5 Ways Small Biz Can Use Technology to Save Money (from Stamps.com)

Hello all!

Stamps.com sent me a courtesy post featuring 5 ways small businesses can use technology to save money.  I thought the list was pretty handy, so here it is for your reference.  Are you already using any of these cost-savers for your biz?

Read on, and share your own ideas at the Facebook group!

THANKS,

5 Ways to Use Technology to Save Money

courtesy of Stamps.com

VoIP

Many consumers are aware of VoIP services and are starting to use them for residential local and long distance calling. However, small business owners aren’t taking advantage of these cost savings that work with your existing network – no upgrades needed. VoIP carriers like Comcast, Skype and Vonage all provide calling services and other products like magic Jack are available with additional features that can be added fairly inexpensively.

Make use of social media

While larger companies are making their social presence known, many small businesses have yet to take advantage of the marketing opportunities available via social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Businesses can create their own pages/profiles on these sites and broadcast promotions, keep in touch with customers and attract new business…for free.

Online Postage

Postage meter companies charge small businesses for a monthly lease, maintenance fees, and other hidden charges so it’s hard to keep track of exactly what you’re being charged for each month. Online postage services use an advanced postage printing system that doesn’t rely on expensive postage meters. All you need are your existing computer, printer and Internet connection. It’s easy, reliable and at least 50 percent cheaper than traditional postage meters.

Make your office mobile

As smartphones proliferate, business owners are finding that employees, customers and clients are all accessible at their fingertips – no matter where they are. For many businesses, this has eliminated the need for a traditional office or at the very least allows for cost savings by limiting time spent in the office. By equipping employees with a laptop and smartphone, they have created a mobile workforce that is more efficient and more importantly, cheaper!

Use Online Productivity Tools

There are a host of online tools available to the tech-savvy worker that don’t just save money but make a business run more smoothly and efficiently. For small business owners, it is perhaps even more important to be able to access documents from a variety of computers or devices as they are often working at home or out in the field. Online and cloud-based services like Remember the Milk, DocStoc.com, FreeConference.com and Google Notebook can provide everything from to-do lists to calendars and forms…either for free or at a very low cost.

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Have We Managed to Misinterpret Management?

I recently saw a post on Facebook  by a friend who stated that, though he has an MBA, he was going to have to learn to manage people through good ol’ life experience.

In that moment it struck me.  Maybe the trouble with the whole idea of management is that we think it’s people that need managing.  Instead we should focus on managing circumstances.

Think about.  If we focus on managing circumstances, we create environments and situations that are more conducive for people to perform their best.  By managing circumstances, we’d be more likely to

– provide employees enough time to get work done

– think in terms of work flow, which would naturally translate into making better choices about work assignments and distribution of responsibilities

– guide customer expectations in the context of staff capabilities and workloads

– turn away opportunities that aren’t good fits

– effectively anticipate challenges and identify areas of improvement—and have responses on the ready

– provide the necessary tools, supplies and training in advance of an urgency

– structure teams to work efficiently and effectively

– place attention on the betterment of the entire work environment, even when issues relating to an individual employee must be addressed.

That last point is pivotal to me.

I think back to times when I was in management roles with direct reports, and I immediately remember the burden I felt.  I was so focused on “managing people” that I felt very responsible for their moods, motivations and their every-little-moves.  If I’d seen my role as a manager of circumstances, I would have been able to make decisions more quickly and easily.

I’m definitely going to revisit this angle on management as I run my own business.  Yes, I’m a sole proprietor, but ‘management’ still applies when I realize it’s the circumstances that require my supervision.

OK… there’s my 2-cents’ worth.  Where are yours?  Please share over with us on Facebook!

Thanks for reading,

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Hey Small Biz: The Holly Daze is Coming! Time to Prep for Holiday Sales

Did you know that 28% of inactive email subscribers will become active during the holidays?*

Suffice to say, if you’re in the business of selling stuff that people want to buy come Christmastime, ’tis the season to prepare for increased seasonal sales opportunities.  What are you doing to get ready?   Here are some thought starters to help you stock up on stocking stuffers.

Holiday promotions:  Determine featured products, arrange for appropriate supply and assess pricing to make the most of market demand. Hopefully you’re already on trend-watch and in tune with what’s anticipated to be hot this season of selling.  If you snag the right inventory mix and prep the promos, you’ll potentially ‘sleigh’ the competition.  Marketers will start Black Friday promos even earlier this year to maximize the holiday season; are you primed and ready?

Holiday communications:  Map out your messaging, from direct holiday greetings and seasonal advertising to unique content for blogs, websites and Facebook pages.  Create your ‘hook’ and key selling points now.  (It’s not too early to get that customer Christmas card designed and ready!)  In creating core messaging, think of ways to spark urgency and excitement.  Just like kids love to count down to Christmas, consumers are sparked by shopping deadlines as well.

Think Digital-Social-Mobile: Determine how to incorporate all channels of connectivity to make shopping quick and easy for customers.  Mobile and social marketing can be real game-changers for you.  Many e-commerce providers now offer Facebook page integration; look at adding live purchase links to your page.  Is your e-commerce site mobile-friendly?  If not, you may have time to mobilize your marketing efforts.

Want more ideas?  This Experian Holiday Marketer report has tons of great stats and practical tips and is free to download.  It’ll help get you in the holiday spirit.

Thanks for reading!

* – Experian 2010 Holiday Marketer report

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America: Land of the Free(lancer), Home of the Brave

Ah, we Americans…  Here we go asserting our independence again!  Our national economic woes have led many of us…me included!…to do the ol’ bootstrap, become-our-own business thing.

Thanks to the capabilities of technology, an evolution of what the market needs in terms of services and goods, and other economic factors too chewy to explain here, the road to recovery isn’t one big paved highway, it’s many humbly-carved paths converging intermittently.

Just look at recent poll results and commentary from SmartBrief’s Entrepreneur newsletter to illuminate the new era we’ve entered.  Click on the image to see it in full and read more easily.

Where do you fit in this new era?  I must admit, I’m proud to be in the Land of the Free(lancer), the Home of the Brave!

Thanks for reading…

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Big Biz Tip: The Back Up Plan

When’s the last time you backed up everything on your hard drive?  I hope the answer is “within the last hour.” And if you don’t have an answer for that question, consider yourself nudged, reminded and forewarned.

My work, and my world, is so contained on this computer, I actually have a backup for my backup.

I’m a Mac user, so I have an external hard drive set up for Time Machine backups on the hour.   I set up a second external hard drive to hold  heavy video files, but began treating that drive like Time Machine #2 when my first one showed signs of malfunction.  Recently, that primary Time Machine drive went kaput; thank goodness I had the second external backup already on hand.

Of course, you can pay for cloud services like Carbonite or Mozy.  I’ve heard good things about the peace of mind the fees will buy.

No matter what, back up your stuff!

What is your tactic for keeping files safe and sound?  Share with us on the Facebook group.

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Big Biz Tip, Biz Communications Tips, Business Administration, Miscellany | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Behold the Business Card: Your Brand, Bite-sized

I love business cards, and when I’m launching a new branding initiative for a small business client, I often start with these 2.5″x3″ cardstock wonders.

That might seem a little traditional coming from a digital-social-mobile gal like me.  As much as I’m all about being paperless and am constantly focused on online solutions, why—pray tell—would  I look to ye olde business card first when developing and defining a new brand?

The business card is deceptively simple.  To create a card that conveys a brand succinctly in a tiny sliver of space, you’ve really got to know thyself.

Slice ‘n dice all that must be determined in order to create a useful, brand-representing business card, and it’s clear those little bits of paper are no small things.

Visual branding:  Logo, color palette, chosen font…all the style and standards representative of everything that makes your brand recognizable

Name, title: preferred name and title, which is surprisingly elusive for some biz folks to figure out

Correct contact information & web address:  Phone, email, website…and if you’ve ever launched a business you know the determination of web address and contact info can be a feat (Plus, if you’re gonna be handing out cards, you’ll certainly want that email, phone and website to be working.)

Catchy tag line:  This is my own standard. I dig using the back of a card to offer a lil’ elevator-pitch of a catch phrase to articulate what biz I’m in.

When I created the branding for my business, I focused on how everything would look online and on a business card.  Branding has to interpret well in both formats to work.

Once I had the lay-out done, I went to print right away.  That’s because there’s something innately valuable about the immediate gratification and affirmation having good business cards can offer.  (Digital printing in low quantities makes it easy to stay in budget and get those cards in your hand fast.)  Seeing and sharing a physical representation of a new brand is exciting and inspiring.

As I began to hand out my cards, I knew my branding was right based on the excitement and confidence I had in the look and message I was sharing. In today’s cluttered marketplace, brand does matter; it can earn that first glance of attention that sets you apart from the pack.

Looking to start a new business or refresh the one you’ve got?  See what’s in the (business) cards for your business’ brand…

Thanks for reading!

See you on our Facebook group! – http://bit.ly/sbbtfb

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What is a surety bond? Understanding the “bonded” in “licensed, bonded, insured”

“Licensed, bonded, insured.”  It’s a phrase I’ve heard throughout my life but have never fully understood.

Since so many business owners are sure to state that their companies are “licensed, bonded, insured,” I’ve always presumed this trifecta was the standard, if not the requirement, for certain kinds of businesses.  Heck, I’ve even asked sundry repair people and service providers if they are, indeed, “licensed, bonded, insured” without full knowledge of why that should matter.

I can reasonably fill in the blanks about the importance of “licensed” and”insured”; it’s the “bonded” that has eluded me.

I recently networked with someone who holds the answer.  Matt Bruns is a principal at SuretyBonds.com.  He’s in the business of bonds, and he’s volunteered a guest post to help me and you understand bonds better.  For certain kinds of small businesses, this is core information.

Here’s Matt’s post…

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Most people are pretty unfamiliar with surety bonds, despite their importance to both businesses and consumers. They are key risk mitigation and management tools for US small business owners, leading to significant benefits from the protection and credibility properly bonding provides.

Unfortunately, they often get over-looked or ignored, unless required by law.

Surety Bond Basics
More like a form of credit than insurance, surety bonds are required to secure state licensing for many industries. They are basically three-way agreements between a principal (the company or person doing the work), the obligee (the entity receiving the work or issuing the license) and the surety company. The bonds ensure that work or services are provided as specified by regulations, contract or law.

They’re also a way to recoup funds for consumers and other stakeholders in the event they’re harmed by the bonded business. For example, in the construction field, surety bonds help to ensure projects are completed, subcontractors are paid and contracts and regulations are followed. If not, surety companies can step in and make sure the projects are completed or developers are compensated.

But they’re just as important for small business owners and entrepreneurs. In some cases, businesses have to properly bond before they can obtain a state operating license.

Some of those industries include:
-Notaries public
-Mortgage brokers
-Health clubs
-Auto dealers
-Durable Medical Equipment providers (DMEPOS)
-Telemarketers
-Title agencies

Small business doesn’t have to be legally required to bond for it to be concerned with surety bonds. Fidelity bonds and Employee Theft Bonds protect business owners from harm if their employees break the law or harm consumers. Surety bonds can also be used as a competitive advantage — they help boost consumer confidence and display a business’ dedication to consumer protection and its ability to qualify for a bond.

Purchasing Surety Bonds
A surety bond can be acquired from an insurance company or an independent surety company, both of which require applicants to provide financial information and credit documents. Some bonds are quicker and easier to obtain than others and some require little underwriting while others take more detailed analysis.

The cost of a bond varies depending on a host of factors, including the type, the applicant and the state purchased for. Generally, premiums range from 1 to 3 percent of the bond’s value, but there are cases where an applicant’s credit or current financial status puts them in a high-risk category, leading to higher rates and premiums.

The state also may affect the cost.

Securing a surety bond may take only a matter of minutes and cost you a few hundred bucks. In turn, that bond can instill significant peace of mind and confidence among prospective and current customers.

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If you have any questions on Matt’s information, message him directly at matthew@suretybonds.com or visit his site at suretybonds.com.

Are you licensed, bonded and insured?  Share tips from your journey, and do some ‘bonding’ of another kind over on our Facebook group.

Thanks for reading!
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The “Getting Paid” Series: Smart Tips for Getting Paid

One reason I was hesitant to become my own business?  The uncertainties of getting paid.

When you’re on your own, there’s no pay day, per se.  And if your business is your sole means of putting kibble in the bowls, you’ve got to feel a certain level of assurance that enough money will be coming in to account for the money going out. Not to mention, I’ve never wanted to be my own accounts receivable department or collections agent…ugh.

But hey, a gal’s gotta eat!  What I do has value, and it ain’t charity work.  There’s nothing wrong–and everything  right–with anticipating prompt payment for services rendered.  Once I made that mental shift, I was able to better handle the “getting-paid” part of my business.

I’ve already slightly evolved my invoicing processes since going totally solo back in March.  I’ve shortened my terms and have oiled the machine regarding communications/follow-up on outstanding invoices. I’m adding language to invoices stating my policy for delayed payments. Most of these changes have been sparked by live-and-learn occurrences, as I’m getting into the rhythm of being my own business.

Here are some more practical, tactical tips for getting paid:

State payment policies before you go to work. Get clients to sign off on a proposal that states anticipated costs and clearly conveys when payment(s) will be due.

Invoice promptly. Don’t get too busy to send invoices.  No matter the client, no matter the season,  no matter how small the invoice total may be, respect yourself and your business enough to seek payment.

State payment policies on every invoice. Just as you plainly spoke your terms on your proposal, restate them on each invoice.

Follow up consistently. In a perfect world, we’d never have to follow up on invoices.  Fact is, even good clients can overlook invoices or be unable to pay within terms on occasion.  By following up consistently, you will draw attention to invoices missed, evoke response regarding invoices not paid on time…and you’ll be the appropriately squeaky wheel that will be first to get greased.

Convey payment issues clearly on invoices for aging accounts. If an invoice is not paid on time, indicate the issue visually and clearly on subsequent invoices.  Bold the policy statement, place an asterisk by the original due date, circle and denote any late charges.  Communication is visual, so make invoices for late payments stand out from first-issue invoices.

Don’t make exceptions. Expect payment on time from everyone, even clients with whom you have longstanding relationships.  Be consistent and clear with all clients, at all times.

Long ago, I organized a major event for a client.  The event venue prebilled much of the total cost, and my client paid directly and promptly.  Several months after the glow of our fabulous event faded, I received word from the venue that there was $20K outstanding on the client’s bill.  They’d waited to follow up, since the client had been so reliable before the event. It would’ve been much better for the nudge for payment to have come immediately following the event.  By the time collections began, the client company’d long since moved on and payment seemed a costly annoyance.

Don’t make it personal or emotional. Remember that it’s all about business. With every follow-up on an outstanding invoice, you may feel growing frustration, even anger.  Swallow those waves of emotion to keep your communications even-paced and professional.

Bring in the reinforcements as needed. If it’s clear your follow up is bearing no effect, rely on the support of an attorney or a retained collections agency.  For many of us, this may feel extreme, but if you don’t handle your business with seriousness, who else will?

This stuff is never easy, especially if you must be your own bill collector.  What makes it easier for me?  I aim to do great work for my clients, get that work done in a timely fashion and deliver it all with class and integrity.  When I do my part, it is absolutely only fair to presume prompt and full payment should be offered in response.

What are your tips on getting paid?  Please—share over on the Facebook group!!

Thanks for reading!

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Finding the Guts to Follow the Gut Instinct

I’ve found that my gut instinct is reliable.  In biz and life-in-general, I do well when I follow that internal radar that’s a blend of innate common sense, emotional intelligence and hard-earned life experience.  Thankfully, the gut instinct gets better and more assured the longer I walk this planet.  I can trace every one of my life’s regrets back to a moment when I disregarded my gut instinct (or didn’t have the maturity to identify it).  The gut instinct has always worked, though I’ve not always had the guts or the smarts to respond accordingly.

Now that I’m my own business, my gut instinct is being honed everyday.  Who to work with, what information to trust, when to take action, how to step out of situations… I’m relying on that internal guide more than ever and mustering the strength to act based on what my instinct tells me.

Now and again, the gut instinct seems to hedge a topic, and I sense a flip-flop rather than a solid direction.  It’s during those times, I go to another a personal truth I’ve learned and relearned over the years:  “if there are questions, there’s your answer.”

Suffice to say, it takes guts to follow the gut instinct.  But when we do, it’s the right move for all parties involved, and everyone…and every biz…is better for it.

Wanna discuss ‘the guts’?  Join us over on Facebook!

Thanks for reading,

Posted in Business Ethics, Crisis Management, General Small Biz Buzz, Launching a New Biz | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Want to Sell More Stuff? Go with Social Media & SEO!

I just read a yummy article about small business promotion.  (And yes, I did just use the word “yummy” in relation to small business.  I love this stuff!)  This New York Times small biz gem features the story of a retailer of plus-size women’s clothing who’s earning after learning what works to convert traffic into sales for her shop.

If you don’t have time to read the whole article, here are the take-aways for your small biz.

– Define your business, your customer, your brand: You’ll chase your tail on any and every marketing idea if you don’t know what your core business is, who your core customer is and where your brand fits in the marketplace.  Start at the beginning by crystallizing that proverbial elevator pitch about your business. If that’s not in place, stay home.

– Key in on key words & phrases: If somebody was looking for what you do online, what words or phrases would they type in to search?  You simply must know the answer to that question and use those phrases every chance you get.  If you’ve defined your biz and identified your customer, you’ll be able to determine key terms rather naturally.

– Social Media matters: Twitter, Facebook and blogs will boost your findability online. Google big brands or people you know to see for yourself; Twitter feeds and Facebook pages show up early in most searches.   Use of these social networks also gives you daily opportunity to put your key words into action to reach your target audience.

– Redefine “public relations”: Back when my business card said “Director of Public Relations,” I buttered most of my bread by getting clients editorial coverage in magazines.  That’s what defined success in PR campaigns.  Today, if you’re looking to get customers in the door and sell stuff, you’ve got to  “relate to the public” in more direc,t engaging ways.  And by “more direct, engaging ways” I mean “social media.”  So what if you don’t get a feature story in the local paper?  Better to connect directly with a targeted audience that has chosen to get your news directly…because that’s how you get the cash register to ring.

– SEOh!: Those aforementioned key words and phrases?  Use them on every page of your website, in every blog post and in any tweet or Facebook update you can.  This will enhance your Search Engine Optimization.  Now please use those phrases artfully so that you don’t degrade your brand by having your copy read like a carnival barker’s script!  As a copywriter, I’m getting more and more work from businesses who want to infuse their site copy with SEO terms without sounding redundant, repetitive and repetitious (yes, I intended that last phrase to be ironic!).

Get the case study at the NY Times website, and discuss with us on the Small Biz Big Time Facebook group!

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Biz Communications Tips, Public Relations, SEO, Social Media & Online Mktg, Social Networking Profitability | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment