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10 Timeless Traits of Top Entrepreneurs

Startup entrepreneurs need a wide range of skills and traits to succeed.  Some are industry-specific or tech-related and thus subject to frequent changes and updates. Others are more timeless – the kinds of skills that foster success no matter what type of business or industry you are in, or your stage of development.

Here are 10 timeless traits that should be in any entrepreneur’s arsenal:

1)    A knack for knowing your industry

The most successful startup entrepreneurs take the time to study and become experts in their industry or profession. They attend industry events, read blogs and trade magazines, and their expertise gives them credibility and a huge leg up.  This knowledge helps them “connect the dots” and know what’s really important, and what’s not, says Vickie Milazzo, owner of an education company on Inc. magazine’s list of the 5000 fastest growing small companies in America.

2)    Ability to adapt ideas from others

As Milazzo notes, being creative is essential, but it’s not about reinventing the wheel. Successful business owners know how to adapt proven concepts and approaches from other industries and companies and make them their own.

3)    Problem solver

Entrepreneurs can’t afford to wait around for others to solve their problems. They have to figure out the solutions on their own. And that makes them better business owners for when the next problem arises.

4)    Willingness to think big

We all like to check the easy things off our “to-do” list and tend to put off the tough ones. But a willingness to dive into the big issues and go for the larger accomplishments is often a success separator. “More importantly,” says Milazzo, when you start thinking big “your creativity and productivity catch fire and the momentum keeps you pumped.”

5)    Real networking prowess

Connecting to a few people on Facebook or LinkedIn is not networking. The most successful startup entrepreneurs know that real networking only happens face-to-face, and most often with people who are not their peers.  To network successfully you have to connect with people who have more experience than you do.

6)    Penchant for partnering

Successful entrepreneurs also have a knack for sniffing out others who have skills and insights that can be leveraged in new or unexpected ways. Many people are treasure troves of untapped potential just waiting for the right person to recognize what they have to offer.

7)    Confident negotiator

Negotiating skills are difficult to develop, and successful entrepreneurs tend to approach negotiating with confidence.  Having confidence gives them an edge in bargaining power as the expectation from both sides is that they will deliver at a high level.

8)    Knowing when to get help

Even though startup entrepreneurs are creative thinkers and problem solvers, the best ones also know how to ask questions and seek help when they need it. Remember that there’s always someone out there who has faced the same challenge successfully.

9)    Aggressive goal setting

Great entrepreneurs continuously set goals and work toward them. When one goal is reached, they set another and repeat the process. Having clear goals – and also a specific strategy to reach them – helps everyone in a business stay focused and motivated.

10)  Adept at building personal credibility

Top entrepreneurs also recognize the importance of continuously building personal credibility.  They under-promise but over-deliver, meet deadlines no matter what and always do what they say they’ll do. They know their business will only be as good as they are, and if they have a reputation as someone who can be counted on, their business reputation will mirror that. When customers know they can count on your product or service to deliver what it promises, they won’t hesitate to recommend you to others.

See related articles in the BizBest Startup Smarts section:

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

A Secret Cash Stash for Small Business Growth

What does your growth-minded small business have in common with Apple? Not much, perhaps, but here’s one thing:  The multi-gazillion dollar tech company got early funding from a unique type of investment firm called a Small Business Investment Company – and so could you.

SBICs are high-powered but low-profile backers of small businesses, pumping over $4 billion into small, growing firms, as well as some early-stage startups in the past year alone. They’ve been around for 54 years (surprise!) but most capital-seeking small businesses and startup entrepreneurs have never heard of them. So what gives?

Flying Below the Radar

For one thing, SBICs deliberately fly below the radar to avoid being inundated with funding requests. But SBICs are still on the lookout for high potential small businesses to invest in, and the amount of money available to small companies via this channel has skyrocketed 85 percent in the last two years, setting all-time records.  Not only is this an increasingly important funding source, it’s also an innovative, time-tested structure that marries some of the best features of private equity money with government guarantees.

SBICs are a unique kind of funding source. They are privately-owned and managed investment firms that are like a combination of a bank, venture capital firm and angel investor. Unlike VCs, however, SBICs see themselves as longer-term investors, and often portray themselves as the “patient money” alternative to venture firms seeking a quick exit.

Licensed by the SBA

In part, that’s because of how they’re structured. For one thing, SBICs are licensed and regulated by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).  And the money they invest in small businesses – through equity investments, loans or both – comes from purely private sources plus capital raised with the help of SBA guarantees. Today there are 301 operating SBICs, with a total of $18 billion in capital under management. That’s not chicken feed.

The SBA backing has helped entice record levels of private capital to SBICs, and into small businesses – about $1 billion in the past 12 months. SBICs invest in a wide range of small business types, including established firms with less than $1 million in revenues, as well as early-stage companies just underway. Because the SBA licenses them, SBICs must invest exclusively in small firms, with at least 25 percent of investments directed to businesses with under $2 million in after-tax income. Investments must be debt, equity or a combination of the two.

Some SBICs Specialize and Some Don’t

Some SBICs specialize in certain industries, while others invest more generally.  Keep in mind, however, that this isn’t typically seed capital for launching a business from scratch. Most SBICs look for small but growing firms that are at least mature enough to make current interest payments on any debt.

A few SBICs are also linked into the White House Startup America Partnership program (www.s.co) that’s been marshaling public and private resources to support startups for the past several years. (The author’s firm, BizBest (www.BizBest.com), is a Startup America member and featured startup resource.)

How to Find SBICs and Request Funding

There’s a state-by-state directory of licensed SBICs on the SBA website at this address: http://www.sba.gov/content/sbic-directory. Or visit the main SBIC page at www.SBA.gov/INV and look for the “Small Business Owners & Entrepreneurs” section for more information and resources. That’s where you’ll find step-by-step guidance on seeking SBIC financing for your small business.

Research and identify SBICs that might be a good fit for your business. Check the directory listed above, as well as the Small Business Investor Alliance (www.sbia.org) and National Association of Investment Companies (www.naicvc.com) websites.

The SBIC Directory offers a wealth of information on each SBIC, including its preferred investment size, type (i.e. loans, equity, debt with equity, etc.) and stage (early, expansion, later, etc.).  The directory also provides details on industry and geographic preferences of individual SBICs.

Once you’ve identified target firms, take steps to present them your business plan.  But don’t go in cold. Since they receive hundreds of plans yearly, you will benefit greatly from a personal reference or introduction to the particular SBIC fund manager being targeted. Check the firm’s website for names, or search LinkedIn to see if you have any mutual connections you might leverage. Or talk to accountants, attorneys, executives in your industry and other colleagues to try and arrange an introduction. Time spent will be well worth it.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

A 10-Step Facebook Cheat Sheet for Biz Owners

Despite its massive reach and wide adoption, Facebook remains baffling to many business owners. Facebook itself has never really understood small business, and hasn’t done a great job explaining how biz owners can use it to grow sales.

To Facebook’s credit, that’s starting to change as they provide more and better tools top help small firms, local businesses, professionals, start-ups and others leverage a platform that now claims over 1 billion users.  If you have a Facebook business page, you’ll be hearing more from Facebook as it roll’s out a variety of new ways for small companies to use paid advertising.

So far, however, the vast majority of local businesses are sticking with what they can get from Facebook for free – which is actually quite a lot.  Only about seven percent of small businesses surveyed recently by Merchant Circle are using paid promotional services on Facebook. That compares to 70 percent who are now using Facebook’s free features to promote their business.

The good news is that Facebook has upgraded the free tools and information it offers to help you succeed. The Facebook for Business section (www.Facebook.com/business) has helpful how-to tips and guidance on everything from building your page to best practices for engaging users. You’ll also find interesting stories on how other small businesses are using Facebook successfully, and a list of helpful resources.

Success always starts with building an engaging Business Page – the free foundation of your effort to grow with Facebook.  Here’s a quick 10-step cheat sheet on what to do:

1. Your Category

Choose a category and give your page a name that represents your business.

2. Your Photo

Pick a photo or logo to use as your “profile picture.” This is the smaller image associated with your page. In some cases, this might be your photo, a square version of your logo (beware: non-square logos can end up being chopped off), or some other graphic representation of your business.

3. Your Tag Line

Create a “tag line” or short sentence that captures briefly what your business is about – specifically what you do or sell, and the value you offer.

4. Your URL

Create a custom Facebook web address for your business that’s memorable and shareable.  The part you pick is what comes after Facebook.com. For example, Facebook.com/StateBicycle.

5. Your Cover Page

Select a “cover page” photo or other image – preferably something that people would associate with your business. Use a high quality image, as it will be featured prominently on your page. It’s the first thing people will see and should showcase your product, service or brand. Size restrictions are very specific. It’s best to use a horizontal image that’s 851 x 315 pixels. Avoid generic photos. It’s much better to use an image unique to your business, such as a popular menu item for a restaurant, or perhaps a customer using your product or service (with their permission). You might have to experiment with a few different images to see what looks best.  Avoid putting contact information or other business details in your image. Those should go in your “About” section.

6. Your News Feed

The “news feed” is the centerpiece of the Facebook experience. You can easily create different kinds of “news” or “posts” for your feed, including written text updates, photos, videos or questions. People who “like” your page will see your updates in their own news feeds (one reason you’ll want as many “likes” as possible). The news feed is where people spend 40 percent of their time on Facebook. This is where people engage and share ideas and information.

7. Your Posts

Short posts work best – no more than 250 characters (about 50 words). They’ll get 60 percent more likes, comments and shares than longer posts.

8. Your Sharing

The best things to share, however, are photos (including photo albums) and videos. People are twice as likely to engage with these as other types of posts.

9. Your Deails

To add details about your business, click on the Edit Page button in the admin panel. Then choose “Update Info” to change or add what you want.

10. Your Invitations

Invite people to like your page – including your community of friends, family, customers, employees and others who care about your business. The “Build Audience” button on your admin panel will show you some things to try.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

14 Ways to Market a New Product or Service

Marketing a new small business product or service in a highly fragmented media world has become trickier than ever. Relying only on slow-moving, old-school methods such as direct mail and print ads is a thing of the past. Today, success belongs to those who compile the most effective media mixture.

The media mix you choose could be the difference between cheers and yawns, says Dan Adams, whose firm Advanced Industrial Marketing conducts training workshops worldwide.  The first step for any business owner is simply to understand the different online (digital) and offline (traditional) options.

Compared to traditional media, online marketing makes it easier for you to track results and generate low-cost leads, notes Adams. But most importantly, digital marketing makes you “findable” on the Internet.  In most transactions today – and especially business-to-business – the prospect finds the supplier, not the other way around.  And that’s usually through an online search.

14-Course Marketing Menu for Small Business

Here are today’s top 14 most effective marketing methods, including seven digital and seven traditional:

1. Online Ads

You can run pay per click (PPC) ads with search engines or contextual ads displayed next to related articles.

2. News Release

Done well, this is incredibly powerful for directing Google searchers to your website. Send out news releases full of content that will appeal to readers (and editors) of online magazines, journals, and blogs. Include both a link to your website and the keywords your prospects will likely use in their Google searches.

3. E-mail Marketing

This is especially useful when you have hundreds or thousands of prospects in your target market. There’s stiff competition for attention, so consider getting help from a specialist here. It’s definitely a science.

4. Online Presentation

Delivering slideshow and video content through your website is a great way to attract attention and persuade prospects that your solution is simply wonderful. Done well, this is also one of the most powerful ways for you to build credibility.

5. Social Media

This is still emerging as an effective medium, but it’s already proving helpful when local businesses take the time to build long-term, meaningful conversations with prospects.

6. Webinar

This is great way to connect with hard-to-reach prospects, especially professionals and business executives. As with e-mail marketing, there’s a science to this, so consider working with a firm that specializes in setting up and hosting webinars.

7. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

This is everything you do to rank high in Google searches, and it should also be the glue that holds your online product launch campaign together. It all starts with understanding the keywords your prospects will use… which should start during customer interviews in the front end of product development.

Seven Traditional Media Tools

1. Print Ads

This method is becoming less popular relative to online media but is still helpful for keeping your business or brand familiar and for popularizing product launch keywords for online searches.

2. Press Kit

This collection of pre-packaged materials—sent to members of the media—builds credibility with editors and journal writers. It helps them tell interesting stories about you and your product.

3. Print Article

Articles and trade or technical papers in journals now end up online as well, so fill your article full of well-planned keywords and web links to draw prospects to your website.

4. Direct Mail

This can still be an effective product launch tool, especially as your competitors switch their focus to digital inboxes. Studies show many Internet users have a printed publication in their hands while they are searching online.

5. Trade Speech

A well-delivered presentation conveys lots of complex information to a captive audience. Consider professional help to avoid “death by PowerPoint,” rehearse hard, and try using tag-team delivery.

6. Trade Show

These remain highly influential, but they are also time consuming and costly. Make sure your staff is trained and your lead follow-up is strong, or you’ll waste time and money faster here than anywhere else.

7. Sales Visit

If you sell B2B, this is still the most effective—and expensive—product launch approach. Use a disciplined lead nurturing program to make each sales call count. And spend the time and money on great sales tools and sales training to make your sales force look good.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

What Every Business Should Know About Pricing

For many small businesses, survival depends increasingly on finding the ever-elusive “right price” for whatever goods or services are being sold. But there’s no magic formula.  No matter what you’re selling, the “right” price to ask is never clearly defined.

For one thing, costs differ from business to business. Online businesses, for example, don’t have the overhead of staffing retail stores and often aren’t subject to the same sales taxes. So an online store can sell at a lower price and still make a profit.

Chip Averwater, a third-generation retailer and chairman of Amro Music Stores in Memphis, TN, has seen it all and has developed a list of tried-and-true pricing advice for other business owners. Here are Averwater’s top pricing tips:

The right price isn’t a multiple of wholesale. It’s tempting to price by simply using a fixed-percentage markup from wholesale. But that strategy assumes all expenses of a sale are determined by the wholesale cost. To price correctly, argues Averwater, you must do it individually and by feel, with consideration given to the total expenses of the sale, customer price sensitivity, competitive options, and the sale’s potential contribution to other business.

Know the difference between wholesale cost and cost of the sale. Wholesale is the cost of the merchandise, not the cost of the sale. Think about it: The price paid to the manufacturer is only the first of many expenses in a transaction. Sales can’t be made without including expenses for rent, salaries, advertising, utilities, freight, maintenance, taxes and others. Just because a sale has a gross margin doesn’t mean it’s profitable.  Unless the price covers all of the sale’s expenses, you are taking money out of your own pocket to make it.

All sales should bear operating expenses. Some business owners subscribe to the theory that since expenses are fixed, so they should accept every sale that has a positive gross margin. But here’s the problem: When are expenses ever really fixed? Sales don’t happen in a vacuum. Boosting sales requires increases in personnel, space, inventory, handling, and virtually every other business expense. In fact, every sale incurs operating expenses so its price should be sufficient to cover them plus a profit.

Practice your pricing math daily. Turns out your math teachers were right. You do need this skill to survive in the real world. You need a clear idea of the cost of every sale, service, and activity your business engages in. That information helps you decide what to stock, what to promote, where to channel your investments and efforts, and of course, set prices. Averwater’s advice is to regularly sit down with a spreadsheet and divide the list of expenses across your product sales and services. Only then will your costs become clear.

Don’t try to offer the lowest price. You’ve probably seen it before: Weaker competitors offer lower prices to attract more customers. At first glance, this might not seem like a bad strategy. But those companies are crossing their fingers and hoping that when the dust settles, there will be a little profit left over.

“It’s futile to try to price below desperate competitors because they’ll always drop their prices below yours,” says Averwater. “Differentiation is almost always a better strategy. Offer superior products and services that customers are willing to pay more for.”

Reputations are made on price-sensitive items, margins on the rest. Price-sensitive items are the ones bought frequently and advertised often. In a grocery store, they’d include bread, milk, and soft drinks. In a musical instrument store, they’d be strings, reeds and picks. Because customers buy them often, price differences between stores are more apparent.

“Pricing these items low creates a value image for the store,” says Averwater. “Higher margins on other merchandise allow the store to make a profit.”

It won’t sell if it’s not on sale. Americans love the thrill of a bargain. In fact, customers have become so accustomed to discounts that many won’t make a significant purchase unless the product is on sale. Many furniture and clothing stores schedule only brief intervals between sales, which they use to catch up, restock, organize and collect prospects for the next sale. Many department stores end one sale only as the next begins.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

The 6 Vital First Steps for any New Business Idea

You’ve just come up with a killer business idea. What now? Glad you asked, because this is where millions of would-be entrepreneurs stumble without ever getting started. Before you create your product or service, try to raise money, file for a patent or write a business plan, heed these words: That’s not what you need to do!

Here are the six things you must know in order to even justify writing a business plan, let alone investing money:

Step 1: Road Test Your  Idea

This critical but often-skipped step has saved many an entrepreneur from certain failure. Before you write one word of a business plan, or spend a single dollar, you need to honestly – and I emphasize honestly – assess the validity of your idea, or the promise of your product. Think of it as a sanity check on whether your idea is really the basis for a successful business, or more wishful thinking than you first thought.

A business plan won’t tell you this. That comes later once you’ve proven your concept. But that plan is guaranteed to be vastly more effective with the road test behind you. The steps that follow here will help you with your “road test.”

Step 2: Find the Fatal Flaw

Every business that flops has a fatal flaw of some kind; or perhaps many. Your mission is to find that flaw before it finds you. And banish the thought that your idea is perfect. It’s not. One mark of a smart entrepreneur is a willingness to constantly question his or her own ideas.

Ask yourself: What am I missing? What possible pitfalls am I not seeing? How might competitors respond? What on Earth makes me think that my business or product idea will work when the great majority of others don’t?

Now you’re starting to get it. But don’t stop there. You’re not just looking for things that might go wrong, you should also ask yourself how you might be able to fix them once you find them.

Step 3: Shed These Common Myths and Misconceptions

  • Here’s a big one: Nobody thought of this before. Really? Such ideas are rarer than rare. Odds are many have thought of it – and punted.
  • There’s no competition, and that’s a good thing. Not necessarily. If it’s really such a good idea, others should see that and be in there with you. If not, you’ve got to wonder.
  • The concept is great, so the business opportunity must be great, too.  “Concept” and “opportunity” are two vastly different things. In short, there’s a huge chasm that stands between a good concept and turning it into a viable business.
  • I need to be on the market first in order to win. The business landscape is littered with defunct “firsts.” Watching the mistakes that others make, and then fixing them with your idea, is often a better strategy.

Step #4: Assess Your Range of Risks — Realistically

There may be more risks than you think.  For example, bringing a product to market involves many risks. Can you make it on a large enough scale to pay off? Does your product require users to change their behavior in any way (consumers don’t like to do that). Will it last?

You must also assess risks related to the market, existing or potential competitors, money (do you have enough?) and your own management abilities.

Step #5: Analyze the Market in Detail

Ask the fundamental question: Is this really a good market?  But in doing that, you must also understand that a “market” means buyers, not products or an industry. Your business or product will have to offer those buyers some clearly visible benefit in order for them to choose you over someone else.

Step #6: Define Your Team

Are you planning to go it alone, or will you need others involved in building your business and executing on your idea? This can mean working with outside advisors, or bringing in partners and employees. In any case, your “team” will be critical to your success.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

7 Essential Qualities of Successful Entrepreneurs

So you want to start a business of your own and be an entrepreneur. Have you got game? The qualities it takes to be a successful entrepreneur are often misunderstood. It’s much more of a personal game than most people realize. Some people really aren’t cut out to be entrepreneurs.  They feel more comfortable working a traditional job where vision, strategy and resources are all in place.

Here are seven essential qualities that make a successful entrepreneur today (and three others that entrepreneurs are not). Keep them in mind as you think about starting or building your business:

Quality #1: Successful Entrepreneurs Have a Clear Vision

Vision is about developing clarity and purpose around your business goals. Ask yourself: What are my aspirations for this business idea? Be careful. It’s not about growth rates or revenue. The vision Steve Jobs had for Apple was about building a better computer. It wasn’t about the money. Successful entrepreneurs are able to describe where they are headed with clarity and focus. Fuzzy vision won’t fly.

Quality #2: Successful Entrepreneurs are Risk Takers and Innovators

But here again, watch out. Many would-be entrepreneurs think risk is about gambling, Las Vegas style. It’s not. Entrepreneurs take calculated risks, weighing the pros and cons before they act. But they move quickly to make their decisions and then act on them.

Quality #3: Successful Entrepreneurs are Passionate

This is another way of saying that successful entrepreneurs are driven. They ask probing questions to glean critical information about their market and how what they offer will be different from everyone else. And they will tell anyone willing to listen to them why they’ll succeed. This quality also helps entrepreneurs be successful team builders because people want to follow them.

Quality #4: Successful Entrepreneurs Can Spot Opportunities

In fact, the essence of entrepreneurship is the ability to spot an opportunity and act on it. It’s not easy, and it requires seeing solutions that others haven’t seen.  But having a “concept” or a business plan won’t matter if the opportunity isn’t rock solid.

Quality #5: Successful Entrepreneurs Don’t Fear Failure

It’s hard to find successful entrepreneurs who haven’t tasted failure. What makes them different is how fast they picked themselves up and moved on, and what they learned from failing. Great entrepreneurs turn each failure into a portal of discovery. They are resilient and flexible because they know they may have to make many course changes along the road to success.

Quality #6: Successful Entrepreneurs Have a Sense of Urgency

They want everything done yesterday, understanding that speed – especially in today’s world – is often critical to success. They aren’t about to wait around for somebody else to tell them what to do next. They thrive on challenging themselves and like being their own boss.

Quality #7: Successful Entrepreneurs are Honest and Up-Front.

They understand that businesses are built on teamwork, trust and relationships.  If they aren’t forthright and honest in everything they do, they jeopardize the trust of others – including backers, partners and customers – who are vital to their success.

3 Qualities That Entrepreneurs Lack

As you assess your entrepreneurial fit, also keep in mind these qualities that entrepreneurs tend not to possess.

1.   Entrepreneurs tend not to over-analyze things. They may crunch a few numbers, but they won’t do so endlessly.

2.   They are not whiners or complainers (only the positive and optimistic need apply).

3.   Nor are entrepreneurs “organization” people who feel better when surrounded by layers of other people with narrowly defined responsibilities.

Next Steps

Here are two great resources for entrepreneurs that not only offer high quality information, but are also free to access:

•     SCORE is a non-profit that offers free 1-on-1 mentoring for entrepreneurs in person or via email. Visit www.score.org.

•     Startup America Partnership, a White House initiative launched in 2011, is a great place to find help and information for business startups.  Visit www.s.co.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

4 Rules for Fostering Innovation in Your Business

Innovation is one of today’s most popular business buzzwords.  Most small and growing businesses – and especially startups – say they want to innovate. But most never get there because they are focused only on cost and efficiency, and not creativity, leaving little room for fresh ideas. In fact, many businesses today are actually anti-innovation without even knowing it, says Ed Hess, a business professor at University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business.

In today’s “do-more-with-less” environment, innovation can be too messy and inefficient to take root. Many business owners seek stability through structure and predictability rather than less-predictable innovation. But the mechanisms that help grow a business are much different from those that simply keep it from falling apart. In order to grow and innovate, you have to be willing to explore a little and put up with some uncertainty and ambiguity.

To instill a mindset of innovation at your business, you’ll need to adopt some different ways of thinking. Here are four “rules” for fostering innovation in your business:

1. Efficiency and scale don’t always rule the day: Typical business management practices in companies of all sizes favor efficiency and avoiding risks.  But being innovative requires taking some risks and trying lots of different things. And that, of course, means that some won’t work out. But those “failures” are like down payments on the things that do work and that will help your business grow.

2. Not everything needs to be certain: The fundamental nature of innovation is that nothing is certain.  Businesses that are best at innovating are dominated by ambiguity and change.  You just have to get used to it and create an environment that allows for experimentation, invention and exploration. It might be nice to talk about achieving near “perfect” performance, but growth experimentation often produces much the opposite. Variance – the enemy of efficient, cost-effective operations – is the norm when it comes to innovation.

If you want an innovative business, be careful about how strongly you insist on efficient, waste-free execution. You can easily end up killing any and all inventive ideas, as the path to innovation is not a straight line.

3. Innovation does NOT have to be revolutionary:  Sometimes, thinking smaller is the best way to foster innovation. All too often, entrepreneurs think that innovations – and just about any goals for that matter – must be big and audacious. They don’t. Get over it.  Setting – and achieving – small, proximate goals and innovations is a better way to keep the ball rolling.  In fact, most innovations are small, incremental things that are close to the core activities of your business – be they products, services, processes or all of the above.

Innovations can and should build on things that have already been done – they don’t have to be revolutionary. Says Hess, “The kind of ideas businesses should want to generate are all about creating new value for customers.”  We shouldn’t care if it’s already been tried, looks like something old in a new package or is borrowed from another industry. What’s most important is that it creates value for your customers that no one else has yet offered them.

Remember:  The best innovators learn how to combine existing things differently or transfer concepts from different industries or domains.

4. Innovation and effective execution can co-exist: Sure, innovation is often a messy process that is prone to failure. But don’t try to isolate it within certain places or people in your business. In other words, don’t feel like you need to segregate innovation from the rest of your business, where you have people who “execute” and others who “innovate.” They can go hand in hand, and the bridge that helps connect them is learning, according to Hess, who is co-author along with Jeanne Liedtka of The Physics of Business Growth (Stanford University Press, 2012). When you encourage employees – and yourself – to learn about new things and avoid “my way or the highway” type thinking, you will foster innovation in your business.

Finally, says Hess, understand that “growth experimentation” is a game of probabilities and the sooner you get customers actively engaged in your experimentation game, the more likely you will be to win.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

5 Keys to Creating a Killer Business Plan

Americans are starting businesses at a faster pace than ever before. According to the latest surveys of U.S. entrepreneurial activity, the number of new businesses created has increased every year since 2007, to record levels. Thank the crummy economy. “Challenging economic times can serve as a motivational boost to individuals who have been laid-off to become their own employers and future job creators,” says Carl Schramm, CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship think tank.

Whether you’re looking to turn an entrepreneurial dream into reality or re-evaluate and expand an existing business, a smart business plan can make all the difference. Writing a business plan is a key step in turning an idea into a thriving new business or simply breathing new life into one that needs a push.

Here are five keys to creating a killer  business plan, suggested by Steven Peterson, Peter Jaret and Barbara Schenck, co-authors of Business Plans Kit For Dummies:

1. Take your time and get it right

It’s tempting to rush through the planning process in your excitement to get a new or re-worked business venture underway. Don’t. The time you spend on planning at the outset will save you far more time later on once you are up and running. And as you will find, your time will be even more precious once your plan is in action.

2. Don’t skimp on research

A good business plan should be based on more than just your own great ideas. An effective plan depends on a complete and accurate understanding of your market, your customers, your financial situation and your business environment. Through research you’ll learn new things and it may even change your plan altogether.

3. Involve the right people

If you’re a current business owner trying to re-energize your business, the ultimate success of your plan depends on the dedication and motivation of your team. You can’t do it all on your own. Involving your team in the planning process will be a great source of insight for you as you decide what will work and what won’t.

4. Temper blue-sky fantasies with clear goals and solid timelines

Most business plans (or re-plans!) start with an idea: a dream to do something new, exciting or different. During those initial planning stages, you have big ideas, lofty goals, and the possibilities seem endless. It’s easy to get lost in the “someday” of it all and forget that in the beginning, you have to make actual progress toward sustainable results. In other words, make sure your plan includes measurable outcomes and feet-to-the-fire timelines.  In addition to making things easier (and more likely to get done), it will keep you motivated during tough times. Seeing goals being met and things being crossed off your to-do list helps keep you moving forward.

5. Write a plan that people will actually read

Don’t get carried away with big words and fancy formulas.  A business plan works only if people use it, so you need to create a plan that is concise, complete, and readable. Don’t weight it down with jargon, buzzwords, unfamiliar terminology, or overly-lofty goals. Inevitably, the only person that will impress is you. It will be much more impressive if you can construct a plan that people are interested in and that motivates them to want to be involved.

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Defining Vision, Values and Strategy for Your Business

Many growing businesses struggle with three well-known concepts that are commonly confused and misunderstood: vision, values and strategy.  Business-building entrepreneurs often talk about their vision in the same context as strategy and values.  But they are separate and distinct things that – if improperly mixed – can sabotage the very goals they seek to articulate.  Think of them as powerful prescription medicines that keep the business healthy but can be deadly if combined the wrong way.

The first thing to remember about values is that they don’t change.  Values are part of your business DNA.  Ask yourself: Why does my business exist?  And don’t say something lame like “to serve our customers.”  That’s not a value.  Much as a person’s values define who he or she is, a company’s values define what the business stands for (not merely what it does).  And although many smaller businesses don’t consider themselves to have a “culture” in the sense that larger companies use the term, every business has a culture of some kind, knowingly or not.

Values define your business and how you want the people who work there to interact with others.  Well-articulated value statements use words such as integrity, innovation, accuracy, loyalty, accountability and teamwork, among others.  A business defines its values so everyone has a clear understanding of what they are and can contribute to them as they make decisions and set priorities.  Your established values also guide your hiring decisions.  Values should be a constant that keeps your business on track though the many challenges it will face in the future.

Vision is different.  Your vision is future-focused, and while values are a contributor, vision is about developing clarity and purpose around the most lofty, world- or market-changing goals you have.  This is your great aspiration for the business. It’s where you want to get to in, say 10 or 20 years.  But it’s not about growth rates or revenues, it’s more about what you want your business to create or achieve over time.  That vision won’t be easy to realize and may require constant course changes, hard work and many accumulated successes over time. As you define your vision, shoot for clarity and focus.  It’s tempting to talk in fuzzy terms that are difficult for others to interpret, much less follow.  Employees, partners, investors, vendors, customers and others must be able to grasp your vision for it to work (they don’t have to agree with it, just understand it).

Only now you can talk about strategy.  The most important thing to know about strategy is that it changes all the time – in small steps or radical revisions.  That’s critical because business conditions, markets, competition, consumer preferences and a wide range of other factors are constantly in flux. If your strategy remains fixed, you are doomed.  Strategy is the roadmap you use to achieve your vision and reach your goals, guided by the GPS of your values.