Friday, October 31, 2014

White papers are more important than you think

Do "White Papers" actual drive sales? And if so, when are white papers appropriate? These are not insignificant questions given that a fair amount of time and effort go into their creation.

Why Create a White Paper?

The term white paper refers to an educational report roughly about four to 10 pages in length. In general, these reports are geared towards helping your potential customers solve a problem. White papers commonly summarize survey research or delve into a product or service relevant to a particular market segment.

As with most marketing collateral, white papers help attract qualified leads. Which is often why interested parties must exchange information about themselves in order to obtain such material. It essence, such material is "gated" to the user until they meet this precondition. In contrast, some white papers are widely distributed for the sake of helping establish a company's expertise on a particular topic. And as a result, they build confidence with potential buyers.

White papers are occasionally used by business-to-consumer companies - but they won't be called by that term. That's simply because the term can seem rather intimidating, almost as if a large, comprehensive study is at hand. As a result, many business-to consumer studies are labelled as a "report." And, as might be expected, these reports are somewhat shorter in length.

In contrast, business-to-business companies often employ white papers. Especially where expertise in a particular field is critical. Not incidentally, they're a frequently touted in such fields as telecommunications, biotech, manufacturing, etc. In In the end, white papers can help educate your audience and serve to subtly show why your company's expertise is critical for a job.

Do White Papers Drive Sales?

Although somewhat dated, a 2008 Eccolo Media Technology Survey found that nearly half (44%) of technology buyers found white papers to be very influential in their decision-making. In contrast, product brochures had the least influence upon decision-makers. Indeed, white papers are the most frequently used marketing collateral employed by companies (68%). And perhaps contrary to expectation, respondents noted that videos and podcasts were far less used (28%).

Not incidentally, white papers influence buyers very early in their decision making process. More than half of respondents (56%) noted that they review such material in the "pre-sale" stage the buying process. Obviously, when buyers have a wide variety of options to pursue, both white papers and case studies can be critical in making or breaking a future sale.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Should small businesses focus more marketing dollars on mobile marketing?

Responses from a number of recent surveys have revealed a strong preference from marketers for email marketing over and above other types of digital marketing tactics. This was again confirmed by a September survey done by Ascend2 and its research partners. In this survey marketers ranked email marketing as "Most Effective" (54%), while only 11% of marketers surveyed thought email marketing was "Most Difficult." It would naturally follow then, that most marketers would highly encourage their clients to pursue email marketing tactics over other types of digital marketing. Website and blog marketing and SEO marketing were also deemed "Most Effective" by 48% and 47% respectively. Social media marketing was ranked "Most Difficult" by 49% of respondents. Mobile/SMS marketing had the lowest overall ranking with only 9% of respondents rating it "Most Effective" and 34% "Most Difficult."

It would seem, at this time, that there will not be a big push for mobile marketing coming from most marketers. From their responses, they see it as not worth the effort.

But is it wise for businesses to overlook mobile marketing given how plugged in consumers -particularly those in the Millennial and Generation X generations - are? The fact is, people of all ages, not just that coveted demographic of 18-34, are daily becoming more dependent on their smartphones and their mobile devices to navigate numerous aspects of their lives. Around half of all internet searches are done on mobile phones. And the existence of smartphones and mobile connectivity is itself spawning new industries that people are seamlessly incorporating into their lifestyles. The popular and controversial sharing economy app Uber relies upon mobile technology to function. So does Pandora.

When forecasting marketing trends for 2015, heavily emphasized the importance of mobile media. While some industry experts have been loudly declaring the importance of mobile marketing for years, this message appears not to have reached the marketers in the trenches. But as with all things, there is a tipping point, and it could soon be reached. Currently there is significant spending on mobile marketing among large corporations, but as of now it seems to be poorly incorporated with other marketing efforts and not a part of most's businesses overall picture.

If your business is spending on digital marketing, it is certainly worth reexamining how much of this budget is allocated to spending on mobile marketing and if mobile marketing is functioning alongside your company's marketing as a whole. This is not a fad. Next time you are out in public, look at everyone surrounding you and count the smartphones. Then ask yourself if you're focusing enough of your business's marketing budget on mobile. The answer is very likely no.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How small businesses are grappling with the Affordable Care Act a year later

Last October 1st, the website for the Affordable Care Act healthcare exchanges premiered, and many small business owners hoped that the new system would provide some relief for the staggering costs healthcare insurance was laying across their shoulders. Unfortunately, the website rollout performed more poorly than expected and the implementation of the new healthcare law - and any relief it would give small businesses - was significantly delayed. Because the website didn't function, not enough people were enrolled by the target date in December, and the administration pushed back numerous deadlines and weakened compliance regulations. How this will play out for individual business owners, we will only discover with the passage of time and as the effects of the new law come down this compromised pipeline.

At this time the requirement that small businesses must provide insurance coverage to their full-time employees only applies in 2015 to businesses that have 100 or more employees (full-time being defined as working an average of 30 or more hours per week). The cost of this insurance must also be less than 9.5 percent of their income. Businesses have the option of providing their full-time employees with coverage or paying a per-employee assessment fine. In 2016, businesses with over 50 full-time employees will have to be compliant or face paying the fine.

Since 96 percent of U.S. businesses have fewer than 50 full-time employees, most small businesses will not have to worry about Affordable Care Act compliance for the foreseeable future, although many businesses have cut either hours or workers in anticipation of the higher costs to them either way. Ironically enough, many government jobs in schools, city government, and libraries have also been cut because of budgetary constraints.

Meanwhile, the costs of both healthcare and health insurance continue to climb. Many employers already offer their workers insurance benefits and are finding it challenging to pay higher costs in an economy that continues to stagnate. Many of these are choosing to offer lower-cost, higher-deductible plans to their employees. Thirty-two percent of firms will only be offering high-deductible plans, shifting more costs to their workers. As long as workers are offered the option of a plan that meets Affordable Care Act guidelines, businesses will not have to pay a fine - regardless of whether employees choose to enroll in these plans.

Some employers are offering incentives for workers who voluntarily shop around for cheaper healthcare options or who take part in lifestyle betterment programs or utilize their preventative care more. High cost, high benefit programs will be taxed beginning in 2018, so employers who have provided their workers with "Cadillac" plans have incentives to either educate their workers on the costs of these plans or slowly transition them to new health insurance realities.

Other businesses have decided to forego offering insurance altogether and pay the fines which are less expensive than the cost of health insurance. As yet there is not consensus on what the best options are as the administration continues to delay mandates and economic conditions change.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Online remarketing as a business tool

If you've (almost) purchased an item from Amazon or some other large retailer lately, you might be forgiven for thinking that the retailer is tracking you online and asking yourself, "How does the internet know I almost bought [insert item here]?"  The answer involves the computer cookies (online trackers) in your browser. They allow for remarketing, a type of advertising that gives you "a chance to reconnect with visitors who have abandoned your site without converting through Display Network advertising." 

With remarketing, an advertiser can promote specific ads related to the products or interests that online visitors have already expressed. For undecided or procrastinating visitors, remarketing can help remind them about products they previously were curious about. So for example, a visitor who abandons her shopping cart with a product in it will see the same product in a advertisement elsewhere online - with a discount coupon attached. Sellers only pay for the ad when someone clicks on it. 

People shop all the time for products they are not entirely certain about but could easily, with a bit of a nudge,  be persuaded to buy. A garden tool may seem like a pricey splurge on Amazon, perhaps, but more like a necessity when that gardener is reading a popular garden blog or chatting with fellow vegetable enthusiasts in a Facebook group.

Implementing remarketing is fairly simple. First, a business owner must sign up with Google AdWords and create an advertisement. Once this ad has been created, the retailer can target different audiences for remarketing.  So instance, a retailer can serve ads to potential customers who have visited their website as well as those who have already purchased their product. Or they may even target the former, excluding the latter. With Google Adwords, a retailer simply needs to select the audience that it would like to seek out, pinpointing for greater success. 

Remarketing is an especially effective advertising tool for those people who wish to improve their shopping cart abandonment rate. It's an unobtrusive tool. Most people will not even register this gentle reminder, making it more like a note from Mom rather than a bounty hunter's chase. But, if used correctly, it will improve your conversion rate, and it should be employed by anyone who believes AdWords is an essential part of their marketing efforts. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

A business owner essential: properly vetting employees

What do potential employers have to do to properly vet an employee? Obviously carefully constructing a set of interview questions to gauge whether the applicant is a good fit is paramount. Small businesses in the midst of reviewing applicants will generally ask questions relating to previous job experience, personal characteristics, and skill sets. Indeed, asking an applicant how they found out about an open position can very revealing. Applicants simply looking for a job will typically reply that they found the position after viewing general job listings. A better bet is to find an applicant who has taken the initiative to seek out your company. They generally have a stronger interest in helping your company achieve success.

In order to find the right fit, strong applicants should be amenable to the company’s culture.  Likewise, employers should ask applicants what they like about their current job, what their preferred career path looks like, and how their skill sets have might be helpful in the position.

However, properly vetting an applicant requires more than an interview or even calling references. If an applicant gives satisfactory answers to an employer’s interview questions, time and energy can be expended on the next step in the process. That is, an employer should take a close look at an employees prior connections, credit history, arrest record (or lack thereof), certifications, and of course, employment history. However, a potential employee must sign a consent form allowing the company to conduct this kind of investigation.

If the position your company is hiring for requires multiple, discreet levels of vetting, a professional employment agency can be hired to conduct background screenings for applicants. Additionally, if your business needs to protect against any rist, a surety company may issue a bond (a surety bond is a promise to pay one party a certain amount if a second party fails to meet a contractual obligation.) A bond protects the payee against any kind of loss if the payers fails to meet an obligation.

Most interviews will not these sorts of require advanced levels of checking, but, on the other hand, an untrustworthy or, heaven forbid, criminal employee can cause a large amount of damage to a company in a small period of time. Due diligence is always recommended.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why your business needs insurance

When creating a business the last thing a business owner wants to think about is additional, seemingly unnecessary expenses - especially if those expenses do not contribute in any way to the bottom line. However, all business owners face risks in one form or another, so protecting both their investment and personal assets is essential. 

A forward-thinking small business owner understands the various risks that may befall his business. Accordingly, he wisely takes proactive measures to mitigate against any financial loss arising from such events.  What risks may occur during the course of normal business operations? It varies, of course, depending on the type of business operations involved, however insurance coverage exists for property damage, legal liability, and employee-related risks. When people think of insurance, they generally think of items being insured against theft or damage. A jewelry store would need to be able to cover for the loss of stolen diamonds, for instance. But physical property is not a business owner's only vulnerability. Consider what might happen if one of your employees is injured on the job, a natural disaster occurs, or a business partner dies.  Protecting your investment requires purchasing enough insurance to cover your assets, material or otherwise. Although a business owner's personal assets are protected if the business is a limited liability company (LLC) or a corporation, neither is an adequate substitute for liability insurance to cover a business from losses. 

Additionally, we live in a very litigious society where nothing truly disastrous must occur for someone to file a lawsuit. The expense of hiring a lawyer to fight off nuisance suit can be the different between a start up business in the black and one in the red. Consider your customer base - is it composed of people who might try to play and win the lawsuit lottery? If so, you must insure.

Even if a business owners decides against seeking insurance, financial lenders and investors will often require various forms of insurance (fire, flood, life) before any business transaction occurs.  They simply do not wish to share the financial risk associated with any unexpected events that may befall a business. 

State governments also require businesses with employees to have a certain amount of some kinds of insurance to cover employees who seek unemployment, disability, or workers' compensation. Companies that employ road vehicles for business operations are generally required by the state to purchase commercial auto insurance as well. 

Do your homework. If you run your business yourself, at home, and do not have merchandise or stock to sell or store, your insurance needs may be few. But for all the other business owners who make and sell products, employ other to help, and rent or own facilities to do so in, you need to consult an agent about what coverage is best for your needs. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Making adjustments for best workplace environments

As discussed before, the newest trend in office design is the collaborative open layout in which employees are encouraged to work together and share ideas.  This new trend stems from the surge of Millennials into the workforce using technology continuously.  An open workplace reflects the environment of a classroom or coffee shop in which employees bounce ideas off each other and think creatively by communicating with those around them. Open environments require smaller rental space commitments, and are less expensive to clean, as well as heat and cool and so are popular with business owners cutting costs. Although the open concept may work well for extroverts who are inspired by visual interaction and energized by being around others, for introverts these surroundings may prove to be more a hindrance to productivity than a motivator.  

There is a distinct difference between the way introverts and extroverts tend to function in office space.  Some extroverts are extremely productive and creative when they are surrounded by other employees throughout the workday; but many introverts need a quiet office to achieve the greatest productivity.  There must be a way for both types of employees to achieve optimal performance at work.

It's a good idea for businesses to periodically assess what kind of social environment their employees are creating. Study work patterns, and look for problematic workplace interactions (these are often not hidden!). Survey your employees both formally and informally. At least some of the problems your business experiences may stem directly from workplace arrangements, and those can be surprisingly easy to change through desk swaps or targeted scheduling. 

Some businesses also allow their employees the option of working from home.  The employer is still able to monitor the employee’s progress day to day through various tools such as telecommunicating, Skype, or email.  Another option is to provide both an open concept layout for those who work better in a group setting and a closed, quiet room for those who work better alone.  In a decently sized office space, a separation of rooms can be achieved with removable walls and office furniture that is easy to move.  
Conference rooms are another space to use for group work. They often go unused and could be added to the mixed of differently used work environments.  

While Millennials have a reputation for being more comfortable in groups, there are, of course, plenty of introverted representatives of Gen Y. Workers from other generations will also appreciate the option of being able to work in private and focus entirely on one project at least part of the time. Using your office space in the best way to maximize productivity of your employees is extremely important both for productivity and the maintenance of healthy work relationships. Providing a space that all people feel comfortable will benefit everyone in your company. Do not be afraid to try a number of solutions in your attempts to create the best arrangements. Long term workplace harmony is worth a bit of construction dust.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How Does Your Small Business Cut Energy Costs?

Small businesses have endless expenses, but one of the largest is the cost of energy.  Almost every small business must use energy in one way or another.  For small, local companies that are competing with larger conglomerates, fluctuating energy costs can be quite a hindrance, to plan for and to pay for.  Businesses are continuously looking for ways to cut back on the cost of energy.  Particularly in the wake of rising energy costs such as gas prices, most small businesses are forced to find new ways to ensure they are not losing too much money.  

Small companies that rely heavily on transportation and delivery can save money on energy costs by doing some simple planning ahead.  For trips that require numerous stops, companies should map out the most effective route that encompasses all needed destinations.  Some businesses tack on fuel surcharges when making deliveries at times when energy costs increase and then remove them when they decrease.  This trend began in 2008 when gas prices sky-rocketed.  

In the age of online communication, most meetings can be done via Skype, Google Chat, or in conference call.  Instead of using the money to pay for fuel to drive to meetings, small businesses are choosing to communicate via the internet, setting up meetings online or over the phone. Some businesses have chosen to eliminate their land line and do all of their telephone communication either by cell phone or VoIP.

Another crucial way to save money when energy costs fluctuate is maintaining your business vehicles.  Make sure, particularly after harsh winters, that engines are finely tuned, oil has been changed, and tire pressure is where it should be.  All of these can positively influence your car’s gas mileage.  When gas prices rise, the costs of shipped goods also increases. Small businesses especially must find ways to combat the expense of energy, so some choose to increase the price of their product or service.  Even a small increase can help balance the books.  

Gas prices fluctuate for several reasons.  Generally, the change in season from winter to spring brings more drivers out, which causes prices to rise.  The trend is that prices decrease after the initial spike in beginning of the summer, but after Memorial day will increase again with the amount of travelers on the roads.  Prices also follow the fluctuation of global oil costs; rising and falling when they do.  Another reason prices may rise is seasonal maintenance and upkeep of refineries.  

Small businesses have obvious budget adjustments to make when it comes to fluctuating energy costs.  There are some obvious ways companies cut energy costs such as regular vehicle maintenance.  But also underlying ways that may not be as apparent to the consumer eye but are in direct correlation to the increase in gas
prices, such as product cost inflation.  However small businesses choose to adjust; energy costs have a large impact on net income and in turn, on our local economy.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Small Businesses and Rising Gas Prices

Rising gas prices can be stifling for all of us, but the effects for small businesses can be much worse.  Numerous factors play into the negative outcome that spikes in gas prices can bring to small businesses.  Companies that rely on local transportation and delivery as a large part of their profit can be hit very hard.  

David Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas stated, “Spring is a difficult time for drivers, when gas prices typically rise due to refinery maintenance.  The tightened supply throughout the country results in higher gas prices.”  An increase in prices can also be correlated to the higher demand of drivers after the brutal winter most of the country experienced this year.  Seasonal maintenance at refineries is an additional factor for increasing gas prices.  

Small businesses that are already competing with large conglomerates have a more difficult time coping with the spike in gas prices that can come seasonally.  Delivery costs for businesses that base much of their profit on the transportation of their product suffer exponentially when gas prices increase.  They look for other ways to cut costs which can come as cutbacks, shorter business hours, even moving manufacturing out of the United States to countries such as Asia.  For some small businesses, an increase in gas prices may mean an increase in the cost of their product to make up the difference.  

Fuel usage is a major expense for small, local companies.  Especially businesses that focus on packing and delivery as the main source of their profits can be highly affected by soaring gas prices.  The arrival of spring can mean greater business and easier travel for small companies, particularly after this year's horrendous winter weather.  Increased gas prices work against this potential of growth for small companies.  

The trend that gas prices generally follow is to rise in the spring, come back down around Memorial Day, and then increase again through the summer. Businesses must find ways to work around the spikes and sustained rises.  By cutting costs, carpooling, organizing deliveries accordingly, and preparing ahead of time, local companies can generate as much profit as possible during the high-cost period.  Although they adjust, small businesses are one of the sectors of the economy most affected by gas spikes. And since much of business consists of small businesses, this problem affects all of us.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Does your business need a lawyer?

Every business owner is loath to spend income on unnecessary expenses, particularly smaller, newer or home-based businesses on thin margins who have yet to make much profit. It's much more satisfying to pay someone to make you an impressive website or even keep your books. However, the United States currently has a very litigious climate; as a country we spend about 2.2 percent of the gross domestic product, approximately $1000 for each person on tort litigation. In these circumstances finding a good lawyer is like hiring a bodyguard - with his presence and expertise, he'll stop attacks from happening as well as deal with any that do actually occur.

There are a number of areas a small business owner will need to consult a lawyer about: contracts, taxes and licensing, and real estate matters such as purchasing or leasing property or equipment. Over time matters that should be rather simple have become increasingly more complex because of other lawsuits. The legalese on these documents gets denser as sued parties attempt to reassert control. If the average person doesn't understand a basic user contract for an internet site like Facebook, how is he expected to know what's been inserted into his rental contract as a disincentive for his company ever to sever the relationship? No one wants to sign a lease from the Hotel California, after all.

At the outset of your business, you should consult an attorney about the legal basics of business formation. A number of things can be done without a lawyer's involvement. You don't need a lawyer to name your business, claim a trademark, hire employees, create buy-sell agreements, or file initial paperwork, but the Small Business Administration recommends consulting a lawyer to:

  • Form a corporation
  • File a patent
  • Buy or sell a business
  • Handle litigation
Particularly when dealing with litigation, it's advisable to have an attorney who is already familiar with your business and, preferably, has the kind of clout necessary to intimidate instigators of frivolous lawsuits or ambulance chasing. If you have not yet consulted an attorney to represent your business at least in times of legal necessity, start asking around for recommendations now - because when you need one, you really need one.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Is it time for your business to ditch the landline?

CDC data from the 2013 National Health Interview Survey show that nearly 40% of American homes now use only cell phones for telephone communication. An additional 15.7% of the population had landlines, but still received all or almost all their calls on wireless telephones. Poor Americans reported higher rates of complete dependence on wireless phones - 55 percent of adults below the poverty level had only wireless phones at home. Having a landline and a cell phone is a double expense, after all, and when money is tight can't always be justified.

Many small businesses are run from home and have limited budgets. Small business owners may feel there is no good reason to add a landline number and pay another bill. But having a landline has its advantages, including:

  • Clarity of sound - background noise is far more minimal on a traditional landline and voice quality is better than on cell phones or VoIP. 
  • Accessibility - landlines do not need a clear wireless signal or an internet connection to operate.
  • Sturdiness - by virtue of being less portable, landline telephones last longer and get lost less often. Their batteries also last longer. Those old phones your grandparents had in the 1970s still probably work. Does the cellphone you dropped in the toilet or left in your unlocked car?
  • Features - many of the features businesses have come to expect from telephone systems are only available on pricier wireless systems.
There are, of course, advantages to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and cell phones including significant cost reduction, portability, and the ability to route multiple numbers to one phone - a clear advantage to a businessman on the go. 

Still it's clear that communication technology is changing rapidly and will continue to change. At some point, even those who are entirely satisfied with the old way of calling will be forced to update their systems because telecommunications companies will find it prohibitively expensive to offer options that satisfy every user, from techie to Luddite. So small businesses should keep the shift in technology in mind for tomorrow, even they hold on to their landlines today.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Questions to ask a computer consultant before you hire him

Today's office run on information, and for many businesses, a significant amount of this information is vital and confidential. Therefore, it's vital that you hire a competent, responsive, trustworthy computer consultant, and you should do your homework on your options before you experience a major system crash or potential data loss.

Despite the challenges constantly changing technology poses to the casual computer user, computers are much more user friendly and versatile than they used to be with a plethora of different built-in programs to help recover data, restore programs, quarantine viruses and address a host of other problems that used to be much harder for the average person to deal with. More intrepid users have never had lower or cheaponer technology hurdles as open source software is free and continuously being expanded. Still the average business owner is knowledgeable about his business, not necessarily about computers or technology. And as he would want to find someone trustworthy to work on his car, as his life literally depends on the work done, he needs to find a quality computer "mechanic" for his company's needs as well. Customers who have

Vetting computer consultants is, in many ways, like vetting other employees; you need to determine if they are dependable, trustworthy, responsive, responsible, and comprehensive. Here are the things you must determine:

Responsiveness: You should ask if the consultant has a live operator, or if there are only scheduled hours for customer service. How soon will they respond to telephone or email inquiries? How soon during a data or systems emergency? Do they take the time to explain to their clients what is wrong with their computers or systems and how this might be avoided in the future? Will they give details as to what the problem is, in everyday English that people who are not technical will be able to understand? Is their customer service based locally or is it outsourced to another country?

Diligence: Will the consultant be proactive with your system, avoiding problems before they crop up, maintaining and updating hardware, software, virus definitions, and backups, regularly checking them all to make sure everything is functioning and there are multiple copies of important data? Is the consultant's organization large enough that it can function just as smoothly when someone goes on vacation or gets sick?

Liability protection: Is this consultant's company fully insured so that if, in the unlikely event mistakes happen, your business is protected from financial harm and could be compensated for lost time and productivity?

Trustworthiness: How does this consultant's company vet their own employees? Do they do full background checks? Are they required to remain current on their certifications? Have they had any previous incident with breaches of data?

Comprehensiveness: The consultant will take responsibility for the functionality of which systems, networks, or machines, specifically? Which will remain your responsibility?

Obviously, you should never hire based on brand recognition or price alone. Plenty of people think they know computers and can fix whatever you need for cheap. How much your data worth to you? How much is your data's security worth to you? The neighbor's kid may know computers; if so, hire him for smaller projects, not your overall system security. But big names are no guarantee of good service - ask the woman who sued Geek Squad for leaking her nude pictures online. Or the owner of the missing laptop Geek Squad tried to cover up.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Millenials and Entrepreneurship

Here is Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, being interviewed about Millennials, opportunities for start ups, and the sudden burgeoning of entrepreneurship among young people.  This blog has covered before the situation young people are in coping with the present bad economy. Ohanian point, that the lack of economic opportunities means that there's no opportunity cost for entrepreneurship, and that this is the silver lining in our economic cloud is an interesting one. He also points out that the barriers for entry into business have never been lower because of increased access to consumers and open source software.

Michigan Future, Inc. put out a report several years ago with the purpose of attracting knowledge workers to Detroit and thereby encouraging the revitalization of downtown Detroit. Their "knowledge workers" are Ohanian's audience as well - young, very bright, creative, willing to work hard and take risks. In the past they've gone where the jobs are and taken their energy and drive with them, reducing the fortunes of smaller cities already on a downward spiral and enriching larger cities with, arguably, enough knowledge capital. Now, however, with good jobs hard to find nationally, they have incentive to stay where they are and build their own opportunities.

The less fortunate part of this is that knowledge workers - people who can create with "a laptop and an internet connection" are only a small subset of the general population. Most would be small business entrepreneurs still need some capital to get started. Even if you have the knowledge to build a parts washer to spotlessly clean engine liners, you can't do it without investment capital. While some small businesses can be run from home, manufacturing plants, auto garages, medical care centers, and organic farms, to name but a few, cannot, and those are the businesses who will hire workers who are not knowledge workers but still need employment. The economy won't get better until there are jobs available to the average worker, not just the specialty one.

It is, however, a blessing for very bright people who don't want to move away from their communities to find their livelihoods. And, eventually, many knowledge workers do generate jobs from their risk taking. Reddit only has 28 employees, but Ohanian has other projects that fund average people looking for a break.  It's not an overall solution to the nation's economic problems, but for those people he's helped get exposure and funds it's been life changing. We need to see more of this virtuous cycle of economic activity.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Business cards - Are they worth it?

You seem them everywhere, in every business, in fishbowls in restaurants - you probably have more than a handful stuffed in a drawer somewhere in your house. But do you ever look at them? Business cards: are they just an unnecessary expense?

We asked John Potter of Grand Rapids Area Professionals for Excellence (GRAPE), a business networking group in Grand Rapids, MI, and he said, "If you're using business cards as a marketing tool, then your expectations may not be met, but if you're using them as a contacting tool, then they can be useful. It's simpler and more professional for me to hand my business card to someone I've spent a half hour talking to at an event than writing my email or phone number on a stray piece of paper. I'm glad to have business cards for that purpose. Just don't spend a great deal of money on them, because they get forgotten and tossed aside much of the time."

Business cards now come in more a lot more than just the standard form (or media). Numerous options are now easily and cheaply available to make your card, and thus its representation of your brand, stand out. But should you go for standard, unique, or full-on special snowflake? Or is this just flashy or even alienating to your potential customers?

Consider the business that you are in. How likely is your clientele to care if you don't hire a professional to design your logo? If your business is marketing, it's important to make the investment. If your business is auto repair shop management, perhaps putting your marketing dollars elsewhere may do more good for your bottom line. If a funky card would put off or even shock the majority of your clientele, it's a liability, not an asset. You may live in an area with heavy competitive for funeral home services, in which case comprehensive branding might be necessary. But probably not.

It can be fun to design and redesign and order business cards, but even if yours are original and make people comment on them and remember them, evaluate how often and how successfully they convert into leads and sales. If the answer is "not very often," rethink this part of your branding and advertising budget.

Friday, February 28, 2014

When Purchasing Software, Consider What Support Is Included

In this economy, businesses are frequently on tight budgets, and purchasing the right software can be an enormous help for the small business owner. There are so many different programs to help with accounting, customer relationship management, e-commerce, marketing, project management, social networking, and many other essential tasks. Finding a user-friendly program can save you the expense of hiring expensive outside consultants or part-time personnel and can streamline operations considerable. But the wrong software often comes with headaches and hidden expenses that can break the bank.

Nearly everyone has experienced the frustrations of a program that doesn't work the way it's supposed to. Some of this may be user error, but what if the software you purchased is difficult to install, doesn't work well with your operating system, crashes frequently, doesn't sync with other software it's supposed to rely upon, fails to back up or accurately produce data, or any other variant of "doesn't work"? While an owner may be able to get a refund for the software itself, can he afford to recoup what using the software cost his business?

These types of problems are why it is so important for business owners to know what they are purchasing before the purchase, either by consulting with other users or thoroughly reading reviews, or relying on a reputable VAR (Value Added Reseller) for their software needs. Much has been made of saving money by "eliminating the middle man," but when dealing with software, the middle man may not be so expendable. It's true, many types of software are designed for easy installation and use. There is no point to go through a software vendor to purchase Microsoft Office or install SugarSync on a laptop, but if your business needs complex engineering software to run simulations or your medical practice requires HIPAA-compliant management software for billing, scheduling, and record keeping, a wrong choice can be a very wrong choice.  The more complex and expensive the software, the more valuable the middle man becomes to you. After all, it's he who will be able to help you install it, answer questions about what it can do, debug your model, and help you navigate customer service of the software designer. Most critically, he will be able to advise you on which software (and how much of it) best meets your business's needs.

Be careful when selecting a VAR as well. There are plenty of companies who will be glad to sell you software at marked up prices. Ask questions about what each VAR is prepared to do for you and how quickly they are prepared to do it in case of emergency. This is your backup - make sure it's a dependable one.

While it would be nice to believe that software (and hardware) will be worth its expense and that it will work and continue to work for you over time, the truth is computers are complex, ever-changing, and prone to error. Given this, it's always best to go over your options carefully before you purchase and to find reliable consultants to help with your selection.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When it comes time to sell your small business

While many businessmen are drawn to a certain industry or have been drawn into a certain business by their family connections or a specific skill set, another type of business owner is the serial entrepreneur. For this kind of person, the thrill is in starting and building the business, not in the day-to-day maintenance of it. These people are visionaries, not managers or caretakers, and after a few years of success, they're bored and they want out.

Other small businesses sell because there's no one to take on the helm after a long era of family ownership has passed or because they need to relocate or raise funds for living expenses or some other purpose.  The owners, having spent sweat equity building something substantial, now need to recoup their investment with a sale to a good buyer. But how does an owner ensure that he gets a good price for his small business?

Max Friar specializes in the sale of small and medium-sized businesses. His company, Calder Capital, recommends that before a business owner even begins to contemplate selling, he should make sure his company is an owner independent one, and that his involvement in it is not essential to the business's maintenance or profitability. This seems, at first glance, to be counterintuitive thinking. How can a successful person not be essential for the running of a successful business? Because while the business needed a visionary to establish it, it needs a good manager to run it, and good managers are more common than successful visionaries.

Of course, not every business is designed to be sold. Many people start a business as a way of channeling their energies and making everyday expenses. They have no thought of selling because in their minds, their businesses are a natural extension of themselves. Every day men and women retire and their businesses close, and that is the way of the world. But if a business has been very successful and has established a brand that is in demand, there is no reason why someone else should not successfully take it over it and compensate the originator for his vision and hard work.

To be well compensated for his energy, however, the business originator must show that he can transfer the knowledge of how to maintain, at at least current standards, the brand he built. If an owner has his Rolodex "in his head," this is of no use to a buyer because he will not be able to make the connections necessary to run the business. If the owner has his eye on every deal or every transaction, if the business depends on him showing up to work every day and motivating his employees, the business cannot run without him, can't make money without him, and, therefore, without him, is essentially worthless. No one will pay money for it because it's throwing gold down a well.

The steps to take, then, according to Friar, would be to:

  • Make sure that the client base is not small and limited to a few very profitable relationships the owner has cultivated himself. A wider array of customers looks like a safer deal to a buyer wary of an owner taking his business relationships with him. 
  • Put the day-to-day management of the business in the hands of a competent manager who is incentivized to stay with the business after it is sold.
  • Strengthen the business's brand. It goes without saying that a strong brand is essential to a good price.
  • Put all policies and procedures in writing so that your employees and any potential buyers know they are in place already and there are no surprises in transition.
Additionally, any seller should put himself into the shoes of a potential buyer and critically examine his own business for value reducing dependencies. Once those have been addressed, a much better deal can be made and the value of his hard work will be better compensated. And who doesn't appreciate generous compensation?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Negative online reviews - don't panic.

The internet has made many more products accessible to a worldwide audience, and with that exposure has released an previously unknown level of vitriol from a certain segment of the population - the perpetually dissatisfied. While it's true that regular people will leave real reviews of negative experiences they've had with a company's products or services in order to help other customers avoid having the same experience, it's also true that there are customers who will never be happy and love to complain.

If you have a fledgling business, or even an established one, it can be upsetting to read negative reviews of your company online. The internet is a public space after all, and criticism is unpleasant. The natural reaction is to become defensive and offer reasons (or - let's be honest - excuses) to a dissatisfied customer - anything to quash the negative and move on. Some businesses, like Amy's Baking Company of Scottsdale, Arizona have taken negative reviews particularly badly and thrown epic tantrums online or threatened to call a lawyer and sue for libel.

But before you panic and go off the deep end, realize that negative reviews aren't always a bad thing. For a well known company with an established brand, yes, negative reviews are something to handle carefully because bad publicity can result in diminished sales, brand tarnishing, or even boycotts. But smaller, more obscure businesses or brands often benefit from bad reviews because they bring their companies to the attention of people who would not have known about them before.

Research done at Wharton assessed the effect that bad reviews had on book sales and discovered that for popular authors bad reviews were a negative, but for "relatively unknown authors, bad reviews caused sales to rise, by an average of 45%. This held even when the criticism was extreme." What's more, over time people would remember the name of the author or book, but forget the negative reason why they remembered it - so negative reviews ironically created positive brand building for these authors over the long term.

The curiosity factor also plays a part. An experience that causes so much emotion in one reader or user is bound to create interest in another.  "Anything but ordinary!" is one consumer motivation.  People will try or buy products that other people dislike too, when they already know their tastes differ, particularly if the review is sufficiently detailed. These people may decide to leave a positive review later if their experiences differ to "set the record straight."

Consider this, then, the next time your business gets a negative review on Yelp or Amazon, and assess your strategy for how to deal with negative reviews accordingly.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to get people to follow your small business on Twitter

Smart small business owners are aware that branding and social media marketing aren't something that only Fortune 500 companies do and are reaching out to their clientele and potential customers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+ and other outlets to let them know about who they are and what they offer.  Social media is about engagement, primarily, not sales, although every business hopes and plans that engagement will in some way convert to sales and profitability.  Here are some tips for engaging and succeeding on Twitter.

  • Be famous - Famous people will have followers, lots and lots of followers, no matter how dull their feeds are, just because people find them or their work interesting. Famous people often follow only other famous people on Twitter, so, from a small business point of view, following them is only useful if you are personally enriched by their Twitter feeds.
  • Be polarizing - People feel that there are a number of truths that cannot be expressed in our society and are irritated by the many rules and double standards of discourse. So when someone tweets these inexpressible things, those people find a nice Twitter niche fast. It's safer to retweet something someone else says "ironically" or "informationally" than it is to go out on a limb and tweet it yourself. "Retweets are not endorsements," after all.  However, Twitter has had a significant amount of vigilantism lately, so polarizing is only something you want to be if your brand is built around it. Say, if you're a comedian, or a politician, or both. Others may tweet anonymously with some safety, but that's not possible for the small business.  Be outlandish or overly political with caution.
  • Be funny - Funny people, famous or not, will gather a following on Twitter because they're rare and humor is appreciated.  
  • Be an expert - People who have in-depth knowledge of some science, art, or practice also get plenty of followers. These people border on being famous without being really famous. Most of the world may not know about them, but if they are the foremost expert in the field of anything, a large number of people worldwide will be interested in reading their thoughts.
  • Know a lot of people in real life - A socially expert, gregarious person can develop a decent Twitter following just by informing the people she knows about her Twitter feed. Put a link to your Twitter account in your Facebook status or on your Pinterest page. If you're a likable person, you can easily get followers this way.
  • Join in a passionate Twitter conversation - the #FF (Follow Friday) hashtag has been used to make connections and advertise interesting Twitter accounts, but this is overused and not very interesting. Does anyone really care if you follow someone else? Only if you're famous or otherwise very unique. However, participating in Twitter conversations can get your followers if you offer something novel, relevant or insightful to the conversation. You'd be surprised by the bump in followers one good conversation (or argument) can bring you.
  • Tweet interesting, real, helpful, original content - Pictures, jokes, fun facts, reportage of interesting events, opinions (cautiously). People are looking to be entertained and informed.  Think of what entertains and informs you and people like you and how you might put that into 140 characters and/or an image - that's good stuff.  
  • Any combination of the above - If you're famous, polarizing and funny, you can tweet pretty much whatever you want and it will get favorited and retweeted ad infinitum. If Jon Stewart were to tweet a picture of his dog's new puppies - well, we'd better hope Twitter has the bandwidth.

What if you aren't famous, polarizing, funny, or a widely recognized expert in your field?  What if your business is, say, an orthodontist in a small city? You're not famous, you're not the foremost expert in orthodontic practice, and being polarizing would only cost you customers, not earn or keep them. Look to the last tips then. See if people you know in real life will connect to you, particularly people in your field.  Converse with them on Twitter. Offer some useful knowledge that you have about tooth structure or managing the expense of braces. Answer questions people have about crooked teeth. Give a few tips and tricks away, and generally show that you know what you're talking about and can solve real problems. Tweet Before & After pictures of your successes. Give your patients and their parents an incentive to connect with you on social media.

Most importantly, regularly update your Twitter feed and answer any questions or solve any problems that your patients address to you on social media.  You want to be seen as involved, responsive, interesting, and three-dimensional. That is the way to get your name out there and to turn Twitter users into patients.  

Twitter - and the rest of social media - may seem like a waste of time, but more people, and especially more young people, are using online methods of experiencing and communicating with the world. You definitely want to be a part of that.

Friday, January 10, 2014

5 Ways to Create a More Sustainable Workspace

Do you know which materials went into producing the desk chair you sit in every day or how energy efficient your office building is? Sustainable interior design has not had as much time in the green spotlight as hybrid or electric cars, but it has a much larger impact on our everyday lives than many are aware of. With the impressive increase of LEED-certified buildings in previous years, architecture and design companies have been making massive strides to ensure interior sustainability, creating healthy and sustainable interior designs for workers to benefit from.
What is sustainable interior design? Green or sustainable interior design focuses on the elimination of harmful environmental elements through thoughtful and skillful design in a room. Sustainable interior designers aim to create rooms that are safe for occupants to establish long-term relationships with their surroundings. Designers are mindful of the health, wellness, and user-efficiency of the room’s occupants. They are aware of how the furniture was manufactured and how they can increase energy efficiency in the design and flow of a room. They strive to ensure the long-term preservation of indoor atmospheres so occupants remain healthy and productive. Five aspects they focus on to make a space greener are:

  • Lighting. There are now many industrial and commercial lighting options that are considerably less energy intensive and meet international standards for environmental impact. LED lighting utilizes Light-Emitting Diodes as the source of light. These diodes emit large amounts of lumens while conserving wattage. Another way of conserving energy is to incorporate as much natural light into a space as possible through the use of windows, skylights, and clear or opaque walls. 
  • Furniture. Many manufacturers use greener methods of production, making the office furniture itself greener. Responsible companies offer their clients the specific details of how their products are produced and delivered. They build from the scrap generated by other industries; some of it is 100% post-industrial recycled content. Designers who care about sustainability check to see that any chairs or desks a business uses are not made from endangered rainforest wood species, but only from sustainably forested wood. Non-wood pieces can be sustainable as well. BioFlex is a chair foam that is made with soybeans grown by American farmers. Leather supplied should be 100% recyclable, and synthetic fabrics are vetted for health consciousness. Metal products should not emit unfriendly waste, as plated chrome does. Stainless steel is better. 
  • Walls. In today’s workspaces, many of these are portable instead of fixed, allowing for more flexibility of design and better use of architecture and light. Movable walls can be made from recycled glass, wood and metal. 
  • Heating and cooling. Much of a building’s energy efficiency is determined by its architecture and systems, but designers with an eye on future costs and comfort will pay attention to window treatments, seasonal ambient temperatures and worker placement within a workspace. 
  • Water. By using low-flow toilets and automatic faucets in an office setting, thousands of gallons of water can be saved. One toilet can consume as much as 7 gallons of water per flush. Multiply this by the number of employees in a large office, and that is a lot of wasted water and money. Improperly designed bathrooms can also be breeding grounds for viruses and bacteria. Designers who monitor employee use can help create continuously healthier spaces. 

Why is sustainable interior design important? Designers who focus on sustainability have advanced knowledge of the furniture and other materials that are incorporated into floor plans as well as employee habits of use. Creating greener workspaces can be a time and paperwork intensive venture, but the rewards will pay out for years to come in health, safety, money, and conservation of our natural resources. These are the offices, classrooms and other rooms that we spend much of our time in - they should not be toxic to our physical and mental health, but should inspire us to work better and more productively.