Entrepreneurs Look to Start Strong in 2012

It’s a new year and a lot of people like to make resolutions in the hopes of improving upon the previous year’s mistakes and missed opportunities. Entrepreneurs are …

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It’s a new year and a lot of people like to make resolutions in the hopes of improving upon the previous year’s mistakes and missed opportunities. Entrepreneurs are no different, and many business innovators have shared their resolutions with others in hopes of support and inspiration. Just a few benchmarks business owners hope to achieve in 2012 include starting retirement plans for employees, hiring more employees, creating an attention-grabbing brand and investing in more effective advertising. For more on this continue reading the following article from TheStreet.

It’s a new year, and you know what that means: resolutions.

But not all resolutions have to be so big or so complicated they’ll never get done. Some can be quite simple, such as improving time management skills, whereas others can take a bit more strategy, such as finally getting on the social media bandwagon. Small-business owners should also use these early days to refresh their business plans and make an effort to, finally, implement some of those ideas you had but never quite put to use.

Late last month, we asked our Facebook followers their small-business resolutions for 2012. Some were on the general side — like Maxwell G. Mason’s vow to "Make even more $$$ than last year!" or Steve Goff’s for "survival!" But there was the woman whose intent was to "Get rid of my drama queen partner and keep on moving forward!" and Jeff Lasher’s inspiring resolve to "Start [a small business] down here in Silicon Valley!"

Here are 10 other small-business resolutions for 2012: 

1. Create a retirement plan for employees
Increasingly fewer workers expect to retire at 65 anymore, and for employers that can mean significant added expenses in health care, salary, benefits and other compensation for an aging and possibly less productive workforce, says Scott Holsopple, president and CEO of Smart401k.

Offering a retirement program such as a 401(k) plan is a good way to help employees stay on track for retirement and curb costs for employers. Employers can choose to contribute to the plan or not. They can also get a tax write-off on set-up expenses.

Employers are also in a good position to demand more from their retirement providers for participants, Holsopple says.

"Employers and providers have the opportunity to step back and reshape retirement education and planning. Besides helping employees, employers can also help themselves in the process," he says. 

2. Hire!
According to a December small-business owner optimism survey by SurePayroll, 50% of 528 respondents said they plan to hire in 2012, with another 56% intending to raise wages for some or all employees.

"We saw caution in 2011, but the leading indicators suggest 2012 looks positive," SurePayroll CEO and President Michael Alter said in a statement.

E-commerce technology company Monetate, which provides online marketing testing for retailers including Urban Outfitters(URBN) and QVC, is looking to fill 16 engineering positions in 2012 but has had trouble finding good talent, primarily due to its Philadelphia location.

"We are in the e-commerce business, and the overall market is booming with more and more consumers migrating online to shop. Online sales are approaching 10% of total retail sales, and there is great demand for our solutions that help merchants identify ways to increase their Web site [return on investment]," says Blair Lyon, Monetate’s vice president of marketing.

"Our business is growing rapidly, and we are committed to aggressively scaling our team over the next year to keep up with our strong growth. Monetate added 50 new employees in 2011, and we have aggressive growth plans for 2012. Our goal is to more than double our total staff in 2012," Lyon says.

The company launched a campaign in November to find engineering talent. It is offering a $2,000 bonus to any person who refers an engineering candidate who is hired. Monetate will also provide assistance for relocation expenses.

Richard Dukas, president and CEO of Dukas Public Relations, is also focusing on employees.

"Despite the difficult economy, the financial/tech [public relations] business is strong," Dukas says. "We are growing and it’s critical for me to keep my staff motivated. Compensation is one of the best ways to do this. We have given everyone significant bonuses and/or raises for 2012. We also are investing in training and more out-of-office team-building events." 

3. Create an effective brand.
A company’s brand can make or break a business. Having a strong brand in most cases leads to a competitive edge, because this is often what customers remember and keeps them loyal, says Karen Post, the self-proclaimed Branding Diva and author of Brand Turnaround.

"When companies present a consistent message through coordinated marketing materials, business cards, thank-you notes, etc., this makes it even easier for that imprint to stick in your customer’s mind," Post says. "Having professional marketing tools used to be so expensive, and ordering large quantities were required. Nowadays, producing branded materials is easy, can be ordered online, in color and in small quantities at retailers like Staples(SPLS)."

Dukas says a second 2012 priority for his company is to emphasize to clients that his small firm can compete with larger marketing firms. This can be done only by enforcing a strong brand, he says.

"It’s important for Dukas PR to build and enhance its brand in order to demonstrate to prospective clients that we have the gravitas and reputation of our competitors. Our service offerings are first-rate and we have a proven track record of working with well-known companies; however, our brand isn’t as polished or well-known as other firms," Dukas acknowledges.

Dukas PR is in the process of creating a new Web site, logo and digital marketing and social media campaign. Even its offices are to be refurbished, he says.

"It’s all-important," Dukas says. 

4. Focus on customers.
As small-business owners and entrepreneurs it’s easy to work in a vacuum, wearing all the hats it takes to get through the workday and turn a profit. What you really should be thinking about, though, is how you are serving your customers, because there would be no business if there were no customers.

This year, make it a point to focus on your customers’ needs, whether that’s better customer service, creating a more engaging email or social media campaign or reassessing prices for your merchandise or services in which customers can find the most value (but you still make a profit).

"When you successfully address the customers’ wants and desires you not only earn their loyalty, but they become part of your marketing team by becoming ambassadors that will often tell others about how good you are to do business with," Post says. "Today it’s a lot easier for small businesses to give special attention to customers, even with small budgets and tight deadlines." 

5. Get comfortable with technology.
This year Great Clips CEO Rhoda Olsen made a resolution to improve her company’s technology adoption and contribute to the evolution of the haircutting industry — an industry that historically has been slow to accept new technology. Great Clips is incorporating an online check-in system and mobile app to decrease the time guests have to wait to see stylists.

The patent-pending, Internet-based platform (developed by Innovative Computer Software) allows customers to see estimated wait times and add their name to the list at the Great Clips salon of their choice, Olsen says.

"Brands can only grow and prosper by keeping existing customers happy and then adding new customers. We believe using technology to improve the customers’ experience — lower waits, convenient locations, quality haircuts for a good value — will further differentiate us from our competitors. And because we are a 100% franchised-based business, we need to make sure our franchisees can access the information they need to better manage their business," Olsen says.

Great Clips has 3,000 franchised salons across the U.S. and Canada.

The company has also enhanced the files they keep of customers in its point-of-sale system as well as creating a customer database that keeps tabs of each customer transaction.

"We had over 71 million customer visits in 2011 and we have great metrics regarding every visit. Several years of data are readily accessible to predict and analyze all of the impactful customer metrics. This will provide the foundation to ensure that we are always focused on the reality and not assumptions regarding our customers," Olsen says. 

6. Hone your advertising.
VeeV Acai Spirits co-founders Carter and Courtney Reum are brothers who left Wall Street jobs to focus on creating the first acai liquor brand (also the first liquor brand to be certified carbon neutral).

The 3-year-old company generated nearly $5 million in sales for 2011, more than doubling from the year before, helped by a major national advertising campaign that supported its rollout.

But this year, the company has decided to concentrate on more grassroots strategic marketing as opposed to generalized advertising in top liquor markets.

One strategy is by using geo-targeted marketing.

VeeV saw success with this strategy when it partnered with Ruby Tuesday(RT) eateries last year. The company decided to advertise in the chain’s top markets — which were not necessarily VeeV’s top markets — to support its so-called on-premise (within hotels and restaurants) rollout.

"It was very successful," a VeeV spokesman says. "Both on-premise sales and brand awareness in those markets increased," which ultimately supported sales at retailers in the new markets.

"It’s a much more strategic spend to support sales where they need it versus brand sales in a buzzy market," the spokesman says. "They’re looking to do more focused campaigns versus broad campaigns. Traditionally [the strategy with] a young brand that is growing is to let everybody know about it everywhere in the most influential markets, but VeeV’s approach is much more grassroots — here’s where we really need to support growth."

The strategy to do only targeted marketing could be particularly effective for small businesses that have tight budgets but are looking to expand.

VeeV is about to be distributed in another national restaurant chain in early 2012. The company declined to disclose which, but the marketing strategy is to be similar to the one with Ruby Tuesday. 

7. Improve time management skills.
Time management is hard for anyone these days, but small-business owners can have a particularly hard time completing all their tasks when in some cases it falls on them to be not only CEO of their company, but HR rep and sometimes plumber.

This is the year for some business owners to tackle their fear of time management strategies.

That’s one of several resolutions Steven Dubin, president of PR Works, has come up with for 2012, noting that email especially is a "time ambush."

"Email is both distracting and labor intensive," says Dubin, who’s vowing to tackle "unpleasant tasks" first this year.

"My vow is to check email at regular but distant time intervals throughout the day. The initial email review schedule is set for 7 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Thus I won’t be a slave to email, nor ignoring its urgency," Dubin says.

He has also set his sights on growing the most profitable niches in his PR business — health care and franchising — and plans to "triage the three critical projects (including email) and attack them first," Dubin says.

Malak Atut, founder and designer for Zaiken Jewelry, wants to carve out time in his week for business development.

"As someone who had a successful career in professional services prior to entrepreneurship, all of these [resolutions] were almost givens, but spending the last two years getting up and going they haven’t been top priorities. But that changes in 2012," he says.

Atut plans to make Fridays his business development day, including a range of activities for employees such as learning how to maximize Quickbooks, learning Adobe(ADBE) Illustrator in small doses and a creating a limited-item pop-up shop in Facebook

8. Get a handle on your finances.
Small-business owners need to be especially careful when it comes to organizing finances. Without a full-fledged accounting department, it’s easy to lose, forget or misplace (or worse, mishandle) important payouts, invoices and tax issues.

The easiest way to handle this is to use a better tracking method so you won’t need to play catchup with finances when taxes are due, says Outright.com CEO Steven Aldrich.

Outright has a free tool that will import data automatically from a business owner’s online accounts, such as eBay(EBAY), Amazon(AMZN), Etsy and PayPal, as well as banks and credit card companies. The owner can easily see an ongoing snapshot of their sales and expenses.

 

"In general, January of any year is a good time to get your finances organized so that you can have a consistent tracking method throughout the year," Aldrich says. "If you don’t know where your money is coming from and where it’s going, then you can’t set the right goals and make changes to improve your business."

Aldrich used the example of a new client, an Etsy seller, who had recently signed on with Outright. After reviewing her full sales and expenses for 2011 she realized she had lost money for the year, due in large part to gas expenses incurred while buying supplies. "Realizing this, she was able to move to a closer supplier and is now set to make money during 2012. She also has changed her goal to be a profit-based goal instead of a revenue-based goal for 2012," Aldrich says.

He also noted the new IRS ruling that requires payment processors, including the likes of PayPal, Amazon and Etsy, to send a 1099 form to any small business that sells more than $20,000 in goods or services and has 200 payments during the year, which means those sales are getting reported to the IRS.

"This means that the onus is on the small business to have records of all expenses associated with those sales so that they pay taxes only on the profit, not the revenue," he says.

In other words, make sure you have a handle on your finances. 

9. Stand out in a crowded social media space.
Admit it — you still don’t get all this social media hoopla. From Facebook to Twitter to Google+, it’s all gibberish, but while you’ve resisted embracing social media it’s likely your business has suffered.

Make this the year to get on the social media bandwagon. Your customers are looking for you there, so it will be worth it.

Still, the space is crowded. How do you stand out?

First, get educated on social media and then get some help in setting up and monitoring your social media sites. There are a host of companies that can help.

"As a PR agency we are struggling with the epic changes in our business," says Susan Tellem of Tellem Grody Public Relations. "Social media turned the PR business upside-down … mostly in a good way. So our New Year’s resolution is to launch several innovative programs that will help us stand out from the crowded PR/social media landscape and help to educate other types of businesses on the value of social media and how to use and measure it properly."

Tellem says the firm is using an exclusive licensed program called Social Media Suite. That helps them effectively monitor sentiment on Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, YouTube, Foursquare and more than 200 million micro-sites, blogs and forums, among other services, she says.

"This will allow us to help companies build meaningful relationships with consumers, ambassadors, influencers and the like, with actionable analytics, automated and comprehensive reporting," she says. 

10. Get paid on time!
A major problem for small-business owners and freelancers is not getting paid for the work they have done. The troubled economy has only made it worse.

But staying on top of outstanding invoices may be about to get easier for small-business owners.

ZenCash is a tool that automates the accounts receivable process, substantially shortening the turnaround time for payment, its maker says.

"Everyone works with the expectation of getting paid, and yet most small-business owners feel uncomfortable asking for money they’ve earned," CEO and co-founder Brandon Cotter says. "ZenCash removes a bit of that burden and manages the entire receivables and collection process for small businesses and freelancers. We sync with their existing invoicing system, then send reminders, make phone calls, deal with collections — whatever is necessary."

"ZenCash allows entrepreneurs to focus on what they love and removes the hassle of running after clients for money," Cotter says.

This article was republished with permission from TheStreet.

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