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Starting a business is usually one of the great events in an entrepreneur’s life. It is an exciting moment for sure –one that is the result of a lot of thought, planning, hard work, creativity, money, and hope. When that grand opening day finally arrives, the entrepreneur is rightfully optimistic.

 

That rose-colored vibe will usually last for a while, and if the entrepreneur is good at what she does, picked the right business, and is doing things right, that feeling should last a long time. After all, a main reason to take the risk necessary to start one’s own business is to find more satisfaction at work. That should be the case.

 

However, even if things are going along well, it is also true that nothing is perfect and that unanticipated things happen. There will always be valleys to go along with the peaks.

 

I know a real estate agent who had a gravy train for a long time. Not long after she started her career, she teamed up with an established broker with a long list of clients, and for many years the younger agent never really had to work hard to get business because her partner kept feeding her warm leads.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png

 

However, the older broker eventually retired.

 

For a while, the younger agent was fine, working the residuals of her previous collaboration. But, after a while, business tapered off and she didn’t know what to do. One of the things they don’t tell you before you start a business is that you will need to hustle for clients and customers, and then do it some more, and then some more. She had never learned that lesson.

 

One of the great things about working for someone else is that the rainmaking is usually their problem. You are given a job title and description, and duties and projects, but usually you do not have to hustle for work.

 

However, when you work for yourself, the opposite is true. You can’t ever stop marketing yourself and your business. You are the rainmaker, president, head of sales, and Chief Visionary Officer all rolled into one person.

 

But that’s not the only thing they don’t tell you at small business school.

 

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

 

The next is that you aren’t going to get a lot of accolades when you work for yourself. In an office with co-workers and managers, it’s not unusual to hear that you did a good job on a project, or congratulations for a big sale.

 

But when you are the boss, don’t expect to get a lot of compliments. The only one there to give them to you is you. It is not often that you will hear “great job” from an employee. So you better have a lot of confidence because the joys of the job are mostly up to you  - from a job done right, a business run well, a payroll met, or a client made happy, and not from someone telling you that you did a good job.

 

Which leads to the third and final thing that they don’t tell you when you start your own business: there is no finish line. When you start a new job, you usually have a good idea of how long you plan to be there or where you would ideally like to go within the organization. There are benchmarks and timelines.

 

But in your own small business, the end zone is far, far in the future. Of course there are those startups that begin with a plan to sell their business and exit three years down the line, but for the vast majority of small businesses, that is not the case.

 

It is probably safe to say that most entrepreneurs start their business with only a vague idea of where they want to go. Someday, down the road, maybe they will sell the business to fund their retirement, or give it to their kids, but the fact is, entrepreneurship is a long and winding road that leads to doors unknown.

 

Perhaps that’s just as well. For a true entrepreneur, the surprises of the journey are part of the allure. If you wanted a conventional career, you could have taken that boring job offer.

 

No thanks. Give us the unknown over the known any day. Because the one thing that they do teach in small business school is that for entrepreneurs, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.



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







Coworking_body.jpgby Erin O’Donnell.


If your business has outgrown the garage or the coffee shop, but you’re not quite ready to sign a lease for your own office space, coworking might be the solution you’ve been looking for.


Coworking has grown dramatically in the last five years among entrepreneurs and small businesses. According to Deskmag, an online magazine about coworking, more than 800 coworking spaces are operating in the United States today, nearly double the number in 2010.


These communal workplaces offer small business owners shared access to everything from WiFi and printers to business seminars and coffee. The culture is casual and collaborative. Devotees prize coworking for the way it fosters innovation, networking, and the exchange of ideas among a diverse population of entrepreneurs, remote employees, and freelancers.


“People initially come here because they need a place to work, but they stay for the community,” says Liz Elam, founder of Link Coworking in Austin, Texas.


Elam had the idea to start a coworking space before she knew what it was called. She had just left a 14-year career with a major computer firm and was tired of trying to make phone calls or find an electrical outlet in a crowded coffeehouse. But she felt isolated working at home. Elam decided to create a “grown-up” workplace for professionals, she says, with an open floor plan and an inviting atmosphere.


That was four years ago. Today, Elam is opening a third Link location in Austin and is searching for space for a fourth. She thinks one reason coworking has taken off is because mobile technology ramped up just as the economy slowed down. Suddenly, she says, a lot of people realized they needed a new way to make a living and found they had the tools to do it virtually anywhere.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has also found that work is decentralizing. By 2020, the BLS forecasts that about 40 percent of the American workforce will be made up of independent contractors, temps, and sole proprietors.


Bump and connect

Bill Jacobson was still working on his tech startup in 2009 when he founded Workbar, a network of coworking spaces throughout the Boston area. Like Elam, he couldn’t find the kind of place he wanted to work, so he created it. “I didn’t even know what coworking was,” Jacobson said. “I felt like I could work from lots of places, but I needed a place to meet with my team, and I wanted to be with other people.”


He was intrigued by the concept of “bump and connect,” which promotes ways to meet people outside your own company and industry.


Professional development is part of the package as well. Workbar has about 700 members representing about 300 companies. They’re divided into eight sectors, including professional services, technology, energy and environment, and life sciences. Workbar brings in speakers and events on topics specific to each sector as well as broader subjects such as raising capital. They also have social nights and book clubs, to deepen the sense of community.


Workbar hubs in Boston and Cambridge are networked with about 50 other coworking spaces throughout the metro area. Members have access once a month to work in one of the other locations. “It’s nice if you want a commute that’s farther than your kitchen table but shorter than 20 minutes,” Jacobson says.


Even though collaboration is the coworking buzzword, everyone needs their own space sometimes. Workbar follows a standard setup, with common areas, semi-private areas for head-down work, and a switchboard area to make and take calls. Meeting rooms are also available.


A diverse population

Deskmag conducts an annual survey to track coworking trends. In 2013, 53 percent of coworkers were freelancers. Entrepreneurs with employees made up the next largest group, at 14 percent.


Another large segment of coworking is remote employees. The latest survey found nine percent of respondents worked off-site for a company with five employees or fewer, and another nine percent worked for firms with six to 99 employees.


Most members of Enerspace in Palo Alto are tech startups, says founder Jamie Russo. The firm’s Chicago location is about 60 percent startup businesses, with a variety of other professionals like attorneys, real estate agents, and marketers.

 

So what is the benefit of sitting shoulder to shoulder with someone in a different line of work? For Russo, relationships with other small business owners are valuable because many of the issues are universal. And people like to get advice from people they trust.


“There are so many things you need to know that have nothing to do with your business, like taxes and employee benefits,” Russo says. “You can read about all those things, but it’s much more helpful to have a conversation. You want to know that the person giving you the referral has the same mindset as you.”


The Deskmag survey also found that coworkers see themselves as more productive and creative than they were in traditional settings. More than 60 percent of those surveyed reported that their measure of work improved significantly, and 90 percent said coworking made them more confident.


An affordable arrangement

One of coworking’s biggest selling points is the low overhead. Options at Workbar range from a $125 per month membership that gives access five days a month. At the top end they offer private, lockable offices for four people ranging from $1,200 to $3,000 a month. The most popular option among coworking spaces is a membership that provides 24-hour access and/or dedicated work space for about $300 to $500 a month.


Russo says coworking also allows small companies to have a presence in the center of a thriving commercial district. In downtown Chicago, for example, she’s found the minimum amount of commercial space available to lease is 4,000 square feet. That costs more than $8,000 a month, requires a five-year commitment, and doesn't include furniture, Internet, or a kitchen.


For many companies, coworking is an affordable arrangement while they find their feet. Some offer a discount to clients who sign a six- or 12-month contract. But the month-to-month model is appealing to entrepreneurs who don’t know what their needs may be down the road.


Russo says she depends on her anchor clients to meet her own rent and pay her staff. But flexibility is such a big part of the coworking culture that she knows it must be part of the model. Members are asked to give 30 days’ notice before moving on. “We provide teams with really flexible space, and if something changes, they have the ability to leave,” Russo says. “That’s the difference between having tenants and having members.”


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The average stay at Enerspace is about six months, Russo says. At Workbar, Jacobson says it’s closer to one year. The company networks with a wide variety of “outer spaces” to help growing firms find the next right fit.


In Austin, Elam’s third Link location caters exclusively to teams of 10 or more members, because she was seeing a demand. “Larger groups still want a collaborative workspace,” Elam says.


Next month in Kansas City, the coworking community will ponder what’s next at the third annual Global Coworking Unconference Conference, which is run by Elam. Last year’s conference drew more than 300 attendees. And the ABC show Shark Tank has taken notice of Workbar; the show will have an open casting call in May at the Cambridge location.


The heart of coworking is community, and it appeals to a workforce that feels cut off rather than connected by technology. “I can get a super workout at home, but I belong to a gym for the motivation,” Jacobson says. “I think everybody should have some level of membership-based workspace for those kinds of benefits.”

 

Business_Lifecycle_Thumbnail.gifEvery stage in the life of a business has its own rewards – and challenges. What works at startup may not necessarily work as your business grows and matures. Find out how you can fund and be prepared for each stage in the life of your company with our new infographic, Six Stages of a Business Lifecycle.


Click here to view the Six Stages of a Business Lifecycle infographic.


Spring_Cleaning_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

The advent of spring is an opportune time for small businesses to do some prudent housecleaning—in particular, assessing marketing efforts, reviewing office procedures, pruning client and prospect lists—in order to hone their core strengths and business-building activities. Some actions may seem clear, such as investing in newer energy efficient office equipment or updating software. Businesses that sell physical products can free up vital warehouse space by running sales on older or slow moving inventory. But there are other less obvious places where a clean sweep could revitalize your operations and services.

 

Place the customer first

The way that you promote your business might need some spring cleaning. In a rush to make the sale, some businesses focus on the superiority of their products instead of putting the customer at the center of the conversation. "The customer really doesn't care about what you do except as it intersects with his or her needs, problems, and challenges," says Dr. Joey Faucette, a Virginia-based business coach and author of Work Positive in a Negative World. "Dig deep to discover what the customer is looking for and then couch your services in terms that benefit them."

 

Faucette says that business owners should nurture the long-term value of their customers, not just seek an immediate payoff. You can ask open ended questions—such as "What else did you want to talk about today?" or "Is there any other service that you need?"—to uncover your customers' hidden needs and then work at satisfying them.

 

Staying away from excessively negative customers or customers who will never be satisfied can give your business a boost. "It costs too much to do business with some people," Faucette says. "Instead spend time with your ideal clients and ask them for one referral, and then reward that ideal client for passing you to their friends."

 

Stay passionate

Weeding out unrewarding customers from your house list—and being selective in choosing new clients—may sound harsh, but it can help you focus your efforts and resources on more profitable accounts.

 

"I think there's a misconception when you're a small business that you have to take on everybody just to pay the bills," says Sari Gabbay, president of U2R1, a California-based brand and marketing agency. "Come up with questions to ask your clients when you're in the first meeting with them. A big red flag to me is when a client says that they're not going to dedicate their full time to our relationship. It means they're not going to be available when I need them, which is going to delay deadlines."

 

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Spring can be a good time to invest in a new image for your business. As your business grows, your brand should reflect your new strengths or the caliber of your client list. "When you get to a certain size or a certain vision, you need to present yourself in a certain way," Gabbay says. "For example, a lot of businesses are afraid of social media. They don't get that it's the perfect platform to consistently communicate with their clients and bring value to them. It's all part of understanding who you are as a brand after five to 10 years in business—and evolving."

 

Rediscovering your passion can be part of your spring makeover—something that Gabbay knows firsthand. She started out as a graphic and web designer before moving into management as her company grew. But when she realized that she had lost the drive for what really excited her, she went back to her creative roots. "If you aren't doing what you're passionate about and why you started your business," Gabbay says, "you're going to be burnt out and not succeed."

 

Use effective calls to action

Refreshing the look and feel of your website to keep pace with your evolving business is a perfect springtime activity. "First, see whether your website has enough images or the right images," says Shawn Graham, a Pennsylvania-based small business marketing consultant. "Make sure they accurately reflect whatever messaging you have. You can also use them to showcase a certain product or service to give your website visual interest."

 

Posting videos can breathe life into your website as long as they are used strategically. For example, how-to videos and videos that answer customer questions provide genuine value, position you as an expert, and build your credibility.

 

Graham says to look at blogs that you find engaging, figure out what appeals to you about them, and try to adapt them for your own blog. "You always want to think about your titles and topics," Graham says. "I highly encourage small businesses to have categories that clearly define what you're going to talk about to give your content strategy some structure. Make it easy as possible for your website visitors to find the information they're looking for so they have a positive experience that leads them to make a purchase or become a customer."

 

Calls to action need to be more effective today to grab your customers' attention and drive them to respond. For example, instead of asking customers to sign up for your free online newsletter with a generic "Sign Up" request, Graham says to tell them what they're going to get, what problem the newsletter will solve, or how it will fulfill their expectations—then customize the call to action with a "Get Started Now" or "Send Me Free Tips" order button. "Whether it's in the spring or periodically, it's important to find the time every week to think about your marketing," Graham says, "and ask how you can make your content or your website or your storefront better."

Anonymity_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.


Anonymous comments and reviews are the bane of many small business owners’ existence. Whether negative comments pop up on your own site, on review sites like Yelp, or appear on social media, the potential negative impact on your business is obvious. What’s not so obvious is what business owners should do about it. Here is what experts say are the best ways to handle negative anonymous commentary:


Stop the problem before it starts

“Making it extremely easy for your customers to connect with you whenever there’s a problem is the key to avoiding damaging negative anonymous comments,” says Micah Solomon, a consumer experience consultant and professional speaker. “Customers need every possible opportunity to tell you how they’re feeling. And they need to be able to see that you care, are listening, and will consider their opinion.” Make your email, contact form, and phone number prominent on your website, and be responsive to customer issues and concerns. “That way, your customers won’t have a need to take their negative comments to the web for the world to see,” he says.

 

Understand the nature of anonymity

The belief that anonymous comments and reviews are harsher than those that are signed—even with a pseudonym or web handle—is correct, according to research. University of Houston assistant professor Arthur D. Santana at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication found that anonymity and bad manners are linked. In his study, he found that more than half of anonymous comments were negative. This is due to what he calls the "online disinhibition effect." When people’s identities are hidden online, he explains, they are much more likely to behave differently than they would if people could see who they are.

 

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Not all negative comments are damaging

Comments that are profane, written in all capital letters, or barely literate can be extremely upsetting to read, but they do minimal damage in a world of sophisticated web users who view them as little more than noise not worth paying attention to. If you have control over the platforms where these comments appear, it’s safe to delete them. If you don’t have control, some measure of comfort can be found in the knowledge that the vast majority of readers won’t be influenced by them. It’s also worth appealing to the site where the comments appear. They may be persuaded to take them down if the comments add no real value to the conversation.


Consider the reach of anonymous negative comments

Someone shouting horrible things about your company doesn’t do a lot of damage if they’re yelling into an empty room. Neal Shaffer, a social media strategy consultant, points out the importance of keeping a sense of perspective about where negative comments appear. He recalls a small business owner in the financial services industry who discovered that someone on Twitter was posting negative things about him on a daily basis.  “But the Twitter user complaining had very few followers and only seemed to be sending out complaining tweets, a sign that no one was listening and that the user had very little, if any, influence,” Shaffer says.


Don’t aim for perfection

While a no-hitter wins a baseball pitcher widespread acclaim, having no negative reviews associated with your products or services can actually make your business look bad. “It is impossible for any company to get 100 percent positive reviews over time, no matter how hard they try,” Schaffer says. “In fact, if there was a review site that offered only five-star reviews, people who aren’t familiar with your product or service might suspect that some of the reviews were fake. Having a negative comment here or there makes the reviews seem more legitimate.” Still, there’s no harm in encouraging your customers to post their own positive reviews as often as possible.


How you respond to negative reviews demonstrates how you do business

“The best policy is to respond to any negative comment when they appear on a legitimate review site and there is a user profile attached to it,” Shaffer says. “If it is anonymous, at least responding to it on the review site will show other consumers that you cared enough to respond and make things right.”


“Consumers feel empowered by social media and reviews site and are often surprised when their comments are being read by the companies they reviewed,” he adds. For maximum impact, responses should be friendly, professional, and to the point. “Let them know that their opinions matter,” Shaffer says. “When handled in such a way, those who complain can potentially be transformed into passionate fans.”

 

There is an oft-quoted statistic in business that it costs six times more to create a new customer than it does to keep a current one. While it may be difficult to actually quantify and prove that across the many and varied small businesses that are out there, there is no doubt that getting new customers definitely takes time, effort, and money.

 

So yes, it would behoove any small business owner to take extra good care of their current customers. Long-time customers allow us to pay the bills, hire employees, and grow our businesses. They are how entrepreneurs keep the dream alive.

 

That then begs the question: How do you create repeat, long-term customers? For, while a one-time customer is nice, it is that repeat customer who really makes the difference. Customers can choose any business to service their needs; they will only choose yours time and again if you offer them something above the ordinary.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png

 

Here then are five ways to keep customers coming back for more:

 

1. Be great at what you do. People hire you to do a service for them, or they go into your shop to buy something from you, because they have wants and need. If your service is average, they may or may not be back. They may become a regular, or not. Who knows?

 

But what if you were great at what you do? They almost assuredly would be back. If you shine shoes, shine them the best you can. If you cook, use great ingredients and cook with love.

 

2. Deliver great customer service. Along the same lines, customers love you when they know that you love them back. Nordstrom is famous for their superior customer service, and that is why their customers are so very loyal. Costco, on the other end of the retail spectrum, has similarly great customer service, and with similar customer loyalty.

 

Talk about creating a great brand.

 

3. Treat your staff well. One of the most interesting small business surveys I ever saw examined the differences between the best franchises and the rest. The biggest difference was how the owner treated his or her employees. It turns out that the better boss you are, the happier your staff will be, and they happier they are, the better your customers are treated, and the better your customers are treated, the more they will like your business.


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

 

4. Add extra value. Recently, I decided not to bill some of my oldest customers for the weekly content that my business creates for them. I told them that I really appreciated their patronage over the years and this was my way to say thanks.

 

Yes, they were happy.

 

5. Say thank you to your customers. When you are done doing business with a mediocre shop, you say “thank you.” But when you leave a great business, they say thank you. And that is not the only time they say it. They say it even when it is unexpected, for no reason. They sincerely appreciate the people who patronize their business and let them know that.

 

So let me finish by saying one last thing: thank you for coming to our site and reading my content.



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




Sick_Leave_body.jpgby Debbie Griffin.

 

Logic and science agree that sick people should avoid spreading their illness. Still, staying home remains an unrealistic option for some 40 million workers who have no access to paid sick leave, a phenomenon researchers dub ‘presenteeism.’

 

The perils of presenteeism? Workers with no paid sick leave often skip preventive health measures, which can ultimately lead to more time off the job for emergency care or for treatment of a more serious condition. What’s more, the habit of sick employees still coming into work can have a domino effect on customers of public-facing businesses like restaurants, grocery stores, child-care centers, and medical facilities. In 2008, for example, 500 people became violently ill when a restaurant employee came to work despite being infected with norovirus. The direct costs for this outbreak were estimated between $130,000 and $300,000, but a public-health incident like this can potentially cost a business millions through negative publicity, lost productivity, or medical bills.

 

Few laws mandate paid sick leave

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, among companies with 99 or fewer employees, a little more than half of workers have access to paid sick leave. This compares to about 65% of American workers overall who get paid time off for illness. The number of paid sick days a worker gets per year varies by organization, but the national average is eight. Employees may accrue or earn them with hours worked and/or time with the company, and the average U.S. worker takes 3.5 paid sick days per year.

 

Currently, no federal rules stipulate that employers must provide paid sick leave, but a few cities and states have recently passed legislation mandating it within their jurisdictions. In 2006, San Francisco passed the first citywide law for paid sick days, and since then cities like Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., have followed suit. Connecticut passed the nation’s first statewide law, effective Jan. 1, 2012, and other states, like New York and New Jersey, have introduced similar bills. Most existing and proposed laws don’t apply until a company reaches a certain minimum threshold for number of employees, anywhere from five to 50. Just recently, New York City altered its existing paid-sick leave law so that it would apply to businesses with five or more employees instead of the previous 15 or more; the action expanded coverage to some 500,000 additional workers.

 

Conversely, some states have proposed legislation to prevent cities from creating such ‘right-to-sick-leave’ laws, as opponents of the law fear it will promote absenteeism and force businesses to cut pay, hours, or jobs. A manager for the National Federation of Independent Businesses says his organization’s 330,000 members indicate in surveys that they don’t favor mandates because they would prefer to set their own individual policies.

 

Little buyer’s remorse

Though many small businesses might be leery of mandated paid sick leave, few end up opposing the policy once they have lived with it.

 

Eileen Appelbaum at the Center for Economic Policy and Research, and CUNY Professor Ruth Milkman surveyed employers 18 months after Connecticut passed its sick-leave law. They found that the majority of employers reported no effect on operations and cost increases totaling less than three percent. The researchers concluded that more than three-fourths of the state’s employers said they were “very supportive or somewhat supportive” of that state’s paid-sick-leave law.

 

Jennifer Piallat, owner of the San Francisco-based bistro Zazie, acknowledged that she had been dubious of the city’s new law mandating paid sick leave, fearing her employees would abuse it. “When I initially calculated the potential cost, it was under the assumption that every employee would take off all the days that they had earned,” she explained in a 2011 hearing about a similar California-wide law. But instead she said the reality pleasantly surprised her.

 

“My employees have used paid sick days responsibly and have not taken advantage of them,” Piallat explained. “They have used the time only when they have an actual medical need, which is less than the total amount of time that they accrue.” In fact, a follow-up study on the law’s impact in San Francisco found that employees used only an average of three out of five days ever year and a quarter of workers used zero days. In the end, Piallat concluded: “Paid sick days have helped my workforce be healthy and productive and have helped my bottom line.”

 

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Research finds many advantages, few downsides

As Piallat points out, there’s a synergy to the benefits paid sick leave provides to employees as well as businesses. Gordon Lafer, a political economist, noted in an Oct. 2013 report for the Economic Policy Institute that having no access to paid sick leave can expose employees to a huge financial risk: “A typical family of four with two working parents who have no paid sick leave will have wiped out its entire health-care budget for the year after just three days of missed work.” This kind of instability on the homefront can carry over to the workplace, resulting in increased anxiety and lowered morale.

 

These findings dovetail with those of a 2009 CEPR report, “Contagion Nation: A Comparison of Paid Sick-Day Policies in 22 Countries,” that found having paid sick leave gives businesses an edge: “Firms that provide paid sick days and leave tend to have lower job turnover rates, lower recruitment and training costs, lower unnecessary absenteeism, and a higher level of productivity than firms that do not offer these kinds of benefits.”

 

In a recent analysis of a proposed earned sick leave law in Illinois, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates the policy would cost employers about as much as a 10-cent-per-hour raise for each employee. This, however, is more than regained in the long run, since the study concludes a business providing paid sick time stands to save 24 cents per-employee per-hour. In addition, the BLS provides employer-cost data about sick leave in its 2013 report on employee compensation.

 

Champions of paid sick time emphasize that people should not have to come to work sick because they can’t afford to lose the pay or in some cases, fear discipline for missing time. They should not have to choose between job and health – their own, their children’s, or a family member’s. Though presenteeism persists, change seems imminent as experts and data agree that paid sick time not only protects public health and the economic stability of families, it also makes good business and economic sense.

 

Streamlining_E_Commerce_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

Your product could be just what the customer wants, your offer irresistible, your guarantee ironclad—but if you make the online sales transaction hard or confusing, potential buyers could depart your website in lightning speed, possibly never to return. There's no secret to engaging customers from homepage to order page, but it does require a strategic plan that leads them step-by-step to the order button. The best sites share similar attributes, such as ease of use, clarity, and transparency. Here is what experts recommend for making your customers' e-commerce buying experience more profitable.

 

Make it easy

Small businesses can choose between two kinds of solutions for optimizing their e-commerce transactions. The first are ready-to-use programs—such as Bigcommerce and Shopify—that are equipped with best practices built in and let you set up a simple but effective online shopping experience.

 

"If you don't have to do anything that is totally unique to the way you sell your products or services, that's usually the most cost-effective way to start selling quickly," says Cindy Penchina, executive director of Hudson Fusion, a New York-based web design and marketing firm. These platforms can also be a big help when you're going for your secure certificates—part of an encryption protocol for your website that permits secure transactions, such as credit card processing—by making sure your code is in compliance, Penchina says.

 

The second option is to have a custom designed website. While it can be tailored to the specific needs of your business, Penchina stresses that ease of use should be a priority. Products on your website should be easy to find and organized in a way that makes sense to the way your buyers shop—especially when it comes to placing the order.

 

"You don't want to make people go from page to page to page and enter all kinds of information over and over again," Penchina says. "Anything that reduces the amount of time it takes the shopper to complete an order, such as having certain fields auto-fill for returning customers, is a good thing."

 

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The terms of your guarantee should be clearly spelled out and honored, and the customer should have multiple ways to contact you. Penchina also recommends coming up with a sensible, strategic cross-selling plan. For example, one of her clients who sells big pieces of machinery online will cross-sell complementary items, like batteries, on the same page as the original product. "It's not about being pushy," Penchina says. "Sometimes it's really a convenience [to show] what other part or piece the customer might need instead of making them look for it."

 

Simplify instructions

Taking a look at every part of your website, even seemingly "small" items, can sometimes reveal new ways to speed up and simplify the e-commerce process. For example, instructional commands such as Continue and Back.

 

"Continue doesn't make you think your order is submitted. Continue is like the next step," says Vladimir Khaykin, CEO of New York City-based Webmaster Studio. "Considering our busy lifestyle, we don't want to wait for an additional step in order to process something. I want to click one time and process the order, so the main button should say 'Process' or 'Submit.' I would replace the 'Back' button with 'Edit.'"

 

Khaykin also finds that a one-page checkout results in higher conversions than a multiple-page checkout form. Repeat customers should not have to reenter their information every time they shop. Instead, Khaykin says that customer information should already be in your database, so that customers can begin the buying process just by entering their email address and password.

 

Bold images on your website can reassure customers that their credit card information is secure on your checkout page. "You can display it with different seals," Khaykin says. "The seal comes from the security company that issues the security certificates. They give you the option to click on the seal and get a pop-up message box from the company showing that the website is validated under a 256-bit encryption [technique]. I would definitely design elements to show the user that the website is protected."

 

Automate your sales

Small business owners should choose an e-commerce platform that can grow with their business, help them run their operation more efficiently, and provide reliable technical support.

 

"I was looking for something that had an integrated solution, that wasn't just a payment processor or a merchant account," says Erin Blaskie, the co-founder of Ontario, Canada-based Next Dev Media, a full service digital agency. "I wanted something that could help me automate the entire sales process."

 

Blaskie chose 1ShoppingCart and has found it to be a "one-stop" solution for her business objectives. For example, she can set up a series of email marketing messages, or auto-responders, in advance that go out to her customer and prospect lists automatically.

 

1ShoppingCart lets Blaskie set up an affiliate program that introduces her business services to the customer lists of non-competing businesses in exchange for a percentage of sales. She can also create custom products and up-sell them during the checkout process.

 

"I've sold tickets to live events. I've created e-books and audio programs and virtual online courses," Blaskie says. "I've really sold everything through 1ShoppingCart. Based on my experience with my clients, there really isn't anything I can't do."

 

Any solution that you choose should be backed by a knowledgeable and on-call technical team. "Choose a system early on based on what you need because it is an investment and you will recoup it using a system that really does work," Blaskie says.

StrategicPlan_body.jpgby Erin O’Donnell.


A business plan that’s just a plan is destined to remain in a desk drawer, say small business experts. Effective strategic planning isn’t a product; it’s an ongoing process, with benchmarking, accountability, and real-world forecasting factored in.


That’s how Walker Peek says his company, Residential Acoustics, has been able to grow by nearly 50 percent month over month since he and two friends started it a year ago. The Tampa-based company makes soundproofing curtains for people who live in noisy areas or who want to muffle sounds inside the home.


As CEO and vice president of product development, Peek says he lives by the adage: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” He tracks progress on company goals with 40 different key metrics, from website visitors to profit margins. Based on what the numbers tell him, Peek says he recalibrates the company’s plan regularly.


“One thing our plan did was make us accountable for our goals,” he says. Thanks to an aggressive approach, Peek says, the company just bought its first commercial-grade sewing machine, is moving into a factory space, and will hire employees to replace the independent contractor who had been sewing and shipping each curtain.


Finances first

Business coach Virginia Ginsburg of Swell Strategies says that’s the kind of finance-first thinking she urges entrepreneurs to adopt. Many simply think their great ideas will sell themselves.


“I’ve seen a lot of people not take the extra step of putting some numbers behind their beautiful idea,” Ginsburg says. “It leaves them ill prepared for what I call the business side of business.”


The most important part of a strategic plan, Ginsburg says, is crafting a strong financial model. It should detail all revenue streams and expenses so the business owner can see whether the company will be scalable and sustainable. And the model should be somewhat flexible so that you can reforecast as needed based on real-world results.


“It’s much more like test and revise, test and revise,” she says. “You should have guidelines and benchmarks more than a strict structure of what’s actually going to happen.”


Ginsburg guides her clients through a series of questions that flesh out their strategies for marketing, sales, costs, and revenues. The exercise helps address critical issues such as when you might expect to pay yourself from the business, or even whether your model is financially viable. “You should be as open-eyed as possible to the financial side of the business,” she adds.


A living document

Some entrepreneurs view the business plan merely as a tool to attract a lender or an investor, says Jim Stewart, founder and president of ProfitPath, a business consulting firm in Toronto. “They say, ‘Thank goodness that’s out of the way, let me go back to making money.’” Stewart says there are three reasons a business plan winds up collecting dust rather than driving growth:


  • People tend to believe that a formal document is outdated as soon as it’s printed.
  • The overall plan is missing detailed action steps, which means there’s no way to check progress toward a goal and no incentive to meet regularly for follow-up.
  • There’s no discipline to step back from the day-to-day tactical issues and review the company’s big picture, then update the plan with what has happened since it was developed.


Stewart advises companies to develop action steps within the overall plan to clarify who will do which tasks, with deadlines. A “champion” is assigned to each action plan so that everyone knows who is responsible for it.


Stewart says many folks believe that traditional business plans are too rigid for the ever-changing nature of today’s economy and technology. A strategic plan should flex with your business, he says, not hold it steady. “We can go back and give ourselves the power to make a change, if required,” he says.

 

Peek says he has reforecast many times in his first year—not changing his overall strategy, but rather fine-tuning it. For instance, early market research showed that Residential Acoustics customers ranked quick order turnaround as less important than custom fabric choices and effective soundproofing. So they focused on those priorities.


But in reality, quick turnaround was important. Peek says customers were calling within a few days of placing an order to see if it was finished yet because they were sleepless and desperate for relief. The owners realized they needed a new way of doing things and shifted their business model. Peek says investing in their own small factory not only speeds up the time it takes to fulfill orders, but it also drops their labor cost from $40 to $10 per curtain.


Stewart advises business owners to think about everything it will take to move the company forward in one, three, or five years. Then prioritize, link each item to an action plan and a budget, and allocate the resources to get it done. “If you can do those things, your plan will come alive, and you improve your odds of success dramatically,” Stewart says.


StrategicPlan_PQ.jpg

Beyond SWOT

Strategic planning expert Steve Krupp promotes an “outside-in” method to planning. Krupp, the CEO of Decision Strategies International, says the traditional SWOT approach—analyzing the company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats—is no longer adequate. Instead, business owners have to become experts in the outside factors and uncertainties that can catch a company off guard: health care reform, emerging technologies, or new regulations, to name a few.


“Often small companies don’t fully anticipate all of the potential scenarios,” Krupp says. “You have to plan not just for one future but for multiple futures.”


What could disrupt your business tomorrow—and how can a solid strategic plan help you prepare for it?


Krupp recommends making time to scan widely for changing market conditions. Talk to your customers, your vendors, your distributors, and especially your competitors. Ask: How are their needs changing? What could blindside our business? What could cause our business to take off and grow much faster? Answer those questions, Krupp says, and your options will open up.


Stewart says it’s easy for business owners to forget the things they said they would do. Enlist a mentor or a board to help keep you accountable to your goals, he says. They can remind you to step back and make time for analysis when you’re entrenched in operations. Then you’ll be better equipped to follow a plan that’s strategic, instead of filed and forgotten.

QAnellmerlino_Body.jpgby Jen Hickey.

 

Business writer Jennifer Hickey recently spoke with Nell Merlino, founder and president of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence (CMI), a non-profit organization that provides coaching and community support for women entrepreneurs seeking to grow their businesses. Merlino is also the author of Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way in Life, in Love and at Work, and the creative force behind “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.” Some excerpts:

 

JH: How did CMI evolve from an online micro-lender to a resource and education provider for women seeking to grow as entrepreneurs?

NM: Over time we saw a greater need for helping women grow their business, instead of just starting their business. There are already 8.5-million women-owned businesses in the country. While this is an impressive figure, the majority makes less than $50,000 in annual revenues. There were countless programs that helped women start up their business, but not one that exclusively helped women business owners focus on the growth of their business. Once we saw the success of Make Mine a Million $ Business (M3), which was piloted in 2005, we began to shift our focus to equipping women with the resources they need to reach millions in annual revenue through various conferences and competitions around the country.

 

JH: How do the various programs—Make Mine a Million $ Business (M3), Urban Rebound, and Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps (WVEC)—and the services CMI offers complement and support one another?

NM: Although all of our programs target women business owners, they cater to different levels of business development. They include a competition component where women give two-minute pitches on their business and have the opportunity to be selected for our nine-month business accelerator program. The Urban Rebound program feeds into our M3 program because it helps women reach annual revenue to $250,000, so that they can focus on reaching the million-dollar mark. The Urban Rebound program is open to businesses in cities that remain challenged by higher unemployment, as a way to help those businesses grow so they can hire more people. 

 

There is a great disparity in growth and prosperity between men and women who go into business. It is a similar experience for women in the military, and that is why we decided to create our Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps (WVEC) program. WVEC is a separate program that accepts women veterans and military spouses with businesses in good standing, regardless of revenue threshold, because we’ve seen that women veterans bring a different life experience to their business. So, we’ve created coaching groups through the business accelerator program for those on their way to reaching that million-dollar mark, for those who fall into the Urban Rebound category, and for those in the startup phase. It’s proven to be very important that these women are among other veteran or military spouses and at the same level of revenue growth, as they often have different needs. We hope and plan to integrate the awardees from all of our programs together, because we feel veteran and civilian women business owners have so much to learn from each other.

 

JH: What have you observed and encountered as a business owner that led to founding one that specifically targets female owned businesses?

NM: The Census tells a story of millions of women business owners throughout the country. Private and public institutions that seek to help small business owners typically focus on start-ups or on larger businesses seeking venture capital funding. Before CMI, there was no organization working with the women who had plateaued after having started their business. The programs we offer help women get the confidence and access to resources needed to grow companies that will sustain them and their families, as well as create jobs. Just as there are business organizations that help African-American, Asian, and Hispanic business owners, at CMI, we believe giving women their own space is an important element in the growth of their businesses.

 

QAnellmerlino_PQ.jpgJH: How has your work as an organizer and advocate for female empowerment shaped the trajectory of CMI?

NM: It became very clear to me that the missing piece to women’s equality was economic empowerment and the ability to support oneself and family that went beyond struggling to survive. There’s a lot of pent-up innovation and creativity in women that periodically changes how we think about products and services, such as Angie’s List, Spanx, and all the development there’s been in creating more nutritional, easier to prepare food products. Women are constantly developing products and services that solve all kinds of problems. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of what women in business are capable of. And one of the most important ways to continue the progress women have made is through business.

 

JH: According the 2010 Census, women make up almost half of all small business owners, yet less than three percent reach or exceed $1 million in revenues, compared with six percent for men. Could you describe some of the obstacles women-owned businesses face that may account for this disparity and how have the programs and services CMI offers helped to overcome them?

NM: The first obstacle that we try to help women overcome is the awareness that it is possible for them to grow their business. We focus heavily on introducing women in our programs to other women who have successfully made it to the million-dollar mark so that they can realize that those women started just like them, stuck at a plateau. Another obstacle that we help women overcome is the lack of confidence about how to grow their business, after they’ve realized that it’s possible. Women who participate in CMI programs become a part of a community of women who are trying to reach the same goal, and that is a very powerful resource for them. I think it’s particularly helpful for women to have colleagues to talk to that are interested in each other’s success. I truly believe that is why 32 percent of the women who participate in CMI programs reach the million-dollar level and have the skills to keep growing. We’re trying to change the notion that financial and business success means you have to step on others to get there. At CMI, we encourage women to build a sustainable, thriving business that also incorporates their visions for their family, community, and the world.

 

JH: What advice would you offer a female entrepreneur thinking about attending a CMI event?

NM: The first step is to apply. By filing out the application, it forces you to think about how you would scale your business. In the process of enrolling in CMI and getting into a competition, you start to plan and set larger goals for your business. And by the time you’ve finished the business accelerator program, you have a solid business plan. Beyond learning about the CMI programs, you learn things that can be used the very next day in your business. You start thinking about what you can do to improve your business and often find someone to do business with. Even if you’re not chosen for a program, you can come back and apply again. Isolation is the enemy of success. Simply stepping out and engaging with others is the first step in realizing the full potential of your business. I love what Diana Nyad said after her swim from Cuba to Florida. She said:  “[Swimming] looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.” The very same thing is true for small business owners.

WomenEntr_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

It’s been a promising year for women in America. Female flag officers are now at the helm of two U.S. service academies, Facebook doyenne Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has inspired many to change their approach to work, and the number of moms who are their family’s breadwinner hit a record high.

 

Yet there’s much work to be done when it comes to entrepreneurship. Each month, men are still twice as likely to open a business than women, according to Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity data. A recent Dow Jones VentureSource report says just 1.3 percent of privately held companies had a female founder in the 15 years ending in 2012.

 

So, thinking of that last number, just who makes up that 1.3 percent? How are they succeeding? Here, we talk with a few women who’ve made that leap, striking out on their own to take that entrepreneurial journey and their advice to women who are considering or have already started down their own business paths.

 

 

“We are all stronger than we think we are.”

Cristina DeVito, CEO of Mudderella

 

What is it about sloshing through waist-deep mud, then a chest-high icy bath known as Winter’s Eve, just after slogging through 7 miles of obstacles that’s somehow empowering? “It’s more of a competition against yourself,” says Cristina DeVito, who left the traditional confines of Harvard Business School and Bain & Co. to plunge into the world of extreme fitness challenges. “You have to understand what success means to you. Set a goal and go for it.”

 

She’s leading this upstart, which puts on women-only meetups that are chock full of grueling and dirty physical challenges. (Think of the hard-core Tough Mudder—where DeVito once did a stint—for those lacking the Y chromosome.) At these events, kicking off across the U.S. and Canada and scheduled to expand to Australia and U.K. next year, DeVito says there are many parallels to the business world. One common theme: People want to rise to the challenge. “Out there, this inspires others to do things they didn’t think they could do. It’s not just the team you go out there with, and your support network, it’s the team you create on the course, too—even if it means overcoming any obstacle with strangers.”

 

 

“The pressure you put on yourself is far greater than any real pressure.”

Meg Gill, owner & president of Golden Road Brewery


As a teen athlete and Yale captain, Meg Gill poured herself into swimming, broke pool records, and even set her sights on the Olympic trials. But a car accident in 2009—from a case of vertigo after swimming a relay across Lake Tahoe—put her in a personal and career dry dock for months, and got her to thinking about her other passion: beer. By 2011, the 26-year-old Gill and a partner launched Golden Road Brewery, a Los Angeles craft-beer operation, which gave her claim to another title: the youngest brewery owner in America.

 

WomenEntr_PQ.jpgNow with 100 employees, Gill says her life is more business-focused. Still, after a recent swim at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center, she takes comfort, in a quote on the wall from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” As she reflects on her past week, “I know, looking at that [quote], that I did everything I could to be the best I could be and it’s not about measurements of money, or what other people say or think,” Gill says. “It’s about knowing internally that dedication, drive, and passion are taking you to your potential.”

 

 

“Give 110 percent of yourself to your career before you have kids, then keep your options open.”

Cindy Slansky, founder of GreenPaxx

 

Where do people like Cindy Slansky get the energy? A Queens, New York-raised child of Italian immigrants, she rose early in sales at the Limited Co. before leaving to pursue something she felt would be more fulfilling: a job as a nurse practitioner. Then came a family, which at one point involved four children under the age of 5, training for a marathon, and a step into entrepreneurship inspired by keeping

her family healthy. Her inventions: a nontoxic adjustable silicone cover to fit nearly any cup, a reusable straw to match, and a line of other products that are friendly to kids and the environment. Within a year of the launch from her Long Island, New York, home, GreenPaxx Cool Cups were on shelves at Bed Bath & Beyond.

 

In February, Slansky landed in front of ABC’s Shark Tank panel on The View. But when decision time came from the entrepreneurial kingmakers, the frequently volatile Mark Cuban erupted on the topic of women “having it all,” as the way to delivering his “no” to funding her venture. (You can watch the exchange here.) “It was a hard thing for me to hear,” Slansky says. “I don’t think it was malicious, and he’s someone I admire. But really, it is difficult mentally to put your mind in two different places at the same time. If you have deadlines at work, your kids don’t get that.” Her time-machine message to her earlier self: Invest in business while you’re younger. Her impulse to start her own business came through her children, but getting it off the ground came slowly, in unpredictable moments Slansky had to take advantage of. “I would literally get up to check on the baby in the middle of the night,” she recalls “and I’d be on the phone to China.”

 

 

“Your gut instinct can be much more valuable to you than an MBA.”

Sara Sutton Fell, CEO & owner of FlexJobs.com

 

When Sara Sutton Fell set out on her first startup in the Internet’s mid-’90s heyday, she and her co-founder were both in their early twenties and sought out advice from established businesspeople. “We had no business experience really—we were in it for the passion of the idea,” she says. While much of the feedback was worthwhile, they got some pretty firm opinions from generally older men in traditional fields, who had set, structured beliefs about how things worked. “I think we were so active in soliciting information that we undervalued our own instincts,” Sutton Fell says. It was something that undermined their confidence as they went on, as what their gut told them conflicted with traditional approaches. “It was a hard lesson learned,” she says. (Who came out on top? Their pioneering job-search service sold in the mid-eight figures.)

 

Sutton Fell has moved on to her second successful company now, which leads the market for telecommuting- and flexible-job searches—and is based out of her Boulder, Colo., home. And this time around, she says she’s stayed much more true to what her instincts are telling her. “You’ll always have people—often more ‘educated,’ more ‘experienced,’ and in my case, often men—telling you how to do things, what the better way is, how it’s usually done,” she says. “But if you see a different way, trust that. Research it, look at it critically, but give it real value in your discussions and strategy choices.”

 

 

“Find the courage to confront fear that first time, or first few times. It changes everything.”

Jacqueline Corbelli, founder and CEO of BrightLine

 

Jacquie Corbelli got her steely resolve by helping major corporations implement big changes through their organizations. “I learned quickly, sometimes the hard way, the value of clarity of vision, structure, discipline, focus, and riding out periods of uncertainty and risk,” the New Yorker says. All of those elements were crucial when she went out on her own in 2003 to launch BrightLine iTV, an interactive-television marketing and advertising firm. (Ever had a “Get This Recipe” button pop up on your screen while you’re watching a show? It’s likely from her shop’s technology.)  It wasn’t ever easy, particularly in a male-dominated field, where Corbelli says the tendency of many women is to defer to men, sometimes even if those guys are wrong.

 

And that’s where fortitude comes into play. “Finding that initial courage doesn’t go away if you don’t let it, it breeds more courage,” she says. “And pretty soon you don't feel like you’re walking on a ledge anymore, you’re testing the bounds of your intuitive and intellectual ability to create and continually enhance value.” Her advice to those cutting their own path: “Make the merits of your effort, the results you produce, impossible to ignore. It’s the most straightforward way to ensure you don’t give less than you’ve got, and you don't ever simply defer—regardless of gender.”

DisasterTips_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

If a natural disaster or an unexpected emergency struck your business, would you be ready to handle it? Do you know where your emergency shut-off valves are? Do your employees know how to stay in touch with you and each other if your business has to shut down temporarily? If you answered "no" to any of these questions, you're not alone. Experts say that many small businesses do not have a disaster preparedness plan in place because it is not a priority for them or that they've never experienced the toll that a disaster can take. Still, with some dedicated effort and forethought, you can come up with strategies to safeguard your business and stay in operation.

 

Have a plan

While it's impossible to anticipate every likely scenario, small business owners need to think broadly about disasters that could affect them. For example, while your own company might have a plan for dealing with a burst pipe in your own office, you should also prepare for a pipe burst in the business two floors above you—such as backing up your files daily and storing the duplicate data in an offsite facility.

 

One place to start your disaster preparedness is by doing a risk assessment of catastrophes—both man-made and natural—that your business is susceptible to. "At our workshops, we came up with worksheets for small businesses to give them a less complicated approach to plan for their businesses," says Lexie Andrews, project manager at the Center for Business Preparedness, part of the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute at Louisiana State University.

 

"We would talk about which threat would be the most disastrous to their business and then we would go into thinking about what kind of mitigation activities they could do in order to prevent a possible disruption from this threat," Andrews explains. For example, having lists of the departments that make up your business, the staff, the equipment, and a plan for running them if staff is not present can keep your business functioning. You should also have a system in place for updating employees and staying in touch during a disaster, such as a call tree.

 

Regardless of the plan your business implements, Andrews says, "Every single employee needs to know that a plan exists, what the plan is, how it's accessed, and how it's implemented when the time comes." Setting aside just one afternoon a week to work on the plan and giving yourself a deadline—for example, before hurricane season begins—can make the task less onerous. If that doesn't work, Andrews recommends a more direct approach to spur employee participation.

 

DisasterTips_PQ.jpg

"One of the most important things an employee is worried about during a disaster is getting paid," Andrews says. "They need to know what the processes are for getting paid when the entire city is without power. That can be a way to get them involved in putting together a plan."

 

Data back-up options

Assessing the risks in your business will determine the type of solutions to put in place. In the case of data recovery, for example, small businesses have different options to protect themselves.

 

"The first solution is simple straight file back-up. The target audience for this file-based back-up is a very small business that maybe has two gigabytes worth of data," says Johannes Banck, owner of Computer Systems Support & Design, a provider of IT tech support and consulting.

 

"The second type is the image-based back-up, where you're backing up the files and the whole server at the same time," Banck says. "If a server on your site breaks and cannot be repaired, the back-up image can be installed on a replacement server and you can be up faster than a file-based back-up. A small business owner has to ask: how much data is he willing to lose and how fast does he want to be back up."

 

For example, one of Banck's clients is a third party medical health administrator who had a hard drive failure at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning. Banck brought in some hard drives, did an image-based back-up, and had the client up and running by five o'clock that same day. Had the client done only a file-based back-up beforehand, Banck estimates that the recovery and troubleshooting could have easily taken twice as long.

 

Be aware of your coverage

Clearly labeling important parts of the infrastructure of your business can make a big difference when a disaster hits in the middle of the night. "It can be as simple as a critical contacts list on a piece of paper and knowing where your emergency shut-offs are for your gas and water and sprinklers," says Brian Mauriello, chief sales and marketing officer for Connecticut-based American Integrity Restoration (AIR), specializing in commercial and residential property emergency mitigation and repair.

 

Small businesses should be aware of the insurance coverage they have—and that coverage should be put into the preparedness plan. "When an emergency service becomes deployed to your property, the [responders] can automatically know what they can and can't do and what they need authorizations for," Mauriello says.

 

For example, one of Mauriello's small business clients moved from an older converted New England brick building without an emergency extinguishing system into a new location with a modern sprinkler system. "When that sprinkler let loose and blew out water over everything," Mauriello says, "they found themselves without adequate insurance to cover water damage to their computers and documents."

 

Whether a small business maintains its own records or has a firm like AIR catalog and store the information, a speedy reaction to an emergency is vital. "Response time is absolutely critical to preventing further subsequent or consequential damages," Mauriello says. "Deal with it [immediately] because when the clock starts ticking, it's time lost."

QA_Demo_Diva_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

As president and owner of Demo Diva, New Orleans native Simone Bruni is a case study in resilience. After Hurricane Katrina decimated her community, Bruni quickly sprang into action. Having been laid off from her job as a corporate event planner as a result of the disaster's fallout, Bruni observed firsthand the destruction of so many homes and lives around her. Without any insider knowledge or resources to tap into, she launched a residential demolition business in June 2006. The idea was not only to generate income but give back to her beloved city. Now, as Demo Diva enters its eighth year, Bruni presides over a full-time staff of five and a thriving business that has expanded from straight demolition to specialized services such as site prep work. Recently, Bruni took a break from her busy schedule to talk with business writer Iris Dorbian about her unlikely career trajectory.

ID: What prompted you to launch Demo Diva?

SB: I saw the National Guard was here after Katrina and then all these people from around the country came in with bulldozers, excavators, and bobcats. I started to see that demolition was going to be that first step to getting everyone [who had been displaced by the hurricane] home.

ID: You had no prior construction experience and yet you started a demolition company. What resources did you used to educate yourself in this sector?

 

SB: I was in the hospitality industry and I was the marketing person. Those were two critical skills. I took those two skills over to an industry that needed hospitality. Demolition is associated with men and at this point when I started [in New Orleans], it was a disaster zone. People needed comfort. That is one of the secrets of demolition: Behind every demolition is an emotion. Whether you're tearing down a hospital or imploding a historic building, there is an emotion associated with it.

QA_Demo_Diva_PQ.jpg

Marketing was the catalyst that set me apart. I didn't want to operate the machinery. Instead I said, ‘Let's get our name out there. We’re here to listen.’ So I started with $250. That was basically for the yard signs, the magnets for my car, and business cards. Then I went out to where a demolition was taking place. So that's really how I began.

ID: Since its launch what has your business evolved into?

SB: Now I do site prep, which is when you put in underground utilities. Say a fast-food restaurant is going to demolish the whole area and then they're going to build a new one. We would go in and clear the site to prepare for a parking lot or drainage.

ID: How else did you market your business?

SB: We did some TV commercials after Katrina. We would buy an inexpensive spot on cable. A lot of people thought my company was owned by a man using a female gimmick. But [that changed] with my commercial. Also, I have 50 dumpsters all over the city and they're painted hot pink. We've got a 12-foot welded billboard on either side of the dumpster. So I invested in the signage. Now my dumpsters are mobile billboards.

QAMarkDevine_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

The Navy SEALs have a well-deserved reputation for executing flawless missions in some of the world's hot spots. Those tough enough to survive the rigors of SEAL training come away with superior leadership skills, intense focus, and unbridled determination to succeed. For eight years, Mark Divine was an active duty SEAL before founding a string of multimillion dollar business ventures. In The Way of the SEAL, Divine lays out eight key principles drawn from his military background to help business owners become better leaders. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Divine about what businesspeople can learn from these proficient fighters.

 

RL: You've described The Way of the SEAL as a self-mastery book for leaders based upon warrior principles embodied by the Navy SEALs. How so?

MD: When times get tough, warriors step into the breach to help solve the intractable problems because they have developed the character where they're not afraid to take risks. They're not afraid to do the right thing, even though it's going to cause some pain to themselves or to others. And they're not afraid of any pushback because they've got skin about a mile thick. The principles that I teach in the book are to develop that type of character. It's nothing new to talk about character-based leadership, but it's new to present it from the context of American's Spartan warriors and from someone who is also a business leader who comes out of that community.

 

RL: One principle that you teach is about establishing one's set point. How would you define that and how does it apply to business leaders?

MD: The idea of a set point involves developing a deep self-awareness about your own life—what fires you up, what makes you feel purposeful—and then to align your professional life with that passion and purpose. If you can find a way to align your business interest and business style with those things that are radically important in your life, then you will be much more fulfilled. You'll have more power in terms of your productivity and focus, and you'll achieve results so much faster and more meaningfully. It's like saying: in order to know where you want to go in life, you've got to know where you stand right now. Not many people take the time to uncover those passions or that purpose that are going to guide them into the future.

 

QAMarkDevine_PQ.jpgRL: You're also a strong believer in the power of visualization, of seeing the result you want before you take action. Why?

MD: I was working as a CPA in Manhattan and finishing up my MBA when I decided I wanted to shift and become a Navy SEAL officer. I remembered how powerful visualization was to me as a swimmer at Colgate University. I began to visualize myself as a SEAL and literally began to feel internally as if I was already a SEAL. I did this for almost nine months straight. What happened was, I felt a growing sense of certainty. I call it winning in your mind first before you step foot on the battlefield. You literally see the win so clearly. I'm not talking about once, but about living it and reliving it in your mind's eye over and over again well in advance of you taking the actions necessary to win in the real world.

 

RL: Clearly communicating the purpose of any military mission is critical. You say it's just as important in business. What are some ways that a small business owner can communicate the company's mission to employees or customers?

MD: First is the KISS method—Keep It Simple, Smarty. A great example is Google's vision of organizing the world's information. It's very easy for their employees, their stakeholders, and their customers to wrap their heads around that. Second, to articulate it in a manner that is very visually stunning—meaning something you can get a picture of right away. To use visual words and action words, like verbs. Google's use of "organize" is an active, powerful moving kind of mental imagery. Your rational mind thinks with words, but your emotions and the rest of your body is moved with imagery. That's why visualization is so powerful.

 

RL: Another principle you teach refers to bulletproofing your mission. Explain that, especially as it applies to business leaders.

MD: In the business world, we go after the wrong target a lot of the time. It's important to have simple planning tools that get you moving forward fast. So we use these mental models for both rapid planning and rapid feedback: essentially, to take a look at your priorities, the realities of the situation, the options you have, and then selecting the best plan to execute. This process leads to what I call a "fail forward fast" mentality, which leads to great momentum. One reason why SEALs are so successful where others fail is because they're willing to move fast, take risks, learn on the fly, and fail forward fast. Those are the skills that are going to allow business leaders—particularly small business leaders and entrepreneurs—to really crush it in this new business environment.

 

RL: You also say to think offense all the time and to stack the deck in your favor. What skills do small business owners need for this?

MD: They need what I call the Big Four Skills of Mental Toughness. First, take physiological and psychological control through conscious deep breathing. It greatly reduces stress and allows you to be more present and to make better decisions.

 

RL: Second?

MD: To see the win, to see yourself achieving, to see yourself as dominating, to see yourself as the type of person who can and will achieve victory. That's a type of visualization I call a "future me" visualization. Instead of me visualizing my goal, I'm also simultaneously visualizing the type of person that I need to be who can operate with agility, move fast, and be a good planner and a good leader.

 

RL: What are skills three and four?

MD: To always maintain a positive mindset, even when the chips are down and things are set against you. You have to be emotionally resilient and optimistic and always be checking your attitude so that you're in a positive territory and you're positively driving forward, because that's going to attract the right type of people and energy. And lastly, set small goals tied to your target. I call them micro goals. If you chop things up into little bite-size chunks, you keep an awareness of and a momentum towards the overall target—but you execute with your hair on fire toward that micro goal. This allows you to accelerate your momentum because you're knocking down these small goals. Before you know it, you've tackled the big goal. Psychologically, you develop confidence and a forward leaning approach or attitude.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

QAedmaier_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

Ed and Fred Maier are a father and son duo that represents the fifth and sixth generations of a Pennsylvania brewing family. The pair recently restarted the bottling business with their Susquehanna Brewing Company. Ed, 63, and Fred, 35, launched the Wilkes-Barre-based startup in June 2012, some 150-plus years after their German ancestor poured his first lager in America and founded Stegmaier, a brewing company that stayed in the family until the 1970s. Writer Erin McDermott recently spoke with the Maiers about the resurgence of U.S. brewing, learning from previous generations’ mistakes, and the secret of working with family.

 

EMcD: You got out of the distribution side of beer in September 2010. How did you decide to get back into the brewery business?

EM: It actually kind of started in 1998. I had a partner and we were coming to the end of our partnership, and we were ready for sale. Fred was still attending college. To return to brewing at that point, I thought maybe a brewpub was the way to go. Fred and I traveled around New England in the summer of 1998 and went to a dozen or so brewpubs. Our goal was to come back to Wilkes-Barre and use our history and open one of our own. About two weeks after we took that trip, my business partner passed away and that opened up more avenues, including buying up his shares and continuing to sell wholesale. That went on for another 10 years. Wholesaling ended up being extremely profitable. But then Miller and Coors formed a joint venture. The new company—MillerCoors—wanted one wholesaler in every market to sell all their products, and since we were only a Miller distributor that became an opportunity for us to sell. We brought in a few people to bid on us and the price went up and up. Eventually we said “Done.”

 

EMcD: The last time you were in the brewery business, you were in your early twenties. Is there anything that hasn’t changed since then?

EM: No, the industry has absolutely turned around 180 degrees since then. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, a few national breweries stormed across the country and ate up local and regional breweries like Stegmaier and the rest of them. When we closed Stegmaier in 1974, there were 42 brewing companies left. Today, there are 2,300. Back in the 1970s, if beer came from Milwaukee or St. Louis, it had to be better than if it came from your hometown. As an industry, it seems we’re heading back to where we were in 1900—when there were 2,000 breweries. The American public has just drastically changed. They want flavor, variety, they want local and small, and they don’t want to be advertised to. It’s astonishing. From sitting at the dinner table with my father in the 1960s to now, the business has just completely turned around, and it’s a real opportunity for us small guys to say ‘Hey, I’ve got something to offer.’

 

QAedmaier_PQ.jpgEMcD: You basically unearthed a family brand that dates back to the 1890s. Were there ancestral documents or some family wisdom that you’ve found yourself tapping into?

EM:  You know, every craft beer has a story and we’re no different. We have roots going back 160 years. Charles Stegmaier came here from Germany in 1857 to brew the first lager in the area. But sometimes we sit here and debate about what good that story has done us. You can go out and do a sampling and people have never heard of you.

FM: For us, it’s dinner-table knowledge. I talk to my dad; he talked to his dad. And when your history is that long, you get to see the mistakes that were made, too. You learn what not to do.

EM: That’s really true. The reason that Stegmaier fell apart goes back to the 1940s, with bad beer. So we are focused here on quality and never taking a chance on anything that isn’t good enough.

 

EMcD: You launched this business in the heart of the recession. Was there any benefit to launching at that time?

EM: We just hoped that we weren’t crazy to do it in the middle of a recession. We didn’t have the luxury to pick the time. 

 

EMcD: What’s the secret to working successfully with family?

EM: There has to be a common passion. And there is in this case. If Fred didn’t have the passion for it, I certainly wouldn’t have dragged him into it. I probably would have taken the cash from the sale and just retired. I don’t think I would have enjoyed that, but if I didn’t have a son who wanted to do it, I don’t think I would have said ‘Let’s start this.’

FM: It’s funny, though. In those 10 years when we were wholesalers, I said I worked for him. Now I say I work with him.

 

EMcD: Fred, for you this is a huge step into running a small business. What’s surprised you so far?

FM: How fast time flies. Before this, I walked into a business that was going for 20 years, and you don’t get to see all of the pains and trials that go into getting it going. It may feel slow at the time, but it just goes by really fast.

 

EMcD: What are each of you telling the seventh generation? How are they reacting?

FM: My joke with my 7-year-old, Eddie, is that if he studies really hard and goes to school, maybe he can work on the bottling line. And he thinks that’s just great!

EM: I don’t think I ever pushed Fred into the business—probably the opposite. If his kids or his sister’s kids wanted to become doctors or lawyers, I certainly wouldn’t talk them out of it. If Fred ever showed a desire to be something else, I never would have talked him out of it. Small business is really tentative—you never really know, it could be here one year and gone the next. I thought Stegmaier would have been around forever, but it wasn’t.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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