Most people who start a small business do at least one thing well. For restaurateurs, it’s usually cooking. For painters, it’s wielding a paint brush. For affiliate marketers, it’s often building a Web site that pleases customers.
But too many small businesses fail because the owner isn’t good at something else: running a small business.
To succeed as an affiliate, it takes a lot more than posting links. Here are 10 tips for getting off to a good start with your affiliate marketing effort.
1. The Business Plan
If you do not care where you are going, any road will get you there. But if you want to start a successful affiliate business, you need a business plan. It’s a document that will guide you on a monthly basis to see if you’re reaching your goals and, if not, what you need to change.
Does this sound like a homework assignment? Well, it is. If you’re going to invest time, money and effort in building an affiliate marketing business, give yourself every opportunity to succeed. Preparing a plan will make you focus on those elements that highlight your strengths and improve weaker areas.
What are the elements? Product development, marketing, sales, operations, personnel, finance and management are the components to be included. It’s a document that will help determine your financing, credit history, collateral and whether you can repay a lender (if that’s your direction). You will also review your organizational plan, legal structure and the other important parts.
It will help you answer the tough questions: What’s your strategy? Have you done a market analysis? Have you done a break-even analysis to know your minimum bottom line? What about tax information? What will you tell the bankers?
How you write the document is also important, so get a good book on the subject to guide you. Short is better. Keep the whole document, if possible, to about eight or 10 pages.
2. Grants and Financing
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked as a SCORE counselor is, “How can I get a grant?” It is usually prefaced by something like “My wife is a minority …” or “We are a woman-owned business.”
The reason people seek a “grant” is because it doesn’t need to be repaid. So, if you want one, ask yourself why someone would want you to have it. What are you offering for that grant? What improvement will you be developing?
There are thousands of programs, funds and grants that have been created by federal, state and local governments. In addition, there are foundations and organizations that offer grants. It is impossible to try to list them. There are many programs for minority- and women-owned businesses. States love businesses that will create new jobs
Just about every major government department offers some kind of assistance to small business owners. For foundations, try FoundationCenter.org, which is quite extensive. Read your local newspapers, check out specialized magazines and network with local groups to learn about small grants.
If you’re seeking a loan, let it be known the SBA does not make loans directly to businesses. They work through banks.
3. Need Help?
Where do you start to find a great employee? You know what the job requires, so write down the tasks in the order of importance. With that, you have the basics of a “job description.” The U.S. Department of Labor has published a book called Dictionary of Occupational Titles available at your local library and the nearest state labor department office. This book contains complete job descriptions by title, saving you the work.
You need this to find the person with the right skills; to describe the job duties to the applicant; and to follow the duties over time, readjusting as needed. Your state agency will write the job description when you list the opening. Also, the labor department is an excellent and free source to find the applicants that are most suitable to perform the tasks. They also list openings online.
Be aware that most jobs are filled by word of mouth. That’s an effective way to recruit, but you must be good at finding out the qualifications of the person (See next topic.)
Keep the job description; it will help you to supervise the employee later.
4. Ask Good Questions
Whether you need information to complete a task, to interview a potential employee or to buy a new computer, it is essential to know your goal. When asking questions, you’ll narrow the scope of your questions to obtain the information needed.
The more technical the project, the more you pinpoint your questioning. You knew that.
When interviewing a job applicant, most of the data will be at your fingertips after you read the resume and application form. You’ll need other information, but there are legal requirements about what you may ask.
To stay within the boundaries, ask open-ended questions such as “Tell me what you liked best about that position” or “Will the hours present any problem?” Avoid asking about ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, politics and other personal areas.
Check your local labor department for more information on what you can and can’t ask during an interview. It may help you avoid some big problems later.
5. The Home Office
Most affiliates work at home, but many never set up an area dedicated to that work.
Prepare your work area in a professional manner. Working on the dining room table over a long period of time isn’t the answer. Have a specific area that the family or colleagues know is your “office,” even if it’s a corner of the living room or a closet.
The convenience of a home work area is well known. However, family and friends need to respect the privacy and the hours you indicate you’ll be working. Keep your work life separate.
Get a separate business phone that’s off limits to family except in an emergency. Get call-waiting so you don’t miss calls.
Will you have occasional business visitors? If possible, arrange an entrance to your “office” that avoids family areas.
6. Manage Your Site
Didn’t anyone tell you it would be a full-time job? Update your site by adding fresh content at least two or three times a week. That will keep it interesting to visitors.
Repair broken links regularly. Tweak the appearance to make the site faster, more logically organized and easier for customers to navigate.
As you start to get questions from customers, add the information they’re asking to an online list of frequently asked questions. That will cut down on questions from other customers.
Have friends visit the site and test it for you. If you listen closely, they’ll give you important clues on how to make it better.
If you do these things yourself, you’ll reduce your maintenance costs. But make sure you have the skills and knowledge to do them right.
7. Hire an Accountant
So you’re not an accountant? Nor a bookkeeper? You may need an accountant to do your taxes, and you also may need one to guide you in keeping records.
Start by discussing your business with an accountant familiar with small businesses. You can do this record keeping via computer programs or the old-fashioned way: paper workbooks. Just be sure you are including all the elements needed for tax purposes.
If you are going to do this yourself, a lot of discipline is going to be required. Keep a mileage book in your car and use it each time you go on a business-related trip.
Keep all those receipts. At least once a week, record income, and expenses. Not only does this keep you from falling way behind, it keeps you alert to your business plan progress.
Check your bank and credit card statements carefully to be sure you haven’t missed anything. And meet with your accountant at least quarterly to make sure you’re still on track.
8. Market Your Site
Your Web site is your store. And it’s your job to get people into your store. Make sure your packaging is clear, well organized and attractive. Proofread everything before you put it on. Check word usage carefully. (Do you mean compliment or complement?)
Do you have an electronic and paper brochure describing your business? Bring it along when you go to meetings, public events or conferences, and be sure to network with people.
Develop a publicity plan listing key messages about your company. Where are the best media outlets for your story? Online newsletters and local radio and TV shows are some ideas. Don’t be shy about calling them.
Send press releases to local media to announce your new online business, but be sure there is newsworthy information included. (It’s newsworthy if you would want to read it about some other business.) Follow up a few days later with a phone call asking if they saw the release and ask the news desk if you can provide further information.
Can you afford banner ads on other Web sites? At the least, be sure you have a poster with your Web site in the back window of your car.
Maintain a customer mailing list (email and snail), and use it often.
Get a book on marketing for a lot of other practical and inexpensive ideas.
9. Know Thy Competitor
This logical step is basic when going into business. Let’s explore where you can find out about your competition. Demographic studies are available at state, county and municipal centers. You’ll find facts about most businesses in the area. Look around at the area.
Using your common sense, you can talk to suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, salespeople, public officials, customers, trade organizations and can find out just about anything you need to know. Be their customer. Work for the competition. Ask them directly.
What is all this nosing about going to tell you? It tells you what they are doing right and how you can do it better, and the reverse. It shows how they do business, where they advertise, buy supplies, find help. It answers who their customers are; what their prices and discounts are; whether they give more quantity or quality; how many of them there are; and what kind of reputation they have.
These steps should give you lots to work with and improve upon. The more you do, the more likely that you and your venture will be successful.
10. Get Legal Advice
How would you know when you need a lawyer?
You need one to decipher legal language, when you’re faced with legal action, when you enter long-term agreements or when you purchase property or a business. You also may need one for taxes, patents, copyrights and, of course, lawsuits.
Legally, you don’t need a lawyer to form a corporation. You don’t need your hand held throughout your business transactions. A good business friend or mentor can probably give you just as good advice as a lawyer. A good attorney will tell you that he is not good at business decisions.
However, when you do need a lawyer, be sure you inquire of as many sources similar to your enterprise as possible to find the right one. Don’t be bashful! Interview the lawyer to be sure you’re getting the experience you need for the question you need answered.
MARION S. KURITZ is a SCORE small business counselor who previously was assistant director for the New York department of Economic Development. She’s also worked with the New York departments of Labor and Social Services. She now has a successful home-based jewelry business.