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If only I would have known...

Thinking back to my undergraduate degree, I am haunted by long nights of relentless number crunching and data analysis. As an Agricultural Economics major, my capstone project required me to do an in-depth Econometric analysis. Given my background and interest in the industry, I chose to do it on the United States Dairy Industry, with data from 1910-2010.

Whew! If only I would have known how difficult that project was going to be, I may have chosen to major in basket weaving or puppetry (yes, it actually exists).

However, as I have progressed with my Excel capabilities, I have discovered the holy grail for data analysis and information management: the Pivot Table.

pivot table image

Pivot Tables allow you to extract importance from complex data sets, by arranging them in a way that is easy to analyze and summarize. Although Pivot Tables may seem daunting to many, they are one of the most powerful features that Microsoft Excel has to offer, and after some practice, they can shave hours off even the simplest of projects. If only I would have known.

Fast forward to 2017, and as my professional career has progressed, I have begun to use Pivot Tables to assist with business management decisions.

Several data-driven examples where I found Pivot Tables have come in handy in the work place are:

  1. Identifying trends, including seasonality, in sales across different markets.
  2. Identifying how key business drivers affect company profitability.
  3. Employee time tracking and payroll decisions.
  4. Identifying top customers and products.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg when considering the capabilities of Pivot Table analysis. Incorporating Slicers into your analysis will help you filter your data and only see what you really want, while a Pivot Chart helps you visually make sense of your data and how it affects your business.

Lastly, once your Pivot Table is set up, you can continue to add data to your data set and the Pivot Table will refresh and stay up-to-date. This makes the majority of the legwork up front, leaving more time down the road for your other business projects and/or sipping some amazing Bellingham beers with your friends on a Friday night. If only I would have known!

I have included links to several online trainings and articles that introduce you to Pivot Tables, and how they can be applicable to running and understanding your business.

A great “How-to” for creating and analyzing a Pivot Table, I definitely suggest watching the LinkedIn training video towards the top of the page.

Step-by-step instructions on how to incorporate and utilize a Pivot Chart within your Pivot Table.

How to use slicers to filter your Pivot Table data.

An article from Investopedia on the importance of Excel in business, which includes the relevancy and usefulness of Pivot Tables.

A quick article with suggestions on using Pivot Tables as a Small Business.


Authored by: Shane Reed

Post date: 201710

As an MBA student, I’m definitely type A: I need to get the best grade possible, and if I don’t get it, I need to know why. Of course, knowing why is never where it stops; I also need to know how to destroy my weaknesses to earn the highest marks next time, even if it means another night with too little sleep and too much coffee (in my head, I can still hear the ghosts of gym coaches past shouting “pain is weakness leaving the body!”).

Recently, however, we were assigned a book in a marketing class that gave me a new outlook on eradicating our flaws. Different, by Harvard professor Youngme Moon, eloquently elevates the asymmetry of our skill sets into something to be venerated, not renovated.

Professor Moon relates how she evaluated a group of students on their performance in class, outlining where each student outshined her peers and where she might be lacking. Invariably, my type A counterparts would narrow in on their less than stellar scores, determined to improve.

What are you picturing - the outcome of a group of students, most of whom are striving to shore up their weaknesses?

If you imagined a room filled with enthusiasm and productivity, think again. Instead, the author describes a class chockfull of cowed conformity.

How does this apply to the workplace?

Say you have the gift of gab—your coworkers and peers often tell you how you could convince a shark to consider a more vegan diet. But then you get feedback from your supervisor: you could be more of a team player, encouraging those around you to speak up. Meanwhile, across the hall, your coworker has received the opposite advice: he doesn’t speak up enough. The inevitable outcome (because, being the amazing team players you are, you of course take the advice to heart) is that you speak up a little less than before, while your coworker speaks up a little more.

You should now be picturing that dreaded hospital room pronouncement of finality: a flat line.

What, then, is the solution?

Do we just hope for the fortitude to accept the weaknesses we should not change, the humility to acknowledge we might not ever be the best at everything, and the willpower to quiet that nagging voice in our head that insists we can do better…?

Of course not!

The mere thought makes me shudder. In fact, taking that approach can lead to its own fallout, as outlined in this article on strengths based coaching and this one on employee development.

What we can do, however, is maintain at least as much focus on further developing our strengths as on improving our weaknesses. We can make sure the jobs we choose invoke our natural abilities, and when a project just isn’t in our skill set, we can be okay with entrusting it to someone who will naturally excel at the task.

Perhaps Peter Drucker summarized it best: “Use feedback analysis to identify your strengths. Then go to work on improving your strengths. Identify and eliminate bad habits that hinder the full development of your strengths. Figure out what you should do and do it. Finally, decide what you should not do.”

There are numerous examples of the success in evolving strengths over improving weaknesses, and the benefits extend beyond a simple acceptance of areas where your best may not be good enough.

Maybe you’re thinking “this all sounds great, but what if I don’t know my strengths?”

Well, hold on to your seats, because there are a few ways to quickly resolve this dilemma. The first is to simply ask those that know you. The second is to buy the excellent book Strengths Finder 2.0, by Tom Rath. Just make sure you’re buying a new copy, rather than a used one, and you will receive an access code to an excellent strength assessment tool that you complete online.

And finally, if you still can’t quiet that inner voice that’s whispering you should just struggle through the task yourself; here’s a final piece of advice: you can still be the best at delegating.   


Authored by: Janis Vander Ploeg-Wolfe

Post date: 201710

Should you be using direct mail to promote your business?

Like many perplexing business questions we get here at the SBDC the answer depends.

Purely from a numbers standpoint, many marketers automatically dismiss direct mail because they think it is 'too expensive' or that response rates will be too low to be worth the trouble. But I like to ask, 'compared to what?'

I often will remind clients that any advertising medium that has worked in the past can still work today...if done correctly. And that certainly applies to direct mail.

So, why then are some direct-mail marketing campaigns wildly successful, while others fail?

Hark unto me grasshopper..

The first problem with direct mail is you are usually sending to the wrong people (the list).

The second problem is often that what you are sending is the wrong message (the offer).

And the third problem is that the way you send direct mail greatly influences its effectiveness (the format).

With this post, I want to show you some creative ways to use the format of 'lumpy mail' to stand out in the mail box and get your message noticed.

Since the Fall Classic (a.k.a - the World Series) is right around the corner, I'd like to share a blast from my past and highlight a promotion that I worked on for the Washington Nationals baseball team.

Prior to joining the SBDC in March of 2008, I was working with a large direct mail company that was selected by the Washington Nationals to help sell luxury suites and season tickets in their new stadium Nationals Park. (see images below)

dimensional maildimensional mail - box contents

I wish I could tell you that this campaign was a home run, unfortunately it was not.

We struck out. (end of puns)

Now I would like to explain what I think went wrong by addressing the three problem areas above.

Problem #1 - The List
The Nationals worked with one of their banking partners to generate the list of 'suspects'. The bank simply pulled a list of their highest net worth clients (only 100 in total) who were to receive this promotion. Why only 100? Because this promotion cost $38 per box mailed when all was said and done and the National's marketing department was treating this as a test. While high net worth individuals might have been 'able' to spend the kind of money being asked for here, any number of additional list selection criteria could have improved the odds of success of this campaign. Had it been mine to do, I would have recommended finding high net worth individuals who also own large businesses who just might want to entertain clients at ball games. Or find those who are proven baseball fans, as evidenced by their past purchasing of other baseball related merchandise, subscriptions to baseball related content, etc.

Problem #2 - The Offer
In this case, on the one hand the offer was pretty clear. We have box seats and season ticket packages to sell - want some? However, there was no specific CTA (call to action) that was directly linked to this promotion. In short, if a recipient received this box AND responded by calling the sales office there was no internal tracking system to tie the 'sale' to the mailing program. Nor was there any specific landing page or unique URL for each recipient - remember, this was from 2007 and while the technology existed back then it was not as embraced by marketing departments and CMO's quite as readily as it is today.

Problem #3 -The Format
Personally, I think the creative teams involved with this promotion nailed this element. What you can't tell from the pictures here is all that went into this box and its delivery. First, these boxes were sent via FedEx directly to the addressee for maximum impact and tracking. Second, when the box was opened there was a light activated sound card that played an audio clip of the Nationals' play-by-play guy calling their star player hitting a home run from the prior season and then a bit of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game". And lastly you had a memorable leave behind item in the form of the real MLB baseball as a keepsake.

The Final Score 
$3,800 spent on a marketing test to 100 individuals. Zero known 'cash with order' customers generated from campaign. Not even a Clio award nomination!

Now, most small businesses won't be mailing packages that cost $38 per piece in the mail, delivered.

Fortunately, there are tons of low-cost options out there when it comes to getting creative with direct mail promotions.

Here are just a few ideas to get your entrepreneurial, revenue generating glands pumping.

fancy fortune cookiesFancy Fortune Cookies - Who doesn't open a fortune cookie? I met the founder of this company years ago at a marketing seminar, great company and even tastier cookies. Hey, if they are good enough for Oprah...and a President of the United States they are probably good enough for you.





send a ballSend a Ball - A sister from another mother, what? The founder of this company and I share a lot in common in terms of our direct mail backgrounds. I found her company back in the day, before they appeared on Shark Tank.




mail a coconutCoconuts - A great way to promote a tropical destination, or just plain fun!






From flip flops, to mini trash cans, to pill bottles... you'd be surprised at all the different things that you can deliver your marketing messages on, or in, through the USPS.

Authored by: Eric Grimstead

Post date: 201710