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Saturday, October 24, 2009

The start-up marketing challenge

Start-up architectural, engineering and construction practices/businesses have the standard "experience" problem plaguing prospective employees either just getting started, or starting a new career.

You don't have experience, and no one will give you a chance without experience and verifiable references. This is especially painful for public projects, where supposedly the competition is fair, but you require a bond, and surety companies won't touch you with a ten foot pole.

If you are a renovator, designer, or the like, how are you going to stand out from the clutter of really bad hacks, willing to work for next to nothing, and what kind of clients are you likely to find who will give you a chance, who don't know you already?

Obviously, every year, many businesspeople surmount these challenges and successfully launch their businesses. Generally, you can overcome the start-up challenges with a combination of these traits:

You have experience, connections and knowledge (and relationships and reputation) in the area you wish to serve.
This occurs for example when you have been an executive at one company and are starting out in the space as a competitor. Your suppliers (and, if you are not subject to non-competition agreements) your clients know your integrity, reputation and capacity. The advantage of suppler connections cannot be understated. I know of one roofing contractor who got his start because suppliers, knowing his character, extended 90 day credit, and he could get bonding for small jobs (again based on his reputation and personal assets). So he then went to bid public jobs, undercutting the competition, but not worrying about cash flow with supplier support, thus building his reputation and market potential.

You have lots of money
Yes I know this is the quickest way to lose it, but you can certainly start a lot easier if you have money to lose. The danger is you will probably lose it if you are not really careful. My suggestion: Read the third option on this list before spending any of your money and starting up. You need to establish your business on the hard knocks of reality before it hits you in the pocket-book.

You learn/know how to sell directly
You will not be successful at a start-up unless you can sell. Plain and simple. You cannot get others to do this for you (the exception is a partnership between two people who know each other well, have plenty of experience in the business, and fit all the qualifications as a team for the first route above. Then, of course, as a partnership, you are treated as "one" and thus are defined to have selling ability.)

Note I didn't say you have to like to sell. If you get your business of the ground you can hire others to help you on the selling function, but you simply won't be able to lead unless you can do it yourself.

Early stage selling may involve canvassing, cold calling, knocking on doors, and calling every friend or near friend you have. If this is too sickening to do, just try the same techniques to find a job!

You have a defined, unique focus and niche
This is an important principal in marketing, even at start-ups. You need to know what you want to do, and be willing to drill down and stick to it. The more specific, the better. You can't do everything, and if you want to dabble at several unrelated things at the same time, you will struggle.

You should follow your strengths, doing what you enjoy, and what you are really good at doing.
This is going to be a rocky experience, frustrating, challenging and fraught with failure and defeat. You need to have the stick-it-to-itness and ability to rebound or you will give up before you get too far.

Realistically, not everyone is cut out for business, and even if you are, your first "choices" may be bad. You need to figure out what you really want to do, and be willing to pay the dues. It isn't easy. But the rewards of success make it all worthwhile.

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