Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Challenges of Growth

MerchantCircle is focused on delivering services to enable local businesses to find more clients. As part of this service, we provide a web page for each merchant as well as tools that merchants can use to get the word out about their business (blogs, coupons, newsletters). The free MerchantCircle service is (as the name indicates) free and is being used by over 50,000 merchants currently.

Merchants can receive ratings and/or reviews on their MerchantCircle listing. In the past, some merchants have raised concerns about not finding out their listing was available and more importantly that a consumer had posted information on that listing. We have been experimenting with many different methods of informing merchants when their listing changes. For example, when a listing is claimed, we notify the merchant via multiple methods to confirm identity. Some of these methods involve pro-actively contacting merchants who may not visit the site regularly or are unaware of the listing. These efforts have been made to try and manage a merchant concern.

As you can imagine, this required some investment and some effort. In fact, for a while the entire team of 9 personally contacted local merchants. Anyone who was worked with lots of users can probably guess that this approach does not work when rapid growth occurs. Some of the experiments seem to be having unintended consequences and had some execution issues. We are working to address those issues while continuing to deliver value to merchants.

In addition to our efforts to keep you informed, our system allows users to invite local merchants to join their network, or MerchantCircle. The growth in merchants has resulted in a large number of invites on the system over the past few weeks as merchants figure out that adding to their network will increase the ability of local customers to find their listing. We have received some concerns about this and are working to improve the situation.

Merchants have complete control over their information on MerchantCircle. If anyone would like their listing to be removed from MerchantCircle please email and include your business name and phone # and we will remove your listing from the site and your contact information from our system within the day.

If you would like to use MerchantCircle to help grow your business, we look forward to working with you to continue to improve our ability to bring you local customers.

Best Regards,
The MerchantCircle Team

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Growing a Community of Businesses

Part of growing your business on MerchantCircle is networking between businesses in the same town, folks that you know through community involvements like town meetings, church gatherings, or fundraisers can all be part of your network. These relationships tell your current and potential customers more about you. What's also great is that building your business network is no longer restricted to connections in your hometown. You can expand your businesses reach by connecting to other establishments in surrounding areas and the additional places in which you do business. For example, Sound Wave Entertainment -- a DJ service out of Huntersville, NC - has formed alliances with businesses like It's Party Time from Concord and Digital QuickColor / Sir Speedy from Charlotte.

Through MerchantCircle's Business Network area, there are ways to manage and endorse affiliations like those above. You can let your customers know who you recommend and who recommends you. There's also a forum where you can participate in discussion of topics like "What's your greatest business challenge?" and "Generate More Business Online." So, not only can you promote businesses you already know by endorsing them, you can also make more business buddies through interaction in the forum.

Creating and sending monthly newsletters to your business friends also helps keep them up-to-date with what's going on with your shop. Even though there are several differences between online and face-to-face affiliations, one thing that is the same is that connections form and grow through communication. Communication through blogs, newsletters, and forums is especially important for online affiliations to help compensate for the absence of face-to-face time.

Getting in contact with other businesses provides moral support and increases the amount of customers that are sent your way. It's great how far "does a great job" and "always reliable" goes when it comes to spreading the word to customers!

Check out Anointed Hands from Hilo, HI. They're another business promoting their favorite people to work with. Be sure to take a look at the great things they're saying about those businesses and what business owners are saying about them in return!

When it comes down to it, Business to Business networking can be seen as purely business promotion or it can be seen as community-building between people who want to support fellow local stores and their shared customers.

I hope you're up for building connections!


Friday, September 22, 2006

Moving Forward: Standout Merchants and Growth

Just wanted to touch base with our Merchants and let all of you know that everything is going well. We're growing at a phenomenal rate thanks to our users and those who see us as the best and easiest way to find local customers online. As we've been growing we have and will continue to experiment with different ideas to help your merchant network grow. Some of these will be more effective than others.

As always we're sorry for any confusion that our efforts may cause. Its tough getting things right the first time. Specifically, we've found that work needs to be done to make merchant tools like ratings, invitations and coupons even easier to create so that we can distribute them across the internet for you. It's definitely a big opportunity and one that we are determined to get right.

Check out some of the great stuff merchants are doing on MerchantCircle to acquire local customers.

Heavan Salon from Bronx, NY
PromoHut from Brooklyn, NY
V2K Window Decor & More from Mohnton, PA
A New Beginning Real Estate from Fisherville, VA

Best Regards,

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Merchants That Wow

Thanks to Stand Out Merchants using a variety of our website features, MerchantCircle is becoming an even more interactive community. Customers can really see how their local businesses shine, while business owners can share information and ideas with their customers.

Take Wishing Well Trailer Court from Tucson, Arizona for instance. They have an informative yet informal business description that includes their hours, URL, and the sort of camping services they provide. And when you take a look at their blog, you soon find out that Wishing Well is run by two sisters - Denise and Wendy. And they give us the low-down on good places to eat, shop, and do laundry while staying at their park. What's more, customers have voiced their opinions and asked questions in the customer review section, and Denise and Wendy have been there to greet them every time!

After I finished looking through their site, I almost felt that I knew them...or at least wanted to get to know them the next time I'm camping in Arizona!

Speaking of Stand Out Merchants, one business that can't be overlooked is Events by Clara. Operated out of Hialeah, Florida, Clara has uploaded some spectacular pictures for her merchant images. She's also created three professional quality coupons that look great! Her blog has information on her business with a crisp photo to liven up the page. She even has a newsletter that lists all of her services and contact information. And her friendly motto "Let us do the work while you have the fun" sums up her event planning and coordinating business just dandy. Don't forget to take a look at all of the business she recommends!

It's merchants like these that make MerchantCircle a fun and accessible place to learn about local businesses. I'm sure there are plenty of other merchants sprucing up their sites right now, so if you feel that your business website deserves the spotlight let us know. We're ready to show you off!


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Yellow Pages: No Communication

We've already touched on why Yellow Pages ads are costly and ineffective in previous blogs, but it has just occurred to me the main reason Yellow Pages ads don't work -- they're impersonal. They're ads that say the same thing every time you look at them -- definitely no room for conversation there (unless you like talking to walls).

Where as websites provide a forum for business owners and customers to interact. There are actually people on the other side waiting to hear from customers, ready to talk about their business, and available to see how they can help patrons with their needs.

Not only do blogs and newsletters help merchants keep their customers up to speed on store happenings, customer reviews can help steer business owners in a direction that better serves the people in the community. Some customers browsing MerchantCircle have even used the customer review section as a means of asking merchants questions. And the businesses actually answer back:

Take a look at Pennsylvania's New Hope Photo's response to a customer's query.

And Badger Planning Group from Reedsburg, Wisconsin answers as well.

It's nice to see business owners who treat their customers with respect by answering so promptly. By keeping up with their listing, these merchants remember why they're here in the first place - to gain and keep customers through open communication with them. It's easy to forget customers you're advertising to when you have an ad in the Yellow Pages that's only tended once a year.

For other ideas on how to make your listing more appealing and informative to customers, take a look at some fun sample websites we've created:

Buchman Films (Mad About You)

Blue Moon Detective Agency


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Patriot Day

It's tough to talk about other things on our blog without discussing 9-11. Especially since most of us spent the last couple of days reliving what we all went through 5 years ago.

Since I spent a lot of time around the response during late 2001 and 2002, I sometimes can not get away from the emotional aspect of it all. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve the country in the senior advisor program which I helped create.

None of us will ever forget how many people lost their lives that day. At this same time, there are so many stories of heroism; not only that day, but afterward as well. If you ever have a chance to go downtown next to the site you can see the resilience of the small local merchants. I was down there just after 9-11 when the melted parking meters were still there, the dust was still on the windows, and not only was some of the shops not yet open but most of Wall Street was still closed up tight.

Now 5 years later, my 2 year old is 7; my 7 year old is 12 and the business community around the WTC is thriving. I don't know if this sort of "come back" would have happened in other countries, but I know it will always happen when the American small business spirit is alive.

Best Regards,

Thursday, September 7, 2006

From Pickup Trucks to Merchant Dashboards

One business that seems to have hit the nail on the head is Boulder, Colorado's Pedestrian Shops. Store owner, Richard Polk, opened shop back in 1969 and sold shoes from the back of his pickup truck. You can't get more adventurous and low-budget than that! He soon opened two stores in Boulder. Then, six years ago, Polk decided to step things up by hiring someone to develop a website for his local shoe shop.

The site started out as small and basic, but Polk looks back on it saying, "We didn't know HTML, so we couldn't maintain the site ourselves...a site like ours needs constant updating, and without the right skills, it was hard to keep it up." Polk finally hired a webmaster to develop and maintain the Pedestrian Shops site and says that's made all the difference:

I find that many merchants are much like Richard and want to leverage the Internet to help them get more customers and when done properly can result in a wealth of benefit. However, the myriad complexity of the Internet often leads to merchants seeking web experts to help them in their online endeavors and for some this doesn't come cheap.

Of course, enter MerchantCircle and you have a quick way to get online. And for those with websites don't feel excluded, a properly kept up MerchantCircle listing can help increase traffic to your site while also driving more customers through your door.

If you'd like to read a little more about Richard's online shoe store success, check out this article. And if, like Polk, you're ready to embark in an online site, but want to manage it yourself and not worry with a webmaster, take a look at these MerchantCircle samples to get you started:

Sanford & Son Salvage

Charles Townsend Agency

Cafe Nervosa

Let us know if you get good ideas from these or if you have your own ideas for showing off your store online. And be sure to check out the coupon section (everybody loves a discount), the blogs for keeping your customers up to date, and the Business Network in the Merchant Dashboard area where you can invite other businesses to join your business circle.


Saturday, September 2, 2006

Bringing Merchants Online: A sure thing

I meet with people all the time who want to tell me about the great ideas they have for my business. Frankly, I see one of my primary jobs as meeting with different people and getting their views as I shape my strategy and execution. Basically, I buy into The Wisdom of Crowds.

Having said that, I also believe being sure is a lot more important than being right. I can control being sure even when there is limited information but, I can never control being right with limited information. Since business strategy is almost always done with limited data (unless you run a Railroad), it is a place you have to be sure. I am constantly amazed by people who try to convince me not to be sure with some individual fact. Most big industry changes begin to happen before the data ever allows you to be right so there is always some facts or opinions stated as facts that contradict me when I am sure. Here are some that came up recently:

* The Yellow Pages is a big business and is not going to die since people still buy their ads and a lot of people use them.

* You can never change merchant behavior and most of them don't use the web, so you should just go after the ones who do.

* Revenue is the metric that predicts who will be a great company.

I am not going to spend a lot of time refuting these because it is a waste of your time.

Some of the things I am sure of are very core to my beliefs. For example I am sure that Freedom is a fundamentally good thing for the human condition and that over time free economies win out over closed ones.

Some of the things are just core to MerchantCircle. I am sure that 15M local merchants need to use the web as a vehicle to advertise and express themselves and that bringing merchants onto the web in mass is the most important lever we can focus on for the local industry. I may not be right, but I am sure. So if you have ideas on how we can help bring more merchants online and deliver them the value they deserve so they can stop wasting money on the yellowpages ---let me know.