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2014

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

 

Except apparently it wasn’t.

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

About Steve Strauss

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

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

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here



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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Right.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


About Steve Strauss

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

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

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here

QA_Roominate_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ID: How many employees do you have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Strauss

Making meetings work

Posted by Steve Strauss Dec 4, 2014

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Instead of:

 

“1. Discuss new video series.”

 

Change this agenda item to:

 

“1. Video series:

 

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

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


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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


About Steve Strauss

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

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

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here



Supply_Chain_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

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

 

Stay home longer

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

 

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

 

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

 

Define goals

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Keep score

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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