By Anwesa, owner of www.readaloud.de
Almost a year back, I finally gave shape to a childhood dream – my own bookshop! While my original dream involved tree-houses to read in, a million books, author visits and more, in reality it’s a little online bookshop – but it will have to do, for now. I took the plunge with zero knowledge of running a small business, marketing or finances. But the important thing is, I started, it’s mine and I love it and believe in it.
I don’t consider myself in any sort of position to be offering entrepreneurial advice yet, but I can certainly share my experience as a business owner, the important lessons I picked up on the way and the wonderful, valuable advice I received from other small business owners, in the hope that it might help someone somewhere with a dream of running a small business.
Tips to start a small business
Research, research, research:
Before anything else, research your business idea. Is there a (or more) big brand(s) selling the same thing (or something very similar) that you are? More specifically, is it available in abundance on Amazon? Or maybe a large number of small to medium fairly-established brands are selling similar things? If that’s the case, it might be difficult to break into the market. Ask yourself this: what can I offer that they aren’t? Will I, as a consumer, choose my business over the others?
To give you an example, there are over 50 highly-recommended home-bakers in my city; I once chose a particular homebaker over another equally talented one because the former offered to deliver it to my home free of charge. If you are selling something that many others are, think of a unique selling point that would make your business stand out from similar ones.
Clear the legal hurdles:
Once you have a solid business idea in place, take a good hard look at the legal requirements – registration, taxes, copyright, insurance, and so on. Find out if there are specifications regarding invoicing (in Germany, there certainly is). Talk to experienced entrepreneurs or invest in paid legal advice. Any non-compliance, even if unintentional, might turn out to be disastrously expensive in terms of penalties and fines, especially in Germany.
Did you hear about a fantastic unique business idea somewhere that you would like to try out in your home country? Beware! Many business ideas are copyrighted just as company names are, even globally.
Work out the Math:
Have a clear business idea in place? Now for the finances. Does your business need a capital investment? How much are you ready to invest? What will be the costs of running a small business (always allow room for unexpected expenses)? How to price your products/ services so that your potential customers enjoy value for money and you are able to maintain a profit that’s worthy of your time and effort? Remember, a large number of small businesses fold because they can’t sustain. If needed, consult an accountant and crunch some numbers before taking the plunge.
Tip: Don’t be disheartened if your business shows loss on paper, especially in the first few months or even a year or two, depending on the scale of your business. Check if the gap between investment and revenue is decreasing over time. If yes, you are certainly on the right track. If not, it might be wise to restrategize.
Know your audience:
Research where your ideal audience hangs out and direct your promotion efforts at those points. For me, it worked out great because my target audience (parents of young children) actually hang out where I myself do (Facebook and Instagram) and I connected with them not just as a business owner but also as a parent. Also, recognize what your audience wants and what their pain points are. Communicate how you would help solve that problem and provide them with what they want.
If you are using Facebook/ Instagram for paid advertisements, they have a pretty easy-to-use system of focusing the reach of your ads to the people most likely to be interested in your business. You can choose which age group and geographical location you want to focus your ads on, and even further narrow down your reach by the hobbies, education, language spoken and interests of your audience.
For example, I started my bookshop when I couldn’t find enough English books, especially used ones, for my own children; and I figured that with Germany’s huge English-speaking expat population, I couldn’t be the only one feeling that way. If I availed of paid ads, I would focus my ads on parents of young children, aged between 26 and 45, located in Germany and who have listed English as one of their spoken languages.
Build an attractive ‘shop’:
Your website/ IG/ FB/ Etsy page is your shop window. As they say, in the online world, you have exactly 3 seconds before catching someone’s eye. Make it so attractive that people will have to stop and look around. Also, make it as easy to navigate as possible. We are all busy, and nobody has the time to figure anything out, especially not during shopping. When I built my website, I tested it out on my 8-year-old son. Once he could find what he was looking for and checkout without asking for help, I knew the website was ready.
Tip: Enable Guest Checkout, wherein customers can complete a purchase without the need to open an account with you. It’s easy, it’s fast, and gives your customers less scope to change their mind. Guest Checkout option has been proven to decrease Cart Abandonment rates.
Leverage the power of social media:
Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for interpersonal communication as well as business opportunities. Facebook groups are an excellent way of connecting with your target audience and also have your questions answered and connecting with other business owners. On your social media pages, post consistently, give your audience the content they are looking for and connect and engage with them. I personally still have a thousand miles to go when it comes to promoting on social media, mainly because I don’t enjoy this part of the business so much.
Tip: You can take advantage of Facebook and Instagram’s huge reach by investing even 1 dollar/euro per day on paid advertisements.
Build your email list:
This is THE most important part of your marketing initiatives. For the uninitiated, an email list is a list of email IDs voluntarily provided to your business by potential customers, explicitly granting you permission to contact them for promotional purposes. An email list is your chance to remind potential customers of your business and keep them updated about new products, special offers, new blog posts or anything else that you feel might be of value to them. In several instances, people have made a purchase at my shop months after subscribing to my newsletter, after receiving multiple promotional emails.
Tip: Make it ridiculously easy for your potential customers to sign up on your website (For example, on my website, one needs to enter an email address, that’s all). People might be weary of disclosing too much personal details (address, phone number etc.) at the point where they are only about getting to know your business. Offering a discount or a freebie (perhaps an attractive ebook) in exchange for an email ID is also a great way of boosting email signups.
Learn Email marketing: According to A 2014-18 study by the Radicati group, 34% (2.5 billion) people of the world use email. Business emails have consistently recorded an average of 15-30% open rate, a 2-5% click rate and consequently, huge potential for conversion. Email marketing is a great way of reaching people right in their inbox, at their convenience.
An ideal promotional email should have a killer copy to inspire the target to take action (read your blog, make a purchase, etc.), attractive graphics, a call to action (Buy Now, Check It Out etc. linking to your Shop/blog), social media links and an Unsubscribe button. Website hosts like Wix, Shopify etc. make it really easy to create attractive promotional emails with templates.
Make sure there is a purpose for sending an email to your potential customers: announcing new products/ new blog, a special offer, a reminder and so on. You can also use this feature to extend special offers to customers on their birthdays/ anniversaries, special days. While it’s important to remind your customers who you are by keeping in constant touch, too many pointless emails is sure to make them hit the Unsubscribe button. I personally wouldn’t want to hear from any business, even my favorite ones, more than once per week.
Never be tempted to buy email lists from a third party (yes, this is possible). Apart from being potentially illegal, sending emails to people who never gave you permission to contact them significantly reduces your brand value and your website/ webpage stands the risk of being reported.
Personal Marketing: Be the face of your brand:
One way that small businesses stand out from big brands is that small business owners have the potential to connect on a personal level with customers and build relationships. Tell your story to your customers on your website/ page – who you are, how and why you started your business, your dreams and struggles. Your potential customers have a bigger chance of supporting you if they connect with you at a personal, or perhaps even emotional, level.
For example, many of my customers have found me on Facebook and Instagram and can access my personal profiles on social media, and hence they have at least some idea who I am as a person and not just another business. In fact, I have often met up with my clients from my city, especially ones with similar-aged children as mine, combining the task of handing over a purchase with a walk in the park or a playdate, building what I hope are long-term relationships. I constantly encourage potential customers to contact me for personal recommendations, feedback and requests. To tell you the truth, it warms my mommy-heart to see how much time and love parents pour in to find just the right books for their little darlings.
Leverage the power of people:
In this past year, I have learned several lessons. The most important one is that people are more helpful than I ever anticipated. I am not a cynical person, but the number of people who came forward to help me in various ways blew my mind. I have asked loads of newbie questions (many of them rather silly, as I realize now) on entrepreneur groups and other small business owners, and I don’t remember a single occasion when someone didn’t take the time to patiently answer my question. Total strangers have shared about my business on their social media, recommended it to others, left encouraging comments/recommendations on my Facebook posts and taken time out to write a review on my website, and many of them who are not even my customers (yet).
Professionalism and customer relations
Work on customer satisfaction: Focus on providing great – no, stellar – customer service. This means super quick shipping, clear and prompt replies to their queries, polite acknowledgement and response to their reviews/ comments on your social media pages. Reputation (good or bad) spreads faster and wider than you might think. In short, treat your customers the way you would like to be treated as a customer, and they will happily do your marketing for you.
Give yourself time:
Being a small business owner can be a roller coaster ride, sometimes it’s exhilarating and sometimes you want to throw up. But don’t think about getting off the ride too soon. The level of success you imagined for your business when you started off might take longer than anticipated. There might be slumps and lows, exasperations or even utter hopelessness at times.
The important thing is to keep trying to turn it around. That someone wants to spend good money on something you curated/ created is an overwhelming feeling and well worth the hours of hard work. We call our businesses our babies, and just like our little humans, our businesses sometimes make our hearts burst with pride and sometimes give us gray hair; sometimes seem to thrive independently and sometimes need a little extra love and time.
Take yourself seriously:
Mompreneur, Solopreneur, Fempreneur, Hobbypreneur – all very cute names, but don’t let yourself or anyone else forget the ‘Entrepreneur’ part of it. Yours is as much of an entrepreneurship as anyone else’s, and it has great potential. If you don’t take yourself seriously, nobody else will. So learn to say NO if you feel someone is trying to take advantage of your business (for example, asking for free/discounted products/ services in return with no/inadequate return favors).
Step out of your comfort zone:
Some very wise person has said: Comfort Zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there. If you are determined to succeed at what you do, it is vital to try new things, be fearless and push your boundaries. Your first few attempts would, in all probability, suck. But over time, you are bound to find the pulse of your potential customers. For me, a hardcore introvert, stepping out of my comfort zone was coming forward and talking about my business, to people, on social media. Over time, I learned to overcome my shyness, though it’s an ongoing effort.
Limit the deals:
Who doesn’t love a freebie or a great deal? They are a great way of sweetening the deal and boosting your sales. But, be wary of overdoing it. If you continuously offer discounts, your customers would grow to depend on the discounts and never buy anything from your shop at full price. Instead, offer deals on special occasions. As a small business owner making a few hundred or a few thousand bucks a year, you are not expected to offer continuous discounts.
In this context, I can’t help share an amazing experience. On the few occasions when I did offer discounts at my shop, several customers (yes, not one but several) chose to make a purchase without availing of the discount! When I reminded a few of them, they said That’s OK! Remember what I said about People Power earlier?
Tip: You can even consider including a small gift voucher from your shop for the next purchase. This would give them another reason to come back to your shop. Also, studies have shown that buyers almost always exceed the value of the gift voucher when they redeem it.
I will end with two of my favorite nuggets of wisdom from everyone’s favorite Winnie The Pooh:
“I always get to where I am going by walking away from where I have been.”
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”
So, think a little and just start – that’s the only way of getting somewhere. And I will be at the front row cheering you on when you kick ass!
Read Aloud www.readaloud.de