Gauntlet Business Program/Competition kicks-off 2018 session with Google workshop

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TAF President Annette Patterson (left) and SCORE Roanoke mentor Drew Arney welcomed Google national trainer Pamela Starr to the Vinton War Memorial on January 30 for a Google “Get Your Business Online” workshop.

The Advancement Foundation (TAF) kicked off its 2018 Gauntlet Business Program and Competition by partnering with SCORE Roanoke to host a Google workshop, “Get Your Business Online,” at the Vinton War Memorial on January 30.

TAF is a non-profit organization founded in 2007 by Annette Patterson that leverages community resources to provide support, connection, and solid business planning for entrepreneurs.

SCORE Roanoke is the Roanoke Chapter of a national non-profit association dedicated to educating entrepreneurs by helping small businesses “start, grow, and succeed.” The organization has been serving the Roanoke Valley for four decades. Their philosophy is that “small business is the engine of our national economy through business formation, job creation, and wealth building. SCORE is volunteer business people helping small business people solve business problems.”

Google is the multinational technology company practically synonymous with the Internet and is its best-known search engine.

The Gauntlet Business Program and Competition is in its fourth year and has become Virginia’s largest business program and competition, this year awarding $250,000 in cash and prizes. It has enlisted 200 mentors to coach entrepreneurs of new and existing businesses in Roanoke County, Botetourt County, and the Alleghany Highlands. It also provides access for small business owners to available community resources such as zero or low interest loans.

The official start of the Gauntlet Business Program is on February 6, with classes offered on Tuesday evenings at the Vinton War Memorial and at Dabney Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge.

The Gauntlet program includes sessions on Business Description, Market Analysis, SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and Feasibility, Alliances and Partners, Operations, Budgeting and Cash Flow, Sales and Customer Acquisition, Community Resources, and Marketing.

Entrepreneurs take stock of their own strengths and weaknesses, motivation, organizational skills, resources, stress tolerance, the status of their credit situation, and support system. They do some soul searching along the way to assess their level of commitment to their project. They learn to manage money and time, write business plans, determine start-up costs, identify their target customers, build savings, develop products and marketing plans, make financial projections, and do market research.

Gauntlet entrepreneurs submit their business plans in April; selected finalists make a pitch to a panel of judges; and the business program concludes with the Gauntlet Competition Awards Ceremony scheduled for May 17.

TAF President Annette Patterson introduced the workshop on January 30, along with Drew Arney, a SCORE mentor, CPA, and former Gauntlet participant.

The Google seminar was led by Pamela Starr, one of Google’s professional national trainers, and designed to help business owners and entrepreneurs learn how to grow their businesses online with real world tools and strategies.

Starr shared advice on how small business owners can “capture new customers” through the use of Google and its listings. Nowadays much of the population turns to Google searches to solve problems from a broken hair dryer, to a leaky toilet, to purchasing wedding cakes and flowers, to where to find a good garage for auto repairs. The goal of the small business owner is to be listed on the first page of a Google search query and to get a space on Google maps.

In her seminar, Starr covered topics which included “how to get found by local customers,” “how to be found everywhere on all devices,” and “how to be found with online advertising.”

She informed the group that 50 percent of those who do Google searches are searching from a smart phone. So business owners need to be cognizant of how their website and advertising appears on a mobile phone screen in connecting with potential customers.

Businesses need to be selective in designing websites and ads, choosing words that enable them to be “found” by prospective customers looking for a product or a solution to a problem. They should be using real world words, not technical jargon. They should employ words that describe their category of business, but also potential problems consumers might be facing— not just “florist,” but “I need a corsage for the homecoming dance right now.” Not “HVAC,” but “my air conditioner is broken.”

Those using Google to promote their businesses should include as much information as possible on their websites and ads. “Robust” listings invariably show up higher on the list in a Google search, along with ones that have interactive features for customers. Posts, messaging, and reviews attract Google attention from customers.

It is imperative to post business hours and contact information in the listings for the benefit of local customers. Photos are helpful— even photos that are not top quality. Starr said that social media photos have lowered the bar for most users, so professional photography is not a must for business listings anymore.

Starr had lots of advice for website design, including first determining the specific goal for setting up the website, focusing on a target audience and how to reach them, and how to measure whether the website is a successful one. A website should be used as a marketing tool, not just an online business brochure.

Business owners using Google need to think not just about their business, but “put on a customer hat” and view the website from their customers’ points of view. Customers become easily discouraged by web pages that take too long to load and subsequently turn to another search. They “run away from” online forms that require too much typing to complete on a mobile device.

“It’s not about you; it’s about the customers and how to answer their questions and solve their problems,” said Starr.

She talked about how social media can draw potential customers to a business owner’s primary website.

Starr said Google has many “cool tools” that can be accessed by business owners, almost all of which are free, with the exception of actual advertising programs, such as Google AdWords Express.

AdWords Express is very economical to use with “pay per click” advertising in which the business ads are only shown to potential customers who have expressed an interest in the business by clicking on the site. This tool is an effective way for a business owner to advertise, but also control the budget.

Starr said that the key information for all business users of Google may be found at www.GYBO.com (that stands for grow your business online) or by contacting her at www.PamelaStarrOnline.com.

The Gauntlet Business Program and Competition is still accepting applications for the 2018 sessions which begin on February 6. Anyone interested should contact Kathleen Carr, Director of Small Business Development for TAF by phone at 540-283-7062 or by email at Kathleen@TheAdvancementFoundation.org.

Many successful local and regional businesses got their start with the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition including Twin Creeks Brewing Company in Vinton, Blue Mountain Adventures which just won a contract with Explore Park to build camp sites, Wingman Outfitters, New Freedom Farm, Earthworks Pottery, Frost Gear, Twice Treasured Consignment, New Moon Creative Media, Discount Computer Services, Dreyer Academy, and Hamm’s Fine Foods.