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How To Keep Pace

Monday, September 13, 2010
NASE Members Give Tips On Staying Competitive In The Business World

By Jan Norman

NASE Member Chris Lamb, who owns Lamb Exterminating LLC in Gloucester, Va., is in an industry that’s regulated by various government agencies and is constantly changing. He doesn’t dare allow himself to be unaware of new laws or new technology if he wants to remain competitive in business.

“In my industry—pest control—keeping up to speed in regard to the technical aspect is of the utmost importance,” Lamb says. “There is no room for error. Human lives depend on our services not just being done, but being done in the proper manner.”

Like other successful micro-business owners, Lamb, who has been in business eight years, knows that staying in business requires staying up to speed. The business world is dynamic, with new technology, new competitors and new regulations continually emerging.

Customers expect business owners to be the experts in their fields. The owner who does not or cannot keep ahead of customers’ questions and requests won’t stay in business for long.

The recent recession weeded out many of those who fell behind in skills and knowledge. For those companies still in business, NASE Members say that owners can turn to numerous sources and systems for help getting—and staying—up to speed.

Start Right And Stay Current


NASE Member Renee Horner, owner of Three E Graphic Design in Pittsburgh, Pa., says that she started her graphic design business nine years ago with a fine arts education, which gave her a good foundation of design skills. She says she’s kept current with new technologies and tools by working with them on the job.

In addition to a good foundation, NASE Member Kendall SummerHawk of KendallSummerHawk.com in Tucson, Ariz., says systems are important.

During the last nine years she’s built a $2 million coaching service that specializes in helping women business owners with Internet marketing, pricing and business development. By having systems and teams of experts in place, SummerHawk knows which projects she can say yes to and what is beyond her firm’s capabilities. She’s learned it’s better to acknowledge that she can’t handle every job.

“This has allowed me to pick and choose opportunities without feeling overwhelmed,” she explains.

A third foundational element for keeping pace is to develop the habit of continually learning about emerging strategies in a specific business and industry, Lamb says. “I block out time every day for this.”

Choose Multiple Sources Of Information

To be competitive and successful, micro-business owners must stay on the cutting edge instead of behind the times. And that requires embracing new information.

“Believe it or not, I read every professional journal that crosses my desk or comes via the Internet,” he adds. “Regardless of the source, all the above provide me with information about new products, technology, techniques, resources and general information pertinent to my business.”

Industry specific trade publications and websites are most important to NASE Member Victor Carter, who has owned a vending machine route, Mr. All Worlds Inc. in Sachse, Texas, for 14 years.

“In the vending industry, everything from new equipment they’re making to market share and leading products to what’s not being sold” is available in these major publications Carter says.

Industry specific information needs to be complemented by skill specific sources. One such source is SCORE, a national group of volunteer business counselors who provide free one-on-one counseling, specific to the individual micro-business owner’s need. If a local community doesn’t have a SCORE chapter or the local chapter can’t provide the right expert for a specific business, e-mail counseling is available through the organization’s website, SCORE.org.

To stay knowledgeable about industry trends, NASE Member Carter relies on his trade association, the National Automatic Merchandising Association. News about proposed laws, new machinery, technology and more is available online and in e-mails that the association sends to members.

Graphic artist Horner says micro-business owners shouldn’t be intimidated by new technology that can help them keep pace in the marketplace. And learning how to use new technology is often just a mouse click away.

“Online tools are made for people who don’t know how to do it,” she says of learning new technology.

She’s right. Software publishers provide help and tutorials for their products. And increasingly, third-party experts and publications are uploading reports, how-to videos and question-answer forums in which micro-business owners can learn the latest tricks, add-on applications and workarounds. Much of this information is free.

For example, a novice website designer who wants to learn how to put Micromedia Flash animation on a site can Google “flash tutorials” and find hundreds of suitable sources.

Turn To Individuals And Groups

 

So much information is available, especially on the Internet, that the challenge for micro-business owners often becomes identifying trusted sources of information, Lamb says.

The 14 million U.S. visitors to Twitter are not necessarily the most qualified sources of information for keeping business owners informed. They might introduce concepts or new technologies from another community or country. But like the Internet itself, these users may dump too much useless information on a busy entrepreneur.

However, trained, knowledgeable people are great resources for keeping current on any aspect of a business.

Pest control expert Lamb relies on his own employees. He collects much of his own information, “but whenever my employees spot something in print or on the ‘Net, they note it and add it to the pile,” he says.

Lamb also employs an in-house tax specialist and a human resources manager, two people whose primary responsibilities are to keep Lamb and his company up to date on these ever-changing subjects.

“These issues are simply too sensitive to leave to just anyone who can hang their shingle outside their door,” he says. “This is well worth every penny I spend on it. I need to spend my time running my part of the business. I need to know that the remainder is being handled properly.”

Having such expertise is important. But equally valuable for the micro-business is making sure that the expertise spreads completely and accurately through all the employees and strategic partners.

For example, Lamb says his pest control company “follows a program called integrated pest management where we apply fewer pesticides and spend much of our time evaluating the environment so that it can be manipulated to a point where pests will not survive, but humans and pets will thrive. Knowing how to do this takes time. Training my employees is vital here.”

NASE Member Marla Duran of Behlehem, Pa., says that interns have proven helpful in keeping her business current.

Duran designs, manufactures and sells original women’s clothing under her own label, Marla Duran. She’s also appeared as a contestant on the popular television show “Project Runway.” Duran tapped an unusual source to get her clothing design company up to speed in social media. Her business served as the semester project for a marketing class at Lehigh University.

“Students divided into groups to help target [social media] strategies for building my brand and staying in touch with my clients,” she says.

Business consultant SummerHawk says she stays current by harnessing the power of a “mastermind group of high achievers and fast implementers.”

Author Napoleon Hill defined the concept of mastermind groups in his early 1900s book “Think and Grow Rich,” in which he referred to a mastermind alliance as a group of people who help a person achieve a goal.

Talking about her contemporary mastermind group, SummerHawk says, “This keeps me feeling fresh, staying focused and accountable for getting accomplished what I say I will.”

Lamb prefers a networking group whose membership is limited to one person within a given occupation or industry, such as one human resources consultant or one heating and air conditioning service.

Lamb is the only pest control operator in his group.

“Work is referred among us,” he explains. “Word of mouth is a powerful tool.”

Vending machine operator Carter says that he has come to rely on an informal group of local competitors to keep pace in the market.

“We share information about who’s selling what and good places to prospect for customers. A few rogues wouldn’t care about helping other business operators, but most are cordial to each other.”

Graphic artist Horner also uses an informal group, but not of competitors. She works with people in complementary fields such as marketing and Web design. These colleagues are willing to share knowledge with Horner about how to set up specific projects. In turn, the information they provide makes their work easier when Horner creates the graphics on their specific projects.

Horner also depends on these specialists when she doesn’t want to keep current on a specific skill or line of work that’s out of her area of expertise.

“I don’t want to get into Web programming. There are people who do that every day, and I hire that part of a project out,” she explains.

What if you don’t have a group of experts to tap?

“Create your own,” suggests marketing and networking expert Hank Blank in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

He couldn’t find a useful, informative group of networkers in his own community. So he sent out an e-mail to a handful of people he knew and trusted, asking them to meet at a local Starbucks.

Six people showed up for the first gathering. Now the event routinely attracts 125 people who have heard about the group by word of mouth and the Internet. They share business leads and the latest information about technology, marketing and social media.

It’s just another way for them to stay up to speed and successful.

Jan Norman is a freelance writer who thinks talking to small-business owners is the best way to keep current on what’s really happening in the world. Read her blog at http://ocregister.com/jan.


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