We have received innumerable thank you notes, emails,
referrals, and even thank you pizzas in the past. Today we received an
exciting package from Mark Bent, CEO of SunNight Solar and creator of the BoGo Light, as a result of the
excellent customer service that Shawnie on our Customer Care team provided for him.
The really cool part is that from our perspective, this was a totally normal,
everyday customer interaction. The experience was simple, quick and painless – an
easy email exchange and obvious next step.
It’s too often that we take for granted that even this basic
customer service is EXLEMPLARY compared to the majority of companies out there.
I ask you this; when was the last time you sent an email to
a company and received an answer:
…the same morning
…from a real person
…who completely resolved the concern without any
further steps needed?
simple, but without a quality team, awesome infrastructure (i.e. Email Center
Pro for shared email management), and empowerment to make decisions, performing at this level is simply not
Teaching with Business Plan Pro business planning-software? Kristen Langham asked me about it last week, via email, while I was off to Houston for the Rice University 2008 Business Plan Competition (more about that on my blog).
For 11 years now, I've been using Business Plan Pro as part of my undergrad class in starting a business. I teach the class every Spring quarter, at the University of Oregon. Here's some of the things I've learned:
I've created downloadable Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files describing each of the assignments I give and made them available for download at my class website at www.ba410.com.
I assume, and I hope, that you'll find them easy enough to read, understand, and use. I ask my students to create explanations of the problem and solution, a market analysis, sales forecast, expense budget (which includes personnel plan), startup costs, and an executive summary. The instructions sheets are all included in the downloadable assignments.
In one of my more popular classes, I challenge the class to do the numbers of a business plan in a single class. Then we do it together, with Business Plan Pro projected. We agree on a hypothetical business (usually a book store or coffee house) and create, within a single hour, a sales forecast, cost of sales, personnel, expenses, startup costs, and cash flow and balance sheet. I do that by not paying too much attention to fine tuning the numbers, just getting some quick estimates. We see together how the numbers interact. Here's how that goes in more detail:
I use the Forecaster function to set a one-row sales forecast, and then set a percentage value down below, also in the sales forecast table, for cost of sales.
I then jump to income statement and set some expenses, typically rent, utilities, and something big for marketing.
Then I go to the Personnel Plan table and set up salaries, quickly, for a few people. I am summarizing, so quite often I'll just use a single row to represent salaries.
I'll go to the Startup Costs table and estimate some startup expenses and startup assets. I try to make the number significant, because I'll use it to make a point about cash flow.
I pop briefly back to the Sales Forecast and Profit and Loss to show progress, then go over to cash flow. I use the Cash Flow table first. If I've done my numbers right, it will show that this hypothetical company makes a profit but lacks working capital.
Then we talk about startup financing, and cash flow, and how much working capital is required. We make some assumptions and fill in the startup funding table.
Then I show them that Cash Flow is better now, with the chart.
Finally, we look at the Balance Sheet, and then the ratios, which are both completed automatically at that point.
And all of this should take about an hour of class time, if I do it right.
I use a template that I created with Business Plan Pro for a simple 10-point business plan, focusing on the slides I like my students to use when they finish the class with a presentation. You can click this link to download and save the .zip file that contains the template. The template's named "Startup Plan Template.pdtx" and it works with Business Plan Pro version 11. Use the Business Plan Pro help to install it as a template, using the template manager. There are also downloadable instructions included with the first assignment.
My favorite business plan to use as an example is the sample plan for Metolius Graphics, because it contains a serious flaw. It's a graphic design company selling to businesses, whose plan setup didn't include sales on credit, and therefore doesn't have accounts receivable. I use it to show them why they shouldn't trust sample plans, and how a company can be profitable but run out of cash. The most visual part of that demo is to go back to plan setup, change the setting to say "yes" to the sales on credit question in the setup. This of course fouls up the cash flow, which is the whole point of the exercise.
I do use the projector every other class or so to go over the numbers routines, like the sales forecast, and later on the cash flow, because it's so much better to show my students how these things work. Demystifying is really ideal.
I warm them ahead of time that computer problems and software problems aren't reasons for not turning in assignments. I tell them not to wait until the last minute to print, and to back up their work often, and to keep copies on a portable USB/thumb drive it they have to. I'm not sure they follow my advice, but it makes it harder for them to excuse themselves from assignments for that kind of a problem, since I've already warned them against it.
All of this is on my mind today because Kristen asked me last week, and today I have my second class in the 19-class schedule for this Spring Quarter. This is now the 11th year in a row I've taught this class. It's the only class I teach, but it's still hard, takes a lot of time, and is thoroughly enjoyable. I wouldn't miss it.
What would you do to grow your business with $100,000? It's not just an idle question. Forbes.com is offering that as the grand prize in its Boost Your Business In 2008 business plan contest.
Applications are being accepted now, and through the end of May.
And here's a challenge for you: the first round is no more than 500 words, which must include (quoting):
Description Of The Business: Specifically, what product or service is being sold and to what type of customer? What is the estimated size of the addressable market?
Discussion Of The Business Model: How, specifically, does the company earn a profit? (Examples: retail sales, consulting fees, advertising.)
Capitalization: How is the business funded? (Examples: loans from family and friends, venture capital, bank loans, cash flow from operations.)
Differentiators: How is the business different from--or better than--the competition? Why do people want or need this product or service? What is the company's sustainable competitive advantage? If the business is technology-based, has a relevant patent or license been secured?
Years Of Relevant Experience: For how long, and in what capacity, have you and your management team been involved in the industry?
Your Plan For Using The $100,000 Prize Money: This is critical! Briefly but specifically describe how you would invest the largesse to take your business to the next level. (Examples: new equipment, new people, more marketing, etc.)
For more information, visit the Forbes.com website.
I posted the other day about unlikely businesses, like the small repair shop here in Eugene that specializes in fixing electric shavers.
Talking that over with a couple of people around the office reminded me of another unusual business I saw recently: a midway stand on the Coney Island boardwalk called, charmingly enough, Shoot the Freak. See for yourself:
This business is exactly as sophisticated as it sounds. The pitch is made, loudly, by employee #1, a teenage kid with a microphone, and it's dead simple. Pay $5 and get 15 tries to shoot at employee #2 with a paintball gun.
Are you not tempted by this? Then you are clearly not my teenage son, who rushed to part with his money and happily took his shots.
Beyond the novelty of the offer, what's remarkable to me about this business is its economy. Seriously, is there a lower-cost startup idea out there? Coney Island is still miraculously decentralized, a sort of anti-Disney playground. Every ride, game, and concession is its own independent business. One guy owns the Tilt-a-Whirl, another the bumper cars, and each one has its own ticket booth.
So to start your own Shoot the Freak stand, you need:
Two minimum-wage employees
Two loaded paintball guns
A cheap microphone and amp
The right to use a vacant lot (the more rubble strewn, the better, and keep in mind we're in Brooklyn here)
Not to read too much into this admittedly dodgy business, but isn't this the essence of small business success: find an audience (13-year-old boys) and give them what they want (to shoot paintballs at strangers, apparently)? Nice and tidy. And it makes a good story when you're done.
I get excited talking to entrepreneurs. Small business owners have a certain level of passion about what they're doing that is infectious to everyone around them. There's a glint in their eyes that shows the hunger they have to share their idea to as many people as possible. It's so great to watch other people get excited by their enthusiasm and sheer joy of making a difference in the world.
This morning I spent some time looking through the Yahoo! Small Business website which has a video section dedicated to entrepreneurs and their stories. There are five video's there right now, stories of how the business started, or grew, the best and worst things about growing their business. Fascinating stories, and great advice.
I really enjoyed watching them and it reminded me of how many stories there are out there, none of them the same.
If you have a story you want to share about your business, please get in touch with me! Comment here with your story or send it in an email to blog (at) bplans.com. I would love to help you share your struggles and triumphs with your business.
I just got off the phone with a University Bookstore (who shall remain anonymous) who purchased 24 copies of our Business Plan Pro software. We did play a little phone tag before we connected, but the time that lapsed between his original call and the call where we actually spoke was 22 hours (not bad given I was out of the office from 12pm on yesterday).
While placing the order, the customer indicated he needed the software shipped overnight because classes started last week. He continued on, saying they originally contacted another company (he didn't know or reveal the name of the competitor) but still didn't have software despite having contacted them at the end of February. He said, "Even though there was a slight delay in you getting back to me since you were out of the office yesterday afternoon, at least you called me back." My thought was, "Of course I called you back...you are a customer looking for information on our products and services, not to mention returning a phone call is just plain common courtesy."
I don't know if I, or the companies I have worked for, are a rare breed, but it amazes me that some people and organizations don't have the common courtesy or business sense to call a potential customer back. I guess the competitor that this University Bookstore originally called didn't feel as though an $1865.00 order was worth their time (not to mention the future orders this customer is likely to place).
I am proud to say I work for a company that truly believes in providing good customer service. We call people back and respond to email inquiries in a very timely manner and we treat every customer with respect and appreciation. Yes, I honestly believe we do this, and I think our customers would agree.
This is not closely related to business planning or entrepreneurship (unless you take a broad view of startup requirements), but it seemed like a tip worth passing on.
David Pogue from the New York Timesposted recently on the Flip Ultra video camera. Apparently it's a "mega-hit," though he'd never heard of it, and neither had I. I've asked around the office, and it seems like news to everyone.
So in case you haven't heard... The Flip is a dead-simple camcorder with three buttons (Record, Play, Delete), built-in Flash memory, and a handy USB connection that flips out to the side. It looks like a toy, but the video quality is surprisingly good, especially in the kind of low-light situations where low-end video cameras typically fail. It's the size of a small digital camera and costs $150. The resulting video is plenty good enough for small business use.
According to comScore's presentation at the recent Search Engine Strategies conference, nearly 20% of Google search result pages now include some sort of "universal" content (video, news, maps, etc.) in addition to the standard ten blue links. Most common among these are video clips -- so if your web activities do not include video activities, you may be missing out on an important path to mindshare.
When I was a kid, too young to legally have a real-grown-up wage-earning job, one of my household chores was cleaning up the back yard after the family dog. Come to think of it, as an adult it was still one of my household chores.
My octogenarian mother has moved from her sprawling house into a retirement community and still has her dog. Someone needs to clean up the grounds, and I can't travel 2,500 miles every week to do it.
Enter the PoopButler!
Where once there were only neighborhood kids doing chores or making spare change to buy candy, there are now hundreds of similar businesses across the country, ready and willing to clean up this dirty niche market. Plenty of job security too.
And the idea isn't that new, either. Robert A. Heinlein wrote about the handyman class gone corporate in his 1941 story --We Also Walk Dogs.
So don't be dissuaded from pursuing an unlikely business idea. Do your research, write your business plan (to be sure you've covered the details) and start up your business. Business is picking up!