Six Inspirations for Small Businesses From ICON14

WordItOut-word-cloud-394443Entrepreneurs have always been a rare breed. And, as the U.S. employment rate has improved, the overall rate of business creation has fallen from 0.30 percent in 2012 to 0.28 percent in 2013, according to the annual Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. All age and ethnic groups experienced declines, except for the 45 – 54 year-old group. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, over half of all new businesses fail within five years.

So is it any wonder that many small business owners feel like they are isolated, misunderstood and lacking in the guidance and support they need?

Infusionsoft, which develops marketing automation solutions for small businesses with 25 or fewer employees, can relate to this dilemma—and is committed to helping. The vendor not only provides small businesses with effective, affordable solutions to help “attract, sell and wow customers,” but also offers up an abundance of business guidance and support—key ingredients for lasting business success. To quote Clate Mask (@ClateMask), Infusionsoft’s founder and CEO, “I don’t care about big business! We are totally committed to the true small business market—and changing the definition of success for small business owners.”

ICON14ICON14, held in Phoenix last week, represents Infusionsoft’s flagship commitment to help small businesses. In addition to offering attendees the prerequisite tips and tricks to get the best results from its solutions, Infusionsoft provided its 3,000-plus attendees with insights and expertise needed to create thriving, sustainable businesses and achieve work-life balance.

ICON14 featured both entrepreneurial leaders, including Simon Sinek, Seth Godin, JJ Ramberg, Jay Baer and Peter Shankman, as well as its all-star small business customers, to help guide entrepreneurs to beat the odds and create successful enterprises.

These speakers and Infusionsoft executives imparted many pearls of wisdom during the conference (check out the Twitter hashtag #ICON14 for more). But here are a few that really made an impression on me and that I wanted to share.

  1. Develop a positive corporate culture. Most businesses view happy customers as key to success. Yet what are the odds of creating happy customers if you have miserable or just unmotivated employees? As Simon Sinek (@simonsinek) noted in his talk,“Leaders need to set a circle of safety within their organization so their teams can do wonderful things.” Employees who feel appreciated, included and recognized are your best business advocates. See my interview with Infusionsoft’s VP of People, Anita Grantham (@anitakgran) for great ideas on how to build this type of culture.
  1. Establish a system to grow. Entrepreneurs should take advantage of cloud computing’s “no infrastructure investment required” model to help kick-start and organize their businesses for sustainable growth. Small businesses can use technology to enhance relationships by taking the friction out of process and freeing up more time to focus on customers. Systems also enable small companies to scale more easily and maintain better work-life balance. When the owners of Cleancorp (@CleancorpAU), an Australian commercial cleaning service and the ICON14 winner, did everything manually, they had no time for vacation. Since they began using Infusionsoft to automate sales and marketing, they’ve grown the business 575 percent, and the two co-owners took 9 and 13 weeks of vacation last year.
  1. Once you have a system in place, let go of process and let employees do their jobs. As Clate Mask says, business owners need to spend more time working on the business and less time in it. Or as Christian Isquiedero, CEO of Left Foot Coaching and ICON finalist put it, business owners should ask themselves, are they buying you or your process and mission? “You aren’t scalable, but your process and mission is. So build a system to “Verify, Clarify, Document, Teach and Automate.” Let go of the block and tackle, let employees do their jobs and manage what’s going on via a dashboard.
  1. Remember the sale starts with “No.” Small businesses that succeed follow-up regularly with prospects to stay top of mind for the next opportunity. Keep connecting with people every day, not only to sell, but to be there when the timing is right, according to Peter Shankman (@petershankman). Personalize communications with emails, offers and campaigns tailored to different prospects’ histories and behaviors. And don’t forget to integrate offline communication—phone calls, events, on site meetings, etc. with online activities to help humanize the business.
  1. Be relevant, brief and write well! Also from Shankman: With so many ways for people to get content these days, you need to find out what your audience wants and how they want it. Make sure you communicate relevant information, or people will tune you out. Remember that attention spans are shrinking; you have just 2.3 to 2.7 seconds to capture someone’s attention, so keep it short and sweet. Finally, learn to write or hire someone who can. Poor writing is a turn off.
  1. Make your sales process a customer service process. Heather Lemere (@salonbusiness), owner of Salon Success Strategies, a marketing agency for salons and spas and ICON finalist, uses strategic lead qualification to reduce high sales costs by eliminating bad leads to focus only on the best prospects. With a smaller but better qualified prospect pool, you free up time and resources to turn the sales process into an educational customer service process, which in turn helps close more business.

The wisdom, camaraderie and energy at Infusionsoft was truly amazing. Not only did it help educate and inspire those of us that are already pursuing our passions as entrepreneurs, but it should also help motivate those who have been tentative about making the leap! Remember, YOU create your own opportunities—don’t wait for an employer to do it for you!

(Disclosure: Infusionsoft covered my travel expenses for ICON14)

 

VerticalResponse: Taking the Guesswork Out of Email Marketing and Social Media for Small Businesses

vrlogo-gradient_1000pxLaurie: Hi, this is Laurie McCabe from the SMB Group, and today I’m talking to Janine Popick, CEO at VerticalResponse. VerticalResponse helps small businesses grow with email and social marketing tools, and recently Vertical Response introduced a new version of their solution which is what I’m here to talk with Janine about today.

So Janine, before we get into what the new VerticalResponse solution is all about, can you just let us know a little background about the company and what you’ve been doing up until now.

Janine: Oh sure, and thanks for having me here, Laurie, this is great. I launched VerticalResponse back in 2001 really with the premise that there was a lot of email marketing solutions out there for big businesses but there’s not a lot of solutions for small businesses. We’re based in San Francisco, we’re still headquartered here today, but really those big companies have that expensive software to manage all of their marketing, especially their email marketing. It was the right time for us to launch a company and get those small businesses from sending email out of their Outlook to more professional looking emails and a more professional solution. Currently here we have about 105 current employees at VerticalResponse.

Laurie: Ok, and about how many customers do you have?

Janine: Well we have over a million businesses that have come to use us over the course of the last 13 years. We’ve got probably on any given month about 40 to 50,000 active customers that are in there using the system.

Laurie: Ok, thanks. That’s a great introduction too. So why are you introducing a new version of VerticalResponse now?

Janine: Well, over the course of years newer technology surfaces so that companies like VerticalResponse can build some really neat stuff for small businesses to use, easier to use technologies, and we really decided it’s time for us to do that. Our self-service platform really lets those small businesses connect with their customers using both email marketing and social media marketing.

Laurie: Right, I did get a look at it last time we spoke and it does look really easy to use, which is always a good thing for any of us.

Janine: Yeah, you know small businesses really want to get in there and get out and do what they do best which is running their business.

Laurie: Exactly. Who would benefit from this? Is it your existing customers, is it new customers? How will it help them?

Janine: Well definitely new customers and existing customers. It really solves lots of problems but two that come to mind are time and money. Right? So with VerticalResponse these customers can keep in touch with their customers through the email marketing and social media marketing without spending, like you said you thought, without spending a lot of time to learn a complicated technology. This new platform has lots of amazing features. We really focused on drag and drop designer and with that drag and drop come templates that are mobile friendly. We’re really over 50% of all consumers today are checking their email on their mobile phone or on their tablet, so we really put an emphasis on mobile friendly templates, but you can also post messages to Twitter and Facebook right from the same dashboard, so you don’t have to log in to all those different platforms to do your social media as well, it’s kind of like that nifty one-stop shop for email and social.

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Laurie: Right, and that’s very convenient. Also, if I remember correctly, once you create your email marketing campaign it will render across any of the mobile devices or somebody’s laptop or desktop without you having to do anything different to it. It’ll render correctly, right?

Janine: Absolutely. We really wanted to take all that guesswork out of it for our customers who are the small businesses.

Laurie: Yep, make it idiot-proof. How about for the customers using the original version that you have, are there any gotchas? Should they switch to the new version or is it something they need to kind of look at some trade-offs or what?

Janine: Well I think at the get-go they should look at the new version, especially if they have under a thousand contacts on their list, it’s free, the whole product is free. That’s one benefit for our current VerticalResponse customers. Over the course of the next two to three quarters, we’re going to be incorporating all of the features that most of the Vertical Response current customers are using into the new platform in an even better and easy-to-use way. As those features come available we’re going to be communicating to those customers that use and love those features that hey, they’re available in the new Vertical Response, come on over and start using them. So that’s pretty exciting for current VerticalResponse customers, I think.

Laurie: Yeah, definitely, so kind of get your feet wet now even if it’s not got every bell and whistle that you want, it will have it and you can learn it and be ready when it’s all available.

Janine: Exactly.

Laurie: So right now the new version is completely free or is it a freemium kind of model where there’s an up charge or how does that work?

Janine: Well it is a freemium model, it is completely free if you have a thousand or fewer customers. Once you go over the thousand contacts on your list it’s as little as nine bucks per month, depending on your list size that’s where it starts. It is completely free but as soon as you start growing and you might want some more bells and whistles, then we’ll ask you for a charge.

Laurie: Yes, sure, typical freemium model. What’s your URL, what’s the website address where they can learn more both about the new product and maybe the existing one too?

Janine: The website is www.verticalresponse.com, they can go, they can sign up right then and there and begin trying it out. It’s pretty easy, they get in there and just try it out and see if they like it.

Laurie: When did you put it up there for people to start trying?

Janine: On the 14th of March.

Laurie: Ok. Have you had a lot of hits or how’s it going with that?

Janine: We have actually. We have the most sign ups that we’ve had over the course of many years, which is just great to see. We think it’s catching on, we think people like it and it’s just going to keep growing, so we’re pretty excited about what we’re able to offer to our business customers.

Laurie: Ok, well that’s great, Janine. I really appreciate your time today and thank you for joining us to share the information and the news.

Janine: Thank you.

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