David_Newman_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

Turn to any page in Do It! Marketing by David Newman, a thought leader expert and business consultant to entrepreneurs, and you encounter checklists and bullet points and boxes and numbered lists and worksheets and templates. Instead of being a confusing jumble of ideas, they are actually a cohesive toolbox for small business owners to kick their company toward bigger profits and outpace their competitorsdelivered in a high energy, infectious, and often playful tone and style. Business writer Robert Lerose spoke with the Philadelphia-based Newman about some of his compelling ideas, such as the uselessness of sales training and the correct way to follow up with prospects, as well as the one thing business owners should do to thrive in 2015.

 

RL: Early in the book, you write that "you need to sell the same way that you buy." What does that mean?

DN: How do we buy? We buy from people that we know, like, and trust. Your main job as an entrepreneur is to get seen, so raise your visibility and credibility in front of your target market. The primary purpose of selling anything as an entrepreneur is to offer value and invite engagement. Inviting engagement might be asking for the sale, commenting on a blog post, getting an email address, joining a Facebook or LinkedIn group. If you really anchor yourself in how you buy, that's the same sort of relationship building and value-offering and engagement strategy that you want to deploy on behalf of your business.

 

RL: You say that people in business need to ask themselves what they want to be known for and to establish a thought leadership platform. What did you mean by that?

DN: I think the big danger that all of us face—I know I faced it when I started my entrepreneurial career—is that we think that our products and services and programs are for everybody. But the truth is, the narrower the focus, the easier all of your sales and marketing and business development tasks become. The thought leadership platform is: how do I amplify that [focus] or share it with the world? When you become known for something, that's really important for your targeting and your specialization. When you build a thought leadership platform, now you're opening up the tent. You're inviting people in by sharing content and experiences, by sharing your expertise. It could be on your blog, on YouTube videos, podcasts, and articles that you write.

 

RL: Example?

DN: One of the bars that I set really really high for small business owners is this: is your marketing material too good to throw away? I got a flyer about 10 years ago from a company called Digital Color Graphics. They specialized in printing marketing and sales material for small and solo business owners. The flyer was filled with marketing information, resources, tips, tactics, strategies, tools, and websites. I tried to throw it away three or four times, but I couldn’t because I knew that I'd need to refer to it. That's what I mean by a thought leadership platform—you become known for being the specialist and the expert and the ultimate authority for a particular product or service.

 

RL: You claim that customers aren't interested in how you do what you do, whether it's your process or your proprietary technology. Really? They don't care?

DN: No, not in the beginning. First, they have a problem. Second, they think that you or your company can fix it. Third, they think it's worth putting in some time and money to fix this problem. Fourth, [they ask] who can fix it most effectively? Now they might be interested in your 17-point process. The other thing is the FSB effect—Faster, Smarter, Better. The only reason they're going to care about your proprietary methodology is if it makes something faster, smarter, or better for them.

 

RL: What is a Marketing Language Bank and what can it do for a business?

DN: A Marketing Language Bank is the collection of all of your sound bites, bullets, headlines, sub-headlines—all of the things that you would say about your product, its value, its impact, its result. The best place to start is to think about your best buyers and what they've said to you. What have they said about their situation when they've bought from you? What have they said about their situation when they didn't buy from you? Once you've developed this Marketing Language Bank, you'll never face a blank screen again because everything has been strategically thought out and articulated. Now you've got 5 or 20 or 30 of these little sound bites and conversational phrases and pain points and benefits and outcomes and results that you can talk to and with. It's a predefined bucket that you can continuously reach into for all of your articulation, messaging, and distinction.

 

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RL: You're not in favor of business owners or entrepreneurs getting sales training. Why not?

DN: Most entrepreneurs who've been in business for any length of time come out of a sales training program and go wow—that doesn't fit me at all. A lot of sales training—especially old school sales training, which sadly is about 80 percent of sales training today—is based on manipulation. It's based on being a different person when you're wearing your sales hat than when you're being a regular person. Don't worry about being a good salesperson. Worry about being a good person and you will sell a lot more successfully. That means establishing rapport, listening, tying your products and services to their specific situation, being spontaneous, being authentic, and having a sense of humor. Pretend that you're selling to your best friend. You would not cheat or manipulate your best friend. Why would you do that to a good prospect?

 

RL: You say that business owners should stop wasting their time following up. Isn't persistence part of a sales strategy?

DN: Sales is not a numbers game. Sales is a timing game. A very different but way more effective follow-up strategy is a value strategy. How can you stay connected to customers and prospects? [You send them] a resource or a web link or a video that they might find valuable or a checklist that you just developed. So that when they need your product or service, they'll have to call you because you've been so helpful and you're always sending them material. In fact, you might be the only person they call. You might have already wiped out all the competition by continuously showing up in their world as a happy squeaky wheel.

 

RL: How can small business owners make 2015 an outstanding year? 

DN: This is going to seem old school, but here it is: be really great at what you do because everything hinges on that. Over deliver and over service the clients and customers you have right now because they're going to do the marketing for you. If you get what matters most right—taking extreme care of your current customers and clients, getting them so happy and so excited that they're going to come back, and refer [others to you]—it takes some of the marketing burden off of your plate and gives them an opportunity to market for you and market with you.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SBOM_Credential_body1.jpgIn our latest installment of SBC’s small business spotlight, we meet Steven Smith, chairman of Credential Check Corp., a workforce screening services-company based in Troy, Michigan. In a recent interview with business writer Susan Caminiti, Smith speaks about how the company got started, the role technology played in its early success, and why in business it’s important to keep an open mind.

 

by Susan Caminiti.

 

In his long career as an entrepreneur, Steven Smith has learned not to dismiss those seemingly outlandish ideas that come his way. “When I’m ready to have a visceral reaction to some crazy request or business idea, I’ll stop and think it through first before making a decision,” he says.

 

That strategy has served him well. As chairman of Credential Check Corp., Smith has built his workforce screening services company with deliberate decision-making when it comes to people and ideas. It’s a method that has enabled him to attract nearly 1,000 corporate clients—Fortune 500 companies among them—and post annual revenue of nearly $5 million.

 

SBOM_Credential_body2.jpgIn the mid-1990s, Smith was running several businesses, including Smith Security, a company he founded to provide corporations with uniformed security guards for their headquarters. A local business acquaintance in Ann Arbor, Michigan named Jerry Wright approached him one day with an idea: Would Smith like to buy his security assessment and workplace violence prevention business?

           

Wright’s company was successful, but as an Ann Arbor police sergeant, he had no interest in overseeing the administrative side of his growing business. “When Jerry asked me, my first thought was ‘Why on earth would I want to buy your company?’” Smith recalls. But after his initial resistance, the idea began to make more sense. The businesses were complementary, and the purchase would allow Smith to spread his security company’s substantial IT, legal, and back-office expenses over a greater base of revenue. “Plus, I knew Jerry and had the greatest regard for him,” Smith recalls.

 

The arrangement proved successful and over the next few years the combined businesses flourished. However, it wasn’t until an annual budget meeting in early 1998 that the seeds of Credential Check were actually planted.

 

At the time, databases for pre-employment screening were just beginning to come online. Wright had been doing about 10 background checks a month for different clients, Smith recalls, but the process was slow and involved mainly phone calls to track down the information needed. Wright requested $15,000 to purchase PCs to access the databases electronically.

 

SBOM_Credential_PQ.jpg

“Again, it was another one of those moments when my visceral reaction was to say, ‘No, we have a Unix computer system, we don’t need to spend money on PCs,’ but I listened to him and waited before responding,” Smith says. He eventually approved the purchase and the company that would later be renamed Credential Check, was born. Says Smith: “We didn’t agonize over the name. It says what we do.”

 

Today, the Troy, Michigan-based company does over 10,000 pre-employment background checks a week for clients in a variety of industries including defense, energy, staffing, entertainment, manufacturing, and healthcare. Smith says clients can receive a full report on a potential new hire within 48 hours to 72 hours in an easy-to-read format.

 

“We deal with the human resource professionals who don’t have the time to do the kind of background checks we do,” Smith explains. Depending on the type of job responsibilities involved, Credential Check can do criminal and civil records searches, access consumer credit report and driving records, and arrange for substance abuse testing.

 

Michael Pachuta, who joined the company in 1998 and was named president in 2001, says one of Credential Check’s greatest opportunities for expansion is with a service it offers called CC-Verify. “This service allows clients to manage the training, testing, and validation of suppliers, contractors, and sub-contractors who have routine, yet unescorted, access to their facilities,” he says.

 

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Credential Check’s growth has required additional real estate and technology financing, says Jason Baroni, the company’s Bank of America small business banker (SBB). “Down the road, we can also handle financing for any acquisitions they choose to make,” he says. “Credential Check is a really interesting client because they’re a direct indicator of how much—or how little—hiring is being done in the economy.”

 

Like all growing businesses, Credential Check’s path has not been without its challenges. In 1999, a year after prompting Smith to make the move to electronic databases, Wright suffered a heart attack at age 53 and passed away. “It was a horrible time,” Smith recalls. “Jerry was so young and within a week my wife had me in a cardiologist’s office to have my heart checked.”

 

The profile of the business also changed. Shortly after Wright’s death, Smith decided to sell the uniformed security guards portion of the company. “I realized I wanted to step away from the daily CEO role and this part of the business was the biggest user of my time,” he says.

 

He and Pachuta agreed that the best course of action for Credential Check would be to concentrate on background checks, the part of the business that provides a steady, recurring revenue stream. Pachuta handles the new business development and client relationships, while Smith oversees finance, accounting, and human resources. And although he splits his time between Credential Check’s Michigan headquarters and a home in South Florida, Smith says he and Pachuta typically talk “several times a day.”

 

“The beauty of my role now is that I don’t have to be in the office everyday, but I can communicate with Michael whenever we need to, from wherever I am,” Smith says. “Technology is just unbelievable.”

Video Replay of the Live Google Hangout: Exploring Generational Differences Among Small Businesses Owners

 

 

Welcome to this video replay of the Small Business Social Series sponsored by Bank of America.  The panel discusses the generational differences among U.S. small business owners and what this means for the small business landscape.  This discussion was moderated by Carol Roth.

 

In this video you will hear from:

  • Robb Hilson Small Business Executive,Bank of America
  • Dan Schawbel, Career & Workplace Expert
  • Steve Strauss, Small business columnist, USA Today

Robb-Hilson3.pngAs the youngest Baby Boomers turn 50, Gen-Xers mature into middle age and Millennials charge into the working world, the small business community is feeling a shift in the way business is done. Among these generations, there are notable differences in attitude, management style and skillsets. But how do these variances affect the way entrepreneurs run their business and influence the economy?

 

Here at Bank of America, we focused on these generational differences in the fall iteration of our bi-annual Small Business Owner Report, which examines the concerns, aspirations and perspectives of small business owners (SBOs) across the country. The overall findings of the report will be explored in January’s Bank of America Small Business Social Series Google+ Hangout. Here are some of the key findings we’ll delve into:

 

Millennials are the most optimistic about their business’s revenue and the economy

It likely comes as no surprise that the youngest generation, Millennial SBOs, have the greatest optimism about the economy. More than three-quarters predict their revenue will increase over the next 12 months and 82 percent believe their local economy will improve. Boomers expressed the least optimism, with 52 percent feeling positive about their companies’ revenue growth and 41 percent feeling optimistic about the local economy. Greater optimism from the younger generation may be the result of less exposure to cycles of economic downturn and fluctuations.

 

All generations see themselves as “tech savvy,” but the importance of tech varies

When grading themselves on tech-savviness, the Millennial generation leads the pack with 85 percent of young SBOs giving themselves an “A” or “B.” Gen-Xers followed closely behind at 74 percent, and Boomers trailed with 58 percent giving themselves high marks. When we asked how long SBOs could run their business without a smartphone or tablet, we found a big variance in response. Fifty-nine percent of Boomers said they could run their business indefinitely without a smartphone or tablet. Only 22 percent of Millennials could conceive of this, as well as 39 percent of Gen-Xers. In addition, nearly half of Millennials and Gen-Xers said it would be impossible to run their business without a smartphone or tablet for more than a day.

 

Millennial SBOs self-identify as creative and confident versus their dedicated and hard-working generational counterparts

While Millennial SBOs describe themselves as creative and confident, Gen Xers and Boomers see themselves as hardworking and dedicated. The differences in generational self-perception may not only affect the way small businesses are run, it could also influence the types of businesses opened in the future. 


Generations share some things in common

While SBOs may describe themselves differently, all tend to value a company culture that is focused on the customer. Gen Xers, Baby Boomers and Millennials consistently emphasized the importance of a client-centric approach to business.

 

Despite the many ways SBOs approach their businesses, each plays an important role in the well-being of the small business community and the economy. As we’ve seen in our survey, new technology is helping small business owners run their companies more efficiently, maintain more control over their business and offer more complex products to customers. This creates more opportunities for small business owners to be successful, regardless of their generation.


For an in-depth look at generational differences between small business owners and the key findings of the Bank of America Small Business Owner Report, please watch the video of our Small Business Social Series Hangout as the panel discusses the generational differences among U.S. small business owners and what this means for the small business landscape.

Eco-Business_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

According to a 2012 survey co-sponsored by Green America, a provider of sustainable economic solutions, small businesses that offered green products and services reported robust customer growth and strong sales, even as the broader economic recovery stayed sluggish. But you don't have to sell organic products to see an advantage. Adopting green practices within your own operation and empowering your employees to come up with green solutions can raise morale, cut your expenses, enlarge your savings, and hand you a competitive marketing edge when you pursue new customers, as these experts explain. 

 

Assess first

"Ninety-five percent of sustainable projects are either cost neutral or positive in the long term," says Jeana Wirtenberg, CEO of Transitioning to Green, a Montville, New Jersey-based firm that helps companies adopt sustainability practices. "Small businesses are not seeing the tremendous opportunity that is here to engage their employees, to increase their customer base, and to increase their market share."

 

Wirtenberg says that small businesses should start by first doing an assessment to help them figure out where they are, where they want to go, how they can get the best return on their investment, and the changes that are right for their particular circumstances. She suggests focusing on five areas:

 

Facilities: Depending on whether you rent or own your building will help determine ways to make it more energy efficient. For example, updating your windows can cut down on heating and air conditioning costs.

 

Resources: Identify sources of wasted energy and consider shifting to sustainable forms, such as solar or wind. Switching to low-flow toilets can save water. "Is your waste going into a landfill or can you come up with a zero waste plan?" she asks.

 

Eco-Business_PQ.jpgFinances: How much can you afford to invest in changes now? How long can you wait before seeing a return on your investment? "The most important [consideration] for a small business is their profitability," says Wirtenberg. "How do they measure that? What risks do they face? We just saw how superstorm Sandy wiped out a lot of small businesses. As they're rebuilding, are they thinking about the risks from future weather changes? To stay in business and be sustainable, everyone has to find a way to invest in the future."

 

People: Leaders should give more control to their employees to come up with green projects. "It's a way that people will get excited. It ties into the health and wellness of the employees as well as their engagement and satisfaction levels," she says.

 

Supply chain: Take a close look at the companies you buy from to see whether they engage in eco-friendly practices that could help your small business lessen costs and your environmental impact.

 

After the assessment, put together a plan with a timeline. Even modest accomplishments, such as forming a green team within three months to improve recycling procedures, can energize employees. "Sustainability is one area that can bring people together," Wirtenberg says. "Everybody is connected in more ways than they realize."

 

Make the easy changes

Experts say that small businesses should start with easy fixes or so-called "low-hanging fruit" before they tackle more ambitious goals.

 

"Light bulbs are a perfect place to start. It's not all about saving energy, but about having the right kind of light bulbs for the right space," says Alex Kahl, president of Kahl Consultants, a San Rafael, California-based Internet marketing services firm that has been awarded the Green America Business Seal of Approval for its eco-friendly standards. "It's also about maximizing daylight by maybe moving some tables around so that they're closer to windows or having skylights put in."

 

Turning off office equipment at night, putting computers on power saving mode whenever possible, installing high efficiency filters on the faucet heads, hooking up a motion sensor in the bathroom to open and close the lights automatically can save you money quickly. Some improvements may qualify for tax rebates or other incentives—another small windfall.

 

Kahl uses computers, laptops, and printers with high Energy Star ratings, installed solar photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity, and recycles rigorously. "My expenses have been going down constantly over the last few years based on all the investments I've made. It takes me less money today to run my business than it did five or 10 years ago," he says.

 

Rewarding employees for pursuing green solutions, such as letting them share in the cost savings, can be a strong incentive to keep them motivated. "Even a business that is extremely green will still have a hard time shifting whenever they move from one method to another," Kahl says. "You're going to have to push people to do something, so take it small. Once you reach a plateau and people see the benefits, it's important to let them know how much money they saved the company."


Kahl sees a growing number of consumers making buying decisions based on green factors, so businesses should make them part of their advertising. "You need to promote it and let people know because that's money in the bank."

 

Lean towards green

"I have a colleague who said it very well: 'lean towards green,'" says Yvette Little, owner of Simply Green Solutions, an Ellenton, Florida-based project management services firm with a specialty in green solutions. "So even if you're not doing every green step—if you lean towards green and you start thinking about it, it becomes part of your daily practice."

 

Cutting down on the amount of documents that your office prints, printing on both sides of the paper, or adjusting the margins for a larger print area can have a profound effect over time. For example, Realize Bradenton, a small-sized non-profit economic development organization in Florida, says that their productivity increased by about 20 percent after Little helped them move all their management documents online for easier access and revision.

 

To remind employees of the cost savings between black-and-white and color printing, Little says to put notes on their computer monitors with the actual prices. Conducting a meeting via a service like Skype can dramatically reduce travel, time, and energy resources.

 

Being green can take many forms beyond recycling or sustainable energy solutions. For example, Little works with many non-profits and arranges for for-profit companies to donate their leftover supplies or spare equipment. "It's a great marketing tool for for-profit businesses to be linked with non-profits and with causes they believe in," Little says. "It gives more credence and credibility to both partners."

I was born the same year that my dad started his carpet business. He and his partner Phil were successful from the start. They grew their business at the rate of about one new store a year. When I became a teenager, they opened their 13th store. Everything seemed so perfect.

 

Except apparently it wasn’t.

 

When I was about to graduate high school, my dad decided that he wanted to leave his business.

 

I was genuinely surprised when I learned that he was going to sell his share to Phil and go back to owning only one store (albeit a giant carpet warehouse). When I asked him why he decided to go this route, he explained that with the business expanding at the pace it did, he had become a manager. He was no longer an entrepreneur. He didn’t like that at all.


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

 

There are all sorts of reasons why someone might want or need to leave their business. Here are the top five reasons I hear about most often:

 

1. Mission accomplished: Some entrepreneurs start their business with a specific exit strategy in mind. Indeed, those high-tech startups you hear about in Silicon Valley all began with a plan for how the founders and their investors will cash out.

 

Some entrepreneurs start a business with a specific goal in mind and when they achieve this goal, they feel it’s time to close the door and move on to something else.

 

Whether it’s cashing out while the getting is good or closing the doors because you’re ready, if you have done what you set out to do, then it just might be time to move on to the next thing.

 

2. It’s boring and/or no longer fun: My dear old dad fell into this category. Look, if you are going to take the risk and put in the hours that starting and owning a small business requires, then it better be something you enjoy. And when the time comes that it no longer is, then that’s the time to call it a day.

 

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

 

3. It’s not working: A business may not work for someone for all sorts of reasons – maybe it’s not bringing in the money it once did or maybe conditions have changed such that running the business is more effort than it’s worth. If for whatever reason your line of business is no longer working, this too is a sign that closing up shop probably is not such a bad idea after all.

 

4. It’s too stressful: Businesses change and people change. The stress of a small business may be something that is easier to handle when someone is younger, a time when one is more willing and able to deal with such pressures. Or it may be that a business that was easy to run at one time is no longer so easy to run. .

 

5. It’s just time: Sometimes the end of the road simply is what it is. And that’s perfectly fine. What will you do next? That’s the exciting part. On to a new adventure. Lucky you.

 

And dad? Boy did he love owning that one big store. In fact, it was his favorite time ever in business. He was an entrepreneur again.

 

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



You walk into a store. You are ready to make a purchase, or maybe not, but need some help to make your decision. A salesperson comes up to you who not only wants to sell you something, but apparently needs to sell you something and practically insists that you need to spend more – maybe a lot more – to get what you want. The salesperson is far more interested in upselling you than helping you. Has this ever happened to you?

 

Of course it has happened to you. It’s happened to all of us. The real question is, why?


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

 

Does the salesperson think that his or her pushiness will actually make the sale? Does his manager assume that hard sales tactics actually work? Does the store even know what it takes to make and keep a customer? Probably not.

 

But hard sales tactics are only one of many ways that a small business can easily lose a customer. Here are six more that we should all avoid:

 

1. Take the client or customer for granted: There is a great quote often attributed to Gandhi that goes like this:

 

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”

 

That’s the ticket. Our customers are doing us a favor.

 

2. Do shoddy work, or sell shoddy products: Even if your business is a discount warehouse, people expect to get value for their dollar. If you don’t keep your promise to your customers by even doing the minimum amount necessary, don’t expect to have them as customers for long.

 

And it’s not just the discount store that needs to heed this warning. If, for instance, you buy a luxury automobile and something goes wrong, you would expect the dealer to make it right, right?

 

  1. Right.

 

3. Ignore customer feedback: I recently interviewed John Scully, ex-CEO of PepsiCo and Apple. John says that we are entering into a new era where, because of instantaneous customer reactions and feedback both on the internet as well as via mobile devices, the customer is king.

 

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

 

If you have an unhappy customer or see negative reviews online about your business, you better fix the problems and make the unhappy customers happy because they all have a thousand-watt megaphone at their disposal these days.

 

4. Don’t accept returns / fail to guarantee your product: Scully is right that this is the day and age of great customer service. Why is Costco so successful? One reason is their liberal return policy that makes customers happy. What about Nordstrom’s, or Amazon.com? Ditto. Today, you need to guarantee your work and products, otherwise customers will find another business that does.

 

5. Ignore them: Not to sound like Andy Rooney, but don’t you just hate when you go into a store and have the opposite experience as the one above – where no one seems to notice or care that you’re there? Or what about getting stuck in the voicemail loop? Or when you shoot a company an email and never get a response? No one likes to be ignored, and that goes double for customers.

 

6. Insist on being right: No, of course the customer is not always right, but if you want to make them happy, you should be more willing than not to be wrong.

 

The bottom line is that people come into your business or visit you online because they have a want or need and think you can help them with it. If you and your staff remember that you are there to serve and not sell, you will sell more and retain a lot of happy customers in the process.


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

QA_Roominate_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

After noticing a startling dearth of female students in their graduate engineering classes at Stanford University, Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen decided to address this gender gap by taking action. In January 2012, they formed Roominate, a toy startup whose flagship product is designed to encourage girls to become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). So far, their efforts have been paying off handsomely. Since its inception, the company has enjoyed brisk sales on both Amazon.com and the company website. And just this fall, its products debuted at a number of top retail chains, including Toys “R” Us and Barnes & Noble. According to both women, the company is on track to generate $5 million in sales by the end of the year. Not bad for a company whose founders raised $86,000 on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to seed their launch. Recently, Brooks and Chen, both 26, spoke with business writer Iris Dorbian about why they are so passionate about using their company as a vehicle to get girls interested in STEM, and how a $500,000 investment from “Shark Tank” is helping take the company to the next level.

ID: How did you come up with the Roominate concept?

Alice Brooks: Bettina and I were both finishing up graduate school at Stanford, getting our degrees in engineering. Before that, I had been at MIT and Bettina was at Caltech. We noticed pretty quickly that there were very few females in our classes. That was something we always talked about. So we both had a mission to get more girls interested in engineering. We realized we were inspired by things we both had played with when we were younger that weren’t necessarily traditional girls’ toys. For me, when I was eight, I asked my dad if Santa Claus could bring me a Barbie and he said “No, Santa doesn’t bring Barbies.” Instead I got my own saw that year. With it, I made dolls, dollhouses, and little animals. That experience got me interested in building and engineering.

QA_Roominate_PQ.jpg

ID: What resources did you leverage for research and development?

AB: As we were finishing up school, we were in Stanford where they’re really supportive of startups. So we started taking advantage of the resources around us. We started researching with girls—going to homes, talking to parents, and reading the studies that were coming out about the gender gap with STEM. We saw our personal experiences really lined up with the research in that when girls are exposed to things that practice their spatial skills early on, it really increases the chance that they may choose engineering or another STEM field. And doing that in play is what’s really most effective.

We decided to make a toy because we were inspired by toys. And that toy will help build up girls’ spatial skills. It will  get them comfortable with circuits and build up their problem-solving skills. It also boosts their  confidence to take a set of tools and build something really cool.

ID: It’s kind of like Legos but not quite?

AB: Yes, it’s different. We spent a lot of time looking at the way girls play. We wanted to enhance our products by making it both more engaging and educational. [For instance], we give them these tools so they can start by building a dollhouse. And inside that dollhouse, they’ll have to figure out using our motor how to make an elevator and that takes a lot of engineering. We don’t tell them exactly how to do it. It’s really cool for them because they can come up with these unique solutions and really be proud of that.

ID: What were some of the startup challenges that you faced?

AB: Making the product was one challenge,  but also doing all the things beyond designing it. We all have engineering backgrounds so it’ s been a great experience for us to learn firsthand about getting our manufacturing set up, raising money and expanding our team—all of these things that we didn’t learn in school.

ID: How many employees do you have?

Bettina Chen: We have three full-time people now and we have a few part-time workers. So we’re still small.

ID: Recently, you broadened your distribution channels to include several notable brick and mortar retail chains. How did that happen?

BC: Last year we were mostly selling online at Amazon and our website. And then this year was our big retail launch. We met with a lot of retailers in February at the New York Toy Fair and got set up for the fall.

ID: How did you do your marketing early on? How did you get the word out?

BC: It’s been mostly a lot of word of mouth. We’ve gotten some pretty good press, which has been great for us.

AB: Our message has really resonated with parents and kids from the beginning. But we also owe a lot of our coverage to Kickstarter. People really rallied behind what we were doing and wanted to support it and see it actually happen.

ID: How are you using the $500,000 from “Shark Tank” to grow the company?

AB: We are using the investment to help fund the growth of our team and for new product development.

ID: What is your ultimate goal with Roominate? Where do you want the company to be in five or 10 years?

BC: What would be really exciting for us is if in ten years girls are in college and doing engineering and saying they were inspired by Roominate.

ID: Based on your experience and insight, how would you advise other young female entrepreneurs who want to encourage  women to get involved in STEM fields?

AB: Draw from your own experiences and think about what worked for you. For us, it was looking at how we played as kids and figuring out how to make those experiences more accessible to girls today.

BC: Also, get out in front of your customers and get their feedback. Don't try to decide things for them.

Steve Strauss

Making meetings work

Posted by Steve Strauss Dec 4, 2014

Pop quiz! Which is the most popular form of business communication today?

 

  1. E-mail
  2. Texting
  3. Voice mail
  4. Face-to-Face chats

 

According to data collection group, OfficeTeam, the answers are: Meetings/Face-to-Face: 44%; E-mail: 34%; Texting: 15%; Voice mail: 7%.

 

I find it very interesting that in this always plugged-in, screen-obsessed culture we live in, face time remains the overwhelmingly preferred way to communicate with colleagues and co-workers.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png

 

Why then are most meetings boring and unproductive? You know the ones I am talking about; the leader drones on and on, the know-it-all doesn’t really know it all, people surreptitiously stare at their iPhones, and we barely get anything accomplished.

 

Let’s change that. Here are five tips that should make your next meeting more productive and less boring:

 

1. The agenda: One problem with meetings is that they can too often seem to be open-ended affairs, allowing people to hijack the meeting with their own agendas. One solution suggested by Roger Schwarz, author of Smart Leader, Smarter Teams, says that instead of having a typical agenda, try turning the agenda items into answerable questions:

 

Instead of:

 

“1. Discuss new video series.”

 

Change this agenda item to:

 

“1. Video series:

 

  • Who is in charge of the first video?
  • What resources do we need to get it done?
  • When will it be finished?”

At the end of that quick discussion, everyone will know the who, what, and when of the issue.


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


2. Who, what, when: Even if for whatever reason your agenda items do not lend themselves to the above process, a similar outcome can be achieved by ending each discussion item with those three simple questions: Who, What, and When.

 

“Who is in charge, what needs to get done, and when will it be done?” Bingo. No more confusion.

 

3. Mix it up: Meetings get boring because they become routine and predictable. One way to counter that is to challenge the status quo. For example, you can:

 

  • Choose a different location; hold the meeting outdoors, or at a restaurant
  • Ask folks what they would change if they were CEO
  • Break out the arts and crafts – crayons can be a conduit for creativity, and are a lot more fun than staring at a PowerPoint document

 

4. Have fun: Along the same lines, in the great management book Fish, the authors show how lightening the mood, being more playful, and setting a fun tone can reap tremendous productivity rewards. By encouraging your team to have fun in the meeting, you will surely spur their creativity and lessen the boredom factor.

 

5. Creative / brainstorming sessions: Not all meetings need to result in an actionable to-do list. There are times when a team gets together in order to flesh out ideas and brainstorm.  Richard Branson says that when he has these types of meetings, he likes to bring in speakers from different fields outside of his industry– maybe an astronomer from a local college for instance. This helps to get the group thinking in new ways.

 

6. Time Limits: Finally, consider putting a time limit to your meeting. One of the things people dislike about meetings is that they can drag on too long and get in the way of “real work” getting done. You can avoid this by limiting the length of a meeting. If everyone knows there is a time limit to the meeting, they are more apt to concentrate on the tasks being discussed. Some management gurus even suggest that meetings should take place when all attendees are standing up.  This prevents people from checking out while simultaneously forcing them to get to the point and get work done.

 

The bottom line is that by organizing meetings differently, your team will be challenged, and that in turn should result in a better, more interesting, more valuable, and ultimately, more productive meeting.


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



Supply_Chain_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

Before your product gets into the hands of customers, it will be manufactured, transported, and warehoused. In short, it will follow a supply chain that leads potentially to new sales for your business. Making each link in the supply chain run efficiently can keep costs down, save time, and improve morale. By supporting your in-house team and choosing your outside suppliers carefully, you can likely reduce the time to market and see a healthier bottom line, as these experts explain.

 

Stay home longer

Some small businesses choose a supply chain partner because they quote a low price without taking all factors into consideration. “The biggest concern that I see is that people don't actually sit down and calculate soft costs," says Brad Knight, CEO of Riverwood Solutions, a Plano, Texas-based company that helps businesses improve the efficiency of their supply chain. By way of example, Knight explains that a widget in China may cost $10 less to manufacture than it does in the United States. But a small business may forget that it also costs money to send their chief technology officer overseas regularly, arrange airline tickets and lodging, and possibly send over support engineers—costs that would be drastically reduced by choosing a higher-priced but domestic supplier. "When you start figuring out the opportunity costs to your business to have employees traveling, the soft costs are beyond just the logistics and the customs and the freight," Knight says.

 

Knight also believes that small businesses "should be very careful when they rush to offshore" the manufacture of their products. Often, a product will need to go through several revisions and iterations before it is ready to go to market on a large scale. Although it might cost more in the beginning to go with a proto-typing facility in North America, the profit margins will improve when you're ready to scale up.

 

"What the small business owner has to be aware of is that they need somebody on their side managing what they've negotiated," Knight says, referring in particular to businesses that are dealing in foreign countries. For example, if a small business needs fewer than 15 people overseas, Knight believes that it is more cost-efficient to outsource the work to a third party.

 

Define goals

"No two supply chains are identical, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to managing yours," says Chad Eichelberger, president of brokerage at Coyote Logistics, a Chicago-based transportation and logistics services provider.

 

For small businesses that want to evaluate their current supply chain, Eichelberger says that they should start by defining their goals and objectives and then find "the right partner or group of partners that can optimize your supply chain by understanding what's going to drive that, whether it be cost, customer service, efficiency or execution. Direct engagement with your partners is absolutely critical."

 

Next, make sure that your own managers and employees buy into managing their supply chain better. "We see many companies going as far as incentivizing their employees for productivity gains and completing process improvement certifications," Eichelberger says. Technology can help improve things like forecasting, order fulfillment times, and inventory carrying costs. Suppliers like SAP, Oracle, JDA Software, and Manhattan Associates sell a range of supply chain management software.

 

Supply_Chain_PQ.jpg

Outsourcing some functions to a third party vendor with a particular expertise can often save a small business time, money, and labor.

 

"We worked with a manufacturer whose transportation costs were fluctuating wildly," Eichelberger says. "And there was really no communication internally between manufacturing and logistics. So we worked together to develop and implement a technology solution that provided increased visibility to their order pipeline, customer order fulfillment expectations, and an interface that provided visibility to their end customers.."

 

Collaboration and realistic objectives are key to managing any supply chain. "I would strongly urge small businesses to define goals and objectives, measure against them, really tear down departmental walls, and engage partners," Eichelberger says. "At the end of the day, the companies who are most successful are the companies that can inspire their employees to deliver on the goals, and implement and execute across the entire organization."

 

Keep score

"Improving communication is a big, easy way to get a lot of mileage," says Alex Fuller, a former logistics manager and creator of Supply Chain Cowboy, an online resource for supply chain professionals. "Talk to employees. Then talk to your suppliers and customers. Learn what they value and express what's valuable to you."

 

Giving vendors a report card with a grade on the services they provide can reinforce good performance and also motivate them to improve other functions—but accountability shouldn't stop there. Fuller says that small businesses themselves should ask their customers to give them a grade on their performance.

 

Keeping score with some kind of dashboard is an inexpensive but powerful way to focus the attention of your employees on goals. For example, when Fuller became manager of a warehouse, he immediately set up a shipping dashboard using basic Excel software: late shipments were posted in red and on-time shipments in green. On-time shipments jumped from 70 percent to over 99 percent. "Suddenly the entire team knew exactly what we were trying to do," he explains. “If you can get some kind of scoreboard or real time dashboard, that's probably going to be your best investment of any technology money if you're starting from scratch."

 

When other departments saw the positive effect the dashboard generated, they asked Fuller to set them up company-wide. "That really transformed our whole company to accountability and what we're really trying to accomplish," he says. "Depending on what kind of small business you are and how big a part your supply chain plays, you not only have opportunities to improve your own function, but improve the whole company."

 

We are pleased to share the fall 2014 Bank of America Small Business Owner Report, a semi-annual study that uncovers the concerns, aspirations and perspectives of small business owners around the country.

 

Despite continued concerns about government leaders and health care costs, we’re happy to say that the majority of small business owners we surveyed expect revenues to increase in the coming year, and their confidence in the local and national economies remains high.

 

There is also a notable shift occurring across the country and within the small business community – the youngest baby boomers turn 50 this year, Gen-Xers are maturing into middle age and Millennials are becoming a force in the small business world. Whether they are taking over their parents’ companies or embarking on their own venture, Millennials are making their mark and doing it in their own unique way. As such, this report takes a look at Millennial small business owners and how their attitudes, management styles and skillsets compare to their older counterparts.

 

One of the most obvious implications of this shift is the adoption of technology, and the report takes a close look at both adoption trends and impact on running a small business. As expected, Millennial small business owners are embracing aspects of technology at a faster rate than their older peers, and the way small businesses are run on the whole is evolving right before our eyes – becoming more efficient, mobile and fast-paced.

 

As 2014 draws to a close, most small business owners across the country will end the year on a good note. We found that small business owners are optimistic about achieving their year-end revenue goals and many will celebrate by offering year-end bonuses and other special holiday perks to their employees.

 

At Bank of America, we know the resources that are crucial to a small business owners’ success, both technologically and otherwise, which is why we have dedicated small business experts in local communities across the country. We have also committed to expanding our small business presence and will be hiring more than 200 new small business bankers in key markets throughout the nation by the end of 2014.

 

Whether you’ve been in business for 30 years or are just starting out, Bank of America is committed to providing you with the expertise to sustain and grow your small business.

 

Click here to download the full Bank of America Small Business Owner Report in PDF format.

What is the Small Business Community?

 

You may be wondering- what is this Small Business Community all about? How it can help you and your business? By participating in the Small Business Community (SBC), you can gain knowledge and connections that give you a competitive advantage in building a successful business.

 

Click here to watch a short video to learn more about the SBC.

 

Video-Graphic.jpg

SB_Leadership_Traits_body.jpgBy Iris Dorbian.


 

Shortly after a fire destroyed his company's production plant earlier this year, Brad Sterl, CEO of Rustic Crust, a Pittsfield, New Hampshire-based maker of pizza crusts, met with employees to talk about options. As one of the town's leading employers, having Rustic Crust close down its operations was devastating. But Sterl reassured staff that not only would he have a temporary facility up and running soon, but that he would continue to pay them.

 

"I also listened to what we could do to help them do their job better," he relates.

 

By communicating with employees during a crisis and adopting a positive but realistic outlook, Sterl was able to maintain employee morale and prevent a potentially disastrous situation from spiraling out of control.

 

Several weeks ago, Rustic Crust broke ground on a new facility that will open in the fall. In addition, Sterl says that the company has also launched programs based on the feedback he received from employees in the days and weeks following the fire.

 

And while Sterl’s experience serves as a prime example of how a small business owner can take charge of difficult circumstances and secure employee buy-in, it doesn’t take a crisis to hone your leadership skills.  Below are some tips from small business owners that have helped them become—and remain—better leaders.

 

Be transparent and listen to employees

Small business owners who are intent on becoming exemplary leaders must have clear and   transparent communication with employees. Whether it’s during a booming period or when a business is in distress, keeping workers informed enhances company culture and unity. In Sterl's case, clear and candid conversations with his workers helped to keep a devastating event from getting worse, and also prevented all his employees from leaving.

 

Sterl says being accessible to employees at all levels and following through with actions based on promises are imperatives for effective business leadership, regardless of company size. For example, when Sterl met with employees following the fire to address their concerns, he asked them for feedback on how “we could do better at the new facility.”

 

According to him, ergonomics, which is the study of arranging and designing things to improve safety and efficiency for people, was a big issue for his workers. So the new facility was built with that in mind.

 

And on the basis of these one-on-one meetings, he also hired a job coach for his employees. This person’s role, says Sterl, “is to work with all of the production employees to help them advance in their position.” This can include dealing with language barriers as well as getting specific job training.

 

“Don't become detached as the company grows,” cautions Sterl. “A good CEO will continue to have a good understanding of the company culture and its products.”

 

SB_Leadership_Traits_PQ.jpg

Avoid micromanaging

When bosses excessively interfere with an employee's performance on the job, they are signaling a lack of trust with the worker. Why hire anyone if you won’t let them do their job?

 

Brian Short, the founder of Allnurses.com, a networking site for nurses and nursing students,

is a champion of the importance of allowing workers free rein to do their jobs without excessive intervention from bosses. Having recently stopped telecommuting, Short moved to an office and hired a staff of five. And according to him, he has given each the leeway to do their job.

 

“It’s all about finding wonderful employees,” he says. “You will get better results out of someone who is allowed to spread their wings and know that you have confidence in them. Nobody likes to be micromanaged; plus if you feel the need to micromanage someone, maybe you hired the wrong person.”

 

To prove his point, Short recounts how he recently hired an office manager adept at organizing and optimizing workflows. “Unless I am great at that kind of thing, if I try to micromanage this person, I'm probably just going to slow down progress, my employee will have less confidence in her abilities and probably be less productive,” he says. “My philosophy is get out of the way, do what you do best, and let your employees do what they do best.”

 

For small business owners that operate virtually, not succumbing to the urge to micromanage is even more critical.

 

Jeff Goldenberg is the CEO of Appleton, Wisconsin-based SchoolSupplies.com, an online retailer of school supplies. Like Short, he believes in hiring qualified personnel and then having the confidence to let them do their job without incessant intrusions.

 

With staff located in various cities throughout North America, this takeaway has been instrumental in not only marshalling team unity, but also inspiring staff to meet business objectives. To help fulfill these aims, Goldenberg relies on online collaboration tools, such as Google Docs, Basecamp, and Skype to talk to employees.

 

“The truth is, when the team works remotely, it's easy to lack the cohesiveness you get when you meet regularly in an office,” explains Goldenberg. “So the team really looks toward me to instill a meeting rhythm that sets a structure necessary for our virtual interactions and to meet our business goals. I can't stress enough that if you want to be a leader, you must participate in the process with your team. Taking on jobs, assisting when necessary, and following up are all important, but also taking a genuine interest in the work your team is producing helps in making them feel confident in the work they're doing.”

 

Orit Pennington echoes Goldenberg's sentiment. As owner of the Houston, Texas-based labeling software solutions provider TPGTEX Label Solutions, she feels empowering employees is a big part of being a good leader.

 

“When we first started the business, I wanted to answer every call, talk to the customers, and go through the mail,” she recalls. “Once I realized that I spent more time being the receptionist than actually developing and expanding my company, I hired my first employee. It took me some time to learn to let her do her work. Later, as we hired more people, I kept on empowering them to do their work on their own. This is the only way a business can grow.”

 

Reshoring_body.jpgby Matt Krumrie.


Wal-Mart attracted headlines earlier this year when it announced that the retail giant would spend $50 billion over a ten-year period sourcing and buying American-made goods. The goal is to help manufacturers bring production back to the U.S. from overseas—a movement known as “reshoring”.


In addition, Wal-Mart created a $10-million fund to promote American manufacturing, while also announcing that Kent International, a bike manufacturer and Wal-Mart supplier, planned to move its overseas operations from China to South Carolina, creating 175 American jobs.


Compare that to the experience of Core Products International Inc., a 26-year-old manufacturer of orthopedic soft goods and supports. In 2012, company president Philip Mattison decided to close its 25-employee sewing and assembly facility in Mexico and bring production back to the company’s headquarters in Osceola, Wisconsin, home to 75 employees, and Chetek, Wisconsin, home to 25 employees.


The Wal-Mart decision attracted national headlines. Mattison's decision barely made it to the local papers. Still, he says the decision to bring production back to the U.S. was the right financial move for his company. The increasing cost of offshore labor, combined with flat wages here at home since the recession, were part of the reason, he says. In addition, fuel costs have doubled, driving up freight costs in the process.


"We had also developed more processes and people to manage Mexican production," says Mattison. "We often needed to send our staff to Mexico. They would travel there whenever we introduced a new item, added new equipment, or changed a process. That got expensive. It's not nearly as effective to go offshore as some people think.”


That's what Harry Moser emphasizes through the Reshoring Initiative, an organization he founded with the mission to bring good, well-paying manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Moser's grandfather was a foreman and his father a manager at the Singer Sewing Machine Company factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Moser, who has 45 years experience in the manufacturing industry in a variety of capacities, also spent his summers working at the plant. But now, that plant is barren and Moser says "it brings tears to my eyes" to see that its production was sent overseas. 


But times are changing and Moser has the numbers to prove it. In 2003, his data showed that over 150,000 American manufacturing jobs were lost per year to offshoring, while only 2,000 were gained from reshoring. In 2016, Moser's data estimates that just 20,000 manufacturing jobs per year will be lost to offshoring, while 70,000 new jobs will be created in America because of reshoring.


To help companies of all sizes decide if reshoring makes financial sense, Moser helped create The Total Cost of Ownership Estimator, a user-friendly software program to walk owners through the process.


"When considering increasing transportation and fuel costs, increasing overseas wage rates, high reject rates, substandard quality issues and unreliable timelines and deliveries, plus a number of other hidden costs, the total cost of manufacturing in developing countries can be greater than most realize," he says.


Patrick Van Den Bossche, a partner with A.T. Kearney, a leading global management consulting firm, says economic change and labor and currency issues have led to increasing costs in many developing countries, while energy and other costs have become more competitive in the U.S. Other factors, including the need for shorter delivery times and a renewed consumer interest in buying "Made in the USA" products, are making companies at least consider reshoring operations.


"There is a recent increase in cases mentioning the need to improve their image and/or brand by moving back to the U.S.," says Van Den Bossche.


AT Kearney has a proprietary database of over 700 cases where companies reshored. Based on that database, the industries where reshoring is occurring the most include:


  1. Electrical/appliance
  2. Transportation equipment
  3. Apparel
  4. Computer/electronic
  5. Plastics & rubber
  6. Fabricated metal


Reshoring_PQ.jpg

Reshoring has its challenges

"Reshoring is certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution and executives should consider the specific characteristics and value proposition of their own business model to see if it fits them," says Van Den Bossche.


And even if reshoring may fit a business model today, that may not be the case a few years down the road, he adds. In order to establish a successful strategy, business owners should first identify and understand the key drivers that will determine if reshoring will make sense in the future.


Using Moser's Total Cost of Ownership Estimator is a good place to start. Being back in the United States is a good place to end, says Mattison, who added that closing down the Mexico plant didn't come without costs. It took nearly three months to move all equipment back to the U.S., and every piece with a serial number had to get cleared through customs before it was sent back to Wisconsin.


"People don't want to get out of their comfort zone," says Mattison. "So it's hard for them to see the benefit of reshoring. But in manufacturing you have to think long-term."


In the meantime, his two American plants are able to produce the same amount of product at the same cost as when the company was manufacturing in Mexico, Mattison says. "Because of automation and the skilled American workforce, our operations in Mexico couldn't come near the production capacity that we have in the U.S.,” adds Mattison. “It just made sense for us."

 

 

Small Business Social Series: Women in Business: Rising Revenues, Optimism, and Power – How to Take Advantage of This Momentum  If you were unable to join our live video event, you can watch the replay right here. In this event, panelists shared time saving tips and products to help you better manage your small business.

 

Description: Welcome to the Small Business Social Series sponsored by Bank of America.  The panel will explore trends, hot topics and concerns among women small business owners and will be moderated by Carol Roth.

You will hear from:

  • Jill Calabrese Bain: Small Business Banking National Sales Executive, Preferred & Small Business Banking, Bank of America
  • Kimberly Weisul: Editor-at-Large, Inc. Magazine
  • Darla Beggs, Chair, National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO

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