Posts Tagged ‘Innovation’

Business VoIP ‘s Time Has Come

Posted on by Leo Welder

In the early to mid 1990’s, the Internet was a cool thing. Unfortunately, extremely slow and unreliable Internet Service Providers made it little more than a gimmick for most people. Not too long ago, smartphones with web browsers gave us a glimpse at portable computing, but it took the iPhone and high-speed wireless data plans to integrate them into the mainstream. VoIP is another technology that has taken many years to mature, but its time has finally come. Smartphones and VoIP are rapidly pushing traditional phone lines out of our homes, and all the signs point to the same happening in the business world.

I’ve been reviewing business technology products for the past seven years, and I started paying attention to VoIP services targeting business in 2009. At the time, my office was using a traditional Nortel phone system with AT&T phone lines, and I absolutely hated all of it. The phones were stupidly expensive and the functions were counter-intuitive. We also had to pay an IT guy to setup a new phone every time we made a new hire. When I read that business VoIP phones were less expensive, more flexible, easier to use and required no special IT skills to configure, I was excited to try them out. Unfortunately, when we started testing the products, the reliability and call quality was so poor that we couldn’t justify making the switch in our own office, let alone recommend other business owners purchase the products.

Over the next two years, the business VoIP companies invested heavily in their data infrastructures as well as the VoIP technology itself. The data compression technology that the companies developed dramatically decreased the amount of bandwidth that the phones needed to provide clear reception. Some companies also started creating redundancies with their servers and data, so if systems failed in one location, a backup would automatically take its place. These and other technological and process improvements dramatically improved VoIP’s call quality and reliability.

Stocksy_txp0e3537cfRr5000_Small_177711Our company finally made the switch to business VoIP in 2011. Everything worked as advertised and the features and cost savings were substantial. However, as we grew, we found that the lower equipment costs and monthly per line costs were eventually offset by the fact that every phone had to have it’s own dedicated line. Rather than paying for 4 rollover lines with AT&T, we were paying for 20 lines with our business VoIP carrier (one line for each employee and 2 conference rooms), but most of our employees only needed the phone a few times per week.

Over the last six to nine months, VoIP companies like Nextiva have started to offer customized plans based on each individual company’s needs. You can get dedicated lines, shared minute plans (VoIP’s equivalent to rollover lines), virtual extensions for mobile employees, and any combination of these in order to pay only for what you need.

Like high-speed wireless and smartphones, VoIP technology isn’t perfect. VoIP phone service still isn’t as reliable as a traditional landline, but its dramatically improved reliability combined with flexible pricing plans, incredible features and flexibility have leveled the playing field. The telecom industry recognizes that VoIP is where businesses are heading and the quality is only going to get better. For many businesses, it’s already a much better option than old school landlines.


Leo Welder is the Founder of Zilker Ventures, which owns and operates a family of websites focused on business technology. The company’s latest website is, which is dedicated to online fax and Internet based communications.

Nextiva Tuesday Tip: Is It Time to Invest in New Employees—or Is New Technology Enough?

Do you really need to hire new employees—or would new technology serve the same purpose? According to the fifth annual Brother Small Business Survey, a whopping 72 percent of small business owners believe new technology would provide a better return on their investments than hiring new employees (28 percent) this year. No wonder nearly half (49 percent) the small business owners surveyed said investing in new technology is their top priority this year.

It’s not exactly cut and dried. If you’re confused, you aren’t the only one: 63 percent of survey respondents say they often feel “overwhelmed” by the number of tech tools available to help run their companies, and struggle to keep up with knowing what technology to buy.

What are small business owners planning to buy this year? Well, 41 percent say they’re going to invest in mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. About one-third will buy Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, 20 percent will buy social technologies and 15 percent say cloud services will be essential to their businesses this year.

So how do you know whether you should hire—or if buying new technology could fill the bill just as well? When debating new technology, ask yourself:

  • ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????What is the learning curve for this tool? Can you or your existing employees get up to speed quickly enough that the tool will quickly start providing a return on investment?
  • How much time will the tool save? If the amount of time it saves allows you or your employees to absorb the new tasks into your existing workday, that’s ideal. However, if the new technology will add hours to your workday, you may need to hire new staff to handle the load.
  • Will this tool create additional work or additional business? Sometimes a tech tool can work so well it creates more work. For instance, your new CRM system may create more work at first as you follow up more frequently with prospects and customers. However, eventually it should create new business, not just new work. When you implement a new tool, figure out the break-even point at which it’s generating enough new business to finance hiring a new employee. 

Mondays with Mike: What You Can Learn from Marketing Masters

Whether or not we like it, we all have to market ourselves and our businesses.  Fortunately, we have a wealth of lessons we can learn from the marketing geniuses who have provided us with a variety of techniques that can help you find new clients and transform them into loyal repeat customers.

  1. Have the people making it, use it.  Walt Disney, perhaps the greatest marketing genius of all time, demonstrated the effectiveness of this practice in Disney World.  Both corporate and park employees rode every ride over and over until they fine tuned every detail – even down to the simulated fireflies in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  If your team experiences your services as a customer, they’ll have greater insight into what customers want.
  2. Multi-level marketing.  Mary Kay Ash gave the world much more than just pink Cadillacs.  She also gave us the model for successful marketing based on direct sales to friends and family and valuable rewards for achievement and recruitment.  She painted the glass ceiling pink and turned it into a stepping stone to the next level.
  3. Design matters.  Steve Jobs didn’t create the only technology for accomplishing tasks; he created the coolest technology for accomplishing tasks.  Never underestimate the appeal of sleek, snazzy packaging coupled with ease of use.
  4. The huge promise.  Tim Ferriss taught us that consumers will snap up products even if they know that the unrealistic claims about them aren’t entirely possible.  Get rich by working 4 hours a week.  Get fit by exercising four hours a month.  We know it aint’ gonna happen, but we buy it anyway, and we may still reap rewards – even if they’re not exactly what was promised.  Ferriss showed us that it’s okay to aim for the stars and settle for hitting the moon.
  5. MarketingNever stop testing.  David Ogilvy is the father of modern advertising and an early proponent of split testing.  His method of testing – creating two postcards in a direct mailing campaign and tracking each card’s success – provides the perfect model for ensuring that your large advertising campaigns yield results.
  6. Be the best at one thing.  Michael Phelps is the poster boy for singleminded dedication and the astonishing results it can yield.  Focus on your strengths and your passion, and your results will surprise you.
  7. Word of mouth matters.  Conrad Gessner is our representative from the wayback files for this example.  Gessner was a sixteenth century botanist who penned a poem about tulips that contributed to the European craze for the flowers, ultimately resulting in people with more money than sense who were willing to part with astronomical sums of money ($1M in today’s equivalent) for a single tulip bulb.  Make it desirable, and people will want to purchase it.
  8. Be remarkable.  Seth Godin has spent his career being different.  He’s proven that a purple cow (his term for a remarkable product) is the key to standing out in a crowded marketplace.  He’s also shown that it’s possible to generate revenue while still giving back to his community.

I’m a big fan of learning from the best.  These marketing mavens can teach you volumes.  

Mondays with Mike: The Four Steps of Ripple Innovation

Sand_ripplesWe’ve all been there.  You know – that period in your business when it all feels stale and tired.  When you feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, waking up to the same old thing.  You know you need to shake things up, but you’re not sure where to start.  You could hire some know-it-all consultant and pay them to provide you with a band-aid that’s a temporary fix.  You could hold yet another brainstorming meeting and leave with the same five ideas you got last year.

But I suggest that you approach this revitalization project differently.  Find a problem in your business that you need to solve.  Whether it’s a need to cut costs, bring in new customers, streamline a process – whatever your challenge, articulate it and try using ripple innovation to solve your problem in a novel way.

  1. Ripple 1: Find the solution inside your company.  We’re often blind to potential solutions because we’re victims of rigid thinking.  Try applying fixes from one area of your business to another.  For example, ask your customer service reps for suggestions about how to improve they ways in which you bring in prospective clients.  Get your sales reps to share input about ways in which IT can be improved.  Share expertise among departments and you’ll come up with fresh perspectives.
  2. Ripple 2: Find the solution inside your industry.  Check out your competition.  Say you run a commercial cleaning business.  Take a look at your competitors’ ads if you’re looking to bring in new business.  Find out where other companies buy their cleaning supplies and see if you can get a better deal in exchange for a contract.  See what other companies are doing right and adapt their practices to improve your own business.
  3. Ripple 3: Find the solution in any industry.  Broaden your perspective and look at the ways in which other businesses face challenges and present solutions.  Look at companies who have all the customers they can handle and are making money hand over fist and see what you can learn from them.  The ice cream shop around the corner that always has long lines….maybe their Facebook page gives customers a heads up on new flavors and daily specials.  The automotive repair shop that has customers waiting for an appointment because of their outstanding guarantee of services….they’ve actively managed and promoted word-of-mouth by rewarding customers for referrals.  You can translate these lessons to your industry as well! 
  4. Ripple 4: Find the solution in nature.  Coming up with nothing fresh?  Take a look at the world around you, and you’ll discover that nature is the ultimate innovator and inventor.  If you’re having trouble retaining new employees despite the fact that you’re paying great wages, maybe you need to look at the ways in which animals protect their young and provide a longer, more nurturing training period so that your staff feels more confident and capable when you finally launch them on their own.

The big lesson in ripple innovation is that you’ll benefit from broadening your perspective and learning about why solutions work and how you can adapt the principles of those solutions to solve your particular problems.  

How to Win a Business Plan Competition

Want to win money at a business plan competition?  There is plenty of cash out there in 2014, but it takes team preparation since the rules for contests differ and can be quirky. However, they can be a viable source of funding your business.

Here is what you need to do to win:

Management experience: Tell why your team is uniquely qualified to run this business. An experienced management team always wins over a great idea since success is about execution. For example, explain which members of your team have built a company before and have industry experience.

Market size: Describe the true addressable market of your company. Be as specific as possible. For example, a target market is not toys, but rather educational toys for 0-18 month olds.

Describe the problem your solution solves: Customers only buy when they are in pain. What pain do you solve and for whom? Do they have the money to buy the product? For example, the solutions that Nextiva sells allow companies to reliably communicate with their customers.

Proven concept or just a prototype: Showcase your paying customers since they are the best example that there is really a need for your product.

Strategic alliances: It is difficult for a small company to do it alone. Which larger brands can you get help from? For example, if your product is distributed by Wal-Mart, this is a big advantage.

Sustainable competitive advantage: If your company is successful and a richer competitor comes into the market, what will be your competitive advantage? For example, this could be a patent, trade secret, or distribution rights.

Use of the prize money: Judges want to know how the money will be used and make a difference in your company.

Get the math right: Financial projections are usually critical in any competition. Making arithmetic errors or having projections that are too optimistic can be fatal.

Make it engaging: Make the written entry or presentation engaging. Bored judges stop reading or paying attention. Anticipate the most likely questions, but be ready to improvise when things go wrong.

Rally your tribe: Many contests have a public voting element. Get everyone that your company is connected with to vote for your business.

Winning isn’t everything. Participating in these contests can bring valuable connections that can exceed the value of the cash prize.

Apply to win The 2014 Rule Breaker Awards sponsored by Nextiva, Microsoft, Skype, and Constant Contact. 


Do You Walk Your Talk in Business?

More than ever before, people are inundated with all kinds of fancy marketing campaigns, tactics, offers and strategies via online media, print media, television, telemarketing and even billboards in just about any place that you can imagine (I have even seen ads in restroom stalls!). Businesses put lot of time, money and effort into these over the top advertisements and offers, each seemingly trying to capture the increasingly elusive attention of potential customers.

Don’t get me wrong; getting the word out about your business is extremely important, because as I always say, if you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business. And having some kind of flashy gimmick may help your business break through the noisy, overcrowded marketplace. But while your slick new offer or campaign may get someone to walk through your door or purchase from you one time,  if your products or services aren’t up to par and you can’t meet (or exceed) the expectations of that offer for that new customer, they won’t ever purchase from you again. And they definitely won’t tell all of their friends and family to purchase from you either. 

bullhorn-guyEven worse, if you really can’t back up the offers or assertions that you put forth in your marketing campaigns, that unsatisfied customer will tell everyone that will listen about their bad experience. And with internet comments, reviews and tweets so prevalent now, that one bad experience can multiply into a storm of negativity with worldwide ramifications, far beyond the scope of someone just telling a few of their local friends or family members, like what was the case in the past. This can be a huge disaster for any company and is extremely difficult to overcome, not to mention just bad business overall.

And this isn’t just true for marketing. It goes for live events, conventions and conferences, too.  You may think that bringing in a big name host, entertainer or speaker will be enough draw people to your event and make a big splash. But if that individual doesn’t do a good job or doesn’t deliver useful content to the audience, your event will suffer the same negative consequences of not living up to attendees’ expectations. And once those negative comments and reviews get out, it’s nearly impossible to get people to attend your future events or do business with your company, whatever your ultimate goal for the event was.

So, no matter what your offering is, make sure that you put your energy and focus on creating the absolute best product, service or experience that you can. Approach it from the perspective of what your target customers truly want and need. That way, when you craft your marketing campaigns and offers, you can really back up your claims with confidence.  This will keep your customers happy and coming back for more. And these happy, repeat customers are the real key to a successful business.

Did you have a bad experience with a marketing campaign or offer that didn’t deliver what it promised?  Please share it below.

Mondays with Mike: Resize Your Line

When it comes to inventing or innovating, is there a way to do it more easily? Mike Michalowicz, author of The Pumpkin Plan, says yes! Learn more in this week's Mondays with Mike.

Mondays with Mike: Ripple Innovation

Looking to add more innovative elements to your products or services? Author of "The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur," Mike Michalowicz analyzes Speedo's successful attempt to innovate and tells you how you can apply it to your own business.

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