Lose the Training Wheels

This post has nothing to do with business issues.   It has to do with kids who lit up an arena today with sunshine that rivals the brightness of a midmorning in June.

proud LTTW participant

Learning to Ride!

I offered to take pictures of kids today who are learning to ride bicycles.  Some traveled quite a distance to the Palmer Arena in Danville to learn this new skill.  They used special bikes because they are special kids.   Now I am not using the term “special” in a patronizing way; I sincerely mean that they are special, the way a piece of Dove chocolate found on your pillow is special, the way getting flowers from a secret admirer is special.  Special equals extraordinary, unusual, not commonplace.  Special here soars, is beautiful, is radiant.  These kids are radiant.

Each child at the Lose the Training Wheels camp has a disability that makes bike riding more difficult.  A few examples:  Some have autism; others have cerebral palsy; still others have Down Syndrome.  The program even services kids who have had a traumatic experience and are now terrified of learning to ride in the conventional way.

Lose the Training Wheels is an organization of bike techs, therapists, and all-around good hearted, well-trained people who believe in the power of meaningful accomplishment and the freedom of two-wheeled travel.  They bring in bicycles with a sort of rolling pin back wheel mechanism and a variety of learning aids for the students.  The kids go through an incremental program that eases them into the feeling of balance and speed.  They have spotters and runners who provide encouragement and protection.  The one-on-one attention, the expertise of the LTTW staff, and the specialized bikes add up to a winning formula:  about 80% of the kids who participate in a LTTW camp are able to ride balance a bike on their own for at least 90 feet.  This statistic is, to my mind, significant.

(Funny, though — you can’t measure the smiles and tears of the onlooking parents with a statistic.  There is no ruler to measure that kind of pride and delight.)

Imagine what a gift this is to the students’ cognition, to their self esteem, to their confidence, to their sense of independence, to their connection to the world.

Interacting with kids who sit a little taller with their chin a little higher, smiling from ear to ear, makes the program worth every effort, every second.

Today was day one, and I’m pretty sure that this is going to be a great week.  Thanks for the sunshine, kids.

Using Twitter for Your Business

This post by Chris Brogan is an outstanding list of ideas for using Twitter in a professional capacity.  You’ll notice the omission of food mentions.  Really, no one cares what you had for lunch.  Save such details for your personal account.

#14 is my favourite.

Without further ado:

http://www.chrisbrogan.com/50-ideas-on-using-twitter-for-business/

Ubuntu 10.04 Review

I just downloaded and installed Ubuntu 10.04 on an old machine.  I have LAMP running on the desktop version and treating it as a file server.  My initial impressions:

ubuntu screen shot

Ubuntu Screen Shot

1.  Speed! This iteration of Ubuntu is impressively responsive.

2.  Pretty. Finally, Ubuntu is as lovely as it is robust.  It is warm and inviting.

3.  Easy to maneuver. My husband is new to Linux, but was able to find his way about Ubuntu 10.04.  He commented that it is almost Mac-like in its intuitiveness.   (I don’t think it’s quite that intuitive, but I thought that observation by a person who has never touched Linux was worth mentioning.)

4.  LTS. This is a “long term support” release.   Not really a “reviewable” feature, but a feature, as it were, that makes me smile.

5.  Possibly a Windows 7 competitor. The layout, speed, and features make this a possible full-time desktop operating system choice for pedestrian computer users.  It is easy to install and set up.  Then, web surfing, word processing, keeping books, and printing are effortless.

In the few days we’ve had it installed, I have been impressed with Lucid Lynx.

Vocabulary: Feeling Nauseous?

Do you ever feel nauseous?

Trick question!

Nauseous is a smell.  Think rotten bananas.  If you say you’re nauseous, you’re saying you smell terrible.

Sometimes, you might feel nauseated.  Think morning sickness or the flu.  It is a sensation, not a smell.

The relationship:  Nauseous things can make you nauseated.

When you’re not a chain store

Most of us in central Illinois have graced the inside of a Walmart at some point.  You might find yourself there weekly — maybe more often — for groceries, fishing gear, baby medicine, a replacement headlight . . . you get the picture.

You won’t find much in the way of customer service at Walmart.  Obviously, it’s all about price and  convenience.  Everything’s under one roof.

If you’re reading this, my guess is that your business model is different.  You probably don’t want to compete on price and survive on volume.  Few small businesses are successful doing that.

Your success will come from one key ingredient: Relationships.

Walmart doesn’t care whether you like them.  They don’t care whether you approve of their tactics.  You probably don’t know many of the employees by name.  And you certainly don’t have to worry about anyone in a navy blue shirt asking if you need help finding anything.  You’re on your own in Walmart.  People go to Walmart because they know they’ll save on their groceries and other needs.  Few people take the time to consider why Walmart’s prices are so low.

Walmart is hated, reviled, made fun of . . . by many of its patrons!

You:  On the other hand, you know that your customers are your lifeblood.  They keep your lights on.  You surely know that you should treat them like gold.

But “treat them like gold” goes well beyond just being friendly and kind when they come to visit.  If you want to really build deep relationships with the people who matter most to your success, consider these ideas:

1.  Join local charitable and civic organizations.

Giving back to your community builds a relationship with those in that community.  People who see your involvement will come to trust you more.  Trust is key.  Earn it with some sweat equity.  (Ideas:  Habitat for Humanity, Ambucs, literacy programs, hospital fundraisers.)

2.  Donate.

Can you do just one project this year for a local non-profit?  What goes around comes around — your business will benefit in unexpected ways if you use your business’s  resources to help those who help others.  I would bet that you’ll end up ahead on the deal in the end.

3.  Treat everyone like your best customer.

Imagine that a car cuts you off in traffic.  Perhaps you succumb to road rage, yelling and shaking a fist.   You get up next to the offending car at the next light . . . and it’s a client!  Not good.

You never know who will buy from you in the future.  That high school punk might be an up-and-coming business owner in ten years; are you sure you want to insult him?

Furthermore, today’s tiny account could be tomorrow’s biggest money-maker.  You have no idea what tomorrow brings for you or your current customers.  It’s best not to make assumptions about anyone who crosses your path.

So smile at people.  Hold your tongue.  Be polite.  Pass on the gossip.  This is good advice for daily life, but it’s really good for business.  People want to do business with people who are pleasant.  Are you pleasant?  What adjustments do you have to make to get to that point?

5 Great Ways Your Business Can Use the Internet

1.  Make Appointments

Depending on the structure of your current website, it may be economical for you to add appointment-making capabilities for your clients.  Even if you need to interact with the client to actually make an appointment, you can still give them the ability to request an appointment online for their preferred day and time.  This might sound cost prohibitive and hard to manage, but in many cases, it is not.

2.  Hand Out Coupons

There are several ways to do this.  You can give your customers printable coupons on your website.  Easy enough — some graphical elements, a bar code, an expiration date, and you have something your customers can print out.  Or, you can create a coupon code for your shopping cart, which creates an incentive for online ordering.  Or, you can turn the coupon into a fun, verbal way for your customer to capture the discount.  For example, you could offer $10 off a total sale to anyone who sings your jingle at the time of checkout.  Singing’s not your thing?  Forget the music and tell your followers on Twitter, “This weekend, tell them Bambi sent you for 10% off at the check out.”  If your clients know they can find good discounts online, they’ll start looking online to find them before visiting the store.  (The advantages of that are a topic for another day.)

3.  Educate Your Customers

Does your website have a download area?   Develop one if you don’t, or flesh yours out if you already have free downloads.  When you adress your customers’ common questions and needs with a free report, white paper, case study, or cheat sheet, you position yourself as an expert in your field.   Adding free downloads to your site also helps your sales staff do their jobs, since they can tell clients:  ”You can go to our website to download our white paper on that subject.”

Get creative with these free downloads.  Examples:

Art dealers – “The 5 Most Unexpected Places to Display Art”

Paint store – A downloadable color wheel with popular, unusual, or unnexpected color combinations

Auto body repair shop — “In Case of a (non) Emergency” — ways to handle paint chips, small dents, fading paint, etc. at home

Child’s Board Game Publisher – “Games To Play in the Car” — a printable page with directions for 3 games to play while on long car trips

Financial Planner — “How Investments Work” — a brief primer explaining the basics of how and why to invest, including risks, benefits, and historic data.

Math Tutor — “Algebra Cheat Sheet”

4.  Showcase Products

Invest in a Flip video camera and start recording your product being used.  You do not need to spend a lot on a professional videographer.  Just grab the camera and get some footage.  Put it on YouTube.  Talk about how the product works.  Demonstrate the product in action.  Visit real customers and record them using the product.  Do a product walk-through.  Do side-by-side comparisons.

Think:  If an prospective customer was standing in your showroom, what would you say to them?  What would you show them about your product?  Well, now they don’t have to be standing there.  They can be anywhere in the world, and you can show them the ins and outs of that product.

5.  Get Feedback

The nice thing about the Internet, and social media sites like Twitter and YouTube in particular, is that you can engage your customers in conversation.  Online, people are honest about their impressions of the businesses they encounter.  So talk to your customers online to find out what you’re doing right and where you need improvement.  Not only will you have an opportunity to zero in on the areas of your business that need attention, but you’ll also win the loyalty of customers who are impressed with your responsiveness.  Listening is an undervalued skill, and social media sites are changing that.  Your customers have a voice online now; the smart owner learns to listen to them, answer them, and thank them.

Tax Day for Non-Profit Organizations

Attention 501(c)3 organizations!

If your tax year ends on December 31st, your taxes must be postmarked by tomorrow, May 17th.  (The 2 extra days stems from May 15th falling on a Saturday this year.)

If you have questions about filing your organization’s taxes, you can contact Tessa Hile, finance consultant at Laurus.

Toot Your Own Horn

On Facebook this week, a post caught my eye.  I’m going to paraphrase here to protect the innocent.  The poster said, “Whatever happened to humility?  Is it necessary to tell the whole world about your charitable contributions by putting it on a billboard?  Are people really that narcissistic?”

This was a reaction to a billboard in Champaign, Illinois.  It was apparently put up for a Realtor who wanted to alert home buyers that she supports a local charity with a percentage of each sale.

From the conversation that ensued on Facebook, this clearly offended more than one person in Champaign.

I’m quite certain that the marketing minds behind that billboard were looking at the situation from another angle entirely.  My guess is that they thought that people would want to choose a Realtor who supports the community, and that heck, if you’re going to buy a house and pay a commission anyway, why not choose a real estate agent who is going to take some of your hard earned cash and use it to help the needy?

The approach obviously backfired.

Supporting charities with profits is really an excellent way to get some positive press, capture clients, and do some good in your community.  In fact, one business I consult for donates 10% of each new sale to the charity of the customer’s choice.  They provide a list of 5 charities to each new customer and ask them to choose+.  Then, when the customer pays the bill, 10% of the labor paid goes directly to that charity.  The company makes a copy of the check to the charity and sends it to the customer in a thank you card.   This practice is working for him:  The business owner has gotten great feedback, repeat business, referrals, and other good “buzz.”

The billboard is a bit different.  First, it’s a pretty public (not to mention impersonal) statement of your company’s policy.  That certainly can smell of narcissism to a portion of the audience.   (Whether it is the intended audience or not is a different story.)  Also, the way this was phrased on the billboard somehow managed to disconnect the homebuyer from the charity.

A marketing tactic that involves charitable contributions can only work if the buyer feels invested in the action of giving.  In this case, there is a major fail here — many that saw the billboard didn’t immediately equate doing business with the Realtor with helping a worthy cause.  Instead, it came off as a gimmick, a cheap ploy.

Another lesson:  Don’t doubt the power of social media, especially when it comes to negative press.  You never know who is Facebook friends with whom; nor should you underestimate the reach that annoyed tweeters might have.  Retweeting bad impressions about your business is easy; picking up the pieces of your reputation, not so much.

And yet another lesson to be learned is that of testing.  A lot of entrepreneurial marketing consists of, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea — let’s try it!”

Yikes.  Don’t do that.

This Realtor could have saved herself some embarrassment by planning, investigating, and testing her idea before putting it up for 100,000 people to observe.  One Champaign resident saw the billboard and put it this way: “So you give to charity.  Good for you.  Do you want a cookie?”

You can avoid ever having anyone react to your marketing efforts that way.  Research.  Plan.  Test.  Hire someone to do those things for you if you don’t have time.  It pays to avoid looking like a narcissist.

A New Definition

I watched Mr. Rogers when I was little, and in recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of watching it again with my small ones.

Mr. Rogers and King FridayThe environment of Mr. Rogers is fascinating to me, especially the factories.  The backpack factory, the crayon factory . . . remember those episodes?

Do you think those factories are still around?  Although I’m not sure, my guess is that those jobs making those things have been moved to places overseas.

And the clothes, the decorations in the homes, the objects of interest all have a flavor of days gone by.  It goes without saying that those days were simpler.  People owned less, had fewer gadgets (there were fewer to be had), and lived in smaller spaces.  For most of us, we can conjure up images of grandma’s house Grandma's house?to get a feel for what “less” meant.  It meant the same TV, couch, or washing machine for 20+ years.   People didn’t buy full wardrobes every season then — at least not in my world.  It doesn’t look like that was the case in Mr. Roger’s beloved Pittsburgh, either.

And work was different, too.  Nine-to-five was more the rule than the exception.  People worked fewer hours.  No one was tethered by a Blackberry.  My guess is, too, that they would have laughed if you had told our parents and grandparents in the 60s and 70s that people would someday carry phones into the grocery store, check email as part of their bedtime routine , and stare at a glowing monitor while playing Farmville for more time every day than they probably care to admit.   Back then, laptops and LCD flat panel televisions were the things of science fiction.

The crayon factory

The sorter at the crayon factory

Life, business, success . . . they are all being redefined at a speed never seen before in the history of humankind.  Things move fast, and if you don’t paddle along, it’s easy to miss entire chunks of “the new normal.”

Take, for example, “social media.”  Unheard of 20 years ago!  Today, it’s a huge chunk of the small business marketing plan (or should be).  Yet, many small businesses are not even sure what social media is, much less how to leverage it.  And that’s just one example.  There are hundreds of others.

If you’ve been in business a while, we’d love to hear from you.  How has your business changed in the last 20+ years?  What adjustments have you made that are most surprising or interesting?