An image comes slowly over time. It's up to you to build it with foresight and care. There are many ways you can develop your own special image. These include:

*Printed materials --As a small-business owner, you can't afford to ignore even the smallest detail in this category. And one of the most important printed pieces is your business card. A business card says a great deal about a business, and it is often the first and only thing a potential customer sees. These days, you can do a lot of creative things with business cards, if you have help from a good artist and printer. They will also incorporate your special message and logo onto stationery, letterhead, pamphlets and brochures. In general, if you want to convey the image of a "no-nonsense" operation, keep your printed materials subdued and businesslike. This doesn't mean boring, however. Use quality paper stock, make your logo prominent, and use boldface type.

Health-care professionals, secretarial or temporary-help services, and financial consultants are a few examples of businesses that usually prefer to maintain a serious image. If your business is less formal and more "fun," then you should probably be a little more creative. Use brightly colored paper stock, or try a foil stamp to add glitter. Catering services, design firms, and boutiques usually opt for a more graphical image.

*The spoken word --Many times, taking your message directly to the public is better than putting it in print. Every time you speak at a meeting, lecture at a nearby college, or network at a cocktail party, you are personalizing your business by presenting your position to others face to face. Don't ever underestimate the power of word of mouth as a tool for advertising, promoting, and enhancing your business. You can call yourself a true humanitarian, but unless you get out there and help the homeless or another charitable cause, no one will believe you. You may want to be known as the expert in clothing executive women, but no one will know until you start holding monthly seminars or fashion shows in your boutique. You also need to dress the part. In other words, your business should be an extension of yourself.

*Visual elements --An image is most of all visual. Films, graphic displays, trade-show exhibits, and special events are all part of making a visual image. Videos are used in all facets of business. The fashion video, for example, has hit the showrooms of clothing manufacturers and is used for promotion in retail stores. The computer has made it easy for almost anyone to create sophisticated graphic displays. With all the competition for attention in the marketplace, it is increasingly difficult for the entrepreneur to gain visibility, especially the right kind of visibility for his or her image.

Building an image takes time and careful planning. If you know who your audience is, and what they want from you, you are ahead of the game. The next step -- defining what your image should be -- involves taking a good look at your business and/or product, and deciding how it would best fit in the marketplace. The final step -- establishing your image -- is an ongoing process. Remember that any time you distribute printed materials, appear and speak in public, or produce any visual aids or events, you are helping to project and maintain the image you desire.