Open letter to small business owners:
As a small business owner, I take pride in every aspect of my business. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t do everything perfectly, but who does? I try hard, I try to learn from my mistakes, and try very hard not to make the same mistake twice. Ok, three times. Let’s get real.
As I shifted from the corporate world into being my own business owner, it became very clear that everything I did was from the ground up, and all of the rewards were my own. This was both good and bad. As a hotel manager, my name tag represented “who I was” as much as I representing the chain.
“Oh, hey, you’re the hotel guy. I may have someone for you to talk to.” I didn’t have to sell my products, so to speak. Of course, my relationship building skills would make or break how successful I was, but my name tag spoke a certain amount. In exchange, I got my weekly paycheck. Frequently, when I compared my paycheck to what I saw the bottom line of the P&L being every month, I would just shake my head.
Now, it’s all mine. The name tag, the business, explaining what I do, and the bottom line. As such, I try very VERY hard not to make mistakes.
One of the first things I did in my business plan was to create my company name, followed closely by acquiring a domain name. If you don’t believe me, visit www.newport-enterprises.com. It’s all me. For better or worse. I went the next step, as well, choosing to incorporate, to protect my assets, and to keep things separate in my life. There are advantages and disadvantages. I did my research, and drew the conclusion that this is what was right, for my own situation. Since I run my wife’s company, as well, I did it twice.
I have a web presence, and I think it is pretty good. I market well, and try hard to get good placement with search engines, but I spend a lot of time trying to have a website that looks and feels the way I want it to. I don’t have flashy graphics, streaming videos, or anything like that, but I didn’t pay thousands to set it up, either. (Editors note: After one year, due to the volume of business I was working with, I did elect to have a complete website redesign completed by a professional, which help me manage several aspects of my business. However, you should know that a very basic website got me started, and it didn’t cost a fortune).
Here’s what I’m getting at: I meet a lot of people. I learn about their businesses, they learn about mine. I go to various Chamber of Commerce functions, and exchange over a hundred business cards a month. Not bad, and I don’t say that either to brag, or in misery. It is what it is. I also get those same hundred or so business cards, so that I can remember folks, refer folks when appropriate, and do my own follow up, if I’ve committed to something.
As I look through the business cards, sometimes I see websites, and sometimes I don’t. I almost always see email addresses, and if you’re reading this blog, you have an email address, too. I’m not certain there is anybody in the US between the ages of 12 and 70 that does not have an email address.
There are some fantastic email services out there, some are free, some you pay extra for, some that come with your home or business internet service. I think those are great for your personal use. Why spend extra, right? Your whole family can get their own email address at no extra charge. You can get your own miscellaneous email address that you will never check, to give out to those sites that demand an email address so they can spam you, but NOBODY gets your “real” email address. Gmail, Yahoo, Verizon are all great examples, and there are a lot more.
However, when it comes to your business, I am a very strong believer that your web presence (or lack thereof), and your email address speak volumes about who you are and who you are is a business person. Let’s take a mortgage broker, for example. Say you had two business cards that were virtually identical. And since I’ve seen some pretty bad business cards, let’s assume these look good. More on business cards later). One person’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and the other is email@example.com. Which one of those has more credibility? Which one screams “Fly By Night?” All other factors being equal, I would believe that the latter person is more committed to her business than the first. I would believe she is more committed, more serious, and more professional. Of course, that may or may not be the case. Having worked for two major corporations, I know there are some real nut-muffins that hide behind their corporate email and the credibility that it lends. But we’re talking small business. You can ferret out the bad seeds pretty quickly.
One of the business cards I came across recently was for a person who touted themselves as a Corporate Problem Solver. The business card was on nice card stock, and was printed using a basic MS Word font in two different sizes, no color, no graphics, and the email address was firstname.lastname@example.org. There were two phone numbers, labeled “Phone” and “Cell”, with no address or other contact information. I only talked to this person for about 90 seconds, and the interaction was pleasant. However, if all I had was the business card, I probably wouldn’t trust this person to walk my cat, much less solve any corporate problems I may have.
If you are going to have a small business, take the steps to get your own domain name and email account. It’s not hard, and not nearly as expensive as you think. Yes, it’s a service I offer, but that’s a side point, and much of this can be accomplished without someone to help you. However, if you’re time is even more important, you can get help. It just pains me to see good people work hard, and then lose valuable credibility by not taking some very simple steps. Having a generic email is this decade’s equivalent of the used car salesman that scratches out somebody else’s name on the business card and writes his own in. And his cellphone number.
Speaking of business cards, here’s another one: Do not EVER do your own business cards. By that, I am generally referring to the “print your own business cards at home” kits you get at your local office supply store. Why? It’s because they look like….they were printed at home. They have that “ink jet” look, the fuzzy edges, from where you separated them from the master sheet. And they are probably ever so slightly off center. Business cards do NOT cost that much. There are local printers who will make you a good deal on that, envelopes, whatever you need. If you spend a little time looking around, you can find some pretty reasonable prices. Sure, you might end up paying $50 for 1000 cards or something like that. That $50 should be a pretty small investment in your business, based on what you want your return to be. There are some companies out there that offer free business cards, and some of them look pretty good. Anymore, though, they are pretty recognizable as one of the free designs, and they may even make you put the name of the printing company on the back of YOUR business cards. Spend the extra $4 to have that removed. It’s okay to design your own business cards online, there are some great sites that you can do that with, or even upload one that you already have. However,. always bear in mind that EVERY piece of information you put out about your company is going to create an opinion about your company. See the earlier discussion about perceived commitment to your business. Those flyers I get stuffed in my mailbox, which are black type on pink paper, slightly off center, and definitely copied crooked, and are for “Mary’s Housekeeping Services, Lisensed and Bonded. We kleen 4 U.” always take a huge backseat to others that are more professionally done.
Bottom line: If you are taking your business seriously, create the image that you want others to have of you. Seek feedback. Do NOT skimp on things you are putting in the public eye. You do NOT need to spend $5000 on a website, and $500 on a domain name and email account. There will be investment, as there should be, but you can and should have “nice stuff” so that you don’t turn people off before they get a chance to know you.