19 ideas to think big, act small

Two small local gift shops recently asked me for some advice having just opened their doors. Here’s my thinking that may ring a bell or two with you:

  1. Keep things simple whilst striving for quality – a massively pared back John Lewis, if you like.
  2. Keep changing: your window display, your special offers, and your counter products need constant refreshing. Give those who come back the chance to have their eyeballs entertained.
  3. If you want design inspiration for signage, point of sale, logos, etc. then feast your eyes on Dribble, Behance, and Society6.
  4. If you need design work done you can hire fast and cheap freelancers online at Fiverr, Mechanical Turk, or DesignCrowd. I doubt you’ll win awards with artwork that’s cost you $25 in another hemisphere, but it’s surely going to better your finest MS Word Clipart effort (that’s the digital equivalent of dad-dancing at a wedding).
  5. Meet and greet customers like your life depends on it, because it really does. Ask customers for their opinions and critique. Take everything on board for consideration but know that you cannot please all the people, all the time.
  6. Offer free coffee, but get a percolator going on a Saturday (the smell itself is homely and welcoming) and don’t fly in a £5k machine from Italy. It’s a nice gesture plus customers will likely browse longer whilst sipping and thus convert more (i.e. become customers, not just browsers).
  7. Think about wedding lists but manage them with a sign and a note pad, not the fancy hand-held scanners in department stores.
  8. Unless you’re selling gift cards in a market stall, you need to take several payment choices in store. Signs saying, “Cash Only!” or, “There’s a £5 charge for debit/credit cards” are ugly and disdainful. Yes the handling fees are painful to absorb but they’re the cost of doing business, I’m afraid.
  9. Your website address (URL) should reflect your store name but short URLs are difficult to come by as every man and his dog is already online. Consider spending a little cash if needed (hundreds not thousands) and get creative. Non .com and .co.uk suffixes (known as top-level domains) are far more acceptable these days so you may well be able to get the name you want but without the .co.uk you’d initially prefer. URLs with fewer than nine characters are ideal; under 12 is fine but much beyond that gets unwieldy for folks to remember. www.davidandgeorgiasgiftselctionbristol.co.uk is definite no-no.
  10. When new micro businesses tell me they’re looking at spending £10-20k on a website my heart sinks. It’s wholly unnecessary and a negligent use of budget. There’s plenty of free and nearly-free options. Try to set them up yourself and do your learning there, not in managing some overpriced web development project (you’ve plenty of time to spend more later). Learn how to add content and then think about ecommerce.
  11. If you are selling online then think about running some pay-per-click ads. Read a bunch of articles and teach yourself the basics without taking it to an agency who’ll charge you ~10% of what you spend with Google. No, you wont make a million in a few weeks but you will add to your skillset and hopefully stumble across what works best for you through trial and error.
  12. Notonthehighstreet.com (yes, the URL defies my length rule) is the online whale in your sector, followed by Amazon (they’re everyone’s whale). You can’t beat them but you may just be able to join them by showing more care. Put your phone number online, get your Google local page together, have folks write reviews. Make your homepage smarter. Pay attention.
  13. Social media marketing is feasible but it needs to be thought out and authentic. If you’re going to shout about your profile you need to be in the game, not leave it dormant. Outsource here for little bit of help if necessary (perhaps on your profiles/brand image) but not your actual content – surely it should be your store’s voice not that of a hired keyboard 100 miles away.
  14. You’d like to have a procurement team explore foreign trade shows and tap into new global trends. Well, look at Etsy, Globein and Pinterest, and prepare to be inspired without spending a penny on travel expenses.
  15. Just as a fancy website is overkill for Year 1, so is a complex I.T. suite. There’s no need for £10k servers, huge back up systems, developers and analysts. Cloud services like Office 365 or Google Apps (aka Google docs) mean most of your activities will be accessible anywhere you can get online.
  16. These ready-to-roll services will see that you don’t get sold to by a slick B2B contractor. As much of your resource (that’s your cash and your time) in these crucial opening months should be about making a sale today, not paying consultancy bills and chasing outsiders’ productivity and their value for money.
  17. When spending cash, think of direct and indirect costs. Direct costs should be kept realistic and indirect thought of as evil. That £600 ergonomic desk chair would look great in your office, but it doesn’t help you sell more product – expunge such indulgences.
  18. Business plans are for bank managers. By all means write a few thousand words but I don’t know a single business leader who reverts back to a 50 page, ring-bound document. Sketch some ideas out and definitely have a plan (perhaps a mind map of some sort) but write 5,000 words for your website, rather than the arbitrary ‘business plan’. Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines said, “We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” Fabulous.
  19. Get up and running. Get marketing. Understand what your customer likes/dislikes and put plenty of the former in front of them. Be frugal and spend on things that make the till ring (stock, marketing, improving ‘the offer’). Learn lessons. Learn them fast. Dust yourself off when (not if) you fail and go again.

What have I missed? What’s your small business advice?

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