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Professional Development Benefits Your Business

Whether you’re a brand new entrepreneur or a small business owner who has been in business for years, expanding your knowledge and fine-tuning your skillsets are crucial for sustained success.

Professional development never goes out of style, and if you make it a priority, it can set your business apart from your competitors. Dedicating time and energy on a continual basis to honing your talents and learning new things will show your customers that:

  • You’re dedicated to providing them with the best products and services.
  • You can provide them with more value than your competition can.
  • You have a grasp on the bigger picture and are better able to propose solutions.
  • You’re worth every penny they’re paying you.

Finding Opportunities For Professional Development Isn’t Difficult. Finding Discipline To Follow Through With Professional Development Can Be.

As you explore how you might boost your knowledge and improve your skills, consider these effective and affordable options:

  • Reputable industry or topical blogs—Look for blogs that specifically address topics related to your types of products and services and for those about managing a business.
  • E-books—Ditto on what we said about blogs.
  • Business podcasts—With a vast selection of podcasts about leadership, marketing, business, and industry trends out there, you have plenty of options. To stay productive when you sit down to listen, consider hitting “play” while you’re taking care of “no brainer” busy work.
  • SBA online training center courses—In addition to a wealth of informative articles, the SBA also offers a number of free online courses to guide you through different aspects of starting and managing a business.
  • Local lunch & learns, seminars, etc.—Chambers of commerce often offer these types of programs to help their members manage their businesses better. They also provide the opportunity to network with other professionals in the community.

To make the most out of any of the above professional development tools, also consider signing up for free face-to-face or email mentoring with certified SCORE mentors. They have knowledge of and experience in every aspect of starting and running a business, so they’re well equipped to guide you as you navigate the opportunities and challenges of entrepreneurship.

Ready to get your small business off the ground or take it to the next level? Contact us to get started!

Is Email Marketing Worth the Investment?

With social media, texting, and other instantaneous ways of marketing your products and services, you might be wondering if anyone really pays attention to emails anymore.

Statistics say they do.

  • According to eMarketer, 69.7 percent of internet users say email is their preferred method of communicating with businesses.
  • And Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s 2015 State of Marketing report shows…
    • Seventy-four percent of marketers believe email produces (or will produce) ROI.
    • Seventy-three percent of marketers agree that email marketing is core to their business

How Could Email Marketing Help Your Small Business?

You can use email marketing to fulfill a number of objectives. For example you can…

  • Introduce new products and services.
  • Announce special offers, promotions, and contests.
  • Provide tips to help customers use your products and services more effectively.
  • Share industry news that will affect your customers.
  • Share event highlights.
  • Introduce new team members.
  • Highlight recent awards or press coverage your business has received.

You can get the most from your email marketing efforts when you integrate them with your other online marketing strategies. For instance, you can share links to your blog posts and other pages of your website in your email marketing messages, share your email marketing message links on social media, and incorporate links to your social media accounts in your email marketing messages. All of those things will boost the visibility of each platform you’re using.

Small Business Email Marketing Platforms

Several small business email marketing solutions exist. Some are free, and some have fees (which typically start out small and increase as you increase the size of your mailing list).

As you explore the options, consider these things:

  • Your budget
  • The frequency at which you’ll be sending email marketing messages
  • Your level of comfort in using technology tools (some platforms are more user-friendly than others)

Most importantly, know the rules and regulations set forth by the Federal Trade Commission for email marketing. There are laws in place to protect people from unwanted solicitation emails. Fail to comply with them and you could find yourself paying a hefty fine. No small business owner needs that!

If you’re considering making email marketing part of your business marketing strategy but don’t know where to begin, talk with a SCORE mentor. At SCORE, we have a team of dedicated volunteers who can help guide you in your marketing efforts and help you with all other aspects of growing your business.

Can I Use that Image from the Web?

The use of images in your marketing efforts can help draw attention to and build interest in your products and services, and it can make your brand more memorable.

But unless you are a photographer, pay one to take professional photos for you, or are satisfied with solely using amateurish pictures from your smartphone, you’ll likely find yourself using images created by someone else who has shared them online.

No problem, right?

Actually, it could be a big problem if you’re not careful.

Most Online Photos Aren’t Fair Game

Just because a photo is on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s fair game to use in your own online communications. Using images without permission, without attribution, or without paying for them (or some combination of the three), could land you in trouble for infringing on copyright law.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.”

Photographs are protected by copyright law, and that gives creators the right to determine whether or not they can be re-used—and how they can be re-used—by others.

Creators of images don’t have to file anything legally to be protected by copyright law. While registration is needed to fully enforce rights of ownership, the creator doesn’t have to go through the process of registration to legally use the © to indicate an image is copyrighted.

And it’s important to know that if an image doesn’t have the copyright symbol associated with, it doesn’t mean it’s not protected.

 Do Your Homework Before Using A Photo That You Found Online

Before you use an image on your website, blog, social media, or in other marketing and advertising materials, it’s important to find the original source and find out if you can have license to use it. Some will allow you to use it for free with attribution (explicit credit given to the artist/owner of the work), while others might only allow use if you pay for it.

It’s well worth finding out the requirements before you download or save the image and use it for your own purposes. Penalties can be steep for copyright infringement, depending upon the particulars of a situation. They can range from $200 to $150,000.

Willful infringement typically results in higher penalties than unknowingly infringing on a copyright, but ignorance doesn’t get you off the hook.

That’s why it’s so very important to play it safe and ensure you know whether or not an image is OK to use.

Use Reputable Image Sources With Clear Guidelines

Luckily, there are a number of stock photography websites where the rules are clear about what you need to do to legally use the images available on them. Some allow you to download digital images on a transactional basis and others require you to subscribe to a plan.

Several that you may want to check out include:

Canva (Not only can you download professional images for $1 each, you can also create your own designs sized for blog graphics, various social media platforms, presentations, and posters.)

Freedigitalphotos.net (The Standard License allows you to use photos for free with attribution presented and placed according to their terms and conditions. Or you can purchase images in various sizes to use them without attribution.)

BIGSTOCK (Subscriptions for image plans start at $79 per month.)

Shutterstock (Options include “Pay As You Go” starting at $29 for two image downloads and monthly subscriptions for those with more robust needs.)

Morgue File (Provides photographs freely contributed by artists to be used in creative projects by visitors to the site. The site advises that before using images for business purposes, you should contact the photographers to ask permission and find out if and how they want attribution made.)

A Reminder

While it’s easy to download or copy images from any website or from Google Images, resist taking shortcuts. Remember, you could get slapped with a lofty fine, and even legal fees. When there are websites like those mentioned above and others, you have plenty of options to allow you to find and use images ethically and legally.

How to Use # Hashtags

Although hashtags are seen on nearly every social media channel and promoted on just about every TV show, they still confound many small business owners. Marketers everywhere are using them to amplify their brand awareness, but how can they benefit your small business?

Hashtag Basics

According to Wikipedia, “a hashtag is a word or an unspaced phrase prefixed with the hash character, #, to form a label.”

Hashtags help people identify what specific pieces of online content are about. By categorizing content, hashtags make it easier for readers to search for and find social media posts focused on the topics they have an interest in.

Where To Use Hashtags

Most major social media platforms give people the ability to search using hashtags to find relevant posts. They include:
• Twitter (the network that introduced us to hashtags)
• Facebook
• Pinterest
• Google Plus
• Instagram
• YouTube

When you click on a hashtag on these networks, you’re taken to a list of posts that have used that hashtag and presumably contain content related to the topic.

How can you use hashtags to drive more traffic to your social media posts? Here are a few ideas:

  • Include hashtags associated with keywords related to your industry, products, and services (for example: #jewelry or #lawncare) in your posts. First search on the social media platform to make sure you’ve selected a hashtag others are using to categorize posts. If you use a hashtag no one else is using, it won’t help you.
  • Use business and location hashtags together to help people find you. For example: #PortlandME #restaurants.
  • Create a hashtag for a special event you’re hosting, a marketing campaign, or your brand. But be careful when using hashtags for branding and promotional purposes. Look on Hashtags.org or Twubs.com and search on social networks and on search engines (such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo) to see if a hashtag might already be in use by another company. Using a hashtag already associated with another brand will potentially confuse people, and you might find yourself in legal hot water. As legal protections for hashtags representing brands are a mounting concern, consider consulting an attorney who’s knowledgeable about social media before creating and using a hashtag to promote your business or event.

A Few Other Hashtag Tips

When using hashtags in your social media posts, keep these best practices in mind:

  • Don’t use too many hashtags at once. One or two is best. Three is OK, but don’t go beyond that. More makes posts look cluttered—and a bit desperate for attention.
  • Place hashtags at the end of your posts rather than mixed into the main message. Posts with hashtags in the middle of their sentences are harder to read because the flow of words is interrupted with the #.
  • Don’t use hashtags that aren’t relevant to the content in your post. You’ll disappoint—and maybe even anger readers—if you use a popular hashtag to draw attention to a post that has nothing to do with the topic.

#Finalthought

It may take some time and trial and error to learn to use hashtags effectively, but they’re worth the effort because they can help you expand awareness of your small business and draw more of your target audience to you.

Branding Your Business

No matter how small or large your business, you need branding.

Branding, according to Entrepreneur Magazine, is “the marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.”

For any solopreneur or small business owner, creating a memorable brand stands as a cornerstone for success. Behind the exceptional services and products you offer, you need a strong brand presence in your market to attract new customers and make you top of mind.

Branding involves instilling in prospects and customers a sense of what your company is all about. Branding, through your logo, business name, taglines, signage, website, print collateral, etc., sets expectations and drives people to feel a certain way when they see and recognize your company.

What Should a Small Business Consider When Establishing A Brand?

According to SCORE Portland Maine mentor and digital marketing specialist Lauren Guite, small business owners find few things more difficult than distilling their businesses into imagery, colors, and a few words. But that exercise is important for creating awareness and building a customer following.

“My advice to folks starting this process is to start big, putting everything down on paper,” shares Guite. “Have many brainstorming sessions with your trusted network of family and friends—with the people who get you and your business. Explore how you feel about your business and how you want your customers to feel—emotion is the strongest tie to your customers.”

Do’s and Don’ts of Branding for Small Businesses

If you’re at the start of your branding process, Guite suggests that you:

  • Do research to understand how certain colors and fonts resonate with people.
  • Do test your ideas before making a final decision! What your customer base thinks matters most.
  • Don’t over-explain. Less is more! Keep branding simple to make it memorable.

Small Business Branding Help

Not all small business owners feel comfortable with or capable of making the right branding decisions. At the over 320 chapters of SCORE across the U.S., you’ll find mentors (like Guite at our SCORE Portland Maine Chapter) who have marketing and branding expertise. SCORE mentoring is free of charge, and many chapters also offer low-cost workshops and seminars that cover the topic of branding. You can also find webinars and articles relevant to small business branding via the SCORE national website.

If you would like some marketing and branding guidance for your small business, contact us!

 

More about SCORE Maine Mentor Lauren Guite

Lauren Guite is a digital marketing specialist for Environmental Defense Fund where she considers social sharing strategies and audience needs while implementing a content marketing strategy. Wanting to give back to her home state, she started volunteering for SCORE in November of 2013. After many years in Washington, D.C., she’s glad to be home and helping local businesses with their marketing challenges.

 

3 Tips to Boost Your Linked In Profile

With over 300 million users, it’s no secret that LinkedIn is one of the most effective online social networking platforms around. But could you be missing out by not paying attention to some simple details? Even if you don’t have a lot of time to devote to interacting on LinkedIn, tending to some basic “housekeeping” on the platform can help boost your credibility and make people more inclined to connect with you.

  1. Put a face to your name. Use a professional-looking headshot. Other professionals are more likely to connect with you if you’ve taken the few minutes it requires to replace that generic shadowy silhouette with your photo. A profile with a photo is 11 times more likely to be viewed than one without. It’s a rookie mistake not to have a photo. Likewise, steer clear of using profile pictures like couple’s photos, glamour shots, and anything excessively casual (e.g. wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap while proudly holding up a 4-foot sailfish).Need help?  Check out the pointers for choosing the best LinkedIn profile photo in this SlideShare from SUCCEED Powered by Staples.
  1. Use first-person voice. Yes, LinkedIn is a professional platform, but that doesn’t mean you need to sound overly formal. Your profile is YOU sharing your professional experience. Avoid sounding aloof by writing it in third person. Which of the samples below sounds more open and engaging?  For over fifteen years, Joe Smith has worked with clients, helping them increase sales and improve productivity. He is dedicated to educating and empowering business professionals with game-changing knowledge, tools, and resources.orFor over fifteen years, I have worked with clients, helping them increase sales and improve productivity. I’m dedicated to educating and empowering business professionals with game-changing knowledge, tools, and resources.Your LinkedIn profile’s purpose is for you to connect one-to-one with other professionals. You’ll risk appearing disconnected if your profile reads like you didn’t write it yourself.
  1. Include your contact info. Nothing is more frustrating than looking up a public LinkedIn profile in search of a phone number or an email address and discovering the person hasn’t included those things. Go to your profile RIGHT NOW and add that info if it’s not already there. Remember, it’s not just your first-level contacts who might seek someone with your credentials and expertise. Make it as easy as possible for any prospective clients to find and contact you.

While none of the above action items take a lot of time or effort to tackle, they can make a big difference in how others perceive you on LinkedIn. They’ll make you more approachable and accessible to other professionals, so don’t wait if your profile needs those basic updates. And remember, SCORE mentors are here to provide feedback and advice as you hone your presence on LinkedIn and your other social media platforms.
In fact, we’re here to help you with all aspects of starting and running a business. Learn more about SCORE’s FREE mentoring, affordable workshops, and other resources.

How to Pitch Your Business

When you have been developing a product for months or years, there comes a time when you have to focus on getting seed funding or other sources of investment. Pitching, just like networking in general, is about building relationships and communicating well about why your product or service is a winner. Take the time to hone your pitch and try to avoid common pitfalls.

Consider these tips:

  1. Focus on the problem you’re solving.

New entrepreneurs often talk about their companies in terms of what they do (“we make X, we offer Y”). Instead, focus on describing WHY your product or service matters. Frame your story from the end user’s perspective, e.g. “Dog owners are struggling for control when walking their pet, so we help them by…” Explain the pain point, and how you’re solving the problem. Use stories to help bring concepts to life. Bill Feldman, Portland native and entrepreneur, created the Liberty Wristband after walking his dog Henry. His dog was constantly pulling the leash of out of his owner’s hand, and Bill engineered a unique solution that he is now taking to market.

  1. Don’t use jargon.

Ditch the buzzwords, acronyms and any industry jargon that requires a dictionary or advanced degree. You want everyone to understand and connect with what you’re saying instantly.

  1. Adjust your pitch to each situation.

You likely have an elevator speech you’ve practiced. This pitch makes a compelling investment case in a minute or less, and there is a time and place to use it. When you are engaged in casual conversation, be sensitive to the give and take; don’t deliver a monologue about your idea.

  1. Don’t pitch your resume.

A good pitch focuses on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how it’s going to make a difference. This isn’t the time to cover the general work and educational background of everyone on the team. Don’t include all the companies where you worked or schools you attended during initial conversations.

  1. Hold off on the crazy projections.

Perhaps your friends and family are impressed with how you will grow from 10 to 10 million users in two years. Investors and experienced businesspeople don’t want their time wasted with growth projections, which are best guesses. Describe your business now and what resources it will take to scale.

  1. Consider feedback a gift.

There’s a lot of personal pride involved in any venture. Put it aside when pitching your company. Expect people to have tough questions. They’re not attacking you personally; rather, they’re thinking about your idea from their points of view. Learn how to take critical feedback to make improvements.

 

5 Common Mistakes When Starting a Business

Starting a business comes with a learning curve – often a steep one. There’s a lot to consider, research, and execute. It’s not surprising that new entrepreneurs make mistakes along the way.

According to Alan Shaver, a SCORE Portland Maine mentor for the past 15 years, there are five key mistakes many new startup business owners make.

If you or someone you know is starting a small business, knowing what missteps to watch for can help you avoid getting your business off on the wrong foot.

Top 5 Mistakes New Business Owners Make

 1.   Underestimate the time, effort, and energy required to start and run their businesses.

“They don’t realize it will be as all-consuming as it is,” explains Shaver. “They underestimate the demands it places on them, particularly how it will impact their family relationships and their financial resources.”

He says a lot of people going into business fail to estimate that accurately, so he encourages new entrepreneurs to connect with existing business owners in similar types of businesses who have gone through the process. That can serve as a helpful reality check.

  1.  Fail to conduct sufficient research about the industry and their type of business.

Without researching the business arenas they’re entering, new entrepreneurs often don’t have an adequate understanding of what they can expect.

Shaver explains, “A lot of people don’t want to do that kind of work, but it’s necessary to understand their business and the industry in which they’ll operate.”

“SCORE counselors direct them to various resources to enable them to learn a great deal about their proposed business and its industry.”

One that Shaver regularly shares is an online resource available at the Portland Public Library, Reference USA. It offers a wealth of information to help new business owners understand the metrics, price points, margins, and more that are usual for their types of business. Reference librarians can also assist new entrepreneurs in researching their industries.

  1. Understand the potential limitations of their business.

Will your business be able to sell enough to meet your income needs? Does your location provide an opportunity for growth? What qualifications do your employees need?

The above are tough questions to begin to answer unless a new business owner does financial projections and talks to others in the industry to learn from their experience.

“I had worked with a client who had a successful restaurant with a strong clientele, but his location wasn’t large enough,” shares Shaver. “As a result, he couldn’t turn tables fast enough and couldn’t achieve the revenue goals he wanted to. Sadly, he closed his business. If he had done more homework about the efficiency of a venue his size, he might have chosen a different location and remained in business.”

Similarly, but fortunately with a more successful outcome, Shaver also worked with a thriving coffee shop client who decided not to open another restaurant because he did his due diligence and projected he wouldn’t turn a profit until after three years.

According to Shaver, SCORE mentors help new entrepreneurs tackle challenges like those. They can facilitate connecting new business owners with existing business owners, and they also point entrepreneurs to the Financial Projections template on the SCORE website. By taking advantage of those resources, startups can make better decisions.

  1.  Fail to develop an adequate business plan, specifically the financial projections. 

“A lot of people allow themselves to be overwhelmed about creating a business plan,” says Shaver. “At SCORE, we encourage them to do it in small steps – to tackle it in reasonable workable bites.”

According to Shaver, seriously thinking about your business finances is crucial.

Will you make the money you intend to – or need to – make? Will you be able to pay back your investors and lenders?

Only by preparing realistic financial projections can you determine the appropriate capitalization and most efficient operation of your business.

“Business plans help you measure your own progress against your goals. It’s important to remember a business plan is not cast in concrete. You can change it as you learn more, but it’s essential so you can track if you’re achieving what you set out to do. And if it isn’t working, you need to explore why isn’t it working.”

SCORE provides tools to help entrepreneurs development business plans (such as templates for the narrative portion and financial projections) and offers workshops to guide them as well.

  1. Neglect to review and understand the financial performance of their businesses.

When new business owners don’t obtain financial reports and pay attention to them from the outset, there can be disastrous results.

Shaver warns, “If you don’t look at financial results regularly or faithfully. You don’t really know the score. You’ll have no idea if you’re winning or losing.”

“When small businesses are not winning, they need to figure out why – before they run out of money.”

Shaver encourages new entrepreneurs to reach out for assistance from SCORE counselors to understand what their financial statements reveal about the performance of their businesses.

Bonus Tip:

This doesn’t apply to all entrepreneurs, but if you’re going to have a partner in your business, Shaver recommends getting a written agreement in place from the beginning.

“It’s absolutely essential to have a written agreement that defines ownership and responsibilities. Do it upfront because waiting until there are disagreements or problems in the business relationship is too late

About Alan Shaver

  • Shaver has been a SCORE Mentor for 15 years. He leads several workshops at the SCORE Maine Chapter in Portland.
  • Now retired, he was a corporate lawyer with a large law firm in New York and had a private law practice that served New York and Connecticut. For ten years, he was also a partner in a franchise auto service business in Maine.
  • His areas of expertise include business planning, financial projections, and business funding.
  • One of Shaver’s SCORE clients, Garbage to Garden, was nationally recognized by the SCORE organization as “2014 Outstanding Green Small Business.”

 

Respect Your Competition

You launch your business in a growing niche market. Out of the blue, a friend tells you about a new similar product or service. After your initial shock, do you obsess about losing your edge or embrace the opportunity? At SCORE, we say “FEAR not your competition!” The right move is to transition into discovery mode. Knowledge about similar businesses may add a creative spark to your thinking or confirm that you’re bringing an authentic solution to a customer want or need at precisely the right time.  Read more

Home Business or a Hobby: Is it Time to Take the Leap?

Maine is a place that seems to bring out creativity in people. It’s brimming with artisans, inventors and culinary creators who dabble in ventures at all levels. For many, it’s the genesis of a burgeoning small business; for others, it’s destined to remain a hobby. How to you know when it’s time to make the leap from an enjoyable pastime to a professional pursuit? Taking a close look at the key drivers for long-term success and asking yourself the difficult questions are the first steps in making a rational, objective decision.

1. Nail your idea      

Does your hobby involve a brand or service that someone would pay for?  Crafting a product or service that is enjoyable for you does not guarantee you will be paid for your efforts. In the business world, it’s called a value proposition: defining the problem your business is solving. Engage family, friends and potential customers to provide critical feedback on your product. Ask what they like most about your product, how it helps them solve a problem and what they might pay for this product. Ask no fewer than 25 people and jot down their response. 

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