As Seen in AMEX Open forum, USA Today, The Charlotte Observer, America's Premier Experts, the Daily

As Seen in AMEX Open forum, USA Today, The Charlotte Observer, America's Premier Experts, the Daily

Friday, January 25, 2013

5 Entrepreneurial Lessons I Wish I Had Known When I Was 21

When I was 21, I had just graduated from NCSU with a BS in Chemistry and was on my way to Princeton to get my masters and then my PhD in Chemistry.  It wasn’t until 3 years after graduating that I decided to start my business on the side (lesson learned).

During graduate school and from running my business, I learned some great lessons which, would have made my 20's totally different if I had learned them at 21.  

Don’t get me wrong, I am really glad I had the experiences I did in graduate school and in my management career afterwards. And, I would have started my company much earlier if I had had these lessons under my belt.

1) You should dream big.

By seeing yourself achieving big goals, it’s much easier to achieve them because you can see a path to meet those goals.  Remember to always ask the question of “what is the worst that can happen if I go after this huge goal?”  The answer is usually not that bad and once those worst fears are defined, it’s easier to recognize how unlikely they are.

For me, dreaming big was creating a business, launching a product, taking it to market, and then sharing my experiences with other young entrepreneurs.    I’m glad I did finally define my dream and set out to achieve.

2) Marketing is key.  It’s not a mysterious black box; it’s a skill you can learn, practice, and perfect like any other.

You cannot ignore marketing because it can make or break you.  Product design, process design and understanding the numbers will only take you so far.  If you have a great idea but no idea how to let people know about it or how they perceive it, your business is doomed from the beginning.  Being able to predict if the marketing for a certain product will be easy or not is huge because that knowledge can give you a very good idea about the success of the venture.

For me, with a totally scientific education at age 21, I wish I had thought to recognize this hole in my knowledge base earlier in my career.  It was not until I almost graduated with my doctorate that this hole became apparent to me (I know for you people in business out there, this probably sounds crazy!).

What I really learned in graduate school was how to learn things.

Once I set marketing as a skill I should learn about, focusing on it and learning the basics of marketing was relatively easy.   

3) You are NOT the first person to experience whatever challenge you're going through so use your network.

In addition to the fact that it is very comforting to talk to someone who has gone through whatever challenge it may be before,  having a network of people who can advise you is SO helpful.  

It is too tempting to feel like you have to figure everything out for yourself in your own business... the truth is, you don't have to.   This go-it-alone feeling is especially pervasive once you are working full-time on your own business.  Certainly, when I worked in the lab and then at McMaster-Carr in the management team, I reached out in order to make projects run smoothly if I didn’t feel I knew what to do.  However working alone and being the boss is sometimes lonely.   You should know this going in and use your network from the beginning, not just after you’re frustrated or discouraged.

4) Action is critical, even if they are small actions.  You can’t just think a goal into accomplishment.

You should have a big goal in mind and try to get your daily actions to move you, bit-by-bit, closer to that big goal.   Whether those little things are sending an email out to your list, or asking for help on a subject, or calling a potential supplier to ask one more time what’s the best they can do, you must DO and not just THINK.

Don't be overwhelmed by a big goal, move towards it. 

Ideas, like light bulbs, are only really neat if you plug them in and use them. 

Thinking will only get you so far if you want to accomplish big things.  Sometimes if you’re stuck in your thinking, taking one step forward illuminate the path ahead.

5) You DON'T have to know everything before you start.  Indeed, that is the incorrect thinking that holds so many people back. 

It's very tempting to think you need a degree or lots of training before you start your own business.  

The truth is that you're never going to know it all.  You should look at life and your business as a learning opportunity for yourself.  When I started my business, I was working full time and my co-workers were all going to get their MBAs.   I decided I would invest that money and time I would have spent getting an MBA differently.  I would start my own business and approach my business as a way to learn all the business lessons I needed to know that way.   

Would it have been possible to have these lessons firmly under my belt before age 21.  Yeah, I think so.  That said, I’m so pleased about the path life has taken me on so far.  Sometimes, I think I’ve learned things when I actually needed to know them…. Or maybe that’s just when they sunk in properly. 

What entrepreneurial lessons do you wish you had known at 21?   Start a comment below and share! 

If you like this post or think it would be helpful to someone else in your life, please share it!


Do you want a free 30-minute consultation on your business with me, Katie Hughes, PhD?

Connect with Katie on Twitter @katiehhughes and we’ll can something up.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When there are too many fires in your business....

What do you do when you are always having to step in and "put out a fire?"

Complain while feeling needed and important?

This is a common mistake that many business owners and managers make on a regular basis.

Step back and notice the bigger picture

Are you calling things fires and emergencies that are really just a lit match that hasn't been dropped yet?

My mind's eye sees a blazing fire I must deal with immediately because I see
all the POTENTIAL for the blaze to ignite.  This creates unnecessary urgency and stress. 
Sometimes what I perceive as fires are really just lit matches
and not truly urgent situations at this stage.   

I catch myself doing this a lot.  Because I have a sense of the business as a whole, I know how the various processes fit together and will impact one another.  Sometimes we see the situation for its POTENTIAL to cause problems and not for what the situation is right now.  Nor, usually, do we see multiple ways to deal with the situation that may make small sacrifices in timeliness but reduce the stress level considerably. 

Here's an example of a situation I helped with recently dealing with shipping duplicate orders with product:

Have we actually mailed duplicate orders yet?

        Or are the duplicate packages still sitting, waiting to be picked up?   IE the product's not actually out the door yet.

               Or did we just print the shipping labels?   IE Could one email can fix this situation in the short-term?

Yes, printing extra shipping labels may result in mailing out tons of extra product.
That could be hugely expensive!
What would your customers think of you?
BUT if it hasn't actually happened yet, what is the minimum you have to do to stop it from going down the wrong path right now.

Figure out the minimum you need to do and do it... quickly.  Then sit back and reevaluate the time sensitivity of "fixing" the problem.   Is fixing the whole problem a fire you need to be involved in?

You should indeed fix the problem so it doesn't happen again.

That may mean figuring out who/what triggered the train to run off the rails in the first place.  

If the train wasn't really off the tracks, only starting to turn, here are some suggestions:
1) Set standards and expectations
2) Communicate how you want things handled and why
3) Use decision trees for standard situations that help show how you came to the conclusion/solution that you did
4) Give your people authority to take care of the situation and right the train without your intervention if possible.
5) Set limits where you will find out about a true train derailment before it's too late, but only if your staff can't handle it.  Make sure this is defined.

Maybe you're seeing a fire that YOU have to put out. But, your staff may see a match that they've watched you put out many times and would handle fine if you just let them.

Maybe the fires are actually real.  

OK. Once you've decided that, it's time to look at the process you use to execute the actions in the business and look for places where that process may lead your people astray 

IE they may have done everything right according to the process you had communicated.

Looking at your process (hopefully it's written), what keeps ALLOWING the train to derail?

Are there minor changes you could make to your process to handle these situations?
Sometimes simply defining what is happening is enough to make it very clear what an easy solution would be.

Stay open-minded as you're analyzing the processes you have in place.  

Maybe you're making it way to complicated.    If it's not you that's doing the work, make sure to ask the people who are doing it what solutions they might suggest.  There's nothing like doing a process 100 times to make you realize how it could be improved.  If you haven't done it much, ask the people who have.

Fires are created when "unusual" situations pop up that don't fit into our regular scenarios.  

Businesses and their processes change over time.  You will probably not do the same thing for years and years and handle everything the same way.  Whether it's getting a new book keeping system, or shipping orders in a different way, or handling your public relations or social media differently, things change.

Change is hard and the fires that are created by change are one of the reasons why.   Every time we change something, the play book we usually use may not work and we find ourselves having some hurdles to jump.

The first few times a situation pops up, they will probably create fires.  You may be the best person to help sort them out in the beginning.  That said, after you've encountered it a few times and the path to the solution was similar each time, it's time to build yourself a system.

Your system might be to put fire hydrants everywhere to
make putting the fires out an easy task.... Or you could put fire
retardant all over to prevent the match from lighting...
Your choice, but take action!
Build your system to handle new situations:

1) Set standards and expectations
2) Communicate how you want things handled and the why behind each.
3) Use decision trees for standard situations that help show how you came to the conclusion/solution that you did
4) Give your people authority to take care of the situation and right the train without your intervention if possible.
5) Set limits where you will find out about a true train derailment before it's too late, but only if your staff can't handle it.  Make sure these parameters are defined and communicated in writing.

Write all this down.  Write down the problem. Write down your solution.  

Write down your new process that will keep this from bothering you again but still lead to good customer satisfaction. 

Remember that a day will come when you would like to go on vacation or go to your daughter's recital without feeling like your business can't survive without you.    You don't want to be the only firefighter in town or have a company that's fire prone!

Did you like this post?  Please share it or click "like"! 

Comments?  What fires do you put out on a regular basis that you could prevent with a better process?

Saturday, January 19, 2013


What are they NOT telling you?

Somehow, many adults I know tend to shy away from asking for feedback.  If it comes there way fine, but otherwise, they are very hesitant to ask for it.  The problem with this is that feedback makes us better.  

One reason we don't get much feedback is because we fail to ask for it!

I think it's because we're scared of what we might hear, so we don't ask at all. 

If you haven't decided on a January resolution yet, here's one for you: Make it a habit to ask your customers what they think.  

All feedback isn't bad.  Don't forget that there's positive feedback out there, too.  

If you want good testimonials, good product reviews, referrals, etc you have to ASK.

There's a trend I've noticed recently on a few email posts.  People are flat out asking "what do you think of this email?" 

There's usually a link to some kind of form that asks ANONYMOUSLY what you liked, what you didn't like and what you would change etc.

Needless to say, this information is invaluable.

Go out there ask the questions that get you the answers you need to continuously improve your products, marketing, and image.   

Do you have a story about when the feedback you received was a total surprise and changed your actions completely?   Share! 
Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Suggestions?   

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lessons I learned from my first trade show

Does your market niche gather at a trade show?   

My niche market definitely did and going there was a great move for my business.  However, here are some critical lessons I learned from my first experience that will make yours go smoothly. 

Trade shows are a VERY effective way to reach connectors in certain markets.    Still, trade shows are exhausting ways to make money.

Here are 5 tips for making your money go the furthest so that investment  boosts your business up! 

1) You need a system to keep track of and follow-up with all the contacts that you'll get. 

 Believe me, even if you don't ask for them (and you should) you'll still get tons of cards.

You need a system, set up AND communicated to everyone working the booth beforehand to remember key points about each person so you can make the most of these contacts later.

  • Was this person a potential distributor? 
  • An end user who loved the product and gave you a testimonial? 
You need to keep these straight.

 2) There are peaks and valleys in foot traffic - treat the show as a marathon and NOT a sprint. 

The hours of these trade shows vary, but they are all exhausting.

Tip: Take plenty of water and quick snacks you can eat between potential contacts so you stay energized.

Whatever you do, wear very comfortable shoes that won't give you blisters on day one.  You don't want to be miserable for the remaining 2-4 days of the conference!

 3) Booth location matters... a lot. 

You may have paid full price for your booth, but if they put you in a corner out of the main walkway, you will NOT sell as much or meet as many people.  Usually a map is provided so ask who is close by your desired spot before you sign on the dotted line.

We were back-to-back with a speaker company once.  We had to yell over their music all weekend.  I will not be in that position again if I can help it, so I always check who our neighbors will be and ask to be moved if there is someone objectionable.

Tip: Pick a booth location that people can see when they enter the room.  Ideally, your booth will be in the direction people will be walking when they enter the room.

Make sure you are marketing ideally for the space you have. If you need banner stands so they can SEE your fabulous banners and signs from where they're coming from, buy them and make sure you have ones that turn/raise up if your customers won't be looking at your booth straight on. 

4) If you are selling items at your booth, us a tablet and/or smart phone and data plan to make transactions cheaper and easier. 

I have found that using an application like SquareUp, Intuit's Go Payment, or Paypal's PayUp where you can scan customer's credit cards and send automatic emailed receipts to be so much less expensive than traditional methods of taking cards. (Believe me, people don't usually want to pay cash, so be ready)

** Caution: most of these applications will not give you access to these customer's email addresses in the future.  If you intend to build your email list, you will have to add another process, like a email sign up form on the table** 

Save $: Using an IPad's data plan is often much cheaper than paying for a dedicated power and phone line to be put in your booth.

Make sure to have a couple of these devices in your booth so multiple transactions can be processed at once.  You want a small line, but not a HUGE line of people just waiting to use their cards.

5)  Small crowds draw more people because of the element of social proof.  

Use small crowds to your advantage!  If you can work an area into your booth that will cause people to crowd/hang around just a few moments instead of staying on the other side of the table and walking on past, other attendees will notice and will come by just to see what everyone else is looking at.

The result is that getting the first person into your empty booth is the hardest so try not to let your booth seem empty.

Trade shows are an essential part of launching a successful business in many industries.   For my first business, Slip-On DancersTM, it was a proving ground that launched  into licensing deals, distributorships, and testimonials let alone giving me the cash to really get the business rolling. 

Goodness knows these aren't all the tips you need to guarantee success at your first trade show, but hopefully these will help you avoid the major pitfalls that I found myself in when I started.

Comments? Questions?  Talk to me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Which niche should you focus on first? Part 3 of 3

Who is your ideal target niche? Part 3 of 3

Finally, let's put everything we've figured out about our market together and identify the most promising niches for you to approach first. 

In Part 1 & Part 2 of this series, we looked at who your ideal customer is and who your competition is. 

You should have answers to questions like:  

  • How many customers are in each of your potential target niches?
  • How much will it cost you to market to that niche?
  • How many sales will you likely make?
  • What is your profit for that niche?
  • How much does it cost for you to sell one product versus selling the product in bulk?  
    • The costs to manufacture/produce the product won't be very different if you are selling subscriptions to an online training course, but could mean a huge difference in fulfillment if you have a physical product that has to be manufactured and shipped.
    • If you have a physical product, can you reasonably pass on the extra costs of shipping single orders to the consumer?  

Here's the formula to determine which niche you should probably approach first*

         (# potential sales x profits from each sale) - marketing costs 

Which niche looks the best from this profit perspective?

* Caveat:  There is some level of marketing investment here that you must be OK with in order for this niche to be a good fit for you.    Essentially, you need to make sure you can cover the cost of marketing to this ideal niche.
  • Is the marketing cost over a long time? 1 year, 2 years, 6 months?  
  • Is the value of the marketing a cost you can cover at this point in your business?  
  • Can you defer those costs until the sales start coming in? 

If your most profitable niche is not a niche you can appropriately market to YET due to costs, go to the next profitable niche and see if you can make that successful. 

OR, if you really think the first niche is the best one for you, start thinking of ways to lower the marketing costs.  For example, instead of buying TV ads, having a center booth at a trade show and having full page magazine ads, maybe you could post on influential blogs and get online reviews.  Consider getting a partial-page magazine ad and sharing a booth with another (non-competing) vendor.

If your marketing plan is "get on QVC," the odds are against your success, but there are likely lots of other creative (cheaper) ways to reach your target market.  You probably know where members of that niche get together and look for information, especially if you are part of that niche.

Pick your niche market.  Make sure it's a niche that will LOVE your product and that you can reach with your starter marketing budget. 

Niche marketing is like climbing stairs.  Focus on ONE niche and do it the BEST you can.  Get that one segment of the market 'under your belt' then move on to the next market.  

Action steps:
1) Write the answers to the above questions down outlining why this niche is right for you right now (this is the first part of your company manual and marketing plan!). 
2) Figure out if you can afford the initial marketing efforts in addition to the manufacturing costs. 
3) List your niches in order... 1st choice... 2nd choice...3rd choice...

Questions? Comments? Have I forgotten something?  Stories about how you first chose your first niche for your product or service?  Talk to me. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Which niche should you go after first? Part 2 of 3

Don't go launch your product to the "market," launch it to the perfect "niche"  

After the post on identifying your perfect customer, I am hoping you actually physically made a list of the various subgroups of people that might be interested in your product.  When I'm doing this exercise, I devote a page in a notebook to each one. 

Marketing budgets are limited, so you can't go after them all at once.  Which one should you go after first? 

In the last post, we focused a lot on the small things that separate the market into certain groups.  We talked about the people and their pain points.  Now let's see how crowded each niche market is.

Focus on one niche market and identify the competition situation in each. 

Identify the competition situation within each of these niches:

1) What options for solving their problem do the members of this niche have currently?  

*Keep in mind these options are your competition ONLY if members of the niche actually see the competing product.  If there is a solution to one of their pain points out there, but it's not being pushed on them, don't count it.

Is there anything else in this niche market that solves the problem you're trying to solve? 

Are you the only company with this solution in this niche market?  
If you're a member of the niche market, this will probably be easy.   If you aren't a member of this niche market, you might need to do some research.  Ask friends and colleagues who might be part of that other niche about this.  Don't just rely on blogs and intuition for this one.  Do your research.  

2) How much do members of this niche currently pay for competing products or services?

How much would they pay to be rid of that pain point?  Notice I'm not saying how much would they pay for your solution.  Remember that the consumer really only wants the solution you present, not the product or service itself. 

Again, being part of the niche will make answering this question a lot easier.  Use your network to find the answer if you're not part of this particular niche market. 

3) How do those competing products or services market to this niche?

Are they at trade shows?
Do they rely on word of mouth?
Do they use Facebook or trade publications?
Do they market directly to the consumer? 

4) How much would it cost to just get in touch with the connectors in this market?

Marketing to connectors is usually a great way to make your money go further, if you can get a hold of them easily.
Do the connectors all read the same magazine?  How much would it cost to get an ad in there?
How else are those connectors connected?

Marketing isn't free and the price can vary widely depending on the type of marketing you're considering. Give it hard look and get some ballpark figures before making your decision. 

Go ahead.  Write it down.  This is not the kind of exercise you can do in your head
Once it's written down, you can refer to it going forward. 

Next time, we'll put this information together with the niche info and bundle it into an equation of sorts that takes into account the amount of customers each niche has and the cost of marketing to each niche.

Questions? Comments? Feedback?  Did I miss something? Does this ring true for you?  Let me know!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Who is your ideal customer? Part 1 of 3

When was the last time you clearly defined your ideal customer?  Here are 8 steps to define your separate niches. 

The market you sell in is not a mass entity   It is made of distinct people with different needs and desires. 

Who are these people? And what did I say or offer that brought each them here?

Knowing who your ideal niche is will help when it comes time to evaluating your marketing strategy and how you plan to roll out the product to the niche.

Don't roll the product out to the "market."  That's expensive and not everyone is your customer.  You want to roll it out to a niche... a specific niche... the most profitable niche.

Defining and separating your niches will also help you decide which niche to market to first.   

Get out a few pieces of paper, one page for each segment.  Try to think from the customer's perspective as you answer these questions for EACH niche:

1)  Who is your ideal customer?  

What sex are they?
How old are they?
How much money do they have?
Are there any add-on products or activities that they need to own or do to take full advantage of your offering?
Where are they in their career?

For example, women over 60 with disposable income who like to golf and are about to retire.... small business owners in the plumbing industry that are in their 40's who want to grow their business but don't have lots of time or disposable income...  Start-ups with 30 or more people that have had problems with getting their SEO optimized after the latest Penguin updates...

2) What are the pain points for this niche?  

For example, they don't have enough time with their kids, they want more money, they are disappointed that they haven't been promoted, they want to loose weight, they are sensitive about their appearance, etc

3) How would using your product affect their lives specifically? Which pain points does your product alleviate?

Are these benefits members of the niche would pay good money for?

4) Who are the connectors in this niche group? 

For example, in my first company, I made a fitness product that helps you dance in running shoes without hurting your knees.   A connector in one of our niches was dance-fitness instructors.  These individuals weren't direct consumers of our product because they danced in dance shoes and not running shoes, but they were connectors and were in contact with people who were ideal customers for us.  

5) Do the connectors or the members of the niche group communicate together? 

Do these connectors attend conferences? Do they read the same media outlets blogs/websites/websites?

5) How many members of the niche are there?  

IE how big is this slice of the market?

6) How big is the connector group in this specific niche relative to the total number of members in a niche?  

For example, are there 20,000 connectors who reach 4 million people?

7) Which (if any) social media outlet does this niche favor?  

Pinterest/Google+/Facebook/ LinkedIn/Twitter?

8) Are there any people that this niche looks up to?   

What would getting a celebrity or industry group endorsement do for you?  How expensive would those be to get?

To sell a product, you have to solve a need.  If you don't know what the needs of the customer are, in the customer's words, not yours, then you'll have a tough time convincing them that buying your product is the solution they've been looking for.

The total number of people who need your product might be quite large, but each individual niche might need to be convinced in a separate way if the needs of the various niches don't overlap. 

For example, maybe you could sell direct to consumer, but you also want distributors to buy your product.   These groups are very different and their motivations are quite different too.   Which one is the best to go after first?  Well, that's the next step that I will cover in the next few days.

Questions? Comments?  Did I forget something important?  Let me know in the comments below!

Part 2
Part 3

Thursday, January 3, 2013

When to NOT take the sale

Why would you not want to not take a sale?

A little background... my first company manufactured a product of my own invention under the brand name Slip-On Dancers.  The product works great on shoes with lots of tread, but doesn't work well then the person has narrow shoes.  At the Curves Expo Hall in Las Vegas, some people had these narrow kind of shoes.  I flat out told some that our product wasn't designed to help them and would not perform well.

Not only did the customers thank me, but they seemed genuinely impressed with my honesty.  More than once someone said, "Wow, most people would have just taken the sale. Thank you for being honest."
This is the expression I would love to see on both my customers and my non-customers' faces.

I believe that that honesty will pay off in the end.

These people to whom I'm speaking don't live in a vacuum.  Many of them are connectors in their individual markets and could easily help me sell product to others people if they knew who my ideal customer is.  I want them to recommend my product when they see someone who has a more appropriate pair of shoes.    If I sold them something, and it didn't work, they would think that the product was just junk and wouldn't work on anyone's shoes.

In these days of web reviews that are trusted more verbiage on the page, we should all ensure that we have no negative thoughts from my customers.  Sometimes that means not getting a customer, but the truth of the matter is, an unhappy customer will cost way more than the profit you made from that one sale.

In a later post, I'll talk about what to do with all that "non-customer" feedback and how you can turn those non-customers today into a profitable revenue stream tomorrow as well.

How do you weed out non-customers?  Are the potential customers you reject ever surprised that you tell them no?