Ideas exchange

Ideas in a vacuum

By Laura Haight

What turns an idea from the spark of fleeting inspiration to a tangible service or product?

Are you the kind of person who churns out a lot of ideas and then bounces them off others? What if an idea just lives in your head?

For many new entrepreneurs, work is done on the phone, on the road, in a home office. Single-person consultancies or one- and two-person businesses lack the whiteboards, projectors, conference tables, mind mapping and brainstorming infrastructure of the corporate world.

An idea is defined as "any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity." So what takes an idea from existing in the mind to an actionable plan, product or business?

In my experience, it's the process of having it kicked around by others. Throw it on the table and get feedback good and bad from others with experience, or even those who can bring a fresh perspective. In the newspaper business, often the best feedback came from those who looked at ideas from a reader's perspective, not a journalist's.

Ideas are like children. To thrive, they need nurturing and caring. But they also need discipline and critical appraisals. They need challenges to overcome and goals to attain.

For a small or one-person business, the ability to kick ideas around, to help shape them with others' ideas and experiences, to benefit from what-if scenarios proposed by people who have "been there, done that", leaves a big innovation void.

Don't let your ideas die for lack of water and sunlight. Here are some options:
  • Create an advisory board for your business. This might be comprised of friends or associates, but it should be a group that will fairly and honestly evaluate your ideas and proposals and offer impartial and honest insights. You don't want a bunch of "yes-sers".
  • Set up an informal focus group for an idea that has a specific target audience. Large businesses and marketing companies do this all the time - and often at considerable expense. But it doesn't have to be costly. If your idea is for a product that would appeal to families or parents, for example, you can post questions on parenting websites and ask for feedback. Or post an invite at your church or school PTA and invite four or five people to sit down and give you informal responses to your idea. People like to be asked their opinions. Your challenge is to weigh individual opinions against individual biases. Try to find people who don't know you - that way their opinions won't be influenced by their personal feelings. Remember, just because one person says an idea doesn't work, doesn't make it a bad idea. Look for the useful information and inform your decisions with it.
  • Find a networking group of like-minded entrepreneurs and experts and use it as a sounding board/brainstorming group. Chances are there are many others in the same position you are.
Some things to beware of:
  • In a corporate environment, you are all on the same team. In an entrepreneurial environment - to some extent it is everyone for themselves. Be wary of disclosing too much about your idea.
  • If you set up a board of advisors, you may want to ask each board member to sign a non-disclosure agreement. There are many available online (here's one), but you should always make sure to have any legal documents vetted by your attorney. The version I've posted here is a sample of what's available, but has not been vetted.
  • Our opinions are informed by our experiences and biases. So you must take them with a grain of salt. Remember, ultimately it's your business and it's your decision.
Ideas rattling around in the heads of people just like you were the start of every great movement, product, service or initiative that has every occurred. What made them great was that they were acted upon.

What's your great idea?
Like the concept of an ideas group? I'd like to know if there's potential to start something locally in the Upstate of SC or potentially virtually to bring in people from around the region. Please comment and give me your ideas!

What's the best way to talk to your customers?

Ah, the good old days. You called the newspaper, placed an ad, sent them a check for a couple of thousand dollars and waited for the calls/customers to flow in.

But things have certainly changed and now you are just as likely to use an array of personal communication methods and social networking tools to reach out to clients.

There is definitely a trend toward email newsletters and Portfolio, in fact, will be launching one next month. Newsletters should offer more than sales pitches, however. Good content that helps people solve problems, learn something new, be more productive or efficient are key elements that will ultimately lead them to see you as an expert who helps that. That customer relationship is what eventually will turn into sales.

Writing, however, seems to be a daunting process for many people. Knowing your subject completely does not always translate into being able to write something compelling about it - in fact, the opposite is often true. This may turn some companies away from the idea of doing a newsletter.

Don't let it. There are a number of talented freelance services out there - of course, Portfolio is one of them -- that can help you articulate your message and put together an attractive and compelling newsletter.

Maybe a newsletter isn't your thing, though. There are a lot of methods out there. We'd love to know how you do it. What works best and why. Take two seconds and answer this one-question poll. Comments to this post about how you best communicate are welcome.

Hire the unemployed and get a tax credit

Everyone I know who is out of work would rather have a job than unemployment. But they need something. Extend unemployment and create tax credits for businesses for each unemployed person a business hires. That addresses the immediate need people have to pay for housing and food, but it clearly says to business that the unemployed are out there because of an economic crisis NOT because of some deficiency on their part.

Businesses that refuse to even consider the unemployed for positions should not get the same tax advantages as those who bring these talented, hardworking and experienced workers back into the fold. Agree? Interested in your thoughts?

The S-Word

To the list of words that can be spoken only by their first letter (the F-Word and others) let's add the S-Word: Service.

Quality (the Q-Word) has been declining for the past 30 years: Workmanship is a declining art and pride in doing a good day's work has been largely replaced by either greed or complacency (depending on which end of the pay spectrum you are on).

As quality has declined so has brand loyalty. Price is the driver now. Just because I bought a Maytag washer last time doesn't mean I'll buy one again. I'll buy whatever is cheaper because I perceive them to be all basically of the same quality, same features and same expected lifespan.

With quality and customer loyalty lagging, we now spend a ton of time talking, writing and blogging about how to get customers. We are awash in advice on how to get customers: the five keys to marketing, 10 ways to use your database, 15 keys to social media marketing. In the enumeration of our efforts to find them, less time is spent thinking about how to retain them.

As a consumer of products and services, the answer is customer service - plain and simple. It seems so simple, I am always surprised by how hard it is to find and how excited you get when you do find it. On the rare occasion that a company provides me with what I consider to be outstanding personal service, I become loyal, committed and a passionate advocate. I spread the word to friends and associates, I write nice notes on my Facebook page or blog and generally do everything I can to extol the virtues of the company.

The sad thing is that today's great customer service was really just basic business practices a few decades ago. Companies have trained us to lower expectations: consider cell phones, we now consider it perfectly acceptable that you have dead spots where you phone doesn't work, can only clearly hear every third word of a conversation and that the call may be dropped at any time. That's just the price we pay for convenience. None of us is calling AT&T to complain that we have to bend over the kitchen sink to the south facing window to get enough bars to make a phone call. No. We just accept that that's the way it is.

But shouldn't we - as consumers - expect more? And as business owners, shouldn't we at least try harder to fulfill those expectations?

As a small business, we don't have a ton of money and we certainly don't have a huge staff. But here are a couple of small guidelines to better customer service that we can all follow. They won't break the bank and they will increase loyalty.

1. Be an advocate for your customer, not your company. A customer dealt with fairly and honestly, who's complaint was addressed quickly and without recriminations is worth their weight in gold to you. They will tell their friends and associates, they will be your customer for as long as they need that service and they will hold you up to others as an example. This is grass-roots, word-of-mouth marketing you can't buy.

2. If it costs more to prove you're right than it costs to fix the problem, just fix the problem. Recently, I took issue with a supplier over an order. The order cost me less than $125, so I'm assuming it cost the supplier less than $50 to produce. After a day and half of discussion, a courier pickup, and two separate employees including a senior manager explaining to me why it was "acceptable quality," I finally had to give in. Then they overnight shipped the 20lb box back to me. All in all, this company is out money AND they have aggravated me to the point of looking elsewhere for a supplier. I'm sure the company considers this a win, but by my business ROI calculator it's a definite loss. This company missed a huge chance for a big customer service win with a pretty low price point.

3. Manage expectations; fulfill commitments. What do you want from companies you deal with? For most of us, it's pretty basic - do what you say you're going to do for a fair price that we agree on. Unless you are a fast food restaurant or a hospital, your customers and clients can generally understand if you can't do something "immediately." But if you tell me you can't do it until two weeks from Friday because of previous commitments, then have it done by then. Even though this seems basic, I find a lot of companies - big and small - promise more than they can deliver because they think telling the customer what they want to hear is going to make them happy. What makes customers happy, is getting what they are promised.

4. Be honest. A customer with money to spend and who will pay those bills, is in some ways an easy mark. It is tempting to put them into things they may not really need, to create situations where your services will continue to be required for maintenance, or to recommend things for them that you know they can do themselves or obtain for free. If you've ever had the experience of a company that tells you they won't sell you something more expensive because you only need a $2 part, then you know how quickly you become a rabid fan and loyal customer. Sometimes the sale you don't make is the best advertising you can have.

This is only a 4-item list and everyone knows a list must be 3 or 5, 10 or 15. So please comment, tell us your best customer service tip. If small businesses came together and made a commitment to improving our relationships with customers, maybe we can again feel comfortable saying the S-Word out loud!

When is a $5 website too expensive?

I spent much of today looking at websites of local businesses - big and small, new ones and established ones, professionally created sites and personally designed sites.
A few key points became clear:
  • Paying for a website doesn't necessarily make it good
  • Creating a website yourself using readily available tools isn't necessarily bad
  • Getting a cheap website can sometimes just not be worth it
If your business is in need of a website, here are a few considerations to keep in mind.

If your company name is Frank's Sports Training Center, don't use as your domain name. You may not be able to find exactly what you want but try to be somewhere in the ballpark. People tend to intuit website URLs. They may try a few options, but they're not going to think that far out of the box. For the same reason, stay away from dashes in urls. is just as obscure as hitmorehomeruns.

Try to get the .com version of your domain, but while you're at it it's worth spending the small amount of money to lock down the .org and .net versions as well. This will eliminate confusion and you can simply point those domains to your main URL. Although there are many more domains available today with the opening up of the .biz, .tv, and others, they are far less intuitive to the average user.

With a lot of free sites, you get a website but no branded emails, meaning that your website might be, but your email address is This is far less professional. Even if you are choosing a service that let's you create your own website from sets of standardized choices and elements, choose one that will also give you branded email. This is a lot more professional. Also make your business email consistent with your type of business. It may be cool to be for your personal email, but unless your business is body building, go with something more professional.

Whether you pay a company to produce your website or you use a create-your-own online product, you still have to be responsible for the content. Being an expert in your business does not necessarily make you an expert in articulating that business to others. Some sites have blatant typos. One nutritionists' website I reviewed spelled weight loss incorrectly in the main banner (weighloss). The fact that he can't spell certainly doesn't mean that he isn't a great nutrition coach, but it does call into question attention to detail and professionalism.

Your website is the front door of your business to the world. You would not leave a bag of garbage and a few dead plants out in the front of your physical storefront. Neither should your website have misspellings, typos, or poor grammar. Even if communications isn't your business, it shows a lack of attention, concern and professionalism that can turn customers off.

Professional content creation for your website can be fairly inexpensive but can pay off significantly.

A big mistake many small business websites make is assuming that their readers will know something about their business already. This is a common error made by subject-matter experts who are not writers. Although you may know production-line project management, you may not be able to articulate those concepts to someone who is not a SixSigma Black Belt.

The 5Ws are a great rule to live by in all writing. Yes, they're basic, but there's a reason that Who, What, Where, When and Why has stood the test of time. It's the essential elements to clarity in your content. Make sure they're covered and clear. If you're writing the content yourself, have someone not in your industry read your web page. And make necessary adjustments until it's clear to them.

There are a vast number of online tools from do-it-yourself websites to business cards and marketing campaigns. In some cases, these tools provide an easy and accessible way for you to create good looking tools for very small amounts of money. But in many cases, the mistakes you may make can make doing it yourself a costly proposition.
If you think your company might benefit from some professional help, contact us. We can offer as little or as much as you need - from copy editing your own content to creating content from scratch or even developing your website.

5 bad reasons for standing still

Let's cut to the chase. Why stand still in your business?

1. There's too much going on. All the more reason to move forward. When there's a lot happening, you need to move your business and workforce forward. You need to maximize your performance so that you can more effectively handle a lot more business.

2. There's not enough going on. So, why bother, right? Wrong. A lull in your schedule (and hopefully it's seasonal and not that your business is being passed over) isn't time for a rest. It's time to plan and prepare. You are lucky if you have a little breathing room and you can make sure the important things in your business that are often overlooked in busy times can be tackled.

3. Someone is chasing me. You hear footsteps behind you? Is that a good time to stand still. We're not dinosaurs, you know. We're businesses and standing still makes you a target for someone who isn't. What separates you from the competition? Figure that out and then cultivate it and move it forward whether it’s a product or a team.

4. No one's chasing me. There are two reasons for this: your business is the gold standard and no one can touch you - the Coca-Cola of your industry - OR your competitors are going around you, over you or through you. If it's the former, congratulations. If it's anything else, you need to stop standing still and start chasing someone. If you stand still, you are losing ground every day.

5. We can't find the map or in the words of Yogi Berra: "we don't know where we're going but we're making great time." Don't worry, you're probably like many companies trying to navigate a changing business climate. An important part of that dynamic is a workforce that is capable of handling the technology today's businesses must master to compete. From desktop apps to proprietary systems, your business must be technologically astute to hold your own with your competition. A workforce that can't use the tools, can't dig you out of the recession.

Most of these reasons have been used by businesses as an explanation for delaying, denying or deferring training.

All of these are common refrains but the most prevalent is: "We're too busy."

In reality, a busy season should be a significant motivator to improving employee performance. Better-trained employees waste less time, perform more efficiently, get more done. Sounds good to me.

I have often seen companies spend millions on new systems and then cut the training budget to save $10K. Not surprisingly, the new system never exactly manages to produce the expected results.

Technology has made training today a much more viable and affordable options for companies of all sizes. Inexpensive webinars, targeted training sessions, tip sheets and one-on-one online support are all elements of an effective training strategy.

What isn’t effective is standing still.

Need help getting started? Portfolio can help. Contact us at for information and signup for our newsletter at

Do you require up front payments?

By Laura Haight

I learned a valuable lesson about human nature early in my consulting experience. Although 99 percent of clients are interested in a good business relationship with you, there's always one who makes you rethink your procedures. It's the reason why your microwave came with the admonition not to dry your animals in it!

I had a business connection to a website developer in Boston. Periodically, he would have a client who needed new content for their website but didn't have anyone to do it and didn't want to do it themselves. He would steer these clients to me.

That was great. It's easy to do content remotely: some phone calls, some web conferences, a look at some of the competition. And I thought I was being very professional about it, having provided the client - a home improvement firm - a written quote on nice letterhead, sent via email.

After several phone calls, a couple of sets of revision and a fair amount of work on my part, the company disappeared. My calls went unanswered and - more significantly - my invoices went unpaid.

I learned then to get some money up front. From everyone.

The question is: how much. So I am curious from more experienced service providers how much of a downpayment you ask for? Do you do this with all your clients or only those who are new? Are your expectations different for longer term clients?

Share your experiences.