Running on Empty: How to Make a Little Go a Long Way

If you follow the Fwd:Vault Developer Diary, you saw today that I was neck deep in upgrading the server that runs everything around here. While the server updated, I worked on Fwd:Vault code. The web designer for Fwd:Vault is also nearing completion on the project, and that required some attention. Tonight I was scheduled to attend an entrepreneur networking event tonight in the city. Needless to say I did NOT feel like going. But I did, and am so happy that I chose to do so. The event shares its title with the name of this post, and was sponsored by Innovation Philadelphia, a local resource for young entrepreneurs and working professionals. They used a panel format, with 4 speakers and a moderator. Questions were focused around best business practices in a down economy, although I think the advice (which you’ll see below) is pretty universal. Now, anyone who’s attended these types of seminars knows that they can be hit or miss sometimes, but I think they hit the bullseye on this one. The speakers represented young(er) companies, and the speakers themselves were involved with their companies deep, day-to-day level. No C-level bigwigs spouting esoteric business theory nonsense, they spoke in common sense language and provided advice and insight useful to any size business. After having forgotten countless good ideas because I didn’t have any paper handy, I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping a notebook with me. If you’re looking to do the same, I highly recommend the Moleskine line. I use the ruled soft notebook; sturdy but flexible, able to take a beating. Anyway, it’s a good thing I brought it, because the panel had me scribbling notes furiously for the entire lecture. Here are the (slightly edited) highlights, from the speakers’ lips to my pen… * According to an EDA report (PDF), “Business Incubators” (i.e. companies that sponsor and support new startup ideas) can create jobs at a cost of about $200 - $300, while bureaucratic-laden “community infrastructure” projects create jobs at a cost of anywhere between $3000 - $7000.  Pg. iii in the Executive Summary has specific numbers. * Money helps you succeed or fail quicker. It can’t make a bad idea get any better. * “Embrace sales” in a slump economy. Make as many sales calls as you possibly can. * The money is still there, customers are just more discerning about how the spend it. That means the difference between sink or swim is usually that “little bit extra.” * Focus on improving your business processes, then be militant about following them. Chances are there are areas in your business that are not performing as well as they could.  For example, how many overdue invoices do you have? If you scheduled time to call these clients each week, how many would come rolling in? * It’s always easier to sell to existing clients than to gain a new one, but this takes on new meaning in a down economy. They are hurting too, so do whatever you can to show support, even if it doesn’t immediately gain revenue. The market always bounces back, and clients don’t forget those little things. * Focus on maintaining/improving your image. Advertising costs money; responding to what’s already out there costs nothing (in fact, not responding to it can cost even more in the long run). Google yourself, your employees, your business. Seek out complaints and try to address them. * Scrap for every dollar. Save used shipping boxes and packing peanuts. Buy furniture and supplies at liquidation. Get rid of the office space if you have a staff that can work remotely. * The internet is a goldmine for free marketing. Create a presence for your business on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Post comments on sites relevant to your industry. These activites cost nothing but a few minutes of time, and contribute to your overall “link juice” (aka weight in search engine results). Additionally, big systems like Facebook and LinkedIn will internally share your profile with other users automatically (to an extent). * Events with your local Chamber of Commerce can offer a mountain of free or cheap exposure. They also provide invaluable networking opportunities. Some companies only partner with businesses that belong to their CoC. * You can fire a customer. Never forget that. * Stay positive by not watching the news. * Whenever there is change, there is opportunity. One woman in attendance explained how her company matches businesses for bartering relationships (exchange of services). Her business is booming in the down times. * Layoffs are great news for consultants. In-house employees have insurance concerns, require time for payroll, training, etc.; a self-run consultant incurs only fixed costs for specific tasks. If you’ve been laid off, can you roll your skills into a consultancy? * “Action without research equals instant death.” * Anyone can look good during the high times, but the veneer comes off when things head south. Strive for excellence so that your business looks good no matter what the economy does. * Get out of the office/garage/basement and spend time with fellow entrepreneurs. Share your story du jour. Interaction is a great way to kickstart new ideas and solve problems.

That last one rang true for me. Aside from a decent blog post, I finally got some concrete ways to spread the word about Fwd:Vault after talking with Amy from Seamless Events Inc. That’s a post in and of itself, but suffice it to say I am calling my local Chamber of Commerce tomorrow.