Mark Van Wye is the COO of Zoom Room Dog Agility Training Center and Canine Social Club where he oversees all day-to-day operations and serves as the director of its national and local marketing and branding activities. Here he takes a moment to share his thoughts on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and keep things running smoothly…and why just being “passionate” isn’t enough…
How does someone know if they have what it takes to own their own business? Tell us a bit about how you made the decision and why.
Starting your own business requires experience, confidence, extraordinary knowledge of your sector and a healthy dose of chutzpah. When someone asks you why your new venture will succeed, answering “I’m so passionate” is never enough. Passion is a wonderful attribute, and you’ll find plenty of it filling the rows in bankruptcy court. You need more. You need a clear head and rational answers to important business decisions. You need to be able to articulate precisely why your business will succeed given the landscape of competitors, economic realities and all other contingencies. The best advice I can offer is to write a thorough business plan; even if you don’t need to apply for financing, write it anyway. Never forget that a cash flow analysis is always more important than simply calculating profit-and-loss.
What is the single strongest piece of advice you would have for someone just starting out in business for themselves?
To run a business effectively, you must be a master of many trades other than your primary business activity. You must be a marketing guru, a shrewd accountant, an affable salesman, a skilled negotiator, a talented graphic designer, an inspired copywriter, an interior decorator, a cutting-edge web programmer, a relentless number cruncher, a visible leader in your community, a darling of the press and so much more. Few, if any, individuals are blessed with this many hats in their closet. Therefore you must learn to delegate and outsource. However, building a staff this extensive is cost prohibitive for most just starting out. That’s why franchising holds such appeal. If you select an excellently run franchise, you are partnering with an entire team of professionals there to support you at an extraordinarily economical price. Don’t settle for second-rate work to reflect your business; your sister-in-law might draw you a logo; your cousin may try his hand at writing press releases. But this is your business. Strive for professionalism in every aspect of your creation.
What marketing strategies have you found to be most successful in growing your business?
Everyone knows the term “social media,” but only experienced business owners understand that there’s no magic bullet. Creating an online presence requires not only an incredible amount of work at the outset, but ongoing daily activity and participation coupled with highly refined tracking and analytics. Few individuals can run the day-to-day operations of their business and still have time to effectively engage online without a profound understanding of the medium. Business owners should be wary of any purported short-cuts; they don’t exist. Many businesses outsource their blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, often to off-shore companies that offer low rates. You get what you pay for; computer-generated posts lack any intimate knowledge of your business -- and more importantly, they lack you... your warmth, your personality, your presence as the face of your business. Social media can be extremely effective at building your brand, but only if you possess the necessary skillset and budget your time to make this a priority.
Business owners are also quick to hand over their money to publishers who boast of incredible circulation rates and impressive demographics. But paid advertising can never compete with great word-of-mouth in your community and genuine editorial coverage. Newspapers and magazines aren’t going to write about you just because you exist. You need to do things that are truly newsworthy and take the focus away from simply trying to sell. If you have a wonderful business, just focus on increasing visibility, and the customers will come.
After the initial start-up phase in business, what obstacles do business owners face as they try to grow their business and remain successful? Any advice for how to overcome those obstacles?
Watch TV, and this time don’t skip past the commercials. Look what all the biggest, most successful companies are doing. Starbucks certainly has developed a fantastic model that works by all measures, but now they’ve moved into emphasizing their breakfast sandwich options; McDonald’s is leveraging their coffee drinks. Even the most established brands are spending millions of dollars every year on R&D, which amounts to re-inventing their proven model on a regular basis. The old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, does not apply to business. My rotary phone wasn’t broken; but I did upgrade to touch tone, as I saw additional benefits. You always need to be true to your brand identity, but you should also always be looking toward the next great thing you will fold into your mix. Updates, upgrades, new product roll-outs -- this is the stuff that keeps client-retention rates up and allows you to have a constant state of buzz about your brand.
And herein lies one of the great differentiating factors among franchises….There are many franchisors out there who have put all their resources into developing a business model that works; now they are selling franchises, and see themselves as receiving passive income. But then there are others who are deeply engaged in all aspects of the day-to-day operations; there are forward-thinking franchisors who are shepherds and evangelists of the brand. While you are running your location, they are spending valuable resources on R&D, coming up with new ways to expand and deepen the business. These are the folks you want to be in business with! When you first start looking at franchises, you will likely find yourself speaking to a salesperson or broker. That’s fine, but make sure that once you’ve qualified yourself you get plenty of face time with the company’s principals. Don’t just ask them what they have done, how their locations are doing -- that’s important, but it’s in the past. Ask them what they’ve got cooking in the pipeline. Ask them what you can look forward to. You’re going to be on this ride together, so it’s important for you to understand their plans to further enrich the brand, no matter how well established it already is.
What is your favorite motto and/or quote when it comes to business? Any words of encouragement and/or inspiration for the budding entrepreneur?
Our brains are wired to always seek the most efficient means of accomplishing a task; however, these impulses don’t always result in the best business decisions. For example, sweeping dirt under a rug requires far less effort than getting out a shop vac, plugging it in, scrubbing the floor and then putting everything away. But that lump under the carpet will only continue to grow until it is an eyesore. Humans are creatures of habit. Be very wary of ever cutting corners, as these half-measures can soon become habits. The day you first stop caring about cleaning streaks off your bathroom mirror, or calling back customers promptly -- this is the day you begin a slow decline into going out of business. Start every day with a fresh pair of eyes, pushing yourself to be the absolute best, and accepting nothing less.
About Mark: Mark has been a business strategist and creative marketing consultant, with an emphasis on education, for more than two decades. He has worked on multiple projects and launches for Microsoft, Nintendo, Disney and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, among many other clients. His principal employer has been the Seattle-based PBJS, a Publicis company, for over a dozen years. Additionally, from 2006 to 2008, he was the Director of Development for the Estate of Nat King Cole, overseeing all new creative projects and marketing efforts. He is a graduate of Amherst College, and holds a graduate degree (MFA) from Smith College.