Q: We are a 100 percent women- and minority-owned fabric wholesaler in business more than 10 years with sales in excess of $1 million. Our customers are interior decorators and designers, but we feel there are some significant opportunities for us to expand our client base into the corporate and government purchasing industries. Currently, these channels represent zero percent of our sales. How would you suggest we begin this road to expansion?
A: You are right on track. After 10 years in business, it is most definitely time for you to begin exploring options for new revenue streams and expanding your market share. I will give you some basic strategies to begin pursuing and also some resources for you to investigate to help you identify opportunities to expand.
The most important thing to remember is that, like everything you've done this far, there are some must-do steps you need to take, and it may be at least a year before you bare fruit from your efforts. However, it sure sounds like you are well on your way.
Step One: Feasibility
It is entirely possible there are corporate entities and government agencies who could become direct customers for you. What seems even likelier is that there are suppliers to these groups that you should be seeking out as well. Do your homework and be direct. Identify up to 10 diverse companies and three to four government agencies procuring minority contracts that you'd like to do business with. Read up on them; find out who the purchasing agents are and investigate where they post their RFPs (requests for proposals). Before responding, read the RFPs and learn what will be required of you. For instance, you may have to obtain your MBE certification, increase the amount of your insurance and provide references.
Write them a short e-mail or letter, or call and simply have them answer the question as to whether or not they have RFPs to respond to or what their requirements are to do business with you. As you know, many have their supplier development program descriptions right on their Web sites. Learn what will be expected from you in terms of meeting their demand for product, delivery and service. From this, you will have some clarity on whether or not your hunch is right and if your infrastructure can accommodate the demand from expansion. You may be surprised at some of the hidden opportunities you uncover.
Step Two: Strategic
I'm assuming you began your business with a sound business plan that has served you over the years. A good business plan, however--one that will serve you throughout your growth--needs to be updated. Before you begin your external campaign, it's important to get your own house in order. After you've done your feasibility work, you'll need to come up with a strategic plan for managing production--the biggest mistake I see many small businesses in your position make is taking on the work and then finding the human capital to produce and service.
Answer this: Do you have the capital to add the personnel before you get the deal, or will it be contingent upon the sale? The latter is never the best approach. Once you've put together a strategy on the inside to take on the new market (sales, marketing, production, fulfillment and so on), then it's time to put yourself out there.
Step Three: Communication
The final step in the process, whether you're going solo or launching a strategic alliance, is to map out, very precisely and deliberately, a tactical plan for communication. How will you get the word out, and what is the word?
I like to bite off small pieces rather than swallow the whole pie. You may want to consider focusing on one industry at a time, and within that industry, a handful of particular organizations or companies. In that plan, you'll want to make as many impressions as you can. You want to be seen on the Internet and in their industry publications. You'll also want to develop some strategic marketing letters, join their association for access to members and opportunities for exposure, and establish yourself or a company spokesperson as an expert on your topic. For example, if you target the transportation industry, you may launch a campaign that talks about how the fabric (texture, color) of a seat or window cover enhances or diminishes the mood of passengers. You get the idea: Make it known how you can add value to their service or purpose.
If you're ready to get started, I recommend you evaluate the following resources:
- How to Write an Effective Proposal to Government: This document provides tips on writing proposals to do business with the government.
- Gtracts: This firm works with companies that are seeking opportunities for government contracts and has worked with companies to find and secure opportunities.
- Getting Ready to Do Business with the Government: This is the About.com site for what you need to do to prepare for approaching the government to do business with you.
- Women & Diversity WOW! Facts: This site has an entire paper on how minority and women businesses can procure major corporate contracts.
- AbusinessResource: This site provides a thorough directory listing of organizations by state that provide assistance for minority supplier development programs.
Best of everything to you.
Robert L. Wallace is the founder of EntreTeach LLC, a new Web portal designed to foster the development of minority and women entrepreneurs. He is also the founder and chairman of The BiTH Group Inc., an IT consulting firm that provides services in management consulting, telecommunications, PC support and integration, and document imaging services.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.