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.