How Is Your Business Doing?

So, you have had your small business or nonprofit organization up and running for at least a few months and someone asks you how your business is doing.  Do you have a response – and no, “Fine” is not a response.  At this time of year when people are working on their tax returns and… Read more »

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So, you have had your small business or nonprofit organization up and running for at least a few months and someone asks you how your business is doing.  Do you have a response – and no, “Fine” is not a response.  At this time of year when people are working on their tax returns and renewing their business licenses it is important to ask yourself if you really have a handle on how you are doing.  It often takes a while for small businesses to be profitable, but business owners need to keep track from the start to understand their situation.

Do you know how many customers you had last year?  Your total sales?  If your business is a consultant or government contractor, you may have had only a few rather significant clients, and these responses may be easier to give.  If you are a retail, restaurant, or personal service business with many customers you should be able to pull this information from your point-of-sales system – do you know how to do that?  Other Business-To-Business firms, or Business-to-Consumer companies should also have systems in place, through QuickBooks or a similar product that can give business owners the information that they need to make good decisions.  Many small business owners have an accountant or bookkeeper who manages “the books” and does the taxes.  However, as a business owner, it is important that you review what they have done and understand it.  Remember that help is available from your SBDC in areas such as cashflow analysis if you are not sure about your company’s finances.

As mentioned at the end of last week’s blog, it is also important to measure your marketing campaigns.  Do you ask your customers how they found you?  Have you activated and regularly use Google Analytics and similar programs to measure how successful your website, social media and ad campaigns are at bringing in customers?  Remember that an informed business owner is more likely to be a successful business owner, and make it a point to measure and understand your business operations!  You want to be able to respond to the question in the title with “Great – we doubled our profits this year” or “we expect that our current marketing campaign will finally put us in the black”, and not “I don’t know”.  Ask questions, set up your systems, and be informed!

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Marketing Trends for 2017

Recently, the Alexandria SBDC presented their annual Marketing Trends Workshop, featuring Maurisa Potts of Spotted MP (Marketing + Public Relations).  Among the trends that were highlighted for the upcoming year are the following: Interactive Content – Get people participating in your business even before they are a customer. Interactive content includes activities such as polls,… Read more »

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Recently, the Alexandria SBDC presented their annual Marketing Trends Workshop, featuring Maurisa Potts of Spotted MP (Marketing + Public Relations).  Among the trends that were highlighted for the upcoming year are the following:

  • Interactive Content – Get people participating in your business even before they are a customer. Interactive content includes activities such as polls, surveys, infographics, brackets, and contests.
  • Visual Content – Over 90% of marketers believe that visual content is essential for 2017. Content can be in the form of video, infographics, photos, chats, GIFs or Memes.  It is important to establish a content strategy and budget for crafting visual content.hand-1148981_1920
  • Influencer Marketing – Who are the thought leaders in your industry who establish credibility through social and traditional media outlets? Remember that a brand is no longer what we tell the customer it is – it’s what customers tell each other it is. Who is blogging in your industry? Who has the FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram followers and what are they saying about your business?
  • Embrace Mobile Video – It is here to stay! Make sure that the content you put out is mobile-enabled, and capture the metrics by views, reach, and reactions.
  • Live Broadcasting will continue to push boundaries with FaceBook Live, Periscope, and Instagram stories. Be strategic on when to use live broadcasting, use a face, and keep it short and meaningful.
  • Virtual and Augmented Reality – Businesses are testing how to use virtual and augmented reality to drive business results. How can you use these to create a differentiated, personalized customer experience?
  • Keep it short! – Content that is short in length, such as video clips, can appeal to internet surfers’ limited (8 second) attention span. Check out Snapchat, Vine or Instagram stories. Remember to keep it simple and use images.
  • Personalized Marketing – Consider leveraging data analysis and digital technology to deliver individualized messages and product offerings to current or prospective customers.
  • Direct Marketing – Remember that this is still an important tool, used in over 50% of marketing campaigns and still growing. It is important for your direct marketing materials to include pictures and to be targeted to your ideal buyer.
  • Test and Measure! – Above all else, pay attention to what works and doesn’t work for your business and your market. Set up metrics goals for marketing initiatives and track your conversions.

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Seamless integration of technology is part and parcel of 2017 market trends

Playing with an interactive light display.

Marketing Trends for 2017 – There is always a flurry of activity from marketing and PR firms at this time of year. The event put on by the Alexandria Small Business Development Center is always well attended, and this year is no different. Maurisa Potts, Fouder & CEO of Spotted MP, talking about 2017 market trends, discussed the increasing importance of interactive and visual content; digital as in media being the unstated but nevertheless operative word. Commenting in Forbes on similar trends, AJ Agrawal listed seventeen trends for 2017, twelve of which were likewise to do with digital content. The impact of technology has of course been growing every year, leading me to wonder if/when it will finally peak. Not, it would appear, anytime soon as almost all of the topics in Pott’s presentation, i.e., Interactive Content, Visual Content, Influencer Marketing, Virtual Reality, Mobile Video, Live Broadcasts, Short Form Content, Mobile First, Personalization, and Native Content, presumed digital content.

Shopping in Walmart

Data Driven Marketing – That said, it may be that the saturation point is approaching, as Potts also talked about the necessity for “Data Driven Marketing” and Lee Peterson of WD Partners talking about digital integration in VMSD Forecast for 2017 pointed out that when surveyed, for 3 years in a row the digital device most wanted by customers was BOPIS, the ability to buy online and pick up in the store. If, it would seem, last year’s omnichannel marketing was about integrating the message into the larger stream, then this year is about flushing out the individual retailers best path to success. A bike shop owner might, in 2016, have been compelled to have a presence in every possible outlet, i.e, blogs, competitions, associations, civic events, publications, website, e-commerce, indeed anything having to do with bikes or bicycling. In 2017 this bike shop owner might look closely at the data accumulated from past marketing activities and then focus on what has worked, even if the answer is unexpected. For example Kathleen Jordan writing for VMSD tells us, ” Retailers must develop new ways to reach their audience and find new sources to expand their consumer base… it must be recognized that online is not always the answer.” Did you notice she called them an audience rather than customers or shoppers.

Microsoft Surface at Hard Rock Cafe, Hollywood

Integrated Shopping Experience – Considering that almost 92 percent of all retail sales are still being transacted in physical environments and further that many online retailers end up with physical stores, I am lead to inquire, what does all this say to those of us involved with the bricks and mortar part of retail, presuming of course that it is not going away? Clearly, creating a shopping experience is still important. Eric Feigenbaum subtitled his article in VMSD, “…Retail’s divining rod no longer moves at p-o-s, but rather at p-o-e – point of experience.”

Prioritize – From my perspective, after many years working in retail design, the answer must be about priorities. The seamless integration of technology is part and parcel of the all important shopping experience and it can only be accomplished by assimilating a clients carefully worked out digital marketing plan into a store design by partnering with the technical experts. The devices of digital marketing are, after all, physical elements and as such work better when addressed in “pre” as apposed to post design.

Virtual Book at “Librovision”

If there is any doubt that this is an often neglected fact, just look around at piles of wire shoved under cabinets, dangling from display cases, hap hazardously placed equipment closets, and my personal favorite, the back side of monitors at POS stations. Certainly newer wireless technologies are available but there are always performance issues to consider, many requiring additional equipment in other areas. Most clients have enough understanding of Building mechanical systems like HVAC and plumbing to expect and allow for their accommodation, but somehow the lexicon of electronic equipment has remained a mystery, not a little, I should add, because it is in a constant state of flux. Ryan Ruud, founder and CEO of Lake One, writing for “Smart Insights” identifies Random Acts Of Technology (RAT) as marketing flops resulting from the application of technology without strategy. I would argue that this applies, as well, to the physical store design whenever non integrated electronics are treated as project add ons – and okay, I liked the buzzword too!

Bring in an Expert – Finally, I would advise any retailer aiming in 2017 for “…effective in-store digital retail experiences” to introduce a suitable technology consultant into the schematic stage of a project and then keep him or her involved up through and even after store opening. Sometimes independent and small retailers assume that these services are beyond their reach. On the contrary, I have found that most electronic designers are also providers and as such their services are often included when they supply and install equipment. It is money well spent, almost – but not quite – as good as that spent on the Architect.

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.

Live Your Life with Intention–It’s a Savvy Business Strategy!

On Christmas Day 2015, I shifted my mindset forever. An unexpected and unwelcome event transformed my approach to my life — my work, my family . . . everything. On that day, I was rushed into emergency surgery for a twisted colon. My doctor later described my condition as “30 minutes from done.” There was no lifestyle change or good …

On Christmas Day 2015, I shifted my mindset forever. An unexpected and unwelcome event transformed my approach to my life — my work, my family . . . everything. On that day, I was rushed into emergency surgery for a twisted colon. My doctor later described my condition as “30 minutes from done.” There was no lifestyle change or good ...

The Business Plan: The imperative to stay current

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on January 27, 2017. Over the past year, there was considerable discussion about the impact of online competition on Alexandria small businesses. To be sure, Amazon and other online retailers give shoppers options that force our… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on January 27, 2017.

Over the past year, there was considerable discussion about the impact of online competition on Alexandria small businesses. To be sure, Amazon and other onlibusiness-man-1031755_1280ne retailers give shoppers options that force our small business owners to up their game.

Often, that means providing legendary service or expertise, or a hands-on experience that lures shoppers away from the at-home convenience of point and click.

Small business owners must stay attuned to the latest trends, technologies, fads and fashions. Even more intently, they must follow their particular business niche to see what others are doing — all around the world.

Ideally, this is something that so excites the owner that they can’t help snooping for more ideas. But if this research is beyond their comfort zone or schedule, then it’s time to engage friends or family to do it for them, or hire the expertise. It simply has to be done.

The hallmark of entrepreneurship is constantly living in the shadow of things that need to be done, while not necessarily having the skill set or adequate time to do them. Here are some suggestions to broaden your horizon: become active in your industry and search pertinent journals; attend gatherings of fellow business owners and talk candidly with them to exchange tips and tricks; and pursue social media discussions. Business sections at public libraries and online searches might turn up other ideas.

Staying current does not just apply to your commercial niche. It also requires you to be vitally aware of what’s going on around you, both in the nation and in the region. Whether or not you’re a newshound, you’re a much savvier entrepreneur if you’re tuned-in to current affairs.

It’s essential to become engaged in your community. Whatever media you prefer, you need to actively use all avenues to keep abreast of active issues, and particularly ones that impact businesses.
Community newspapers and Alexandria’s eNews and Point.Click.Connect email bulletins help fill in the details. Business and civic organizations, commissions, economic development activities and city government departments periodically hold information sessions.

These public issues are complex and cannot be fully captured in letters to the editor. It is vital that you become involved in the texture of the community, learn the details, and provide candid and constructive feedback.

The city-funded economic development programs — the Small Business Development Center, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, and Visit Alexandria, have websites and programs to inform or educate business owners, help them improve their operations and marketing, help them solve problems or help them make vital connections.

The persistent challenge is that so many of Alexandria’s businesses are not connected with these free resources, and too many businesses are not even connected with one another.

Alexandria has so much going for it. Recent consumer surveys show that shoppers much prefer doing business with independent merchants rather than big box retailers. They also look for a sense of place and authenticity. Alexandria is all of those things in spades. It’s time to connect and become part of your business community.

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Branding for Small Business: Visual, Written, and Emotional Identity-Building

This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday, January through November, for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. What brands do you think about when you think about the biggest brands in… Read more »

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This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday, January through November, for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia.

What brands do you think about when you think about the biggest brands in the world? Amazon, Apple, Coca-Cola, Google, Microsoft, Target, Wal-Mart, Wells Fargo, Verizon, and more come to mind from audiences when I ask. It’s interesting that they think mostly of technology and retail brands. According to London-based brand consultancy, Brand Finance, that publishes brand valuation studies for the largest brands in the world annually, has named Ferrari as the world’s most powerful brand for 2015, and Disney clinched that title for 2016. So, while appraising your brand is complex, the components that make your brand valuable should not be!famous-logos

Branding for Small Business owners usually surround the development of a brand-enabled business name, tagline, logo, and color palette, along with the sales and marketing strategy (and collateral) to create a cohesive brand. In this article, I’d like to cover the big three components of a Small Business brand and how you might take a practical approach to making your brand consistent and effective.

Written Branding for Small Business

While most business owners will start with thinking about logo and colors for their startup, I recommend highly that you begin with your business name and tagline being what I call, “brand-enabled.” Brand-enabled means that you  have thought about how your name will be perceived by your audience, how it will be interpreted, and used across marketing channels.

For example, is your business name easily spelled? If you are using it for your website domain name, this is even more important. Many times, businesses use their tagline as the website domain for their blog. Is this equally, easily-spelled over the phone, or given in a casual conversation at a networking event?

Of course, these are not the only aspects of creating your brand-enabled business name and tagline, but I usually recommend to new business owners to brainstorm the various questions their audience would ask about their business, and then create a name and tagline that can answer those questions well.

And, it is from the words you use about your company from your name, tagline, marketing copy,  email signature, website domains, social media handles and usernames, let you next think about the visual components of your business.

Visual Branding for Small Business

The next consideration for any Small Business is to think about the style of your company and culture you would like to present visually to your potential and future clients. Do you plan to represent your business as a luxury brand with high-paying clients with specific tastes?  Or, do you have a casual brand let’s fun-loving and playful? Perhaps you have a brand that should appeal to children? parents? Mothers? other businesses? or some other specific demographic? These choices impact your business’ visually brand decisions.

By working with a competent, local graphic designer, web designer/developer, retail architect, and/or printer (and Alexandria SBDC can refer you to their internal list of vetted, local professionals), you should be able to co-create an effective visual brand that might include a combination of logo, color palette, other visual design components (e.g., Social Media profile images and headers), website, marketing collateral (including business cards, flyers/postcards, and other printed materials), office/retail space design and layout, and/or branded apparel and merchandise.

The key to a successful visual brand is its ability to stay consistent across different media and channels, but also keep in line with your verbal and written brand messaging. If they are out of synchronization, your potential and future customers will judge your business as a poor emotional brand and you will lose business, which we’ll tackle next.

Emotional Branding for Small Business

As I intimated, creating a successful brand as a whole means that your visual and verbal/written brand messaging are in synchrony. It’s an ongoing cycle of preparation, evaluation, and enhancement. However, that’s not the totality of emotional branding. Most of emotional branding takes place once a client has worked with you and their experience builds upon their needs, immediate wants, and long-term aspirations.

This makes your brand readily accessible when they have a need or want so they contact you first, or when someone they know has a similar need or want so that they refer your product or service as their first choice solution. This is a powerful component of being in business, or being edged out of business in your first few months or years as a startup.

I suggest that businesses that feel on top of their visuals and messaging components of their brand to then work on the fulfillment and customer service areas of their business to enhance their emotional branding value.

In Closing

While you can’t likely put a value on your brand easily, accountants believe they have a clear dollar value. “Goodwill,” the line item among the intangible assets on business accounting reports, is where brand value lives. And there’s a reason why the largest corporate brands command a high dollar for goodwill when buying or selling companies. Good brands bring good customers, and in turn, good profits.

Assess your verbal/written, visual and emotional branding for your business by asking your trustworthy customers and trusted business partners how they perceive your brand strengths and weaknesses. Identify where you might have improvement areas and work to make those branding decisions that will make your company more valuable, and enjoy better sales from your efforts.

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Hiring Employees in the New Year? Be sure to file the latest forms!

Many small businesses will find themselves hiring their first, or additional, employees this year. There are several documents on our website that can help in this process, including the Employer Checklist. There are also PowerPoints from past workshops and worksheets on interviewing techniques and other aspects of hiring. These can be found on the virtual… Read more »

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Many small businesses will find themselves hiring their first, or additional, employees this year. There are several documents on our website that can help in this process, including the Employer Checklist. There are also PowerPoints from past workshops and worksheets on interviewing techniques and other aspects of hiring. These can be found on the virtual resource library, , sort by HR Programs. The Alexandria SBDC also offers HR consulting to Alexandria City small businesses each month.sample-employment-eligibility-form
As seen on the Employer Checklist, there are some forms that must be filed when hiring a new employee. We have been asked to inform our small business clients that one of these forms has been updated. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a revised version of Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification that must be used by all employers by Jan. 22. Form I-9 is used for verifying the identity and employment authorization of citizens and non-citizens hired for employment in the United States. The new form includes more prompts to ensure the information is entered correctly, allows the ability to enter information on preparers and translators, and a dedicated area for including additional information. For more information on how to complete the new form, call 888-464-4218 or visit their website at www.uscis.gov/i-9-central.

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The Business Plan: Two decades serving small businesses

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on December 22, 2016. Twenty years ago on December 17th, the Alexandria Small Business Development Center (SBDC) opened its doors to support and strengthen the small businesses that are central to Alexandria’s economy and character. Over… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on December 22, 2016.

Twenty years ago on December 17th, the Alexandria Small Business Development Center (SBDC) opened its doors to support and strengthen the small businesses that are central to Alexandria’s economy and character.

Over the two decades, the center has answered many thousands of inquiries about a broad range of business matters. It has provided over 25,000 hours of objective feedback and assistance to several thousand individuals, both existing business owners and startups. It has also helped individuals obtain over $71 million in loans, primarily from Alexandria bankers.

The center provides growth and operational advice to existing small business owners, small non-profits and associations, and those interested in starting such organizations. Existing businesses are helped with common problems, or to improve operations and marketing. The center also helps businesses make connections to the organizations, professionals, and resources that can make a real difference.

Those who work with the center from the earliest phase of their startup are typically better organized and prepared for the requirements, and they launch with better connections and more viable and agile operations. With the center’s proactive guidance and ready availability to help owners with problems, the SBDC’s client longevity rates far surpass national failure statistics.

There are many business fundamentals that are constant – market research, planning, site selection, cash management, customer service, forecasting, for example.  The way some of them is achieved has changed a bit over the years.

Social and mobile media have vastly changed marketing, customer relations, and entire business strategies. Online commerce is now an essential business element, as is creating a distinct customer experience.

The SBDC has guidance in all these business areas that might be familiar to some but not to others. We also have ready access to experts on social/local/mobile marketing; human resources; government contracting, nonprofit management, and retail operations. The center’s extensive website (www.AlexandriaSBDC.org) has resources on many timely business issues.

With the center as a free resource for City of Alexandria businesses, clients have access to an experienced staff that has nothing to sell them and is focused entirely on their best interests. Even more important than our highly regarded programs and services, clients say that the center’s candid and objective feedback is what distinguishes us from other programs.

The center is continually adding resources and contacts to meet shifting demands on businesses. It is also responsive to changing times and community priorities. For 2017, the SBDC is partnering with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership on retail outreach to enhance the vitality of Alexandria’s shopping districts. The center is also connecting with additional business specialists to guide Alexandria owners through pressing business circumstances.

The staff and board of directors of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center are honored to have had the opportunity to serve Alexandria businesses for 20 years. We value the support from and collaborative partnerships with city government and our economic development partners.  Alexandria is truly a closely-knit business community.

We wish you a very happy holiday season and prosperous New Year!

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