Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tips For Talking To Customers

Patrick Hull
Patrick Hull, Contributor
I write about entrepreneurism: the good, the bad & everything else. 
In a recent post, I discussed the importance of communicating with customers and not making assumptions about them. Listening to feedback from your customers can be incredibly helpful.

Your customers can provide insights about how they’re using your product or service and why they bought it (two key factors to ongoing success). I’ve found that consistently talking with customers is a good management and marketing strategy.

In short, keep the initial conversation going.

Although there is never one right answer or approach for every business, in my experience, customers appreciate when a business owner asks them for their thoughts about a product or service. I believe training employees to speak with customers and get feedback is important. However, when I’ve picked up the phone to call a customer directly, it reinforces the importance of customer feedback and sets a good example.

I often get asked about the frequency of talking with customers. It really varies based on the type of business and your relationship with your customers. With some businesses, calling monthly might be too much, but calling once a year is not enough.

Two lessons that I learned during my career were to call my biggest clients quarterly or shortly after they made a large purchase. This approach worked for me and helped to maintain my relationships with these key clients.

You want to learn from customers, but it’s also good to respect their time. I usually keep calls to 15 – 30 minutes and let my customer drive the conversation.

For example, I typically prepare a few questions for a particular customer, but let him or her steer the discussion. In some cases, we went in a completely unexpected direction, but it was helpful because I understood why customers made certain decisions. This information allowed me to market my businesses to them more strategically.

Also, I wasn’t afraid to ask someone to clarify a comment or tell them I didn’t understand what they meant with a particular phrase. I’ve typically found that asking for clarification is good. I think it’s a lot better than making an assumption and being totally off base. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way early in my career and it taught me not to make assumptions.

One of my favorite articles about talking with customers is from a Tech Republic blog in 2007. I still believe that the advice is relevant today and worth a read.

Ultimately, I consider talking to customers like going on a date. I try to stay positive, make a good impression, and let them do most of the talking.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Better Economy Means Fewer Entrepreneurs

The New Entrepreneur
Job applicants meet potential employers at a jobs fair in New York
Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images
Job applicants meet potential employers at a jobs fair in New York

Small Business

Better Economy Means Fewer Entrepreneurs

 At a time when startup mania seems to have seized America, with locales from Iowa City to Burlington, Vt., anointed burgeoning tech hubs, it’s easy to forget one big reason people start their own ventures: economic necessity.

During the Great Recession, fewer available jobs led more Americans to launch businesses. Now that the economy is improving, fewer people are starting companies.

That’s according to the Kauffman Foundation’s Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, released today, which found that 0.3 percent of the adult population started a business in each month last year, down from an average of 0.32 percent in 2011. The decrease was more pronounced for men than for women—0.38 percent of men started businesses each month in 2012, down from 0.42 percent a year earlier. The index also charted new business creation by race, finding that Latinos slowed their entrepreneurial activity the most in 2012—launching companies at a rate of 0.4 percent a month last year, down from 0.52 percent in 2011.

“It’s likely not a coincidence that the number of new businesses created dropped when the economy improved last year,” says Dane Stangler, director of research at Kauffman, in a press release. “While a stronger economy is good for business growth, it also means the unemployed find jobs instead of starting firms.”

So there you have it. Hire a new employee, squelch a would-be entrepreneur.
Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek covering small business and entrepreneurship.


Thursday, May 9, 2013


Real Entrepreneurs Don’t Write Business Plans

 Entrepreneurship is about getting out into the world and doing—not simply researching and writing business plans
 Entrepreneurship is about getting out into the world and doing—not simply researching and writing business plans

Steve Blank pities those poor professors stuck teaching tired business plan courses. “I’d be embarrassed if I was on a faculty teaching ‘How to Write a Business Plan for New Ventures,’” says the serial entrepreneur turned business school professor.

Blank is at the forefront of a growing movement of B-school professors teaching the next generation of Mark Zuckerbergs. Entrepreneurship, he argues, is about getting out into the world and doing—not simply researching and writing. “Business plan classes and business plan competitions are dead in the water for new ventures,” says Blank, who authored the cover story in the May 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review on the value of experimentation in building a new business. Blank teaches that gospel in a course called Lean LaunchPad at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Columbia Business School, and Stanford’s engineering school.

The premise of Blank’s course is that aspiring entrepreneurs need to know their customer and must test their hypotheses to have any chance at success. In the three years that he’s taught Lean LaunchPad, Blank has reached about 150 teams of students. The teams start building a product or service at the beginning of the class, and then immediately go out and talk to 10 to 15 people per week to test their theories about business challenges, such as pricing. His students learn from their failures and grasp the true meaning of pivoting or changing to meet the needs of clients, he says. “You used to have a revenue plan, and you’d execute to the plan because it was written down,” Blank says. “When it didn’t work out, you’d fire people. Now, we fire the plan.”

Blank grades students based on weekly presentations about what they’ve learned from their field research. The program is an open-source course, including the student’s presentations, which are filmed and put online as well.

Blank’s ideas about how to teach entrepreneurship are spreading. About 75 professors per quarter get trained on how to teach the Lean LaunchPad course. The National Science Foundation (NSF) adopted the program to help scientists turn their ideas into businesses, and it had Blank teach the first class of 25 teams in October 2011. Now, 11 universities are teaching 400 to 500 teams of scientists a year for the government.
Other professors are also making their own mark on entrepreneurship courses. At the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business, Brent Goldfarb revamped his introductory entrepreneurship course after he wrote a paper about how no one reads business plans.

In the new course, students pitch business ideas, and their peers vote on which ones to pursue. Students whose ideas are voted down must negotiate a contract with one of the remaining businesses. As the course progresses, businesses are voted off until only a few remain at the end.

In addition, students earn “Karma Points” by participating in challenges, such as one where they must seek out someone with a high Klout score—a measure of social media presence—and ask for advice. The student whose business earns the most money gets an A, as does the one with the most Karma Points. Goldfarb is quick to point out, however, that making money is not the point of the course. Rather, it’s meant to help students realize what starting a business really entails and whether they have the chops for it, he says.
Abigail Zaniel, a first-year student at Smith who took the course, managed Schmoozies, a business that sold customized can insulators. “I learned to actually start a business, you have to live and breathe it 24/7,” she says. “I found myself waking up thinking about how to grow the business.”

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

6 Reasons to Move Your Home Office to a Shared Office Space

  01 May 2013    Posted by Brad Roark   

Between kids being home for the summer and the day-to-day distractions of working from home, now might be the time to consider moving your home business to a shared office space. Read on for six reasons why this is a smart idea.

Fewer Distractions
Unless you live in a totally immaculate, kid-, pet-, and partner-free space, chances are there are plenty of things going on in your home that are taking your attention away from your work. Moving your office out of your house means fewer disruptions, from kids needing lunch to pets wanting walks to the siren call of dirty dishes.

Better Work/Life Split
Working at home comes with the unfortunate reality of the never-ending workday. Unlike those who can leave an office at 5pm and forget about work until the next morning, your home office is always beckoning. By renting shared office space, you have more of a chance to leave work at work and spend time focusing on your family (or yourself!) when you’re done for the day.

Opportunity for Collaboration
 At home, it’s just you in your office. While you can certainly call colleagues and friends to brainstorm and collaborate, there’s less of a chance that you’ll stumble onto a great idea in the course of a conversation. If you take your work to a shared office or co-working space, however, you’ll likely spend more time chatting with fellow professionals, leading to more sparks of inspiration.

Fewer Temptations
Because you’re not “at work” when you’re at home, it can be easy to take extended breaks to go out for lunch with friends, watch TV while you work, or put off work for later in the day to catch up on sleep. One of the benefits of a shared office space is that you actively “go to work,” which might help you focus and take your work more seriously.

Better Setup
Home offices are often lacking in the set-up department. Maybe you’re using a printer from 1997; maybe you’re using a kitchen chair at your desk instead of something ergonomic with wheels; maybe the closet in your home office is overflowing with clothes you keep meaning to donate. Regardless of your specific situation, moving to a shared office means you get to take advantage of space planned specifically for work, featuring better technology than you might invest in for your home office, and likely better lighting and less clutter.

Opportunity for Growth
Finally, getting your business out of your house means that you’re no longer confined by the space of your home office. Shared office space and co-working spaces are, by nature, flexible, meaning you can have all the space you need to hire another employee and see clients in a more professional environment.

Brad Roark is part of the marketing team at Office Suites PLUS. Catch him on twitter @bradaroark & Google+.