Conferences are a great way for small businesses to make connections and get information. I did both at the 2012 New York Times Small Business Summit. Here are six nuggets I took away from the jam-packed day.
1. Work on your business, not in it. Sure, connections and marketing are important to growing your business, but one of the big takeaways from the day for me is that you need time to think about your business rather than conduct your business. You need white space to take a step back and see the big picture, to come up with new ideas, and fine tune what you already do, according to Scott Case of the Startup America Partnership. Find an hour each day—just to think—and make sure to have your notebook handy.
2. When it comes to retaining employees, it’s the little things that count. If small businesses don’t treat their employees well now, they’ll be out the door the moment the economy turns around, says Rieva Lesonsky of GrowBiz Media and SmallBizDaily.com. It could cost your business 30 to 50 percent of an employee’s annual salary to replace an entry-level position and 400 percent that of a high-level specialized one.
Keeping your younger employees isn’t always about the money, says Dave Anderson, president of Learn to Lead. They want to make a difference, be challenged and get feedback. To make a difference, consider partnering with a local nonprofit, donating part of your profits and/or providing volunteers to an organization that needs your help. Being challenged is about providing “stretch” assignments outside of employees’ typical duties. And feedback can be a matter of simply telling them how they're doing and giving them direction on how to improve. Even when they don’t ask, but especially when they do. If you’re not sure what would challenge them, ask. Collaboration is another thing younger employees expect.
3. Measure marketing for continuous improvement. If you don’t measure it, you won’t know if your online marketing is working or how you can improve it, says Marshall Sponder of WebMetricsGuru and author of Social Media Analytics. A mind-boggling number of tools are available to help you measure your online marketing. One size does not fit all when it comes to measurement. If you’re overwhelmed, don’t give up: Hire a consultant to help you set up a tracking system.
4. Study others and take risks. Businesses that use social media grow 15 percent more than other businesses, says Susan Sobbott, president of American Express OPEN. Don’t be afraid to experiment, as in the case of Orabrush, manufacturers of tongue cleaners. Even though its product was extremely effective at curing bad breath, the tongue cleaner wasn’t selling through traditional media. The company studied what was working on YouTube and began experimenting with humorous videos. Now, Orabrush is the third most popular brand on YouTube.
Additionally, when they were unsuccessful at getting their product into Walmart, they tried a unique Facebook campaign targeted at the company’s executives—and only its executives (now that’s targeting). The clever Facebook ads accused company execs of having bad breath. A dirty business, but Orabrush got a meeting and was eventually able to sign a distribution deal with Walmart. Sounds like Orabrush is destined to be a company others will study in order to learn how to do things differently.
5. Test and learn. According to Alex Zhardanovsky, founder of PetFlow, Facebook is the marketing channel that works best for this pet food delivery service. They concentrate marketing efforts there and continually test and learn to find the highest engagement levels. For PetFlow, it’s about posting photos of cute cats and dogs and asking people to comment on products for each animal. They’ve learned that people are five times more likely to click on a photo with a link than on text with a link.
6. Share ideas liberally. Most people like to hold on to their ideas because they’re afraid people will steal them, but not Scott Belsky, founder of Behance and author of Making Ideas Happen. His belief, based on interviews with some highly creative people, is that in order to make ideas happen, you need to share them or risk having them die in isolation. You need feedback and you need to develop a sense of accountability. You become more committed to your ideas after you tell people about them. The truth is that ideas are plentiful, but few people have the discipline and resources to make them happen. Tune into what others are doing. Find the person that you want to keep pace with. It will give you the impetus to act.
Coupled with Scott Case’s idea that you need white space, entrepreneurs also need time to connect with people outside their usual circle to nurture the ideas that percolate when you give yourself permission to think.
OPEN Cardmember Geri Stengel is the founder of Ventureneer.com, which provides values-driven small businesses with the insights, strategies, techniques, and solutions to succeed—both as businesses and as social-change agents.