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Road_Warrior_body.jpgby Cathie Ericson.


As every small business owner knows, the work doesn't stop just because you are out of town. And we’re traveling more these days—a survey from Travel Leaders Group projects a seven percent increase in business travel in 2015.

While it can be hard to focus on the task at hand while worrying about what’s going on in the office, it’s imperative to maximize your time during out-of-town travel. Here are four strategies for staying connected to the home office while on the road:


1. Keep customers informed. Make sure clients know you might not be as responsive as usual. Activate your out-of-office email message and consider adding a buffer day to deal with issues and requests upon your return. Record your outgoing voicemail message so that it directs callers to someone else in the office, or clearly states how they can reach you in an emergency.


2. Make your tech work for you. Tools like Google Docs, Evernote, Nozbe, LastPass and cloud-based storage allow you to stay in touch no matter where you are. Justin Lugbill of Chicago and his wife own two businesses—Redline Digital and Lugbill Design. By using these online tools he says he can work efficiently where he is, accessing and editing files, and staying current on workflow. “In order to maximize my productivity away from the office, I've become ‘device agnostic,’ by implementing systems and services that can be used no matter what device you have in your hands at the moment,” he says.


Road_Warrior_pq.jpg3. Adjust your schedule. Understand that long days may be a staple of your business trip since not all work can be put on hold. Lugbill typically gets up an hour or two earlier to take care of emails and messages to close the loop and start the day knowing he’s addressed unfinished business. You’ll likely have to invest some time at the end of the day, too, since it can be challenging to make calls and respond to email during meetings.

 

4. Make the most of down time. Don’t squander your travel time. Ten years ago, travel days were wasted days, but now of course, work can be done in the airport, on the plane, and in your Uber car or cab. “Five minutes waiting to deplane has become an opportunity to answer an e-mail,” says Lugbill. He also advocates phone and computer tethering, which essentially allows you to turn your smartphone into a mobile hotspot, so you can go online without an extra expense in areas where you can’t access free Wi-Fi. (Check your plan though; some may charge).

 

The key to feeling confident when you’re away from the office is minimizing what your absence means to customers and your staff. Use these opportunities to delegate what you can to employees, and implement tech solutions that enable you to stay as connected to customers as if you were sitting behind your desk.


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3D Printing Thumb.jpg3D printing has the potential to be a game changer for small businesses. Essentially, the process allows you to produce an object in three dimensions in less time and often at a lot less cost than conventional production methods, such as injection molding. With a reduced barrier to entry, 3D printing can spur innovation—making it easier for entrepreneurs to design, test, and market more products, as well as dream up custom or specialty parts. Yet for all the excitement, some experts say that small business owners should carefully assess the process and do their due diligence before deciding whether 3D printing is right for them.

 

Click here to read the full article (PDF).

Wearable_Tech_body.jpgBy Jennifer Shaheen.


The International Consumer Electronics Show is the annual event where major tech manufacturers like Google, Apple, and Samsung unveil the products they’ll be promoting during the coming year. Much of the focus of the 2015 show was wearable tech, with devices designed to make it easier for people to pay on the go and stay fit capturing most of the attention. While not every device launched is destined to become your customers’ favorite new gadget, some surely will—and this year they’ve got the potential to change the way you do business.


Smartwatches: Put the world on your wrist

Every major tech brand has a new smartwatch offering, from the highly anticipated Apple Watch, Samsung’s Gear S, and LG’s Audi. Think of smartwatches as miniature phones. Typically they can accommodate multiple apps allowing wearers to do everything from read email to pay for purchases.


It’s reasonable to expect that the customers already eager to pay for purchases using their smartphone will want to do the same with their smartwatches.


Wearable_Tech_PQ.jpgFitness Trackers: Healthy customers are happy customers

The Fitbit was, for many people, their first piece of wearable technology. Today’s selection of wearable fitness trackers has expanded in many ways. They’re used to record activity levels, the amount and quality of sleep, and more. For small business owners on the go, this can be a convenient and easy way to help ensure a healthy lifestyle. The data on these devices can also guide both lifestyle and purchasing decisions. Someone who learns they aren’t getting enough high quality sleep, for example, may be highly motivated to purchase a new mattress.


Size can be an issue

The smaller size of wearable technology limits how much functionality can be built in. A computer the size of a jacket button simply can’t match the capabilities of a larger model that has more space for memory and processor.  However, the convenience factor may lead people to overlook these limitations. In fact, the Google X development team cites this as the reason we’ll see people wearing more and more devices, rather than trying to find one piece of wearable technology that does it all.

 

Cloud_Computing_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

In its most fundamental form, cloud computing hosts your files and applications at a location separate from your business premises and staffed by trained IT experts that oversee their safety and maintenance. Some small businesses might be understandably wary about giving up a large measure of control over their data when they switch to a cloud computing solution. But others find the lower set-up costs and layers of protection that the cloud offers preferable to the expense of doing everything in-house. As you decide if cloud computing is viable for your business, consider what these experts have to say.

 

Less costly investment

"There's no better tool for a small business to get up and going at a level that previously demanded a lot of investment than cloud computing," says Darran Haessig, an IT consultant at Clarity Technology Group, a Madison, Wisconsin-based IT firm. "You do not need to invest in the resources for this service. And depending on what the service is, [you could save] a large cash outlay."

 

For example, a business that wants to host its own email in-house would have to provide all the components—such as the hardware, backup systems, maintenance, and security applications. But with a cloud computing solution, Haessig explains, "now you're paying a monthly rate to a service provider, such as Microsoft, that will handle all that for you. All you have to worry about is your Internet connection and your basic maintenance for your everyday PC to get access to it." As your business grows, cloud computing also gives you the ability to scale up cost-effectively.

 

Savings notwithstanding, some small business owners are uncomfortable with hosting their files at a remote location away from their direct supervision. Many service providers will let you try their services for free or for a limited time. Haessig says that this is an excellent way to see whether they are a good fit for your business, handle your requests promptly, and have security protocols in place that satisfy your concerns.

 

Secure your devices

While safeguarding your files is certainly an issue, some experts say it's a mistake to think that a cloud solution is inherently more vulnerable. 

 

"Quite the contrary—a data center has to meet compliance standards in the industry," says Charles Henson, vice president at Nashville Computer, a Brentwood, Tennessee-based IT company. "For example, if they are hosting data for a financial institution like brokers or investment firms, they would need to follow the guidelines of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. A facility that hosts data offsite for a healthcare company must meet HIPAA requirements mandated by the government and provide an agreement showing they have met the regulated compliance. Therefore, those machines at the data center are up-to-date, backed-up, and have the kind of security that small businesses or medium-sized businesses don't have with their current server and/or infrastructure today."

 

Henson says that the devices that attach to the cloud—such as a PC, desktop, Mac, tablet, or smart phone—pose more of a security risk than the cloud itself since employees may be opening suspicious emails or visiting questionable websites. It is the responsibility of the small business owner to come up with policies and practices on computer usage. Still, some IT companies "will assist you in securing your desktop devices as well as ensuring you're getting the right connectivity and the right cloud solution for your environment," Henson says. "So really you need to hire an IT professional that does this all day every day because they understand everything that needs to happen to make sure that your devices are secure."

 

Cloud_Computing_PQ.jpgWhen choosing a provider, Henson says to work with a knowledgeable IT consultant who can perform a cloud readiness assessment to see what applications your business is running and whether they are compatible with a cloud environment. As part of your due diligence, you should get references, review case studies of the provider's performance, find out the kind of disaster recovery plan the IT provider has, and how you can get your data if the company goes out of business.

 

Despite these hurdles, cloud computing can be a lifesaver for a small business. For example, Henson says that his firm set up a cloud computing solution for a bookkeeping company based in Franklin, Tennessee that also had employees spread out across the country. When Nashville was flooded in 2010, the bookkeeper called up, panic-stricken because the basement of her building was underwater. She lost everything and wondered what to do. "My engineer told her she didn't need to do anything and not to worry," Henson says. "He told her that her data and her servers were in our data center. She could go home and work as normal. And so they never missed a beat during that Nashville flood."

 

Get employees onboard

Small businesses that have employees at multiple locations around the country or the globe can use cloud computing to bring them together on a common project easily, and maximize their creativity and skills since they can each access the data efficiently.

 

"From the standpoint of a global workforce, the cloud is magnificent for this," says Laurel Delaney, founder of GlobeTrade, a Chicago-based management consulting and marketing solutions company. "The ability to do it all on one platform really saves the business owner a lot of time and headaches in a way that's not going to cost an arm and a leg."

 

Small businesses should look for cloud computing solutions that are easy to use, have a minimal learning curve, and allow employees to log on and have access to files in a minute or less. While some cloud providers offer free service, Delaney warns that it should be clear at what point a fee kicks in—for example, at five megabytes of data—and whether you'll be notified beforehand by email. "You want to know well in advance before you hit that threshold as opposed to getting cut off suddenly or finding that you've reached your maximum capacity. You don't want to get stuck if you're in the middle of working on a project."

 

Delaney also says that business owners should discuss switching to a cloud-based solution with their employees. Rather than make a dramatic announcement without warning, owners should spell out the reasons for the switch, the benefits to the company, the advantages of the new solution, and the positive impact it will have on their performance. "Get them excited and onboard because it's so important to get a companywide commitment on this," Delaney says.

 

Mobile_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.


The amount of time people spend on their mobile devices daily now surpasses the amount of time they spend watching television, according to a recent report from Flurry, a marketing agency which specializes in apps and mobile advertising. Users devote an average of two hours and 57 minutes to their smartphones and tablets every day.


Mobile commerce is booming.

What are mobile users doing for all that time? While social media, email and game playing top the list of favorite activities, there’s no arguing the fact that mobile users are doing a lot of shopping. Tech Crunch reports that 12 percent of last year’s holiday retail sales took place via a mobile device, with Amazon Prime members making six out of every 10 of their purchases via smartphone or tablet.


Smartphones are outpacing tablets as the mobile device of choice.

More than 6 billion smartphones are expected to be in use by the year 2020. Ninth Decimal, a mobile advertising company, has tracked how customers are using mobile devices to research purchases. They’ve found tremendous growth in the use of smartphones for research: there has been a 110 percent increase in number of customers who research retail purchases since 2013. During the same period, the use of tablets to research purchases dropped over 20 percent.


Mobile_PQ.jpgMobile advertising is more effective on smartphones – especially when geo-targeting is involved.

In the same report, Ninth Decimal shared their data on mobile advertising. They found that over 40 percent of customers made a purchase on their mobile device after seeing an advertisement for the item. This was only true for 19 percent of tablet users. Geo-targeting is a powerful strategy for reaching the mobile consumer: ad conversion rates climbed 20 percent when a location is included. Consumers exposed to mobile ads reported visiting stores 65 percent more times than consumers in a control group, who were not exposed to those ads.


Customers buy on the platform where they do their research.

The price of an item or service determines how long a customer will devote to researching a purchase before taking action. If the price tag is less than $50, customers researched 10 days or less, while a purchase that required $1,000 results in an average of 45 days spent researching. While customers would use multiple channels to do this research, it appears that they tend to favor the channel they use most to ultimately make the purchase. In other words, Ninth Decimal says, if a shopper does most of their research in a store, they will buy in that brick and mortar location. If they’re doing the majority of their research online, they will be a mobile buyer.

Protecting_Data_body.jpgBy Jennifer Shaheen.


As major retail chains struggle with well-publicized data breaches, small business owners may not be aware of a potential security problem that’s much closer to home: employee compromises of sensitive data.


According to recent reporting from the Identity Theft Resource Center, which tracks data breaches across industries such as business, education, government/military, medical/healthcare, and banking, employees were intentionally or accidentally responsible for 28.5 percent of data breaches. That’s more than one in every four occurrences. Given these numbers, what can a small business owner do to keep their customers’ data safe from their employees?


Hire carefully

Small businesses can reduce their risk of data breaches by carefully screening all new employees before hiring them. “I would recommend business owners use all available resources to them to research any potential employee,” says Patrick Regan, an engineer with Single Digits, a company that provides managed networks, data/phone lines and managed IT services. “With the internet you can find out just about everything you need,” he adds. “Check Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networking pages, and call previous employers. Lastly, if it’s a role where they would have access to proprietary passwords or corporate infrastructure, spend the money on a criminal background check first.”


Costs for a criminal background check average around $100, although minimal information gleaned from public records can be purchased for as little as $30 online, according to Hire Right Express, a global provider of criminal background checks located in Irvine, CA. How much do you need to spend? It depends on your business needs, according to Rob Beatty, project manager at UMass Memorial Medical, Worcester MassachusettsIf your business is installing alarm systems, then a rather extensive background check would be something I would use,” he says. “If you’re a landscaping company, then its far less likely that your employees will have access to something that puts you or your company at risk.”


Strategically restrict access to data

The easiest way to prevent your employees from intentionally or accidentally breaching data security is to never grant them access to it in the first place. “Find out what’s absolutely essential for employees to know and share that,” advises Beatty.


In a report entitled Protecting Against Insider Attacks, the SANS Institute, which provides computer security training, recommends determining who currently has access to your company’s sensitive data. From that information a company can then determine which employees actually need that access to complete their job functions and responsibilities. Everyone else should lose access to that data, even if they’ve had access previously.


Conduct regular data back up

Data security is an ongoing responsibility, similar to the security of your company’s physical location. Every day, you lock the door and set the alarm to keep intruders out. Data security requires similar vigilance.


Protecting_Data_PQ.jpg

“If you have large amounts of data changing daily, and it’s important to keep that data accurate and up to date, then you need daily backups,” Beatty explains. If the data doesn’t change as frequently, then weekly or monthly backups are sufficient. Data backups should be either cloud-based or to a remote location if possible. If backups can only be performed on site, then keep backups stored off-site in a secure location. “Never leave your physical backups sitting in the same location as your data,” he warns. Not only does storing backups with your data make it easy for an ill-intentioned employee to snatch both, but “a disaster such as flooding or fire will take out your data along with your backup ensuring that recovery is impossible.”


Use ongoing monitoring

One of the most important components of internal data security is being vigilant about how your employees are accessing and using data on a daily basis. “If you're concerned employees are misusing data in any way, there are two ways to handle it,” Regan says. He recommends businesses consider investing in a firewall, which is a network security system that creates a barrier between your company’s computer network and the rest of the internet, thereby protecting a company against external attack. The other route he recommends is checking employees’ browsing history. Robert Moskowitz, a data security expert for Verizon, writing for the RSA Conference, an information security trade event, points out that business owners want to watch for changes in how their employees are accessing data. For instance, if an employee’s data access had been moderate and then suddenly he or she starts transferring five or ten times as much data, or accessing hundreds of database records, a business owner will want to investigate further and review user activity. Moskowitz also points out that most intentional data breaches are caused by disgruntled employees, such as those who have been passed over for promotion or recently laid off.


Terminate access quickly

Whether an employee quits, is fired, or is laid off on a temporary or permanent basis, terminating access to all of your company’s data is an essential task that must be completed immediately in order to protect your business. The first step is to disable the former employee’s user accounts and passwords. It’s also a good idea to change the passwords on any other company accounts the former employee may have had access to.


Data security is an ongoing commitment

Protecting your sensitive data from internal threats in an ongoing responsibility. It begins before you hire a new employee, continues through their employment with you, and extends to smart post-employment protection strategies. Being vigilant does take time, energy and resources, but these costs are far less than the tremendous expense associated with a data breach.

 

Location_Based_Marketing_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

As consumers rely increasingly on their mobile devices, some businesses are turning toward location-based marketing to stay connected. Location-based marketing uses technology that allows businesses to send messages to customers and prospects based on their physical proximity to the business, change offers quickly, and tailor highly specific ads to meet the needs of a customer at that moment. With around 75 percent of smartphone users relying on location-based services, according to a recent report by Pew Research, small businesses that jump on this new marketing tool could outpace their competition and hold onto a mobile customer base that shows no signs of staying put. 

 

Set objectives first

While the potential of targeting consumers as they near your business offers many opportunities for pulling them in, experts caution that you should first define your objectives before launching a location-based marketing campaign. "Different objectives might have different strategies. It's more important to start with what you want to accomplish," says Adam Kleinberg, CEO of Traction, a San Francisco-based interactive agency. "If you find that you have a lot of customers who are doing price comparisons in the aisle of your store, then it might make a lot of sense [to use location-based marketing]. On the other hand, if people are less likely to be using phones, it may be less opportune."

 

Social media and search engines, such as Facebook and Google, have services that can help small businesses partner with them to set up a location-based marketing plan in a defined geographic area. For example, Kleinberg says that he has gotten ads from a local donut shop within two blocks of his office through a Google search. And Traction put together a location-based marketing campaign for a neighborhood pizza parlor through the rating service Yelp.

 

Kleinberg says that ads in location-based marketing are much more simple and direct than traditional advertising. For example, a high resolution shot of the outside of your business with a short interesting call to action or time-sensitive offer can be a good way to test your ad.   

 

"Once you've got your objectives and goals, look for something that you can measure on an ongoing basis," Kleinberg says. "Try two different things side by side with slight variation so you're always improving. Digital marketing has the great power to set up simple experiments and improve results over time."

 

Creating custom content

"I think the biggest advantage of using location is just being more relevant to your customer and reaching them in a way that they want to be reached," says Brett Kohn, vice president of marketing for Thinknear by Telenav, a Silicon Valley-headquartered company that specializes in location marketing services. "We're starting to see more and more user traffic or customer traffic going mobile as opposed to finding them in the online world."

 

Location_Based_Marketing_PQ.jpg

Kohn says that "contextually relevant content" in your ad performs better. For example, a restaurant that wants to promote a new menu could send a message that not only tells a smartphone user how close they are to the restaurant by distance, but which also has a countdown clock to the event. "Those are small things, but they’re little triggers that hit the customer's mind and can actually trigger a change in behavior," Kohn explains. "We're using that context to make the ad more relevant."

 

While small businesses can certainly partner with Google or Facebook, Kohn says that they have a more standardized approach to marketing that might not lend itself to new or innovative approaches. Instead, businesses can work with companies that can help them tailor content to individual customers or selected groups of customers.

 

For example, Thinknear works with many local auto dealerships. "We'll allow each dealership to create their own content that we can actually serve out in a systematic way so that each individual dealer doesn't have to manage every single piece of content," Kohn says. "They can deliver different content in each local market—which makes the user feel that the ad was created just for their locality. So if you've got two towns that are 20 miles apart, you feel like you're getting the ad just for your town."

 

Listen to your audience

"Know your audience. Once you know where your audience is online, it's easier to target them," says Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur, author, and CEO of The Geek Factory, a New York City-based social media and PR strategy firm. "The best thing you can do is ask your audience how they like to get their information—what platform they want. Then it's really about listening. Find out what they like—what they're talking about—and give them something they covet."

 

Shankman says that marketing messages must benefit the customer and should be relevant. For example, an ad that says "Buy Our Product" will not necessarily entice a customer. However, a simple ad with a message keyed to the person's circumstances—such as a convenience store that advertises a buy one/get one free cool drink on a hot day—would work much better. "Market a straightforward request," Shankman explains. "Users on average spend two to three seconds looking at a mobile ad."

 

Small businesses that keep close tabs on specific Twitter words can use them to develop timely location-based marketing messages. "There is a restaurant in Seattle that monitors Twitter for the term 'Wheels down' and 'SEA,' which is the airport designation for Seattle," Shankman says. "When they get a 'Wheels down SEA,' they look to see if that Twitter handle has ever been to their restaurant before. Whether they have or they haven't, the restaurant reaches out and says either 'Welcome to Seattle' or 'Welcome back. If you're downtown tonight, show us this Tweet and stop by and the first drink is on us.' And they have a tremendous response rate to that."

I was recently speaking with the head of security for Intel Security and he relayed a chilling small business cybercrime story to me.

 

A small surf shop in Southern California had been in business for a decade (notice the use of the past tense.) The owner’s computer was full of customer lists, vendor information, bank account information, passwords; the whole nine yards. And like most small businesses, the owner gave little thought to the sensitivity of such information, until it was too late.

 

One morning he came into his store, turned on his computer and found that he was locked out of the system. Apparently, a piece of ransomware, a particularly virulent piece of malware, surreptitiously installed itself in his computer. The owner opened an email that was supposedly sent from the FBI. Once he opened the email, the virus installed in his computer which caused the computer to lock up.

Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png

Another way malware installs itself in various systems is by creating phony web pages and then stalking people through social media. For example, the message: “Hey Bill - Check out this amazing Michael Jackson video that was recently discovered!,” may pop up as a social media post. Bill then clicks the link (because it’s from one of his hundreds of “friends” on Facebook) and the malware instantly installs itself.

 

Malware can be a detriment to your business. In the case of the surf shop, it did two things:

 

  1. It made the owner have to pay a ransom to unlock his computers. It’s called “Ransomware” for a reason. Typically, the software demands that the locked out computer owner pay a ransom of say, $500, to get an unlock code. Many small business owners opt to just pay it, like the surf shop owner.
  2. The surf shop owner got angry (of course) in the middle of the transaction and cancelled his payment. By doing so, the malware then deleted all of his records from the past 10 years.

 

It put him out of business.

 

When most of us think about cyber-security, breaches of large corporations like Target come to mind. But the fact is, small businesses are far more likely to be targeted than larger businesses or corporations. There are two main reasons for this: First, small businesses tend to not have cybersecurity software installed. This makes them easier targets, and second, when a small business pays a ransom (or has its bank account cleaned out, etc.), it doesn’t make the news in the way that similar security breaches of larger corporations do.

 

Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss

 

In fact, the Target security breach (in which the data regarding some 80 million credit cards was stolen) was actually the fault of a small business. Target, like all large corporations, has tons of redundant cybersecurity systems in place. But one of its vendors – a small heating and air conditioning company – had none. So the crooks burrowed into the small business’ computers, and then when that company logged into the Target system to submit its invoice, the malware transferred from the small company’s computers to Target’s mainframe computers.

 

So the lesson is clear: As a small business owner, you simply must protect your computer system with cybersecurity software. And, not only do you need to have this protection on your main work computers, but it’s also just as important   that the programs are  installed on your laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. If you ever access your bank account from your mobile device, you get why that is.

 

So the best advice from the best experts is that cybersecurity is something small businesses need to take very seriously. You need to learn what suspicious online activity looks like -opening unknown attachments, clicking suspicious links, not downloading software or updates from unknown sites and sources, etc.. Teach these best practices to your employees, and protect your systems with a cybersecurity software suite.

 

Do it now. The life of your business may depend on it.


About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.

http://www.smallbusinessonlinecommunity.bankofamerica.com/people/Steve%20Strauss/content

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here



Crowdfunding_body.jpgby Erin O’Donnell.


One of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns of all time raised more than $100,000 from 160,000 supporters in six months. The project? Funding the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The platform? Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper.


The year was 1885. Pulitzer’s campaign shared many of the hallmarks of a successful crowdfunding campaign: It had an emotional pull—the statue was a gift that couldn’t be received properly until the pedestal was built. It kept supporters updated regularly. It offered rewards for contributors. And it succeeded in a short span of time fueled by small donations that added up to about $2.5 million in today’s dollars.


The crowdfunding that’s taking place today began as a way for creative endeavors to get grassroots support, amplified by social media. Now, a growing number of entrepreneurs are interested in raising capital online and are bringing their ideas to websites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, FundRazr, RocketHub, and others. In 2012, business and entrepreneurship was the second most active crowdfunding category after social causes, according to GoGetFunding.com. This alternative method of raising business capital can be used alone or together with traditional funding from investors or small business loans.


“The entrepreneur is seeing a paradigm shift into the cloud and the crowd,” says attorney Michael Melfi, author of The Simple Secrets of Crowdfunding. “It’s transitioning the way entrepreneurs do business.”


How crowdfunding works

An individual or company submits a campaign to a crowdfunding site; some, like Kickstarter, require approval. The campaign sets a funding goal, a deadline (usually 30-60 days), and reward levels for supporters, whose contributions function as donations rather than equity investments. In most cases, you must meet your goal to receive any funding; if you fall short, you get nothing. The website takes its fee, usually four percent to five percent, only when a campaign succeeds, but newer sites are starting to offer variations. Indiegogo, for instance, has a flexible plan that charges four percent if you reach your goal and nine percent if you don’t—but you get to keep what you raised even if you fall short. Businesses also must pay transaction fees of three percent to five percent of the total raised.


In 2013, crowdfunding campaigns in the United States raised more than $2.7 billion overall. According to research firm Massolution, that number is projected to more than double this year. As competition for “backer” dollars grows exponentially, how can a small business stand out from the pack? Successful projects do at least four things well, experts say:

  • Build up a network, and credibility, before launching a campaign
  • Craft a solid business plan
  • Use compelling messages, especially video, to connect with supporters
  • Communicate with backers during and after the campaign

Melfi, who practices intellectual property law, also serves as general counsel for Funderbuilt, a crowdfunding portal designed for small businesses. Funderbuilt offers members a toolbox of resources to guide their preparation, and then scores each campaign with a Funderfactor. The process requires business owners to think through their business plans, Melfi says.


“It is opening doors for people who historically may not have thought of themselves as entrepreneurs,” Melfi says. “What’s exciting is that you’re seeing all kinds of entrepreneurs. For the person who’s been a successful entrepreneur or who already has some backing, they may turn to crowdfunding more for proof of concept.”


Build your network first

That’s what Bright Agrotech did when it lacked the cash flow to make a prototype for a new product line. The Laramie, Wyoming-based company created the ZipGrow tower, a vertical farming system. Founded in 2010, the company used YouTube videos to cultivate a following among the “eat local” and sustainable farming movement, says Chris Michael, director of marketing and operations. In 2012, the company leveraged that following to raise about $28,000 via Kickstarter, which enabled them to make the molds for a new home gardening product called the Spring System. They surpassed their goal by about $8,000.


“The idea was, we could outsource the funding of the development process to a degree,” Michael said.


In its first year, Bright Agrotech made about $10,000 in sales. This year, Michael says, the company is on track to reach $1 million, with about 15 percent of sales now coming from the new product. Michael says the company is proud to have bootstrapped its growth and remained true to the values that appealed to its customers in the first place.


“It allows us to stay super agile and keep the company moving without having to appease people who are not connected at a fundamental level to our company goals,” he says.


Offer an emotional investment, too

People who support crowdfunded projects want to feel they are part of the process, Melfi says, helping to turn a dream into reality.


Mike Whitehead knew cooks were rediscovering the superior qualities of cast iron and were concerned about potential health risks from aluminum and Teflon. But premium cast iron cookware was hard to find in the U.S., and vintage skillets were selling for up to $400 on online auction sites. So Whitehead founded FINEX Cast Iron Cookware Co. in 2012, updating the traditional skillet with an octagonal shape and a quick-cooling handle.


Ron Khormaei, who came on board as CEO the following year, had shepherded Kickstarter campaigns for other businesses. Khormaei could see the nostalgic appeal of the product and suggested crowdfunding to finance the company’s first production run. In 2013, FINEX, based in Portland, Oregon,  shot past its goal of $25,000, raising $211,027 from 1,558 backers on Kickstarter. A second campaign to fund production of a smaller skillet met its goal on day one, Khormaei says.


Whitehead became the face of FINEX, Khormaei says, through compelling YouTube videos and regular progress updates to their Kickstarter backers on manufacturing.


“That communication helped build a community,” Khormaei said. “They looked at FINEX as friends rather than a company. That’s definitely a requirement for any real success in crowdfunding.”


Develop a dialogue with supporters

Khormaei said that good will came in handy when the company suffered from its own success. They had planned on an initial production run of 250 skillets, but received nearly 1,800 orders. Khormaei says the company communicated early to its Kickstarter backers when they realized there would be a delay, and emailed them regular updates about the production cycle. Many of their supporters responded positively, saying they were willing to wait for a high-quality product from a company whose values appealed to them. Khormaei noted that people who support crowdfunding typically want to invest in ideas, not just shop for products.


When Molly Lofthouse launched Lenz Frenz, a line of stuffed animals that contain an eyeglasses case for children, she used email and social media to meet mini-goals along the way, and thanked supporters by name on Facebook.


“On Facebook, I would say, ‘Who’s going to get us to $2,000?’” Lofthouse said. “I got us to bump up our contributions several times doing that.” In February, Lofthouse met her $20,000 goal on Kickstarter. All 12 versions of Lenz Frenz are now in production and for sale through the company website. Lenz Frenz has also participated in two toy industry trade shows this year to attract large retailers.


Before the campaign, Lofthouse also reached out to bloggers and associations focused on kids’ vision issues to create buzz. She kept them updated, along with customers, both during and after the campaign, to build anticipation for the product when it went on the market. Afterward, she thanked supporters and also threw a party for those who could make it to her hometown of Austin, Texas.


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Make rewards unique or meaningful

Rewards are a key incentive for crowdfunding support, and they’re part of the fun that appeals to backers. Many businesses thank donors by offering their product or service at a steep discount. Collector’s editions and personalization are popular as well.


Think about what else you can offer exclusively. Lenz Frenz’ top supporters received the first fruits of the initial product run they helped finance, along with the other rewards Lofthouse offered at lower levels. Bright Agrotech offered a reward level that unlocked a video tour of its greenhouse. Creative projects like film or music have offered top supporters the chance to make a cameo, meet the artist, or name a character in a book.


Leveling the playing field

Khormaei says crowdfunding helps to level the playing field, especially for entrepreneurs who don’t live close to centers of finance and venture or angel capital. Melfi says it also helps them to build up assets before they approach a bank for a loan. Or it can improve their negotiating position with venture capitalists.


“If done properly, crowdfunding tees up the entrepreneur for the next level,” Melfi said.

Social_Media_Advertising_body.jpgBy Jennifer Shaheen.

 

More than two-thirds of business owners are planning to increase their social media advertising during the upcoming holiday season, according to an annual survey of retailers and marketing professionals by Offerpop, a digital marketing company. The survey also reports that Facebook is going to capture 92 percent of this increased spending. As a small business owner, should you join the crowds and increase your social media advertising?

 

Social media advertising boosts visibility & drives sales

The holiday sales period is absolutely critical for many small businesses. Yahoo Business reports that the final two months of the year can account for up to 40 percent of some small businesses’ annual revenues.

 

Social media advertising definitely has a role to play in driving those sales, says Carmella Lanni, an e-commerce specialist with Moleskine America, a company that sells luxury notebooks. “Advertising helps to create exposure, build awareness and could possibly become a viable sales driver,” she says. “However, it needs to be connected to a strategy built on your goals for social media and how you want to be viewed by your customers. You want sales, but you also want to create an experience for consumers in your specific industry.”

 

A year-round practice

While social media advertising can get your company more attention and sales, it’s not a magic elixir that will fix all of your marketing problems. “If this is the only time of year that you are going to do a targeted social media push, then I do not think it is worth the investment,” says Todd Mansfield, CEO and co-founder of Pagatim, which creates custom audio content. “You will be lost in the crowd.” He recommends that business owners take a longer view, committing to regularly appearing content that has lasting value instead of trying to do it all during the holiday season.

 

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Boost advertising effectiveness with storytelling

The holiday classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life contains valuable social media marketing lessons, according to Mansfield. Why? “Because it’s an amazing story that so many people can relate to,” he says. “Try to do that with your social media. Don’t push your product. Push great stories that are happening in the world and you will gain a kinship with people.”

 

In a very competitive marketplace, many business owners feel forced to slash prices. Mansfield cautions against making lower prices the exclusive focus of your social media advertising. “If you are just trying to meet your annual sales goal by pushing hard deals at the end of the year, how are you going to stay connected with those people for the next twelve months? They may come find you again next December, but they won’t be looking for you between January 15th and December 1st.”

 

Research platforms before you launch your social media advertising

While the vast majority of social media advertising may take place on Facebook, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where you need to be marketing your business. “Understand the social media channels where your target consumer groups are most active and engaged,” Lanni says. If your customers spend more time on Pinterest, the Knot, or other social media platforms, then that’s where your social media advertising will be most effective. As an added bonus, the ad volume on social media platforms other than Facebook is lower, meaning there’s less competition for your customer’s attention.

 

Test early, test often

To make sure you’re getting the most out of your social media advertising budget, you’re going to want to assess how well your ads are working for you. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest all provide reports that show how many people have seen and engaged with your advertising. Lanni recommends accessing this information as soon as it becomes available. “Test ad performance on relevant channels as early as possible to understand costs, data trends, and most importantly, customer interaction,” she says. If you don’t like what you see, adjust either your ad’s content or the targeting strategy you’re using to get better results.

 

Review performance after the holidays

The best way to determine if the investment in social media advertising was a wise one is to assess performance after the fact. Schedule time in January to analyze your sales numbers, your social media advertising spending, and the relationship between these figures. This information will help you determine your social media advertising strategies going forward.

 

David-Solis3.pngBy David Solis

 

I’m stating the obvious when I say that technology has completely changed the small business landscape in recent years. With the widespread adoption and availability of new technology tools, small businesses are now able to keep up with their big business counterparts. However, technology can be a blessing and a curse for small business owners because of the learning curve that comes with it, as well as the additional resources that may be required.

 

Earlier this month, I participated in a Google+ Hangout, part of Bank of America’s Small Business Social Series. With the help of our moderator, CNBC Contributor Carol Roth, and participants Steve Strauss (small business columnist for USA Today) and Jason Teichman (Chief Operating Officer for Web.com), we discussed top tech trends of today, and how small businesses can leverage technology for business success in the future.

 

You can watch the full event here, but some of our key takeaways included:

 

An online and social presence is worth it. Even if you don’t transact on the web, a website is crucial to any small business. A website gives your business credibility, as most customers look online first. Much like a website, social media is also a must-have for small businesses. Find the social platforms your customers use and then develop a strategy to be on those platforms in order to get in front of your customers.

 

Consider Mobility. To take your business and online presence to the next level, mobility is a great solution for small businesses. Make sure your website is mobile-optimized, as customers are now more likely to search online on a mobile device than on a traditional computer. Mobility can also be extended to your point-of-sale solution with a tablet-based POS, like Bank of America’s Clover™ Station. In fact, tablet-based POS systems are proving cheaper for small businesses than traditional registers and can provide valuable data-based insights over time as well.

 

Big Data and the cloud aren’t just for enterprises. Big Data doesn’t have to be “big” to be insightful and actionable. By measuring a few key factors like financials, customer surveys or web analytics, you can find big business insights on a small business scale. Much like Big Data, the cloud can also be adopted on a small business scale. The cloud allows your data to be stored, protected and accessible 24/7, around the globe, from any device – allowing you to work on the same scale as big businesses.

 

Stay current to stay competitive. Outdated technology, or a lack of technology, can be a red flag to customers and potential customers. Steve Strauss of USA Today drove this home for viewers, stating, “Technology doesn’t cost, it pays!” Small business owners need to challenge themselves to embrace tech and invest in what they need.

 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a small business owner, you wear a lot of hats. Instead of adding another responsibility to your plate, find a partner or technology expert you trust who can help determine the ROI of a technology within the context of your cash flow and business goals. Partners like your small business banker and online resources like Web.com can assist you with technology maintenance and financing.

 

Technology is leveling the playing field to help small businesses compete with their larger counterparts, allowing your key differentiator to be about how connected your business is versus its size. Get passionate about technology and see how it can benefit your business!

 

You can get learn more about technology and small businesses by watching the 30-minute video of the event or you can read about how small business owners of all ages are really using technology in our fall 2014 Small Business Owner Report.

Video Replay of the Live Google Hangout: How Small Businesses Can Take Advantage of the Biggest Technology Developments

 

 

Welcome to the Small Business Social Series sponsored by Bank of America. The panel discusses top technology trends and how small businesses can take advantage of them at a relatively low cost and with low effort. Topics include smart ways to manage your customers and your transactions, big data, and leveraging mobile tools.

 

The panel is moderated by Carol Roth and you will hear from:

  • David Solis, National Sales Executive, Bank of America Small Business
  • Jason Teichman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Web.com
  • Steve Strauss, Small business columnist, USA Today

One of the interesting things about being in business for yourself these days is that not only must you be an entrepreneur, but you probably have to be a content creator too. Between websites, e-newsletters, social media posts, and blogs, creating content has become part of the fabric of owning a small business.

 

I would like to drill down on that last idea today – blogging. If you don’t have a blog, consider getting one, for three reasons.

  • First, a blog is a nice, friendly way to communicate with customers and potential customers alike. By its very nature, blogging is an informal communications tool, and that’s great. As opposed to other forms of business writing, a blog allows you to let your personality shine through and relate to readers in a more personal, less formal way.
  • Second, a blog can help you build your brand and establish yourself as a credible authority in your area of expertise. Your blog will allow you to share what you know, and let readers discover how much you do in fact know. And then, when they need whatever it is you sell, they will (hopefully!) remember you and that great blog of yours. You will be seen as the expert.
  • Third, a blog is keyword rich; You end up creating content full of keywords, and that helps search engines rank your site higher which probably means more page views for your business.

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Given that, the important thing is knowing how to write a great blog post. Here are six tips to get you going:

 

Tip #1 – Be conversational: One of the best parts of blogging is that you can be more personal in a blog. As such, you can write in a conversational tone and don’t think you have to be a “writer” to do so. If you just let you and your personality shine through, and use good grammar, you will be on your way.

 

Tip #2 – Have a point: Share an insider tip. Tell a good story – perhaps about an experience you recently had with your business that somehow relates to your customers. Post some valuable resources. People have plenty to read these days (too much, actually), so the key is to create a blog that they would find interesting, funny, useful, etc. The key is to not be boring.

 

Tip #3 – Make it visual: The Internet is now driven by images, and the more media you have within the blog, the more people will be attracted to it. Pictures can illustrate ideas in the blog, or they can be used to underscore a tone. For example, if you are writing a blog reviewing a product, add in a picture of a person using that product, rather than just one of the product. Readers will relate to the person better than the object.

 

Tip #4 – Follow the six sentence rule: When writing the text for the post, you want to make sure that you try to follow the “six sentence rule.” Writing online is different than writing offline; online, your paragraphs need to be short, six sentences or less. Save the longer paragraphs for when you are explaining a concept. Also, if you place a picture between the paragraphs it will create a richer experience for the reader and they will be much more likely to retain the information you present. (This paragraph is long, and it has five sentences.)

 

Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss

 

Tip #5 – Understand SEO: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the art of having search engines such as Google and Bing rank your site highly in relevant search results. There are two ways your blog can help with this.

 

First, be sure to use keywords and key phrases as needed – don’t stuff your blog with them because that doesn’t work and can in fact be a detriment. Keywords should be adequately supported by the content of the blog so their use makes sense within the post. You should also make sure you are using headings and sub-headings in the text.

 

Second, your blog’s SEO can be increased by links. Having other blogs and sites link to your blog is a signal to Google that your blog is valuable (valuable enough that others will link to it.) You can get links by 1) creating great content, and 2) linking to other sites and blogs and requesting that they link back to you.

 

Tip #6 – Make sure the title is clear: This last tip will help you gain traffic. Make sure that the title of the blog post reflects the content. Instead of a title like “Blue dreams come alive!” when you are writing about pool party ideas, be more specific such as, “5 Ways to Make summers come alive with pool parties.” It’s beneficial to do this because 1) people who are searching for pool party ideas will use the words “pool party” and not “blue dreams,” and 2) it will generate more clicks because people will know what it is they are clicking. Look on top media sites like BuzzFeed or Huffington Post to see how the pros of syndication and click-throughs do it.

Finally, consider using numbered lists in your title; people like them, such as, well, “6 Tips for writing a great blog post”!

 

About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.

http://www.smallbusinessonlinecommunity.bankofamerica.com/people/Steve%20Strauss/content

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here

 

 


Neighborhood_Matters_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.


Being a business owner in a community is a lot like being a homeowner, says Mitch Hoffman, founder and CEO of Building Blocks Early Learning Center, a preschool chain with three locations in Connecticut. “You want to be friends with your neighbors,” he adds. Hoffman credits local social media groups as a way to get to know and strengthen relationships with his neighbors, and also as an effective tool to generate new business.


“A significant percentage of our new business comes from online referrals,” he says. “We currently serve over 300 families, and many of the parents are members of community groups online. We’ve found that when parents have childcare conversations our name comes up because we’re doing a good job for these families—and parents are following up on recommendations they receive online.”


Of course, before you can participate in local conversations you need to know where they are taking place.  “We very aggressively search for and follow the active organizations in our communities, both on Facebook and Twitter,” says Hoffman. “It’s helpful for the parents to see us in these conversations. It shows that we care about what they care about.”


The local side of Facebook

Facebook is the largest social media platform in the world, but it’s also where many people go first when they’re looking for a community connection. To connect with your customers, you’ll want to look for neighborhood groups.  Some are open to all, while others have moderated membership, where you’ll have to ask to join and be approved by the group administrator.


Be aware that, depending on the size of your community, there may be several Facebook groups. You’ll want to make sure that you apply to join the group that is both relevant to your business and has a consistent level of activity. For instance, if you own a pastry shop, there’s no sense in joining an auto-racing enthusiasts group that hasn’t had any posts since February 2012.


Neighborhood_Matters.jpg

Nextdoor: A private social media network

Nextdoor, which launched in 2011, is a private social media network that limits membership to the residents of specific neighborhoods. To join a community group, a business or resident must verify both their identity and address. This level of security is designed to create an environment where members feel safe discussing local issues without the entire world watching. “Privacy is the cornerstone of building a trusting community, where neighbors feel comfortable sharing information with each other,” says Nextdoor CEO Sarah Leary.


“Business owners are encouraged to join Nextdoor as individual members to connect with their neighborhood and local community,” explains Carla Nikitaidis, director of communications for Nextdoor. She cautions that while many people use Nextdoor to search for a reliable babysitter or handyman, the site is not designed for self-promotion. “Some neighborhoods have chosen to post a policy on self-promotion to help deter neighbors and business owners from excessively self-promoting,” she adds.


Co-founder Nirav Tolia has said that offering local advertising may be in Nextdoor’s future; however, that option is not available at this time.


Action builds local relationships online

Hoffman says he makes a point of connecting with relevant local non-profits, and throughout the year, his business strives to make a meaningful contribution to these groups. “We hold clothing and food drives on behalf of these organizations, for example,” Hoffman says, adding that both the drives and results are discussed by his customers on local social media.


When Hoffman hosts an event, he says he will choose a local deli to cater it. “There’s a florist down the street,” he adds. “That’s where we go for flowers when we’re having an Open House.” Hoffman recommends reinforcing  those relationships by linking your local activity to social media posts. This gives your vendors some positive publicity and generates goodwill towards your business. “This is all part of building that neighborhood feel,” Hoffman adds. “We all have to work together.”

Staying_Productive_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

Traveling on business can evoke a mixed reaction from small business owners. On the one hand, some enjoy escaping from the office, meeting with clients and prospects face-to-face, and getting a fresh perspective. But others view it as physically draining and a hindrance to efficiency that puts them behind schedule upon their return. While there is some truth to all these claims, experienced road warriors have discovered ways to conduct business—often getting more done while they're away—and enjoy their outings at the same time. We asked three experts and frequent travelers for their productivity secrets as they crisscrossed the country.

 

Stick to routine

Being on the road can provide the time and opportunity to stay in touch with clients and prospects in a variety of ways. "I schedule calls when I'm at the airport and when I get to my hotel," says Neen James, a Doylestown, Pennsylvania-based leadership expert and keynote speaker. "I'll notify clients that I'm traveling so there's an understanding that it might be a little noisy in the background," she says. James also likes to carry stamped stationery and uses her travel time to handwrite thank you notes to business contacts. 

 

At the hotel, James turns her room into an office on the road and sticks to a streamlined schedule: turning the desk into her computer workstation and keeping the TV off. She leverages her time by ordering room service and catching up on "things to review, articles I might be writing, journals to read, presentations—things that need to be done, but aren't urgent."

 

James insists on making time for exercise, booking hotels with good gyms, asking the concierge for safe tracks nearby to maintain her running regimen, or following an exercise app on her laptop that can be done in her room. "You want to mirror your at-home routines while you're on the road," James says. "So make sure you're relaxing into the evening and not trying to clear emails or having the phone beside your bed constantly messaging."

 

James devotes the first leg of her travel to the client, reading the extensive file she has put together. But the trip home is for her—whether it's reading for enlightenment or watching an inspiring video—allowing her to develop herself as well as her business.

 

Set realistic expectations

As with other aspects of travel, using plane time efficiently comes down to personal style. "While we're getting ready to fly, I allow myself a little recreation time and read on my Kindle until whatever service comes through," says Bud Bilanich, a Denver, Colorado-based career mentor and bestselling author. "After that, I've disciplined myself to pull up my computer to work for the next two-thirds of most plane flights. So if I arrive at a hotel in the evening, I'm more likely to order room service and continue working because I have this momentum built up."


Bilanich uses his evenings at the hotel to prepare for client meetings or answer emails, but winds down early to acclimate himself to the new time zone. Traveling means making unavoidable adjustments to regular patterns. For example, Bilanich exercises mid-morning when he's at home, but switches to an early morning workout on the road.

 

From long experience, Bilanich learned an important lesson about setting realistic expectations for the amount of work he could get done while he was away. "I try to limit myself to a couple of hours of work, either in the morning or in the evening," he says. "I find that if I set a time limit for myself and commit to it, I can get more done because I know exactly what I'm trying to accomplish. The idea of setting that deadline keeps me more focused and I work more diligently than if it were just open-ended."

 

Staying_Productive_PQ.jpgMeet new people

Some business travelers will break up their schedule into manageable blocks of time tailored to their personality and strengths. "On an airplane, 30 minutes is about my attention span," says Jason Womack, an Ojai, California-based executive coach and author of Your Best Just Got Better. "A flight from Los Angeles to New York is 10 30-minute chunks. I'll actually plan 5 to 7 of them before I take my seat."

 

Womack devotes his hotel time to four principal areas: consumption and creation of content, exercise, and rest. Like Neen James, he usually refrains from watching television and concentrates instead on reading or working on projects related to business-building or client meetings. 

 

To keep his energy level high, Womack plans 20-minute workouts before he hits the road and has enlisted the help of a trainer who sends him a new set of 20- to 30-minute routines periodically. "If you're not doing 20 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, how on earth are you going to take care of your family, your staff, and your clients?" he says. "You have to take care of yourself first."

 

To build his business and have fun in new locations at the same time, Womack has a unique way to invite prospects, or anyone interesting for that matter, to socialize with him.

 

"I started a group called Coffee Chat," Womack explains. "As I travel around the world, I'll pick a morning in a city and say: 'I'm going to be eating breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 7:15 a.m. at this particular coffee shop. Come on by. I'll get you a copy of the book and we'll have a short conversation.' I can absolutely track back business development ideas, product development ideas, and network ideas based on people I've met along the way. While you're traveling, there's a real temptation to follow the itinerary that was planned and get back home to your family. With two extra hours on the ground, you may just shift how successful your business is 12 months from now. I'm always thinking: in 365 days, who will I be spending time with that will help push my business to that next level?"

 

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