Thursday, June 30, 2011

Taking Your Business to the Next Level

“How can I evaluate new business opportunities?” “How can I determine whether to sell one of my three businesses?” “How can I better plan for future contingencies?” “Will I be able to sell my business in ten years and afford to retire?” These questions and others like them are ones that small business owners should be  asking themselves. As often happens, we become complacent when all is going well. We can breathe--and even take a vacation! However, businesses often take on a life of their own and may be headed down a path that is different from what the owner envisions. The owner just hasn’t told the business of his or her vision. Taking your business to the next level is that type of planning. It asks: “Where is my business going? Where do I want it to go? How can I get there?”

The First Step—Your Current Reality

To begin this type of planning, you need to know where you are—what is your current reality? This involves some data gathering and analysis. While this will be different for each business, there are four main areas you’ll typically need to look at to assess your current situation: finances; marketing; employees; and facilities. Let’s briefly look at some of the issues in each of these areas.

• Finances: Do you prepare monthly financial statements? If not, then this is the place to start. If you do, do you analyze them? What do you see when you look at trends in revenues and major expense categories? Are they changing? Is the change positive or negative? By calculating a few standard financial ratios, you can better understand what’s going on. You will also gain an idea of how your business compares with others in your industry.

• Marketing: How much do you know about your customers? Who are they? Where do they live? What other demographic data do you know about them? What influences their buying decisions? Has your customer base changed over the years? Is one type of customer more profitable than other ones? Who are your competitors? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What is your competitive advantage—why should customers come to your business and not the competition? What about your prices—are they too high or too low?

• Employees: Do your employees know what you expect of them? How do you communicate this? Can they take over for one another when necessary? Do they know what values your business is run on? What is your employee turnover rate? And why do employees leave?

• Facilities: Is your space adequate? Can you expand? How would your customers and employees evaluate your location and facilities?

The Next Step—Creating a Vision and a Plan

Where do you want to go and what do you want your business to accomplish? Now that you know where you are—what the current reality is—you can begin creating a vision of what you’d like to see as a future reality. Your vision can be broad in scope, including personal goals and goals for your community. Now ask yourself what part you want your business to play in fulfilling that vision. Your answer to that question becomes your mission statement. Armed with a firm understanding of your current Taking Your Business to
the Next Level  reality and what you’d like to create as your future reality, you can prepare an action plan that will help you to realize your vision.

How the SBDC Can Help

At the SBDC, we work with small business owners to help them gain an understanding of their current situation, create a vision, and develop a plan to get there. For example, a few years ago we worked with an entrepreneur who owned three businesses. He had a good understanding of his current situation and he had some components of a vision: he wanted more personal flexibility to enjoy life as he got older, and he wanted to be able to take advantage of opportunities to sell one or more of his businesses. We worked with him to fine-tune that vision, and we helped him to develop not only an action plan, but also a series of analytical tools for decision-making.

Businesses are never standing still, they are either moving forward or backward. By using the approach outlined above, you can move your business forward to the next level of success. Let us know if we can help you with this.

Kathleen Purdy is the Center Director of the Olympic Peninsula Small Business Development Center (SBDC),  This article was first published in Olympic Business Journal

8 Ways to Increase Your Cash Flow in a Cash-Crunched Economy

Every day I hear about cash flow problems from business owners. In this economy, most of us are having cash flow concerns. I am hearing that sales of most small retail businesses are down 10% to 20% from
last year. If you don’t understand the different ways to increase your cash flow, you can get stuck thinking you have no options. If you are having cash flow concerns, chances are it is difficult for you to get a loan  from the bank.

My clients continue to come up with inventive ways to solve their cash flow concerns. I wanted to share some of their stories in the hope it will be helpful to you. I’ve broken these down into 8 ideas to help you increase your cash flow:

1 Create a positive cash flow cycle. The cash flow cycle refers to the difference in timing between when you pay for products or payroll and when you get paid by your clients. A negative cash flow cycle means you pay out before you get paid. A positive cash flow cycle means you get paid before you have to pay out. One client recently asked her vendors for 30 day terms and got it. It put her into a positive cash flow immediately. Other clients have started asking for ½ down before they start the job and some clients offer small incentives for paying accounts receivables early.

2 Increase your average sale. If you can get your customers to buy more of your stuff, for more money, and more often you will increase your average sale. When your average sale goes up more dollars go into your bank account. I have one retail client that started carrying more upscale products, increased her prices on some items, and bundled or packaged some products together. She saw an immediate improvement in her cash flow.

3 Increase your sales and marketing efforts. This is a hard time for building supply companies. One client opened a building supply company just before the real estate market slow down. Oops! So, he took a gamble and advertised on T.V. It was hard to spend the money, but the results are that he has been increasing sales every month since he opened. Another client doubled her sales force and has increased sales every month of the downturn. There really is a lot of opportunity out there.

4 Cut your costs. This one seems like a no brainer, however, many of my clients have been slow to do the difficult cost cutting that is required to stay profitable. One of my clients was very slow to cut costs. We worked together and talked about each expense and explored other ways to get what she needed without spending so much. We found several creative ways to cut costs without hurting productivity or customer service.

5 Reduce or restructure debt payments. The payments you make on business debts, because it is money out of your bank account, are an important area that affects your cash flow. One client talked to their banker, but the banker was reluctant to refinance or restructure the debt. I told this client that the secret was to talk to a bank different from his own. Banks other than yours view gaining your deposit and loans accounts as a big win. Your current bank doesn’t always appreciate your accounts until they are about to lose them. Needless to say, this client did well in lowering their debt payments and received some other nice perks as well.

6 Reduce or eliminate capital expenditures. One business I worked with had a very tight cash flow because she is growing. Growth always creates a drain on cash. She needed equipment and trucks to get the next step. Buying new stuff was out of the question. She started asking people she knew for what she wanted and got the equipment and trucks for almost nothing.

7 Increase the productivity of your staff. I worked with a small business with a tight cash flow that was doing about $800,000 in annual sales but there was very little profit they were just breaking even. We determined through a break even analysis that if we increased sales to $1,000,000 they should add about $100,000 to the bottom line. When they came back the next year they had actually increased their sales to $1,400,000, but there was still no profit. Based on the numbers, our analysis of the situation was that they hadn’t increased the productivity of their staff. When they added new business, their staff costs expanded with their sales. The idea is to find ways for your staff to get more done with less time, energy, effort, or cost.

8 Increase your prices. Increasing price is one of the hardest things for business owners to do. I worked with one owner to research the prices of her competitors. We found that her prices were at least 25% below what her competitors were charging for the same type of products. We experimented with pricing and found that some items actually sold faster when they were priced higher. One business owner increased his prices by just $1. It added an extra $3,000 a month or $36,000 annually to the cash flow. You know that “cash is king.” It is the key to surviving the down times. By working smarter as well has harder you will improve your chances of survival and increase the value of your business. Think of it this way; by improving your cash flow now in this economy, when it bounces back (and it will), you will benefit from improved profitability, productivity, and a positive cash flow.

This article was written by Kirk Davis, an SBDC Certified Business Advisor for the Kent Small Business Development Center, To locate your local SBDC advisor please visit the SBDC web site

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Can You Increase Sales by Exporting?

The Washington Small Business Development Center Export Program focuses on working with new-to-export and new-to-market companies with little or no expertise in international trade. The program has set an ambitious goal of establishing a “Culture of Exporting” across the state within the next two years.
The Washington SBDC recently opened two Export Centers to assist Washington businesses to prepare for or expand their export capabilities. Located in South Seattle and Spokane, each center is staffed with two seasoned trade specialists. These new centers join a statewide network of 24 small business development centers and 26 certified business advisors who provide no-cost small business advising services.

The four trade specialists bring to their work assisting new-to-market businesses several decades of experience in international markets, unique skill sets and many years of living and working abroad. In addition, a group of WSU interns are conducting targeted export market research that will assist SBDC clients as they develop business plans that ensure successful and long-term export activities.

The Export Centers:
• Provide no-cost confidential, in-depth, and long-term one-on-one export advice
• Assist in preparing market and trade research
• Help clients assess their export readiness and determine next steps
• Collaborate with clients to develop a plan that ensures short and long-term exporting success
• Provide or locate additional resources as needed

The Export Web Portal at is also available, featuring the following:
• Extensive research resources that are categorized and link to specific web pages not just websites.
• Export process “mind map” that outlines the process of preparing and executing an export plan. The process includes links to information, outlines, resource documents and partner resources.
• Frequently asked questions “mind map” that leads to specific resources that have the needed information.  

Join the Online Revolution -- Engage in Radical Self-Promotion

The Goal of Social Media is to Increase Sales. Really?

Social media provides the tools that enable us to have online conversations. I know, the big advice out there today about social media is don’t try to sell anything to anyone. The idea of social media is to be part of the conversation to build relationships over time. Of course, our goal in business is to sell more stuff to more people.

The new revolution in business is social media marketing. If done right, it can be your key to radically improving sales. The question is how do you increase sales by using social media? Sun Tzu in the Art of War explains that strategy is determined by the terrain. Here is an overview of the social media terrain.
Your Word-of-Mouth Marketing Just Got a Megaphone

There are three ways your customers eventually find you online:
1 Search engines
2 Browsing
3 Recommendation

Susan Boyle, chances are you have heard of her, the Britain’s Got Talent superstar already has just under 40,000,000 views on one YouTube video in just 11 days. She is listed on the second page of most viewed videos of all time for YouTube. Most of us heard about her because her performance was recommended to us. The idea is you want your business, your products and your services to be recommended as well.

Social media gives your word-of-mouth marketing a megaphone. You have a good business, your customers love you. You just need more customers. Here is an important rule of social media marketing . . .

You Must Be Present to Win
Out of sight is out of mind. There is a saying in business, “You must win mind share before you can win market share.” Social media is where conversations and recommendations are happening. By joining the conversation you become visible and good things can happen from there.

Here are some ways to be present to win:
1 Listening to the conversations you are interested in
2 Participating in those conversations
3 Publishing information
4 Facilitating a conversation

Ask your customers which social media they use. Twitter, Facebook, forums, YouTube, Yelp, others? You can also search topics that relate to your business to find where relevant conversations are occurring online. You can use Google alerts and to  find articles, blogs, newsletters, and other online content that will help you gain insights into your customers, your industry, and discover a whole new world of ideas.

By participating on social media websites like,, and hundreds more just like them you can create a profile that will show up on the front page of search engines. (I was surprised today to find I was on the front page of Google when I searched my name.) Participating in social media increases the likelihood that you will show up on the front page of search engines when customers are looking for you.

Here are some interesting ways to participate. You can start a blog, comment on other people’s blogs, comment on relevant news articles, comment on published online articles, and link to interesting information on your website and other people’s websites on Twitter.

You can publish (for free) pictures, videos, articles and announcements. Your new customers will find your published materials and those materials will link back to your website. There are hundreds of places to publish your information.

Websites like,, Facebook,, and others like them allow you to create social networking groups for free, for your customers. You can facilitate your own conversations that will meet the specific needs of your existing and new customers.

Social Media is More like Customer Service than Sales and Marketing
There is a buying process customers go through when they are deciding to do business with you:
1 Awareness
2 Consideration
3 Purchase
4 Loyalty

Social media helps with the awareness, consideration, and loyalty aspects of the buying process. Think of social media marketing as a customer service outreach. Chances are, you are already good at customer service and social media gives you exposure to new people very quickly.

“Give Them Something to Talk About”
You know what I mean. Believe me; we are all learning how to use and how to win customers with social media. I’ve talked to several social media experts and they admit they are stilling learning and discovering. No one has all of the answers. So don’t feel bad as you feel your way through this new terrain. The best advice I have heard about social media marketing is to spend no more than one hour per day working on it. You are already busy enough. What you put online stays online and works for you 24/7. So giving it an hour a day allows you to build slowly and get better as you go.

You may not get results over night; however momentum will build as you give them something to talk about.

Radical Self-Promotion - Crawl, Walk, Run
People do business with people they know, trust, and like. Social media gets you out there. You are the face of the company. As you participate and publish you build credibility and trust. That’s why we call it “radical self-promotion.” We want to get know you. Start small. Crawl, then walk, and then run. Do one social networking site at time and then add more as you go. The good news is, you become visible, your search engine ranking improves, you encourage raving fans, you get recommendations, you get to know your customers better, you get to meet new people, and yes social media will result in more sales. I highly recommend it.

Social Media Action Plan:
1 Search online for information about your industry or line of business
2 Join and check out several online communities as you have time
3 Pick one social media website at a time and learn how to use it
4 Spend one hour a day listening, participating, publishing, and/or facilitating
5 Track website traffic, search page rank, and increased sales for effectiveness

This article was written by Kirk Davis, an SBDC Certified Business Advisor with the Kent Small Business Development Center, which is part of the 24 statewide offices of the Washington Small Business Development Center network(WSBDC).

Revisiting Your Credit Strategy

Monitoring and understanding your cash flow is probably one of the most critical aspects of business management. Cash flow has always been important to businesses, but many business owners have recently been reminded of this in a very unpleasant fashion; i.e. the cancellation or reduction of a vital credit line.
Business owners typically concentrate their efforts on year-end tax planning and strategizing for increased sales in the coming year. It is rare, in the planning process, to see businesses pay equal attention to planning for cash flow by reviewing the business’ credit strategy (the way that bills are paid and the way in which you receive payments for goods and services that are sold).
Following are some tips on things to consider when you review your credit strategy:

• Think twice about paying early on your business debts since you may use up cash reserves that may be critical for survival.

• You may need to consider asking your customers for more financial information to determine whether they have the capacity to pay for goods and services purchased on account.

• You may need to reconsider the length of time that you are allowing your customers to pay on their accounts or you may need to consider asking for a larger deposit or a greater percentage of the total cost of a project to reduce the risk of bad debts.

• Consider taking credit cards, if you are not doing so already, since the bank’s merchant fees may be a small price to pay for not worrying about collecting from some of your customers. It may be more important for you to have the cash in the bank!

• Use the maximum time allowable to pay your suppliers on account unless you will lose the benefit of a discount.

• The economy is still tight and funding is tough to find, so do not assume that your existing strategy will continue to work for you. Instead, be proactive about addressing any policies that might increase your risk for bad debts.

• Clean up your financial statements, strengthen your equity position in your business, and continually monitor your cash flow position.

Article written by Susan Hoosier, Certified Business Advisor and Certified Economic Development Professional, with the Small Business Development Center, which is part of the 24 statewide offices of the Washington Small Business Development Center network (WSBDC).

The ABCs of Profitability

As a business owner or future entrepreneur, I believe it’s never too early to start thinking about how to make and keep your business profitable. In simple terms, profitability is the amount of sales revenue left over after business costs. Learning to measure profits helps to answer the question, “Are we making enough or going to make enough money for our efforts?”
You, as a business owner, have control over four major areas that affect profitability:

1 Price you charge for your products and/or services.

2 Quantity (or volume) of products and/or services you sell (marketing or operations issue).

3 Variable costs you directly acquire by producing or buying the products and services you sell (These are called variable costs because they increase or decrease as your sales increase or decrease).

4 Fixed costs you incur whether you make any sales or not.

The strategy you come up with involves taking action to increase or decrease any of the four factors in consideration of its impact on, or the impact from, each of the other factors.

Here is an example of learning to measure profitability and make changes. A few years ago I met with owners of a service business that had not been profitable since it started two years prior. I prepared a break-even summary for them, which is a simple equation that says how many sales dollars or units sold are necessary to cover fixed and variable costs.

The conclusion was they needed eight sales a day to break even. Their gasp of horror was the only thing I heard. “But we can only process three sales a day,” they said. “Ah ha,” I responded. “There are two things you need to do to improve profitability in your business.”

1 Streamline your system, (operations), so you can handle more quantity of sales.
2 Raise prices. In this case the paperwork around each sale is what was providing their value to the customers.

The reason it took them a few years to recognize they weren’t profitable was because they were not keeping on top of their bookkeeping. Bookkeeping errors is my fifth addition to the four factors of profitability. SBDC advisors around the state will agree that nearly all of the businesses they advise have errors in their books.

One of the best things a business owner can do is to learn what each report means, how to read it and how to set it up to accurately reflect the true activities of the business. Questions I often hear are: “What is the difference between a balance sheet and income statement? Why does the business show a profit on the income statement yet has no cash in the bank?”

As the leader of the business, learning the answers can be one of the most empowering things an entrepreneur can do. When set up correctly, the information in these financial reports can be used to make accurate decisions toward being and staying a profitable business. As the saying goes, “All roads lead to the numbers.”

This article was written by Jennifer Shelton with the Bellingham Small Business Development Center, which is part of the 24 statewide offices of the Washington Small Business Development Center (WSBDC).  Initially seen in The Bellingham Business Journal and at

The WSBDC offers in-depth, confidential, and no-cost management advice to businesses within Washington State.

Five Keys to Building a Strong Business

One thing all business owners have in common  is their desire to build a strong business. A strong business is one that can withstand the ups an downs of an economic cycle; it can replenish itself through profits; it’s agile, flexible, and communicates well; and it can support the owner’s lifestyle. A strong business is based on a true business opportunity and a sound business model. While a business opportunity is shaped by the market environment; a business model is the shaped by the owner.
There are at least five keys to building a strong business: the owner’s ability to lead and manage; a focus on customer needs and wants; systematized processes and procedures; hiring and investing in the right people; and managing cash.

Lead and Manage
Whether the business consists of one person or many, a clear vision and mission is imperative. These drive goals and objectives that are timely, measurable, and accountable. Amid many distractions, it keeps the owner focused. If the owner can effectively engage employees to embrace the vision and achieve company goals, the probability of success is high. In fact, the most important things an owner can do is stay focused on what the company does well and help employees do their best work. These concepts are driven home in books like “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber.

Maintain a Customer-Driven Focus
A customer-driven business is one that is synchronized with what customers really want and need. Most important is what customers value. These can be many things: a fair price, convenience, fast turnaround, quality, etc. The reward for meeting their needs is predictable sales and growth. However, “customers” include more than the buying public. They include shareholders, suppliers, bankers, employees, and others who rely on an owner’s ability to keep his or her promises. A strong business balances the needs of all these “customers.”

Use Systematic Processes and Procedures
Customers don’t really care how it’s done, they just want their needs met. However, to meet the needs of everyone—especially shareholders—production and delivery of goods and services must be efficient. The process of creating value to customers is based on a total management system originally used by Toyota and described in “The Machine that Changed the World” by J. Womack, D. Jones, and D. Roos.

Use of a total management system eliminates waste, improves productivity, assures quality, and meets or exceeds the customer’s expectations. Better use of resources results in higher profitability and higher profits feed growth. An excellent example of applying total management systems to small business is described in “Better Thinking, Better Results: Using the Power of Lean as a Total Business Solution” by Bob Emiliani.

Hire Right
An owner soon realizes that building a strong business is tough to do alone. At a minimum, an external team including a banker, insurance agent, certified public accountant, and attorney is required. At some point, though, employees will be needed to manage day-to-day functions as the business grows. An owner needs to assemble and lead people to apply principles and practices systematically and coherently. The key to assembling the right people is hiring right. This means selecting people for their talents and building on their
strengths. The next steps include investing in their talents, listening to their thoughts, assisting them in their jobs, and rewarding them for work well done. In the book, “First, Break All the Rules”, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman share the results of in-depth interviews revealing how the world’s greatest managers use these techniques.

Manage Cash
Every strong business depends on a predictable, consistent cash flow. A profit plan measures true profitability and is the best measure of efficiency. However, a cash budget that predicts and monitors cash flowing into and out of a business is a good measure of sustainability. If an owner can predict and budget cash flow, then he or she can make better decisions on how and when to use cash. When businesses extend credit to buyers, incoming cash lags behind sales. When sales are made, assets (like inventory or labor) are required to complete the transaction and these assets require cash. Therefore, a lot of cash is going out and not a lot of cash is coming in throughout seasonal or cyclical fluctuations. Since the business owner can’t pay bills with negative cash, he or she has to either borrow cash or inject it. Managing cash with a budget helps the owner predict cash shortages so funds can be arranged (often with a bank loan) to fill the gaps. When collections create excess cash, the short term loans can be paid back. Even profitable businesses can go
bankrupt if they haven’t balanced the cash flow cycle.

While many factors contribute to building a strong business, these five deserve special attention. Strong businesses support their local communities and are the foundation upon which the economy grows.

This article was written by Janet A. Harte, an SBDC Certified Business Advisor with the Vancouver Small Business Development Center which is part of the 24 statewide offices of the Washington Small Business Development Center (WSBDC).

The WSBDC offers in-depth, confidential, and no-cost management advice to businesses within Washington State.