Thursday, December 26, 2013

Starting up a Home-Based Craft or Kitchen Business

"You should sell that!"

Have you ever had anyone say that to you? Sometimes they emphatically add, "You could make a lot of money!"

Home-based businesses are on the rise because the economy is still struggling on and people are attempting to replace income lost from full- or even part-time incomes. Most people can cook, can, or bake, and many have some sort of crafting or woodworking ability that could be profitable under the right conditions. Browse any farmer's market on a warm fall afternoon - or Etsy anytime - and you'll see capitalism in full swing - vegetables, meats, baked goods, soaps and salves, coffee and teas, jewelry, carved items. leather goods and other crafts - a cornucopia of handmade products to choose from, created from the talent and spare time of a whole range of people.

But how easy is it to start one of these businesses? How much regulation is there and how many hoops do you have to jump through? It depends on type of product being sold. Crafts and jewelry, furniture and knick-knacks can be sold easily at craft shows, farmer's markets, or online. Starting this type of business would require the same first steps of starting any business: investigating your market and demand, determining your costs, making a business plan, and researching local laws. Any business owner should also acquire business insurance because of the current litigious atmosphere, but if you're selling felted animals, it's unlikely anyone will claim they were carcinogenic or in any other way harmful.  With food it gets more complicated.

Opening a small food-center business has a number of obvious pluses. You have a built-in customer base in the human race, as everyone needs to eat. Additionally, cooking can be done and done well by people who have little formal training or education. Most states have lately passed cottage food laws that allow for the sale of non-perishable foods. These generally include baked goods, jams and jellies, pickles and vinegars, dehydrated foods, nuts and candy - things that won't kill people if not made exactly right.  Jams are fruits preserved in sugar and pickles are preserved in vinegar - while they are canned, the processing isn't what preserves them.  Other jarred foods, such as canned vegetables and salsas have to be processed in a pressure canner to kill any and all bacteria.  Anything with meat and dairy also must be produced in a commercial kitchen that is up to code and regularly inspected. Some small businesses avoid real estate overhead by renting time in a commercial kitchen, but this, of course, is an additional expense.  If you want to sell food, you need to check state requirements carefully for feasability before you invest any money.

Finally, of late there has been considerable interest in herbalism, naturopathy, and medicines that are more naturally and organically made. Partly this interest is an outgrowth of the organic movement - the next step in green living - and partly it's a reaction to a medical system that is convoluted and out of the price range of whole swaths of the population. The sale of any sort of medicinal tonic or application can even more highly regulated than food, however.  Guidelines vary by state, but generally these products must be made in a commercial, regularly inspected kitchen. Business owners may be required to have a degree in herbal medicine as well. Degree or not, because they are not doctors, herbalists are not allowed to state what their salves, tinctures, and teas are supposed to help or even that they are medicine at all. An herbalist may have a great deal of experience treating ear infections with vinegar and garlic & mullein oil and may have success restoring ear wax-blocked hearing loss with hydrogen peroxide and glycerin, but because he is not a family physician or an audiologist, he is not allowed to make any claims or suggestions. An herbal business also will likely require additional liability insurance - another cost to consider.

Starting any sort of business requires a great deal of research as to the market and regulations, so be willing to put some time in.  There are a number of people making money selling all of the above products, but just because it looks easy doesn't mean it is.  Do your homework and then get excited about your home business venture.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The affordable, sustainable holiday office party

It's that time of year again.  Are you ready to celebrate your business's accomplishments and treat your employees to food, drink, and entertainment?  What if you're on a budget or if your business hasn't quite gotten out of the red and into the black yet?  Can you throw a great office party on a shoestring budget?

Americans have been living with affluenza symptoms for years, but it's important to realize that great parties don't depend on overindulgence or excess, they depend on people enjoying each others' company.  A well stocked table helps, but what people will really remember is time spent together.  Think of the best party you've ever been to.  Was it in some swanky venue with an open bar and a snooty maĆ®tre d'?  Probably not.  One of the better holiday parties I've gone to had no catering, no entertainment, and was light on the amenities.  It was in November 1993, and a group of American teachers were celebrating Thanksgiving together in a small Soviet dorm.  We scoured the local market for supplies, peeled our own potatoes, roasted our own small chicken, and laughed hysterically about the challenges we all had in common, swapping ideas on how to solve them.  It was a great time.  There was one tiny incident - a Russian girlfriend broke a bottle and tried to slit her wrist in the bathroom - but that's always the case, isn't it?  A holiday isn't complete without some drama.

The point is, you don't have to spend a lot of money and order a dumpster after in order to throw a great Christmas party for your coworkers.  You just need some creativity and cooperation.  Here are a few tips for a memorable, zero waste celebration:

Decorate with ornaments that can be used from year to year and then stored away.  A nice holiday tablecloth really dresses up a room, and pine cones can be gathered and then returned to their outdoor setting when the party is over.  Invite your employees to bring in their favorite holiday decorations and take a few minutes to have each one showcase hers and tell why it is important to her.  These can either be left at the office for the remainder of December or returned home after the party.

Do not use disposable plates, cutlery or napkins.  It's true, hardly anyone loves to do dirty dishes, but it also hasn't killed anybody yet to do it.  Back in the old days, before throwaway plates, how do you think people managed? They worked together.  They volunteered together.  After every potluck, that same group of ladies gathered in the kitchen and cleaned out the pots and pans while the men broke down the tables and put away chairs. They got to know each other better, and they worked off some of the calories they'd just eaten.  If your employees object to having to clean up after an office party, offer them a flex hour in compensation, to be used in the new year. It's nicer to eat with real cutlery and plates anyway, like civilized people.

Have your most detail oriented person plan the food, and order based on what will actually get eaten instead of what will fill up a table.  Better food in smaller quantities are better than lots of plates of food no one likes or bag after bag of chips that will be sampled and then thrown out.  After the party, invite people to bring home any extra food.  Ask them ahead of time to bring their own tupperware to make this easier.  Look into donating anything unopened to a food bank.  Anything else freeze and eat later.

Gift exchanges are largely unnecessary and can cause problems if the "rules" are not communicated well or some people are left out.  Skip the complimentary gift unless it's something your employees will genuinely want. Another way to think of this is: most generic gifts will be thrown away or, at best, re-gifted.  No one wants a Christmas tree ornament with your business logo on it.  If it's mass produced, it will eventually find its way into the trash.  Spend the money instead on a better cut of meat or raffling off some gift cards.  Or, if your employees approve, give the money that would have been used to a charity that can be mutually agreed upon.

Remember again this holiday season that people have enough "stuff."  What they do not have, and can never have enough of is time spent well, happily, with people they like.  Keeping that in mind will help you plan your party so that it will be less expensive but more enjoyable.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our readers at Small Business Excellence!

 

Friday, November 29, 2013

How your office layout affects your employees and their productivity

Previously we discussed how the changing economy and technology have contributed to the rise of working from home.  But many of those same changes have contributed to a shift in the use of office space.  In an insecure economy with rising rental, heating, and benefit costs, businesses look to where they can save money, and one of those areas is space.  This, more than the touted differences in Millenials' work and interaction preferences, may be driving the workplace trends in design.  

For some time now the trend has been to get rid of cubicles and increase shared or open spaces, supposed to facilitate conversation and cooperation.  So we now see benching appearing (see left), either assigned or unassigned, and other "free" spaces that can be used on a first-come-first-served basis. Anything requiring privacy in these types of spaces must be done in a conference room which may be reserved in advance or used if no one else has made a claim.

Ever-expanding technology has had a huge hand in these office alterations as more portable computing and storage has eliminated the need for workers to use specific computers.

Unfortunately, recent research from the University of Sydney has shed light on the fact that these open space environments are less likely to create satisfying or productive work environments.  This study polled workers who were in the following environments:

  • Enclosed private
  • Enclosed shared
  • Cubicles with high partitions  
  • Cubicles with low partitions
  • Open office

and found that employees in open office environments were significantly more dissatisfied than those in enclosed ones, particularly regarding office temperature and sound and visual privacy.  Many workers simply do not like the fishbowl feeling of being constantly exposed in an open office.  And they dislike hearing their coworkers' conversations and having to moderate their own.  The distractions involved and the general discomfort produced has to impact on efficiency and general productivity, which may explain why workers who work at home - the ultimate enclosed, private space - were happier and more productive, according to a London School of Economic and Political Science study.

If you have a small business, the above is something to keep in mind when you plan your space and determine how much privacy to allow your employees.  If you have a very open space, it may be worthwhile to take a section of it and partition it off for those who find it most difficult to work within a crowd.  Be generous, though, or you might have a fight on your hands about who gets the last cubicle.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Rise of Working from Home

It's clear that the "American work environment" is rapidly changing due to a number of factors - demographic, regulatory, economic - but one of the more invisible changes is the transition from office to home work.  Earlier this year Marissa Mayer, citing a need for collaboration, ordered Yahoo's telecommuting workers back to work at corporate headquarters, provoking a debate about the productivity of at-home workers.  Since telecommuting is a new phenomenon, the research on productivity isn't fully conclusive, but several studies indicate that working at home may increase productivity, rather than decrease it, no matter what bosses fear about what the mice will do when the cat's away.  This assumes, of course, that a given company hires responsible, hardworking people.

The trade off is often innovation, however, as people increase their creativity as they socialize and bounce ideas off one another.  But many jobs done in offices aren't particularly creative, and employers are capable of judging the best setting for the work.  Aetna, for instance, has moved more than a third of its workers to at home employment and eliminated the need to house, heat, and cool them for a significant percent of each day.  Processing medical claims does not take a great deal of collaboration, and many people jump at the chance to skip the dress up and commute and complete their work next to their favorite pet instead of across the cubicle from some passive aggressive nightmare or a chatty Cathy.
"Through telecommuting, the company has cut 2.7 million square feet of office space at $29 a square foot, for about $78 million in cost savings a year including utilities, housekeeping, mail service and document shredding.
Teleworkers, who in addition to nurses and physicians include customer service representatives, claims processors, network managers, communications and human resources professionals, lawyers, underwriters, actuaries and others, have high productivity, Aetna says. Many are likely to be women as about three-quarters of the company's workforce is female."
From the standpoint of the worker, other benefits of telecommuting include lowered expenses for travel, work clothing, and meals out, greater flexibility in terms of family life planning, whether caring for children or older adults, and less exposure to time-consuming, mind-numbing corporate culture.  You don't have to suffer through the Sexual Harassment seminar every year.  That's a big perk.

Millenials as a whole tend to be more comfortable with the technology necessary for telecommuting and less tolerant of the time wasters of bureaucracy, so they fit right into this niche.  Many of them haven't had the opportunity to settle into a career - and its accompanying income bump either - so working at home makes more sense financially.  Keeping an old car running can be a very expensive proposition which may explain why driving is down among Millenials.  If you work at home, the commute is pretty short.  You don't even have to get a bicycle or a scooter, although you may want to, for fun and exercise.

What is your experience with working at home?  Do you know many people who do or who run their small businesses from home instead of a storefront?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Make Sure Your Company's Website Doesn't Disappoint!

The fiasco that is HealthCare.gov is known far and wide now. Contractors who did the design and coding have found themselves answering questions from Congress, doing their best to recover from one of a handful of governmental flubs in recent history. Try to bring America into a new era of health care coverage and then drop the ball this hard--it's going to be difficult to recover from. But unlike a few weeks ago, we're not here to talk about health insurance for your small business or mistakes that the federal government has made: We're here to talk about the value of having a strong website.

You might be asking, "What makes a website strong?" Well, just like a new building, the most important thing is a solid infrastructure. This means making sure that there is no extraneous code; this means making sure that each and every link is unbroken; this means making sure that everything you want visitors to see and know is accessible. Each of these things can be easily overlooked by amateur website designers, making your site potentially unstable. Knowing what a company needs for its online presence is essential and experienced players are more likely to get it right on the first try. Once you have a reliable base, it's time to bring value to your site. This is easily done by generating quality content.

Remember how I mentioned keeping the important things accessible? This is essential both when developing code and content. If you ramble on your website, it's likely that potential customers (assuming you're looking to garner more) will leave--wordy pages can cause a website visitor to quickly jump ship. These visitors are looking for the vital information they are either already seeking or do not know that they need to know yet. So give them the information they want--usually things like your product or service, your location, your hours, and your contact information--as well as a reason to stay by posting content that is both interesting and relevant.

Imagine how much business these pandas could bring
you! | Source: Crochet Dreamz
For instance, if you are a grocery store, you could post recipes and dinner ideas, provided that you stock all of the ingredients. Doing small things like this can bring visitors and customers back to your website and back to your store over and over again--we all know that repeat business is a good sign for a company. Obviously, this means making a habit of posting such content. Customers often look to the companies they support for predictability, so this means being regular about such updates. If you put up a blog post with a recipe on Monday, make sure you do it every Monday. Or if you have a store that sells crafts and decide to give your readers the directions to crochet a cute animal-themed hat, perhaps make a themed day of the week a la Instagram (I'm looking at you #tbt also known as Throwback Thursday, when a users post old picture of themselves). Whatever your business is, regular content is needed to refresh your website. Not only does it give customers a reason to visit again, it also lends legitimacy to your search engine ranking by showing that your site is active.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What Should Your Dream Team Look Like?

Last week, we talked about hiring people. This week, we'll continue that same conversation because tackling everything on your own is impossible. If you want your business to grow, you're going to need people to help you. The question is who?

In order to figure out which people you should bring aboard the ship, you should take a long, hard look at its captain: you. This may sound a little odd, but consider what value a frank self-examination could have. To do this, an owner, a founder, a manager--whatever you may be--must look at what she or he is good at. Are you a quality networker? Are you well-organized? How is your foresight? If you aren't good at networking, consider bringing someone on board who is. If you struggle when it comes to staying organized, look for an individual that can keep your ship tight and tidy. Struggling when it comes to predicting the future? Hire a person who has an analyzing eye.

By hiring in this manner, you strengthen your team and your company. Here's a bonus too: Bringing on people who buffer your deficiencies may even strengthen you as a leader. It's only a matter of time before you learn a thing or two about networking if you are attending events with your new hire, and paying attention to the organizational skills of that new executive assistant could shed some light on behaviors that have made you less efficient in years past. And what about foresight? Your company may become more predictable as you understand what comparing monthly revenues can highlight, when certain expenses are higher than normal, and what all of those figures truly show, thanks to the analyst you chose to cover your inadequacy in this area.

In Mother Russia, happiness works you! | Courtesy of Happy Worker
Once you have your company's dream team, be sure to give them some wiggle room to fall into their respective roles. You can't have rigid expectations of them or they may move onto a different position at a different company, seeking out the flexibility that allows them to get comfortable. That comfort is something that will hopefully give them the environment they need to spread their wings and show their true value to the operation. Inflexible requirements may stifle this sort of contribution by making an employee feel forced to work or taken for granted, neither of which are a part of a happy workplace. When you've found a way to give your new crew the self-motivation and the flexibility they need to prosper, it's time to make sure that they want to stick with it for the long haul. If your employees love the company and feel fulfilled, it's likely that your workers will feel satisfied, thus giving you a low turnover rate.

Even with a low turnover, you should still go out of your way to remind your employees how important they are. This can come in the form of small gestures such as a "good job" or randomly having lunch catered. It could also be represented by something bigger like a get-together for employee appreciation day or closing down the shop so that employees can give back to the community through a volunteer day. Making sure that you have a quality team on hand is important and keeping their morale high is essential to maintaining that quality.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The American Dream, Revisited


Unemployment is one of those dreadful words that has peppered our news religiously for the last decade.  It has ebbed and flowed with each year that passes.  To the average American, unemployment simply refers to whether one has a job; but to a Generation Y American the underlying meaning is much more complex.  


Generation Y, generally referring to those born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s, is the most educated group to ever face mass unemployment.  Millennials, as they are also referred to, were raised in a world that taught them to attend college after high school, graduate, and get a well-paying job in a company that provides benefits and a 401K.  The Great Recession, which began in 2007 and ended in 2009 severely hindered this reality.  

Laziness is a common misconception associated with Generation Y.  Graduates are scattered among society making coffee at the local Starbucks, checking out guests at Meijer, and cleaning houses weekly.  “Get a real job,” is tossed around lightly by older generations.  The sad truth is that 27-year old Amy does not want to be brewing your Pumpkin Spice Latte, but the cost of paying off her college education leaves her no choice.  Amy has to accept any job she is offered, even a minimum wage job with little to no room to be fastidious.  53.6 percent of college graduates 25 and under are either unemployed or underemployed, according to the Associated Press.  

Millennials unable to find jobs in their desired fields are turning to jobs that are severely beneath their skill sets.  Many 20-somethings graduated from college, only to find the pool of competing applicants had more than tripled while they were in school.  The dream of each generation doing better than the last seems as far away as that ideal job.  Born from Baby Boomer parents, the expectation of financial success still seems reasonable for Generation Y, but the economy simply cannot supply the jobs.  Since the recession began in December 2007, average incomes for 25 to 34- year-olds have fallen 8 percent.   

A report released in August 2013 by PayScale and Millennial Branding, claimed that Generation Y is specifically underemployed and overqualified for the jobs they are working.  During the Great Recession many Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers lost their higher-paying jobs and instead settled for lower-paying, entry-level positions that would have normally gone to Millennials.  Generation Y seems to have been left out of the equation, and pushed into un- or underemployment.  College grad Ys are routinely cleaning Boomers' designer homes, if they can find the work.

The outlook for Generation Y is definitely not as bad as it could be, but it is not the ‘American dream’ that has been molded by older generations.  This dream needs to shift into the reality of what the economy can offer this group of young people.  Different expectations need to be laid out and different aspirations set.  It may not be as bountiful as past generations, but it will not lack in creativity, innovation, and growth.    

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Finding the Right Candidate: Approaching It a Little Differently

When looking to fill an open position, what does your company look for? If you're thinking about rattling off a list of desirable certifications and previously-performed job duties, you might want to hold off for a second. Although this is how the majority of job postings often go, think about it: Do certain qualifications guarantee the best fit for a job? No, the best workers are those who have proved their capabilities, not those with this level of education and that amount of experience.

This is what getting promoted feels like.
This brings a certain problem into the equation: How is an employer supposed to know how good a potential worker will be? The answer is easy if you're planning on promoting from within. Just ask yourself if what you know about the person fits the bill. Say you're hiring an assistant manager: The considerations should include people who have been with the company for the longest. Their strengths and weaknesses are easily discerned because you have (hopefully) watched them work for a decent length of time. Those familiarities can then be compared to the qualities that you think will adequately fill the position. Do things match up?

Probably not, considering most employers will have an ideal image in their head for the person that will fill the position, particularly when the title did not exist before. Though ideals are not always present, many people want to have the best and will not settle for less. Remember that outrageous expectations are often hard to fulfill and can leave both the seeker and the sought feeling deflated: For the employer, hopes have not been met and this may be subconsciously taken out on employees; for the new assistant manager, expectations are too high and taking the job may soon become a regret. Instead of hoping to find the perfect person for the position, allow some flexibility in the job duties so that the new assistant manager--or whatever the spot needing to be filled is--can make it her or his own.

The problem with this route is finding a bearable balance for the involved parties. It can be a challenging task to do this, but it is possible and should be attempted if you want to keep your new employee happy. Speaking of happy: If you are thinking about hiring from an external source, at least one CEO recently denounced the value of finding an individual with the right work experience. Instead of falling into this behavior that can be seen all over job boards across the Internet, consider bringing in individuals that possess a matching personality that reflects your work environment. If you find someone that is motivated, loyal, well-tempered, and leading, you may have just found yourself a new assistant manager, even if the applicant has more experience in landscape management than in office management. Perhaps give them a lesser role first to make sure that they can do the labor of the individuals she or he will be supervising, promoting that new hire at a later date.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Obamacare's Small Business Perks

With the January 1, 2014 insurance deadline just around the corner for, well, everyone; small businesses may have an easier time providing coverage for their employees than one might think.  The opening of the statewide health marketplaces are specifically designed for small businesses to choose the health care plan that will best fit their employees.  In addition, many small businesses may be eligible for a health care tax credit to help offset the cost of coverage.

On October 1, the Michigan Health Insurance Marketplace became active through SHOP (Small Business Health Options Program).  This website is a step by step walkthrough that allows small businesses with under 50 full-time equivalent employees to select the best plans if they choose to offer insurance for their workers, which they are not mandated to do.  The Marketplace offers affordable plans that are not inflated by larger companies and businesses.  Essentially, it evens the playing field for smaller businesses to provide health insurance coverage for their staff.  

For those businesses with fewer than 25 full-time equivalent employees, you may qualify for a small business health care tax credit.  Employees must make an average of $50,000 a year or less.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012, the mean salary of an employee working at a small home furnishings store is about $27,000, and the mean for building cleaning workers $23,970, both well under the $50,000 average.  To be eligible for the credit, a small business employer must pay premiums for all employees enrolled in a health plan through the SHOP Marketplace.  

The tax credit amount for smaller businesses will depend on the contribution to employee premiums made by the employer.  If you have 10 employees in your business who make roughly $25,000 a year and you, as an employer, contribute collectively $70,000 to your employees’ premiums; your tax credit amount will be $35,000.  The credit amount is 50% of the amount the employer puts towards premiums.  Not a bad trade-off for supplying employees with better quality benefits.

It is important to stay educated on the taxes and credits that come along with the Affordable Care Act.  To learn more about if your small business will qualify for a tax credit, visit www.HealthCare.gov.            


Monday, October 7, 2013

A Little Deeper Look at the SBA, Now That the Fed is Shutdown

You go, SBA! | Courtesy of the SBA
The U.S. Small Business Administration has been mentioned in quite a few posts here on Small Business Excellence for good reason: It can provide an immense amount of assistance to current and potential small business owners. Though the government may be shut down, the agency's website is still up (unlike others including NASA.gov), although it's functionality is seriously hindered. According to an informational post on the website, the information on the site "may not be up to date, the transactions submitted via the website may not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until" the federal government reopens or the SBA finds another way to receive funding. So be forewarned.

Even with this warning, owners who have not given the SBA any consideration should do so. It's not likely that the SBA will be majorly affected by an agreement that ends this shutdown, especially considering the value that both major political parties see in the rebounding economy. Many experts have said in the past that small businesses may be what gives this economy and perhaps the middle class the support needed to survive and thrive. Instead of waiting until the furlough for governmental employees ends and the funding pipeline is restored, try checking out the website now and getting your feet wet. Doing so could save you time in the future--getting your gears turning early gives you an advantage if and when you finally speak to someone from the SBA.

Perhaps the most valuable portion of this federal institution is the finance program that it has in place. Direct loans from the agency do not exist; instead, financial assistance comes from third-party financiers that usually fall under the categories of community development groups, mainstream lenders, and microlending organizations. So what makes this route different? Going through the SBA means that the loan is guaranteed by the administration, thus alleviating much of the credit worries that lenders might otherwise have. A small business must apply and be approved for such loans, just like any other lending situation. In addition to this, the SBA provides a Surety Bond Guarantee Program as well as a Venture Capital Program; both can be extremely beneficial to small businesses looking to break through or simply survive for three obvious reasons: money, money, and money. Current economic situations and political policies are very relevant to this program though, so be sure to look at this section of the SBA with a wary eye.

For those uncertain of using the Internet or perhaps wanting a more personal interaction regarding the SBA, there are a number of offices that can provide just what you're looking for. Organizations like SCORE work with the SBA to provide this information in face-to-face, knowledgeable interactions. Women's Business Centers and Small Business Development Centers provide similar help. Many of these can be found in your nearest major city. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for instance, there were seven locations willing to provide such assistance. Here are a list of the tools that the SBA provides to the many owners throughout the U.S. to help you conjure some questions for any upcoming meetings you might have with these folks.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Affordable Care Act Hopes to Further Even the Playing Field for Small Businesses

The Affordable Care Act is finally coming to fruition. As of today, October 1st, businesses both big and small will have to provide health care information to their workers under law--no business will be required to provide health care benefits though, despite some fear-mongering in the media. Given the publicity in the media about the implementation of the ACA, one would think most employers would be up-to-speed on the ACA. But very few business owners understand what is actually happening with this new law. Actually, very few citizens understand it at all. Even those who have made an attempt at sifting through the new regulations have found that the beast has an intricate network of even more intricate parts, making it a very daunting task.

Those looking to learn more do have options, though. Websites like BusinessUSA--a federal website--can help those looking to learn more about their specific circumstances. Using the wizard provided on this site directed me to some very helpful information. For instance, there will be Health Insurance Marketplaces that open today. One of these will be specific to small businesses--it's called the Small Business Health Options Program or SHOP Marketplace. The health coverage options provided there will be geared toward small businesses and it seems that four categories of plans will be available. According to the website, the plans have comparable benefits to one another but give employers the ability to choose a package based on how the plan and beneficiaries will share health care expenses.  A restaurant owner with 30 employees may find it more feasible to offer a plan that a auto repair shop manager would pass on.  Or vice versa.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is doing its best to make sure that small businesses are apart of what's going on by providing pertinent information. One of the major reasons that the ACA was put into place was to make sure that small businesses receive affordable health care options--according to the SBA, the largest concern for small businesses has been just that: access to affordable health care. And now that it's possible, larger employers may no longer be the only ones getting access to cheaper, more predictable coverage. This will even the playing field, not only by making health care cheaper, but also by making small businesses more attractive to prospective employees.

Some of the obstacles that small businesses faced when it came to health coverage included issues regarding individuals with pre-existing conditions and increased rates for coverage that included older workers, female workers, and workers with chronic issues. Under the ACA, insurance companies will no longer be able to hold a person's pre-existing conditions or chronic issues against them. This means that higher rates will not exist for these individuals and their coverage cannot be denied. The same goes for women and limits will be in place when increasing premiums for coverage that encompasses older workers. The new system will also make sure that risks are mitigated by creating groups similar to those seen within large businesses, making sure that care stays reasonably priced. Feel free to learn more via a slide show posted here by the SBA. It's in your best interests to keep yourself in the loop as a small business owner.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Don't Be Ashamed of Asking for Help as a Startup

Is your city struggling to survive? It might not be the next Detroit, but a number of metropolitan areas like Oakland, California, are having a hard time, still leaking funds and people through the bullet holes left over from the machine gun fired by the recession. According to Jack Dorsey, a founder of the social media giant Twitter, small business may be what saves these cities. Another company he founded has been sponsoring a series on local entrepreneurship called "Let's Talk" and it recently visited the largest city to ever declare bankruptcy: the Motor City.

It's hip to be Square | Photo courtesy of Square
There, the conversation turned to several local business owners who use Square, a device that allows owners to accept credit card payments on their tablets and smartphones. This has given many companies a convenient way to facilitate operations, allowing them to grow much easier. Speaking of growing, one of the women spotlighted on the panel at "Let's Talk" owns several cupcake shops in downtown Detroit. Her sales have grown from when she opened her first shop--called Just Baked--in 2009 to more than $3 million as of late, making her one of the most successful female business owners in the nation. Interestingly, all of the other panel participants were women as well. One of them owns a boutique, another runs a letterpress studio, and the last makes jam. Each of them have taken a chance at doing what they love and have been successful so far. Though they are all successful now--partially due to innovative devices geared toward small businesses--they have all probably been through their fair share of failures. Successful entrepreneurs do not let failure scare them from chasing success--they use it as a learning experience and move forward with their new knowledge, instead.

Back to that founder from Twitter, though: Dorsey was also in attendance at another small business conference called Techonomy Detroit on the same day, as was Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan and former head of computer hardware company Gateway; Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans; and Chad Dickerson, the CEO of Etsy. These goliaths of business were talking about startup boosters and how they could contribute to the recovery of a city that is known throughout the country as troubled. Their goals include bringing the style of entrepreneurship seen in Silicon Valley to the Motor City. Gilbert is already doing this, using his venture fund to contribute to the furthering of several startups located in the downtown area.

The moral of the story is that if your business is struggling, you should seek out assistance from other entrepreneurs and organizations that focus on bringing small businesses out of the home and into the neighborhood. Getting that little boost could be what you need to keep your operations flowing and growing for years to come. Who knows? If someone who sells cupcakes can cross the $3-million threshold, you too could have a chance at denting whatever market - green transportation, family portraiture, office furniture - you are considering.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Great Business Owner Will Use Whatever Resources Are Available

Good ideas are hard to come by, but even harder to find is the motivation to take the epiphanies that precede a company and bring them to fruition. The government of the state of Michigan wants to help facilitate this process and has done so by providing a website that gives relevant information about starting a business to everyone with Internet access. This means that people from all income levels can chase their dream of becoming an entrepreneur, of becoming their own bosses, of bringing themselves and their loved ones out of poverty.

A lot of people are saying that the American Dream is dead. I agree that the traditional concept is gone--it's flown (or maybe it was thrown?) right out the window. Still, government programs like the aforementioned one--which is known as Michigan Business One Stop--are trying to centralize the necessities of starting, opening, and running your own company, whatever it might be. Visitors to the website will notice plenty of information, including guides to starting a small business, resource navigators, county clerk directories, business plan tips, Employer Identification Number applications, and a plethora of other helpful links. There is even tax information here--perfect for people who don't know how to get around in the world that opens up when one tries to own their own business.

Visionaries and entrepreneurs can explore the website while they let their business ideas ferment in their heads--it will definitely take some serious virtual spelunking to grasp the vastness of this resource. But when you're ready to move on to one of the toughest hurdles for a business--finances--MBOS even has a list of options that can help you push forward and turn your idea into a reality. These include programs from the U.S. Small Business Administration, venture capital financing, state loan programs, and demographic-specific business centers. The best part of these options is that a business doesn't need to be new to use these avenues; current owners can use the same routes to expand existing businesses.

Cities like Detroit need potential business owners to step up to the plate and take a swing. | Photo courtesy of Shakil Mustafa
But like most things that the government works on, this website has its flaws. As mentioned, there is a lot of information here--too much even. Navigation seems simple but I've found myself lost on this platform several times, especially when I was trying to start a business of my own. Fortunately, there is a help center and a virtual tour for this resource. Even with these though, the site is still rather confusing. A redesign of it may be helpful for both potential and current business owners in the state of Michigan. I've got my fingers crossed that this program will get better with time. Although the American Dream as we have known it may be dead (was it the Great Recession that killed it?), there is still hope for those who are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to make something from scratch, to build a business from the foundation up.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Could Your Business Handle a Disaster or Another Economic Downturn?

In the past few years, several large corporations--mostly banks--have been called "too big to fail." This is the type of security that small business owners often wish they could have for their own operations, for their own peace of mind. But the tumultuous economy keeps slinging different statistics into the fold, reporting one month that everything is going swimmingly and then, in the following month, that everyone is in danger of drowning. Mix in the precarious nature of the planet and you have a recipe that could leave many owners without the ownership they once treasured.

So, we know this: The American status quo is uncertainty. With conflicting data and vague standards, economists and organizations are struggling to agree on the current economic state of the country. As scary as that might be, it gives some businesses the chance to thrive and others the chance to close their doors--not all owners can manage well under the chaotic reign of unpredictability.  (And obviously a blizzard can be a windfall for a snow removal business while being a mini disaster for a shipping company.) The anxiety caused by this may force an owner to shut down before becoming a victim of uncontrollable factors. But it is when owners are caught by the unknowable variables of the volatile world--be they related to money, weather, whatever--that their own determination and resilience can shine through.

Serious infographic on businesses
and disasters. | Courtesy of
Alibaba.com et al.
Let's say that a tornado hits your business. Or a flood. Or a drunk driver crashing through your storefront. Or an(other) economic downturn. In case you don't get the picture, there are a lot of independent elements in the world that can inflict damage upon your business. In order to counteract the consequences of such occurrences, small business owners should prepare. Euphemistic individuals often call these "rainy day" funds, but in reality, they are disaster prevention/reaction funds.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, an estimated 25 percent of businesses that have been struck by a natural disaster will fail due to the ramifications of such an event. This likelihood is too risky to leave to chance. In response, intelligent owners create a plan and tuck away money, providing hopeful longevity for the business. But what about economic issues? A recent report from payroll services provider ADP indicated that, in August, businesses with less than 50 employees added the least amount of jobs since May. But 71,000 jobs were still created; reports suggest that many of them were part-time positions. Meanwhile, a survey of members belonging to the National Federation of Independent Business indicated that hiring trends for small businesses declined for the fourth month in a row. Before you get worried, remember that uncertainty I mentioned earlier? Polling performed for the CBIZ Small Business Employment Index indicated that hiring trends for small businesses rose 1.23 percent, the first increase since May. Be sure to note that this index asks approximately 3,500 companies, each with less than 300 workers, about individual hiring trends.

With so much conflicting data, what is an owner to do? If you are holding the reins of a business, you should do your best to be ready for the worst while maintaining a positive attitude. If you get caught up in paranoid preparation, you may find yourself becoming resentful toward the world--this could get in the way of running a quality business. It's impossible to be ready for everything, so do your best with what you have to ensure that your business is protected to the best of your ability.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Small Business Sector Has Risen

Saying that the recession trimmed the fat off the small business sector would be putting it lightly. Starting your own business is typically an up-hill battle but when the economic floor suddenly fell out from under the feet of so many Americans, a number of both new and old businesses came tumbling down, never to return. But now, data from several sources is showing that optimism regarding small businesses is on the rise with many owners estimating higher revenues and profits over the next 12 months.

According to a report from Wells Fargo and Gallup, the small-business optimism index for August was the highest it has been since the third quarter of 2008. A similar report from the National Federation of Independent Business indicated that last month's optimism was at the fourth-highest level it has been since the group started taking readings of the industry in December 2007. More detailed information from The Wall Street Journal/Vistage Small Business CEO Survey showed that 73 percent of the 678 participating business owners expected higher revenues in the subsequent year. Researchers with this outfit also found that 54 percent of small business owners expected profits to increase during the same time period. After analyzing previous data, it was determined that these are the highest proportions seen in these categories since June of last year.

So, what does all of this mean really? Well, it could mean good things are coming for many small businesses in Michigan and throughout the nation. But the recession is still having lasting effects in some areas, continuing to stop a fraction of business owners from getting on the ride of the recent economic resurgence--roller coaster that it has been in the past handful of years. For some owners, this might mean more cutbacks and closures in the future. But where I live, a number of small businesses have been taking a chance, opening, and subsequently thriving. In our downtown area, local residents can't stop talking about the new market that was built this year--it now houses a slew of entrepreneurs trying their hands at this and that. Elsewhere, restaurant options have been popping up left and right--the key to the food ventures that will last is three-pronged: good food, good service, and good prices.

Talk about a corny image: the key(s) to success! 
Substitute the word "product" for "food" and you have a solid business model for any up-and-coming company. It may seem like a no-brainer, but some owners neglect the obvious route of considering what customers enjoy in a restaurant or an auto shop or a grocery store or any other place of business. It's a rather simple formula and with it, many endeavors have gone far. With the effects of the recession dwindling, the playing field is leveling out and many more business owners will likely see their businesses blossom, as long as they understand their customers and the situations surrounding their businesses.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Your Business is Small: Use This to Your Advantage When Considering Benefits

As a small business owner, you may not be making as much money as the big dogs, but you are certainly more versatile. It's simply easier for a company that has less product, less demand, and less of a workforce to adapt than it is for businesses with a big footprint--this is one of the best advantages that smaller companies have over corporate giants. As proof of this factor, many owners have become creative with employee benefits, often maintaining and retaining quality employees and sometimes picking up new customers along the way.

For instance, some companies offer employees a week of paid time off so that they can volunteer. This is an incredibly intelligent move. Even though it may seem contrary to the idea of making profit because it costs the company for labor that isn't happening, it can be extremely beneficial for all involved parties. Volunteering can be very refreshing for an individual and it can be really enlightening, as well. Lessons learned can be brought back into the workplace once the person returns from their "vacation." In addition to this, the company's public image becomes even stronger than it was because it is paying its employees to give back to the community--such a benefit is a win-win-win for business owners, employees, and nonprofit organizations.

Another benefit that a corporate conglomerate cannot provide to its workers is the ability to bring pets into the office. In some cases, these may be the owner's animals--at the office where my roommates are employed, the owners' dogs are always there. Allowing employees to bring their pets to work from time to time can give workers a change of pace that prevents labor from going stale. Obviously, this wouldn't work in a manufacturing center and would probably be more ideal if your employees were desk-centric. Companies that do this often have a catch though: No pooping in the office and no animals that are irregularly loud.

Some companies encourage their employees to bicycle to work.  Whether this encouragement comes in the form of installing a bicycle rack or offering a reduction in health care premium costs for the additional exercise depends on the budget and outlook of the employer.  However, a study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that active, physically fit employees have lower rates of absenteeism.  So a monetary incentive for biking or walking to work might pay off for businesses.

Maybe your dog will learn some new tricks while at the office | Courtesy of Albany.com
My favorite benefit is this one though: The company picks a certain day of the week--Friday, perhaps?--and purchases beer for everyone. In case you don't know, I'm an avid beer drinker and this perk sounds too good to be true. Basically, employers let their workers drink while on duty or on lunch--within reason--and it tends to keep morale higher than normal, often making the end of the week even more enjoyable than it already is with the weekend around the corner. This is another perk that has its hang-ups, though: Some people may not want to consume alcohol or may disapprove of the behavior. Giving alcohol to your employees may also be a very bad idea in certain industries--in other words, use your best judgment before implementing this.

Providing any of these perks would either be too complicated, too messy, or too expensive for any major business to pull off. So instead of letting your employees disappear into the corporate cracks of your market, consider implementing some cool benefits. Remember that customers hear about how employees are treated and some may cease their patronage if your employees are not treated well. Adding more positives to the pros vs. cons list for these benefits is the fact that similarly-minded customers may decide to shop with you instead of your competitors because you treat your workers with dignity and respect. Remember that your size is an advantage in this regard and that flexibility is key to achieving success.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Thinking About Hiring? Be Sure Not to Discount the Millennials

When a business begins to grow, it may mean that it's time to begin hiring people. Sure, your partner or your children may have been able to pick up some slack here and there, but a part-time or full-time employee can be much more helpful, considering the dedication they must have to the business. But how do you select the right employee from the candidate pool? The obvious answer is to interview the candidates and consider each of them individually, but what if your own thoughts about people--specifically, those in regard to age--are getting in the way of your selection? Your biases could be holding your company back, so you better get past some stereotypes that are floating around largely thanks to media.

Some of the most ridiculous stereotypes out there right now surround millennials, people born between the years 1982 and 2000. Considered to be lazy, apathetic, and prone to mooching, the millennials are getting a bad rap for reasons that escape many of those that are included in this demographic. Like baby boomers before them, the news media has put millennials under the microscope and dissected them bit by bit, typically reporting findings that are negative. For instance, a number of articles have highlighted the fact that some millennials are still living with their parents. Though this is true, wasn't it true for previous generations like Generation X? People fall on tough times and with the massive costs associated with college--and the social expectation to enroll--countless teenagers have been groomed into educated, indebted twentysomethings.

An infographic explaining some of the intricacies of Generation Y. | Courtesy of Flowtown
Combine this with the economic downturn and, suddenly, many of these newly graduated college students couldn't find a job, let along afford an apartment. When the media started asking why, they began examining and blaming the personality traits of those who had received the short end of the stick. Of course they found negativity and apathy and angst: Wouldn't you be upset if you were told that college would get you a great job and those expectations fell flat? So, now there is an educated class, eager to work toward and for their passions, but many people have been convinced that they are lazy good-for-nothings, further complicating the debts they cannot pay. These stereotypes are false--many millennials possess entrepreneurial spirits and tend to be marketing savvy. They know that quality of product matters and that success takes hard work--their life experiences so far have largely convinced them of this latter understanding. Moral of the story is this: Do not underestimate millennials when considering them for a position. In fact, don't underestimate any applicant based on your own assumptions--it could mean the difference between your business succeeding or failing.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Don't Be Afraid to Fail, Just Make Sure You Don't Let Lessons Go Unlearned

At lunch the other day, my mother and I were sitting next to a man who was eating alone. Typically, these individuals stay within themselves, but our conversation piqued the man's interests so he spoke up. We ended up talking about an array of topics, but most important (to this blog) was the fact that he owned a business. The man's name was Sam and as we got talking about his ownership, my mother threw in a line she's begun saying with pride: "My son's opening a hostel over in Grand Rapids." While that was, at one point, more true than it is now, my partner and I have put the project on an indeterminate delay. So I told Sam this and he replied with a piece of wisdom that many have forgotten, telling me, "You're young enough to fail over and over again and still come back from it."

The word "failure" often strikes fear into the hearts of people, be they world-class athletes, a high-schooler taking a standardized test, or a small business owner shuttering the doors. Each of these types of people has their own environments and thresholds for defining failure. But even with different definitions, many people fail at failing because they let valuable lessons slip by while they wallow in their own self-centered concerns. For business owners, this may mean losing a major source of income--maybe even their only source of income. But even when times are tough, a strong entrepreneur keeps her or his analytical mind open. Consider examining the decisions that led to the closure or downsizing of your company--basically, what got you to where you are now? Was there anything you overlooked? Could you have asked for help at any point? If so, why didn't you?

While my partner and I were working hard on Stay Hostel, we were doing our best to generate awareness and keep interest alive. While interest was high--we even met someone who said "You're the
guys opening the hostel?!?"--it did not lead to any major financial assistance. One of the best things we received was the help of a real estate agent who would let us get a better look at prospective properties, free of charge. As I've said before though, money was an issue (because we didn't have any), so purchasing a property was largely out of the question, for the time being. We had chosen to go nonprofit in order to generate donations but then we realized that we were the only people who were really doing any work for the project. We had a board member acting as our treasurer, but he was too busy to put too much time on the ground. Another board member was present at one point, but he backed out when he realized that he had spread himself too thin.

Eventually, the fate of the hostel was left up to a single decision--that's how I see it, at least. We were
Uncle Scrooge says you've got to be "tougher than the
toughies, and smarter than the smarties!" You'll only get
smarter and tougher through trying and failing.
offered work at the Wayfaring Buckeye in Columbus after staying a single night there. Opportunities like this are pretty rare, from what I've seen, but good networking can bring them about. The issue was that I couldn't afford to pay rent in two places. But a buddy was looking for a place to stay, so there was hope. In the end, he decided not to take my place and I was prevented from gaining experience as a hostel manager. Soon after, we decided that we would dissolve the nonprofit and chase a for-profit endeavor, if we ever chose to ramp the project up again. Considering this a failure on our parts, we dwelled a bit on it. But soon we realized that we had spent a year honing skills we never knew we possessed: networking, organizing, interviewing, social media marketing and web design, just to name a few. While we may have failed, we developed ourselves and will take the skills we've gained and the lessons we learned into the future.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Data on Small Businesses is Hard to Collect; Internet Remains Viable Marketing Option, Regardless

It seems that the number of workers in the U.S. has risen again, pushing the unemployment level down to the lowest it has been since December 2008. By adding 162,000 jobs, employers have brought the unemployment rate down to 7.4 percent--according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Even with these detailed figures, experts are uncertain about the employment rates among small businesses. According to a report from the National Federation of Independent Business, the number of employees lost per business in July was 0.11 workers. But a conflicting report from ADP said that small businesses added 82,000 employees that month, contributing more than 40 percent of all new payrolls.

This conflict underscores the perplexity of gathering data for small businesses; it can be extremely difficult--nearly impossible, in some cases--to get a realistic estimate of the goings-on in the small business industry. With so many people opening and closing their own start-ups each year, the market is constantly in flux. An accurate picture becomes very hard to develop, especially when a number of people are operating out of their homes. Studies indicate that nearly 70 percent of entrepreneurs in the U.S. choose to start their businesses in their residence. Nearly 60 percent continue to work from home after their businesses have become established.

But with the Internet in the majority of our homes and literally a single click away, this should not be surprising. If you are running an online business and you have space to store product at home, working out of your house should be a no-brainer. There is no reason to pay extra for an unnecessary retail space when the majority of your sales are online. Not to mention the fact that you can write a home office off during tax time. Even better is the fact that, on most days, you can work in comfort because the only presentation that matters online is that of your business. When doing in-person business though, much of the game changes.

But even for the people who have an actual storefront, the Internet can be extremely helpful. Using it to bring in more customers is a great strategy as many individuals turn to their computers and smartphones for suggestions and reviews in their locale. If you happen to be an automotive repair shop that has a solid online presence--and you have good reviews, which you will if yours is a business that respects its customers--it is likely that you'll start receiving more clients in the near future. People often turn to Google to diagnose issues with their vehicle, just like they do with their bodies; if you can determine the keywords that people typically search for in the geographic location of your business, you may be able to get your business to pop up during this diagnosis period. Online marketing strategies exist for every type of small business. Using these may help grow your company into something both concrete and profitable, giving you the ability to hire more people and further contribute to the employment rate.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Employee Retention is Crucial to Small Business Success

As businesses grow, they must realize the importance of retaining friendly and reliable employees. Though companies in the early stages of formation may not plan on having many workers, employees deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of how many you have on the payroll. This is crucial to having a low turnover rate and can be a determining factor for the success of your endeavor.

A lot of small business owners work with their employees,
not in the shadows of some office.
The first thing that an employer should think about is a matter of empathy. Now that you're a business owner, it might be easy to forget about the struggles you went through in earlier phases of your life. You were likely an employee under someone's supervision at one point--remember that? Think about that awful boss that you had: Do you want to be seen like her or him? Not if you want to create a solid employee base, especially if you're working alongside your employees.

As the business begins to grow, these early (and hopefully loyal) workers may lead the charge for your crew. Of course, not all of your first hires will stay on board. Other opportunities come along and again, you have to remember what it was like when you were trying to get by as a worker, not as the owner of a business. Your loyalties are obviously inline with yourself, your business, and your goals. You shouldn't expect this of everyone you hire, unless they are as personally invested as you are. Loyalty and longevity can be expected of business partners, but even they will come and go. Instead of being bitter about departures, consider it a chance to retool and revamp your operations.

One of the ways that businesses retain talent is by offering solid benefits. This may not be feasible during the initial phase of opening your business, but after you have established a solid ground floor, consider building your infrastructure by investing in your employees.  Employees who know they can go to the ear doctor or afford the glasses they need will be freer to focus on fulfilling your business's goals.  Consider offering bonuses to your workers around the holidays. Many companies stopped doing this due to the recession and have not reinstated such programs. If you have enough success, you should definitely give bonuses a thought.

Another way you can invest in your employees is by offering vacation time. Instead of offering a number of days off per year, consider going the route of offering an unlimited paid vacation policy--that's right, the policy is both unlimited and paid. It may sound ludicrous at first, but many employers, including a number of technology start-ups, have implemented such plans. The only issue is that some employees may take less time off for their annual vacations. Again, this may sound counter-intuitive, but analysts looking into such policies have discovered that many employees are against an unlimited vacation arrangement because they do not feel like they have earned those days. This is often seen in workers who have grown used to the older system of accruing vacation days, allowing them to feel as if they have generated their own time off, not been given it for free.

There are many options for employee benefits. Though the decision-making in this regard may be tough, just be sure you do it so that your workers understand that you appreciate them.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What Are the Benefits of Using Social Media to a New Business?

What's the most important thing to a new business? After getting off the ground, a business needs customers to survive and thrive. Whether you are selling bicycle parts or providing IT services, patrons will be necessary and because of this, marketing is vital. Not to discount real-world word of mouth, but it can only bring in so much revenue during the early stages of a company. Later, this may be a very strong contributor to your customer base, but it would be a mistake to rely on it alone immediately after the doors have opened.

While cultivating a reliable and loyal set of customers, new businesses should consider using marketing tactics that are both beneficial and inexpensive. Often, these approaches are technology-related and because of this, some business owners freeze up. Some suggest that the Internet and social media are their own forms of word-of-mouth marketing; the difference is that these can be much more helpful for a new business because they spread the word in a more widely-acknowledged and observed form. There is no need to be afraid of technology and, if you really are intimidated by the Internet and social media, you can easily hire someone to help you develop your online presence.
According to Zoomerang, businesses use social media to connect with customers, generate visibility, and promote themselves.

This may mean that you will have accounts with a number of social media outlets including (but not limited to) Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Plus. To get the most out of these accounts, a business should work on each of them, developing a comprehensive and similar profile for each. After establishing the accounts, content should be generated on a regular basis for all of them. Whatever that content may be, it should reflect you and your business; it should also be kept fresh. Posting pictures of the work you have done on your Instagram is a great way for customers to remember that your business is run by a person, not by some major corporation that simply wants their money and good profit margins--though you may in fact want their money, you hopefully want to help your customers as individuals too. Posting on Twitter and answering questions that other users may have for you can establish your expertise on the Internet, giving clients the ability to understand your motivation and--again--adding that personal flair to the whole business.

Unfortunately, many business owners discount the value of these channels. In this day and age, refusing to move into the realms of social media and online advertising can be extremely damaging to a new business. Many consumers go to the Internet for answers and if you do not have a website or a Facebook page, potential clients may look elsewhere. While some will still consider you, the majority of consumers are well-connected to the Internet and make a practice of looking into the companies that they may be considering for any number of goods and services. If you want to succeed--especially in an over-saturated market--you should invest in a polished website (for both standard and mobile platforms) and begin developing your virtual brand as soon as possible.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Don't Be Afraid of Mistakes, Learn From Them Instead

During my first business venture, I learned a valuable lesson. Surprised? You shouldn't be. The first-time trail, no matter what it's heading toward or from, is usually littered with mistakes and errors, be they financial, social, administrative, whatever. There are plenty of chances to learn a lesson or two. When you're starting from scratch, there are a lot of issues to tackle, and one of the first issues that should be addressed is money. Unfortunately, this was not our initial target.

We chose to go for a factor that some might say is just as important as capital: connections. And did we ever do it; networking event after networking event, email after email, business card after business card… It all began to blur rather rapidly. But luckily for me, my business partner was and is a very structured person, and he understands the value of remembering people. I'll be frank: To make sure that we did in fact remember people--whomever they were--he created a spreadsheet that listed all of the personal information on our new connections' cards as well as the topics we had discussed during our meeting. He also had some notes on how that person might be able to help us and if she or he could be an asset to our cause--I told you that he was structured.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Like I said, we started from scratch. Aside from drinking at certain watering holes on a regular basis, our social network outside of our friends was rather small. For an entrepreneur that is either new to the area or new to the scene of entrepreneurship in general, widening this fishnet can be daunting. It means getting out of your comfort zone, going to events that you may or may not feel like attending the day of, having conversations with and about people that you barely know. It means being willing to spark a discussion with a total stranger and engage them, as well as yourself, for however long the ride lasts. For some, this is intimidating; for others, it may sound droll; to us, it sounded like a challenge.

So we took it upon ourselves to get in contact with people in Grand Rapids whom we believed would be able to further our endeavor. We met with public employees from the planning department, professors from local universities, graphic designers, website designers, real estate agents, journalists, heads of development companies, the whole nine yards. Over the course of six months, I couldn't tell you how many people we had met.

But connections only mean so much. Without capital, there's not much that those hours of meetings can produce. So recently, we decided to put the whole project on the back burner. But that didn't mean that our time was spent for naught. Actually, there was at least one incredibly worthwhile lesson learned and here it is: It never hurts to ask. In just a handful of months, we were meeting with people that we never thought we would get the chance to, simply because we shot someone an email or a phone call. This major realization rings especially true for new business owners and those hoping to break into the scene. People in the industry as well as many others will be willing to help you get your dream off the ground, but you'll never know who they are unless you ask. This little nugget of knowledge is something that I will certainly drag with me into future business ventures.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The value of a sustainable workspace

Have you ever wondered what exactly makes a room green?  Custer, a sustainable design and furniture company in West Michigan, is a specialist in this field and has worked on many such projects.  Here are some ways Custer has transformed everyday offices into greener life and work spaces:
  • Lighting.  Lighting obviously utilizes energy and a number of companies provide industrial and commercial lighting that is considerably less energy intensive. Light Corp is ISO 14001 registered and meets requirements and policy specifications that take into account environmental laws and impact. Their LED lighting is 92% recycled and their T5 fluorescent lighting is 87% recycled. LED lighting utilizes light-emitting diodes as the source of light.  These diodes can emit large amounts of lumens while using a smaller amount of wattage. 
  • Desk space. The process of manufacturing furniture can be greener, making the products themselves greener. Enwork, for example, offers their clients the specific details of how their desks are produced and delivered: products, manufacturing, and packaging. The wood used for desks comes from the scrap generated by other industries; it is 100% post-industrial recycled content. In 2007, Enwork switched from PVC edging to ABS, which is a chlorine-free product that can be disposed of with general waste. They use water-based, solvent-free adhesives on their wood to eliminate overexposure to harmful toxins. Also, Enwork either recycles, reuses, or re-manufactures most of their product. 
  • Chairs. Wondering how sustainable a chair can be? Well, seating companies like Cumberland cover all the bases. They do not use any endangered rainforest wood species in their chairs, and they only purchase wood from companies that openly practice sustainable forestry. The foam that is used by Cumberland for chairs is called BioFlex and is manufactured with soybeans grown by American farmers. Their leather supplier is 100% recyclable, meaning no leather will end up sitting in landfills.  Also, Cumberland does not use plated chrome for their metal products which can emit unfriendly waste; instead they use stainless steel. 
  • Walls.  Even these can be designed or installed sustainably. Trendway, another business Custer uses, has numerous LEED commercial interior products including Trendwall. They reuse 30% of their movable walls in projects. A typical wall has a combined total of 46.3% recycled materials by weight; this means close to half of each wall is made with recycled material. They also are credited for projects they do using a minimum of 20% of materials that are manufactured, harvested, or recovered within 500 miles of their home base in Holland, Michigan. 
Take a look around your office and think about the energy-saving and sustainable products and technologies available to you. If you are considering a redesign for productivity, efficiency, or cost reasons, consider also how new green technology can aid you in your goals.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Welcome!

Obviously, this is a brand new blog.  We at Small Business Excellence are planning on bringing you solid, practical, and useful business advice for starting up a small business (including when to buy the office furniture), or improving or maintaining an already operational one.

We know that small business can be challenging in many ways - financially, mentally, emotionally - and that the climate for small business right now is not exactly optimal.  But we love small business and want to see more choices for people out there on every level: locally, regionally, internationally.  More choice means more competition which often means lower prices and high quality products.

So stick around and hear what we have to say.