Archive for September, 2010
Adwords can be a powerful tool in a small business marketing arsenal. Rather than spending time, money and effort throwing your message out on the hope that it hits somebody’s view at the right time, just as they are looking and thinking about a project which you can help with, Adwords is there when they are searching.
But it does not make sense for every company. If you are selling small value items or services, spending £9 to £10 for a click when your item is only worth £100 or so is a waste. Yes, you will get clicks, but with around 1% (typical) of views to clicks, and then a click to order ratio (depending on your web site) around 7%, each sale may cost you £50 to £70.
However, if you are selling a service, and an expensive service which may run into a few thousand pounds, Adwords may be very effective and a relatively cheap way of pull in clients. For me and my company, a project can typically be worth £5,000 or more, so spending £500 on adwords per sale makes sense – minimal work for maximum return.
As I have previously said, adwords can be tricky and you have to watch the stats and the budgets (which Google is happy to ignore). However, its part of my marketing system and I am using it today for my target audience.
Yesterday, I was shocked to hear that the owners of Xmarks, the fabulous browser bookmark synchronisation tool have decided to throw in the towel. If you have never heard of Xmarks (.com), let me explain that the tool syncs your bookmarks between all major browsers, both PC and mobile devices, keeping all your bookmarks in sync across browsers and machines. It’s a great tool which I use on a daily basis, and that I have recommended in the past.
The Xmarks service was started some 4 years ago. In that time, its support has grown, the number of different browsers it works with has grown, and the number of users has grown. To date, almost 2.5 million users are registered on the Xmarks service. Yet despite that, they have decided to call it a day and close up shop, with 90 days notice for users to find an alternative service.
The reason for this is because they cannot find sponsorship, or a finance model that works. With 2.5 million users, and with minimal costs (the software exists, so its just support staffing costs and of course hosting), they cannot find a finance model that makes sense. This is really food for thought for small business.
In the official blog post which talks about the reasons for closing down Xmarks, many hundreds of the currently free users say that would happily pay $1, $10 or even more to use the system. So multiply this up by 2.5million users, and that’s a lot of cash. So why hasn’t xmarks simply created a ‘subscribe’ button? I suspect the answer is because there is a big difference between somebody saying ‘happy to pay’ and actually logging into their paypal account to send the money.
Lets say xmarks did create a subscription service – what should they charge? One dollar – sounds great, generates $2.5m a year, but it’s also very cheap – the $1 would be eaten up by admin charges, processing fees, etc. So how about the $10 suggestion? That generates $25m a year, which clearly would be enough to keep things running.
BUT, 2.5million people would not pay $10. They are used to a free service, and suddenly to be charged money to use the service would make then look for alternatives (just in case) – and there are plenty. None of them quite as good as xmarks, but a lot of them are free (including the new firefox sync tool).
The people at xmarks are not stupid. They know the numbers that would actually pay $1, or $10, and it still does not make sense. I suspect their possible sponsor (who pulled out at the last moment) also did the maths, and came to the same conclusion.
At the end of the day, if you start free, and there are other free alternatives available, why would enough people pay to make your venture work?
Have you ever noticed that when it comes to mobile (cell) phone numbers, that there is no set rules on how you say the number? With land lines numbers, everybody generally uses the format of 5-3-3 when saying a phone number – so “01256 123456” is said as “01256-123-456”. Its short, punchy, and it works for everybody (for London, the leading 5 gets replaced with 3 or 4 leading).
But with mobiles, after the leading “07” bit, there is no rules for the grouping – it all depends on the number you have. But if you group your number one way, and somebody repeats it with different groupings, it’s easy not to recognise your own number. If my number is “07780123456”, I might say “077-80-12-34-56”. Someone repeating it back to me might say my number is “07-780-123-456” – it sounds completely different and makes me double check and think about what is being said.
This mixed-format confusion can be used to great advantage when replaying requirements back to customers. After they are done stating all of their requirements, by repeating their requirements back to them in a different order (either by voice or in an email), the changed and mixed context forces them to think about what they have said, what you have noted, and also if it is really what they want. I also like to throw in the word “only” (or just) as well here and there, just for good measure.
A requirement of “We want a web application that allows UK students to enter their accommodation details on a form, and this gets saved onto a SQL Server database which we can produce ad-hoc reports from”, when mixed and repeated back, might become…
“So let me check I have this right. You want to produce some ad-hoc reports from a SQL Server database. This database will only be populated from a web-based data entry form that we would develop, and would be made available only to UK based students who would use the form to enter just the details of their accommodation”.
I have used it a number of times where the customer has then commented with something like “well, it sounds like something is missing..” or “yes, but we also need…” after they have specified all their requirements.
Using this technique I have saved myself a lot of headaches during project delivery by making sure the customer has detailed everything that is required by double checking what they really want, which has led to more of the work being detailed up front (with a higher price tag) and saves the last minute “oh, I forgot I needed…” conversations on delivery day.
We all have a limited number of attention units; things we can think about at any time. Trying to keep everything in your head robs you of attention units, which means you have less units to invest in completing your basic daily tasks.
Jack Canfield, US Self Improvement Coach
Ask my wife, she will tell you – I am a master of the lists. I create To Do for packing for holidays, To Do lists for shopping, lists for holidays, project plans with associated ToDo lists for any home projects such as new kitchens or updating the bathroom, and of course I run a To Do list for my small business activities.
Its fairly safe to say, I have tried and used most To Do lists systems around, and all have left me wanting for something more….. flexible and powerful.
A couple of months ago, I was reading a blog on Freelancer, and an item sparked my interest on a web (cloud) based To Do management system called ToodleDo (yes, the name didn’t sell it to me either). As I read more and did my own research, I found how wonderfully connected the system is. So may I present, my guide to the ultimate List and To Do tracking system…
The heart of the ToodleDo system is the web based ToodleDo To Do list manager. The web site provides two forms of membership – free (which I currently use) and premium, which allows sub-tasks and goal links. The web site allows a fairly basic setup of To Do items divided into folders (projects, customers, home areas, etc) and goals, with each To Do list items having (optionally) a title, description, notes, priority, star (favourite), folder, goal, estimated duration, start date/time, due date/time and links.
Email and Twitter Links
The ToodleDo engine allows you to create To Do items by emailing a predefined email address or forwarding tweets onto a specific twitter address. These will then be added to your To Do list. Perfect.
ToodleDo browser Plug Ins
Depending on your web browser, there are a range of web browser plug ins that let you view and work on your todo list within your browser (without having to go to the Toodledo web site), add new To Do items, and clip web site text/pictures to turn them into To Do items.
Mobile Phone Links
Because ToodleDo puts your To Do list in the cloud, mobile versions have been developed which allow you to view, update, mark as done and refine your To Do list on your mobile device, with the changes synchronised to your ToodleDo account, so everything remains in sync. For the iPhone (and iPAD), there are many such applications including the official ToodleDo app. On android (the device I use), I can recommend the Got To Do application – a free and premium version is available as per the paid and free ToodleDo account options.
So far, this combination of Free tools is the best To Do management system I have used. RECOMMENDED!
I was chatting with another small business owner a few days ago, and he was confessing that now and again he would cycle through the home shopping channels – QVC, Ideal World, the Home shopping network etc. He was quick to point out that he didn’t actually purchase anything from these TV shows, but he watched them for selling suggestions.
His logic was that channels like QVC invested millions in developing different ways of selling plastic rubbish to cash strapped viewers, and maybe the ideas could be applied to B2B selling techniques.
The idea that he was most interested to try was the “easy pay” system, where the cost of a purchase is divided into 3 or 4 equal payments, with each payment taken out per month. His logic was, if it worked to sell a £50 food processor, it must have an even bigger impact if you are selling £10,000 of IT service.
Now I am not convinced one way or another on the idea of selling a service and including an “Easy Pay” offering. However, it does provide some interesting ideas, including:
- Provide split payments, useful when a company has run out of budget – half in this financial year, half in next financial year
- “Easy Payments” or split payment could be an additional sales option to add to your Unique Selling Proposition
- Splitting payments could make your option appear cheaper that the competition
- If you do stage payments anyway (part up front, part on a stage delivery, part on completion), isn’t this providing the “Easy Pay” option anyway
- Easy pay may make you seem more willing to help companies in this time of financial difficulties
As you may have gathered from the above, I am also tempted to try this option in a few future quotes to see if it makes a difference in conversion numbers. However, if I do, I wont call is “Easy Pay” (this suggests that you think the company can’t pay in full), but I like the term “Staged Payments” or “Managed Payments”
So I might be giving this a Try? But what do you think?
It’s just a jump to the left, And then a step to the right, With your hands on your hips, You bring your knees in tight, But it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane, Let’s do the Time Warp again!
- From the Lyrics of “The Time Warp” – The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The recession is continuing to bite on both sides of the Atlantic. In the USA, it is more than likely that the government will need to restart the stimulus package and plough more federal money into the economy. Here in the UK, we await to see the 2nd batch of public spending measures that will be announced in October, and with the VAT rise due in January, this is sure to lead to further spending cuts in 2012. All of this is bad news when it comes to securing freelance, contracting or small business customers.
Over the past few years, I have done a lot of work in the public sector – predominantly in the UK NHS (National Health Service). But with such major public spending cut-backs, the writing is on the wall and money from this area will be hard to find. Therefore, whilst I am not completely abandoning the NHS, I will be looking at other sectors such as finance, insurance and private retail.
When it boils down to it, the skills required are almost the same – the technology used is the same, the business skills, the method of working – its just the type of information and terms which change.
Of course, getting the foot in the door can be a challenge; with fewer jobs and more available resources, agents and clients can choose to be more selective. Therefore as well as a mental adjustment, any documentation (CV’s, brochures, web pages, etc) need to be tweaked to de-emphasise the industries and markers, and instead emphasis the skills, technologies and experience of the markets you want to side-step into.
When I want to buy media items such as DVDs or BluRay films, I will head on over to either Amazon or Play.com. In terms of price, stock availability and delivery, there is not much difference between the two sites. However, one major advantage which Amazon has that Play (and others) has yet to take advantage of is the “Wish List”.
Wish lists are great for storing future shopping items. When you find something but can’t quite afford to purchase it right now, putting it in your wish list means its there for the future. You wont forget about it, you don’t need to search for it again, and you can share your wish list with friends come Christmas or your birthday.
As a small business owner, I don’t really sell anything on the web other than my services (and membership to a couple of sites). If I did sell anything physical, I would definitely be adding a “Wish list” section on my web site. But even though I dont sell any physical goods, I can still take advantage of the Wish List with my customers.
Sometimes, customers will ask for a quotation for work with options – such as how much to create a new report, and how much to make the report available in a stand alone web app, and how much to include graphs in the report? I will produce a quotation which details the different options – one with the report, one with the report AND making it in a stand alone web app, and finally the cost to include graphs.
When customers accept the quotation, clearly they have a choice of which option to take, and sometimes, they will take the cheaper option without the add-ons. And this is where the service wish list comes in. They may not have taken the add-on options because of timing, or price, or a whole host of other factors, but they have already told you that the need is there.
So in these situations, I crack on and do the development, make the delivery and raise the invoice. But then, I will raise a new quotation which I send them for the options not selected, so when they do have the time, the money, or a stronger desire, the price to fulfil their wish list is at hand and ready to be ordered.
After 127 freelance and small business posts in this blog, and as it’s the start of a new week (when this gets posted), I hope you will forgive me with this ‘out there’ entry. But following on from my last entry on how to deal with business problems, I wanted to share with you my own personal way of moving forward through problem or idea walls.
Have you ever heard of a floatation tank? In case you haven’t, a flotation tank is a big box, fall of salt warm water at body temperature, which you lie in, float, and then the lid of the box is closed. You float there, your head back in the water, the water in your ears, in the total darkness. It may sound scary, but the idea is with no external stimulation, everything goes inwards, and you find solutions to all your problems. I know how it sounds – Just stay with me on this for a moment… ok?
Clearly I am not going to suggest installing a floatation tank in your house. But I recreate the idea as much as possible at home in my bath. When I get really stuck, I have a long hot bath, and recreate the floatation tank experience as much as possible by blocking out light from windows and doors to make the bathroom as dark as possible. I don’t use salt water, but I ease down on anything perfumed in the water – so it’s as neutral as possible. Then I just lay back, head in the water, let the water in my ears – and close my eyes and relax. All I can see is black, all I can hear is my own heartbeat in my ears, and all I can feel is the water.
Ok, this sounds all kind of new wave and hippy – I know. Really, I do. When I first heard and tried this, I thought the same. But the trick is once you are relaxed, think of a business problem (lack of customers, money issues, whatever) and then let the thought go, don’t think of it any more – just recline there, try to keep your mind blank. You may feel daft for 5 minutes, feel the need to switch on the light or grab a book after another 5 – but stick with it. I promise, with nothing else to stimulate the brain, something spooky will happen after fifteen or twenty minutes – suddenly ideas will start popping.
And when I say ideas will pop, they will come thick and fast – solution after solution, idea after idea – think and fast, lots of ideas to resolve your problem. For me, this technique never ever fails. But, there is a tricky part to this – the ideas are really fleeting – get them down on paper or tape otherwise they will evaporate – don’t try to remember them all, after the 3rd one the 1st will be lost. I keep a pen and paper by the bath, and then write them down (in the dark, sometimes its hard to read afterwards) – turning on the light breaks the cycle and the ideas will stop flowing.
As I say, I know how it sounds, I really do. But trust me, it works.
We all have them – those days that make us just want to crawl back into bed, pull the covers over our head and wait until it’s all just gone away. I have had some classic bad days in my past, including emails sent to the wrong people (doh!), computers that crash loosing days of work, customers who have totally changed direction a day before the scheduled completion date, and projects which just don’t want to come together and be finished.
So when you find yourself in a tough or unhappy place, or it’s all just going wrong, here are six ideas for you to try:
I think brain storming is great, either on your own or as a group. Sometimes, problems can be because we are just too close to the problem, so taking a step back and just coming up with ideas can help focus direction. My preferred format of Brain Storming is to create a mind map – with the problem or issue in the middle and then branches of possible solutions, options, methods, pros and cons. This can be done either on paper, or using free mindmapping tools such as Mindomo.
Walking away can either be a temporary solution (go for walk, get away from the problem or situation, calm down and come back refreshed) or a more permanent solution. My own competitive nature means I have never walked away completely from a project (yet), but if a situation was really that bad, sometimes walking away and dropping the problem is the sensible thing to do – regardless of the cost.
Do Something Else
If you are anything like me, you will other projects, contracts, work, ToDo list items, emails and other things to do. If so, when you find yourself beating your head against the wall in frustration or desperation, do something else. The feeling of change, and completion of a smaller task can reinvigorate, and this can lead to more ideas and motivation on the original problem later in the day or week.
Ask a Forum
As per one of my previous posts, Forums are a great source of advice. Whether it be a relationship issue, a business problem, a technical challenge or your just in need of ideas, Forum members are there to lend a hand.
Use a Support Group
Many regional groups are set up for different industries to provide support. Some of them charge, some are free, some provide support in electronic format, and some meet for real on a regular basis. Support groups can provide advice and guidance on your specific issue and area of business, whilst allowing you to see that everybody else has similar problems now and again. Just Google “Support Groups” with your industry type and geographic area.
One of the things that can hurt the human psyche more than anything else is indecision. When presented with 2, 3 or more options, spending time bouncing between ideas can unbalance us, cause stress, worry and tension. This is why when asking for a customer decision, I would much rather hear a straight “NO” rather than a “maybe” or “we will see in a few weeks”. If you are stuck between options, take action on one of the options – use your gut feeling which one to pick – you can always change direction later on if it turns out to be the wrong option.
The Home Flotation Tank (the bonus idea)
As a bonus option (number 7 out of 6), on Monday I will share my own personal method of making difficult decisions, coming up with ideas and moving forward beyond problems.
When you see ducks in a pond, they glide across the water, calm, collected, efficient, with barely a wake left behind them. They look perfect. But under the water – they are paddling like mad – their feet kicking away for all they are worth, hard and fast. But you don’t see that – you see the calm, the elegance – and that’s how I like my customers to see me – the calm in the storm.
If there are problems, or issues, or panic, I do my very best to be the duck – I don’t rush in front of the customers, I don’t panic, I take it away out of sight, and that’s when I start doing the mad quick paddling. I actually try to picture the duck whenever the panic sets in at customer sites.
I also find it makes a refreshing change to what people have to deal with when dealing with big companies – who I imagine to be more like oil tankers – setting a course, going forward and pushing aside anything which gets in their way, including the customer feelings and wants.
Be the duck.