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These are challenging economic times and small businesses must establish a strong foundation for success. Here are steps to take now to kick-start your business efforts and ensure success in the not too distant future.

Concentrate on marketing

Whether your business is established or you are just starting out, a marketing plan is essential for success. A good marketing plan includes understanding your target market, knowing your competitive position in that market, how you intend to reach that market (your tactics) and how to set yourself apart from your competition. This lets everyone in the organization understand where you are headed.

Create a presence online

Most people in the U.S. use the Internet, and many depend on it for information research. In 2011, approximately 73% of Internet users shopped online and that number is expected to grow. These days, not having a website or email address is like not having a phone in the first half of the last century.

Assess your image

Your website, business cards, brochures, flyers and any other collateral you distribute must be attractive and consistent. Is it clear what your business offers to customers? The image you project to the outside world should be an accurate reflection of your organization, dependability and standards. A periodic evaluation can determine what, if any, changes are in order.

Offer extraordinary customer service

Customer service must be an integral part of your business. Your business will stand apart from your competitors if you have standards in place and respond quickly to customer needs and concerns.

Give people something to talk about

A consistent advertising, marketing and public relations plan sets your business apart and helps to determine how successful it becomes. Public relations is comprised of publicity and other activities such as community participation, public speaking, media commentary and more. By positioning yourself as a thought leader with industry sector expertise, you help to acquire and keep customers.

Assemble a network or professionals

A small business owner is often a “one man band” and can become isolated. Consider assembling an advisory group to act as a sounding board, and support you as you grow your business to the next level. An effective advisory board consists of professionals who bring a wide range of skills, experience and diversity to your company. Be sure to reciprocate by offering your time, talent and expertise to others.

Create strategic alliances

Strategic alliances are a way to work with others toward a common goal without losing individuality. Many companies report an increase in revenue because strategic alliances increase market penetration, lower costs and boost your ability to promote your goods or services.

Work smart

A small or mid-sized business owner must be aware of all aspects of the business. Take a close look at how and where you spend your time as your business grows. Increase your bottom line by placing trust in those you hire and learning when to use outside contractors for tasks such as accounting, marketing, and legal advice.

Growing your business takes time and dedication. If you focus on these key areas to encourage profitable growth you can expect success going forward.

About the writers: Gain-Stovall, Inc., owned by Rosanne Gain and Bob Stovall, is a public relations planning and implementation company that helps clients with media strategies including traditional and social media. GSI helps clients solve PR mysteries and tell their stories.