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)

 

Infusionsoft: Big Dreams for Small Business

Infusionsoft: Big Dreams for Small Business

Last week I attended InfusionCon 2013, Infusionsoft’s annual user event. In case you’re not familiar with Infusionsoft, they provide web-based all-in-one sales, marketing and ecommerce software aimed at “true” small businesses with 25 or fewer employees.

eventOver 2,000 small business owners attended the event, which featured the launch of Infusionsoft’s 2013 Spring Release, and three days of education, training, networking and presentations. Speakers ranging from Daymond John, founder of FUBU and investor on ABC’s Shark Tank, to David Allen, author of the bestseller Getting Things Done, shared center stage with Infusionsoft “Ultimate Marketer” nominees, who provided insight into Infusionsoft’s unique customer community. And, in an industry where most vendors are easily lured upstream into midmarket and large enterprises, the Infusionsoft team doubled-down on the company’s commitment to serving small business.

How does Infusionsoft intend stick with its small business pledge? Let’s take a look based on what I saw and heard at the event.

Climbing Everest

It comes as no surprise to anyone that has ever owned a small business that in every SMB Group study we do, small businesses cite “growing revenues” and “attracting new customers” as their top business challenges. While the goal is straightforward, getting an effective system in place to connect with and nurture prospects and customers is hard and time-consuming. Many end up with using a disconnected assortment of point solutions to address different requirements for things such as ecommerce, email marketing and content management. Not surprisingly this often gets ugly and hard to manage as a business grows. It becomes increasingly difficult to give customers and prospects the responsive and personalized attention, offers and service they expect without working round the clock.

CEO Clate Mask founded Infusionsoft in 2001 with the intent to help small businesses grow without becoming slaves to their businesses by helping them automate their sales and marketing with an integrated, all-in-one solution. Over the past dozen years, Infusionsoft has grown its customer base to 13,500 accounts and 50,000, with a roughly even split between B2C and B2B companies. Growth is also accelerating: Infusionsoft increased revenues and customers by more than 50% in the past year.

I think its fair to say that in the early going, Infusionsoft’s appeal was limited to those small businesses who saw the value of automating their sales and marketing but were also ready, willing and able to invest a lot of time learning how to use Infusionsoft and getting it to work for their businesses. Many of these pioneers have had great success using Infusionsoft to help grow their businesses.

As Infusionsoft has grown however, it has begun to attract more pragmatic customers who don’t have the time or interest required to tinker with configuring software. Small business owners are already wearing enough hats—they aren’t marketing experts and don’t want to be. They see the value that an integrated sales and marketing solution can deliver, but want a shortcut to it.

photoeverestMask and his team have heard this message loud and clear. They know that they need to simplify the solution to appeal to wider swath of small businesses and spike growth to the next level. Consequently, Infusionsoft is focusing on simplifying the solution and delivering positive outcomes to users more quickly to reach its next milestone—100,000 customer accounts in the next four years.

Towards a Sherpa Style Solution

Infusionsoft’s 2013 Spring Release is all about doing more of the heavy lifting so its users don’t have to. The release features a more visual interface, easier to use drag and drop tools, and templates to help small businesses get going. For instance:

  • The My Day dashboard makes it easier to for users get organized, create quotes and move quickly through sales activities to close more business.
  • Infusionsoft’s Marketplace provides a library of free, pre-built marketing campaigns that have a proven track record of converting leads into buyers. Instead of reinventing the wheel, users can download a campaign to their Infusionsoft app, tweak it and go.
  • A new quoting tool that streamlines the quoting process and helps users create, track and manage quotes.
  • New interactive training tutorials help users learn about how to use additional capabilities from within the solutions with boxes that pop up to explain how to do things relevant to where users are in the application.

Infusionsoft has also integrated GroSocial (which it announced the acquisition of in January) with Infusionsoft Campaign Builder. GroSocial enables users to create and manage social campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, and the integration with Campaign Builder whittles down the time it takes to create, manage and track social media marketing campaigns.

Staying the Course

Earlier this year, it captured a $52 million dollar financing round from Goldman Sachs. Skeptics, myself included, have wondered if Goldman Sachs will force Infusionsoft to go upmarket or position for acquisition. After all, striking the right balance to deliver value and build volume in this very fragmented, diverse market is not for the faint of heart. Once you move past turnkey point solutions, very few vendors have been able to establish enduring scale and success.

photo listencareserveBut Mask says that the investment firm wants Infusionsoft to keep its small business pledge and build a great, long-lived company. It turns out that Goldman Sachs supports small businesses through its non-profit foundation, 10,000 Small Businesses, and Infusionsoft sees potential synergy with this initiative. Meanwhile, Infusionsoft is staying true to its own small business roots. Over 60% of its employees have experience running their own small businesses, and Infusionsoft encourages new employees to continue running their small businesses while they work for Infusionsoft to keep the small business focus sharp and stay true to its mantra to listen, care and serve small businesses.

Infusionsoft is also expanding its ecosystem of developer and service delivery partners, which now includes over 300 partners. This year’s Battle of the Apps, showcased at InfusionCon, showcased 4 contestants who develop plug-ins and add-ons to the Infusionsoft platform.

we empowerIn January 2013, Infusionsoft opened up its new 90,000 square foot building to accommodate the 700 employees it will add to its staff to support its small business growth goals and culture. When you walk in, you’re greeted by a big wall with hundreds of photos of Infusionsoft’s small business customers. The building features:

  • Meeting rooms that small businesses in the Phoenix community can use free of charge.
  • A large space to accommodate training for customers and partners.
  • Prominent displays of the company’s nine core values and performance benchmarks for its Everest climb.
  • A games room, mother’s room and a cereal bar—which harkens back to remind everyone of the early dark days when Mask and his then small team lived on cereal and pizza.
  • Infusionsoft is also expanding its ecosystem of developer and service delivery partners, which now includes over 300 partners. This year’s Battle of the Apps, showcased at InfusionCon, 4 contestants who develop plug-ins and add-ons to the Infusionsoft platform.

Interestingly, the building also includes a Dreaming Room—complete with a library and full-time Dream Manager—to help Infusionsoft employees set and attain their personal goals. Infusionsoft believes that happy employees equate to happy customers—and it is filling the walls with photos of how its employees are achieving their dreams.

Perspective

Will Infusionsoft’s dedication to small business pay off? Will it be able to stay the small business course, and find the formula that eludes so many tech companies. Is it on track to become a scalable, enduring small business solution company ala Intuit? Of course, only time will tell if Infusionsoft’s execution will live up to its intentions.

The company will need to strike that fine balance of creating powerful solutions without complexity—a rare thing indeed. But, so far, I like what I see. Keeping fresh small business blood running through its employees’ veins should also help keep it focused on and in tune with small businesses—especially when so many of the vendors targeting small business are so far removed from the realities that small business owners face. Infusionsoft has the capital it needs to provide a better user experience for its customers, and broaden its partner ecosystem to add the nuanced capabilities that diverse small business customers demand.

Infusionsoft’s goal for next year’s InfusionCon is 4,000 small business owner attendees. I’ll be watching to see if the company meets this objective, because convincing that many “true” small business owners to put day-to-day business needs aside for three days to travel and invest to learn how to use any software solution may be a first. If Infusionsoft pulls this off, it will be a very good omen indeed that it can fulfill on its dreams for itself and for its small business customers.

Top Trends Most Evident at the 2010 Small Business Technology Summit

Back in the beautiful Live Free or Die state after attending the 2010 Small Business Summit earlier this week. This is a fantastic event coordinated by Ramon Ray and Marian Banker, and held at the Digital Sandbox in the financial district in New York. Whether due to Ramon and team’s hard work and great marketing, or a glimmer of hope for an economic recovery, attendance was up over last year. More than 500 attendees turned out and  as usual, Ramon energized the crowd and a great networking experience was had by all.

As I’d done in 2009, I wanted to compare our Top 10 SMB Technology Market Predictions with what I was hearing at this event as a reality check on our musings. But as a duo, Sanjeev and I had 13 predictions for 2010—as compared to the measly five I’d put together on my own in 2009. So I’ve selected the 2010 predictions that we made that I saw most in evidence at the event.

Pent Up Demand Will Be There—But Won’t Be Easy to Capture. This was our #1 2010 prediction. Small business owners and employees at the Summit were most jazzed up about solutions with clearly demonstrable bottom and/or top line business benefits. In the words of one customer, “We have to spend money wisely to do more for our clients and make more money.” A few of the solutions that won the Hottest Technology awards that really seemed to hit the mark:

  • EzTexting, a solution that lets you easily send SMS text messages to customers to help capture their attention at the right place, and right time.
  • SugarSync, which helps you manage multiple devices, locations, versions, authors, editors, etc. by synching up everything on all your devices automatically.
  • Broadlook Technologies, Inc.’s Profiler, which helps you quickly find key contact details–names, titles, email addresses, phone numbers, bios, media mentions and more–for companies and  imports it into your CRM solution or sales database.

More vendors are also stepping up to the plate to make a long term commitment to tune in to true small business requirements and provide a more accessible, personal and positive lifecycle experience to win small business hearts and minds. For instance, the Dell panel, hosted by Dell Small Business VP Mel Parker, featured three small business customers (Vitals.com, TecAccess and Rightsleeve) to underscore Dell’s focus on two-way conversations and belief that the best way for it to shine is in the reflected glow of customers that are using Dell solutions to help grow their businesses.

SMBs Accelerate Their Shift to Digital Marketing Media. This was our #2 prediction for 2010. At last year’s event, attendees were asking about how to Tweet or blog. This year, most are now highly engaged in many social media venues. Summit attendees are a web savvy crowd–a show of hands indicated that most have a Web site ( more than 40% of small businesses in the U.S. don’t have a web site). But even this web-savvy group is struggling to figure out how to get the biggest bang for their social media buck. For many, the speed of innovation and the universe of social media solutions and options is overwhelming.

During the panel on “Strategies for Success”, moderated by Angus Thomson, leader of Intuit’s Grow Your Business Division, many of the questions that attendees asked centered on how they can more efficiently identify and use tools to help drive traffic to their web sites. Attendees also had plenty of questions for Melanie Attia of Campaigner about how to boost results from their email marketing campaigns. On top of that, they’re grappling with how to leverage social media into the digital marketing mix so that they can better integrate customer interactions across the seemingly endless expanse of digital venues. InfusionSoft had a steady stream of traffic from people interested in its email marketing plus social media integration story. In a nutshell, there’s a lot of confusion about how to best leverage all of these–and a big opportunity for vendors that can help small businesses sort this out.

The New Face of Small Business. In our #4 2010 prediction, we’d posited that vendors need to look at the small business market through a new segmentation lens. No doubt about it–the recession, generational changes, globalization, and the frenzied pace of technology innovation are the equivalent of an extreme makeover on the face of small business. Baby boomers aren’t retiring, they’re starting new businesses, and were well-represented at this event along with Gen X, Gen Y and Millenial entrepreneurs. But they are coming from different places in their experience and perceptions in areas such as digital marketing and social networking–and technology in general. They all want to figure out how to reach the same destination—business success—but are likely to take different paths in how they discover, evaluate, purchase and implement solutions. Vendors will need to tune marketing, training and services to meet these different requirements.

SMBs’ Appetite for Managed Services Grows. Jumping down to #8 on our 2010 list–we should have moved this one higher up! Many of the small business owners and IT people I spoke to at the event realize that they need technology to support their business goals, but have reached a point where they don’t have the time, expertise or resources to do it right on their own. As one business owner told me, “My business is only as strong as the IT foundation it sits on. We can’t afford for our systems to go down.” Dell’s booth did a brisk traffic with its Dell Managed Services offerings, as did CMIT Solutions, which also provides managed services. Small businesses are realizing they can’t do it all, and are looking for cost-effective, round the clock remote management services with onsite support. Vendors that can deliver affordable, put proactive, responsive and comprehensive  services—and do it scalably and profitably–will be in demand.

And what about the rest of our predictions? While I did see and hear evidence for most of them, some, such as “Virtualization Boosts Cloud Computing” are probably more in tune with mid-market requirements than those of small businesses. Others, such as “2009 Acquisitions Drive New Value for SMB customers in 2010” and “Vendors Scramble for SMB Developer Loyalty—and New Integration Needs Arise” deal more with vendor trends, and rightfully were in background, rather than foreground at this very customer focused event.

At the big picture level, above and beyond individual predictions, what struck me most were that the two themes that really seemed to resonate with the audience were pragmatism and inspiration. Attendees ate up down to earth tips from Shashi Belamkonda of  Network Solutions, who offered a rapid fire list of ways to immediately boost return on your social media participation, and from Ellen DePasquale, aka the Software Revitalist, who provided practical information to help small buisnesses get better results from software solutions. (By the way, here’s a link to all the great pictures Shashi took at the Summit).

However, attendees were also riveted when Seth Godin, bestselling author and entrepreneur, urged them not to get out of the commodity business and trying to “fit in”—or price alone will dictate whether you are in or out. Seth’s call was to be an artist in business, aiming to change the status quo in your category, instead of following the conventional wisdom to do the same thing as the cheaper and better.

Of course, there were many other interesting discussions, people and solutions at the Summit, but I’m out of time. Check the tweet stream #smallbizsummit for lots of good info and insights from the many Tweeters at the event. I’m looking forward to the 2011 Summit already!

Reading the Top Trends Barometer at the 2009 Small Business Summit

Just got back from Small Business Summit 2009—an awesome event put on by Ramon Ray (www.smallbiztechnology.com) and Marian Banker (www.primestrategies.com ) at the Digital Sandbox in New York City. Turn out for the Summit was terrific, and attendees were treated to a great, interactive agenda including speakers, experts, sessions and networking—hosted by Ramon, who is a terrific at working a room.

On the train ride back up to New Hampshire’s frozen tundra, I started writing a blog about the hot topics that jumped out at me during the event. A feeling of déjà vu quickly came over me as I realized I was getting a great read on the trends I had blogged about in my last post, 2009 Small Business Trends: No Longer Business as Usual (just scroll down to the next post for this one). Based on the interactions I had with small business people and vendors at the Small Business Summit,  I think these trends are gaining momentum even more quickly and forcefully than I’d anticipated just last week. So in this post, I’m revisiting these trends with new, fresh evidence from the Small Business Summit that underscores how quickly they are taking shape.

1. Catch the social networking wave. Social networking took center stage at the Summit. Keynote speaker Bob Pearson, chief social media guru for Dell, kicked off the event with his presentation and set the tone for the rest of the day. Bob explained why social networking is so important, and provided down to earth recommendations that your grandma could understand about how small companies can get in the game. He encouraged people to “just get in and do some science experiments” and learn as they go (check out this link for Dell’s primer on social media: http://www.facebook.com/dellsocialmedia). Attendees couldn’t get enough information, asking lots of questions about where and how to set up blogs, how often to post, how long their posts should be, what does Twitter work best for? A few people said that they were going to start blogging right away, and the tweet volume rose through the roof! Furthermore, the vendors at the show are walking the walk themselves, creating, monitoring and responding across the social media spectrum.

 2. Demand solutions that do more for less. Well duh! Of course this is big. Gene Marks, Marks Group PC, emphasized that now is the time to re-negotiate everything, high tech or low, from insurance and rent to IT vendors and consultants. Ramon’s discussion of how to get free publicity through media coverage was spot on, of course.  Panelists and speakers representing a diverse group of vendors and solutions highlighted the abundance of free and low cost solutions available, designed especially for small businesses.  For example, on demand and software-as-a-service vendors were well represented, with the likes of Microsoft Office Live, Google, Campaigner and InfusionSoft on hand. Intuit was promoting its free QuickBooks SimpleStart, and free six-month trial for Intuit Payroll Online.

3. Find fresh technology alternatives more appealing. The audience at this event knows that they will have to work smarter, not just harder, to survive and thrive through this downturn, and come out ahead of the competition when things turn up again. Elance presenter Brad Porteus made a compelling case for using online freelancers for all those pesky jobs you need to do—but don’t have time for. This generated a lot of buzz—one of the attendees piped up that she was going to get an Elancer to track her brand across the Web. Attendees also asked a lot of questions about how they could use technology to become more relevant and create more value for their brands and businesses. They wanted to know things such as how and when to use videos, podcasts and polls, and how to use collaboration tools to foster improved communication and project management build the group dynamics they’ll need to rise above the competition.

4. Favor software-as-service (SaaS) over packaged software that they have to buy, install and manage. As I noted above, many of the vendors at the show were featuring SaaS solutions. What I didn’t hear were many attendees voicing concern about SaaS security or data ownership issues. What I did hear were many conversations between attendees and vendors, with attendees trying to figure out if a particular on demand solution would work to satisfy a specific business requirement. A clear signal that  that the issue of on demand versus on premise is becoming a moot point. Campaigner, which offers on demand email marketing, was a hot spot. Email marketing—like most application areas—is still very underpenetrated in terms of small business adoption. But economic conditions are sending these companies a loud wake up call to take action. They’ll look for an easy, fast on ramp to try, buy and get results—and find SaaS solutions fit the bill.

5. Increasingly turn to non-Microsoft desktops and servers. Ok, this wasn’t a topic that came up at all during the event, so this is all based on my very casual observations. It just seems that everywhere I go, and at this show as well, there are more and more people pulling out MacBooks instead of Windows notebooks. I think that many of the new solo entrepreneurs that will emerge from the layoffs will opt for Macs. Sure, Macs cost more than Windows PCs, but many people suffered a lot of problems with Windows PCs. When  they have to spend their own hard earned money, I think these newbies will turn to Apple in greater numbers.

6. Innovate beyond what we can anticipate.  What can I say, other than spending a day with small business people and vendors who are committed to the success of small businesses is inspiring! Small businesses didn’t get us into this mess, but they will pull us out. Many of the vendors had great examples of their small business customers using their solutions to innovate. I could see the gears spinning as people thought about ways they could apply a couple of the tricks they learned when they got back to their office–or just as likely, their home office. Their drive, energy and creativity will lead to new business models, products, services and solutions that will revitalize the economy.

I’m already looking forward to the 2010 Small Business Summit to see how fast these businesses will run with some of these things, and will be very interested to see where they’re at next year. In the meantime, if you are part of a small business, let me know what’s at the top of list to help your business in 2009.

 


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