Hey Small Businesses….some resources for you! Part 1.

PickaPen is in the same boat as many of you out there. We are a small business that is just starting out and finding ways to grow our company.

Some of our blog posts in the upcoming months; we can share some useful resources that we found to help grow our company.

In 2015, we have a huge advantage over businesses that started 10+ years ago, and that of course is the advancement of the Internet. This first area of opportunity that we wanted to share with our small business “friends” is the internet forums. Here are a couple of forums that can be used to share ideas among all small business.

OPEN Forum https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/commercial/
This is a community hosted by American Express to provide tools to small business owners that allow them to collaborate and share ideas. You do not need to be an American Express cardmember to join!!
I recently did some exploring of OPEN Forum- and this is what I found!
First I would look at the Explore Topics drop-down- there are lot of interesting articles that I found very informative. As I am writing this blog, I found an article called “How to be a more effective writer”, which was very helpful!
Take some time to explore this site- and you can also connect with other small business owners via OPEN.

Meetup.com
These are actual groups where you can meet face-to-face with others in your interest group. I recently went to a meeting for the “Marketing, Advertising and PR group” in NYC. It was such a great experience. I was able to bounce ideas off of some professionals in the Marketing industry. We also critiqued another e-commerce website that I was able to get some ideas for my own.

The ABC’s of UCG for Small Businesses

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Unless you’re somebody who really follows business trends, the term User Generated Content probably doesn’t mean much to you. Even if you’re an entrepreneur, UGC sounds like it’s something for Fortune 500 corporations to worry about, not your small business. After reading up on the subject, though, I’ve discovered something that might surprise you: UGC is something that everybody’s business benefits from – here’s why!

What User Generated Content is and How it Works

UGC is basically any kind of web content, whether it’s text, images, or a video, that’s created by internet users instead of a brand or an advertiser. That means that pretty much EVERYTHING on social media – as long as it isn’t created or sponsored by a brand – is UGC. When someone on Facebook or another social media site mentions a business or brand, that’s when UGC relates to that brand’s marketing strategy.

It’s a great strategy, too: millennials, the tech-savvy generation that makes up about a quarter of the U.S. population, trust UGC more than what they hear on TV or read in magazines. According to a recent survey, 84% of these young consumers rely on the opinions of other buyers when deciding which brand to trust. It’s why customer review aggregators like Yelp have found so much success – online customers put more faith in what strangers say than even their own family and friends!

Why it Matters for Your Small Business

You might be thinking that this only matters for the big brands who need young customers to look hip and relevant. If you run a hardware store, for instance, you might not see the need to go after a millennial demographic if hardworking adults have been relying on you for years. But whether we like it or not, the buying habits of these younger customers are changing the way we do business.

By 2017, it’s estimated that millennials will have more spending power than any other generation. That means that going after them isn’t just about being hip: it’s something every business will need to survive. Moreover, if you have any social media presence whatsoever, UGC is what you’re going for in the first place! If you’re only using your business’s Twitter account to talk to customers you already have, you’re missing a serious opportunity to grow your customer base and to build a firm relationship with the consumers of tomorrow.

The Benefits of UGC

So why do young people trust information that comes from strangers instead of brands? Part of the answer is that millennials value their own opinions and intuition more than they care about what brands say about themselves. That means customers don’t just want to hear other people’s opinions on your business – they want to give their own ones! The people who like your business will write good reviews and be the first to tell their friends how helpful you were because they’re proud of their independent buying habits.

And UGC isn’t just effective – it’s easy! Encouraging people to leave reviews allows your product to speak for itself. Instead of cooking up some big marketing plan or hiring a big-shot advertiser, you can let your products and services stand for themselves. You can also encourage social media contests to show how much you care about your customers’ opinions. For instance, hold a contest to find a new slogan for your company on Twitter, or a contest on Instagram where the best photo with your products wins a prize or store credit. All this puts your customers before your business by letting them do all the legwork for you!

I’ve told you what I know about user-generated content – now it’s your turn to use that knowledge and make your business grow! Don’t be intimidated by the big brands who use UGC every day. Any business can harness the power of UGC because it’s easy, it’s effective, and it really puts you in touch with your customer base. But don’t just take my word for it – start asking your customers what they think and get back to me!

 

This is How the Internet Can Get Your Small Business Off the Ground

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Nowadays, everybody knows that a good social media presence is critical to any company, big or small. But what’s not-so-common knowledge is how to really use that social media to your advantage. So you’ve made yourself a twitter account or snapped a few Instagrams – how do you start turning these online followers and “likes” into real-life customers and revenue?

After doing some research, I came across a few small businesses that made social media work for their business in a big way! Want to know their secret? They made their online presence cater to the needs of their local customers! Take a look at these companies that pounded the pavement and involved their businesses in the everyday lives of the people in their communities.

Buttermilk Inc.

Buttermilk started as a food truck business trying to “share their love of decadent breakfast dishes with Los Angeles residents and visitors.” Food trucks, which are treasured culinary hotspots for LA locals, are exactly the kind of business model that can get eccentric companies like Buttermilk the buzz they need.

Then the company started developing its Red Velvet Pancake mix as a product to sell on the web, setting up an online store and some accounts on Instagram and Facebook. That’s when the rest of the world started paying attention!

How They Did It:

  •      They bundled their products with recipes and YouTube cooking tutorials on their web store. Not only does this offer customers extra bonuses for shopping online, but they build a personal relationship with the customer!
  •      Its Twitter account uses hashtags and trending topics to keep its online conversations relevant. That may sound like a no-brainer, but keeping with the times can be tough – especially online! That’s why a lot of people choose to hire an intern to run their companies’ social media accounts.
  •      It hosts Instagram contests, encouraging customers to interact with the brand instead of just treating them like a passive audience. Let your audience show you their creativity! You might be surprised at the kind inspiration your products give them!

Now selling products nationally, Buttermilk Inc.’s food trucks are off the road, but the company has retained its sense of community involvement online.That’s the trademark of a business that knows how to get its brand image out there in the digital age!

Paper or Plastik

But that doesn’t mean you need two axles and a set of wheels to get involved in your area – your business should be a place where customers want to come to you! Paper or Plastik, a café in one of LA’s underrated “mid-city” neighborhoods, does exactly that by making itself a place for art, comedy, and community expression.

If you look at the chalkboard outside the café’s West Pico location, you’ll see a list of all its upcoming events: it hosts a Friday night film club, monthly shows from a local comedy troupe, and dance performances in the building’s adjacent studio, just to name a few. Night after night, Paper or Plastik brings in plenty of customers who come for the art, but stay for the coffee!

How They Did It:

  •      The company’s Twitter account reminds customers of what events are being hosted before they happen. That way, online customers have a new reason to swing by every time they check their Twitter feed!
  •      Their Instagram and Tumblr feeds display photos of each performance, celebrating its performers and its customers for taking part. This makes customers feel like they’re a part of the action even when they’re spectating, inviting them to get involved in a community unique to their business!
  •      Each one of their social media accounts are linked with one another – that means that any post, whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Instagram, is automatically linked to on each one of those accounts! This way, each user, no matter how many of those sites they use, don’t miss a single one of the company’s updates.

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Social Media is for Being Social!

But the heart and soul of these businesses didn’t start on social media – it started with an idea to help them get closer to their customers, not just sell something to them. As the corporations that people rely on become bigger and bigger, there’s always going to be a demand for a smaller brands that really care about their audience. Social media is about developing intimate relationships with your customers, not making you look more “professional.”

The Internet helps you broadcast that brand to the rest of the world, but before that strategy can work, you need to broadcast your business to the rest of your community. What is it your customers need, and what’s the best way to offer it to them? Before you ask your customers to help you by spreading the word about your business, ask yourself how can you help them.

 

5 Ways to Get the Community Involved in Your Business!

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It is no secret that it takes a village to raise a child, but it is less widely known that it takes a community to raise a business. Many small business owners may feel as if their business is their baby, and your community is there to help your baby grow!  Since you likely don’t have too much time on your hands, I went out and did a bit of research for you! Without further ado, here are some ways to get the community involved in your business:

 

1.     Host Events!

Many people are either not aware of or not interested enough to become involved in your business, so put yourself out there and get your community involved by hosting something specifically for them! The types of events you host will vary depending on what your business is about, but virtually any idea will do as long as it is fun and gets people to come and enjoy themselves.  I also suggest incorporating a contest into your event because they are fun and people are likely to get involved.  Carlo’s Bake Shop did a great job of hosting an event for the 100th anniversary of the bakery where the entire community came together to celebrate and eat some good food!Whatever your business is, get creative and have a blast!

2.     Team up With Other Small Businesses!

Your community doesn’t  consist only of people; it is made up of other small businesses like yours. Getting involved in other businesses and, in turn, having other businesses become involved in your own is a great way to get the community engaged. For instance, you and other local businesses can agree to recommend customers to each other and encourage customers to shop locally! You can also buy your own supplies from local businesses and have them buy from you. This is completely doable, just ask the Vermont Brownie Company! They make it a point to buy as many ingredients locally as they possibly can. This will ensure that you have the community be part of your company  and also allow you to help out your community.

3.     Provide Internships.

Internships have a way of attracting people—particularly students—to your business. The best part is it is fairly easy to set up an internship. Need someone to update your website? Set up an internship! Need some help with paperwork? Set up an internship! Almost anything that you might need help with in your business can be done with or by someone in your community interested in gaining experience through an internship.

4.     Have a Suggestion Box

It is sometimes easier to get your community’s opinion if you let them leave it anonymously. Simply having a suggestion box, not only provides a way to get feedback from your customers, but also gets them involved. Your suggestion box can even be designed into your website! Many businesses already have a place on their website where customers can ask questions or leave comments. However you want to incorporate it, this is a cool way to hear the voice of your community.

5.     Fundraise/Raise awareness for a local charity!

It is always a good thing to help out good causes, and if you can get your community involved in both these causes and your own business at the same time, why not?? You can even combine this idea with hosting an event and have a contest where the goal is to raise as much money as possible for a certain charity, and then you could even match the amount! The more you do for your community, the more they will be willing to do for you. In fact, over 80% of Americans want more businesses to support different causes and charities. This way both you and your community will feel better about your business!
There you have it! If you’ve been wanting to get your business and the community more involved but have had no idea how to do so, get out there and try some of these tips. Remember, however, that you can get as creative as you want; who said taking care of business couldn’t be fun?

It’s Not All About You: 5 Ways to Make Your Brand Fit Your Situation

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When it comes to small businesses, I’ve found that it gets hard to separate the owner from the company. If you own a small business,  that business is more than just your job – sometimes it feels like it’s who you really are!

Your business is also there to service the needs of the people around you, whether it’s your customers or the other businesses you work with. After asking some small businesses owners in my area, I’ve learned some tips that can help your small business succeed by zeroing on what your customers want to buy, not what you want to sell.

1. Play Off of Your Competitor

The first thing that I think every business owner should figure out is what you can offer your customers that other companies can’t. If there’s room for your brand in your particular field, there’s got to be something you’ve got that nobody else does, something you can guarantee you won’t find anywhere else. Before you start forging your own brand, it can’t hurt to take a look at the ones your customers already know.

  • Always think about quality vs. convenience. If the other guy offers quality goods at high prices, your community might need someone who can offer them that product in a quicker, simpler way.
  • If there are already established brands in your area, show your customers what they’re missing! You’ve got to offer the kind of care and service that the big companies won’t give if you want to stay competitive.
  • Your company should be unique. You shouldn’t try to foster a brand that you can’t live up to, or one that doesn’t fit your business, but it never hurts to carve yourself out a niche in your market.

2. Don’t Be Afraid to be Dangerous

Depending on what you’re selling, appealing to the widest possible audience isn’t always the best strategy. If you’re competing with local names that everybody recognizes, you might want to think about the customers that aren’t loyal to anyone in particular yet. It might be the people looking for somebody to lead them out of the pack.

And leaders don’t follow the big dogs: they blaze their own trail and let their loyal customer feel like they’re doing the same. Here are some ways I’ve discovered that being dangerous can pay off big time!

  • Being dangerous means selling something that isn’t for everyone. While this means you won’t get the biggest group of customers, it means you’ll get a dedicated following, which is exactly what you want as a small business.
  • As a dangerous brand, you get to thumb your nose a little at the big guys. While it seems like the people who use that company would get offended, these campaigns often convince those customers to find their own individuality through your company.
  • This produces strong brand loyalty. When customers define themselves through your product, you can bet they’ll keep coming back for a long time afterwards.

3. Control your Image

Getting your company’s image out there requires cooperation and, sometimes, compromise. But the last thing you should have to compromise is your brand – I believe that this is your company’s strongest weapon in the fight for customers, and that it’s up to you to keep it consistent with your vision.

Although running a business, gaining customers, and managing to turn a profit might seem like too much to handle at times, I’ve discovered a few things that might help you achieve your branding goals without spreading you funds too thin:

  • Remember your brand: if it’s all about quality service, skimp on quickness or convenience without compromising what your company is known for.
  • If you run a small business in a small community, your advertising should rely on word of mouth more than anything else. Quality service might draw more customers than an expensive ad campaign in small settings like yours.
  • Nobody’s perfect, and everyone knows running a business means making some sacrifices. Just be sure you don’t sacrifice the things that make your customers loyal to you, or they’ll be heading elsewhere.

4. Know When to Change your Campaign

You know that feeling everyone gets when a joke’s gotten old, but somebody keeps repeating it? Doesn’t that feeling sound a lot like the one that customers get when they’re seeing a brand strategy that just isn’t working anymore?

After a while, being stuck too long in one brand strategy not only doesn’t help: it might start to rub your customers the wrong way! It sounds like it’s tough to know when a strategy is helping and when it’s hurting, but I’ve learned some things that are helpful to keep in mind when you’re thinking about going in a new direction:

  • Changing up your whole strategy can be intimidating, so it can’t hurt to start small. Show some customer in your community new leaflets you were thinking about distributing so you can gauge their reaction before you take out a big ad in the paper.
  • Know your customers; if they’re younger and more hip, for instance, keeping your brand fresh might be more effective than sticking with what works.
  • Changing your strategy doesn’t have to mean changing your brand. As anyone will tell you, consistency is the name of the game in branding, but the way you communicate that brand should be flexible!

5. Be Consistent

As important as it may be to stay flexible, you can never stray too far from your brand message. Effective branding is giving your customer base a good, solid image of what your company is all about. If you come out with a campaign that’s selling the total opposite company of the one you’ve been selling in the past, potential customers won’t be excited – they’ll be confused.

Worse, your already loyal customers will feel betrayed. If your shift in tone is too sudden or not convincing, you’ll give your customers the feeling that your brand is getting “gimmicky.” Here are some handy tips for keeping your customers in the loop when it comes to branding:

  • Don’t move on from one strategy if your customers aren’t ready to. No company should have to be stuck, and everyone should keep their brand moving forward, but your customers should feel included in your transformation, not jolted by it.
  • Ask yourself, “are we updating our brand, or simply changing it?” If it’s the latter, think about how important your brand identity has been to your business. It might be time to reconsider.
  • If your strategy works, stick to it. There’s no sense in fixing something that isn’t broken, so don’t let your own desire to do something new get in the way of what your customers have come to rely on.

 

But like any good business strategy, these tips are just an outline for success – it’s up to you to put them together and start changing the way people see your business! Branding yourself as a small business without a slick PR team can be intimidating, so we’re here to help you orient your business to a quickly-changing economy.

In the end, only you can orient your business to your situation: as an entrepreneur, you should be able to see which tips would be most useful to you, just like you’re able to see what kinds of products and services would be most useful to the people in your community. When you’ve tried our ideas for yourself, come back and let us know how they worked!

 

Three lessons to learn from New York’s small businesses

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Did you know that over 543,000 businesses are started each month! That is a truly amazing number. As we are all starting up, I have found that we constantly face similar feats, but also the same struggles. Because of this, I believe we have a great opportunity to learn from one another.

If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it.- Margaret Fuller

That is exactly why I recently took to the streets to visit many small local businesses in NYC. After speaking with them, I found some incredible and inspiring answers. I put together this list of Myth’s when starting a small business, so you can learn as much as I did!

Myth #1: I can create my brand’s identity after I started my company

When most companies think about their businesses, they often forget about creating a message for their brand. Too much time is spent thinking about how we’re going market our brand when more time needs to be focused on establishing our company’s identities. This is exactly what happened to a friend that I met on the train ride home the other day.

I met an entrepreneur named Michael, who happened to have started his own business about four years ago around a cooling system. Michael told me that his product never got to the place where wanted it to go,  and that he was currently only focusing a small amount of energy marketing the product. When I asked him what went wrong, he simply answered that the brand was not defined and it limited his product from ever taking off. He elaborated saying that hispartners couldn’t come to an agreement what the message behind the cooling system was. His partner wanted the cooling system to be just for everyday people, while he wanted it to reach out specifically for medical equipment. Thus, they had no clue who their audience was. Because of this, they never really were able to get to the next level in their business and his company is currently falling apart.

It’s really too bad because these guys seems like they had a great product but because they couldn’t establish their brand’s identity, the company didn’t make it.

Lesson to be learned: Establish your brand from the beginning

Myth#2 : I don’t have enough information, so I can’t get started

Many businesses don’t get started because they believe they don’t have the information & l resources to get started. Entrepreneurs want to have all the answers before they get started so if any problems come across, they’ll be prepared to solve them. While they would be nice, this would never be the case. This is exactly what happened to an accountant I met trying to start his own accountant firm.

Nick was working at a firm for 10 years, and was ready to start his own firm. Nick has been thinking about starting his business for over 6 months now. He has the financial resources to get his business started, so this was not why he has yet to take action. When I asked Nick what he was waiting for to start the business? He simply looked at me and said, “I don’t have the information to get started.”  I then asked how much information would he need to have to get started. Nick looked at me with a blank stare with no legitimate reason to why he has yet to start.

Many like Nick believe they need all the information in the world to get their business started, but that isn’t always true, as you often learn alot from experience.

Lesson to be learned: You don’t need to know it all before you get started. Learn by doing. Take your first action by going out talking to people who have been in your shoes, someone who is in the early stages of starting their own businesses. They will be a good resource to help you get started.

Myth #3: It’s bad to be the little guy

As I was walking around the East Village, I ran into a small pharmacy on  1st ave. Two doors from this pharmacy was a CVS and four doors next to it was a two floor Duane Reade. I happened to stumble into the small time pharmacy. When I asked where I could find band aids, and the pharmacists asked to look at the wound, so of course I showed him. The pharmacist got me a bandaid, and not only put bacteracin on my wound but he also personally placed it on my wound. Now talk about customer service!  He also gave me the band aid for free. Not only did I come back the next week to fill a prescription, but I also recommended my cousin who lived two blocks away from the pharmacy.

Lesson to be learned:  A way you can set yourself apart from the big brands is by forming personal relationships with customers. In turn these relationships will allow us to better understand our customers and ultimately solve their problems.

Hopefully by checking out others’ mistakes and achievements, it will give you a better understanding of what you should/ or shouldn’t be doing.The best thing you can do now is absorb the knowledge, then go out and do something with it!

Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. ~John R. Wooden

*Photo attribution to Angela Raduleschu

By: Carrie Silver