As an E-commerce entrepreneur I know how hard that critical first year can be.
It’s a bare knuckle fight out there and the name of the game for the first year is simple: survival.
Having started out with a PC, a modem (am I showing my age?) and a printer in the spare room and having built up a successful business with tens of thousands of clients in an ultra competitive industry (hosting), I understand which techniques will help you survive those all important first twelve months.
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Why do Startups Fail?
Lack of sales, too much competition, bad cashflow. These are some of the usual reasons that startups fail.
These are always going to be the headlines, but they can all be traced back to one or two crucial areas , customer service and marketing.
So here are five things that you can do, which will massively improve your chances of success in your first year in business.
- Customer Service
- Content Marketing
- SEO Basics
Let’s look at each in turn so you can make sure you hit the deck running.
1. Customer Service
One area where you can get a massive advantage over your competitors is in terms of customer service.
When we started out we used LiveChat to offer customer service pretty much from day one.
I think without a shadow of a doubt Live Chat is the single best Customer Service tool we use.
I am a passionate advocate for it and it is always one of the first things I mention to people when they ask for recommendations.
Unfortunately, many people will then list a whole range of reasons why they can’t use Live Chat. Here are some typical responses:
- It doesn’t work in my industry
- It’s too expensive
- I don’t have time to take chats
- My clients don’t like using chat
- It’s just not right for me (no other reason given)
But think about it. We live in the instant age where everyone has WhatsApp installed on their phones.
These days people love to chat. They want to chat. They expect to chat.
You can use it for pre-sales, post sales, billing, technical support, whatever. People love the instant, anonymous nature of live chat. You can even handle several chats at once, try doing that on the phone.
Sure, you can still use the phone and other channels, but Live Chat just has to be part of the mix.
Using a helpdesk is another way to give you an advantage over your competitors. Remember that customer contact is like gold dust especially when you are just starting out.
If you use email then the chances are that opportunities will start to fall between the cracks. A helpdesk helps you plug the gaps.
There are loads of Freemium Live Chat and Helpdesk services out there for you to use so it doesn’t have to cost there earth. Sure, they may be some restrictions but you can live with these in the early days.
Becoming a 24-hour business is another trick that will make you stand out. Rather than using a cell phone number on your website linked to your voicemail, which sends the message: "I am a one person business", why not use a freephone number linked to a live operator and say clearly that it is a 24-hour number, which sends the message: "we take customer service seriously".
This is possible using a virtual freephone number and hooking it up to a 24-hour live answering service.
There are a wide range of these services to choose from whether you are in the United States, the UK, Canada or Australia.
When you consider that callers, your potential customers making an enquiry, are around 70 percent more likely to leave a message with a person than with voicemail then there is a compelling argument in favour of using this type of service.
Sure, you take the majority of the calls, but any missed or out of hours are answered in your company name by an operator.
Never do a task yourself that you can get someone else to do for you. Wise words of advice to trainee naval officers.
In your case, there may not be anyone else (except maybe your spouse or partner), but the lesson still stands, you need to focus on the bigger picture.
That means you should always look to improve your efficiency. One way you can do this is to automate repetitive tasks as much as possible.
I can remember in our hosting business in the early days we would create invoices manually, print them off, fold them, put them into envelopes and post them out. Yes, in the real post. Now I really am showing my age.
Imagine how much time we wasted doing that.
Then we would register domains manually and set up hosting account manually and send the welcome emails manually.
It felt great because we were so close to the action and we could feel the business growing just on the amount of time we spent on these tasks. But that’s all they are, tasks.
They aren’t adding much value to the bottom line. Invoices, welcome emails, setting up accounts, they’re just the entry points for doing business.
So we started to look for options to make our lives easier. At the time, end to end billing software wasn’t commonplace and most systems were aimed at corporates.
So we built little systems to auto-generate stuff like welcome emails, anything to take the pressure off us and save time.
Eventually that type of end to end billing and provisioning CRM software came on the market and we switched over as soon as we could.
I can still remember the sudden improvement in revenues. It was just a massive jump.
But not only that. There was a massive improvement in quality and consistency. Errors due to human error and the time taken to rectify them was dramatically reduced through automation.
The reason was because we were devoting less time on the day-to-day admininistrative stuff and more time doing what we should be doing; marketing, developing relationships with or clients and suppliers, developing new products and services, upselling and improving our website.
But automation is not just about daily administrative tasks. You can automate your marketing with things like automated follow up and even rules based automation based on the actions that your prospects take (e.g. if a lead clicks on a link in an email send them Report X) and lead scoring (e.g. if a lead clicks on a link in an email award five points, if a lead visits the pricing page award 25 points).
The other thing that this software will do us to ensure fast, consistent, automated follow up when you get an enquiry. Often it is the business that gets back to the potential client the fastest who puts themselves in pole position.
With this type of software you can get details of new leads sent over to you by text message to your phone, as well as creating a new lead in your system.
If you competitor is relying on email alone then their new lead will just gradually get pushed down deeper and deeper into their inbox.
You on the other hand are using marketing automation so you have them top of mind as they appear in your list of new leads. This type of marketing
Automation software was previously only available to Fortune 500 companies but today it is easily within the budget of even the smallest business or startup.
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Again, there are even Freemium options so you can run this kind of automation at minimal financial risk. As you grow your business case will justify any upgrades.
Automation will free you to focus on what you should be doing. Look for little victories. You don’t need to have an all dancing, all singing fully automated end to end system.
Just analyze where you are spending unnecessary, unproductive time and try to find ways to automate it, whether it is billing or accounting or anything that isn’t letting you focus outwards to your prospects and clients.
So remember, in your first year, never do anything that you can automate.
3. Content Marketing
The reason that content marketing is so important is that it is the point at which blogging, SEO, social media and even paid search converge.
And most of your competitors will either make a half-hearted attempt at it or they just won’t bother. So it represents a huge opportunity to get ahead of the pack.
Don’t believe me? Go and check the blogs of your competitors. Are they blogging regularly? Are they getting any engagement with their blog posts?
What about social media? What channels are they using and is there much action going on?
Content marketing is not just a buzz phrase. It’s how serious, savvy businesses are getting a serious advantage over their competitors. Content marketing is a huge area and we can’t begin to cover it here.
But here are the headlines:
- It builds authority
- It increases conversion rates
- It helps you build relationships with Influencers
- It encourages social sharing
- It works over the long term
- It does not have to be expensive
This is what you need to focus on in your first year:
- Create an Ideal client persona and a buyer’s journey.
- Identify influencers (non-competing bloggers or businesses that share your ideal client).
- Build relationships with your Influencers - social media, subscribe to their blog, subscribe to the email list, interact with their community blog posts, engage in social media.
- Create content for authority (and backlinks) - definitive guides, list based content, comparisons.
- Create content for conversion (how-to guides, buyer’s guides, case studies, videos).
- Making your content visually appealing and optimized for search and sharing.
- Repurpose your content to cover multiple audiences.
There’s no mystery to it. Every industry or market needs a voice of authority. It might as well be you.
But it isn’t a game of chance. If you just follow the steps above then you’ll find this is a predictable way to build your online authority.
It needs you to commit to creating great content and to outreach and build relationships with Influencers.
In fact, Content Marketing is a step by step process that can be summed up like this:
Great Content + Great Outreach = More Authority and Backlinks
Authority is important for two reasons. Firstly, authority content gets backlinks naturally. If you’ve ever tried to earn backlinks then you’ll know that it can be a time consuming and difficult undertaking.
Not only that, it can sometimes lead you to consider underhand tactics like paid links (you wouldn’t do that now, would you?) which can lead to a Google penalty.
But if you develop a content strategy based around authority then your content will get the attention of your influencers.
They will help you do the heavy lifting of promoting your content by sharing it with their followers. This leads to more shares and more (natural) backlinks. That means higher rankings and more enquiries.
It’s like a heavy flywheel. It takes a bit of effort to get some initial movement but once you’re up and running it becomes a whole lot easier.
The second reason is that as your authority increases you will find that people will start to come to you in advance.
The sooner you achieve this the sooner you will experience exponential growth.
How many times do you find yourself saying to a family member, friend or colleague something along the lines of, “I know this great (accountant, financial planner, plumber, gardener...). They did a great job for me. You can trust them. Let me get their details for you”.
The fact is that referrals are one of the easiest ways to grow any business.
According to a report by Google , word of mouth (at 74 percent) is the number one factor when deciding which brand to use and people are up to four times more likely to buy if they have been referred according to Nielsen.
They’re also likely to spend 16 percent more over their lifetime with you than non-referred business according to Wharton School of Business.
The problem is that most businesses are notoriously bad at asking for referrals.
But the problem doesn’t just lie with the businesses. Texas Tech suggests that whilst over 80 percent of consumers are willing to refer after a positive experience, only one in three actually do.
In other words, they want to refer but they don’t. So you just need to grease the skids a little. Remember that most businesses, large and small, don’t ask for referrals.
So you just need to make asking for referrals an automatic habit in your business.
The best time to ask is when you have a happy client in front of you. There’s no need to hit on them in a high pressure way.
Just explain that you’re really glad that they’re pleased with the result and that you really appreciate them as a customer.
Explain that growing your business relies on genuine recommendation from your happy clients.
If you have some kind of referral pack you can hand to them at this point then do so. It could be a referral card or a fridge magnet. Whatever you think is appropriate.
The point is to take control of the process. You are getting proactive referrals.
If you don’t you’ll probably still get referrals but they will be accidental referrals. They’re great to get, but there will probably be fewer of them.
When you create your referral process you may want to think of a gift for both the client that referred and the new client themselves.
It’s little touches like this that mean you will stand out in their minds and help to create a self perpetuating referral process.
Over time you may want to invest in some referral software to do all of this for you. That way you just need to give them a URL for your referral page and they can email details or share it on their favorite social media channels.
5. Getting the SEO Basics Right
I love helping people get more out of their online presence. But despite the vast amount of free knowledge on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) out there, many websites still fail to get the basics right and this holds them back.
So here’s a handy checklist with a few pointers. The list is pretty much in order, but you don’t have to follow it slavishly in this order.
The important thing is to run through them and tick them off once you’ve implemented them.
- Local Listings set up and optimized - Google MyBusiness , Yahoo Local and Bing Local
- Get reviews - Google, Yahoo, Bing and third party sites like TrustPilot
- Get Name, Address and Phone (NAP Citations) - start with the main ones then add them consistently. Make sure your NAP is Identical in every listing
- Identify relevant Industry/Niche Directories and get listed there
- Identify full list of keywords
- Create a separate page for every product or service you offer
- Create long form pages - minimum 500 words per page
- Optimize every page (keywords, metatags, URLs, Headings, keywords in text, link to other pages, optimize images)
- Get some backlinks to your website - start with some easy wins (testimonials to suppliers, sponsor local charities, join relevant associations, Authority Directories)
- Configure and install Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools (aka Search Console), XML SiteMap and robots.txt
- Check Site Load Speed and optimise your website for speed
- Check your site is mobile friendly - ideally Responsive Design or if cost is an issue a side by side mobile version
- Get secure SSL hosting and add a Security Seal to your website
- Set up a blog and post epic content (see above)
- Optimize all blog content (attention grabbing headline, keywords, metatags, URLs, headings, keywords in text, link to other pages, optimise images, social sharing buttons)
- Use video throughout your website - if you’re happy to appear on camera, great. If not you can do screen capture, talking presentations or even cartoons
- Optimize all of your videos and use them in your product pages and your blog posts
- Create trust with the use of professional accreditations, supplier logos and guarantees
Your first year in business is critical.
The object of the game is to stay in the game. There are five key areas that you can focus on to dramatically improve your chances.
Use customer service tools to make the most of the contact you have with leads and customers. As a minimum consider using Live Chat and a Helpdesk.
There are freemium versions available. A 24/7 freephone number diverted to a live answering service will also encourage that crucial customer contact.
Look to automate as many mundane daily administrative tasks as possible. This frees up your time to focus on the important areas of your business, your prospects and clients. Automation can also be used in marketing to ensure consistent follow up.
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Committing to content marketing means that you can claim authority in your field.
Authority means that you will pick up more backlinks and get more social media mentions to grow your audience.
Referrals are one of the best way to grow any business. You must develop a referral process and ensure that you implement it consistently.
Finally get the SEO basics right. Many of these are one off activities but you must make the commitment to get them right.