Picking a Small Business Niche That Will Grow in 2013

Some business owners just started their enterprises since the 21st century “great recession.” Others have been in business considerably longer. Whether new or “seasoned,” most want to know what trends their businesses face. Knowing growth rates of a market sector can be very helpful–if for no other reason than benchmarking one’s own performance against the average of one’s peers. A company that compiles a lot of research data on small businesses in my own back yard of Raleigh, North Carolina is Sageworks. In an interview with Catherine Clifford of Entrepreneur.com, Libby Bierman of Sageworks said that a recent study by her company showed the average growth rate of small businesses across all industries was 8% in 2012.

While growth is a very good sign, there are winners and losers in every statistical average. Certain sectors, however, performed poorer than others. According to the research, the slowest growth industries for U.S. small businesses in 2012 were:

  1. Skilled nursing care facilities: -3.29 percent
  2. Printing and related support activities: 1.86 percent
  3. Automotive repair and maintenance: 2.81 percent
  4. Offices of physicians: 3.00 percent
  5. Highway, street, and bridge construction: 4.24 percent
  6. Insurance agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities: 4.32 percent
  7. Lessors of real estate: 5.07 percent
  8. Other miscellaneous manufacturing including jewelry and silverware, sporting and athletic goods, dolls, toys, and games, office supplies other than paper, and signs: 5.55 percent
  9. Offices of health practitioners other than physicians and dentists, including chiropractors, optometrists, mental health practitioners, speech and occupational therapists: 5.98 percent
  10. Other amusement and recreation services including bowling centers, golf courses, and recreational centers: 6.03 percent

As I reviewed the list above earlier today, it occurs that personal services, low technology manufacturing and discretionary spending-based businesses have been it hard. Why would this be the case? In terms of  the personal services businesses, many of them are healthcare related. The Affordable Care Act may have a lot to do with this poorer performing sector, as many have shunned making decisions to invest capital in an arena that is in extreme flux. Many before me have written about the loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas competitors. In the United States, we have become less competitive in manufacturing that is not highly customized or based on a technology. Whether infrastructure projects or amusement, spending is down on items that don’t seem necessary. Take note if you have a business in any of the above sectors. While you may be able to outperform your sector, you may consider how your sector as a whole is not growing as quickly as others. How should you respond? This question should drive your strategic planning.

Professional officeHowever, the list of fastest growing sectors (below) identified by this research highlights some additional trends and opportunities. Many who have the flexibility to diversify or move their efforts to one of these sectors should seriously consider doing so.

Fastest-Growth Industries for U.S. Small Businesses in 2012

  1. Residential building construction: 14.77 percent

  2. Building custom software and servers for businesses: 14.29 percent

  3. Machinery, equipment, and supplies merchant wholesalers: 13.75 percent

  4. Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: 12.31 percent

  5. Architectural, engineering, and related services: 11.40 percent

  6. Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors: 11.37 percent

  7. Building finishing contractors who make additions, alterations, maintenance and repairs: 11.32 percent

  8. General freight trucking: 10.41 percent

  9. Services to buildings and dwellings, including pest exterminators, janitorial services, and landscaping: 10.11 percent

  10. Other specialty trade contractors, including site preparation activities and other specialized trades: 10.04 percent

Most of these businesses, as Bierman mentions in her interview, require very little capital to get going. They do not require the purchase of expensive assets and can be successful based on the strength of human capital. As a result, business services firms are performing strongly and should continue to do well.

 

 

 

 

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Do You Understand Which Customers You Want to Develop?

Whenever I have the opportunity to sit down with an entrepreneur to discuss how an idea is going to be commercialized, a hot topic is “who is your buyer, and how will you win them?” Amazingly, many who aspire to start businesses (even some who have been in business) have very little strategic insight into the answer to this question. By going after the universe, in a shotgun method, the business owner shortchanges the enterprise of the opportunity to develop authentic connections with targeted customers who become loyalists. We break the broad question down into tactical components such as how to listen to customer input and revise a product or service offering. Yesterday I read a LinkedIn article by Steve Blank, the author of The Startup Owner’s Manual. Blank wrote about an interaction with a former student who claimed that following Blank’s advice on customer development was causing his company to fail:

We Did Everything Customers Asked For
“We did every thing you said, we got out of the building and talked to potential customers. We surveyed a ton of them online, ran A/B tests, brought a segment of those who used the product in-house for face-to-face meetings. ” Yep, sounds good.

“Next, we built a minimum viable product.” OK, still sounds good.

“And then we built everything our prospective customers asked for.” That took me aback. Everything? I asked? “Yes, we added all their feature requests and we priced the product just like they requested. We had a ton of people come to our website and a healthy number actually activated. .  . everyone uses the product for awhile, but no one is upgrading to our paid product. We spent all this time building what customers asked for. And now most of the early users have stopped coming back.”

Customer developmentWhat’s your business model?
“Business model? I guess I was just trying to get as many people to my site as I could and make them happy. Then I thought I could charge them for something later and sell advertising based on the users I had.”

I pushed a bit harder and said, “Your strategy counted on a freemium-to-paid upgrade path. What experiments did you run that convinced you that this was the right pricing tactic? Your attrition numbers mean users weren’t engaged with the product. What did you do about it? Did you think you were trying to get large networks of engaged users that can disrupt big markets? Large is usually measured in millions of users. What experiments did you run that convinced you could get to that scale?”

I realized by the look in his eyes that none of this was making sense. “Well I got out of the building and listened to customers.”

The idea of the tests he ran wasn’t just to get data – it was to get insight. All of those activities – talking to customers, A/B testing, etc. needed to fit into his business model –how his company will find a repeatable and scalable business model and ultimately make money. And this is the step he had missed.

Customer Development = The pursuit of customer understanding
Part of Customer Development is understanding which customers make sense for your business. The goal of listening to customers is not please every one of them. It’s to figure out which customer segment served his needs – both short and long term. And giving your product away, as he was discovering, is often a going out of business strategy.

Blank then shared the lessons learned by his student:

  • Getting out of the building is a great first step
  • Listening to potential customers is even better
  • Getting users to visit your site and try your product feels great
  • Your job is not to make every possible customer happy
  • Pick the customer segments and pricing tactics that drive your business model

Gorillas Ask 7 Questions in Marketing: Do You?

Rediscovering a classic book is such a treat. Business books can, however, become outdated. New editions containing updates for changing market conditions can ensure a timeless and informative experience for the reader. In the field of marketing, Jay Conrad Levinson and his wife and business partner, Jeannie wrote a quintessential work on small business marketing, the Guerrilla Marketing Field Guide. They have released a new and updated version, serving the needs of a new generation of guerilla marketers.

Guerilla marketingToday, marketing seems very complicated. In a blog post last month for Entrepreneur.com, the Levinson’s argued that a marketing strategy, however,  doesn’t have to be complex. They believe that a comprehensive strategy can be articulated in seven brief sentences:

  • The first sentence tells the physical act your marketing should motivate.
  • The second sentence spells out the prime benefit you offer.
  • The third sentence states your target audience or audiences.
  • The fourth sentence states what marketing weapons you plan to use.
  • In your fifth sentence, you define your niche or what you stand for: economy, service, quality, price, uniqueness, anything.
  • The sixth sentence states the personality of your company.
  • The seventh sentence states your marketing budget, expressed as a percentage of your projected gross sales.

They describe in the book how such a strategy highlights the prospective buyers targeted by the marketing. They recommend starting with the people and then working backward to the offering. By organizing this way, results become more easy to attain, planning to obtain the results has meaning, and a specific call to action can be developed without much additional work. By doing this “blocking and tackling,” your team is able to anticipate market shifts over the long haul. The Levinson’s suggest the following:

The strategy must be expressed in writing, and it should not contain headlines, theme lines or copy. The strategy is devoid of specific marketing copy because it must be solid, yet flexible. Specific words and phrases pin you down. A strategy should be developed as your guide, not as your master.

After you’ve written all seven steps, read it a couple of times, then put it away for 24 hours. It’s just too important to be accepted — or rejected — hastily. Look at your strategy from a fresh perspective on a different day. See if you still love it and believe in it.

When is the best time to change that strategy? The first time you see it — before you’ve invested any money in it. After you’ve finalized it, don’t change it again for at least six months; then do a review and see if you need to tweak your strategy. If you have it right, you may not need to make any changes for several years.

Your approved strategy should be pinned up on bulletin boards and emblazoned in the minds of everyone who creates marketing for you. Keep the strategy handy in a drawer, on your desktop, or in an accessible file so you can reach for it the moment anyone presents even a tiny opportunity for marketing to you . . . or when you have a killer idea yourself.

Now that you know what we mean by marketing strategy, it’s time for you to create one for yourself.

Ask yourself these questions so you can create your seven-sentence marketing strategy:

  1. What physical act do I want people to take after being exposed to my marketing (click here, call a phone number, complete this coupon, or look for my product next time they’re at the store)?

  2. What prime benefit do I offer? What competitive advantage do I want to stress?

  3. Who is my target audience?

  4. What marketing weapons will I use?

  5. What will my market niche be?

  6. What identity do I want my business to have

  7. My marketing budget will be _______% of our projected gross sales.

Following this outline will help organize your small business around what’s really important. Good luck!

 

 

Trigger the Response Desired in Business and Otherwise

Many of you may have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, in which Gladwell examined why some fads take off and others do not. The basic concept is that an incremental change, done timely, in front of the right target audience can be absolutely revolutionary. Instead of a tipping point, an author whose blog I read recently proposed an alternative, trigger point. No, we’re not talking about a massage therapy or a gun in your back, but what Jonah Berger, author of Contagious, describes as those things that motivate us to change behaviors.

Marty Baker observes that, “One of great revelations of behavioral economics is the study of how people actually behave rather than how we think they should behave. A classic example is shrouded in a term that might make your eyes glaze over  — the theory of relative positioning.   What makes people happiest is increasing their income and wealth relative to other people. We have the same income of $70,000 per year. If my income increases by $10,000 and yours increases by $8,000, this will make me happier than if both our incomes increased by $10,000.   We don’t just want to keep up with the Joneses; we want to do better than the Joneses.”

Baker writes of Contagious that it is an exploration of what makes things popular. Berger tackles questions like:

  • Why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others?
  • Why are some stories and rumors more infectious? And
  • What makes online content go viral?

dining trayBerger wrote, “Psychologist Gráinne Fitzsimons and I conducted a related study on how to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Promoting healthy eating habits is tough. Most people realize they should eat more fruits and vegetables. Most people will even say that they mean to eat more fruits and vegetables. But somehow when the time comes to put fruits and vegetables into shopping carts or onto dinner plates, people forget. We thought we’d use triggers to help them remember. “

Baker describes Berger’s work with a colleague who asked participants to provide feedback on a public-health slogan targeting college student.  Just to make sure they remembered the slogan, they were shown it more than twenty times, printed in different colors and fonts.

“One group of students saw the slogan “Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day.” Another group saw “Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day.” Both slogans encouraged people to eat fruits and vegetables, but the tray slogan did so using a trigger.

The students lived on campus, and many of them ate in dining halls that used trays. So Berger and Fitzsimons wanted to see if they could trigger healthy eating behavior by using the dining room tray to remind students of the slogan.

“Our students didn’t care for the tray slogan. They called it “corny” and rated it as less than half as attractive as the more generic “live healthy” slogan. Further, when asked whether the slogan would influence their own fruit and vegetable consumption, the students who had been shown the “tray” slogan were significantly more likely to say no.”

Berger adds, “But when it came to actual behavior, the effects were striking. Students who had been shown the more generic “live healthy” slogan didn’t change their eating habits. But students who had seen the “tray” slogan and used trays in their cafeterias markedly changed their behavior. The tray reminded them of the slogan and they ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables as a result. The trigger worked. “

What resonated with me is that the creative solution was creating the right trigger and not the “right slogan.”  A more rigorious test  might have been to see if the more creative slogan and the trigger would have yielded even better results.

How might one apply this in a different environment? Are you too focused on your words rather than understanding what motivates your target buyer? Your boss? Someone who works for or beside you?

 

 

Pieces of 8 Need to Become All of 8

Have you ever heard the phrase, “work on your business instead of in it?” Michael Gerber (he of the E-Myth book notoriety) popularized this concept if he didn’t invent the phrase. Gerber chastises business owners for trying to do everything instead of doing the strategic things that will grow the business. He points out that the “jack of all trades,” “chief cook and bottlewasher,” etc epithets are crutches and should not be celebrated. Instead, he recommends systems over personalities and methodologies in lieu of gut instinct. 

Many years after writing the E-Myth, Gerber is still speaking, writing, and training. A blog post earlier today at Inc.com addressed what he considers to be the 8 Essential Parts to a Business (And How They Work Together.) He begins by saying that one “must understand that a small business is a system in which all parts contribute to the success or failure of the whole:”Model T assembly

Like Henry Ford understood the relationship between the Ford Motor Car and the Ford Motor Company (which manufactures, sells and services the car), you must understand the connection between all the parts in your business and how your company relates to the world.

Here are the essential parts of your business:

1. Consumer

Perhaps you’ve spent your life working in an industry. You know all about that industry from the inside. But building a business requires going outside. You must consider your customer’s needs first and foremost.

2. Competitor

Every customer is being pursued by other companies in competition to yours. They are all making offers to solve the same problem your business solves. Your job is to analyze those solutions, and know how yours is better.

3. Channels of Distribution

There are numerous channels of distribution available to you, but you need to know which ones are most effective for your business. The channels you ultimately choose will determine your reach and your cost.

4. Media

How will you get the word out about your business? You could get on the news by doing something newsworthy, or by buying advertising. Get yourself out there as often as you can.

5. Financial

This involves capitalizing your new venture. Likely, your first steps will be bootstrapping–or financing through yourself and those you know. Down the road, investors may be a possibility, but all the pieces of your business must be running smoothly.

6. Strategic

The strategic part of your business is what happens inside it. They include Strategy, Marketing, Operations and Finance–the four essential functions in your business.

7. Tactical

The tactical aspect of your business overlaps into Marketing, Operations and Finance. This is the execution of the strategy that you have created.

8. Incremental

All the work done by the workers in your business falls into this category. The tactical part lays out the tactics, the incremental part performs them.

You can tell that Michael Gerber is no novice when it comes to entrepreneurial matters. He has a keen ability to cut through words and phrases that are over used, and therefore meaningless, to succinctly get a point across. His entire hypothesis is that a business is an organization of many individual parts that work together in processes not unlike the human body and its respective systems.

When one component part is malfunctioning or misguided, it affects the other parts. Collaboration, synergy, and harmony arise when we achieve coordination of effort. Such clarity masterfully improves operating performance!