By Janet W Christy
As a home-based woman business owner, you should be plotting your strategy to take advantage of the increasing focus on the use of Woman Owned Businesses by government agencies, education institutions and commercial businesses.
“The good news is that this is probably the best time ever to be a Woman Owned Business (WOB). The bad news is that there are still No Free Lunches … or Rides … or Money!”
This is the opening from my book, Capitalizing On Being Woman Owned: Expert Advice for Women Who Have or Are Starting Their Own Business. It is also what I tell all my clients, workshop attendees, and anyone else I can corner. This growing awareness is somewhat like a wave and if you don’t catch this wave you will miss the opportunity. This wave, or trend, is especially beneficial to home-based WOBs because it elevates you to a status more equal to that of your larger competitors.
Here is an example to illustrate how important it is to “catch the wave.” When I was in elementary school, we had Student Patrol Guards that helped at the cross walks and kept order at the school entrances. Only the seventh graders could be Patrol Guards. All through the sixth grade, I looked forward to the time when I would be chosen to be a Patrol Guard when I reached the seventh grade. But I was never chosen to be a Patrol Guard. I had never been in trouble, my grades were good, teachers liked me — I had no idea why I was not chosen. Finally about three weeks before the end of school, I mentioned to my teacher that I had hoped to be a Patrol Guard and did she know why I had not been chosen. The next day, the Principal caught me in the hall and said, “Janet, I didn’t know you wanted to be a Patrol Guard. I would have made you one much earlier in the year if I had known.” Then she told me that I could be the Patrol Guard at the main entrance for the rest of the year. I spent all that time wondering why I wasn’t chosen, when all I had to do was ask. Many business owners, especially women, wait for the opportunity to come to them. You must let businesses, government agencies, and schools know you exist and that you have something they need – product, service, woman-owned status.
In order to capitalize on being woman owned, it is crucial that you develop a strategy or plan for using your WOB status to your advantage.
Capitalize on Being Women-Owned
The following six principles will help you get started on a strategy to capitalize on your women-owned business status. Work these into your marketing and business plans:
1. Marketing and Selling Are About Angles
To successfully market your business, you must find the best angle for a situation and use it effectively. As a Woman Owned Business, you have a built-in angle — the fact that you are woman owned. This angle can be used very effectively if you understand how to leverage it with your existing and potential clients/customers. You must decide when being woman owned is:
*An advantage – a prospect needs you to meet a goal or contract obligation.
*An obstacle – a prospect doesn’t think a woman is capable of providing a specific product/service.
*A cultural preference – a prospect is more comfortable using a WOB for a specific product/service.
*Immaterial – a prospect doesn’t care, you need to find another angle to make your business stand out.
2. Clarify Your Business
In order to productively use the Woman Owned Business angle (or any other marketing angle), you must clarify your business. You need to be sure you have refined your:
*Products and/or Services – be sure you don’t have too many items on your menu, that you can explain/describe each one and that they fit into your overall Business Plan.
*Territory – know the geographic area you can profitably serve.
*Prospects – no matter how passionate you are about your products or services, everyone is not a prospect.
3. You Cannot Know Too Much About Your Customers/Clients
People still do business with people. When I talk to business and government purchasers, the most common complaint is that vendors “know nothing about us.” They say that vendors try to sell them products or services, but have no idea how it fits into the operation of the business, school or agency. Purchasers also criticize vendors for not following directions and processes. You will only know these things if you do the necessary research. If you take the time to learn more about your prospects and clients, you will not waste their time or embarrass yourself — either of which could kill your chances.
The more you know about your customers/clients and prospects, the more personalized you can make your sales and marketing efforts. The smaller the business is the greater the need to personalize the efforts. Knowing your existing and potential customers/clients will help you understand their needs and perceptions and how those relate to the service and/or product you offer. This knowledge will assist you in knowing how to use your woman-owned status to your advantage. It will also help you deal with situations where being woman-owned could be a liability. Some of the tactics for gaining knowledge about existing and prospective customers/clients that I recommend to my clients and in my workshop and book are:
*Use their website — read the press releases, bios, history and client list;
*Watch for information about them in the newspaper and local publications;
*Actually read their brochures;
*Research their clients/customers; and
*Visit their shop/store if they have one.
4. Buyers Need Woman Owned Businesses
Government agencies, education institutions, and businesses of all types and sizes have determined that there are genuine benefits to using Woman Owned companies, in other words—they need you. This realization manifests itself in a Supplier or Vendor Diversity Policy or Program. Each type of customer/client has its own requirements and methods when it comes to purchasing diversity. The first step in your research is to determine if your prospect or customer/client has a policy for purchasing diversity. If so, they should move to the top of your list. If they are a valid prospect or a current customer/client, you then need to determine what their specific vendor requirements are and be sure that you meet those requirements. Many requirements are typical for business, government and education; some of these requirements are:
*Vendors need to be certified as a Woman Owned Business (see Certification section of this article for additional information)
*Vendors should fill out a vendor registration form before being considered for any opportunity – most businesses and many government and education entities make registration available online
*Vendors should be prepared to show that they are qualified – have proper equipment, credentials, people, experience, etc.
5. Finding the Right Help is A Confusing and Frustrating Process
There are so many resources, programs, and certifications available to Woman Owned Businesses that it can be overwhelming and bewildering. Because Supplier/Vendor diversity has become so important, there are programs, guides, classes, certifications, workshops, and websites presented by state governments, municipalities, economic development organizations, colleges, chambers of commerce, and non-profit organizations. It is much like a person fresh off a diet in a bakery that also serves ice cream; everything looks great, but how do you choose — you will likely end up with a headache from the stress of choosing or a stomach ache from choosing too much, or both. This abundance of help points back to principles two and three — you must clarify your business and know your customers/clients (existing and potential). Here are some suggestions to help you find the specific assistance you need:
*Refine your needs list – I often find that business owners do not recognize the answer because they have not clarified the question.
*Ask successful business owners where they found assistance – in addition to identifying the right source for assistance, you might also find a mentor.
*Do not expect the answer to jump off the page or website – most government agencies, development programs, and resource centers have to serve everyone and therefore are more often than not generic.
*If you expect to be spoon fed, you might rethink this entrepreneurship thing.
*Ask and persevere – if you don’t find what you need ask someone, if they don’t know ask someone else, keep asking until you find it. The need will likely not go away and will probably fester.
6. There are No Magic Marketing Formulas!
Unfortunately, you cannot wave a magic wand, or a marketing plan, over the phone and make prospects call. It takes work to market a business. Having a plan and implementing that plan are essential to the success of a business. The plan must be customized for your individual business and your prospects. It should include ways to leverage the best angle or angles, particularly that of being woman-owned.
Certification for Being Women-Owned
In addition to these six principles, there is another essential factor to capitalizing on being woman owned — Certification. Many businesses and virtually all government/education entities require that a Woman Owned Business be certified if it is to qualify for Vendor/Supplier Diversity opportunities. There is not a one-size fits all Certification — the one that best fits your business depends on your:
*Marketing Plan (determined by your clarifying and research efforts)
Certification can provide you the following:
*Competitive advantage if everything else is equal;
*Increased opportunities as subcontractors, especially on government projects;
*Authorization to bid on projects only available to woman-owned businesses — sometimes the projects are available to any Small Business, but the business, agency or school has a goal to spend a specific percentage of their budget with women owned businesses, so you could have an edge;
*Opportunity for development programs only available to women business owners — primarily through Women’s Business Centers sponsored by the SBA (Small Business Administration); and
*Elimination of any concern by prospects about the validity of your claim of woman-owned status.
There are many certifications available to Woman Owned Businesses — some are just for WOBs, some are for any Minority Owned Business, and some are for “disadvantaged” businesses. Here are some of the entities that offer them:
*Local government (municipalities, counties, school districts)
*Federal and State DOT (Department of Transportation) – These certifications are for “disadvantaged” businesses, gender can be part of the “disadvantage.”
These are some of the commonalities of any type of Woman Owned Certification:
*Must be 51% or more owned by a woman or women
*Must be managed by a woman or women. You have to write the checks, negotiate the contracts, and be involved day-to-day.
*Must be qualified to conduct the business you are in. If you try to get certified as a woman-owned architectural firm, you better have an architect’s license.
For Practical Guidance
In working with women business owners individually and in workshops for the last four years, I developed practical information to help Woman Business Owners use their status to their advantage. My book, Capitalizing On Being Woman Owned, compiles that information into an easy to use guide that:
*Provides step-by-step direction in leveraging the built-in angle of being Woman Owned;
*Includes a diagram that walks you through a process for qualifying prospects;
*Offers research and analysis tools that help you identify the buyers that need you;
*Provides explanations and interpretations to assist you in making the right choices from the overwhelming menu of resources; and
*Supplies information and guidance to help you accomplish the customization of a marketing plan and its effective implementation. HBM
Janet Christy has spent the majority of her professional career in marketing, sales and public relations positions. Today she uses that experience to help Small, Woman and Minority Owned Businesses maximize and profit from their opportunities. She also works with government agencies on development programs and services for entrepreneurs. In 2003 Janet formed Leverage & Development, LLC, a consulting firm focused on helping Small and Woman/Minority Owned businesses and government/education entities. The firm’s services include marketing research and planning, certification assistance and sales guidance.
Demystifying the Magic
*Magic Formula: Women Owned Businesses get contracts and orders just because they are women.
*Reality: Being woman owned can provide a competitive edge, open a door, or help you make the short list, but the contract or order will come because you are qualified and capable.
*Magic Formula: Get certified as a Woman Owned Business, and the phone calls and emails will come rolling in.
*Reality: Certification is an important, sometimes necessary step, but you still must market your business. They need you, but they won’t know about you unless you tell them.
*Magic Formula: If you read enough books on marketing and selling, you will be successful.
*Reality: There are no magic marketing formulas. Marketing and selling take work; good research and planning make that work easier. The books are helpful only if you put the advice into practice.
*Magic Formula: Tell the government that you are a woman that is starting or has a business, and they will give you grant money.
*Reality: The government almost always invests their money in “centers” and “programs,” not individual businesses. They feel that they can serve more people this way.
*Magic Formula: Join several women’s business networking groups, and the sales will roll in.
*Reality: Networking groups are fine but not sufficient. Sometimes, women only market to other women because it’s more comfortable, but that could cause you to miss a lot of opportunities.