Free Is Good
Financial Benefits and Other Creative Ways to Grow Your Business
Let’s face it. The economy stinks. Many small businesses are struggling to keep their doors open, and are looking for any edge to be able to do something more than survive. Credit is non-existent, and the overall business climate is not conducive to success. But there are always opportunities, secrets hidden in plain site that small business owners can utilize to increase their probability of not just being around next year, but being strong and vibrant members of the economic community. And many of them are there for the taking.
Yes, there is a free lunch. There may be some strings attached, but if the strings are acceptable then the free food can be the sustenance needed to make it. So let’s see what is out there for us to snack on.
First, we are going to assume that you have been living with your nose to the grindstone trying to build your business so much that you haven’t noticed the economic carnage around you. To give you a small glimpse, there are about 10 million people that want to work that can’t find a job. Add in the underemployed, and those that have given up, and you are approaching 20 million Americans not contributing what they could to the economy, meaning they probably can’t buy your goods and services. That is why the January Consumer Confidence Index stood at 56, when at the height of the Cold War in 1985 it was 100. Not good.
So does this mean that you should just give up, cry “woe is me!” and slip into a hole somewhere? Absolutely not. You had the guts to start a business, have the guts to keep it alive by going outside your comfort zone and exploring some non-intuitive options.
First thing you have to realize is that free does not always mean free, as in no cost and no limits. There could be a time constraint, like a zero percent offer on a credit card that is only good for three or six months. Six months of free is still better than six months of 20% interest, and could give you the time to turn the corner or come up with a better (more permanent) solution. If credit is unavailable you could roll an old IRA into your 401k, then loan half the money to yourself as an interest free source of working capital. Or maybe you need to McGuyver together a fix to a machine using duct tape and used pieces instead of buying a brand new shiny part. These are still often better solutions than the traditional high ticket answers of better economic days even if they are not totally free.
But sometimes free really does mean FREE! And that is definitely good. What is out there is constantly changing, but here are a few of our favorite essentially free things that might help your business.
- Interns. There is a large number of students that have opted for the graduate school path instead of trying to get a job due to the tightness of the labor market, and a growing number of experienced individuals that have given up the job search for the classroom until the economy recovers. This is a smorgasbord of talent for employers in that these students represent a large and diverse talent pool, are trying to get a tactical advantage for when they re-enter the work force, and can be had for only a small investment of time and a grade. A major upside is that they can be trained and essentially tested on an extended probation basis, and if the economy starts to turns by the time they graduate the employer could have a ready asset to deploy immediately as the learning curve has already been traversed. And the creativity and insight of these interns (especially in the social media space) can grow a business in ways the owner never even dreamed of. An alternative if you need more help or a different skill set is to employ the Work Opportunity Tax Credit and hire a former military individual or “disconnected youth” and be subsidized by the government to the tune of a $2400 credit.
- Free Trials. Many software products offer free trials, such as Constant Contact’s 60 day trial. Trying out a product like this can allow your firm to have short term use of a technology to see if it makes economic sense. Eventually you may purchase it, or you might decide to opt for an alternative. There are also “lite” options of many software products that do not have the full functionality of the regular product but are adequate for your needs, such as the Collanos workspace software. And free trials are not limited to the on-line world. Many physical products may give away free samples that are an enticement for you to buy their products. Trying them before committing can prevent you from making a mistake in terms of a purchase, or it might be just enough to accomplish what you need. They are hoping to get you to use their product, and maybe you will when you can afford it. Sampleville.com is good for this. A related idea is recycled equipment from freecycle.org or gigoit.org, both of which are extending the life of equipment by giving it away.
- Benefits. This is really one of the most powerful areas to provide highly appreciated perks that do not break the bank. We already mentioned that you could use the 401k to loan operating capital to your business, but there is an additional $500 credit for three years for establishing one, maybe making it cash flow positive to your firm to do so. Putting in a SIMPLE IRA without a match to begin costs the company nothing but can be highly appreciated by employees, thus increasing morale and hence productivity. Another good example is employee paid optional disability insurance that can be discounted because of the group rate and payroll deduction, creating a nice benefit without outlay from the organization. Other non-traditional benefits could be flex time, the option to telecommute (thus saving electricity costs too!), and casual Fridays. All of these lead to happy (thus effective) employees without any outflow from the corporate coffers. More radical but effective things include a seminar series of external professionals in various disciplines, having a cooking demo or pot luck dinner in the office, and a weight loss contest for bragging rights. Or a stop smoking support group, which will drastically boost productivity while simultaneously reducing future insurance costs. Ask your people what they’d like to see, because a free benefit that they request is even more powerful and appreciated.
We have in no way exhausted the universe of free ideas to enhance your business. But we are giving you a start to unleash your creativity in this, because financial necessity is indeed the mother of invention.