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the challenge

Varicent Software Inc. faced a challenge: How could it know whether its new social media initiatives were translating into sales?

After it appeared as the subject of The Challenge in June, advice flooded in, but perhaps the best, and simplest, came from expert Mitch Joel.

"The best way to find out if your social media efforts drove a sale is to ask," Mr. Joel advised.

And so that's just what Brian Hartlen, the Toronto-based company's vice-president of marketing, did.

It might seem like an obvious move to make from the outside, but sometimes it's not so obvious from the inside. And that's why small and medium-sized businesses that face myriad challenges every day can often use the advice of experts.

They've had an opportunity to get that guidance through The Challenge, a feature that appears every Wednesday in The Globe and Mail, both in print and online.

So how have companies fared since their challenges appeared? We followed up with three firms to see what's happened.


Sells sales-performance-management software, Toronto

Its Challenge: In January, the company began to use social media – Twitter, Facebook and blogs – but wanted to know how to find out if its social media efforts were translating into sales.

What's happened since: Varicent's social media "experiment" as Brian Hartlen, vice-president of marketing, called it in June, has become an integral part of its marketing plan.

At the time of the challenge, the company had invested $20,000 in its online efforts; now, in keeping with the advice it received, it's about to add a staff member (to be paid around $60,000) to manage its social media accounts.

The company has also taken to heart the advice of Mitch Joel, president of Montreal marketing firm Twist Image.

"I saw that and thought, 'don't make me look stupid,'" Mr. Hartlen says. "But I never went to our customers. So I called them up and asked them very pointedly, 'How did you find out about our software?'"

He discovered that Google searches were a main way that people learned about the company, stumbling not only onto its website but also links to its blogs and Twitter account. The blogs and tweets, in turn, helped to boost the company's search engine optimization.

"It's helped so much that we're increasing spend in this area," Mr. Hartlen says.

Mr. Hartlen has also started to do more comparisons of the sales performances of company reps who use social media against those who don't. "This should tell you if social media works or not," he says. "We'll see if there's a change in performance in the guys who've adopted it."

It'll still take some time to know exactly how social media efforts translate into sales, but he's fully committed to making it an integral part of the company's marketing initiatives.

"We kept social media to the left-hand side," he says. "But now it's much more integrated."


Sells eco-friendly moving boxes and supplies, Vancouver

Its Challenge: The company wanted to rapidly expand into the United States but questioned whether franchising or corporate stores was the way to go.

What's happened since: After its challenge appeared in June, Frogbox founder and president Doug Burgoyne settled on the franchise model.

The company has since franchised three more stores down south – in Boise, Idaho; and in Madison and Milwaukee, Wis. – adding to two other U.S. locations in Seattle and Minneapolis and 16 franchised locations in Canada.

Making the decision to go the franchise route was helped by the advice Mr. Burgoyne received, he says. "We took bits and pieces from what the experts had to say."

For instance, franchise and intellectual property lawyer and Report on Small Business columnist Tony Wilson cautioned that operating corporate stores would be expensive. While having the money wasn't the issue, Mr. Burgoyne said that, nevertheless, Mr. Wilson's advice helped sway him to go the franchise route.

Since franchisees have to bear the costs of setting up a location, he plans to use the cash that might have been spent on corporate stores to train and support U.S. Frogbox franchisees.

He took another piece of advice from Ken Hardy, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business, who suggested setting up stores in clusters so they could share marketing costs and other resources.

Mr. Burgoyne thought that was a great idea; it's partly why he sought franchises in Madison and Milwaukee and thinks a Chicago location could be part of that cluster, too.

Now that he's settled on franchising, he's trying to move forward as fast as he can. He expects to open 20 to 40 U.S. stores in 2012.

"We decided that [franchising]will work," he says. "Now we want to go full-bore like we did [in]Canada."


Packaging company, Ruthven, Ont.

Its Challenge: For about a year, the company has been in search of a chief operating officer. How could it lure an experienced executive to the small Ontario town?

What's happened since: Jakait founder and chief executive officer Keith Pickard is still on the hunt for a COO, but the advice he received gave him some immediate moves to make, and also made him realize he needed to act quickly.

The first nugget of wisdom, following numerous letters, e-mails and phone calls he received after the August challenge ran, was that he didn't have to hire an experienced person right now. Instead, he has brought on two locally based managers to help ease his workload.

"Multiple mid-level managers can generate results, too," he says.

The experts also helped reshape his thinking about ideal candidates. Janice Detta Colli, a former principal with executive search firm Odgers Berndston who moved to Boyden Global Executive Search last month, suggested recruiting an interim COO. That advice, along with another nugget from someone who saw the Challenge (to consider taking someone out of retirement), got him thinking: Perhaps his best bet was to find a retired executive collecting a pension but wanting to work a little longer (part-time, perhaps); someone from a quaint, southern Canadian town.

"The person would work three or four days," he says. "He can still golf when he wants to."

As for finding the right person, there's no shortage of candidates now. Nor are there any more worries about persuading someone to make the move to a small town.

Mr. Pickard has collected 200 resumes, fielded 300 phone calls and many more e-mails. The vast majority reaching out are located more than an hour away from Ruthven, but "everyone said they wanted to move," Mr. Pickard says. "A lot of people want to get out of the city."

While he hasn't sifted through all the responses yet, he's confident his winning candidate will be found in the stack, and a hire will be made before winter.

"Between the applications and the advice, I'm far more confident as to where I need to go."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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