How to stay relevant in a quickly changing market.

Keeping up in the business world is becoming more and more challenging. Because the very nature of the internet nurtures change. There’s always something newer, faster, cooler, brighter.

On the flip side, if you don’t like the way your product or service looks next to the competition, you can revamp your digital marketing quickly. Often in a day.

Falling behind in market share?

Change your marketing message in a snap. No need to wait months to get feedback. Results start showing up immediately.

Hand flips wooden cubes to change the word "change" to "chance"
Are you willing to change to stay relevant?

Not convinced? See what some savvy retailers have done to refresh their marketing and revamp their messaging.

A Cappella Books
The Wall Street Journal recently profiled this small independent Atlanta bookstore that watched sales drop for ten years. Faced with huge competition from Amazon, the owner figured he’d have to close.

But then he came up with an idea. Focus less on selling  books — where he couldn’t compete with Amazon’s prices — and more on appealing to customers who loved independent bookstores and would support a local business.

He started hosting author events — book signings and readings, then added events at other venues. What do you know? Business started to turn around. Because his customers were more interested in the bookstore experience and supporting a local business than saving a few dollars.

Think this is an isolated example? Hardly. According to a CBS segment titled “Independent bookstores thrive” that aired on April 23, 2018, “Between 2009 and 2015, more than 570 independent bookstores opened in the U.S., bringing the total to more than 2,200; that’s about a 35 percent jump after more than a decade of decline.”

What’s driving this small market segment’s success? Shop Local campaigns, selections curated for the community and lots of events. It’s about book-related experiences rather than buying as cheaply as possible. And it’s really a small business success story.

Booksellers aren’t the only retailers thriving despite the growth of e-commerce.

Ever hear of Warby Parker?

Established as a hip online-only retailer selling stylish glasses at affordable prices, Warby Parker’s marketing message focused on their mission to give back — “Buy a pair, give a pair” was what they thought would appeal to their customers. But in reality, their customers didn’t pay much attention to the mission statement. Instead, they were drawn in by the cool styles and the ease of buying glasses online.

So Warby focused less on its mission and more on the Warby Parker cool factor and the ease of purchasing. Next, they opened a few brick & mortar locations where they honed the shopping experience even more. Tiny shops that looked like cozy little libraries. Each eyeglass frame shown in three different sizes to fit various face shapes. Super friendly and helpful personal service. And fresh designs rotating in on a regular basis so there’s always something new to see. And buy.

Today, Warby Parker has retail shops around the country (including 5 in Illinois) as well as in Canada and British Columbia. And the shops (at least the ones I’ve seen in Chicago) are always busy.

How do you say pivot?

Would you be surprised to learn that some of today’s biggest brands started out selling products or services that evolved into something different –which is where they are today?

If you said YouTube, Slack, Yelp, Shopify and Groupon, you’d be right.  Jayson DeMers writes about these companies and their reinventions in his Entrepreneur article titled “5 Big Brands That Had Massively Successful Pivots.”  If you’re fascinated by success stories (like I am), you’ll enjoy this article.

Smart business owners know that being nimble is critical in a competitive marketplace. And fortunately, it’s far easier for a small business to pivot than a large company with multiple layers of approval.

So if something’s not working, do your research to see where the problem lies. If it’s a product that’s no longer relevant to your key market, don’t scrap the product. Find a different market. If there’s still a market for your product or service, do whatever it takes to become relevant again.

And if you’ve had to pivot for your small business to stay relevant, we’d love to hear about it.

 

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when startups fail

Jumping on the startup bandwagon is not for everyone. It’s certainly not for the risk-averse. Because starting a business is a bad idea if you’re not able to accept failure.

It’s also not for someone who can’t develop or follow a plan. Startups need structure. Processes and procedures don’t just happen. They need to be created and implemented.

According to Small Business Trends, “A bit more than 50 percent of small businesses fail in the first four years”.”

girl's hands typing on a laptop
surviving your startup

Actually, we thought the number was higher. Maybe because we’ve been doing this long enough that we’ve seen more than a few startups fail.

Sometimes you know upfront.

You get an inkling that something’s off. Often it starts with a whirlwind of excitement and big plans. Really big over-the-top plans that seem wildly optimistic.

Now we have nothing against excitement and having a positive attitude is hugely important. But so are plans – especially when you’re starting a new business. And if the plans aren’t based in reality, you’re looking for trouble.

That was the scenario a few years ago when we were hired to build a website for a new music and light dining venue. The concept looked good on paper. A sophisticated, casual night spot in an area that could easily support this kind of entertainment. The client was over-the-moon-excited. She was commissioning pricey artwork and spending freely on interior design. The excitement was contagious and we were all looking forward to the opening.

Then reality kicked in. And we realized that under all the glam and excitement was…..well, nothing. No business plan. No marketing plan. No roadmap on how this business was going to run. They couldn’t find a decent chef because they hadn’t allocated enough money for one — unacceptable in an area where people expect top quality food.

A few months into the launch of this project and the red flags we’d noticed were looking bigger and bigger. One thing after another went wrong until we realized there was no way this venture was going to fly.

In hopes of helping save other startups, here is what went wrong for our client and the six warning signs you need to heed if you’re launching a new business:

Six Red Flags

  1. Ignoring the competition
    Our music venue client disregarded a successful venue down the street because it was really a restaurant. But they did have music one night a week.  Fast forward a few months, the competitor’s weekly music night was drawing crowds. Because they had terrific food and longstanding customers. Never underestimate the value of customer loyalty. And always understand the competition.
  2.  Failing to prioritize
    Rather than allocating marketing dollars to communication tools to let people know they were opening and build some buzz, the venue owner spent money on all sorts of pricey premiums and custom artwork. Social media was minimal. PR was non-existent. Huge oversight! We still have some of those premiums — they lasted far longer than the club.
  3. Skimping on the essentials
    Serving food? Better make damn sure it’s good. Saving money by hiring inexperienced (or poor) chefs will be your demise. That’s what happened to our client.
  4. Not listening to the experts you’ve hired
    Savvy entrepreneurs know they can’t do it all. That’s why they hire professionals to handle what they can’t. If you’re paying someone to help you build your business, listen to their advice. Otherwise, save the money and do it yourself. It’ll be less of a loss when you shut down.
  5. Not listening to your customers
    If one table sends back food with a complaint that it’s cold, that’s easily fixable. If more than one table has the same complaint, pay attention. You’ve got a problem in the kitchen. Ignore the problems and you’re never going to make it.
  6. Falling in love with your product or service
    The A#1 mistake our client made was falling blindly in love with her venture. She was so convinced that this was going to be a success that she did little due diligence. And once things started to fail, she ignored the warning signs.

As entrepreneurs, we’re passionate about entrepreneurship. We like to see others succeed. And we love being involved in success stories. Building a website for a company that didn’t even last a year made us feel pretty bad. Especially since we loved the website!

Because we give a damn, there’ve been times we’ve suggested that a potential client pull back instead of moving forward with a new website. Rather than see a startup fail, we’ve suggested that they go back to the planning table and rethink what they’re trying to do. Once all the pieces are in place, we’re happy to build their website.

Lest we discourage anyone who’s eager to start a business, here’s an article from Inc magazine on 15 reason why it’s a good idea to start a business.

If you’ve got a clear plan and aren’t afraid of making mistakes (they’re part of the learning process), go for it.

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How agile is your business?

Ever feel like the world around you is changing too fast for your company to keep up?

Of course you have! Every small business owner or entrepreneur has probably felt this way at one time or another.

It’s a scary feeling. Especially if you’ve spent years getting your business up to speed — your staff well-trained and efficient, your processes streamlined and in place or your products ideally matched to the wishes and whims of your target market.

Technology leaps forward, and suddenly your services (or products) are on the way to obsolescence. Or falling behind a new-to-the-market, more agile competitor.

Smart companies are agile.

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that Fresh Market is closing stores around the country, including two in the Chicago area. The chain jumped on the organic food trend when it launched and rode it as long as it could. But when all the other grocery chains jumped in with farm fresh products, Fresh Market could no longer compete.

Whole Foods, on the other hand, became more competitive. Acquired by Amazon, they lowered some prices and offered customers Amazon Prime specials, discounts and delivery.

This is how companies stay successful. They can reinvent themselves on a dime…..or so it seems. They’re agile.

Fresh Market isn’t the only company in distress. Think about some of the once successful businesses that have closed — or are in the process of closing. You’ve no doubt purchased from them in the past.

If you have kids, you’ve shopped at Toys R’Us. Needed sports gear? You went to Sports Authority. Own a business or simply need to manage your schedule? You had a Palm Pilot. Then maybe a BlackBerry. Searched on the Internet? You used Alta Vista (right, WHO?) And if you’re a Chicagoan like we are, you’re no doubt still angry about the demise of Marshall Field’s.

So how can you avoid being on the short list of doomed businesses?

You certainly don’t want to wait til a crisis hits to start trying to figure out what to do. You need to be constantly vigilant and always proactive. You have to have a plan. And if you’re not sure how to do that, the best way to learn is to look at successful businesses.

Here are four things that successful businesses in highly competitive industries do to stay on top:

  1.  They’re nimble.
    They’ve streamlined the chain of command to make decision-making simpler. They’ve implemented technology solutions to make processes flow better. They’re making use of AI (artificial intelligence) for improved efficiency.They’ve honed communication skills to make meetings shorter, emails simpler and calls briefer.  Amazon comes to mind. Why? Check out how Jeff Bezos likes to run meetings
  2. They’re inventive.
    They’re constantly looking for a better way. To make products more efficiently, to bring a product to market faster, to SELL products to a broader market, to make customers happier. Whatever it takes to stay on top of the competition, a successful company finds a way. Yes, Amazon comes to mind once again. But so does Southwest Airlines, which is always looking for new ways to improve the customer experience. Read about how they do this courtesy of engage.customer.com.
  3. They never sit back on their laurels.
    Successful companies don’t get complacent. They’re not satisfied with status quo. They’re smart enough to know that a savvy competitor can appear almost overnight – with a cooler gadget, a smarter business tool, a glammier spokesperson, an everyone-needs-this must-have, a smoother system.Once Uber was the only game in town. Then Lyft appeared. While Uber is still #1, when a negative news report hits the  airwaves, Lyft gains market share. Uber’s problems in 2017 were a boon for Lyft’s bottom line.

    But Uber management is sound. They’re quick to respond to negative news, and the company continues to hold the    bulk of the ridesharing market.

  4. They’re humble.
    Successful companies take responsibility for their mistakes. They own up to their misdeeds. They ask their shareholders and supporters for forgiveness and promise to do better.

In the past year, we’ve seen far too many cases where this didn’t happen. Take for example, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Fox News as covered in fortune.com in 2017. Both men had been accused of sexual harassment. More than once. But it wasn’t until advertisers began to bail that Fox did anything in response. And they never said they were wrong. No humble pie here.

So how would your small business rate on the capabilities cited above? You may not compete with big companies, but you can certainly learn from them. Especially from their mistakes.

If we’ve encouraged you to think about this, we’ve written a good post.

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Understanding Customer Care.

Whether you’re a shop owner or a service provider, your customer care will influence how clients feel about you and your products. And those feelings will impact future sales –including whether or not there will BE any.

Customer service with a smile.

We seem to remember the best and worst customer service experiences. For instance, if you go into a store and can’t find a salesperson, odds are you’ll be frustrated. You’ll probably leave without buying anything.

But when you’re warmly greeted by a smiling saleswoman you’re likely to linger and browse around. The more you browse, the more you’ll discover. And the more likely you’ll be to make a purchase…..or two.

We tend to be forgiving — even if we can’t find something we wanted — when we receive good customer service. The fact that we’ve been acknowledged says “they give a damn”. And that feeling is key.

As more and more products and services are discovered and consumed online, face-to-face communication happens less and less. This makes building relationships difficult. The personal touch is gone….replaced by bots and apps.

So how can online retailers build relationships with customers they’ve never met….and never will? Simple, actually. It’s all about communication and customer care.

New Orleans restauranteur, Ella Brennan, who ran the famous (and fabulous) Commander’s Palace, was the queen of customer care. Reminiscing on her recent death, her executive chef said “she understood that business is about how you feel when you walk into a restaurant. You may not recall the quail or the Chardonnay, but you remember a feeling a restaurant gives you.”

A savvy business woman, Brennan made sure her staff provided outstanding customer service. If a customer complained, she responded immediately. She understood customer care, and she will be remembered for making French dining accessible and fun. (Source: Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2018))

Smart companies know that poor customer care can kill a deal….and worse, go viral….quickly spreading the word that you’re a lousy company to do business with. Social media and business rating apps like Yelp make it imperative for companies to stay on their toes. Constantly. Because reputations can be sullied in a heartbeat.

Case in point: Starbucks. Wonder how much business they lost last month after arresting two black men who asked to use the bathroom while they were waiting for a meeting but didn’t buy any coffee. It hit national news immediately and became a full-blown nasty stain on the Starbucks brand.

To deal with the fallout, all locations were closed for mandatory 1/2 day training. For all employees. Stores with closed doors can’t do business, so this was a costly error for Starbucks.

Poor treatment isn’t easily forgiven. Odds are when you think of Starbucks, the racial incident will be top of mind for a long time to come. And all because of the ineptitude of one employee.

How much smarter to make customer care an integral and ongoing part of employee training. It may determine whether you succeed in business or fail.

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