The OPEN Advice Cafe consisted of an area in a meeting room where business owners could come in throughout the day and grab a cup of coffee, check their email at public terminals, have their story filmed for the OPEN Forum, and also meet with me for advice.
I talked with numerous business owners one-on-one, and also hosted 3 round-table discussions (one of them is pictured). I thought you might be interested in what was top of mind for other business owners, based on the topics we discussed in the round-table discussions (I am sharing only public discussion topics, not anything conveyed confidentially):
Online Marketing, Partnering and Hiring Among the Key Issues
Partnering -- Interest in partnering with other businesses to share leads and referrals was big. Typically it is a good option for consumer-based services such a home remodeling, interior design, electrical, landscaping -- as well as for some professional services, such as business plan consultants teaming up with CPAs and attorneys. An IT consultant who services Mac products pointed out that he got business from being listed in Apple's website for Mac certified consultants, and by getting referrals from the local Apple store.
Online Marketing -- This was by far the number one category of discussion. Business owners typically wanted to know how to get found online, and more importantly, how to spend their efforts online wisely, so that they didn't waste time or money they didn't have.
SEO -- Most business owners did not use the term "SEO" or "search engine optimization," instead using more general terminology. However, often their issues were ones that could be cured by good SEO help. For instance, in smaller settings I reviewed a couple of websites and noticed things that could be easily fixed (and I am no SEO expert ... they were easy to spot). Example: only the "www" version of a website URL pointed to the website, and the non-www version defaulted to a parked page at the hosting company. This was quickly diagnosed for a business owner who said that people reported having trouble finding her website. I also saw two websites with home pages almost completely made of Flash, with little readable text for search engines -- and both were brand new sites. All-Flash sites should be banned for small businesses -- it's too hard for a small business to overcome the handicap of not having text on the page.
Websites and Blogs -- Most of the business owners had websites, and a handful had blogs. The few who did not have websites were actively considering one or already working with a Web designer on plans to build a site. Many people expressed interest in blogs and wanted to know if a blog would be worth the effort and how to get started. I suggested experimenting with a free hosted blog at www.Blogger.com or www.WordPress.com.
One of the participants suggested in lieu of building a website for a home-based startup, to start with a blog and tack on a few pages (such as an About page and a Services page).
Hiring -- A couple of businesses had recruiting and hiring challenges, brought on in one case by fast growth and in another by a need to respond to the economic slowdown. Two businesses were for the first time in their histories trying to hire sales representatives and having challenges getting good candidates. Some of the tips I shared involved using your blog to recruit; using local-based job boards, rather than national level ones if you can't afford relocation costs; and how to check online to find out how other businesses are compensating sales reps. Other businesses were looking for low cost staffing options, such as contractors and freelancers.
Funding -- Where and how to get funding was a much less prevalent theme, but the topic did come up. One business owner wanted to know about local, state and federal grant programs. Grants are far less common than many people believe, I pointed out, but to the extent they are available they are often to be found at the local level via an economic development organization, business incubator or local governmental agency. So I suggested starting by calling/visiting the websites of your local economic development agencies for your area. Find them in Google by searching for the phrase "economic development" and variations of your city or region name. Your local chamber of commerce or city website may also be of some help. The subject of alternative funding (such as assigning receivables and credit card receipts) also came up as suggestions to solve cash flow issues.
Mixed Reaction on the Economy
And what about the economy? Well, it was mixed news. Some business owners are feeling the pressure intensely, some not so much:
- Several business owners who make and/or sell high-end discretionary items or services noted a significant drop off in business in 2008. They were responding by ramping up their marketing efforts, especially online marketing. Marketing through eBay, Etsy and via Google AdWords campaigns were all topics of discussion. Also, "retail partnering" (selling your items through partner-retailers or alternative outlets such as beauty salons) was discussed by retailers of jewelry and apparel items.
- Surprisingly, two retailers selling moderate-to-low priced discretionary goods reported having record years. Each was expanding, looking to hire and invest in more marketing.
- Word of mouth referrals were sustaining the majority of small businesses at the round-tables, and keeping business steady for them without noticeable drop-offs in volume. However, some business owners were nervous about the economy and looking to de-risk 2009 by actively increasing their marketing.
- Some business owners reported feeling increased competitive pressure, including lower prices, brought on by their competitors reacting to the economy by cutting prices, getting more aggressive at sales, creating special marketing offers, and other competitive tactics. These business owners were responding by pumping up the volume on their own marketing.
- Two business owners shared that their online sales and lead generationhad increased. Online was making up for declines in other sales. They were looking for more strategies to further develop the online channel.
So there you have it: some of what was on the minds of small business owners at the American Express OPEN Advice Cafe at the New York Times Small Business Summit.