What if you started a business….and nobody noticed?

We asked women as part of our 1,000 Stories research project about their biggest challenge in starting up — and difficulties with “brand awareness” frequently came up. “We are competing against many big-time companies that have an array of products,” says Sherri French of Spbang, a maker of eco-friendly snack bags in Detroit.  “I’m a department of ‘one’ who wears many different hats. Sales rep, PR firm, shipping and receiving, packing, etc.” Similarly, Miyako Franklin, who runs an employment agency, Easy Job Apps, in Little Rock, Arks, told us her biggest hurdle is “building a presence.”

For this special “Secrets of Growth” series, we’ve assembled an impressive group of entrepreneurs and small-business experts to share their best advice for building a successful startup. Here’s how they answered the following question.

How can a start-up entrepreneur get the word out about her product or service, especially when her time and budget is limited?

TSE_El-Brown_150x150Partnerships and community service. Identify an organization that has a strong reach into your target market, and a mission in which you believe. Consider donating some of your goods or services to one of the organization’s efforts. In return, you can negotiate a place in their newsletter or contact local or national media for a “feel good” story about the partnership and the value it has added to the community. It’s a win-win-win. The organization gets useful goods or services to further its mission, the media gets content, and your small business gets exposure. You can do well while doing good.

El Brown, KinderJam, follow @kinderjam

TSE_Laura-Zander_150x150Keep doing exactly what you’re doing: ask for advice publicly; be willing to share the ups and downs of your experience; and continue to tell your story to whoever will listen. For every few people that hear your story, you’ll gain a new customer (like me!)… and each new customer will be so moved by your story that they’ll tell a few more people… and get you a few more customers. It may not be the fastest road to growth, but it’s a great path for a self-funded, self-run business.

Laura Zander, Jimmy Beans Wool, follow at @jimmybeanswool

TSE_JJ-Ramberg_150x150Think about ways you can recruit people to do some of the work for you. For instance, Sherri could work with a local PTA to develop a program where they would sell the bags as part of a fundraiser and receive a percentage of the profits. This would create an army of marketers targeting Sherri’s potential customer base.

Another idea would be to create a “spread the word” program through which current customers are rewarded for telling their friends about your product.  If you do this, be certain to think through the specific action you want to reward.  This could be a variety of actions, such as: getting someone to register to your service; getting someone to buy your product; or getting someone to simply visit your store.

JJ RambergYour Business and Goodshop.com, follow at @jjramberg

TSE_Sarah-Kunst_150x150Hire a social-media intern, even a remote one. Have them find free media channels. Facebook and Google are fairly worthless ad buys for small businesses; it’s too expensive. Use social media that’s free and relevant to your customer. For snack bags, Instagram and Pinterest might do well but Yelp! will probably be a waste. Be creative with free growth strategies. Follow and comment on popular users and brands or accounts of bloggers. Participate in Twitter chats. Sign up for HARO. Look into affiliate programs like Rewardstyle or Shopstyle and pay compelling commissions in exchange for ad sales.

Sarah KunstFortis, follow at @sarahkunst

TSE_Nell-Merlino_150x150Ladies: Focus on what is new, better and different about your product or service. Express the three best reasons to use your product or service every time you talk about your business. Write about it in social media or show someone using your services or product on YouTube. Sherri, find a way to include your eco-friendly bags in a highly visible charity food event or community project,  and Mikayo, study how Tory Johnson built her employment agency. Find a niche to become the “go to” agency in your community for much-needed employees as the economy heats up.  And both of you need to stop thinking about yourselves as “small” and therefore disadvantaged. Speak about your business at every opportunity – your church, kids’ school, local women’s organizations, on the radio etc. Get going and get growing.

Nell MerlinoPersonal BlackBox, follow at @nellmerlino

TSE_Jerry-L-Mills_150x150Sherri might consider some of the concepts taught in the book, “Inbound Marketing,” by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. Both LinkedIn and Facebook allow one to target groups with unique characteristics, such as industry, hobby, profession, etc. It is highly likely that Sherri can find one or more groups who will have an interest in her eco-friendly snack bags. The first goal is to identify the group, and then to get to know the attributes of the people in the group. It is expensive to advertise to these groups but one can usually communicate with some of them at little or no cost. For example, LinkedIn has a process it calls InMail, which is a good way to begin the process. Social media gives Sherri avenues to find customers for her eco-friendly snack bags. The goal is to find these customers, and then to begin to communicate directly with them.

Jerry MillsB2B CFO, follow at @jerrylmills

TSE_Emily-Blumenthal_150x150First of all, there will always be competition. Even the largest of brands still have to work to maintain market share, so it’s no excuse to say there are bigger brands, with bigger budgets. You are nimble and actually have less things stopping you. How badly to do you want it? To be an entrepreneur, you have to eat, breathe, and sleep your business. Are you taking every free minute to push and promote your brand? Within a 20-mile radius of your home — how many retailers are in that vicinity? How many stores? How many parents? How many children? One thing you always have to keep in mind is that every major brand started the same way you did. But if you are serious about starting a real business, then that requires work. Most overnight success stories I know, had about five years of pushing before they had their moment. Starting a business isn’t for the faint of heart. Remember we all have mountains to climb, but the paths to get to the top are all up to you.

Emily BlumenthalHandbag Designer 101, follow at @HandbagDesigner

TSE_Divya-Gugnani_150x150Your first early customers are your toughest to get, but they often turn out to be your most passionate and vocal supporters. Use personal stories, such as how you started your business out of a personal pain point, to get lots more customers. Let these early customers spread the word to their friends and family to build early support for your company. Give them real incentives to achieve this goal, like referral bonuses, commissions on sales, points in a loyalty program and more. Real customers are moved by real stories. The network effect is incredibly powerful and should yield meaningful results. For the mom-invented business, moms are the perfect target market to tell their friends and share their stories on their social media platforms and blogs.

Divya GugnaniConcept to Co. follow at @dgugnani

TSE_Lori-Horberman_150x150Remember the scene from the movie, “Baby Boom” (one of my favorites), where Dianne Keaton is driving around New England selling baby food from the back of her car? Well, we’ve come a long way…a high-ranking Google AdWords and SEO web site is a great start to letting people know you’re out there. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and blogging can help drive traffic. Strategic relationships with other small businesses might help to expand distribution channels –for example, Spbang could include coupons to a local health club in its bags and the health club could sell a healthy, after-workout snack in a Spbang bag. Also, check out thegrommet.com and great.ly—both terrific sites through which to sell cool products. There is so much you can do before actually hiring a PR agency. Get creative and have some fun.

Lori HobermanHoberman Law Group, follow at @lorihoberman

TSE_Julio-Melara_150x150Today’s startup companies have to be pro-active, so start with the big four (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+). Next, focus on quality. Every successful company has quality standards for their product or service; it becomes part of the company culture and word of mouth travels fast. Next, do public relations. Send out regular press releases,  identify individual journalists to cultivate, offer your services to publications as an expert commentator, propose that you’ll write a free series of useful (and short) articles, sponsor newsworthy local events. Another tip: Build a mailing list/database, specifically of potential customers’ email addresses. It’s cheaper and more versatile than postage, and it can be integrated more efficiently with other aspects of your marketing – notably your website.

Julio Melara, JulioMelara.com, follow at @julio_melara