Dumb Things Small Businesses Do
#6: Ingratitude

chihuahua dressed as a turkey

So instead of the obligatory Thanksgiving post where we talk about gratitude (don’t get me wrong, I think gratitude is awesome), I’m going to assume you know enough to stop for a second and remember how much amazing stuff is in your life. How many fantastic people, how much material abundance (even when it doesn’t feel that way), how much freedom.

Instead, today we’re going to talk about a dumb mistake that lots of businesses make. Big businesses are actually dumber than small ones on this topic, but if you think I was going to pass up the chance to use this photo, you’re nuts.

Anyway, most big businesses are too inflexible to turn this around. But you’re small and maneuverable, which is why you’re going to clean up.

The Easiest Way to Make Money

Even in the midst of all this financial panic and freefall, there is a nice big pot of delicious money sitting on the table for you.

No painful mountains to climb, no spiteful deities to appease, no hefty entrance fee to pay.

That pot of money is held by the customers who already trust you and know that you’re cool. They would like to give you some more money. But they need a little bit of help to do that.

Let Them Know They’re Appreciated

Customers drift away because they don’t think you love them. They don’t hear you saying how grateful you are for their business, and they don’t hear that they’re valued and cared for.

So many businesses think “marketing” is the same thing as “lead generation.” In other words, that marketing equals chasing down strangers so you can wrestle them through a conversion process and turn them into customers.

Lead gen and conversion are expensive. They’re either costing you time, money, or most likely, both.

Lead gen and conversion are important. But if you want to make life a lot easier and more enjoyable, set aside some of that time, money and attention and put it into existing customers.

Existing customers already know you’ve got good things to offer. They’ve demonstrated that they’ll pay for what you provide. But they need to know you appreciated their business last time.

Keep Making Yourself Useful

One of the smartest things you can do is to consistently and systematically put yourself in front of customers. Not to keep hammering them with requests for business, but to offer a hand of friendship and support.

If you can call your existing customers up regularly to ask how they’re doing and if they need anything, that’s great. But most businesses can’t scale that kind of individual attention. Instead, create a warm, personal-feeling communication system that reminds customers of why they bought from you in the first place.

My free e-class on email marketing walks you through all the basics on how to create this kind of communication. And you can use the same steps for blogs and paper newsletters as well.

In fact, a paper newsletter, while obviously more expensive to send, is also very likely to gain you better response and put more dollars into your pocket. Could you create a quarterly snail-mail newsletter for customers, with email editions to fill in the gaps?

Don’t let your perfectionism kill you on this one. Make it simple, print it up on your photocopier or at Kinko’s, and get it out there. Unless you’re a graphic designer, your newsletter doesn’t need to win design awards. It needs to communicate with your customers.

Ask for Their Business

No, you don’t want to pound your customers (or prospects, for that matter) with nonstop messages to buy-buy-buy.

But don’t neglect to make the offer, either. You never know when any given customer is going to be in the perfect place to buy from you.

Keep wrapping up your stuff in attractive offers. You might offer a special free gift to existing customers when they buy from you. (Special free gifts don’t have to be expensive, but, please, they can’t be lame.) Think about how you can wrap your expertise in interesting new boxes and ribbons. Offer those up regularly.

When you do make an offer, don’t mumble. Be incredibly clear about what you want them to do, how you want them to do it, and what they’re going to get out of it.

If you think you’re being overly specific, you probably have it about right.

Ask for Referrals

Make your newsletter content irresistible, then invite your customers to forward it to their friends. Let customers know that their friends are your very favorite source of new business. Give a nice, thoughtful thank-you gift for a referral. (See the note above about non-lameness of gifts.)

When someone spontaneously thanks you for doing a great job, immediately ask if you can turn those words into a testimonial. Nearly everyone will happily say yes. Then quickly work up some wording that gets the essence of what they said, send it to them, and confirm that you may use it and their name in your marketing.

What if You Don’t Have Any Customers Yet?

Find someone who has the customers you want. If you’re a nutritionist, maybe this person is an acupuncturist or a personal trainer or the manager of a health food store.

That person is not following up with their customers either. Show them this post and help them put together some great customer communication. Work through the email class together. (Let’s face it, you’re a lot more likely to act on what you learn if you’ve got a buddy to work with.)

Introducing you is a great way for your new partner to kick off a customer communication program. And you and your partner can come up with twice as much tasty, beneficial content, split the work, and double your customer base.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

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How to Survive the End of the World

A six-mile wide chunk of cosmic trash came screaming toward us faster than a missile. In 10 minutes, the face of the earth changed forever.

No one could have seen it coming, telescopes being short in supply at the end of the Cretaceous period (and T-rexes not being very good at fiddling with the focus knobs).

The year that followed was literally hellish. The Gulf of Mexico vaporized nearly instantly. A rain of molten debris set off forest fires that engulfed half the earth’s wooded areas. Uncontrolled swarms of insects hatched to feast on the corpses of the 76% of the earth’s species that had suddenly become extinct. And a cloud of soot and space dust created a night that lasted for six straight months.

(Thank you, PBS. Have I ever mentioned my love of nature programs? Heroes and Lost have nothing on this.)

Sound familiar?

Is there maybe a teeny tiny little part of you that thinks this is a pretty good metaphor for the cascading crashes we’re seeing right now in the economy?

Who survives the unsurvivable?

So what made it? Some birds, a lot of bugs, a few weird looking little proto-mammals, and crocodiles.

It turns out that crocodiles are exceptionally good at surviving unimaginable awfulness.

So can a tough, formidable lizard teach you something about making it when things get really, really bad? Maybe.

Adaptability is king

Any dinosaurs that might have survived the initial meteor impact (and subsequent tidal waves and forest fires) were probably killed off by the six months of darkness. Plant-eaters don’t do too well when there’s no photosynthesis. And predators don’t do too well when there are no more plant-eaters to munch on.

Crocodiles, on the other hand, eat both live and dead prey. Their stomachs can tolerate just about anything. All that gross bacteria in dead stuff? Not a problem.

P.S., they can see in the dark. While T. Rex was stumbling around looking for a light switch, crocodiles were efficiently eating their way through an all-you-can-eat buffet.

It’s easy to assume crocodiles are as stupid as most reptiles, but they actually can learn new tasks surprisingly quickly. (This according to studies carried out by extremely brave scientists. Let’s face it, putting a crocodile through a maze has got to be trickier than doing it with a lab rat.)

Crocodiles may not go through the philosophical and playful mental gymnastics that we primates do, but they’re surprisingly wily at solving the problems they need to solve.

A crocodile can also, if pressed, go about two years without eating. So things can get pretty darned bad for quite awhile, and they’ll pull through.

The original 80/20 rule

Crocodiles don’t do a damned thing when there’s nothing worth doing. If there’s no food around, they lie there. (It probably helps that they can slow their heart rate to 3 beats per minute.)

When there is food around, they become incredibly fast. When it’s time to act, they act, with horrifying efficiency. When it’s time to lie low, they lie low.

Crocodiles don’t thrash around in a panic when there’s no point. Instead, they lie there (in that creepy way they have) getting ready for the next opportunity.

Sometimes it’s useful to just be a mean SOB

Crocodiles don’t spend a lot of time wondering if they deserved to survive the worst thing that ever happened on earth. They don’t mourn all the other cool species they used to hang out with. They don’t spend their time missing the tender and delicious creatures they used to snack on in the good old days.

Crocodiles take what’s available and they make it work. I’m not advocating adopting a crocodile’s meanness, but we could all do with their lack of self pity.

So should we be crocodiles?

 

I don’t think I’d like the life of a crocodile. It’s too narrowly focused, too selfish, and too heartless.

But I’m willing to adopt some of their more admirable traits. I’m willing to expand my repertory of ways to make a living, and to develop multiple strategies that will work together so I can thrive no matter where I find myself.

I’m willing to learn to navigate weird new environments.

I’m willing to scale back when that makes sense, and to scale up again when the time is right.

I’m willing to save my energy for projects that will pay off, instead of racing around squandering my energy on ego-driven tasks that will never bear real fruit.

I’m not willing to be mean, but I am willing to move aggressively toward what I want. And I’m willing to quit whining about how easy it used to be.

How about you? What traits are you calling on to survive the great meteor blast? Let us know in the comments.

If you like this post, please link to, Stumble, or Tweet it!

Flickr Creative Commons images by Tom@HK

Dumb Things Small Businesses Do
#5: The Worst Number


Primordial marketing guru Dan Kennedy likes to say that “One is the worst number in business.” I agree with this, and I’ll take it a little farther.

If there’s an important “one” in your business, you don’t have a business. You have a project that may or may not continue to make money.

Especially in times of rapid change and uncertainty, “one” is the enemy.

There’s no stability in one. Which does a better job of keeping its tires on the ground–a unicycle, a bicycle, or an 18-wheeler?

Don’t wobble around by trying to balance your business on a critical “one,” or even a “two” or “three.”

One strategy for lead generation

If you exclusively use Google AdWords or SEO to find new business, what happens when Google changes its algorithms overnight?

You can ask the thousands of businesses that went under the last time they did it. It’s called a Google Slap, and it comes with no warning and no apologies.

If you only use direct mail, what happens when we get another anthrax scare? Same answer as above. No one opens envelopes from people they don’t know, and you get no new business.

Even referrals, wonderful though they are, can’t be your sole source of finding new customers. Find a new way to bring leads in the door and implement it, even if you do so on a very small scale. If your current lead generation strategy dies without notice, you’ll have another faucet that can be opened up any time you need to.

One customer

If losing any one of your customers would cripple your business, you have a major problem.

I don’t care how much they love you. I don’t care how much they need you. Your customer can die, go bankrupt, outsource to Indonesia, or just fall in love with someone else.

If your biggest customer calls you today and tells you the relationship is over, what’s your plan? What system do you have in place to create more big customers?

What systems are you creating to sustainably scale your business, so you can handle 5 or 10 or even 100 big customers?

One provider

Have a credit card merchant account? Get a second account with another provider. If one freezes your account for 60 days because you made too much money too quickly (it happens, especially if you do business online), or their server goes down or their service starts to slip, you can instantly make the switch to the second provider. Small increase in monthly fees; large improvement in the stability of your cash flow.

This goes for your graphic designer, your copywriter, your computer person, even your employees. Cultivate a network of first-rate freelancers you can mobilize when you need to execute a great new project.

Create redundancy in any systems that are critical to your success.

One product

I don’t care how you do it, chasing down a new customer is expensive. It’s expensive in time or money, and usually both.

Your real profit starts with the third sale. Your marketing cost has dwindled to pennies, and you’ve created a foundation of trust that allows you to charge premium prices (provided, of course, that you deliver better-than-premium value).

You can work through nearly infinite cycles of “what’s bugging you / here’s a solution” with your existing customers. It’s incredibly cost-effective, and it’s also just more fun than constantly hitting up strangers.

If your raving fans don’t have any way to give you lots and lots more money, you have a problem. You also have a very exciting opportunity.

One partner

Brian Clark is kicking off a series today about collaboration in the 21st century. You probably know that I’ve been fortunate enough this year to work closely with Brian myself, and I’ve learned an amazing amount.

Brian knows that partnerships are the key to taking his own talent and know-how and multiplying their effects exponentially.

You’re not good at everything. In fact, chances are you’re not even barely competent at everything.

And even if you’re a DaVinci who masters everything you put your hand to, there’s only one of you. Restrict yourself to what you personally can get done and you’ll leave lots of money on the table.

Working with partners is also just enjoyable. Let’s face it, your family and friends have no idea what you do. 98% of the people you meet think business is black magic. Finding like-minded partners and fellow entrepreneurs will build your confidence, sharpen your thinking, and open your mind to all kinds of amazing new ways to grow your business.

One plus one equals a lot more than two. Start nurturing a network of potential partners you can call on to execute new projects. There are folks out there who will let you solve your customers’ problems in all kinds of fascinating new ways.

Those partners really want to meet you. Open yourself up to finding them.

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Dumb Things Small Businesses Do
#4: Thinking It’s About You

chihuahua in goggles
Remember my hapless entrepreneur from last week? He dug himself a giant scary financial hole because he was so in love with his vision of his product that he didn’t bother to get any feedback from actual customers.

In fact, he tended to think of his customers as an annoying necessity. They kept calling with their stupid support questions, keeping him from spending his time adding features no one had asked for.

They didn’t read the brochures he sent them. They didn’t use his Web page the way he thought they should. They didn’t order the product as soon as a salesperson called. The salespeople had to keep walking stupid prospects through all these dopey objections they had.

His prospects and customers were just incredibly inconvenient to his vision of what the company ought to be.

How do you feel when you’re treated as an inconvenience?

Ever been treated this way by a business? I have, probably hundreds of times. It never fails to make my blood boil.

I had a salesman in a car dealership lie to me once about having an add-on product in stock, because he didn’t want the hassle of going to dig the unwieldy item out of the store room.

I will walk twenty miles to work rather than ever buy another car from that dealership. And hmm, you know what? I have a better option than that. It’s called buying from one of their many competitors.

Even if you’re Apple, it’s not about you

I don’t care how cool or exciting your product is, it’s never about you. It’s about the customers who pay your salary and your employees’ salary.

I talk a lot about marketing being like a relationship, but there’s one key difference: it’s not supposed to be equal. You’re the one who has to be considerate, to anticipate the other’s needs, to always give more than you get, to listen 90% of the time and talk 10% of the time.

In a real relationship, you’d be a doormat.

In a business relationship, you’ll be a hero.

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Dumb Things Small Businesses Do
#3: Getting Upside Down

A few years ago, I did some consulting for a business owner. We were throwing around some ideas for PR and word of mouth marketing. (I didn’t end up working with him, for a variety of reasons.)

He was dead sure he was creating the next Amazon. He’d built his product from scratch. He had some experience in the same business as his customers, and he believed he knew all of their needs inside and out.

Things were humming along reasonably well, but the business wasn’t the colossus he thought it deserved to be. So he took out a second mortgage on his house. He put another $40 or $50 grand on his credit cards. Then he borrowed some more money from a group of private investors.

He moved out of his basement and into a real office. He printed 10,000 four-color glossy brochures. He brought on a staff of salespeople to make cold calls.

He was glowingly confident all through this saga. After all, his product was groundbreaking. It was magnificent. It was his baby. With all this support, there was no way it wasn’t going to be a monster hit.

Alas, it turned out not, in fact, to be a monster hit.

He didn’t lose the business or his house, which is a miracle. If the timing had been different, he probably would have lost both. But he did saddle himself with a mountain of debt that was a lot larger than the actual worth of the business.

He’s fired everyone and moved back to his basement. If he works incredibly hard, he might someday sell the business and come close to breaking even.

Maybe.

Get tough with yourself

When you start playing with money that comes in as “capital” (as opposed to revenue you actually earn by selling stuff), it’s easy to get sloppy. You get more office than you need, more computer than you need, more fancypants furniture than you need. You keep salespeople who don’t sell, because it feels icky to fire people. And you spend hours on unnecessary trivia instead of figuring out how to put out the fire that’s consuming your business.

Sometimes, yes, borrowing money to expand is a good thing. But if you’re going to do that, you need a rock solid plan about how you’re going to make that money (and more) back.

“This thing is so awesome it just has to work” is not a solid plan.

You need to know your milestones (I need X sales at Y profit margin per month), and you need to devote your entire attention to hitting them.

If that sounds scary and awful, there’s another way to go about it

Start small. Make something (or provide a service) and sell that. See how it goes. Talk with customers and potential customers about what other stuff they would really like to see. Figure out what problems they have, and how you might solve them.

(And listen to their answers. That’s where my entrepreneurial friend went south. He was so sure he knew his customers better than they knew themselves. He didn’t spend any time actually listening to what they were telling him. It turns out they had a lot to say, loud and clear.)

Look at every new or improved product as a prototype. Build it, launch it, check your sales, tweak, and relaunch.

In fact, if you can build a simple version quickly, sell it before you build it. Create a discounted “pre-release” version and see how many people go for it. If your response is pitiful, dump the project before you start. Give your takers their money back with a little gift for their trouble.

If the new product isn’t bringing in additional profit, either in the form of more sales or better repeat and referral business, scrap the program. Move on to something else. Stay lean and light on your feet.

If you build based on real feedback (especially feedback in the form of customers actually taking action and buying something), you’ve got a much more stable foundation than your own vision.

Clouds are beautiful to dream about, but they’re darned chilly and uncomfortable to live in.

Tune in next time for Dumb Thing #4: Thinking It’s About You

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14 Must-Have Resources to Get Your
Small Business Off the Ground

allen's hummingbird

The hardest thing about small business is getting started. In the past few weeks, I keep getting email from lovely people who want to launch a business, but they don’t know where to begin. They’re overwhelmed, confused, and in a lot of cases, pretty scared.

Since I’ve obsessively looked at dozens (maybe hundreds) of resources on just this topic, I thought I’d give you my suggestion for a beginners’ tool kit. These will give you at least 90% of what you need to know, without a lot of confusing junk you don’t need. And nearly all of these resources are cheap or free. (If the pennies are tight, don’t forget your public library!)

I’ve divided these into sections to keep you from getting lost in all the goodies! (So much for my idea about putting together shorter posts. You’ll get some more bite-sized ones later this week, I promise.)

Step-by-step systems

When you’re trying to sort through a zillion pieces of advice, it can be really, really helpful to have someone hold your hand and walk you through the steps in order. Here are two great systems for that. (You can absolutely use them together, too.)

1. New series at Ittybiz. If you’ve read Remarkable Communication for any length of time, you know that I think Naomi Dunford at Ittybiz is pretty much the queen of micro business advice. She’s coached lots of lucky clients into creating wildly successful, enjoyable home businesses. She doesn’t do much coaching any more (and if you can snag an hour of her time, it’s expensive), but she’s about to launch a free series on how to make a great living by creating your own Itty Business.

The series won’t be on her blog, but you can sign up for it here. (No worries, it’s going to be free.) It starts out with a post called Why We’re Broke and How to Fix It, with ideas about how you can get some of that “the rich get richer” mojo going for yourself.

2. Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid. Michael Port has an amazing step-by-step system for service professionals to . . .  well, book themselves solid.

Book Yourself Solid shows you which clients you’re meant to serve, what you can offer them that no one else can, and how to find customers without feeling like a creep or doing anything scary like cold calling.

One warning: reading the book will not make clients start calling you up. You have to actually do the exercises, which are fun but can take some serious thought.

I’m doing his exercises again now, as a matter of fact, because I’m going to be taking Remarkable Communication in some new directions. I like to bring the book and a notebook to bed and write out exercises until I get sleepy. It’s fun, it’s enlightening, and it works.

How to get good at (eeeek) marketing

3. Marketing basics. I created my free ten-part marketing tool kit to give marketing newbies an overview of the most important tactics and techniques. This would be a 70-part tool kit if I included everything, but it will get you rolling.

(Again, there’s nothing scary in there like cold calling or leaning high-pressure sales closing techniques. That stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m no damned good at it and thus do not try to teach it.)

4. Get started with copywriting #1. No one wants to study copywriting. It sounds hard and complicated, like English class but without the cute boy/girl who sat in front of you.

But you need to know that copywriting to promote your business isn’t the same thing at all as trying to write the Great American Novel. (Or even trying to get a decent grade on a term paper.)

Commercial copywriting is just learning how to talk about why people should do business with you. Gorgeous descriptions or perfect grammar aren’t necessary. Even if you think you’ll outsource all of your copywriting, it’s still important to know what goes into writing that sells, so you can give your freelancer good direction.

I hope it doesn’t sound too suck-uppy, but I refer to Brian Clark’s Copywriting 101 all the time. It’s sound, time-tested advice, it’s tailored to the realities of the 21st century, and it’s more convenient than a library of copywriting books.

5. Get started with copywriting #2. Gary Bencivenga is often called the most successful copywriter of all time. He wrote direct mail packages (you & I might instead use the term “junk mail”) that earned him millions of dollars (and hundreds of millions for his clients). He has a collection of tips called the Bencivenga Bullets that contain tons of of proven ideas for improving your copywriting.

I suggest you do as I have, and print out the entire collection of posts to keep as a reference. I read and reread these. Be sure to sign up for his email list as well, as he adds to the Bullets from time to time.

Learn from a pair of true Mad Men

In today’s world, blog posts or email autoresponders might take the place of ads, but the techniques work essentially the same way. These two are required reading if you want to understand what makes persuasive communication work.

6. Claude Hopkins already knew everything there was to know about advertising before you, your parents, or your grandparents were born. He wrote two books, My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising, both of which are readable and simple to understand, befitting a true ad man.

If you want to really learn the art of persuasive communication, it’s well worth rereading Scientific Advertising about every six months or so. You can get both books bundled together in a cheap reprint. Scientific Advertising is also widely available as a free PDF.

7. John Caples (rhymes with Naples) wrote about everything Claude Hopkins did, but Caples’s book Tested Advertising Methods is easier to understand and has many more examples. If you want to know the most important part of an ad, how to improve the selling power of your copy, what layouts and illustrations work best, or you like the sound of 35 proven formulas for writing headlines, Caples is your guy.

Master the art of influence

8. Robert Cialdini’s Influence is another cornerstone of persuasive communication. Cialdini is an academic who studied the techniques of con men and great salespeople. Influence describes dozens of experiments that get to the root of what makes effective sales and persuasion techniques work.

You absolutely must read and re-read Influence if you want to learn to sell, to market, or to persuade. It also comes in very handy for arming yourself against people who want to talk you into something that isn’t in your best interest. (In fact, that’s why Cialdini wrote it. He’s a self-confessed patsy who wanted to understand how to defend himself against master persuaders.)

Business stuff

9. The One Page Business Plan. I know I wrote about this last week, but it’s a very handy little resource. If you hate business plans (doesn’t everyone?), The One Page Business Plan will help you get to the good stuff without getting bogged down in spreadsheets until you want to jump out a window.

10. Small Time Operator. This nifty handbook covers all the other stuff. Taxes, accounting, hiring, vendors, DBAs, etc. etc. etc. If you have a question about running a small business, Small Time Operator can probably answer it for you. The only section that’s not as strong is the marketing one. I’d use the other resources here (especially Book Yourself Solid) for that.

A good-looking Web site that won’t cost a fortune

If one more person tells me they spent $10,000 on a Web site that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, I am going to lose my mind.

First things first: have your site built in self-hosted WordPress. (If you’re thinking to yourself, Well why not Joomla or Drupal, this section is too basic for you. Feel free to skip to #11 or #12.)

Yes, WordPress is blogging software, but it also works perfectly for regular old normal Web sites. (And you can add a blog in a snap if and when you ever feel like it.) As a businessperson, you’re going to want to add and edit new pages to your site, post articles, create reference lists, build special pages for promotions, and all kinds of things that are a holy pain in the backside if you do them in static HTML. (Never mind Flash and JavaScript and Ajax.)

If you’re somewhat technical, you can do this yourself, although you still want to get a real graphic designer to create the visuals that will give your site professional polish.

11. A terrific WordPress designer. Now there are lots of great WordPress people out there, but I’m just going to point you to one today. Men with Pens built this blog for me, and I really enjoyed working with them. Plus their prices are very reasonable. You may have your own person you love, and of course that’s cool too. But if you’re looking for someone, these guys do excellent work, they’re quick, and they really care about your success.

12. Remarkablogger. If a blog’s going to be part of your strategy, no one else will talk you through the business side of things like Michael Martine. Remarkablogger is all about how to use blogs as an effective tool to promote your business, rather than an end in themselves.

13. Thesis. Thesis is the WordPress theme this blog is built on. It’s especially user-friendly for people who aren’t exactly technical geniuses. It’s designed to be well optimized for SEO, and it’s easy to configure to look just the way you want.

There are lots of free WordPress themes out there, some of which can be configured to be truly fabulous. But I personally feel that going with a premium theme like Thesis takes things to a more professional level, without requiring a lot of technical or design expertise. totally up to you.

(One nice thing about WordPress is that you can swap out themes in minutes, so feel free to start with a free theme and upgrade if and when the time is right.)

What else?

14. Remarkable Communication. I’m here for you! This blog is all about creating more success for medium, small, and teeny tiny businesses.

You might start with the 7 Things Big Dumb Companies Do That You Can’t Afford and the 7 Dumb Things Small Businesses Do That You Can’t Afford.

If you like my approach, please subscribe (for free, of course) in either a reader or by email so you don’t miss any posts.

What’s your own favorite “getting started” resource? Let us know in the comments!

Flickr Creative Commons image by Kjunstorm