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.