For eight weeks, from January to March, approximately 2,000 SUCCESS readers challenged themselves and their small businesses by participating in the 2nd annual Start Small Win Big contest. In April they submitted their results to the judging panel of SUCCESS editors and small-business expert JJ Ramberg, who hosts MSNBC’s Your Business, a weekly show devoted to small-business issues. Now, it’s complete. The judges have handpicked five finalists who are moving one step closer to the grand prize and making their small business go big. Eight weekly assignments were sent out and posted on the SUCCESS blog—steps designed by Ramberg to help small-business owners recognize and understand what makes their businesses work and grow, and how they can succeed. With step-by-step instructions, tips and SUCCESS expert-driven articles as resources, the weekly assignments ranged from refining an elevator pitch to tapping networks and polishing social media strategy. (Read all the steps on SUCCESS.com). The Challenge posed, well, challenges to each person and his or her business, but every week, the contestants dedicated themselves to grow, both in their business and in personal development. As in starting a business or running with a big idea, it took motivation and purpose to really carry out the Challenge’s goals. Now, one of our handpicked list of five finalists will meet two distinguished mentors, Darren Hardy and JJ Ramberg, who have entrepreneurial expertise and know how to reach success, and will be featured prominently in the August 2013 issue. Two runners-up also will be featured in the magazine and each finalist will take home a SUCCESS Personal Development Prize Pack valued at up to $1,000. Meet the five Start Small Win Big finalists, who we think have unbeatable potential to grow and reach true success—all from starting small. Choose your favorite by “liking” their photo on SUCCESS magazine’s Facebook page. Drumroll, please… 1. Mary Juetten with Traklight.com What a difference a year makes! I learned that progress is made with a second or third attempt. The notion that building a business is not a sprint but a marathon, and maybe even a triathlon, was wrapped up in my 2013 [Start Small Win Big Challenge] learning. Some of the challenge steps were new and created “aha” moments. In other words, these were things that I did not know that we should be doing when we launched. Until recently, our team was focused on product, legal and finance without any digital marketing experience. Last fall, we successfully pitched to enter an incubator and have our pitches perfected—I can wake up from a dead sleep and say our mission and pitch! Also, being a recovering accountant, Steps 3 and 4 were no-brainers for me, but along the way I shifted to focus on value, not cost—and to look to customer metrics that matter. We are diving deeper into customer acquisition costs and meaningful social media metrics. “Likes” cannot pay the bills. We have set a goal of 1,000 customers and $1 million in sales by March 2014. Surprisingly, the “customer talk” step is not new to us because we started product development by interviewing entrepreneurs and alpha testing more than a year before the launch of our product. We are committed to customer happiness and use follow-up surveys and phone calls to continue the customer conversation. I enjoy networking and go outside my comfort zone at least once a day in order to stalk (in a friendly manner) potential contacts. I love process and hate routine. When Week 6’s step appeared, I realized I cannot do it all. I am proud to say that two amazing sales and marketing people joined us in March. We are working on Infusionsoft CRM implementation—creating a sales funnel, content (we educate and empower) and better website user experience. It’s exciting to have a team, but we are bootstrapping, so both are part-time. Our first step is to validate our mission and values because culture is key to a strong foundation. Our primary goal this year is increased reach and customer eyeballs. We are first to market, a double-edged sword because we have to educate entrepreneurs on why they need our products to succeed. The four Cs in the social media strategy were timely and exposed our gaps. A social media strategy review led by our new marketing director at my request showed the glaring mistakes of not rebranding our social pages, a lack of consistency in communication and a missed opportunity leveraging our existing expert content to this community using social media. We have a newfound laser focus on delivering webinars with a sales call-to-action and using partners and Facebook ads for promotion. Simply put, the spotlight is now on building our community because 5 percent conversion of 100 leads is nothing compared to 5 percent of 100,000! 2. Brian Hoover with Inspire Fitness My first exposure to SUCCESS magazine was after I read the book, The Compound Effect, which started my journey toward creating my ultimate life. When I saw you were doing the Start Small Win Big contest, I leaped at the opportunity. The past two months have been so rewarding, not only to my business, Inspire Fitness, but also to me personally. Following each step created a clear picture that enabled me to set up systems and goals within my business that have been game-changing. Each step gave me the time and focus to strengthen that area of the business in order to lead us in the direction we want to go. Step 1 for me probably was the most difficult of all steps. It’s funny; you invest so much time and passion into your business, but when you are asked to explain it, you have such a hard time. When a future client walks in my door, I will describe Inspire as a result-driven facility that educates our clients on great nutrition and proper exercise to live their best life. But beyond that, I am still trying to refine my pitch. Step 2 was a lot easier, as I believe it is in line with my purpose: to create an environment to inspire everyone to live their ultimate life through great nutrition, exercise and a positive mindset. We really enjoyed Steps 3, 4 and 5—our strength behind the scenes at Inspire. Thanks to Darren and The Compound Effect, goal-setting changed my life, and we talk to our clients daily on setting and writing down goals. During these past two months, going through Step 3 caused us to get laser focused on our monthly goals, and we are happy to report we achieved those goals both months. Step 4 really helped us to set a time each month to sit down and go over our numbers to stay on track in order to maximize our profits. Step 5 is one of our strengths here at Inspire. I am constantly asking my clients for their opinion and feedback so we can build value in our brand. Having this step clearly defined enabled me to set aside one time a week when I will be asking our clients a question for their feedback. Step 6, systems, I believe is the reason why a business is successful or not. Having the opportunity to solely focus on our systems allowed us to refine our current system. We really streamlined our system, which created clarity not only for our staff but for our clients. Another game-changing moment! Steps 7 and 8 I really enjoyed, but, at the same time, they revealed some weak areas in our marketing. Facebook is our sweet spot where we have done a real nice job getting exposure. Being a business that needs to focus on our community, these steps created clarity for me that I need to focus more time on creating a bigger buzz within a 5-mile radius of our facility. The real eye-opener was that it caused me to take a step back and realize that I was working too much in the business and not enough time on the business. I cannot express the gratitude I have for SUCCESS magazine, Darren Hardy, JJ Ramberg and the Start Small Win Big contest. This contest could not have come at a better time for Inspire Fitness and me personally. There is still a lot of work to do, to build our brand to where we want it to go, but because of the eight steps clearly defined by this contest, it paints a clear roadmap for us to go reach our goals. The future is bright for Inspire, and you guys are a big reason why. Keep INSPIRING! 3. Stephen Del Castillo with Krav Maga Martial Arts I have learned so much through the Start Small Win Big Challenge that it is difficult to limit an essay to so many words. I will attempt to, as succinctly as possible, share some of the lessons that helped me most. One area where I made fundamental change based on information gained in The Challenge is social media. First, I have added a blog site onto my web page and started posting there instead of directly to Facebook and Twitter; people have already started to subscribe, and my information now lives in one place. Second, I will start contributing more meaningful posts. I have a lot of quality information to help people; I never stopped to think about it before, but that is what I need to share. Zig Ziglar said that the way to get anything you want in life is to help enough other people get what they want. I somehow never made the connection that the principle applies as much in social media as in the rest of life until I read about the “90/10 rule.” I commit to post nine informational and helpful blogs for every one commercial from here, forward. I believe that the systemization lesson will have the most profound impact on my business. This assignment was the wake-up call that will propel me to the next level. I know that one of the challenges I will have, as I am sure most entrepreneurs know, is making the time to actually stop and develop the systems to manage the business when I spend most of my time working in the business. I am also aware of the “E-Myth” idea that we should work on and not in it. I find myself very entrenched in mine, however, and I believe that for now I need to be. Fortunately, I’ve also recently read The Compound Effect, and I know that if I commit daily time to habits that support my goal, I will, over time, be quite successful. So I am committing one hour of every workday toward developing the systems that will help my business grow to new levels. In 2000, I wrote a vision statement to improve society one black belt at a time. I have since helped many black belts develop character, focus, leadership and other life skills that are serving them well in service around the globe. The variable that I want to change is quantity. Why not empower thousands of lives instead of hundreds? Why not millions? I will apply the lessons I have learned to develop the business, training and people systems to be able to do just that. I would love to get to talk to Darren Hardy and JJ Ramberg and be in SUCCESS; that’d be a great place to start! But, even if I don’t win this contest this time, I plan to be in SUCCESS magazine with my story when I finish! 4. Lisa Kendall with Kendall Farms The Start Small Win Big action plans were very beneficial to my small company. The eight steps helped me to work on key topics that in turn would allow us to grow. It helped me to stop and look at my business instead of going through each day putting out fires, spinning my wheels and just making it through each day, which is how it was most of the time. I felt things were getting out of control, and I know that many small businesses fail because of growing too fast—something I think about and don’t want to happen. While I have been very successful with my business, it has grown so fast that it is hard for me to keep up and harder to delegate duties that, at the time, would be easier to do myself instead of teaching someone else to do them (one of my biggest weaknesses). I was literally working myself to death. I have found a great office manager who I trust to literally do just that—manage the office. With her help, I have been able to increase business immensely in the last year. The step that was the hardest was Step 6. Growing from a one-woman company to a staff of four, it was important to have procedures and systems—something that hadn’t really been put in place, as we just did what it took to get things done. I realized how important it was to have procedures for each position and major tasks to provide a smooth-running company. I am a visionary and have the might and know-how to make those visions a reality; everyone in the company does not think the same (that is a good thing too). So we are working on it and are trying to get a few in place each week by making it a priority. I think procedures and systems will greatly help in keeping our growth going, and so will working together effectively. By taking part in the Start Small Win Big Challenge, I think we have reached many goals and set some, too. We, as a staff, talked about each of our own goals in the company. That helped us to brainstorm together and work together to reach the main goal—to be a successful small business that runs smoothly, or as smoothly as any small business can. Every day we learn something new, address a new issue as we grow and come up with new ideas. That is the fun part of being a small business. The Challenge was a great learning and growing experience. Of course I would like to win and be featured in my favorite magazine, but the knowledge that I gained by participating has been great. Thank you for being such a great resource for us as small-business owners. 5. Kimberly Henderson with Makikisart I have learned so much from this process. As an entrepreneur who has literally stumbled into my business as a full-time commitment over the last year, I am a perfect candidate for this program. While most of these steps are still theory for me, I am definitely receiving a valuable education through this process. My business does not fit the typical business plan template. There is very low overhead and a very high profit margin with a virtually unlimited market. After more than six years of switching majors [in school], I ended up feeding my social and artistic nature as a bartender—a job tending bar that also displayed my art at the restaurant in the local arts district. A whole new avenue opened up to me after I painted a set of wine glasses with the restaurant logo and put them on display. My custom glassware business grew, and once I started my Facebook fan page and discovered a whole new world to socialize and network in, my business took off. I now ship worldwide and have to turn away more business than I can accept—while also juggling my full-time job as a mother to my 6-year-old and 4-year-old. I am new to this whole world of business and am learning as I go. I have no capital to invest. I purchase supplies for individual orders as I finish previous orders. I am in the process of switching to a blog with the help of a contact I made through Facebook. I know nothing about graphics or computers. This pursuit was to help stabilize income. I now know the potential this business offers and plan to achieve as much success as possible. The steps I have learned from this process are so valuable. Steps 1, 2, 3 and 5 were pretty simple for me. My biggest obstacle is definitely Step 4; I have no finances to invest to speed up productivity. As for Step 6, I do plan to practice it once I have expanded. Steps 7 and 8 are the most relevant to me at the stage I am at. Networking and learning who to focus on and who not to focus on have made such an impact. I have no problems finding and attracting business—it is time management, productivity and operation facility I struggle with. I am so appreciative of everything I have learned and would love to speed up this process of continuing a successful and expanding business through any additional aid you offer. Thank you so much. “Like” your favorite on SUCCESS magazine’s Facebook page!