Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Creating an On-Screen To-Do List

The nice thing about other people being on vacation is that I can use the time to get organized. I'm rediscovering the joy of creating to-do lists.

Normally, I write down my to-do items on a piece of note paper or in a note book and keep it by my desk.

For the last week, however, I've been keeping a running to-do list on my computer desktop in a Word file. As I accomplish items, I highlight them, select "Font" from the "Format" menu and then click the "Strikethrough" option to cross it off.

For items that require further action, I type a note in parentheses on the same line. I change the type to red (to make sure I don't ignore it) and usually note what time or date I left a message, sent an email, or what my next step is.

Being a long-time user of to-do lists, I've been surprised to discover that this new way of organizing myself has many benefits. Chief among my unexpected success with the on-screen method is how much it's helping me prioritize.

When jotting things down on paper, I tend to try to "go down the list" and get things done in the order I've written them down. For some reason, I'm unable to effectively rank things in order of importance. Instead of marking the "big deal" jobs, I feel immediate pressure and jump in wherever I am most inspired.

On the computer screen, however, I can cut-and-paste. I easily move things around in order of most important to least important and I also group related tasks together, helping me cross off several action items more efficiently.

I still type down action items as I think of them, but after brainstorming, I reorder things sequentially. That way, I make sure I approach "first things first."

The list is open and showing on my computer screen at all times ~ except when I decide I'm done working for the day. Then I close it. Being able to actually "close" the file mentally helps me leave work when I walk out of my office ~ so important since I'm working from home!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Timing Is Everything

Unless you're selling ice cream, gelato, or bathing suits, summer may not the best time to launch your new business.

I'm finding myself getting frustrated lately. It seems that each contact to a potential vendor, media specialist, designer, client, and accountant elicits the voice mail message: "I'm on vacation through the week of..."

I'm on a vacation of sorts, too ~ but not one that I planned!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Co-Op Advertising Works

But what is co-op advertising?

Co-op advertising usually refers to an arrangement between you and one of your suppliers to create a mutually beneficial promotion. You both contribute toward the cost of advertising your business, and in the ad, you prominently feature your supplier’s product.

Another way to create a co-op advertisement is to partner with other small businesses and go in on sharing the cost of ad space.

In this morning’s “Downtown” advertising insert in the Oregonian, a “Fiber Arts District” ad demonstrates this latter type of co-op advertising.

Josephine’s Dry Goods, The Button Emporium & Ribbonry, Fabric In The City, The Playful Needle, and Let It Bead all share space together to invite the craft-inclined to visit them for new ideas and products.

Had each of the above small businesses advertised alone, they would have had a harder time garnering attention. But working together, they create a visually compelling and sizable ad that inspires consideration and reinforces their participation in the newly designated “Fiber Arts District.”

Small business owners take note!
Ask yourselves if there is any similar type of business with whom you can partner to create a co-op ad. Approach the suppliers of your best-selling products and inquire about a joint promotion. If they’re a large, national company, they’ll likely be interested in boosting their presence with you locally. If they’re a small, local company, perhaps you can share space side-by-side instead.

Not only do you get more bang for your buck with co-op advertising, you can also strengthen your relationships with your suppliers and related businesses. In the best situations, you might even find that working together is what it takes to create exciting new momentum and demand for your products or services.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harness the Power of Publicity

Today is the grand opening of the new IKEA store in Portland. Traffic is expected to slow and snarl for the next two weeks as people swarm to the big blue-and-yellow box.

Local residents began to line up on Monday to be among the first shoppers at today’s opening. Along the same lines of the recent Harry Potter mania and iPhone enthusiasm, many people consider today the culmination of a consumer fantasy.

I’ve never been inside an IKEA store (nor read a Harry Potter novel, nor seen an iPhone for that matter), but even I’m not immune to the excitement surrounding IKEA’s Portland arrival. I’ve heard so much about IKEA that I feel I know the store, without ever having been shopping there.

Since IKEA began building the colossal facility out near our airport last year, I’ve been hearing about how it’s not just a store, it’s a destination. I’ve heard about IKEA’s furniture and how it’s easy-to-assemble, affordable, and contemporary. I’ve heard about its lingonberry preserves and Swedish meatballs.

And I’ve heard about all of those things from publicity and word-of-mouth. IKEA only started putting ads in the local newspaper and on the radio in the last two weeks!

Ah, the power of a public relations campaign.

Publicity seems to be something that many small businesses feel is out of reach, but that isn’t necessarily true. No matter what your size of business or sole proprietorship, you can benefit from publicity, too.

In Guerrilla Publicity (by Jay Conrad Levinson, Rick Frishman, and Jill Lublin), you'll learn the step-by-step how-to’s of building your name recognition and getting publicity for your small business.

While it’s possible for you to create and manage your own public relations campaign, you can always call in professionals to do it for you.

Think PR firms are just for the big boys? Think again. Talk to Deborah at The Swift Collective. I spoke with her yesterday and I was impressed by her company’s dedication to meeting small business needs. She offers marketing and public relations expertise with the kind of flexibility and support needed specifically by small businesses.

Monday, July 23, 2007

All Hail Clip Art

I was reading some other blogs last week and noticed that the ones I liked the most had attention-getting graphics at the beginning. It's kind of a cheap trick, but I'm not going to deny that it works.

So I linked to my own Small Business Resources page and browsed through my favorite free clip art database.

Do your newsletters, web pages, and catalogs have enough eye appeal? Liven things up a little bit with some visual interest!

On the Road to Building Business Credit

Congratulations are in order. My application for a corporate credit card was approved today. I'm officially beginning to take my company on its journey toward establishing good business credit.

But why a corporate card? And would my business need its own credit anyway?

Benefits of a Corporate Card

Business credit cards come in a range of exciting packages, some with travel rewards, some with rebates.

Many of the transactions I need for running my business can be done online, and my bank has included a business ATM/debit card for that convenience. If I use a business credit card to pay them, however, I can get the line-item detail I need for accurate record-keeping, plus leverage my regular spending into bonuses like free hotel stays or gift cards at office supply stores.

Today, my business is small enough that I can easily keep track of work-related purchases versus personal ones, but I have my sights set on growing. By having separate bank accounts and a separate business credit card, I can not only more easily monitor my business's finances, but I can also begin to point my business toward future expansion.

The Need for Business Credit

Someday I want to have an office, as opposed to working from my home. At that point my company will have to sign a lease, which may require a credit check. Then, I will have to purchase additional computers and workstations. Regardless of whether I choose to finance that purchase with a bank loan or a credit card, being able to access growth funds will be important. I might find better terms and even lower prices fromvendors if my company has a good business credit rating, too.

Business Credit Card Options

I searched for "best business credit cards" to seek side-by-side comparisons of various business credit card offers. One of the top search results on Google was a very useful article from Smart Money: "Five Things to Know About Small Business Plastic."

Because I'm just getting established, I opted for a card with a low APR ~ just in case I choose not to pay the entire balance each month. It was also possible to find that feature combined with rewards. The Advanta MasterCard, chosen by Smart Money as the best business credit card, offers business owners the choice between a Cash Bank rewards program or a point-for-dollar travel awards program.

Although an American Express rewards program was also very highly recommended, I've been in too many situations where AmEx isn't accepted as payment. I made the choice that would provide me the most flexibility with the least cost and called Advanta.
Before I applied for the card, I wanted to be sure that they would be reporting my business's performance to a business credit bureau. The customer service agent confirmed that they would, and in less than five minutes, my business was approved.
Now, does celebratory champagne count as a business expense?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dos and Don’ts of Hiring a Consultant

It’s not always necessary or practical to hire new staff members. Small businesses are especially sensitive to the cost burdens associated with adding employees.

When you need extra help to power a change in course or jump-start a project, or when you need high-level experience for only a limited time to guide you from Point A to Point B, then a consultant can be your answer.

But knowing the answer might engender more questions—where do I find a consultant? How can I trust a consultant? What can I expect the consultant to do for me?

Start by asking around. Call the officers at local professional associations (think networking groups for the type of help you need, i.e., marketing, HR, computer/technical, strategic communications) and talk with other small business owners to find referrals.

Then use the following tips to help you make your choice and to establish a useful working relationship with your consultant.

Do check references.
Ask other clients with whom a consultant has worked for information about their performance, just as you would a potential employee.

Do be prepared for your meetings.
Know what you want to get from each meeting, take notes, and be sure you know which one of you is responsible for communicating those notes afterwards. You’ll pay by the hour, remember…stay on task in meetings and don’t waste time having to refresh your memory on what was supposed to be done. Plus, the more research and information you have prepared for the consultant, the quicker it will be for him or her to get up to speed to perform the work. You’ll save money by being prepared.

Do discuss expectations and responsibilities.
Clarify roles and responsibilities about project goals. Who owns what? Be sure that you are holding the consultant accountable; he or she may be the expert, but you’re the boss. Manage his or her progress toward goals just as you would any other employee.

Do protect your business interests.
Clarify whether or not your consultant has clients in a similar business. Investigate potential conflict of interest. Discuss with your attorney the benefit or necessity of making your consultant sign a non-disclosure agreement before beginning work.

Don’t hire a do-it-all.
If a consultant says he can tighten your financial controls, build you a web site guaranteed to increase sales and make it search engine friendly to boot, manage your business’s credit accounts, help you redesign your office, train your sales staff, and protect your business against lawsuits, BEWARE! Consultants are supposed to be experts in a chosen field. People who claim to be able to do it all are rarely able to deliver exceptional results across the board. For best results with multiple projects, you’ll see better results—and thereby receive better value—by hiring a consultant for each respective industry. You don’t save money in the long run when you hire one person to do mediocre work for you in every department.

Don’t think they will be a magic wand.
Consultants can’t save you from yourself. Whatever problems or troubles you might find yourself facing, you ultimately will have to lead yourself out of it. A consultant can provide expert advice, valuable perspectives, and priceless experience to help you. But don’t expect one person to single-handedly deliver you from evil.

Don’t seek a bargain.
Consultants are experts. Prepare to pay for expertise.

Don’t take their experience for granted.
Be sure to check for specific, documented proof that they can do what they say they can do. Just because they tell you they’ve done XYZ before, doesn’t mean they did. In addition to checking references, check out their previous clients’ web sites and place a phone call or two to be sure everything lines up. You’re not being paranoid, you’re performing due diligence.

For more suggestions, read, “How to Hire the RIGHT Consultant”—written by a consultant who helps businesses find and hire consultants.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Umpqua Bank: Innovative Advertising Attracts Attention

When I returned from my trip last week and enjoyed my Sunday morning newspaper, I saw an interesting ad that caught my eye.

It was bright yellow and announced an opportunity to children under the age of 13 to obtain a lemondade stand “loan.” To promote itself as small-business-friendly, Oregon-based Umpqua Bank is currently giving away 2,100 lemonade stand kits—including a $10 bill—to kids who want to start their own neighborhood enterprise.
Very clever marketing.

“Breaking through the clutter” is how Lani Hayward, executive vice president of creative strategies for Umpqua, referred to her bank’s small business advertising campaign in a July 16 New York Times article.

This campaign is another in a string of ingenious branding and messaging Umpqua campaigns that have impressed me.

Three months ago, when I was looking into which bank I would choose for my small business, I clipped one of the ads from Umpqua’s mainstreet™ campaign. I was attracted by their declarations of support for small businesses and eager to learn more.
I visited the Umpqua web site, ready to be convinced that I should bank with them.

Once at their site, however, I was baffled. I followed the mainstreet™ link on the home page to explore the small business features ("LocalSpace"). I tried to take the "Business Blend" test to see what type of programs they offer to fit my needs, however, when I clicked on "Business Blend," the test that came up was for personal banking.

I tried to find another way to navigate the web site to find business services. It took several clicks on the home page banner for me to figure out the ActiveX links. Once I enabled the sub-menus, however, I still had to guess at which words would take me where I wanted to go. (Hint: business banking programs are called "Practice," "Flow," "Launch" and "Drive.")
After nearly two hours on the web site, I had hit many dead-ends and been thoroughly confused ~ all in an effort to find the basic information anyone would want to know about how much of a minimum balance would I need to maintain for what kind of fees and for what services.

The Umpqua web site, while attractive and visually consistent with its brand messages, failed to convince me they were the better banking choice. Instead of backing up its brand message with a great sales pitch and showing me what great service they might have, the web site negated the positive impressions created by the advertising. By making it hard for visitors to find information and being ambiguous in naming its services, their web site gives the impression that the company puts more effort into grabbing new customers than they do in serving them.

Ultimately, I chose a small bank that was recommended to me by another small business owner. The bank I chose has no flash-and-sizzle. It has neither an interesting advertising campaign nor anything resembling a brand identity.

But what they do have are couriers who will come pick up my deposits; personal, friendly service; staff members who care about their clients; and branch managers who don’t hesitate to name other companies—even competitors—that can be a resource in making my small business succeed.

The moral of this story is that creative outreach is great. By all means, think outside the box. But if you don’t have the budget to put toward a fancy campaign, rest assured that doing your job—and doing it well—get noticed and talked about.

Another moral is that if you’re going to spend money on an advertising campaign, be sure that you integrate it with your web site. What good does it do your company to attract interested prospects to your web pages when those pages don’t convert the visit to a sale?

In addition to the maze-like mainstreet™ section online, you should know that you won’t even find the “Lemonaire” kit information on the Umpqua web site! According to that same Times article referenced above, Umpqua budgeted $830,000 for this campaign, the single largest advertising amount they’ve targeted directly to small businesses. Given its budgetary and PR significance, one would have thought they’d remember to post the details on their web site.
After all, even aspiring lemonade stand owners use the Internet.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Marketing ~ For the Dogs?

Out walking my dog Radar this afternoon, I noticed a pet dish on some steps ahead of me. Portland is a pretty dog-friendly city, but it was still a pleasant surprise to see that someone cared enough about neighborhood pets to put out fresh water.

As we approached the dish, I saw business cards on display.
Not only is the neighbor pet-friendly, she’s a pet care professional and owner of Ruff Life Portland Pet Care! The dog dish features the Ruff Life web site address and certainly gained my attention—via my dog—on our walk. I rang the doorbell and said hello to Carla…and introduced her to Radar.

Just last week I chose to take Radar with me on a trip, when it would have been much more cost-effective, not to mention easier, if I had left him behind with a sitter. Pet sitters I’ve used in the past have other full-time jobs and it takes some advanced planning to make those arrangements—time I didn’t have when I made my sudden trip last week.

Should I find myself in that situation again, I now know someone I can call with confidence. Not only that, but my friends and fellow pet owners are regularly asking me for referrals for pet sitters.

Great marketing, Carla! Kudos for the creative messaging to neighborhood customers.

Something Old, Something New: 5 Ways to Know When to Offer a New Product

My hairstylist recently added body waxing to the services performed at his salon. Now his clients can schedule an eyebrow wax with a “cut-and-color” in one convenient stop. In a similar move, my dentist’s office now offers specialty toothpaste and cosmetic dentistry packages. In addition to fabulous pinot noir, a winemaker I know also sells vineyard merchandise such as wineglasses, hats, and shirts at his retail space.

Many small businesses boost profitability and sales by expanding their menu of services or adding a new product line. Because of the convenience of one-stop shopping and your established credibility, doing so can provide a real benefit for your customers—creating a win-win relationship.

How do you know when it’s time to add something new?

Pay attention to trends and competitors.
My dentist wasn’t the only one adding whitening and cosmetic services to his practice. Throughout our community (and probably yours), dental practices had begun to advertise free whitening to new patients. If your competitors, or others in your industry, are offering a new service or product, it may be time for you to get on board…or risk being left behind.

Examine your numbers.
Know your profit centers and sales numbers. If you’re not adept at creating and interpreting business spreadsheets, consult with your CPA to get a handle on which products or services are most profitable. Also be sure that you know which products or services are the best selling and which are lagging. In your most profitable and popular areas, brainstorm related products or services that you could add to fuel new growth. Consider ridding yourself of the least profitable and least popular services or products, replacing them with something new that can generate better revenue.

It’s about time.
So exactly how many years *have* you been selling those same widgets? If your business is providing you the income you want, it can be easy to let things stay the same. But know that things rarely stay static forever. Consumers today are constantly being exposed to new products and ways of doing business. With the Internet, news about innovations can travel the globe in less than a second. If your business has been carrying the same products or doing business the same way since the early 1980s, you run the risk of looking like a dinosaur to your customers—and we all know how that story ends.

Know your customers.
A local music store just closed one of its two locations because it has been losing money since the debut of iTunes. The business owner had been watching for decades as his customer base changed from teens and young people who collected albums, then cassettes, then CDs, to a mostly older demographic. Over a long period of time, he lost his core customer base. His efforts a few years ago to add new products to his store came too late and were too little to reclaim the now-digital-music-dependent teen consumer. If you see a trend with core market shrinking, or the demographics of your neighborhood changing, that’s your cue to start branching out your business’s offering right away.

Spice up your life.
You may be bored with the work your business is doing and find that you’re burned out performing the same services day in and day out. In this case, take yourself out to lunch or away for a weekend to get back in touch with your goals. Why did you start doing the work you’re doing? Do you love helping people solve problems? Are you excited about making others feel good? Does it thrill you to create organization out of chaos? What is it *really* that turned you on about the business you own? When you find the heart of what it is you enjoy, you’ll be able to see new products or services that will refresh your business and reconnect you to your passions.

And finally…
New product lines or services should be a natural fit with what your business is currently doing and what your business is all about. If you’re in the business of providing expert financial planning advice, for instance, it doesn’t make sense for you to add web site design services to your business offerings.

While it may be true that some of your clients could use web design assistance as well, promoting yourself as a provider of vastly different services dilutes consumers’ perception of your competence at both. Instead, consider becoming a distributor for a respected line of financial planning tools and resources or selling yourself as a speaker and workshop leader for financial planning topics.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Who You Gonna Call?

Crises happen.

Your star employee's husband just accepted a new job in South Carolina and she's moving. Your administrative assistant comes down with a sudden illness; she files for disability. Your server gets infected with a virus and you lose your entire database.

When the unexpected happens, will you be prepared?
Follow these suggestions to ensure that your business can stay afloat when hard times hit:
Document business procedures and key information.
Take advantage of your business's down season and ask your staff to document important job functions and organize key hard copy and computer files.

Clarify goals and expectations.
Spend an hour with each employee to review job descriptions; check to see that you're on schedule with employee reviews and catch up when necessary.

Bring in some back-up experts.
Hire an IT firm to run a diagnostic scan on your hard drives, analyze your network's security programs, and recommend hardware and software updates. If you don't already have a back-up process in place, have them set up an automated one for you.

Check your coverage.
How much of your business is computer-dependent? Did you know that some insurance companies have a policy add-on to compensate you for lost income in the event of computer malfunction or theft? Contact your insurance agent to discuss this option as well as to ensure that your business is adequately covered for other emergencies.

Protect the knowledge.
Identify the critical tasks at your business and who's responsible for carrying them out. If something were to happen to that person, how long would it take your business to get back on track? Prevent a future standstill by cross-training another employee in critical business systems.

Recruit a team before you need them.
What would happen if you had a PR nightmare on your hands? Do you have a trusted firm you can count on to help you through it? What if your business were sued by a former employee or by a customer? Few people make great decisions in times of crisis. Network now and find the expert resources you would want to call on in times of need.

Assess, then access, cash.
Many small businesses don't have cash reserves. The best time to open a credit line is before you need it. Consider opening a new line of credit at your bank or obtaining a new business credit card account to have back-up money available in case of emergency.

No business can completely shield itself from crises, but with forethought and conscientiousness, you'll be better prepared to handle them when they come.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Make Your Email Say More

As a small business owner, you probably depend on email to maximize your productivity and keep tabs on all the balls you have in the air. But email is more than an efficiency tool. Because it’s one of the ways your business “touches” customers, consider email content as seriously as you would any other element of your business’s communications.

In our modern cyberworld, where we increasingly interact in a virtual landscape rather than face-to-face, the little things you do to convey your small business’s personality can have a lasting impression on your customers. Conveying humanness in your customer service correspondence helps your business stand out. Conscientious electronic communication builds loyalty by making customers feel good about interacting with your business.

Alternatively, being casual about email can make a bad impression or cause an unintended negative consequence. From a management standpoint, you may be pleased at how many quick responses your business can churn out in a day. But what does such efficiency matter to your customers? Your brief, to-the-point emails might convey indifference or disregard to them.

Consider creating a company policy that sets standards for email correspondence and shows your employees how email fits into the business’s communications strategy. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Use a descriptive subject line.
Title emails in a way that encourages your customer to trust it and want to open it. Phrases such as “Our answer to your product question,” “We need your help regarding your order,” or “Following up on our conversation,” create a friendly tone right away.

Greet customers personally.
Include salutations in emails. If “Dear Jane,” makes you bristle, consider “Hello Jane,” instead.

Use an appropriate tone.
If you’re a professional service firm, employees should be instructed to use a formal tone that reinforces the business image. If you’re a whimsical e-commerce company, encourage corporate emails to be lighter and friendly.

Include contact information.
At the close of each email, be sure your customers can readily reach you by phone if necessary. Invite them to contact you personally. Employees should sign emails with their first and last names as well as their titles.

Share appreciation.
Your company is gaining access to the customers’ in-box and gaining an audience. Reinforce how valuable the customer is; say thank you.

Clearly state what’s off-limits in email content.
It should go without saying that business emails should be free of slang, profanity, and negative comments about company employees, products, or services. Nevertheless, state it in your company policy and let employees know that there will be consequences for violations.

Check spelling and use proper grammar.
Poorly written email letters and frequent misspellings make your company look unprofessional. Some employees may have consistent trouble crafting grammatically correct emails or spelling correctly; make it a company policy for managers to proofread emails for individuals who need extra help.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Who Are You Really?

On the return trip from the East Coast, one flight on my two-leg journey was cancelled. My scheduled one-hour layover in Atlanta turned into a six-hour layover. Fortunately, there was a full-size bookstore in the airport and I availed myself of the opportunity to consume a new book cover-to-cover in one sitting.

Although it was published in 2005, “The 7 Irrefutable Rules of Small Business Growth” by Steven S. Little was on prominent display both in the main entrance and back in the Business section. I quickly skimmed the chapter titles to see what these “rules” might be and made the decision to purchase the book immediately when I saw Rule 1—“Establish and Maintain a Strong Sense of Purpose.”

In this first “rule,” Little explores how people form businesses around ideas. He encourages small business owners to examine the central creative concepts, market needs, goals, and scopes of their businesses. In a quick, one-page treatment, Little suggests some questions for business owners to answer. He follows them with a brief, somewhat superficial explanation of how critical they are to an organization’s success—both internally (within its own culture, for you, and for your employees) and externally (for appeal to the outside world, to the market, in attracting customers).

What he doesn’t come out directly and say, but what is implied in making this Rule #1, is that your business’s identity is the foundation on which you conceptualize, write, and direct your growth plan. From a consulting standpoint, I would argue that these questions, once answered, also help inform your marketing efforts. Take a look below and consider how useful the answers will be to identifying your advertising market, your messaging, your business “story,” your communications and press releases, and your product or service descriptions.

(As an added bonus, I think you’ll find that answering them may also energize you, helping reconnect you to the passion you had that led you to launch your undertaking in the first place!)

Little’s questions are listed first, with my corollary questions in italics afterwards.
Who is your company supposed to serve?
Who is your company serving? Are you serving those you’re supposed to serve?

What do you stand for?
How does your company make that stand? Is it clear to customers what your company stands for?

Why are you doing what you are doing?
Is it what you want to do? Is it what you set out to do? Do you need to refocus or are you on track? Are you personally fulfilled with the work that your business is doing?

Why should you be doing what you are doing?
What is the emotional, social, economic, or political imperative of what you are doing?

What unique strengths does your organization foster?
What is the unique benefit that your company is about? What is the unique contribution of your company to your local community? Your employees’ lives? Your own personal strengths?

What is your company trying to accomplish?
If everything you want to achieve came true, what would that picture look like? Describe how your company accomplishes its dreams and visions.

By the way, I did read the book in its entirety that day and recommend it to everyone who is interested in either expanding a business or increasing profitability. It’s an accessible introduction to important strategic concepts that most small business owners don’t have the time to sit and consider. The author doesn’t try to supply you with detailed instructions for implementing growth systems, but he does provide plenty of useful content, including short case studies, that will spark your imagination. Additionally, each chapter concludes with “Suggested Next Steps,” to help you integrate these rules into your own business’s management.

My favorite local bookstore, Powell’s Books, has it available as an e-book download, new, or in a limited number of used copies. (No, I didn't sell them mine! I anticipate being able to use this book as a reference and resource for a long time into the future.)

Monday, July 9, 2007

Oh, the Places You Go Just Winging It

Serendipity. Street smarts. Dumb luck. Common sense. It is possible to make your way fairly well in the world without much of a plan.

Last Monday, I took my daughter on a one-day tour of New York City. Given the time constraints, my goal was to take her to see some of Manhattan’s most famous landmarks (like St. Patrick's Cathedral, above). Prior to the trip, I checked out a 1996 edition of “Kidding Around New York City: A Young Person’s Guide to the City” from our local library and used that to inform my itinerary.

I narrowed our focus to Midtown (where our hotel was located) and the lower end of the island because I knew I wanted to start with the Statue of Liberty. The book helped me identify Wall Street, the NYSE, and City Hall as nearby points of interest. I added the site of the World Trade Center towers to the list. Chinatown looked like it was close by and the book mentioned a chicken named Bird Brain that plays Tic Tac Toe at the Chinatown Fair on Mott Street. Knowing my daughter loves bagels, I found “Best Bagels in New York City” on About.com and came up with a destination near our hotel. With a family member’s recommendation for a dinner spot (Mars 2112), I figured we’d wrap up the day back in Midtown, where we’d take a train from Grand Central Station to our final destination in Connecticut.

That was the sum total of the day’s plan. I had no map of the island, no subways guides, and no other way to navigate the day. I was taking on Manhattan more or less “winging it.”

And for the most part, it worked. Without a map, it took us a little longer to find our breakfast spot than I had anticipated. We walked quite a ways to find a subway station afterwards, but when we did, the guy selling subway tickets told us how to make our way to Battery Park to get to the Statue of Liberty.

At Castle Clinton, the lines to get tickets and the ferry to Liberty Island were two hours long. Fortunately, I had anticipated that, and the agreed upon back-up plan was to take the Staten Island Ferry to get views of Lady Liberty.

From there, I knew we had to walk north to get to Wall Street. I just followed signs to the financial district and asked for directions when I thought we might have veered off course. With nothing more than a Google map printout of the NYSE, we made our way to the Federal Reserve Bank, the NYSE, City Hall, the Woolworth Building, and the site of the former World Trade Center towers. We picked up a subway at City Hall to take us to Canal Street and Chinatown. That was a bit of a waste of money since we were only a few blocks away.

At the top of the subway station on Canal Street was a tourist’s map of Chinatown that provided our orientation for exploring that neighborhood. We enjoyed strolling up and down Mott Street and some of its side streets, popping into Chinese bakeries and gift shops and apothecaries. At the Chinatown Fair, however, we discovered that Bird Brain, the Tic Tac Toe savant, was long-gone.

After walking through Chinatown and into Little Italy, we hopped on the same #6 train back to Midtown to 42nd and Broadway to find our dinner spot. I had only the address of the restaurant, and we found it without a problem. Being so near Times Square, we walked around Broadway after dinner and picked up some cheesecake before we headed to Grand Central.

As we rode Metro North, the commuter train that runs between NYC and the Connecticut shoreline that night, I thought about how much fun we had flying by the seat of our pants. By all accounts, the day was a success. I found all the places I wanted to find, navigated well enough, and never had to rely on a taxi to get us from one place to the next.

But we certainly walked way more than we needed to. If we had had a map, I would have found more direct ways of getting us from point A to point B and would have made smarter use of the subways. With any kind of Manhattan guide, our feet would have been a lot less sore.

Researching our destinations ahead of time would have made a big difference, too. As it turns out, the financial district has been barricaded and under close guard since 9-11. Tourists are no longer allowed into the NYSE, City Hall, or the Federal Reserve Bank. I knew the Statue of Liberty would likely be restricted, but it hadn’t occurred to me that everything else would be, too. While my daughter wasn’t disappointed to miss out on the viewing room of the New York Stock Exchange, I was. And if I had taken more time to plan the trip, I would have known that since the 1996 edition of our guide book was published, Bird Brain had long since gone to the fryer.

What occurred to me as we elevated our throbbing feet on the empty seats across from us on the train that night is that small business management is often a lot like touring without a map. You can do a pretty good job without a very detailed plan. By basically heading in the right direction, asking around, and making educated guesses, you can achieve some respectable success.

Most of the small business owners I know and have worked with do not use a business plan and scoff at the very idea. “Our sales are growing,” they may point out with pride. “I don’t need a plan to tell me how to run my business. I’ve done well so far without one.”

And I won’t argue that; it’s true. If you took the time to create a plan for your business, however, your research would likely uncover better tools and new technology. You might find innovations or resources that could improve your day-to-day operations and update your product line. You might discover faster, more efficient ways to run your business and software that would give you more information about your customers, your weaknesses and your profitability.

Sure, things are functioning now. But I bet at the end of the day, with a useful business plan, your feet would be a lot less sore, too.