Archive for the ‘Startup’ Category


4 Tips for Building Your Network Before You Start Your Business

Many would-be entrepreneurs think they’ve got to wait until they start a business to begin building a network of contacts and potential customers. Not so. 90 percent of all small business owners get business from referrals, so the sooner you start — both online and off — the sooner you can forge connections with people that will help you create a sustainable business. You also want to position yourself as a resource so that you can make connections that are meaningful. So don’t wait to start networking! Get started today.

Tip 1: Find Your Industry Peers Locally

?????????????????????????????????Depending on how large a city you live in, there may be networking or support groups for businesses in your industry. If that’s the case, begin your networking efforts there immediately. Join professional organizations or simply attend a few meetings so you can get to know the big (and small) players in the space where you want to do business.

How this will help you: Networking in person helps you assess what types of businesses you’ll be competing against, as well as provide ideas for how you can better serve your target audience. You can look for strategic partnerships. If you plan to only offer Service A, you can find others who offer Services B, C, and D, and by working together, you can reach more customers. And finally, you can find a mentor who can provide you with guidance through your journey into entrepreneurship.

Tip 2: Start Getting Social Online

Social media provides you with the fabulous opportunity to brand yourself and your soon-to-be business. You can create profiles for yourself now and start sharing content that will make you known in your field, before you even have a website for your company. Start by following people that fit the mold for the types of customers you’ll want for your business, and you’ll have an instant audience when you do launch.

How this will help you: Once you start your business, you’ll need an audience for your content. Social media is the ticket to getting more readers for your blog posts — and thereby more customers on your site. And being known as a thought leader will also net you plenty of followers.

Tip 3: Attend Conferences

Another spot rife with networking opportunity is industry conferences or local business events and workshops. Wherever people in your industry — or for that matter, your ideal customers — gather, you want to be there too. Collect business cards. Run your idea by people. Just get your name out there.

How this will help you: Not only do conferences provide great learning opportunities, but you can observe your competition closely. You can also bounce your business idea off of other people to see if it’s even got viability. You may find you need to tweak your strategy before you launch — by getting feedback from others now, you save the time and money of not launching a bad idea.

Tip 4: Join LinkedIn Groups

An even more specific social networking strategy, especially useful if you’re relatively new to an industry or owning a business, is to participate in LinkedIn groups that cater to that niche. Just like with other types of networking, LinkedIn provides access to smart folks who can give you ideas for your business, as well as let you get feedback from them before you start yours.

How this will help you: There’s plenty to learn from others, if you’re open to it. Read the articles and discussions, jump in where appropriate, and take plenty of notes. You’ll need them for your business.

Networking opportunities are abound, if you know where to look. It’s better to start your relationship-building now while you’ve got the time, because once you launch that business, you’re going to be really busy!


Buzz vs. Staying Power: Creating a Customer Experience They Want to Come Back To

About this series: This series of articles from Nextiva will help you grasp of the essentials of customer service: the principles and guidelines that will serve you well in any era, regardless of trends, changing technology, and a constantly evolving customer base. Our guide is Micah Solomon, customer service and customer experience consultant, author, and speaker.

 

Buzz is a mysterious, magical substance. It's what gets customers to your establishment in the first place. 

Books have been written about this mysterious force. But not by me. 

boy looks in window of closed toy store / (c) 2014 Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

(c) micah@micahsolomon.com

Because buzz only gets you so far, and only for so long.  Literally speaking, it  only gets them to the front door, to try you that first time.

Far be it from me to say that buzz isn't important; Obviously, getting prospective customers interested in what you do is an important first step.  But it's not enough to build a business on, any more than building a business on Groupon discounts is a long-term strategy.

What you need is staying power.  Something that gives customers a desire to return. 

And the best model for this is a vision of home. 

Here’s what I mean: If you want your customers to return over and over, you need to consciously create an environment/product/process/service that “feels like home” to them.

Now, if you think about it, customers don’t actually want the place they do business with to “be like home”– the home of the typical adult, with dirty dishes in the sink, deferred maintenance up the yin yang.  So I use this “home” term advisedly and with some apprehension. 

At home as a typical adult, you are in control, but only on a self-serve basis. In your childhood home (optimally), it was a different sort of experience. Food appeared at mealtimes. You didn’t have to worry about shopping for personal items. When light bulbs blew out, new ones replaced them. When you left in the morning for school, your parents were genuinely saddened by your departure, and they looked forward to seeing you again. Your personal preferences were well known and were ‘’magically’’ taken into consideration.

So how does this apply to building staying power at your business?  Well, spend a lot of time greeting your customers enthusiastically when they return.  Pay attention to how you bid them good-bye when they leave. Make sure that what they typically order is already pre-selected for them and available without any—any—hassle at all. 

This builds an environment that a customer will choose to return to, over and over and over. Where they’re known.  Where they’re welcomed.  Where things work.  Where they not only can get what they want, but where you know what they want before they even have to ask for it.

This is the ultimate way to acknowledge a human being, in this case a customer.

© 2014 Micah Solomon


Desperate for Cash? Beware of These Lenders

One of the main results of the banking crisis that brought the Great Recession was a new law created to protect the consumer through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Unfortunately, this has only moved the focus for predatory lenders to small businesses.

Desperately seeking cash, these owners are now at risk of borrowing money for their companies and not fully understanding the terms of their loans. The subprime lending industry has exploded to $3 billion. These loans are still unregulated and are not protected by the same laws that cover individual borrowers. Mark Pinsky of Opportunity Finance Network says “[For subprime business lenders] the sweet spot is someone who can limp along well enough for six months but probably isn't going to be around much longer…They’re in the business of helping these businesses fail.”

Stocksy_txpbb9bc609CY7000_Small_159204According to Bloomberg Businessweek, one of the companies specializing in subprime lending – also referred to alternative lending – is World Business Lenders. The firm’s representatives pitch their high-rate loans to small business owners who have trouble borrowing elsewhere. World Business Lenders seizes collateral such as vehicles and other assets when borrowers can’t pay, and press legal action where World Business sues companies for missed payments, often sending companies into bankruptcy. In fact, 20 percent of World Business’s borrowers were forced to close down last year, according to former executives.

This capital comes from well-known sources. One subprime business lender, OnDeck, has credit commitments from financial lenders like Goldman Sachs. Interest rates on loans from OnDeck range from 29 percent to 134 percent.

Sales representatives of these types of lenders can use confusing terminology such as “short-term capital” and discuss “money factors” instead of interest rates when talking to potential borrowers. Here are steps you need to take before signing any loan agreement:

  1. How much are you borrowing? Know the exact amount you will receive after any application, up front or prepaid fees.
  2. What is the actual annual interest rate?  Make sure you understand in writing the nominal and effective annual percentage rate.
  3. What is the borrowing term? How often do on time payments need to be made? What are the penalties for late payments?
  4. Are there other fees for paying off the loan early? Some agreements apply all the term interest even if the loan is paid ahead of schedule.
  5. Is there a personal guarantee? Are just the officers of the company signing the documents or do you need to personally guarantee it as well?  Stay away from these types of guarantees that can put your personal savings and home at risk.
  6. Don’t rush it. Don’t be in a hurry to sign any document. Think about it for a day. Show it to a professional advisor (or a banker) to get their opinion on this source of capital.

Always look at all other available sources of capital before agreeing to this type of loan. Check for help from friends, family, customers and additional business cash flow management.


Should salespeople be doing customer service?

Prosser BlogThis is a question of great importance to companies with 20 to 50 employees. While there are exceptions, companies with only a few employees don’t have the resources to allocate separate people to sales and customer service. Larger companies tend to divide up these roles, providing different training and compensation plans for employees that do sales and customer service. But, there is not necessarily a clear path for companies in the 20 to 50 employee range. Here is why my former company decided not to separate these functions at first, and then went with a hybrid solution in which certain types of support were done by specialists.

My former company was in an industry with a really bad reputation (ten years ago). The industry was known for high-pressure sales tactics and shady practices. Our company was different.  We wanted to create a reputation for outstanding customer service, instead of pushy sales people.

We believed that having the sales professionals handle responsibilities for both closing the sale and dealing with any communications that occurred afterwards would dramatically change the way they approached selling. It would encourage them to do a good job setting expectations and educating customers prior to closing the sale. If they didn’t, the salespeople might have to deal with unhappy customers later on.

This approach was “mostly” successful, however, it did create some problems:

  1. Great salespeople tended to dislike this system and felt they were undercompensated. Some left the company, because they could make more in a “pure” sales job where they wouldn’t have to devote time to customer service.
  2. Many of our customer service oriented salespeople did not make any effort to close sales.
  3. Resolving certain types of customer service issues like a hard technical support question, sometimes took a while.

Before I discuss how we dealt with these challenges, I would like to emphasize that combining these functions did achieve the intended goal. Our company received very high marks for customer service, and established a reputation as having more integrity than our competitors.

Great salespeople want to both be recognized and rewarded for their skills. The key to both is tracking their performance. We heavily relied on our CRM system to see how different salespeople were performing.  We measured both their performance on the sales side (new leads that opened accounts) and customer service side (how many interactions they had with existing customers, and how frequently they were able to resolve the customer’s issue).  This information was used both for performance reviews and in making decisions regarding bonuses. While salespeople may not have been able to devote all their time to closing, they received praise and financial compensation for bringing new business.

It should be stated that we did not pay salespeople a commission, but a base salary and a quarterly bonus based on both the company’s and their personal performance. We believed that providing commission based compensation would lead to poor customer service.

We did lose some good salespeople, but many good salespeople liked the customer friendly environment.

The bigger problem was getting customer service focused employees to close sales. Surprisingly, the solution to this problem turned out to be “social” pressure. While these employees earned 0 or smaller bonuses, this did not seem to motivate them.  After a few warnings about putting more effort into sales, the company had to let a few of them go. However, there was a better solution that we found only years later. When we put the sales numbers of each employee on public whiteboards, there was a dramatic cultural change, and we saw an improvement in their performance. Because bonuses were based on personal and group performance, the weaker salespeople and their colleagues were suddenly aware of how these people were hurting their own compensation.

As the company grew, we did start separating certain customer support functions. The first area was technical support. Instead of having a general salesperson be the client’s point of contact in handling difficult tech issues, the company created technical support specialists which only dealt with technology related issues. This enabled tech support issues to be resolved more quickly.

Bottom Line: Keeping sales and customer support together sends a message to employees that customer support is not a second class job, but integral to the company’s success. On the other hand, it makes it harder to keep sales stars happy, and can create motivational issues for less sales driven employees. Combining sales and customer services puts more pressure on management and in the short-run can hurt sales.

Marc Prosser is the publisher of Fit Small Business.


Using Internet Monitoring Software to Increase Employee Productivity

Stocksy_txpe4825224HV7000_Small_184198Small business owners used to be able to walk around their offices to see the work that their employees where doing. But as organizations are have become increasingly virtual, it is now impossible for a manager to accomplish this since work is now done at client sites, coffee shops, and homes. As a result, many small business owners are up at night wondering if employees are working or just playing video games during the day.

Productivity is being impacted. A 2013 salary.com survey showed that 58% of employees waste up to 60 minutes per day on non-business related websites during the work day, not including lunch or break times.

One solution to this problem is to use an internet monitoring software service for employees. Web monitoring and filtering is traditionally installed to block adult content, phishing sites, or to reduce time wasted on shopping and social media sites. One company, Rawstream is a cloud-based web monitoring and filtering product that helps employees spend their time online productively, profitably and safely.

This tool shows the exact amount of time a user spends looking at a particular website. It gives managers the visibility to see what employees are working on in real time no matter where they are via the application dashboard and report generation function. It also allows managers to see what files are being put into sharing apps like Dropbox, Google Drive, One Drive, and Cubby. The software shows who is using the content sharing apps and lists any files shared that break company policy to protect against the sharing of files containing sensitive data such as credit card numbers. More importantly, employees have access to their own web usage reports, so they can examine their own habits and learn to use their time on the internet more effectively. Managers and employees can also set time limits to access to sites or block certain sites.

There are several benefits for small businesses to use web filtering solutions. Company production can increase when employees are not wasting time on websites that have no business value. Additionally, managers can have more confidence in allowing employees to work off site, giving employees the flexibility to work in an environment they can be most productive.

Too “Big Brother” for you? Remember that just letting employees know that the company is using an Internet monitoring tool will actually boost their productivity.


How to Find a Mentor for Your Small Business

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????Have you ever considered finding a mentor in your industry to ask for advice on running your small business? Having a mentor can help you avoid mistakes they’ve made and guide you to finding a faster path to profit and prosperity. And it’s also great to have someone to bounce ideas off of. Here are some suggestions for how to find the right mentor for your company.

First, Figure Out What You Need

Are you looking for a mentor who can advise you on running a business just like yours? Or someone who can help you in a particular area, like marketing, sales, or product development? Knowing what area you want to improve in can help you figure out where to start your hunt.

Look Around Your Industry

There are likely people who have worked in your field for years that are willing to help you along the same path. If you don’t know many people in your area, attend industry networking events to meet them. Ideally, you want to find someone who’s a little further down the path than you are so he can help guide you based on his experience.

Visit Local Small Business Resources

You’ve probably got a SCORE chapter or Small Business Development Center near you, so take advantage of the free access to business professionals. If they can’t help you, they may be able to connect you with willing folks to serve as mentors. The best thing about SCORE is that you can find a mentor online as well as in person. Also look for a Women’s Business Development Center, they offer great resources as well for men or women.

Check Your Online Network

Don’t overlook your online contacts in your search. While you might not be able to meet face-to-face, having a virtual mentor you can connect with on Twitter or LinkedIn can still provide the benefits you’re looking for. Pay attention to who you interact with on social media, or search for someone you think has the experience you need.

How to Approach a Potential Mentor

Finding a mentor is all about relationship-building, so be prepared for the long haul. Start by simply getting on this person’s radar so he or she knows who you are and what you do. Support him in any way you can, such as by sharing his blog articles or responding to his status updates online.

If the person you’re considering is local, invite him to coffee to get to know one another. If it feels right, mention that you’re looking for a mentor and see where the conversation goes. Be sure to highlight what the other person will get from the relationship. Many people might not even consider that you’d want them as a mentor, so don’t be afraid to ask flat out once you’ve built up the relationship. They’ll likely be flattered.

Lay out your expectations for the relationship:

  • How often you’d like to meet, and how (phone, email, in person)
  • What you’d like to learn from him
  • How you can reciprocate (offer business referrals, etc.)

Your potential mentor may have other ideas about how you can work together, so be open to hearing them.

As you build your mentor/mentee relationship, be grateful for the time he gives you, and find ways to show your appreciation. A heartfelt thank you note can go a long way, as can a thoughtful gift during the holidays.


Mondays with Mike: Improve Your Client Relationships With Social Media

In the olden days – you know, before Facebook – the success of a marketing campaign was often simply a measure of how much money you had to spend.  After all, we know that if you repeat something often enough, then people will believe it. 

My, how times have changed.

People consume information so differently now, that the weight of a single television commercial or magazine ad is often diluted by all of the impressions that we get from other forms of media, and that’s a huge opportunity for small businesses.  You can build your brand without investing tons of money, if you’re willing to invest a little time.  Consumers are looking for a genuine connection and a way to interact with a company, and you can give them what they want by using social media.

There are lots of serious minded folks who dismiss Facebook and Twitter as frivolous fads – wasters of time and energy.  What those folks don’t know is that their company is most likely already being discussed on social media.  Whether you run a restaurant or a carpet cleaning service, chances are good that there are online reviews of your business.  If that doesn’t scare you, it should.  The conversation is happening.  The only question is whether you want to participate and start to shape that conversation into one that presents your company in its best light.

Responding to reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor is a great opportunity to thank happy patrons for their business, and it’s also a chance for you to see what your customers didn’t like about their experience.  If it’s appropriate, a public acknowledgement of their complaint and a promise to make it right shows that you value your customers and are invested in providing excellent service.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Social media also gives you a chance to invite prospective customers in for a virtual visit.  You can post pictures of your daily special at the restaurant, or you can write a quick blog post about why you’ve chosen a particular brand of environmentally safe cleaners for use in your customers’ homes.  You can run silly little contests on your Facebook page, inviting folks to provide suggestions for your newest drink creation or offering a freebie for the 1000th person who likes your Facebook page.  The idea is to get your customers involved on your social media platforms.  Invite them to share pictures of your business on Instagram, and make sure you monitor all of the possible sites that might have reviews of your business.  It’s possible that you’ll luck into some great, unsolicited free advertising, but if you carefully cultivate your social media presence, you’ll end up interacting with far more consumers.

Your company’s reputation depends on your relationship with your customers, and you can manage that relationship – in part, anyway – by using the free social media tools available to you.  Whether you’re in love with Facebook or not, you’re missing out if you don’t acknowledge the powerful opportunities that it provides you.


10 Pieces of Advice to Ignore

Entrepreneurs get advice every day from their professional advisors and information they read. A lot of it needs to be ignored. Pay close attention to disregarding these platitudes and what to do instead:

  1. It takes money to make money. Many entrepreneurs spend too much money getting their company off the ground. In fact, having a lot of money can lead to being wasteful. Use small investments to test ideas and get paying customers. Based on this success or failure, spend alittle more money to test the next action.
  2. Do what you love and the money will follow. This principle has the entrepreneur focus on what they want to do instead of what the customer wants. Building a company is about finding the pain a buyer has, not what the entrepreneur wants to provide. Instead, do what you love and if you solve a customer’s pain, the money will always follow.
  3. Failure is required for success. This is what many entrepreneurs tell themselves when they fail. While failure is not required for success, ultimately it is part of every entrepreneur’s experience. Never fear failure. When it comes, acknowledge it, learn what you can, then take another action to give you another chance at success.
  4. Failure is not an option. Not only is it an option, it is the most likely outcome. Get comfortable with the fact that you will fail some of the time and not knowing exactly what will happen next.
  5. A penny saved is a penny earned. This is short term thinking. While it is important to be carefully frugal with your money, not every transaction needs to yield the maximum profit. Successful business owners invest in long term relationships.
  6. Good things come to those that wait. Waiting is typically not in an owners DNA. As another platitude says “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it”. Being proactive rather than reactive will typically win the day.
  7. A penny for your thoughts. Be careful not to give away your value to customers for free. Entrepreneurs typically undervalue their products and services since they are uncomfortable asking customers to buy.
  8. The customer is always right. If the customer was always right, most entrepreneurs would be out of business! When the customer has a concern, the most important thing is to listen and show empathy. They don’t need to be right, but always need to be heard.
  9. Another day, another dollar. Making money is not a linear process. Successful small business owners look for the leverage in profitability and this typically is not in the form of working harder or longer hours. Look for the financial leverage points in hiring other people, intellectual property or a dedicated distribution channel.
  10. Money doesn’t grow on trees. While this is literally true, there is ways to make money all around any entrepreneur. Follow the customers that have the money to solve their pain and the money will follow. 

‚Äč?????????????????????????????????????????????


How Spreadsheets Can Turn You into a Business Super Power

Posted on by Carol Roth

supermanphoneboothWhen Clark Kent runs to a phone booth and emerges as Superman, a competent, mild-mannered news man begins using an entirely different set of skills to save the world.  These days, phone booths are a rare sight, but you don’t need one to develop business super powers.  By embracing the capabilities of spreadsheets, you gain skills that help you wear the many hats (or capes) that you need to run a successful business.

You are already well versed in providing your goods or services to happy customers, but any business requires you to be equally adept at planning, organizing, analyzing, reporting and countless other activities.  So, update your superhero wardrobe and toolkit by replacing your many hats with a single spreadsheet cape that helps you super-charge your capacity to handle any type of business task (although I don’t recommend going with the superhero look of wearing your underwear over your pants). 

Here are a few great ways that you can use spreadsheets to “save the day” in your business.

Handling Administrative Tasks Faster than a Speeding Bullet

Like me, you probably view administrative activities as the evil villain in your business day.  How many of your filing cabinets contain nothing but time sheets, expense reports, travel advance requests and other forms that your employees use to keep track of administrative issues?  And how many employees spend countless hours checking the math and making sure that these forms are complete? 

Spreadsheets to the rescue!  When you switch from paper to spreadsheets for your business paperwork, you can release floor space for better uses than paper filing, while freeing employee time (or your time) for more valuable tasks.  Since my college days, Microsoft Excel has been my spreadsheet of choice (which may explain why the company is now one of my clients), so that’s what I recommend.  Microsoft Excel provides an amazing array of helpful templates when you create a new spreadsheet.  Heck, they provide over a dozen templates just for employee time sheets.  But on the off chance that you cannot find the template you need, you can probably find it online on Microsoft’s Templates page.  Browse these templates to get inspired on how you can streamline your administrative duties.

Planning and Reporting with X-Ray Focus

Spreadsheets make planning and reporting easier, more accurate and more collaborative.  By building in assumptions and using formulas for calculations, you can easily test different scenarios, such as what happens if you were able to generate a cost reduction for a key client or what happens if you doubled your revenue.  By copying the current year’s formulas, you can also project future years without having to recreate the wheel each time, which saves you time.  And your customers, lenders and accountants won’t need X-ray vision to find or understand the information that they need.

And, of course, templates are available to help you create everything from startup business plans to just about any type of financial report that you can imagine, so you don’t even need to create them from scratch. 

Use the Power of Charts and Graphs

Analyzing data can be valuable for companies to see trends and deficiencies.  Whether you have one client that is accounting for too much of your business and creating additional risk, or a continual increase in your expenditures of professional services, sometimes it is easier to see with the visual presentation of charts and graphs.  Using spreadsheets, you are just a few clicks away from converting that dry data into colorful charts and graphs that instantly make data evaluation a snap. 

Not only do charts and graphs make it easier for you to analyze data, they are great for transforming presentations as well.  

Whether you do it all in your small business or even if you have the luxury of delegating number crunching to an employee or two, your business needs consistent, accurate and professional-looking information to grow and prosper.  I hope that you will use these suggestions to replace drudgery with productivity.  Then, continue the adventure by finding many other ways to use spreadsheets to make the switch from mild-mannered business owner to business superhero.




 
Nextiva Logo

phone-icon Sales phone-icon Support
Nextiva is the leader in Business VoIP Services. Copyright 2014 Nextiva, All Rights Reserved,
Terms and Conditions, Privacy Policy, Patents, Sitemap