If starting a business is like running the one-hundred yard dash, then scaling a business - even a small business - is like being asked to run a cross-country race in the pouring rain with a torn hamstring: You're not sure you'll even be able to finish, but you run anyway, open and willing to face the unknown hills, dips, and flooded areas along the way.
In other words, it's extremely difficult to grow a business.
I'm not talking about a customer-supported small business versus a venture-backed startup (both of which I've done). Whether you're a mom-and-pop shop with $100 in the bank or a venture-backed startup with $10 million in funding, it's hard! Why? Well, mostly because of the sheer amount of decision making required, along with a general lack of knowledge about most areas of the business (HR, sales, accounting, PR) other than the particular area of expertise that prompted you to start the business in the first place.
If this seems maddening, well, it can be.
What we often hear from self-help-esque business books and leadership conferences is how to market a product or grow your social media presence. That's fine, but it doesn't get to the root of most scalability problems, which more often than not have to do with financing, how to reach the right prospects, understand customers more deeply, and attract and keep top-tier talent.
The good news is that despite the challenges of early-stage growth, plenty of resources exist that can serve to eliminate these small-business "sore spots." Culled from some of the smartest folks I know, here are a few of the best kept secrets for growing a small business or startup that have nothing to do with raising venture capital, posting on Instagram, or going to conferences that you don't have time for anyway.
Source potential customers with ZoomInfo
ZoomInfo helps companies jump-start their growth with a comprehensive B2B database including more than 200 million contacts and 11 million company profiles--all continuously updated, and integrated with ZoomInfo and other providers' marketing and sales automation tools.
One specific customer example that is applicable for both sales and marketing professionals comes from Brainshark, a sales enablement company, whose team uses ZoomInfo to drive more ROI from marketing campaigns and maximize sales productivity. According to a Brainshark spokesperson, since implementing ZoomInfo, marketing attributed opportunities have grown by over 10 percent; meanwhile, with on-demand access to contact information, sales teams can reach decision makers four times faster.
We use ZoomInfo at AirPR for similar activities, and a key member of our sales team, Scott Santore, is clear about how impactful it's been in growing our business rapidly month-over-month the last two years: "It's all about data integrity. Where other vendors have failed, ZoomInfo remains our tried and true method for reaching the right people ... instead of wasting time with half-updated or outdated information."
Ain't nobody got time for that!
Leverage Dell Financial Services for technology purchasing and financing
Most offices - from your doctor's to your banker's to the IT firm down the street - are powered by Dell technology. In fact, finding a fully functioning office that doesn't use Dell tech is like trying to drive to a supermarket without using or purchasing something science company 3M has touched, which means it's nearly impossible.
Behind the hardware and software often sits Dell Financial Services (DFS), which has been proudly referred to as the "Bank of Dell," by none other than Michael Dell himself. Since 1997, DFS has acted as a critical enabler for customers and channel partners to acquire the technology they need to achieve their business goals.
What does DFS applied look like?
For The Watershed Addiction Treatment Programs, it means a streamlined approach to equipment purchasing as they scale: "The Dell Financial Services guys already knew everyone working in sales and infrastructure, so the communication between them freed me up from having to convey this information to another financing facility," says Whit Baker, Watershed's IT Director. "I've been relieved of a huge burden because DFS does all the legwork for me so I can focus on things directly related to growth, instead of explaining my equipment needs over and over to someone who doesn't understand my business."
Bonus: Dell's small business solutions can help with everything from data security to supplying you with the tech that could help you retain millennial employees.
Understand your market and customers better with Qualtrics
I've recently gotten to know Qualtrics on a variety of levels and have been impressed with their Experience Management Platform that breaks down the "data silos" between customers, products, brands and employees. What started as a survey technology now empowers over 8,500 global companies to understand the human emotions and behavior behind consumer choice, business decisions, employee engagement and more.
From personal experience, I've created surveys to gather quick feedback from public relations professionals, which helps guide AirPR decision making around messaging, product features, and more.
Eddie Goita, CEO of Tilted Kilt Franchising uses Qualtrics to better understand the market, his customers, and franchisees. "We want to understand if (our customers) are satisfied, why they buy, what they buy, and how we can better service them in the future. Qualtrics removes the guessing, which is very important for a small business like us--we don't have enterprise-level budgets so we need to get it right the first time. Using Qualtrics to gather these insights is a competitive advantage for us."
Manage contractors, expenses, and invoices with FreshBooks
When my partner and I founded our global tech PR firm nearly a decade ago, we were "two broke girls" on a budget, who were also busy hustling to grow our business. We didn't want to have to learn an accounting software system that required a Ph.D. or wasn't easily accessible anywhere on earth on any machine.
Enter FreshBooks. Saying I'm a huge fan is an understatement. I have probably referred this company more than any other and have created other fans too:
"It's my go-to for invoicing clients, logging expenses (via its mobile app), and tracking how much time I spend on a project," says my pal Laura Vrcek, founder of thought leadership writing consultancy Purple Pages. "Its reporting functions make paying taxes quarterly simple when it could be a headache. I've recommend the tool to several fellow solopreneurs as well, and they've all upgraded to the paid version of the service."
Build your brand and attract talent with LinkedIn
I know, I know. I said I wouldn't make any social media suggestions. But if you're still thinking of LinkedIn as a social media platform, I can assure you it's exploded into so much more than that for small businesses and large enterprises alike.
If you're an early stage company looking to build a narrative, point of view, or thought leadership around a specific topic, LinkedIn Pulse is a the best place to start. In fact, our data show that LinkedIn Pulse is often more effective for launching product news or making a company announcement than a traditional press release.
As your connections see company progress, thoughtful points of view, and ultimately an authoritative voice, they will begin to make referrals if and when you list job openings. What's more is that LinkedIn has launched a talent solutions service specifically dedicated to leveraging the platform to match employers with potential candidates. For those who can't afford to retain expensive recruiters, but have a widespread network, LinkedIn is a boon.
Now that you've got the inside scoop, time to get growing! (But don't forget to take some vacation time too.)