Q: I am an artist who makes and sells promotional items such as pink ribbon scarves and key rings to raise awareness of breast cancer. I donate some profits to Gilda's Club and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. I'm thinking of trying direct marketing or QVC. What else can I do to boost business? — Anna Aizic
A: You deserve a pat on the back for supporting those causes. But you may be able to increase donations and business by forming an official partnership with one of them, says John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing, a small business marketing consultant in Kansas City, Mo. Partnerships will lend legitimacy to your business when approaching retailers or starting a direct selling campaign. They will also raise your profile among people in tune with your cause, including donors, volunteers, and board members.
Start close to home. A relationship with the executive director of the local branch of one of these groups might lead to a booth at a fund-raising event, and so on. "It's a great way to get buzz going," says Jantsch. Build relationships with other vendors, especially during October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This might include joint promotions with retailers that cater to female shoppers. Find out which local reporters cover health issues, and send them product samples. If you have a larger budget, consider hiring a direct marketer. Contact the Direct Marketing Assn. (the-dma.org) to find list brokers who, for a fee, can tap their databases to find people that donate to charities or buy similar items.These efforts might bring better results than appearing on QVC or the Home Shopping Network. Those are great ways to make a large audience aware of your brand, but they often don't generate much profit for small companies, says Tony Brown, a counselor with the Orange County (Calif.) chapter of the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Margins are tight, and sales generally are on consignment. Says Brown: "There's added risk there for the entrepreneur."
Q: We'd like to start a small business that we can pass on to our son, who has a developmental disability. I tried working in real estate, thinking I can bring him in to use the computer and do paperwork, but that business needs exceptional people skills, so it didn't work. Any ideas? — Name withheld
A: First, decide whether you want to launch a business to employ your son or to help your son become a business owner in his own right. Business ownership can be a successful route to building independence and generating income for people with disabilities. But it isn't for everyone. To determine the best fit for you and your family, consider working with a consultant such as Middletown (Ohio)-based Griffin-Hammis Associates, which advises people with disabilities in different employment situations, including self-employment. The Job Accommodation Network, sponsored by the Labor Dept., also provides information on employment options.
If you want to help your son become an entrepreneur, first assess his skills, interests, support needs, and the availability of funding. Then look for niches where a business might flourish. Other resources include Start-Up/USA, which links entrepreneurs with disabilities with others who have started similar businesses, and the Abilities Fund, a national, nonprofit microlender and business developer that specializes in the disability community. Local lending institutions also often allot resources for people with disabilities. Field, a project of the Aspen Institute, offers a detailed list of microlenders and their lending parameters on its Web site, fieldus.org/ publications.directory.asp.
Finally, don't get discouraged.Starting a business is incredibly hard work, disability or no. "People frequently ask me to match up a disability with a business and want me to tell them what succeeds and what fails," says Patti Lind, executive director of the Abilities Fund. "But it doesn't have anything to do with the disability. The business that fails is the bad idea."