It takes a village to raise a child, according to the old African proverb. So what does it take to shape a successful entrepreneurial venture?
Perhaps something like Zana Network, a virtual village for small and medium-size businesses, especially new companies interested in tapping the global marketplace. According to the Web site, it's "one-stop menu of high-quality sales, marketing and business resources for buyers and sellers."
The company was launched last June by Detroit-based serial entrepreneur Howard Keating, Donald Regan (former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury), Robert Keith Gray (former chairman at Hill and Knowlton) and Reid Rundell founder of the Saturn Corporation.
Zana provides its members with a wealth of information resources – how-to business advice, regularly updated country and market reports – as well as discussion forums, a global member-to-member marketing network and a searchable index to available U.S. government contracts.
Four years ago when Scott Thornton was launching his marketing firm, TMV Group LLC of Madison Heights, Michigan, he could have used something like Zana Network, he says. In fact, Thornton did use some similar Web resources to find advice that helped him start his business, including at the Zana-like StartUpNation and TomPeters.com, the Web site of the world-renowned management consultant.
Today, TMV is well past the teething pains of business start-up, but after doing marketing consulting for Zana, Thornton was impressed enough that he decided to become a member himself three months ago.
Quick Return on Investment
Zana’s modest fees – currently $50 for a 90-day membership – have already paid dividends. TMV is on the point of signing a significant piece of new business that it likely never would have found on its own, Thornton says.
Thornton and two partners launched TMV after being laid off from BBDO Detroit, one of the largest marketing companies in the country. They had been the top three executives on the international Daimler-Chrysler account.
They have since built TMV into a thriving local and regional practice with seven employees and about $5 million in media billings a year.
The firm offers “a single-source marketing solution, starting from strategic development and running right through to implementation of marketing tactics.” Clients include appliance maker Whirlpool Corp. financial institutions, a large mechanical contractor and a big hospital.
So it wasn’t Zana’s Business Guide with its rich information resources on starting, growing and managing a business that attracted Thornton so much. Or the surprisingly entertaining series of business videos.
But he says, “I would assume that for anyone just starting a business, that would be very valuable stuff.”
It was more the marketing network and government contracts database that lured Thornton. “The lifeblood of a marketing firm,” he says, “is new business.” And finding new business can be the toughest challenge any marketing firm faces – or any young company for that matter.
It will take a critical mass of members to make the Zana marketing network truly valuable, and that evidently has not materialized yet. The company won’t say even approximately how many members have signed up so far. But the network may reach critical mass much sooner than it would if all it was doing was adding members one at a time.
Keating, Zana’s CEO, told SmallBusinessComputing that the company is on the verge of signing multiple partnership agreements with organizations – he’s vague about what kind – that will see the Zana “marketing engine” incorporated into partners’ Web portals.
If the agreements are completed as planned, more than 800,000 small and medium-size businesses, including tens of thousands of foreign companies – all members or customers of the partner organizations – will have access to the Zana network.
TMV has gone through the motions of posting its profile at Zana. “We haven’t got anything from that yet,” Thornton concedes. “But it’s very new.
He’s optimistic it will be a source of new business in the future. And Zana’s focus on giving small businesses access to global markets is particularly appealing.
“I know how to do work in brands that cross borders,” Thornton notes. He and his partners ran an organization with 380 people in 56 offices that did $600 million dollars in media buying a year for Daimler-Chrysler in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the rest of world
“We’ve already had inquiries from customers looking for advice on how to get into the U.S. market,” he says. “So I think the international area is going to be a real opportunity for us.”
In the meantime, he has his hands full closer to home, also thanks to Zana.
Finding New Business
The Zana database of government contracts has proved to br a gold mine. It includes listings of thousands of state and federal contracts out for bid – including, Thornton discovered recently, more than 1,000 that had zero bids after 30 days, theoretically making them easy pickings.
“Granted 95 percent [of the available contracts] are out of our scope,” he says. “But even if we just look at the marketing contracts, that now becomes a very powerful resource for us.”
Zana lets him search for the contracts just in his area of business and only in regions where he operates. TMV found one contract out for tender by the State of Michigan. At the time of writing, Thornton felt confident the contract was his.
“So that’s a really cool thing,” he says.
Finding out about government contracts was often difficult for small businesses in the past. If Zana has done nothing else, it has made it a lot easier, Thornton says.
It hasn’t made the process of winning a contract any easier, though. Responding to a government RFP (Request for Proposal) can be “all encompassing” for a small firm, he says – as TMV discovered. But he figures it’s worth the effort.
“Once you’re in, you have a three- or five-year no-cut contract,” Thornton points out. “And you’d have to be an idiot not to get it extended. So the best case is 10 years of business with one contract. And the government pays net 30 days!”
He’s been so busy responding to the first RFP that he hasn’t yet looked closely at what else is available, but knows it includes “dozens” of contracts TMV could bid on – and will, once it has the first piece of business sewed up.
A Whole New Business Line
In fact, he’s thinking of forming a new division at TMV with dedicated staff to mine the Zana government database and bid on contracts.
Thornton feels Zana is still in the process of working out an optimal business model. It has already tinkered with pricing, he points out. TMV actually switched from a monthly plan to paying a one-time $25 fee for unlimited access to “basic” services.
Those basic services include the government contract database – for now. He believes that when Zana gets rolling it may designate more of the high-value content as premium services, which means additional fees. But it will likely still be worth it, he implies.
Especially for start-ups with big ideas about taking on the world, Zana Network may be the ideal place to start. It provides great information to help you create a business and great opportunities for marketing services to an international audience down the road.
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.
This article was first published on SmallBusinessComputing.com.