The Best Ways for a Start-Up to Get New Customers

by Per Wickstrom on September 20, 2014

The greatest of business ideas remains just that: A vision of things to come – if only you knew how and what to do to get your start-up off the ground and running at full tilt. Entrepreneurs can manage core operations almost instinctively; it is often something they’ve done their whole lives or even runs in the family. However, building your customer base, which is crucial to long-term viability, is another matter altogether. I have put together some customer-building strategies based on the experience of seasoned entrepreneurs, including some ideas I have used personally and had success with:

1. Develop a Customer Persona

Social Media

Develop a Customer Persona

You know the product or service better than anyone does, and you may even have thought of the potential end users during product development. Define the characteristics of your target audience, starting with basic demographic data that would include:

  • Age range
  • Gender
  • Income range
  • Possible occupations
  • Education
  • Hobbies and interests

The basic data outlined above is only scratching the surface. It is important to be as detailed as possible when defining your customer persona. Find out their shopping habits including how they find the products and services they need, who or what influences their buying decisions and how they rank their decision factors.

Depending on whether your product or service is in the business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C) category, discover the purchasing process and who makes the buying decisions within your target companies, families or individuals.

All the above provides you with vital data and statistics with which to tailor your marketing strategy.

2. Positioning for Better Visibility

The benefits of a strategic location are well-known: Foot traffic converts to sales for most mass-market products or services. Prominent business signage is a beacon that brings in shoppers, while accessibility increases the likelihood of impulse shopping.

It also helps to co-locate where businesses that may not be directly competitive but serve the same demographic set are located. A business offering high-end accessories for men would do well to locate itself close to men’s clothiers and shoe stores. Businesses involved in the sale and rental of health-related supplies would cluster around medical districts where physicians’ offices are also located.

Obviously, for those dealing with non-consumer items, positioning strategies would differ.

3. Brand-Building Online

Regardless of the type of product or service, a fundamental to getting more customers is to make sure that your target market knows about you and can find you. The Internet has provided different channels of interaction between businesses and the public, and start-ups should examine how they can leverage their Internet presence to build their customer base.

Brick-and-mortar operations can gain a wider audience through an online store that complements their traditional retailing or wholesaling program. Businesses without a storefront component must work constantly to reinforce their online presence, as the Internet has become the world’s marketplace for anything and everything that can be described with text or graphics.

Company websites should always have a contact form, email, phone or chat line (or all of the above) that customers can access on any page of the site. This method applies whether the website is an extension of a retail storefront, an informational site for a service business or a web-only retailer. Contact forms should be brief, requiring only basic information that will allow you to follow up with an email, phone call or a catalog.

Potential customers tend to shy away from hard-sell efforts to solicit information, so offer people something to encourage them to sign up. If you intend to provide useful content relevant to their needs, offer them a sign-up for updates. To share your expertise in your field, write a white paper or an e-book that interested parties can download free of charge, giving you the chance to capture their contact information.

4. Share Your Expertise

Customers will gravitate to websites and stores that offer more than merchandise. Craft sessions in art stores, construction labs in home improvement stores and gaming marathons in electronics stores are some examples of promotions that can bring in new customers.

Online, you can offer tutorials to demonstrate how your product is used, maintenance tips, and a wide range of advice not even directly related to your product or service. When you find ways to share your expertise through useful articles and blog posts that customers can act on, you could be converting browsers to buyers to loyal customers before you know it.

Another effective system, when done correctly, is to own a wide range of domain names and set up multiple websites. These should integrate with your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy and providing well-written and useful content to potential and existing customers and clientele. If you decide to go this route, enlist the help of a professional who is well-versed in internet marketing so as to avoid getting blacklisted by Google. Make sure that whoever you use has a successful track record in the area.

5. Master the Ways of Social Media

While it is a noble quality to be humble, the fact is that self-promotion is key to gaining traction in the business world, especially with the limited resources of a start-up. Social media provides practically unlimited channels that savvy entrepreneurs can take full advantage of to build a following that coverts to sign-ups and sales.

The fact that it is “unlimited” also presents a problem: How do you avoid wasting your time and money into campaigns and ads that don’t result in sufficient business? The answers lie in the customer persona (aka identities) noted above, accurate market research data and strategy, and yes, a certain amount of trial and error. When putting together a social media campaign, the tendency will be to go for short-term gain, and while that is important, you should ultimately be interested in the long haul.

These are some of the most popular social networking sites at this writing (depending on who you ask):

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Pinterest
  • Google Plus (Google+)
  • Tumblr
  • Instagram

A Facebook page that states who you are and integrates well with your website is pretty much essential these days. Twitter is popular amongst youth and you may find it useful, depending on what you are offering. For businesses that can benefit from graphics presentation, Instagram and Pinterest may draw the type of following that will convert to buyers. Service businesses may find review sites such as Yelp and Foursquare useful to their customer engagement process.

These platforms are intended to be interactive: Followers can respond to your posts while you can respond to relevant posts. Study the specific advantages of these platforms to your business model. Engage your potential customers through real-time interaction, and take every opportunity to show your appreciation for positive responses. Make sure to manage and edit these sites on a continuous basis.

6. Advertising on Digital and Traditional Media

Depending on your type of business, advertising through traditional print, radio and television can help to build your brand. Internet advertising can bolster your marketing through a more direct approach using strategically placed click-through ads. Monitor these ads and determine if the cost-per-thousand impressions or cost-per-acquisition makes sense in terms of lead generation and conversion.

7. Networking the Traditional Way

Networking

Traditional Networking Pays Off

As interesting as Internet marketing and social media may be, start-ups should not forget the tried and true ways of traditional networking:

  • Participate in local community events as a sponsor, volunteer or supporter.
  • Join professional organizations relevant to your expertise and your business, including the Chamber of Commerce.
  • Attend conventions, trade fairs and meet-ups that provide opportunities to present your business pitch and meet potential customers.
  • Give out free samples, test products or coupons for free services.
  • Work your personal network of family, friends, social acquaintances and business peers.

Generating leads is important, but lead conversion is even more critical to establishing a customer base. Make sure to follow up with potential customers using excellent communication skills. How the phone is answered is critical and can make or break your conversion rate; so is the ability to make a sale. All told, networking is a continuous action and can also be a lot of fun!

8. Use Your Imagination.

Lastly, there are ways to get new customers no one has tried yet. There are imaginative techniques you can experiment with and see what happens. I’d recommend starting on a small scale and seeing how it goes instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Some of the more ingenious marketing I’ve been looking into costs very little compared to the potential return. One system I’ve been interested in recently is called a strategic alliance or a host beneficiary relationship. In essence, you connect with established businesses who service the demographic you are interested in. You set up a free offer that the existing company sends out to their clientele email list (or by other means) as a gift. They get goodwill and you get a flood of potential new business. Make sure that you are offering something that has a good chance of developing into a paying customer, whether it’s in the form of people in your door, contact info, or whatever is applicable to your business.

Use your brain power and you’ll come up with inventive ways to reach people. Just because someone hasn’t thought of it yet, does not mean it won’t work. Good luck!

Resources:

http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/185880

http://www.businessknowhow.com/startup/findcustomers.htm

http://www.fastcolabs.com/3014157/open-company/how-to-really-get-the-word-out-about-your-startup

http://www.forbes.com/sites/steveolenski/2014/04/22/getting-your-first-100-customers-strategies-that-work/

http://mashable.com/2012/06/27/startup-guide-1000-users/

http://thenextweb.com/socialmedia/2014/03/05/social-media-platform-best-business/

http://www.ebizmba.com/articles/social-networking-websites

 

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What is a Business Plan?

business plan

Business Plan

The term “business plan” usually refers to a plan for a start-up – one that is presented to a bank or to investors in order to secure capital. The business plan, while it is a practical and doable plan, serves to present a new venture and its market value, growth potential, service or product line, financial projections, and finally a request for funding. A business plan might be projected to take about a year to complete.

What is a Strategic Plan?

A “strategic plan” often applies to an already existing enterprise. The words “strategic” or “strategy” are easily understood in reference to sports or in a military context. The English word strategy in the early 19th century meant “art, office or command of a general” and goes back to the Greek strategos meaning “general, commander of an army” and earlier words meaning “army, expedition, encampment, that which is spread out” as well as “leader” and “to lead”. When we are talking about strategy, we mean leadership in a broad and tactical sense. We mean leading an enterprise toward the attainment of precisely delineated targets and the achievement of its goals.

The Distinction

Making a distinction between a business plan and a strategic plan is in fact a misnomer. They are both STRATEGIC. It’s really more like strategic plan #1 and strategic plan #2 or start-up strategy and expansion strategy. It is true however that the two strategies have different characteristics since the first is concerned with establishing something new and the second relates to something that already exists. The reason a new strategy often follows the start-up plan is because after you’ve gotten rolling, you know far more than when you started. You’ve gotten your feet wet and your hands dirty.

Many small (and large) businesses never put together a new strategic plan after they’ve gotten going. They just sort of keep recycling the business plan. And while that is better than no plan at all, any company seeking expansion would do well to put some time and effort into long-range strategic planning.

The Importance of Strategy

Read about business plans and strategic plans and it can get very dry, with references to KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats), and extremely detailed and rather complex financial projection charts. All the super-specialized lexicon is enough to turn someone away from the whole idea, which is presumably why a certain percentage of businesses don’t bother doing it. Planning and strategy are not merely “administrative exercises”. When well-thought-out and done, they mean prosperity and growth. They mean E-X-P-A-N-S-I-O-N. And you want that.

Composing a Strategic Plan

Any strategic plan, whether for a start-up or an established company, is broad and sweeping by its very nature. It can be broken down into smaller plans. For the purpose of clarification, let’s refer to the smaller plans as programs. A program is designed to execute or accomplish a section of a strategic plan. A program can be broken down further into projects.

Example: A company has a strategic plan. That strategic plan has a marketing section. A marketing executive or department has a program in order to accomplish its section of the strategic plan. Within their program may be several projects.

Here are some of the major points to incorporate into any strategic plan (whether for a start-up or an established company):

Goals & Purposes

Goals

Setting and Reaching Goals

Your goals and purposes describe why you exist, your values as a company, the culture you strive to epitomize. They pervade every part of your organization. And where you fall short, you use your goals as a yardstick to set things right. These are not nebulous intangible thoughts. They summarize your ideals that are doable and reachable. The words aim, dream, aspiration, ambition, vision and mission statement also exemplify your ideals and what you wish to attain. These are all just different ways of describing what you intend to accomplish.

Policy

Many organizations neglect the formulation of sound company policy. Factually, your policy falls right under your goals and purposes as far as your priorities are concerned. Why? Policy should also encompass your culture and values. Policy is not rote and mechanical. It is very much alive. It’s how you do things, the standards you expect, how you take care of your customers and how you take care of each other. There are two main segments of policy: general and specialized. You will need both. To start with, look at some companies you admire and see if you can get a concept of their policies. Discover and decide if these would work for you. Adapt them or formulate your own.

Programs & Projects

You reach your goals and purposes through tactical programs and projects. These are the step-by-step solutions to accomplish strategic planning and achieve your goals. But they also contain numbers, such as how many clients you want, how many square feet you’ll occupy, how many new employees you need. You can get extremely specific, down to how many visits, clicks, shipments, boxes, envelopes and paperclips. Individual steps are called targets and they add up to the completion of programs and projects. From the minutia to the major, each step, each target builds on the ones before.

Market Analysis

Every company is concerned with getting new customers and retaining the ones it already has. You should do some work to determine your core market segment and any you wish to expand into. There are many methods for getting new customers. Here are a few:

  • Websites
  • Social media pages: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.
  • PR events
  • Press releases
  • Special offers
  • Referral incentives
  • Cold calling
  • Email
  • Adverting
  • Networking: events, tradeshows, conferences
  • Blogging
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Surveys
  • Selling

One effective system, when done right, is called a strategic alliance, a host beneficiary relationship, or a third party endorsement. Once you have a clear idea of your target market, you find out what established businesses already cater to those people. These businesses need not do anything related to what you do; it’s their customers you are interested in. You then set up a meeting with some of these companies and present yourself and what you have to offer. What you are after is an alliance between yourself and the other company.

Let’s say you offer marketing services specifically for dentists. You locate a company that sells the premiere software for dentists. You set up a meeting (live, Skype, etc.) and get an agreement wherein they will send out an offer of a free product or service from your company. Just make sure it is something you can deliver that isn’t too costly. What the other company gets is goodwill, free of charge for them. If they send the offer to 1,000 names and you get 300-500 responses, you get 300-500 potential clients’ with names, numbers, emails, etc. The potential return is considerably high. That is just one example of a bright idea to get new customers right away at minimal expense.

Industry Analysis

You probably have competitors. What are they doing? What are they offering? What do they have that you don’t? What do you have that they don’t? What are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? You need not get super-technical on this, but you should have a firm grasp of what is going on in your field.

Resources

Any strategy must include an assessment of existing resources that can be used immediately or cultivated. These include members of your team and their individual specialties, existing funds, potential capital, existing customer base, your premises, equipment, marketing channels, and of course the products and services you deliver. When you’ve listed these out, incorporate their utilization and augmentation into your strategy. Your current and potential resources are a key component to achieving the goals you have set.

Metrics

Metrics (aka statistics) are vital as they measure what you’re doing and what you’re not doing. They indicate your current output versus your potential. In your planning, you must include numerical targets to be met. These are the numbers that represent expansion. If you set targets of 5-10 times expansion, you’ll get yourself thinking in the correct order of magnitude. But take it a few notches further: Do a projection for 100 times expansion and see where that goes. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Summary

Those are some of the key elements of a strategic plan, or a business plan for that matter. If any of this seems difficult to grasp, draw it out in diagram form. In doing so, its core simplicity and practicality should be clear.

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