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Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.pngIs your big, new idea a winner or a loser and how do you know? As a small business owner, you probably have good business instincts, but the smart entrepreneur knows that gut instincts and a small sample are not the kind of research you can, literally or figuratively, take to the bank.

 

Your idea may be a winner, or it might not.  The important thing is that you carefully analyze your idea, and the market, and make sure you are not the only one who thinks that it will work.  A hunch simply will not do.  You need hard facts.

 

Back in the day, it used to cost a fortune to research a business idea. Typically, a business would hire a firm to do market research. The research company might do a telephone poll, conduct some live panels, or even do a larger survey. But whatever the research approach was, it was not cheap.

 

As with everything else it has touched, the Internet has also changed business research and market surveys, but for the better. Google makes looking up anything no more difficult than a few well-thought-out key phrases and a couple of mouse clicks. But, that is the low hanging fruit when it comes to business research.

 

Beyond a preliminary Google search, there are many different ways to get business and market research done these days that won’t break the bank. Here are your best bets:

 

LinkedIn: There are a few ways to used LinkedIn for your research:


  • Groups: Some LinkedIn groups can be very active, and if you participate in them regularly, you are opening your business up to a lot of new potential advisors. By posting your query to the group, you are likely to get a swarm of sharp people who are willing to give you their take.
  • Create a poll: The LinkedIn polls application is a great tool for asking questions and getting answers.

 

Twitter and Facebook: The same idea is true for Twitter and Facebook. You can post a post or ask a question to your followers, or fans, and get their instant feedback. If you make it a contest (e.g., someone wins a $25 gift card) you will definitely get answers.

 

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

 

Beyond social media, here are some other good ideas:

 

Trade Associations: Your industry’s trade association probably has a lot of market research that it has conducted in support of its membership. By contacting your trade association and explaining what you are doing and looking for, you likely can access a lot of that already-completed research, and for free (if you are a member). You should also check out their publications and see what other sort of free resources they have available.

 

Trade shows: Trade shows are great in this regard for two reasons:

 

  1. You are able, in one place, to gather a lot of general information from the different (potentially useful) booths.
  2. More importantly, in one setting there are a lot of the major players in your industry. By finding the right ones and spending some time with them, you will be obtaining a plethora of intellectual capital.

 

One excellent example of using trade shows as a research tool is when two out-of-work journalists had an idea for a new board game. These journalists took two expired press passes to the Toronto Toy Show and pretended to interview toy manufacturers. They later said they learned more about the toy industry in those four hours than anything else they did and it led directly to the game they invented – Trivial Pursuit.

 

Go to school: Business school that is. Business school students need projects and internships. By giving students a good research project, you can help them help you.

 

Ask: Find a business in a nearby town that does what you want to do and ask the owner out for lunch. Because you don’t live nearby, you likely won’t be seen as a competitor, and because people love to talk about themselves, you should get some very valuable, relevant insight.

 

So the idea is to learn what you need to learn so that you too can live the words of designer Laura Ashley, “We don't want to push our ideas on to customers – we simply want to make what they want.”


About Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is one of the world’s leading small business experts. 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. Steve is also the author of the Small Business Bible and his latest book is Get Your Business Funded: Creative Methods for Getting the Money You Need. A popular media guest, Steve is a regular contributor to ABC News Now and frequently appears on television and radio. His business, The Strauss Group, creates unique, actionable, entertaining, and informative multi-media small business content.

 

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

influencer.pngPodcasts may seem relatively outdated, even low tech, considering recent developments in multimedia marketing, such as apps. However, for small businesses, they are still an effective, low-cost means of communicating and building relationships with customers.

 

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, a podcast is a prerecorded audio (and, increasingly, video) program that companies can create on subjects that reinforce your marketing message or increase your image as an expert in your industry. Your customers can download these programs to a personal computer, smart phone or MP3 player and listen to the content when and where they want. If you feel you have enough content and can distribute your podcasts on a regular basis, you can use a subscription model through which customers receive automatic downloads of your podcasts.

 

Besides their low cost, podcasts are particularly useful to small businesses for a number of reasons:

 

  • It is a natural way to build a personal relationship with your customers.  You can use podcasts to demonstrate that you are committed to anticipating customers’ needs and initiating a two-way conversation with them.
  • Small business-to-business companies may have customers who allow a podcast to feature case studies on how they use your products or services.
  • In a large company, creating a podcast featuring the expert opinion of a senior executive may require an extensive approval process. By contrast, small business owners can disseminate their opinions on a wide variety of industry issues without having to run their copy by anyone else.
  • Using video podcasting to demonstrate innovative uses for your products can help small businesses increase foot traffic. You can also offer consumers a behind-the-scenes look at your shop.

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It has never been easier to start podcasting. First, brainstorm a list of topics. These can include industry trends, tips and advice that enhance your leadership and commentary on news related to your business. Give some thought to the style in which you’re most comfortable speaking. Are you conversational, instructional, formal, or lighthearted? Practice reading copy with clear enunciation.  Also, decide if you want to use a script or just a list of talking points.

 

When it comes to the necessary technology, most podcasts do not require professional help. All you need is a USB microphone; a computer with a sound card, high-speed Internet connection and audio editing software, such as Audacity for Windows or Garageband for Macintosh.

 

Also, be sure that the design of your company website supports your podcast. Keep the site professional and easy to navigate.

 

Podcasting is a proven and inexpensive means of communicating with customers.  As such, it should continue to be an integral part of a small business’s marketing mix. Have you ever created a podcast? Do you have any lessons learned or tips you’d like to share with the SBOC community? Please do so below.

 

Get more tips about podcasting, marketing, and learn about other small business success stories by listening to the Bank of America Small Business Podcasts.

Global Business.pngWhile your small business may have a mission statement on the company website or in materials, have you thought about what exactly the statement should convey? Below are four important considerations about the purpose of a mission statement.

 

 

Let’s take a look at two examples of mission statements – one that works and one that does not. The first is for a hypothetical company.  Because it is a generic statement, any company in any industry could make similar assertions. The second one is for a direct sales food company and outlines the company’s business decisions and future direction.

 

A less than stellar mission statement: “XYZ Company is committed to providing top-quality products at the lowest price, while consistently showing our dedication to enhancing the lives of our employees, our customers and the world at large.”

 

An effective mission statement:Tastefully Simple promotes a simplified lifestyle through convenient, unique gourmet products and an enriching business opportunity.” This gourmet food franchise company goes on to tout unique core values that include the “law of magic,” the “law of abundance” and the “law of

realness.”

 

Clearly, there is an opportunity to be creative in a mission statement.  The most successful ones reflect how your business makes a difference. The following are some tips for getting there:


Mission statements.png

  • Gather a cross-section of your company. Set aside time to focus on your mission statement. In order to get a look at your company from a variety of perspectives, gather a mixed group of employees. This can include newly hired staff, veterans, upper management, clerical staff and representatives of different functions, such as research and development, accounting, marketing and sales.
  • Ask yourselves some hard questions.   Start with what does your company do?  It’s not enough to specify what you sell to customers in tangible terms.  Think outside the box a little; a company that sells chicken pot pies could be said to be selling comfort, not just convenient lunch choices.
  • Keep goals in mind. The language choices you make in your mission statement should align with corporate goals. Therefore, you have to define what a particular word means to your company.  For example, if you say your company is dedicated to “fun,” you need to decide if you mean your products are fun to play with, or that your company is symbolic of what “fun” may encompass.
  • Parse out your demographics. You may need to have more than one mission statement for different customer groupings.  The same products or services can be used and viewed in different ways by different audiences.

 

If you go through this exercise, you may end up with a mission statement that is beneficial to your company in a variety of ways.  It can set the tone for your work environment.  It can provide clarity on how you see your company and what you want to achieve. It can also help keep the focus on developing products that align with your mission. That’s a lot of value for a few simple sentences. Do you use a mission statement? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with the SBOC community below.

Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png Can you smell it? March Madness is in the air and we all know what that means: Folks fill out their brackets, watch games online and in the break room, chat about how they are doing and get less done. According to Gray & Christmas, a consulting firm specializing in workplace issues, about $1.7 billion is lost in productivity during March Madness. But figures like that assume people are busy little bees while at work, humming along, doing their job all day, consistently and persistently productive.

 

However, that's not really how it works at work, is it? You work, you surf the net, you work, you get some coffee, you work, you go out for lunch, you work, you take a break, you chat, you work, you go home. Right?

 

While March Madness may, theoretically, get in the way of productivity, all it really does is take the place of something else that employees would be doing instead of work. In any case, the good that March Madness does can easily outweigh the potential bad. For starters, the camaraderie that comes with bracketology is invaluable. The best workplaces are ones where employees get along, work together and strive for the common good of the enterprise.

 

March Madness fosters that.

 

People who might normally not talk find a reason to get to know each other. It gives people something to talk about other than work. It promotes teamwork and makes your office a more pleasant place to work.

 

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

 

People work for all sorts of reasons. We work for money, to socialize, to get ahead, for benefits, to learn skills, to be productive, for self-worth. Assuming that the only thing your staff is supposed to think and talk about is work misses the boat. Once you appreciate that work is about more than just work, you can begin to create an exceptional workplace. And know this too – once your staff knows you want them to be satisfied, fulfilled bees and not just busy little worker bees; they will bend over backwards for you.

 

It's ironic – the harder you push, the less you will probably get. It is sort of like trying too hard when you golf, you know that is when you do the worst, but as soon as you let go and trust, things flow easier.

 

Well, that is what March Madness is about.

 

Sure, it has somewhat to do with the greatest sport ever invented, but equally, it has to do with treating employees like adults, letting them have some fun, trusting them enough to know their work will still get done and promoting workplace unity.

 

Great small businesses value something bigger than the bottom line. They value values. That is why March Madness at work should not just be tolerated, but encouraged. It is about creating the kind of business everyone likes to go to every day ... or almost every day!

 

Someone should figure out a way to measure the value of having a happy workplace. If that ever happens we would see that whatever March Madness costs in productivity is made up, and then some, by increased goodwill and loyalty.

 

So the only thing left to say is ... Go UCLA!

 

About Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is one of the world’s leading small business experts. 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. Steve is also the author of the Small Business Bible and his latest book is Get Your Business Funded: Creative Methods for Getting the Money You Need. A popular media guest, Steve is a regular contributor to ABC News Now and frequently appears on television and radio. His business, The Strauss Group, creates unique, actionable, entertaining, and informative multi-media small business content.

 

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

small business opportunities.png

While the current economic climate may not allow for more than cost-of-living-salary raises, there are many other ways to show employee appreciation. In fact, studies have shown that employee’s value praise, care and compassion more than getting paid more. If you’re looking for cost-effective or innovative ways to reward your staff, here are eight ideas to consider:

 

  • Be a matchmaker.  If you’re unable to provide holiday bonuses, you might want to form a holiday savings program.  Employees can have a portion of their income withheld tax-free, and you can match a percentage of their savings.

 

  • Develop leadership. Investing in an employee’s future demonstrates that you value their work and want to help position them for future success.   Company-sponsored leadership training, particularly if accompanied by a weekend trip and team-building activities, can make your employees feel valued and promote loyalty.

 

  • Give the gift of good health.  If you encourage employees to take care of their health, your company will reap the benefits in terms of less absenteeism and greater energy.  You can foster healthy habits by giving employees time off during the day to exercise or by creating a weight-loss or healthy-eating challenge.

 

  • Make getting to work less expensive. With the cost of oil still high, offering a gas card, or the ability to work from home once a week, can save employees money at the pump.

 

  • Help launch a college career.  As much as employees would appreciate bonus checks for themselves, a contribution to their children’s college funds may gain you even more good will.

 

  • Pay it forward.  Create an atmosphere where employees and yourself are encouraged to donate unused vacation time or personal days to employee’s who might need them for a serious illness or family emergency.  You may find that fostering a climate where employees are invested in each other’s well-being may encourage team morale and a supportive work environment.

 

  • Raffle it off. Depending on your work environment, you could raffle off various items, such as electronic goods or gift cards. Employees will appreciate the chance to win a new prize.

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  • Reroute the “Mommy Track.” While it may seem like a big undertaking, on-site childcare is becoming a more desired perk.  In fact, more than a quarter of the "Best Companies" offer an onsite childcare center. In the long run, this offer will likely minimize turnover and be less disruptive than if the same employees left the company or transitioned to a part-time schedule.

 

When evaluating the factors that make you an attractive potential employer, a generous salary and an annual bonus are just part of the equation.  Showing respect and appreciation through well thought out perks are highly valued, and they are an important incentive to keep employees. How do you reward employees? What have you found works/doesn’t work? Please share your thoughts with the SBOC community below.

Golden Years.pngSome of the greatest entrepreneurs – such as  Steve Jobs –  have been very vocal about the mistakes and miscalculated business moves they made in their careers. Mistakes can be valuable as you drive your business forward. As Steve Jobs’ sister stated, “He was never embarrassed about working hard, even if the results were failures. If someone as smart as Steve wasn’t ashamed to admit trying, maybe I didn’t have to be.” 

 

While mistakes come in all shapes and sizes, they tend to fall into four categories for small business owners. Here are the most common ones and tips to avoid them:

 

Business Plan Mistakes

  • Overestimating your profits. According to a survey by insurance company Hiscox USA, more than 30 percent of small business owners under-estimate project operating expenses. Additionally, many companies forget to estimate payroll withholdings (such as Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance and income tax), which can cause a 25 percent discrepancy in company earnings. Be sure to consider all your costs.
  • Envisioning an unrealistic market for new product or service launches. Promising to get a small percentage of a multi-billion-dollar market, to reach a global market within the first year, or to appeal to all demographics with a product can be major red flags to investors at any stage in a business’s development. Paint a clear picture of your target market.
  • Rushing to get a business plan written. Nobody should be reading your business plan until you have ensured that it is clearly and grammatically written. Also, be certain you've covered all of the key areas investors want to see, including the problem your idea will solve, a clear delineation of your market, realistic sales projections, biographies of your senior team and an argument for scalability.

 

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Management Mistakes

  • Looking at a new project or business growth idea through rose-colored glasses. Smart employees will actually be more likely to get on board with a new initiative if you present both the positive and the negative possible outcomes. Demonstrate that you’ve thought through the project and understand the pros and cons of taking it on.
  • Neglecting to acknowledge that your employees have feelings. Staff will respond much better to criticism if it is presented as a learning experience and if they are not chastised in front of their peers. You may forget about a negative interaction the next day, but the person on the receiving end may remember it for a long time.
  • Overlooking untapped talent. If you always award plum projects to the same handful of company “stars,” you may be missing out on innovative thinking and fresh ideas. You never know who will generate the next groundbreaking idea. 

 

Product Development Mistakes

  • Missing the mark on pricing. Figuring out what price to charge for your products may seem like second nature. In fact, many businesses may not be maximizing profits because their prices are too low. It is better to do intensive research on competitive pricing and find a real differentiator for yourself than to set yourself apart on price. Further, selling fewer units at a higher margin is often more conducive to long-term business viability than selling in volume.
  • Overcomplicating your product description. This is a major pitfall, particularly in technology-based businesses. Be sure to avoid jargon, eliminate hollow-sounding platitudes like “cutting-edge,” and construct your description around a problem your customer has that will be solved by your product.
  • Losing business because you don’t start selling while your product is in development. It may not be appropriate in all industries to sell before your product is ready to be launched.  However, sometimes talking to customers before a product is finalized makes good business sense. If you are struggling with which features will have the most currency, it is a good idea to incorporate customer feedback that you receive.

 

New Media Mistakes

  • Ignoring social media etiquette. You may have realized that you need to be using some form of social media, but do you know what is considered acceptable behavior for businesses?  Here are some simple dos and don’ts:
    • Do make it a two-way conversation and encourage customers to engage with your content. And be sure to respond in a timely manner (typically within 24 hours).
    • Don’t jump to a sales attempt before building a customer relationship, post just to avoid silence or disclose pricing details on social networking forums.
  • Taking blogging too lightly. While a lighthearted tone in a blog is fine, underestimating its impact can be quite serious. If you don’t write well, assign a staff member who is a stronger writer to develop your blog content based on your guidance. If you have a new idea about your industry, don’t present it as fact but put it forth for discussion and debate. If you want your blog to gain popularity in your industry, invest in analytics tools that will give you feedback on which posts are being read, how customers are finding you on the web and what kind of customer is reading your blog.

 

Mistakes are inevitable. The more risks you take, the more mistakes you will likely make along the way. Nevertheless, you don’t need to learn only from mistakes that you make directly – you can learn from others’ mistakes as well. Please share the business mistakes you’ve made and the lessons you’ve learned as a small business owner with the SBOC community below.

Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.pngIt is probably a safe bet to say that most folks who manage other people think that they are a good boss. After all, we have all had bad bosses, and no one likes working for a bad one, let alone thinking that they are the bad boss. As you may remember, I wrote “Top 10 Signs You Are a Bad Boss” in an earlier column, you can read that article here.

 

The truth is, all bosses are not created equal. So which are you? Let’s find out. Here are the top 10 signs that you really are a good boss.

 

1. You are receptive to employee’s input: The best bosses know that when they hire someone, they are hiring that person’s smarts, talent, initiative and abilities. While employees may not have the experience or knowledge that you have, they will come up with ideas on how things could be done differently.  You should acknowledge and respect their contributions, so they feel valued and confident to share these ideas with you. 

 

2. You stay above the fray: We all know that petty (and not so petty) office politics are part of life. The bad boss gets involved in that sort of minutiae, often seeing it as a way to gain leverage over someone or some situation. The good boss knows that it is his or her job not only to avoid such situations (let alone not exacerbate them) but in fact should look to foster harmony and diminish discord.

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

3. You lead: You are their boss, not their friend (well, you might be their friend too, but that’s beside the point.) Your job at work is to set an example, have a vision, and get people to buy into that vision. You know – be a leader.

 

4. You know that fun is part of the game: Great bosses understand that a workplace that is dry and boring is one where you don’t get the best out of people. Employees want to make money, sure, but they also want to socialize, sharpen their skills, and yes, have a good time. Allowing that makes for a more interesting, creative and fun place to work. It boosts morale . . . and the bottom line.

 

5. You care about career development: Bad bosses do not provide opportunities for their employees to take on more interesting or challenging work – bad bosses may even hog all the good projects. This short-sighted approach may result in a high turnover. 

 

6. You make time to get to know your employees: A good boss knows that it’s important to be invested (and even interested) in your employees as individuals. If an employee has a big life event, show you care by giving a note or a small gift.

 

7. You are not a jerk: A good boss knows that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. So you don’t yell. You do not berate. You are respectful and kind. Sure you can be tough on occasion, but that is more the exception than the rule.

 

8. You understand that employees have other obligations: A good boss understands that employees have lives outside of work. For instance, an employee may need to occasionally leave work early to make an appointment or to take care of family needs.

 

9. You reward a job well done: Even if your budget is tight, you can rest assured that you are a good boss if you reward people. It might be a small bonus or a day off or tickets to the game, but whatever the case, good bosses acknowledge and reward people for a job well done.

 

10. People are loyal to you: No one is loyal to a bad boss. Good bosses foster loyalty and get people to go above and beyond because employees like working for them.

 

So are you a good boss or do you know one? Share your story.


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 You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.


White-in article.pngA one-size-fits-all approach typically does not work when it comes to stimulating staff creativity. Some may believe that a freewheeling, risk-taking, no-rules approach is best for inspiring great ideas. Others could argue that some parameters and protocols are necessary to keep ideas on track. Let’s take a look at the different approaches to stimulating creativity.


  • Prior to thinking of creative ideas or business solutions, research in some or all of the following areas – customers’ mindset, competitors’ products and messaging, media coverage in your industry, up-and-coming trends, etc. – is crucial.  Encourage employees to look for market gaps (for example, predicting customer needs; recognizing opportunities stemming from societal changes; or looking for new uses for tried-and-true products) to ground the process.
  • To come up with creative solutions to specific business problems, you might want to present the team with a defined challenge that strikes a balance between being too general and too specific.  In other words, you Creative Pull Quote.pngwant to keep the brainstorming process on track without spoon feeding a solution.
  • Creativity may ebb and flow for entrepreneurs and employees alike. Sometimes you may have great ideas throughout the course of a day; other times, you may struggle to find ideas or solutions to problems. When you or your staff are struggling to find the big “ah ha” moment, you may need to distract yourself momentarily by focusing on more mundane tasks, such as paperwork.
  • Asking employees to conceive innovative ideas under pressure can squash the creative impulse. By contrast, giving people time to think can be good for the process. To help get creative juices flowing, some companies allow employees free time, ranging from walks outside, to paid sabbaticals.
  • If you really want to systematize your creativity, you can hire mind-mapping or game storming consultants to run detailed training programs with staff.  Gamestorming sessions can run from a few hours to several days and typically involve visual thinking games and techniques designed to put the focus on the solution, not on individuals.


Keep in mind, if you encourage creative thinking among your staff, you do have to put some of their ideas into practice. There is no better way to crush the creative spirit than to make employees feel as if their efforts are all in vain.  At the end of the day, it all comes down to what works best for your business.  Many companies choose to take a blended approach to creativity, including allowing employees to work with different colleagues for a few days or setting up cross-disciplinary teams. This may be just enough freedom to stimulate innovation, while still keeping employees focused on creative solutions to real business problems.  How do you encourage creativity among your staff?  Share your thoughts with the SBOC community below.

leasing equipment.pngIneffectively managing your supply chain can result in serious losses for your small business. It could cause you to lose money and customers for the following reasons: poor inventory management, a missed delivery date and/or fulfillment issues (the closing of a business transaction between the business and the customer and everything that happens in between). In order to protect your small business, here are some dos and don’ts for maximizing supply chain efficiency:

 

 

       Dos

  • Do enlist other departments outside of procurement, such as engineering, operations, quality, accounting, in major supply chain management decisions.
  • Do consider sourcing locally, if your small business has a global reach. This is possible not only with food-based businesses but with any business that relies on locally made products. Just be sure that you research their reliability, quality control and production schedules.
  • Do be flexible with your schedule if you use local artisans and you may have to pay cash up front so that they can buy materials. 
  • Do make a contingency plan for emergencies by engaging back-up suppliers who boast a quick turn-around.
  • Do practice accurate and detailed sales forecasting to ensure that your inventory costs are under tight control.


Pull Quote.pngDon’ts

  • Don’t neglect your taxes or you may cut into your profits by as much as 25 percent. Hire a consultant who can help you sort it all out.
  • Don’t ignore your supply chain when it comes to sustainability. You don’t want to be impacted by environmental issues or human rights violations of your suppliers.
  • Don’t lose touch with your middlemen or brokers, particularly if you don’t have the budget for automated supply chain technology. Try to see these contacts in person periodically throughout the year and maintain regular phone and e-mail contact.
  • Don’t expect to find one software vendor for supply chain planning and supply chain execution. The most well-known vendors usually fall into one or the other category.
  • Don’t forget to assess risk at all points in the supply chain – this includes product and service providers, governments and local communities.

 

Supply chain management may not be the most exciting part of your small business.  However, it can have a significant and far-reaching impact on thequality of your products, the reliability of your deliveries and the ultimate success of your company.

Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.pngI would venture to say that we have all had an influential mentor at one time or another. It might have been a teacher who inspired you or a colleague who guided you, but whatever the case, you were fortunate to have the right someone at the right time.

 

Yes, mentors can make a difference but the funny thing about them is that, typically, they show up when they show up. You don’t normally get to choose when a mentor relationship becomes available. All too often, finding a mentor when you actually want one is not so easy.

 

But it can be done. And it should be done.

 

Having a business mentor is one of the best ways to get ahead. He or she can open doors, teach skills and give valuable feedback. There’s no doubt that is a good deal for you. But it is often equally, if not more, satisfying for the mentor as he or she can watch his or her guidance make a difference. It is a chance to give back.

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


So how do you actually go about finding a mentor when you want one? Here are a few ways:

 

Ask: Finding a mentor is sometimes the result of simply having the chutzpah to ask someone whom you admire if they would be willing to mentor and work with you. Or, just tell people that you are looking for a mentor.  You may be surprised at how willing people are to help. Speak with business associates, friends, relatives, other entrepreneurs, your place of worship or even with online communities.

 

Look: These days, there are all sorts of organizations to help you hook up with a mentor. Many of these are government sponsored. Here are your best bets:

 

 

Call: Your trade organization may have a mentor-mentee program that you can tap.

Pay: If you know someone who knows what you want to learn but who probably would be disinclined to be your mentor, for whatever reason, consider buying their time. Is it ideal? No, but it may still work. For instance, what about approaching that person and offering a fee for a few days of consultation and six months of telephone follow up? Explain that you think he or she could help you get your business of the ground that you respect his/her time and are therefore willing to pay for it. You may be surprised by the response. Especially if you are not in a competing business, you may suddenly find yourself with the best mentor that money can buy.

 

Discover: Just what are you looking for in a mentor? Here are a few things to consider:

 

You want someone who shares your vision for your business: It would be a frustrating experience to be mentored by someone who is not on the same page as you.

 

You want someone who has time: Landing that big fish mentor is worthless if the mentor does not really have the time to help you.

 

You want someone whom you respect: This means that they have values similar to yours and a track record of success.

 

You want someone who has connections: A mentor can provide many things and one of them should be the ability to open some new business doors.You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

White-in article.pngYou may think you know the definition of crowdsourcing, but there are a lot of interpretations to its meaning.

 

In the words of Northwestern University professor Jeff Howe, who coined the term, crowdsourcing is “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”  

 

Regardless of how you define it, there is an argument to be made that crowdsourcing is a particularly good match for small businesses. Here’s why:

 

  • Venture capital firms are generally supportive of the concept as it allows the companies they fund to lower operating expenses.
  • It provides access to a pool of experienced and creative talent that might otherwise be inaccessible to a small business.
  • The concept of user feedback on product design and branding is already an accepted dynamic in the social media-driven world currently embraced by many small businesses and their customers.
  • Small businesses may have smaller tasks that need to be solved and they will get a broader spectrum of crowd-sourced solutions.

   

Pull Quote.pngIf you’ve never considered crowdsourcing, there are a multiple of websites dedicated to it and particularly useful to small businesses. Innocentive is a forum where “solvers” compete to devise a solution to a small business’s problem, usually a technical one. Ideaken is a software platform that facilitates collaboration between enterprises and individuals. Whinot is a consulting firm dedicated to providing crowd-sourced technical solutions to small businesses. crowdSPRING is a crowd-sourced marketplace for graphic design and writing services. There are many more crowdsourcing websites including:  GeniusRocket, 99 designs, LogoTournament, Minted and Poptent, just to name a few.

 

If you are considering venturing into crowdsourcing, there are few rules of engagement to consider:

 

  • Don’t skimp on information. Describe the project and target audience in detail.
  • If you have specific pet peeves or favorite colors, spell them out in your project description.
  • If you’re crowdsourcing creative work, such as a logo design, take steps to ensure the design is original before contracting to use it.
  • If you’re running a contest, think carefully about the dollar amount of the reward.  You’re already saving significantly so let the reward fit the effort.
  • Don’t forget that, in addition to the financial incentive, many participants in crowdsourcing are motivated by constructive feedback and publicity.

 

You can start with a non-strategic project, such as how to configure your phone system. Or, you can get input from the “crowd” on something as significant as your company name. Whether you’ve thought about crowdsourcing for a while or are considering it now for the first time, there are very few barriers to jumping into the mix.  Have you ever used crowdsourcing? Share your experiences or recommendations with the SBOC community below.

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It is normal for workplace issues to arise amongst colleagues – after all most Americans spend more time at work than any place else. When employees are having difficulty getting along with each other, or when they are having performance problems, small business owners may question how to handle the issues at hand.

 

Companies of all sizes must manage employees that turn out to have difficult personality traits, are a poor fit for their current role or have trouble working with others. Unless the employee has broken the law, behaved unethically or is grossly incompetent, the goal in most cases should be to help them stay with the company. Terminating employees can often be a long process and often a painful one.

 

Driven to Distraction

If you have an employee who has suddenly changed from being a valued, trusted worker to disengaged or disgruntled, there may be something going on in the employee’s personal life.  When you sit down to talk with the employee, remember that the goal is not to get him or her to confess personal problems. You want to make the employee aware that you have noticed the change in his or her behavior and that you’d like to help the employee get back on track.

 

Prior to this conversation, you want to garner as much information as you can that showcases the contrast between the employee’s historical job performance and their current one. For example, you may want to speak to his or her direct supervisor, review quality and error rates, look at attendance records and gather recent e-mail correspondence that may speak to a change in attitude.  Hopefully, with your help and support, the employee can work on shifting their behavior and mindset in a more positive direction.

 

The Attitude Problem

Some employees just don’t realize how they come across to others when they are condescending, blunt, offensive or self-aggrandizing. Working with this type of personality can cause a decline in team morale, derail a project or make everyone else’s job more difficult.

 

Pull Quote.pngIf you are faced with disciplining an employee for a negative attitude, there are several steps you can take. One option is to present the problem to the employee using the SBI model – this is a way that sheds light on the situation at hand – what the situation is, how different behaviors factor into the outcome and its impact on fellow employees. Be sure to criticize the behavior, not the person. Make it clear that the offending behavior is a problem because of its impact on company productivity. If the employee wasn’t aware of the impact of his or her behavior on workmates, he or she just might make a change.

 

The Bad Fit

Sometimes you will find that you’ve hired a bright, hard-working employee who just isn’t in the right job. Remember that a performance deficiency is not the same thing as insubordination or misconduct. Therefore, the right solution might be coaching. Keep in mind, this approach will likely require patience by the small business owner, and other employees.

 

If you’re unsure about whether the employee can gain competence in his or her role, you may have to make the tougher decision to terminate employment. However, before you do that, conduct a formal performance review and analyze the employee’s strengths and weaknesses to determine if there might be a better fit elsewhere in the company.

 

If an employee has been valuable to your small business, don’t ignore the difficult behavior or immediately write them off. Look for a way to resolve the issues. At the end of the day, it’s usually better to find a way to work with an employee – even a difficult one – than to go through the time- and cost-intensive process of recruiting and training a new one.

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