12 Steps to Upgrade Your Business

The first flush of New Year’s Resolutions has worn off.  Are you still on task to meet your goals?  Or is this going to be another year where your business runs you, instead of the other way around?

I decided on 12 things that I am doing this year to upgrade my business.  Now, 12 things may sound like a lot, but the trick is to break it down into small steps, and that’s what I have done:

1. Ask Customers What’s Important to THEM

Talk with your existing customers — don’t just assume.  Pick up the phone or send an email and ask “what can I do better for you?”  In today’s environment they may have totally changed priorities.

Wendy's listening to customersTake, for example, Wendy’s. Recently they changed their ad campaigns to reflect the new economic realities of their customers, with their “3conomics” campaign. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Pick up the phone and call your customers — They’ll be delighted that you called!
  • Do a customer survey — One of the unsung trends for small businesses is the entry into the market of easy to use, DIY survey tools, from Survey Monkey to QuestionPro.
  • Implement one of the customer feedback services on your website — Get Satisfaction and similar apps are an easy way to “listen” to what customers think.

2. Be Strategic

Small businesses are notoriously thinly funded and thinly staffed (yes, I know all about that).  Consequently,  we business owners get into a habit of reacting.  We spend much of our time putting out fires.  Instead of guiding our businesses, they “happen to us.” Here’s what I am doing about that, this year:

  • Make every action create the business I want, not the business that happens — After doing some traditional strategic planning, (1) I wrote down my strategic objectives, and (2) I am visualizing my strategy in action.  For me, the visualization part is crucial.  I sit down in a quiet room with the door shut.  I carefully visualize in my mind’s eye what my ideal business will look like.  I even imagine my P&L, visualizing a number for my desired top line (sales) and bottom line (profit).   It helps me focus on what I need to do and not get distracted.
  • Set objectives with your employees — Earlier this year, I “sat down” with my people (OK, we did it through email), and set objectives together with them — objectives that align with the company’s goals.  I have their objectives tacked to my bulletin board.  I also encouraged them to print them out and post them on their own bulletin boards where they can see them to stay on track. 

3. Differentiate Your Business

Even if you are in an age-old industry, you can differentiate it.  Zappo’s is in an old industry — selling shoes. Yet they manage to be different from the competition, starting with the memorable name, to their storied customer service and wide selection.

I started by writing down what my business will be known for.  Imagine that you are a newspaper writer, writing a story about your business.  What would you say in 25 words or less to finish this phrase:  “my  company, a business known for ______.”  I’ve decided that I want Small Business Trends to be “an online publication known for having a finger on the pulse of trends and showing business owners how to capitalize on those trends.”  That’s why we started our trend series earlier this year — a series of articles designed to profile trends for 2009.  While this might seem obvious, it took the act of writing that down to crystallize that I needed to widen our circle of trends articles.

4. Partner – where it makes sense

“No man is an island.”  That’s especially true for small businesses. I’ve often said that I owe a lot to partners, such as Federated Media, with whom I’ve partnered on advertising sales on this site.  That partnership has been responsible for helping grow my business.  But too often I see vague, poorly-defined partnerships that languish — heck, I’ve been in some.  One side or the other doesn’t give a partnership enough critical thought, or is too timid to ask for what they want. The half-baked effort is a colossal waste of time. 

So this year I am asking prospective partners “how exactly do you see us working together?” and “what’s in it for both of us?”  I am insisting that any prospective partnership be distilled down to a few bullet points.  If the partnership can’t be articulated in a few short bullets, don’t spend time on it or get caught up in aimless product demos.  With a recession on, none of us can afford fishing trips.

cloud computing5. Learn a new Web technology

The sheer number of applications now available for small businesses — especially online or “cloud” applications — is now so great that it feels impossible to keep up with them.  But don’t give up because you feel overwhelmed.  I have 2 action items:

  • Learn one new thing myself — Forget boiling the ocean.  If you’ve been holding back from learning how to design a brochure, or learning how to upload video from your Flip camera to YouTube, now’s the time to learn. But here’s the secret:  just pick one thing.  Get good at whatever you picked.  You’ll gain confidence that will help you tackle other technologies and software applications later on.
  • Encourage staff to each upgrade a skill — A former boss of mine when I was in the corporate world was fond of saying, “Inspect what you expect.”  If your staff knows it’s important to you that they master a new skill, they will enthusiastically rise to the occasion. It increases their self-esteem, too.

6.  Start a newsletter

OK, now I have to make a confession:  I started a newsletter years ago — actually two different newsletters.  One is for my radio show and one is a general tips and advice newsletter.  Through a combination of factors, both have become sporadic instead of on schedule.  So one thing on my to-do list is to: get that newsletter started (or in my case re-started).  

Remember that email is best used for communicating with existing customers and contacts.  So build a house email list of subscribers who opt in.  Use a good email marketing program like Constant Contact (what we currently use), Vertical Response, or Campaigner to manage your subscriber database and compose professional-looking emails.  And just get started.  “Out of sight, out of mind.”  

7.  Cement relationships with key customers

It’s far less expensive to get a new sale from an existing customer, than to go out prospecting afresh to close a new customer.  Make sure your relationships are strong.  Work on them!  In a recession loyal customers are your life vest.  Invite a customer to lunch.  If you are visiting their city, schedule an appointment.  Consider holding an annual customer conference.  Or it can be as simple as starting a thread on your blog asking readers to introduce themselves.  We recently did that to a fantastic response — I can’t believe we didn’t think of it earlier!  

8.  Automate a process 

If it were not for automation, my business would be more costly to run.  It also would not scale well, and impede growth.  I am already running into issues when it comes to accounting and invoicing, both of which take up more of my time than I’d like.  Luckily, with so many “cloud computing” applications it is easier than ever to automate functions.  So I am tackling some of my internal processes and automating them, such as using online bill pay for recurring invoices.

9. Do something green

power management optionsI never used to think of “green” as being something I could meaningfully work into my small business.  But if last year’s high energy prices taught us anything, it taught us the value to our businesses of conserving energy, even in small amounts. 

One area I know I can do more with is conserving energy with my computers.  Last year I had the chance to talk with some of the HP product managers and my eyes were opened to the advances being made in areas such as “power management.” In its simplest form this means you set your computers to use less power when not actively being used, even if kept on.  Even other products, including printers, are designed to go into a “rest” stage and conserve power when inactive.  

 This InfoWorld survey lists a number of green actions that small businesses can take.  I’ll bet there’s one thing on that list you can adopt in your business.

10. Spruce up your working environment

A cluttered workspace leads to a cluttered mind.  So I have been clearing my workspace — and not just my physical workspace.  You see I am online all day long, so my real “office” is inside my computer.  I am organizing my computers files better.  We do so much in our business (online publishing) through email, that organizing email is a big part of organizing the “office.”  Desktop search, contact management/CRM applications, and email handling/organization apps can make a huge difference.

11. Think outside the box

A few months back Ivana Taylor wrote a great piece on holiday marketing tips that were unusual and innovative.  The good news is, a number of those tips apply even outside of holiday times.  The overriding point I took away from that article was to think differently … be unconventional … in your marketing. 

12. Network, network, network!

social networking sitesFor me, online networking has replaced about 75% of my in-person networking.  I find online networking to be more efficient, not to mention reaching more people.  However, so many people get caught up in our daily activities and neglect networking.  Yet networking can help you find new suppliers; key partners; customers; and even staff. 

No matter how much I feel pulled in different directions with the day to day demands of running a business, I won’t neglect networking.  So I build it into my day, about a half hour a day, mostly from my computer, with the occasional in-person networking opportunity.  I have gotten a good response from Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn — I have gotten new business and more website traffic; found loyal suppliers; and made good friends who inspire me.  Well worth the time.

Now, it’s your turn:  What are the things you are doing to upgrade your business this year?


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

69 Reactions
  1. Hi Anita,
    I’m just trying to beat Martin in as first commenter!

    I find that my best networking comes when i share what i know. So, I offer to give short presentations for my clients customers. For free, as a thank you to them for having me do work for their company.

  2. Hi Anita,

    Rally good stuff, I have tried all these. Network is one most important for business. And if your leading player in web, you get most of business from web. I have posted blog in one of my blog site ,and I really appreciate your knowledge on business development. Have look at it my blog and let me know your views.
    Link – http://blogs.onlineseoconsultants.com/2009/02/12/12-steps-to-upgrade-your-business-from-small-business-blog/

  3. Very extensive and I love reading the tips you have written here Anita.

    TJ, what does that short presentations you are referring to?

  4. Personally for my business, online networking is where I must spend more of my efforts in 2009. This is an extremely effective means of gaining new customers and building stronger business relationships.

    On top of this, I will be working on expanding my range of online Mind Mapping products, which will hopefully expand my reach into new market segments.

  5. Anita,

    Great list and are you going to update us on your results.

    For me one upgrade is to ease the way for our customers to build and grow their business. One step which is the same as you mentioned is to phone them more regularly instead of just emailing.

    I also offer for free to our customers the opportunity to brainstorm or discuss a particular marketing problem. Sometimes just discussing the problem with someone else opens up solutions they may not have considered.

  6. Great job Anita! It’s a nice list.

    I would like to add Upgrade Yourself to the list. I know a few small businesses that are not upgrading because the entrepreneur has not upgraded. More strategic thinking, delegating and developing thought leadership are all part of it.

    http://www.p2w2.com (how is the new look?)

  7. This is a list we must print and have it in front of us everyday.

    Thanks for sharing!

    online web stores

  8. Wow Anita, that is a really hefty list. But if you can pull it off, you’ll have a seriously optimized business. I’m not sure how you track your goals, but if you take a few minutes each day (15 to 30) to look at your list and do a check and balance against it, that should help you maintain forward momentum. Looking forward to seeing some regular updates about how this is working for you.

  9. Anita,

    What a great list! Your site is full of inspirational tips and great toolbox! 🙂 I will print out this post and go through it, paragraph by paragraph…

    TJ: You beat me. Now I don’t know what to do the rest of the day! 😉

    I have to “check off” # 10 “Spruce up your working environment” before I can do something else. Yesterday, I cleaned my desk and working space. Now it is time to go through all the paper stuff, inbox, etc. I have to update my calendar, my mobile phone address book and so on.

    I will read Paul Foreman’s post, De-Clutter Your Life, Environment and Mind and create a Mind Map. I saw that Jonathan Fields mentioned something called bubbl.us on Twitter the other day. I have installed The Brain, but I have started to use it yet. I know that I have to some introspection on how to get things done in a timely fashion on a regular basis. I think that many things will be clearer when I start with my weekly review on Sundays.

    And then, in order to stay on top of things, I will start to use GTDagenda and GTDinbox. I will also get a Pulse Smartpen for taking down and save written & audio notes (is has a recording device built in the pen).

  10. What makes these tips so wonderful is that they are so doable. A lot of times “resolutions” are a little too general, but these are just specific enough.

    My favorites are: call a customer – network and getting creative and resourceful.

    One I’m doing that’s not on your list is one I picked up from Chris Brogan – it has to do with picking 3-5 words that will drive your decisions during the year. One of my words is MOMENTUM. My goal is to keep my energy up and not poop out in the middle of a project. When there’s something to do, I’m doing it.

    My other one is an extension of “NETWORK” We all know that we are supposed network. My goal is to be an active participant in the communities I’ve joined and contribute at least once a week.

    Thanks for the inspiration – may not be a bad idea to have quarterly “reminders” – Like Susan Oakes wants.

  11. Instead of upgrading my business, this year I’ve committed to STARTING my business.

    After years of being a frustrated entrepreneur, I’ve decided this is the year. So, I’m currently laying the groundwork and hope to be up and running around late March, early April.

    The planning process has involved many of your suggestions though – particularly learning new skills, networking, and being strategic; among others.

    I have to say that while I’ve always had the urge to do something on my own, my current role working with entrepreneurs has pushed me over the edge. In a good way! Your energy, enthusiasm and confidence is inspiring.

    And no – I’m not quitting my day job. My endeavor will be online and I hope to be able to devote enough time to it after hours and weekends.

    Cross your fingers for me…

  12. Awesome post. This isn’t an upgrade but more an example of being more strategic with my spending. I’m no longer using a retained publicist but going with a pay-per-article-placed firm (I happen to be using Publicity Guaranteed) in hopes of saving money but still getting results. I’m trying to replicate that in other areas I spend money too – just trying to be smarter.

  13. This is one of the best lists I have seen in a very long time. Some items are very simple but most business miss the simple things while putting too much focus on the complex.

  14. Dave Crain: Good premises with your start-up company! 🙂 Add your bio to TJ’s post!

    I will listen to your podcast interview on Small Business Trends Radio. You have been involved in the manufacturing industry? I have been working in the welding industry for 10+ years. Book recommendation: American Steel by Richard Preston.

  15. Anita,
    It is amazing. When I saw the title of your article, I knew it was YOUR article.

    Your titles are awesome.

    Great job, and like you, I am all overt the place, and sometimes need to refocus and reorganize.

    Thank you!

    The Franchise King
    Joel Libava

  16. Anita : Thank you for this very comprehensive list of steps I can take to energize my business. Here are some steps I am taking:

    I am rebuilding my web site and converting to a blog site as web site. Since I regularly blog about real estate and home staging, having constantly updated information on my site will help with my SEO.

    I network a lot with my competitors, many of whom have now become friends. I offer them free seminars and networking meetings to improve their business. This helps me in 3 ways.

    1. It has made me an industry leader in the Los Angeles area. Since I share information freely, my competitors know they can trust me and they refer jobs to me that are either too big for them or they can’t take for various reasons. I have gotten many jobs this way.

    2. Since I share information freely and mentor up and comers, my competitors also share information with me. It helps us all be better business people. It also helps me keep my finger on the pulse of the real estate marketplace.

    3. When the tide rises, all boats float. We are working together to improve our industry. When the industry as a whole does better, each individual business within that industry does better.

    I know it is counterintuitive to help your competitors, but it has assisted me in growning my business tremendously. I have gotten new business and made new friends that I can turn to if I have a question or need information.

  17. That’s quite a list! I’ve been trying to keep myself on a more structured schedule this year. At the beginning of the year, I sat down and printed a calender page for each month with specific tasks I must do every day. This helps me to make sure I don’t overlook anything.

  18. @Martin – Thank you.

    Not sure what you meant about leaving a bio on TJ’s post.

  19. @Mary Grace
    On presentations, many of my biz owner clients belong to a networking group of some sort, often private and small (15-20 people). And so I will offer to come in and share advanced strategies for using LinkedIn, or how they can improve their online content and get more web visitor traffic.

    So the presentation i’m referring to is simply me giving a talk to a small group of people that my client already meets with and knows. There is no pitch, no direct selling, I just offer to be a speaker for their group meeting to give back.

  20. @ Dave Crain — Martin is referring to the Please Introduce Yourself post we recently made. You can find it here:

    Just post a brief bio on yourself to introduce yourself and your business to the community. There’s a lot of great energy in this post thread and you may meet some potential customers, fellow small biz owners, and gain some new ideas for marketing your own biz.

  21. ‘Automate a process’ has been key to my business growth. This has been a way for me to make extra money and not have to do much of anything. Good post, thank you.

  22. TJ: Thanks for filling in for me and explaining where Dave Crain could post his bio. 🙂

    Nice gesture with the presentation workshop. I have been thinking on delivering something similar to my business contacts’ clients.

  23. Hey Anita,

    Thanks for the well written steps to upgrade a person’s business. My business model focuses largely online and in 2009, I am looking to incorporate offline elements into the business and try to grow it vertically into the offline world. I am also trying to garner exposure, apart from utilizing online social networking sites and tools, by submitting articles to magazines that are related to my niche.

    All in all, I hope every business owners will do well in 2009.

    Wayne Liew

  24. Thanks for this informative blog. Have a good time reading it.
    I’ll probably apply such stuffs on my marketing journey.

  25. This 12-step program is a lot to swallow. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But to enact them, even half, #1-6, will take 2 months of daily work. They are actionable and I admire that. It’s just A LOT for small businesses to do. #1 alone is preliminary CRM work right there. Well, small business is a lot of work. Delegation to people you trust is the key. This is a great post. It’s like a 9-month recovery plan.

  26. A lot of times “resolutions” are a little too general, but these are just specific enough.

    Yes, two thumbs up for this Anita. The tips above are really doable just like Ivana said and it is so seldom to read goal articles like this.

  27. Anita,

    Thanks for organizing this list! If you have some samples of survey questions for polling customers or have a resource off hand with templates to get people started – please share.

    I agree about partnerships. They take time to cultivate and there has to be a clear, measurable reason as to purpose. Remember, in most cases its a marketing campaign and it should be tracked like any other.

  28. Great list; I’ve printed it off to keep on my bulletin bard and refresh what I’m doing throughout the year. My key effort to upgrade my business this year is to focus, focus and focus some more. There are a lot of distractions around us (not the least of which is current economic conditions) but staying focus on my goals, my business and my strategy will help to grow business.

  29. “Consequently, we business owners get into a habit of reacting. We spend much of our time putting out fires.” One way for businesses to be proactive is to make sure that technology is regularly monitored and maintained. Doing so can prevent unexpected technology failures that result in downtime, high costs, and lost productivity.

  30. Hi Miles Technologies: Agreed. Something as simple as backing up data; applying critical updates; updating your anti-virus; etc. These things all make a difference.


  31. Thanks for these great tips. As a new entrepreneur, I find that I am thinking of ways to establish, grow and improve our business all at the same time. It is critical that I continue to learn new things that are directly and indirectly related to the company that we are building each day.

  32. The ironic thing is that this is what people should be doing all the time, not only when the economy is in crisis. Excellent thread.

  33. Hi,

    thanks for a great post – quite a number of great tips there. Though I’d like to share that the thing that worked best for me was looking at things from the customer’s perspective and getting to grips with web technology. That made all the difference.

    Hope to see more like this.

    Kind Regards

  34. our focus is on doing business a better way – focussing on the ethical things we can do that turn businesses into places where employees and customers feel valued and important. We are about to launch a new site about doing something new today which might be a little like yours
    good work

  35. Aloha,
    Mahalo for the reminder of what we need to do these days. I am printing this out – and following your suggestions!

  36. @Wayne Liew: Checked out your site. Kudos for diving into a new venture where you’re passionate.

    Have you seen the book on Word of Mouth Marketing by Andy Sernovitz? He is one of the major WOM guys and also co-founded the WOMMA organization. http://www.womma.org

    You might enjoy his blog, too, which is found at:

  37. @TJ McCue

    Hey TJ, thanks for checking out my site. I knew about the book but didn’t really check out his blog until now. Will be subscribing to it soon. 😉

  38. Great list!

    As a small business owner myself, I can clearly see that I need to get my stumbling block (books re-created on QuickBooks and tax preparation) organized and over with so I can concentrate on marketing. I had to move, after twelve years in a place I loved, to save my business. I am also taking a Small Biz Management class and Accounting four nights a week.

    Right now, having VERY limited funds and a good supply of postcards, I am creating a grass roots mailing list of personal trainers, diabetes care givers, doctors and editors.

    My Little Black Book~Daily Food Diary has been in SHAPE Magazine and Family Circle as a result of this method.

    The one goal I have is to launch my trademarked DiabetesDailyDiary this summer. It is a well-tested, great product. But, I need to market more to accumulate production funds to get it off the ground.

    I wish all of you good luck and good business!!!!!

  39. “Ask Customers What’s Important to THEM.” This is how Butler Consultants works. We work with the customer to find out what is important to them and build a custom business plan or financial forecast. The only problem is gauging the correct price. Customers are price sensitive and we need to make sure we are covered for our custom project.

  40. Thanks Anita for your post. This is an extensive list of valuable suggestions. Your ideas are even more relevant now with the current economic slump. Small and large companies should use these tough economic times to upgrade their businesses. Execution is key in small business success.

  41. One thing that you may want to check if you want to work on point #5 is try Bluekiwi (http://www.bluekiwi-software.com).
    I have recently accepted to represent them in the US, and I am interested in knowing who has already heard of them and if you have tried, what you think of the solution. Feel free to contact me here: http://1id.com/contact/=marc.dangeard

  42. Great article – commit to only 50% and see your results rocket!

  43. Good advices for Family business?
    First of all, it is a good list. But each problem is unique and has to be solved on different ways.
    I started working in the family business after I completed my university education and I have been working there ever since. For a while it was hard to improve our business and get through new ideas.
    However, since I became a member of FBA, it has been made several changes in our family business. FBA had provided me with the tools to grow and turn the family business around. We have been to several events and have had access to a variety of specialized advisers. After 3 years we can still see the benefits, and personal growth have been through which has been invaluable.

  44. My family’s business is also a member of FBA. I agree with Kevin, if you run a family business and seek some help in various fields of your business, don’t hesitate to ask for the advice FBA! When my family started to run its own business couple of years ago, FBA was the one who helped us to get on right track and is still supports us in achieving our success. Except providing us with professional advices, we got a great chance to participate in some of the family business courses which have been very helpful.

    Thanks to FBA, our business has been still enjoying growth and prosperity.

  45. This is a great list Anita. When you get the time please share with us your experience implementing them.

  46. Great information on ways to upgrade your business. I’ve been looking for a great goal setting/organizational software for some time and they were all complicated or boring. Then I found a program called Blastation at http://www.interactivelifecoach.com. It really has helped me stay focused and get things accomplished. Check out the free 30 day trial using the promo code blastationfb in the order page. Go for what you want, don’t just settle for what you’ve got.

  47. Franchise Information

    Thanks for this great list Alisa which will be used as part of our Consulting Services.There are many opportunities available on our site that New Entrepreneurs can implement using these strategies to start their own successful Franchise Business.

  48. The best practice is to offer some service or even tangible good for free, that always gets you repeat and impressed customers. Such as Business HQR .

  49. I’ve just read this interesting articles and replies all of you posted, very interesting commments! Kevin and Jane, you’re mentioning Family Business Australia, thanks for your posts, i found it very helpful because even though my family has been running its own business for 5 years but we’ve never came across this organization. I reviewed their website http://www.fambiz.com.au and found out that they organize many interesting events, workshops and conferences where you can share experience with other family businesses. We’ve decided we have nothing to lose to join FBA :), thanks again guys.

  50. I didn’t knew this organisation (FBA). It sounds really great. Their services are really interesting for all the persons involved in a family business http://www.fambiz.org.au/

  51. Anita,
    This blog reflected importantance of networking for a business, more specifically the increase of online networking. With the populartiy of sites such as facebook, myspace, twitter, and linkedin, there are many ways to utilize networking online that will help any business. Online is an effective means of helping a busines gain new and current customers as well as building strong relationships.

  52. This blog reflected importantance of networking for a business, such that of Family Business Australia and their relationships online. http://www.fambiz.org.au/

  53. Great read! I would like to add that perhaps this should have been a 13 Steps instead of 12 Steps; 13th being the most important one about Employees and how their attitude and action reflects the overall image of a business. Keeping in mind that negative reviews travel faster across the internet.

  54. Hi Anita,
    I must say this is one of the great articles about upgrading any business. All the pints are mentioned well and informative, but I was thinking about one most important factors that may be included in this article to make it complete and that is money.