Baby Steps to Better Business

UPDATED: December 6, 2011
PUBLISHED: December 6, 2011

Sometimes, all you’ve got is 10 minutes. Or 10 dollars. But 10 minutes a day or 10 dollars a week add up. When it comes to building business, small steps can make the biggest impact. Don’t believe us? Listen to these entrepreneurs. Each one of them faced a huge goal and met it—one small step at a time.

Mat Dwyer President Toronto

THE GOAL: Increase visitors to the company’s website through social media and organic search engine hits.

“I’m the owner of the company, but as with many small businesses, I’m also the marketer, the salesperson, etc.,” says Mat Dwyer of his role at, which converts old photos, slides and videos to digital files. “We’ve really focused on creating an affordable solution—not on maximizing revenue, but rather ensuring that it’s affordable for families to actually have electronic scanning completed. This significantly alters our marketing budget, forcing us to look outside the box to gain new clients.”

THE STEPS: “There were a number of small steps involved,” says Dwyer, who devoted at least 5 to 10 minutes a day to the task. “First and foremost, I had to analyze our current website and pinpoint areas where it could be altered to be more attractive to search engines. That involved identifying what people would likely be searching for, so I spent about 10 minutes a day for a week just brainstorming appropriate keywords. By writing the phrase, ‘Vancouver photo scanning’ on one of my web pages, for instance, I’d be able to rank in Google search results when someone types in ‘Vancouver photo scanning,’ and that was very important.

I set out to alter one page per day and make it as keyword-rich as I could. When the site was at a level I was comfortable with for search engine optimization, I then sought to create a social media presence, each day adding something to either Twitter, our Facebook page or another social media platform, such as a blog entry or a response to a Tweet or forum post. The overall time didn’t exceed 10 minutes a day, but we started to gain a following, and even customers who didn’t follow us on Twitter mentioned that they read through the timeline of our posts and that it gave ‘legitimacy’ to the business, which is crucial in an online environment.”

THE RESULTS: “I’ve slowly built our site to rank first in the country for our targeted keyword, and this now accounts for approximately 75 percent of our new customers,” Dwyer says. “I didn’t initially think SEO would be our primary source of new customers, but it started paying dividends almost immediately. We also find that customers who are engaged socially (Twitter, Facebook) refer customers themselves and take a personal interest in the brand and the company.”

THE TAKEAWAY: “It’s important to remember that the huge, daunting task is really just a series of little 5-minute tasks,” Dwyer advises. “As long as you are motivated and committed to doing those 5-minute tasks each day, you’ll meet your goal. Skipping one day leads to skipping two. Put a calendar on the wall and mark a giant X on it each day you actually do a task. You’ll start to see a line of Xs and not want to break it.”

Scott Newman President and CEO US Markerboard Holbrook, Mass.

An online retailer providing whiteboards, bulletin boards and other visual communication supplies to schools and various businesses, US Markerboard relies heavily on its website. But a few years ago, the site became impossible to maintain. Adjusting prices, for example, was a month-long task. So president and CEO Scott Newman devised a way to overhaul the site without jeopardizing sales and usability.

Against the advice of both the website designer and engineer, Newman decided to make the changes incrementally, a process that would take far longer than if they built a brand-new website and rolled it out all at once. But Newman was concerned with maintaining customers, not just acquiring new ones. “For the customer, the change wasn’t really noticeable,” he says. “And sales grew in the process.”

THE GOAL: Update the company’s website and database in an effort to stay competitive and to reduce the intensive labor it took to make even minor updates.

THE STEPS: The company’s initial website was built using basic pages and low-resolution images. For each product, there was limited information, including the stock number and price, but the products couldn’t be purchased online. Customers would call in their orders, and staffers would calculate the shipping costs and process the sales manually.

“My partner and I decided to hire a database engineer to help us move to a more robust, expandable platform,” Newman says. “We started with the product pages first then worked backward over a period of 18 months, making sure that the processes worked completely before moving on to the next step. One of the advantages of rolling out the website changes slowly and incrementally was that we had the ability to test each new page and process, figuring out what worked and what didn’t as we went along.”

THE RESULTS: “It would be hard putting tangible numbers on this update,” Newman admits. “Yes, we saw significant growth, but we also ended up in a staggering economic shift while this was all going on. So who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t made the updates? What’s most important is that we didn’t stick our head in the sand or rest on our laurels. We decided that what was best for the company over the long term was a major overhaul of the website and database. We worked as a team, collectively, taking the time needed to adapt to the changing needs of our customers, developing a new site that will lead us forward.”

THE TAKEAWAY: “Take your time,” Newman insists. “Talk to your customers about the changes you are about to make and get their feedback. Talk to your staff, especially your customer service people. They are on the front lines and hear what your customers are saying. And make sure that your staff knows that although some of their ideas might end up on the cutting room floor, without their input that one great idea might never come.”

Heather Ledeboer Owner Mom 4 Life Athol, Idaho

THE GOAL: “Cut the cord” and run the business rather than allowing it to run her.

Heather Ledeboer calls herself the CMO, or chief mom officer, of her online business Mom 4 Life. The mother of four started her own business back in 2003 after the birth of her first son as a way to stay at home with her family and still make money. The company markets mom-friendly products that are, in fact, all mom-invented. However, as Mom 4 Life grew, so did Ledeboer’s family. Consequently, the amount of time she had to work on her business dwindled with each new addition.

THE STEPS: “ ‘Operation Don’t Work All Day’ had a soft launch almost two years ago when I first carved out an office space for myself in our home,” Ledeboer says. “I figured it was about time that I took control of my schedule and set some boundaries so I had more time for myself and my family. The plan has taken much longer for me to act on than it should.

“Because I enjoy what I do and have a tendency to be a perfectionist, I try to stay on top of work around the clock. However, I have discovered that no matter how much I work, there’s always more to be done.” So Ledeboer set about making priorities and structuring her day in a way that encouraged progress. To do that, she set office hours. “I’ve worked out a schedule with my husband that allows me to work in the morning and again in the afternoon for about an hour each time while he shuttles our two older children to and from school,” says Ledeboer.

Next, she took control of her inbox by setting up an automatic reply to email that alerts contacts of her work schedule. It spells out that she answers emails only one or two times a day, Monday through Friday, and that you can typically expect a reply from her within 24 to 48 hours. The last line reads, “Thank you for your understanding!” Notes Ledeboer: “This gives me the peace of mind that those contacting me are not only aware of my schedule, but are expecting me to abide by it.”

Her final step was to create a system for her to-do list. “If something comes to mind during my off hours that I need to remember to do, I email myself a reminder from my non-work email and then breathe easy knowing that I’ll see the reminder the next time I sit down to work,” she says. The to-do list itself is kept in a binder on her desk. “There’s an urgent and a non-urgent column,” she explains. “Each day I check my list and make sure that the urgent list is caught up. If I finish my emails early, then I’ll tackle a non-urgent item.”

THE RESULTS: “Operation Don’t Work All Day has been an essential step in allowing me a richer daily experience,” Ledeboer says. “The result is that I can be fully present, engaged and focused rather than stressed, distracted and overwhelmed.”

THE TAKEAWAY: Taking time away from your business can actually improve the quality of your work time because you’ll be excited about “digging in.” It also requires you to stay true to your goals. The freedom you feel when you walk away from work each day helps reinforce the benefits gained from such a simple change.

Laura Davis Vice President and Director of Marketing HPD Architecture LLC Dalls, Texas

“It’s not what you know, but who you know that gets you in the door,” says Laura Davis, acknowledging the old adage. Back in early 2009, her design and architecture firm was about to complete its existing projects and had no new ones on the books, so the decision was made to seek contracts with federal, state and local agencies. “It became painfully obvious, though, that the larger architecture firms were hungry for work too and were pursuing the same small projects we were,” Davis says. By the time they learned of an opportunity to submit a bid, they had little chance of getting short-listed. So Davis began reaching out to other architects who had experience with government projects and, more important, who had personal connections with the contracting officers.

THE GOAL: Network with relevant decision makers and other industry insiders to earn new business.

THE STEPS: “First, we joined a local chamber of commerce, which hosted happy hours and community brown-bag seminars,” Davis says. “I was scared to death at the first happy hour I attended because I didn’t know what to say after, ‘Hi, I’m Laura. I’m an architect with HPD Architecture.’

“Fortunately, a few months later I attended a seminar about Twitter. There, I learned several important things that gave my networking more purpose. I learned that on Twitter, and in other marketing efforts, we have the opportunity to be an expert resource.

“Second, I learned I needed a compelling story and a goal to focus my efforts. Once I grasped the concepts behind business networking, I brought the idea of hosting our own happy hour to my partners. We were nervous we wouldn’t even have the required 35 attendees at our first event to get the free appetizers provided by the bar, but our fears were put to rest when more than 100 people showed up. Clearly we found a group of people needing a way to connect.”

Davis’s other networking efforts include offering introductions between contacts who could benefit from each other’s expertise, blogging, podcasting, sitting on expert panels, mentoring students and volunteering in the design community.

THE RESULTS: In 2008 there were zero Google search results for “HPD Architecture,” but by 2011 there were nearly 4,800—a marked improvement in visibility. As an expert resource, the firm is mentioned in everything from blogs to books, and team members participate in speaking engagements at conferences across the country. Adds Davis of their networking efforts: “We’ve learned how to talk to prospective clients and not undervalue our services. It has changed the way we approach business and how we view our firm.” And the new clients are nice, too.

THE TAKEAWAY: “Be approachable and open to new opportunities,” Davis advises. “And where there are no obvious opportunities, create your own that are a win-win for everyone around you.” More important, she says, don’t get stuck in “analysis paralysis.” Start now to take the small steps necessary to complete your mission.

Sheryl Petrashek Realtor RE/MAX Results Apple Valley, Minn.

THE GOAL: Accommodate a 400 percent increase in file workload, generate four times the number of prospects, increase visibility and sales of inventory, while preserving the highest standards of customer service.

With home prices plummeting and sales declining, residential realtor Sheryl Petrashek was forced to react to the sudden shift in the real estate market in late 2007 by finding a new way to do business. “I wanted to preserve my previous income and continue working as a full-time realtor,” Petrashek says. But due to falling home prices, she could no longer maintain her income by selling an average of 25 homes per year or managing just eight to 10 clients at a time. “I needed to sell 30 percent more homes, or about 36 homes per year. It also meant I needed to carry 33 listings simultaneously.”

THE STEPS: “My first small step was to allocate an hour a day to work on my business instead of in my business,” Petrashek says. “To stay focused, I silenced my phone and sat in a conference room with only a legal pad and pen. I asked myself a series of questions, including: How do I want my business to look in three years? How do I want my clients’ experience to feel? How can I make that happen? What must I do to delegate and automate the additional workload? I wrote down all the ideas that came to me, no matter how impossible or outrageous they seemed. I discovered, however, my ability to strategically plan for business growth was hampered by doubts about my ability to manage the increased workload.”

So Petrashek’s next move was to begin organizing her business. She created an automated task list, detailing every action necessary for a property listing. Then she evaluated various marketing activities to increase the visibility of her clients’ listings. She also set about getting the extra leads she needed to achieve her goal. Working just one hour per day, she wrote a series of letters targeting homeowners whose houses had previously been on the market but hadn’t sold. During this time, she hired a second administrative assistant and put the “Power Hour” into place for her growing staff.

THE RESULTS: The automated task list and series of targeted letters led to a more than 100 percent increase in sales in just 18 months.

THE TAKEAWAY: “No idea is wrong, and nothing is impossible,” Petrashek says. “So brainstorm with wild abandon. And be patient. This daily exercise will strengthen over time, slowly and steadily. Commit to one hour a day for at least two weeks and watch your ideas grow.”

Jaime Tardy Owner Eventual Millionaire Auburn, Maine

By age 22, Jaime Tardy was earning a six-figure salary. By 24, she was more than $70,000 in debt and dreaded going to work each day. So she quit her corporate gig and started her own company. Today she works as a business coach, helping entrepreneurs employ their talents and resources to create their dream lives. To this end, Tardy has interviewed dozens of business owners who’ve already made their millions, quizzing them for their tips of the trade and posting the audio interviews on her website.

THE GOAL: Start a blog to grow nationally, limit her schedule to 20 hours per week and reduce the time spent driving to client meetings. Moving her business online would help achieve that.

THE STEPS: “When I first started learning about blogging, I realized it was just one of the many marketing tactics you could use online, but it was one I was willing to invest in since I wanted to build an audience,” Tardy says. “I created a simple blog using WordPress and started to learn the technical side myself. I spoke to a lot of people about blogging, found a mentor in the blogging world and learned a lot. I was told that you should blog for at least six months before you decide if it’s worth it. While that was a huge time commitment, I realized that either way it was great information to have. If it didn’t work, I’d explain what I found to my clients, and if it did work, then I’d continue. Right before the six-month mark, I didn’t feel like it was getting a ton of traction and I was going to give up. But something told me to wait. A week later, CNN contacted me.” Tardy’s been quoted in the press multiple times since.

THE RESULTS: “I’ve totally improved my way of life,” she says. “I now work from home and can reach the world. I’m able to touch and inspire so many more people (the podcast has been downloaded more than 65,000 times since it started last year), plus I’ve gained millionaire mentors and made amazing connections with the millionaires I interview.”

THE TAKEAWAY: “Investing the time into a new platform can seem like a lot of work,” Tardy admits, “but I can say, in my case, the world opened up for me. I’ve learned from countless millionaires that it’s not about the big events but about continuous forward movement. All we can do is work hard and take the small steps each day to reach our goals, and, more often than not, amazing things happen.”