Success for a business can be fleeting. A wave of interest and customers can come in, but if the company’s business model or value proposition is not sound, then it’s difficult to maintain the momentum.
Once a business is moving along, most entrepreneurs will also reach a decision point as to when to move on from the company, whether it’s through a sale or simply ceasing operations.
Below are seven core tips for entrepreneurs who are looking to build a company and also some advice for those who need to leave their venture and create another.
Set realistic goals
A positive attitude and confidence in your business’ long-term success are vital. When it comes to setting goals, however, you need to inject a dose of realism.
Manage your own expectations so that even if you reach modest success benchmarks, you won’t have any sense of disappointment. Set conservative goals that will allow you to grow slowly. Use market research to gauge the size of your market and set reasonable sales goals.
Doing this legwork on the front end will pay off by helping you see if your plan is flawed and needs tweaking.
You have to stand out
The attributes that make your product or service unique will be your main selling proposition.
Be honest about the true uniqueness and don’t simply trust your biased opinion. You need to be able to market your competitive differentiator, and it needs to matter from the customer’s perspective.
Set the value proposition
If your product’s special traits don’t offer value, then they won’t do you any good. Gather the advice of others to gauge if you are presenting true cost versus value to customers. The value proposition is a core of the business, and without one it will certainly fail.
Implement and follow a sound business model
Do you have a plan in place for how the company will make money?
You should be revenue-focused right away and closely watch all expenses, especially your initial capital costs and any personnel salaries. Creating a full business plan at the outset will also protect you from overextending yourself or dipping too far into your personal finances.
Know when to walk away
Ideally, you will walk away from your business on your own terms. Perhaps you’ll have an offer to sell the company that will enable you to take time off or even retire early. If you think the company has reached its peak and cannot grab more market share, then you should consider selling.
Conversely, if your strategies are simply not panning out, then you need to know when it’s time to pull the plug. Don’t risk personal financial ruin pursuing the business. If you have the entrepreneurial spirit then there is always another venture.
When to begin again
If you walked away from your company and are in good financial shape, then you can explore starting another company. You should first have a reflective period where you look at the things you did right and wrong with your other business. Try to spot consistent issues.
Perhaps you overestimated the costs of production or the expenses incurred due to staffing. Don’t be afraid to take some classes to broaden your knowledge base. Once you have learned some lessons and adjusted your strategy, then you can dive into your next company with the right focus.
Find a niche
You not only need a product or service with unique traits, but you also need to identify a good niche within a decent-sized market. What’s a good example of a big market? Consider the hotel lodging business. It’s a $500 billion business. Think of any percentage of that sum and you have a hefty dollar amount.
Bob Diener is a pioneer in the hotel consolidation and online travel industry with more than 25 years of experience. Diener is the president and co-founder of www.getaroom.com and is co-founder of the Hotel Reservations Network, now known as Hotels.com.
Will Gruver found heartfelt riches by bringing electricity, jobs and hope to developing nations through USP&E GlobalWritten by Leslie Stevens-Huffman
Will Gruver pursued the American dream after earning a degree in economics from Northwestern University — but it didn’t take long for the Minnesota native to realize that working at a bank in Chicago’s famous Loop District couldn’t satisfy his entrepreneurial yearning or heartfelt need to enrich the lives of others.
So in 2002 he threw caution to the windy city and moved to the Dallas suburb of Celina where he launched USP&E Global. His goal was to design, build and operate fuel-efficient and renewable power stations, primarily in emerging markets.
Gruver says his decision to risk it all was truly a no-brainer, because the U.S. economy was growing at a snail’s pace while overseas markets were booming. And given the choice, he’d rather be sorry, than safe.
“The barriers to entrance have never been lower while the financial and humanitarian rewards have never been greater,” he says. “There are unbelievable opportunities in out of the way places for anyone willing to take a risk.”
On the surface, it seems like Gruver’s chancy decision might yield big dividends. After all, the International Energy Agency expects global energy demand to increase by one-third by 2035, with nearly 60 percent of the demand coming from countries with a burgeoning middle class like China, India and the Middle East.
But outsiders who try to navigate the business landscape in developing nations are often stymied by language and cultural differences and bureaucratic red tape. Small firms like USP&E also face stiff competition from energy, engineering and infrastructure giants like Siemens, which plans to expand its reach in emerging markets over the next five years.
Gruver would need to leverage the expertise of experienced globe trotting partners and employees to realize his dream of bringing power, jobs and hope to people in underdeveloped countries.
People in struggling countries are often wary of outsiders and for good reason. Consider the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone where slavery and the sale of so-called blood diamonds to outsiders during the 1990s fueled a brutal civil war and now only those who can afford generators have access to electricity.
Gruver, who employs a faith-based approach to leadership, believes that creating communities and jobs isn’t a consequence of doing business — it’s a reason to be in emerging markets and a moral obligation. Moreover, he scoffs at strangers who suggest that he should hasten his company’s growth by offering officials in underdeveloped countries financial incentives to secure permits or minimize red tape.
Instead, he follows his moral compass by hiring local people to operate and maintain a power station once construction is complete. He says that providing training and jobs creates trickle-down good will, and an environment of mutual respect, that leads to new opportunities. He cites his firm’s ability to secure multiple contracts in Sierra Leone, which is experiencing annual GDP growth of 35.9 percent, as an example.
He pays local workers well once a week and gives each employee a bag of rice to supplement their family’s meals.
“You build trust by keeping your word, and by giving people jobs and a career path,” Gruver says. “Hope was lost in Sierra Leone when we arrived two years ago. It’s remarkable how just a little bit of reliable growth can make a difference. We’re not only giving these people jobs and electricity — we’re giving them hope.”
Leverage strategic partnerships
How difficult is the business climate in Sierra Leone? The country’s overall ease of doing business ranks 140th out of 185 economies according to data compiled by The World Bank. Worse yet, it ranks 173th in dealing with construction permits and 176th in getting electricity, which means Gruver needs strategic alliances to achieve his philanthropic and economic mission.
“It’s very difficult to break into a foreign country without leveraging the established trust of companies that know the ins and outs of the local business and have tenured relationships,” he says.
In addition, having relationships with highly regarded and diverse companies such as Caterpillar, General Electric, Hyundai and Ernst & Young Africa helps USP&E overtake entrenched local competitors by offering clients turnkey power solutions. And the company’s nimble size and vast network helps it customize its deliverables and pounce on prospective opportunities.
“Some competitors just sell power plant support or construction or they only work in Venezuela because they don’t have the alliances to compete on a bigger stage,” Gruver says. “We can offer everything from design to construction and ongoing support for our plants by leveraging the abilities and products of our strategic partners.”
When USP&E couldn’t find a local printer to deliver documents to a prospective client in Johannesburg, South Africa, E&Y stepped in and its actions helped the fledgling power company close the deal. Other relationships have lead to inaugural deals in France and Spain.
“We’re not a huge company so we look for mutually beneficial relationships that extend our capabilities,” he says. “We expect to generate revenues of around $50 million this year and that’s largely due to our strategic partnerships which have never been stronger.”
Hire diverse and passionate people
Companies encounter unfamiliar technical and cultural challenges when they venture beyond the U.S. border. Having a diverse, multi-cultural staff with global business experience is critical in an environment where local knowledge plays a critical economic role. This is especially true in emerging markets, where decision makers are interested in knowing whether companies are interested in them as people or just want their dollars.
There’s no shortage of opportunities for globally experienced engineers and energy-savvy technicians — especially in Texas. So how has a mid-size company with fairly limited resources managed to hire 110 movers and shakers over the last three years?
“We promote our mission because it attracts like-minded people who want to work for more than a paycheck,” Gruver says.
Indeed, what people want most is the chance to make a difference according to Alexander Hiam, the Massachusetts-based author of “Business Innovation for Dummies.” Although a great salary doesn’t hurt, professionals are flocking to disruptive, world-changing organizations where they can feel good about what they do.
Interviews at USP&E usually start with a rudimentary question and answer exchange, but the conversation quickly turns toward the company’s overseas exploits. At that point, candidates who are merely interested in collecting a paycheck usually exit, while those who are passionate about the company’s mission are hooked on the idea of traveling the world and meeting buyers, sellers, and facility managers on multiple continents with different languages, cultures and customs.
And since engaged employees are generally more productive than their less motivated counterparts, the passion factor allows Gruver to boost the return on his fairly small staff. His experience is validated by more than 29 studies that link employee engagement to better service, sales, profits and shareholder returns.
“I lead an awesome team of executives, directors, engineers, project managers and technicians,” Gruver says. “They can have any job they want but they work for USP&E because they’re passionate about helping people.”
Harness the power of the Internet
USP&E doesn’t pay for advertising on Google or Yahoo, and it doesn’t have a commercial sales team. Yet, the company manages to garner five to 15 legitimate leads per day through the strategic deployment of some 80 websites.
Gruver studied web development in college — and refers to himself as a technophile — so he knows a thing or two about search engine optimization. Invariably, USP&E comes up near the top of the page when a prospective client searches the Internet for power engineering solutions or providers because the company owns the rights to a variety of keyword-rich domain names.
A strategic domain name can increase a website’s ranking especially if the domain matches the search query. The tactic is especially effective for small companies that don’t have a large advertising budget or well-known brand, since it snares prospective clients who search on keywords or phrases instead of a company name, and having a strong web presence may even attract investors.
“Executives often think that they have to pay for strategic Internet placement but that’s simply not true,” Gruver says. “Managing search engine optimization is so important to growing companies that it needs to be a top priority for executives right after cash flow.”
Speaking of cash flow, it’s still a daily priority for Gruver given the company’s age and rapid growth. He’s learned to say no to unnecessary frills and how to streamline operations by investing in mission critical areas that yield the best return. He credits his mentors with telling him the truth about frivolous spending instead of what he wants to hear while teaching him the virtues of risk taking and pushing boundaries.
“It’s amazing how just one disruptive idea can change the fortunes of so many people,” Gruver says. “We’re not just creating jobs — we’re creating hope — and that’s a wonderful thing.”
How to reach: U.S. Power & Environment Global, (469) 726-4780 or www.uspowerco.com
The Gruver File
Name: Will Gruver
Title: CEO and founder
Company: USP&E Global
Born: Minneapolis, Minn.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications and economics, Northwestern University.
What was your first job?
My first job was a youth pastor, but I started my first company when I was just 10. It was a landscaping business which I built up and sold to my partner after I finished high school.
Who do you most admire in the business world and why?
Entrepreneurs, especially those who head-up small businesses, because they’re the risk-takers who are pushing the boundaries and making a difference in this world. It’s the developing nations that offer the greatest growth and philanthropic opportunities, but it takes courage, passion and a forward-thinking strategy to pursue those opportunities.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Practice work-life balance. It’s easy to become entrenched in your business and overlook family and friends. I’m more motivated and productive on a daily basis because I have balance in my life.
What’s the key to success in emerging markets?
There’s so much corruption that’s it’s critical to build trust. You won’t muster repeat business unless you take the time to become a valued and trusted supplier.
What’s your definition of business success?
It may sound like a cliché, but helping other people. It’s easy to make money; the hard part is making a difference. There are unbelievable opportunities in this world for anyone willing to take a risk. For a company to thrive there has to be a reason for it to exist. Profits are important but it’s how you get there that counts.
Awards: Finalist, 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst & Young
Recipient, Dallas Business Journal’s “40 Under 40”Award
Finalist, INC. 500, fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Dallas 100 Entrepreneur Award, USP&E placed seventh out of the 100 fastest-growing privately held companies in the Dallas area
I drop off my clothes at the dry cleaner weekly and the staff is always friendly. A hello, good bye is always said but there are a few things that are missing.
1. A few weeks earlier, I dropped off some clothes and picked up and paid for the clothes that I had dropped off the week earlier. As I was getting out of the car I asked my son to bring in my dry cleaning. He said, “Dad — these clothes don’t look like yours.”
As I took a quick look, he was 100 percent right and two minutes later we were back at the dry cleaners exchanging the wrong clothes…. I hoped. Thankfully after 15 minutes they found my clothes and life was back to normal and my shirts were back with me.
The interesting thing was what the owner said or actually didn’t say. The only thing he said was, “Thanks for bringing back the clothes,” which I thought was very odd. There was no sorry for the mix up… no sorry for any inconvenience… in fact, no sorry at all.
Lesson No. 1: Say I’m sorry. It isn’t a sign of weakness; it isn’t a sign of embarrassment. Frankly it is a sign of honesty and sincerity, and it shows the customer you really, really care about them and their business.
2. In the past few months I have also noticed that my dry cleaner will give me a date/time when my clothes will be ready. Lo and behold when I show up, they aren’t. I understand that you can miss a deadline but when you know you have missed a deadline, say something. they have my phone number and email. Make a call or send a text/email.
Lesson No. 2: Everyone will miss a deadline. Doing nothing, sweeping it under the rug and not communicating is a huge mistake and can only cost your business in the long run!
3. This next one was actually very funny or at least I thought it was funny. I lost one of my buttons on my shirt and asked my dry cleaner to sew it back on. They said, “No problem at all and it will be ready when the rest of your clothes are ready.”
A few weeks later I wore the shirt that the dry cleaner had fixed and noticed the button (on my sleeve) was actually a different color than the one next to it. My dress shirts have two buttons on the sleeve so it is very easy for me to notice. I looked at the bottom of my shirt where there is always extra buttons sewn in and lo and behold, all of the extra buttons are still there. Ok, I will admit I did chuckle a little bit.
Lesson No. 3: Pay attention to details. It is the smallest of details that can and will affect your business the most. Rest assured if you pay attention to details your enterprise has a much better chance to be successful.
Merrill Dubrow is president and CEO, M/A/R/C Research, located in Dallas, one of the top 25 market research companies in the U.S. Merrill is a sought after speaker and has been writing a blog for over six years. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (972) 983-0416.
The Division of Corporation Finance, a part of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued guidance on disclosure obligations related to cybersecurity risks and incidents a few years ago. Public companies aren’t yet required to disclose this information to shareholders, but they could be at some point, says Brittany Teare, IT advisory manager at Weaver.
“Right now, this is guidance that is in the best interest for your shareholders, but that will likely change. It could become a requirement sooner rather than later,” she says.
Smart Business spoke with Teare about the guidance and how businesses can measure and guard against cyberrisks.
What are the SEC reporting requirements for cybersecurity under this guidance?
The guidance expands upon the existing requirements that public companies follow, but there’s no mandatory piece yet that results in a direct impact if a company doesn’t disclose information.
Basically, the guidance states that if cybersecurity risks and cyber incidents have a material effect on your shareholders — if it could affect how financial information is reported — you have to report them.
How do you know when cybersecurity risks materially impact your company?
The guidance addresses some possible risks and whether they should be voluntarily reported to shareholders. If you don’t have cybersecurity controls around your key financial systems, for example, then the way you record or report your data can be easily manipulated or altered. Even if a cyber breach has not yet occurred, it is very likely.
Cybersecurity is a gray area. Employers typically know that network and perimeter security, access and change controls should be in place, but executives may not consider disclosing vulnerabilities. CEOs and CFOs typically look at balance sheets and see line items for hardware and other things they can touch, but it can be challenging to consider the ways a breach can happen.
How would you advise CEOs to quantify data and see vulnerabilities?
First, designate a person or group of people to be responsible for cybersecurity. They should not only understand SEC requirements and where they are potentially heading, but also must identify specific risks.
There is a central entry point in any network, so key people need to know where the sensitive data is because if an attacker gets there, it could add up to a huge loss. If the company does not store much sensitive information, an attack could impact its reputation, which is more difficult to value.
Another challenge is improving communication from the CIO or IT manager. Often, IT will say, ‘We need X dollars for new equipment, applications and hardware that are going to help make our organization more secure.’ When management hears this number, which can be millions in larger organizations, they want to know the ROI. However, IT personnel typically struggle to quantify that.
A CIO needs to be able to tell other executives, ‘If this firewall, application or system is not installed, a breach would cost us X dollars, or the company could lose X dollars per day,’ for example. Not everything can be quantified, but this gives CIOs a starting point.
What will protect your data and reputation?
Some key, high-level steps to consider are:
• Take inventory of the data systems and gain an understanding of where critical data is located. Then, work to ensure that there is an appropriate amount of security in those areas.
• Use complex, strong passwords to protect the network, systems and data, and regularly change them. Have the system lock out users after a certain number of failed attempts and log all such activity.
• Heavily monitor networks and systems. Check who is logging in and from where, who is successfully entering and who is failing. Then, set a baseline to understand any abnormalities.
• Use the principle of least privilege, especially for critical accounts and functions. This ensures that no single employee has all access; rather, access is tailored to the job function.
There is more companies can do. But by implementing key, basic controls, if a breach occurs, the business can more easily identify what happened and how.
Brittany Teare is IT advisory manager at Weaver. Reach her at (972) 448-9299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Website: More information about the SEC guidance.
Insights Accounting is brought to you by Weaver
Government pensions have received significant scrutiny over the past few years, and several studies indicate that the state and local government pension plans are severely underfunded, with cumulative estimates ranging from $1 trillion to $4 trillion in the U.S. New Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) reporting standards will make the problem more apparent by making the shortfalls prominent on financial statements of the government employer. This transparency likely will drive increased scrutiny by legislatures, taxpayers, rating agencies and other stakeholders.
Instead of recognizing pension costs on balance sheets as annual expenditures based on a funding approach, government entities will need to address net pension liability — the difference between present value of projected benefit payments and investments set aside to cover those obligations.
“In some instances, reporting agencies could be required to show millions of dollars in new liabilities on their balance sheets and make sizeable adjustments to their income and expense statements as well,” says Kevin W. Smith, CPA, partner at Crowe Horwath.
Smart Business spoke with Smith about the new standards and how they will affect state and local governments.
How will the new standards take effect?
GASB Statement No. 67, ‘Financial Reporting for Pension Plans,’ and Statement No. 68, ‘Accounting and Financial Reporting for Pensions,’ take effect in fiscal years starting after June 15, 2013, and June 15, 2014, respectively. They replace requirements in GASB Statements Nos. 25, 27 and 50.
The fundamental change is that the previous standards did not require pension benefits to retired employees to be reported as a liability; employers disclosed an estimated amount of unfunded pension liability only in notes to the financial statements and in required supplementary information, but the net pension liability itself was not reflected on the balance sheet.
New standards require government entities to report the net underfunded pension obligations on financial statements prepared under the accrual basis — a statement of net position, for example.
Government entities also will have to adjust their estimate value of assets set aside to meet pension promises. Governments had been allowed to use an assumed long-term rate of return, with current rates of 7 percent or more as expected return on invested assets. If certain conditions are met, that will change to a blend between long-term rate of return and municipal bond rates, currently about 4 percent, which will have a significant impact on the projected liability.
How will local and state governments be affected by the change?
For many governments this ‘new’ liability will completely offset all of an entity’s net assets — similar to equity in a private entity.
Some cities, counties, school districts or special purpose governments might be affected by both new standards. As local government employers, these institutions must comply with GASB 68. If they administer pension plans for police, firefighters or others, they must adhere to GASB 67 plan administrator requirements.
The new standards spell out requirements for disclosing related information in the notes with the financial statements, which includes descriptions of plan and benefits provided, assumptions used to determine net pension liability and descriptions of benefit changes. Preparing these disclosures will take a significant effort.
What should be done now in anticipation?
The purpose of the new standards is to provide a clearer picture of financial obligations to current and former employees and to treat net pension liability like other long-term obligations. However, the standards might make government entities appear to be financially weaker, even though their financial reality is unchanged. Financial officers should be prepared to explain the situation to taxpayers, employees and other stakeholders. Management should take a proactive approach and begin now to explain anticipated changes to all stakeholders.
Local agencies also need to be ready to take on the extra workload that will be associated with the transition. The GASB is expected to release implementation guidance this summer that will clarify the next steps for state and local governments.
Kevin W. Smith, CPA, is a partner at Crowe Horwath. Reach him at (214) 777-5208 or email@example.com.
Insights Accounting is brought to you by Crowe Horwath LLP
“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for,” is a quote that hangs in Brig Sorber’s office at Two Men and a Truck in Lansing, Mich. Sorber uses that quote to define the new direction in which his company has been moving.
“I love that quote because this ship, Two Men and a Truck, has been in port for too long,” says Sorber, CEO. “We’ve got to get this into deep blue water. There are a lot of challenges out there and a lot more risk, but that’s where business is done. We need to start moving forward and accept the challenges.”
Sorber and his brother, Jon, started Two Men and a Truck International Inc., a moving company, in the early ’80s as a way to earn money using their ’67 Ford pickup. Today, the business has x4,500 employees, more than x1,400 trucks, more than x200 franchises in x34 states, Canada, the U.K. and Ireland, and 2012 revenue of x$361 million.
“We did it to make beer and book money for college,” Sorber says. “We really never thought that it would get to this point.”
However, in getting to this point, the company had neglected to make necessary changes in order to keep the operation aligned and running well.
“One of the challenges we have had is going from a mom-and-pop-type business to having to grow up and become more corporate,” Sorber says. “We needed to bring in newer and stronger skill sets.”
Here’s how Sorber has helped Two Men and a Truck grow up.
Two Men and a Truck incorporated its first business in Lansing, Mich., in 1985 and began franchising in 1989. The company at this time was run by Sorber’s mom since he and his brother were in college.
Upon graduation, Sorber worked as an insurance agent and also operated his own Two Men and a Truck franchise. He returned to the company in the mid-’90s, became its president in 2007 and CEO, the title he carries today, in 2009. In that time the company had grown significantly, but it wasn’t running as well as it could be. Starting in 2007, Sorber’s job was to help restructure the business.
“We had to take a look at ourselves internally,” Sorber says. “There came a time that I just knew things were broken here.”
Because the company was growing so fast there was no organization chart. It was very loose on who reported to whom. It wasn’t that people weren’t working hard, but things were not getting measured.
“I had an epiphany that something had to change big time,” he says. “I made up something that resembled an org chart on a big piece of paper in my office. I brought in five people that I greatly trusted and had confidence in and gave them three markers — green, which meant that person or that job was important; yellow, which meant I didn’t have an opinion either way about this person or about this job; and red, which meant that this job makes no sense.”
Sorber used that as a starting point to help him identify where the company could restructure and cut costs.
“I wanted to give big bonuses to everyone at the end of the year and share the winnings, but we had to prime the pump first,” he says. “We went from 78 employees down to 51 employees after I went through that chart.
“That wasn’t because we were losing money. It was because by the time we realigned everything, there were some people here who weren’t doing anything.”
To avoid issues such as this, you have to have metrics that you measure to make sure whether you’re doing well or not.
“My metrics are No. 1, customer satisfaction,” Sorber says. “Find out how every one of your customers feels about their service. No. 2 is trucks and driveways. We want to put more trucks in more driveways every year.
“No. 3 is franchisees. Make sure your franchisees are profitable and have the tools to grow. No. 4 is giving back to the community.”
Metrics are a crucial aspect of success, but so is a mission statement that helps employees and customers know what the business is about. It also makes your decisions as a CEO simple.
“If your mission statement is strong, it should be limitless,” he says. “For us, we had our mission statement when we had 25 franchises, and now we’re well over 200 and it still applies. You also need core values that comprise what’s important to your company. Once you have those, you have to stay within the confines of your core values.
“When I was a younger executive I thought that was stuff you say to be nice. It’s something that’s serious. You can’t go into work and keep turning the wheel and expect better things to happen. You’ve got to maintain your mission statement, core values, measure what you’re doing, and then you have to look for ways to make things better.”
Bring in key people
As Two Men and a Truck went through these necessary changes, new employees and executives had to be brought in to give the company the right skill sets to continue growing.
“Sometimes we hold onto our executives too long, and we get comfortable with them,” Sorber says. “They may not question what you’re doing. Not all of them, but many of them can be fine with the status quo and as the world is changing they’re not forcing you as a CEO to question what you’re doing.”
You can’t settle for the people who are in your key positions. You need to find people with the right skill sets and make sure they stay within your mission statement and core values.
“Bringing in new individuals is kind of like working on an old house,” he says. “You think if you put new windows on the house it’s good, but then the siding looks really bad. The same thing happens in business when you get somebody that’s great in a department. You start to think, ‘What if I had someone like that in marketing?’”
Sorber brought in executives to fill his company’s voids, and they began offering all kinds of new ideas for the business.
“When I started bringing in these key executives, they wore my carpet out because they have fresh eyes for the business,” he says. “They asked why we did this or that. Many of the things we were doing were the right things, but it’s good for you to make your point about why you do it.
“The new executives will say, ‘That makes sense’ or ‘That’s different.’ Other times they’ll say, ‘OK, but did you ever think about doing this?’”
That is how your business goes through an evolution, and it starts bringing in more modern thinking and different approaches. A business will have a life cycle of only so long, and you need to continually reinvent it because your customer is changing. If you bring in new people they may bring the great ideas you need.
“It’s really important as a president or CEO to hire people who are smarter than you in their specific fields,” Sorber says. “Our job as president or CEO is to look more strategically at where we want the business, make sure the executives play nice together, ensure there’s harmony in the business and keep an eye on those important metrics.”
During the course of the past six years, Sorber has been able to successfully do all those things within Two Men and a Truck. Randy Shacka became the company’s first non-family member to serve as president in 2012. Now, Sorber and Shacka are looking at the future outlook of the business.
“We think we will be a $1 billion company by the year 2020,” he says. “In the last few years we’ve been doing a lot of internal work on fixing where we are broken and getting the right people in here. Now we want to be more than just a moving company. We want to be a company for change.”
How to reach: Two Men and a Truck, (800) 345-1070 or www.twomenandatruck.com
Many executives do not view the content they distribute as intertwined with their organization’s unique product or service. However, the two are interchangeable. Your product or service has differentiators that cause your clients to select you instead of the competition. Those same factors apply in content marketing.
If your goal is to engage prospects and ultimately lead them to conversion, you must create content that keeps them engaged. Success comes from creating consumable pieces of content that together form a singular thought leadership message and distributing those pieces across multiple channels. You never know through what channel someone will engage with your brand (or branded content), so the message needs to be consistent.
There are a few simple rules to doing this. Your content and what you’re selling should meet four criteria. It must be:
Useful means the content, as well as your product or service, has a defined use for a target audience. It addresses:
- How do I use this?
- How does this help me?
- What problem does this solve for me?
Here’s an example: According to a recent IDC Research report, 49 percent of the entire U.S. population currently uses a smartphone. By 2017, that number is expected to reach 68 percent. That means that within four years, more than two out of every three Americans — regardless of age — will be connected via smartphone. Therefore, a useful product a company might offer could be a solar-operated phone charger. And useful content to distribute to a target audience may include “How to make your daily life easier with these top five iPhone apps.”
To be Relevant, the product, service or content must be new and interesting, and mean something to the market or industry. Your audience will ask:
- What does this mean to me?
- Do I need this?
Let’s say your organization provides a website portal that connects insurance companies. New and interesting content that means something might be, “How your health care plan will be affected by reform . . . and what you can do to prepare for it.”
In a world filled with noise, you must demonstrate how what you do is Differentiated from competitors and explain:
- How does your content, product and service compare to the competition?
- Is it unique?
Let’s go back to the smartphone example. If you sell or service iPhones and Android-platform models, think about creating engaging content that examines the needs of today’s smartphone user, and then go beyond the basic functionality.
It’s also imperative to understand your target audience and the target audience for each product. Android-based smartphones are primarily aimed at businesspeople. iPhones, for all their bells and whistles, are not. This differentiation has led to a lot of confusion in the marketplace when consumers compare one against the other. Understanding this allows smart marketers to create engaging content such as “The top 10 needs of businesspeople: A comparison of Android phones vs. iPhones.”
Finally, your product, service and content must be Available and easily obtained in any channel.
If you run a benefits company that works with employers, for example, health care reform provides a timely opportunity to help clients make sense of the landscape. This might entail delivering a variety of consumable content that’s available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through any channel.
This could include a video that explains the difference in options available to employers. It could be a social media campaign that outlines the top five differences between the health care insurance exchanges and employer-sponsored health care. Or, it may be a series of print mailers or webinars, or even a dedicated microsite that’s filled with content that details what employers need to know.
When your goal is creating engaging content, your ability to consider — and address — each of these factors may be what’s required to transform engagement into measurable conversion.
This is no fish story. Instead, this column is about one of the most important roles an owner or CEO must fulfill on an ongoing basis.
Leaders spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the issues du jour. These range from managing people, wooing and cajoling customers, creating strategies, searching for elusive answers and just about everything in between. These are all good and necessary tasks and undertakings. Too frequently, however, these same leaders delegate this effort to others or ignore it altogether. To be “in the game,” you have to know when to fish or cut bait.
Successful fishermen know that to catch a fish they have to sometimes cast their lines dozens of times just to get a nibble or bite. The first bite might not result in reeling in that big fish. Frequently, a nibble is just a tipoff as to where the fish are swimming.
The same applies to reaching out — casting a line, if you will, to explore new, many times unorthodox, opportunities for your organization. These opportunities can be finding a competitor to buy, discovering an unlikely yet complementary business to partner with or snagging a new customer from an industry that had heretofore gone undiscovered.
All of this takes setting a portion of your time to investigate unique situations, as well as a healthy dose of creativity and the ability to think well beyond the most obvious.
Too many times even the most accomplished executives lack the motivation to look for ideas in unlikely places. Some would believe that it’s unproductive to spend a significant amount of time on untested “what ifs.” Just like sage fishermen, executives can also cultivate their own places to troll.
Of course, networking is a good starting point, particularly with people unrelated to your business, where sometimes one may fortuitously stumble onto a new idea that leads to a payoff.
Other times, a hot lead might come from simply reading trade papers, general media reports and just surfing the Internet. The creative twist is reading material that doesn’t necessarily apply to your own industry or to anything even close to what you do. New ideas come disguised in many forms and are frequently hidden in a variety of nooks and crannies. This means training yourself to read between the lines.
Once something piques your imagination, the next step is to follow through and call the other company or send an inquiry by email to state that it might be worth a short conversation to explore potential mutually beneficial arrangements. This can at times be a bit frustrating and futile. That's when you cut bait and start anew.
However, reaching out to someone today could materialize into something of substance tomorrow. The often skipped but critical next step, even after hitting a seemingly dead end, is to always close the loop with whomever you made contact. Even if there is no apparent fit or interest at the moment, it’s easy and polite to send a short note of thanks and attach your one-paragraph “elevator” pitch.
That same person just might be casting him or herself, be it in a month or even a year later, and make contact with a different organization that’s not a fit for him or her, but recall you because you followed through and created awareness about your story.
This just might lead the person with whom you first spoke to call you because you had had the courtesy to send that note. Bingo — you just got a bite all because of continuing to cast your line.
Good CEOs and honest fishermen also have one other important characteristic in common: humility. They know that when a line is cast it won’t result in a catch every time. But if nothing is ventured, it’s guaranteed there will be nothing gained. Don’t let that big one get away. Just keep casting.
As an organization grows, changes are inevitable.
New employees are added, promotions are made and job responsibilities shift.
But any time you have change, you have the potential for conflict. Few people are comfortable with change, and each person will react differently in making the adjustments necessary to move forward with the company.
The most important thing a CEO can do is to be active in confronting potential conflict. Conflict goes hand-in-hand with change. Employees begin to question management, co-workers and even themselves as they are forced outside of their comfort zones. Those questions can lead to misunderstandings that can lead to conflict, and that will ultimately slow your growth.
Don’t passively avoid potential conflict. Instead, actively engage members of your organization by providing the necessary forums both for you to communicate your strategy and vision and for them to communicate their concerns back to you. An active conversation will help drive your vision for the company through the organization and will also help foster your next generation of leaders as they take a more active role.
Only when employees are challenged to think — and to challenge you — will you maximize your organization’s potential. Do you want employees who don’t speak up when they recognize what may be a fatal flaw in your grand strategy? Or would you rather have employees who are actively thinking about the big-picture goals of the company and doing their part to contribute?
Regardless of what size company you run, it comes down to a simple choice.
It’s a choice between having employees acting like robots or acting like people. If you choose robots, you will have to have all the answers. If you choose people, you only have to have some of the answers because the employees will help you find the rest.
Engaging employees in conversations, meetings and decision-making helps them take ownership and helps you create a happier work force. If they are not allowed to speak, gossip and rumors will drag down your productivity.
Actively provide two-way communication. Let employees do the talking and hear what they have to say. The results may surprise you. Those closest to the customer often know best what needs to be done to improve sales, service or efficiency.
Too many CEOs lament the lack of good people to help take them to the next level. Maybe the problem is more CEOs need to create good people rather than driving them off with a work environment that’s better suited to a good robot.
Every Company is a Media Company. It’s a phrase coined some eight years ago by tech journalist Tom Foremski to describe the impact of technology on marketing.
From the Internet to Wi-Fi to smartphones, a tectonic shift has taken place with technology forever changing the landscape of marketing, just as radio and television did before.
Only this time, it’s different. This time, the power has shifted from the hands of a few hundred powerful media outlets to the hands of billions of consumers.
At the same time, companies like yours have been handed powerful tools and an unparalleled opportunity to engage with customers like never before. It’s not just in the obvious new places like mobile websites, apps and the media. Technology has made it easier and cheaper to communicate through video, live events and, yes, even print publications.
Like it or not, you are a media company.
So what’s a media mogul like you to do? You need to do one thing: create content. And you need to do it well. You need to create content that generates interest among your target customer base and engages them with your organization.
It might sound easy, but it’s not. Most business leaders know that effective communication is one of the biggest challenges any company faces. When that communication is what sets you apart in the minds of your customers and prospects, the stakes are all the higher.
Here are a few important points to keep in mind as you set about embracing your new role as a media company.
Be where your audience is
Content comes in many forms. Most of us 40- or 50-something business executives are more comfortable reading printed material. Flipping through your brochure, newsletter or even your own custom magazine is comfortable for us. So hand us something.
But younger VPs and 20-somethings — many of whom do the heavy lifting of researching company buying decisions — are more comfortable gaining intel online. They scour videos on YouTube, mine infographics on visual.ly and peruse PowerPoints on SlideShare. So take the time to figure out which of these is the right channel to reach your target customer.
Share knowledge, not platitudes
Yeah, we get it. Your people are smarter, their customer service is better and their breath smells fresher longer. But that’s not why we might be interested in your business.
What we want to know is how you’re going to solve our problems and make our lives easier. We don’t want you to tell us you are smarter; we want you to show us you are smarter.
Thought leadership articles, white papers and blog posts showcase your knowledge of industries, issues and tactics. They differentiate you from your competitors and position you as a subject matter expert in your market.
Talk about customers more than yourself
The best communicators are great storytellers. Stories resonate. They connect us. They are, simply, what we remember.
Sharing client success stories is one of the best ways to tell your own story. The tried-and-true case study is one of the most effective forms of content in a marketer’s arsenal. If you show us how you can make our businesses faster, better, stronger, we will do business with you. It’s that simple.
And if you have particularly well known and respected clients, you get the added benefit of basking in their reflected glory. Welcome to the media business. Now go tell your story.
Michael Marzec is chief strategy officer of Smart Business Network and SBN Interactive. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (440) 250-7078.