Technology is available to help small businesses market their brand and wares on the cheap, from printing business cards on your computer to using an online service to design a logo.
Never before have startup entrepreneurs and small business owners had access to so much marketing advice and marketing tools as we have today on the Web. But are startups using their marketing efforts wisely? Maybe not.
With blogs and magazines going online, there's an unprecedented amount marketing advice available online. Much of this advice is free. Some of the tools are also free, or at the very least, low cost.
As a result, I've seen a lot of attention placed on marketing by small businesses -- much more than I can remember a decade ago.
But the sad thing is that much of the marketing that startups undertake is like that line from Shakespeare's Macbeth: 'Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'
That's because startup entrepreneurs often spend too much money on marketing too early.
Figure out what business you're in first
Notice I didn't say the following: "Don't waste money on marketing." I think marketing is crucially important. But first things first. Figure out what business you are in first.
That may sound ridiculous to the uninitiated. I can hear what you're thinking: "Shouldn't you KNOW what business you're in if you just started it."
Well, anyone who's ever started a business understands that most startup businesses look substantially different a year later. That's because you learn as you go along. A startup is like a maze. You go down one path, only to be met by a dead end. So you backtrack until you find an open path.
With the passage of time you have a chance to develop customer feedback. It's only after we get some initial successes and customer response that we learn what we really should be offering. We come to realize what customers value from us. Often it's different from what we thought they would value.
So the most efficient marketing in terms of time and money is to think in terms of "starter marketing" at first. Here are a handful of examples of how to do starter marketing:
Brochures and business cards
Instead of printing thousands of dollars worth of brochures and business cards from the get-go, create them on your desktop computer using templates you can find on the Web, or in programs like PowerPoint, Word, or Publisher. Print small runs on a good quality printer. Or, take the file you created and go to Staples, OfficeMax, or FedEx Office to get short runs printed.
That volume printing discount sure may look like a deal. But I guarantee that something will change in six months. You'll either have opted for a toll free telephone number, you'll have developed a better tagline, your target market will have changed, or you will offer different services. That huge supply of thousands of printed items that you spent big bucks on will be wasted. So keep your supplies small, so that you can change your messaging, contact information, etc. on a dime.
More time is wasted on logos by startups than I think all marketing put together. In a startup you should be out selling, not spending hours fussing with logos. Tempis fugit.
Rather than spending tons of money on a logo, some businesses -- especially consultants and B2B service providers -- can get by with printing their business name in nicely-formatted text at first.
Or commission a "starter" logo. You can get a starter logo by using an online service, such as Logoworks. The logo will be relatively inexpensive, yet look professional, and give you a start.
Unless you are in a highly competitive industry where design matters greatly -- perhaps as a clothing designer or a consumer products business -- don't spend more than a few hundred dollars on your logo at first. A logo won't make or break most startups in the early days. There's plenty of time to professionally overhaul your logo later when you have more money to spend and have a better sense of what you want.
Having a Web presence is crucially important today. You really must be on the Web, and be on the Web early on.
However, instead of building an expensive $10,000 website from the get-go, get yourself a domain name, and start a blog at the domain. Bolt on a few pages about your business to your blog.
Unless your business is an Internet-centric business, you'll find that a starter Web presence like this will be more than sufficient for the first six months.
Six months after you get the blog or your starter website going, you can better figure out what you really need and can invest in a kick-butt, professional website. The process of working with a professional Web designer will go smoother later on, too -- clearer needs, less wasted time. Your Web designer will be happier because you understand what you want, and so will you.
Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.