Do You Correctly Use ROI In Your Small Business?

Getting disciplined enough to constantly look at the return on investment (ROI) of your time as a small business owner is really tough to do. It flies in the face of that equally constant pressure to get out and network, build and maintain relationships, and give the free advice you are often asked for as a successful SBO. I constantly struggle with the concept of ROI because I’m experienced enough to know that you can’t always judge it with cold, hard metrics. On the other hand, you sometimes intuitively know that being accomodating isn’t doing your business any good.

I’ve had an experience with that 3 times in the last month with being asked to speak at various chapters of an international women’s organization. In all cases, I was asked to travel. Two of the chapters are far enough away from my home to require airfare and hotel costs. Unfortunately, this particular organization has a “policy” of not reimbursing speaker fees or travel, no matter how far the distance. I balk at that when it requires air travel and hotels – I might be willing to speak for free because it’s a great way to get me in front of my target market, women small business owners. But adding on a few thousand for travel costs seems disrepectful to me.

Of course, the chapter leaders of this organization quickly point out that while in front of their chapter audience you can make a pitch to sell a product or service. In this way, speaking at these chapter meetings becomes a simple business transaction – is one willing to “pay” several thousand in travel and days away from the office to bet that the chapter’s audience will purchase one’s offer enough to make up for the cost in time and money? Part of the equation then becomes “how great a match is this particular chapter to my target market, how many people are usually in attendance, and how long do I have to both deliver great, useful content and make a pitch?”

I’ve learned to delve into the details of those questions instead of accepting blanket statements about how great it would be to get in front of their chapter’s members. In order to have a clue as to what ROI I can expect, I need to know those things. In the past months, upon careful questioning, I’ve found out several things that definitely impact the potential ROI.

  1. A chapter in a larger city usually has about 30 people, and half of those are direct marketers (not my target audience).
  2. A chapter pitched to me as “vibrant” had been in existence for 4 months and was still building core membership.
  3. A chapter with a good match to my target audience admitted, when questioned, that they allowed their speaker 20 minutes (although they required the speaker to “fully cover” 4 to 5 bullet points in that time).

If you are asked to provide your expertise for free, it’s not always a bad deal. But it can be – and especially when an organization acts like they are doing you a huge favor to let you stand in front of their audience, and aren’t willing to spend even the gas money to get you there. I suggest putting a few parameters around the things you do for free. As an example, when I do speak for free I require that I am introduced by the host and provide a brief written bio both ahead of time and at the event. (This requirement got put into place when, at a speech in front of about 300 people who were a good match for me, the chapter president thoughtlessly stood up and said, “Oh, everyone’s heard of Sue Painter, I’ll just let her introduce herself.”)

Along with requiring a proper introduction, I require an opportunity to invite people to go to my website and subscribe to my e-zine if they wish. I figure for my free time and expertise, these two basic things are not too much to ask. That’s my criteria for having any chance to get a return on investment of my time. Your criteria might be different.

After 15+ years in business now, I’ve come to recognize that some people will cry poor, ask for freebies, and not even make good use of them or come close to thanking you for your time. I well remember a women a few years ago who asked to lunch with me 4 times in 4 months, picked my brain for a solid 90 minutes (taking notes as she munched her salad), and never even offered to pick up my lunch tab.  That’s my bad – I was overly generous and didn’t draw the line, and I wasted a lot of time.

On the other hand, a few months ago someone called me locally who was just kicking off a small business after several years of planning. She had heard of me and found out I had recently moved to Nashville. She was quick to tell me she had no money, and she asked if I would do a half-day workshop for a small group of her prospects. On the surface, the ROI seemed nil. But I intuitively knew that this woman is a go-getter, and that over time her customers could potentially need me along with her – in fact, I thought that down the road we might be able to do something collaboratively. So I said yes, and although the ROI isn’t there yet, I still believe it will be in the future. Meanwhile, I’ve got a very pleasant new relationship with someone locally who is bright, committed, and a pleasure to chat with. And, I might add, she did profusely thank me for my time, did a great introduction at her workshop, and continued to publish links to my website in her e-zines for a few months.

The bottom line to ROI is that is isn’t always metrics, and it isn’t always saying yes to everything because “you never know.” Those two positions are the opposite ends of a see-saw, and small business owners need to stay somewhere in the middle, balancing between the two ends. While I am often generous with my time, I at least want to be truthfully told how it will be used, and appreciated for it, too. If those conditions aren’t met, my gut feel is that the ROI will never be there, either.

If this ROI post has been useful to you, I invite you to subcribe (above) to my e-zine and my blog feed. You’ll get more content like this, all meant to help you grow your own small business.

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  1. says


    On a tangentially related note (I hope!), what do you do for folks who want some advice (free, of course) about their marketing, but you know from watching them over time (say, in a networking group) that they will not make any active use of your shared expertise? I find myself wanting to help, but I’ve experienced enough of this that I’m looking to create some kinds of appropriate boundaries.

    In a fair and perfect world, no one would ask you to do things for free. But we all have relationships, especially those driven through our associations (church, community groups, networking groups, etc.) where this can get sticky. How do you deal with this in your own practice?

    • says

      Hi Jeff,
      When someone is asking for my time and I especially have seen that they do not follow through, I do one of two things. 1) I might give them my entry coaching application form and ask them to complete it, and return it to me before talking. This makes them focus and put time and thoughtfulness into themselves before using my time. 2) I might deflect the request for a “free” meeting and point the person to purchasing one of my “one and done” hours. If they decline, so be it. But I send the message I’m not available for free at that time.

  2. says

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog
    posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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