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EP Experts

Ask the EP Experts

Jeff Zbar
Wondering how to make it as an EP Dad? Ask Jeff, author of Home Office Know-How, for help!
 Home Office Know-How

 EP Work-At-Home Dad Q&As

Q. I have an idea for a great new baby product. I've done a preliminary patent search at the University of Washington patent depository library, made preliminary drawings, and am currently working on a prototype. I've spoken with many moms who think my idea is clever and practical. It is something I wouldn't be able to manufacture on my own. I need to know when and if I need a patent and how I go about finding a manufacturer. Then what's after that? I've read several library books and am still unclear if the path I'm leaning toward is the right one! Please help.
A. Congratulations on coming up with a promising new product. To find out if you're on the right path in patenting your product, try The U.S Patent and Trademark Office, which offers a wealth of resources for fun and profit.
Good Luck, Happy New Year & Keep Goin' SOHO!

Q. Hi, I have a home-based graphic design business. I work with other SOHO businesses in creating graphics (like T-shirts and premiums designs) as
well as several newsletters, brochure designs, logo designs, etc.

The problem is that I live on an Air Force Base, and my office can not be visited by off-base people very easily. Part of my customer service is that I always meet my customers at THEIR location, which means that I spend a great deal of time driving all over the place. This is really starting to wear me out, as well as eat up all the time I have to get my actual work done.
Do you have a solution? I thought about a drop-off box somewhere...but I don't really know where. Some of my clients work with me after their regular job, which means I need some way to get their work "after-hours." Any solutions?
Tammy S. (Tammy's Typesetting and Graphics)
A. Tammy,
Interesting dilemma, and one that I'm sure is not unique to people who live or work on military bases. Here's a few possible solutions:
  • Arrange to meet off peak hours at a local hotel or restaurant, an executive suite center (call the Executive Suite Association in Columbus, Ohio, 800-237-4741 to get a list) or other location to make it convenient for both of you. If you time it right, the hotel or restaurant will be quiet enough for you to work. If you choose to go the executive suite route, you'll have to pay for use (usually available on an hourly, daily, weekly or monthly rate).
  • Meet at the office of a friend - some place that's central to both of you. It will give a professional feeling that will enable you to get business done.
  • Tap services like HotOffice Technologies or Same-Page to share content and collaborate online.
  • If you want to go the high-tech route (and within a few short years, we'll all be going this route), get hooked up with video conferencing software on your PC. Of course, this requires your client to make a similar investment (often less than $150 - and a high-speed Internet connection).
Good luck with your endeavor, and as always, Keep Goin' SOHO!
Q..Do you know if there are any database software packages out there that will list, keep track of your ideas, allow you to say "what if," and also will combine your ideas to come up with a totally new idea? Also I need a package that allows you to see if a particular idea or business venture is feasible and will be profitable or not by allowing you to just plug in the numbers. I am looking for some general indicator. I know nothing could be 100% accurate, but before I invest any money I'd like to know somewhat what kind of financial risk I'm taking. Any ideas?
A. I don't know of any software that does exactly what you're seeking, but there is something better: mentors, mastermind or brainstorming groups.
Since small-business owners wear many hats to grow their businesses, they must seek guidance, education, inspiration and business leads from a variety of sources. Mentors are current or former executives, trainers or coaches skilled in the areas you seek. From local symposiums or workshops, to networking and business card exchanges, the local chamber of commerce, or even recurring meetings among a select group of peers, or a MasterMind group, ideas get bounced around.
The need to learn and experience new ideas is especially keen for small businesses that don't have corporate dwellers to mingle and share ideas with, says Bernard Pelavin, a manager with SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Entrepreneurs may read business magazines or browse
Web sites for ideas, but attending seminars or networking groups can help foster ideas and new thinking that the person likely won't discover alone, he said.
"When you're an entrepreneur, you have to be ahead of the pack, and networking or meeting with other entrepreneurs is a great way to go," said Pelavin, whose organization often hosts or presents at free or inexpensive small business seminars. "With so many people working on their own, it's more important than ever."
Maybe hit some of the educational options available. State
University Extension Service and Small Business Development centers offer recurring programs on small business. The Small Business Development Center at Florida Atlantic University hosts seminars and workshops almost daily, said Teri Takahashi, program coordinator with the organization. And a
variety of companies hold frequent for-fee seminars on business or organizational skills.
If you want to build a powerful brainstorming or mastermind group to help you share ideas in a creative and confidential environment, follow these tips:
  • Find up to a half-dozen peers in non-competing fields whom you believe are creative, thoughtful and inspiring. Keep it small; large groups can lose focus and intimacy.
  • Try to establish a regular day and time each month to hold the meeting. If the meetings become too infrequent, their importance and success may be lost. The location can vary to stimulate creativity.
  • Be prepared. Since members each get time to discuss their issues, bring a list of topics you need to cover. Maybe include creativity games to foster thought.
  • Act. Once you leave, put your new ideas into action. Then report on your success the next time the group meets.
Keep Goin' SOHO!

 Q. Hello. I'm contemplating starting a small writing business in my suburban New Jersey town called "Gotta Write That Letter," and need advice regarding pricing for my services. The idea would be to write letters, business memos, child-care provider contracts, etc. for those non-writers who freeze before a blank page.

I know of a woman in New York who had a similar business, charging anywhere from $100 to $500 for a simple letter. Somehow, I don't think that'll fly here in the 'burbs. Yet, I don't want to undervalue my services either.
Any guidance on pricing
(per page? per hour?) would be most appreciated!
A. As you well know, contracts and business correspondence are important to any enterprise. They help present an organization in a professional, intelligent light, and when done well, reflect favorably on the writer. Therefore, the value you bring to the table with your services will determine how much you should charge.
That said, here's a few guidelines to follow:
  • Market conditions. What are others in your market getting for business letters, memos, child-care provider and other contracts, etc.? Writer's Market recommends the $100 to $500 a letter range. But consider your market. A professional writer in a competitive market like New York City dealing with large clients might be able to approach the $500 rate. Someone in the 'burbs might not top $100. That leaves the 'tweens. I work in South Florida, and typically charge between $125 and $175 a double-spaced page, depending on the complexity of the project, the research involved, or the number of client meetings or discussions required. Sometimes more, rarely less.
  • Your experience. If you have the credentials, the clips and are confident you can deliver a hard-hitting letter that will drive home your clients' points, then shoot higher and stand by your quotes. There's no better feeling than when a client has to pause to consider your quote, then agrees (as opposed to having a client say OK the moment a low-bid leaves your lips. Then you know you could've gotten more). Just be reasonable in your expectations.
  • Your clients. A start-up, home-based day care provider can't afford to pay what an established center in a retail mall location can. To some extent, bill accordingly. As that smaller client grows, your billings can grow with them.
  • Don't work by the hour. If you're good, you'll find you are capable of knocking out good letters quickly, and you'll end up getting a fraction of the above-mentioned per-letter rates. Also, charging by the hour invites clients' questions about how long it really took you to write something. I never, repeat NEVER charge by the hour.

Remember the value you bring to the equation. Like you said, many non-writers freeze when faced with a blank screen or page. To them, writing might as well be rocket science. You are the rocket scientist. Billings are more a reflection of your experience and quality, as well as the value (perceived and real) that you bring to the client. Be professional. Be fair. Strive to get what you believe you're due.
Good luck in your new enterprise.

Q. Hello -- I think I signed up with EP a few weeks ago, and I've had a few ideas but I've yet to come up with a business. Well, one idea entertains
me but I'm not sure if it will lead to profits. (Is that pretty common for people?)

We bought a small acreage a year ago and I recently finished refurbishing the chicken coop and bought 20 broilers to raise for our own butchering, plus I'm getting hens this week for eggs. I began to think, well, maybe I could raise more to sell! but I really don't know who would
buy them. The lady at the hatchery wasn't very supportive, I've neverraised chickens before and I guess she thought I was ignorant. My husband and I are also working on fencing an area to raise a few sheep for pleasure, but maybe that could be more too.
I guess I'm afraid of LOSING MONEY as we can't spare a dime to lose. I'm apprehensive because I've heard most small businesses fail within a year.
How do you find your target market? We live 9 miles from the hometown (pop. 2000) and 20 miles from the metro area (pop. 50,000). Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Thank you for your time,
Kathie Cunningham

A. Kathie,

As a suburban boy who summered in what once was Denver's rural outpost called Parker (it's now part of a sprawling suburban mecca itself), I know little about chickens and eggs (except how I like them cooked). But marketing is marketing, and it's the same - relatively speaking - for fowl as it is for automobiles. Define your product, find your market, create your message, and get it out there.
That said, let's look at your situation. (For those of you who write articles, build kids' furniture, paint bedrooms, or provide any other product or services, keep reading. Replace "chickens and eggs" with your widget, and get your mind flowing...) You live in a rural area, are hoping to raise broilers and eggs for yourself and for sale. Know that this will not be easy. People usually find food staples like these early on when they move to a community, and they're hard pressed to change providers. You have to MAKE them want to change.
REALITY CHECK: The first 18 months are the hardest. If you're looking to NOT lose any money, you might have a difficult time of it. For any enterprise, the honeymoon period lies within the first two years. You're getting your feet week coming to understand your product, your market and how the two fit (if at all). Expect to dig into savings somewhat to make this bird fly, so to speak.
1. What is your product? The short answer is fowl. Chicken and eggs. The easy answer would be to market it to locals as their source for "The best broilers this side of XX." You need to define your unique selling proposition (USP), that is, what sets you apart from the competition, and capitalize on it. It could be that, unlike many large companies that sell poultry and dairy products, you and your husband (kids, too?) are not faceless corporate entities. Capitalize on this. Create a logo with a drawing or charicature of your family, and use the tagline, "Our eggs have a face on them", or something to that effect, which ties your family to your product. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
2. Who is your audience? Coming so late onto the scene, I'm certain your neighbors already have their resources for chicken products. That's not to say you can't endear yourself to them and make them want to buy from you. We often buy from specific companies because we like the people, not necessarily because their products are better or cheaper. Get to know the
local grocer.
3. Using that USP, Create your message and market what you do. Come up with a cute name for the company. Create signs, T-shirts and car decals emblazoned with it. Next Easter, hold the "Clucker's Chicken Ranch" (insert the name you create) Easter Egg Hunt. Have egg dyeing contests, invite the county kids. Serve food and drink. Get your PR machine rolling by sending out pictures of the hens hard at work pumping out the eggs for the little ones to enjoy. Can you write a press release? You'd better learn how, or expect to pay or barter for the service. Ditto with "pitching" your product to the local or regional media.
What all this boils down to is marketing and positioning yourself and your business for success. Learn to marketing your company, and success could beyours.
Keep Goin' SOHO!

 Q. I am an insurance agent turned financial planner. After much market research, I have concluded that most of the median income earners have no money or are pretty unwilling to pay for a financial planning service. They are currently 80% of my client base. I need to approach the affluent market (eg. business
owners, top executives, etc.), but I don't know how & where to find them. My 20% affluent clients are not forthcoming in referring me to their peers & associates.

What kind of low-cost marketing tactics can I apply to reach them effectively? I will also need to follow up on them to ensure a better hit-rate. Do I call them on the phone? How do I get past the secretary?
Right now I don't charge a fee for the planning work but I get paid if they buy a product through me. And at the moment it is just insurance based products (possibly with investments, like mutual funds as well in the near future). How can I market my service to this affluent niche market effectively? Would you recommend that I hire someone to do administration and marketing while I concentrate on prospecting and presentations?
A. Prospecting among an affluent market is a difficult task, for a number of reasons. While they all may realize they need your services, many are reluctant to open their doors. But here's a couple of ways to get in:
  • Before you make your first move, be prepared. Create an attractive and professional brochure (the more professional it looks, the more professional you'll appear). Be prepared to direct mail and hand it out with reckless abandon. Also have a couple of references lined up. Affluents gain confidence hearing references from others in their set. Maybe get a Rolodex card printed -- with "Financial Services" or your company name on
    the raised tab. True, many affluents are heading away from paper and going for personal digital assistants. But that's not happened yet.
  • Consider getting a Web site so people can go online and see what you're all about. It doesn't have to be expensive, and prices are dropping for everything from creation to hosting. You're likely to find a Web master who works from home and has low overhead.
  • Get yourself invited to an affluent friend's Holiday party (or other party). Don't go there with a stack of business cards to hand out; your friend may get upset if you aggressively prospect at their friendly get together). Instead, just network. Work the room. Break down barriers and build bridges. One of two things will happen. You'll either be asked for a b-card, which in that instance is OK to hand out. Or you'll get someone's name, and then ask your friend for their telephone number (or do a little
    searching yourself in the phone book or Internet, so not as to put your friend in an awkward situation).
  • Attend or join a networking group. These groups gather to pass along referrals. They often allow only one person from a given industry, so you might have to scout around for a group with a vacancy. Alternatively, read the Monday business section of your local paper and find out where and when meetings are being held among a potential client base (networking groups, professionals and executives, etc.) Just make sure they welcome guests.
  • You mentioned follow-up. This is a MUST. Without follow-up, your efforts are worthless. Call on people to see if they received your information, if they have any questions, if you can schedule a meeting or send them anything more. Don't be too aggressive. Just let them know you're there. If they turn you down, leave the door open; tell them you'll call them down the road, in case their needs change.
As for hiring an administrative assistant...Get the work before you pay any additional costs, like salaries or an ad agency. As a solo flyer, you need to build your business with your two hands. That may mean waking early to prepare for the day, spending the day prospecting, and spending the evening doing paperwork.
Certainly, it's a good idea to outsource those things that someone else can do better and more cheaply. Marketing may be such a task. In fact, find a home-based marketer who might be willing to barter services. You can do the same with a home-based secretarial or administrative service. Once your business grows, then consider hiring these people as needed. Just be wary early on of taking on too much overhead.
Good luck, and Keep Goin' SOHO!


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