A Sharp Focus on Fuzzy Thinking

If your startup is to succeed, you'll need a rational business plan -- not a grab bag of dreams and half-formed ideas

By Karen E. Klein

Q: We are a fledgling business consultancy trying to find our niche. We prepare business plans, write proposals, assist recording artists and actors with PR and industry agreements, outsource registration, and licensing for insurance and securities brokers, and prepare trademark and copyright applications. We're working on our Web site and media kit. We've got one client, but we're stuck. How do we pinpoint where to market our services -- and to whom? -- R.M.S., Atlanta


You're looking for marketing help, but it sounds like what you've got is a business-planning consultancy that hasn't done its own planning! Your business plan (assuming you have one) should include a very specific description of your target market, your industry niche, how you'll reach it with your message, and how you can stand out from your competitors. If you haven't figured all that out long before you opened your doors, how can you advise clients who have the same questions? Not doing your own homework means you've set yourselves up with a serious credibility gap.

Experts suggest that you back up, find a focus, figure out who the ideal customers for your business will be, and then write a marketing plan that outlines the strategies you'll use to reach them. All that should be in place before you start drumming up clients.


  The core problem may be that you're trying to be too many things for too many people. The services you're offering are all over the map, from legal work to business consulting to public relations to insurance outsourcing. You're using a scattershot approach when what you need -- especially as you get off the ground -- is a narrow focus with a very defined "target clientele."

As you begin to acquire clients who are pleased with your core expertise, you can let them know you have the capacity to handle additional tasks in related areas. But it's far too difficult and confusing for you to market your services on all the levels you're currently working from. Your company will not be able to coalesce around a finite group of goals with so many balls in the air.

Decide what you really want to do. Is it representing recording artists and actors -- handling publicity and business agreements for them? Research this niche and find the other firms in your area that offer these services, how they market themselves, what they're charging, and how they find clients.

Are there firms that straddle the music and the acting industries -- or are the fields more specialized? Are you going to be geographically disadvantaged if you're not located in Hollywood, or perhaps Nashville? Isn't generating publicity likely to require completely different expertise than negotiating record agreements and creative contracts?


  Maybe one of your other areas of expertise would hold more promise, given your locale. Are there large insurance agencies nearby that are looking to outsource? Is there a growing group of would-be entrepreneurs with the money to use your business-planning services? Before you can figure out how to reach your target clients, you have to define who they are and why they would want to hire you. Instead of concentrating on your services, find out what marketplace needs are not being met, then tailor your company to meet them: That's business-planning 101.

Once you've got your company's focus firmly set, then you can market your services effectively. Write a marketing plan that defines the best avenues for reaching your target customers, then assign a reasonable budget to your efforts. Marketing should be a consistent part of your company's work: Don't make the mistake of marketing only when you're hurting for customers, or when cash flow is tight.

Gene Fairbrother, president of MBA Consulting in Coppell, Tex., tells his small-business clients to spend at least 20% of their working hours on marketing -- and not just during slow times. "Look for new business continuously and make sure existing customers are satisfied," he says. "It can take three months or more to generate revenues from marketing, so if you need more business to pay bills that are coming due in the next 30 days, you'll already be two months behind if you're not marketing consistently."

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