Toronto firm gets small businesses focused with a SLAP

Jennifer Ettinger just asks one question when she’s trying to hone her business strategy – What Would Gaye Do?

The founder of FitYourStyle.com, a lifestyle Web site for women, does have more than one customer. But after getting a SLAP – or a Silver Lining Action Plan – she learned that to be successful as a small business, you also need to be focused. Putting a name to your customer demographic can help zero in on your ideal business goals.

“I learned to stop having my target market so large, and really focus on a particular client and keep having her come back on a regular basis,” Ettinger says. “Gaye is in her 50s and she’s got a high-profile job. She has a disposable income and she travels often for her job, but she likes to take care of herself.”

After finding Gaye, Ettinger realized she was accepting too many opportunities and stretching herself thin. Now she just chooses the opportunities that will connect her business with her target market. It’s helped her strike a balance between work and life, plus maintain a successful business.

The SLAP comes from Silver Lining Ltd. , a Toronto-based company that helps small businesses define short-term goals and define target markets, then execute actions to follow up on that plan. A small business itself, Silver Lining has put together a coalition that includes some well-recognized tech and business brands. Dubbed “Committed to Growing Small Business”, the group includes Hewlett-Packard Canada, Staples Canada, Intuit Canada, Rogers Cable Communications, Citi Cards Canada, and Research in Motion.

The result is a tour across North America offering free education to small businesses from Silver Lining founder and president Carissa Reiniger. The coalition is also launching a self-serve Web site to help businesses put together their own SLAP. There’s also a rewards card available to small businesses offering a range of discounts.

The coalition was formed when Reiniger was seeking sponsors for a book promotion tour last summer. She contacted companies with the products she found useful as an entrepreneur, she recalls.

“Most of them have a technology focus. The reality is that small business are using technology to grow,” she says. “Our big belief is that a lot of small business don’t need what we’ve been taught for a long time – the 150-page business plan. Our whole model is built on the fact we need to give entrepreneurs action plans and a short to-do list.”

Enter the SLAP. The first step is for a small business to form a one-year financial goal. The second is to define a target market — the more niche your focus, the better.

Then finally, the action plan – tapping technology to create a communications outreach program that will raise awareness of your products and services in your target market.

“If you try to be everything to everyone, you won’t make it,” Reiniger says. “Our plan is about success one year from today, not five or 10 years.”

It’s no secret that small businesses are a crucial part of Canada’s economy. About 98 per cent of Canadian businesses employ less than 100 people, according to Statistics Canada. That’s enough economic heft to account for about half of the workforce and a third of the country’s overall gross domestic product.

Focusing on the short term business plan is often wise. Many small businesses fail quickly – about 139,000 businesses are started each year. Of those, seven out of 10 will survive after one year, half of them survive for three years, and only one quarter survive for nine years.

“We’re getting about an 80 per cent success rate in meeting the goals we set out to accomplish,” Reiniger says. “That’s for our full-service model.”

This model involves Silver Lining directly doing the work for another small business — and has been the typical approach.

But now Silver Lining is seeking to launch a self-service business model with TheSiteForEntrepreneurs.com — with some help from its coalition.

HP will be providing a Webinar, for example. The computer vendor also funded Reiniger’s educational tour and takes part in roundtable discussions with entrepreneurs through the coalition, says Anne-Marie Moore, small business segment marketing manager for HP Canada.

“It’s a unique opportunity to have face-to-face, candid dialogue about the challenges entrepreneurs face and understand the opportunities there,” she says. “It complements our market research.”

Coalition partners sponsored Reiniger’s talks at Staples locations that typically cost $1,000 per seat. About 460 entrepreneurs attended the events in April at 10 cities across Canada. The tour is dipping south of the border during the summer and returning to Canada in October.

Ettinger used a template downloaded from Silver Lining’s self-help Web site to break down her target market, and find Gaye. The template presents different scenarios to help nail down specifics about demographics, the entrepreneur says.

“Sometimes we believe our company needs to have X, Y, and Z to be the brand that we want it to be,” she says. “But maybe it’s not being received properly and really you don’t need all that stuff.”

Ettinger also found other perks through Silver Lining. She won an essay contest (writing about why the words “no” and “can’t” should not be in one’s business vocabulary) and the chance to job-shadow the CEO of Pink Magazine, a national magazine for career women. That led to Ettinger becoming a regular blogger for Pink, and reaching a larger international crowd for her own Web site.

The self-service Web site also includes a podcast, video content, and an online guide for SLAP. Silver Lining hopes that businesses that opt for this route will have a 50 per cent success rate in executing their goals, Reiniger says.

“We’re trying to prove that by automating your business, you can increase profit margins and boost your level of customers,” she says.

The site costs $97 per month for a subscription. But those who attend the tour can get half-price with an easyRewards card that is given out. The card also gives entrepreneurs access to a Web portal that offers access to other exclusive discounts and content.

Staples rewards cardholders with additional points for its loyalty program. HP is offering $100 off certain laptops and $50 off printers, and Rogers is offering a discounted rate on a phone and Internet bundle for the office.

The card has found a spot it Ettinger’s wallet. Gaye would approve.

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