6. Know your products…

…inside and out. You can get an excellent feel for what works and what doesn’t by making note of your weakest products, your strongest products, and the price points each sells for.

Earlier this year, I spent a fair chunk of time and money creating a couple of new product packages for folks that needed a simple startup site. It wasn’t successful. Fortunately, I keep records of sales meetings on new products, so I began to review them to look for the problem.

After much weeping and gnashing of teeth, I discovered two things:

  1. People didn’t like the configuration of the payment plan. They would rather pay 50% down, 50% after than to pay it over a year. It didn’t matter that it was no-interest financing. Since this product was for new customers and we hadn’t built up a history of trust, they felt bound by a year-long commitment to a company they didn’t yet know.
  2. We were selling it to the wrong people. Because of the lower cost, we thought this would be ideal for individuals or businesses with less than 3 employees and a slim gross margin. In actuality, the product was more ideally suited to companies with 5-10 employees, but a heftier gross margin.

Never stop analyzing what you do and why you do it. Never stop analyzing your sales process, and your customer satisfaction levels with your products and services.

7. Know your customers

Only recently have I really begun to understand how freaking useful the concept of “target demographics” can be.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to stop making “educated guesses” on who our target market should be, and sat down to compile a list of our best customers.

By the time I had finished this list, I was staggered by how similar profiles were on the customers that we most enjoy working with. They were all within ten years of each other in age; most were the same gender, and all of them were hard working, long range planners with lots of passion and creativity within their industry.

Armed with that knowledge, I now know exactly where to spend my time and money in marketing. When I walk in to a networking event, I now know exactly what kind of person to look for. Conversely, I also know who not to look for, and sometimes that’s even more useful.

8. Know your employees

Your most valuable resources are your employees, and I’ve had the great fortune to work for very different leaderships types, and to observe how they utilized their manpower.

Here is, in my experience, the correct way to work with employees:

First of all, be selective in your hiring process. Never, ever hire in the initial interview, and only hire people who are able to prove, extensively, that they’re sane, talented people with a good track record. One of the nice things about this economy is that there are a lot of awesome, talented men and women out there who were laid off for some unfortunate reason. In difficult times, you can often find available talent that would otherwise be difficult to acquire.

Second, communicate often with your employees and listen very seriously to what they have to say, even if your immediate reaction is to disagree with them. If you’ve hired this person based on the criteria outlined above, they’re smart, experienced and gifted in their field.

By listening to employees and trusting their opinion when I’m less experienced on a topic, I’ve been able to save myself a lot of stress and heartache. And let me just say, it’s a good thing for my customers that I let my marketing, writing and design specialists make the hard calls on the projects that they’re working on.

Now, that said, there are times when even a smart, experienced and gifted person is incorrect, and you’ve got to have the guts to stand for what you believe is right, even if it means conflict. Conflict is uncomfortable, but if you can’t handle it you shouldn’t be running a business. You’ll get skinned alive by people who take advantage of accommodating people.

9. Know yourself

How passionate are you about what you’re doing? If you hate your job, you’re in the wrong industry. Quit being a pansy, save up a cash cushion and get the hell out. Go find something you LOVE to do, that gives you a sense of purpose and a feeling of accomplishment.

That said, I have a hard job. I often work 10-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. It’s rare that I ever have a weekend off, and I’ve really had to bust it to make Aqua Vita a successful design firm, especially considering this is our first year as a full-time business, AND it’s a recession year. There have been whole weeks that have blended together as a blur of finances, planning, programming, phone calls, meetings and coffee drinking…but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I love what I do, and I’ve been told in no uncertain words by my customers that the work we do for them relieves stress, boosts sales, production and productivity…and it’s shiny!

I know that I’m in the right industry, that because I enjoy what I’m doing I’ll succeed at it where many have failed, and that I’ll have a hell of a lot of fun while I’m at it. After all, I get to an insider glimpse on how dozens of different business models work; I make pretty, functional things; and I play on the computer for a living. AWESOME.

10. Work your butt off and save

There you go: the secret to success. There are no magic pills, no financial fads or marketing schemes that’ll put that beautiful green in the bank. The best way to get rich and stay rich is to work smarter, harder and longer than any of your competitors, pay cash for everything, and save 5-10%, minimally, of everything you earn, forever. If you don’t have a 5-10% margin over your bills, get a second job.

As someone who’s played the credit card game, I can tell you that it sucks. Interest rates are higher than ever, and you DO have to pay those loans back. Shred those cards and never use them again, if you can help it.

Ah, and one more thing: A year ago, I would tell myself that if I couldn’t put huge chunks of money back, it wasn’t worth it at all. As an experiment, I went ahead and started saving 4% of my income, just to see what the emotional and fiscal benefits from it would be.

Now that I’ve completed that little experiment, here are my findings: It IS worth it, and I’ve gone from 4% to 15% of my personal income. The result is that I feel happier, less pressured, and freer in my financial decisions. If I want to take a vacation, I just reach into a little horde of cash I’ve set back for just such a purpose, and I pay for it with the lean green stuff. The result is a guilt-free, interest-free getaway.

That’s it folks! If you’ve got any comments, please post them below. I read each and every one, and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about how Aqua Vita works, what we offer, and how I’ve turned the nightmare this year has been into a shining success.

See you on the flip side.