Resources to Help You Start and Run a Successful Bakery

bakery business resourcesThis article is part of our Bakery Business Startup Guide—a curated list of articles to help you plan, start, and grow your bakery business!

If you’re starting or running a bakery, you have a practically endless array of resources right at your fingertips. To give you a head start, here are some of our favorite sources. So, whether you’re yearning to open your own micro-bakery, or become a chocolate artisan, we’re willing to bet there’s something here for you.

Have your own favorite resources to share? Let us know on Twitter!

Listen and watch

Dessert Network on YouTube

This YouTube channel is a great resource if you’re looking for tutorials on baking and decorating. You’ll learn some handy techniques so that when you finally get down to baking and decorating, you’ll be a pro!

Gretchen’s Bakery

Gretchen Price is a professional pastry chef with over 20 years of experience in the baking industry. Her YouTube channel is packed full of recipes and step-by-step baking tutorials. To get you started, here is a great playlist of how-to videos.
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Connect

International Dairy Deli Bakery Association

Begun in 1987, this international nonprofit association is a one-stop-shop for anyone interested in the baking industry.

Whether you’re looking for networking opportunities, learning resources, or a way to take part in public policy advocacy, it’s worth spending some time getting to know the site.

The American Society of Baking

The ASB is a professional industry association dedicated to helping people in the baking industry connect and network.

From bakery business owners and the bakers themselves, to those involved in baking technology, this is a useful place to network no matter what stage of business you’re in. Be sure to check out their list of national associations and resources.

Learn from the experts

Jessica Pedemont, the chocolate artisan

Jessica Pedemont is not just a chocolate artisan and a professional baker, but also a fantastic resource for bakers worldwide. Particularly interesting resources include cooking show episodes focusing on where to find the best ingredients, and some great baking recipes.

The Kitchn Baking School

If you’re interested in educational resources that will help you sharpen your baking skills, renowned food website The Kitchn has a 20-day, free course that serves as a sort of online baking school—recipes and homework assignments included! You can access the course assignments at any time, to fit your schedule. 

The BabyCakes story

New York Magazine published this fascinating case study of a New York City bakery called BabyCakes, owned by Erin McKenna.

What makes it so useful? Well, Erin hasn’t held back on the finer details. You can find out more about how she got started without a bank loan or much money.

BBC program on micro-bakeries

If you’re interested in getting your start in your kitchen, this program and the accompanying how-to steps will be very informative.

Do you have any of your own favorite resources? We’d love to know! Be sure to connect with us on Twitter and share your ideas. 

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Angelique O'Rourke

Artistic + intellectual pursuits. Social justice. Actress. Model. Musician. Eugene // Portland.



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How to Reduce Shrinkage: Loss Prevention for Small Businesses

loss prevention small business

Shrinkage—or loss of inventory due to employee theft, error, shoplifting, or fraud—is an issue no small business owner can afford to ignore.

In fact, a 2018 survey from The National Retail Federation found that shrinkage accounts for 1.33 percent of retail losses every year. It might not sound like much, but all together, it accounts for a whopping 46.8 billion dollar loss across the retail industry annually. 

These statistics aren’t meant to scare you, but to shed light on an issue that’s been plaguing small business owners for decades. Here are some simple steps you can take to prevent retail inventory shrinkage from putting a dent in your business’s bottom line.

1. Hire carefully

There’s no getting around it—the idea of retail work doesn’t shine with the same luster it did in its glory years. Once lauded as a highly sought-after profession, retail work has become dogged by tales of long hours, rude customers, and low wages. 

Yet with 4.6 million Americans working in retail salesthe business is not as much of a bust as some would lead us to believe. But a job market that’s on the upswing also means job-seekers can afford to be choosier, which is one of the reasons why there is high employee turnover in the retail industry. 

This alone can make it tough to find trustworthy and capable staff. It can be hard to carve out the time to do background checks and make reference calls. But the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’re entrusting your life’s work to capable workers may very well save you money on training and lost customers over time. 

While you can’t insure your employees will never catch a customer having a bad day, you can make your small business one your employees are proud to be a part of. 

Forbes reports that 70 percent of retail employees are “actively disengaged,” which is a huge problem in an industry where your floor staff’s product knowledge and enthusiasm can make or break the customer experience. 

Invest in training and make sure your employees are as passionate about your small business as you are, so they will want to stick around for the long haul–– reducing the need for short-term or part-time employees who don’t have time to familiarize themselves with your inventory.

2. Crack down on theft

Even if you’re sure you’ve got the right people, you still need to be on the lookout for internal theft– especially with newer workers who haven’t been on your payroll very long. American businesses lose an estimated 5 percent of their annual revenue to employee theft each year, and Forbes contributor Ivy Walker says small businesses are most at-risk.

“Small business owners often have a false sense of security about their insider threat risk,” she says, mostly because they feel they know their employees well enough to give them their full trust.

Establishing a clear no-tolerance policy (and putting it in writing for all your workers) is a solid way to gently inform new staff that employee theft is constantly on your radar.

Shoplifting and organized retail crime are also a major culprit of retail shrink due to external theft, so place security cameras in high traffic areas—like the cash register, entrance and exit, and outside of fitting rooms. 

Make them clearly visible, and alert shoppers they are being monitored with easy-to-spot signage. Even something as simple as a mirror can help thwart a would-be customer theftIt’s easy to install and provides a fairly cheap and effective way to let customers know they’re being “watched”—making them less likely to steal. 

3. Rethink your store layout

An aesthetically-pleasing store layout seems like small business 101, and it’s a well-known fact that an eye-catching window display and product layout can help drum up business and keep people coming back. What you may not know, however, is that the layout of your store can play a key role in loss prevention.

A free-flow layout is ideal for if you are aiming for an upscale feel with maximum visibility to prevent shrinkage. A free-flow layout can also create open sight lines throughout your shop—drawing customers’ eyes to specialty items and displays while allowing your workers to discreetly keep an eye on their surroundings.

The placement of your checkout is also critical in preventing retail theft. Smaller, less expensive items are easy to steal and can be a costly way to lose inventory. Placing those impulse items by the counter makes them tougher to swipe. 

Even the position of the cash register can deter potential thieves. A checkout near your store’s entrance can reduce theft and provide a straight line-of-sight to the door for employees.

4. Be proactive about fraud prevention

For better or for worse, paying with cash is quickly becoming a thing of the past. A 2018 survey by payment processor TYS found that a mere 14 percent of consumers preferred making their purchases with cash, while debit cards are actually quickly becoming the preferred method of payment for the average convenience-seeking shopper.

With more payments being processed virtually, it’s becoming easier than ever for scammers to get away with millions a year in retail theft. The idea of monitoring your customers’ every virtual move may seem daunting—especially on top of all the other duties a small business owner shoulders daily. Thankfully, there are companies that exist solely to take that burden off of your shoulders.

Since there are multiple types of retail fraud to be aware of, you should train your staff to be vigilant about fraud-prevention practices. It’s also important to encourage and incentivize them to speak up if they see something out of the ordinary. Payment Depot argues that “empowering (your associates) to use the correct practices and recognize potential fraud can prevent fraud from the beginning and put an owner’s mind at ease knowing the staff has been trained well.”

5. Avoid costly administrative errors

Let’s face it: Human error is pretty much unavoidable. Since the vast majority of retailers have transitioned from paper to digital record-keeping, something as simple as a typo or a misplaced decimal point can lead to a costly mistake.

Clerical and stock-keeping errors are a common culprit of retail shrinkage. Thankfully, it’s also one of the easiest to avoid. Pairing a solid personal inventory management system with a trusted point-of-sale system is a good way to combat shrink and stock-mismanagement by catching any inconsistencies before they wreak havoc on your business’s budget. 

No matter what type of business you’re in, integrating a POS system will help make life easier for you and for your employees by catching inventory errors and data inconsistencies that would have otherwise gone unnoticed until it was too late. 

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Bringing it all together

No amount of shrinkage is a good goal, and in an ideal world, the loss prevention steps above would lead to a zero percent loss for all businesses across the board. The National Retail Federation found signs in its 2018 annual survey that shrinkage rates are slowly declining–– proving that retail loss prevention tactics like stricter employee screenings and better attention to detail in payment processing and returns are starting to show returns. 

While it’s true that criminals are becoming increasingly savvy and digital discrepancies can make you more susceptible to inconsistent data and fraud, a virtually shrink-free business could very well be in your future, provided that you hire carefully and use the right tools.

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Jasmine Glasheen

Jasmine Glasheen is recognized as a leading influencer, writer, editor, and brand representative providing both online and video content. She is a frequent contributor to many publications including prominent retail magazines and news sites, tech blogs, and numerous fashion and lifestyle trade shows. She is a contributing editor to RetailWire, content lead at Retail Minded, and is the author of numerous ebooks and whitepapers for private clients. Glasheen also provides fresh thought leadership in the form of live video content, webinars, and podcasts.

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How to Expand Your Cannabis Business Across State Lines

expand your cannabis business across state lines

One of the most valuable things you can do for your company in the cannabis industry is expanding into additional states. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most expensive. At MKSI Investments, we have had to learn the hard way.  

Despite regulatory complications and federal illegality, becoming a multi-state operator, or MSO, is still one of the most valuable things you can do for your company in the cannabis industry. The market is expanding so quickly that if you’re unable to get your products in shelves across multiple markets, you’re falling behind.  You can potentially double your market cap with each additional state you get your brands efficiently into. 

Companies like Acreage, Cookies, Harvest, and CannaCraft are paving the way here. For the first time ever, you’ll order up an 1/8th of Gelato by Cookies, in Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, or even Detroit, and it’ll actually be the very same fire you fell in love with back in Cali. 

Thus, becoming an MSO is also one of the most competitive, expensive, and time-consuming ventures you could pursue. It sometimes takes collaboration and teamwork with your competitors, lots of funds, and lots of patience. 

Identify industry operators that do things well and reach out. If you have a facility with extra capacity they could benefit from, see if they’d manufacture for you in their market in exchange.  There’s no need to be a top-heavy public company. Roll your sleeves up and find other good people who are actual operators. 

free dispensary sample business plan

Collaboration

Collaboration is essential for access to talent, resources, and exposure in this industry.

It was not until the third or fourth state we were looking to take our old retail brand into that it dawned on us that we were going to have to get creative in order to keep going.

All I wanted was to grab a few new dispensary spots along with a nice big warehouse in a new state. I ended up blowing money left and right hiring real estate brokers, lawyers, lobbyists, local consultants, and getting stuck in City Hall or Commission meetings. 

Rewinding the clock a handful of years, there were only a dozen or so companies doing the national circuit, and most of us knew each other; for better and certainly for worse. Be it Colorado, Nevada, or Florida, you would see the same folks competing for the same overpriced buildings and getting overcharged by the same law firms; we started sympathizing with each other after a while. 

It wasn’t until later at a hotel bar that it occurred to us to divide and conquer. I did not actually want to move my life to whatever state we were in, I just wanted a big building to grow great cannabis, as well as a place to extract it and process it for our brands.  

What if we went halfsies on a spot with our competition? Better yet, what if we went halfsies with our competition on a spot in a few states? 

All of a sudden we were stretching our dollars twice as far. And maybe, more importantly, we could draw straws on attending meetings and flying to different states every few days. So, over a few too many Rye Manhattans with a twist of lazy, the concept of consolidated production and manufacturing in cannabis was born to us. If you are going to do well collaborating, you are going to have to play well with others—including your competition.

Money

There are few things more expensive than lawyers and lobbyists; overpriced real estate, extraction equipment, and the process of converting an old logistics warehouse into a modern indoor cannabis grow are some personal examples. 

If you have a brand or product that is more than just a logo a few designer grads whipped up for you, then you are going to need to get involved in the cultivation, extraction, and manufacturing of your products in new markets.  Ask for references and resources locally if you’re building a new project, but look everywhere for an experienced engineering outfit they will be priceless when it comes to build time and cost.

What this means is controlling your supply chain via your facilities. What good is having your flower brand in Vegas if the guys you send your logo to just slap it on some mid-grade fluff they couldn’t sell? 

You have got to roll your sleeves up and find growers you can collaborate with to make sure the product you’re putting your name behind is as good as the stuff that earned you your name.

If you are blowing butane into high-end extracts and want to cover more ground, go find someone who knows from real experience that safety is far more important than equipment that actually works half as well as the company representative at the latest NCIA meeting claims. 

It would be much wiser to add a new set of chillers and extractors to a friendly competitor’s facility and throw down on the rent and overhead. It’s more cost-effective than starting from scratch looking for a building of your own to rent and than spend $100/foot or more improving. 

Don’t worry about being a big multi-state operator, many of them have zero clue how to actually operate a cannabis business and are little more than the equivalent of a paper contractor consolidating revenue across their holdings.  

Focus on identifying an opportunity, making sure you have a competitive advantage, which ultimately translates into margin, and start executing.  There are plenty of VCs and private investors out there these days eager to throw money at a well-articulated opportunity. Alternatively, start small and grow as you can afford to, it may take longer but you’ll be all the wiser worth the experience it brings. 

Patience

It’s important to remember that this is an incredibly slow process. Rome was not built in a day.  Architects take forever. Plumbers, structural and mechanical engineers take forever, especially when the fire life-safety engineer is running sprinkler pipes through your lights or the exhaust hood for your distillation gear. Regulatory red tape takes forever to weave through.

The mentality of getting in and cashing out on the “green rush” is somewhat of a blinding force within the cannabis industry today. Too many of the people who are racing to get involved (even linearly)  with cannabis are uninformed and unprepared for the cannabis industry. 

The cannabis industry is a fast-growing behemoth. But before you can realistically consider expanding across state lines and into new markets, you need to go back and consider the research. Pay attention to the details that went into starting out in the first place. 

Expanding your business is a huge opportunity. With the right tools and the right support structures in place, you’ll be able to accomplish so much.  Make sure to think outside the box about your business plan.  

Assuming you’ve written one, poke holes in it.  Imagine everything that could go wrong and think about how you would adapt and if you could overcome.  Don’t start a business planning on best-case scenarios. This is the cannabis industry and someone or something will always get squirrely somewhere. 

Our strategy for expanding as a multi-state operator has helped some of our favorite brands and investments—like Cookies, Guild, Lemonnade and CannaCraft—conquer North America.

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Martin Kaufman

Martin Kaufman has extensive entrepreneurial experience in construction, real estate development, business development, finance, and more. He’s founded numerous successful companies, including SK Builders, Core Security Solutions, and Mesh Ventures. Today, Kaufman leads MKSI Investments with an eye toward building a successful, sustainable, equitable cannabis industry. Mr. Kaufman holds an associates degree in botany and a bachelors degree with honors in law and society from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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First Steps to Preparing Your Child to Run the Family Business

The wonderful thing about family businesses is that they are family businesses. There is no one loved more than your children. You love them, you nurture them, and you educate them all hoping that they will grow up to be self-sufficient, confident, and happy adults.

Those of us who lead our own companies can’t help but dream about the possibility of bringing our kids into our businesses. Showing them the ropes, watching them grow, and then one day watching them take the business to the next level. 

If you’re preparing your teenager or young adult-child to come to work in your family business for the first time, you only have one chance to make a good first impression—both for your offspring and for the rest of your team.

I will never forget when I first went to work for my family’s business, Olan Mills. I was 13 and it was the first job I had ever had, outside of raking neighbors’ leaves for whatever money they would give me and my friends. 

I had to take a bus downtown, switch to another bus, and walk a block or so to the plant on Industrial Boulevard. 

While I had been to the plant many times before with my mother to see my grandfather, this time was different. My grandfather had passed away and I was the only family member who was working at our Dallas location—so all eyes were on me. 

And what prestigious job did I have, given my eminent stature? I was in charge of collecting all the empty film canisters, fitting lids on them, boxing them up, and shipping them to studios around the US. 

I reported to a woman named Darleen who may have graduated high school. She was wonderful. While she realized that I was “The grandson of Mr. Mills” she could not have cared less. She was kind, but she managed me as if she would have any new employee. I was lucky to have her as my first manager.

1. Start them at the bottom and let them grow

What first role should you give your child when they first come to work? My recommendation would be to start them at the bottom and have them report to a lower level employee. 

This may strike you as odd. How can this approach possibly cultivate my child’s leadership skills? And why not place them in a role more befitting their intelligence and possible future position within the business? 

Let me tell you why:  Being a good leader means people want to follow you. At 13,  22, or 30, as a rookie to the business, and a relative of the founder, no one is going to WANT to follow you at first.

People follow others for 3 reasons:

1. They trust them

2. They lead by example

3. They respect them

Certainly there are other characteristics, but eliminate any of these and the desire to follow quickly falls off.

There is a general exception to this: when your son is Nick D’Aloisio, the 13-year-old inventor of the Summly App which condenses down large amounts of text, which was sold to Yahoo! for $30 million. 

When someone has a universally acknowledged extreme expertise in some area like” killer apps” creating “unicorns” people will follow.  

2. Have your child report to someone other than you

So set the expectation that they should work hard in that position, just like any other entry-level member of the team. Have them report to a manager that isn’t you. 

This approach will send a strong message to all the other employees at the company: your child isn’t looking for, and shouldn’t get any special treatment. They want to be judged on their merits, not their connections, and that they are willing to do whatever is necessary for the success of the business. 

Moreover, as your child takes on more responsibility, others will be more likely to respect them knowing, that they weren’t above getting their hands dirty.

3. Position them to really learn each area of the business

Maybe their first position is moving inventory, labeling products, customer service, or accounting. As an experienced business person can attest, it can take about a year just to become an expert in the simplest of areas.

At the same time, you’re better suited to make complex decisions when you truly understand the underlying mechanics and basics of the business. And often, this depth of understanding can only come from doing the work.

Remember, one week of getting your hands dirty is not sufficient, and be sure to let your child get into some of the dirty work, stressful moments, and overtime situations. 

Along these same lines, consider your child the “rover” of the company. If someone is short-handed and needs some help, and junior is having a slow period at the moment, have them fill in. 

View our Business Management Guide today!

4. Have them shadow leaders in different departments

If working for your company is your teen’s summer job, you have another opportunity as the new school year begins to approach, a good twist on the end of the summer can be to expose them to more areas of the business.  It might be appropriate to give your child an overview of the more complex and strategic aspects of the business. 

The amount of time and focus to dedicate here depends on your child’s level of interest and capability. Some simple examples could include having them come to work in office clothes for a day and to meet with a number of folks in key functions in the company. Buying, Merchandising, Marketing, Accounting, HR, IT, etc. 

Ask these folks to go through a basic explanation of what they do and why it matters to the company. For a teenager, this won’t mean much. But the process will. And encourage them to ask questions. This will create an understanding that while the basic work your child is doing is important, that there are other complex components of the business that contribute to effective operations. 

Looking back on my experience with Olan Mills, I will never forget the summer I spent in the office receiving, sorting, and processing orders. It was all paper-based and there were tons of them. 

I was quickly yearning to be back in the factory processing film canisters. Nonetheless, I was exposed to the administrative side of the business and learned the importance of accurately processing orders.

5. Provide opportunities to debrief and connect the dots

Your best role as owner is to debrief periodically on how it’s going, and then point out and share some of the complex issues, challenges, and opportunities within that area. 

Approaching the teen years in this manner will help your child to learn the basics, develop relationships with and learn to work with different people while gaining their respect. It should offer a bird’s eye view of the entire business. In this way, down the road they will be well-positioned to potentially lead the business into the next generation.

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How a CRM Can Help You Transform Your Side Hustle Into a Business

How to use a CRM to grow a business

So you have a new business—one that’s small but growing. Or maybe you have a side hustle that you’d like to turn into something more. You’ve considered investing in customer relationship management (CRM) software, but it doesn’t seem like it’s worth buying until you have more customer relationships to manage.

For certain relationship-centered businesses, CRMs have a litany of value, even if your business is cash-strapped and just getting off the ground. A simple CRM system can cost only a few dollars each month, but it’s an investment that can scale as your side hustle turns into a full-fledged business.

How a CRM can help small businesses stay organized

A good CRM system can benefit businesses and entrepreneurs at all stages.

For business leaders who are big on ideas and not great with organization and structure, CRMs can be a welcome ally. Some tools provide daily calendar reminders in addition to keeping track of all the customer information you might struggle to remember. Or it might make it easier to schedule meetings, leave notes for yourself, and schedule follow-up reminders for just about anything. And if you do forget to call someone back? Your CRM can remind you to get it done.

If your business requires a lot of networking and customer relationship management to get off the ground, a CRM keeps all those leads in order and ensures that you follow up on them. You can categorize contacts for future marketing purposes, and pull up reports to see who hasn’t been contacted in a while. You can even use it to see a visual representation of your network to help you identify key players.

Sales-focused businesses can use CRMs to curate customer lists and help track every step of your sales process to ensure no lead goes unfollowed. You can also use reports to calculate the average number of touches it takes to close a sale.

Whatever your needs are right now, look for a CRM that will provide that. You don’t have to buy a CRM with all the options that you’ll need in five years—you may not need all the bells and whistles at once.

Download your free business startup checklist today!

Your CRM in the early stages

CRMs don’t just automatically provide value. You need to have a strategy for how you plan to use your CRM so you can make the most of its features.

Even before you have customers, a CRM can help you leverage your personal and professional networks to verify your ideas, find mentors and cheerleaders, and generate your first few leads and referrals.

When your business is ready to move from side hustle to small business, a CRMs can help you create a new client onboarding process that looks professional, saves time, and helps you avoid writing the (almost) exact same email for each client. 

And when growth is happening fast, a CRM can keep leads (and money) from slipping through the cracks. A flood of new customers can be overwhelming, but a CRM can ease growing pains by helping you stay organized and cement processes to help you grow. If your growth plan includes additional employees or a virtual assistant, your CRM can become a hub for your team.

How to make a CRM work for your side hustle

Once you’ve decided you’re ready to push your side hustle into a business and you’ve chosen the CRM to help you do it, what’s next? Here are four ways to maximize the potential of your side hustle and its CRM:

1. Upload every contact

Upload every contact to it. This includes family, friends, and colleagues.

When you’re just starting a business, everyone you know can lead to your first customer, referral, or advocate. Keeping everyone in your CRM means you can log relationships, track follow-ups, and keep the big picture in mind.

2. Document every touch

Add rich details to your contact profiles. When you’re able to reference everything about your last contact, the customer will feel remembered and valued and be far more likely to engage with your business in the future.

By keeping a complete relationship history in the CRM, you’ll put less mental stress on yourself and be able to pick up right where you left off during your next conversation.

3. Schedule follow-ups

Schedule a follow-up after every touch. Follow-up reminders are one of the most important features of your CRM.

After every interaction with a contact, schedule some time to talk with him or her and forward an agenda. That way, you won’t drop the ball on any of your relationships, and you don’t need to stress about remembering when to circle back.

4. Test everything

Test absolutely everything. Once your business is operating, your CRM can help you iterate and improve.

For example, you might notice that your most common lead source is client referrals. So you decide to start a more referral program for your business. You can use your CRM to set up a pipeline to track your referral program. You can even use custom fields to help pull reports to see if your referral program is leading to more sales or higher lifetime value for new leads.

No matter where you are in your business process, a CRM can help you boost productivity, stay organized, and build your customer base. Don’t put off this valuable investment. Once you have one, you’ll wonder why it took you so long.

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Alex Haimann

Alex Haimann is partner and head of business development at Less Annoying CRM, a simple CRM built from the ground up for small businesses. Thousands of small businesses use LACRM to manage contacts, track leads, and stay on top of follow-ups.

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5 Things You Should Do With Consumer Data

The more you can learn about your customers, the better equipped you are to sell to them and build a positive relationship. However, gathering consumer data is only one part of the equation. What matters the most is how you use the information you collect.

Customers are increasingly concerned with privacy—as they should be. So, start with being a responsible steward of their data. Then, make sure you’re using the information you gather to help your business. 

With technological advancements and hundreds of ways to obtain knowledge about your target customer, it’s easier than ever before to store and study information. Go beyond the basics by using the following tips to maximize your benefits from consumer data. If you want your business to grow, you need to do more than just study your audience—you need to learn them backward and forward, then alter your business to fit your ideal consumer’s image. 

1. Figure out your consumers’ pain points 

What makes a person buy a product or pay for a service?

Sometimes it’s purely for aesthetic appeal or desire, but more often than not, a person makes a purchase because it solves one of their problems. Therefore, one of your top priorities as a business should be to understand your consumers’ struggles and how you can minimize them.

When gathering consumer data, make an effort to understand the common pain points:

  • Are they worried about wasting time?
  • Are their processes too complicated?
  • Do they need to save money?

If you understand their concerns, you can appropriately address the problems with your products, sales strategies, and marketing techniques.

You might think you know what your customers want, but until you ask them the right questions, you won’t know for certain. Don’t make assumptions—instead, survey them or run a round table discussion so you get direct insights. Leave plenty of room for open-ended questions so that your target consumers can provide data that’s truly new and useful to your team.

Consider it market research. More on how to get started conducting market research in this guide.

Additionally, learning more about how your users search on Google and social media can tell you what keywords and topics to target. You may want to look into using a tool like Brandwatch or Buzzsumothat can help you figure out where to focus your efforts and what phrases to monitor. By keeping an eye on what your consumers are talking about, you’ll be more accurately able to address their pain points.

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2. Save and organize the data appropriately

As was said before, it’s not just about the data you gather—it’s how you use it. And, you can’t properly use your data unless it’s safely stored and organized. In the age of the consumer trust crises and privacy breaches, it’s essential that you protect your users’ information. Additionally, you need to have a strategy for compiling reports and effectively evaluating the information. 

Fortunately, advanced tools like Finteza, make it easy to monitor your website traffic, look at page analytics, and learn about your consumers on a granular level.

Image Source: Finteza

Image source: Finteza

These types of tools also make sure your data storage techniques are GDPR compliant, which means you are retaining and using your data according to customer rights. You can rest assured that you’re learning from your customers’ information effectively without stepping on toes or crossing into gray areas.

3. Decide what kind of data best benefits your company

Gathering data is great, but if you’re gathering data that isn’t useful, what’s the point? According to the HBR Closing the Customer Experience Gap Report, only 3 percent of respondents said they are able to act on all of the customer data they collect. That’s likely because they’re not collecting the right kind of information.

Most companies start by gathering the basics, like customer names, mailing addresses, and email addresses. This is a good starting point because you’re facilitating increased, personal communication. You may also want to obtain demographic information, including age, profession, gender, and so on.

However, you shouldn’t stop there. You’ll need to dig deeper to find the data that really enacts change within your business. Ask about your customers’ values, their concerns, their personalities. Typically, these kinds of answers are best gathered through questionnaires and surveys. The more deeply you understand your target market, the better you can sell to them. 

Image source: Starbucks

Image source: Starbucks

A great example of a company who listens closely to its customers (and profits immensely as a result) is Starbucks. On their website, anyone can submit feedback and ideas to the corporation. Whether they think an item should be added to the menu or they want to see some kind of improvement, customers can easily voice their opinions to the brand. As a result, Starbucks has an abundance of relevant consumer data to work with.

4. Compare your data to that of the competition

Chances are, your competitors are already gathering information from your ideal customers. They’re using it to improve, which means you should be using your own data to do the same. Additionally, you can use your competitor’s data to more effectively understand your own.

Although your competition won’t necessarily share their valuable data with you openly, you can watch how their marketing strategies reflect the information they’ve gathered. For instance, if one of your competitors is marketing predominantly on Twitter, there’s likely a reason behind their focus on the platform. You may also want to pay attention to the times and places in which competitors market—their choices likely aren’t random.

There are tools you can use to analyze your competitors, like Kompyte and Sprout Social. These can point you toward some of your competitions’ biggest strategies.

Image source sprout social

Image source: Sprout Social

You can also look at how your competition is gathering information:

  • Are other businesses sending out links to surveys?
  • Do they conduct polls on social media?
  • What kind of information do their website forms ask for?

By learning about their techniques, you can more accurately determine which strategies your shared customer base likes to engage with.

You can also use benchmarks to help you get a sense of wider trends in your industry. You won’t get company-specific insights, but benchmarks can help you when you’re forecasting for growth, or looking for information on average gross margin, for example. 

5. Protect your customers’ personal and financial information

Obtaining personal information about your buyers has become increasingly difficult as a result of the consumer trust crisis—or phrased another way, as a result of increasing violations by the business. 

About 59 percent of customers believe their personal information is vulnerable to a security breach, and 54 percent don’t believe that companies have their best interests in mind. It’s no wonder that shoppers are hesitant to provide data to businesses.

Still, there are ways you can effectively protect your customers and encourage them to trust your business:

Step 1: Talk with a data security specialist to ensure that you’re doing whatever you can to protect consumers’ information. One example might be to use a third party payment processing system so you don’t ever store credit card information on our own servers. 

Step 2: Show your shoppers how you safeguard their information with certifications and recognizable trust badges. 

Step 3: Tell your customers why you want their information and what you’ll do with it.

Image source Salesforce

Image source: Salesforce

As you can see in the graph above, from Salesforce, consumers trust companies when they know that they’re gathering information for a positive purpose. They also appreciate transparency when learning about how their information will be protected and used.

Prioritize visible privacy policies and security measures. Ask for permission when gathering data and promise to use it safely and respectfully. If you can make your customers feel protected and valued, you can still gather plenty of data, despite the general loss in trust in businesses by consumers.

In summary

Not only should your company gather data, but it should also ensure that it’s using it effectively. These tips will help your business more accurately mold your advertising and sales techniques to fit your ideal consumers’ needs and wants. 

Above all else, make sure that your data-gathering doesn’t disrupt your customers’ faith in your company. Without trust in your business, no amount of data will increase your revenue.

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Manish Dudharejia

Manish Dudharejia is the president and founder of E2M Solutions Inc, a San Diego-based digital agency that specializes in website design and development, and ecommerce SEO. With over 10 years of experience in the technology and digital marketing industry, Manish is passionate about helping online businesses to take their branding to the next level.



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18 Resources to Help Grow Your SaaS Startup

SaaS resources

This article is part of our SaaS Business Startup Guide—a list of articles to help you plan, start, and grow your SaaS business!

You probably already know that there are plenty of resources out there to help you grow and scale your SaaS startup. But, there are so many available that it can actually be overwhelming.

To cut through the clutter, I turned to Noah Parsons, a SaaS-industry veteran and our COO here at Palo Alto Software (makers of Bplans).

Here’s our list of top resources to help you learn, stay informed, and grow your SaaS business successfully.

Download your free subscription sales forecast template today!

Podcasts

The SaaS Podcast

Want to get expert advice from top SaaS founders? You’re in luck with over 200 interviews recorded on The SaaS Podcast. Host Omer Khan conducts in-depth interviews with industry leaders that’ll help you scale your SaaS business.

Ready to get inspired? Start by listening to this episode to learn how Christian Owens, founder of Paddle, went from failure to $10 million ARR.

Startups for the Rest of Us

Co-hosts Mike Taber and Rob Walling have over 20 years’ of combined startup experience. Their podcast covers current projects they’re working on, expert advice, and the stories of other successful startups.

Not sure where to get started with more than 400 recorded episodes? You can’t go wrong by starting with their greatest hits list.

Andreessen Horowitz’s “You Bet Your SaaS!” 

Andreessen Horowitz, of a16z.com, hosts this podcast that touches on the industry at large and the voices that add to it. Keep up with trends and the future of SaaS by tuning in to the latest episodes.

Check out the list of all episodes to get into this podcast.

Ramp Podcast from InsightSquared

If you want a podcast focused on analytics, look no further than the Ramp podcast. Featuring interviews with industry experts, Ramp offers a deep-dive into the data end of running a SaaS business.

Learn how to ramp up your SaaS startup with the podcast episodes in their archive.

How I Built This 

While not strictly focused on software, NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast with Guy Raz is worth a listen. With a storytelling approach, Raz shares the stories of some of the biggest companies in the world. Often, learning from other industries helps to inspire growth in your own.

For a SaaS-specific episode of this podcast, don’t miss out on this one featuring Slack and Flickr with Stewart Butterfield.

Communities and networking

SaaStr

SaaStr is one of the largest communities in business software. Founded by Jason Lemkin, SaaStr initially started after Lemkin answered questions on Quora and ran a WordPress blog. The community grew over time and now includes online resources, meet-ups, and large scale events.

Discover what the SaaStr Academy has to offer in this community with everything you need to grow your business.

Growthhackers

If you’ve always wished there was a Reddit-style community for entrepreneurs in the SaaS space, you’ll love Growthhackers.

This free community allows you to post questions and interact with other experts looking to grow their businesses and teams. There are even expert AMAs (which stands for “ask me anything,” if you haven’t used Reddit before).

Dreamforce Conference

Want to attend one of the biggest SaaS conferences to connect in-person with forerunners of the industry? You’re bound to find the right people, content, and sessions at the annual Dreamforce conference, hosted by Salesforce.

Learn more about this event and the benefits of joining other attendees at this conference.

SaaS Invaders

Want to get involved with a kick “SaaS” community? SaaS Invaders created this digital space for people like you. Here you can browse through topics around all parts of running a SaaS business, sorted by latest posts or trending topics.

Get connected with other SaaS industry leaders with the latest posts.

Books and blogs

Lost & Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World

Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz and Sparktoro, gives an inside look into startup life (spoiler: not all companies begin like Facebook). In Lost & Founder, you’ll get immersed by what it’s truly like in the startup world. Did you know it took fifteen years for Fishkin to build Moz?

It’s authentic, funny, and a great source of advice that’ll help you weather any SaaS startup storms.

A16z.com

Entrepreneurs Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz have put together some invaluable resources for those in the SaaS community. This site features their podcast episodes and articles on everything from financing your startup to company culture.

Be sure to check out their tech topics page, for more big-picture articles on the industry itself.

Price Intelligently

One of the most important things for a SaaS company is choosing the right pricing strategy. Price Intelligently focuses specifically on pricing strategies within the SaaS sector, both with the service they offer and on their blog. 

Take a look at their articles on pricing strategy to learn more about getting the most value out of your service.

ChartMogul’s Blog

From best practices to resources, the blog run by ChartMogul’s team covers it all for SaaS businesses. With customers like Notion and Typeform, ChartMogul provides a subscription growth tool and expert advice for industry leaders.

Start with the industry section to get a pulse on what’s happening now within the space.

Sixteen Ventures

If you’re looking for a blog with a focus on acquiring and retaining customers, get familiar with Sixteen Ventures. This blog run by Lincoln Murphy focuses on the customer lifecycle and how to best optimize customer acquisition and retention.

Check out the 20 most popular articles to get started.

Tomasz Tunguz

Venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz blog focuses on the startup experience, including discussion of areas like culture, pricing, funding, and content marketing.

To start, check out his SaaS-specific posts—it’s an extensive list, and you’re sure to learn a lot.

SaaStock Learning Hub

SaaStock could be considered a one-stop shop for SaaS-related content. The media hub, created by entrepreneur Alex Theuma, began as a place to share information, learn, and network within the industry.

Learn more about how to get involved with the SaaS Revolutionary community to get started.

A Smart Bear Blog

Bringing humor to the industry is Jason Cohen’s A Smart Bear blog, which focuses on marketing and other startup “geekery.” With plenty of SaaS-industry experience (including selling his company for millions), this blog is an informative, fun resource.

Start with our favorite post by Cohen about what it means to have two big things in life but not three.

InsightSquared’s Top SaaS Sales Blogs

Cheating? Maybe—I’ve included a resource list within a resource list. However, this list by InsightSquared contains much more than just a couple of blogs. On this list, you’ll find notable entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in the field, useful apps, and a whole lot more. 

And of course, we have to mention the Bplans guide to starting a SaaS business. There, you’ll find information on writing a Lean Business Plan, a SaaS sales forecast template you can download for free, and more. 

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Briana Morgaine

Briana is the content marketing specialist for Bplans. She enjoys discussing marketing, social media, and the pros and cons of the Oxford comma. Bri is a resident of Portland, Oregon, and can be found working remotely from a variety of local coffee shops. She can also be found, infrequently, on Twitter.



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6 Aspects of Digital Marketing No Entrepreneur Can Afford to Ignore

digital marketing

Thanks to an always-evolving landscape and the nearly limitless availability of engagement resources, it feels like marketing gets more difficult with each passing year. This wealth of options, in fact, can put marketers in analysis paralysis while they try to figure out which direction to go.

Social media, for one, has potential as a digital tool that more than one-third of internet users turn to when they want to learn more about a product or service. Then there’s live chat, which is gaining in popularity for companies looking to outfit their websites with real-time, 24/7 customer support.

Even though those two solutions each have their own appeal, you can’t expect to master digital marketing by simply acquiring every available tool—you’ll want to develop a more thorough and holistic digital marketing strategy and plan.

Hiring the right team for digital marketing

Adopting a holistic digital marketing approach pays obvious dividends to a company’s bottom line. However, it also helps you assemble the kind of team you need to sustain that success over the long haul.

Let’s imagine that you hire a marketer to help generate more leads, but you veer too niche by hiring a social media specialist. That’s great for building a social presence, but it’s unlikely this new hire can help you concept an ad, monitor data, or track results.

Keep in mind that like anything else, it can be challenging to hire (and afford) someone who is good at all aspects of digital marketing. You might benefit from outsourcing or using a contractor for specific types of campaigns, giving you control and flexibility around how long you keep someone on board. You don’t just want someone to do the work—you need them to deliver results too.

New Call-to-action

Whether you hire a marketer or do it yourself, your goal should be growing your company’s digital (and overall) footprint. The following considerations are some of the most important aspects of any digital marketing campaign.

1. Custom websites

Your digital footprint starts with your website. If you’ve been running your startup or small business entirely from your Facebook page, it’s a good idea to consider putting together your own website. If you don’t, there are some risks. What if the platform shuts down, for example?

A website isn’t much of anything until it’s designed and customized to your business. The last thing you want is to spend all that time, money, and energy driving people to your site only for them to click away after a “meh” experience.

Think of your website as never entirely finished. Use tools like Hotjar to see where people click on your site, or how far down the page they scroll. Test different calls to action. If “buy now” messaging doesn’t result in that many conversions or purchases, test different pricing options and messages, like “no risk free trial.” Use tools like Qualaroo to invite users to tell you whether they found what they were looking for on your site. And if they didn’t, ask them what they were hoping to find!

If you get to know the basics of user experience (also called customer journey), website design, calls to action, and target audiences, you’ll improve your conversion rates and lower your cost per acquisition.

As soon as your website is up and running, set up Google Analytics. You’ll learn a lot about the traffic you’re getting, where it’s coming from, and whether you can associate revenue with that traffic.

2. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

For consumers to find your business’s website, you need your pages to show up in search results. That sort of exposure requires search engine optimization, or SEO. Moz defines SEO as “the practice of increasing both the quality and quantity of website traffic, as well as exposure to your brand, through non-paid (also known as ‘organic’) search engine results.”

Really, SEO is about understanding what your potential customers are searching for, the words they’re using when they search, and the type of content they’re looking for—articles, how-tos, video, podcasts, reviews, and more. There are some technical aspects, like optimizing your website’s meta descriptions and making sure your pages are mobile-optimized and quick to load, but think of it as the process of providing the best quality content on your website.

It takes a lot of effort to build an SEO-friendly site, but you can find plenty of information online explaining current SEO best practices and how they fit into your overall digital strategy. Moz offers a great beginner’s guide to SEO that’s worth reading, just so you understand the whole landscape.

3. Video content

Producing high-quality video content is easier than it’s ever been, and there are some relatively cost-effective options. A basic understanding of the editing process and a smartphone with a 4K camera allows you to take raw footage and turn it into a polished video. There are also a number of animated explainer video tools like PowToon out there. They make created animated videos as simple as recording a voiceover and using a Powerpoint-like drag and drop video editor.

Before you go about finding a basic online program to assist you in editing video content, take the time to identify your target audience’s video content preferences. That knowledge will help you better tailor your final product. Check out these stats on why video is an increasingly important medium for digital marketers.

4. Google ads

Not unlike SEO, Google Ads can help drive consumers to your website. Instead of doing it organically, however, this service moves your website listing to the very top (or bottom) of a search engine results page. Think of it as a digital classified ad with prime placement.

The best way to learn and use Google Ads is by taking the search engine’s courses. Just make sure that your coursework details how to connect your ads to Google Analytics. Otherwise, you won’t necessarily be able to measure your advertising ROI. From there, all that’s left is to run and test ads. I’d again suggest a trial-and-error approach to A/B testing and then adjusting your ads based on those findings.

5. Facebook ads

Facebook has some of the best targeting capabilities—not to mention the most users, the most attention, and the cheapest ad costs. Combined, these make the platform a powerful resource for digital marketers.

But test into Facebook ads—meaning, don’t start with a huge campaign. See if you can achieve your marketing objectives on a small scale first. If your business serves a demographic that isn’t spending time on Facebook, you’re going to have a hard time, no matter how good your ads are.

To use Facebook effectively, start with Facebook Blueprint courses. You might also want to explore other Facebook-related classes from outside experts to learn about custom audiences and retargeting, which is a form of advertising based on a user’s past online activity.

Once you find your footing, run and test a few ads. Trial and error often is the best classroom, but this is particularly true when it entails A/B testing, which splits your target audience into two groups and delivers different messaging in hopes of determining which ad resonates with potential customers.

If you’re a brick-and-mortar business, it’s also wise to learn how to track offline conversions to understand your return on investment, or ROI. Asking a simple question when you make a sale, like, “how did you hear about us?” can go a long way.

Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. Does getting 2,000 new likes or followers serve your business goals? If it does, great! That said, if your business goal is to increase purchases (conversions) from Facebook ads, make sure that you’re tracking that.

6. Social media

Social media as a whole can offer plenty of long-term value to businesses. It’s all about building a solid foundation and knowing what to post on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to engage your target audience.

Posts will vary depending on your business, but you should be able to sum up your strategy in one word: relevance. Get to know your customers’ likes, interests, and preferences, and then tailor your social content based on that information. If you’re still unsure, follow famed author, speaker, and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. His blog and podcast each have a wealth of information on how to build a winning social media strategy for potential customers.

Again, be clear on what you want to achieve with social media. Seeking brand awareness is a fine goal—you might measure that by increases in likes or followers. Brand awareness is a long game though, and it may be difficult to track conversions against branding campaigns on social media. Be sure you’re look at Google Analytics to see where your website traffic is coming from. If any percentage of traffic back to your site is coming from Facebook or other social media platforms, you’ll be able to track that there.

Many business owners don’t even bother with online marketing because they’re afraid it will cost them an arm, a leg, and maybe a few fingers. But getting a feel for just a few online platforms means an investment of time rather than buckets of money.

Do that, and you’ll hit the ground running—or at least walking at a brisk pace.

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Briana Morgaine

Briana is the content marketing specialist for Bplans. She enjoys discussing marketing, social media, and the pros and cons of the Oxford comma. Bri is a resident of Portland, Oregon, and can be found working remotely from a variety of local coffee shops. She can also be found, infrequently, on Twitter.



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SWOT Analysis Challenge Day 4: How to Identify Threats

SWOT analysis threats

You’re invited to take the SWOT analysis challenge—see if you can complete all five steps in five days or fewer! Then invite your network to do it too. Share this article on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter and use the #SWOT hashtag.

If you’re looking for the rest of the steps in the SWOT analysis series, find them here:

Small business owners are notoriously busy people. We understand that you have a lot of items on your daily to do list, but we’re about to suggest one more. Every business owner should sit down and conduct a SWOT analysis, which gives you an inside look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that can impact your business.

If you’ve been working through each step along the way, you’re already up to speed on the finer points on why companies, whether they’re brand new or they’ve been around for 100 years, should make SWOT analyses part of their regular planning and review process.

But here’s something you might not know about yet—the history of SWOT, or where it came from and why. Then we’ll jump down to how to assess threats.

Click here to download our free SWOT Analysis template

The history of SWOT analysis

We know you’re anxious to complete your SWOT matrix, but before you start brainstorming, we thought we’d look at how this process came to be.

Here’s the quick history:

While there is some debate over who came up with it, most research suggests that Stanford professor Albert Humphrey was the father of this process.

How did the strategy come about?

Humphrey led a research project at Stanford University in the 1960s and 1970s that tried to figure out why corporate planning failed within several big companies. The team started breaking the data into categories like opportunities and threats.

Eventually, other strategists tweaked Humphrey’s categories into the SWOT matrix that we know today.

O.K., history class is over. Time to pull out your SWOT templates and start thinking through the threats that your business is facing.

How to define your company’s threats

A threat to your company is an external factor, something that you can’t control, that could negatively impact your business. A threat is different than a weakness, which is internal, or part of your company as it exists right now.

Identifying threats to your business is a powerful first step to reducing their risk, or at least mitigating them enough that they won’t shut down your business. It’s all about being prepared and taking proactive steps to minimize the hurt.

Coming up with a list of threats can be difficult—you just don’t know what you don’t know. They might not spring to mind as easily as your strengths, but there are certain categories that most external threats fall into.

You can use these categories to brainstorm possible threats to your business:

Questions to ask to find threats

These categories should get your wheels turning. By thinking through each category, outside threats should come to mind. If you identify weaknesses, or internal challenges as you go, just add them to your SWOT matrix. And if you’re just getting started, download a free SWOT analysis template here.

We’ve also created a list of questions that coincide with the categories above to help you think critically about the threats that could be out there.

Economic trends

  • Is the economy in your area in a recession?
  • Will the economy negatively impact your customers’ ability to make purchases?
  • Are economic shifts happening that impact your target audience?

Market trends

  • How is your market changing?
  • What new trends could hurt your company?
  • Is there more competition in your market that’s pushing you out?

Funding or cash flow changes

  • Do you expect to have any changes in your cash flow that might have a negative impact? Delays in payment, seasonal issues, etc.
  • Will funding changes hurt your business? If so, how?
  • Do you expect a decrease in grant funding or donations this year?

Political support

  • Do you anticipate a shift in political support this year?
  • Is there reason to be concerned over political shifts?
  • What does your business stand to lose because of political changes?

Government regulations

  • Are any regulations shifting that could cost more money or hurt production?
  • What kind of damage could new regulations have?

Changing relationships

  • Are any outside business relationships changing?
  • Is there any turmoil with partners or vendors?

Target audience shift

  • How is your demographic shifting?
  • What threats accompany these changing demographics?
  • Is your audience changing in a way that you can’t accommodate?

Tips to find threats

  1. Do market research. As you’re looking into possible threats, you’ll want to conduct market research to see how your target audience is shifting.
  2. List every threat you can think of. If you think of a threat, list it. Even if that threat has consequences that won’t be felt immediately, it’s still better to have it on your radar.
  3. Threats exist, don’t panic. Listing threats may cause some anxiety, but remember that all businesses have threats. It’s better to know about threats than it is to turn a blind eye to them. Plus, we’ll give you some strategies in step 5 of this series on how to minimize these threats.

Once you’ve listed your threats, your SWOT template should be filled in. You’re almost done! The last step, number 5, is turning what you found in your SWOT analysis into actionable strategies.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2019.

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Lisa Furgison

Lisa Furgison is a journalist with a decade of experience in all facets of media.

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How to Solve the Biggest Shipping and Fulfillment Challenges of 2019

shipping and fulfillment challenges

By 2021, global B2C ecommerce sales are expected to surpass $4.5 trillion—almost double the $2.3 trillion reached in 2018. But alongside the explosive growth of online selling, customer expectations have also soared.

If you’re an ecommerce retailer, not only should your line of products be of optimal quality, you need to be able to get them to your customer’s door as quickly as possible. If you don’t, your competitors are lining up to scoop up those sales.

Longer delivery times result in abandoned carts

38 percent of online shoppers will abandon their orders if delivery takes more than a week. Amazon is setting the bar incredibly high with its two-day, next-day, and same-day delivery options. Customers increasingly expect on-demand access to products and services, and this heightened expectation poses great challenges for shipping and fulfillment.

Late deliveries result in B2B penalties from larger retailers

Aside from direct to consumer online sales, shipping and fulfillment challenges can also have an impact on online retails who also sell their products through larger retailers. In the U.S., retailers have become increasingly stringent when it comes to their suppliers’ order fulfillment.

Companies like Wal-Mart and Kroger have shrunk their delivery window from four to two days, and one day for household items, with any deviations fined $500 per order, or 3 percent or the order amount.

Apart from the fines, suppliers may also be either blacklisted or excluded from promotions and left off dedicated shelf spaces. This can potentially add up to crippling losses for businesses.

Late or missing deliveries drive B2C customers to competitors

69 percent of consumers are less likely to do business with a retailer again if a purchase is not delivered within two days of the promised date. With the hyper-competitive ecommerce industry, there are plenty of options to turn to if customers are left dissatisfied.

It doesn’t just end with losing business from that one dissatisfied customer. People want to share their experiences—whether on social media, or with their peers—which means your business reputation can take an exponential hit. This is why it’s important to build relationships—and a great way to do so is by keeping a promise.

View our Business Management Guide today!

International competition is on the rise

The U.S. share of global retail ecommerce is expected to continue to drop to 16.9 percent by 2020—down from 22.2 percent in 2015. Of course, this is not to say that U.S. ecommerce sales are declining. It’s just that sales all over the world are rapidly increasing, most notably in Asia.

From this perspective, you can see how the quality of shipping and fulfillment has become almost as important as the quality of the products itself. Below is a list of the most common problems you can face in 2019, and what you can do to address them.

1. International shipping

Apart from the obvious added costs of shipping overseas, international shipping also entails getting acquainted with rules and regulations, as well as the required paperwork and permits. Tax and duties are also mostly country-specific, so you’ll have to keep that into consideration as well.

Solution: Plan ahead

The best way to tackle the complex process of international shipping is by planning ahead. This entails building an information database with shipping rates for different package sizes and weights for the different countries you could ship to. While this could be time-consuming, it allows you to set prices confidently and be prepared for any issues that may arise.

And if you have the resources for it, you could also opt to employ an ecommerce fulfillment service provider. These businesses can provide you with all the rate and importation fee information you’ll be needing.

The key here is to be transparent with your customers. While they may not expect to get their items overnight, it’s best to tell them just how long it could take, and offer shipping options. A lot of customers are willing to pay a premium to get their orders sooner.

2. Communicating with suppliers

Your relationships with manufacturers and suppliers is just as important as your relationships with customers. If you’re new to ecommerce, it might feel intimidating at first to reach out to established suppliers.

Solution: Over-communicate and ask questions

It’s important to keep in mind that no matter how seasoned the supplier you’re reaching out to is, they’re just trying to run a business—just like you. Part of doing business is answering questions and concerns, so if you want to clarify anything—ask.

If you’re still figuring out where to source your products from, Alibaba has an expansive business directory where you can find almost anything you need.

3. Damaged/inaccurate inventory

The moment customers pay for an item, they’re already looking forward to receiving it. So if they wind up receiving an incorrect or damaged item, you can only imagine how infuriating that could be. Whether it’s a slightly creased book cover, a small scratch, or loose screws—customers notice it, and it reflects on your company.

Solution: Track and double check your inventory

Proper inventory management can address issues like these on the front end. Track inventory as it enters and leaves the warehouse with a centralized system. Also, don’t neglect your warehouse conditions. Make sure your inventory his housed safely, and that it’s double-checked before being sent out. It would also be wise to invest in quality packaging and insurance.

4. High shipping costs

While it’s easy to pass the cost to the customer, this shortcut is also a surefire way to lose them. You can also look for the cheapest solution provider, but you don’t want to compromise the quality of service.

Solution: Research the best deals and packaging options

Because each carrier has a unique set of services and prices, it’s important to practice due diligence when it comes to analyzing what your needs are. For example, a lot of carriers offer packaging tailored to specific requirements. Opting for this instead of investing in your own is a good way to avoid added costs.

There are also mail carriers that provide fixed-rate shipping based on the distance a package has to travel. If you frequently ship to a certain location, see if the flat rate shipping is a more cost-effective solution.

5. Technology deficiency

With everything that’s going on with running a business, keeping pace with technology can easily be overlooked. Not upgrading the technology you use or working with shipping vendors that don’t use the best tech can lead to you lagging behind competitors.

Solution: Stay up to date on tech trends in ecommerce

Keep your finger on the pulse of technological developments. While not every innovation that comes along fits your business needs, you need to be aware of what options are available. Automation allows you to be more effective and efficient in monitoring, tracking, and moving orders throughout the supply chain. You might also find that having an ecommerce app boosts sales.

It may take an upfront investment, but it could ultimately boost your bottom line.

6. Data security

Being an ecommerce retailer means your website handles sensitive customer information. Security issues can lead to a nightmare only the biggest companies can recover from.

Solution: Be proactive

Take time to understand potential security vulnerabilities on you website and in your payment solution. One way to avoid a lot of hassle is to use a payment service that doesn’t store any sensitive information (like credit card numbers) on your business’s servers.

If you can, manage your own servers. Don’t use common FTP to transfer files as this is prone to theft. Also, avoid using an open Wi-Fi network. Use a VPN for additional protection. And it always bears repeating: Make it a habit to have regular backup intervals.

7. Wrong tracking codes

As alluded to earlier, as soon as customers place an order, they’re already looking forward to receiving it. So when they receive a tracking code, that excitement is only heightened. You don’t want to provide a code that doesn’t work. It’s a great way to lose credibility.

Solution: Test your tracking codes

Make sure that codes are tested before they’re sent to customers. It doesn’t matter if it takes longer to be able to provide a tracking code, as long as you get it right. Having the right tracking information allows customers to manage their expectations. Should any issues arise, they know exactly where it’s stemming from.

8. Time-consuming pick and packing

Pick and packing is the process of taking orders from inventory, grouping them together, and shipping them to the customer. Depending on the systems you have in place, this could be time-consuming, and could add costs.

Solution: Do your research

There are a number of picking and packing methods to choose from, and one that works for some of the biggest retailers may not necessarily work for you. This is why it’s important to allot the time to study the different methods to find what fits your business needs.

Having the right system in place allows the process to be streamlined for warehouse associates, ultimately resulting in better customer experiences.

9. Product returns

The majority of consumers check a retailer’s return policy before making a purchase. But while having a good return and refund policy is integral to great customer service, it can mean additional costs for your business.

Solution: Make your policies easy to understand

Transparency should be standard practice in all aspects of ecommerce, and it’s the same with return policies. Use plain English when explaining your policy, this allows you to set expectations clearly.

This is also where having shipping insurance comes in handy. Do what you can to make the return process as convenient as possible, like providing a return envelope and a pre-printed label for easy returns.

10. Demand planning

Even if you’re just starting out, you need to have a plan for high demand. But predicting consumer buying habits is easier said than done.

Solution: Track your sales trends

Start with the basics—expect surges during holiday seasons. But before that even happens, monitor the movement of your products. If you find a particular product being more popular than others, chances are, this will also be the case during peak season.

Apart from working to understand your sales trends, there are also predictive ordering software solutions that can help small businesses improve their demand forecasting.

Above all, be proactive

It’s easy to overlook when you’re just starting a business, but shipping and fulfillment problems quickly turn into a tremendous concerns. From warehousing, order fulfillment, and international shipping, a lot goes into making sure your products reach your customers.

But while it might seem overwhelming, there are a number of solutions providers that can help you at virtually every step of the way. Make sure you cover all the bases to ensure that your customers don’t turn to your competition.

What shipping and fulfillment issues do you find most challenging? Let us know on Twitter @Bplans.

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Aaron Chichioco

Aaron Chichioco is the managing editor of designdoxa.com. He loves to write about online marketing, ecommerce, and web design. He has a vast experience in overseeing daily operations of several online businesses since 2011. You can follow Aaron on twitter at @Aaron_Chichioco.



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