Minority, Women Entrepreneurs Find More Opportunity in Franchise World

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Barbara Brixton believed she had two strikes against her as she planned her business career: she is a woman and she is African-American. What’s more, she knew she wanted to do something in the food service industry. Her years as a teenager waiting tables at a local diner taught her the pleasure of serving people their meals – but restaurants, everyone warned her, were risky endeavors. Brixton realized the hurdles she’d have in starting something new, so she took a different route: opening a franchise.

The 32-year-old spent a few years after college living with her parents in Houston to save up, all the while stopping in regularly at the chains she loved (Ruby Tuesday, McDonald’s and Chik-fil-A among them) and kept an eye on a site called bizbuysell.com where franchisees list their outlets for sale.

Ultimately, she was able to take about $300,000, including some seed money from her family members, her savings and some loans, to buy an existing Schlotsky’s Deli outlet.

“I don’t think the lenders would give me the time of day if I had come in trying to borrow as much as I did for my own sandwich shop,” she said. “But this is a proven business with a track record. As a first-time owner, I think it’s the best way to go.”

She’s not alone. In a trend referenced by Louisiana State University researchers Aaron Gleiberman and Rebecca Rast in a paper presented at last year’s Marketing Educators Association convention, minorities now own 21.1 percent of franchises with at least five workers, according to data derived from the U.S. Census by the Small Business Administration. That’s up from 15.8 percent in 2007. It also far outpaces the general rate of minority business ownership, which was 13.3 percent overall in the most recent data.

Related: How Hispanic Entrepreneurs are Making an Impact in the Small Business Community

This trend, Gleiberman and Rast assert, is a prime opportunity for business schools to advance the cause of diversifying the ranks of the nation’s business ownership by teaching courses specifically about franchising.

“Usually it’s taught as a chapter or a subsection of a retailing class or a marketing management class because franchising, from a larger marketing perspective, is about the governing structure of a firm,” Gleiberman, an LSU economics instructor, said in an interview. “The entrepreneurial aspect of it is kind of underrepresented in schools, I think.”

Or, as the duo put it in their paper: “In particular, women, minorities and other underrepresented groups tend to gravitate toward the franchise business model in the proverbial ‘real world,’ and educators should be prepared to offer these students an avenue of exposure in a classroom setting.”

Michelle Rowan, the president and COO of the consultancy Franchise Business Review, strongly agrees. FBR recently published the result of a survey of 6,400 female franchisees and found a remarkably high level of work satisfaction. The poll found an average annual income of $63,000 and that 74 percent said they’d “do it again knowing what I know now.” For some reason, female franchisees say they worked 44 hours a week, versus 48 hours a week for male counterparts.

While no comparable data was available for non-franchise business owners, all of that adds up to a more positive opportunity and one that more women and minorities ought to learn about, Rowan said.

“Franchising definitely should be focused on more in schools, and think we’re starting to see more coursework,” she said. She and FBR CEO Eric Stites “just did something with the University of New Hampshire – they have a franchising class that they do, but it’s one class. UNH business school is this huge school and it’s very introductory 101 level class.”

There are myriad reasons why franchising is more amenable and accessible to minority and female entrepreneurs, Gleiberman and Rast report. For years now, growth in the gross domestic product from franchises outpaced that of the broader GDP for the United States, so it’s a safer bet than other business opportunities. “With such an impact on the growth of the U.S. GDP and employment numbers, it is quite a mystery as to why this business format receives such little focus in business curriculum, and in particular marketing, still to this day,” they wrote in the report.

Indeed, while many entrepreneurs dream of starting up their own brands or translating their creative ideas into big business, the risks are high. Financing opportunities, then, are more accessible, they said.

“Disturbingly, women own approximately 40 percent of small businesses in the U.S., yet receive a mere five percent of the equity capital and only 12 percent of the overall bank credit provided to small firms,” Gleiberman and Rast wrote. “Similar disparities exist between the black and ‘non-minority’ groups. Franchising provides a credibility to the entrepreneur otherwise unobtainable.”

To some extent, franchise corporations presently fill in the gaps left by higher education, though. Many, like McDonald’s, have their own boot camp for potential franchisees where folks learn the business and have mentors to guide them. What’s more, Rowan said major corporations frequently rely on the ranks of their employees to groom new franchisees.

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“There’s so many great stories about a franchisee who started where their first job was at, say, a McDonald’s, and they worked up to be a manager,” she said. “They focus on minorities and people who come from other countries. That person is learning the system on the job.”

That network, too, can be invaluable given that minorities and women frequently find themselves outside of the proverbial Old Boy’s Club, Gleiberman and Rast note. It’s one of the key reasons Brixton went this direction, too.

“I didn’t go to a fancy business school or get the chance to key into some big network, but my fellow franchisees around the country and even around my city are rooting for me to succeed,” she said. “I’m looking forward to being able to do that for other people, too, if I’m lucky enough to succeed.”

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How to Secure a Small Business Loan Online

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It used to be that businesses wanting to finance their growth had few options. Using their own savings, getting loans from family and friends, pitching their business to investors, or securing a traditional bank loan were some of the more popular ways to get cash for business development. Lately though, there are some new choices in the business lending market, and that includes getting a business loan online. Online lenders are filling a gap by assisting businesses that might not otherwise qualify for a business loan. With the use of traditional indicators like credit scores and balance sheets, online lenders also take other aspects into account when reviewing loan applications, like social media presence and relationships with suppliers and vendors.

Preparing to apply for a small business loan online

While online business lenders are not as strict as their traditional counterparts, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the application process seriously. First, you should review (or create if you don’t already have one) your business plan and outline how much money you need, exactly how you plan to spend it, and how long before you’ll see a return. Make sure the cash flow you project is enough to repay the loan.

Next, contact one of these business credit reporting agencies (Dun & Bradstreet, Experian, or Equifax) or call a business credit monitoring service and review your current score. Business credit scores are on a scale of 0 to 100 (100 is perfect). A score of 80 or more is considered good. If your credit score is below 80, you should work on improving it to ensure you get the best terms for your loan. This may mean getting rid of some of your debt or obtaining credit with suppliers and using it responsibly.

Before you apply for a loan, you’ll have to obtain all documents to establish your credit worthiness. These documents should show the business’ good financial habits as well as those of the owner(s) personally. You also must be able to provide collateral (like ownership of a home or vehicle) to obtain the loan. Documents you’ll need include tax returns, balance sheets, and proper business licenses and permits.

Related: Get Quotes for a Small Business Loan

How to shop for a small business loan

One of the benefits of pursuing business loan online is that there are so many options to choose from and you can easily compare deals. Before you start, decide which type of loan you should secure for your business. Some options include short- or long-term business loans, SBA loans, personal loans (if your business does not have a long financial history), business lines of credit, and merchant cash advances. There are positives and negatives to every type of loan. Research and determine the type of loan that will work best for your business’ own situation.

Once you’ve identified loans that will fit the needs of your business, read up on the terms and make sure your check out the fine print. Some loans have hidden fees or exorbitant interest rates.

Some online services are automated to help you identify loans and lenders that meet your specific requirements, which makes the process even simpler.

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Getting your small business loan online

Once you’ve found a small business loan that is right for you and you’ve prepared the necessary financial information, the online loan application process is pretty simple compared to other lending options. Because alternative online lenders move at the speed of the internet, loans can often be funded within a day or two of getting approved. Once you have your money, it’s time for you to apply it to your business plan and get ready to grow!

This article originally appeared on LendingTree.com on Nov. 11, 2016.

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Wichita Furniture Increases Traffic With Google AdWords

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For Wichita Furniture, the experience of buying furniture is as important as the furniture itself. President and founder, Jay Storey, stands by the idea that “associate experience” plus “guest experience” equals success. “Every day we come to work, we try to figure out how to improve the process.” Part of that process is ensuring that employees (associates) “believe in what we’re doing and are a part of our family,” says Jay.

The other part is embracing what customers need. With that focus, Jay began as a one-man show in 1989, selling on consignment and transporting furniture to people’s homes in his pick-up. Today, Wichita Furniture has a 59,000-square-foot showroom of brand new furniture and delivers 3,000 pieces each week.

“The Internet has given us unlimited aisle space.”

Jay Storey, president and founder

Related: School on Wheels [Google Case Study]

Jay is focused on building a robust e-commerce platform. “We already know that 90 percent of our customers go online and shop before they come into our brick-and-mortar location,” he says. In this effort, Google has become an indispensible resource. Their website traffic increased almost 50 percent in 2016, and Jay attributes the lion’s share of that growth to AdWords, Google’s advertising program. “AdWords not only drives traffic to our website, it brings qualified customers through our doors—people who have seen our products, know what they’re looking for, and are ready to pull the trigger. As a result, we’ve seen a drastic increase in our sales per guest,” he explains. They also use Google Analytics to gauge the effectiveness of their website and marketing campaigns, while YouTube lets them share content to familiarize people with their brand and products. “Just last year, we saw 14 percent growth because of our web presence,” says Jay.

Wichita Furniture has 162 employees.

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Wichita Furniture served over 35,000 customers in 2016 alone. “And we’re just getting started,” Jay remarks. Now they’re developing a new web platform, where the consumer can not only make purchases, but track orders, schedule deliveries, and arrange service calls. “We want to be the best furniture company that we can be, and digital tools are going to get us there. This year, it’s our goal to just dig in and get maximum extraction out of everything Google and the web have to offer,” he explains. As Wichita Furniture forges ahead, they’ll continue to focus on their customers, employees, and community. “When you’re generating enough business that you can give back and grow within your community, that’s the most gratifying part,” Jay says.

For more information on the Wichita Furniture case study, visit http://economicimpact.google.com.

Content provided by Google.

The post Wichita Furniture Increases Traffic With Google AdWords appeared first on StartupNation.

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How to Find and Connect with Your Audience on Social Media [VIDEO]

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How would you like to find and attract the right potential clients and partners to help your business grow? With the right strategy, social media is a great tool to make that happen. In fact, a variety of these platforms have completely transformed the way we connect with our audience (and fellow entrepreneurs) online. When done correctly, we can find and connect with individuals who are a perfect fit to work with.

While there are many creative ways to leverage social media, in this video I share three that any entrepreneur can start doing today, including:

Connect to your audience in groups

Joining groups on Facebook, LinkedIn and other social sites allows you to find and connect with like-minded professionals, find new opportunities and build strategic partnerships with fellow entrepreneurs.

Incorporate email marketing into the mix

After establishing new contacts on social media, we get to build stronger relationships through email. In addition to sending updates, we can also ask our new friends specific questions that open up a productive conversation.

Get started with live streaming video

This one is definitely my favorite. Live streaming video is a great way to reach a large audience and still feel like you are getting a one-on-one connection.

Each one of these strategies has many benefits and when executed properly, it can be a game changer for your startup. I hope you found these tips helpful. I would love to hear how you connect with your audience online. Share your thoughts in the comments section below, or tweet me.

The post How to Find and Connect with Your Audience on Social Media [VIDEO] appeared first on StartupNation.

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Is Your Brand Helping or Hurting Your Startup’s Performance? [Book Excerpt]

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The following excerpt is reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from “7 Principles of Transformational Leadership” © 2017 Hugh Blaine. Published Career Press, Wayne, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.

The leadership brand impact process

Organizations know about the power of brands. Brands create value, loyalty, and, when compelling and distinctive, they create profound emotional experiences for customers that attract more customers who want the same experience. What is not recognized as much is that a leader’s brand can be a catalyst for transformational growth. Transformational leaders no longer rely solely on their organization’s brand to guide their behavior. Transformational leaders develop their own individual brand.

Where do you start? What follows is my Leadership Brand Impact (LBI) process. There are two key points to start with: First, you have a brand whether you know it or not. Second, the impact your brand has on others is either helping or hurting your performance. The LBI will help you decide whether the impact your brand is having is positive or negative.

The process I’ll outline requires courage. It’s not for the faint of heart. You will ask people who are important to you about your impact and see clearly, maybe for the first time, the impact you have on people. Some of what you’ll hear will be incredibly uplifting and inspirational. Other aspects will leave you uncomfortable and or embarrassed. But rest assured, you cannot change anything unless you see it clearly. The LBI will help you with that.

Related: Achieving Branding Success Starts with This Trait [Book Excerpt]

Step 1

Clarify the brand impact you intended. Take 10 minutes to write down the impact you want to have on the people who matter most to you.

The starting point for understanding the impact your brand has on others involves writing four words or phrases that you believe best describe your leadership.

Don’t overthink this; simply capture what you see as the essence of your leadership. For example, you may use words such as inspiring, collaborative, thoughtful and pragmatic.

Step 2

Clarify the brand impact people experience. This step starts by creating a list of eight to 10 people who you trust and respect. They can be colleagues, managers, coworkers, direct reports, former employees and friends. Your list should consist of people whose opinions you value.

Call or speak in person with those on your list and let them know you are involved in a leadership activity that requires candid feedback. As someone you respect, his or her assistance in seeing the impact of your leadership from an outsider’s perspective is essential.

Specifically, ask them to provide you with four words or phrases they believe best describe the impact your leadership has on them and others.

It might be a one-word descriptor such innovative or inspiring. It can also include phrases such as can-do attitude.

Step 3

This step reviews the 32 to 40 words that represent what others see as your leadership brand impact. Review your words and compile a list of themes or patterns. Similar words or synonyms should be distilled into a one-word descriptor that best represents what you believe is the tone and or feel of the words.

The overarching objective in this step is to clarify your leadership brand impact from other perspectives and distill it into the fewest words possible.

This will allow you to study your two lists and look for gaps between what you intended and what people experienced. Is there a gap between your intended brand impact and the brand impact listed by your observers? While looking at your list, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is my intent aligned with my impact?
  2. Am I being seen in ways consistent with my purpose?
  3. Is my brand impact descriptors (both my own and from my observers) distinctive or simply the price of entry for being in my role?
  4. What is the upside and downside to my leadership brand/reputation?
  5. Am I excited about the words used to describe me, or am I neutral?

No doubt, there are words on your lists that are aligned with what you intended and others that are not. Transformational leaders grow up and take responsibility for the impact they have on others.

Step 4

This step will help you clarify the behaviors you’ll adopt to create the brand impact you want. It asks three simple yet important questions:

  1. What is the impact I want to be known for?
  2. If I want to be known for XYZ, what traits, characteristics, behaviors and or values will I embody in order to create my desired impact?
  3. What will become essential and or non-negotiable to me?

This last step is less about logic and more about what’s probable; it is rooted in articulating your highest hopes, dreams and aspirations for the impact your leadership has.

This step converts the insights you’ve gleaned from the LBI and asks you to become behaviorally explicit about what you will implement based on your insights. This step is essential. If you gloss over this step the LBI will become an intellectually interesting exercise, but won’t lead to anything noteworthy or transformational.

Showing up is where the rubber meets the road. Showing up requires focusing daily on how you communicate, hold meetings, delegate, hold people accountable, talk with customers, deal with adversity and uncertainty and calibrating whether or not your impact leads people to buy what your selling.

Related: Sign up to receive the StartupNation newsletter!

Step 5

In this step, leaders go to all of the people who provided feedback, as well as their key constituents, and share the impact they want to have. They show up in a real and transparent way about what they learned about their leadership, what insights they’ve gleaned about their impact and what they will do differently.

They now give people permission to tell them when what they are doing is not aligned with what they said. They don’t just give people permission, they continually and frequently ask for advice from people about how they can live out the leadership brand in powerful, purposeful and compelling ways.

The clients who have used the LBI successfully report that this process was transformational for them. They felt as though the Scottish poet Robert Burns was right when he, in effect, said that seeing ourselves as other see us is essential. They also said they are 60 percent more effective by having gone through this process. I hope that is the case for you as well.

“7 Principles of Transformational Leadership” is available now at fine booksellers, and can be purchased through StartupNation.com.

The post Is Your Brand Helping or Hurting Your Startup’s Performance? [Book Excerpt] appeared first on StartupNation.

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What Does it Take for a Retail Startup to Tap Into a Global Economy?

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Global trade isn’t a new concept, but today’s international commerce landscape has progressed a long way from the ancient times of trading spices and silk across the high seas. Internet and online marketplaces, such as Amazon, Etsy, Alibaba and many others, are blowing open doors for retailers to market and sell their products to customers anywhere. While at the same time, consumers are also expressing greater levels of trust and appetite to buy the right product at the right price (regardless of origin), be it sporting goods to fashion to authentic Turkish rugs.

What does this mean for where the retail industry is headed?

Today, online retailers are already boosting sales by 10 percent to 15 percent on average by extending their offerings to international customers.

Even the oldest of economies, like the spice trade, are modernizing in this way. And according to a recent report by DHL, cross-border retail volumes are predicted to increase at an annual average rate of 25 percent between 2015 and 2020 (from $300 billion to $900 billion), which is twice the pace of domestic e-commerce growth.

It’s no wonder that many fast-growing startups and mid-sized commerce companies choose tapping into the global economy as the next logical step to grow their sales and profits. However, while many U.S. retailers have the opportunity to get a global customer base, too often smaller businesses rush to trade internationally without the resources to understand the added complexities. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Related: Andovar’s VP of Marketing on Localizing Your Startup

To be both successful and compliant when trading internationally, startups should take three approaches: do research, seek local expertise and use technology to make doing business easier.

Here are my tips for each:

Do your research

One size doesn’t fit all. Even if you have achieved success selling your product(s) in the U.S., you will need to start the research process afresh before you start selling products in a new market. Do research into the local market trends, develop a plan to execute and talk to prospects.

Businesses tapping into a global economy will need to make sure they can meet local needs. For example, retail businesses that are used to selling yoga pants on Amazon may find that also listing on a niche local marketplace focused on well-being will help them reach the right audience for their product in a new country. Export businesses should do their homework to ensure they find the best fit in a local partner, and adequately train them in their products.

Some markets may also be quite crowded, meaning you may have to rethink what makes your product unique in an international setting. On the flip side, other markets may be very green and unfamiliar with the type of product you’re selling, so consider whether you’re prepared to invest in market education. All of this may affect the way that you market your products, but consider how to strike a balance between brand consistency and local appeal.

The same “think local” rules apply when making decisions about pricing, shipping and more. For example, in Europe, product instructions will need to come in multiple languages, so you may have to consider an increase in packaging cost associated with labeling.

Seek local expertise

First, make the most of the local expertise that’s right at your doorstep. The Department of Commerce is an excellent source of information on foreign markets for U.S. goods and services, yet it’s one that many businesses do not fully tap into for information, contacts and more.

Another key reason that businesses should seek out local expertise is not only to help grow their businesses abroad, but also to protect them. Keeping pace with local regulations can be tricky and extremely nuanced. For example, did you know that German law mandates that consumer data stay in the country? If you’re selling to customers in Germany and collecting personal information from them, that’s the kind of important information you’d need to know.

When it comes to the protection of customer data, product safety regulations, local labor rules and much more, enlisting local experts will ensure you protect your business.

Deploy technology and automation

Managing the flow of goods, provisioning payments and staying compliant is doubly challenging in an international arena. To ease the burden of doing business globally, make the most of available technologies. In particular, automate what you can in order to handle complex business challenges, like managing cross-border tax compliance.

As one example, failing to calculate the total “landed cost” (which represents the total cost of getting a shipment from a buyer’s facility in one country to a customer’s door in another) is one of the top mistakes retailers make when selling across borders.

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Calculating a total landed cost manually requires a significant effort to figure out the duty rate for each item, while ensuring the formulas are correct for each destination country. But failure to include the right figures, like customs taxes, could leave you with an unhappy customer if they are later asked to pay additional charges to release the shipment. It’s not worth the complication or risk to your business or brand reputation, or bottom-line sales. Other small businesses have successfully gone international before you, making mistakes and arriving at the need to automate key business processes in order to avoid hassles down the road.

While international markets may be the perfect target for your business, going global requires thinking through the challenges and possible scenarios that could occur so you can be prepared at each step of the way.

The post What Does it Take for a Retail Startup to Tap Into a Global Economy? appeared first on StartupNation.

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5 Rising Mompreneurs to Watch Out for in 2017

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Earlier this year, graphic design marketplace 99designs conducted a survey about mompreneurs in celebration of Mother’s Day. The survey revealed that when it comes to entrepreneurship, moms might just have it all. They’re supported by their fellow small business owners, prefer bootstrapping over taking out loans and commit to a “second shift” of work once the kids go to bed to avoid missing out on family time or sleep.

According to the study, female-owned businesses now account for 30 percent of privately held companies in the U.S.

As a mompreneur, I absolutely think that anyone interested in becoming an entrepreneur should pursue it. If you’re considering starting up and need some extra inspiration, look to these six mompreneurs that are quickly becoming the rising stars of 2017.

Sandra Harris

(Sandra Harris)

  1. Sandra Harris, Founder, ECOlunchbox

This socially responsible business is exactly what it sounds: creating lunch boxes that are eco-friendly for both people and the planet. In an interview with Forbes, Harris, a former investigative journalist and humanitarian aid worker, revealed that the idea for ECOlunchbox was based on the thought that change can begin at lunchtime. The mission is simple: reduce dependence on plastic food containers with a plastic-free alternative.

In the long run, this alternative will benefit both our bodies and the oceans. To date, over 300,000 ECOlunchboxes have been sold worldwide with Harris predicting even more retailers will soon carry and sell ECOlunchboxes.

Related: StartupNation Radio Featuring Mompreneurs

Shazi Visram

(Shazi Visram)

  1. Shazi Visram, CEO, Happy Family

Happy Family is the brainchild of mompreneur, Shazi Visram, created to provide nutritious food for babies, toddlers, kids and moms. As mentioned in an interview with Entrepreneur, Visram was inspired to create the company after watching a close friend, who was also a mother of twins, struggle to find food that was healthy enough for her babies.

Her research uncovered that most products on the market are still too processed for children and she wanted moms to know that the products they bought were truly the best for their children’s needs. Aside from providing organic food options, Visram is excited to announce a new addition to the Happy Family product roster: organic infant formula.

Jai Nam Choi

(Jai Nam Choi)

  1. Jai Nam Choi, Founder, Mommy Sauce

According to the 99designs mompreneur survey, 57 percent of moms are 40 or older when they decide to start a business, and Choi is our resident “grandmapreneur” on this list. As the founder of Mommy Sauce, Choi has long been passionate about cooking, especially when it comes to sauces.

Her Mommy Sauce has been so popular with her family that her son (renowned chef Roy Choi) encouraged her to share them with the world by going into business. From bulgogi to kimchi, there’s a sauce to complement every dinner in her shop, but the secret to these recipes stays with Choi.

Akinah Rahmaan

(Akinah Rahmaan)

  1. Akinah Rahmaan, Founder, Banana Skirt Productions

A powerhouse in the music industry (having worked with artists like Missy Elliott, LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes), Akinah Rahmaan took her passion for music and brought it to the fitness world. As the founder of NYC-based Banana Skirt Productions, Rahmaan transforms workouts into parties with classes that teach students how to nail the choreographed dance moves that accompany their favorite songs.

Staying on the cutting edge is how the lifestyle/fitness brand differentiates itself from the pack. Case in point: in 2016, Banana Skirt turned heads and made the news by offering hour-long “Formation” classes in anticipation of Beyoncé’s tour.

Related: Sign up to receive the StartupNation newsletter!

Alli Webb

(Alli Webb)

  1. Alli Webb, Founder, Drybar

For seven years, blowouts have been bringing happiness to customers at Drybar locations throughout the country. Webb, the founder of the company and a trained hairstylist, was recently profiled in Vanity Fair in an interview that recognized how she filled a void in the beauty industry with a whole new category.

She’s got big plans for the future too, with 20 more locations set to open before the end of 2017, maybe even overseas in Paris.

The post 5 Rising Mompreneurs to Watch Out for in 2017 appeared first on StartupNation.

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Launching a Product: How Promising Hardware Startups Can Beat the Odds

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Once labeled the ugly stepchild of venture capital, hardware startups have historically experienced difficulties securing funding.

In 2015, hardware companies received less than a quarter of the $4.5 billion VCs invested in software.

The game is quite complex and there are multiple cards at play between designing, engineering, manufacturing and leading a product to market. Consequently, the execution of a successful crowdfunding campaign is now a prerequisite for many investment firms as they build their portfolios.

Very few companies hold all the cards necessary for success. These elites deliver a quality product, secure retail placement, establish an e-commerce channel and build a solid business around its product.

Let’s follow suit on the simple, yet overlooked fundamentals practiced by successful hardware startups.

Build a brand, don’t buy it

When we onboard clients to launch new products, we often notice that a tremendous amount of time and resources are wasted on “branding.” Don’t get me wrong, branding is important, and building a foundation around your brand starts early in the process.

However, many new companies are not a brand yet. Branding is more than a cool font or an eye-catching logo. Many new companies will spend tens of thousands of dollars to hire a branding agency, but there’s no need in the early stages.

A brand is rooted in delivering a great product, excellent customer service and top-notch community engagement. These elements have far greater contribution to long-term success than the pink hue in your logo, I can assure you.

Related: Finding Funding When You’re a Hardware Startup

Create a working product

This is a no brainer, but I’ve seen dozens of product launches fail right out of the gate because the product simply did not work or meet customer expectations. When this happens in early product models, it’s game over.

The hoverboard, for example, had amazing potential in the mobile commuter space whether it was viewed as a silly gadget or not. Many of the issues surrounding the hoverboard debacle can be traced to IP infringement, poor production quality and a rat race to the marketplace. At the end of the day, no matter how you cut it, the product literally blew up on customers.

Don’t forget your customers

Customers are the bloodline of any company. Take care of them, or they will leave, it’s that simple. We all know about immediate exposure via social media in today’s market; bad policies, practice and service can be broadcast to the world in seconds. Ignoring customer complaints or even suggestions for product improvements is a sign of poor leadership and a sub-par product.

One example of how corporate consideration of feedback leads to customer loyalty is Elon Musk’s approach to interacting with Tesla customers. Musk is a master at using Twitter to brand and build great publicity when taking customer suggestions for Tesla Motors. This shows his involvement, care and willingness to improve a product in front of his audience.

Stay in your lane

Steve Jobs might be the model entrepreneur of our generation based solely on the hardware products he launched at Apple. Jobs played key roles in branding, development, marketing and retail and his obsession over each of these functions contributed to his genius and the creation of an impressive portfolio of life-changing products.

However, Jobs was one in a billion. While we all may want to strive to be him one day, we are not him. In the startup world, entrepreneurs are often required to wear many hats for budgeting purposes, and that’s completely fair. Bootstrapping like this can be a rite of passage for many founders.

Related: Sign up to receive the StartupNation newsletter!

However, where many first-time entrepreneurs go wrong is when they dip their hands into too many roles that they are unqualified to take on. Engineers want to be marketers and marketers want to be engineers. Each must stay in their respective lanes and also be mindful of one another’s boundaries. What’s the point of hiring experts if you’re going to micro-manage the process?

Great leadership entrusts and believes in a collective, skilled team to produce a better product. Poor leaders succumb to ego and attempt to run all facets of the development and release of a product. The results are typically lackluster and not optimal.

Marketers do a great job hyping up product launches, but they can’t control customer reactions after the product is released and reviewed. Focus on building a great product with a diversely-skilled team and pay attention to what the customer is saying. If you follow these basic principles, you’ll have all the aces to launch a successful product and overcome the notorious fate of hardware startups.

The post Launching a Product: How Promising Hardware Startups Can Beat the Odds appeared first on StartupNation.

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5 Traditional Marketing Risks That Have Gone Digital

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Marketing has long been a practice of putting the right message in front of the right people. Before the internet, and even some time after it, most marketing was done through very physical mediums, or through television and radio. However, the development of fully online digital marketing has made it far easier to own and operate a marketing business without the trappings of a large office, numerous employees or a corporate environment. For many startup marketing companies, this has meant avoiding many of the traditional marketing risks.

However, a number have also transferred over to the digital marketing space, such as copyright infringement, trademark infringement defamation, plagiarism and general client dissatisfaction. As digital marketing increases and those risks become more common, it’s important for a digital marketing company to get a handle on how best to head off those risks before they become a problem.

Most digital marketing concerns can be mitigated through Professional Liability insurance or contractual restrictions, but it’s still important to know what you’re up against. Depending on the scale of your business, your concerns may grow, sometimes unexpectedly.

5 marketing risks that have gone digital

Among the many traditional marketing risks that exist, here are five known problems quickly transferring over to the digital marketing industry.

Related: How to Avoid Trademark Infringement

Copyright infringement

Copyright infringement is a risk common in traditional marketing, but is also a bit of an obvious transfer over to digital marketing. When it comes to copyright infringement, this can be in the form of any content: words, images, videos, etc. Although there’s a significant amount of fair use material on the web, much of which can be re-used for commercial purposes, most of the high-quality content is copyrighted. Some services, such as Getty, do sell their content for a price, although that doesn’t stop individuals from using the material without getting permission.

Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to know when a piece of content is actually copyrighted. This is especially true for viral videos that you might want to use in a piece of marketing material. Most viral videos these days are quickly bought up by digital media companies, who then sell the license. But you may find that you’re using a piece of viral content in digital marketing material that was copyrighted after you started using it. Nevertheless, the copyright owner will still be able to exert their rights and may issue takedown notices and ask for compensation.


Defamation is an interesting monster to handle. However, digital marketing is getting particularly personal these days. A good example is the now-mimicked “roasting” model utilized by Wendy’s on its Twitter account. The company’s Twitter account grew in popularity after it started making sarcastic remarks toward customers and rival companies. The result has been a positive gain in the company’s stock value and better sales figures.

But it’s a fine line to walk, with the potential for defamation suits if done wrong. As other companies start to try to copy the model that’s been so successful for Wendy’s, it’s only a matter of time before one goes a little too far. Undoubtedly, Wendy’s has good liability insurance in place to mitigate that particular risk.


“Content is king,” as the saying now goes. But what about content that’s just copied and pasted from another source? Plagiarism has always been a problem for written content. It’s increasingly a problem for digital marketing, where content strategies often demand a constant flurry of unique, value-added and now long-form content.

However, finding good writers and remaining creative can be difficult. You may hire some outside help through freelancers, not realizing you could be running the risk of having someone with less-than-strict standards when it comes to copying others’ content in part or full.

Many companies now use plagiarism checkers to not only ensure their own content stays fresh, but to find out whether other sites are using their unique content. Lawsuits could follow if your marketing firm gets a client in trouble for using plagiarized content.

Trademark infringement

Similar to, but distinct from copyright infringement, trademark infringement is now a growing concern for digital marketing. Particularly in a digital age, branding is everything. Different companies are protecting that brand with everything they have, even as they seek to expand what different trademarks exist in their portfolios.

Trademarks can be almost anything. Words, symbols, phrases; any of these could be a trademark owned by another company. It’s quite possible that through your digital marketing campaigns for clients, you’re using registered trademarks from another company without realizing it.

Apple, for example, has been known to try to defend different words, such as the small “i” in front of words, and even the word “pod” as trademarks. This has been met with limited success for the company but goes to show that what might seem to be an innocuous and common word, phrase or symbol, could be one that another company is willing to spend a lot of money to defend. Even mounting a legal defense against frivolous trademark infringement claims can be expensive.

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Client dissatisfaction

As long as there are clients, there will be client dissatisfaction. There’s no getting around it, but finding a way to mitigate the risk that a client believes your online marketing campaign failed to meet contractual expectations is important.

Whether a client will or will not try to seek compensation for a campaign that didn’t meet expectations is fully dependent on the client and the contract. However, the increasingly competitive nature of digital marketing makes success sometimes hard to find, and can more easily lead to dissatisfied clients. And this risk can even extend to industries outside the core digital-marketing space that promote products or services, such as real estate agents and advisory websites. Setting clear contractual obligations and expectations is a simple step to get ahead of potential conflicts after delivery of services.

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3 Ways Your Startup Can Successfully Bridge the Gender Gap

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During International Women’s Day this year, we discovered that our workforce is almost an exact 50/50 split between women and men. In digital marketing, this is, apparently, uncommon. In many countries across the world, men make up over 60 percent of the workforce in this industryAnother anomaly we’re shattering in gender roles is that we have more women in leadership positions, not by design but because those particular people were the most suitable for the jobs. It’s known that there are fewer women in leadership roles and many women earn less money than men. This year’s Forbes 100 Rich List demonstrates this, as only two women made it into the top 10.

I’m proud to have a workforce with strong, empowered females who do an absolutely smashing job managing our many departments. Without them, our business would have grown nowhere near as quickly or as strongly as it has.

Each gender brings its own set of tendencies and sensitivities to our organization, which balance and complement the other. To me, a mixture works best for everyone involved. I strongly urge startups to take note of (and act upon) the reasons for the lack of women in leadership roles and the struggle that women face within the workplace.

I’m a big fan of bridging the gender gap —  if for no other reason than it just makes good business sense. Every business leader should want to attract the best people, regardless of their gender. Demonstrating to potential employees, clients and other businesses that you care about gender equality is so important. So, how can your startup close the gender gap?

Encourage women to go for leadership roles

There are a number of reasons why women are less likely to be in leadership positions. One is simply that women think that their gender will hold them back in reaching a higher position within the company. More than anything, this shows that mentality plays a huge role in getting higher up the ladder.

Being told you can’t work in a certain industry is a shameful way to discourage women from aspiring to do a job they are passionate about. We work at encouraging everyone to apply for leadership positions that they have the skills and qualities for. If someone of either gender doesn’t get the leadership role they applied for, I believe they deserve honest feedback. This includes why they didn’t get the position and the aspects of their performance that they might want to look at to be eligible in the future. This way, you limit the likelihood of people feeling that they haven’t been chosen for any reason other than their suitability for the role.

Related: Female Entrepreneurs and the Fight for Funding

Flexible working hours

One of the reasons the staff at our company work so well is that we all work remotely. After opening an office, I soon realised that the team (and myself) were much more productive when working from our home offices. Having a remote team has given the company the freedom to hire people all over the world, employing the best of the best for every job role.

The remote working and flexible hours have benefited many of our team who work part-time or have children. One of the biggest issues women face is returning to work after maternity leave. Many women are paid less after returning to work after having children due to working fewer hours or changing job roles.

This is absolute madness. Any person (male or female) who can raise children is clearly demonstrating excellent management, organization, budgeting and negotiation skills, as well as a massive dose of real world experience.

Women shouldn’t need to have to choose between having a family or working toward their dream job. Flexibility when returning to work can sidestep this issue, as new mothers can balance their time and work around their schedule.

Related: Sign up to receive the StartupNation newsletter!

An honest and fair recruitment process

Recruitment plays a huge role in smashing the gender gap. Demonstrating that you are a transparent company from the moment somebody looks at a job application is essential. This means not using language which discourages any particular gender and stating the pay scale.

Negotiating a salary plays a huge role in the gender pay gap. Not wanting to seem pushy, being happy with their salary or being worried about losing a job are a few reasons why women don’t negotiate their salary. The biggest hold-back is feeling uncomfortable negotiating. Women in leadership positions are telling fellow entrepreneurial women how to negotiate their pay so they don’t fall short and earn less than their male counterparts.

As best practice, consider clearly stating the pay rate on job applications and having a transparent pay ladder based on hitting targets, experience and level-upping in key skills. Quarterly bonuses can then be based on the performance of the team member; and nothing to do with their gender or desire to negotiate.

Life as a startup can be hard. One of the biggest challenges is surrounding yourself with a killer team with the talents and characteristics that you need to grow. Both men and women are important in this mix. To build a team without a significant quota of one or the other is to limit the performance of the team as a whole. To paraphrase the business saying, “get the right people on the bus and you’ll find the journey to be a lot easier and more enjoyable.” In my opinion, any business that doesn’t give both men and women the opportunity to contribute is not only doing itself a disservice, but it’s also making a huge business mistake.

The post 3 Ways Your Startup Can Successfully Bridge the Gender Gap appeared first on StartupNation.

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Smart Retract Does Smart Business with Help of Google AdWords

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Anyone with toddlers and pets knows the challenges of keeping them safe and away from restricted areas. So when Marc Pichik bought a puppy, he needed something to keep the curious canine contained.

“I wanted something sleek and compact, unlike traditional baby gates that are clumsy, in the way and don’t look good,” he says. When internet searches didn’t turn up what Marc was looking for, he decided to invent a prototype. “I just kept moving the idea along and eventually got a patent and trademarked the name Retract-A-Gate.”

His safety gates come in different sizes, mount on stairways and doorways, and retract like window shades when not in use. Marc launched his business, Smart Retract, in 2002, selling his Retract-A-Gates to stores in Iowa. “But then I realized the great potential of selling online,” he says. “I had an unusual solution to a common problem.”

“The effect of the web on our business has meant everything to us.”

Marc Pichik, CEO

Related: School on Wheels [Google Case Study]

Marc started using AdWords, Google’s advertising program, in 2006. Since then, it has been a critical tool for reaching customers searching for safety gates. “When customers look for safety gates, they often expect something big and bulky. They don’t know about our small and sleek products,” says Marc. “AdWords gives us the online exposure that we need to get the word out there. And in our early days, it was either we were on AdWords or we sold nothing.”

AdWords now accounts for about 80 percent of Smart Retract’s advertising and 30 percent of their sales. Marc also relies on Google Analytics to keep pace with digital trends and see which marketing campaigns are working best. Google Webmaster Tools help him monitor performance issues on his e-commerce website. And his YouTube videos show customers how to mount and use the gates.

Smart Retract has 10 employees.

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In 2010, Marc moved his growing operation into a facility near the Mississippi River, where the company now manufactures 100 percent of their products. They ship all over the world, sell wholesale, and continue to grow 20 percent year-over-year. “Without AdWords and the other Google tools, this would have been a much more difficult road,” Marc says. “We wouldn’t have grown as quickly as we have. The impact is significant.”

For more information on the Smart Retract case study, visit http://economicimpact.google.com.

Content provided by Google.

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What Should New Entrepreneurs Pay Themselves?

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With entrepreneurship comes freedom, and along with that freedom comes interesting decisions you may have never faced before. One of those decisions is what to pay yourself as a startup owner.

There are a wide variety of opinions on this subject, and a lot of factors weigh in. Suddenly, being your own boss isn’t quite as easy as it originally seemed. It is possible to make a responsible decision, even if you’re new to the world of entrepreneurship. Rather than just throwing out numbers, let’s look at the factors you must consider to come up with a number that makes sense for your business.

Assess your personal life

The first thing to stop and take a look at is your personal life. Try to view yourself as you would any other employee and stay objective. What kind of income do you need to fuel your leadership capabilities and steer your startup toward sustainable growth? The answer to this question, of course, will vary greatly depending on where you live, whether you have children, your rent or mortgage, etc.

A founder who is fresh out of college and renting an apartment with friends will probably have far fewer expenses than a middle-aged founder with a large family and a suburban home. With that said, you may find that some of your expenses are simply not necessary and it might be the perfect time to cut back on luxury items. Some sacrifice is required to feed more money into your business, but at the same time, you won’t be able to lead effectively if you are deprived of your everyday needs.

Related: 5 Steps to Budget Smartly for Your Small Business

Does funding matter?

It goes without saying that the more funding you have, the more breathing room you have in your salary. However, if investors catch wind that you’re overpaying yourself, they’ll see it as money down the drain.

So the question is: is your salary warranted? Is it being put to good use to help you stay healthy and energetic to manage your business? If not, consider what other things that money might be funneled into.

As a rule of thumb, it is advised that founders pay themselves about 30 percent of market value.

Let this framework guide your decision, but don’t get too attached to a precise number. Every business is unique and you may need to tweak your salary to fit your specific circumstances. Once your revenue stream begins to rise, reassess your personal income and make adjustments as more funding flows in.

Set a balanced pay standard

Another important consideration is setting an example early on in your business. Even if you don’t have employees yet, the way in which you handle salaries sets a precedent for the future of your business. Founders that think this through carefully and consider all angles will have healthier relationships with employees down the road.

On the one hand, a founder who puts themselves first and their company/employees second will hurt the team dynamic. Employees and partners will have a hard time trusting in their leadership, especially if they are paying themselves market value and paying their employees much less. This can lead to a plethora of problems down the road, like low engagement rates and issues with employee retention.

On the other hand, a self-sacrificing founder who underpays themselves will experience another set of challenges. They’ll be depleted, uninspired and struggle to keep the business afloat. Operating from “survival mode,” they’ll have little ability to think toward the future. Instead, they’ll spend their days putting out fires instead of managing the business. This hinders a founder’s ability to make solid decisions for long-term growth.

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Early errors

If you’re off to a great start, well done! But don’t let early success give you the illusion of total stability. Oftentimes, founders who experience initial success will accidentally overpay themselves, which allows them to live a cushy lifestyle and forget that their startup is still new and vulnerable. Hope for the best, but manage your money for the worst case scenario.

Most experts agree that a new entrepreneur earning six figures with seed funding is way over market value. When investors see brand new founders swimming in cash, they consider it a red flag and a distraction from priorities. Establish the business first. Set a firm foundation, and only then should you consider giving yourself a raise.

Another common error for new founders is severely underpaying with the assumption that they are playing it safe. They assume that paying themselves very little will yield a low burn rate, but that’s not necessarily the case. Like overpaying, underpaying can also give a false sense of security, but in this case it causes founders to drag their feet and tolerate low revenue streams.

In conclusion, avoid the extremes of over and underpaying yourself. Prioritize growth and sustainability, getting yourself established before taking more money for yourself. Always remember: your salary isn’t just a personal decision; it sets a standard for your company culture and the salaries of future employees.

The post What Should New Entrepreneurs Pay Themselves? appeared first on StartupNation.

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4 Strategies to Get a Loan for Your Small Business

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Obtaining a loan can be a challenge for many small business owners. Entrepreneurs don’t realize that even preparing to apply for a loan can take years of foundational work. Some others don’t know about alternative lending options that can help newly established businesses, or those with an immediate need to get the money they require. Luckily, there are a number of ways to improve your chances of getting a loan approval. The following strategies explain how to get a business loan successfully.

Four strategies to help you get a small business loan

  1. Get your personal credit in order

When you’re starting out in business, your own financial history will play a major part in your startup’s potential to obtain financing. Almost any kind of loan or credit you get will need to be personally guaranteed. For your business to get the best rates and have the most options, your personal credit score will need to be at least 700. You can check your personal credit score online, and you should do that right away as you prepare to apply for a loan. If you need to improve your credit score, you can start paying down your debts and stop applying for additional credit. Look at your credit report carefully for errors and file for a correction immediately, as you would be surprised how often this can make a difference in your score. If your own financial situation is grim, you may want to wait to get a business loan until you’re in a more financially secure position.

  1. Build your business credit

Many entrepreneurs don’t understand the importance of business credit. Building good credit for your business is necessary to enable your company to have access to all kinds of small business funding and to gain the best rates and terms. One of the most important elements in calculating business creditworthiness is your operating history. When you start your business, try to establish it as separate entity from you personally as soon as possible. This means getting a local business license and any relevant legal filings (LLC, DBA, partnership, etc.). Your company also needs its own phone number, website and mailing address (even if it’s a post office box). This will have a large impact on demonstrating a stable business history.

Open bank accounts with your business’ name and get a business credit card. You will need to guarantee it personally at first, but this is a major step toward getting a small business loan. Establish relationships with your suppliers and vendors and ask them if you can pay on terms (e.g. net 30 payment). Terms are another type of credit. Use your credit sparingly and pay on time. Even if you don’t need to, use it at least occasionally to demonstrate to future lenders that you are able to manage and pay off debts.

Monitor your credit score often so you can contest any errors and fix areas that need improvement. You can ask for a copy of your business credit report from each of the major credit bureaus (Dun & Bradstreet, Experian and Equifax) or you can subscribe to a credit monitoring service. Remember that business credit is scored on a scale from one to 100 (100 being the best). In general, a score of 75 or higher is needed to secure a traditional bank loan.

  1. Write a thorough business plan

Presenting a detailed business plan can make a good impression when getting a business loan. Be sure you follow best practices (there are many books and online resources explaining how to write a business plan) and project at least three years out. When it comes to finances, be precise. Research your costs and come up with exact numbers instead of a range when outlining your loan needs. Explain how and why your intended investments will help grow your business. Come prepared with supporting financial documents, including projections, balance sheets and recent tax returns.

Your business plan should address more than finances. You also need to convince lenders and alternative lending companies why your company is a smart investment. Include background information on all your staff and explain why your business is different and better than your competitors. Point out the growth potential in your market and provide your strategies for getting a percentage of that market share.

  1. Decide which type of loan and lender are best for you

Before diving in and starting an application for a business loan, be sure to research all the loan options. Consider the following during your research:

  • Term length: How long will it take you to pay back the loan? What is the useful life of what you’re purchasing with the borrowed money? When will you need to replace the item or reinvest in it again?
  • Monthly payment: How much can you afford to pay each month?
  • Interest rate: Can you get a good rate now or should you wait until circumstances change?
  • Timing: Do you need money now? Or can you wait?
  • Risk: Is it better to have a secured or unsecured loan? Can you qualify for an SBA loan? Do you have the right collateral?
  • Lender: Should you work with a traditional bank, a microlender or an alternative lender who has less stringent requirements?
  • Loan type: Is a conventional loan right for you, or would another loan option like invoice financing, merchant cash advance or a business line of credit be a better fit for your business?

Your business and personal credit scores, your business’ history and your plan to spend the money, among other factors, will help decide which of these options are best for your business.

Related: Get Small Business Loan Offers Customized for You Today

Factors that determine your chances of getting a small business loan

Lenders factor in a variety of elements when determining whether or not to loan money to your business. These factors also affect the terms and interest rate a lender will offer you. It can help to know what lenders are looking for so you can understand how to get a business loan that fits your financial needs.

  • Time in business: The longer you’ve been in business, the less of a risk you appear to potential lenders. Many lenders won’t give a loan to companies that have been in business for less than two years.
  • Type of business: Some kinds of businesses are more risky than others, whether because of intense competition, potential liabilities or complicated legal regulations. These include restaurants and bars, clothing stores and money service businesses. Therefore, a lender might decide not to work with certain types of business, charge a higher interest rate on the loan, or require your loan to be personally secured.
  • Credit score: Your credit score clues lenders in on how well you’re able to manage debt. If you don’t have a good credit history, a traditional lender likely won’t be willing to take a chance on your company.
  • Revenue: Simply put, lenders need to know that you have a constant stream of money coming in to make your loan payment each month.
  • Collateral: Businesses often get better terms on their loans if they are secured by collateral. The collateral can belong to the company itself or to its owners. A loan that is secured like this means less risk for the lender and better outcomes for the borrower.
  • Economic climate: The federal interest rate varies, and this can impact your chances of obtaining an affordable loan. The lending climate also fluctuates, and banks tend to stay away from small business loans during worse financial times. Though your company doesn’t have control over whatever is influencing the economy, these factors can significantly affect your ability to get a business loan.

Some alternative lenders are turning away from these traditional qualifiers and are looking at new ways to determine potential business success, like social media influence, Yelp reviews and shipping habits.

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Why is it difficult to get a business loan?

Quite frankly, lending to small businesses is risky for banks, other lenders and alternative lending companies.

 According to the SBA, one-third of new businesses close during their first year, and half will fail by their fifth year.

Those are not exactly good investment odds.

Also, underwriting a large-scale loan costs a lender the same as underwriting a small-scale loan. But a larger loan is more likely to bring in much higher revenue. Lending to small businesses who are looking to take out a small loan is just not as profitable for lenders, so they tend to focus on it less.

Traditional lenders also have high standards and need an intense vetting process because they want to guarantee they are going to make a profit on their investment. They don’t want to loan money to a company that’s going to waste it, go out of business, and default on the loan. Alternative lenders have less stringent requirements, but they tend to make up the difference by charging additional fees and having much higher interest rates.

Since the recent recession, lenders have been dealing with tighter banking regulations that don’t allow for risky investments. In an effort to create a more cautious portfolio, many lenders have significantly raised their standards for small business loans.

You can overcome all of these hurdles with the right education and planning. Understanding how to obtain a business loan, preparing your company for the application process and putting time into honing your company as an ideal loan candidate can pay off in spades. If you focus on your personal and business credit, create a detailed business plan, and research the best loan and lender match, your business will be on track to getting the loan it needs to reach the next step of growth.

This article originally appeared on LendingTree.com on March 29, 2017.

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Stephanie Breedlove on Why We Need More Women Entrepreneurs

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Veteran entrepreneur and angel investor Stephanie Breedlove founded Breedlove & Associates (a household payroll and tax firm) and sold it to Care.com in 2012 for more than $50 million. She’s now active as a mentor to other female entrepreneurs and a sought-after speaker. Her book, “All In: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Think Bigger, Build Sustainable Businesses, and Change the World,” came out earlier this year.

We caught up with Breedlove to discuss the challenges facing female entrepreneurs, the best business advice she’s ever gotten and why she’d like to see more women at the top. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

StartupNation: What strengths do you see women bringing to entrepreneurship?

Stephanie Breedlove: The trends in today’s marketplace is to just focus on rapid growth, but Barclays recently did a study that revealed that when women entrepreneurs strategize to grow or scale a business, they seem to almost exclusively focus on long-term sustainability, not just rapid growth. A lot of companies struggle to find profitability. They struggle to find quality because they’re so focused on rapid growth. Women tend to focus on long-term sustainability.

I think that building a scalable business with sustained value is a marathon, not a sprint, and women seem to innately get that.

Building companies under this strategy allows you to focus on doing it right, and therefore maximizing value. I feel it’s one of the very best ways to positive impact for their economy and societies.

Related: If You’re Not Thinking Big, You’re Thinking Small [Book Excerpt]

StartupNation: What barriers do women face in entrepreneurship?

Breedlove: If they’re going to create a business of success, entrepreneurs need three forms of capital: financial capital, which is our money; human capital, which is our experience and our team; and our social capital, which is our network, our marketing partners and our business development partners.

Women start and grow their businesses with less of all three of these forms of capital. If you’re starting from ground zero, I think you could say that most women are starting from a negative position. That makes it that much more difficult for us to go where we want to go.

There are four categories of barriers that are plaguing women today. First is funding, and it affects our financial capital and access to funding and the use of that funding. Second are internal and societal barriers, which really are a function of us as individuals trying to come up over the hump of setting aside the norms that entrepreneurs typically look like men instead of women.

The third is lack of role models. It’s largely the reason that I wrote “All In.” There aren’t very many women yet who’ve had long, full, successful entrepreneurial journeys. I feel that as soon as we have time and space to step in and be role models, we should, because it helps women start and grow businesses. Then the fourth barrier, and this is a huge one, is the lack of gender equality. That’s largely a cultural issue. It’s in business. It’s in society. I don’t have all the answers there, but it’s a big barrier.

It would be great if we could focus on all four of these barriers equally, but there’s only so much time, energy, money, manpower. If I had to recommend focusing on one more than the others, would be to focus on financial capital and funding.

Most efforts out there right now to help women entrepreneurs are focused around getting women access to money.

Small business owners really struggle with this, men and women, but I think particularly women. My advice on this particular barrier is that you’ve got to hold yourself fully accountable for being comfortable with the money. I think small business owners need to embrace that their financial knowledge is pivotal to success, no matter how small or large their company. As a founder, you can’t outsource everything financial to your bookkeeper, your accountant, your CFO. It’s smart business to know that the buck stops with you. The difference between failure and making it is on the right level of knowledge around the financials.

StartupNation: What’s the best business advice that you’ve ever gotten?

Breedlove: The very best advice I have ever received came from my husband’s grandfather. He said, “Don’t worry about the thing that you can’t control. Put your efforts into the things that you can control, and you’ll have the greatest success.” I think that’s a good one particularly for women, because we tend to worry about everything.

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StartupNation: Anything else you’d like readers to know about your book or your work?

Breedlove: I have over 20 years (experience) in entrepreneurship. As my business scaled past the $10 million mark in revenue, I began to feel really alone. It was surprising because I didn’t think success would make me feel that way. When I began to research to write “All In,” I learned that there are fewer than 10,000 women-owned business with more than $10 million a year in revenue. I started to think for myself, “My journey should be typical, not extraordinary.” That’s why I decided to write “All In.” One of the top three reasons that women don’t start or choose to grow a business is lack of role models.

We’re early in the evolution of role models and women in entrepreneurship, and there aren’t that many of us. I took the step into trying to fill that gap. I will say selfishly, I think a part of me decided to write “All In” because I’m hungry for more company.

“All In: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Think Bigger, Build Sustainable Businesses, and Change the World,” is available now for purchase at fine booksellers and via StartupNation.com.

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School on Wheels Drives Bigger Impact With Google AdWords

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As a school social worker, Sally Bindley witnessed firsthand the impact of poverty and homelessness on children’s ability to learn. “A lot of services focused on kids’ social needs but weren’t focusing on their educational needs,” she says.

After talking with staff at homeless shelters and advocacy agencies, Sally sprang into action. “I grabbed my mom and my best friend, and she grabbed her mom, and we went to a shelter and said, ‘We can start tutoring your kids.’ It grew organically from there.”

Sally founded the nonprofit School on Wheels in 2001 to connect volunteer tutors with children experiencing homelessness in Indianapolis. The organization has since grown to include over 400 volunteers who provide one-on-one tutoring for children grades K through 12 in nine shelters and four public schools. They also equip parents to become their children’s best educational advocates.

“Because of the web, we’re able to have a bigger impact in our community. It has revolutionized the way we operate.”

Sally Bindley, Founder and CEO

Related: Birk Creative [Google Case Study]

AdWords, Google’s advertising program, has helped this nonprofit grow. “AdWords allows us to do a multitude of different things,” says Sally, “such as finding volunteers, bringing in donations, and promoting our curriculum.” They also use Google Analytics to see where web visitors are coming from. And their YouTube channel includes tips for tutors on engaging children as well as videos to raise awareness about families experiencing homelessness. “People don’t really realize that homelessness is a problem,” Sally explains. “Google tools help us reach more people and show them that this is an issue. The more people know, the more they’ll be part of the solution.”

School on Wheels has 21 employees.

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School on Wheels today hopes to break the cycle of homelessness and “eventually go out of business” as a result of doing so. With numerous success stories of their students going on to college and pursuing rewarding careers, their hope is becoming more and more of a reality. “We’re really making a lasting impact on these children’s lives,” Sally remarks.

Google helps Sally further that impact by enabling the organization to reach more volunteers, partners, and donors—and serve more children and families—while remaining a lean operation. “We couldn’t do this using the phone and pieces of paper,” she says. “This could only happen through the use of technology.”

For more information on the School on Wheels case study, visit http://economicimpact.google.com.

Content provided by Google.

The post School on Wheels Drives Bigger Impact With Google AdWords appeared first on StartupNation.

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How to Set Realistic Sales Goals for Growing Your Startup

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Whether growth for your startup is measured in users, downloads, sessions or another metric, if you want to be successful, the only thing you really need to grow is revenue.

Without consistent sales growth, there’s no room to expand your business by hiring more employees—which means getting serious about how well you can personally deliver on your sales goals in the early days.

This is a very real challenge. The first few years at a startup, whether you bootstrap or take in funding, are always the leanest. You’re pretty much guaranteed to have too much to do and not enough resources to do it all at once.

You need to find product/market fit, nail your lead acquisition strategy, and design a qualified sales funnel that will turn those prospects into leads and eventually customers.

But you’re ready to go, right? You jumped into this crazy world of entrepreneurship because you have big ideas and even bigger goals. And that’s great. We all need that passion to fire us up when the hard times come our way; but when you’re just starting out, setting proper sales goals is hard.

As a founder or sales leader at a startup, it’s your responsibility to set realistic goals—both for your sales team and your investors.

To grow quickly, you can’t just pick a number that sounds good and say “go.” You need to set up your team for long-term success.

Sales goals that help your organization truly grow live at the intersection of realistic and challenging.

They keep your team motivated, your momentum going strong, and investors and co-founders happy. Sounds good, right?

Let’s look at five steps you can take today to set sales goals that will make your company grow.

1. Define“realistic” for your startup

“When 10 percent to 20 percent of salespeople miss goals, the problem might be the salespeople. But when most salespeople miss, the problem is their goals,” wrote the Harvard Business Review.

Before you even start thinking about incentives, commission or bonuses for your sales team, you need to take a good, hard look at your business plan and ask: Is your annual revenue goal realistic?

How you answer this will come down to the research you’ve already done on everything from pricing, the industry you’re in, and how long you’ve been around, to the clients you’ve worked with, the number of prospects in your pipeline, and how many new leads come in a day.

Whew. That’s a lot of moving pieces.

To make this task a little more simple, you can start by looking at these three main factors that will determine whether you’re on the right track:

Determine your company’s goals

Start with what you know.

Even if you’ve been in business for just one year, you’ve got enough data and insight to give a pretty good idea of how things should progress in the next 12 months.

Take a look at the number of new customers who bought your product or service in the past year. How much money did they bring in on average? How quickly is your customer base growing? What’s your best-case scenario? And worst?  

Looking backwards is the best way to get a baseline idea of where you want to go in the future—and it’s important to do this long before you ramp up hiring of salespeople.

Vazil Azarov, founder of Startup Socials, advises entrepreneurs, “One of the most costly mistakes I see over and over again is hiring in sales too early,” Azarov shares when asked about the best piece of business advice he’d give new founders.

Azarov continues, “Things tend to go very wrong when a founder brings on board a senior salesperson who lacks entrepreneurial spirit and experience working in startups. Instead of hiring full-time, founders should seek out and consult with experienced sales veterans who work with startups on a daily basis for a fixed fee based on specific goals. Ultimately, you need to become your startup’s best salesperson and before hiring.”

Given the stage your business is at today, be sure to define realistic goals that can actually be achieved within the confines of your current resource constraints.

Assess the market potential

If you’re selling water to a thirsty man, you can probably safely increase your sales goals without too much worry. Every market and industry has its nuances and you’ll quickly discover whether or not there’s a need for what you’re selling.

But beyond that immediate need, how much room is there to grow?

Setting aggressive sales goals early on in an untapped market can help you capture a larger chunk before competitors catch on.  

Evaluate your sales team

What can you do with the resources you have right now?

If your sales goals can’t be hit by the team you have now, it doesn’t matter how much work you put in. Scaling your team because you’re growing too quickly is a good problem to have. But it also takes time and money.

Before you start sending out quotas to the team, make sure it’s something they can hit, or at least have an answer as to how you’re going to get there together. A great sales team is built on trust and that starts with you.

Lastly, be conservative. Often times, unless you have considerable experience selling your service, it’s easy to underestimate the length of implementing your sales plan.

Related: Go Beyond Money to Inspire Your Salespeople

2. Educate and empower your sales team

Sales can be a battle sometimes, and you want your team to have the best tools available to them. This means training and resources around your company’s unique product, but also the ability to see if what they’re doing is actually working.

For example, here at Close.io, we started with the foundational belief that most CRM software platforms are designed to help managers make better decisions, but they tend to be a burden to sales reps. Because of that, we built a tool that empowers the individual sales rep to focus on their most important activity—communicating with prospects to move the sales conversation forward. As a result, our customers close more deals and our entire sales process is constructed around this main value proposition.

For the long-term success of your sales team (and your company) you might have to look beyond just immediate sales goals. Take the time to dig into their personal process and see what’s working and what isn’t. Peter Drucker was right when he wrote: “What gets measured gets managed.”

Here are a few ideas from Jill Konrath, author of “Agile Selling: Get Up To Speed Quickly in Today’s Ever-Changing Sales World

  • Connection Ratio: What percentage of calls/contacts turn into initial conversations? The more calls you can convert to conversations, the fewer calls you’ll need to make.
  • Initial Meeting Conversation: What percentage of your initial meetings have an immediate follow-up scheduled? The higher this number, the fewer prospects you’ll need.
  • Length of Sales Cycle: How long does it take to close a deal? The longer deals are in your pipeline, the less likely prospects are to do business with you.
  • Closing Ratio: How many of your initial meetings actually turn into customers? If you can close a higher percentage of sales, you’ll be much more successful.
  • Losses to No Decision: What percentage of your forecasted prospects stay with the status quo? Lowering this ratio brings in more revenue.

The best part about digging into this process is that you can sequence them, which is important when it comes to rapidly getting up to speed.

If you’ve got someone just starting out in sales, dig into their Connection Ratio. If they can turn more calls into conversations, they’ll have a more steady stream of prospects coming in.

Don’t just measure volume of calls made or cold emails sent out. Go deeper and ask, “What percentage are currently converting?” Sometimes a small increase in one part can increase the efficiency of your whole process. You just need to give your team the ability to see where they’re going off track.  

Most importantly, drill in the mindset that it’s OK to do things the wrong way.

There’s always going to be a few hiccups as you optimize your own sales process and you can’t have your team afraid to make those mistakes.

3. Properly incentivize your sales team

In the ultra accountable, totally transparent and excessively experience-driven world of startups, being “sales-y” gets a bad rap. Now, we’re not advocating going back to the days of the sleazy, fast-talking salesperson undercutting prospect and colleague alike. But rather creating a culture of friendly competition where it’s in everyone’s best interests to bring in as many sales as possible.

As much as you think your company culture and perks are enough of a reason, the truth is that your salespeople need a reason to bust their asses and hit those sales goals. And making some component of their compensation scale with the number of new clients they sign or milestones they hit is a great way to keep their eyes firmly glued on those numbers. This is the foundation of an organization-wide sales strategy that’ll position you for long-term growth.

Pair that competition with compensation—so everyone knows what the prize is for coming out on top—and you’ve got the recipe for a sales team that not only respects each other and enjoys working together, but who constantly strive to outperform one another.

Define your commission structure from the start

There is no such thing as the perfect commission structure for your startup. Just like every other aspect, how you compensate sales performance will change dramatically as you grow and learn. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have anything in place to start. You need to pick something and test it out.

Typically, there are two ways you can go about designing your commission structure:

  1. Work with your first few sales hires. Tell them you’ll pay a base salary and design a commission structure together as you grow and learn. This won’t be for everyone and you might lose a few good people along the way. But in the end, you’ll know that what you have is based on real numbers from real people.
  2. Fake it til you make it. Come up with a structure and sales goals that are based on what you want (but that is probably just wishful thinking) and go for it.  

Whatever path you choose depends on your own personality and company culture. But the important thing to remember is to stay flexible and adapt as you learn more about your business, the market potential, and what customers want.

Reward (realistic) stretch goals

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ 1990s business bestseller, “Built to Last,” famously preached the virtue of setting “big, hairy, audacious goals.” In other words, stretch goals—targets beyond 100 percent for those who truly hit excellence.

While these moonshot goals can help foster creativity and innovation, they can also quickly turn your team against you.

As Harvard Business Review writes, while the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not.

“The consequences of setting and then missing stretch goals can be profound. Failures can foster employee fear and helplessness, kill motivation, and ultimately damage performance.”

So, before you start throwing out Hail Marys, ask yourself two questions:

    1. Are you coming off a win? Or getting out of a slump? A stretch goal might seem like a great way to inspire salespeople to turn the ship around, but audacious goals set in struggling times can come across as desperate and threatening, or even inspire the wrong types of innovation.  
    2. Do you have the resources? Your sales team needs to be set up to win or else a stretch goal is nothing more than a slap in the face. Nobody can make something out of nothing and the people on your sales team are no different.

If you’re not in the position to set up stretch goals, then instead look at celebrating small wins while you set aside the resources for your team to go all in.

Implement retention bonuses

A great sales team thinks long-term as well as short-term. The last thing you want is to create a culture of quick turnovers just because your sales team is chasing after signing new clients only.

Instead, incentivize them to make sure they’re signing the right customers up.

In today’s modern sales world, it’s not about how much value you can take from a customer, but how much you can provide to them that makes them stick around. The best part about designing bonuses such as these is that they inspire your sales team to think beyond just signing a client and into the whole customer lifecycle.

Here are a few ideas of when you can reward your team:

  • When the clients they sign hit an anniversary. Base bonuses off of when clients hit a 6- or 12-month anniversary. This way, sales isn’t just thinking about signing on new clients, but how to keep them around, as well. Because at a startup, customer happiness is everyone’s responsibility.
  • When their clients upgrade to a higher plan. Providing enough value to turn a casual user into a die-hard fan is every entrepreneur’s dream. So why not compensate your sales team when they do just that?  
  • When past clients become repeat customers. Sometimes the nature of your business means you won’t have clients signed on for long periods of time (like when you’re selling a product or one-off service). Instead, you can reward your sales team for when they bring that warm lead back into the fold and sell them a new product or service.

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4. Calculate your ideal monthly sales goal

Staying on track with your annual sales goals means keeping a close eye on how they change month to month.

Whether sales go up or down, you want to be able to track that and figure out why that change happened.

Is there a seasonal aspect to what you’re selling? Did you hire a new team member? Or change the product in some way?

To see whether what you’re doing is affecting the top line, you need to know your ideal monthly sales goals. You can find this easily by working backwards from the (realistic) annual revenue target you need to hit as an organization.

Take that number and calculate:

  • Company sales goals (monthly)
  • Department sales goals (monthly)
  • Individual sales rep goals (monthly)

When it comes to looking at the individuals on your sales team, you can’t just divvy up a piece of the pie to each teammate. You need their sales goals to be incentives they can actually reach.

You don’t want people to be discouraged and so you need to look at what’s possible for them based on their previous sales level and skill set.

Look at other factors too, such as their access to leads, what vertical they’re in, and if there are any market forces that might make their goals harder to hit. This way you’ll help avoid setting your sales rep (and yourself) up for underwhelming results.  

Don’t expect to get your sales goals right on the first try

There are only three components for success in the startup world: build, measure, repeat. Your sales goals are no different.

As your business and your team change and grow, you’ll need to adjust to real-world results.

If a sales person hits their stride and starts knocking goals out of the park, see how you can continue to motivate and push them. Similarly, if someone’s having a down month, take the time to go deep with them. Take them aside individually and see what’s going on. Get insight on their approach and give feedback.  

And just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s the best process. Once you think your sales goals and process is in a good place, start to lean on it. Maybe your script is clunky and needs some work or your emails could generate a better response rate.

Don’t worry if things don’t work out right away. And if they do, keep on questioning them anyways.

Lack of iteration is what prevents companies from making a good sales process great.

5. Emphasize activity goals

The hardest part about growing sales is that no matter what you do you can’t force a lead to convert. (After all, it’s not like you’re standing there with Big Al and a baseball bat telling a potential customer it’s in their best interests to sign up for your service).

You can’t control results, but you can control your actions.

Luckily, your team can still get amazing results by focusing on what they do instead of only obsessing over the results. These are called activity goals—where you focus on the repeatable actions you can take that have landed you sales in the past.

Here’s an example:

Think about a quarterback playing in the Super Bowl. When they throw the football, their goal isn’t to win the game. Their goal is to complete the pass. The trophy may be the motivation that got them to that point, but when they run on the field, their focus is solely on doing every move right. If they do just that, they’ve done everything they can to ensure success.

Giving your team this same mentality can help them hit their goals every single month.

Here’s how:

  1. Identify your average (or target) close rate. Look back over the last month and see how many calls/emails you made and how many sales resulted. If you made 100 and had four sales, your close rate is 4 percent.
  2. Calculate how many calls/emails it’ll require on a daily basis to hit your new target. So, if you want to hit six sales a month, your team will have to make 150 calls/emails.
  3. Ask if that number is doable for your team

Now, instead of knowing you need to make six sales a week, you know you need to make 150 calls/emails.

Flipping the script like this not only helps reduce the fear of rejection on an individual sale level (because you’re focusing on the conversation, not the conversion), but keeps your sales reps’ stress level lower.  

You get great results focusing on the things you can do. Not those out of your control.

And if you’re putting in the numbers and the sales still aren’t coming?

Here are a few ideas to get you back on track:

  • You need more people in the frontend of your pipeline. Work with your marketing team or look for ways to find more prospects.
  • Your conversion rate is too low. Dig back into your process and start to experiment where people are dropping off.
  • You’re not identifying the best leads. Is there more you can do to qualify the leads you’re contacting?
  • You’re not effectively selling your product. Work with your team to understand the benefits of your product more so they can better respond to common objections.
  • Make changes to the product itself. Listen to what your prospects are saying. Find out which of their needs isn’t being fulfilled and communicate those needs to your product team.

Bonus: The long-term goals that supercharge growth

We’ve talked a lot about setting up sales goals here, but what about ones that don’t initially directly relate to revenue? 

For long-term success, you need a committed sales team that will grow alongside you.

So set aside time to set goals around productivity, revenue generation, as well as personal and professional development. Take the time to really get to understand your sales team and what’s holding them back. Then, you can start to set goals around the areas that need improvement. And remember, setting and monitoring goals isn’t enough.

You need to provide guidance and support in helping them achieve these goals. In the end, you’ll not just have an amazing sales team that hits your goals out of the park, but a strong, cohesive group of self-aware professionals who will provide you with the best results year after year.

The post How to Set Realistic Sales Goals for Growing Your Startup appeared first on StartupNation.

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No Try, Only Do: Early Lessons in Entrepreneurship [Book Excerpt]

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The following edited excerpt is reprinted from “No Try, Only Do,” Copyright © 2017 by Andy Bailey, CEO, founder and head coach at Petra Coach, a national business coaching firm. Published by Advantage.

It’s the gift and curse of entrepreneurs to see gaps everywhere.
 Most of us entrepreneurs walk around this planet constantly spotting these gaps and thinking, “Oh, there’s a gap. That process could be done better, this could be more efficient, and if we do it this way, someone might pay for it. How do we build a business around that?”

My youngest daughter, Gracen, is a great example of this. At age fifteen she saw a gap in people having extra stuff in their homes and not having the time or expertise to sell it on eBay.

It started with my own growing collection of outdated Fitbits. I got the first version when it came out, then I wanted the next one and the next and never got rid of the old ones— they just sat there collecting dust in my closet. So Gracen sold them for me and at the same time learned how to negotiate the posting, bidding, selling and shipping processes at eBay.

She could have just done that for me, made a few bucks, and left it at that. But she saw a gap—she saw the need to help others sell items that they didn’t want to just throw away but didn’t have the time to sell.

It was the beginning of “Gracie’s Garage,” and the very first thing she did was create a list of item types that sold well and for high multiples. Then she created a flyer and had me hand it to people who I thought could use her services.

In a couple months, she’d taken over the big walk-in closet in our guest bedroom. Everything in it is labeled and inventoried, neatly organized into drawers and logs kept on their online activity. She does the research, handles the shipping and even negotiates the complaint and refund process if buyers receive an item that’s either not what they wanted, missing a part or broken.

Related: 5 Lessons to Learn About Entrepreneurship from Writing a Novel

There are plenty of nights when I come home, walk by the closet, and hear her playing music and typing away, digging into the history of some item or communicating with someone on the other side of the world.

And just like an entrepreneur, she gets frustrated. When she first started selling, she came to me in a huff because eBay was charging her three dollars to process a payment.

“That’s three of my dollars,” she said angrily. 
I couldn’t have been prouder.
 She’s learning these incredible lessons at a young age, and even though they’re on a small level now, they’ll lead her down a path that will help her be a better entrepreneur later on; and she’s already pretty good at it.

My own business, a cellular phone agency called NationLink, was also pretty good at spotting entrepreneurial gaps and filling them. For instance, we took a unique approach to billing in 2004 that brought us an incredible number of new clients.

Even today, wireless bills are a confusing mess, and you can imagine the complexity of a one- to three-person family plan versus the monthly bill for an organization with fifteen or even five hundred phones. Often, people just gave up trying to sort them out and simply paid the bill.

We saw that as a gap and decided to tackle it from two directions: creating a bill-auditing service and creating an online portal that allowed an organization to handle all things cellular in one place.


Petra Coach, too, was created to fill the gap between what Verne Harnish’s “Rockefeller Habits” are and how you actually put them into practice in your business. Our software, Align, was another stopgap that’s proven highly useful to businesses, whether or not they’re implementing the Habit methodologies.

Related: Sign up to receive the StartupNation newsletter!

But Petra Coach, and later Align—the software we created to fill the gap of tracking and aligning team members in real-time—were not early ventures for me in the entrepreneurial world.

Just like Gracen, I had to build my first business. Then I had to sell it, take it back, and struggle to build it again before I even discovered the Rockefeller Habits—and then I had to figure them out for myself. It was twenty years, in fact, before the idea for Petra Coach hit me like a rock.

What do your early days of entrepreneurship look like?

For more about Andy and his entrepreneurial journey, as well as his lessons for entrepreneurs at all career stages, check out the rest of “No Try, Only Do” via Amazon.

The post No Try, Only Do: Early Lessons in Entrepreneurship [Book Excerpt] appeared first on StartupNation.

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5 Must-Read Business Books for Entrepreneurs [VIDEO]

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What business books have made the biggest impact on your startup and your life? I am constantly asking friends and colleagues for book recommendations because I love to learn new things and hear different ideas. As the great Tony Robbins says, “readers are leaders,” and it’s important for us to continually learn and grow, especially those of us entrepreneurs who are building a business.

With so many books to choose from, it can be overwhelming to decide which ones are worth picking up. When a book has a big impact on me, I love sharing it with my friends and colleagues.

Related: 2017’s Best Business Books for Personal Growth, Leadership and Motivation

It was certainly a challenge to scale this list down to only five essential books, since there are so many others I believe business owners and entrepreneurs can benefit from. However, in this video, I shared five of my favorite business books and why they are helpful.

I hope at least one of them piques your interest and inspires you to pick up a copy.

Related: Sign up to receive the StartupNation newsletter!

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Startup Hacks: How to Get Your Invoices Paid, Fast

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One of the biggest challenges of being a small business owner is convincing clients to pay invoices, especially when you’ve asked more than once. It’s easy to waste hours mailing and re-mailing invoices, digging through old communications to determine the hold-up, making uncomfortable phone calls, and harassing customers with reminder emails. All to get the money your business has already worked tirelessly to earn.

The following tried-and-true techniques will help you get your money faster. They’ll improve your startup’s invoicing process, starting with proactive policies and finishing with savvy automated invoicing systems.

Tips for faster collections

Celebrate that you’re in the driver’s seat. As the owner of your own small business, you have the power to set proactive policies that help you get money fast by promoting timely payment. Are you having problems convincing clients to pay promptly? For immediate results, check to see if these four must-have policies are in place:

  1.  Payment first

If your company has a history of late-paying customers, implement a pay-first policy. Require that clients pay in full or leave a specified deposit before receiving the desired service or product.

  1.  Invoice quickly and routinely

Here’s one simple hack for entrepreneurs: bill often, bill early. Create a schedule, and stick to it. Sporadic invoices months after the fact are a mess for both you and your clients. If it is not intuitive, it will not be remembered. If you currently allow 30 days before payment, consider tightening your timeline to seven or 14 days. Send the first invoice promptly after the transaction, while the customer still has your business on their brain.

One final tip: Avoid at least one awkward phone call or letter by invoicing a second time before payment is due, not after. Frame this early invoice as a friendly reminder, doing the customer a favor, instead of the more direct tone that you will use once payment is past due.  

Related: 6 Ways to (Quickly) Boost Your Startup’s Cash Flow

  1.  Outline fees

What happens if your customer doesn’t pay on time? Clear, well-communicated consequences are important for getting money faster. Implement a late-payment fee or pause work until payment is received. One common type of fee: a 2 percent interest if payment is not reached within 30 days.

  1.  Reward fast payment

Invoicing doesn’t have to be solely about serious rules and cold-cut consequences. Have a little fun and share your gratitude at the same time by adding a reward for customers who pay before the specified due date. And remember: always say thank you.

  1.   Communicate expectations upfront with your customers

No one appreciates surprises, especially when money is involved. At the time of sale, present your client with clear and detailed documentation of your company’s invoicing policies. Walk them through your startup’s expectations. Keep it concise, but don’t feel the need to rush; these are important details.

  1.  Be clear

Use everyday language. Choose language that is even more conversational than you think is necessary. For example, consider swapping “Net 30” with “Due in 30 days.” Simplicity and clarity is important, so that even if your client is just glancing at the invoice amidst a busy day, they understand what is being asked of them.

  1.  Be polite, always

Studies show that saying “please” and “thank you” improves how promptly customers pay. No matter how stressful the situation, stay calm, and remember that manners work. Your company’s reputation is imperative; keeping every situation as professional and cordial as possible is essential.

Related: Sign up to receive the StartupNation newsletter!

Systems for faster invoices

Save time and get money faster with online invoicing and accounting software for your small business. These programs do the heavy lifting for you, sending and managing invoices with the click of a button. Not convinced? Take note: On average, customers pay over a week sooner when they can pay online. Here are some invoicing services you could consider.

  1.  Freshbooks

You can automate the entire process with a complete-service system. Freshbooks is one of the most popular small business accounting and invoicing services on the market, with millions of users worldwide. The cloud-based program enables you to be as hands on (or hands off) as you prefer.

You can create a professional-looking invoice and this digital system will send, track and update client payment as it arrives. Recurring invoicing and deposit options allow customization to fit your business’ invoicing schedule. After a free trial, Freshbooks has multiple plans starting at $20. Price varies based on the size of your client database and the number of invoices you need to send.

  1.  Due

Due is popular because it is clean and easy. “A free digital wallet that lets you make and accept payments online,” Due prides itself with transparency. There are no hidden fees, no per-transaction costs and credit card rates start at a guaranteed 2.8 percent. You can use the easy-to-read dashboard to track sent, received, saved and paid invoices.

  1.  Wave

Wave is another favorite among smaller, newer businesses because like Due, it has a simple, user-friendly interface. Ideal for companies that are looking mostly for invoicing services, Wave’s invoicing is free to use.They, of course, have pricing options depending on what you need, but at a starting cost of free, it’s not a bad deal.

  1.  Intuit Quickbooks

Quickbooks is perhaps most popular for its accounting capabilities, but it’s equally equipped for small business invoicing. Notably, Quickbooks’ invoices can be easily customized to reflect your style and brand. A handy “pay now” button can be added to online invoices to encourage immediate and hassle-free payment. Special, more affordable payment plans are available for independent contractors and small business.

Get money, today

Let’s recap. Your business depends on steady, reliable cash flow to survive. Don’t underestimate the importance of smart invoicing, as finding the right system for your company is worth the search. Get started with today’s small business hacks. Save time and money by starting with the right policies and user-friendly technology. All of these tips will help you get money fast, keeping your business up and running all year long.

The post Startup Hacks: How to Get Your Invoices Paid, Fast appeared first on StartupNation.

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Artificial Intelligence: What Small Businesses Need to Know

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Today, the possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI) are within the reach of almost every small business. Contemporary artificial intelligence is not only equivalent to the human mind for some particular tasks, but goes beyond what can be asked of mortal employees when it comes to the 9 to 5. In business, there are a few specialized areas in which AI is unquestionably superior. While the bleeding-edge of machine learning may be dominated by a handful of big companies that can invest millions or billions of dollars in this technology, this doesn’t mean that their discoveries can’t be harnessed by entrepreneurial organizations of a more humble size.

Automated intelligence

The interactions you have with potential customers yield useful information, like contact details and demographic profiles, that can enhance your marketing strategies. The problem is that this data piles up quickly and can turn into a vast mountain that seems too big to deal with. Artificial intelligence programs can help sort through it all, analyze it, make accurate predictions and deliver actionable recommendations for how to maximize your marketing returns.

Once your outreach efforts start to yield results and crowds begin lining up to buy your product or utilize your services, you can use AI to make your sales funnel more successful. Many of the routine chores associated with guiding a lead through to a successful conversion can be automated with the help of innovative technologies.

Related: Wired Magazine Co-Founder Talks Major Artificial Intelligence Breakthroughs [Book Excerpt]

Intelligent assistants

Chatbots have a role to play in both sales and marketing. They can engage in natural language conversations with customers through email or live chat, answering questions and booking sales without any human monitoring required. They’re also great at spreading the word about your enterprise through text messages and social marketing.

Networking with other entrepreneurs and leaders in your field becomes easier with AI by your side. Automatic translation tools enable conversations with people all around the world, significantly expanding your list of possible contacts. A computerized virtual assistant can schedule meetings for you, remind you of items on your to-do list and more.

One category of virtual assistants deserves special mention: voice-enabled software agents that you can interact with merely by speaking to them. Amazon’s Alexa AI application has shown that these capabilities are available to the average layperson rather than being the exclusive domain of the tech-savvy. Not only can Alexa make your daily routines go faster and more smoothly, but it also opens up another avenue for communicating with your audience.

Artificial intelligence efficiencies

Even in the back office, artificial intelligence is proving its mettle. Routine accounting tasks, like invoice preparation and making charts, can be put into the hands of an autonomous system. This will free up your own accounting personnel for more vital endeavors, or, if your organization has very modest accounting requirements, it might even allow you to forgo the services of a full-time accountant entirely.

Small businesses also must take precaution to safeguard their own computers, files and other valuable assets (including goods for sale) and typically must do so on a tight budget. Artificial intelligence is the future of security (for better or worse) and savvy businesses would do well to incorporate it into their overall security strategy. AI analytics in smart security cameras and motion detectors make a security officer’s efforts more calculated and effective. Regarding cyber security, AI-enabled tools are the best defence against hackers, who use increasingly sophisticated methods to gain access to business networks and steal valuable private data.

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The number of AI packages that individual business owners can take advantage of right now is large and growing. There are a host of solutions for data analytics, predictive modeling and market intelligence that you can sign up for without having to try to build everything from scratch. Amazon and Salesforce are two of the giants who can deploy AI on your behalf for a modest price. There are other companies that will help you cost-effectively develop a custom chatbot, and you can always create a “Skill” for the Amazon Alexa that will put your name in front of thousands of users.

As we head into the future, we’ll see the further refinement of artificial intelligence to the point that it may become impossible to distinguish human conversations from those involving chatbots. Google’s sophisticated image categorizing routines have already achieved error rates more or less equal to those of flesh-and-blood people, and there’s no reason why chatbots can’t eventually demonstrate the same level of accuracy. This will effectively give small businesses virtual employees who are well-rounded, competent and able to work 24/7. It’s clear that entrepreneurs who leverage the potential of this technology will encounter exciting opportunities for growth.

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