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How to Grow Your Business on a Limited Budget

Tue, 12/10/2013 - 7:45am | by DeborahDera

My husband and I run a martial arts school. He teaches and I am responsible for day-to-day business operations. I’m also a full-time writer, on a freelance/contract basis. I’m going to be very honest with you. If I didn’t have a job writing, we wouldn’t be able to keep our doors open and pay our bills at home.

Why? Martial arts classes are not a necessity. And as much as I’d like to believe they are, self-defense classes aren’t exactly a necessity, either. The past couple of years have been incredibly difficult for a lot of families and I completely understand why, when people are reviewing the line items on their budgets, we are one of the first activities to go. It’s back to school supplies, holiday preparation, and food and clothing versus activities. Activities rarely win.

Over time, small businesses do suffer. Many close their doors. We’ve been lucky enough to keep ours open, but we do have some debt and once the bills are paid there is absolutely nothing left for marketing. So now I’m feeling a challenge. I needed to figure out how to market the school without spending a ton of money. If you’re in a similar situation, you’ll need to do the same.

Start a Rewards or Referral Program

Word of mouth is huge for any business and there is no better way of saying “thank you” than by offering rewards to your current customers. I can ask my customers to tell their friends about us, but there’s no incentive in that approach. I can tell my customers that if their friends sign up I’ll give them a $10 credit towards their classes. This approach has value to my current customers and is more likely to grab their attention. They now come in and ask me for the “yellow papers” they can give their friends.

Collaborate with Other Businesses

A local printer in our area put together a great mailer. It goes to the entire town and extends a little further out. Each business has an ad slot plus a coupon slot. The cost for the spot on the mailer is $250. I share a mailer with other businesses, but none of them are direct competitors. If I were to try to do a mailer to, for example, 5,000 homes on my own, I’d have a huge bill that would include artwork creation, printing, and either the cost of a targeted mailing list plus postage or the cost of an EDDM mailer (which costs less to mail per piece but doesn’t allow you any targeting). The cost to do my own mailer is, at best, a couple thousand dollars. My working with other business owners I’m not only building relationships but saving a ton of money. I can find $250. I can’t even think about $2,500.

Social Media Pages

Social media is your friend. For the most part, using business pages on social media networks is free. You can pay to sponsor posts or boost your pages, but it’s not necessary to do so when you’re on a budget. It’s important to remember that you do not need to have a presence on every single social media site out there. Choose one or two and become good at using them. The rest can wait. I, for example, have the martial arts school listed on Facebook and Twitter. I use Facebook all the time and I have it setup so that every Facebook post we make automatically gets cross-posted to Twitter. I’m reaching both audiences without any extra work. You can think about expanding your efforts or investing in promotion later on, when things aren’t as tight financially.

Ask for Help

I know this sounds counterproductive in terms of creating debt, but sometimes you just have to ask for a little bit of help. Marketing is critical. Think of it like this. We’re approaching the holiday season. According to an infographic on debtconsolidation.com, more than 30% of Americans are going to spend $1,000 or more on holiday gifts for families and friends. While I don’t realistically expect people to sign their kids up for classes in the midst of the holiday season, I do expect it’s reasonable to believe they might purchase a gift package – a gift certificate and uniform - to wrap up and place under the tree so their kids can start classes after the holiday rush is over.

In order to market this idea, I need the aforementioned postcards, a targeted mailing list (I want homes with children only), and postage. I can do this on a limited basis, but I definitely need cash to get it started. In my case, I sucked up my pride and asked my dad and one of our business savvy friends to help me get a small loan to cover the costs. Even if the return is only 1 or 2%, I’ll still end up with enough to cover my investments.

It’s not easy to keep your doors open, no matter what type of business you have – especially if you’re a small business catering to a very specific need. There are, fortunately, a ton of things you can do to get creative about spreading the word and these just scratch the surface. The key is to identifying and realizing you needs before you’re too far into debt to recover or grow. 

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