Friday, April 24, 2009

Business success, courtesy of the Stonyfield Institute

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Stonyfield Farm Entrepreneurship Institute at the University of New Hampshire. For those who haven't heard of it, it's basically an interactive and collaborative small-business workshop, with a focus on marketing, management and finance and a bent toward socially and environmentally responsible models.

After an introduction and stories from Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield (preceded, this year, by the President of Seventh Generation, Jeffrey Hollender) The Institute format is as follows: one at a time, a string of small business owners present their story, successes and failures to a panel of marketing or finance experts, in front of the conference-attending audience. The panel members respond with advice and possible solutions. The audience chips in. Repeat times 6 times, and add a good dose of networking plus all the yogurt you can possibly eat.

As I sat listening to the problems entrepreneurs were facing in marketing a huge range of businesses, from a farm incubator program, to a yoga-inspired back pillow, to a food additive that makes flour healthier for diabetics, I began to recognize the same questions asked and the same bits of advice given again and again.

And so, thanks to the insight of the expert panelists and the many audience members who volunteered their own stories and expertise, here follows the step-by-step formula for business success:

1. Clarify and simplify your goals. Know what kind of company you want to run, what you sell and who you sell it to, and be able to describe these things simply and cohesively.

2. Focus your efforts. Dig in deep in one arena. Do what it takes to prove you can succeed and make money on a small scale as quickly as possible.

3. Have the numbers to back up your claims. Be sure you can attach firm and tangible benefits (financial, environmental, etc.) to the thing you're selling and to your business model.

4. Cut start-up costs and establish credibility with strategic partnerships. In lieu of investment, find someone who will share their resources with you or let you leverage their name at minimal cost to them.

5. Look for new ways to engage. Sell directly to your most receptive audiences first and use the force of their opinions to reach others. Use testimonials, engage your clients' customers, etc..

6. Periodically reassess where the customers' needs are and what you could be doing to fill them.

7. Constantly challenge your own assumptions. Build an advisory board to challenge you. Seek out the points of resistance and face them head-on.



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