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6 Things Small Businesses Should Be Thankful for This Thanksgiving

November 25th, 2010 :: Rieva_L

By Rieva Lesonsky

It’s Thanksgiving Day and traditionally time for giving thanks. As busy as small business owners are, I hope you have time to stop and think about what you’re thankful for this year.

While the pundits and experts will tell us the recession ended back in 2009, 2010 was still a tough year for most entrepreneurs. If you are having trouble finding things to feel thankful for, here are some ideas:

  1. Be thankful you’ve made it through. Though it may not feel like the recession is over, I think most of us would agree that things are (finally) looking up and that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer—and brighter. If your business has survived the past two years, you’ve got something to be proud of.
  2. Be thankful for your employees. No business can survive without its employees—especially in the past few years. If your employees are like most, they’ve risen to the occasion, pulled together and done everything they can to help sustain your business in tough times.
  3. Be thankful for your customers. Customers have more options than ever in this constantly connected world. It’s easy for them to seek out new solutions when you’re no longer meeting their needs. Don’t ever take them for granted.
  4. Be thankful for the Internet. Innovations like cloud computing, social media, myriad free online tools to help start and grow businesses, and the rise of virtual employees and remote workers—all powered by the Internet-have helped small businesses do more with less.
  5. Be thankful for your support system. Whether it’s your family, your friends, your colleagues or some combination of all three, no small business owner can go it alone. Today, more than ever, we’re relying on each other for moral support, ideas and encouragement.
  6. Be thankful for the lessons you’ve learned. You don’t make it through an economic landscape like today’s without being smart and savvy. Tough times teach us things, and the lessons we’ve learned in the past few years will help us run better, smarter, more profitable businesses in any economy.

Got gratitude? Great—now, show the people you’re grateful for just how much you appreciate them. I know I’m grateful for you readers and everything you do for your communities and the nation. Enjoy your holiday!

Image by Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography (Creative Commons)

Founder at Work: Joel Spolsky, Cofounder of Fog Creek Software

November 1st, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

In this month’s “Founder at Work” installment (based on the interviews in Jessica Livingston’s book Founders at Work), I decided to write about one of my favorite past columnists at Inc. Magazine, Joel Spolsky.  Ignore the fact that he’s a programmer, because this guy can write. As a small business owner, you have got to love him when you learn that he and his friend Michael Pryor founded Fog Creek Software in 2000 without a product in mind.  They just wanted to create a company where they’d like to work.  That simple premise has kept them profitable and privately held for 10 years.  (In case you’re curious, Fog Creek helps developers make better software.)

What you can learn from Joel Spolsky, Cofounder of Fog Creek Software:

Your blog can generate clients and fuel your business. Fog Creek started out as a software consultancy, and their first clients came on board via Joel’s blog, Joel on Software, which he still publishes.  After 2 months of writing the blog and building an audience, Fog Creek was launched.  Their first 3 clients all read—and were fans of—the blog and contacted Fog Creek rather than vice versa.

Maybe your Plan B should be your Plan A. When consulting totally dried up in November 2000—2 months after Fog Creek was founded—they decided to package and sell an internal bug-tracking application called FogBugz.  It immediately took off and remains the company’s core product.

Create a great company culture and you won’t have to worry about hiring and retaining awesome employees. Since I am not a programmer, I did not know this, but though programmers are paid well, they are usually treated like crap and are typically lined up desk-to-desk in a huge room like a bunch of sardines.  Fog Creek’s programmers have private offices with comfy Aeron chairs and doors that close.  Programmers report to other programmers, and they get 4 weeks of vacation plus 1 week of holidays.

Don’t fake it. Because both Joel and Michael are programmers, they knew nothing about sales and marketing. To get around that little problem, they came up with all sorts of marketing ideas that didn’t always work, and they ended up wasting valuable time and effort.  What they should have been doing, they later realized, was improving their products.

Your customers are smarter than you are. If you want to grow your business and increase your sales, just talk to your customers and find out what they need and what would make them buy more of your product or service.  Ask customers who walked away before buying why they went to the competition. And ignore the competition.

Photo Courtesy of Joel Spolsky

Book Review: The Power of Pull

October 27th, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

As I read through The Power of Pull, I realized something: This is written for people who work for or lead medium-sized to large companies, because we small business owners and entrepreneurs already know everything in this book.  As fabulous as it is—it is very well written and has some awesome endorsements from Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Eric Schmidt, among other big names—you don’t need to read it.

In the book, authors John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison argue that we’re moving from a push world to a pull world.  In marketing, we talk about push and pull often.  In the old days, companies pushed messages out to a huge audience, some of whom were in their target market, some of whom were not.  You just hoped your potential customers were getting it.  Now, companies pull in their target market to their messages via social media, blogs, and interactive online experiences, like games.

So, we’ve been living in a push world, where needs are forecast, efficient systems are designed, and scripted and standardized processes are de rigueur.  (Think the public school system.)  The pull world, on the other hand, in the one small business owners and entrepreneurs live in: It is flexible, changes quickly, and uses digital technology to turn challenges into opportunities.

An entire section of the book, in fact, could have been titled “Why You Need to Network.”  Instead, it was devoted to three definitions of pull:

  1. Pull helps us find and access people and resources when we need them. We use platforms like social networking and search engines to significantly increase our access.
  2. Pull is the ability to attract people and resources to you that are relevant and valuable, even if you’re not looking for them.  This is more about serendipity than search: Simply increase the number of encounters you have (more networking!) and then set up meetings with the people you could potentially partner or work with.
  3. Pull is tapping into our ability to achieve our potential and grabbing onto new opportunities, partnerships, and collaborations that emerge.

As I said, we small business owners and entrepreneurs are already doing all of the above.  But here’s something to keep in mind.  There are three factors that feed into the power of pull: trajectory, leverage, and pace.  In other words, we need to know where we’re going (have your business and marketing strategy in place!), be able to connect with others when needed (be an active player within your network, and for Pete’s sake, keep networking!), and move as quickly as the change that’s happening around us (social media and technology, anyone?).

P.S.—Eric Schmidt, mentioned in the first paragraph, is the Chairman and CEO of Google.  But you knew that, right?

For Business Success, Go Back to School

October 15th, 2010 :: Rieva_L

By Karen Axelton

What can going back to school teach you about running a better business? Plenty. And it doesn’t have to mean dropping everything to enroll full-time. Here’s a quick look at the many options available.

Entrepreneurship education. More and more colleges these days (over 700 nationwide) offer degrees in entrepreneurship. And recognizing how busy real business owners are, many of them have classes at nights and on weekends. If you don’t want to take a full course of classes, you can brush up on subjects like accounting, or using business software such as Excel, by taking classes at community colleges or through adult education programs.

Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs). A partnership between the government, private sponsors and educational institutions, SBDCs are one-stop centers where business owners can get free counseling and assistance to improve their businesses. SBDC Business Advisors—in many cases, current or former entrepreneurs themselves—work with you to pinpoint problems and opportunities in your business and coach you through to reach your goals. Visit the SBA’s online SBDC locator to find an SBDC in your area.

Help going global. Global business is a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs. If you’re currently doing business internationally—or just considering it—contact colleges or universities near you to see if they have an exporting education center. Exporting centers provide training and education for entrepreneurs who are interested in or currently exporting.

Class project. Many colleges’ entrepreneurship programs or business schools have students work on real-life projects with local businesses as part of their education. You could get business students to assess your marketing strategy, or find a graphic design student to create a new brand image for your website. Talk to nearby schools to see what options exist.

Ask the professor. Students aren’t the only ones at colleges that you can enlist to help you. Often, business professors do consulting on the side—and their prices may be lower than other consultants, especially if they combine the work with using your business as a class project. Many professors are former or current business owners, as well, so they’re not just offering advice from the ivory tower.

Image by Flickr user Michael Oh (Creative Commons)

Founder at Work: Mike Ramsay, Co-founder of TiVo

October 13th, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

In the newest installment of my monthly “Founder at Work” series, I turn the spotlight on Mike Ramsay, co-founder of TiVo, which was launched way back in 1999.  As Jessica Livingston says in her book Founders at Work, TiVo, like Google, has become such an integral part of our lives that its name is now a verb.  The digital video recorder (DVR) has revolutionized the way we watch TV, and unlike VCRs, it is actually easy to use (no more blinking 12:00).

Here’s what we can learn from Mike Ramsay, who founded TiVo in 1997 with Jim Barton.

If it’s boring, make it fun. Mike, who is originally from Scotland, was very inspired by the confident, can-do attitude in the US, especially in Silicon Valley.  Even though he’s an engineer by training, he has the creative mind of an entrepreneur.  He wanted to do something with computers in the entertainment space, because most computer applications can be really boring.  At the time, he was working at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) and spending a lot of time with movie people.  His one-time colleague at Hewlett-Packard, Jim Barton, was working on a video-on-demand system for SGI, but they knew they could do something better together.  After numerous lunch meetings, they decided to launch a company that made an easy-to-use, interactive television system for consumers.

Focus your business. TiVo was originally a “home server network thing” loaded with applications.  Mike and Jim quickly realized this was way too complicated and would be a hard sell for the average consumer.  Because it had so many apps, they decided to focus on the one killer app that consumers would go for.  They thought the DVR idea was the best.

Create a playground atmosphere at work. Mike was very worried about attracting a great team of engineers to design the best DVR possible.  The best and brightest look for a challenge—they want a playground that gives them the freedom to play around and figure out a solution.  The DVR required a user-friendly interface, it had to be controlled by remote, and the very complex technology behind it was totally new—it had to simultaneously record and playback and be easy to program and use.  Because it was a consumer product, it couldn’t be outrageously expensive, but it had to work perfectly.  The challenges were big enough that within 6 months, they had assembled a brilliant team of engineers.

Don’t underestimate the competition…to make mistakes. Back in the early days, TiVo had one competitor, Replay, which launched a DVR right after TiVo.  The competition between the two companies was fierce, but eventually Replay did TiVo a big favor.  They introduced automatic commercial skipping and they let you share programs over the Internet.  The media companies went ballistic and sued Replay.  TiVo suddenly looked like the good guy in the DVR market, and media companies from Disney to Viacom put money into the company.  Mike said he still doesn’t understand why they did so, but he acknowledged that TiVo is now a media company rather than a consumer product company.

The 4 Hour Workweek

October 5th, 2010 :: Monika Jansen
The 4 Hour Workweek book cover

From Amazon.com

I don’t know about you, but the thought of working less and playing more is very appealing.  Even though I have my own business, I am most definitely not a workaholic.  In fact, I would always rather be on vacation.  During a recent week-long vacation, I ignored email (both personal and professional)—and it was awesome.  Everyone with whom I was working on a project knew I would be unreachable for an entire work week, and no one bothered me.  Projects are still on schedule, and the Earth is still rotating.

So it was with great interest that I read The 4-Hour Workweek on the plane ride home from vacation.  It was written a few years ago by the then-30 year old entrepreneur, Timothy Ferriss.  This is book is not an Anthony Robbins-type, become-a-millionaire-and-everything-will-be-great book.  Tim actually has his own business manufacturing and selling nutritional supplements. He figured out a way to legitimately game the system so he could still earn money but spend his time pursuing interests outside of work.  And he wrote a book about it, which shot to the top of both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers lists.

His main argument for reducing your work load centers on the idea of regularly taking mini-retirements.  It’s a much better plan, he argues, than what we’re expected to do (and what everyone else does): work like a dog during the prime of our lives, take a short vacation once a year, and retire before we drop dead—at which point we can (hopefully) enjoy life and the fruits of our labor.  Tim refers to this as the deferred-life plan, and I wholeheartedly agree that’s a stupid plan.

In the book, he outlines exactly what to do to gain time and mobility, as they are the keys to living like the New Rich.

  1. D is for Defintion.  This section introduces the rules and objectives of the new game—lifestyle design.  Tim assigns some homework to get you motivated.  He asks you to write down and confront and what is stopping you from doing what you need to do to be happier: quitting your job, expanding your business, etc.  He also asks you to write down your dreams and calculate how much they will cost to achieve.
  2. E is for Elimination.  Time management is turned on its head in this section, which is based on “Pareto’s Law” that states 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs.  By using selective ignorance, consuming less information, and ignoring the unimportant, Tim argues that you can do your work in very little time—and thus gain lots of time.  He gives you ideas on how to effectively use your time, some of which I have already implemented myself (yes, they work).
  3. A is for Automation.  Because work still needs to get done so you can get paid and fund your lifestyle, Tim explains how arbitrage, outsourcing, and not making decisions can put your “cash flow on autopilot,” a term I love, and thus ensure you a steady income.  I’ve already started outsourcing more work to my intern to free up some of my time.
  4. L is for Liberation.  The final section of the book focuses on mobility, mini-retirements, controlling your business from a distance, and escaping the boss.  Because of the nature of my work, I can already work anywhere. Until I conquer my fears, expand my business, and hire employees, though, working 4 hour days and taking mini-retirements will have to wait.

I highly recommend the book.  If you’ve read it, I’d love to know if you have made significant changes and altered your life for the better?  If not, what is holding you back?

Who Are You? Give Us A Few Minutes to Learn More About You

September 23rd, 2010 :: Steven Fisher

Give us a few minutes to learn more about you by taking this quick survey:

http://www.communityinvitations.com/html.pro?ID=682&said=NWS493SP&csid=ABC&pcid=NS

Network Solutions Social Media Team wants to learn more about you. More about you, our faithful readers who utilize social media in regards to Network Solutions. What we hope to learn is:

  • What tools you use for social media.
  • How you use social media tools to interact with Network Solutions.
  • How you as a small business use social media.

This will help us provide you with a better experience as we go forward.

The survey can be found at the following link:

http://www.communityinvitations.com/html.pro?ID=682&said=NWS493SP&csid=ABC&pcid=NS

Please help us spread the word via Twitter and Facebook with these quick 140 character friendly sentences:

Take the Social Media Audience Survey from Network Solutions! http://bit.ly/cCND5q

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Turning Around the Small Business Workforce

September 23rd, 2010 :: Thursday Bram

The past few years have been tough on small business owners working to build the workforces necessary to growing a company. Rising costs of employment, paired with a down economy, have simply reduced the resources most business owners have available to invest in a workforce. In the most recent Small Business Success Index, many small business owners pointed to less success in training and developing employees — 58 percent consider themselves highly successful, down from 65 percent a year ago.

Creating the right team is crucial to a small business and has long made small businesses competitive as employers: employees at smaller companies tend to get more opportunities for development, more responsibilities and even more opportunities to increase their own income. But many small business owners report struggling with workforce issues right now.

Making the Most of an Improving Economy

Most small businesses are seeing their financial situation improving. That means an end to at least some cost-saving measures and perhaps an increase in hiring. It’s time to take a look at how you can improve your existing team and where you need to consider hiring more help. Your employees are about to have a lot more options in terms of employers and you’ve got to make sure that they have reasons to stick with you.

Just as one of the best strategies to manage your workforce during economic downturns is to talk to your employees and make sure that they’re kept up to date on what’s going on, it’s good practice to talk to them during good times as well. If you’re thinking about how you can improve things for your team — as well as how to develop them into a better workforce — check in with them and see if there’s any requests on the table. You may be surprised: an employee may be more interested in increased responsibilities or help furthering his education than a bigger benefits package. There are plenty of ways to help both you and your employees move forward and they may have some suggestions in that direction.

Avoiding Workforce Problems

If you feel that your business may be one of those that isn’t having as much success as in years past, it may be particularly crucial to look for solutions. For the past few years, most employees have been reluctant to try to leave their current employers — after all, there was no guarantee that they could easily find a new job. There are still elements of a jobless recovery right now, but the overall economic situation is headed in a direction where many employees will feel better able to replace an unsatisfactory job.

As a small business owner, it is necessary to make sure that trained, valuable employees have little incentive to start job hunting. The shape your efforts will take depend on your industry, as well as the needs and expectations of your employees.

Image by Flickr user Bill Jacobus

Turning to a Global Workforce Creates More Small Business Opportunities

September 21st, 2010 :: Thursday Bram

At the end of the day, your workforce decides whether your business succeeds. You need good people at a price that leaves room for a return in your business. But the cost of hiring keeps going up, making it difficult to bring in the people that will really make a difference as your business grows. One option may be to consider a more global workforce.

In every business, there are plenty of tasks that don’t need to be done in your office. The number of tasks that can be handled off site keeps growing, as well: if you’ve got a few key pieces of technology, anything from bookkeeping to marketing can be done away from your office. That opens up the possibility of working with a remote team. Just who is on your team can also vary: it’s no almost as easy to hire a virtual worker in the Philippines or in India as it is to hire an employee who lives down the street from you.

Changing the Cost Question

There is one key factor when it comes to working with a global workforce, rather than a local one: cost. The monthly income for most jobs in the Philippines is under $500 (U.S. dollars) — an engineer might expect to earn a little over $400 while a receptionist would be closer to $150. There are other reasons that your overall costs would be less when working with a distributed team: you wouldn’t need to pay for office space for those team members located outside of your geographic area. It may take some investment in terms of hardware or software to make sure that your team can work well, but internet access and even computer ownership is becoming fairly common in most countries (at least in the bigger cities). A global workforce presents an opportunity for most businesses.

Considering Your Own Business

It can take some careful consideration to determine just what jobs in your company don’t need to be done in the office. There are also personal considerations: you may simply have a preference to have your bookkeeping done locally or something similar (although you might consider the opportunities available by choosing a bookkeeper who is local but also doesn’t come into the office. You may need to check out what tools and technologies are available for your industry — many fields now have specialized tools to make telecommuting and distributed workforces easier to manage.

In the most recent Small Business Success Index, many business owners reported less successes in training and developing employees, although there were moderate successes in improving employee productivity and rewarding employees. Turning to a global workforce can create more opportunities for small businesses to expand workforces and create better working environments, if only because of the relative costs involved in looking for new employees outside of the country.

SBSI: Small Businesses Love Social Media

September 15th, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

While reading through the latest Small Business Success Index report, I have to say I was surprised at the heavy emphasis on, and analysis of, small businesses and their love of social media.  Though we all know what I think of social media, I am happy to see small businesses embracing it because it is one more way for us to level the playing field with bigger companies.  If we keep our websites up-to-date and put thought and effort into our marketing, customers have no idea if we’re a one-man show or a small firm, whether we work out of our home office barefoot or have a gorgeous office suite in a green building.

Despite the emphasis on social media, I honestly thought more small business owners would be using social media. 20% (out of 500 small business owners) isn’t a lot, though 14% of those surveyed said they plan on joining the social media bandwagon over the next 2 years (also not a lot).  (Of those who use social media, most use FaceBook (82%), followed by LinkedIn (38%) and Twitter (30%).)

In just 6 months since the last SBSI report, small business owners shifted the role that social media plays in their marketing efforts:

…Expectations of what social media can do for their business has changed in the past six months, as now more small businesses expect social media to build awareness of their organization (77%) rather than attract leads (71%), a reverse of six months ago.

Small business owners are also using social media to stay in touch with current customers.  Both are smart moves.  To consistently identify and nurture leads requires so much time and energy that you need to have an employee dedicated to social media at least part-time.  Don’t forget that you already spent time and energy to attract your current customers.  Focus more of your time and energy on them, especially the ones that spend the most money and that you genuinely like.

Using social media to build awareness is smart for another reason.  Building awareness is a critical component of marketing—you have to market your business to find new customers.  I think if small businesses continue to focus on awareness, they will organically attract leads and   customers will start coming to them rather than the other way around.

There is one caveat to using social media, though: it requires and rewards creativity.  If you’re having trouble thinking of creative ways to market your business, you are probably not one of the 20% using social media right now.  Here’s what you need to do: start finding companies to follow (on Facebook) that aren’t necessarily in your industry.  Veuve Clicquot, Mashable, JCrew, and Vogue all do a great job, in my opinion, of posting a variety of content: photos, videos, questions, contests, news, etc.  Learn from others.  Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

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