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Standing for the tiny business sector

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=paperboy&iid=75238″ src=”0072/8b6b57a7-cc06-4e2d-b8ac-6459166865c6.jpg?adImageId=8110054&imageId=75238″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]There exists a business segment that I’d like to hear and read about more – the tiny business sector.  Businesses with 10 employees or less. Businesses with only one person – the solo-preneur.  Just like the newsboy in the photo, there are millions of people working [or trying to] around the world to make their living out of their home office or garage or a corner of the kitchen.  Or they have a small shop downtown with two or three employees.   You don’t read about federal government bailouts for owners of lemonade stands or taco lunch trucks do you?

I’ve been noticing some articles around the news that seem to be addressing small business, but most seem to be in the jobs creation department rather than the stimulating more consumer spending department which is what the tiny business sector needs.  One interesting article is at  The Huffington Post [dot com], written December 3 by Shahien Nasiripour and titled, “No Easy Jumpstart to Get Small Business Hiring Again.”  There was one spot in the article that caught my attention and I thought was right on the money [so-to-speak]:

  • “…The two leading small-business advocacy organizations – the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and the National Small Business Association (NSBA) – have differing views. The NSBA points to the lack of credit as one of its top priorities. But in a report released last month based on survey data, the NFIB noted that while its members were having difficulty getting loans, it was far from a top priority. ‘Too many [business] owners have no reason to borrow,’ the authors wrote. ‘The biggest problem was a dearth of customers.’…” [note: I kept Mr. Nasiripour’s links intact in this excerpt except one]

What I want to point out is the last statement of that excerpt: “…’The biggest problem was a dearth of customers.’…” – For the tiny business sector getting a business loan seems pointless…what for?  What we need are customers, cash-in-hand paying consumers.  I read a comment on an article somewhere yesterday [forgive my faulty memory as I’m fighting a cold and laryngitis this week] that suggested the U.S. federal government give all taxpayers a monthly ATM card pre-filled with $500 that has to be spent within the 30 days.  The idea was given as a way to boost consumer spending.  An interesting one.

Another article I found today at the Wall Street Journal online by Diana Ransom and titled, “The White House Works It,” summarizes the most recent ideas to create jobs.  Small business owners, about 130 of them, were among those who met at the White House with others representing differing business segments and sectors.  But in looking at those top ideas, none seemed to benefit the tiny business sector – the one sector most probably not expected to be part of  job creation.  The top ideas from the article:

  1. Work Share Tax Credit – the one comment I found relevant was “…Micro-businesses (firms with fewer than 20 employees) would likely be left out, says Dean Baker, a co-director at the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “Presumably, you would want to aid firms other than ones that employ close friends and family members,” he says….”
  2. Jobs Tax Credit – solo-preneur businesses will not benefit from this as this type of business does not hire or job share.
  3. ‘Cash for Caulkers’ “…Depending on how many property owners take up the initiative, the plan could not only provide jobs to the hard-hit construction sector, it would limit carbon emissions and reduce owners’ energy costs….” My thought on this one was that if you had a fellow who was an independent contractor, this could be a help to him…and I know two personally; however, this idea does depend on property owners having the budget to hire the work done. [As an aside, it is one thing to offer home owners tax incentives to participate in this type of initiative, but the reality is that they still must have the budget to afford it in the first place.]
  4. Public Works Projects – This one might be valuable to solo-preneurs if there are people with their own business who have these skills and if the initiative would include the solo-preneur.
  5. Payroll Tax Holiday – again this idea is vested in job creation rather than increasing consumer spending.
  6. Capitalizing Community Banks “…would give small businesses a greater chance of landing loans…” – this idea is grounded in the getting loans for expansion which would result in more hiring.  Tiny businesses might need loans for improvement or supplies…what about that kind of loan?

As followers of this weblog may have noted, recently I changed my own solo-preneur business from that as an independent distributor of a direct selling company’s product to being the direct seller of my own [art] product(s).  Life is a journey and it has been interesting to me to watch my own understandings and ‘light bulb’ moments as my business has grown and changed.  I have friends who remain in that other business and this past year their customers have been buying less or dropping as customers altogether.  If any reader is familiar with the art market, for the home-based artist-preneur, the art market for the past two to three years has been like a desert.  I participated in a huge Open Studios tour in 2008 that the previous year had been a financial success for many artists…last year sales were dismal and attendance was down 50%.  People just weren’t buying art.  Even the artists at the event who normally can expect a portion of their annual income went home greatly disappointed and in the red.

So. In all the plans and discussions about economic recovery and helping small business, where are the ideas for the tiny business sector and for jump-starting consumer spending?

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Making the case that Artists are Direct Sellers

Or: I’m making the case that I am an Artist [specifically a visual artist: mosaic and painting] and see my business as a direct selling business.  First, a couple definitions to help this conversation along:

"The Jazz Player" acrylic painting by Linda C Smith

"The Jazz Player" acrylic painting by Linda C Smith

  • Artist: first some quotes: “…What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit….  ~John Updike”  and my personal favorite: “…I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for….  ~Georgia O’Keeffe” – my personal definition of “artist” is someone who translates what they see either outside themselves or from within themselves through artistic media – could be paint, pencil, mosaic tiles, dance, music, poetry, prose, photography and more.  I think being an artist is something you have to do…like having no choice.
  • Direct Selling: the best definition comes from DirectSelling411 : “…Direct selling is the sale of a consumer product or service, person-to-person, away from a fixed retail location, marketed through independent sales representatives who are sometimes also referred to as consultants, distributors or other titles….”

Taking these two definitions then, you could say that the artist creates a consumer product and then sells that product person-to-person through shows, festivals, physical galleries and online galleries.  I consider a gallery to be a direct selling situation rather than a fixed retail location as purchasing a work of art is nothing like purchasing a gallon of milk.  In a gallery setting it takes person-to-person interaction between the gallery personnel and the prospective purchaser.  There are quite a few artist-owned galleries, so this is even more the case.

Having stated my case it’s my contention, as a business person, that it would benefit artists if they did a bit of learning as regards direct selling.

(1) How to do direct marketing: “…Direct marketing is a method used to distribute advertising and marketing materials such as catalogs, brochures or other items to consumers through mail, e-mail, telemarketing or other methods. Direct selling is NOT direct marketing.…”[again from DS411].  This is an important distinction and often the two get confused.  The key word is “marketing.”  Marketing is giving people information so that they can make an informed buying decision.  Once you’ve given someone information about your product [marketing materials] you still have to engage them in a buying situation [selling].

(2) How to be an effective direct seller: I found at the DirectSelling 411 site, in the FAQs for selling, a list of points that I think would be valuable for anyone to adopt [this list is copied and has my annotations in italics]:

  • Tell your potential customers who you are, why you’re approaching them and what products you are selling.believe it or not, I’ve seen artists at outdoor shows who stand in their booths with their artwork and never engage the people who come to look…these are prospective art buyers who need to know who you are, why they need your work and what you have available.
  • Explain how to return a product or cancel an order.this is as valid in an art transaction as for any other type of consumer product.  Sometimes an art buyer will get a work home then discover it just doesn’t “work” for them…art is “subjective” and human emotion has much to do with the initial purchase and the purchase retention.
  • Respect the privacy of your customers by calling at a time that is convenient for them.- this is good, basic business advice.
  • Promptly end a demonstration or presentation at the request of your customers.- some artists will take a selection of works to a prospective buyer’s home and do a “presentation;” this is good business advice.
  • Provide accurate and truthful information regarding the price, quality, quantity, performance, and availability of your product or service.- in the art world, consistency of pricing is often a difficult animal to master; sometimes a buyer will be interested in a work you have displayed, but wish it were in another color combination – as the art business person, you have to know what you will and won’t do for a client…and if you do it for one, you’ll have to offer it for others.
  • Offer a written receipt in language your customers can understand.this may, or may not, be an issue in an artist’s business; having said that, if you are an English speaker and are doing shows in a community where another language is predominant, you might want to offer materials in that language.  Some American artists travel to Italy, for instance, for shows…this might be good business in this case.
  • Provide your name and contact information, as well as the contact information of the company you represent.- you would be amazed at the number of artists who do not provide this valuable information to buyers of their work…referral sales are as important for artists’ “products” as for any other consumer products.
  • Offer a complete description of any warranty or guarantee.as an artist, do you offer services after the purchase such as fixing damage?  Everything needs to be clearly outlined and understood between the artist and the buyer.

It’s difficult for some artists to put aside the fuzzy feel goods of getting their hands paint splattered and exchanging that for the cold realities of doing business.  However if an artist has decided to make a business of their work and efforts, then the two hats must be worn.  The business hat needs to fit as well as the creative one.  There is much more that goes into a discussion of art plus business; but for me, it helped to define my home-based business as a direct selling enterprise.  I could then further define what I needed to know and what skills I needed to learn to have a balanced business: creating work on one side and marketing and selling it on the other.

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Customers want more than products and services

Customers purchase the products we sell.  Customers pay for the services our business provides as a product offering.  For instance, customers of an independent contractor for a cosmetic direct selling company will purchase products: lipsticks, blush, skin creams and other related items in the product line.  In another example, customers of an independent consultant for an insurance direct selling company will purchase both a product (insurance package) and services (ongoing consultation).

Rarely, however, do customers only buy the product or the service.  Customers also want:

  • personal attention
  • ongoing relationship
  • loyalty
  • customer service

One very important way that any business can grow is by increasing its customer base and one way to do that is by customer referral.  A satisfied customer is likely to tell his or her family and friends about:

  1. a great product or service they’ve purchased
  2. the positive purchasing experience they enjoyed
  3. satisfactory follow-up customer service they’ve received

Personal Attention – this is a golden opportunity at the point of sale between the business person and the customer.  At this particular point in time, the customer is very important.  This customer has the potential of representing many more potential customers [those possible referrals].   During this transaction:

  • don’t rush the encounter; if this is a buying situation, take time to make sure the customer has all the information needed to make an informed buying decision: have you made the customer aware of all the color options?  Size options?  Flavors?  Any other information about the product(s) that could influence whether they purchase or not?  If this is a service, such as an insurance consultation, try to have the customer feel as though they are a valued contact and not just another “sale.”  Take time to get to know your customer: what are their goals and objectives for the consultation?  Have you given them enough information for them to receive full benefit from the consultation?
  • be gracious and courteous – this person has value to your business and deserves the niceties of please and thank you and is there any other way I may serve you?  All too often it is easy to forget that as business people we need our customers, they don’t need us…not specifically us unless we are the only business on the planet offering our products or services and even then they could always do without.

Ongoing Relationship – this concept is especially true of people who are independent contractors with direct selling companies…you rely on repeat business – you need your customers to buy-use-buy again your products and services.  This is also true of many professional types of businesses: doctors, lawyers, dentists.  As business owner, you want to develop an ongoing relationship with current customers:

  • check in with your customers at some time-frame after their purchase: (a) to make sure they don’t have any lingering questions; (b) don’t already need to buy more or upgrade or add to/on; (c) to let them know you appreciated their business.
  • if appropriate for your business, send your customer list holiday greeting cards, birthday or anniversary congratulations; also, remind your customers of annual appointments, or tune-ups or upgrades in service.

Loyalty – this is a concept we often think customers ought to have towards our business.  I propose that the opposite is true: we should be loyal to our customers.

  • alert your current customers to new offerings, improved products or services before anyone else will hear the news…give your customers the opportunity to purchase something new and/or improved first…even offer a discount if appropriate.  This will make your customers feel valued.
  • alert your customers to important changes in your business: location, times of available service, new ways of contact – maybe you have a website where they can purchase from your business.  Make sure your customers always have up-do-date and pertinent information regarding your business so they (a) feel as though you find them of value to your business and (b) they have the information they need to keep coming back as customers.  There is nothing worse than finding out that a longtime customer referred your business to a friend only to have the friend not be able to contact you because you neglected to keep the customer informed on a change of phone number, or website address or email address or physical location.

Customer Service – every business of every type and stripe needs excellent customer service protocols.  When a customer has an issue with your products or services they need to be able to get these issues resolved satisfactorily.  That old saw of the customer’s always right is not correct; however, customers deserve:

  • attention to problems with products and services– it’s never fun to have to make an exchange or refund a purchase price, but two things are important to remember: (1) a disgruntled customer will tell others about their dissatisfaction and could lose you both current customers and future customers and (2) your business’ reputation is on the line.  If you offer a refund policy then honor it; if you offer 24-hour service, then abide by it.
  • attention to shipping and delivery issues – make sure your business has a function built-in to deal with shipping and delivery mishaps.  This has to do with good faith.  For those businesses whose products are shipped and delivered by outside vendors, realize that the customer has paid for the products and in good faith expects that you will see they are delivered in a timely and safe manner.  When something goes wrong, offer a replacement.  Not only that, offer the replacement sent 2nd day air.  The point is to keep that good faith with your customer.  Again, its your business’ reputation on the line.

As business owners, we know that our customers are our life blood…without customers to purchase our goods and services we have no business.  Value your customers and see them as part of your family of commerce.

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One way home business can use Facebook

I haven’t written about internet marketing previous to this…but thought I’d jump in with one small way in which a home-based business might utilize Facebook.  I don’t think I need to iterate what Facebook is…it’s been around long enough.  But what you might not know is what value it might have for you, the home-based business owner.

This was brought to mind this morning by an article in the business section of my newspaper which talks about “Facebook privacy to tighten.”  [This article has to do with third-party applications access to Facebook member info.]  However, it got me to thinking about Facebook and business.

I have a couple of recommendations to home-based business owners as to marketing their business using the internet:

  • have a presence on Facebook
  • have a LinkedIn account
  • have a Twitter account
  • write a blog about your business
  • if appropriate have either (a) a website for your business you’ve designed yourself, or (b) a replicated business website that is provided by the company you represent [this is the case with many direct selling companies – you are an independent contractor, but are prohibited from developing your own website for their products; however for a small fee, you can have a website developed by the parent company that links to and benefits your individual business.]
  • write articles and submit to Ezinearticles for instance

Each of these has a value, but I wanted to talk about Facebook in this post.  If you are utilizing all the above for your business as part of your internet marketing strategy, then everything must link back to a “home base.”  I’m going to suggest that your home base is either your business website, or your business blog.  You have to have somewhere you want people to end up so that they can either:

  • get information about your business
  • purchase product or services from your business
  • communicate with you about your business

If you have a Facebook account, there are a couple of ways you can do this.  The profile feature allows you to talk about yourself, give contact information and list websites to visit.  For the purpose of your business, have this account be just that: business.  Don’t load it up with games and trivia.  Make it very easy for someone to see that you have a business and where you can be found on the internet and how you can be contacted.

If you write a blog, there is an application that will put the new title of your latest blog post into the status update of your Facebook account.  There is also an application that will put the post in its entirety in the “notes” section of your profile so that people can read it there.  You can also link your Twitter updates to your Facebook account.  At a glance, someone looking at your Facebook profile could:

  • see that you are a business person and have a business
  • get a description of your business
  • find a website address for your online business presence
  • get the latest status update of your business – whether you’ve updated a status via Twitter [for instance just released a new product and you “tweeted” about that] and/or you have a new blog post related to your business
  • if you made it available, they could see an email address and/or phone number to contact you

Facebook offers ways to relate to other Facebook users through “friend” acquisition, joining or starting groups, making comments in groups…building relationships.

Doing business utilizing internet marketing techniques and tools requires coordination.  Know why you would use any application and know where you want the viewer to end up and why…do you want to inform them?  Give them access to an online store?  Know your business and know your reason.  And my advice is to include Facebook as one of your tools.  [this is just my advice, not an endorsement]

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Home-based business owner’s take on the headlines

The really HUGE things of the universe seem to be beyond the ken of the solo-preneur, home-based business person.  After all…there is nothing my little business is going to do to affect the way the U.S. congress votes…there is no reason for any of those fine folks to take me to dinner in the hopes of garnering my vote and that of my employees for some bit of pork barrel legislation.  I don’t have employees.  There’s just me.

However, the doings of the universe can, and sometimes do, effect my micro-business.  This global economic slow-down is a real bummer because not only do I conduct commerce in my local geographical area, I am now seeking commerce via the world wide web.  I’ve chosen to overhaul my business…I’m still a proponent of direct selling.  I still am passionate about the products I previously shared information about with others.  But after writing about business for nearly two years and after reading about business for far longer, I decided to take the advice of making my business that which I am most passionate about.  For me that is my art.  I’m an artist and I am now making my art my product line. I have both paintings and and photo prints available.  I am the manufacturer, in a manner of speaking, of the products I represent.  The many skills learned in the world of direct selling remain quite valuable because I believe artists are in the direct selling business.

Headlines in the newspaper the other day that caught my attention:

  • Reader’s Digest files for bankruptcy protection” – say it isn’t so!  I’ve read this little publication for as long as I have been able to read.  My grandparents and my parents were subscribers.  My most favorite feature was the ‘drama in real life’ stories.  I remember when the magazine was thick and full of dozens of articles and stories.  I remember that it would take a few days to read it all.  Recently I thumbed through an issue [which was very thin] and was disappointed to see the preponderance of advertisements.  And now this.  Remember the Reader’s Digest Condensed books?  When my mom passed away a few years ago, I took boxes of her collection of those books to the thrift store.
  • “Sporting Chance” – in this world of shaky economics, it is heartening and hopeful to hear of the start up of a new business.  MakeItPro is a web-based business that is based not far from where I live in the Bay Area of California.  In the ‘about’ section of the website they say of themselves:   “…MakeItPro™ is the only sports destination in existence that is a total resource, marketplace and interactive social network for athletes, fans, coaches and parents — anywhere on the planet.…” What I think is so cool about this is that (a) this is a NEW business starting at a time when that might seem risky, and (b) it seems to be a NEW idea…a new niche.  Who knew that someone could still come up with something new and cool-to-boot?

Two news headlines and stories, two very different flavors.  What a world we live in.

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Do you know what a consumer is?

The morning business section of my newspaper has a top headline speaking about how awful sales have been and will be in the retail world.  Funny, to me this isn’t news, it’s just reality.  News ought to be something we didn’t already know…hence making it new. But I digress.

Associated Press writer Christopher S. Rugaber makes the case that “…consumers may have too many worries….” Some of the issues facing consumers that Rugaber notes are:

  • “…unemployment
  • flat wages
  • tighter credit
  • fear of layoffs
  • the urge to save
  • shrinking home equity
  • stock portfolios….” [causing disappointment – my addition]

I totally agree with his assessment.  I’m both a business person and a consumer and feel the crunch in both areas.

  • unemployment – this is a fear that affects many of my neighbors…the fear of suddenly having no income influences whether someone spends the money they currently have.  Someone I’ve spoken with recently said she frequently shops at Ross-Dress for Less, a discount chain of clothing stores [and household items].  Her comment was that people she knows are leery of spending money anywhere else because they are afraid they might not have a job and the holidays are just around the corner…and yet, the new school year has begun.  Unemployment is a huge fear factor in consumer spending choices.  I can agree with that.
  • flat wages – this one hits close to home.  I have family members who received zero raises this year.  Consumer prices have risen, but income has not.  It is beginning to cost the most of a $5 bill to purchase one loaf of bread – at full price.  [in the 1950’s it was less than 50 cents.]   As a consumer, I find myself choosing the sale price on brands I’d rather not buy because the brand I’d rather have is just too expensive.  When people’s income is flat and prices rise the phrase “too expensive” creeps into even grocery shopping…not just luxury items.
  • tighter credit – this is one area to which I won’t spend much time…we use credit sparingly…credit is, after all, simply spending money you don’t yet have…it has to be paid back – with interest.  My humble prediction is that the 2009 holiday retail shopping experience is going to reflect consumers desire to use credit less than before.
  • fear of layoffs…this one is huge.  I know of a young couple who are right now having to consider the wisdom of the husband’s changing jobs...his current employer recently offered a slew of early retirement packages as a way of reducing their workforce [and payroll] and there is the ever-present specter of layoffs.  Also, the new position being looked at is no sure thing…if he did get a position there, would that job be assured?  There is no sure thing.  Another young couple I know did have layoff shadow their lives this year.  Last year all was good…the husband even got a raise and a pat-on-the-back for work well done…and this year he got a pink slip.  Fear of layoff is very real…it definitely keeps money in the pocket.
  • the urge to save – as a consumer I am finding myself desiring to have money left in my pocket at the end of the month.  The shaky economy has me worried enough that I’m going to have to save money in order to (1) be able to purchase those items I truly do want and (2) have a hedge against the financial unknown.
  • shrinking home equity and stock portfolios I’ll admit I’m not qualified to give opinions on.  We do own our home; we bought 7 years ago and have seen the value of the homes in our neighborhood rise to almost ridiculous heights and then plummet.  As for stocks…I’m just not willing to take the risk at this time…I’m not willing to divide my pool of available money and risk any portion of it.

So.  A consumer is all of us. We all buy.  We buy to have food, shelter, transportation and health care.  We buy  clothing.  We have to use our money to make repairs on cars, appliances and other items around our homes.  We have to make hard choices when our economic future is questionable.

Right now a consumer is:

  • a person not sure if his or her paycheck is secure
  • someone unsure if his or her savings will cover a sudden job loss or wage reduction
  • men and women facing hard choices in how to spend precious money reserves…or whether to spend them at all
  • people who are being careful

In my own business, my home-based direct selling business, I appreciate that my customers [consumers] are being careful in how they spend their money.  I appreciate that my products are a good value for the price.  I greatly appreciate that one of the “products” of my business is the income opportunity of having a home-based business…and that right now it doesn’t cost anything for signup.  As a business person I appreciate what the economic climate is from a consumer’s point-of-view.

What is your definition of a consumer and do you see the remaining quarter of 2009 as challenging for consumers?

***that was pretty heavy, wasn’t it?  Here’s something more refreshing, so-to-speak:

Tune in next Wednesday, August 19th, at 9pm ET, CNBC and Fortune Magazine will present the “Fastest Growing Companies of 2009” – profiling the hot profit engines that could make you rich. Among the companies profiled during the hour are: BlackRock, Chipotle, Arena Resources, Deckers Outdoor Corporation – and more. The companies are ranked on revenue, earnings growth, and their stock returns over the past three years.
See which sectors of the economy are still booming and go inside the hot companies that are taking full advantage of their position by posting sizzling growth in a slow-growth world.

CNBC Managing Editor, Tyler Mathisen and Fortune Magazine Managing Editor, Andy Serwer will co-host the primetime special, which premieres Aug 19 at 9P ET.

Fortune_300x250_PRE

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3 “D” tools you bring to your business

If you have a home-based business your business toolbox probably contains such essentials as a telephone, computer, calculator, calendar/planner, business cards and promotional materials...even mundane tools like pens and pencils.  If your business is a home-based direct selling business you probably also have tools such as cds, dvds, [these as promotional giveaways and also for your own motivation and inspiration], a car; maybe even a sales-oriented placard for your car door or decal for the window.  And certainly you keep product on hand for demonstration and quick retail sale.  These are all fantastic tools and your business building would be handicapped without them.

There is, however, a more important dimension to your business toolbox: the 3 “D” tools that you bring to your business from within yourself:

  • Dreams
  • Drive
  • Determination

It can be argued that without these tools, your business will go nowhere.

1.  Dreams:  without your dreams…which you translate into a vision for your business and your reasons why you have the business…without your dreams you operate in a fog.  It is a truism that to know you’ve arrived somewhere, you have to have first determined you wanted to get there.  Or, put another way, if you don’t know where you’re going…you’ll get nowhere.  The sure goal you can achieve is the one you never set. You can’t go to the office supply store to purchase Dreams…these come from within you.  And your dreams are an essential 3 “D” tool for your business.

2.  Drive: the drive you bring to your business will cause you to sustain a forward motion to the realization of your dreams.  Without this important 3 “D” tool, your dreams will just sit there.  It is very much like putting your car in “drive” in order for the vehicle to move…it will sit in the driveway if the only setting is “park.”  Same is true of your business.  If you don’t pull Drive out of your internal toolbox, there will be no forward motion; you’ll end up being one of those who say “I want to want to succeed.”  Wanting to want to simply isn’t enough.

3.  Determination: This 3 “D” tool is the firm, fixed intention to arrive at a certain end or destination.  Determination married with Drive will allow you to achieve Dreams using the vehicle of your business. This tool says ‘I’m going to pay off my car loan this calendar year through the proceeds of my home-based business.’  Drive will take this intention and move it forward.  This goal is one part of your stated Dreams.

Be sure not to neglect the tools that reside within yourself when building and operating your business.  The tools you have inside add a dimensionality that no amount of technology can provide.   Technology needs to be operated and directed…the operator is you and the direction comes from you.

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