That is the biggest challenge for Cain, a small-business owner who recently opened an independent State Farm insurance office in south Everett.
After being approved as a qualified candidate for State Farm, Cain began six months of extensive training and education in preparation for licensing and certification. That's when Cain had what he calls a "deer-in-the-headlights" moment and thought, "What am I getting myself into?" It's not unusual for people to panic when taking on a significant personal and financial risk. He kept on, however.
Now that Cain has settled in to his seven-month-old enterprise, he recently shared some of the challenges he faced and several key lessons he's learned.
•Never stop learning. Many small-business owners have thoughts of trepidation, regardless of their expertise or industry experience. Cain says lifelong learning will be his core personal investment in order to be the best agent and serve his clients well.
Plan to plan. "Regardless of how much time you spend developing your business plan, you need to continue to plan," said Cain, as he talked about numerous unexpected surprises.
The process of qualifying for the State Farm New Market Agency (slightly different from taking on an existing State Farm office) was very thorough. While State Farm is more than helpful in plan development and support of the new office, the company expects new agents to have strong business acumen and the financial resources to establish and grow their business.
"I have learned to be very flexible with my business plan," Cain said. "The plan is based on what you predict, on assumptions. When the assumptions are not playing out in the marketplace, it's important to re-evaluate and make proper changes."
•Build a winning team. Finding, hiring and retaining the right office staff and then building a team to represent you and your enterprise is critical. Since many consumers who are buying insurance are still seeking personal attention when discussing insurance, developing a relationship with the local agent and office staff adds tremendous value.
Find and serve new customers. Cain said a fundamental priority for him is generation of leads. He said although the cost of lead generation is very high and many leads don't pan out, this is an industry that feeds off the common practice of offering free automobile insurance rate quotes.
Sometimes a newly licensed State Farm agent will take on an existing agency where a customer base is already in place. Not in Cain's situation. When he opened his doors for the first time, he had zero customers: This enterprise will grow from the ground up.
•Build strong relationships. Existing customers can become the greatest building block for any business enterprise. When you establish a positive, professional working relationship with your customers, they will refer their friends and family to you. Since the insurance industry is highly competitive, the best way to ensure growth is to invest in relationships. Personalized service and a genuine concern for the customer's needs will surely generate goodwill and differentiate your business beyond just a price comparison.
Offer customers choices. "State Farm offers much more than car insurance," Cain said. "The auto quotes are how we introduce ourselves to prospective customers, but our menu of financial services is extensive." State Farm manages mutual funds, offers retirement planning and 401(k) investment plans; State Farm even operates a commercial bank.
Find the right location. Realtors often cite the top three considerations for investment are location, location and location. This being said, Cain needed to identify and establish an office within the 98203 ZIP code based on the traffic volumes, visibility and demographics. He opened his office at 6928 Evergreen Way, next to Rodland Toyota.
No one has ever said starting a new business venture is easy. There are many challenges and surprises along the way. And growing a business takes time. Monte Cain is very aware that hard work, persistence and personal investment are needed for success.
While building a profitable enterprise is important, Cain noted that there is a personal reward that comes from building a business that will help his neighbors, friends and family. Cain is proud to have his name on display alongside State Farm.
Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Send your comments to entrepreneurship@ everettcc.edu.