Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Want My Web TV

I thought podcasting was scary when I was first asked to record a weekly podcast a few years ago, but it's gotten easier over time.

But what about writing, recording, editing and starring in your own Web TV show?

That's what increasing numbers of small business owners are doing, thanks to new technology and inexpensive equipment. I chronicle the trend toward online shows in today's Smart Answers column.

It's pretty darned interesting, if I do say so. Check it out.

Speaking of the podcast, this week I interview a long-time source of mine who's also an author and speaker on small business topics. She's just written a new book that compiles best practices from more than 50 successful entrepreneurs. She shares a few of the tips she gleaned here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Where's the Money?

The most common question I get from entrepreneurs involves funding. The second-most-common is about marketing.

Let's talk funding. Start up entrepreneurs often fund their own ventures through existing assets or obtaining bank loans. In this economic climate, bank loans have become more difficult than ever to get. Plan on having to put up your home or other large asset as collateral if you're a brand-new business owner.

Another option is to raise money by asking people you know – friends and family members – to loan you the money. Make sure you have written agreements with these people.

Outsiders, such as venture capitalists or “angel” investors, do not typically fund early-stage business concepts unless their backers have strong, successful track records in the industry.

There are certain angels who specialize in contributing “seed” money to promising start ups. If you can demonstrate that your new company has excellent potential, you might consider sending your business plan to those kinds of investors.

The TechCoast Angels, an investor group based in Orange County, CA has recently started a new SeedTrack program to provide financial and planning help to early start up firms with "game-changing ideas for big and meaningful problems."

To find an angel investor group near you, visit the Angel Capital Network.

You should also ask your accountant or attorney for referrals, since business advisers often help match entrepreneurs with investors.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This Week in SmallBiz

I write about the pros and cons of drop-shipping this week in my Smart Answers column.

Turns out that manufacturers who want to succeed have to master this technique, which involves taking orders from retailers and shipping product directly to customers.

The alternative is outsourcing the "picking, packing and shipping" to an order fulfillment company, many of which also do specialized invoices and labeling to reflect the retailer's brand.

I also wrote recently about a seminar coming up at the end of this month. It aims to connect U.S. business owners and investors with entrepreneurs and customers on the African continent. Doing business in Africa is not easy, says the expert I interviewed, but many countries are developing rapidly and represent a wide open marketplace for goods and services.

There's also good information in The Turnaround Ace column this time, which contains a rather shocking anecdote you won't want to miss.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Advice from Bob

My long-time source (and friend) Bob Zeitlinger had some terrific thoughts in his comment on my last post.

In case you missed it, Bob writes:

In addition to the editing, a PR person can give you tips and advice for all your news releases, and even provide some advice in terms of follow-up with editors.

As important as the news release is the note that is sent to editors with the news release. Through this note, show editors or reporters that you are familiar with their work. Emphasize the local angle if there is one. Editors get lots of news releases and story ideas, so you need to be very clear.

Backtracking one step: make sure the subject line of the email sells the story. Don't just write: "news release by xyz company" or "story idea." Editors - much like you and me - read subject lines when deciding which of the 15 unopened emails will get our attention first.

One last note: when following up with editors, please do not open with "did you get my news release?" It's a dead-end question. Instead, start with your story idea or news item. You can always mention that you sent the news release in a moment or two.

Every word is absolutely true! Thanks, Bob.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Getting Ink, Part 2

Last time, we talked about how small business owners can write their own press releases to attract some media coverage of their product or service.

But what should they do once they have them?

Writers all know that they need editors. Ask someone in the field of public relations to look over your first draft press release. If you don't know a PR person, hire one.

Revisions and rewriting are all part of the process, so expect to do three or four drafts before you settle on a final product. Then put a catchy but clear title on your press release.

The title (and subject line of your email) should communicate the essence of what you want to say, but also draw in the editor or opinion leader you’ve targeted. Don’t use hyperbole or syrupy language (“unique” or “fantastic”) to describe your business. Your audience of media professionals is a sophisticated and often cynical one. They will consider your release self-serving or patently false and jettison it.

Send your press release electronically. No one uses fancy paper press kits anymore. Put your efforts into targeting the proper recipient for your press release.

How? Closely follow your local media for a few months and identify reporters and editors who seem to be covering small business and, more specifically, your industry. These people are the ones who should be getting your press releases.

Don’t be surprised if it takes two months or more to hear back. Magazines and journals often have two- or three-month lead times, so if your release refers to an event, make sure you send it well in advance. If you’re targeting daily media, don’t send releases out too far in advance or they could get put aside and forgotten.

What does a press release look - and sound - like? Check out some releases at BusinessWire.com. They will give you a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

After you’ve sent your release, follow up with an email and a telephone call. Make sure you are available to talk to a reporter on deadline, if necessary. If you are lucky enough to get an interview, be honest but positive about your company and your product.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting Some Ink

One of the most common questions I get from small business owners is how to get publicity for their product or company. Assuming that most of them do not have the funds to put a large public relations firm on retainer, I usually advise them to do their own publicity or hire a freelancer.

Publicity consulting has become a popular freelance job in recent years, particularly for work-at-home mothers who previously worked at high-powered PR agencies and still have media contacts and savvy. Freelancers charge hourly rates in the $50 to $100 range, depending on what region of the country you're in.

Going it alone requires some research. Here are some places to start: Guerrilla Marketing, a book and website by Jay Conrad Levinson; The Publicity Hound and How to be Your Own Publicist by Jessica Hatchigan.

Once you've got an idea of how publicity works, write a press release about your company. Make it timely and newsworthy - not just an announcement saying that you have opened for business or hired a new vice president. Another way to structure your press release is to create some buzz, maybe over an event you are holding or a breakthrough in your industry you can tout.

Keep press releases short, usually one to one-and-a-half pages. Use the “inverted pyramid” news style, in which the most important information is up front, followed by the next most important piece and ending with the least important information, typically background on your company. Include the five W’s and an H: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Most important, include a contact name and phone number (usually two phone numbers, a work number and a cell phone number), Web site address and e-mail address. Your contact person – you or a key employee - must be accessible to speak to the media about your firm.

What do you do with your press release once you've got it written? I'll address that all-important information in an upcoming post.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

New Content Alert

We didn't post a new Smart Answers column this week because I decided to take a little break for the long weekend.

But there is some great content at the BusinessWeek site that I'll point out to make sure you don't miss it.

A long-time source of mine, consultant George Cloutier, has begun writing a new column called The Turnaround Ace. This week, he tackles a family business run amok.

Uncharacteristically, our resident curmudgeon, consultant Gene Marks, writes about the up-side of the recession for small businesses that are well-managed and quick to jump on opportunities. Go Gene!

I do have a new podcast up, this one an interview with an expert who advises that entrepreneurs should start planning now to beat their competition out of the post-recession, early-recovery gate.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Greeting Card Emergency

David Ellis Dickerson has done several classic segments on This American Life and often appears live at storytelling venues in New York City. I'm a big fan of storytelling and Dickerson is one of my favorites.

I've never had the pleasure of seeing him in person, but I now know what he looks like thanks to his hilarious "Greeting Card Emergency" series.

You see, Dickerson used to work for Hallmark and has a book coming out this fall about his experiences there. So he's doing a YouTube video series to promo the book.

In each segment, he takes a thorny personal situation (apology for a broken toilet? ex-fiance marrying someone else?) and brainstorms a greeting card specifically for that occasion.

Not only is it funny, it's actually interesting and informative to watch the creative process he uses to tackle each dilemma. Check it out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It Works! It Really, Really Works!

Thanks to blogging and social networking for the better part of this year, I no longer have time to blog or do much networking!

But it's for a good cause: I've picked up four new assignments in the past month and a half, all of them from contacts made or strengthened through this blog and my Facebook page. Two are likely to be ongoing assignments and two are one-offs for now - with the potential for more work in future.

This is great news. After losing one of my regular freelance gigs (as a retirement columnist for Newsday) in January, I worried about being dependent on just two media outlets for all my income. (And with the state of media outlets these days, it was especially worrisome.)

One thing self-employed folks often learn the hard way is not to have all our revenue come from one or even two large clients. Life is uncertain, and business especially, so it's a big mistake to get too cozy and reliant on even the most "stable" client.

Things change, budgets are trimmed, priorities are shifted elsewhere. Sometimes it's easier for corporations to cut the low-hanging fruit (the self-employed subcontractor) than it is to lay off a full-time employee who has to be confronted in person with the bad news.

So widening my horizons has been a great thing for me, though I feel like I've been neglecting this space lately. Well, better late than never: Here's what I've been writing about recently.

The interview I did with Backcountry CEO John Bresee was especially interesting, as it on focused third-generation Internet interactions and specifically on user-generated content. How can small companies turn over their websites to users - and not police them?! I don't know, but Bresee has done it.

Have a wonderful long weekend and keep diversifying your options!