Universities – How They Can Help Your Small Business

Professors at schools prefer to assign real life problems to their students. At most graduate business schools, they assign students singly or in teams to analyze a real company in their city. The other subject areas like engineering, graphic design, advertising, etc., are also looking for real life assignments for their students.

If you have a product that needs to be engineered, you can approach the professor teaching that subject to ask if students can be assigned to your project. They’re usually happy to comply. Most often there is no charge to you. Increasingly, more schools will charge a royalty if it’s a product you plan to commercialize. That is still a good deal as there should be no guarantees or up front royalty payment. (A Variable Expense)

We would go to the local design school to get a package for a new product developed. We might give a modest monetary prize to the student with the best design. More importantly, we would put their name on the package…great resume builder for the student. You might go to the local college or graduate business school and ask the Entrepreneurship professor if one of their student groups can come up with a business plan for your fledgling company. If you have a legal problem, approach the law school.

One year, we approached the engineering school at a major university to develop a savings bank with all kinds of bells and whistles. We wanted it to keep track of all the money in the bank at any moment, to play a song when money was deposited, to have a tabletop look, etc. For us this was a high tech project. For them it was a piece of cake. They were happy to take on the project as it was a real life situation.

In a recent survey I did with professors of Entrepreneurship, I discovered that a high percentage of them already have programs where teams of students are assigned to assist an existing company in solving its problems. The professors go into the community to find companies who want this help and who will cooperate with the students. They more than welcome companies coming to them to participate in this program. There are some smart young people involved who have a very open minded approach to solving problems and developing ideas. They are not constrained by the past. This is another cost free opportunity for assistance in developing your company.

Whatever your project, you should give serious thought to exploring the schools in your area for help. It can be an excellent cost-free solution. I believe your chances would be higher in schools that have a dominant position in the community. Helping the small guy while offering a good learning experience is a compelling proposition for a teacher.

A bonus for you is that you can find some great interns for your company during the summer months or school year. Some may turn out to be excellent hires.

Pricing For Profit

One of the most important aspects of launching and growing a successful product is correct pricing, one of the major components of profits. The right price gets you an order and maximizes your chances for reorders. The wrong price—on the low side—leaves valuable profits on the table. The wrong price–on the high side– may decrease your orders, your chances for getting reorders, and invite competition.

This may not appear to be a Bootstrap strategy. It is included because a high percentage of businesses do not give enough attention to this important profit element. They too quickly determine price by their costs or by what competition or perceived competition is doing. The result is that profits are left on the table, or more succinctly, you are depriving yourself of precious cash…your life blood.

All too often, companies put a selling price on their product or service when they’re under some sort of time pressure—for example, when they’re dying to rush out there and get some orders. It’s not until later that they discover they didn’t account for some important costs in that selling price. These costs might include commissions (yes, people forget commissions), extra trade discounts in key markets, displays, servicing, advertising, or whatever. Now comes the trap: in many cases it’s very tough to raise prices. (We’ll return to this shortly.) So they find themselves stuck with a low-margin item or without the money to run a successful marketing program.

Think of pricing as a balancing act. If you have a unique product, a patentable product, a time advantage, a manufacturing edge, or some other kind of competitive advantage, you can and should get a higher than average margin. At the same time, your high margins may hurt your sales and are very likely to act as a beacon for competitors or knock-offs.

In light of these many calculations, I suggest that you involve all the relevant constituencies within your company in initial pricing discussions. Your accountant may claim that this is his/her domain exclusively. If so, don’t let him/her win this argument. Salespeople, production personnel, and even your key customers can provide valuable insights into the pricing decision. You as the manager have to balance these sometimes competing interests and arrive at an appropriate course of action. Notice that I didn’t say the “right” course of action. In many cases there’s more than one legitimate pricing strategy that can be pursued.

Pricing needs to be revisited regularly. You may find that in order to maintain your margins, you are under pressure to raise your prices. Be forewarned though that you may have major customers who won’t accept price increases despite your increased costs. This is particularly true with large quantity buyers. The small company does not have the leverage to demand a justified price increase. I would encourage you–with good humor–to ask for this increase, pointing out your increased costs. If your effort fails and you don’t want to hold firm and risk losing the account, you might want to change the product. This change could be accomplished by altering its appearance, adding value to it, changing the package, and even changing the name. Give it a new style number and inform your buyer you are dropping the old one and adding a new one. This can aid a sympathetic buyer who has been instructed by his management to accept no price increases. This way they get around this unfair rule. You should be aware of the fact that if you play hardball and raise your price, you sometimes can win and keep your customer buying the product. Remember it is the buyer’s job to keep pressing for the best price. A lot depends on how important the customer’s volume is to your business and your mental toughness.

There are four major components to creating profits:

  • Selling price
  • Cost of product
  • Overhead
  • Volume

Before you settle on a selling price—especially a price that you may not be able to change easily–here’s a list of the selling price and cost of product components you may want to consider. There are also some strategic considerations to weigh before final pricing is done. Not all factors may apply to your product.

Selling Price

  1. Analyze the uniqueness of your product. What makes your product different? Are you unique and in a hot classification? Or is yours a me-too offering in a declining category, which is unlikely to command good margins? Is it a commodity product, which again will yield poor margins?
  2. Analyze the barriers to entry behind your product. What’s your sustainable advantage if any? Is it easy for anyone to replicate your business model or copy your products?
  3. Think life span. The shorter your product’s expected life span, the higher your margins should be. Remember that “life spans” apply not only to products but also to whole classes of products.
  4. Know what your market will bear. Is your product comparable in value to existing products but able to be produced at a lower cost? If so, you might consider pricing close to (or just under) the levels set by your competitors and thereby earning an above-average margin. Alternatively, you could price lower and go for more market share. Whichever way you go, don’t make this decision solely on a predetermined margin over your cost. On products with short life spans, what-the-market-will-bear-pricing can be very effective.
  5. Prepare to be imitated. Do you anticipate copies or knockoffs? If so, how much time do you have before they enter the fray? You may want to start with a higher margin, and then either lower your margin when competition enters the field or knock yourself off with a lower cost version.
  6. Think longer term. Will the success of this product lead to successful spin-offs or follow-up sales? If so, you may want to consider selling this original product at minimal or no profit in order to build and capture the after-market or add-on sales.

The classic example is Gillette pricing low for easy razor sales to capture the ongoing blade business, but there are many others. You can forego short-term profits to break into a new channel of distribution with good long-term growth potential, to help your company’s image, to gain market share, or to send a strong message to your competitors.

  1. Think strategically. This is an obvious follow-on to the previous point. Is there some strategy aside from profit that this particular product may help advance? Is this a case where you know you have lots of good (and profitable) follow-up products to put into the pipeline? Will it help you break into a new channel of distribution? Will it help you get a new sought after customer?


Cost of Product

  1.  Determine all your true costs.
  2. Establish what it takes to be successful in your key markets and with key  customers.Then put a cost on each of these factors. For example:
    • Will you need consumer or trade advertising? If so, to what extent?
    • Will your product require co-op advertising, and if so, what are the standard arrangements in the various markets and customers you’re pursuing?
    • Do distributors play a role? If so, what are their margin requirements?
    • What are the margin requirements of target customers in target markets?
    • Is servicing important, and if so, what is your service strategy?
    • Will you be using specialty reps? If so, what commission will you have to pay?
    • What inventory risks will you have to take? How will you handle guaranteed sales, stock balancing, backup stocks, and reorders?
    • What type of packaging will be required?
    • What display (if any) will be needed?
    • What are the standard payment terms in this market?
    • What’s the integrity level of this market and of your target customers? (Are you comfortable with those levels?)
  3. Determine the up-front, one-time costs involved in coming to market. What volume level will be required to recoup these costs at what price?
  4. Examine your cost to acquire a new customer.
  5. Understand your legal rights and what they may cost you. For example: if your patent or copyright is infringed upon, will you have the resources needed to start and (if necessary) sustain litigation?
  6. Identify your costs at various volume levels. Are there dramatic cost savings that come with volume? If so, what strategies and associated costs can you employ to achieve these volume levels?
  7. Examine the “spread.” What are your payments terms from suppliers as opposed to those you give your customers? The cost of money on the spread should be included in your overall costs and prices.
  8. Keep your eye on that license. If your product is licensed, you probably have both guarantees and royalties to worry about. If the guarantee is high, you may come up short, and you may want to price in light of this potential shortfall.


Strategic

  1. Determine and prioritize the channel of distribution into which you plan to sell.
  1. Think competition. You’re likely to have competitors and maybe even skilled ones. Will you compete on the basis of product superiority, price, service, quality, advertising, sales coverage, delivery time, or some combination? What costs are associated with this strategy?
  2. Understand the implications of your (limited) finances. If available finances limit your ability to produce and sell your product, then maybe you should opt for smaller, higher-margin markets. (Yes, there are bragging rights associated with “selling Wal-Mart,” but you shouldn’t wind up paying for those bragging rights!)
  3. Understand the implications of your (limited) resources. Again, if selling Target means you’ll sell out your limited run at a relatively low margin, think twice. Shouldn’t you look again at those smaller, higher-margin markets?

It has been my observation over the years that not enough time and brain power go into the establishing of your selling price. Maximum profits are good for you and your company’s health.

U.S. Embassies: An Out-of-the-Box Entity to Help a Small Business

The United States has an embassy in almost every country in the world. You can go to the State Department website http://www.state.gov for a list of all the countries and the contacts there.

The Embassy is an out-of-the-box entity for a Small Business source. My personal story in utilizing a U.S. Embassy was when I had my watch company and acquired a license for an Elvis Pressley watch. I had noticed earlier that many retailers sold musical Mickey Mouse watches, and my research showed that these watches were made by Seiko, which owned a patent on the musical part of it. Seiko was a Japanese based company. I tried to contact them re obtaining a license or to have them make the movement for me with the Elvis tune that we would supply, and I was prepared to visit them in Japan. It was an easy stop off for me when I visited China where our watches were made. Despite numerous attempts to contact Seiko to set up an appointment, my entreaties were greeted with silence. So, as a long shot, I contacted the U.S. Embassy in Japan to ask for help in getting an appointment with Seiko. I was pleasantly surprised at their timely response in contacting management at Seiko on my behalf. This was quickly followed by my receiving a warm response from a high Seiko official, inquiring when I would like to set up an appointment to see them. When I did see them in Japan, I was ushered into an elegant conference room where 12 Seiko people were sitting, waiting to hear my story. This was an amazing outcome in my mind to a simple inquiry. A Small Business guy (although I was physically taller than everyone) all alone with 12 managers of one of the largest companies in Japan.

When you think about it, one of the missions of an Embassy is to assist American citizens visiting their country. My inquiry was a rarity and therefore got their attention. Compared to the complex problems they frequently encounter, this was an easy good deed for them to accomplish. An official request from an American Embassy can carry great weight with a foreign business in a friendly country.

The old maxim “nothing ventured, nothing gained” applies here. I believe this is as good a source to use as any to get an introduction to a firm you want to sell.

The back end to this story is after a lengthy, cordial meeting, they refused to sell me or license me their technology. They did offer to sell me their musical clocks, which I somehow believed were not good sellers for them.

Fortunately for me, six months later, someone invented a new musical watch chip, much less expensive than Seiko’s, which I was able to successfully use.

 

Cash Free Ideas to Beat Competition

Competition for customers in most industries is extremely intense. This is exacerbated if the customer is a large one and your product is not particularly unique or patent protected. Your customers are also in a high pitched battle with their competitors. This can be seen in your everyday life. Look at the competition in cars, retail stores, food stores, homes, computers, music, etc., for your dollar. This extends into the industrial sector and personal services.

Here are some non-cash ideas to help  your small business better compete.

Exclusives. If you have any type of new or unique product and no money to promote it, think of offering a key/large customer an exclusive. The exclusive can be for 30 days to a year with a performance clause for a time specified renewal. When we were in the game business, we would introduce a new game to the leading department store in each major city. We sold them on an exclusive basis for 30 to 60 days in return for their running an ad for our product at their expense. Your exclusive could be narrowed down to a particular channel. For instance, I  know of companies that gave Amazon.com an exclusive for all internet selling in return for them giving special promotional pushes for the product. Examples are running 2-day sales or pop-up ads when customers look at a related product (i.e., a wine game when a customer searches for one of their 9,000 wine books).

You could simply give an exclusive to a large retailer for buying it and putting it in all their stores: Radio Shack with 6,000 plus stores, Costco with 400+ stores, Wal-Mart with 3,000+ stores, etc. Exclusives can get you immediate orders, free ads, better position, earlier pay terms, earlier orders, etc. The result is more credibility, more cash, and brand building at no cost.

Better Service. Contrary to popular opinion, most purchasing is not based on the lowest price. Service is a key component in many buying decisions and can take many forms: shorter turnaround in shipping than competitors, customer training on your product features and how to use or sell it, friendly and knowledgeable people manning your phones, customer friendly website, dealing with problems quickly and fairly, admitting, correcting, and paying for mistakes.

One of the key factors of our success in the watch business was our service and special offers. The business was mature, highly competitive, and a me-too industry. We entered the industry with a unique novelty approach that featured artwork on the face and a rotating disk with art as the second hand. For instance, our most successful watch was a cute cat with a rotating mouse going around the dial that the cat always just missed catching. These watches were easy for competitors to copy. However, we copyrighted each design and consistently earned money from infringers. We offered two elements that propelled our success.

  1. Special exclusive designs for a low minimum of 200 watches with no premium cost to the buyer. This was in contrast to large watch manufacturers who asked for a minimum of 10,000 watches. We accomplished our low minimum by working closely with a small Chinese factory, by using standardized parts, and by our willingness to break even on these orders. We knew the profit would come on the re-orders. Our low minimum allowed us to break into the world of Disney, selling to their retail stores, theme parks, and catalog division. All three wanted exclusive merchandise that could only be bought through them. Our small minimums allowed them to test all their ideas without paying a price for mistakes. We were rewarded with large quantity orders for the watches that tested well. We also rewarded small customers who supported our line with periodic exclusive designs. The result was loyalty and increased business.
  2. Quick turnaround. This was and is increasingly a key component for small business success and survival. It reduces your cash commitment to inventory and likewise for your customer. It also reduces risk. You need to give a lot of attention and thought on how to realize quick turnaround. We analyzed every component used in a watch and the delivery or manufacturing time of each. We discovered the bottleneck in time replenishment was the unique printed dial on each watch. Every other component was easily available and in stock from many suppliers in China. Fortunately for us, the printed dial was a very low cost component. So we took chances and built up inventories of dials on watches we projected would sell well. The dials cost $.05 each; but in our pricing, we figured it at a $ .20 cost. This gave us the cushion for discarding unused dials.

We shipped all our watches from China to a public warehouse in Long Island without boxes, which were printed in the U.S. Air freight is a widely competitive business, particularly between UPS and FedEx. Therefore, we eventually flew watches in for $.17 each. We also discovered that the processing of shipments through customs varied greatly by which city they entered. The net result was that we could get watch reorders within two weeks of the order while our competitors’ lead time was generally two months. This was a tremendous plus for us with our customers and reduced our cash needs.

Special Terms. Cash strapped businesses with high profit margins should seriously consider additional discounts for immediate or quick payment.

Toy manufacturers usually ship most of their products in the fall. To plan production, particularly with overseas manufacturing, they need orders early in the year. So they successfully offer a special early buy discount to their customers.

Many companies offer volume discounts or rebates. They spell out the discount earned at various volume levels. These discounts can be achieved as you reach the level or can be rebated at the end of the year. This encourages your customers to place more of their business with you rather than sharing with other suppliers.

Private Label. Many products lend themselves to be made under the

customer’s label rather than your brand. The disadvantage to you is you don’t build your brand, and margins are usually lower. The advantages are you don’t need to maintain back up inventory, your order lead times are better, and you should get your payments quicker.

Your entire business should always be customer oriented. Special offers are particularly effective in building your relationship with a customer and does not drain your cash.

 

This blog is an excerpt from my book, Bootstrapping 101.

A Perfect Gift for Small Business Entrepreneurs

Bootstrapping 101 Book CoverSmall Business blogs were my first encounter with social media. The goal was to share my hard earned knowledge with existing and wannabe Small Business managers to ease their path to entrepreneurial success. If successful, I was hoping that they would then consider buying my book, Bootstrapping 101. However, I was warned not to sell my book in the blogs. I have followed that advice for some 90 blogs. Now, I would like to blatantly try to sell you on purchasing it for yourself or someone else who fits the bill. Why?

I see the need for this book more than ever, particularly in the current economy with more people than ever trying to realize their dream of having their own business and for existing small business owners working very hard to survive. From all my guest speaking to entrepreneurial classes at MBA classes around the country and from mentoring activities, I see close-up that many key points in this book are not taught or understood. I tried to keep each chapter short and devoid of fluff for easier and quicker reading, yet interspersed with interesting (I hope) stories to illustrate points. You can skip chapters and focus on ones most interesting to you as each stands independently.

I thought the best way to explain the book’s value is to show you this Table of Contents with a sentence or two description of each chapter. Here it is:

INTRODUCTION (includes definition of Bootstrapping)

BARTER

One of the world’s oldest forms of commerce is advocated in its modern form. Barter’s advantages and how it works.

PUBLICITY

Achieved at no or minimal cost, publicity can be more credible than paid advertising which usually is too expensive for start-up and fledgling companies. How to get this publicity.

INTERNET REVOLUTION

This  fast changing, growing, and inexpensive medium can assist small business reach their goals and better compete with large companies.

FREE ADVERTISING

How to get free ads in major media through PI ads.

SELLING

Who should sell, how to sell, and sales’ interaction with other company disciplines. Sales Reps: their importance, how to find and deal with them.

SPECIAL OFFERS TO KEY CUSTOMERS

No-cost strategies to acquire and/or grow key customers and to obtain favorable treatment in areas of importance to you.

MENTORS

Importance of having a good mentor in the ultimate success of a company. Where and how to find and interact with them.

BUSINESS INCUBATORS

Provide a business support process for start-up and fledgling companies that includes a physical home, management guidance, technical assistance, basic business services, and mentoring.

UNIVERSITIES

An untapped asset for small businesses, universities can help you in building your company with no or minimal costs.

RELATIONSHIPS AND TRUST

Finding and developing relationships to advance your business. Better Networking.

PRICING FOR PROFIT

Maximizing your profits and thus increasing cash are discussed in depth through correct pricing. All the elements that should be considered and by whom are explored.

FACTORS

Loan or advance money to a company, regardless of their credit rating. The pros and cons of their use and how to find them.

SUPPLIERS

Can be a valuable extension of your company and an important part of your sustainability and growth. What they can do for you and how you should treat them.

TESTING THE WATERS

Testing the feasibility of your new product or service before you expend valuable resources in its pursuit. This process will also aid in risk reduction.

LICENSING

Can give a company instant credibility and business. Not all licenses require large initial expenditures. Ideas on finding and utilizing them, their advantages, questions to ask in exploring them, and contractual issues to consider.

FRANCHISING

Is a type of business that lies somewhere between buying a business and starting your own. The pros and cons of franchising plus how to find appropriate ones.

CONVERTING FIXED COSTS TO VARIABLE COSTS

Is an effective strategy to reduce overhead, conserve cash, and reduce risks. The different ways to accomplish this.

OUTSOURCING

An important strategy, especially for undercapitalized businesses to grow, reduce risk, and offer more to your customers in terms of quality, value, and support. The negatives  are refuted.

GOVERNMENT HELP

Government agencies to assist start-up and existing small businesses to succeed. They are free and open to everyone. Agencies covered are SBA, SCORE, SBDC, PTAC, U.S. Customs, Department  of  Commerce, MBDA, UBOP, WBC, and U.S. Embassies.

IN PERSPECTIVE

Important factors for entrepreneurial success are explored, covering attitudes, finance, people, and knowledge.

Appendix 1—R&R Harvard Business School Case Study

Bootstrapping tips utilized in case

Appendix 2—Tips for Getting Appointments

Appendix 3— Cash Flow Statement

If you now want to purchase this as a gift for yourself or someone else, we offer it in paperback at $19.95 or as an E-book at $9.59. As we are self-publishing Bootstrapping 101, it is not available in bookstores. It is available on Amazon.com. You can follow that link or visit our website, www.Bootstrapping101.com,which also links directly to the Amazon page.

I always bought business books with the hope that I could get one good actionable idea. I believe you can get at least two here.

Entrepreneurs-Time To Be Thankful

Whether you’ve had a difficult year in this current environment or have been one of the fortunate ones and prospered, it would serve you well to pause and take stock of all the things you should be thankful for.

 

Be thankful you are in your own business and your own boss. Millions of people aspire for the same.

 

Be thankful for all your customers without whom you would have no business.

 

Be thankful you live in the United States, which affords you the opportunity to pursue your passion and to succeed with no limitations– and yes to fail, which is one of life’s great teachers.

 

Be thankful you can choose which 80 hours each week that you can work.

 

Be thankful for your family, friends and mentors who are your support team–an important element for Small Business owners.

 

Be thankful for your loyal employees who are helping you fulfill your dreams.

 

Be thankful you are rewarded for your company’s successes while knowing you can pay for its risks.

 

Be thankful that you can make sure everything is done the right way.

 

Be thankful you can try to implement any ideas you have and bring them to fruition.

 

Be thankful you are in a position to positively impact other people’s lives.

 

Bob Reiss www.bootstrapping101.com

The Mission Statement – For Small Business?

The mission statement is something very different from the business plan. Mission statements set the moral and human goals to which your company is supposed to aspire. In many cases, they also state higher order business goals, such as a corporate commitment to maintaining an annual compounded rate of growth of a certain percentage.

Mission statements are most often associated with large corporations—an effort to get thousands of people to pull in the same direction across a far-flung corporate empire. But I think a mission statement is a good thing for a small business as well, and it’s something that should be developed at the outset.

The mission statement clearly tells employees what behaviors are expected of them and describes the kind of treatment they can expect from their employer. Most people have a strong desire to know the rules of the game. In addition, they want to be proud of the company for which they work. The mission statement gives them at least one piece of the puzzle.

This is also the best reason not to have a mission statement if you don’t intend to follow it. There’s nothing more poisonous than to have the management thumping away on some ethical tub, and at the same time acting in ways that directly contradict the espoused values. If you can’t walk it, don’t talk it!

The mission statement, like the business plan, is a useful tool for triangulation and mid-course correction. Take it off the shelf every once in a while, and see if you’re living by it. (Better yet: look at the framed version on your office wall.) And when you face a tough choice, look at that statement again for guidance. To the extent that your mission statement contains concrete business goals, make sure that you either (1) achieve those goals, or (2) acknowledge that you aren’t achieving them and take steps to bring the company’s performance into line with its aspirations.

You may not spend a lot of time on your mission statement, but you should clearly set the tone for the kind of company you’re trying to create and sustain. Culture comes from the top—that is, from you. How accessible will you be to your employees? Will you truly listen to their input, or will you just pay lip service to their ideas? What are your expectations from everyone, especially in the realm of building trust? How will your company treat its customers? What are its attitudes toward quality?

Part of the point of the mission statement is the process as well as the product. If you involve other people in the development of the mission statement, you’re already sending a signal about your culture.

 

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