Business, Startups, Strategy

Small Business Mistakes – Lack of Unique Selling Proposition

In case you’re keeping up, this is the fifth installment in my Small Business Mistakes series. If you’ve missed the other four, you can read the Introduction, Failure to Validate, Misunderstanding Your Target Market, and Having No Marketing Plan. Just follow the blog to keep up and read the rest of the series as I post.

Every day we read about the latest innovative company or industry disrupter in Silicon Valley. But the reality is that most small businesses are merely competing against very similar businesses, usually in an already-crowded market space. This means, as a small business owner, you must tackle a big problem right off the bat; how do you convince your target market to do business with you rather than your competitors? It doesn’t matter if you’re a manufacturer, distributor, retailer or service provider, if your business model does not set your business apart from the rest, in a way that provides value to your potential customers, you can’t hope to take your share of the market.


Photo by Andrew Wulf on Unsplash

Enter: The Unique Selling Proposition

First, let’s get the semantics out of the way. You’ll see the same or similar definition from many different sources using different terms; Unique Selling Proposition (USP), Unique Value Proposition (UVP), Market Differentiator, Value Positioning Statement, Elevator Pitch, and Elevator Speech are all basically versions of the same thing. The purpose of (whatever you want to call it – I’ll stick with USP) is two-fold; 1) to point out what makes your business different from your competitors, 2) in a way that matters to your target market. Only if you have both elements, will you succeed in differentiating your business and winning your share of the target market.


Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash

Second, let me be very clear about a very important point; if you Google “Unique Selling Proposition”, the majority of results will define this as a “statement” that describes a business’ differentiators, etc. That’s true – it is a statement. But understand this: a USP is not merely a statement or tagline to place front and center on your website. A USP must reflect reality and be integral to your business model and mission; it’s the “Why buy from them?” for your customers. In other words, you can make up the prettiest sounding USP in your entire market but if you can’t deliver, it’s no more than a marketing ploy. If you say it then it better be true or you won’t last very long.

How Do You Formulate a USP and What Does it Look Like?

You can find tons of articles and books on how to draft your USP. One extremely thorough article by Tor Grøndsund, written in 2011 (with a follow-up in 2013) reviews 10 different templates proposed by various authors and scholars. I strongly advise reading both articles and putting one of the featured templates to good use. You’ll need to be able to answer the same basic questions to formulate your USP, no matter what format you use:

  1.  Who is your target customer?
  2. What is their specific need your business fills?
  3. What is your product or service?
  4. How does it fill that target customer’s need?

For example, in his initial article, Mr. Grøndsund features Geoff Moore’s Value Positioning Statement template, which I find to be the easiest and most straightforward:

For ____________ (target customer) who ____________ (statement of the need or opportunity)

our (product/service name) is ____________ (product category) that __________ (statement of benefit).

A USP could then read like this:

For small business owners (target customer) who need occasional legal advice (statement of the need or opportunity) Concision’s Subscription Service (product/service name) is a flat-fee monthly subscription (product category) that makes it simple to ask business and legal questions at a fraction of the usual law firm price (statement of benefit).

Again, remember, if the business does not live up to the USP, you have a real problem.

General Mistakes Made Regarding USP

Small business owners will generally make one or more of the following mistakes regarding their USP:

  1. Fail to formulate a USP
  2. Fail to focus on issues that matter to the target market
  3. Focus on the same or similar issues as the competition
  4. Fail to effectively communicate the USP


Photo by Mark Rabe on Unsplash

MISTAKE #1 – Failing to Formulate a USP

Ask yourself why someone would do business with you rather than your competition?  What specific need do you fill (or pain do you alleviate) for your target market? Think about the reasons you started the business and why you thought people would be persuaded to do business with you. Did you think you could do it better, faster, nicer, etc. than the competition? You can’t expect to draw customers away from your competition unless you provide them with a reason that matters to them. This is especially true if it’s a bit of a pain for the customer to make that transition. Your USP must make it worthwhile for the customer to choose you over your competitors. What need does your business fill for your customers and what’s in it for them to do business with you?

If you didn’t plan your business model around a USP, it’s not too late and if you make it a focus now it could make an enormous impact on your current revenues. Think about it. Be creative. How could you make your product or service more valuable to your potential customer? “Valuable” can mean many different things: more convenient, fun, emotionally-fulfilling, better price, higher quality, etc. Examine the different facets of your product or service. Can you tweak something that could make a big difference to the customer? You probably don’t have to change your entire business model or make huge changes. Think small. In many businesses, it’s the small things that make a huge impact.


Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Look at Warby Parker for example. WP is an online shop (they have a few physical locations as well) selling non-name-brand prescription eyeglasses at a significantly reduced price. But WP also features many other small differentiators that even if the price different were not so significant, could possibly make a big difference to their target market. I recently ordered my son a pair and it was a fabulous experience. I decided to order online because I have a teenager and it’s hard to get him to take time out of his busy social schedule to go to the store and look at glasses. WP was appealing for several reasons (all of which were readily apparent by looking at their website). First, it was convenient; they allow you to choose 5 pair online to be shipped to your home, free of charge, to try on. They include a return shipping label so all you have to do is drop them in the mailbox after you make your decision. Second, it was the price; almost every pair of glasses is a flat $95 and they pay shipping fees. Third, was selection; although they only carry their own brand of glasses (no Ray Bans, etc.) the look and style of the glasses are identical to the name brands.

Once I made the decision to shop with them, it was the process after the sale that influenced me to shop with them again: a) the box the samples came in was so nicely presented and organized, b) they direct you to a video after choosing your glasses, that instructs you how to measure your pupillary distance by taking a photo and texting it to them and c) your glasses arrive in a neat little box with a nice case inside with a personal message and their brochure. WP’s brochure states at the top that they were “founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.” That’s pretty darn close to a USP. If WP were to use Geoff Moore’s template, the USP might look something like this: “For busy eyeglass wearers (target customer) who would like a convenient alternative for purchasing their glasses (statement of the need or opportunity) our online store (product/service name) offers mail-order eyeglasses in styles almost identical to designer brands (product category) that fit perfectly and cost less (statement of benefit).” But their USP isn’t a written statement front and center on their website, it comes through organically in each step of the process and in the business model (which better be the case whether your USP is in writing or not).

If you have not formulated a USP, get busy. You may already have one that your business incorporates daily but you just haven’t formulated it in writing. I’m not saying you need to splash your USP on everything but unless you write it down for your own benefit, you have nothing on which to focus your marketing efforts. Go through the template example above, think about what you already offer. If you truly offer nothing that differentiates you from the competition, you have a little work to do. What do you hear people complain about most regarding the competition? Know your competition well. Carefully research their website and/or physical locations as much as possible. Talk to their customers and find out where they excel and where they fall short. This should help you see any glaring shortcomings that you can use to your advantage. Their shortcomings should be where you put your best efforts. Implementing and communicating the USP to your target market will make a difference in your bottom line.

MISTAKE #2 – Failing to Focus on Issues That Really Matter to the Target Market

If you didn’t learn what your target market wants or needs during your research and validation process, you need to zero in on it immediately. If you focus on just trying to be “unique” without an emphasis on what matters most to the customer, you’ve missed the point. For example, you can dress your pizza delivery guys in pink tights and a tutu to distinguish them from the other delivery guys. But if your pizza sucks and your delivery is slow, all the uniqueness in the world won’t make up for it.


Photo by Baptiste C David on Unsplash

To understand what the customer wants, you must understand your target market intimately. Who is your target market? What are the demographics? Are they college students? Empty-nesters? What matters to one of these markets may not matter to the other. For example, delivering pizza 24/7 may be extremely important to college students but not so much to empty-nesters.  But the more mature group might value a more sophisticated pizza menu, tip included in the price or “early-bird specials”. Know your target market and speak directly to them. Deliver guys in pink tights may not even hurt as long as you get the rest right! Your job is to figure out what the customer wants or needs that they are not getting from the competition – then provide it to them. Set your business apart from the competition in a way that convinces the customer to do business with you rather than the competition. That’s it.

MISTAKE #3 – Focusing on the Same or Similar Issues as the Competition

Perhaps you haven’t noticed but I certainly have. There are several common elements I see small businesses “list” on their websites as differentiators but usually without taking the extra steps to make them an integral part of their business model or formulate a USP: a) price, b) convenience, c) service, d) selection, e) friendliness f) speed and e) experience. Anyone can say they have the friendliest staff or the best service, etc. but when everyone is focusing on the same adjectives, unless your business is the one that really backs up your claims, it means nothing. Again, take Warby Parker for example; they state their objective is to “offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price…”. I paid $95 for my son’s WP glasses and paid no shipping. I’d say that’s pretty “revolutionary” when to replace the Ray Bans he lost would have been $475. So even though they focused on price as their primary differentiator (which could be the same for a few competitors), they can back it up big time.

Additionally, if your business and every other business in your category are going after the same target and touting the same “differentiators”; they aren’t differentiators! Remember the unique in USP. Providing unique value will always be superior to simply living up to your claims…what if everyone in your category is living up to their claims as well? Come on – put your creative thinking cap on! Fill a need in a way that really matters to your customer.


Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

To illustrate, let’s look at an entire category of small business; tire stores. A quick Google search for “tire stores” led me to the following businesses. Although none of them really had a stated USP on their websites, each did focus on at least one “differentiator”:

Pep Boys – Selection of services

Discount Tire – Selection of products

Goodyear Tires – Price (price match, rebates, online discount)

Pro Tire – Shuttle Service

Not a lot of creativity or differentiation here other than Pro Tire. And instead of just using the word “convenient” at least they show a photo and describe how they are convenient. Their shuttle service really does differentiate them from the competition. But let’s try and put that in a template:

For tire buyers (target customer) who have somewhere else they need to be (statement of the need or opportunity) our automotive and tire service center (product/service name) provides a shuttle service for your convenience (not really a product category) that keeps you on schedule with the rest of your day (statement of benefit). Remember everything doesn’t have to fit perfectly into a template and many times it won’t.

Try this type of experiment in your own business category. Take a look at your biggest competitors. What is their USP? If they are not actually stating a USP, what differentiators are they focusing on? Do you focus on the same?

 MISTAKE #4 – Failing to Properly Communicate Your USP

Read the articles I referenced above. Study your target market, thoroughly evaluate your competition and their USPs, understand your product or service and how it provides a unique value to your customer. Play around with the different templates mentioned in the articles. Make an effort to differentiate your business and put it in writing in a way that can be communicated to your potential customers in a clear and articulate (if not eloquent) manner. Run your final USP by some objective folks – perhaps customers. Then work with your marketing team to put it in play throughout your marketing efforts. Shout it from the rooftops and make it so!


Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Business, Growth, Operations

Small Business Mistakes – Having No Marketing Plan

So far in this blog series you’ve received tons of great business and research resources, you’ve learned the importance of validating your business idea, defining your target market and building your customer persona. But nothing is going to happen until you reach your target market through marketing.



Marketing includes every activity in which a business participates to sell and deliver its products or services.  Marketing is a very broad term and can include everything from researching your target market and communicating to potential customers through advertising and promoting, to selling and delivering the product. Marketing your business in the right way, to the right audience is vital to success. Your business cannot survive without sales and sales rarely happen without some form of marketing.


Many people use these terms interchangeably and you may think it’s no big deal unless you’re writing an academic paper or working in the marketing field; it is a big deal. Unless you understand basic business terminology and the business principles at work, it’s very hard to organize and plan for the future growth of your business in a meaningful way.

Marketing Strategy – Your marketing strategy encompasses the following about your business:

a) Clearly defined product or service – Obviously, you must be able to describe exactly what you do or what you sell.

b) Company Purpose, Vision and Mission – Described perfectly in this article by Carla Johnson of Type A Communications, purpose is the why, vision is the what and mission is the how of your company.

c) Your Target market – Again, you must know who you are trying to reach in order to define a marketing plan to reach them.

d) Your Competition – Who are your direct and indirect competitors? You need a deep understanding of your competitors so you can distinguish your products and services (and how you market them) from theirs.

e) Pricing strategy – Will your business compete in the discount sandbox or the high-end, emotional buying sandbox? Your target market will have a lot to do with your pricing strategy.

f) Your Unique Selling Proposition – What makes your product or service superior or different from the competition and how can you convey that in your marketing message?

g) How will you retain your customers – Obtaining and retaining customers are two different stories. How will you turn a one-time purchase into repeat purchases? Does your product or service even lend itself to repeat purchases? If not, you should think about that.

Marketing Plan – Your marketing plan, describes the efforts and activity put forth to position your business within your market, relative to your competitors. I would consider the marketing strategy as the outline for your business (the who, what, when and where) and the marketing plan to be the actual directions for getting there.  Certainly, a marketing strategy without a marketing plan is just a dream. Any efforts to communicate your marketing strategy to your target market will be haphazard and ineffective. Your marketing plan is where you create goals, objectives and determine the tactics and tools to fulfil them.



Gather Data and Analyze

a) Do you have a recent SWOT analysis? If not, it will be helpful to prepare one:

  1. What are your business’ internal Strengths? (superior product, customer Service over the top, fast delivery, etc.)
  2. What are your business’ internal Weaknesses? (rookie staff, cash flow issues, need better equipment, etc.)
  3. What are your business’ External Opportunities? (few competitors, market booming, etc.)
  4. What are your business’ External Threats? Industry trends? Economy?

b) Look at your most recent sales numbers and projections

c) Gather all other financial records

d) Refer back to your business plan or most recent marketing plan

e) Analyze all the gathered information to help you with the next step

Determine Your Most Important Current Business Goal

Based on your analysis of the above information, you should be able to determine your most important business goal. Now break your business goal down using “SMART” (specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable and time-bound). To illustrate, let’s say your business goal is to increase sales by 5% this year. Broken down into “SMART goals”, it looks like this:

a) Specific“Increase sales 5% this year” is “Increase sales” is not specific.

b) Measurable – How will you measure success? “Increase” is not a measurable but “5%” is.

c) Attainable – The easiest way to set yourself up for failure (or cause your team to feel like a failure) is to set unattainable If you set the unrealistic goal of increasing sales by 50%, everyone will feel like they’ve failed even if they obtain an impressive 15% increase. Attainable goals = success, which leads to more success. You may not know this is attainable until you further break it down in your marketing plan (see below).

d) Realistic – Even if your goals are attainable, you must consider the ultimate impact on the overall business and determine if your goals are realistic as well. What if your sales really did increase sales by 5% this year? Would the production line or your vendors be able to keep up? What about the shipping and customer service departments? The reality of your overall business capacity, etc. must be considered when setting your business goals.

e) Time-bound – Of course, you can’t accurately measure whether you achieved your goal unless your goal is to be achieved within a certain period of time. Each goal should be measurable at the end of this time period. In this case the time period is a year but it’s important to break this down into smaller milestones along the way (monthly or at least quarterly) to check progress and allow for adjustments either in your goals or your marketing strategy and tactics (see below).



You will now formulate a marketing plan for your business goal. If you have multiple business goals, you will have multiple marketing plans.

Your marketing plan will include:

  • specific and quantifiable marketing goals and objectives,
  • the tactics you must utilize to reach your goals and objectives?
  • budget for implementation

Marketing Goal

Your marketing goal describes what must happen for you to reach your business goal. In our example, the business goal is to increase sales by 5% this year so break that down as far as possible:

Question – If you want to increase sales by 5%, to what dollar amount does that percentage equate?

Answer – Assume sales were $1.2M last year, a 5% increase equals $60K.

Question – What is your average sale per customer?

Answer – Assume it’s $500 once per year

Question – So, how many new customers must you add this year to generate a $60K increase in sales and meet your business goal?

Answer – You’ll need to add 120 new customers ($60K ÷ $500 = 120)

So, your marketing goal is to add 120 new customers this year, which should enable you to meet your business goal of increasing sales by 5%.

Marketing Objective

Now you have a marketing goal of adding 120 new customers this year, which will enable you to reach your business goal of a 5% increase in sales.

However, the question now is how are you going to get those 120 new customers? The Answer to this question will become your marketing objective.

Again, let’s break this issue down:

Question – Where do most or all of your customers come from based on your business model and past metrics?

Answer – Assume your business model is solely web-based and therefore your main sales channel is the website.

Question – Examining your website metrics, what percentage of site visitors become qualified leads for sales?

Answer – Assume 5% of site visitors become qualified sales leads

Question – Again, examining your website metrics, what percentage of qualified leads convert to paying customers?

Answer – Assume, on average, you convert 75% of those qualified leads into paying customers

Question – With all of this information to work with, determine how many new site visitors must you generate this year to garner 120 new customers?

Answer – 3,200 new site visitors (120 ÷ .75 = 160 ÷ .05 = 3,200)

Marketing objectives should really be stated in shorter time-frames to allow you to measure often and make changes in tactics (see below) as necessary. Therefore, in our example, you will need to get approximately 267 new site visitors per month for the next 12 months.

Now, break that down into SMART goals and see if it makes sense:

Specific? 267 new site visitors per month for the next 12 months is very specific

Measurable? 267 is not only specific but measurable as well

Attainable? Is it? Check your metrics; how many new site visitors did you have last year? The year before that? And the year before that? For a very simplistic example, if in the last three years your new site visitor numbers per month were Y1=300; Y2=600; Y3=1,200, how many new site visitors do the numbers indicate for this year? You would assume, 2,400, based on the last 3 years’ metrics (2,400 ÷ 12 is an average of 200 new site visitors per month). But to reach your goal, you need 267. That’s 67 site visitors per month more than your numbers indicate.

Again, is this attainable? Those 67 site visitors equate to an increase of approximately 33% over your average yearly increase. You would need to discuss this with your marketing professional to determine if they can suggest marketing tactics (see below) that will allow you to attain this objective. They may tell you it is attainable, that t’s impossible, or that it’s attainable, but under different time or budget parameters.  At this point you may have to either adjust your budget, time-constraints, or even your business goal.

Realistic? This is where your business goals are put to the “reality test”. Based on what your marketing professional tells you, is this objective realistic? Can it be done considering the rest of your plans, your budget, your existing website and branding, etc.?

Time-bound? You’re measuring your objective at 267 new site visitors per month, which is time-bound and can be measured and adjusted along the way if necessary.

Marketing Tactics

Let’s assume you and your marketing professional have determined your marketing objectives make sense. You must now decide which marketing tactics you’ll use to achieve your objective.

Marketing tactics are the specific tools you’ll use during this process, which will lead to the achievement of your marketing objective, your marketing goal and ultimately, your business goal! In other words, what specific measures are you going to undertake to lead to 267 new site visitors per month, leading to presumably 120 new customers, resulting in an additional $60K in sales, which is a 5% increase over last year? Here are a few examples of general marketing tactics:

a) Content Marketing

b) Social Media Marketing

c) Organic Search Engine Optimization

d) Paid Ads

e) Free Trials

f) Sponsorships

g) Email Marketing


These general tactics, however, do not go far enough. You must now break each one down into the very specific steps you will take to get you closer to your objective. For example, content marketing may include a) writing a 700-word blog post three times every week with a minimum of 5 links back to website content and each one focusing on 3 keywords and b) writing a guest blog post on a key market influencer’s blog at least once a month with a free offer that leads back to your website.

So for each tactic you will plan out the very specific details of how they will be carried out, always keeping your objective in mind.

Marketing Budget

Budget is a big consideration for most businesses. Money for marketing does not always seem plentiful. But if you look at marketing as the driving force behind your entire business, you’ll realize it’s your most important money spent.

If you’ve been in business a while it will be easier to determine a marketing budget for each marketing plan. The general rule of thumb for a yearly marketing budget is 10% of gross revenues. So, depending on what your business goals are, you will need to determine how much of this budget you use for each marketing plan (of course, if you have one major goal and plan, you use the entire budget!). Whether you have a mature business or are starting a new business, your marketing professional will be able to help you determine the budget based on your business goals.

Now, get out there and start planning!


Thrive Hive

The Balance












Business, Employment Law, Regulatory Compliance, Startups

1099 vs Employee; Take the 10-Question Quiz in my Newest Legal Guide


Small business owners are often faced with the decision to classify a worker either as an employee or an independent contractor. Unfortunately, these employers frequently and incorrectly classify workers as independent contractors when they should be classified as employees as. The reason for misclassification usually boils down to economics; small business trying to save money anywhere they can in order to increase the bottom line.

It’s been my experience that most small business owners a) don’t understand worker classification, b) depend on the wrong people to advise them and c) don’t understand the potential consequences of misclassification.


Based on this experience, I wanted to create a guide to help employers learn the factors to consider when classifying workers, the reasoning behind these factors and why it is so important to get this right. In my free legal guide, The Great Worker Classification Dilemma; Employee or Independent Contractor?, you’ll receive:

  • An easy-to-understand list of factors used by the IRS, the Department of Labor and South Carolina courts to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor,
  • Examples of situations that could arise from misclassifying an employee as an independent contractor,
  • A simple comparison of the money saved by classifying a worker as an independent contractor to the potential money lost, if that worker was actually an employee, and
  • A 10-Question Quiz to help you determine if a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.

To read, print or download the guide, go to my Resources Page and click the link – you may find something else on the page that could help you. Of course, if you have any questions about this or any other business issue, please let me know. I’d love to talk!

Business, Growth, Strategy

Small Business Mistakes – Misunderstanding Your Target Market

Welcome to the third installment of my Small Business Mistakes Blog Series. You can read the Introductory post here (with links to over 40 great business sources at the end) and my second post about Failing to Validate your Business Idea here. I will post at least one in the series each week until I get through all 10 on my list – so stick around!

What is a Target Market?

 A target market is simply the group of people to whom you are trying to sell your product or service. If you don’t know your target market then how could you possibly understand how to sell to them? If you don’t understand where they hang out, what they read, where they shop and what products and services they currently buy, how could you possibly know how to reach them? Short answer; you can’t.

Validation and Target Market

In my last post, I wrote about validating your business idea to your target market. But how and when do you determine your target market? The best way to explain is by example. Looking at these next four examples of new businesses, you’ll immediately see that validation and target market are inextricably intertwined.

  1. Dan discovered a solution to a problem that many people deal with,
  2. Tami invented a cool new product but will have to discover who will buy it,
  3. Steve started a business with an established model, providing established solutions to an established market…but added a unique selling proposition,
  4. Alice started a business that combines two or more established models, providing established solutions to that each have previously established markets to provide a totally new customer experience

In 3 out of 4 of the above scenarios, the owner will probably consider the target market first and then decide on the best business solution to serve that target market. The validation process, as discussed in the last post, will then help to initially refine the target market. For example, Dan looked at a particular group of people (target market first) with a particular problem and invented a product that would solve the problem. Tami, however, will have to figure out not only if she has a target market but who it is. With Steve’s business, because it is an established model with a general target market (e.g.: convenience store), the only way to establish a unique selling proposition is to zero in on a specific group of people and come up with an idea that will prompt them to become customers. The same goes for Alice; if she is going to the trouble of combining several established business models to provide a unique customer experience, she’s certainly creating that experience for a particular target market. As you can see, in these scenarios, validation and target market are inseparable.


Bigger is Not Better

However, once you believe you’ve defined your target market, take a closer look. A target market can be much too broadly defined, which is often the initial inclination for many business owners. The fear of leaving out a potential customer leads them to market to an overbroad audience. Unfortunately, this tactic will likely have the opposite effect on sales.

When your target market is overly-inclusive, your message becomes too general and watered down. For example, if you’re trying to reach senior citizens and teenagers, you can’t really tailor your marketing just to teenagers or the older folks won’t understand. And if you speak to the seniors, the teenagers will ignore it all together. And trying to somehow speak to them both will only muddy your efforts and either confuse your prospective customer or miss them altogether.


The more narrowly you define and understand your target market, the more successful you will be.  The old saying about not being able to please all of the people all of the time, is absolutely true. The key word is focus. Let’s look at an example to illustrate my point:

You’ve formulated a business plan for the “Women’s Work Experiment” that will combine most things a working mom needs under one roof. The Experiment will house a) an open work space and conference room with free wi-fi, b) fully-appointed and staffed daycare facility, c) work-out room, d) healthy-food eatery and coffee shop, e) a mini grocery store, f) day spa (hair, nails, Botox and more) and f) anchor pharmacy. You plan on selling a variety of different membership packages to the Experiment and may even open the day spa to the general public. Several investors have shown interest and you’re in the process of validating your idea. Who are you going to reach out to during the validation process? Who’s your target market? You created the concept for working moms so start there.


Think about this market in terms of grains of rice in a sifter. Put your working moms in the sifter and start sifting. To narrow down and focus your market, you’ll start sifting out those that don’t fit your ideal customer profile. Who is that?

  • Working moms who have to work on-site all day every day
  • Working moms whose children are in school full time
  • Working moms who don’t live close enough to the Experiment to make it worth their while
  • Working moms who can’t afford a membership

After this first step, you can start validating with the group you have left (moms of children under 6, can work remotely, likely self-employed, live in the general area and can afford to pay the membership fees). During the validation process you should learn a lot about this group of women that will help you to keep refining your target market.


Demographic Factors and Your Target Market

After validation and once your business is established, you will be able to obtain additional demographic information about your current and prospective customers. This information will help you keep narrowing your focus. Demographics simply refers to statistical data about a group of people and gives you detailed information about who your customer is. Demographic factors include: Age, Location, Gender, Income, Occupation, Education, Ethnicity, Marital Status and Number of Children[1]

Psychographic factors and Your Target Market

Your target market’s psychographic factors will give you a better idea of how to appeal to your customer because it explains why your customer buys. Psychographics classify people according to their attitudes, hobbies, desires, what they enjoy doing and other psychological information. Psychographic factors include: Habits, Hobbies, Spending Practices, Values, Attitudes, Opinion, Activities and Interests[2]

Again, obtaining demographic and psychographic information about your target market is much easier once you have real paying customer to study. You can obtain this information by conducting surveys or personal interviews[3] . Through this process, you will be better able to understand when, where and how to reach your audience through targeted marketing. Remember this is a discovery process, an exercise that will yield real data that you must be willing to utilize. Failing to refine your target market can cost you lots of time and money as you flounder about trying different methods of reaching customers you don’t fully understand.


Customer Persona

Continuing with our example, assume through surveys, personal interviews and examination of your memberships plus additional marketing and demographic research, you develop a demographic and psychographic profile of your ideal customer/client as follows:

  • Female, age 28-41
  • Live within 15 miles of the facility
  • Self-employed
  • Average revenues $85K
  • Work mostly in Marketing or Technology
  • Have a Bachelor’s Degree
  • 56% White, 41% Black and 3% Hispanic
  • 98% married 2% divorced or never married
  • Have 1.75 children under age 5 years
  • Buy mostly organic and healthy foods
  • Workout at least 4 days per week (at least 2 of which are yoga)
  • Preferred social networks are Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram
  • 85% Democrats who vote regularly
  • Predominant hobby interior design followed by tennis
  • Number 1 social concerns are global warming and safe water supply


Now you have what many marketers call a “Customer Persona” (aka: Buyer Persona, Marketing Persona, etc.) which will help you focus your marketing efforts (marketing content, product development, social media networks, public relations, advertising, etc.) through a well-planned marketing strategy including when, where and how you will reach your target market. Many marketers will even say to give this “persona” a name and of course keep her in the forefront of your mind in everything you do in the business (“What would Mommy Suzy think about adding Greek yogurt in the coffee shop?”). Get to know her and learn how to best speak to her interests, wants and needs.

[2] and
[3] For some great tips on interview questions, formulating personas and a free persona template, see

Target Market Research Resources

Below, I’ve compiled a thorough list of resources that may help you research your target market (as well as other areas of your business).


  • Reference USA – Absolutely amazing resource that you can access at home with your library card – available through most local libraries (Greenville participates)
  • Cognitive Lode – Great site for Psychographic research: “We distill the latest behavioral economics & consumer psychology research down into helpful little brain gems.”
  • Google Scholar – Search for scholarly articles, patents and case law (even though the url is .uk, the searches are US-based.
  • Facebook IQ – “By harnessing Facebook insights and working with world-class researchers, we can help marketers understand people across generations, geographies, devices and time.” Great articles on consumer behavior and industry research
  • Pew Research Center – Insights, publications, statistics and data on politics, media & news, social trends, internet & tech, science and more.
  • City Town Info – Details on 20,000+ communities
  • Google Insights – Consumer insights, data and measurement, all compiled by Google
  • American Fact Finder (US Census) – Can drill down to county level information regarding ethnicity of specific types of business owners, etc.
  • Business Dynamics Statistics – (US Census) – Provides annual measures of job creation and destruction, startups and shutdowns, etc.
  • My Best Segments Zip Code Look-up – demographics per zip code
  • Kauffman – research intowhat drives innovation and economic growth in an entrepreneurial world…”
  • Fed Stats – Statistics released by all types of federal agencies (education, science and engineering, transportation, etc.)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics – categories such as “time use” “consumer spending” “injuries and illness”, etc.
  • Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy – Small Business Statistics
  • NAICS Codes – North American Industry Classification System
  • Biz Stats – (great for researching info for a business plan) you can find all sorts of business statistics and financial ratios, calculators and financial tools
  • Zoom Prospector – helps you find right zip code to locate business based on your target market demographics
  • Free Lunch – all sorts of free demographic and financial data
  • Google Ventures Guide to Research – leans more toward validation but some great articles and info.
  • Hoovers (Free version) – for B2B business searches – prospects and competitors
  • Data USA – search stats by location, industry, occupation, education, etc. Great articles on all topics
  • Survey Monkey – make your own surveys and analyze results
  • Make My Persona (by Hubspot) – step-by-step persona wizard
  • J. Walter Thompson Intelligence – trend reports on tech, lifestyle, culture, retail, food & drink.
  • YouGovProfiles – a crazy site that lets you do a search for a brand, person or thing and then shoots out the demographics for the people who like that brand, person or thing (not sure I buy it since Bradley Cooper’s primary demographic is a 65+ male republican living in Nevada, working in advertising and making between $50-100K)


  • Global Web Index – not cheap. “We combine the world’s largest study on the digital consumer with cutting-edge analytics and data science approaches, so marketers & businesses can make smarter decisions.”
  • Trend Watching – starts at $500 per month; “we help forward-thinking business professionals in 180+ countries understand the new consumer and subsequently unlock compelling, profitable innovation opportunities”
  • Claritas – research regarding your customers online, social media and offline marketing


Business, Startups

Small Business Mistakes – Failure to Validate

This is the second post in my Small Business Mistakes Blog Series. Click here to see the Introductory post with links to more than 40 great small business resources like podcasts, books, sites and more. I will post at least one in the series each week until I get through all 10 on my list – so stick around!


Move Over Passion

Many people romanticize being in business for themselves to such an extent that they lose all common sense and perspective. And with so much in the news about Silicon Valley IPOs and billion-dollar exits it’s not that surprising that people think one BIG idea (and of course a garage or dining room table) is all it takes to be the next Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. So, instead of trying to strategically solve a problem for a target market at a price they’ll be willing to pay, these uninformed folks focus only the dream.  Of course, it doesn’t help to constantly hear the feel-good phrase of the decade; “go with your passion and the money will follow”.  Newsflash: passion is, of course, necessary when starting a business (or you’ll die of exhaustion and frustration) but passion alone won’t build a viable business.  Every prospective business owner needs to take a breath after they come up with that great idea (inhale; exhale slowly) and validate the idea with their target market.

What is Validation?

Validation is the process of vetting your idea to be as sure as possible it has the qualities of a viable business; a) the fulfilment of a desire or a need (solve a problem or resolve a “pain point”) that many people have, (b) at a price they are willing to pay.  If you fail to do either, you will not be successful.[1]


Failure to validate causes many small businesses to fail. Let’s look at Tony, for example. Although he’s never played a single hole of golf, he came up with what he thought (and his entire family thought) was a brilliant idea for a product; a pocket-sized leaf blower for golfers to move leaves from the ball’s path.  He paid a company $10,000.00 to make a prototype, paid a manufacturer for an initial order of 1,000 at a cost of $15 each, set his wholesale price at $19 and paid $4,000.00 for a booth at a golf industry show.  And he was stunned when he didn’t get a single order. What went wrong? He didn’t validate his business idea. Are leaves even a problem on a golf course? If so, is it something that causes a problem for enough golfers who are willing to buy a product to deal with it? And if they are willing to buy such a product, what price are they willing to pay? Tony could have likely saved himself at least $30K by making one phone call to a serious golfer.

How Validation Works

Validating your business idea is a bit like using the scientific method of forming a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, and analyzing the data to draw a conclusion.  After validating your business idea, you can also use the validation process for other business decisions that impact your market (e.g.: product add-on, new model, tagline, logo, packaging design, etc.).  There are different methods of validation but the point is to elicit honest and open feedback from your target market and draw your conclusions as to the viability of your business idea…before spending a lot of time and money.  If you ask the right questions or conduct the right experiment, this feedback should enable you to reach a conclusion about your idea, which will inevitably lead to one of three actions; (1) pursue the idea as-is, (2) modify the idea and re-validate or (3) ditch it altogether and come up with a new idea.


Validation Methods[1]

Industry Research –  The very first thing you should do is search the internet to determine whether your business idea or product has already been implemented.  If it has, can you do something slightly different or improve upon it in some way?  Research the industry, vertical markets, ancillary products or businesses, etc. and see if there are different opportunities.  Look for trends in the industry – can you predict something others may not have seen?  Are there regulatory changes that may occur soon? Another new product that may bring about industry changes you could leverage? I cannot stress enough that you should learn absolutely everything you can about the industry you’re thinking about entering. You won’t regret learning too much but you could certainly regret not learning the few facts that would have made an enormous difference in your business.


In-Person Interviews – Most business people agree that face-to-face personal interviews are the very best method for validating your idea.  Skype or video conferencing can also be used, but the point is to see your subject’s expressions and body language and video is not the very best method for this.  If you’re communicating over the phone or by email, some of the commentary can be lost in translation.  First, come up with a list of 20 to 30 potential customers (your target market, not family and friends) to approach for an interview.  Of course, there’s a benefit to interviewing potential customers; they may love your idea and become your very first customers.  Research and think through the questions you’ll ask. They should central in determining the true need for your business or product and the price people will pay.  Keep the interview short (10 minutes max) and be sure to follow-up with a personal handwritten thank you note (they took time out of their busy day for no reason but to help you, so you can take 5 minutes to handwrite a note rather than send a less formal email).  Keep an open mind during these interviews. You’ll do yourself no favors by ignoring feedback, criticisms or relevant questions. Do not try to make this about convincing yourself the idea will work. It’s better to realize at this stage that you need to change course than after you’ve spent months and thousands of dollars on a losing proposition. Additionally, please don’t worry about an interviewee stealing your idea.  Even though they may think it’s a great idea, they’re unlikely to have the time nor the inclination.  Asking a potential client (who’s doing you a favor) to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement is not something you want to do.

Landing Page and A/B (or “Split”) Testing – If you don’t have the time for personal interviews, or you’ve done the interviews, have good reviews and want to take your validation to the next level, you can do so by using a landing page.  A landing page, used in this context, is just a one-page website that tests the viability of your business idea.  It’s one thing to get positive verbal feedback on your idea but to have real customers sign up for future information, click through to learn more or commit to buy something in the future is much stronger evidence that you have a winner.  A great landing page must have an eye-catching call to action (for signing up or getting more info, etc.) and once activated, you can see how many potential customers you snag (conversion rate). This should provide enough information to determine your next step.  Additionally, you could test two different calls to action, taglines, business names, etc. on the landing page by setting up an “A” landing page with one option and a “B” landing page with the other and measure the conversion rates against one another.[1]  This type of testing is best done at this very early stage without investing a lot of money before making such critical decisions.


Pre-Selling – You’ve heard the old saying, “put your money where your mouth is”. Pre-selling does just that. Of course, this method will only work for certain business ideas, and only if you can reach your target market, but it’s a sure-fire way to validate.  If you can get people to buy your product, a subscription, a coupon, etc. in advance, you can solve a lot of problems up front. As seen in this article by The Teacherpreneur (Jarrod Robinson), you can actually raise the funds needed to build the product, by selling in advance.  But the Teacherpreneur also had a built-in audience with his blog, Podcast, and other endeavors, so this could be a bit more challenging if you have to pay for advertising.  Of course, there’s always Kickstarter.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – This term was popularized by Eric Ries who wrote The Lean Startup (a must-read, by the way).  In simple terms, I would say that an MVP is a version of a product built with the least amount of effort, time and money to get it in front of the target market as soon as possible for validation or feedback to enable the builder to modify the product as necessary.  Per Ries’ website, “A core component of Lean Startup methodology is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a startup can work on tuning the engine. This will involve measurement and learning and must include actionable metrics that can demonstrate cause and effect question.”[1]  In his book, Ries explains the way his tech company ended up using this methodology.  But the same principles can be used when starting even the smallest of businesses.  If you want to open a bakery, perhaps you could perfect your cake recipes at local church bazaars or school bake sales and ask for feedback from customers.  Or, if you wanted to be a photographer you could make photos for free and get feedback until you perfected your craft.


Ask for Help

Remember there are vast resources (See the end of post #1 of this series) out there to help you at every stage of the game. You don’t have to do this alone. Your local SCORE chapter or SBA are great resources. You’ll also find most established business owners are happy to answer questions, meet with you, suggest other resources, etc. There are also numerous local business coaches, consultants and advisors, including Concision. Also, see the Google Ventures Guide to Research for some great insight on validation, etc. And please get in touch if you’d like to discuss your business idea (no charge) or need other resources and just don’t know where to start. And keep watching for my 3rd installment in this series very soon.

[1] “Methodology.” The Lean Startup | Methodology. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

[1] See this article for a very in-depth look at using landing pages for validation

[1] This article in Entrepreneur Magazine reveals how 9 different entrepreneurs validated their business

[1] For a great article on business ideas by Paul Graham (co-founder of Y Combinator), see How to Get Startup Ideas.

Business, Growth, Startups, Strategy

Introduction to Small Business Mistakes Blog Series

These days it seems everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, launch a startup, buy a franchise or sell something online. Entrepreneurs, startups, venture capitalists and Silicon Valley are in the news daily. Startups, small businesses and entrepreneurship are very often the topic of news stories and television shows and new blogs and websites spring up daily dedicated to helping you make your fortune with that next great innovative idea.  But what’s the difference between a small business and a startup and who the heck qualifies as an entrepreneur by today’s standards?  Steve Blank, (the Silicon Valley entrepreneur considered to be the father of the Lean Start-Up methodology[1]), has said that entrepreneurs start businesses that will fit into one of 6 categories: “lifestyle business, small business, scalable startup, buyable startup, large company, and social entrepreneur”.[2]


When people talk about startups, they’re usually referring to what Blank calls the “scalable startup”.  These startups usually pop up in places like Silicon Valley and New York.  Think Google and Facebook or more recently Uber and Airbnb.  The entrepreneurs that start these businesses are not thinking locally, they’re thinking globally.  They’re not just hoping to send their kids to private school, live in a gated community and take nice vacations.  These guys are making big pitches to venture capitalists and launching scalable companies with their sites on making piles of money through an IPO or a huge exit. [3]

Even though the Silicon Valley types get most of the press, most entrepreneurs’ start new businesses that easily fit into the small business startup category.  But the word “small” doesn’t do many of these organizations justice. The United States Small Business Administration (SBA) defines small businesses as those employing fewer than 500 people[4]. I don’t know about you but a business with 499 employees doesn’t sound so small to me.  The impact of small business on the U.S. economy is certainly not small; they make up a full 99.7% of all businesses with paid employees in the US and employ 48% of the private workforce.[5]  In South Carolina the numbers are almost identical with small businesses employing 47% of the private workforce.[6]  Impressive numbers, right?  If we looked no further, you’d probably think small businesses in general must be pretty successful.  But, if you’ve ever taken a college statistics class you know numbers don’t always tell the whole story.  The SBA reports a less-than-rosy picture for individual businesses, which shouldn’t be overlooked by would-be entrepreneurs.  Approximately 20% of small businesses in this country fail within the first year of business and by the fifth year approximately 50% will throw in the towel.[7]  But because there are always new businesses opening to take the place of those closing, the overall economic impact isn’t as great as the financial impact on individual owners.

So it seems the trick is to remain standing through that first year, follow with at least 4 successful years after that and keep on rollin’.  Simple, right?  You might think so if you’ve never tried it. There’s no formula to guarantee your business’ success, but if you avoid the mistakes I’ll discuss in this blog series you’ll certainly decrease your odds of failing.

Success is Tricky Despite Help Available

Successful business leaders write books and blogs, hold seminars, record podcasts and volunteer to be mentors.  Academics research, study and report small business data to give us the big picture.  Numerous national and local associations and organizations are dedicated to helping small businesses succeed.  So why is it, with so much information and assistance available (much of it completely free) to help small businesses succeed, the chances for survival remain grim?  The reasons are probably as numerous as the businesses that fail, but common themes do persist. According to Michael Gerber, in his best-selling business book, The E Myth Revisited, most people who go into business for themselves assume because they know how to perform the “technical work”[8] of a business (e.g.: accounting, baking cakes, designing buildings), they will intuitively be able run a business that offers that product or service.  However, as Mr. Gerber points out, nothing could be further from the truth and it becomes evident to these folks pretty soon out of the gate.  People quickly learn there’s much more to know about running a business than making the product or performing the service.  Functions like marketing, accounting, human resources, customer service, sales, purchasing, logistics, etc. cannot be overlooked but often are as people get caught up in their dream of business-ownership.  Even the smallest businesses must understand and plan for these functions in a way that will lead to success.  And while there’s no way to prevent all possible mistakes, educating yourself by taking advantage of the vast number of resources available (See Resources below) will give you a much better shot at success than if you don’t.  So, in no particular order, in the coming weeks, I will write about 10 of the most common business mistakes and how you can avoid making them.


Government Resources

SCORE (Service Corp of Retired Executives – one of THE best online resources available; find a mentor, sign up for free webinars, watch recorded webinars, sign up for live events and courses on demand, etc.)

The Small Business Administration (a wealth of free information, statistics and advice)

The SC Department of Commerce Publication Directory (publications on everything from Aviation to Workforce Training)

SC DOC Focus on Small Business (the SC DOC’s latest publication – filled with good information)

SC DOC Resource Finder (tell them what you need and they will find the resource for you)

SBA Profile on SC (statistics regarding ownership, income, jobs, etc. for SC small businesses)

SBA Office of Advocacy-Research and Statistics (all other statistics of interest)

US Patent and Trademark Office (trademarks page)

US Patent and Trademark Office (patents page)


Udemy (learn anything from Java to Body Language for Entrepreneurs, free or very reasonable)

The Best Blogs, Online Magazines, etc.:

Harvard Business Review

Wall Street Journal



Fast Company



Fundera Ledger (great list of additional resources and great articles on the site as a whole)

Note – I just found this article today on Fundera; The 37 Best Resources for Small Business News – a great list of resources!


How to Start a Startup (amazing podcast from the people at Y Combinator)

Unemployable (I know, they could have worked on the title but this show has great advice for freelancers, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs)

The $100 MBA (good, practical business advice in all areas from different types of businesses)

Startup (lessons learned from other startups)

Smart Passive Income (really informative – as the title says it’s all about building passive income products and marketing those products)

Mixergy (stories from entrepreneurs about successes and failures)

The Tim Ferriss Show (the guy who wrote “The 4-Hour Workweek” – examines what it takes to be a top performer in all different professions)

Great Apps for Staying Informed:

FlipBoard (follow all sorts of topics and magazines – a wonderful resource)

Feedly (read your blog feeds)

Audible (I can’t sit still long enough to read a book these days so I LOVE this app – use on your commute, workout or chore time to your advantage and listen to a business book!)

Books I Personally Recommend (all available on Amazon and Audible and probably the library):

The Art of the Start 2.0 by Guy Kawasaki

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie (should be mandatory reading in high school!)

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber

The Innovator’s Dilemma

Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne

Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Best Business Books of All Time (according to almost everyone and all on my “to read” list):

Purple Cow by Seth Godin

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

Good to Great by Jim Collins

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson


[1]Steve Blank Entrepreneurship and Innovation.” Steve Blank. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

[2]Why Governments Don’t Get Startups–Or, Why There’s Only One Silicon Valley.” Xconomy. N.p., 01 Sept. 2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Frequently Asked Questions. N.p.: U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, June 2016. PDF. (However, for purposes of government programs, and contracting, there are specific industry-level definitions here: Table of Small Business Size Standards | The U.S. Small Business Administration)

[5] Frequently Asked Questions. N.p.: U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, June 2016. PDF.

[6] Small Business Profile, South Carolina, 2016. N.p.: U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, n.d. PDF.

[7] Survival Rates and Firm Age. N.p.: U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, n.d. PDF.

[8] The E-myth Revisited Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. N.p.: Bloomsbury Qatar Fndtn Pub, 2014. Print.

Advertising, Business, Growth, Internet, Legal, Regulatory Compliance

Advertising Regulations; The FTC has Some Words of Advice

Both federal and state law can create legal liability for advertising claims. Not only can the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or the state attorney general lead the charge against you, but so can your customers and even competitors. The goal of these laws is to protect consumers by making sure that all advertising is truthful and not misleading. If your business has a website, advertises on social media, distributes flyers or brochures, etc., you need to be very familiar with the legal risks posed by the claims you make.

Businesses that make unsubstantiated representations, omissions or engage in practices that are material and likely to mislead a reasonable consumer could be held liable for false or deceptive advertising.


Following is a list of just a handful of many FTC guides regarding advertising. A “guide” is actually the FTC’s way of helping you understand and comply with the corresponding law – they are not law. My description of each guide is extremely general and brief so please refer to the guide for the big picture. If you have any questions about any of them please let me know.

Guides Against Deceptive Pricing – Never say something is discounted from the “regular” price if you have actually inflated the regular price and the discount price is really just your regular price! You also have to be careful with “manufacturer’s retail price”.

Guides Against Bait Advertising – “The old bait and switch” (advertising one thing for sale but really trying to sell something else).

Guides for the Advertising of Warranties and Guarantees – If you advertise that an item comes with a warranty, you have to also mention prominently in the ad that purchasers can see the warranty where the product is sold, prior to purchasing.

Guides for Advertising Allowances and Other Merchandising Payments and Services – If you are a manufacturer, wholesaler or distributor you are subject to certain rules regarding promotional services that you a) provide to your customers, or b) pay your customers to provide for you, c) when those customers are in competition with one another d) at the same level of distribution.


Guides Concerning Use of the Word “Free” and Similar Representations – A great read on what “Free” really means! If you plan on having 2-for-1 sales, “BOGOs”, or advertising anything as “Free”, you really need to read this one carefully.

Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising – The guide to this law covers experts, celebrities and consumer endorsers but could even apply to a blogger who receives a free item through a network marketing program and writes a rave review on the blog. Very particular and the definitions for celebrity and expert are pretty broad. (See today’s news story about the FTC warning “‘Modern Family’ star Sofia Vergara, supermodel Heidi Klum, former basketball star Allen Iverson”)

Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims – This covers environmental claims about a products made both in the B2C and B2B realm. You can’t make a general and unqualified statement that your product has “far-reaching environmental benefits” because such claims are very hard to substantiate.

These are merely the tip of the iceberg, but you get the picture. We’ve all seen ads that border on dishonesty and some that go way over the line. I would stay so far away from the edge that you can’t even smell dishonesty. I don’t know about you but I don’t like going to a discount store and seeing “regular price $75 – our price $25” when I’ve see the exact same cheap item for $18 regular price at another store. Once a business has crossed into that territory if the FTC doesn’t get them, their customers will bail anyway. There’s nothing wrong with buying low and selling high, just sell something different from the competition and don’t try to trick people – you’ll be in business a lot longer that way.

I’ll write more later specifically about online advertising issues.

Business, Growth

What the Heck IS “Professionalism”?

IMG_1538I read an article on earlier today that really confused me. The article discussed professionalism and authenticity but not really in a way that made much sense to me. I’ll save the topic of authenticity for another day but this is what the article said about professionalism:

Professionalism, as we’re taught, causes us to remain subdued. It causes us to force ourselves into a box that keeps us within set parameters and holds us back from exploration. It holds us back from really voicing our opinions to the people who matter to us in business.

The professionalism that we’re taught by society, by schools and by establishments is actually no more than a set of old rules that are designed to keep hierarchy stable and add a layer of control to a workforce.

Now, maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve never felt that way about being professional. Granted, people can take it to different levels, but being professional is, well, being professional, right? Maybe it’s a bit like the Supreme Court described pornography in that we just know when someone’s not being professional. But being professional has never once “held me back from really voicing my opinion” (just ask former clients or bosses) and I’m not convinced professionalism is “no more than a set of old rules” of hierarchy and control (that sounds more descriptive of societal norms for women before Gloria Steinem and bra-burning!).


Of course, we’ve all seen people that either don’t understand what it is to be professional or simply don’t care. That brings me to this quote from the article:

The issue today, though, is that generations are becoming less and less accepting of this and as such, people like you and I are finding this traditional version of professionalism to be constraining. That thought process can lead us to wonder what’s wrong with us.

There’s nothing wrong with us. Nothing at all because actually, professionalism is simple — be fair, be honest, be open and be value-led. Oh, and be respectful.

By us I can only assume he’s referring to Millennials and I think he’s trying to make the point that with each generation comes a different view of what it means to be professional. I do think there are changes in how professionalism may look from generation to generation; our mothers would have never graced an office if not in a dress and heels, 30 years it was not professional to even ask to work from home (much less a coffee shop) and everyone working together in one big room with no walls…never.

But I disagree that there is  a “traditional version of professionalism” because I don’t think the definition of professionalism has or ever will change. I also don’t agree that being professional means being constrained. You can speak your mind, give your opinion, stand your ground, bring about change (and go home and fry it up in a pan) and still be professional.

There are things, however, that have nothing to do with traditionalism that will quickly shoot you over into unprofessional territory. Off the top of my head, this is my short list for things to avoid in a workplace environment if you want to remain this side of professional: a) raising your voice, yelling or using profanity, b) making sexual comments of any kind in front of or to anyone (plus it’s a wee bit illegal), c) making remarks about co-workers or clients to or in front of other co-workers or clients, d) making the comment “it’s not my job”, ever, e) cursing at work (yes, I’ve been guilty of that one for sure), f) being under the influence even at an afterwork event if with coworkers, and g) the slightest glance at your cell phone during a meeting, presentation, conversation, etc. when you are part of the group that should be paying attention (sorry, but that one’s never going to change for me – rude and unprofessional and I’ve been guilty myself in an occasional presentation!). I’m sure there are others but I can’t think of them at the moment.


Now, let me be clear; while jeans, t-shirts, out-in-the-open tattoos, piercings and backwards baseball caps might not be seen as professional in an accounting firm or law office, it’s considered every bit as such in most creative fields (oh how I wish…). Again, I think professionalism is linked to behavior, not appearance. Whether you work in a warehouse art studio and are covered head to toe in wonderful tattoos or you’re a financial advisor who wears suits and wingtips daily, professionalism, in my humble opinion is all about respect and earning trust. I think my short list above goes for all professions, no matter the industry, dress code or age.


What do you think? Did I miss something? Does professionalism mean something totally different to you? Do tell!

Advertising, Employment Law, Growth, Healthcare Law, Legal, Regulatory Compliance

The Not-So-Fun Part of Starting Your Business; Laws and Regulations

Legal issues are the last thing on an entrepreneur’s mind when they’ve come up with the “next big idea”. Who can blame them? This is hardly the part that of launching a business that gives you goosebumps. Below, I’ve highlighted a few of the most important business laws of which every new business owner in South Carolina should be aware. Non-compliance with these laws could mean huge fines or even worse. This is not an exhaustive list of every law and regulation but is a good starting point for your research. If I can help in any way, please let me know.

  • Environmental Regulations

Your business may be required to obtain permits or licenses before opening, which could take months in some cases.  This is something to begin exploring the minute you think of an idea because there could be enormous regulatory roadblocks you had not anticipated. Environmental regulations can be some of the toughest, but are not the only ones out there to be aware of, so do your homework or reach out to someone who has been through the same processes or someone who specializes in regulatory compliance.

Environmental regulations are governed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and in South Carolina the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and various “Bureaus” (See SC Environmental Permitting Guide).

There are many business activities that are subject to environmental regulation, for example; abrasive blasting, auto body shops, cabinetry/millwork, chemical manufacturers, concrete batch plants, cotton gins, crematories, drycleaners, fiberglass product manufacturing, foundries, furniture manufacturing, grain elevators, silos, incinerators, industrial furnaces/ovens, paint manufacturers and applicators, plating operations, surface coating/painting, and wood processing.

You can find assistance with these regulations through the South Carolina Small Business Environmental Assistance Program (S.C. SBEAP), which is a free, nonregulatory service from DHEC. They will help you at no charge to determine if your business needs permitting.  Call the SBEAP toll free helpline at 1-800-819-9001 or email at if you do not find answers at their web page on the DHEC website.

  • Online Advertising and Marketing Laws

Most of the laws affecting online advertising and marketing activity are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The FTC protects consumers against deceptive and unfair advertising, no matter the medium.  All advertising must be truthful and not mislead consumers. The FTC features many different downloadable guides for businesses including “Advertising and Marketing on the Internet”, “.com Disclosures; How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising” and “Marketing Your Mobile App”.

  • Online Consumer Privacy and Data Security

The FTC also covers many aspects of online consumer privacy such as protecting digital and physical data (see FTC guide “Protecting Personal Information; A Guide for Business”). The FTC is also charged with enforcing the Health Breach Notification Rule which applies to businesses that allow people to maintain medical information online.  Under this Rule, if your business experiences a security breach, you must a) notify everyone whose information was breached, b) notify the FTC, and in many cases c) notify the media. If you are building anything to be connected to the internet, you should take a look at the FTC guide, “Careful Connections: Building Security in the Internet of Things”.

Healthcare Information Privacy – The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules govern medical providers and health plans. The Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has responsibility for implementing and enforcing the HIPAA Rules with respect to voluntary compliance activities and civil money penalties.

Industry-Specific Laws and Regulations – Depending on the type of business you start, you will likely find there are additional laws and regulations to contend with. There are a handful of industries that are much more closely regulated; energy, transportation, utilities, medical, healthcare-related, etc.  You will need to do your research in the business planning stage to insure you know what you might face in a particular business.  The more regulation, the more expensive it will be to start and maintain, so be prepared.

  • Federal Employment Laws

There are numerous federal employment laws administered by several federal agencies that may affect your business. Two federal agencies, however, administer the majority; the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The DOL administers and enforces over 180 federal laws, a handful of which you will have at least heard of; the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  On the DOL’s website you’ll find the “First Step Employment Law Advisor” which walks you through the applicable laws, recordkeeping, reporting requirements and posters for your business.

The EEOC enforces federal anti-discrimination laws and regulations.  The EEOC’s Small Business Requirements Page helps you determine which federal anti-discrimination laws apply to your business according to your number of employees. For example:

If you employ at least one person – You are covered by the law that requires employers to provide equal pay for equal work to male and female employees.

In addition to the above, If you employ 15 to 19 people – You are covered by the laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, disability and genetic information (including family medical history).

In addition to the above, if you employ 20 or more people – You are covered by the laws that prohibit discrimination based on age (40 or older).

  • South Carolina Employment Laws

Below are brief summaries of just a few of the SC employment laws you should be aware of.  Please check with your attorney or HR professional to determine all applicable laws for your business:

 Employment at Will – a lot of people seem to confuse this term with “right-to-work” and it is not remotely the same. Employment at will simply means that if an employee is not contracted to work for a specific length of time, the employee or the employer may terminate the employment at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, as long as the reason is not against the law (as in the federal laws cited above).

Right-to-Work – South Carolina is a “right-to-work” state, which simply means that employees in SC cannot be required to join or pay dues to a Union. Specifically, an employer cannot require employees to join a union or pay union dues in order to obtain employment or to remain employed.

Job References – In SC, the law is different for references from former employers depending on whether they are given orally or in writing. The law gives immunity from defamation to former employers if these rules are followed, as long as they do not knowingly or recklessly give out information that defames the employee. If given orally, a former employer may only tell when the employee was employed, pay level and wage history. If a prospective employer requests a reference in writing and the reference is given in writing, the former employer may disclose 4 things (of which the employee must also be given access):

written employee evaluations;

official personnel notices that formally record the reasons for separation;

whether the employee was terminated voluntarily or involuntarily and the reason for the termination; and

information about job performance.

Wages and Hours – SC’s wage and hour provisions apply to all employers, except those who are only employing domestic help in private homes and those who’ve had fewer than 5 employees during the entire previous 12 months. Below are a few of the laws many employers seem to be less aware of:

You can only withhold from an employee’s wages deductions required or allowed by law or which you have given written notice to the employee of the amount and terms (in other words, if the employee purchases something from you and owes the business money, you can’t just decide to deduct it from their pay) C. Code §41-10-40

When an employee is “separated from the payroll for any reason” (could be a lay-off or termination, you must pay them their wages due within 48 hours of separation “or the next regular payday which may not exceed thirty days”. C. Code §41-10-50

When an employee is terminated, payment of “wages” includes vacation/holiday and sick leave payments due under the employment policies or employment contract (be careful what you put in Offer Letters as well)

SC goes by federal minimum wage (and actually has a law that prohibits the state from increasing the state minimum wage above federal)

Discrimination – SC mirrors federal law and adds an interesting protection for employees; “Smoker’s Rights” C. Code §41-1-85, which states that an employer cannot cite the use of tobacco outside the workplace as a basis for any personnel action such as hiring, firing, demotion or promotion.


A Changing Legal Landscape Offers Alternatives for Business Clients

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In the last nine or so years since the recession began, the legal industry has seen major disruption.  Amidst complaints from clients over ever-increasing legal bills, a never-ending stream of newly-graduated lawyers trying to find suitable work and the arrival of online businesses such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, many insightful and entrepreneurial attorneys have decided to adapt to the changes and reinvent their practices.

This past summer I read a study about many of these new practices entitled “Disruptive Innovation, New Models of Legal Practice” published by the Center for WorkLife Law at UC, Hastings College of the Law. The study’s authors analyzed over fifty new types of lawyer-organized businesses created as alternatives to traditional law firms. Generally, these new business models have very low overhead, hire only experienced attorneys, connect with clients through advanced technology and use alternative fee arrangements equating to a fraction of traditional fees. And most of the attorneys who left their “Big Law” firms to join these businesses, did so in hopes of finding more work-life balance. Depending on the exact business model, these attorneys work from home, set their own hours, choose their clients and retain a high percentage of the fees they collect, with many making the hourly equivalent of their previous law firm or in-house salaries.

I was immediately intrigued with some of these alternative law firm business models; many creative attorneys are reinventing the practice of law, increasing the value created for clients and greatly improving the way they live and work. I followed up with my own research and discussed issues and ideas with numerous attorneys and business people, to determine the potential for a type of “alternative law firm” starting out in the Upstate. After 6 months of working on the concept (with many “pivots” and much re-grouping along the way) I am finally ready to announce the launch of Concision Business & Legal Advisory Group.

Concision’s sole focus is to help small businesses launch, grow and overcome roadblocks, by providing strategic assistance and coaching in addition to legal and regulatory services. The goal is for small business owners to get the legal and business assistance they need so that more of them succeed rather than become a statistic.

Concision’s main distinguishing characteristics:

(a) business services such as coaching and strategic planning are available in addition to traditional legal services,

(b) use of client-focused technology and cutting unnecessary costs keeps overhead extremely low and allows us to charge legal fees equating to less than half those of large law firms’

(c) fixed fees for most services, with hourly billing reserved only for certain situations,

(d) cost-friendly alternatives to fully-retained legal services (like monthly subscriptions and DIY products) and

(f) our meeting locale is always up to the client.

I’ve spent the past several years of my 20+ year legal career working as general counsel for small companies including a franchisor. In addition to my legal background I have many years of small business experience; I grew up working in my family’s businesses and have launched several small businesses of my own, beginning at age 20.

My husband, Steve Coleman will also work with Concision as a business advisor after having spent years in numerous operational and business development roles with Fortune 50 companies as well as small privately-owned businesses. His mechanical engineering degree, technical knowhow, vast experience in operations, management and business development, along with a long list of resources and contacts will be a huge bonus for our clients.

If you’d like to learn more about Concision or schedule a free consultation to discuss your business, please contact me.

Ann Coleman

o 844.547.2744 x100     c 864.313.7277  (feel free to text)