Boost sales by filling 'screaming needs'

Even in a down economy, customers will pay for products and services that save them time and money.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- I constantly run into business owners who are beating the odds in this tough economy. In fact, they're finding that the downturn itself creates greater opportunity.

Take Tom Sausen, a former chef whose food business, Bonewerks Culinarte, sells gourmet sauces and fully-prepared entrees to professional chefs. Sausen approached me after I finished giving a speech in Green Bay, Wisc., where his company is based. He was decked out in white chef garb (minus the hat), and wanted to share his two cents about strategies that work in a down economy.

Now that chefs can let their fingers do the walking instead of the cooking, they avoid the drawn-out process of creating "signature" sauces and marinades from scratch, which can take 24 hours and often yields only hit-and-miss results. Many chefs now leave that painstaking process to Bonewerks Culinarte.

Sausen found a pain point in a tough market. Because customer volume is down, restaurants are being forced to cut back on skilled labor. But no matter how few diners you have on any given night, preparing sauces still takes the same number of hours. So any product that helps pressured chefs minimize time-intensive tasks is a godsend.

Tom Sausen has identified a screaming need that screams louder in a difficult economy. The proof? Bonewerks Culinarte has maintained 20% revenue growth for the past several years.

Ryan Allis's iContact has a similar story. Based in Durham, N.C., his company offers e-mail marketing services to small businesses that need economical and scalable ways to message their customers. As budgets tighten at the smallest companies, only the most efficient and effective marketing methods survive.

The Internet teems with ads and spam. TV is flooded with commercials. In these ad-saturated times, businesses are under more pressure than ever to find affordable, fresh, and inviting strategies to communicate with their customers. Economical, permission-based channels such as e-mail marketing are critical to help small businesses get noticed without alienating their customers.

In his blog at, Allis observes that e-mail marketing can be a transformative marketing tool if used correctly, especially when every dollar spent must correlate with dollars earned. IContact's more than $6.5 million in 2007 revenue is proof that small businesses are hip to Allis's advice.

How to bird dog your own screaming need? Look for preexisting, established needs - this helps you avoid the costly and time-consuming process of educating customers. And don't be afraid to offer what someone else offers - it's a sure sign of market demand. Just be sure to add a twist that distinguishes you from the rest of the field.

Next week I'll introduce you to more entrepreneurs who have launched, survived and thrived in this tough economy. Their secret? Raw, undeniable passion.

Rich Sloan is co-founder of StartupNation, a leading online business advice and networking website for entrepreneurs. He also hosts the nationally syndicated talk show, StartupNation Radio, airing on over 70 stations across the country. He is co-author of the acclaimed how-to book, StartupNation: America's Leading Entrepreneurial Experts Reveal the Secrets to Building a Blockbuster Business (Doubleday, 2006). To top of page

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