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“Making sales the first priority gives a start-up what it needs most, (besides cashflow)…”

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Stephen Antisdel is manager and strategy analyst for Precept Partners. Stephen’s experience includes being an Inc 500 CEO, writer, speaker and adjunct professor His e-commerce accomplishments have been noted in The Wall Street Journal, NPR, BusinessWeek, Investors’ Business Daily, and other reputable publications.

Precept Partners, LLC, is a Buchanan, Mich.-based web development, marketing and strategic consulting firm.

Stephen Antisdel, Precept Partners, LLC - Manager

MO: How did you use the experience and success gained from FurnitureFind.com to create Precept Partners?

Stephen: As we grew FurnitureFind.com we spent a lot of time talking with our customers to understand their frustrations and needs related to creating an improved home furnishings shopping experience. We started out building a fairly basic website and call center and used it as a laboratory to test the market and refine our strategy. Based on these insights we evolved a business model that served our customers well and ultimately helped us build a company that came to lead our industry group.

After we sold FurnitureFind to a venture group we launched Precept and again spent a lot of time talking with business owners and executives in many industries. These conversations helped us gain a deeper understanding of their frustrations and difficulties in crafting profitable Internet business strategies, building effective websites, and developing effective online marketing programs. In response we created a structured process to let us address these interrelated problems comprehensively, in the context of their business objectives. Using this approach we’ve been able to help clients achieve some notable success.

MO: What are the first steps a start-up should take when defining their business model?

Stephen: It starts with understanding their customer, the problem they’re solving and how they propose to solve that problem in a way that differentiates them from their competitors. This is the USP (unique selling proposition) they need to define to go to market, start talking with potential customers and (most importantly), begin making sales.

Making sales the first priority gives a start-up what it needs most, (besides cashflow): rapid feedback from customers (and potential customers who didn’t buy) to determine how well their solution is solving their customers’ problem, from the customers’ perspective.

The next question is at what price, with what level of service? By listening carefully, the start-up has to opportunity to adjust the product, offer, pricing, the target market, etc. to make their solution more and more valuable, (ideally indispensable) to their customers.

Using this iterative process, a working business model can emerge “organically”. That’s not to say that a formal strategic planning process wouldn’t add value later, but until you’ve validated the basic value proposition with actual customers willing to part with cold, hard cash, the effort put into extensive planning is a fairly pointless exercise.

MO: Can you provide our readers with some advice on the process of selling a small business?

Stephen: Yes. It’s helpful to try to put yourself in the position of a potential buyer for your business, and run the “what’s in it for me?” algorithm. What would a buyer for your business be looking for? This could include:

Entry into a profitable or underdeveloped niche market? IP that provides a sustainable competitive advantage? Business methods or process? A new distribution channel? Your customer list? Tax benefits? Personal income? A part-time “hobby” business? Other? (Of course it’s more likely a buyer will be looking for some combination of these things.)

Because these motivations vary so widely it’s important to identify early-on what a potential buyer would be looking for from a business like yours, in your niche market or industry. Then it’s a matter of building on and strengthening those aspects of your business to make it as appealing, and valuable as possible, to more potential buyers as possible.

This puts you in a good position for a “bake off” (where multiple potential buyers are bidding for your business), or at the very least, it gives you a basis to negotiate with a motivated buyer to get a fair price.

MO: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on throughout your long and impressive career?

Stephen: Hmmm. Hardest question yet. Many projects/clients come to mind. (Like trying to pick your favorite child!) WorkingPerson.com was a noteworthy project; we were able to help fuel significant growth for their online business with a combination of strategy development, web design and online marketing work. When they were picked for the Inc 500, the company’s growth rate was over 700%.

They’re a case study for a business with a competitive advantage based on knowing their customer, and providing what the customer wants, in the form of greater product selection and industry knowledge than their competitors. It was exciting to play a part in their success.

MO: Precept Partners has received many award and a great deal of recognition. Which award has been the most meaningful so far?

Stephen: The Internet Retailer and Webby awards were certainly a kick, but meeting the governor of Michigan at the “50 Companies to Watch” awards ceremony is the event that really stands out. (I was there with WorkingPerson.com for their award.) Michigan has had its share of tough breaks; this recognition for companies that are growing and making a difference in the region was most gratifying.

MO: What’s your strategy for continued controlled growth, without putting you customer service at risk?

Stephen: Careful client and project selection is the key. Having been in the online trenches since 1996, we know what we’re good at, and what we do adds the greatest value for our clients. We’re staying focused on projects, clients and services that are in our sweet spot. It’s a matter of having the self-discipline to say “no” to work that’s outside our areas of expertise.

Beyond that, it’s the blocking and tackling of good project management to keep projects on track, on time and in budget.

In the final analysis, delivering great customer service is always about relationships; we take great pride in listening, and working with our clients as partners in their success. We know very well, we only win when they win.

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