5 Ways You Can Champion Customer Success

customers

As every entrepreneur knows, happy customers are the key to a healthy business. And when ecstatic customers lead to referrals and repeat business, it’s a win-win.

It’s simple in theory, but many companies fail to execute. When you focus on quick sales and vanity metrics, you’re not keeping customers’ needs in mind and are losing out on opportunities for sustainable growth.

Putting the success of the people you serve first will help you retain loyal customers and attract new business. Taking this approach sets the stage for people to buy rather than being sold — an experience no one enjoys.

Selling and marketing to your customers with the goal of helping them succeed is the surest way to build a loyal customer base. In our business, we’ve boiled this concept down to a few critical elements:

1. Have the Right Conversations

The first step in achieving success should be defining it. Sometimes customers haven’t fully fleshed out their idea of success before seeking a product or service to solve their problem. They don’t always know exactly how they want things to look at the end of the process. But the right conversations can help you sort out their ideas of success and develop a viable plan.

We encounter this situation all the time. Clients will ask us to redesign their websites, but they don’t communicate what’s driving the need for this change. For example, Snohomish County in Washington asked us to create a website that was more accessible to its citizens. After multiple conversations, we learned that a third of its traffic was coming from mobile. Without that type of in-depth dialogue, we never would have found a solution that actually addressed its core problem.

2. Know the People You Work For

The more you can identify with your customers’ habits, ideas, lifestyles, and demographics, the more likely you’ll be able to deliver real results. Your company is in a perfect position to help clients discover and achieve their goals. But to get there, you have to understand what they want.

The Missouri-based Modern Litho print network is a great example of an organization that takes this approach. It dedicates a significant amount of resources to staying up to date in its clients’ industries, which range from automotive to education. It understands its customers’ goals so it can help them be successful in their industries.

3. Bridge the Gap Between People and Technology

Whether your customers are companies or individuals, there are always opportunities for people and technology to complement each other. Finding ways to bring people and technology together seamlessly can lead to breakthrough ideas and more efficient ways of doing things. Technology helps people do more with less, inspiring efficiency and saving time and money. Your customers’ definition of success will likely be linked to more efficient technology.

4. Be Flexible and Adaptable

The path to achieving success is full of roadblocks and speed bumps, and it differs from person to person. That’s why success generally requires some custom finesse. There’s no single answer to all client or customer problems in our on-demand world. Listen to what your customers need or what they say is important to them, and collaborate to find a workable solution instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to every problem.

5. Keep Your Promises

The companies or individuals you work for rely on your business to provide a solution. If you can’t deliver on your promise, you can’t help your customers achieve success. And without a sterling reputation and loyal customer base, your business will fail.

Whether they’re seeking a new mobile app or want to order takeout, you have to consistently deliver on your promise, and it’s important to establish a methodology that makes this possible every time. Remember that talk is cheap; keep your promise, and your customers will invest in your brand.

You don’t have to be a nonprofit or even a service-oriented business to be concerned about your customers’ success. If you have a T-shirt shop that caters to people who want organic clothing, offer information about your process and materials that proves they’re sustainable, and recommend other businesses that operate in the same way.

There’s nothing that can replace having a genuine interest in your customers’ well-being and helping them succeed in whatever they do. Keep customers’ success at the heart of your business, and they’ll thank you for it.

Mike Honeywell is the chief marketing officer of CivicPlus, a complete solution provider for local governments that facilitates their desired outcomes by helping align the right people, processes, and structures. Follow the company on Twitter.

7 Baseball Tactics That Will Help You Build a Quality Blog

blog

I was born and raised in Kansas City, so as you can probably guess, I’ve had baseball on the mind the past few months. Although my team didn’t clinch the championship, the journey made me realize that the process of making it to the World Series is similar to launching a blog, especially when it’s a new experience for the entire team.

Whether you manage a blog or not, the advantages of pushing out relevant content to your customers probably aren’t news to you. A company blog gives your brand a voice and an outlet for educating your audience and building meaningful connections.

Although many companies acknowledge these benefits, few have produced a blog that actually accomplishes these goals. And if you’re still on the fence about the ROI of blogging, know that companies that blog are 13 times more likely to drive positive ROI than those that don’t. But winning at blogging — like baseball — starts with a solid strategy.

Building a Winning Game Plan

You don’t just wing it when you go into the World Series — you develop a strategy that maximizes each player’s strengths. Creating an effective blog is more complicated than throwing up a few posts on a website. It takes vision to plan content that addresses specific customer concerns.

Without a solid content strategy, you run the risk of creating content that doesn’t advance your goals, confuses your audience, or comes off as generic. This won’t get you the organic ranking, social media shares, and audience engagement you’re looking for.

If you want your blog to knock it out of the park, you need to use the following tactics to build a winning strategy:

1. Analyze your players’ strengths.

Similar to a ball club, each of your team members has unique strengths that you must identify. Determine which topics fall under their specific areas of expertise, and let them run with it.

2. Find a good rotation.

Create an editorial calendar to schedule team members to blog each day, and figure out how often each person will contribute. Writing too much might burn someone out, but not giving employees enough opportunities could cause them to lose motivation. Set clear deadlines, and establish a strict publishing schedule so employees feel a sense of urgency and responsibility.

3. Remember that sometimes it’s wiser to bunt.

Don’t let your team worry about hitting a home run with every post. It’s not about being the best writer; it’s about consistently crafting relevant content that delivers value for your readers.

4. Bring in a pinch hitter.

If your team falls into a slump or has trouble thinking of new topics, invite a guest blogger to contribute, preferably an industry leader, influencer, or client who can add credibility to your blog, attract a larger audience, and inspire new ideas.

5. Have a great closer.

Find out who’s the best editor on your team, and have that person polish each post before publication. If no one on your team is right for the task, hiring an outside party or freelancer is an efficient and cost-effective way to cover your bases.

6. Pay attention to the stats.

Stats are everything in baseball, and they’re also key to understanding the aspects of your blog that are working. If shorter, punchier headlines generate more views and shares, consider sticking to this format for future posts. Make sure you’re constantly refining your strategy.

7. Remember that it’s just a game.

With all the pressure and stress surrounding their performance, baseball players can easily forget that at the end of the day, they’re playing a game. Make blogging fun for your team members by encouraging their creativity and positioning it as a way for them to share their unique insights with others.

Like baseball, a winning strategy will get your business noticed. A team that equips its players for success will attract more fans and viewers and sell more tickets. And by consistently publishing quality content on your blog, you can enjoy comparable perks.

Now get out there and play blog.

Brock Stechman is the co-founder of DivvyHQ, the simplest and most effective content planning and production workflow system available. Connect with him on Twitter.

10 REASONS WHY EARLY-STAGE COMPANIES NEED MANAGEMENT CONSULTING

Smiling business people having a meeting in conference room

Management Consulting: Not Just for Established Businesses

Although entrepreneurs in start-up mode commonly think that management consulting is utilized only by businesses that have established themselves or grown to a significant size, the truth is that early-stage companies can benefit from management consulting a great deal. While I’m clearly an evangelist for business consulting services, having seen firsthand how they can turn things around for troubled companies and help new businesses get off the ground, I don’t think I’m too biased when I say that the start-up phase is one of the times when management consulting is most useful.

The purpose of management consulting is largely to offer advice. And who can really afford to turn down the advice of a seasoned professional? Certainly not entrepreneurs who are growing a business from scratch – even if they’re experts in their industry. There’s always value in having someone review your plans, offer second opinions on ideas and help identify areas for improvement.

So here are 10 reasons why early-stage companies especially can benefit from management consulting.

1. Management Consulting Helps You Keep up with Changes

Businesses, old and new alike, existing in an ever-changing landscape. What’s relevant, timely and appropriate one day can be tired, outdated and inefficient the next. A good business consultant stays abreast of fluctuations, from market instability to technological improvements to changes in standards or best practices, so entrepreneurs can stay focused on their primary goal: launching successfully.

2. Management Consulting Provides Honest, Unbiased Feedback

An entrepreneur will get glowing feedback about his idea from family, friends and even his professional networks. Before you know it, he starts thinking his concept is foolproof. But truly unbiased and actionable advice is hard to come by unless you harness management consulting to take a look at the big picture. You’ll get feedback not only about the concept behind your business, but about the details of execution, organization and other critical matters. At Shared CxO, we pride ourselves on having outsourced executives who offer completely honest advice without the personal agendas or blinders that entrepreneurs will encounter when seeking feedback from others.

3. Management Consulting Solves Problems

In my experience working with incubators and interacting with entrepreneurs daily in the busy start-up scene in San Francisco, I’ve seen plenty of entrepreneurs hit brick walls at critical moments in their business’s development. Whether the obstacle stems from a lack of planning, a lack of research, a lack of knowledge about a particular facet of business or something else, I’m positive that management consulting can help frustrated entrepreneurs solve problems. And the more experienced an executive is, and the more diverse his background, the quicker he can untangle even the most complicated issues facing early-stage companies. That’s why we’ve cherry picked only the most seasoned business veterans to work with our clients.

4. Management Consultants Love Forward Momentum

Management consultants simply love to see a company grow and achieve its goals. As such, an outsourced executive providing management consulting is incredibly motivated to help entrepreneurs overcome issues and move forward with their plans. They triumph when the start-up’s off the ground. And it’s easy to get caught up in this excitement. It’s one of the reasons I love working with early-stage companies!

5. Management Consulting Teaches Entrepreneurs Valuable Lessons

A good management consultant doesn’t just drop by, solve everybody’s problems and disappear. In management consulting an executive guides entrepreneurs through the process of finding solutions for the stumbling blocks they encounter. Entrepreneurs actually learn from the engagement, and become better equipped to handle issues in the future.

6. Management Consulting Helps Entrepreneurs Stay Focused and on Deadline

Because of the sheer amount of activities involved in starting a business, it’s easy for entrepreneurs to lose focus unless guided. Management consultants can keep entrepreneurs laser-focused on the tasks at hand. Management consulting also involves prioritizing activities so that entrepreneurs have a step-by-step walkthrough for what has to happen before the big launch. I’ve also seen entrepreneurs lose track of time or spend too much time on one particular aspect of business, at the expense of others. Business consultants can keep things running on time.

7. Management Consulting Involves Top-to-Bottom Analysis

Quality business consultants leave no stone unturned when analyzing an early-stage business – from the initial concept to the business plan, market research, company structure and organization, and post-launch next steps, management consulting examines everything holistically. Management consultants, as experienced executives, catch overlooked aspects of starting up a company. They’re a second pair of eyes and ears to watch things carefully.

8. Marketing Consulting Sets Companies up for Branding

One of the biggest challenges for start-ups is simply being discovered. Brand awareness comes with tremendous time and effort, and often financial investment. Part of management consulting is teaching you how to plan an initial marketing campaign that gives your brand a shot in the arm. You’ll learn the channels that will produce the biggest ROI and how to create a scalable, practical plan so that you don’t exceed budget or spend too much time on a potentially fruitless activity.

9. Trust is Implicit in Management Consulting

I completely understand the “play your cards close to your chest” attitude that some entrepreneurs adopt from the get-go. Nothing could be worse than investing time, effort and money in a unique business idea, only to find parts of the idea or the idea in whole stolen by someone with more resources to make it happen. But in management consulting, an outsourced executive honors privacy without question. Entrepreneurs don’t have to worry about details of their business plan leaked – everything is kept strictly confidential, which is not always the case if you appeal to peers or professional networks for advice.

10. Management Consulting Dots I’s and Crosses T’s

With a management consultant on board, you’re no longer solely responsible for everything. Management consulting involves quality assurance and identification of areas of improvement. While entrepreneurs still need to be vigilant, with an executive on their side to help make sure everything is complete, correct and ready for the next stage of growth, they can have peace of mind.

Ready for Management Consulting? Take a look at our CEO advisory and outsourcing services and browse our membership packages, or contact us to discuss your needs.

Bootstrapping: the Good and The Bad

bootstrapping

When you start a business, there are many financing options to consider — friends and family, small business loans, angel investment, VCs — but there is no textbook solution for getting a new business off the ground.

One option that entrepreneurs, investors, and average Joes love to love is bootstrapping. Rather than seeking external funding, entrepreneurs who bootstrap their companies rely on savings, early cash flow and conservative money management. The age-old concept of the American dream lives on in the world of startups — we have pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.

My co-founders and I have confronted the good, the bad, and the ugly of choosing not to use outside capital in the inception and growth of Ampush. Here’s my take on the double-edged sword known as bootstrapping:

Retaining Full Control

Without a board to impose its ideas, timelines or limits, we are able to be opportunistic, nimble and adaptive. We determine which strategic vision to follow. Since we don’t have to wait for approval, we can execute that vision or make changes at our own speed. We also learn at our own pace; we make mistakes but keep going. By retaining full control of the company, my co-founders — the people who understand the business best and run it day to day — and I are in control of its future.

For every pro of retaining full control, there is also a con. As an independent, we are responsible for making decisions that might be unpopular with clients, employees or partners, but that are right for the business. We are also unable to tap into the valuable networks of board members because — guess what! — we are the board. Because no one is looking over our collective shoulder, it can take much longer to figure out that we have made a mistake. These are not impossible hurdles to overcome, but it requires a little extra work and reaching out to mentors in the industry to lend their expertise.

Clients Take Center Stage

We often see other entrepreneurs build businesses that their VCs or boards want them to build, rather than ones their customers want. We don’t have that problem; we know who butters our bread (our clients) and we keep them front and center always when making decisions. We’re focused on their needs and making their lives better.

However, going at it alone can put limitations on our flexibility. What happens if we lose our biggest client? Everything will stop until they come back or we find other clients. Sometimes building the right solution for our clients is expensive and, without an injection of capital, we have to be scrappy when it comes to R&D.

Managing Resources

Because there’s no “free” money floating around, each new team member knows and appreciates the value of a dollar. After all, the founders went 18 months without a salary and found a way to get their first clients and travel to conferences for free. At Ampush, we call this hustle. One of our mottos is Invest Rather Than Spend — it keeps the team focused on creative ways to solve problems. There will be times when we do need to spend on something or someone, like recruiting or internal tools. But we only do so if we can ensure that these expenditures will reap bigger rewards.

Without outside investment, near-term cash flow and revenue almost always matter. We constantly thread the needle: keep growing aggressively while managing cash flow and planning for rainy days. While this near-term focus ensures that business will keep driving forward, as revenue is the key to the future, bootstrapping can hinder forward thinking and building for the long haul.

Bootstrapping a company is no easy feat, but it comes with a whole host of rewards. We are in full control of our destiny. We focus solely on our clients and are always aware of our resources and how to get the most out of them.

Jesse Pujji (@jspujji) is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ampush (@ampush), an advertising technology company that helps performance marketers acquire new users, generate sales, and re-engage customers on mobile. By powering full-service ad buying, management and insights, the AMP platform makes it easy for advertisers to reach people with smarter in-stream ads on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Ampush is based in San Francisco with offices in Chicago and New York.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

5 Tips for Riding the Startup Roller Coaster (Without Tossing Your Cookies)

startup

The startup journey can be a rough ride. One minute, it seems like you’re steadily ticking up a steep hill toward blue skies, then whoosh! Down you go. In the early stages of a business, there’s no stability. Revenue is uncertain. You have no idea whether the customers in your market want what you have — or how to get it to them. It can feel like the best (or worst) roller coaster you’ve ever ridden. Funding struggles can make the startup journey even rougher. Venture-backed startups face intense pressure to consistently grow their revenue, and according to the National Venture Capital Association, an estimated 25 to 30 percent of VC-backed businesses fail. I think the reality is a much higher number than reported. Other startups are funded from the team’s collective back pocket, so when the startup suffers, so does everyone on board. But the startup roller coaster doesn’t have to be a hellish experience. With the right attitude, you can make those highs higher and those lows much more bearable. Here are a few tips for holding down your lunch in the face of pressure and uncertainty:

Think about values, not direction.

Meeting deadlines and milestones are common aggravators in the startup world, and it’s tough to remain optimistic when the obstacles seem insurmountable. But when everybody is so focused on relentless forward motion — instead of doing their best and appreciating the present — it can be destructive to your startup’s progress. By focusing on your core values (e.g., making users happy) instead of where you want to be three months from now, every day of work will become more enjoyable, and you’ll gain unstoppable momentum.

Enjoy the high points.

Another reason startups suffer is blazing through the achievements that make the whole journey worth it. When you experience a “win,” take the time to relish it. This isn’t easy and has been, admittedly, something that I have too often glossed over. Focusing on your high points can help you stay on track when you hit a snag and remind yourself why you started your company in the first place. And if you have lots to look forward to, like social events with your team or celebratory beer breaks for good progress, you’ll be more likely to power through the low points.

Shift your perspective on low points.

If you see the dips in your success as failures, they’ll act like failures, which means slowing you down and stalling your motivation. But if you treat them as valuable parts of your journey — a failed experiment or even as a startup rite of passage— they’ll make you stronger, teach you valuable lessons, and allow you to keep pushing forward with confidence.

Keep lines of communication open.

You often don’t know you have a communication problem until something goes wrong. Then, when a problem arises, everyone starts talking. Emails fly back and forth. People freak out. Keeping lines of communication open when it’s business as usual is great practice for putting out fires. Don’t just communicate when things hit the fan. By then, it’s too late. Collaboration is critical in a startup, but this can only happen when people are communicating honestly with one another.

Practice good karma.

If you focus on keeping your users or customers happy, delivering what they’re looking for, and making their lives easier, they’ll be much more likely to become loyal to your product or service. This kind of good karma can really speed up your journey to success and put money in the bank. By staying focused on your values and your customers, celebrating the highs, appreciating the lows, and constantly practicing good communication, you can ride the startup roller coaster without losing your mind (or your lunch). When you finally crest that hill and get a good view from the top, you’ll be able to remember your humble roots with a smile. If you don’t appreciate the journey, even the best outcome will feel lackluster.

 

Zvi Band is the founder and CEO of Contactually, a relationship-marketing platform that maximizes value and drives greater ROI from personal and professional networks. Zvi frequently participates in thought leadership panels at Tech Cocktail, WordPress DC, DC PHP, and DCRUG events. He loves solving new problems and building new products and services.

Nicole Lazzaro Gamifies Happiness

nicole lazzaro

 

Fast Company called her one of the 100 most influential women in high tech. Gamasutra named her one of the Top 20 women working in video games. Her company has served more than one billion gamers. In other words, XEODesign, Inc. President Nicole Lazzaro knows her stuff when it comes to gaming, and especially regarding gaming’s effects on our emotions.

During her talk at Gamification.co’s Gsummit conference, Lazzaro broadly described what she does as “The Science of Fun.” After her speech, she spoke to TechnologyAdvice’s Clark Buckner about leveraging happiness for better gaming experiences, detailing the brain’s four major chemicals that cause us to feel happy.

A DOSE of Happiness

Our brains release four main chemicals when we feel happy—dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins—and each chemical plays a unique role in influencing our feelings.

Lazzaro noted that dopamine’s often defined as the happiness drug, but that’s a misnomer. Dopamine release occurs when anticipating a happy event rather than during the event itself. In other words, it’s an emotion someone feels when they’re striving toward a goal.

Oxytocin has been referred to as the “cuddle hormone” because it’s often released when in close proximity to another person. However, oxytocin can also be released through other events like eye contact, social bonding, and being attentive to others. Oxytocin helps to deepen existing relationships.

More people are familiar with serotonin’s work in the mind and body. When your serotonin level is up, you’re in a good mood. When it’s down, you’re down. Lazzaro also shed light on the plight of the angry, hungry person: 80 percent of serotonin lives in the guy, so a skipped lunch could lead to a detrimental drop in serotonin.

Endorphins are often associated with our fight-or-flight responses because they’re released to help mask pain. Endorphins provide that extra motivation to finish a challenging task. For example, Lazzaro is a runner and mentioned that endorphins help her break through mental and physical barriers so she can run longer distances over time.

Lazzaro encourages people to discover ways to responsibly release each of these chemicals into their brains more often so they can experience more happiness. Increased happiness often results in increased productivity.

The DOSE of happiness principles that Lazzaro prescribes for people in general can also be used in games, especially concerning user loyalty. By keeping neuroscience in mind when designing the user experience, a developer or company can work to keep consumers wanting more and playing their game or using their product over and over again.

Ultimately, Lazzaro wants to change the world through positive thinking. Part of that path means “gaming yourself into happiness” because of its many benefits, like more individual productivity and better user loyalty.

To hear more from Nicole Lazzaro on DOSEing your games and your life, listen to the podcast interview below or an earlier interview, “Changing the World Is One Big Game.” Read more of Lazzaro’s fascinating insights at 4k2f.com.

 

The Interview was conducted by Clark Buckner from TechnologyAdvice.com (they provide coverage content on loyalty software for businesses, medical billing tools, gamification trends and much more). Also be sure to check out their Tech Conference Calendar.

6 Things Holding Back Today’s Biotech Entrepreneurs

monetary value

High-risk, high-reward endeavors are intimidating.

The risk frightens most people away, so the rewards find few individuals and organizations. When you consider both the financial rewards and the personal fulfillment of an endeavor, however, the risks become worthwhile and the rewards more deeply satisfying.

The biotech industry is booming with stories of massive success. In 2013, spending by biotech companies on R&D grew at a faster rate than revenue for the first time since the global financial crisis began. What’s more, nearly all of that growth stemmed from 17 U.S.-based companies with annual revenues of more than $500 million.

Onyx Pharmaceuticals was recently sold for $10.4 billion, and Third Rock Ventures hasn’t slowed down since its inception. IPOs in biotech are exceeding expectations.

But money alone isn’t what makes this field so great. Rather, it’s the challenge of piecing together knowledge to work through puzzles that could change lives. Solving these puzzles could mean people live richer lives, loved ones postpone their goodbyes, and trauma victims fully recover faster.

If you look beyond the dollar signs, you can see the healing your solutions bring. However, to find these rewards, you must overcome several common obstacles of the biotech field.

The Hurdles Ahead

Every company that’s made it big has had to overcome substantial barriers. These obstacles exist for almost every biotech entrepreneur, and they include:

1. Side effects. Technology startups might select products that have potential risks or side effects, which the developer won’t know about until later. Health risks or other problems related to the base science can pop up unexpectedly and derail an entire project.

2. Mental pressure. The high chance of failure makes a biotech endeavor feel like walking a tightrope. It doesn’t help that biotech startups have a longer investment and operation cycle than normal companies. For an average company, drug development will take 10 to 15 years from R&D to FDA approval.

Additionally, biotech companies have a separate metric for measuring value because the company can profit from products that are approved to sell on the market. During the long journey of drug development, each milestone is a multiplier to the current evaluated value of the project. It’s like a relay race, with each team member carrying an intangible asset.

3. Initial funding. Startup costs are high with a very long ROI. General tech startups have easy access to the Internet and electronics that allow them to create whatever they want. Entrepreneurs in biotech, however, must have access to labs, research, and specialized employees to get through multiple stages of development and manufacturing.

4. Regulation. Regulation for many new technologies is still in its infancy, so approval may take longer. The FDA regulates all products made by biotech companies, which is a slow and cumbersome process — even if regulations for your particular application already exist.

5. General knowledge. You must have some basic knowledge of the given technology to make critical decisions like path, claim, and indication. Biotech entrepreneurs don’t necessarily have to be scientists, but they do need to know enough about their technology (and all the processes that accompany development and clinical trials) to make their product viable to investors. You must understand how the system works to avoid unnecessary high costs.

6. Timing. You have to understand patent duration and the effective time of comparable intellectual property to ensure that your products are patented and protected. This may lead to more costs for lawyers and licensing.

For example, when you set up a clinical trial, your enrollment site must meet the patient enrollment on time. Otherwise, it slows down progress for all your departments. Biotech entrepreneurs must make the critical decision to set up a backup site and immediately initiate it before that scenario makes too much of a difference.

The road to success in the biotech field is not an easy one. It’s daunting, and the risk of failure is certainly high — but the rewards are incredible. If you jump all the hurdles, you can tap into all areas of knowledge and take on meaningful challenges that can transform lives all over the world.

Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems.

4 Ways to Find the Right Pain Point for Your Startup

old man with aching head

I overheard a joke the other day. And while it was, admittedly, a little silly, it did hold a nugget of truth.

In the joke, an optimist and a pessimist are arguing over a glass of beer at a bar. “It’s half empty,” says the pessimist.

The optimist disagrees, claiming it’s half full.

The bartender, annoyed, comes over and promptly drinks the rest of the beer. “Now you’re both wrong,” he says.

The bartender is an opportunist — and a good one at that.

As an entrepreneur, you are, by nature, an opportunist. You see problems (and their solutions) where no one else does, and like the bartender, you’re inclined to capitalize on those situations and react.

You realize that a smartly timed move can create a niche for yourself and reach untapped markets with products and services your customers and competitors didn’t even know were needed.

That’s not to say you’re launching a risk-free startup. After all, there’s really no such thing.

But by pinpointing where people need a particular product or service and arming yourself with a powerful value proposition, you can carve your own place and make the market work for you. The hard part, of course, is knowing when and where your opportunity will strike.

Here are four tips to help you find your perfect opportunity and determine whether your ideas are viable:

Ask for Advice

When you come up with a stroke of genius or think you’ve found the perfect product idea, ask around. By questioning the potential market clientele, you’re gathering valuable feedback on whether your product idea is worth your while or even feasible.

While it’s easy to ask your friends and family, try to resist. Unless your buddies will actually be using the product or service you’ll be offering, don’t even bring them to mind. Head straight toward your potential client base, ask around, and take notes.

You should also seek advice from someone who has already launched a successful startup—especially if you’re new to entrepreneurship. They’ll have great insight into the unique nuances of the business world and help you avoid mistakes they’ve fallen trap to.

However, critically think through every piece of advice you receive. Just because it came from a “smart” person doesn’t mean it’s always right.

Calculate Your Costs Carefully

After you’ve gathered feedback, make sure you can afford to launch the project. No idea —even a great one — is immune to failure. Clients may like what you’re doing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pay you enough money to make a profit.

Before you set your price, make sure it’s fair to your clients, but more than that, make sure it’s fair to you. People are often inclined to set their product or service at a cheaper price, but that could set a bad precedent, and it might make your investors unhappy.

Lastly, overestimate your overhead costs. Things are always more expensive than you expect, so account for that.

Reevaluate Your Plan

When in doubt, talk to a professional investor. He spends all day looking at business plans and can help you identify the flaws in yours. After the shortcomings are addressed, you can fine-tune your plan.

On that note, don’t be afraid to redraft your business plan a few times. You’re breaking new ground, after all, and there’s very little chance you’ll get it right the first time. Fixed problems are an entrepreneur’s best friend. They represent progress, so embrace it.

Take the Risk

When Airbnb and Uber surfaced, they didn’t twiddle their thumbs and wait for managers and taxi drivers to grant them permission to run their businesses. If they did, they wouldn’t have survived.

Instead, they went ahead with their business plans. By throwing regulatory caution to the wind— which, admittedly, is a scary risk — you can find a niche market that people don’t even know they need yet.

Assess whether the risk could take down your company (i.e., whether you could survive if the worst happened), and adjust accordingly. After all, for every Uber, there have been a dozen failures — but that’s how you succeed. To help mitigate this risk, ask your lawyer to see what the best course of action would be.

Thinking back to the optimist and pessimist at the bar, it’s evident that the real victor in the situation is the opportunist. By knowing the best time to act, you can corner your market and succeed in business, and your customers will flock. All you have to do is find your niche and act.

Benjamin Geyerhahn is an experienced entrepreneur, healthcare policy expert, and member of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Health Benefit Exchange Regional Advisory Committee. He is the founder and CEO of BeneStream, which uses a combination of technology and a multilingual call center to guide employers and employees through the Medicaid enrollment process.

 

4 Tips for Building a High-Performance Culture Around Constructive Feedback

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U.S. businesses spend $105 billion per year handling poorly performing employees. This unfortunate data indicates that subpar employees can harm a business both culturally and financially.

So how can entrepreneurs avoid or correct this issue? By building a company culture that embraces opportunities to share feedback.

Make Your Feedback Constructive

Continuous, transparent employee feedback is great, but not all feedback is created equal. Constructive criticism encourages people and incentivizes improvement, while non-constructive (i.e., destructive) feedback actually inhibits growth. Understanding the differences between these approaches will enhance your interactions with employees and expose their true potential.

To reach that true potential, be sure your feedback is:

  • Direct. Providing feedback can be uncomfortable, especially when someone needs a major behavioral adjustment. Dancing around an issue will only lead to confusion, but being direct will improve comprehension and lead to real change.
  • Solutions-oriented. Feedback becomes destructive when you tear employees down without building them back up. Creating a solutions-oriented conversation will help you and your employees focus less on poor behavior and more on ways they can improve.
  • Unemotional. Are you feeling angry or resentful? You may want to consider giving feedback at another time or having someone else address the issue. The goal of providing feedback is to inspire employees to redeem themselves. If you’re harboring ill feelings toward an employee, you should step away from the situation.

How to Build a Culture of Constructive Feedback

When employees and leaders feel comfortable communicating with one another about what they’re doing well and what they can improve upon, it creates a culture of openness and accountability. But there are some practices you must build into your culture to nurture this type of environment:

1. Lead by example. In his book, What You’re Really Meant to Do, Harvard Business School’s Robert Kaplan presents the idea that as business leaders become more senior, people are less likely to give them feedback or address shortcomings. Kaplan emphasizes how important it is for business leaders to actively seek feedback from team members, which allows them to grow and creates an environment where giving and receiving constructive feedback is normalized.

Leaders must also understand how to receive feedback well. This involves listening without interruption, asking questions for clarification, respectfully acknowledging what the person is saying, and taking time to think before reacting.

2. Deliver bad news constructively. There is always room for growth and improvement. People can’t fix problems if you don’t communicate them clearly. Underperforming for an extended period of time can also make someone feel insecure when tackling new projects.

When delivering bad news, avoid criticism, and state the facts instead. Talk about the behavior — not the person. After you’ve communicated the facts, provide solutions-oriented recommendations.

3. Make positive feedback a priority. People can receive too much criticism, but they can never receive too much encouragement. Celebrate the things your team is doing right on a regular basis. Schedule weekly staff meetings and encourage department leaders to submit weekly team victories. It’s important to celebrate company wins and emphasize that those accomplishments required team effort. Tools like Dunwello are making this easier.

4. Set company goals with your team. As your company grows and develops, set goals with your team. Once everyone is striving for the same mutually developed goals, it will be easier to hold one another accountable and give constructive feedback if others aren’t measuring up.

 

As the leader, you have the opportunity to build a unified and unstoppable team. By creating a work environment founded on constructive feedback, you can push your employees — and yourself — to grow personally and professionally. So probe your employees, open your ears, and find out what you can do better. The spike in performance and productivity might surprise you.

Brent Grinna is the founder and CEO of EverTrue, a leading social donor management platform. EverTrue harnesses social data to help higher education institutions raise more money and better engage alumni. Connect with EverTrue on LinkedIn and Twitter.

3 Reasons Your Target Audience Doesn’t Care About Your Business

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We’ve all heard the story: An expansion-happy CEO mercilessly destroys a promising startup equipped with a steady growth trajectory and a roster of top-tier clients, all within a year of his ascension to the throne.

When you’re in charge of a company’s growth and marketing strategy, it’s tempting to chase the numbers by drastically widening your marketing reach. But if you want to grow and succeed in an industry, you can’t take a “fire hose” approach to marketing.

If your company is stuck in a growth slump (or veering off course), you might be overshooting your target audience. Here are three reasons your marketing efforts aren’t making a connection.

You’re Targeting the Masses

I recently consulted for a healthcare company that was struggling to close leads despite having a great product. After reviewing its marketing presentation, the problem practically jumped off the page: Its target customer was completely ambiguous. After we settled on a single audience, the company had a clear value proposition and marketing approach that more narrowly targeted its specific audience.

You might think you need to stretch every dollar as far as possible to get the maximum ROI on your marketing spend, but aiming for a general audience is a waste of money. It dilutes your message, your marketing, and your strategy.

Instead, focus on a highly targeted audience to create a relevant, authentic connection with potential customers, and use your marketing budget efficiently.

You’re Confusing Your Audience

I’ve sat through countless campaign presentations. All too often, I walk out of a highly technical 30-minute presentation and think, “I have no idea what this company does.”

Just because you’re familiar with the ins and outs of your product or service doesn’t mean your audience understands it. Your value proposition should never become a guessing game.

Customers, investors, and the market really only care about two things: the problem your product solves and why it’s better than any other solution out there. If you can’t answer those questions in layman’s terms, your audience will go elsewhere.

You’re Not Providing a Call to Action

You may have a narrowly targeted audience, stellar creative, and perfect messaging, but if you don’t offer actionable takeaways for your audience, you’re missing a critical engagement opportunity.

Whether you want your audience to make a purchase, learn more, or enter a contest, your instructions need to be clear. Never put out a message that doesn’t communicate a desired outcome to your potential customers.

Raise Some Eyebrows

You’ll have a better chance of connecting with your audience if you avoid these mistakes. But focusing solely on the right customers won’t generate the cutting-edge marketing that draws people in by the millions. Here are four marketing tactics you should use to elevate your message:

Nail down your medium. Don’t assume a one-size-fits-all strategy will work for your startup. You need to understand what works for your industry and what fits your goals. A fashion entrepreneur may succeed in an ancillary New York Fashion Week event and post her line to Pinterest. But a B2B startup may be better off focusing on thought leadership to land a speaking engagement. Research the best medium for conveying your message, and get your story out as quickly as possible.

Know your customers’ habits. When you know your audience’s habits, it’s easier to meet them where they are. Find out where your target customers congregate to execute perfectly. For example, I market to entrepreneurs. I know they’re on the lookout for new opportunities, and they consume information almost exclusively through their mobile devices. So I focus on capturing relevant headlines on Twitter and aligning with organizations that curate people I want to talk to. I may only have a second to get their attention, so I focus on concise, attention-grabbing tweets and speaking opportunities at popular events.

Consider your costs. Spend your hard-earned money on customers who understand your message and are more likely to use it and become product evangelists. However, cost doesn’t always mean dollars. It includes time and effort as well. The barrier to entry on social media may be low in dollars, but think about whether you have the necessary bandwidth to manage, grow, and interact with your following.

Scale your marketing. There is no definite answer for how much you should spend on marketing, but according to Bloomberg, companies should start by spending about 5 percent of their revenue on marketing and adjust as they grow.

No matter how wonderful your product is, you can’t be everything to everyone. And when you try to market it that way, it weakens your message and pushes your audience away. Concentrate your efforts on sending out the perfect message for the right audience in the best place, and your marketing dollars will work harder. Pick your most relevant segment, and let your new brand advocates do the rest for you.

Allison Conkright Engel leads global marketing and operations for the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs. Prior to Dell, Allison worked for various startups, leading their Southwest expansion efforts. She has more than 15 years of experience in media and marketing and has worked for several iconic brands. Connect with Allison on Twitter.

Contest: Free Branding Services for the “Next North American Startup”

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Are you a startup in North America? Did you blow your whole budget on R&D?

A startup without a solid brand at launch isn’t going to succeed. It’s that simple. Lucky for you, Vancouver digital branding agency Skyrocket wants to help. They’re holding the Brand Prize contest (open to North American startups only) with the winning startup receiving a $40,000 Visual Identity and Branding System.

Why are they doing it?

According to Skyrocket Creative Director Michael Parks:

“Startups spend all their resources on R&D, often neglecting their identity and brand. Of course developing a valuable product is important, but having people who want that thing is the key to making it! By creating a brand that breathes purpose – that defines the audience relationship – we can captivate a market and truly disrupt.”

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Skyrocket wants to give one worthy startup a chance they wouldn’t otherwise have, by providing full branding services for free: they want to launch that startup into the market with every possibility for success.

Are you that startup? The contest works like this:

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Applications are open (at www.thebrandprize.com) until September 15: the winning startup will be announced just 15 days later on September 30.

If you’ve got a killer product and a solid business model, then there’s only one question you’ve got to answer:

Do you have what it takes to win the Brand Prize?

About Skyrocket

Skyrocket is a digital agency specializing in user-experience design and branding. Whether they’re building a complex web app, an ecommerce website, or even a simple website, everything Skyrocket does works to express a company’s brand.

Where Failing Startups Get Lost

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Conversations in the startup community seem to be dominated by funding, features, and hacks. The ability of founders to balance the new information that’s out there with the tried and true principals of business is a critical differentiator in the success or failure of startups. Failing to prioritize the basics of running a business can doom the business, regardless of the product, the sales team, or the investment. Likewise, sufficient attention to running the business can cure a failing startup.

Partnerships

Partnerships are both a blessing and a curse. The right partner can make a startup successful. While that’s true, it is important to remember that the converse is not. Not getting a partnership is rarely the cause of a startup’s failure. When you find partnership opportunity, it’s ok to pursue it as long as you compartmentalize.

Partnerships tend to monopolize a disproportionate amount of a founder’s attention without contributing to the startup’s success to justify the diversion. Partners also tend to cause feature creep (adding features that were not on the project road map). Startups need to focus their time on sales and the features that are required to get paying customers in the short term. A partner is not an investor, and should more typically be viewed as a potential customer with a very, very long sales cycle. Managing partners as a potential sale help a startup allocate time without overspending in this one area.

Infrastructure

Many technology startups fall into the infrastructure trap. Just because the founder dreams of becoming the next Twitter does not mean that the company, in its infancy, should build the infrastructure of a mature company from the outset. The aspiration to integrate with every platform on the market doesn’t mean a startup should do it today.

When a startup plans to build key components from scratch, it start with off the shelf product and grow into those custom components at a measured rate. Instead of building it’s own servers at the outset, Facebook implemented years later, when the time was right. For every startup whose infrastructure was less than perfect, there are ten-fold that overbuilt and ran out of money before they saw any traction.

Hiring

Startup news sites, pitch days, and startup contests can mislead entrepreneurs to believing that skyrocketing growth is just around the corner. Founders frequently rush to hire, but startups have limited funds and founders have limited time. New employees take both. Very few startups need an executive level software engineer to build their minimum viable product. That is not to say that startups should not hire the talent they need, but only hire the people absolutely necessary. An early stage company rarely needs a data architect or executive vice president of business development. Begin with people who can get you to the next level and share your vision whether their employees or contractors.

Side Projects (aka Distractions)

Don’t start side projects. They require time, money, and attention that a fledgling business can ill afford. You don’t need to organize a community garden to sell your rain gauge. You don’t need to create your own camera to sign customers for your photo sharing website. Yes companies, especially large ones, do it all the time, but it’s a startup killer. Instead, stick with your near term product and sales goals.

 

Michael Johnstone brings over a decade of technology and business experience to Mark Cuban Companies. He has a proven history of strategic planning, leadership, product development, and operations in both startups and mature companies. Michael is responsible for deal flow and manages internet and technology strategy for MCC portfolio companies. He previously founded Taglyn GPS Tracking, specializing in small fleet management, before selling it to a private company in 2011. Prior to Taglyn, Michael spent nine years as founder and president of eLocomotive Design, which built custom software and websites. He brings a depth of first-hand entrepreneurial knowledge and operational expertise to every transaction. Michael also serves as an advisor and mentor to multiple startups and is a mentor to accelerators including TechStars and DreamIt. Michael is passionate about helping founders turn their startup into fully functional and profitable enterprises.

How Entrepreneurship is Different in the South–And Why That’s Great

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memphissky1Entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship, right? Wrong.

Sure, no matter where you are, you have to have an idea, get some money for it, and grind it out. But what that looks like is different from region to region. Different investors and different amounts of money require different strategies from startups trying to get their businesses off the ground.

The South provides a particularly interesting case of this. There’s less capital available to startups, and what is available is pretty conservative money. As a result, startups can’t afford to spend 8 years building a user base before earning a profit. So how do companies survive and thrive in an environment with scarce resources?

It all starts with a business plan built with the knowledge that capital is scarce, and you can’t rely on million dollar seed rounds. It’s not enough to have an idea; founders must build on that to create a strong, viable plan to get profitability, not just ubiquity. Usually, this comes from iterating on a scaleable minimum viable product as quickly as possible to provide value from the start, placing the company in excellent position to capitalize on early revenue potential. Such a plan involves pivot points with opportunities to fail early and iterate in order to succeed.

We call this Southern style of entrepreneurship the Jumpstart Way. It leads to fundamentally sound businesses, and gives founders the opportunity to own more of their company if it succeeds.

ChangeHealthcare provides an excellent example of the Jumpstart Way. ChangeHealthcare, a Nashville company, provides price transparency services to consumers and employers in order to reduce healthcare costs. Castlight Health in San Francisco provides similar services.

ChangeHealthcare raised 1 million dollars to start and immediately built the first version of their product, working in close collaboration with the healthcare companies that would be its ideal users. Adjusting as they went, they were able to build a truly valuable minimum viable product from the start. This visible progress from the outset and the promise of early revenue traction was enough to convince angels to invest another 3 million in the company.

In contrast Castlight Health raised 20 million dollars in their first round and built a user base first, and a board of directors shortly after. By now, both companies have products on the market, but ChangeHealthcare is losing significantly less money on comparable levels of revenue.

This is not to disparage entrepreneurship on the West Coast; we love and admire the grit and grind it takes to get a company off the ground, no matter where it is. The South just happens to need a minimum viable product earlier, and a plan has to be in place to accelerate that as a priority. You have to take what you can get and make something great from it.

Isn’t that what entrepreneurship is about?

Chris Poole is a managing director at Jumpstart Foundry, a Nashville-based accelerator. Jumpstart Foundry is the southeast’s premier accelerator and exists to empower innovators in the South to succeed in creating products, jobs, wealth & economic growth for themselves and the region. Find out more about Jumpstart Foundry at jsf.co.

6 Ways Startups Can Beat the Tax Man

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When you’re first starting a company, there are a lot of overhead costs. You have to pick up furniture, electronics, and a whole host of other things. You’ve also got to worry about employees, whether you’re going to provide benefits, and more. Fortunately, there are a few ways that your startup can beat the tax man.

Work Opportunity Tax Credit

If you hire employees from a certain group, you can get a tax credit. This group includes individuals that receive food stamps, certain qualified veterans, and certain residents in the community. On average, about 25 percent of all new hires are eligible for one of the targeted work opportunity tax credit groups. The credit is up to $2,400 per qualified employee in the first year of employment. However, the qualified veterans program offers up to a $9,600 tax credit in the first year.

incontent3Deduct Your Furniture

Consult with your tax preparer and see if they think you should expense or depreciate your furniture. This is an important decision, since you’re going to end up getting a ton of furniture.

You shouldn’t buy furniture just to get the tax deduction, though. Only get what you need now or furniture that you’ll anticipate needing in the very new future.

Travel Costs

Did you know that you can deduct any expenses related to traveling in your car? You can deduct all parking fees, tolls that you encounter while on a business trip, and mileage. You’ll need to keep track of the mileage, as well as the start and finish mark of the odometer. Also note the business purpose for each trip. You’ll also be able to deduct repairs, insurance, and maintenance costs.

Home Office Expenses

Sometimes you don’t need an office to run a business. If you’re using a dedicated space in your home as your home office, you can deduct it. The only catch is that the room must be used to conduct business. If you conduct business on the same couch that you lie on when you’re taking online courses for your Masters of Laws degree, you’re out of luck. You can also deduct a portion of utilities, rent, insurance, and taxes.

Loans

Did you know that you can deduct any loans you get when you’re starting your business? They can be fully deducted! If you borrow money from a relative, make sure that it conforms to IRS rules before attempting to deduct it. This certainly provides a much-needed break and should put your mind a bit more at ease when starting your business.

Advertising

Without advertising, no one will know your business exists. You can deduct the costs of advertising that cover multiple-year contracts, and the deductions must be spread out over all the contract years. This covers advertising on any form of medium, whether it be a billboard sign or a newspaper ad.

Startups take on a lot of costs, but these tax deductions can provide a bit of relief. Can you think of anything else that your startup can deduct? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Emily Green is a freelance writer with more than six years’ experience in blogging, copywriting, content, SEO, and dissertation, technical and thesis writing. She loves all things tech and and going on a jog with her dog.