Money

How to Take Your Small Business to the Next Level

David Saracino

It took countless long nights, gallons of elbow grease, and a metric ton of hope, but you did it: You launched your own business. But whether you’re an established startup shooting to be the next unicorn or a retail operation that wants a footprint on every corner, the question of “What do I do now?” is undoubtedly on your mind. We sought out experts to help answer that burning question, whether you’re wondering what kind of customer to approach next or figuring out where to spend that next chunk of marketing money. Read on -- you've got this.

GO BIG GAME HUNTING

There comes a time for every entrepreneur to get out of the kiddie pool and plunge into the deep end. That means going after big targets in your market, says Steve Strauss, USA Today business columnist and author. “A mistake I see very often is small businesses fishing for little fish,” Strauss says. “Selling to consumers is all well and good, and selling to other small businesses is fine, but if you want to really grow, finding customers and clients with big budgets can make a huge difference.”

That sort of high impact targeting also applies when you’re looking to grow your social media presence, a strategy that has become increasingly indispensable for companies looking to attract new customers. Business owners should be looking for quality over quantity, though, according to Liz Jostes, a Memphis-based social media consultant. “A small number of 'super fans' is worth far more to you than thousands of likes or follows of uninterested or irrelevant accounts,” Jostes tells Thrillist. “Don't get caught up in the 'social proof game.’” That is to say, it’s not all about size when it comes to follower counts. Ease off obsessively refreshing the number of “likes” on your latest Tweet and instead focus on connecting with those who have influence in your industry.

David Saracino

BECOME A COMMUNICATIONS PRO

No matter what industry you’re in, you’ve no doubt felt the pressure of constant competition for customers in a packed marketplace. Having a product that solves a sticky problem is great, but you need to give people a reason to keep coming back and engaging with your company. Even something as straightforward as a blog can give you a leg up, according to Jostes. “Each blog post is a new reason for customers or potential customers to return to your company,” she says. “It's a piece of content to share on your social media channels and a piece of content to throw in a newsletter.” Making compelling content can also buff up your industry bona fides and let people know you’re a trusted voice. “It positions you as an authority in your niche,” Jostes adds.

You also need to make sure your website doesn’t look like a 12-year-old with a bootlegged version of Photoshop designed it. Your site is how many of your potential customers will first come in contact with your brand and, if it looks shoddy, they’ll assume that you’re not a serious entrepreneur. “Your website is your online home base,” Jostes says. “It's the internet equivalent of a brick and mortar store. You need to make sure your website is in great shape before you start marketing it.” Squarespace and Wix are great turnkey solutions that you can handle without an ounce of programming experience, and Wordpress can be a great modular resource if you’re looking for a bit more functionality.

And as much as it seems like you’re shouting into the void, email marketing is still a key tool for any entrepreneur looking to build a bigger customer base. According to a survey of more than a thousand small business owners conducted by Constant Contact, 57% of those who use email marketing say it helps them connect with new customers, and 56% say it helps them drive brand awareness. Email marketing platforms like Mailchimp, Drip, and Constant Contact can be valuable resources for reaching customers, and it makes measuring the effect of new campaigns as easy as checking a dashboard.

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JUST BE YOURSELF (SERIOUSLY)

As it turns out, those makeover movies you watched as a teen were onto something -- only the prize here is a growing business instead of a date to the prom. Pam Slim, a Mesa, Arizona-based small business coach, is asked constantly about how business owners can make their brands “appear” more authentic. “The best way to appear more authentic, is to actually be authentic,” she says. “That means real clarity on who you are and what you’re about and showing that you understand what challenges your customers face. You have to maintain that consistency.” It may sound simple, but creating a brand and a business that resonates with people is a deliberate practice that requires as much listening as it does action. That means doing things like personally engaging with customers on social media if they reach out, or explaining to customers directly why you’re making a change to your product.

Jostes compares those blustery companies that are inundating your Twitter feed to an annoying party guest. If he’s constantly telling you about how great his company is or what a great deal you can get by working with him and signing a deal right there, right then, would you really want to talk to him for any longer than is absolutely necessary? Of course not! “In fact,” Jostes adds, “you’d likely try to avoid him for the rest of the party -- sort of like when people unfollow, unlike, or even ‘hide’ posts on social media.” Instead, she suggests that business owners concentrate on identifying significant topics that are of interest to potential customers. Resist the urge to insert your business into every trending topic. If you’re selling in-ground swimming pools, you probably shouldn’t be posting about #vanlife.  

Authenticity is also about building a relationship with customers that’s long-lasting and resilient, an old-school approach that is taking on new importance in the digital age. That means being hands-on with new clients and making them feel like they’re really connecting with the business, not that they’re just another number in a spreadsheet. As Strauss says, “You have to built a rapport with your customers and sell a good product at a fair price. Those things will never change.”

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COMMIT TO THE LONG HAUL

In a marketplace where rapid, meteoric growth is valued above all, it can seem like delayed gratification is an unnecessary bummer. But Amazon and Facebook weren’t built in a day, people. David Souder, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Business, knows that concentrating on those near-term gains is tempting, but says that you need to make sure you’re balancing your goals. “Short-termism is a rampant problem, but the solution is not to ignore the short term,” he says. “The key is to be managing for short- and long-run success at the same time. You can’t be a long-run success unless you survive all the short runs, but you also cannot be a long-run success if you never invest time or money in creating a better future.” Souder says that business owners who don’t think they have the resources to invest in new products need to rethink their priorities and spend time -- say, setting up one meeting a week -- to talk about where the business is heading in the long term.

That goes for trusting your product as well. Not all deals are going to be closed a week from making contact with a potential customer, so be patient and understand that new transactions have a life cycle of their own. “Sales cycles can take months,” Jostes, the social media consultant, says. “It's very possible that someone who is inquiring about what you sell this month might not be ready and interested in buying from you until four or six months from now. If you developed a business plan and marketing strategy, don't abandon it too soon.”

THERE'S NO 'I' IN ENTREPRENEUR

Starting your own company means wearing every hat in the closet and then running to the hat store and buying all those hats, too. That’s a hard habit to kick, but hiring the right people and delegating is the difference between getting a business off the ground and making sure you achieve escape velocity. “CEOs want to do it all and that’s just an impossible ask,” says Gwen Turner, a Princeton, New Jersey-based business consultant. “Hiring great people and allowing them to make decisions is in the DNA of strong leaders.”

For a lot of entrepreneurs, delegation doesn’t come naturally. They’re used to doing everything, so the idea that they’d hire someone else to handle certain aspects of the business is like letting someone else watch their kids: No one is going to do as good a job as they are. But if you’re going to take your business to the next level, ditching that attitude and bringing on sharp teammates is a must, even if they’re a really sharp intern or part-time wizard. (Not a real wizard -- though if you find one of those, you should probably hire them full time.) “Good entrepreneurs learn to bring in people who are smarter than they are,” Strauss, the USA Today columnist, says. “They’re people who fill your gaps and, since you have to wear a lot of hats, you need to share the burden sooner rather than later.”