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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)

Promotional Ideas To Help You Get a Head Start on the Holiday Shopping Season

November 22nd, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

As a small business with a marketing budget that is miniscule compared to huge, global companies, how can you stand out this week, the official beginning of the frenetic holiday shopping season?

People are shopping online before and after Thanksgiving dinner now, and because so many people have access to high speed Internet connections, they’re not waiting til Cyber Monday to hit the keyboard, fill up their shopping cart, and click “check out.”  The focus, therefore, is on this entire week, not just Friday, and on doing something a little different.

It’s not too late to put together a special Thanksgiving Weekend Promotion Plan-or tweak the one you already have in place!  Decide on what you want to promote (see my list below for some ideas that are a little different).  Schedule several messages to go out all weekend long, beginning on Wednesday, at different times each day.

This goes without saying, but be sure to put your promotional messages where your customers will see them, whether it’s on Facebook, in an e-mail, and/or on Twitter.  And don’t forget to update your website’s home page to include your special promotions!

Here are some different promotional ideas beyond the usual discounts and coupons:

  • Promote small items as ideal stocking stuffers.
  • Offer gift certificates, even if you typically don’t, as the ideal gift for the hard-to-buy-for person we all have in our lives.
  • Remind your customers to buy something for themselves when they’re done buying for everyone else!
  • Donate a percentage of all sales made during the holiday shopping season (or just for a specified period) to a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or other worthy charity, whether it’s local or global.
  • Put together a special holiday giveaway, such as a stocking filled with products, for one lucky winner chosen at random from all customers who shop during a specific time period.
  • Bundle products or services in a special holiday package.
  • Offer daily specials.

Image by Flickr user notenoughbricks (Creative Commons)

Is Your Business Suited for Franchising?

November 19th, 2010 :: Rieva_L

By Rieva Lesonsky

Are you looking to grow your business, but don’t necessarily want to open a chain of independent locations? One way to expand without the hands-on effort of additional sites is by franchising your business.

Here’s how franchising works: You license your business idea to franchisees, who pay money to operate franchised locations with training and assistance from you, the franchisor. One benefit of franchising is that franchisees, not you, provide the capital needed to open the new locations. But while franchising can be an excellent growth tool, not every business idea is right for franchising. Here are 5 “must-have” qualities your business idea needs to be franchisable.

  1. Uniqueness. Your idea must have a distinct competitive advantage that will make it attractive to potential franchisees. Figure out what makes your concept unique and whether it has enough appeal to be a desirable investment. Part of what franchisees are paying for is your brand, so be sure your name, logo and trademarks are all in place.
  1. Easy to replicate. If your business relies on your personal touch or personality, it’s not a good candidate for franchising. In the same vein, if it’s incredibly complex or quirky (like a restaurant with 100 customizable menu items), it’s going to be hard to duplicate. You must be able to systematize your operations so the customer receives uniform quality whichever location they visit.
  1. Teachable. The easier your business is to learn, the more it can grow as a franchise. Can you envision teaching someone else the business? Think about how you can simplify operations and how easy the concept is to learn. You’ll need to develop a detailed training manual, not only for franchisees but for their employees, too.
  1. Geographically translatable. Most franchisors seek to expand geographically. Can your concept translate nationwide, or is it dependent on factors that only exist in your local community? For instance, a surf shop doesn’t have a lot of potential to grow in the Midwest; a mobile food cart may have trouble in suburban locations that don’t have foot traffic. Think about how weather will affect your business, too—an outdoor-themed or seasonal concept can work in some areas, but not in others.
  1. Profit margins. Good franchise concepts are high-margin businesses. Franchisees need to make enough money so that they can pay your fees and royalties, and still have profits left over. And franchising isn’t cheap for the franchisor, either; to get started, you’ll have to pay attorneys’ costs, registration fees and fees to develop materials, among other factors. Does your business make enough money to be profitable as a franchise, or are margins slim?

Given the right factors, franchising can be a great growth tool for your business – but before you get started, it’s important to assess the fit.

Photo Courtesy Flickr User Hugo Arcier (Creative Commons)

The Art of Firing a Client

November 19th, 2010 :: Thursday Bram

There are times when you simply can’t continue working with a given client. It’s a fact of business. But there are good ways and bad ways to stop working with a client, just like there are good and bad ways to fire an employee. There’s something of an art to firing a client, with different steps you may want to consider, based on the specific situations.

Leave ‘Em With Good Memories

Whenever possible, you want a client to recall you fondly — to be willing to give a great recommendation if someone asks about you. Good memories are not mutually exclusive with firing a client, as long as you approach the situation correctly.

Often, it’s a matter of framing the end of your time together correctly: if you tell a client that he drives you crazy, he’ll be less enthusiastic about you later on. But if you show that perhaps you’re not the best fit for a client, recommend another company and explain that you’re willing to give up that client’s payments in order to make sure he has the best fit, a past client is likely to think of you more fondly.

Before you suggest that this client really is driving you crazy, think of things this way: Even for crazy clients, there are people who enjoy working with them. There are professionals that thrive on clients who are constantly changing and similar situations. You may even be able to think of someone that you’re nominally competing with who would be glad of the business. Refer your soon-to-be-ex client over, and everyone wins. In many cases, clients will even be willing to end a contract early if you handle the situation gracefully.

Get What You’ve Got Coming to You

Unfortunately, you may have a client you no longer want to work with who makes it hard for you to refer them elsewhere and focus on landing new business. More often than note, these are clients that owe you money. If there’s an unpaid invoice on the books, you don’t necessarily want to cut the client loose until you’ve gotten paid.

Starting out slow is generally a good idea when handling collections — polite letters requesting payment and so on. If the situation escalates, your client will probably realize that you won’t be doing any business together in the future. You may be surprised, though: I’ve had to start collections proceedings against a client who then came back excited to start work on a new project.

There are situations when firing a client gracefully can’t be a priority. If there is truly a problem, such as missing payments, that has to take priority over ensuring that a past client will have good things to say about you. There is value in being known as a business owner who doesn’t let clients take advantage of her, as well as a nice person.

Image by Flickr User Lara604 (Creative Commons)

From the GrowSmartBiz Conference: Proven Strategies to Convert Web Visitors into Customers

November 17th, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

One of my favorite sessions at the GrowSmartBiz Conference on November 5 was a Technology Track panel discussion that offered valuable, no-nonsense ways to convert Web visitors into customers.  Thanks to Jennifer Shaheen, President of the Technology Therapy Group, Melinda Emerson, the Small Biz Lady, and Walt Rivenbank, VP of the Mobility Applications Consulting group at AT&T for such great information!

Their strategies are fairly easy to implement, but they will require some time.  Here’s what to do:

1. Check Google Analytics to find out whether your Web visitors are staying.

If you don’t have an account yet, get sign up for one today (it’s free, natch).  One of the things Google Analytics looks at is your website’s bounce rate.  If people are visiting your website but not staying long and not moving from one page to the next, it’s not good.  It means you are probably not supplying them with the information they are looking for and you are definitely not converting them into leads, let alone customers.   It also means you need to update your website.

2. Have a clear call-to-action (CTA).

Update your website by offering a consultation, white paper, how-to guide—anything that is both educational and valuable.  As Melinda Emerson, the Small Biz Lady, said, “Give away your best stuff.”  But you’re not giving away anything for free!  Before they get that free consultation or white paper, ask them for their name and e-mail address.  Your web designer/programmer can help you set this up.

3. Be sure your CTA is easy to find.

Don’t hide your CTAs!  Add them to every page in the form of a big button that is hard to miss (it need not be a garish eyesore, just prominent).  If you have a shopping cart, make it a really big button that is easy to click on.

4. You have 7 seconds to convince your Web visitors to stay.

Your website is your home base and most visible online presence.  Because you only have 7 seconds to grab the attention of your Web visitors, your home page must be especially well-written.  As you are writing—or re-writing—your website content, also keep in mind that your website is not a book—people do not read it from beginning to end.

5. No handouts.

When you give a presentation or workshop, do not hand out information that elaborates on your topic.  Instead, ask attendees to visit you online at your website, Facebook page, or Twitter account to receive some great information that they will find useful (really sell it!).  You can, however, give them a one-sheet (a one-page brochure) that acts as a CTA.  It should only include some information to pique their interest.  Your goal is to get them onto your website or connected to you via social media so you can continue to engage with them and convert them into customers.

Photo Courtesy Shashi Bellamkonda

Food for Thought: 15 Restaurant Predictions for 2011

November 10th, 2010 :: Karen Axelton

By Rieva Lesonsky

Do you own a restaurant, catering business, food boutique or other food business? Then you’ll want to know about 15 hot food trends for 2011 as predicted by restaurant consultancy Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co. Inc.

While the report, Food  And Dining Trends in  Restaurants  and  Hotels   for 2011, focuses on restaurants and hotels, the information is valuable for any food industry business. I won’t reveal all 15 trends here, but here’s some of the good news—and bad news—the report found.

Good news: Upscale restaurants will see business customers return as the financial sector recovers and its employees have more money to spend on meals and entertainment.

Bad news: Non-food retail competition continues. With food now being sold everywhere from drugstores to department stores to food trucks, traditional restaurants have to keep an eye on competitors in unexpected places.

Good news: Cheap to make and profitable to sell at all price points, sandwiches will continue to make news. Whether inspired by Mexican, Cuban, Vietnamese or French concoctions, creative sandwiches can offer consumers the irresistible combination of a comfort-food format packed with adventurous ingredients.

Bad news: Restaurants that are too focused on cutting costs will suffer if they make customers feel “unwelcome.” Consumers who have money to spend on dining out have many options—so tactics such as not taking reservations, not-so-subtly discouraging diners from lingering, or charging outrageous prices for alcohol will backfire on some restaurant operators.

What’s in: Korean food, which has been brought to the foreground by trendy taco trucks, will continue to grow in popularity. No longer just for Korean restaurants, Korean specialties will be interpreted at all types of restaurants, from fast food to white tablecloth.

What’s out: Artisanal hotdogs, gourmet burgers, bacon everything and cupcakes are a few of the trends the report deems yesterday’s leftovers. And while I’m not a food expert, I’m not sure I’d bet against cupcakes. They’ve been declared dead before, and Americans are still gobbling them up.

Read Food  And Dining Trends in  Restaurants  and  Hotels   for 2011 to get the full scoop.

Image by Flickr user Dan Perry (Creative Commons)

How to Build an Awesome Team

November 3rd, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

Though The Five Dysfunctions of a Team was written for people working and leading teams within a large organization, the advice in this book is perfect for those of us who are building teams at our small businesses as we grow into larger businesses.

The author of the book, Patrick Lencioni, has learned that genuine teamwork is elusive because many organizations fall victim to five natural, but ultimately dangerous, pitfalls or dysfunctions.  Instead of getting into those, I’m going to instead share Pat’s list of how members of a functional team behave:

  1. They trust one another.
  2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  3. They commit to decisions and plans of action.
  4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

Trust

Pat defines trust as the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good.  If there is full trust among all team members, they will focus their energy and attention on their jobs (rather than political maneuvering).

As you build your company, you can encourage trust by demonstrating vulnerability first and creating an environment that doesn’t punish vulnerability.

Conflict

Ideological conflict, or conflict that is limited to concepts and ideas, results in the best possible solution in the shortest period of time.  It’s OK if that conflict is passionate, emotional and even frustrating.

As you build your company, let your team engage in conflict and allow them to resolve the conflict naturally.  You should also continually set an example of appropriate conflict behavior.

Commitment

Commitment refers to both buy-in and clarity around direction and priorities.  A team that is committed to a decision understands the priorities, embraces common objectives, and takes advantage of opportunities before competitors do.

As you build your company, be comfortable with the idea that the decision could be a wrong one.  Push your team for closure around issues, and make sure the team sticks to its schedule.

Accountability

A functional team is not afraid to point out performance or behaviors of other team members that might hurt the team.  When team members hold each other accountable, they demonstrate respect and high expectations for each other’s work.

As you build your company, encourage your team members to build accountability among themselves, rather than you imposing it on them.

Results

Results are really about outcome-based performance, which drives profits.  To perform well and achieve great results, your team needs to be focused on specific objectives and clearly defined outcomes.

As you build your company, set the tone for results.  Be selfless, objective, and reward and recognize only those team members who make real contributions to the achievement of the team’s goal.

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

How to Manage Twitter When You Have a Zillion Followers

October 28th, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

By Monika Jansen

Every time I get a new Twitter follower, I look to see how many people they follow and how many people follow them (I’m at twitter.com/monikacjansen—feel free to look me up).  When I see numbers in the tens of thousands, I think, how the heck do they manage all those followers?

I did some research and found the answer.  Three answers, actually:

  1. Good tools
  2. Selective communication
  3. Regular housecleaning

1. Good Tools

An online application or platform that helps you manage your social networks is absolutely essential, because it will organize your Twitter feed for you.  I thought everyone used one, but based on what I read, that is definitely not the case! I happen to use Hootsuite, which I really like.  Every morning, I log in to check Twitter and Facebook.  My direct messages (DMs) and mentions (@s) on Twitter are aggregated in their own columns, so I look there first.  I’ll briefly skim what other people are posting, too, but I only visit Twitter briefly and once a day since I also have to work.

Two other popular tools that can help you manage Twitter are Seesmic and Tweetdeck.   It doesn’t matter what you use, just use something!

2. Selective Communication

I do not strike up a conversation with everyone who follows me.  I use Twitter to share information on B2B, social media, and small business marketing, not to make friends.  The first thing I do every morning is check my personal and professional e-mail.  Then I spend around 10-15 minutes checking Twitter and Facebook.  I reply to most DMs and mentions, which doesn’t take long, and look for new people to follow.

3. Regular Housecleaning

Because quality, not quantity, of Twitter followers is important, it’s a good idea to regularly clean your Twitter house.  Friend or Follow creates three lists for you: who is not following you back, who you are not following back, and who your mutual friends are.  Simply plug in your Twitter user name, and the first thing that pops up is a list of people who are not following you back.  (I was shocked by who was not following me!  But then I realized most of them are not active on Twitter.)

Use Who Follows Whom to find more people whom the power users in your circle follow.  It is a really great way to increase the quality of your followers.  You can type in up to five names.

Image by Flickr user yushimoto_02 (Creative Commons)

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?