When my pals here at Hourly asked me if I would be interested in writing a blog about the best ways to grow a small business, I jumped at the chance because, well, I have been thinking about that very subject every day for the past year.
My business is to write about small business. I do that at USA TODAY as their columnist, on my own sites, for clients, and in books. As the pandemic progressed, it dawned on me that, having interviewed and spoken with entrepreneurs great and small, famous and not, I had an archive of interviews and ideas that could be mined and be of great use to my small business brothers and sisters, especially in these uncertain times.
What if I took the very best business ideas, marketing strategies, and growth tactics, especially the ones that could really make sense in a Covid world (post-Covid, almost post-Covid?), and synthesized and shared them?
Coming out in early October, the book is bursting with “explosive ideas” on startup success, business growth, wooing potential customers, getting new customers, thrilling existing customers, and scores of specific marketing tricks that are sure to help you get new business and more business.
These strategies are tried and true, and I used one of them to quadruple my income in less than two years. Another was taught to me by an entrepreneur who used it to create an opt-in email list of some 500,000 people. With that list, he nets millions a year from new product launches. Let's take a look at the top nine tips to grow your business.
1. Hire People to Help You
Sure, it’s possible to grow your business on your own, but that’s the long, slow way. We don’t want that. Better: Organize your team for this new mission, or, lacking that, create a team that can help you execute a growth strategy.
For example, having an assistant in some form is vital to this process as it frees you up from doing the mundane and allows you instead to focus your energies and efforts where they are best utilized – on schmoozing, planning and implementing your marketing strategy. One of the simplest and most affordable ways to free up your time therefore is to hire a virtual assistant (VA).
The vast array of things that a VA can do is, well, amazing:
- Managing and even responding to email
- Setting up appointments, meetings, and Zooms
- Website and social media development and maintenance
- Blogging, videos and other content creation
- Writing and editing
- Marketing research, legal research, any research
VAs can be found via a Google search of course, on Craigslist, or on sites like UpWork and Freelancer, and best of all, those mad digital skills they have can help you on your small business boom quest.
2. Get Creative with Funding
Yes, the old adage is true: It takes money to make money. And, while almost all of the strategies I outline here (and in the book) are, by any measure, shoestring type ideas, it is also true that to run an effective campaign of any type requires extra capital.
Aside from traditional sources like loans, here are a few creative sources for where to get that extra dough to fund your business growth strategy:
Crowdfunding. Typically, when you need business capital, you either take on a loan (called debt financing) or take on some sort of partner (called equity financing). When you watch Shark Tank and see the sharks getting a percentage of a business for their investment, that is equity financing.
Crowdfunding is a third, great, and different option because you neither have to go into debt nor sell shares in your business to raise the money you need. Instead, you offer some sort of perk related to your business for the money. For example, say you want to open a food truck. You could name a sandwich for a month after any investor who ponies up $100.
Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are two of the most commonly utilized crowdfunding websites around. Start there. On either site, if you have a great idea, and market it right with the right incentives, the crowd will reward you by funding your small business growth. Sweet!
Here are a few other creative fund-the-dream options:
Supplier financing. I love this one. In the right circumstances, it’s possible to find a supplier or wholesaler who might be willing to help fund your idea; this type of funding is usually in the form of in-kind inventory or consignment products. For instance, a supplier might agree to front supplies or products you need for a later, deferred payment. Sometimes, they may even agree to outright funding of the project as a joint venture.
Factoring. Does someone or some company owe your business money? Good. Factoring is a process whereby you can sell that receivable to a company called a “factor.” The factor will pay you less now for your future revenue, but the upside is that you will be able to acquire immediate capital that you need to fund the plan.
Tap your IRA or 401(k). This is a cool trick: You can take out an interest-free, short-term (60 days max) loan against your retirement funds.
OK, with those caveats (get some help, have enough money) out of the way, let’s look at some different ways to take your business to the next level, right now.
3. Pay Attention to E-Commerce
The whole world pivoted online in 2020. If you have not jumped on the e-commerce train, or if you are still hanging out near the caboose, it’s time to hop onboard. E-commerce is the present and the future and it offers a huge opportunity for the entrepreneur looking to grow.
What’s that you say, your business does not lend itself to online sales? Hogwash I say.
Here’s an example of an analogue business that pivoted to digital and rocked it in a big way.
HigherDOSE is a unique spa company located in New York City. Its unique selling proposition was that it offered clients baths of healing with infrared light. Cool, right? But then the tsunami named Covid hit and almost overnight HigherDOSE had to close all nine of its physical spa locations. What to do?
They pivoted online, revised their marketing efforts and marketing plan, jumped on digital marketing, and never looked back.
New opportunities prevailed.
Owner Katie Kaps quickly concluded that with people so stressed out because of the pandemic, they still needed their spa experience, except now they needed it at home. So Katie started having infrared blankets manufactured and began to sell them with a newfound, bigger online presence.
HigherDOSE now makes more money selling those blankets via e-commerce as an online retailer than they did with their physical locations.
Here are the four steps you can take for your e-transformation:
1. Decide what to sell. If your physical store already sells products, then you’re good to go. If your business doesn’t sell products, then you will need to come up with products that are relevant to your clientele and figure out where to source them. Each product will then need to be photographed and unique names and brief, clever product descriptions will be needed.
2. Create a site. You will have no trouble finding an affordable e-commerce hosting site that will make it easy for you to set up your online store. When doing your search, make sure to look for well-known, turn-key e-commerce web-hosting solutions that offer inventory-control, lots of customer support, security, and an intuitive, user-friendly dashboard. Some of the top options are
3. Get a “merchant solution” payment system. You can use PayPal, credit cards, Apple Pay, or all of the above as your payment system.
4.Market and sell. Let the world know you are out there.
Remember, Amazon started in a garage in Jeff Bezos’ house. Choo choo!
4. Get 1 Million Hits
There is a difference between having a business website and having a business website that is crushing it. The former is a nice little e-billboard, the latter allows you to grow into new markets, make more money, and thrive.
How do you do it? Generally, there are two ways traffic comes to a website: organic and paid. With organic traffic, people find your site organically (obviously), either via a Google search, clicking a link on another site, or via a social post. With paid, people find your site by seeing an ad that you have placed somewhere, clicking on it, and then being directed to your site.
Organic traffic is nice because it is free, but the problem is, it is slow. Having great content helps of course (content is indeed king), and good products are critical, as are fair prices. But even with all of that, it usually takes a looooong time to grow.
Here’s a better method: Buy traffic. Basically, there are three main ways you can buy traffic online:
- Pay for high search rankings. This is where you pay to have your little ad inserted into Google search results
- Buy display ads on other sites that link to your site
- Buy ads on Facebook and other social media sites
Buying ads that direct people to your site is so smart; it allows you to turbocharge your growth. And what is even better is that you can microtarget the exact right person (via demographics) who will see your ad so that those who do click and surf over are essentially qualified leads.
This sort of targeted traffic is traffic that you select based on the type of visitor you want. You can target traffic based on:
- Marital status
So this is the shortcut. Have a great site and then buy ads to direct your most-desired customers to go there.
What happens once those million visitors show up is up to you.
5. Get 100,000 Followers
Social media followers are nice for all sorts of reasons. Yes, they are an ego boost and vanity metric for sure. But as we all know, that doesn’t pay the bills. What’s far more important for our purposes is to monetize that following so that your social media followers become a potential pot of gold.
Consider: If you have 1,000 online followers and you tweet out the special sale you are having next weekend, what will that do? Likely, not much; it definitely won’t move the needle. But what if you tweet out that tweet to 100,000 people? Now we’re talking! And especially if you have a nice relationship with those followers, if you engage with them regularly and they know and like your business and brand, then your tweet/post just might get noticed and won’t get lost on the Internet ether.
The question then of course is how do you get 100,000 followers?
It is exactly the same trick as getting hits.
Either you grow your following the slow, steady, affordable and boring way, or you spend a little money (see why that was my bonus tip, above?) and buy followers. The basic process is this:
- Analyze and microtarget your desired follower profile
- Pick the right site (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.)
- Create content that those folks will likely like and share
- Put that content in front of them via ads
- Have them like you/follow you as a result of reading/seeing your stuff
Let’s say that you want to reach folks in red states because they are the people most likely to like you and/or your message and/or your products. You would need to create content that speaks to them – videos, blogs, podcasts, shows, whatever. The key is knowing – really knowing – who your audience is and what they might like. Create that, buy ads on the right social sites, get your content in front of them, and then they will more likely like it and follow you.
Bingo, instant mega-following. Time to sell those cowboy boots!
6. Use Word-of-Click
Word-of mouth is the best advertising there is; we all know that. Truly, what is better (insofar as marketing goes) than having a happy customer tell a friend about what a great business you have?
Marketing gold, that.
That said, in this interconnected digital era, word-of-mouth looks different because word-of-mouth = word-of-click. And it looks like this:
- Someone forwards on your great e-newsletter
- Someone likes your Facebook post
- Someone retweets your tweet
- Someone comments on your blog
The secret therefore is to create great content that – and this is the key! – links back to your site. That way, when they give you their endorsement by clicking and sharing your content and/or link, the people who discover it will also discover your site/business.
7. Use New Tools to Get Noticed
Gone, fortunately, are the days when you could simply place an ad on the TV or radio, or buy an expensive billboard, and get noticed. No way today. There is simply too much noise and demand for our collective attention for that to work. Instead, if you want to get noticed, it would behoove you to use some of the amazing new digital tools that allow you to brand your business like a pro, and at a fraction of the cost of previous eras.
Here are two in particular that are worth your time:
Yes, it does seem like everyone has their own podcast today, but that actually is evidence that they work. There are all sorts of reasons that you may want to consider launching your own podcast:
It establishes you as the expert. After all, if you are the one having guests on your show, if you were the one asking questions, if you were the one who is the host, then you must be the one who knows the most, right? Of course right. And once you establish yourself as the expert, you’ll start to get paid as the expert.
Podcasts are popular. Millions of people listen to podcasts every week now. If you can create even a niche show that speaks to your audience, then they just might start listening to you.
To create a show, you will first need to decide on a topic, name, and style for the show. Next, you will need to record it. Anchor.fm, GarageBandfor Mac, Adobe Audition, and Audacity are all excellent options. The show will also need a place to live online, so you will need a host platform. Libsyn, Podbean, and SoundCloud are great. Finally, you will need to have the show uploaded to iTunes, Soundcloud, IHeartRadio, etc.
Similarly, webinars allow you to build your brand (and therefore raise your prices!) by establishing you as the go-to person in your field. And in some ways, they are even better than podcasts because they are visual, they can be as long or as short as you want, they can be live or recorded, they attract large audiences, you can have guests on your webinars, and they can be saved and replayed later.
Good webinar platforms include Ready Talk, GoToWebinar, Zoom, Zoho Meeting, and On24.
8. Find Bigger Clients
The problem for many a small business person is that they only sell to other small business people. While that is all well and good, the problem is that small businesses have small budgets. Bottom line: If your customer base lacks the money to pay you big bucks, then growth will be difficult.
The good news by extension though is that bigger clients have bigger budgets and you can therefore really grow your business by targeting, wooing, and eventually, selling to those bigger budget clients. I am talking about major corporations, governments, and high net worth individuals.
Creating these sorts of customer relationships can and should change your business model, increase your cash flow, grow your target market, and altogether help you to create a much more successful business.
So, just how do you find and woo these big-bucks businesses? There are two ways – either you find them or they find you.
Of the two, the latter is preferable, and this is where the digital strategies above (webinars and podcasts) dovetail. The point of using these digital tools is that they build your brand, business, reputation, and profile. And when that happens, more people – and more potential clients – will begin to hear of you. Some of them will start to contact you. And when that happens, bingo! You have just struck gold.
When potential clients learn of you and like what they learned enough to contact you, you suddenly are in a new league. Price is much less of a concern for these clients than is your name and brand. They are willing to pay more because they want you and they want you because you are a known commodity. That is why they contacted you.
But, needless to say, this sort of brand building takes time. That said, it certainly does pay off.
The other way to get the sort of bigger-budget customers is when you target and reach out to them. Though it doesn’t have the same cachet as when they contact you, it works quite well nonetheless.
This process requires you to:
- Identify corporations that might need what you sell
- Identify the right people within those organizations to contact
- Contact them
- Create a relationship
- Pitch them, and then...
- Ask for the sale
Yes, it takes work and research, but that’s what the Internet is for, right? Social media generally, and LinkedIn specifically, can really help here as you can learn a lot about your potential client by digging in.
So dig in, put on the charm, and go get some of those big contracts.
9. Create Multiple Profit Centers
We began by asking whether Amazon and Starbucks still sold only one category of product and of course the answer is no. This applies here too. Great businesses create multiple profit centers. That way, for instance, when book sales are down, pet food sales are up. When hot coffee sales are down, Frappuccino sales are up. Multiple income streams means that you will not only grow, but you will be able to avoid the normal peaks and valleys of business cycles.
So think about other things you could do, services you could offer, and products you could sell that would complement what you already do. A pizza restaurant, for example, could create and sell a “make-your-own-pizza-at-home” kit. It could open a to-go lunch window. It could have evening courses taught by the chefs. It could launch a catering division.
In the Wise Words of Warren Buffet…
So there you have it, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons of ways to grow your small business, and the time is now. As Warren Buffet famously said, “Buy when others are selling and sell when others are buying.”
Or simply buy the book!