Owner to Owner: Tracking the Year of Potential Part 1

Editor’s Note: Highlight Printing Owner Lisa Bickford set a goal to build her company’s sales by 35% this year. In this series of articles, which will run every other month, concluding in January 2010, she will share her strategies, setbacks, and successes.

A couple months ago when I met Karen Hall, managing editor of Quick Printing, the most popular question to kick off a conversation was a guarded and worried, “So, how’s business?” My optimism and energy filled answer was so completely against grain that she asked me if I would be willing to share our efforts and progress through 2009. Long story short…contract signed…and here I am: An amateur writer and professional printer, writing an honest account of our sales and marketing journey in our quest for 35% sales growth in 2009.

A Little Background

My husband and I were both veteran printers when we bought 11-year-old Highlight Printing in July of 1996. For the next four or five years all was good—interest rates kept dropping, the economy kept getting better, and sales kept going up. Very cool way to start a business.

We grew from about $550,000 in 1996 to $1.15 million in 2001. Then the bottom fell out. Some would say it was the economy, but we are more pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own-bootstraps folks, so we took more of the blame on ourselves. We had had some significant employee turnover that year, we gave birth to twin baby girls in March of 2002 (a happy time, but since we were both critical to day-to-day operations, it created quite a gap in the office when I was gone), and we had been battling a “bad” offset printing press for two years. Needless to say, we were not prepared to aggressively fight back.

Fast forward to 2008: Both the business and our management style had matured greatly in our first 12 years. We were poised for growth: We had great equipment, an ever expanding range of capabilities, and staff and processes in place that allowed us to be more forward thinking. We had also purchased our own building, were almost debt free, and—primarily through word of mouth—our sales had well exceeded 2001 numbers.

So after a record breaking first five months of 2008, we decided to promote a promising customer service professional to become our very first outside sales representative and invest the time and energy into formulating our first ever sales and marketing plan. Little did we know when we decided on this course of action how perfect our timing was. We were not only preparing ourselves to grow—we were preparing ourselves to fight back!

Our 35% Growth Goal

Having spent the last six or seven months of 2008 coordinating our sales and marketing plan, we came into 2009 with guns blazing. We have never lost our energy and love for this crazy business and, after careful evaluation, decided to simply ignore the fact that we were right smack in the middle of the economic meltdown of all meltdowns. We have a very collaborative, can do, goal oriented group here, and in a planning meeting it was our plant manager who suggested the overall goal of doubling our sales in three years (big enough to be a “player” and small enough to stay personal). The foundation was built, the sales and marketing plan was in place, and the energy to win was in the air.

We decided there was no time like the present to put our collective noses to the grindstone and get a good jump on the three year plan. That’s how the 35% goal came about.

Sales and Marketing Journey

Like many small business owners, we decided to tackle this on our own rather than hiring a marketing firm. Although a marketing firm probably would have helped us launch faster and with more precision, for us, I think this has been the correct path so far. We may hire a marketing firm at some point to review and refine our plan.

At first our list of tools in our sales and marketing toolbox included:

  • Direct Sales
  • Targeted Mailings
  • Client Events
  • Community Service

With a little bit of:

  • Online Marketing and Communications
  • Passive Marketing (signage and whatnot)

Now it includes this:

  • Direct Sales
  • Targeted Mailings
  • Client Events
  • Community Service
  • Online Marketing and Communications
  • Online Networking
  • Traditional Networking
  • Passive Marketing (signage and whatnot)

With a little bit of this:

  • PR
  • Trade Shows
  • Advertising

Our original sales and marketing plan was more traditional…targeted mailings, follow-up calls, appointments, follow-up mailings, and the “stay-in-touch” approach. I am still not convinced that this is not the fastest, most effective, best method. We would have two people “hitting the streets” under this scenario—one full time sales rep and me. These efforts were to be supported by an updated but not SEO’d website and all sorts of printed materials for mailings, handouts, etc. You know the routine…the same one we printers have been using for years.

Our sales plan really hasn’t changed, but our marketing plan has evolved to include more online marketing and online and traditional networking efforts than I ever could have imagined. In August we went to a presentation to learn a little more about search engine optimization (SEO) to finally and absolutely cross it off our list of “first-priority” marketing options to consider. Well, wouldn’t you know it—that one presentation has changed our marketing focus for the past eight months. Hiring someone to handle our search engine optimization was relatively easy and inexpensive. What we hadn’t counted on was how starting down this path would “suck us in.”

Here we are eight months later, the SEO part is done (needing tidbits of on-going attention), but I am spending probably 20 hours a week on online marketing and online networking. Additionally, between our salesperson and me, we are now either members or considering membership in eight groups ranging from the NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business; low participation requirements) to BNI (Business Networking International; weekly networking meetings).

How’s It Going So Far?

Traditional Efforts: While my online efforts have distracted me from the more traditional sales and marketing plan, my salesperson has seen some success with the more traditional methods. And really, now that I think about it, the groundwork for most new sales we had in the first quarter was laid in the fourth quarter of last year, when we were just launching our plan and it had not yet morphed to include much in the way of online marketing and networking. Chalk one up for the traditional methods.

Traditional + updated efforts: We are making contacts and creating buzz like never before, but at the end of the day, is it increasing sales? Current wisdom says it will, but we are just now starting to see the fruits of our labor. We hope to spend the time building a foundation that won’t need as much tending once all of the pieces are in place. Hopefully, I am on the threshold of that right now, so I can get back in the sales groove.

Sales stats: As mentioned above, while our efforts are starting to get some traction (sales from new clients are responsible for approx 25% of our sales in the first quarter), overall sales are down 6% from the same time last year in the first quarter. Truth be told, it makes our goals of 35% growth seem more distant than it did when we decided on it in January, but I shudder to think of where we would be if we hadn’t started our sales and marketing plan when we did. A paper rep recently told me that print sales are down 30% overall in our area! All I can say is that we are workin’ it hard, and this is an honest account of our ups and downs.

If there is one thing we have learned so far it is that online marketing is not the be all/end all, effortless, inexpensive path to sales success that current wisdom sometimes portrays it to be. If I am correct in thinking the online foundation is a hurdle to get over that won’t require as much time in the future, we are moving down the right path. If it continues to take up as much time as it is presently taking, we will either have to hire someone to help or it will have to take a backseat to traditional sales efforts.

I think traditional sales efforts create faster results. That being said, we are betting the whole pot that the dovetailing of online and traditional efforts will be exponentially more successful than either method alone.

Our goal for the second quarter is to keep the energy up and better manage the time and effort put towards our online marketing and networking efforts so we have more time to integrate the traditional sales and marketing efforts back into our plan more fully.

I look forward to reconnecting with you all in August!

Lisa Bickford is president of Highlight Printing in Minneapolis, MN. Contact her at 612.522.7600 or lisab@highlightprinting.com. Want more regular updates on Lisa’s progress? Visit her blog at http://mnbusinessprintinganddirectmail.wordpress.com/.