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Are you as tired as I am of all the negative news coming at us daily from CNN, FOX, and the rest of the media? Are you as frustrated as I with the non-stop bickering amongst politicians, wringing of hands by the proponents of gloom and doom, and the constant petitioning of government for handouts? I am here to tell you that those pundits and politicians can never solve our nation’s many and significant problems. But I know who can.

I am in Las Vegas for the Laughlin Associates seminar. As is typical, the attendees are an interesting and impressive group. Without giving up specifics, I have visited with the owners of a barter company, one of the largest Ebay sellers in the country, a man who owns three electrical energy trading companies, and the host of a reality TV show. This is just a random sampling as there are 80+ people in attendance and each one has their own unique idea about how to make money.

The thing that I love most about our seminars is the people. These business owners are busy and yet they leave home and office and spend three to four days focusing on things that are forward looking. They come to learn about protecting assets, reducing taxes, estate planning and organizing their company so that they can someday leave it in style.

It is no wonder that these people are successful. While most businesses fail in the first 5 years, our clients generally survive and thrive. They beat the odds. Not necessarily because they are Laughlin clients but because they don’t just working IN their business. They constantly work ON their business. I have seen repeatedly that business owners who can view their projects as something more than a glorified job and who will take time to learn how and why a company works tend to keep their doors open. Our clients are more than employees of their businesses. They are architects of their destiny. Maybe that sounds sappy, but as I listen to their stories, the truth of that statement becomes clearer year after year.

I like my clients. They are fun, creative, and smart people. They are diverse in their gender, race, religious affiliation, hobbies, and industries. What they have in common is the ability to dream big, set aggressive goals, and the willingness and drive to do what it takes to get where they want to go. Knowing that there are millions more small business owners across the country just like my clients, let’s me ignore the whiners on the 24 hour news networks, gives me confidence in our country’s financial future, and keeps me committed to pursuing my own big dreams. Plus, I get to come to Las Vegas.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how affinity partnerships might be something for you to look into as a means of finding new clients at a lower cost of acquisition. Laughlin Associates has a growing number of these types of partnerships and is always excited to develop new relationships.

This morning we did a web launch with our new partner, Roni Deutch Tax Centers (RDTC). While many of you have seen Roni’s commercials that describe how her law firm can help you mediate your past due tax problems, what most people don’t know is that RDTC has 78 franchise tax preparation offices. open around the country and they expect that number to double by early 2011. They are positioning themselves as a trusted advisor to small, closely held companies and are offering a menu of foundational services to back up that value proposition. Laughlin will provide incorporation and record book management to the RDTC clients. It is wonderful for us to have the chance to partner with a company that has a clear idea of how they will fit into the small business market.

When I hung up the phone after the launch webinar, I had only a few minutes before getting on a call with another CEO. His company has an intimate relationship with upwards of 4000 medical clinics throughout the country. We explored how we might help them add value to their doctor clients. That potential partnership looks good and I will talk more about it as it progresses.

There were two additional significant and positive movements with other prospective partners as well today.

So what am I trying to say? It is this. At t a time when so many business owners are trying to figure out which way to turn and how they can even survive, there are opportunities. We have got to continually re-examine our businesses and see if we are doing things the right way. For years I’ve asked the question; “We know we can get customers, but are we sure we are getting the right customers?” We all work in different industries. Do we know where those industries are trending? Are we making adjustments?  Laughlin Associates has been built on direct mail marketing. That was the way we marketed for 35 years. That doesn’t work so well anymore. We can’t expect that direct mail will ever again produce like it once did. The world has changed.  And so we must look for; New Ways. New Strategies. New Customers. New Partners.

We as small business owners cannot allow ourselves to get discouraged or sit around wringing our hands. The efforts of people like you will make or break the financial recovery of this country. The Big-Business-Bailouts will make very little difference to our day-to-day operations. We must bail ourselves out. And we should not complain about it. We have made a choice to drive our own bus. That means taking responsibility for ourselves and our future. So, let’s do it.  And while we are at it, let’s do it in new, innovative, and exciting ways. After all, that’s what keeps things fun.

Editor’s Note: Laughlin Associates is always looking for new affinity partners.  Take a look at our website and if you think it might be a fit, send me an email. – AY

The long days and sometimes sleepless nights that come along with being a business owner are certainly something we can all relate to. The challenges of the recession have made such diverse and significant impacts on companies, that it is challenging for owners to put their daily circumstances into clear perspective against changing conditions in the economy. Every business owner that I know has had to take a hard look at how they are organized, what they are selling, and how they connect with prospective customers. Add to that the need to remain relevant to current customers and one can understand why it has sometimes been difficult to sleep.

Is it too obvious to say that much of the frustrations and anxiety come from concerns over money? I mean, we set lofty (but attainable) goals and then spend our days trying to guide, help, and inspire our staff toward them. We look at our value proposition and try to evaluate if there really is value. We want to make a difference in the community by helping those who need it. We take on new challenges and try to improve our own abilities. But, no matter what we do or how well we do it, typically our headaches come from not having enough money. And when the future’s prospects look bleak or are difficult to define it is even tougher. I think this is the way a lot of small business owners have been feeling.

The interesting thing is that even as we endure the nightmares about making the payroll, funding new marketing and paying our own bills, our days are often spent dreaming about how things are going to work out. A report that was just issued called “U.S. Small Business Outlook 2010: Lessons Learned – A Case for Greater Optimism” published on Forbes.com shows that small business owners are feeling more confident and better positioned than ever.

The report indicates that the financial crisis has forced us to look at how we operate and how we continue to provide value to our markets. It shows that the vast majority of small business owners believe that 2010 will be a growth year for them in spite of a lack of help from national, state, or local governments. It indicates that there will be increased investment in new initiatives, partnerships, marketing and technology. Overall, it shows that a lot of things have been figured out during those long nights and that small business has decided to embrace the new day and continue to hold the economy together just like it always has.

We all have our challenges. No two are exactly the same and none of us will escape having them. But keep your chin up and take heart in the fact that you will work your way through the ups and downs. You will solve your business riddles. You will remain the captain of your destiny. It is simply what entrepreneurs do.

I recently had a friend suggest that we should go horseback riding and asked when I could be available. I said that I could go most any day at any time. He commented that he was amazed and that it would be nice to have such flexibility of time. I just smiled. He probably hadn’t started his day at 2 a.m.

As business owners, you know that March 15th is right around the corner. Lots of us had a bumpy 2009 and may not be too worried about tax liabilities. That is the good news. The less than good news is the fact that the IRS has announced a step up in the percentage of audits that they will be conducting this year. There are a number of factors that can put you at higher risk of being audited. None of which is more of a red flag than being a small business owner. According to Investopedia, just being a small business puts you at the top of the target list.  Do any of these apply to you?

Partnership/Trust/Tax Shelter Risk
If you own shares in a limited partnership, control a trust or partake in any other tax shelter investments, you are more apt to be audited. While there may be no way to avoid such an audit, individuals that have a stake in such an entity should be aware that they have a target on their backs. They should also take even greater care to document deductions, donations and income.

Small Business Ownership
Small business owners are an easy target – particularly those with cash businesses. Bars, restaurants, car washes and hair salons are exceptionally big targets, not only because they deal in so much cash, but also because there is so much temptation to under-report income and tips earned.

Home Office Deductions
Be careful with home office deductions. Excessive or unwarranted deductions can raise red flags. In addition, large deductions in proportion to your income can raise the ire of the IRS as well. For example, if you earned $50,000 as an accountant (operating from home), home-office related deductions totaling $30,000 will raise more than a few eyebrows. Trying to write off the value of a new bedroom set as office equipment could also draw unwanted attention.*

At Laughlin Associates, we work with thousands of business owners each year to help keep them on the right side of audit troubles. Still, we hear horror stories all the time from people who didn’t take their business documentation seriously. It is not enough to just use a credit card statement as your substantiation. You must document who, what, why, and how much. This can easily be accomplished if you know what to do and use some simple tools. For more on this you can go to our resource page at the Laughlin web site.

Even as the President of The United States expounds on the virtues of owning a business and how small business owners create the vast majority of jobs in this country, the Tax Man is planning a visit to many of those business owners’ doors. The government must collect every nickel it can to try to stem the hemorrhaging caused by the recent bailout spending and other entitlement programs. We small business owners will be targets, sure, but we will also continue to find new and creative ways to make our businesses profitable. We will invent, manufacture, sell, consult and barter our way through whatever hurdles are placed before us. We have always been that way. We always will be. Just make sure that you dot your “I’s” and cross your “T’s” along the way.

You can read the full Investopedia article here.

My company, Laughlin Associates sends out nearly 2 million pieces of direct mail per year. However, I have noticed lately that our tried and true marketing approaches don’t seem to be getting the results they once did. Regardless of how many postcards or brochures we send via snail mail the approach that is getting increasingly successful results is coming from a new channel… our affinity partners. And if you haven’t yet used this marketing approach, you may be missing out.

We look for companies that we believe serve a similar client profile and provide excellent products or services. When we find one that seems like a fit, we contact with them about becoming an affinity partner.

The five key questions we ask when evaluating a prospective partner are:

  1. What does their client base look like?
  2. Do they have an effective method of communicating with their clients?
  3. Is their product line complimentary to ours?
  4. Is there enough financial opportunity to justify committing resources to the venture?
  5. Does introduction of there products/services to our clients dilute our overriding value proposition and messaging?

These partnerships provide new prospects for us to teach about our services and introduce new services that will serve our existing client base. When organized right they are a win-win for both companies and for the collective clients.

In today’s world buyers can scan hundreds of television stations and cruise dozens of web sites in minutes. There are literally millions of voices trying to convince your prospect to “BUY FROM US!”  In order to stand out, locking arms with high quality, established companies can be a huge competitive advantage as you work together to grow your small businesses.

Affinity partnerships are working for us. I invite you to share the strategies that are working for you in this ever shifting environment.  Feel free to make comments below or contact me directly (aaronyoung@laughlinusa.com). I have a pair of free tickets and I’ll even buy you lunch at our March seminar in Las Vegas for whoever gives the best marketing idea.

Let’s hear from you!

I just came across this interesting post from the Return Customers blog. The author provides useful insight into the eternal problem of customer churn. Although this is speaking specifically about prospective customers, the concepts still apply to existing customers. See what you think:

Are Your Prospective Customers Still Interested in You? – by returncustomer.com

“People that have expressed an interest in you in the past may no longer care about you nor want to hear from you.

This may be sad, but it is still true.

What should you do with these prospective customers?

Talk to them.

I recently got an email from TripAdvisor.com where I has signed up to receive notifications about a trip to Chile:

Still thinking about that trip to Santiago, Chile?

We’ve been sending you e-mails about Santiago, Chile for a while. Are you still interested?

Wherever you’re hoping to go, TripWatch can bring you the best deals and reviews. Add new places and drop the places you’re no longer interested in.

This email helped do two things:

1. Made me think if I still wanted to get these emails.

2. Let me know how I could change my preferences if needed.

In this Trip Advisor case, they were sending me regular emails with updates about Chile. If I had changed my mind about that destination, I would have started to ignore their emails or could possibly mark them as spam.

Either of those actions is damaging to the relationship.

By sending an email specifically asking if I was still interested, it reopens the conversation and allows the customer to select the course of action he or she most wants.

If you have prospective customers that haven’t purchased from you or interacted with you in some time, reopen the conversation to see if they are still interested.

While none of us wants to believe that we have lost our customer’s hearts, it should come as no surprise that when the conversation stops, the relationship is on a slippery slope. At Laughlin we use a number of methods to reach out to our clients on at least a quarterly basis. Nevertheless, we still lose a small percentage each year.”

Traditional wisdom says that it is easier to keep a client that to replace her. But keeping that client isn’t always a simple thing to do. What is working for you in your company? I would love to hear from you. – Aaron

You can read the original article here: http://www.returncustomer.com/

Today an historic election was held in Massachusetts. For the first time in 47 years a senate seat held by Edward Kennedy was lost to a republican. But much more was at stake. With the republican win, the democrats lose their super majority in the senate. This puts President Obama’s health care initiative in jeopardy. Regardless of which side of the issue you find yourself on, this is a big deal. Small business people everywhere are wondering what a government run health care system would mean to them and their employees. Isn’t it interesting that one seat out of 100 can make all the difference?

One of our friend’s, Fran Tarkenton, will appear on Fox New tonight in an interview with Neil Cavuto. We invite all to you to watch it. Fran is a strong advocate for the small business owner and has worked to help that group for many years through his companies. We are proud to be working with him to develop and deliver solutions to those of you who need access to affordable resources.

The point that I want to make tonight is that there is a lot of white noise out there. It is our goal at this blog and at our company to help you filter out the noise and get tuned in to straight forward answers that can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes doing 1 more right thing is all you need to make a huge difference.

Failing Forward

toe in water photo

My first “grown-up” business was in the cellular telephone industry. (We didn’t call it “wireless” back then). I got in early, opening up in 1986. It was fun to be part of an industry that was new and technical and whose products carried some cache. I went from working out of my parent’s basement, to a small office in a converted house and eventually into space in an industrial park. I needed to move to the industrial park in order to open a repair and installation shop. (Back then you got phones fixed in your home town. They were not disposable as they are now).

As the business grew so did my business opportunities. I partnered with other companies, making them re-sellers using our agent number. We started advertising more and more heavily in the local newspapers. We had 6 full time and several part time sales people as well as clerical staff working from our office and had three technicians in the shop. We bought the latest and greatest diagnostic equipment and began repairing and installing phones and other consumer electronics for many of the biggest retailers in the Portland, Oregon area. Business was good.

All of this success came within a fairly short time period. I was young and excited and thought I had the world by the tail. I got a nicer car and bought my wife a loaded Jeep Cherokee in which we installed all kinds of electronic gadgets. We bought a larger home and began taking a few little trips. I even bought a set of custom golf clubs and I don’t even like to golf. Yes, things were really going well. Then one day I was invited to a meeting at the corporate offices of the cellular carrier. They spent some time telling us about how the market was changing, how technology growth was exploding and about their expansion plans. It all sounded great. Then they dropped the bomb. They would be fundamentally changing the way they paid for new client enrollment (read-how they paid commissions). The new plan made it virtually impossible for a company organized as I was to maintain consistent cash flow. As a matter of fact, their new commission plan was aimed at attracting “Big Box” stores that would, within a few months, start using cell phones as loss leaders in their advertising programs. “Come in and buy a new couch and get a free cellular phone!”

My head was spinning. I didn’t know what to do. But we were debt free and had some money in the bank and had lines of credit and I figured I could adapt. While many other companies similar to mine were closing their doors, I was trying to get cheaper prices on phones by committing to larger volume orders. I was hiring more people for the shop in hopes of fixing all the broken “free” phones that a furniture store would have no way of handling. As sales revenue shrunk I began borrowing from my credit lines to manage cash flow. Then I started to use personal cash and credit to cover payables. I couldn’t afford to compete on price with the big chains and so I couldn’t move the phones accumulating in my warehouse. Before long I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and was sinking fast. My wife and I turned in the keys to the Jeep to the bank and eventually sold the service shop to a competitor. I was broke, in debt and feeling hopeless. Finally we closed up shop for good.

There is no specific happy ending to this chapter of my life. I had made rookie mistakes and ended up paying a high price for them and it took effort to clean up the financial mess I had made. So why do I tell this story? I want you know that it is OK to struggle. It is alright to take chances. It is understandable to set your mind on a goal only to find that it was the wrong goal to reach for. In short, it is OK to fail. Why? Because each attempt, including the failed ones, brings invaluable insights and education. You won’t catch me making the same mistakes twice because I have learned through my experience what works and what doesn’t and that is worth a lot.

If you choose to go into business for yourself, you have to do it with gusto. You can’t afford to go after your dream half heartedly. No matter that you won’t always be right. The point is to keep dreaming and reasoning and striving to build something. You must be willing to do the hard work. These characteristics make you different from others around you. You are a pioneer. That means you will have to leave the comfort of the masses and make serious sacrifices to reach your “Promised Land”, but at the end of the journey you will gain the rewards earned by taking risks. Don’t let set backs get you down. One of the best things I have learned along my life’s path is this, when things go wrong, as they often will, always make sure that when you fail, you fail forward.