Welcome to the third in a series of posts about starting and running a small business. Understand that I am only writing from personal experience. Your situation may be completely different and so you must do with this what you should do with anything you read....evaluate it and use only what is helpful to your business.
Did you ever feel as if you are just blindly throwing darts at the proverbial dartboard hoping that something would find its mark when it came to gaining customers? Do you have so many ideas that it is hard to follow through on any of them? I have a new idea just about every twenty minutes and if I let myself I would wear myself out and spend way too much on all of the creative ideas that float through my brain. It is scary, really.
But, there is hope for me...and you too...if you face this challenge.
The first thing we have to do is stop! We have to think about a few things:
1. Who will buy our product?
2. Why would they want it?
3. What makes it different or better than the next guy's?
4. Where do these potential customers shop?
5 How will you get their attention?
6. Is your chosen method cost effective?
Let me break this down as it related to my candle business.
1. Who will buy our product? Well, after several years of making and selling candles I have found that the majority of our customers are women in the age range of 25 - 55. While there are men who enjoy and buy candles and I totally enjoy selling candles to them it would not be cost effective for me to focus my advertising dollars there.
2. Why would they want it? This is huge! You must be sold on your product in order to sell it to anyone else. As it applies to our candles I have a very long mental list of why one would want them. An abbreviated version of this list goes like this. Soy candles are environmentally friendly, they give business to hard working soy bean farmers, they burn longer and cleaner than paraffin and make container recycling easy with soap and water clean-up. I use quality soy wax, wicks and fragrance oils to provide a very excellent product. One that I use myself all of the time. They are tested regularly for quality and continuity.
3. What makes it different than the next guy's? Well, this would have to be a matter of opinion, but I am rarely happy with candles purchased elsewhere. The list of problems I have encountered with candles produced elsewhere include wrong wick size for the candle leading to smoking, under burning, over burning, mushrooming and other undesired results. I think one thing that sets my candles apart is affordability. I have very low overhead and therefore can produce very affordable soy candles. Now, if you want to pay a dollar for a candle you can. Many places. But you won't find quality soy candles for these prices. The components are simply too expensive to allow this.
4. Where do potential customers shop? More and more ladies are turning to the internet to do their shopping. It is a bit hard in the candle industry, though, to convince people to try your product. People really enjoy giving candles the sniff test. I mean, doesn't that make sense? So, while there are a few who have ordered out of curiosity or kindness this is not the primary source of my sales. Over time I hope this will change as the word gets out and comments are left from satisfied customers.
Currently I have two distinct customer bases. There are the local Amish women who love the affordability of having their own containers filled and refilled. The second group is the schools, churches or mission groups who are raising money for various goals. The fundraiser side is growing faster than the Amish side and therefore I put more emphasis and time into this income stream. To tell you the truth I love not being the one to actually sell my own products. Making them is my joy. I spent hours happily working away Monday and Tuesday beginning to stock up for the holiday selling season.
But you must know where your customers are and how you are going to reach them or it is "theoretically possible" to make a "zillion candles" and store them in your garage or basement from now until forever. That doesn't really help you....or those who can use what you have to offer.
Not that I would know anything about this....ahem. This explains several changes I have made over the years.
5. How will you get your potential customer's attention? Internet? Newspaper? Fliers? Craft Shows? What is going to work for you? As I told you earlier Beverly and I began at local craft shows. It was a good way for us to start. This allowed for immediate feedback on our product. We also met some people at the shows who were influential and have helped me immensely in growing the business. It was often helpful and beneficial to walk around and meet the other vendors. I enjoy offering a coupon to each vendor at the show first thing in the morning and then love chatting with them when they come to redeem their generous discount. Networking! A very good thing. It was also at a craft show that I made my Amish contacts.
|A box of candles for my Amish Customers|
The first family I met now gets most of their candles free because I give them a percentage of the sales they bring to me. They call several times per year to tell me they have boxes of jars to be filled. They collect from their friends and family...I pick them up...fill them...deliver them back to their home and they return them to the right people. It is a great system. One that works because I charge a fair price, offer excellent service and make right anything that isn't quite right. This happens sometimes. Because I am receiving their containers I cannot test wick size in each and every one. Sometimes I get it wrong. But you know what? I just melt that wax out, pour it again, and don't recharge them for it or any that I add to make the container full. They know in advance that this can happen and have always been wonderful about these types of situations. Know that every business owner will run into challenges. It is how you handle those challenges that sets you apart and encourages repeat business.
|Another box of candles for the Amish. See the variety? That makes it interesting!|
As for the fundraisers I initially made my contacts by word of mouth. I started very small. But each year this aspect of the business grows like crazy. Last year I added print advertising in a local monthly newsletter that goes out to the homeschool community. This is good in a couple of ways. First, I already have name recognition in this community and secondly it is targeted to a group that is often seeking effective fundraisers.
6. Is your chosen method cost effective? Well, word of mouth is free...so whenever possible give samples to friends and family. In the beginning we were so unsure of how we would ever sell our candles that we made the mistake of charging full price to these amazing potential ambassadors. If I had it to do over again I would offer them free samples or "at cost" items from the very beginning. These are not your long term customer base anyway. Hopefully they will be a portion of it...but you cannot build a business simply based on sales to them. They can only use "so many" of whatever you are making. Trust me on this!
As I mentioned earlier, if you want to use print ads make sure you place them in publications where your predetermined market will see them. Watch out for this one. It can be quite expensive and can eat up your profits.
I am trying something new this year. I received an offer from Vistaprint for one hundred free postcards. I took them up on it...making a $7.99 upgrade to the order and have recently mailed around seventy of these cards to local charities and sports organizations. I don't know yet if this will be effective. But the cost was right and it was a ton of fun. They look great. (By the way, I get nothing in return for telling you about this company.) It is where I get my business cards and other promotional products, such as a banner for use at the couple of craft shows I will do this year. Just for fun...and face to face contact with new customers. It feels so good to be in a position to just do craft shows that I want to do rather than each and every weekend. These shows are a lot of work.
Web sites. We spent a lot of money on this initially but I let our website go. Paying an annual amount for web hosting just wasn't working for us. I didn't take the time or have the knowledge of what to do to get the traffic to our site. All of this happened before I began blogging. Now, of course, I am using a second blog as a place to feature Good Neighbors Candles....under my blog name of Candles at Hospitality Lane. I don't know yet if this will be effective but it is definitely cost effective at this point. I am in the process of making it streamlined and easy to navigate. I LOVE that Blogger has added the option of Pages. That really increased the practicality of using it for this purpose.
|Fresh and ready to go for Fall 2010|
Wow! This is sooooo long. But, if you are still here, I hope that something here will be of help to you.
I appreciate the response from those who have commented on the first two posts in the series. I hope this doesn't come across as know-it-all or as if I think I am running an amazingly successful company...to the contrary, I am just beginning to see the potential and am excited for the future.
Now, go get 'em! Remember that working with an attitude of excellence takes you farther than you can believe. Always give it your very best effort.