Why the hell should small businesses even care about brand?

Brand is something most people have an understanding of — Heinz, Apple, Ford, Nike, Sony. Just about everyone knows the value of a brand name and the perception of others towards you when you invest in those brands. But what about your own brand, and does it even make sense to talk about your own business brand when you’re a small business?

The rules that apply to the Ford’s and Apple’s of this world also apply to your local plumber, joiner and electrician. Recently, I wrote about the 10 personal branding habits of the professionals, which has been a very successful article, one that clearly resonates with a lot of businesses around the world. However, it’s not the rules that separate the large businesses from the smaller ones, but the words, phrases and terminology; big businesses are much more likely to have university educated marketeers who’re up on all the current business parlance. As for the small business? It’s all buzz words and jargon to them.

The cult of personality marketing

Over on Marketing Donut, a growing business services and advice web magazine, a title caught my eye — “I’m a small business – why do I need a brand?” It’s a good question. It’s also a very good article, too!

For the most part, talking about brand with small businesses is just confusing and stirs up more questions than it answers. However, the advice offered here in the above article is precisely the kind I offer to my clients, which makes the whole thing much more understandable to the plumbers, joiners and electricians of this world.

Oftentimes, the client will reply by saying: “Oh, so this is like a brand name, yeah?” So I find it’s better to let them make that connection, rather than me try and place it there. At that point, brand isn’t this big thing, but something they can not only get a fix on and pursue as a function of their own marketing, succeeding by the sheer weight of their own personality.

It’s easy to think of marketing, or any kind of promotional activity, as being external to you and your business, as if there’s no physical connection between the two. But that’s what brand is essentially all about; bridging the perception of your business with the business itself. In reality, you become the very essence of your marketing.

But even this sounds contrived and lofty, when for the most part a smile, a disarming joke, a professional approach to work and a little honesty are all hallmarks of someone who’s likely to do well from word-of-mouth marketing. And at that point, their brand begins to grow and grow.

Out there, all over the country, thousands of plumbers, car mechanics, joiners, painters, decorators and electricians have thriving local trades, all of which are directly attributable to them marketing themselves through their personalities.

The brand performance curve

I’ve found is that smaller businesses often feel a greater benefit from an improved brand image than larger more established businesses, with the plumber being a good example; you really wouldn’t expect your local plumber to have professionally designed and printed business cards, would you?

So that one thing makes a statement which implies someone who is established and professional enough to put their name to their service. Immediately, the perception of that business is lifted high above their competitors. But for the larger more established businesses, the effort required for differentiation is measurably more difficult. Why? Because it is expected that larger businesses have business cards, compliment slips, headed paper and envelopes, pretty girls answering telephone calls in plush office receptions, account handlers wearing crisp suits and wide smiles —here, differentiation demands extraordinary people making extraordinary effort because these businesses have ridden their brand performance up and over the curve and are now coasting along the plateau.

Do you still care about your brand?

You should. But I wouldn’t get too hung up about it, either. Many business people recognize their deficiencies, so if you can see where you’re going wrong, you’re already on the road to a remedy. That said, knowing that little changes can lead to better things for your small business, perhaps you ought to think big!

How to use LinkedIn to promote your business

LinkedIn is fast turning into a great place to meet exactly the right kind of people that can benefit your business most. Be they prospective new clients or staff, suppliers or respected industry leaders. For purveyors or information, LinkedIn can also be the venue to share what you write about.

LinkedIn, the professional business network

Earlier this evening (which, by the time you read this will be the day before), I found a question on LinkedIn’s Q&A, asking: How do you promote your business / services / blog using LinkedIn?

Posting your blog articles and services web pages on LinkedIn

I thought this was an excellent question, so I decided to reply, and offer that reply here for all to read, but expanded with more detail.

Posting to related groups

It’s tempting to join a related group and just post your stuff there. While that is a legitimate avenue for promoting your articles, I would suggest you do so only when your article offers something, like advice, help, tips etc. Something people will find useful.

Some people can — and will — interpret the posting of your articles to groups as being “spammy” and overly self promotional. Often, the people that are being spammy don’t follow up any of the comments.

That’s the problem with pushing articles about your services — they’re out-and-out self-promotional. The focus needs to be on adding value to the members of the group. Give them something to remember you by.

Of course, there are exceptions, but you need to be totally sure you’re offering something that will really help people out and not come over as being just another sales pitch.

Posting to the Q&A

I personally answer questions on LinkedIn’s Q&A and reference some of my own articles, if (again) that article offers specific and related advice, particular to the question.

So by all means, post links to your own articles and web pages, so long as they’re relevant to the question and likely to help in answering it.

The goal is to be useful — I also post links to articles, written by other people, which helps demonstrate impartiality on my part.

Trust is a quality of relationships that doesn’t come quickly or cheaply, and isn’t bought, sold, nor is it transferrable. So ultimately, this is an exercise is acquiring trust.

Posting to your status

The status update is a good, simple method to promote your articles, but you really need to be already engaging with people for them to want to engage with you — it’s essentially like Twitter, so the same rules apply.

I use Twitter, and use HootSuite in particular, which is a web application that enhances Twitter by offering a lot more features, such as options to schedule messages (otherwise known as “Tweets”) and a option to shorten URLs so that they fit into the 140 character allowance.

HootSuite also allows you to connect to your LinkedIn account, so you can post messages straight to your LinkedIn profile’s status. I personally use this sparingly, instead only posting messages / updates that are specifically related to Octane and my business activities in general, or articles that people will find useful.

A recent example being an article on how to stop eleven hidden security threats, which came on the back of my own article offering seven security tips for your computer and the web.

My recommendations for posting articles and web pages to LinkedIn are:

  1. Try to avoid posting general and off-topic status updates and instead focus on updates that a particular to you and your business activities.
  2. If you post to groups, follow up any comments. Sounds obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised how many people just “fire and forget”.
  3. When answering questions in the Q&A, why not suggest an expert? You’ll be helping to build trust with the person you’re suggesting, while demonstrating that you’re a good source for referrals.
  4. Also, whatever you do, if you see a odd or apparently naive questions (of which there can be many), don’t be tempted fire off a glib or dismissive comment. LinkedIn is, after all, a network for professionals — so leave the stupid remarks to the amateurs.
  5. Use something like Clicky web analytics to monitor the click activity of your articles in real time, in addition to using Google Analytics. Why? When you see clicks come in from a group, for example, follow the link back to see If there have been any comments and reply.
  6. If you’re using a link shortening tool (like bit.ly or ow.ly, which is part of HootSuite) ensure you have an account with them, so you can view their own click traffic statistics.

Above all, make yourself a resource to other people, so that they value your contributions, and in turn value you.

10 personal branding habits of the professionals

One of the many keys to success is habitual professionalism. So I’m going to explore ten personal branding and brand management habits of the professionals.

As I see it, the number one goal of personal branding, brand identity building and brand management on the web is to make your name synonymous with a certain phrase, or a collection of phrases which you feel best represent you and what you do — which I alluded to in my previous article on brand building.

Personal Branding and Brand Management

If you’re serious about personal branding and brand management, here’s ten things you’ll see the professionals doing:

  1. Comments are your calling cards. Be sure to use these as an opportunity to draw the focus of the ‘blog post towards your comments. Make sure you drop in a relevant link to an article of yours in the URL field. That way, you’re not just making a statement, you’re opening the door for bringing the dialogue to your own ‘blog article. A word of caution here: misuse of this idea is essentially comment spam. If you’re going to comment, then make sure you’re adding value to the article you’re commenting on, or don’t do it at all, OK?
  2. Think and act like a professional. Don’t get drawn into heated debates, unless you’re sure you can do so without just throwing away your dignity and losing some serious credibility into the bargain. As I’ve discovered — much to my amusement — I’m both a contrarian and a conflict writer. Don’t be afraid of contradicting or correcting someone, but be damn sure that you’re right and you’re not going to annoy and antagonize people in the process.
  3. Have a theme? Well stick to it! You don’t see too many truly successful general ‘blogs. Most might start that way, but as those few that stick around longer than twelve months will attest to, some trimming of the excess fat inevitably takes place. The web rewards those that carve out their own niche. Working within a niche and becoming an authority within that niche is better than being one voice amongst many in a crowded room.
  4. Be seen, be known. Remember what I said about your comments of other people’s ‘blogs? Right, well there’s other places you ought to be hangin’ out, too. There are some notable social web venues up and down the internet superhighway, and you need to make a few well-chosen stops along the way. But choose wisely; don’t just sign up for every social network there is. Doing so will be an over-commitment on your part and you’ll be spread too thinly. Begin small, but think big and long-term, then work outwards from there.
  5. Don’t be afraid to sing your own praise. To begin with, few people will know of you, who you are or what you do — so you need to be seen. If you’ve had some recent successes (strong linkage from a major website or ‘blog, high praise from a client or a notable mention in a publication) then talk about it. Better yet, create you own media page, like the one here on Octane. Use that one success as a driver to help you with the next one, wherever that may come from.
  6. Be consistent with your image. Every blog post, every comment, every instant message, every email. If you feel that you’ve got a ‘house style’ then apply that style wherever you go. Some may like your style, others may loathe it, but for me, that’s where you want to be. I’d rather have a load of people hating and praising me, than have just a few think that I’m all right.
  7. Be an opportunist. If news breaks on a story that’s very much local to your topic of choice, make a move and get your thoughts / opinions / ideas out there first. However, be sure to put the emphasis on quality and not speed. There’s no point being the first out there if all you’re doing is saying: “Hi!” Sometimes, it’s a well to be fashionably late. Over time, as your name spreads, those that know you will wait. Additionally, being bad-mouthed could be a chance to make friends and influence people. Charm the pants off them, schmooze, cajole and you might just win them over.
  8. Get a ‘blog and get ahead! ‘Blogs routinely outrank websites on the search engines for a number of key reasons. The main reasons are that a typical ‘blog has a constant stream of ever-changing content, there are a great number of out-bound links to other sources, and there’s usually a community of people commenting on your articles. In addition to this, make sure people can do things with your articles. By that I mean make sure you have some way of syndicating your articles, either by a newsletter or from an RSS feed, sharing with friends via email or sharing on a social network.
  9. Be seen, be known .. be available. So you’ve got your audience, you’ve got some notoriety, but you’re aloof! Someone might catch a quick comment exchange with you occasionally, but that’s usually it. Make sure people can contact you. What you’ll have noticed is that some of these suggestions are about being a shameless self-promotional whore. As bad as that might sound to you, you’re going to be competing with people who may have less moral and ethical restraints than yourself, so you need an edge.
  10. Be yourself. To make this kind of thing work, there are a few prerequisites, which I hope I’ve covered above. But there’s one prerequisite to rule them all. It’s there when you’re commenting on ‘blogs. It’s there when you’re talking to someone and explaining yourself to them for the first time. It’s even there when things go wrong and you make that graceful recovery. That quality, that essential personal ingredient is charisma.

Success rarely comes to you, and even trying to meet it half way often isn’t enough. As for me, well, I’m still fighting the good fight, and I know what I need to be doing. Hopefully, after reading this little lot, you do too.

This article was first published on Octane’s sister blog, Blah, Blah! Technology, in an article entitled: “10 Personal Branding habits of the pros

So you think you’re ready to run your own business?

Running your own business isn’t easy. It’s a life-changing commitment that requires a great deal of your time. But the possible rewards can often vastly out-weigh the trials, troubles and tribulations you’ll encounter along the way.

Before embarking on this perilous and exciting journey, you must first perform a very honest appraisal of yourself by asking the following questions:

Are you able to work on your own?

Unless you’re in a partnership of some description, then you’re on your own. This can be hardest aspect to face for most people.

Almost every decision you make will be your own. There’s no passing the buck because the buck stops with you!

Are you stubborn and determined?

Either directly or indirectly, people are going to get in your way. They’re either competing head-on with you, or you’re dealing with people who’re making your life hard in some way.

In addition, you could be working towards fulfilling an agenda or part of a business strategy which is proving harder than you first imagined.

If you’re not both stubborn and determined, then failure is close at hand, unless you’ve got sheer blind luck on your side. But I wouldn’t put too much faith in some positive happenstance or oodles of good fortune coming your way — hope and luck aren’t anything like a plan.

There’s no substitute for getting your head down and working hard. So don’t ever plan around luck. Plan for failure but hope for the best. That way, you’ll encounter few surprises that you can’t deal with.

Do you believe you’ve got what it takes?

If you don’t believe completely in what you’re doing, how can you expect anyone else to?

You must exude desire, have an appetite for success and the will to succeed in the face of stiff and concerted opposition and competition.

Can you deal with stress?

Along the way, you’re going to have your patience tested to the limit. Be that from an awkward client, an obstructive supplier or a recalcitrant member of staff .. or even the computer in front of you when it’s on the blink!

For most, a daily diet of stress is something they simply cannot stomach, while others salivate at the prospect. Which one are you? If you’re the former, you’re going to struggle, while if you’re the latter, then you’re on the right path.

Can you remain focused?

What with stress, work pressures, company politics and sometimes out of sheer boredom, you will lose focus. How do you refocus? Can you refocus? Can you remain focused with all of those daily distractions around you?

From time to time, we all lose focus, but it’s how quickly we find that focus again and how long we hold onto it which is a key ingredient in avoiding needless and often costly business mistakes.

Are you a life learner?

Remember when you passed your driving test? Assuming that you did, that license entitles you to two things: to drive and to continue to learn to drive. As with life, your business and your role in your business is closely linked to living and learning.

To embrace success and avoid the yawning jaws of defeat, you must keep moving, and moving in a direction that distances you from your competitors. Renew your skills and maintain clear blue waters between your business competitors and yourself.

Don’t neglect your “Organic Knowledge”, which is all of your education and training, that sometimes, we just take for granted, and fail to see the true value of. Use your knowledge and experience to the full.

Are you pragmatist, optimist, pessimist or a realist?

From time to time, as your business evolves, you’ll be a bit of all four. Sometimes, you’ll be up in the air, jumping around with ideas and exploring new avenues and new business possibilities with the energy of a teenager.

However, there are times when you’ll sit there staring out of the window with a blank expression, wondering just what the hell you’re going to do next.

Then there’s the workman-like you. Unfazed by the heavy load, you plow on in a methodical, deliberate and efficient manner.

How you manage these phases is essential. However, each phase has a cautionary tale to tell:

Too much enthusiasm and optimism can steer you dangerously off course and force you to expend valuable energy, resources and time along the way.

Too many saturnine moments and you’ll find yourself in the Doldrums, not able to find the trade winds that are the life blood of your business.

Then having your head down, micromanaging every detail might have you running too close to shore and in danger of foundering, because you didn’t see the bigger picture coming towards you.

Strike a balance. Learn to deal with those things that perturb you and look to mix & match your tasks to avoid getting stuck in a rut.

Can you manage the tasks at hand?

It’s all good and well having work coming to your door, but unless you can manage those projects, keep track of where you are with them and where other people are too, then you may find some projects withering and wasting away, maybe even forcing you to lose a customer in the process.

The solution? Get a pen, a sheet of paper and make a list! List those things To Do. You might even rank them, give them some tactile weighting so that you know how important or how urgent those tasks are. You might even want to jot down the names of the people involved in those tasks, too.

Whatever your routine, the trick is to stick to it. If others are to participate, then find some standard way of managing those lists that everyone else can understand.

There’s no value in having the most amazing way of managing your day-to-day work load if no one else can understand what on Earth you’re going on about!

Can you be relied upon and trusted?

I imagine most people think that they can be trusted and relied upon, but that’s not always the case. Even if your intentions are good, your schedule, your personal life or even your colander-like memory can step in and wreak havoc.

When working for your customers, any excuse is usually no excuse at all. Let these guys down and they’ll find another supplier. Let your staff down and you could be doing interviews all week instead of working on the next big thing.

Stay focused, make a note of your promises and damn well keep them!

When you’re down, can you pick yourself up?

You might think I’ve talked about this before, but this is quite different.

Are you precious about what it is that you do? That’s to say: if someone criticizes your work, can you deal with that criticism?

If you cannot justify yourself and your work, then you’ve not thought things through as thoroughly as you should have.

If your client can give you one good reason why they think that you’re wrong, then you have to give them five excellent reasons why you know that you are right.

This isn’t really about compromising, this is about thinking beyond your needs, your own desires and sensibilities and being objective, focused and having a clarity of vision that will pay dividends over time.

Can you be a diplomat?

Losing your cool isn’t going to do you or your business any favours. Similarly, not observing the sometimes delicate political sensibilities of clients can cause friction.

As well as being a business person, you have to be a diplomat, one who’s prepared to discuss rather than dictate.

No, this isn’t about total capitulation. It’s about planning long-term, striking a balance and keeping the right people on your side.

Are you prepared to say no?

Sometimes, saying no to a client can seem like saying goodbye. Trust me, this isn’t the case.

However, simply saying no isn’t good enough, you must provide evidence of why you think your client has either got something wrong, or not seen what you’ve seen.

Make a good case for your argument and your client will respect you and learn to trust your judgment.

Can you survive the famine after the feast?

In lean times, you’re going to have to make do. At times like this, you need to be proactive rather than reactive and delve right into business development and draw in new work.

Go through your client list, think of what you were doing for them last, maybe there’s something that needs updating. Call those clients, ask them if everything is OK.

Find something that might be in need of a change or an update, supply a quote, a plan of action and work towards a meeting with them.

Plan for the hard times, set funds aside, look for trends and seasonality in what you do and be ready.

Can you go the distance?

In business, there is no finishing line. This is the long race.

You need stamina and the capacity to move beyond the “wall”, when you’re running on empty and the goal in sight seems to be moving away from you, or the outstretched arm of a competitor seems closer than your own.

Dig deep, get your breathing right, strike a rhythm and hold the pace.

Can you be professional?

Being a professional is about combining all of the above. Much like the best and most well-loved sports stars, professionalism doesn’t end when you’re not performing.

You are your business, and professionalism doesn’t stop just because you’re not in the office, or it’s outside business hours.

Are you scared?

You should be. Failure is much closer to you than success. Running a business is a huge undertaking, even more so when there are people relying on you for their livelihoods. Feed on the fear, repurpose that emotion into the stuff that fuels you.

What’s the name of your fear? Well, that’s easy! Fear has many names, most of which are the same names as your competitors.

However, you can make success your name, but only if you try hard enough!

This article was first published on Octane’s sister blog, Blah, Blah! Technology, in an article entitled: “Are you ready to run your own business?

Questionable Antics on LinkedIn’s Q&A?

LinkedIn’s Q&A is a great way to get answers from some of the smartest business people in the world. It’s also an excellent way to demonstrate your expertise to those very same people. Sadly, not everyone is going to give you a straight, or even a polite, answer.

LinkedIn, the professional business network

In life, we live and we learn. The wise share what they know and help others avoid their own hard mistakes. And then there are those who choose to be unhelpful, egotistical and just plain ignorant. What was it I was saying about professionalism again?

“A huge salary is not a sign of professionalism. Nor is a insulting the competition, getting blind drunk in public, beating up your girlfriend, illicit affairs, gambling addictions, abusive behaviour or questionable TV appearances.”

Being openly hostile, ignorant, rude, stupid and generally annoying don’t count towards professionalism either. Case in point: the Q&A section on LinkedIn, sometimes littered with some very unpleasant replies.

So what is LinkedIn?

“LinkedIn is an interconnected network of experienced professionals from around the world, representing 170 industries and 200 countries. You can find, be introduced to, and collaborate with qualified professionals that you need to work with to accomplish your goals.”

Goals. Remember that word.

A few days ago, I answered the question: “What are the key criteria for making a business decision?“, posed by Gary Lennon, co-founder of Ideas2Reality.

Yes, the question is a little broad, but I was reminded of what my dad once said when asked: “How long is a piece of string?” To which he replied: “Half its length multiplied by two”. There’s usually an answer to even the most ambiguous question, which his actually wasn’t, it was just broad.

Gary replied to me personally, and thanked me for taking the time out to answer his question sensibly. I was just glad to help. However, he’d posted the question in several different areas on LinkedIn and the replies he got weren’t all as helpful as my own.

I wasn’t in the least surprised. I recently made my thoughts very clear, concerning the total lack of professionalism exhibited by some on the LinkedIn Q&A:

“If you don’t like a question in the LinkedIn Q&A, don’t answer. Smart arse replies show a lack of professionalism, plus you look stupid.”

As a professional, the Q&A on LinkedIn is a perfect venue to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise, not only to the people asking questions, but to everyone else besides. The good news is, idiocy, rudeness and belligerence are usually self-regulating; why should anyone consider you as an expert if you’re acting so unprofessionally?

Gary called me on Skype a couple of days later, to discuss a great idea he’s working on, directly related to the question. Fortunately, he was fine about some of the replies he got, and laughed them off.

But it was towards the end of our hour-long conversation when he said something that really struck a chord and conjured up a very clear image in my mind, and sort of put the LinkedIn Q&A into its proper perspective.

“We’re all just trying to move the ball along. We might not be there to see the end product, but at least we try!”

Or words to that effect. And in an instant, I could see the business playing field before me. Immediately, I began to see business as a game of football / soccer.

Our loved ones are collectively the goal keeper, there to keep the other side from taking the advantage, to control the pace of the game and to get the ball in play again, back up the field.

Our financial backers, business support organizations and the many, many support groups and business forums like LinkedIn are the defenders, each taking a turn at moving the ball forward.

Our business partners, senior management and directors are the mid-field, linking the play from the back and holding the attacking line.

We, the innovators, the doers, the creators and the people with the ideas are the strikers, stepping in and out of the wild tackles, dodging the attempts to bring us down and take possession of the ball. We press our advantage, aiming to make a Net gain.

Fans go wild…