Overcoming Business Failures With Mentoring

 

According to Bill Warner, co-founder of EntreDot, approximately 26,000 new companies are formed each year in North Carolina and, in that same year, over 23,000 companies fail due to poor management and operational mistakes. Warner further states that, “The statistics are worse in rural and minority populations. This means that good ideas go to waste along with the grant and investor funds that helped get these companies started. As a result, the potential growth of revenue and new jobs is lost also.” These comments are very similar sentiments to what Dun and Bradstreet found in some surveys conducted during the period of 2007 – 2010. D&B found that the rate of business failure went up by an average of 40% during the recession years.

D&B SMB Lowest Failure Rate by State 2010

 

Many of the states with lower failure rate increases are less heavily populated states. In fact, of all the states that have seen a decline in the rate of small to medium sized business failure, only North Carolina makes the list of 10 most populous states in the country. Of states (below) with large increases in failure rates, only California is heavily populated.  

D&B SMB Failure Rate by State 2010

 

 

 

From 2007 through 2010, Western states in the West had the highest increase in failure rates. Reasons D&B provided for the uptick in failures include continued instability in the residential housing market and drop-off in the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors. Interestingly, Tennessee has been home to the highest small business failure rates for four years in a row.  

D&B Largest SMB Industries 2010

 

These trends have been occurring at a time when the number of retail establishments and corresponding retail employment have both dropped by 15-20%. On the other hand, the number of SMBs in the Business Services category more than doubled and these businesses experienced a 30% increase in the number of people they employ. The fastest growing industries for SMBs are summarized below:

D&B Fastest Growing Industries 2010

 

As you can plainly see, nothing else comes close to the growth of  the Business Services category. Bear in mind that many software as a service companies are part of this category and have been launched in only recent years. The macrotrends that become evident are that retail is on the wane, highly populated states are more stable in terms of business failure statistics, and the business services category’s growth will be a key cog in the engine of our economy.

Warner points to the following issues of significance to these small businesses:

  • Business strategy and planning to make sure their business is focused on a viable market with a winning product and/or service that has a competitive edge
  • Forecasting and financing ensuring that sales forecasts are realistic and that revenue, cost, expense and cash are well managed
  • Operational discipline and judgment to increase the chances of success by making fewer mistakes
  • Industry connections that can help accelerate the business and its operations
  • Start-up company experience that can instill the wisdom of what it takes to really start and manage an emerging business

 

He feels that these companies need the dual combination of basic business know-how and mentoring. The situation in North Carolina, where Warner and I live, is that our state has a comprehensive array of entrepreneurship education programs throughout the community college and university systems including various other private and public organizations. The problem is that we have little help for entrepreneurs once they have completed these programs and actually try to start a business. We recommend assistance for entrepreneurs who are struggling to create successful businesses, the failures should decline considerably. Entrepreneurs should be seeking out business mentors that can help them through the early years of their business.

 

Get Emails Read – Follow 7 Guidelines

Most businesses rely on emails for the majority of their communications. Yet, most of us are certain that some of our emails are ignored by the recipient. If you are trying to get your emails read, consider the below guidelines offered by Jonathan Borge of ToutApp. (Borge was contacted by Tom Searcy for a recent article for Inc.com on the subject.)

1. Subject lines: Remember that only 20 percent to 40 percent of your emails will actually get opened, though most of your subject lines will be seen. To boost your open rates, think of short, catchy, and informative subject lines. You should try to dangle compelling information (“The future of sales emails”), and you can even try adding some mystery (“Strange question”). We also recommend personalized subject lines, if possible (“Hunter Sullivan suggested I contact you”).]

2. Your tone: Portray yourself as someone that other people can connect to. You’ll want to show your recipients that you care about hearing back from them… so you can’t simply sound like you’re just sending another mass email. Never use “Dear sir or Madam,” and stay away from overly formal language.

3. Email content: Make your emails short, simple, and easy to quickly digest. Your leads are busy people with jobs, too, so you need to maintain their interest. Do your research and find out what resonates for your prospects. Try to get an introduction to them or, if that’s not possible, figure out in more detail what they or their company do. Tell them why you’re emailing them, specifically. Talk about how you can solve a problem for them.

Email

4. Your sign-off: End your emails with a definitive, clear call to action. Make it dead simple for your recipients to say yes—whether it’s to a meeting, phone call, or product demo. Don’t ask them for permission. If you want a phone call, then say “Call me right now at X for more details.”

5. Your timing: Reach out to your leads when they’re not too busy. Make sure you avoid heavy traffic times like Monday mornings. Based on our tracking data, we recommend the middle of the week, mid-day, as the best time to send emails.

6. Your image: First impressions are important both in person and online. The tone and formatting of your email is all your recipients have to judge you by. Make sure you are being professional, clear, and easy to understand. Stay away from over-formatted emails that look gimmicky, but don’t hesitate to call out important information in bold or bullet points.

7. Your homework: Send yourself a sales email. Put yourself in your leads’ shoes. If you were them, would you open this email? Would you spend more than two seconds reading it? If so, what would you do next?

Searcy notes that the list sounds almost too basic. Yet, when he went back and examined the last 10 recent emails he had sent to prospects and clients, he found that he only employed four of these guidelines on average per email. Why don’t you take the same challenge? Hopefully, you can learn from it –as he and I have!

 

 

Failure to Innovate Spells Decline

History has a way of repeating itself. JP Nichols, the CEO of Clientific, recites a passage from Theodore Levitt’s 1960 treatise “Marketing Myopia“ to illustrate how railroads missed a window of opportunity in their business life cycle:

“The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones) but because it was filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry incorrectly was that they were railroad oriented instead of transportation oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer oriented.”

railroadThen, Nichols makes the connection of this faulty business strategy to the modern banking system. As an industry, he feels the banks have become product rather than customer focused. Here’s how he describes the slippery slope slide into irrelevance:

Mature industries erode subtly at first. Hungry upstarts nibble at segments too small or unprofitable for entrenched incumbents to waste much energy protecting. But eventually the new entrants gain traction and move upmarket to larger and more profitable segments. And new categories are invented along the way.

Then, as it relates to banking, he writes:

Economic cycles wax and wane, but people will always look for ways to save and borrow, to move money from one place to another, and to occasionally get some advice from someone they trust. Traditional financial institutions like banks and brokerages held a near-monopoly on those activities for generations, but banks that continue to be bank-oriented will continue to lose to an increasingly broad group of competitors that are truly customer-oriented.

Think about what’s been happening around the edges of the banking industry. Peer-to-peer lending platforms and retailers’ captive financing programs have taken lending business that once was nearly the sole province of banks. New payments ventures like Square and Dwolla provide services that people want to use because of their great design and ease of use. SigFig is an online registered investment advisor with over $50 billion in assets tracked on its platform. Innovative startups like Simple and Movenbank are reinventing the whole notion of what it even means to be a bank.

The scariest part? None of those companies even existed five years ago.bank

In contrast to the banks’ inability to anticipate the needs of consumers as well as these new enterprises, Nichols salutes another highly regulated industry, healthcare, which he says, reinvests 10% to 15% of its revenues back into research and development, and “represented 21% of the $603 billion spent globally on R&D in 2011, according to a Booz & Co. study. Financials don’t even make the list, lumped in instead with the 2% of “other” industries, collectively in tenth place.”

Nichols, who was the first chief private banking officer for US Bank, challenges the industry to redefine what business they are in, as the railroads should have but didn’t. He feels that a redefinition of the industry to become more responsive to consumer needs and niche services to serve them would be revolutionary.

But, set aside railroads and banks. Look at your own organization now. How can you become more innovative? How can you light the fire of intrapreneurship so that it burns brightly a generation from now? Very simply: begin with the customer in mind and build something that will blow their socks off in terms of its ability to resonate with deep seated needs. Go do it!

Soft Skills Matter in Business – Even if Not Measurable

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work alongside some brilliant co-workers and clients. Whether it has been inside a public accounting firm, or as an advisor to engineering and construction companies, I am often surrounded by folks with strong technical skills. Since my role has usually involved organizational development, strategy, or marketing and business development, I have heard time and again how “soft and fuzzy” topics such as relationships, emotional intelligence, and creativity and communication are less needful than the technical skills.

Susan Mazza, who writes a blog entitled Random Acts of Leadership, recognizes the dichotomy of “soft” versus “hard” skills in her recent post, “The Power of Soft.” She states in the post that, “the very need to distinguish “soft” vs. “hard” speaks to a paradigm that has long revered hard results as the only ones that really matter. Unless something can be quantified and measured the underlying belief is that it is somehow less valuable and hence of lesser importance.”Soft vs hard skills

Whether I have been in conversations with a CFO, a business owner, or a  VP of operations, I have heard over and again how that which cannot be measured must be insignificant and pale in priority. Mazza references a recent TED Talk by Dr. Brene’ Brown, “Leaning into Vulnerability” in which Brown shares how one of her research professors once stated, “If you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist.” Mazza observes that many with advanced degrees subscribe to a scientific framework that assumes “measurable” is the only test for “real!”

Dr. Brown’s talk about vulnerability addressed the effort to view “soft” subjects with “hard” data. New insights have prevailed that challenge the long-held distinction within the business world of the value of each category of skills. Mazza’s view of the new awareness is that, “in our relentless pursuit to collect and analyze data, we all too often ignore the most important measure of all – our senses!”

The behavior we see and emotions we feel, according to Mazza, are the source of the most powerful tool we have as leaders and mangers – our ability to observe. She observes the following:

You have probably heard the phrase, “the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.” Can’t you feel that tension? How much productive work gets done when that kind of tension is present? Yet we often grind through what we see and feel through simple observation, knowing both the experience and the result are going to be less than satisfying.

Would having a mood Geiger Counter to assign the tension a number really make any difference?

By simply observing the mood and the impact it is having on your ability to fulfill your commitments, you are able to take action to make a difference in any moment. How to take that action is, of course, another subject.

The point here is the real power of soft comes from our innate ability to observe. So perhaps it’s time to give up our attachment to measuring all things and the belief that, “If you can’t measure it it doesn’t exist.”  Why not start  learning to better use the tools we have been born with – our senses – as an access to improving relationships, enhancing performance and creating great places to work?

The ability to navigate through tensions, create win-win scenarios, and build esprit de corps comes not from technical, “hard” skills, but from those soft and fuzzy assets that many C-suite executives and business owners underestimate. Think about your own organization and how greater respect for soft skills could make it a better place to work, where senses are valued equally with data and relationships that build goodwill are put on a pedestal.

 

 

 

Your Online Content Needs a Strategy

Many of my clients have made the jump into the digital age with their marketing. They know that they need to be involved in social media, but often have never heard of content management. While I do not pretend to be a content expert, I have picked up on some best practices over time and try to apply those to my own firm and the clientele I serve. My email inbox receives regular updates to keep me abreast of what thought leaders have to say about content. Over the weekend, I read about “8 Content Marketing Mistakes to Avoid,” a whitepaper that was very well written. The authors/sources quoted include Heinz Marketing’s Matt Heinz, Marketing Interactions’ Ardath Albee, Babcock & Jenkins’ Carmen Hill, The Funnelholic’s Craig Rosenberg, and The Sales Lion’s Marcus Sheridan. 

Excerpts appear below, followed by my own formatting for emphasis, observation and commentary:

1. Don’t neglect to do the groundwork. Before you start any marketing activity, you have to know why you’re doing it. How does this activity translate to immediate or eventual sales and revenue? (Heinz)

You have to know (to) whom you’re talking, what they need and want to know, and where their interests intersect with yours. (Hill)

2. Don’t focus on yourself—focus on the buyer instead. Think like the end user, not like a business owner. Great content marketing is about education.  To be great at content marketing, the focus has to be about the reader, and not the company/writer. (Sheridan)

Our content needs a lot less “we” and a lot more “you.” (Hill).

3. Don’t pitch your product at every stage. Give the people what they want: interesting content that makes their life better. (Rosenberg)

What are your customer’s issues? What do they need help with, right now? That’s the content that will spread like wildfire for you. (Heinz)

Question words4. Don’t overlook calls to action. Every content asset should have a call to action. Build pathways and tell connected stories that help to build momentum through the pipe. (Albee)

5. Don’t forget that effective content marketing is a two-way street. To really accelerate your audience and impact, you must devote time to responding, commenting, engaging questions and so on. (Heinz)

6. Don’t produce content that lacks substance. Audrey Gray of American Express advised that we put our energy into what we’re making rather than the platform: “Create content that makes you feel smarter, celebrates human artistry, or that has with real-world value.” (Hill)

7. Don’t treat content marketing as an afterthought. Content marketing is a practice that integrates all of your content-driven initiative into a consistent and holistic experience for your target markets. Content marketing is at its best when it’s used to pull everything together so that an experience in one channel makes sense or adds value when the audience switches to another channel. (Albee)

8. Don’t underestimate the power of various formats. Written content may be the core of your content strategy, but don’t forget video. Or podcasts. Or short, embedded slide presentations. Or whatever other formats your audience naturally gravitates toward. (Heinz) 

Marketers will benefit tremendously by embracing the Rule of 5. Take one topic and develop 5 different angles to approach it, creating 5 different formats of content. (Albee)

Sound advice from some stellar content curators and marketers. Incorporate these principles into your own business environment. Become engaging, relevant, and indispensable. Doing so will build a loyal following that can be turned into either revenues or referrals that produce revenues. At the very least, your brand gains equity for your efforts and that is no small feat!