The snow has melted. Spring is here. Time for spring cleaning and new beginnings.

Being a ski instructor is a great job: it’s personally rewarding, it keeps me in physical shape and I get to do what I love, all day long. The only downside? I don’t get to do it all year long.

As my season came to a close, I realized that it was time to get serious about my business. Until now, I’ve mostly relied on word-of-mouth advertising here in Aspen and letting clients come to me. I also realized that my old website, while functional for my start-up purposes, no longer accurately reflected my services. I had a great winter season, but it was time for some spring cleaning.

So I completely redesigned my website. I deleted the services that hadn’t proven marketable and added services that, while not in my original business plan, cater to a need expressed by most of my clients. Out with the old, and in with the new.

At first I was concerned about this total revamp. I had worked hard to create an image for my company, or so I thought. But had I, really? Sure, I had a website and business cards. And I was constantly attending webinars and local business seminars to be an even more informed source for my clients. But was I taking my own advice? Not really.

So here it is, the advice package that I didn’t follow during the ski season. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be giving updates on the progress of my Marketing Makeover so you can follow along. You’ll get the inside scoop on what works and what you should skip. And of course, I’d love to swap stories and hear about your own successes.

  • Have a written marketing plan. I’m always happy to write business and marketing plans for others, but somehow always had an excuse for why I didn’t have time to write my own. Big mistake. I’m not finished with it yet, but having a written marketing plan has already demonstrated its value. It has forced me to sit down and really get to know my ideal client, which in turn has helped me figure out the best way to reach out to him or her. It’s also gotten the creative juices flowing for social networking opportunities and future events. By writing it all down in a timetable, I’ve created not only a plan, but a domino effect: even as I write the details for one idea, it usually inspires another.
  • Nail down the geographics. It’s easy for business owners to say that they want to expand their businesses, but to where, exactly? Creating a physical map pinpointing where you want to do business now and later is a crucial step in making that expansion a reality. Once you can look at your future expansion, it will motivate you to learn all you can about those places: the demographics of the people living there, the local culture, the local media… everything!
  • Get your books in order. All of these new plans you’ve been making are far more likely to succeed because they are well researched and written down. But they’re all going to cost money, which means you’re going to have to have a realistic budget. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of launching a marketing stunt only to realize that you’re going to run out of funds before pulling it off. If the financial side of running a business makes you squeamish, outsource it. Get your EIN (employee identification number) if you don’t have one and hire an accountant. Or check out my favorite resource, Corporate Tax Network. Instead of having just one financial adviser, I have access to an entire network of them, 365 days a year.
  • Identify potential partners. No matter how good you are, marketing is not a one-person job. It relies on your ability tonetwork with others. So decide with whom you want to network, what you want from the relationship and what you can offer in that relationship.

So that’s it. Seemingly simple. Now for the final ingredient to ensure a Marketing Makeover: follow through. I’ll unveil my makeover incrementally over the next few weeks. It’s scary undergoing a makeover — feedback helps!

 

Looking forward to your success story,

Megan Tackett

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What the State of the Union means for business… and why now is the time to go global.

President Barack Obama gave the American people exactly what they need right now in his State of the Union address. And he gave the small business community some much-needed recognition and plan for “winning the future.”

For those that didn’t tune into the speech, Obama spent a bulk of his speech addressing the the Big 3 for staying competitive in a global economy: innovation, education and infrastructure. And on all three accounts, the role of small business was a mainstay.

The mood of the president’s speech can best be felt in this section:

“…yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us. Remember — for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers — no workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We’re the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth.”

Increasing American exports is one of the president’s goals for fortressing our economy. In fact, he wants to double American exports by 2014. Steven McGee points out that small businesses comprise more than 97 percent of exporters, accounting for almost 29 percent of export value. Not too shabby.

So for the small businesses out there looking to contribute to the new goal and expanding your company’s reach in the global economy: What’s the first step?

Well, first, you have to take a hard look in the mirror. Are you ready to do some homework? Exporting opens up new channels to new markets, new customers, new currencies for that matter. It’s a great way to take your business to the next level and can be incredibly rewarding. But like almost every other aspect of starting and running a business, it takes work.

If you’re looking in the mirror and you think you see a business owner with international markets, great! And there’s better news still: The U.S. Small Business Administration has a plethora of resources designed to help make this reflection a reality. So step away from the mirror, head over to your computer, and go to www.export.gov/begin.

The first thing you’ll do here is answer a quick, yes-or-no questionnaire about your business. This will — hopefully — reaffirm what you saw in the mirror. When you get your results back (the SBA has a rating scale to gauge your “readiness” to export from a logistical perspective), you’ll find links to more information regarding financing, production capacity, shipping, dealing with international inquiries, international market research… the list goes on.

If your head is spinning, that’s OK! In fact, I’d recommend reconsidering your decision to export if it wasn’t. Exporting is a business in and of itself, so it makes sense to find an industry expert. If you’re willing to relinquish some control of the process in exchange for learning from a specialist, investigate export management companies (EMCs in the biz). The Federation of International Trade Associations is a great resource for finding a good EMC match, as are trade associations and publications.

The world is getting smaller, which means gaining access to it is easier than ever. And the Obama administration is, as was made clear in the State of the Union, a business-friendly one. So if you want to move into exporting, remember to focus on the Big 3: innovation (not a problem for business owners!), education (the information is out there — now go get it!) and infrastructure (building the means necessary to making your export plans a reality). Once you’ve done your homework, write a separate export business plan. Having a written plan with incremental milestones will make the process less daunting.

 

Looking forward to your success story,

Megan Tackett


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Economic gardening has deep roots.

Have you ever been driving and a bumper sticker saying, “buy locally; think globally” catches your eye? I hate to sound demanding, but it’s time to start thinking locally as well.

In light of the sluggish economy and massive lay-offs by large corporations, there has been a lot of focus on growing local economies and pulling oneself from the bootstraps, so to speak. But economic gardening has been around for more than 20 years. If we’re serious about creating a robust future for ourselves, it’s time to open the history books.

Until 1987, if a community started talking about growing its economy, the conversation naturally turned to economic recruiting, or job hunting. The idea was that local communities go out and try to recruit outside companies to open a unit in that community, thus “hunting” for new jobs. That was great in theory, but the recruiting process often boiled down to community leaders appealing to those companies’ bottom lines: “Come here — we’re cheaper than the big city!” Who wants to compete with second- and third-world countries in a race to the bottom wages?

Then, a man named Chris Gibbons found a home for another approach to economic development. In our story, the community was Littleton, Colo. The big-business employer was Martin Marietta. Thousands of people lost their jobs, and downtown vacancy was nearing 30 percent. Sitting at a 10,000-foot-elevation, the term “ghost town” was not unreasonable.

The town had always been a mining town. Gibbons talked to a few local entrepreneurs that had developed a new marketable product within the mining industry. Gibbons saw a future here: don’t try to recruit outside businesses to a town with which they don’t connect. Instead, develop Littleton for what it was: a mining town.

Now, in 2010, Gibbons is working with other communities to create economic gardening programs suitable to the individual needs of the the region. He stresses that economic gardening is more than just buying locally — it’s about changing local cultures to nourish the existing businesses to their next growth stage. Implementing an economic gardening program is complex, but can be broken down into three essential stages:

  • Information. How many business owners have a library card? The correct answer should be 100 percent. Most public libraries offer free access to multiple business research databases that answer most entrepreneurs’ most plaguing questions. Information is available, but community organizers are often ineffective in communicating its availability. If business owners started with information, then plan execution would be far more seamless.
  • Infrastructure. Yes, we’re talking about buildings. Many businesses are actually one person operating from home (including The Write People LLC!). What’s stopping these people from occupying offices? The availability of office space. If rent is insane, most people will shy away from leasing office space. And if they don’t have official office space, many business owners feel silly thinking about hiring addition staff. Or communicating with other business owners. Communities need office space, tech parks, small business development centers and business incubators… you get the idea. If you want to see your community thrive with successful businesses, it’s reasonable that your community provides space for these businesses to operate!
  • Connections. Unfortunately, a lot of businesses remain isolated. The people comprising local businesses don’t connect with other businesses for fear of competition, not wanting to come off as “all business, all the time,” and a host of other reasons. The reason this is a detriment? Most innovations come from conversations! If a community is to truly bloom from economic gardening, it needs to boast a culture of communication and connection. A “business connection” shouldn’t just be someone that you meet for post-work drinks at the local watering hole; it should be someone you’ve met at an industry-related seminar at the local community college.

And speaking of “industry-related,” allow me to offer a teaser topic: industry clusters. Now that you understand economic gardening as a concept, it’s time to start thinking about how to bring its benefits to your community and your business. Start a small group discussion to delve into identifying and cultivating industry clusters and the second-stage growth companies that create industry foundations. Are you a second-stage growth company?

 

Looking forward to your success story,

Megan Tackett

 

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Who are these angel investors, anyway? More importantly, how do I meet them?

If you’re in your start-up phase, chances are you’ve heard a lot aboutangel investors. And if you’re serious about growing your business to its next growth phase, you’re probably going to be meeting several of them in the near future. Before you dive into the pool headfirst, it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into.

Angel investors are people, just like you and me. The only difference is the numbers comprising their bank accounts. These individuals are notably wealthy and notably interested in an investment in a new, exciting company. Here’s the thing to remember when you make your pitch to an angel: he or she is looking for an emotional investment as much as a monetary one.

Most angels have been self-employed and found success with it. They usually have 30 or more years’ worth of experience in their field and are eager to share the lessons they’ve learned with other entrepreneurs. They tend to invest locally, then, because they like to have face-to-face interactions with the start-up’s founder. In addition to the money they invest (usually between $25,000 and $1.5 million), the emotional investment they make in your company can be invaluable; wouldn’t it be great if you could learn from a veteran’s past mistakes than have to absorb the costs from your own future ones?

That being said, however, angels are also looking for a high return on their monetary investments — usually between 20 and 30 percent during 5 years. To ensure that kind of success, many will expect a board position in return for the investment or sometimes a consulting role. Don’t be discouraged: because angel investments usually bridge a company from its start-up, self-funded phase to its break-even and positive-cash-flow phases, the added expertise will become a symbiotic relationship. Just make sure the terms and conditions of such roles are hammered out at the beginning of the relationship. Since most angels will expect a preplanned exit strategy regarding their monetary investment, it’s reasonable as a business founder to expect the same regarding ownership rights.

OK, now I know who they are… where can I find them?

While angels prefer anonymity in their investing roles, investors are increasingly joining angel networks. There are legions of Web sites dedicated to connecting entrepreneurs with angels. As the entrepreneur, look for angels with a background in your industry. Here are a few sites to get you started:

www.gobignetwork.com

www.angel-investor-network.com

www.fundingdek.com

www.fundinguniverse.com

Pitching investors is like anything else — practice makes perfect. Remember, raising capital via angels is a far less formal process than raising capital with venture capitalists. You want to come off as completely polished yet semi-casual. Perfect your “elevator pitch,” and come up with an entertaining story regarding your company’s beginnings. Make eye contact. So many angels later say the reason they did not invest is because they didn’t feel any chemistry with the entrepreneur.

Another piece of advice for your actual pitch: save your financial data for the end. Most investors are going to assume your numbers are wrong anyway, but have a detailed logic that you can explain as to how you arrived at the numbers you did. And remember to tell your potential investor exactly how far his or her money is going to take you. If you have a slide presentation to go along with your pitch, your last few slides should be minimalistic in style. You want your investor to be focusing on you — not on a slide — by the end of your pitch.

In summary, angels are individuals, so each encounter is going to be different with different expectations. But most angels prefer a more informal tone to a meeting and are looking to “click” with an entrepreneur. In order to stand out, be creative.

Watching the movie Aspen Extreme is a rite of passage to living in Aspen. On a movie poster I once saw, an eye-catching description ran across the poster: “Top Gun on the ski slopes!” Immediately, without having seen the movie, I had a concrete image in my head that shaped my expectations. Try to create a similar descriptor for your company. If you only have two minutes to steal an investor’s attention, that’s a sure way to do it.

 

Looking forward to your success story,

Megan Tackett


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Dear Nonprofits: You’re a business, too.

As I was watching the Oakland Raiders obliterate the Denver Broncos at a local watering hole, I happened to meet two lovely individuals who were in conversation regarding a mutual friend that was in the process of starting a nonprofit.

Clearly, I had to dive into the conversation.

First, as is the case with most nonprofits, it has a wonderful mission: rescuing abused horses.

The problem, as is the case with many nonprofits, is that the visionary is encountering obstacles toward turning her idea into an organization. The topic at hand? Recruiting her first board of directors.

When recruiting initial board members, it’s important to remember: this is a business decision. Just because you’re starting a nonprofit does not mean you’re not going to need a business mindset in order to make it succeed. Translation: as tempting as it might be, do not count on your friends and family to comprise your first board. The end result will be very excited chattering, often with little follow through.

Pull out a piece of paper. Jot down a list of all of the characteristics you’d like in the “perfect” CEO or executive director. Perhaps you’d love someone who used to be an accountant. And a lawyer. And a professional fundraiser. And a motivational speaker. Oh, and someone who has experience starting nonprofits. Great. Now you have a general list of your first five board members.

Remember, your board represents far more than your governing entity — it also represents your organization’s potential network. Think of everyone you know. Now multiply that by the number of people on your Dream Board. Suddenly the two or three potential angels you were imagining could invest in your cause just turned into a potential 30. Your Dream Board is going to be as passionate about your cause as you are, which means its members will act as individual spokespeople on your behalf to their personal networks. Why else would they dedicate their valuable time to the cause?

And therein lies the key to an ideal board member: someone with a specialized expertise that will benefit your organization that is alsopassionate about the organization’s mission. No passion? No commitment. And you need to be upfront with your candidates — they need to expect to commit at least five hours per month to your organization. When foundations are deciding whether or not your nonprofit is worthy of a grant, one of the pinnacle factors is the level of board participation.

Another note: I’ve made a few references to your Dream Board for good reason. You deserve it! So many new founders act as though they’re lucky to get anyone on their board at all. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, create an application process. Rather than begging someone in an e-mail, “Please join my board! Pretty please?!,” try another approach. Try something like, “I really think your credentials make you an excellent candidate for our board of directors. Attached you’ll find the application; I hope this is something you’ll consider.” If you want others to take your endeavor seriously, you need to do so yourself.

Remember, recruiting your Dream Board is the first step of many. Your organization will need bylaws. I strongly recommend having a written ethics code. You’ll need to file your Articles of Incorporation with the proper local office, usually your Secretary of State. But don’t be overwhelmed — there are plenty of resources that offer guidance.

 

Looking forward to your success story,

Megan Tackett


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A word on incubators…

First, my apologies for the late publication this week. I’ve fallen a bit under the weather and was subsequently in bed, making “Operation Vertical” more of an undertaking than I wanted.

But all clouds have a silver lining, and as I was stuck sick in bed, I knew the subject of this week’s entry: business incubation.

I’m sick. Everyone in my life has been giving me advice. There’s Team “Drink OJ” vs. Team “Drink Tea.” There’s the crowd telling me to stay in bed vs. the one that advises I force myself to stay active. And that wasbefore I called my mother.

The same is true in business. When you’re starting a new venture, or are in your first growth phase, everyone is giving you advice. It can be completely daunting. And let’s face it, like any infant, your business is still weak.

But imagine if you had a place to grow responsibly. Imagine a place that offers small business services tailored exactly to your needs as a new business owner. That’s what a business incubator is: it specializes in nurturing infant businesses. They offer programs and resources to help guide the way. They offer access to local business networks and can even help find lower-than-market rent for new office space.

For my local readers, a good resource to check out is the Roaring Fork Business Resource Center in Glenwood Springs. I am on the Advisory Council as a business plan and marketing consultant. If you are an RFBRC client, you’ll enjoy $75 off your business plan and 10 percent off any other purchases with The Write People LLC.

I worked for the National Business Incubation Association’s publications department for almost two years during my time at Ohio University. It was the first time I had ever heard of the business incubation industry. Two years later, I still think it is sincerely undervalued.

Business incubators’ missions focus on stimulating local economies by making communities more entrepreneurial friendly. By helping foster new businesses, they inadvertently create new and retain local jobs.

If you think your business could benefit from a business incubator, don’t wait! Incubators focus on emerging businesses; if your business is established but still in its first phases of growth, consider a small business development center (SBDC), which offers programs for businesses at all stages.

Of course, incubators and SBDCs, while usually non-profit organizations, have to pay staff and maintain operating costs, etc. Which means there is a minimal fee structure for clients. If you’re on a tight budget and need access to free education tools, the Small Business Administration offers free training on everything from accounting to advertising.

 

Looking forward to your success story,

Megan Tackett


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Can’t find one person to give you $10,000? What about 200 people to give you $50?

Think about your social networks. Do you have a Facebook account? Are you on Twitter? What about other networking sites, such as LinkedIn?

Now let me throw a few other networking sites at your attention:

Have you ever heard of Kickstarter.com? IndieGoGo.com? GrowVC.com?

If not, and if you’re looking to fund your small project in a big way, these are the Web sites you need to be adding to your Bookmarks.

It’s called crowd funding. It mixes the power of social networking with good old fashioned philanthropy. You create a project — funding your start up, for instance — and post it to cyberspace. The benefits are twofold: not only do you appeal to small-time investors en masse, but you also acquire free market research. If your idea doesn’t take — nobody invests in it — you get a pretty reliable hint that you should rethink your idea.

But if the idea does take, you could be the benefactor of big gains. Unlike traditional capital investments, where aspiring entrepreneurs appeal to investors with the promise of ROI beyond market expectations, crowd funding does not require any reimbursement. In fact, by its nature, it can’t.

In order to keep the transaction “pure,” recipients of crowd funding often reimburse investors with very nice thank-you cards, presale products not yet on the market, credits in their independent movies or scripts, etc. Money can be received, but not returned. Otherwise, entrepreneurs and well-intentioned investors alike risk violating the Howey Test, which clearly defines a transaction as an investment contract (i.e.: security) as a situation “whereby a person invests his money in a common enterprise and is led to expect profits solely from the efforts of the promoter of third party, it being immaterial whether the shares in the enterprise are evidenced by formal certificates or by nominal interests in the physical assets employed in the enterprise.”

Moral of the story: while crowd funding offers a new avenue of accessibility regarding funding, make sure you are playing by the SEC’s rule book.

If you have a great idea that you think your peer group would support, go for it. Crowd funding has changed the game for many small business people. Just don’t kid yourself: the goals of this game are not long term.

In addition to opening yourself and your idea to better funded competition (the only way to be the benefactor of crowd funding is to, well, open yourself to the crowd), it’s also often a one-time deal. Invest your earnings wisely, because if you have to go to the races a second time, you’re not likely to get much in the way of investments. It’s called start-up funding for a reason: after you’ve started, your original benefactors will be on to “the next big thing.”

But that’s not intended to be a note of discouragement. Imagine what you would do if a group of online investors — friends, friends of friends and complete strangers — got you up and running with that $10,000 you’ve been fantasizing about in your dreams. Surely you have enough savvy to invest in a more long-term marketing strategy, right? Well, then, what are you waiting for?

 

Looking forward to your success story,

Megan Tackett

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