Marketing a small business

I find fewer things as exciting and inspiring as someone diving into a new small business.

(Did I say “small business”? How about “micro-business“?)

A friend of mine, Deanna Camp,  is a talented art director with great experience working for a major retailer (REI) and ad agencies. She’s raising kids, still doing some ad work, and pursuing a business she can build on her restrictive schedule. We sat down last week to discuss how she might market her new business. 

Deanna has created a fun series trout-themed illustrations that she can sell or license as greeting cards, t-shirts, and a whole bunch of other fun stuff. She showed me some greeting card samples —  I can picture them pulling down premium prices all over the Northwest and beyond.

We were discussing what she might do to develop her business. Neither of us is an expert on developing small businesses, but here are some of the ideas we had. Maybe they apply to other small businesses that are trying to bootstrap it.

1. Research on the Internet: Learn the business vicariously. For Deanna, it means finding out who sells what she wants to sell, where they sell it and how. Are there trade shows? Are there specialty publications? Are there social networks that seem like good communities for her products. No doubt. Find them, read about them, observe them, and see what you can learn early in the game.

2. Research in person: It should be easy to locate businesses locally and regionally where her products might do well. She should have samples ready at all times, and talk with business owners to get their advice. (Can she write off weekend trips with the family if she does this? Uh, see your tax advisor.)

3. Build a killer website: Since she’s selling design, presentation is key. It has to be as compelling as the product. And it needs to give people a chance to purchase stuff on impulse. 

4. Become a social media maven: She’s created a blog, which is a good and important first step. Here’s why: Google loves blogs. Services like WordPress have great pull with search engines. Blogs allow you to publish as often as you want, so you can maintain you sweet search rank. And people can subscribe to your blog and link to it, helping the search rankings even more. 

But social media is a big area these days. It may not cost a lot of money, but it deserves some planning effort, so the time you spend (in lieu of money) isn’t wasted. 

I suggested that she search the web for communities that are a good fit for her designs. Since her first series is called Hybrid Trout, with wonderful illustrations of trout as DeadHead Trout, Corporate Trout, Jingle Trout, etc, outdoor sports communities are a good start. 

The idea is to join the community and listen, not sell. After a while, maybe a couple of months, she’ll know what and when she can contribute to the community, and become a full-fledged trusted member. Trust and authenticity are the keys. You can’t build them overnight.

I also suggest using the free resources at Facebook: (1) a fan page, (2) Groups, and (3) Facebook Connect. Of course, you need to commit time and energy if you want Facebook to pay off, even if it’s free. 

5. Outsource the sales staff —find a rep: We’re living in a conceptual age — coming up with the concept and executing flawlessly is the real value. The best marketers outsource whatever they can to experts who can add value. In Deanna’s case, I would think this includes almost all the production, and a sales rep with a ready-made network. (Selling to an established network is  THEIR concept, their value.) I’m not an expert in the marketing of art, design, or design-y, arty gifts, but I have to believe that the most important thing for Deanna is to perfect her concept and create a bigger portfolio that will make her attractive to more business partners who can help her make money. My guess is that she’ll outsource as much of the time-consuming legwork as possible. Leverage someone else’s experience at sales.

But she needs to be careful: Getting locked into a bad deal is worse than finding no deal at all. Which leads to…

6. Network with other people in her business: Some people build empires on networking. Deanna has already networked with another “fish art” artist and a women’s business group. She’ll find organizations, trade shows and who knows what else that relates to her business. 

For instance, there will be organizations of artists, women business owners, women artists, gift shop distributors, gift shop owners, sales representatives, production companies, publications, fishing enthusiasts, environmentalist and chefs. All worth networking with.

7. Set some goals: This is a tricky one. I’m not an expert in goal setting. But if you don’t have a goal, what are your marketing for? What would Deanna’s goals be at this point? I’m not sure how she would know.

At least you can know what you want. By knowing very specifically what you want, you can begin to take steps. For Deanna, if what she wants is major distribution, she knows she has to target major distributors. And thus begin to build a plan. 

* * * 

That’s all I can think of, for now. It’s going to be fun seeing what Deanna does, now that the pressure is on. (Just kidding, kid.)

2 thoughts on “Marketing a small business

    • Reggie, thanks for posting! I agree on focus. That should be on any checklist, my bad. (I suppose a checklist could end up being 100 points long, depending on how deep you want to go.)

      Focus is a huge subject. Two great books: Zag, by Marty Neumeier, and Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends On It, by Al Reis.

      Of course there’s this post on the subject.

      More on focus as it relates to someone just starting a small business:

      Some businesses start with a focused market segment in mind, say trout fishing enthusiasts, then create products and services that will serve the segment. Other businesses start with a product or service that for whatever reason feels right. Often it comes from their domain of expertise. Could be an iPhone app, a better kind of car wax or an illustration of trout in DeadHead gear. These businesses have to do step back and identify the various segments that may be viable targets, then evaluate them for sales potential. Almost always, the more focus, the better.

      (You just have to make sure you don’t focus so tightly that there’s not enough “total available market” as the MBAs say. By definition, the larger the target market, the less focus. It’s a typical mistake in technology marketing. A software engineer invents a cell-phone gadget. Well, who’s the target? “Everyone with a cell phone!” says the excited engineer. Well, only if you want to blow a lot of cash on an unfocused marketing effort.)

      Another example — a contractor. This guy knows how to do additions. He knows he’s good, he’s fast, he has access to good workers who give him a cost advantage. Well, he still needs to figure out how to focus, because not all room additions are the same. There’s residential and there’s commercial. And within each, there are subcategories. And in each slice of every segment, there will be competition from other contractors who have some kind of advantage. What’s more, even though our contractor has cost advantage, he doesn’t necessarily want to compete on cost. So where does he begin?

      If he wants to be successful, he should focus on a well-defined segment, such as: Pre-1930 homes in the South end of the city (or in some appropriate location.) He could dominate the segment, and still have license to work on referrals that fall outside his marketing focus.

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