may offer webinars or publications to help you keep abreast of important changes and security issues.
The Washington Post, Washington Business Journal, Potomac Tech Wire, Washington Network Group and others regularly publish lists of upcoming seminars, talks, and meetings which may meet your development goals – while offering good networking opportunities too.

TIP of the Month

“Make connections with people with complementary expertise. As a writer, my network includes great designers, photographers, PR experts, and others. I refer business to them and they refer business to me. The client benefits, and so do we.” Paula Whitacre

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Roundtable Recap: Multimedia Marketing

This Tuesday, we hosted our monthly business roundtable, which focused on multimedia marketing. Ray Sidney-Smith, our resident roundtable facilitator, filmed this short recap of the conversation for those that were unable to make it.

In the video, Ray gives an overview of several of the topics discussed, including localized marketing, developing a multi-channel strategy, and optimizing marketing campaigns by employing different types of media. Ray also covered a similar topic in his monthly webinar for the state SBDC network called, “Beyond Google…Marketing & Managing on the Web” which is an interactive opportunity for people to learn more about how and why to use the Web. This month, the topic was, “Photo Blogs, Vlogs, and Podcasts: The Multimedia Age of Web Marketing Your Small Business,” which ties in nicely with our roundtable topic.

If you’re interested in viewing this webinar, or any of the other webinars in this series, please visit the Virginia SBDC website. Our next roundtable will be on Tuesday, April 21st and will discuss how to determine your target market. All are welcome to attend, and more information can be found on the events page of our website.

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Six Steps to Protect Your Brand

Tips from the United States Patent and Trademark Office

Six Steps to Protect Your BrandThis week’s blog post was written by Craig Morris, Managing Attorney for Trademark Outreach at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

A trademark is an essential part of a brand, helping to distinguish a business’s unique products and services from what another business offers. It can be a word, slogan, logo, symbol, design or even a sound. The following six steps from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provide a useful guideline on what to consider before registering a trademark and during the application process. Have an invention? Make sure to protect that too.

  1. Determine whether a trademark is even appropriate for you.  Trademarks, patents, copyrights, domain names, and business name registrations all differ.  A trademark typically protects brand names and logos used on goods and services.  You must be able to identify these goods and services specifically.   A trademark, for example, does not cover a general idea.
  2. Select a mark using great care. Before filing a trademark/service mark application, you should consider (1) whether the mark you want to register meets the guidelines for registration, and (2) how difficult it will be to protect your mark based on the strength of the mark selected. Note that the USPTO only registers marks, and the mark owner is solely responsible for enforcement.
  3. Always search the USPTO database to determine whether anyone is already claiming trademark rights in wording/design that is similar and used on related goods/services through a federal registration.
  4. File the application online through the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS).  View trademark fee information. REMINDERS: (1) The application fee is a processing fee that is not refunded, even if the USPTO does not ultimately issue a registration certificate, and not all applications result in registrations; and (2) All information you submit to the USPTO at any point in the application and/or registration process will become public record, including your name, phone number, e-mail address, and street address.
  5. Because all of the above are very important, you should consider whether to hire a trademark attorney to help you with these steps, as well as the overall application process.
  6. Throughout the entire process, you should monitor the progress of your application through the Trademark Status and Document Retrieval (TSDR) system.  It is important to check the status of your application every 3-4 months after the initial filing of the application, because otherwise you may miss a filing deadline.

For more information on trademarks and to access a variety of helpful resources, including instructional how-to videos, visit the USPTO website.

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Anticipation is the Key to Business Success

Anticipation is the Key to Business SuccessOne of the critical predictors of the success of a new venture – whether it’s a totally new business, a new product or service line, or approaching a new market – is the quality and extent of forethought and planning.

At the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we are strong proponents of thorough business planning. We have a downloadable business planning guide on our website that is easy to follow and has the added value of organizing information in the way that bankers and investors prefer.

The very process of researching and writing a business plan clarifies your intent and contributes to informed decision-making, but it can be intimidating to tackle on your own. If you get stuck and need personalized guidance, our center offers small business owners the opportunity to bounce ideas off staff who are objective and whose foremost concern is what’s in the business owner’s best interests. Staff can also provide additional tools and checklists to help you consider options that might not otherwise occur to you.

In many ways, successful business owners may need to be willing to set aside pride as they embark on their new venture. We’ve all heard the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Those who ask lots of questions often head off problems that blindside those who charge ahead. Good business owners must be introspective about what they do well, where they are lacking, and when they need to turn to outside expertise. This is no time to bluff, and center staff has access to great referral resources.

Others in the community can also help you anticipate potential obstacles to your best-laid business plans. The City’s Residential and Small Business Facilitator in the Permit Center, Allison Cook, is a friendly advocate who works with businesses to accomplish their goals by helping them navigate zoning, building codes, special permit requirements, and signage policies.

It is important to approach Allison as early as possible in your planning process to identify the red flags before you have to spend extra money or time to make changes. She can also help if you run into problems and aren’t sure what your next step should be. When in doubt, we recommend our clients check with the Permit Center early and often to avoid potential pitfalls.

The Permit Center isn’t the only community resource for expert advice. The Health Department also gladly meets with owners early in the planning process to identify requirements for permits as well as to offer guidance for operating businesses that pertain to public safety and health. Our center is offering consulting sessions with the Health Department each month to make it easy for businesses to get their questions answered.

Anticipating potential obstacles and problems at the start of a venture is much less expensive and time consuming than confronting them near what you had hoped would be the finish line. It’s in your best interest to engage community resources that can highlight those pitfalls and recommend solutions to you.

This article first appeared in the Alexandria Times on February 26, 2015.

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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

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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!

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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.