By: Renee Martin
Does it feel like your business is in a state of malaise? Are sales stalled in a recessionary muck? Instead of passively waiting for an economic turnaround, you can help revitalize your business right now by adopting these five strategies embraced by accomplished entrepreneurs.
A newly published book, The Risk Takers: 16 Women and Men Share Their Entrepreneurial Strategies for Success, profiles high-achieving entrepreneurs and highlights 10 broad strategies they’ve employed to beat the competition and stay on top. Five of these strategies are particularly valuable in channeling your creativity to develop new products and expand your customer base.
1. Go on a treasure hunt and find an underserved niche.
Take a good, hard look at your business operations. Is there some way you can parlay your company’s existing expertise and resources to create new, more specialized products and services? Is there an underserved niche you could be targeting?
You might take a lesson from David L. Steward, founder of World Wide Technology, a giant in the information technology field. Today, WWT’s annual revenue approaches $3 billion.
But years before he launched WWT, Steward acquired a small consulting business which audited freight bill charges. Most of the company’s contracts involved auditing overcharges for customers of railroad freight services.
Three years later, he tapped an underserved niche that nobody else had spotted -- identifying undercharges for the railroad companies. The railroads were losing revenue because of the undercharges. Other companies provided overcharge services informing railroad customers when they were charged too much, but nobody had ever worked the other side of the equation. He developed new electronic auditing processes that prompted Union Pacific Railroad to hire his company to audit three years worth of freight bills -- $15 billion worth of rate information for a single client.
2. Spot a new trend and pounce.
Often, a shift in cultural or economic trends will create new opportunities for product development or sales and marketing. Sometimes that shift arises from advances in technology or media. Think of the start-up software developers that have gained a foothold by developing applications for smartphones.
Tova Borgnine’s direct-marketing beauty products company catalog orders were stagnant. Her company needed a new, effective source to jumpstart sales if she was going to survive. She spotted a new trend -- women forsaking malls to instead shop from their sofas with the new cable-shopping networks. Borgnine lobbied for an appearance on cable TV’s fledgling QVC network. The bold move worked. The glamorous Borgnine became one of the network’s most popular pitch women. She saw sales of Tova Corporation’s beauty products skyrocket. Borgnine had identified a new, robust sales and marketing channel for her products, one she simply couldn’t cultivate in the pages of a catalog, and pounced before her competitors did. The Tova brand became so successful that QVC eventually bought the company from Borgnine for an eight-figure price.
3. Hit ’em where they ain’t.
An old baseball slugger’s adage simply put - set your sights on places where there’s no formidable competitors. This is one of the strategies that helped catapult Curves from a small women’s gym in Texas to a global multi-billion-dollar fitness empire.
Curves was launched in 1992, when Gary and Diane Heavin spent their entire $10,000 in savings to open a women’s fitness center in Harlingen, Texas. Curves targeted an underserved niche: middle-aged and elderly women who needed a non-threatening place to finally get in good physical shape.
After a second gym location and earnings reaching $250,000, Heavin decided to launch a Curves franchise system in small towns which had been ignored by the expensive, glitzy chains. His model -- small, no-frills operation -- worked even in sparsely populated areas that couldn’t support more elaborate setups. Curves fitness centers fit perfectly within the confines of modestly sized storefront retail spaces found in any small-town shopping district or corner strip mall. So Heavin positioned his franchisees to hit ‘em where they ain’t. Today, of course, Curves is everywhere. There are nearly 10,000 locations in 73 countries.
4. Save your bucks and get noticed without expensive advertising.
You may not have the money right now to launch an advertising campaign for your business, but that doesn’t mean you can’t promote your brand. Use your imagination to separate your company from the pack.
Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, was a master at this strategy. For years, he had no marketing budget for his Minnesota-based home-computer repair service. But he did have an offbeat sense of humor and an active imagination. He made certain the company’s quirky identity got people talking. When Stephens bought the first company car, a 1958 French-manufactured Simca Aronde, he dubbed it the Geekmobile and painted a giant Geek Squad logo on the door panels. The car was an eye-catching moving billboard.
Since Stephens knew affluent people were more likely to use his company’s services, he sometimes drove to cultural events such as orchestra performances and circled the block while attendees milled about outside the venue. Before long, Geek Squad was fielding customer calls from some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Twin Cities area. Stephens eventually sold the company to Best Buy for millions.
5. Exploit your competitor’s weakness and make it your strength.
The sharpest entrepreneurs have a knack for viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. That quality can help identify competitors’ vulnerabilities and shortcomings.
When Mal Mixon acquired Invacare, a wheelchair manufacturing company, in the early 80’s, there was already a gorilla competitor that controlled 80% of the world’s wheelchair market. How do you overtake a gorilla? First, you discover your competitor’s weakness -- in this case, it was delivery times -- and make it your strength.
Mixon recognized that when personal mobility is at stake, providers and their customers want a quick turnaround. He expanded his company’s warehousing system across the country to speed deliveries to only one day after order placement. A series of other initiatives making Invacare more attractive followed. Since acquiring Invacare three decades ago at the age of 39, the company has grown its annual sales from $19 million to $1.8 billion.
It’s never been easy to run your own business, and this economy certainly poses plenty of hurdles. But these five strategies will help you to create a competitive edge, using your own creative skills and commitment to succeed.
Don Martin epitomizes the rags-to-riches entrepreneur success story. Raised in poverty in a small town in the Ohio Valley, over the next four decades he founded and built the largest privately held insurance brokerage in California: Cal-Surance. Ranked in the top fifty of insurance brokerages in the U.S., Cal-Surance generated over $200 million in annual revenue.
Renee Martin was a dynamic real estate broker when she switched careers entirely to work in community service as rape counselor, an advocate for The Children's Court (CASA) and director of community relations of a child abuse crisis center. Renee and Don co-authored The Survival Guide for Women and she became a frequent and popular speaker at women's seminars across the country.