How to Stand Out as a Small Business

boss-2206_640Every week as SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wednesday on Twitter from 8-9 pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with @dorieclark. Dorie Clark is an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the author of Reinventing You (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) and Stand Out (Portfolio/Penguin, 2015). A former presidential campaign spokeswoman, she is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Entrepreneur. Recognized as a “branding expert” by the Associated Press, Inc., and Fortune, Clark is a marketing strategy consultant and speaker for clients including Google, Microsoft, Yale University, Fidelity, and the World Bank. You can follow her on Twitter and download her free 42-page Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.

SmallBizLady: Why do you believe standing out is no longer optional?

Dorie Clark: In a global economy, there is always going to be someone who’s willing to work for less money than you are. You can’t succeed by being the cheapest option; you have to give people a better reason to choose to do business with you. Standing out as an expert in your field gives them that reason.

SmallBizLady: What is your first advice to an entrepreneur wanting to rise above or just to be noticed in his or her market?

Dorie Clark: The first step is to understand what’s distinctive about you and your business. It can be hard for us to recognize this about ourselves, so as I suggest in my first book Reinventing You, do the “three word” exercise. Ask about a half-dozen friends, colleagues, or customers to describe you (or your business) in only three words. Their off-the-cuff answers will be illuminating, and you’ll begin to see helpful patterns about what others view as unusual and important about you.

SmallBizLady: Are there practices that regular people can follow so they can come up with their own breakthrough ideas? 

Dorie Clark: One of the most important practices is making sure you have enough unstructured time to think. As I describe in my new book Stand Out, too many of us – especially business owners – are overscheduled. Yet the research shows that our best ideas come when we give our minds room to make connections without rushing around and hewing to deadlines. Leaving a little more white space in your calendar could be crucial to your success.

SmallBizLady: What if I have a good idea, but someone else is already doing it?

Dorie Clark: There were already a lot of coffee shops when Howard Schultz got the idea to create an Italian-style café geared to American tastes. Just because someone is doing something similar doesn’t mean you should be scared off; your unique vision and experience can’t be replicated, and it’s still possible to create something distinct.

SmallBizLady: With so many blogs, podcasts, social media sites, etc., isn’t the world too noisy to get noticed these days?

Dorie Clark: It’s certainly harder to get noticed than in the past. But the important thing for small business owners to remember is that you don’t have to get noticed by a million people. It’s nice if your blog or video “goes viral,” but it’s even nicer if it’s seen by 200 people and five or ten of them convert to actual paying customers.

SmallBizLady: What are the steps to building a following around your idea? 

Dorie Clark: In Stand Out, I lay out a three-step process for building a following around your idea:

  1. Build your network – Get the help and support of the people closest to you.
  2. Build your audience – Start communicating your ideas with the public through blogging, speaking, etc.
  3. Build your community – An engaged audience + a good idea = people who want to become brand ambassadors. When your audience starts talking to each other, you’ve succeeded.

SmallBizLady: How do you spread your idea in a non-spammy way?

Dorie Clark: There are some general precepts to follow, like not adding people to your email list without their permission. But communicating in a non-spammy way begins with this question: is your communication intended to benefit you (“buy this!”) or the other person (“you mentioned you were interested in doing more social media marketing, and I thought this article might be helpful to you”).

SmallBizLady: How do you find the time to create an idea and spread it? Doesn’t that take forever?

Dorie Clark: Creating and marketing good ideas can, of course, take a long time. But there are ways to speed the process up. When it comes to content creation, for instance, it’s useful to remember that you don’t need to create 10 separate pieces of content. You can create one – such as a blog post – and then break it into pieces and repurpose it in a variety of ways, such as excerpting good quotes as standalone tweets; turning the key points into a Slideshare; recording a short video discussing it; etc.

SmallBizLady: What is it actually “worth” to become a recognized expert – in terms of revenue, reputation, etc.?

Dorie Clark: Becoming a recognized expert is the ultimate form of career security. People want to work with the best and are willing to pay to do so. That means more money, a steady stream of clients, and greater impact for your work.

SmallBizLady: What is the biggest mistake that entrepreneurs make with their personal branding?

Dorie Clark: The biggest personal branding mistake that entrepreneurs make, as I discuss in my first book, Reinventing You, is failing to take control of their narrative. If you leave it up to other people to tell your story, you’re going to be disappointed, since they’re likely not paying that close attention to you and will probably get it wrong. Instead, make it clear for other people and create a succinct narrative explaining your past history briefly and how it fits into, and adds value to, what you’re doing today.

SmallBizLady: What about your social media presence and interactions? How important is this?

Dorie Clark: I’ll start by saying that social media is never going to be as important as cultivating your email list, because it’s essential to have a direct line of communication to your customers, unmediated by Facebook or Twitter or any other service. That being said, social media is still a powerful tool for reaching your audience. Most small businesses can’t be everywhere, but it’s important to pick at least a couple of channels to focus on and “go deep” there.

SmallBizLady: How important is it, from your point of view, to connect with influencers?

Dorie Clark: Some people focus too much on connecting with influencers and consider it a panacea for all their business problems (“if only Oprah endorsed my product, we’d sell a million”). But if you take a realistic view, connecting with influencers is a powerful strategy. In Stand Out, I profile a Bay Area attorney named John Corcoran who used podcasting as a strategy to build his network. He was able to connect with influential guests – who would have been too busy to have coffee with a random stranger – because he asked to interview them, and later turned those initial meetings into lasting relationships by staying in touch and being helpful to them.

If you found this interview helpful, join us on Wednesdays 8-9 pm ET; follow @SmallBizChat on Twitter. Here’s how to participate in #SmallBizChat:

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