Start Small, Win Big Challenge 2012 with Tory Johnson, Part 1

Pat yourself on the back: You survived 2011.

Like you, I wake up every morning to a drumbeat of bad news that could easily send me back under the covers. But to what end? As a small-business owner for 13 years, I can tell you that none of my success has come easily or in my sleep.

In the last three years, when people have first heard about Women For Hire—career expos geared to women—they’re stunned that I’m still standing.

Sure, millions of Americans are looking for jobs, but most people think that, at a time like this, selling recruiting services to employers—which is where we make money—is like selling ice to Alaskans.

Obviously, there have been steep challenges, but giving up was never an option: I couldn’t afford to allow the economy to destroy my business. I’m sure you can’t either.

None of these steps were huge moneymakers alone, but collectively, they replaced lost revenue while many competitors in the career expo business folded.So I took a series of deliberate steps that allowed me to not only survive, but thrive. I ramped up online sponsorships, allowing companies that aren’t hiring to keep their brand top of mind with women. My sales staff began pitching smaller firms with jobs to fill and popular direct sales companies to join us at our expos. We produced a webinar series about working from home that thousands of women purchased at a $20 introductory price.

However, my most profitable move came from listening to attendees at my career expos as the recession took its toll. Whether they had been downsized or were just starting out, more women told me they wanted to start their own businesses but needed basic steps on exactly how to do it. When, they asked, was I going to hold an expo for budding entrepreneurs?

So I launched Spark & Hustle to produce intimate conferences and provide private consulting services to current and aspiring small-business owners. In less than a year, Spark & Hustle broke the million-dollar revenue mark. Yup, in a recession.

What I’ve learned is that becoming successful and staying successful is hard work. It’s very doable, but it takes smart, deliberate, consistent persistence.

Over the next few months of 2012, I will challenge you to do and be your best, with a free 12-week, 12-step program to help boost your business. These are all things I have learned along the way, use in my own business and teach to my clients. Consider me your entrepreneurial mentor.


Step No. 1

Commit to Your WHY

When I started Women For Hire in 1999, my financial goal was simple: Replace my paycheck. I could have done that by getting yet another public relations job, so money alone wasn’t part of my why. My why was rooted in the permanent scar from a pink slip.

After being unexpectedly fired from a job I loved at NBC—one I thought I’d stay in forever—I wanted to be my own boss. I was determined to never have my family feel the pain and financial devastation that comes when someone else controls my destiny by taking me off their payroll.

Since I knew I could never control the decisions of an employer, I went the path of small business ownership. Giving up or giving in was—and still is—never an option because starting a new business wouldn’t be any easier. And getting a “real” job, so to speak, wouldn’t insulate my family and me from the possibility of one day revisiting a layoff.

So my why remains crystal clear—and I never lose sight of it.

Ask yourself now: What’s my why? Why bother with small business ownership? Maybe it’s because you want the financial freedom to choose medical treatments for a loved one, based on the best options, not the price tag. Maybe it’s that you want to control where and when you work to accommodate personal responsibilities. Maybe it’s because you want to generate awareness for a cause that’s close to you.

When you understand your why—why you’ve chosen small business ownership over traditional employment; why you’ve chosen this business type; why you’ve chosen to go after any particular goal—you’re much less likely to throw in the towel when the going gets tough, which it most certainly will.

This isn’t a five-minute conversation you have with yourself—take some time to think it through.


Step No. 2

Take Responsibility—You’re in Control

Part of owning where you are right now is a willingness to pinpoint exactly how you wound up here, especially if you’re looking to go someplace else.

Assume you’re swooping in as an outsider who has been called in to assess the business. Ask yourself three questions:

First, what worked? Examine what went right, what generated the desired results and where your victories were. Second, what didn’t work? What didn’t pan out? What intentions were left unfulfilled? What exactly went wrong? This may take more time and soul-searching. Third, what could have been done differently? Often, when my clients work through this exercise, they realize they’ve had the answers all along. They know in retrospect what they could or should have done, where they stumbled, where they wish they could get a do-over. Most times, they slipped because they didn’t listen to their gut, got lazy or they followed someone else’s advice when they knew better.

Taking responsibility is all part of gaining control over your business. Blaming intransigent politicians, the economy, budget cutbacks—you know the list—is pointless. Own your circumstances. Nobody is coming to rescue you or your business—it’s all up to you.

If you’re stuck or stalled, figure out why. For example, if you hate sales and you know it’s a weakness that’s hampering your revenue growth, isn’t it time to finally address it? If you own up, you can take specific steps to fix just about anything. In this case, read a book or two on selling. Take a course. Hire a sales expert. Get coaching.

When you don’t tackle those key weaknesses that are at the root of your stalled business, you can continue to expect more of the same, which isn’t necessarily a pretty picture.


Step No. 3

Know Your Numbers—When You’re Down, by How Much and Why

My client Sandy Stein spent years as a flight attendant before she made millions selling her Finders Key Purse key chains. She says it’s easy in an economic downturn to be lulled into complacency, to assume things will magically improve.

“My controller started telling me that our numbers were down in mid-2010,” she recalls. “I told her not to worry, as they would pick back up with the holiday season.”

Although her money chief continued to issue warnings through the year, Stein remained optimistic. Several months later, reality hit: Her business needed help.

The devil was in the details, she said. “When I actually sat down and looked at what the stores were ordering—little tiny amounts—the stacks of bankruptcy letters that we had received and how little our reps were selling, only then did I make the determination that our marketplace had changed, and that it would be necessary to reinvent our business model.”

In retrospect, Stein says her mistake was not paying close enough attention to the numbers all along. “I was resting on my laurels—hoping to coast through this economy—when I should have started much earlier trying to figure out a better way.”

Today she doesn’t allow small problems to become big ones. Each month Stein and her team review every number and they create solutions on the spot rather than waiting for a miracle, which positions her for tremendous growth in 2012.

Now it’s your turn to pay close attention to your numbers, watch key trends and hear out the people you pay to watch your back.


Step No. 4

Own Your Destiny: What Could I Be If I Refuse to Fail?

If you could wave your magic wand and make three things happen in your business, what would they be? Not 30 or 300 things: When you make a list that’s a mile long, you’ll never tackle it. But three is a number you can wrap your head around.

Be specific. For example, maybe you want to get out of debt. Too vague. Instead, make it clear: “Pay off the $9,000 credit card balance in four months.”

One of the items on your list may be “make more money”—again, that’s obvious. Instead, be deliberate and targeted: “Generate $20,000 in sales in the next three months.”

Next, define yourself and declare your expertise. Coin your nickname or moniker—and own it. My client Marianne Carlson calls herself The Granny Geek because she makes complicated web design simple—not what you’d expect from a woman in her 60s.

I love when someone stops me in the airport or on the street and says, “Hey, you’re that jobs lady on TV.” I smile because I’ve worked very hard to establish that reputation and it feels good to see my hard work pay off. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I nurture it every day.

You must figure out what exactly you want to be known for before you can build an effective plan to make it happen.

There you go: four initial steps to get your mojo going in this new year. I’ll talk to you next month about identifying and listening to your customers and building a specific type of list that’s among the best weapons in my sales arsenal. 

Next: Part II of the Start Small Win Big Challenge

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Tory Johnson is CEO and founder of Spark & Hustle, a weekly contributor on ABC's Good Morning America and a contributing editor of SUCCESS magazine.

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