May 2016: Small Business Success

Are you ready to open for business?

Sarah O'Connell

Sarah O’Connell

It’s very challenging to operate a seasonal business that’s open only part of the year, but it’s a financial necessity when your business depends on the weather and tourism. At the Small Business Development Center, our new clients often state that they are going to operate their weather- or visitor-dependent business year-round, but after the first year they often realize that it’s not financially viable to maintain payroll, utility and other expenses when the sales are just not there.

So, for you seasonal business owners, the pressure is on to make as much money as you can during the season, whether it’s crafts, food and drink or outdoor activities. Now that the snow and the chilly weather are behind us, local summer-based businesses are interviewing employees, purchasing inventory and looking forward to the unofficial start of summer as Memorial Day weekend draws near, kicking off the very important three- to four-month season.

Number one on the checklist right now should be to check out your online presence. (Actually, this is something you should have done as you were shutting down your business in the fall, perhaps posting a thank you to your customers and letting them know when you will be reopening in the spring.) While your local, longtime customers may understand that you close down for part of the year, your new ones, who perhaps have never gone through a winter here in the north country and don’t realize your community basically shuts down, will assume that the hours you have posted on your website or Facebook page are current.

I ran into this situation recently when a friend and I were making plans. We talked about going out to eat and shop in one of the small lakeside communities. She is a military spouse and wanted to pick up some touristy items to take to her family on an upcoming visit. I told her that I didn’t think those businesses were open yet, and she told me she had checked out their websites. Sure enough, the restaurant we were considering said they were closed only on Tuesdays, but I knew that particular place was not open at all yet. The T-shirt place said it was open daily from 10 to 4; again, this was inaccurate. I started checking out websites for other river and lake communities and found the same pattern many times.

We tell our clients that having a basic website is extremely important if you want people to be able to find you. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it needs to offer complete and dependable information on your location, your hours, and how to contact you. It is vital that it be kept up to date. It should also be mobile-friendly, so if you haven’t done that yet, you are overdue for a redesign. According to a 2014 article on Searchengingewatch.com, 27 percent of local mobile searches are to find a business’s location and 30 percent are to find a restaurant. You don’t want to be missing out on those potential customers.

But, you might argue that you have a Facebook page and that’s easier to keep up with. In my opinion, that’s not good enough. Many people either don’t use Facebook at all or have given it up because it takes up too much of their time (I call that Facebook Fatigue Syndrome). Other people just don’t want to “like” a business and have to have its posts clogging up their stream. And, of course, Facebook has changed its model to reduce how many people who like your business may even be getting your posts, because it is trying to get you to pay for sponsored local ads. So that website is very important as a dependable place for customers to find you.

By the way, I find the same pattern is true for community events like festivals, craft fairs or community-wide yard sales. Organizers of these seasonal activities should be listing the dates and contact information now for the 2016 season. Let’s make it easier for our visitors and our new residents to enjoy all that the north country has to offer this summer.

Sarah O’Connell is a certified business advisor with the New York State Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College. She is a former small business owner and lifelong Northern New York resident. Contact her at soconnell@sunyjefferson.edu. Her column appears bi-monthly in NNY Business.