I have been in IT for 29 years. Prior to that I worked for three different companies in which I grew the services department and built value in the business so it could be sold. It was while working at the third company that I started scratching my head thinking, "Why am I doing this for other people? I can do this for myself."
A lot of people in our industry wake up one day and say, "I'm going out on my own." It took me five years to plan for my business. I didn't want to be a "trunk slammer" the guy who works out of his trunk. I wanted to grow something with real value that I could turn around and sell one day. So I started writing a business plan, taking some night courses on how to start a business, and learning about accounting.
I learned a lot of lessons in those early years, one of which is that you can't be too attached to one way of thinking. That's particularly true in marketing. I've had a marketing plan for five years that started as a list of brainstorming ideas. I thought, "What are all the things I could possibly do that would lead to sales?" I thought about knocking on doors, cold calling, trade shows, and marketing--things like newsletters or phone book ads or a Web site, speaking engagements, seminars, and networking--to try to get leads.
Then I started to think about which ones would give me the best bang for the buck, including my own outlay of time. I chose two or three. Over the years, I've done them all. Some of my assumptions were wrong and some were right. For 2008, I have three more to try. You can't do everything--you have to choose a few things, put them on a calendar, build an implementation plan, and stick to it.
Initially, I spent a lot of time reading trade journals to see what other people found effective. Phone book ads never worked for me. Response generally comes from home users and very small businesses that just want you to come in and fix something today. That's not our business. A Web site, on the other hand, is your very best marketing literature. It's easy to create one-sheets or trifold literature from the site so that you have a consistent look. An e-newsletter is also effective. If you decide on a newsletter, start out slowly. Send it quarterly at first, then every other month, and work up to monthly.
Over time, you find out what works for you. In my case, it turned out to be public speaking. I first approached the small business groups in my area--the Kiwanis, the Lions, the Rotaries--and provided them with a few synopses of possible speaking programs. My name has since gotten around at companies that organize conventions, and I speak to groups around the country. I get two or three seriously interested prospects every time I speak, no matter where I am. Speaking provides you with instant credibility. I also like networking with other business professionals, although I've stopped going to certain groups because of too little payback. If you don't get the leads, you need to move on.
At the beginning stages of your business, especially if you're a sole proprietor, finding time for marketing can be very difficult. You have to be out there working
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
I use Microsoft Outlook, working a few weeks out, scheduling time for my customers and appointments for networking events. Because we use service-level agreements that spell out when we will respond to our customers' lower-level issues, there is time built in for marketing activities. I also download various templates. One of my favorites is a 12-month calendar on a single landscaped sheet of paper on which I plug in my activities, usually starting with the conferences I want to attend. I include the holidays, my e-newsletter, speaking engagements, and where I might choose to do additional marketing activities.
If you look at the calendar and see that you're busy beyond what makes sense, scale back. Don't try to eat an elephant in one bite. For me, I don't want to see more than two or three activities a month. More than that is difficult to handle.
There are always obstacles to overcome. As a sole proprietor, you have challenges. Then you hire your first employee and you have new challenges. You hire multiple employees, lease an office--that's two more challenges. Running a business is all about the challenges and decisions you have to make, and moving past them.
Founder and President
Sagacent Technologies Inc.
Location: San Jose, Calif.
Established: January 1, 2000
Number of employees: 7
Web site: www.sagacent.com
Company focus: Managed services. In this business, you have to have the recurring revenue. We also do some networking services projects, IT assessments, security, and resale of products.
Favorite part of my job: Going into a business and finding out about the challenges and impediments to growth and determining how technology can catapult the business forward. I like doing that for my own business as well, although it's less about technology and more about processes, procedures, and doing a better job for our customers.
Least favorite part of my job: The stress. It's a tough industry to be in.
Words of wisdom: The more you help others, the more the benefits come back to you. Talk to your competition at users' groups. Don't be afraid to open the kimono and share your secrets.