All Posts by KW Stout

liveplan review

Do I Need a Business Plan to Start a Business?

One of the first steps to starting a business is creating a business plan.

Your business plan outlines the problem(s) your business will solve, the opportunities you will seize, your target market, your marketing and sales strategies, your competition, your costs and projected revenues, and other important information.

Of course, those numbers don’t mean shit, but investors like to see them.

Business plans are a common topic for debate because the old-school business guys and MBA types in the corporate world think a business can’t possibly exist without a business plan. On the other hand, many entrepreneurs launch successful ventures without a business plan, and the idea of writing a business plan is a joke to them.

I believe the best course of action lies somewhere in between those views.

Every business requires thought and strategy, or at least a clever idea, to have any chance at gaining traction. However, most businesses don’t require a formal business plan to get started.

Why You Need a Business Plan

There are several scenarios where you would need a business plan.

The most likely scenario is that you are seeking investment for your business. In this case, you will need a business plan to present potential investors.

Investors want to see a rock-solid plan, and ideally, they would like to see proof of concept. That means you already have customers or you at least have a collection of warm leads who are waiting for the launch of your new product.

The Real Value of a Business Plan

Regardless of whether you’re raising money or not, the process of creating a business plan forces you to think critically about your business.

It forces you to get to know the people who might buy your products/services, it forces you to get realistic about the costs, and most importantly, it forces you to figure out how you will differentiate your brand from the competition in your niche.

This process is necessary for trimming the fat off of your original idea and making the necessary tweaks to prepare for the market.

Why You Might Not Need a Business Plan

Some businesses (online businesses especially) with lower costs don’t require an extensive plan because you can A/B test as you go and make the necessary changes.

You can’t actually expect to predict the future or follow your plan exactly because the current business climate evolves too quickly for year-long plans, much less five-year plans.

However, that still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give careful thought to your business and carefully research the market. You don’t want to waste years of your life on a poor business that you could’ve avoided with a little extra time upfront.

What to Do Instead of a Formal Business Plan

At an absolute bare minimum, you can use a couple of resources from $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

Market testing:

100 dollar startup market test

One-Page Business Plan:

100 dollar startup business plan

Those resources aren’t as comprehensive as a real business plan, but they’re enough if you’re going to start an online business with low overhead.

The Easiest Way to Create a Legit Business Plan

I’ve reviewed hundreds of business plans throughout my career and I’ve helped create several business plans myself.

Most of the time it’s a big pain in the ass.

Believe it or not, the best business plans are usually completely outsourced. The founder(s) will hire someone to do most of the work, which often runs up to $10,000+ for a high-quality, detailed plan.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to spend that kind of money on a business plan. Plus, I’d rather do it myself for the reasons I mentioned earlier — the process of thinking critically about your business is the real gem here.

I needed to create a business plan recently, and I quickly remembered what a tedious task this process can be. I enjoy doing all the research and laying out my strategies, but I get annoyed with all of the structuring and formatting of the actual document.

That’s when I found an online service that makes this entire process incredibly easy.

That service is called LivePlan.

I was originally drawn to the service because it handles all of the tedious stuff like formatting the document, creating charts for your financials and because they make it so easy to create a nice presentation.

However, if I were creating a business plan for the first time, this would be a life-saver!

Their service takes you step-by-step from business idea to a professional, well-planned business strategy. I’ve never created such an attractive business plan in such a short amount of time like I did with their service.

All of the graphs and financial forecasting features are more than worth the price alone. The fact that you can do everything step-by-step made it a no-brainer for me.

In fact, I’ve already got feedback from potential investors and even they were very impressed. Of course, that probably had more to do with what was in the plan, but a nice presentation goes a long way.

I probably won’t take on any investors for my next project because I like to maintain full control, but I’m still glad I used the service to create my plan.

If you are serious about getting an investor and you don’t have the resources to hire a professional to do it for you — I highly recommend you check them out.

CHECK OUT LIVEPLAN

best design trends 2015

8 Design Trends That Conquered the Web in 2015 [INFOGRAPHIC]

Trends come and go, but great design is timeless.

However, design traits that stand the test of time often started as a trend. Although I lack the technical skills to handle complicated design projects, I’ve always appreciated design and it’s one of the aspects of digital marketing that fascinates me the most.

The following infographic summarizes 8 of the biggest web design trends from 2015. Which trends will fade and which will stick? Only time will tell, but I have my predictions:

  1. Big & Beautiful Images — This is a trend that’s here to stay. Modern cell phones have the capacity to take photos that rival DSLR quality and are far better than the point-and-shoot cameras we were using just 10 years ago. Not to mention, the screens on our phones, tablets, and computers keep getting better and better. Humans have always been visual creatures, so there will always be a demand for photography in web design.
  2. Semi-flat Design — This is likely to stick around for a few years and then fade away. Simple graphics are versatile and these certainly look better than the graphics that dominated the web in the early 2000’s, but they’re still kinda cheesy. Plus, they’re becoming so common that they make your brand blend in more than stand out.
  3. Rich Content Experiences — This trend has a long way to go before reaching its peak. We’re only just beginning to “experience” the web. Now that interactive video and virtual reality are gaining traction, rich content experiences are only going to get better.
  4. Better Typography — Designers are always making subtle changes to font styles, so this is an ongoing trend. However, the trend with typography that’s going to stick around is the spacing and positioning of text in web design. One of the things I love about Thesis is their typography.
  5. Magical Realism — As technology advances, trends like this constantly come and go. Designers learn new tricks and show them off, then other designers try to copy them, and so on. Before long, you’re doing The Matrix slow-mo scene for the 1,000th time and pretending to be original.
  6. Hand-drawn Illustrations — I wouldn’t classify this as a trend, unless you count the illustration videos that a lot of brands are using these days. What really happens is an influential brand uses hand-drawn illustrations in their design and a bunch of smaller brands copy them because they think the big brand is on the pulse of what’s hot, when in reality, they just liked how it looked.
  7. Background Video — This is a trend that will be here for a while. The biggest problem with video is that it requires more resources to host and load quickly. However, this is improving rapidly  and incorporating video in web design is more practical than ever before.
  8. Cinemographs — We are going to see a lot more of this for the next several years. I say that because the new iPhone has a feature that creates cinemographs by default and Apple is a brand that controls trends.

Those are my predictions. Now take a look for yourself and let me know what you think.

design styles 2015(Source)

inbound vs outbound efficacy efficiency

Inbound vs Outbound: Which Do Consumers Prefer?

Marketing has evolved quickly with the rise of the internet, blogging, and social media.

Today it’s all about inbound marketing.

Unlike traditional marketing, or outbound marketing, which relies on interrupting consumers to grab their attention — inbound marketing focuses on attracting customers to your brand by creating content that they actually want to engage with.

As a methodology, inbound marketing is still relatively new and although it has been proven to generate a positive ROI that only increases with time, there are still plenty of skeptics. Fortunately, more data continues to be accumulated and published on inbound marketing to prove what smart marketers already know — the inbound methodology works.

In September of this year, Moz and Fractl released their findings from a study that surveyed 1,000+ participants on their engagement and opinions of various marketing tactics. The study compared the efficacy and efficiency of inbound and outbound marketing tactics.

Below are the major highlights that I’ve pulled from their research to share with you.

Consumer Awareness and Engagement

Consumers are sick of advertising interrupting what they’re doing.

Thanks to DVR and Netflix, avoiding TV commercials is easier than ever. But ads have invaded everything in our lives, which means people have to find even more ways to avoid ads whenever possible.

According to the results of this study, you’re in the minority of web users if you aren’t using ad block software on your internet browser.

ad block research

Earlier this year, Adobe published a report on ad blocking that left a lot of people shocked. Here are several of their key findings:

  • Ad blocking estimated to cost publishers nearly $22 billion during 2015
  • There are now 198 million active ad block users around the world
  • Ad blocking grew by 41% globally in the last 12 months

It’s not just the techies using this software anymore, ad blocking has gone mainstream.

Advertising Engagement

Consumers are well aware of the various forms of advertising. When asked if they had seen the following forms of advertising in the last week, over 60% of participants had noticed an ad from every single category.

However, seeing isn’t enough. Although brand awareness is valuable, engagement is king.

When asked if they had clicked on any of the ads they had seen in the last week, 53.8% responded that they had NOT.

advertising awareness engagement

How Consumers Discover Brands

Consumers today are much savvier than in the past. They’re fully aware of basic marketing strategies and aren’t easily swayed into making a purchase from seeing an advertisement.

Before someone makes a purchase from your company, they’re going to do their own research about your brand and product online.

buyer research purchase cycle

This is why content marketing is vital to any marketing strategy today, inbound or outbound. When prospects search for your brand online, ideally you’d like for them to find content that you’ve published. (Or other positive content)

If a Google search returns little to no results about your product — it doesn’t even exist in the mind of the modern consumer.

Inbound Engagement

Despite the lackluster engagement with advertising, consumers are not opposed to being marketed to. After all, we all have problems that we want solved, goals we want to accomplish, and fun gadgets that make our lives more enjoyable.

Deep down, we want to be persuaded to buy the right things. We just want to be marketed to on our own terms.

inbound methodology consumer behavior

Seth Godin refers to this as permission marketing, which he coined before “inbound marketing” took off.

The idea is that companies earn the permission from consumers to actively promote themselves by first providing valuable content that actually benefits them.

By following a brand on social media or subscribing to their email list, consumers give the brand permission to market themselves. However, if the ratio of value to promotion goes south, they can always unsubscribe.

The more control consumers have over this process, the more likely they are to engage. This is one of the key differences between inbound and outbound marketing.

Impact on Buying Decisions

Reputation management and customer satisfaction need to be  top priorities for brands, as consumers have responded that customer reviews have the largest impact on whether or not they purchase a product.

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” -Warren Buffet

inbound marketing affect purchase cycle

The other two factors with the biggest influence are performing an online search and reading online articles — which further proves the necessity for content marketing as a part of every brand’s marketing strategy today.

Final Thoughts

The inbound vs outbound debate is far from over, but it’s increasingly clear that inbound marketing caters to the way consumers make buying decisions.

I don’t personally think that outbound marketing is dead or has no value — quite the opposite. I’ve had success with direct marketing and I believe it’s still a profitable avenue for certain types of businesses. However, inbound marketing is the better long-term play for nearly every business and I believe it should be the foundation that marketing strategies are built around.

Consumers have shown a favorable response to inbound marketing and it’s so much more cost-effective than outbound marketing in most scenarios. The people have spoken. All businesses have to do is give them what they want.

Until next time,

KW Stout

Learn Your ABC’s (Always Be Copywriting)

The most important skill in business and life is the ability to sell.

We sell our ideas, sell our products, and sell ourselves.

And it’s not all about money either.

When you approach a woman at the bar, you aren’t looking to make money off of her.

Well, you might be. Do you also have a bedazzled cup and cane?

No, you’re looking to sell yourself as a solid candidate to take her out to dinner or take her home right then.

Selling is about getting your point across effectively.

It just so happens that when you are selling a product or service, you want to get that point across very clearly.

That’s exactly what copywriting does.

Copywriting is the most effective form of writing for delivering your message clearly.

Unless you are writing a fiction novel, all of your writing should be copywriting.

Obviously your business website and marketing materials should adhere to the principles of good copywriting, but think deeper:

  • Applications, cover letters, and resumes
  • Your emails to colleagues and clients
  • Feedback given to others

By the end of this article you’ll understand why I feel this way.

Communicate Clearly

Effective copy (written words) is concise and easy to read.

There are three basic rules to copywriting that help you achieve this:

  1. Use simple words. Big words don’t make you look smarter, they make you look insecure.
  2. Write short sentences. The shorter the better. You want to get your point across with the least amount of words possible.
  3. Paragraphs should only have two to three sentences max. People have a short attention span and like to skim content. Make it easier for them to do that.

It sounds condescending, doesn’t it? Treat the reader like they are dumb?

It’s not.

Copywriters don’t write this way because the reader is dumb. They do it to make it as easy as humanly possible for the reader to understand the message.

And yes, many readers are dumb.

People have a lot on their mind. You know how every time you re-watch a movie you notice something new? The same goes for reading.

Keeping the writing simple improves comprehension the first time around. Good copywriters are concerned with effectiveness, not whether the copy is cute or creative.

It’s always the amateur clients who want something creative. The pros care about conversions aka effectiveness.

Make note of what the pros do.

By following these three simple rules your writing will be much more effective than the average writer that knows nothing about copywriting.

Easy enough, right?

Form a Connection

Now that you understand how to be easily understood, it’s time to put that ability to use.

Effective copy is engaging. You engage the reader by giving them something they can relate to and by appealing to their emotions.

People connect with other people.

Remind the reader that there’s a person on the other side of your writing.

  • Tell stories
  • Let your personality show in your writing
  • Use conversational language

Your reader wants to connect with you, but it’s your responsibility to make that connection happen.

Another fundamental element of copywriting is focusing on benefits, instead of features.

Benefits vs Features

Features describe characteristics of a product or service. An iPhone features Bluetooth technology and Retina display technology.

Benefits are what the customer gets from those features. Using the examples from above, the benefits are being able to talk on the phone in the car without getting pulled over and seeing every little detail in the photos from your bachelor party.

See the difference?

The best companies are masters of selling benefits.

Apple doesn’t sell features. They sell a lifestyle and an experience.

You’ll be amazed at how much more engaged your readers are when you focus on benefits over features.

Headlines that convert the highest offer a clear benefit to the reader.

Notice how I broke this rule with this article. That’s because this blog is a hobby for me and I don’t have to worry about conversions. Plus, I just really wanted to include the ABC’s bit.

What does your reader care about? That’s what you write about.

It’s as simple as that.

Final Thoughts

You know the phrase — always be closing.

That could easily be re-written to say always be copywriting. Because the result is the same.

Life is sales.

You’ll find a lot of people who disagree, but I’ve never met a successful person that doesn’t believe this to be true.

Remember, selling isn’t always about making money. Selling is about getting your point across clearly.

Copywriting helps you get your point across and form a genuine connection with the reader.

After all, what’s the point of writing if no one cares to read it?

Until Next Time,

KW