A New York City fire Captain turned Internet Marketer and Blogger, Gary Shouldis left the risky world of fighting fires to embrace the just-as-risky-world of owning an Internet business. In addition to raising a family, Gary spends his time working with others interested in starting their own businesses. His small business website is chock full of strategies and tips for up-and-coming Internet business owners.
Gary’s consultation focus is on productivity, marketing, startup and operations. His helpful blog posts are well organized, categorized, and easy to follow. The posts are extremely sincere as Gary shares his trials and tribulations so that others can learn from his mistakes and benefit from his victories.
We are fortunate to have Gary Shouldis join us for an interview. Enjoy!
1.Tell us a little bit about the journey you took from being a former NYC fire department Captain to being a business owner, small business consultant, and coach. What made you leave behind the fire-fighting world?
I started my career with the NYC fire department in 1994, I was 20 years old at the time. Though I absolutely loved what I was doing, I always had a strong desire to start my own business, but never had the confidence to do so.
I still remember reading copies of Entrepreneur magazine when I was younger, dreaming about owning my own business. I remember the little classified ads that Michael Dell would run in the back of the magazine, offering to build a custom computer and ship it to you through the mail. Sounded like a strange idea at the time.
I’ve been injured several times over the course of my career, it’s part of the job, but in 2006 I almost lost my life in a fire. At the time, my wife and I had our first child and she was about to give birth to our second. When you’re single you don’t have to worry about anyone but yourself, but with a young family to support, I thought it was time to re-think my career choices so I can see my children grow up.
Starting my own business was a dream of mine, so it was a natural second career for me. In 2007 I took an early retirement from the fire department and started my journey as a small business owner.
2.You conduct management and leadership training for new business owners. What is the best thing about being a trainer?
My favorite thing about being a trainer is watching the confidence and empowerment business owners feel when they realize they have everything they need to succeed right inside of them. That self confidence and willing to learn and grow is what I think is the key to a successful business.
3.You have a background in franchising. Have you owned a franchise? If so, what is one advantage of owning a franchise over your own business? What is one disadvantage?
In addition to my consulting and training business, I’m an area developer here in Ontario for a U.S based franchise. In addition to my own business, I help other franchise owners start and grow their business.
One advantage of being in a franchise system is having an experienced team helping and supporting you during your journey as a business owner. If it’s your first time starting a business, this help can be the difference between success and failure as you avoid many of the mistakes first time independent business owners make.
One disadvantage is that you don’t have complete freedom to do as you choose with the business. As a franchisee, you’ve agreed to do business a certain way and that’s what you’re paying for. Some people, especially ones with an entrepreneurial mindset, can find franchise systems limiting and frustrating.
4.Internet marketing is your passion. What are some strategies you use to market your products and services on the Internet? What platforms do you use?
For myself as well as my small business clients, I like to use a mix of search engine optimization as well as paid search marketing. For small businesses, using the two in conjunction with each other can create a highly targeted lead generation funnel for their business.
For search engine optimization, I focus on optimizing the website with targeted keywords and terms, which is turned into website copy that appeals to customers as well as the search engines. I’m big into content marketing, so I do a lot of guest writing for other blogs and business websites to gain exposure as well as valuable links from other websites. For myself, I find that Linkedin and Twitter are a great source of meeting new people and developing new connections.
For paid search engine marketing, I use Google Adwords as well as Bing from Microsoft for targeted Pay Per Click (PPC) campaigns. I find that PPC marketing helps you to get in front of targeted customers for keywords and phrases that you aren’t ranking for in the organic search results, so it’s a perfect complement to search engine optimization.
5.Raising four children and a cat that dominates in the family hierarchy is a full-time job in and of itself. Where do you find time to work on your business and continue to write for yourself? Where is the balance?
My wife and I are very family focused, so it’s important to us to spend lots of quality time together with the kids. I’m an early bird, so I often get up before 5am to spend some quiet time alone either working on my business or doing writing for one of my blogs. It gives me a chance to get things done before the kids get up and the craziness starts.
While I do put in a lot of work hours, I schedule my business around my life. I find that planning my day the night before really helps me to be productive the next day. It’s defiantly a balancing act, but it’s always family first, then business.
6.What is a critical first step of starting and owning your own business? What is often overlooked when people begin the process of setting up their business?
To me, the critical first step is making sure that starting your own business is really what you want and if it’s in-line with your life goals. Most people who have never started a business have misconceptions of what it’s like to own one. Especially during the first few years, you’ll live, eat and breathe your business. It becomes a part of your life.
The first thing I would recommend is to really educate yourself about what it takes to start your own business. Talk to other business owners, read lots of books and ask lots of questions. I usually recommend people read “The E-Myth Revisited”, by Michael Gerber, it paints a pretty accurate picture of what it’s like to start and run your own business.
7.On your blog / website, you mention keeping track of the touch points you make with customers. What are touch points and why are they important?
Every business should consider themselves in the customer service business first and foremost. It’s the level of service and value that you provide to your customers that will often determine your success or failure.
Customer touch points are all of the contact opportunities you have with your customers. It’s important to have a consistent message in all of your contact points, whether it’s your website, brochures or your sales team. It’s about knowing the different ways you have contact with your customers and having a plan in place to make sure you’re being consistent in the way you provide service to your customers.
8.Your blog provides readers with many great tips and tricks of the trade. What inspires your topics? How do you come up with the next one to write about?
For The Small Business Playbook blog, I really wanted to have a place where small business owners can get practical advice that they can take action on. There are a lot of great business websites around, but many of them talk about “what you should do”….I wanted to create a place where business owners could find out “how to do it”. I want to make it a go to resource for small business owners.
Most of the content on the site are either challenges I’ve faced in the past or questions from my readers. I always ask my readers to reach out to me with any questions, and often times I’ll get questions about a how to do something or the best service to use…….that then becomes a new blog topic.
9.You invite guests to post on your blog. How do you monitor the quality of these posts? How do you make sure the content is aligned with what you’re about? Do you use a set of criteria to “approve” the posts?
Managing guest post requests can be a challenge. When I first started my blog I was more relaxed when it came to accepting guest posting requests. I was new to blogging and excited that other people wanted to write for my site. I quickly realized that maintaining quality and consistency on a blog is vital if you want it to grow.
Now I’m pretty picky on who can write for my blog. I have a written set of guest posting guidelines on my site that I refer people to and I always request to see some previous work before giving the green light to write a guest post. While I invite people with different writing styles to submit articles, I’m always looking for content that my readers will look to as a resource for their business.
10.Did you learn most of your strategies from trial and error, or do you attribute your knowledge to any one source or guru that you look up to and follow?
Both. I’ve made so many mistakes as a business owner that I felt the need to start a blog to help others avoid many of the ones I made. Nothing is a better teacher than hard earned experiences. On the same note, I think my greatest asset as a business owner is that I’m insanely curious to learn more about anything that interests me. I think the willingness to learn new skills and ideas is vital to having a successful business.
While I didn’t have any real life gurus to consult with, reading and listening to timeless thought leaders like Jim Rohn and Dale Carnegie had a big impact on the way I think about business and people. There’s a wealth of knowledge and business lessons available out there for anyone who’s eager to learn more.
11.As a consultant, what are the three biggest mistakes you’ve seen people make when trying to start their own businesses? How can new business owners avoid these mistakes?
The biggest mistakes I see people make when starting a business are:
Underestimating how much money you will need. I’ve seen businesses fail because everything hinged on becoming profitable within the first few months or even year. I always ask the same question to people looking to start a business, “If you cut your projected revenues in half and doubled the time you projected to become profitable, do you have enough money survive?” If the answer is yes, I know at least they can weather a rocky start without the danger of losing their business.
Not being prepared to learn new skills on the fly. A business owner must wear many hats and assume many roles for their business. You won’t understand many of the roles until after you’re open for business so you need to learn these new skills quickly as your business is growing. The most successful business owners I’ve met are the ones who continually take the time to grow personally so they can keep up with the demands their business makes of them.
Not having your significant other on board. Starting your own business can be extremely stressful, and if you have a family, everyone needs to be prepared for the roller coaster ride ahead. I’ve seen relationships fall apart because of the stresses of running a business, often times because the other half of the relationship wasn’t on board with the endeavor. I caution people about to start a business to think long and hard if their spouse isn’t on board because the stress levels can get high and some people aren’t prepared for the impact that will have on their family lives.
12.When trying to market their businesses, people often end up spending more at the beginning on things that seem meaningless and useless. What are the biggest waste of time and money for new business owners that they can ultimately do without?
Every business is different and what works for one business may not work for another. When you first open for business, you’ll be bombarded by every newspaper, magazine and marketing company in the area, all trying to get you to spend your marketing dollars with them. If you’re not sure what to do, find local businesses in the area and ask them what works for them.
With your pre-opening marketing plan, you’re bound to waste some money as you’re trying to cast a wide net to get your name out there. Online advertising works great, networking and word of mouth also works great if you’re willing to invest the time. Print advertising and direct mail can be very expensive with little return, so I would do those only if you know other similar businesses are having success with them.
13.If you were to start your business over again, what is one thing you would do differently? Why?
I would invest in hiring great people from the beginning. When I first started out, like most first time business owners, I didn’t place the emphasis on the hiring process like I should have. Your people are your business and having the right team can mean the difference between being a happy business owner or a miserable one.
14.What are the top three things people need to own or purchase (invest in) at the beginning of the process to make life easier in the long run? What are the things you either wish you had when you started your journey?
Invest in assembling a great team to help you with your business. Get a good accountant and lawyer who are eager to help you succeed. Spend the time to hire a great manager or key employee who is going to be your “go to” person and will help alleviate some of the stress in those first few months. If you’re not a marketer, find someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s all about having the right people supporting you and your business.
15.What is next for you? Will you continue to manage and grow your current business or are other things in store for you?
I’m really loving having my own blog, I’ve met so many great people from it and it’s just been a rewarding experience. I have a few other online projects in the works, but for now I’m just happy being able to help other business owners build a successful business.
Gary Shouldis’ site, The Small Business Playbook, is one that all beginners should visit if they are thinking of starting up an Internet business. It is also a helpful resource for business owners who are stuck in a rut or need a little boost to keep going on their endeavors.