[Allison Bliss interviewed for marketing expertise in this article]
Q: I have a professional bodyguard company that protects men and women of God. However I’m having a hard time marketing to the church market. Last year, 90 percent of my business came from protecting rappers and R&B singers. I don’t mind, but I want to stay focused on God. Any ideas?
— Piedmont protection service
A: I hear about a lot of different kinds of small businesses, but church bodyguard is a new one for me.
And frankly, I’m not sure your target market is big enough to support your business.
Megachurches and nationally known ministers may need bodyguards, but most neighborhood churches have neither the need nor the resources for a bodyguard.
So this may be a good time to do a reality check and assess just how many potential customers exist out there.
“A lot of people don’t do research to see if there’s a viable market for their business — enough of a market to generate the revenues to support them,” said Jerry Ervin, a San Francisco sales and marketing consultant with Paragon Strategies.
Start by figuring out which religious institutions are really your target market. How big does a church need to be before it can afford security services? How many churches of that size are there in your community?
I’d bet the number is pretty low. So then you have a variety of options:
— Broaden your market geographically. Look for churches of your target size in other cities. Network through national church associations and their annual conventions, and ask pastors who are existing clients to recommend you to their counterparts.
— Market to church members as well as ministers. Some big congregations like Agape International Spiritual Center in Southern California count numerous celebrities and executives — people who typically hire bodyguards — among their congregants. “It’s a little tricky to market to members of a church if you’re not a member yourself, so maybe you could get one of their members to help you with that,” said Allison Bliss, a marketing consultant in Alameda.
— Target more simpatico parts of the music market. Most rappers may not fit with your personal values, but how about gospel singers?
— Expand into related services. I bet you have the skills to teach martial arts to church youth groups or self-defense classes to churchwomen. You could also provide consulting for churches that are too small to hire an outside security guard but want to teach their own congregants how to respond to a natural disaster or security problem.
As you do all this, make your own values clear in your marketing efforts. Spiritually oriented bodyguards are uncommon enough that you will stand out.
Bliss, the Alameda marketer, started her career by taking all kinds of clients, including a number of entertainment “divas.” Eventually she realized that this was not a good fit for her.
“I decided several years ago that I wanted my own business to attract spiritually minded people, environmentally conscious people, people who had a soul,” Bliss said. “So with all the materials I wrote, and everyone I talked to, I started saying, ‘This is who I want to help.’ Within a month, I had a client from L.A. calling and saying, ‘You’re the kind of person I want to work with.’
“I’ll bet that with this guy, it’s not just finding his market but how he’s describing his business,” Bliss said. “Be truthful and passionate about it. By telling everyone who you are and what you want to do, you can actually attract the kinds of clients you want.”
Q:For the past year, I’ve done sales and marketing on a commission basis for a company that performs engineering consulting. I’m considering taking on associates, whom I can train in my sales techniques. It has been suggested that I set up a limited liability company, both for personal liability protection and as a vehicle to pay these future associates. Is this a good idea? And can I use an online company to set up the LLC or should I hire a lawyer?
A:Hiring your first employees is a key moment in the life of a business. It should also be a trigger for looking at your potential exposure to liability.
Until now, the legal risks you faced were from your own actions such as rear-ending someone’s car while making a sales call. Now you’ll also be legally responsible for the actions of your employees.
And no matter how good a supervisor you are, a lot of what they’ll be doing is beyond your control.
“You can never tell what your associates will end up doing — running over someone’s kid or promising things that are not deliverable and result in a lawsuit,” said William Taylor of Taylor & Goins, a small-business law firm in Oakland. “They may even be doing something of their own during work hours, and you could end up being dragged into it.”
So your friends are right in advising you to form some kind of business entity like an LLC or an S corporation to limit your personal liability.
But this should be a supplement to liability insurance, not a replacement for it. And it won’t offer any particular advantages as a payroll vehicle: You can pay people just as easily in your current structure as a sole proprietor.
Now … should you use a lawyer or an online service to form your business entity?
There are numerous online companies that will file your articles of organization — the LLC equivalent of articles of incorporation — for much less than it would cost you to hire an attorney. You can find many of them listed on the Web site of the California secretary of state atwww.ss.ca.gov/business/bpd_service_companies.htm.
But the filing service that most of these firms provide is really only the tip of the iceberg. And it’s the part of the job that you could easily do yourself.
“To form the entity itself is amazingly simple,” said Anthony Mancuso, an attorney and author of several Nolo Press books on LLCs including “LLC or Corporation.”
“It’s the before-and-after stages that are trickier. You need to think through the tax consequences of the structure you’re choosing. You need to put together an operating agreement, especially if you have other owners. It’s best to do all that ahead of time and review it with an expert, someone who does this day in and day out.”
The dirty little secret behind LLCs and corporations is that setting up the entity alone isn’t enough to protect you from liability. There are various follow-up statements that need to be filed. And you need to ensure that your entity has enough operating capital and insurance, and that your personal funds aren’t mixed up with business funds.
Otherwise a judge could rule that your LLC or corporation isn’t legally valid and you could end up on the hook for the debts of your business.
So consider a three-step approach to save money, yet ensure you’re doing things right:
— Pick up a book like Mancuso’s to learn everything you can about business entities, so you’re not paying a lawyer to answer basic questions.
— Talk with an attorney or an accountant about the choices that are best for your specific business.
— Then file the papers yourself or through a filing service.