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5 questions to ask at midyear

Whether the summer means tourism slam, business as usual or slow goings, every entrepreneur should make time for a midyear checkup on their small business, experts say.

“Running a business is a day-to-day process,” says Gregg Thompson, North Carolina director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “But it’s much more than (that). It’s a longer-term planning process.”

June and July are months when businesses should assess the year so far and begin planning for the next six months and beyond, Thompson said. But even the prospect of an assessment sounds daunting and potentially expensive.

So ShopTalk spoke with a handful of local small-business owners and consultants for their best tips and strategies for a midyear analysis that won’t break the bank – or consume those long-awaited vacation days.

Here are five questions to ask about your business:

1. Am I networking enough?

Joe Garen, senior operations manager of Vine American Kitchen, a restaurant that opened late last year in Ballantyne, says the hours he spent passing out free jambalaya, chocolate-chip cookies and menus at the annual Ballantyne Business Bash last week were fruitful. Summer can be a slow time of the year, especially if you’re new on the scene, Garen says. But that’s just another reason to make sure you keep your name circulating. “You don’t let your guard down,” he says. “You’ve got to stay up on your business. … Stay sharp.”

Someone’s more likely to seek out a restaurant where they know someone, Garen says, and summertime business events and family-friendly festivals facilitate that one-on-one interaction. “You exhibit what you have, you have fun, and you generate business,” Garen says.

2. Am I playing off the news?

David Tobin, one of the founders of Tobin Starr + Partners, a Charlotte-based architectural and design firm, says he starts every meeting with a discussion of local and national news. Those few minutes help them stay apprised of the marketplace, which, in turn, has generated a lot of business, Tobin says. His firm designed the NASCAR Hall of Fame building uptown and has big-name clients, such as Zoe’s Kitchen, Brixx Pizza and Pandora Jewelry.

These updates were especially important when the economy crashed and many of the private-sector gigs dropped off. Tobin Starr + Partners relied on news to find opportunities for public-sector jobs, such as the renovation they recently worked on at UNC Charlotte.

The US Airways-American Airline merger, the fight over control for the airport, Mayor Anthony Foxx’s role in the Obama administration, the city manager – they all stand to impact their firm in some way, Tobin says. “It’s important for us to pay attention … to even try to participate,” he says. “We’d be in much worse shape if we simply sat at our desks and did our work...and before we know it, we’ll be looking up at our desk and our phones won’t be ringing.”

3. How are my financials?

At the midyear mark, it’s important to take a look at profits and losses over the first six months – and consider an outside opinion, says Carol Daly, a consultant with the Winthrop Regional Small Business Development Center.

For a quick, budget-conscious tune-up, consider free resources through local nonprofits and publicly funded business incubators. The Winthrop Regional Small Business Development Center, for example, has a certified financial planner on staff who can sit down with a business owner, quickly run through the finances for the last two to three years, and highlight problem areas and solutions, Daly says.

It’s not an alternative to an in-depth analysis from a business’ financial consultant or CPA who knows the operation intimately, but it’s often beneficial to get fresh eyes and new ideas, Daly says. “We’ve seen some places close … that we’ve all known needed help, that we even tried to reach out and help,” Daly says. “But they always say, ‘Oh no, we’re doing fine. We’ll see it through.’ Then they close up two months later. Had they asked for help sooner, they probably wouldn’t have.”

4. What is my competition doing?

It doesn’t cost any money, but a few simple Internet searches can go a long way toward helping your business better compete in the marketplace, says Dawn Newsome, founder and owner of Moonlight Creative Group, a Charlotte marketing agency that predominantly works with nonprofits, including Carolinas Healthcare System and Community Blood Center of the Carolinas.

Start with your own “brand checkup,” Newsome says. Have you gotten any positive or negative press? Are customers talking about your brand? Are they saying what you want them to say?

This will give you a point of reference and a way to analyze your goals for the next six months, she says. As for the competition: See what’s being said about them. Visit their websites, blogs and social media pages. See what they’re touting, and the medium they used to do it. “It’s not like you’re spying,” Newsome says. “You’re just staying current, making sure you know what’s going on in the industry. You may learn some trends that you weren’t aware of that you want to get up to speed on.”

5. How do I get ready for fall?

It may be the last thing on your mind as you consider the office policy on flip-flops, but it’s crucial to look ahead at upcoming events and holidays over the next six months, especially if you want to save money.

Consider what you want your staffing to look like and how many people you’ll need to hire, Daly says. Do you need to install security cameras, revamp the layout to decrease shoplifting or budget for part-time security? Don’t let those considerations sneak up on during the busiest, most stressful time of year.

And for retailers, consider what inventory you’ll need to order ahead of time. “Think ahead,” Daly says. “Make sure you get the best price you can get.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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