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2013

FacebookLook_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

 

Have you noticed lately that Facebook looks different? If your News Feed hasn’t changed yet, don’t worry, it soon will. Since early March, Facebook has slowly been rolling out its new News Feed design, giving users the first meaningful remodel of the site since 2006. What does this mean for you, the small business owner?

 

Image is everything

The first thing you’ll notice about the new Facebook News Feed is how much larger and more prominent the pictures are. People can continue to upload photos directly to Facebook, or share their images from other social media sites, such as Instagram or Pinterest. Photos are so central to the new design that Facebook allows users to choose a “Photos Only” view (more about that later).

 

For the small business owner, the new Facebook News Feed means it’s time to embrace visual marketing. “Selecting the right images is key—images get behind our conscious thinking and connect with our emotions,” says Joe Decker, of Rock Slide Photography. “Images of owners or employees at a small business help create a sense of connection with that business, and make it easier for customers to make the first call.”

 

Share your own original images on your business’s Facebook page, but don’t stop there. Your visual marketing strategy can include using photos from your manufacturers or suppliers, buying stock images, sharing existing memes, infographics, and more.

 

Exercise your emotional intelligence when choosing images for your Facebook page. “Having people smiling, interacting, making eye contact, either with each other or with the viewer help give a sense of happiness for the perfection they seek in their lives,” says Dov Friedmann, of Photography by Dov, who specializes in corporate events photography. “You want to have an eye-catching image or photograph that attracts the viewer and also captures the essence or tells the story of what your company is about.”

 

How your customers will find you now

Central to Facebook’s new design is an easy to use navigation system that allows users to pick and choose what content they view. Content is sorted into Feeds, only one of which will be displayed at any given time. Switching from Feed to Feed is simple and easy, just like changing the TV channel.

 

There are six standard Feeds: All Friends, Close Friends, Music, Photos, Following, and Games. Your business page posts will appear on the Following Feed, and the images you post will appear on the Photos Feed as well.

 

Facebook has always had limited navigation. The redesign makes the navigation more prominent and easier to use. There will be an adjustment period as Facebook users become acclimated to the new system, but in the long term, the revamp may serve small business owners well. The organization of business pages into a centralized stream filters out distractions that compete for your customer’s attention.

 

FacebookLook_PQ.jpgMake the most of metrics

Facebook Insights tell page administrators how many people saw a post, how many people liked it, and how many people shared the post with their friends. Use this information to gauge how relevant and meaningful your customers find the images and updates you post.

 

“Our goal is to engage our fans and sometimes that might be a serious photo of a re-breather diver and other times it could be a scuba diver riding a bike underwater,” says Darren Pace, Director of Marketing for SDI, TDI and ERDI, a dive training organization. “Regardless of what type of images are assumed to work best, always check your insights to make sure your fans feel the same way.”

 

Move toward mobile

One of the most important changes in Facebook’s new design is one that many small business owners might not even notice. The new site design is responsive, which means Facebook’s appearance and layout will always be consistent, no matter what type of device users choose to use to view the site.

 

Why did Facebook do this?

 

Take a look around as you go through the course of your day. How many people do you see that are ‘unplugged’—not actively engaging with any type of mobile device at all? Chances are the number won’t be too high. The reason it looks like everyone is using a smartphone or tablet computer is pretty simple: almost everyone is. Cisco’s Visual Networking Index has projected that there will be more Internet-connected devices than there are people by the end of this year.

 

A recent Google study found 90 percent of Americans move sequentially across multiple screens in one day to access information and entertainment. Facebook’s adoption of responsive design provides their customers with a satisfying experience no matter where they are.

 

Impact of responsive design

What happens if a customer who is using Facebook on their smartphone or tablet decides to follow one of your links and goes to your website? This is where website design becomes really important. If your business website is responsive, it will adapt automatically to look good on your customer’s viewing device, and they’ll have an optimized experience.

 

If your business website is not responsive, it may not look good or function well on your customer’s viewing device. The website that looks great on a desktop computer may not render properly on a smartphone. Customers are impatient. They’re not going to try to figure out how your website is supposed to look. They’ll just see that things are out of alignment or too hard to read and move on—and there goes your potential sale.

While nothing is certain in business, one thing is almost assured: The summer will bring change. For some small businesses, summer is their busy season; for others, it marks the slower time of year. But whatever the case, almost every business should look at summer as a special time of year and plan accordingly. Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png

 

Here then are seven tips to help you, regardless of the nature of your business:

 

1. Hire smart: We have all been there – the day when the restaurant fails to plan accordingly, and everything takes too long. It is a missed opportunity for the restaurant: dazzle the customers with great service and tasty food, and they will be impressed and come back time and again. But miss the mark, and customers are unlikely to return.

 

Multiply that several-fold, and that is the case when you run a business that gets busier over the summer but isn’t adequately staffed to account for the extra demand. Big mistake.

 

If your business picks up in the summer, now is the time to jump on the hiring process or hire those summer interns. These two sources of help – seasonal workers and interns – are key to making your summer both profitable and enjoyable.

 

2. Take a break: Just as your customers are coming and going, so too should you and your staff. In another article I wrote recently, I shared some creative ways to handle vacation policies and time off. The important thing is that you plan ahead so that everyone leaves the summer season feeling rejuvenated, not exhausted. And the only way to do that is to get everyone on your team some much needed time off.

 

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

 

 

3. Take advantage of summer events: The plethora of outdoor festivals, fairs and other similar events is a huge opportunity for many small businesses. If you have a business that lends itself to selling at these sorts of festivals, this may be a new profit center that you never considered. But even if your business is not the type that can sell at the artisan food and crafts fair, for example, your business can still take advantage of the good feelings that come from being associated with such an event by advertising or sponsoring part of the program. In addition, you can use these celebrations as an excuse to close shop early for the day and go have some fun with your employees.

 

4. Partner up: There is likely an association – formal or informal – of businesses similar to yours in your region. It would behoove you to see if they are promoting yourpull quote may 28.png industry or city this summer and then hop on the bandwagon. Chambers of commerce do this, and getting your chamber to recommend your business can be a huge boon. Similarly, there may be a local tourism board, restaurant association or concierge group that you can tap into as well. Getting on their list is a smart way to get referral business.

 

5. Check in: Summer is a great excuse to get in touch with old customers and let them know what is new right now. Maybe you have made some upgrades to the business this year, or maybe you are planning some summer sales. Whatever the case, updating your existing customers is a good way to get on their radar again.

 

The next two tips are for those businesses where summer is not their busy time of year.

 

6. Take on a new project: If you have time to spare right now, then use it wisely:

 

  • Update your website
  • Clean out the stockroom
  • Paint or freshen up your business in other ways
  • Prepare a new advertising campaign
  • Organize the office
  • Launch an e-newsletter


7. Learn something new: As a small business owner, there is never a shortage of new things to learn, whether it is mobile marketing, social media, accounting, etc. If summer is a slow time for your business, use this time is to learn something new that can help you when business picks up again in the fall.

 

How are you prepping for the summer season? Share your story below.

 

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.


Prof&Entre_Body.jpgby Jen Hickey.

 

 

Whether you’re thinking about leaving that big firm or graduation is looming, anybody looking to start their own professional practice should have a grasp of basic business fundamentals. While more colleges and universities are beginning to offer business courses to new doctors, lawyers, dentists, and other professionals, most still don’t. But the resources are out there, if you look for them. Some professional associations like the American Dental Association and the American Bar Association offer tips, information, training and seminars for managing the business side of a practice. Tap into your professional network and seek out advice from veterans in private practice. And don’t forget about the experts, particularly those that specialize in your industry. You can’t put a price on the right accountant or financial adviser.

 

“There are structural differences for professional practices,” notes Mitchell Weiss, author and adjunct professor at University of Hartford, Barney School of Business. And the legal structure of your practice goes beyond taxes. “How you finance the practice and degree of liability and risk go back to the structure of your practice,” explains Weiss. If forming a partnership, make sure you know everything about your potential partner(s), including how much personal debt they’re carrying. “A business partnership is not unlike a marriage,” he says. “If something goes wrong, you’re responsible as a professional and an individual.”

 

With practices that are capital intensive like dentistry, specialty health providers, and certain types of engineering or architectural firms, the equipment and/or software needed to run the practice will likely require some financing. “Speaking as a former lender, there’s only so much debt you can take on,” says Weiss. “Financing has to be done with some thought and deliberation to avoid rolling deficiencies from one loan to the next.” He cautions against the “snowball” effect of taking on too much debt, as equipment can become obsolete long before you’ve paid off the loan to finance it. “At some point, you’ll want to retire or sell the practice,” notes Weiss. “And if you owe more than you own, the value of your practice will diminish.”

 

A few years after Dr. Robert Sorin started his own Manhattan-based cosmetic and restorative dental practice, he attended a seminar in Chicago, where the audience was asked: “Are you entrepreneurs that happen to be dentists, or dentists that happen to be entrepreneurs?” The answer to that question marked the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey as a dentist. “Over the next few days, we were given benchmarks to set a baseline for success,” recalls Dr. Sorin. “While the goals have changed over time, I’m still using those same benchmarks, such as calculating production per day and month, total collections per month and a detailed breakdown of fixed and variable overhead expenses each month, to track my business 25 years later.”

 

Prof&Entre_PQ.jpgOne early misstep Dr. Sorin recalls was hiring too large of a staff. “Overhead costs can get quickly out of hand,” he cautions. “I’ve learned that you can have a smaller staff and get most, if not all, the same work accomplished.” Dr. Sorin also quickly learned the importance of forward budgeting. “By projecting costs one, two, and three years ahead, I’m forced to look at where expenses are going and where income strains may arise,” he explains. “It gives you metrics to ensure that your revenues at least equal or exceed expenses.”

 

“It’s important to have at least a rudimentary understanding of how your financial statements work (income statement, balance sheet, cash flow),” notes Weiss.  Staying on top of your financials not only helps you track performance, but also better positions you to negotiate terms and structure your loan payments. “For example, if you know your company’s revenues are seasonal in nature (high summer months, low winter months), you may then want to negotiate a repayment plan taking that into account to avoid getting squeezed,” explains Weiss. He also recommends comparing your financials against those of other practices in the industry. “There are plenty of peer metrics out there to measure performance.”

 

When attorney Cynthia Johnson Rerko was thinking about leaving her former employer, she was advised by a mentor to wait until she made partner. “People in the legal business and those hiring lawyers want one that’s made partner,” explains Rerko. “It’s a benchmark in a lawyer’s career.” She not only was the first female partner at her old firm, but also made it a year earlier than planned. In 1998, when Rerko left, she made sure she had enough cash reserves and a client list to get her Gainesville, Texas-based practice, which specializes in complex financial restructuring, off the ground. “Once I was comfortable I’d have a core business where I could at least break even, I was ready,” she says.

 

Part of the motivation for starting her own practice was her desire to spend more time with her then 11-year old son. “The law is still very much about billable hours,” explains Rerko. “And when you work in a large firm, it means putting in face time.” Once she was the boss, she didn’t always need to be in the office to run her business. And she was able to rein in her caseload when needed. “I knew my business would be there when I got back,” she says. This also allowed her to tap into a qualified flexible work force of contract lawyers and law students with prior professional experience.

 

Because she enjoys the work, Rerko sometimes had difficulty keeping track of her hours. “It can be a distraction,” she explains. “But when you’re making or breaking it based on collectibles, it’s something you have to do.” To enable her to concentrate on the legal side of her business, Rerko has an accountant that tracks her monthly revenues and expenses and manages her tax obligations. “It’s not the focus of my business,” notes Rerko. “But it’s necessary to keep it running.”

 

Jan Moye also saw an opportunity when she launched her Irving, Texas-based specialty engineering firm Moye Consulting in 2002. Back then, she explains, the introduction of new technologies in security and other building systems created the need for low voltage systems engineering in facilities design. “Suddenly, there was much greater complexity to the data network that needed to be accommodated in new building designs,” notes Moye. Her former employer was very supportive of the move—in fact, they became her first client. “I started the business because I wanted to make money doing what I do well,” she says. “But over the years, I’ve encountered issues and challenges that they didn’t teach you in engineering school.”

 

While her business was profitable from the start, it wasn’t growing enough. “Even though we did a great job on the execution of the technical work, I had to push myself to focus on marketing and networking with potential clients in the beginning,” she recalls. Once the firm had achieved a certain level of growth, she was able to hire a project manager who also handled sales and a marketing coordinator. “As the business got bigger, I could allocate certain jobs to those better suited for them.”

 

But when an opportunity arose to improve her business skills, Moye took it. Through a friend, she learned of the SBA Emerging Leaders Initiative, a seven-month-long M.B.A. boot camp. Every year, the SBA accepts about 200 established small business owners into the program who meet certain criteria (e.g. have been in operation at least three years and have annual revenues of at least $300,000). She applied and was accepted in April 2012 and graduated in November.

 

Moye and her classmates were given a curriculum that included employment law, sales/marketing, branding, competitive analysis, and strategic planning, among others. “They’re topics that would be covered in business school,” she explains. “The difference is you get to apply what you’re studying to your own business.”  Moye found the interaction and advice she got from other small business owners of different sizes and industries very helpful. “They saw the challenges and issues I was having from outside the box,” notes Moye. “Those fresh ideas helped me to take the blinders off.”

 

“There’s no right or wrong way [to running a practice],” notes Dr. Sorin. “But you have to decide what’s important to you, how you’re going to allocate your time personally and professionally, what your goals are and set up metrics to meet those goals.”

Every January, I write a column for USA TODAY on emerging trends in small business. Whether it is mobile marketing or the proliferation of social media, one thing is certain: small business is always changing, and usually for the better. One of the most significant trends that I have seen over the past decade is the emergence of mompreneurs. (Note: Not all mompreneurs work from home, but generally speakinSteve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.pngg, the term refers to moms who have created home-based businesses.)

 

It is great when anyone can launch a business out of a spare bedroom, but it is even better when that person happens to be a mom. It is no secret that women have a particularly tough time achieving that work/life/home balance. One need only look at the brouhaha that erupted when new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told employees that they could no longer work from home (especially when she was able to build a nursery right next to her own office at Yahoo) to see the challenges many women face.


 

So what do you do if you cannot build a nursery next to your office? You build an office next to your nursery. Mompreneurs are doing this successfully for all sorts of reasons, but two are paramount:


  • First, we live at a time when a growing number of people are not only becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, but doing so from home. A generation ago, it was news if someone worked from home. That is not the case today.
  • Second, the computer/Internet revolution has made it so that anyone can start small, work from home, and look big. That makes being a mompreneur much more doable. Maybe it is not surprising then that more than half of all home-based businesses are owned by mothers.


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


So yes, while it is more common than ever for women to start home-based business so they can better balance the demand of work and home, the question arises: What do the most successful mompreneurs do right? Here are four things:

 

1. They set things up to be successful from the start: If you want other people to take your home-based business seriously, you must as well. That means having a dedicated space for the business where you “go to work” everyday, having business phone lines and emails set up – the whole enchilada. You do it right, right from the start.


Take the story of Kimber Christensen of Little Sapling Toys. Kristen started selling her toys on the craft site Etsy and was so successful, according to Investopedia, that she “and husband Nick were able to make and sell the Little Sapling developmental wooden toys full time. By having a home office and workshop onsite, this couple could spend more time with their two children.”


It is very easy when you work at home to run the business casually, maybe too casually. Don’t make that mistake.


2. Set up some ground rules: Having a clear set of rules is key. As someone who used to work from home part time, I always say, “The good news about working at home is that you see your kids a lot. The bad news is that you see your kids a lot.” Of course, that is the idea, but as we all know, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Ground rules therefore are critical for getting everyone on the same page.


3. Tap into technology: As indicated, technology abounds, and if you want to be a successful mompreneur, you simply must take advantage of the tools that are available to you:


  • Social media: Twitter is an amazing tool that allows you not only to establish yourself as an expert, but also meet new people, make contacts and potentially get business. In addition, lots of people hang out on Facebook. If they are there, you should be too. Even better: the social aspect of social media makes working for yourself at home less lonely.
  • The Internet: You have to have a great website and social media presence these days if you are going to make your mompreneur gig fly. Not May 14 Pull quote.pnggood, great.
  • Help: There are plenty of places and people who want to see you succeed. Tap into those resources.


4. Enjoy your time: The whole idea of being a mompreneur is to balance your life better. Be a good boss to yourself. Enjoy your kids . . . and enjoy your work.


So Happy Mother’s Day to all you mompreneurs out there. Times have never been better for you, and those who depend on you!


How do you balance a work-from-home lifestyle? Share your story below.


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.

KidGloves_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

Who are those 2½-year-old darlings out there destroying the supply shelf at the front of your store?

 

They’re your future customers, if you know how to manage and engage the children who visit your business.

 

It may be hard to believe for anyone who’s witnessed a toddler melting down or going on a rampage behind the back of a distracted parent. But the key to keeping your small-fry clients happy—and your store safe and intact—is the same as dealing with adults: Focus on engagement and respect.

 

“No business owner wants to put out the vibe that they don’t like kids to offend any parents, or better yet, lose a key customer,” says Jerri Aubry, a family and marriage counselor and behaviorist in Northern California. “You don’t want to offend people who have kids who are then going to go and tell their friends that your [business] isn’t a friendly place.”

This is particularly relevant today, when weekend sidewalks jammed with strollers are a common sight in many cities and everything’s estimated level of family-friendliness consumes a universe of mommy blogs. And while parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s behavior in public, there still exists some responsibility that falls into the entrepreneur’s court when customers enter his or her place of business. So what are some best practices to deal with kids in your shop?

Start with prevention

If wee ones frequent your business, get some gear to keep them entertained. A small table and chairs, with puzzles, books, crayons, coloring books or activity sheets—all of it will get their attention on their level, and keep them busy while the adult with them can do their business with you. It will also show your empathy toward sometimes-harried parents, something that might go a long way to pulling in repeat business. “Kids always want to pick things up and touch them—that’s part of their sensory learning, but as a shop owner, you don’t always want them touching your stuff,” Aubry says. “And kids are unpredictable that way— something can happen in an instant. Parents aren’t always able to react in time.”

“Step into your adult”

Dr. Gail Gross, a psychologist and specialist in child and family development, once had a frustrated friend bring over three visiting children who were making a mess of her home. She met them at the door, and kindly but firmly laid down the house rules—eat and drink only at the kitchen table, what they were allowed to do and where, plus ideas for activities. “I had no problem with them,” she recalls, laughing, describing how others can take control. “It is important for children to know the rules for every situation in order to feel both competent and confident.”


KidGloves_PQ.jpg“As a shop owner, when children come in, you greet them and tell them the rules of your shop,” Gross explains. “Say ‘Some of these things may be tempting, but we cannot touch them. But here are some things in this corner that might keep you busy while Mommy is looking at this or that.‘ If a parent doesn’t take control, you take control. A parent will watch you do that and take a tip from you.”  

Post a friendly reminder to parents

Get that old sign: “You break it, you buy it.” Aubry says it serves as an upfront notice that ought to get parents’ attention—but don’t go out of your way to point it out too aggressively. “Having a visual up on the wall big enough for people to see it might help them internally think, ‘OK, maybe I need to settle my kids down.’” A more direct way, without offending: If a child is getting into trouble, the business owner might say “I just wanted to mention they’re getting into that stuff over there—just in case you might not know.” That way, Aubry says, it doesn’t sound like you’re complaining, just that you’re alerting them to a possibly dangerous situation to get them to react.

If all else fails, there’s always the passive-aggressive, comedic route. Like a sign that warns: “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free kitten.”

Strike up a conversation

The handicapped ramp outside Chris Dagger’s business, Cakettes Coffee Shop in Warren, Mass., had become popular with young teen skateboarders. His wife (and co-owner) had become frustrated in her attempts to chase them away, so Dagger went out for a chat. He pointed out that someone could get hurt with them whizzing by during business hours—and then asked about other options in the area. That led to a longer discussion about the closing of their local skate park, which left the teens with few alternatives. Dagger says he brought out a few cold sodas and offered to lend his support a new skate facility, either financially or with a letter to the local government. He and the skaters are on good terms now, he says.  

And listen, too

Recently, Dagger returned to his shop at night to do some work and was startled to find four teenagers crouched in his doorway. After a quick chat, he realized they were just there to link up with the company’s free WiFi—and were a bit embarrassed that they were caught in the act. Dagger says instead of getting upset, he flipped on an outdoor light for them, and let them hang out under an overhang to stay out of the rain. “Most businesses, I’m sure, would have moved them on,” he says. But “they would also have not had the kids coming into the coffee shop the next day for mocha lattes either!”

Dagger says he has several teen staffers and treats them, as well as teen customers, as he would any other adult. “I always try to engage them, because they’re the customers of the future,” he says. “They’re the people five or 10 or 15 years from now who’ll be bring their kids in.”

My daughter is finishing high school soon, and like all seniors, her head is everywhere but the school she currently attends. Senioritis is in full bloom throughout the land, and graduation is soon to arrive.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png

 

It took a long time and a lot of work for her to get to this place, and I am reminded that there have really been two sets of requirements that she has faced the past four years: first, the minimum requirements needed for graduating, and second, the requirements needed to get into a university.

 

In that regard, she is not very different from many small business owners. New small business owners and new students have a few things in common. It takes both of them some time to find their footing and become independent. To take the analogy a little further, for the entrepreneur there are also basic graduation requirements as well as advanced study requirements.

 

Any small business owner who wants to graduate from novice to pro needs to take and pass the following “courses:”

 

1. Profitability basics: This may seem obvious, but in reality it’s not. People start businesses with all sorts of dreams and aspirations, but it is safe to say that concrete, realistic profitability plans are not always part of the equation.

 

Maybe these folks want to create a great product, or maybe they want to pursue their passion every day. Whatever the case, it can be a rude awakening that the entrepreneur not only has to come up with a great idea, find a location, get funding, name the business and get started, but he or she also has to begin making a profit, pronto.

 

 

Profitability entails:

  • Learning how to price one’s services appropriately,
  • Sourcing products at a good price,
  • Selling, and
  • Upselling

 

2. Math for non-majors: There is a lot of math to master when you are a small business owner. You have to get a handle on taxes, spreadsheets, budgeting, inventory, buying and selling, profit and loss statements and other basic accounting skills.

 

3. Marketing 101: As I have said before, the only way new clients find you is via your consistent marketing efforts. As a result, the only way you will be around for the long haul is if you have a basic understanding of how to get your name out there and get people to remember it. Marketing is an extremely important element to master.

 

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


What if simply graduating from small business school is insufficient and you have higher aspirations? Then you will also need to pass the following “upper division-level courses:”

 

1. Labor law: Many small business are content to be one-person shops — indeed, most small businesses in this country are solo endeavors. But if you desire to keep growing, you will need to hire people at some point, either employees or other independent contractors. So, in this “course” you will need to master:

 

  • Interview techniques,
  • Hiring, and
  • Firing

 

Pull Quote May 7.png2. Advanced advertising: Doing the same old thing when it comes to your advertising strategy is fine, but it will get you the same old results. If you want to stand out to customers, you will need to show your advanced advertising competence. This “course” is always evolving, but currently the curriculum involves the following: Web 2.0, social media and mobile marketing.

 

3. Philosophy 200: In this advanced entrepreneurship course, you will be asked to articulate a vision for your business. Your vision must be based upon your core competencies, your company culture, your business values, the essential products and services you offer and your dream for the future of your company. You will also be asked to engage vendors, employees, customers, investors and the public at large in this vision.

 

If you have done all of this, then congratulations are in order — you’ve been accepted to Career College!

 

What “courses” do you feel new small business owners should pass? Share your thoughts below.


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.

QAterrywiederlight_Body1.jpgby Jen Hickey.

Business writer Jen Hickey recently spoke with Terry Wiederlight, the 66-year-old co-owner of Fountain Pen Hospital, a Manhattan retailer of fine writing instruments since 1946, about the secret to this family business’s staying power.

JH: How has the business evolved from when your grandfather and father set up shop?

TW: Our first store was located on one of the streets where the World Trade Center was built. The area was very different then. Radio Row was nearby, and there were many other types of small retailers on those blocks. Up until the 1970s, the focus of the business was exclusively on selling and repairing pens. With the shift toward mass marketing of pens, we started selling office supplies. When construction of the World Trade Center began in mid-60s, our store relocated nearby. We had many accounts with businesses there. By the mid-80s, 90 percent of our business was office supplies.

Even though less than 1 percent of our business is now repair, as we sell/repair vintage pens, it never made sense to change our name, Fountain Pen Hospital, because that’s how people know us. We added the tagline “Showcase of Fine Writing Instruments” so people don’t get confused. My dad passed away before we switched back to pens. I wished he could have seen how we’ve kept the legacy going. He would have been proud.

JH: How has the business changed since you and your brother took over?

TW: In 1986, high rent forced us to move a little further uptown to our current location in Tribeca. When a Staples store opened up nearby in late 1980s, I saw the writing on the wall. We decided to go back to our roots. We are now one of the largest retailers of writing instruments in the world, carrying up to 50 brands and 4,000-5,000 models of pens—fountain, ballpoints, rollers. There were lots of inexpensive stores on this block back then. We didn’t fit in as a retailer of luxury items. But we made do.

We were among the first retailers to go online in the late 1990s. That helped us reinvent the business. Today, 90 percent of our sales are through our website and catalog.

JH: How did the Twin Towers attack impact the business and how has this area changed since then?

TW: Just as we began rebuilding our business, 9/11 happened and we were closed for six weeks. We moved our computers off-site to take orders but our customers knew we couldn’t ship. When we were able to get back into the store, all we did was ship, ship, ship. We lost a lot of customers when the towers came down. But our online and catalog business certainly helped us get through that sad, dark period.

This area has only been changing for the better. While it took a few years to get going, construction on the new World Trade Center has had ripple effect on the entire area. The retail offerings on this whole block have improved. We just re-did the front of our store and the business next to us is renovating its façade. It’s also become more residential. More families are moving in and raising their kids here. It’s a real neighborhood.

QAterrywiederlight_PQ.jpgJH: Describe your customer base and how that has evolved over the years.

TW: We get business from all over. We get walk-ins, of course, and have always served Wall Street and Lower Manhattan. But the catalog and website is what drives our business. We get orders from all over the world, because there are not many other businesses like ours. We have around 75,000 people on our mailing list. We sell to business people, other professionals, writers, and even celebrities. Bill Cosby is a big fan and has become a good friend over the years. He’s the voice on our answering service.

JH: How has your business adapted to the new economic landscape after the recession?

TW: Our business took a big hit in 2008. In response, we set up a section on the web site called Back Room, offering pre-owned, lightly used pens. It has been very successful. A lot of collectors are selling, so we re-purchase and re-sell. That’s helped us. Also, there’s Tuesday Mania, where we sell items on the web at special prices for 24 hours. As each item is sold, it counts down like the Home Shopping Network. We get roughly 5,000 people on our website most Tuesdays.

We also host a Pen Expo twice a year at our showroom—one in December before the holidays, and one in the spring. Manufacturers come to explain and show their lines. We offer special pricing those days, and it generates a great deal of foot traffic and in-store sales.  

JH: What roles do you and your brother play and how has the staff evolved with the business?

TW: My brother runs the front of the store—in-store sales/orders—and I’m in charge of all back office functions—financials, website, inventory. My father worked all the time, and I’m the same way, though I’ve reined in my hours in recent years. My daughter works part time in the showroom. I’m 66 years old, but I can’t imagine retiring. I love what I do.We’re open five days a week from 7:45 until 5:30, but the website is a 24/7 operation. We have 15 employees, who are constantly in motion. Every day, we’re updating the website and catalog. A few people handle all web/phone orders, and a few manage IT. About four to five employees are on the sales floor at any one time. We run like a machine. You have to be very organized when you’re handling so many products. Most of our employees have been with us for many years. I believe that has helped us weather all the changes and ups and downs. After Hurricane Sandy, we were closed for over a week and the phones were out for a few days after that. But we pushed on as we always have. Good help makes a business.

OnTheRoad_Body.jpgby Susan Caminiti.

 

For many small business owners, traveling to meet with clients, attend conferences, or speak at industry gatherings is a necessary aspect of building their companies. But without some smart organizational strategies and tools, time away from the office for business travel can also be a nightmare.

 

Indeed, sitting in an airport with a dead laptop (and no place to plug in a power cord) can be infuriating. And coming back to the office only to be greeted by scores of unanswered emails means your business travel habits need fine-tuning. To get some tips on how to make your next trip efficient, effective and—dare we say it—enjoyable, we spoke with several road warriors who know what works—and what doesn’t. Read on for some of their best ideas:

 

1. Use technology smartly

You probably already know that the days of traveling for business without at least a smartphone and laptop are long gone. But it’s not enough to just have those devices. Knowing what tasks to tackle during specific parts of your trip—and what apps and shortcuts make life easier—is the true payoff.

 

Gary Shouldis, owner of 3Bug Media, a website marketing company based in Toronto, is on the road typically two days a week. One of his favorite tools is Dropbox, the cloud-based file storing service. “Any document I need, whether it’s a text file or an Excel spreadsheet, I have access to, and if I make changes, it will save them to one copy of the document,” he says. So, for instance, if he starts writing a blog post while in the office and finishes while on the plane, all the changes will automatically appear on one copy of the document and sync with whatever device—desktop, laptop, or mobile phone—he’s using to view it.

 

Evernote, the suite of services and software used for note taking and archiving, is another favorite tool of entrepreneurs on the road. Jason Womack, an executive coach and author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More, travels close to 200 days out of the year. He keeps track of ideas, notes, pictures, and business cards with his Evernote app. “I can snap a picture of someone’s business card with my smartphone and send it to my Evernote account and don’t have to worry about losing it,” he says.

 

2. Tame email

Nothing saps productivity faster than getting interrupted constantly with email. To take care of a whole batch at one time, Shouldis says he’ll compose as many as 20 to 30 emails—responses to those he’s received and new ones he needs to send—when he gets on a plane. “I rarely buy WiFi access while on board, so I just shoot them off when I land and I’m connected to the Internet again,” he says. “It’s a huge time saver and I get more done because I’m not getting interrupted.”

 

Womack is a big believer in shortcuts—for the keyboard, that is. Since he has less time to respond to emails while on the road, any time saved by tapping out fewer keystrokes is welcome. For instance, on his iPhone he’s created numerous keystroke shortcuts for his mobile number (mo), email address (em), his signature (sig), and even the words “thank you” (tu) to use when he’s composing emails. “If I can type two keys instead of 22 and I multiply that over a year, that’s a lot of time saved,” he says.

 

OnTheRoad_PQ.jpg3. Educate yourself

Yes, sometimes a mindless movie on the plane or in your hotel room is just what you need to decompress. But for all those other times, why not “read” something that can help you run your business better or understand your industry more fully?

 

Shouldis says he’s become a fan of audiobooks and frequently uses the Audible.com app to download business books he simply doesn’t have time to read. “I used to just listen to whatever random radio station was on in the city where I was traveling,” he says. “But now I get to educate myself when I’m, say, driving from one client to another.” An older book he recently discovered and found useful: The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz.

 

4. Try not to be needed so much

Even if you employ every time management trick and tip while traveling, if you come back to the office and the place is in chaos because of your absence, none of that efficiency will really matter.

 

“If you’re coming back to the office and are buried in emails or things have just ground to a halt, it means you’re doing something wrong,” is the blunt assessment of Jay Goltz, the owner of several small businesses in Chicago and author of The Street-Smart Entrepreneur: 133 Tough Lessons I Learned the Hard Way.

 

Goltz believes that a critical aspect of productivity on the road is knowing that you have employees back at the office who can—and will—take care of things while you’re away. A staff that is paralyzed to make decisions in your absence or who needs to call you for approval on even minor things means that, “as the boss, you’re sending the message that you don’t trust them,” he says. Instead, Goltz advises business owners to think of time away from the office as a valuable tool to build confidence in your staff—and a way for you to be effective in taking your company to the next level.

VacationTips_Body.jpgby Heather Chaet.

 

When you think about vacations, many lists pop into mind: top places to visit in Europe, best vacation getaways for families, that all-important packing list. However, for small business owners, many of whom have but a few other employees in their company, just the thought of taking a vacation can cause more stress than relaxation. Though vital to maintain that work-life balance, vacations are often tricky propositions for entrepreneurs, but they don’t have to be. We’ve gathered our own list of best tips on how to take a vacation even if you have a small business.

 

Be realistic about “getting away from it all”

Although entrepreneurs we talked with said there is no such thing as truly getting away when you own a company, many said changing your mindset about vacations helps. “Detaching and resting is very important in your ability to generate ideas and to be
productive,” says Helah Kehati, president of JPO Concepts, an event planning company based in New York City. “A couple of days off will only lead to more business success, [but] disconnecting completely is virtually
impossible. I find that a quick morning check-in
to the office each day puts my mind at ease.” In other words, realize from the outset that you will probably still check your email or phone, and value the downtime you do get, which is essential for yourself and your business. 

 

Pick the right time

Whether you are in the gift business or an accountant, plan for vacations after your busiest times or during your slower months. “We try not to schedule vacations right before our busiest
seasons—Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day,” says Sarah Gross, owner and operator of Rescue Chocolate, a Brooklyn-based chocolate company. Linsay Chavez, owner of Busy Mom Boutique, agrees, “I plan vacation days to include weekends (and sometimes holidays) so
that at least a few of my vacation days will be typical ‘non-business’ days when customers do not expect anyone to answer phones or ship product.” Timing your vacation correctly not only minimizes possible missed business opportunities, it allows you to relax more, as the stress of being gone during your company’s busiest time is alleviated.

 

Get ahead before you go

No one likes the nagging feeling of having pressing projects waiting for them when they get back to the office. “Do as much work as you can before you go so
that if you do have to do some work while you're away, it's minimal,” says Taryn Scher, owner of TK PR, a public relations firm. “If you have emails to send out when you are
supposed to be away, prep them in advance and save them as drafts. That
way, you can be drinking a margarita on the beach and just click ‘send’ rather than having to worry about crafting appropriate emails when your
mind is under a palm tree.” In addition, Scher notes that whatever industry you are
in, it’s a bad idea to start a new project or sales pitch if you are leaving town
the next day. “I try to tie off as many loose ends as I can before heading
out of town to minimize the number of messages I will have while I'm out,” she says.


 

Be transparent with your customers

If you can’t tell clients in person that you will be away, remind them in other ways so they can know what to expect. “We make sure to set auto email responses telling
people exactly when we are gone and also put up a big notice with the same
information on the front page of our web site,” says Gross. “Customers can continue to place orders, but we make it clear that the orders won't be
filled until after we get back. So, [that means] no rush orders. Most people don't
mind waiting a little while for a quality product, as long as they have a
clear idea of when to expect it.” That expectations piece is key, says Scher, and can be handled using these same passive notification methods. “You can put up an
auto-email that let's people know you are checking email infrequently and
will do your best to respond within 24 hours. I also put in the auto-email
that if it's not ‘urgent,’ I will get back to them next week.”

 

VacationTips_PQ.jpgDelegate to employees

If you have a small staff, give detailed information on when and how you can be reached—and also trust them to keep things running smoothly while you are away. “Empowering employees is essential on many
levels, but is especially helpful when trying to go on vacation,” says Kehati. “Give your
senior employee the power to make decisions on small, but relevant subjects. You will be shocked at the burden lifted from yourself, and you will also be
pleasantly surprised at how competent your team is.”

 

Use technology to keep things going while you are gone

With all of the programs and computer apps owners have available, keeping your business in the social media conversation, while alerting customers you are away, is easy. “I schedule all social media posts in advance using Tweet Deck and also
post on social media sites that I will be on vacation until "x" date,” says Chavez. “I find that most customers are very understanding when you have open lines of
communication to let them know what to expect.”

 

Rely on the competition

In some business sectors, being away for a week or two could mean valued customers are at a loss of what to do when you are gone. Point them to good folks who can help—even if it is the competition. “I am a one-man pest control company and consultant,” says Scott Armbrust, owner
of Rid-A-Pest Exterminators in Littleton, Colorado. “I became active in my trade associations, earned respect from my competitors, and got to know which ones were honest and ethical. When planning a vacation, I can contact one of them to cover emergencies without concern that I will be at risk of losing any clientele. I return the favor if one of them has to go out of town.” Taryn Mickus, owner of Milk Nook Lactation Services, a private lactation consulting practice in Alameda, California does the same. “I have a private practice as a lactation
consultant,” she explains. “My field is competitive for clients, but it is also a small
community, so I know my competition. Vacations are time for you to build
goodwill among your professional community—let them take your clients
while you are away, and trust that the karma will come back to you.”

 

If you must work on vacation, set specific hours

You might have to work a bit while in paradise, but to avoid it spiraling into an all-day work session in your hotel room, give yourself set times when to do it. “If you are in a good zone with your business, stick
to somewhat of a small schedule in between sipping daiquiris on the beach,” offers Meredith Kole, owner of Preppy Epi, a line of epi pen carriers for kids. “It's important to go away, but your small business never sleeps.” Kole finds that the early morning or later in the evening is ideal for that work time. “I email in the
evenings or first thing in the morning, which allows me to still enjoy any
getaway I have,” she explains. Bill Hazelton, CEO of Optimum Interactive, an online performance marketing company, concurs. “I don't allow an open-ended work schedule when
I'm on vacation. I set aside specific work time during the day to get
things done,” he says. “Putting up a firewall
between work and vacation is really, really important from my experience. If I don't do that, I end up working far more than I need to, and my
vacation suffers.”

 

Give yourself time for “re-entry”

The first day or two back after a vacation can be so hectic that you lose all of the good relaxation vibes your trip gave you. Schedule your calendar with catch-up meetings and set aside time to get a handle on what happened while you were away. “Prepare for the week when you get back,”
says Scher. “The week after vacation is often
the worst, but it helps to be ready for it. Prioritize what needs to
get done, and what can wait. Set a goal to be completely caught up by
the end of that week. I like to review my day-planner on the plane ride
home. The vacation is over at that point, time to snap back to it.”

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