Whom do you choose to light your business’ fuse? You could go with that exquisitely accessorized MBA ensconced in his plush office, or, just maybe, you might go with a girl who at 14 lied about her age so she could join the Avon team — and went on to become of its top sales reps. That would be Lorraine Allen, who, four years after fudging her birthday to join Avon, was running both a pharmacy and her own graphic arts studio. Going with spunk and a proven track record, rather than with formal credentials, the Mercer/Middlesex SBDC chose Allen as its director four years ago.
Allen speaks on “Uncovering Hidden Markets” on Tuesday, February 28, at 9 a.m. at the Trenton Business and Technology Center in Trenton. Cost: $25. Call 609-989-5232. Allen’s talk is designed for both starting up entrepreneurs and for owners of established firms.
Allen tries to tick off all the businesses she started or helped expand over the years, but she runs out of fingers. She grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Her father was an invalid, a situation that propelled her into business at an early age. Some time after selling Avon, and during her years running her graphic arts studio, she studied at Moore College of Art and Design and earned a bachelor’s in art from the University of Millerville. She began a house cleaning business and did freelance artwork to fund her own art studio at Ridley Park. “We did so much beyond selling graphics,” Allen recalls. “We started an art school for kids. I had first graders learning to retouch photos. This drew in the parents and brought in new business.”
This studio led Allen into doing advertising work for Philadelphia gift companies and teaching art at the college level. She then became director of an art gallery in Ardmore. Yet unlike most artists, Allen was happy to funnel her creativity into business. Terming herself “creative manager,” she teamed up with a regional chain of wall covering stores. Through them, she met a Philadelphia plumbing contractor who invited her to take over his inside and outside marketing. Providing this firm vision and new clients beyond Philadelphia, the contractor expanded to a national network of offices, with substantial international dealings. And then Allen, as always, moved on.
Crossing the river into Trenton, she joined Southern Tours, for whom she would squire foreign CEO’s on elegant executive sorties. “They may have been terrors in the board room,” she says, “but on these tours, they were just like playful, wide-eyed little kids.” Allen’s husband, a tour bus driver, in an effort to keep his wife closer to home, suggested she employ her business acumen to help enhance Wellsy’s Deli on Montgomery Street in Trenton. The business did so well that the Small Business Development Center took notice and, after comparing her with 52 candidates, offered her the opportunity to consult at their shop, which she has done for the past 11 years.
“I don’t even want to see the business plan when entrepreneurs first come in seeking advice,” says Allen. “I want them to solidly show me their markets. Who is going to put that ching in your cash register? You will need that actual revenue before anything else.” The trick is to get beyond the traditional niches and ferret out those creative, less obvious market sources — like Allen’s children’s art school operated within her design studio.
Tapping in. For the entrepreneur, the gap between identifying a market and actually tapping into a specific customer base is the difference between cratering and thriving. If you are starting up a lawn care service, the standard selective mailings, E-mailings, and local ads, while necessary, only bring your product to a very generalized area.
Allen proposes that you place yourself in the buyer’s shoes and walk to the places he visits. Get referrals from seed suppliers, arborists, local nurseries. Such linking broadens the services both of your firm and of the firms with whom you link.
The concept of targeting neighbors for a selective niche works not only in small retail, but in also in large business-to-business enterprises. How well do you really know the businesses and client lists of those in your office park? While you may not sell to the office next door, who knows what their vendors, suppliers, or in-laws may require.
On the road. Charity has become big in business because it makes businesses bigger. Host a bicycle rally for heart disease and instantly thousands know what you do and what you sell. Your event need not be complex or involve large amounts of staff time. “Ben and Jerry’s every year goes through the streets of New York giving away free ice cream,” says Allen. “Not every company can feed all of Manhattan, but the small retailer can do school events — free ice cream after a high school dance. It automatically sets your name on top.”
Look at the event before the price. If you can’t swing the expense of the 10K run that would really be ideal, partner up with other companies.
Personal interest. “Always lean toward your loves,” says Allen. The financial planner who specializes in small businesses may have a niche, but he lacks customer renown. Yet suppose this planner is also an outdoorsman. He loves to hike, kayak, fish, and of course he knows all the latest outdoor gear. His potential client list rolls out naturally — sports stores, outfitters, boat shops, outdoor gear sales reps.
Because of his special expertise in their field, folks trust this financial planner’s expertise in his own. They are likely to pass his name onto outing club members or other like companies. Also, beyond investment advice, the planner might be invited, on a limited scale, to provide campaign and strategy suggestions.
Too many markets? With all the pundits screaming for focused niche marketing, the entrepreneur seeking to branch out into new territories can feel a bit shaky. Is he bucking conventional wisdom, or just traditional fear? When does reaching for more stretch one too thin? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this age old problem. Allen notes that “every company alive changes. Keep a careful list of what you offer and keep checking it against what the current needs are.”
Allen emphasizes that it is important to keep your nose to the wind. Monitor the economy and general business environment and see if a fiscal pinch is looming over the horizon. Finally, build, don’t leap. Create one market, lay a foundation, and continue in it as long as profit lasts. Then, once the first is established, move into another.
“America is the most demanding business climate,” says Allen, “because it has so many resources and so much speed. Entrepreneurs work harder for less pay than any group I know. But each one is a diamond waiting to be polished. Anyone could be the next Bill Gates.”