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Small Business Success Index 4

Index Score*   Grade
73 marginal
Capital Access 67
Marketing & Innovation 65
Workforce 76
Customer Service 88
Computer Technology 73
Compliance 92
*Index score is calculated on a 1-100 scale.

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Small Biz Resource Tip: Rescue Time

November 22nd, 2010 :: mhaubrich

Rescue Time

Are you worried about what your employees are really doing during work hours? They look busy, but unless you look over their shoulder all day, they could be checking the latest fantasy sports stats, for all you know. Enter in Rescue Time. By installing an application on your employees’ computers, you can track what sites are being viewed and for how long. You can also customize the information you receive and not track certain sites you know are work-related. If this all sounds a bit “Big Brother” the site explains that when you let employees know from the beginning you have this application in place, it simply boosts accountability.

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

Small Biz Resource Tip: Major Geeks

November 5th, 2010 :: mhaubrich

Although it sounds like a website for tech geeks to trade industry secrets and talk in their secret language, has something for the rest of us tech dummies who need a little tech support, software advice and possibly a solution for a pesky virus invading your system. Tools are available for both the novice and advanced computer user, and the “hosts” try to make the language and interface as user friendly as possible. Most helpful are the free downloads that do everything from solve a performance issue to multimedia to networking. And Mac users, you can be happy, Majorgeeks has not left you out this time.

Retailers Plan to Expand Mobile Commerce

October 26th, 2010 :: Karen Axelton

By Karen Axelton

While only 8.8 percent of retailers currently have a mobile commerce site, 75.9 percent expect to launch one, reports a survey by Internet Retailer conducted in August. Of those who plan to create an m-commerce site, 31.9 percent expect to have it up and running in the next six months and 52.6 percent in under one year.

There’s good reason retailers are moving so quickly: According to the report, mobile commerce could generate sales of $23.4 billion in the U.S. by 2015, up an astounding 875 percent from an estimated $2.4 billion in 2010.

“If online retailers haven’t developed a sense of urgency about mobile commerce yet, they need to,” says Mark Beccue, a senior analyst with Allied Business Intelligence Inc.

Sucharita Mulpuru, a vice president and principal retail research analyst with Forrester Research Inc., agrees. “The age of mobile commerce we are in now is akin to the business-to-consumer e-commerce market of 1997,” she says. “These are still the ‘Wild West’ days of mobile commerce and there’s plenty of room for experimentation.”

Building an m-commerce site doesn’t have to cost a lot, according to the report. Only 25.8 percent of those surveyed have an annual mobile commerce budget of more than $200,000. The majority (61.3 percent) expect to spend $50,000 or less building their site.

The research cites one expert’s estimate that if your business already has an e-commerce site, a version optimized for smartphones and the iPad can be launched in 30 days for about $20,000 to $30,000; a mobile app for iPhones takes about 60 days and costs $50,000 to $150,000.

For those who already have an m-commerce site, sales are also modest. Some 64 percent of merchants have annual mobile retail sales of $250,000 or less; of those, 50 percent report sales under $50,000. But 5.9 percenthave annual mobile sales of over $10 million—and as the number of consumers using smartphones to shop grows, so will mobile sales.

Why are retailers planning to add mobile commerce? Their goals include:

  • 39.1 percent of companies want to attract more visitors and generate more sales.
  • 13.5 percent want to increase sales conversions
  • 12.8 percent want to improve marketing and merchandising
  • 12.2 percent want to increase multichannel sales
  • 10.1 percent want to improve customer service

The key to success in developing an m-commerce site? Take time to assess how your customers want to shop. What devices do they use? What are they looking for? What are their key issues?

Says Mulpuru, “Whoever winds up being the next Amazon of mobile retailing will do so because they developed a strategy that’s based on a clear understanding of how their mobile phone shoppers want to interact with [their] brand.”

How Much Internet Access Should Your Employees Have?

October 19th, 2010 :: Rieva_L

By Maria Valdez Haubrich

As a small business owner, you’re probably struggling with the following dilemma in your workplace: Your employees expect to be able to surf the Net, update their Facebook status and shop online during the workday. For many of your employees, some of those things might even be part of their jobs. But when employees spend too much time on personal business online, it can put your business at risk. How—and where—do you draw the line?

Here’s a closer look at the issues you may be concerned about and how to deal with each one.

Time-wasting: A little bit of online goof-off time is to be expected these days and, if it’s used as a quick work break, has been shown to actually boost productivity. But if employees are spending too much time Facebooking, watching cat videos on YouTube or checking sports scores, you might need to step in. Start by having a conversation with the person in question. Usually, just being alerted that you’re aware of the person’s habits can snap them into shape. If the problem is widespread, let employees know that you expect them to use good judgment in using their time, but that excessive use of the Internet for personal reasons can lead to discipline. Nobody wants to be the one person who ruins it for the whole group.

Viruses or security issues: It’s easy to accidentally download malware or click on a link that gives your computer a virus. Work with your IT department or consultant to create a policy that makes sense for your business. Specify what types of e-mails, links or attachments your employees should or shouldn’t open; what types of sites they should not visit, if any; what types of warning signs or messages to watch out for; and what to do if they think they have a virus. It’s important to catch problems before they spread to your entire staff or network.

Image control: Employees need to be aware that websites typically capture their visitors’ addresses. That means if your employees are visiting questionable sites, it could reflect poorly on your business. Let employees know that anything they do online can reflect on your company—whether that’s commenting in a blog, posting incriminating photos or spreading confidential information about your company’s plans.

Get tough: If you need to, you can install software that monitors, logs and records every keystroke employees make on their computers. This enables you to track their emails and the websites they visit. Often, just letting your staff know that you have this technology in place is enough to keep them on the straight and narrow without your ever having to actually use it.

As with every employee-related issue, the best policy is being clear and straightforward. Let your staff know what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.

7 New Startups That Could Affect Your Marketing Strategy

October 14th, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

I don’t think any of us could have predicted how integral Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Digg or other social media sites would be for a company’s marketing strategy.  As a former employee of a high-tech startup, I’m always in awe of the creativity that forward-thinking young entrepreneurs pour into new ventures.  And because I’m a small business owner, I’m always interested in learning about new companies that could affect how I market my business.

A great way to keep up with everything is through TechCrunch.  Last month, they hosted their second TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.  At the conference, 25 startups (out of nearly 1,000 applicants) were given the opportunity to pitch ideas and applications. TechCrunch started out as a blog in 2005 and has grown quickly to become a leading technology media property.  They profile startups, review new Internet products, and break tech news.  And they do a great job at it—TechCrunch reaches over 10 million unique visitors and draws more than 33 million page views per month.

Here’s a rundown on 7 startups that appeared at the conference that could affect small business’ marketing strategies:

Badgeville: They make it easy for web publishers, media sites, communities, marketers, and brands to increase user loyalty and engagement. The Badgeville Platform rips a page from game play to create highly engaging web experiences that achieve specific business goals and measure and optimize user engagement.

Gifi: Gifi combines the Venmo and Foursquare APIs into a fun, location based game involving real money. By hiding money for one of your friends to claim at a new restaurant, for example, recommending a favorite dish becomes a social game. Gifi provides local merchants a dead simple way for restaurants to deliver rewards to frequent/valued customers. Every time a customer redeems a reward, the merchant gets valuable exposure in the social activity feeds of their customers’ friends.

Gripe: Gripe is a free location-aware mobile app that uses the power of word-of-mouth to share complaints or cheers about any business or service provider.  Like Yelp, this could become a tool for businesses small and large.

OneTrueFan: OneTrueFan is a browser add-on that enables users to see who else has viewed and shared the pages they read on websites. Users earn points for engagement (visiting regularly, reading new content, sharing links and driving traffic) and can compete to be the biggest fan of a site. It enables companies to develop deeper engagement with regular readers, encouraging them to visit and share content even more often.

Storify: I see a lot of marketing potential with this company.  They allow you to turn what people post on social media into compelling stories. You collect the best photos, video, Tweets and more to publish them as simple, beautiful stories that can be embedded anywhere. Use it for conferences, in-store events, new product launches, etc.

Sumazi: Named as the “startup most likely to change the world” at TechCrunch Disrupt, Sumazi is an intelligent connection engine and network for professionals that introduces you to the people you don’t know but should. Their goal is to be the world’s Super Connector by building web and mobile services that connect you to the people who can change your world.

Tello: Another spin on Yelp, Tello provides a way for consumers to quickly provide businesses with direct feedback on their customer service experiences via their mobile phone. Businesses can use the feedback to reward employees or to rethink their customer service. Tello will aggregate customer service experiences from other social media sites and allow businesses to compare themselves to their competitors.

Does Your Small Business Need an App?

October 13th, 2010 :: Rieva_L

By Karen Axelton

A few weeks ago I was at an event where just about everyone was whipping out their iPhones. The group of mostly twenty-somethings was using them for everything from tracking a pizza order to playing a trivia game to looking up song titles.

That event showed me clearer than any statistics could that the use of smartphones is not about to slow down. A big reason people love smartphones? The apps (or applications) you can download to make tasks simpler or just more fun (like tracking exactly when the pizza you ordered came out of the over, the name of the delivery guy and a countdown clock of when he’s going to show up at your door).

Creating an “app” for your business can be a smart way to attract or retain customers—and these days, you don’t need a programmer to do it. Do a quick search and there are websites where you can use a simple template to create an app yourself.

You can hire a programmer to create a custom app, but there are also far cheaper solutions. Websites such as BuildAnApp, Kanchoo or MobileAppLoader have online templates anyone (even a novice) can use to create apps. With Android phones gaining in popularity, Google recently launched App Inventor for Android.

When creating an app, consider which platform you’ll focus on. Of course, iPhones currently have the most apps, but Android is gaining fast. Think about what your target customers use: If most of them are businesspeople, an app for BlackBerry (which sadly lacks apps) could be like water in the desert.

Apps can have many purposes:

  • They can be viral, spreading the word about your business (a game or fun app is a good way to do this)
  • They can drive traffic to your store or site
  • They can help customers accomplish a goal (like comparing products)

Get ideas by checking out what apps exist from businesses in your industry or from your competitors. Is there something missing that you could offer? Or is there something everyone else is doing that you’re not—and you need to get in the game?

A recent Pew Internet study showed 35 percent of U.S. adults have mobile apps on their phones. Smartphones are growing in popularity among all consumer groups, so even if your target market isn’t hip young iPhone owners, you need to take a look at what’s out there and how your business can participate in the app phenomenon.

Image from Flickr user Mike Licht

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.

Now is the Right Times to Spend on Online Technology according to SBSI Report

September 30th, 2010 :: Thursday Bram

Small business owners are routinely confronted with a difficult decision: when is the right time to spend money on the business. The question becomes significantly more complex when you’re considering spending that money on online technology. It’s evolving quickly — what is cutting-edge for your industry today may be obsolete next week. Despite these concerns, however, making the investment in the right tools for your company is necessary.

In the survey that resulted in the most recent Small Business Success Index, small business owners reported lower levels of spending on online technology. While there’s still plenty of spending on social media — adoption rates held steady at 24 percent — adoption of other technologies dropped. That includes technologies ranging from websites to online advertising.

Getting Ahead of the Game

If your key competitors are small businesses, this information means that there is an opportunity to get ahead of them with some carefully considered investments into your business’ online technology. The best opportunities depend on your industry: if you’re in a particularly tech-heavy field, you may need to be moving towards the latest and greatest social media opportunities. A particularly heavy investment may not be so important if you’re in an industry where your competition is slow to adopt new technology. Many individual professionals, for instance, have been slower to roll out new websites and other online marketing efforts, creating a gap where you can move forward if you’re willing to put some money into the online technologies that will help you reach out to new customers or even manage your business more effectively.

The difficult consideration is choosing where to invest your time and money. If you’re planning to handle each step internally, it can take time for you or one of your employees to get up to speed on the fast moving developments among website tools and the like. Simply for the sake of efficiency, it may be worth focusing your initial spending on tools or consultants that can bring you up to speed quickly. It’s perfectly possible for a small business to build its own online technology, but it is often at the cost of taking away from your core competencies.

Focus Energy on the Big Wins

When it comes to online technology, there will always be low-hanging fruit: something as simple as building a basic website can transform your business if you haven’t already done so. Similarly, there are ways to get the most bang for your buck with social media or SEO. By going after the big wins first, you’ll get significant benefits. The opposite approach — doing each step perfectly and optimizing it as much as possible before moving on — will get you the maximum benefit, but only over a longer time frame. By looking for the biggest changes you can make, you can start reaping the benefits fast enough that you’ll be able to easily spend time and money on the smaller tweaks later on.

That approach can extend beyond marketing technologies. There are many online technologies that can help with other facets of your business, although the marketing tools often offer the biggest upfront wins. New inventory systems, bookkeeping tools and other technologies are also worth investigating.

Image by Flickr user Michael Surran

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.