A funny thing happens when more than 3,000 small business owners come together to learn – it’s like adding one part gunpowder and one part gasoline to the proverbial entrepreneurial flame. This year Infusionsoft hosted ICON14 in Arizona, and once again it was an outstanding event. The lineup featured speakers like Simon Sinek, Seth Godin, Peter Shankman, and JJ Ramberg. Some of these keynotes moved the audience to tears during the question and answer sessions. But the real inspiration came from the attending small business owners and contributors who shared their challenges, fears, and, most importantly, successes.
I thought it might be useful to spend a few minutes jotting down some of the most inspiring takeaways I got out of the event. Some of these reveal the “secret sauce” behind a turning point that led to the hockey stick revenue growth pattern all business owners look for.
Small businesses are underserved by customer management software
This is a key insight that easily gets passed over by most analysts and solution providers. Infusionsoft defines small businesses as organizations with 1-25 employees. Infusionsoft specifically targets organizations with over $100k in annual revenue because at this level solving the sales and marketing (and possibly eCommerce) challenges in a methodical way tends to drive significant revenue increases. Infusionsoft conducted a survey in 2014 of 850 small businesses that fit this criteria – 50% used Infusionsoft and 50% did not. There were two significant findings that are worth mentioning.
One, small business owners with up to 25 employees are often overlooked by software providers. In fact, most analysts define small business as under $50M, but there is a MASSIVE difference between a solution that can address the needs of a small business with 100 employees and a solution that addresses the needs of a business with one to five employees. That said, the 1-25 employee bucket represents 27 million businesses in the US alone! For this reason, small businesses are accustomed to investing in low cost point solutions that make it even harder to execute, especially for resources that are already overworked with operations, finance, sales, marketing, and fulfillment.
The second major takeaway was the insight that at this level, small business owners are unique. In fact, the survey revealed that most small business owners could be defined as “lifestyle entrepreneurs” because many don’t have aspirations to grow to an enterprise. Of course they want to grow, but they want to do it in a way that enables them to have freedom and control. That’s a very different view of the “small business” – in fact, I believe we have defined a sub-category of small business that is most definitely underserved by technology in the current market.
In business there’s a decision each of us makes about the role we play in our success. For a small business it is increasingly challenging to find the time to “get things done.” But in doing so, many small business owners inadvertently limit their own success by taking on too much. That’s one of the points Seth Godin brought up in his keynote. An executive like Larry Ellison hires people to make something. Meanwhile, someone like Stephen King is the only one who can produce the output that he makes a living on. Small business owners need to make a choice with respect to the role they are going to play in the success of the business. This doesn’t mean you suddenly have the resources to outsource everything like Larry Ellison can, but if that is your goal you should be taking appropriate steps to move in that direction with every decision you make. The thing to remember is that Tony Stark is fiction: no one is that billionaire who can run the business, invent and build the Iron Man suit, and then put on the suit and save the world.
Have you ever watched a seal eat a fish at the zoo? They don’t really chew anything. They just open their throats and swallow the fish whole. Small business owners have a tendency to take on too much, to try to swallow fish that are far too big, and it results in one inevitable outcome. A resounding theme for all small business owners is a lack of time to get things done. Your mind and your body can really only accomplish up to three things well at any given time. So remember, you are not a seal. Prioritize your tasks and carve off small chunks that can be done correctly the first time.
Automation and personalization are a potent combination for success
Perhaps the most powerful realization from the ICON14 event was the idea that small businesses actually have tools that can help automate a more intimate relationship with prospects. Every single successful business owner at this event found ways to personalize the opt-in engagement with customers through automation. In fact, many Infusionsoft users were even using Infusionsoft to automate internal back office processes such as fulfillment and customer service. The fact is, tools like Infusionsoft can be daunting for small business owners to take on. Make no mistake, for a first time user, moving from a basic email tool to a comprehensive sales and marketing platform with multi-channel campaign capabilities is a big matzo ball to swallow. This starts with a solid understanding of the customer journey and what you actually need or want customers to learn as they buy into the vision of your product or service. Bottom line, if you think you have no time, automation can and does free up time. It allows you to engage prospects in highly personalized ways. For example, Infusionsoft has a campaign template library in their marketplace for birthday communications with customers. This is the most downloaded campaign template in the library. So if you were thinking, like me, “oh, this nurture marketing customer engagement campaign stuff is too much for small businesses,” newsflash: not only are the most successful businesses using it, it’s leading to impressive growth in revenue for Top Performing small businesses.
Me too is so . . . me too
In many cases small business owners offer commodity services to localized target audiences. For example, a cleaning business or an accounting firm might operate in a very competitive and seemingly saturated market. In reality there are variety of ways to generate leads, and most of your competitors are using the same techniques. So how does a small business differentiate? First off, make sure you are frustrated. Frustration drives a great deal of innovation for small business owners. Let’s face it, if it was easy everyone would be doing it and there wouldn’t be an opportunity. Look for ways to differentiate, to stand out and look slightly different than your competitors. The days of standing on a soap box and shouting at customers to come see you are over. Treat people differently. Show up differently. That means you need to target a personalized offering to the CORE buyers you are trying to solve a problem for. That’s a critical concept, to target core buyers. Do you really know who your core buyer is? Is there a way to target ONLY those buyers, even if it means walking away from other potential buyers? This obviously demands a level of understanding about clients that many small businesses overlook – and that’s your competitive edge.
Data is your wingman
It helps to have a partner who works as hard as you do in a small business, but sometimes that’s not in the cards. The final theme from ICON14, which I think is also the most important, is the idea that data is not the enemy of the small business owner. We all like to complain that there’s not enough time, and therefore we don’t always take the time to make data-driven decisions. Small business owners are notorious for making calculated bets based on gut and intuition. Feels great when those bets pay off, but we don’t like to talk about all the times they don’t. So if you consider that three out of four small businesses fail, you have to wonder how many of those fail because of calculated bets by the owner. In small businesses, the outcome of every decision is amplified by limited time and resources. Miscalculations can have dire consequences, so customer data should inform your strategy. That assumes you have a system in place to capture that data, and for some businesses that’s where you need to start: a customer datamart that tracks behavior, purchase history, service requests, and implicit data about your buyers. The second dollar is always cheaper, and those upsell opportunities should be informed by data. So data is your wingman and your fail safe.
See you at ICON15
There’s nothing quite like hearing how a small business owner founded a company with next to nothing and over a matter of 12-14 months grew it to six or even seven figures. Let’s face it, it takes tough skin to persevere when friends and family are telling you to get a real job. But events like ICON14 are a reminder that thousands of small businesses are evolving and adapting to the age of the customer. They are making the time to learn new ways to automate success. Finally, I don’t normally do this, but I feel like a plug for ICON15 is worthwhile. If you are a small business with 1-25 employees, you should consider attending the event next year, regardless of whether you use Infusionsoft. The conversations at the breakfast and lunch sessions are illuminating, and the networking is second to none.
Supporting Resources: Sales and marketing research reports for small businesses.