From the November 1997 issue of Startups

What's the measure of success in business? For some small-business owners, it's a big bank account. For others, it's a large staff. But according to the results of a recent survey for Sprint Business conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide, more than half the American small-business owners surveyed cited customer satisfaction as the true measure of entrepreneurial success.

"Small-business owners and executives are much closer to the front lines of their operations, so they recognize the contributions that a satisfied customer base can make to a company's long-term success," says Patti Manuel, president of sales and marketing for Sprint Business. "Our own ongoing research has shown that this type of long-term thinking has come to characterize businesses of all sizes."

The importance of keeping your customers--your business's VIPs--contented was also evident to most of the entrepreneurs surveyed; 58 percent of the 1,000 repsondents noted that customer satisfaction has improved within their companies during the last year, while only a slim 2 percent admitted that it has declined.

Sounds like preferential treatment--at least when it comes to your customers--isn't such a bad business idea, after all.

Pocket-Size Hero

By Laura Tiffany

When conducting business on the road, organizing your appointments, expenses and important dates can be a chore. The keyboardless SE-500 mobile organizer from Sharp Electronics Corp. is an organizational hero that will help you to contact associates via e-mail while out of the office and organize your names, dates and telephone numbers.

The SE-500 comes equipped with a modem so you can send and receive e-mail from any analog phone line, via your Internet service provider. You can enter information into the organizer by downloading from your PC, using provided synchronization software; writing electronic memos with a stylus pen on the LCD Touch Screen; or using a stylus pen to type on the onscreen keyboard.

The SE-500 also includes standard Sharp features such as Contacts (a database), Activities (a travel scheduler and calendar), Expenses (a tracking system for business expenses), Memo, Calculator and Home/World Clock. Weighing 6.5 ounces and measuring 5.9 inches long, 3.5 inches wide and 0.7 inches high, the SE-500 makes a handy business-travel partner wherever you go.

The SE-500 runs on two AA batteries. Suggested retail price: $299. From Sharp Electronics Corp., Mahwah, NJ. To order, call (800) BE-SHARP.

SCORE Some Advice

By Jessica Hale

Visa and the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) have joined forces to become "small business financial management partners." What does this mean for you? Small- and homebased-business owners will now have access to the combined resources of Visa's financial savvy and SCORE's vast experience guiding and counseling entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs who participate in SCORE counseling sessions and workshops can request free workbooks on how to write a business plan, along with other financial management concerns. Visa will also provide SCORE counselors with education materials on finding capital, obtaining loans, separating personal and business expenses and managing financial growth.

Visa's Web site will feature research on emerging small-business financial trends, and a monthly online survey will allow small-business owners to compare their experiences with those of other small-business owners by answering such questions as "Was your company's first loan application approved?"

To contact a SCORE counselor, visit the national SCORE Web site at http://www.score.org . To learn more about Visa's small business resources, visit its Web site at http://www.visa.com

Trend Watch

Alien Nation

By Karin Moeller

Put this in your X-File: Aliens have landed . . . in novelty gift stores across the country, just in time for the gift-giving season. These extraterrestrial characters are sending sales skyward for fearless merchants who are brave enough to stock the eerie beings on their shelves.

Leading the alien-product explosion is Matscot International LLC in Owings Mills, Maryland, a company that's bringing the mysteries of the great big beyond into bedrooms, kitchens and offices worldwide with its alien-shaped candles, salt and pepper sets and glow-in-the-dark magnets.

"We specialize in friendly alien products," says Chris Alexander of The Shopping Moon, a Houston-based online gift distributor that's seen a recent increase in the number of wholesale alien products.

Its best sellers include Commander Xolo, an alien hand puppet seated in a UFO; and Alien Lifeforms, a set of four different aliens, including a Roswell alien (fashioned after the other-worldly visitors of Roswell, New Mexico, infamy) and a neonate alien (which resembles the wide-eyed extraterrestrials depicted in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind").

Q & A

By Christina Grace Peterson

Q: I would like more information regarding the top prospective fast-food franchises for co-branding opportunities with my TCBY franchise. What food-service businesses will have the best growth potential in the next five years?

Cheryl and Richard Brewer

Birmingham, Alabama

A: Provided by Don DeBolt, president of the International Franchise Association (IFA) in Washington, DC, the world's oldest and largest trade organization representing franchisors, franchisees, consultants and academic institutions in more than 100 countries.

The decision to co-brand is a smart one. Co-branding, or the partnering of similar concepts in one location, is one of the latest ways smart franchisors and franchisees are catering to consumers' cravings for convenience.

Co-branding's partnerships encourage consumers to visit the same location for different items throughout the day, increasing revenue. An example is the pairing of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. Only the sweetest tooth would crave a doughnut a la mode, but, with this combination, the franchisee can expect to attract morning doughnut lovers and afternoon or evening ice cream fans.

You'll need to get approval from your franchisor before co-branding with another franchise. Typically, these regulations are covered in the franchise contract. Because franchising's success is based on uniformity of brand presentation, the franchisor will want to control how the brand (trademark) is marketed and co-branded to ensure it's not compromised in any way.

Pairing your TCBY with a fast-food concept should benefit customers by offering quick meals or lower-fat desserts from opening until closing time. Just about every quick-service restaurant concept is getting involved in co-branding. The IFA recommends McDonald's Corp., Wendy's International, Burger King Corp., KFC Corp., Subway Sandwiches and Salads, Pizza Inn Inc., Taco John's International Inc., Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits and many others.

The second part of your question concerns which food franchises will be hot in the next five years, and the answer is: specialty foods that cater to specific, often upscale, markets. Some of these concepts include:

  • Fruit-drink outlets have burst onto the quick-serve food scene. A shake made with yogurt or milk, fruit, fruit juices and added vitamins and minerals--also known as a smoothie--can be a snack or can replace breakfast or lunch.
  • Water stores are an extension of bottled water bought in grocery stores. By the pint, gallon or water-cooler size, consumers want their water pure and simple. For the health-conscious, it's an alternative to caffeinated beverages.
  • Wrapped sandwiches--which are sandwiches that are "wrapped" in thin, pita-style bread rather than buns, hoagie rolls or other types of heavy breads--are low-calorie, low-fat alternatives to subs. Wraps, introduced on the West Coast, are wrapping up sales all over the United States, including some fast-food franchises, such as Wendy's, and casual-dining chains, such as TGI Friday's.

For more information on franchising trends, visit the IFA's Web site at http://www.franchise.org , or write to 1350 New York Ave., N.W., #900, Washington, DC 20005-4709.

Dr. Troubleshooter

By Roger Fritz

Every business has problems. But entrepreneurial survivors solve their businesses' problems as they arise, and grow by converting those solutions into future opportunities.

Dr. Roger Fritz has more than 40 years of experience as an educator, manager, corporate executive, university president, small-business consultant and author of 28 business and management books.

This month in Dr. Troubleshooter's waiting room, we discover the importance of test-marketing your product.

Problem: You're very enthusiastic about your new product. But before you spend lots of money to lauch it, how will you know your target market will be equally enthusiastic about it?

Diagnosis: A little test-marketing can be very helpful. What you do with the information you gather from test-marketing can be crucial.

Prescription: The purpose of test-marketing is simple: to produce and attempt to sell some of your new product to see if real people will actually spend real money to buy it. Ask potential purchasers:

  • Do you like my product?
  • What would you be willing to pay for it?
  • If it were available at the price you have said you would be willing to pay for it, would you:

(a) Definitely buy it?

(b) Possibly buy it?

(c) Not buy it?

  • How many times a year would you buy it?
  • Are you buying a similar product now?
  • Are you happy with the present product?

With the responses to the pricing question, throw out the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent of the figures mentioned to you. Mid-range answers are more realistic; they indicate the potential customers' "perceived value" of your product, which should influence your sales price.

Next, gather the data from your "Would you buy?" question. Count all of those who said that they would definitely buy your product and half of those who said that they would possibly buy your product. Compare that figure to the total number of people interviewed. If the result is:

  • 85 percent or higher: You have a winner!
  • 65 percent to 84 percent: Your chances are good.
  • 50 percent to 64 percent: There's a possibility.
  • Less than 50 percent: Back to the drawing board.

Excerpted with permission from Roger Fritz's The Small Business Troubleshooter: 152 Solutions to the Problems Faced by Every Growing Company (Career Press, $16.99, 630-420-7673).

The Start-Up Encyclopedia

By Laura Tiffany

As a start-up business owner, trying to find the answers to questions such as what a 401(k) plan or the Dow Jones Average mean to your business can often send you running to a 10-foot-high stack of textbooks.

But don't head to the local university library just yet: The SOHO Desk Reference (Harper Collins Publishers, $35, 800-242-7737), a business guide for small office/home office business owners, takes the pain out of finding the answers. Led by editor Peter H. Engel, a team of successful entrepreneurs, educators and editors put together The SOHO Desk Reference to provide small-business owners with a comprehensive handbook containing answers to the many questions that arise when running a business.

Using a format similar to an encyclopedia, The SOHO Desk Reference lists more than 400 subjects, ranging from simple selling techniques to complex financial-planning issues. Listings encompass such fields as business law and theory; financing and investing; publicity; inventory procedures; and hiring employees.

Each of the book's sections briefly explains the subject at hand in layman's terms, by defining the subject and showing practical examples of how it affects a small business. For example, the "disclosure" entry provides a term definition as well as why it is important, what the law requires and how to protect yourself with disclosure agreements. The "mission statement" entry defines the term, provides sample mission statements and gives advice on how to create your own.

Contact Sources

Dr. Roger Fritz, 1240 Iroquois Dr., #406, Naperville, IL 60563, (630) 420-7673

Matscot International LLC, 37 Gwynns Mill Ct., Owings Mills, MD 21117, (410) 581-0077

The Shopping Moon, (800) 991-4933, http://www.shoppingmoon.com