How To Start and Grow a Business In a Slow Economy

Morris Tabush, owner of Bill4Time, offers his perspective on start-ups in a slow economy.

How do you come up with a great business idea? And, how do you grow that business in a slow economy?

Ask Morris Tabush those questions, and he’ll tell you one answer is to solve a problem you, yourself, have and then sell that solution to others who have the problem, too.

That, in fact, is how his latest venture, Bill4Time got its start — and how it’s continuing to grow in a down economy.

Tabush started an IT consulting company in the late 1990s and after a couple of years, the company had grown to the point where he needed an efficient way to manage projects and to track and bill for employee time on those projects. But Tabush couldn’t find an off-the-shelf program that met his needs. So, he created his own, tweaking it and improving it over the course of several years.

The system worked well, and when one of his IT clients complained that he was unhappy with the time and billing software his small law firm was using, Tabush showed him the time and billing software he had developed for his own consulting company.

The client was Robert Rimberg, a managing partner at Goldberg & Rimberg, a law firm in lower Manhattan, who later partnered with Tabush to launch Bill4Time. He loved it, Tabush says. “He told me that there were no really great time-tracking and billing systems out there for the small company. There was a big void in the market, and we had already developed a lot of what was needed to fill that void.”

With input from the client, Tabush and his team customized and enhanced the software, turning it into a secure, online billing system that’s suitable for legal professionals, small CPA firms, consultants, and just about any small business that has to manage projects, track and bill time, and needs to see, “Where is my time going and what are my employees doing with their time.”

The web-based time and billing system lets the small business owner see everything they need to know about a case or project from start to finish, including billed and non-billed time, notes, file attachments, appointments and deadlines. There’s an audit-trail of exactly who did what and when.

Although the Bill4Time is web-based, users don’t have to have a web browser open or even be seated in front of a computer to use it since data can be entered either through a web browser, a desktop widget, or a smart phone or PDA. And, because the system is a hosted solution, users always have the most current version of the software available to them.

Bill4Time has been successful, Tabush says, because the feature set is customer-centric. “We’ve designed it around what we thought our customers wanted and then we’ve added features based on what our customers have asked us for.”

One of those add-ins was mobile access, which was added at the suggestion of an attorney.

“A lawyer is rarely sitting at his desk all day. He’s going to court, he’s going to clients, he’s going to depositions and meetings,” says Tabush. “Just about every lawyer out there has some sort of PDA, whether it be a Blackberry, or an iPhone or a Pocket PC. One of them told me it would be great if he could bill from his Blackberry instead of writing billing information on the back of business cards and Post-It notes and napkins all the time.”

The problem of recording out-of-office billing time isn’t limited to attorneys, either. Tabush says that he, himself, used to have the same problem. “At the end of every week, and at the end of every month, I would sit there, run through my desk, run through my briefcase, go home, look in my drawers, and I would hope that I found everything. But it was very hard to keep track of it.”

Building a better mousetrap (or in this case, time and billing hosted software solution) is an important part of launching a new business. But, you need more than a good product or service to achieve success. You also need effective marketing and advertising efforts.

Like many startups, Bill4Time, which now has well over 1,000 paying subscribers, has used numerous methods to attract subscribers, including print advertising and online advertising. And, by the fall of 2008, the number of subscribers was increasing about 10% a month. By January of 2009, Tabush says, the company was seeing a 20 to 25% increase in subscribers each month.

To achieve that increase, Tabuth says the company redesigned the Bill4Time website so it better explained the software and increased their public relations efforts. They also added a free version of the software, giving potential customers the opportunity to test the software to see how it would work for their companies. (Free customers are not counted as sale for measuring their monthly subscriber increases, Tabuth says.)

The company stopped their print advertising campaigns and put more money into search engine optimization, and refined their online pay-per-click campaigns.

The deteriorating economy played a role, too, Tabush believes, forcing small professional firms and service business to look for ways to cut costs and be more efficient about billing their clients.

But in recent months, customer referrals have become an increasingly important source of new business for Bill4Time. “We have a form on the site that people can use to tell us how they found us, and last year about 5% were saying they heard about us ‘through a friend.’ Now we’re getting 30 or 40% who are just coming from straight-up referrals,” Tabush says. Tabush attributes the growth in customer referrals to both the company’s strong commitment to customer support and the fact that they listen to their customers’ feedback and requests for product enhancements.

What can other small businesses learn from the success of Bill4Time? Morris Tabush advises businesses, don’t be short-sighted, don’t be penny-wise and pound foolish, and don’t focus primarily on defensive tactics to keep your business going.

“Typically in business you’ve got to allocate some of your resources to running your business and maintaining your customers, and some of them to growing the business and getting new customers. Right now I feel like a lot of people are getting too nervous about keeping their existing customer base, and they’re just sitting there playing defense all day. They’re forgetting that even in this economy, most likely people still need to use your service or buy your product. So you’ve still got to be out there on the offensive selling and growing. You may not grow at the rate you did, you may have to work a lot harder, and make a little bit less money than you did last year, but you still have to do it. You can’t stop trying.”

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