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2014

Virtual_Small_Business_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

When Tasha Mayberry co-founded Social Media 22, a web design, Internet marketing and PR firm, in early 2013 with her husband Pavel, the couple had initially planned to open an office. They both soon changed their minds when they realized that running their small business virtually was a great way to keep overhead costs low.

Having grown their business from $3,000 in monthly revenue at the start, to $10,000 each month, the couple now works with a staff of three, who like them, also work from home. Like other virtual small business owners, Mayberry feels their situation is ideal for their lifestyle needs. Not only does it reduce costs, but it also affords them flexibility when it comes to time and travel.

The latter is especially convenient during the couple’s visits to Pavel’s homeland, Russia.

“There we can stay with his family for a month and work remotely,” explains Mayberry. “With a virtual office you can work anywhere which is especially attractive for those who love to travel.

But she cautions, managing employees who work remotely can be challenging. For starters, it requires people who can both work independently and on a team. And, of course, having extensive broadband and operational computer technology are essential as well.

But when done correctly, managing virtual workers can be an effective way to build a business, attract quality employees, and keep overhead low. Courtesy of Mayberry and other virtual small business owners here are a few best practices on how to run a thriving virtual small business with staff.

Always communicate
Because there’s no common workplace, it is critical you make an extra effort to interact with your staff via email and phone to keep them apprised of what’s happening in the business. Employees should do the same with you. Mayberry, whose work experience includes time as a marketing vice president at an insurance brokerage house, subscribes regularly to this tip.

Virtual_Small_Business_PQ.jpg"I come from the corporate world and if we needed something quickly, we would buzz the office of the person we wanted," she relates. "Virtually we do the same thing by using Gmail chat. So if we have a quick question, or if something was just sent that is important, we alert each other. And just type right back. This has been instrumental in our success.”

Andrei Soroker, CEO of Kato.im, an Oakland, California-based business communication platform provider, swears by this best practice when it comes to managing a virtual business. But he also feels that staff should have a single communication platform rather than using a combination of phones, SMS, Facebook, Skype, Google Hangouts, and email. This not only makes it easier for workers to communication with each other online but it also significantly reduces the risk of cyber-attacks, he says.

“All your communication should be secure, searchable, and accessible from multiple devices,” advises Soroker, who currently has a staff of 13 employees spread across the U.S., Russia, the Ukraine, and Thailand. “If you lose your iPad, you shouldn't lose your company's data with it.”

To handle all documents, which include job offers, contracts, and manuals, Soroker suggests virtual small businesses use Google Docs or Office 360 so that the entire team will have access to any document.

Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, a communications firm with a staff of 17, says every virtual small business owner needs an effective conferencing platform.

He uses three: Calliflower by iotum, GoToMeeting, and UberConference. “They each have their strengths and we know which to use in a particular situation,” he says. “We also make a lot of use out of Skype for video calling. And, with WebRTC on the rise, you'll see more services offering video.”

Look for self-starters
This might sound repetitive but it bears repeating: Working virtually is not for everyone.

Mayberry found this out the hard way. Although she is proud that she has three staffers who excel working virtually, she has also had three interns who did not. The experience has given her greater insight into the type of person who will perform well working virtually—and the type that will not.

“They must be independent but can work well with a team, have the ability to multi-task, prioritize, and have ambition to succeed, along with an excellent work ethic,” she says. “Virtual employees are like their own bosses although we give direction to them each day. The wrong type of person could come late to work, take extra-long lunch breaks, clock out early, and not care about the work.”

Be careful when selecting technology
Of course, working remotely necessitates that you have the best operational technology at your disposal. But an online tool that's the boon of one virtual office could be the bane of another. Be painstakingly thorough when looking for online technology that will be conducive to you and your staff's needs.

“Pick the right services that work best for your industry, and make sure they scale,” urges Abramson. “We use Google Apps after years of being on a hosted exchange server. It is night and day better for a virtual organization as the openness of the platform allows us to add all kinds of third-party services without lots of overhead for programming.”

For small business owners eager to reduce overhead costs and commuting, running a virtual business could be an excellent solution. If you hire smartly, communicate regularly with staff, and use technology that's well suited for your business, running a virtual business could be the best move you ever make.

Black_Friday_Strategies_body.jpgBy Matt Krumrie.


It was late September and The University of Houston Bauer College Small Business Development Center (SBDC) hosted a retail roundtable for area small businesses to help them prepare for Black Friday.  The program was moderated by the SBDC’s new retail advisor, Doug Baumann, who has over 20 years of experience managing both big box national outlet stores as well as small specialty boutiques.

 

Baumann's message was simple.


"Don't try to over-think Black Friday," he told the audience. "Try to enjoy it."


That may be easier said than done. But Baumann's point was this: "Even as a small business with a limited marketing budget, many opportunities exist that can potentially drive traffic to your store."


Advantages of shopping local

Dan Jablons is president of Retail Smart Guys a retail consulting company that works with both large and small retailers. The first thing he reminds small business owners is that not everyone wants to fight the crowds flocking to the big box retailers on Black Friday.


"There are shoppers out there who don't want to wait in line all night, or get up before the crack of dawn, hoping to be one of the few to get a deal on a TV," says Jablons.

 

Two things are key to Black Friday success, retail experts say: Don’t try to compete with the big box retailers on price, but do try to beat them on customer service.

 

"Smaller retailers just can't get the wholesale prices that the larger, national retailers do," says Jablons. “But that's not what the independent retailer is about."


One of the more critical advantages that small businesses need to emphasize is the experience they offer customers, says Jablons. By making shopping fun, calm, and easy, smaller retailers allow shoppers to feel welcome and wanted.


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It’s also important on this hectic shopping day to play up the fact that your business is customer service-centric. Interact with shoppers with a smile and focus on their needs. Remaining sensitive to shoppers’ budgets by asking questions without being pushy or intrusive will go a long way in creating a good impression of your level of customer service. "Offering personal salesmanship is virtually non-existent in big box stores," says Baumann. "The in-store aesthetics that calm the heart are easy to achieve."


Plan in advance

When it comes to holiday shopping, consumers often have a “one-for-me, one-for-you” mindset, says Anne Brouwer, senior partner with McMillanDoolittle, a Chicago-based retail consulting firm. Most say they are out to find holiday gifts, but they are also shopping for themselves—and are ready to spend.


"The consumer is in the frame of mind to shop and spend money,” says Brouwer.


That’s why attracting the Black Friday shopper starts in advance of the big day, says Brouwer. Begin with your customer list and reach out to them via email, announcing any Black Friday sales and special events. Consider specials for loyalty program members by providing extra savings to your best customers.


Brouwer suggests letting customers know that you’ll be creating a festive atmosphere in your store on Black Friday with refreshments such as hot cider or coffee. By making the day feel less hectic and more customer-focused, smaller retailers have the chance to attract shoppers and keep them loyal throughout the holiday selling season.


Go the extra mile

Provide added-value items, such as free gift-wrapping. Also, consider cross-merchandise promotions, says Brouwer. Partner with other businesses within your shopping district, such as a restaurant where you offer shoppers a discount coupon to a local restaurant, coffee shop, or other specialty stores.


If your store attracts older shoppers, consider bringing in some extra seating so they can relax for a bit, says Baumann. When it comes time for shoppers to check out be sure there are plenty of gift boxes at the ready. Another nice touch: Add a coupon for their next purchase after Black Friday.


Start early

While many smaller retailers focus on getting shoppers in after they've hit the big box retailers, experts say they should instead look to get them in the store early. Jablons says a small retailer might want to consider a progressive mark down program on Black Friday to help draw traffic earlier in the day. Offer 50 percent off select items at 8 a.m., 40 percent off at 9 a.m. and then 30 percent off from 10 a.m. throughout the rest of the day.


"You want to get their dollars before they run to the mall, or before they hit the big box stores," he says. "Once they've spent their money, or once they get tired they aren't going to finish out the day at the smaller independent store."


The key to making Black Friday a success boils down to offering shoppers an experience they can't forget.  "Train your staff and prepare them for this day and come in with the attitude that you're just going to run that business really well that day,” says Brouwer. “Provide a great experience and build those lasting relationships."


Baumann agrees. "The more you establish sincere relationships with customers, the more goodwill you spread throughout your community," he says. "As most highly successful small business owners know, the more you give, the more you receive."

Effective_Management_Team_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

Having an effective management team is critical to the success of any business whether large or small. Surrounding yourself with others whose interests and goals are aligned with yours can separate a winning company from one that won’t be in business for long. Being emotionally in sync with your managers is also important, and can add to the success of your company just as much as having shared business objectives.

So how do you, as a small business owner, go about building a cadre of support around you? What should you look for when expanding your leadership staff? We spoke to several entrepreneurs to get their take on best practices for building an effective management team.

Seek a common mission
A business moves ahead when everyone on the team is working toward the same goal. That doesn't mean you should look for managers who are clones, but rather those who share a similar vision. If you hire someone with dazzling credentials but who lacks the strategic mindset you need to move your company to its next level, then you will have squandered your time and resources.

Joe Anand knows this all too well. As the CEO of MecSoft Corp., a provider of computer-aided manufacturing software for small businesses, he once hired a manager who did not share similar  goals. What ensued taught Anand a key lesson.

“We hired an international sales vice president a few years ago whose background was sales in Eastern Europe,” recalls Anand. “It was his comfort zone and he stuck with it. After about two years of promises and false starts, we finally had to refocus our efforts to our better performing markets and had to let the VP go. His views did not align with the long-term vision of where we wanted to go as a company.”

 

Hire from within
Perhaps the best way to ensure a good management fit is to promote from within your company. In a small business, internal candidates are often ideal for leadership roles because they are already familiar with your company's corporate culture and protocol. Plus, you've already been able to evaluate their job performance and understand their strengths and weaknesses.

 

Marc Anderson, co-founder of TalktoCanada.com, a firm that teaches the English language to individuals and corporate clients, prefers to hire his managers from within his company. For the most part, he says it has been an effective management building strategy, even though there have been some instances where he had doubts.

Anderson recalls a time when he promoted a reserved, introverted staffer to a temporary management role. At first, he had misgivings about her personality being a natural fit for the position, which he felt required assertiveness and the ability to handle complaints. However, because he was not available at the time and the staffer was experienced, Anderson felt he had few options.

Much to his surprise, she ended up doing an exemplary job.

“The teachers [whom she managed] ended up loving her and she got along very well with them,” he continues. “She was able to deal with issues and problems in a different way than I would normally handle them.”

Don’t micro-manage
Small business owners are used to wearing multiple hats. Consequently, it can be difficult for some to relinquish responsibilities to others as the company begins to grow and expand. But in order to build a sound foundation and management team, it is important to do so.

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Rich Kahn, founder and CEO of Delaware-based eZanga, an 11-year-old search and online advertising agency, understands this. “You have to find managers that you can trust to get the job done, that you know will focus, and have the ability to grow the project,” he explains, adding that it’s vital new managers are trained in carrying out the job responsibilities on their own minus the interference of the owner.

Kahn recalls the time his firm hired its first information technology manager. He had reservations about filling the position given that he initially wrote the code for the company. Yet, as the business grew and Kahn realized he needed to focus on other tasks, he had no choice but to surrender the IT reins to someone else.

“I didn’t want to let go of the coding,” he admits. “It was so difficult.”

Kahn admits it took six months before he finally felt confident about letting the IT manager do the job on his own. But in hindsight, he’s glad he was able to overcome his apprehensions. 

“He now completely manages our IT department,” he says.

Whether your small business is a startup or more established, finding an effective management team is key for growth and stability. As methodical as you were when you launched your company, you should utilize the same approach when building your leadership staff. Think carefully about the strengths of each manager and how they can be leveraged to meet your bottom line and achieve business goals. If you are serious about turning your business into a success, then you will need to assemble managers on your roster that can help you get there.

Charitable_Giving_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


With the holiday season upon us, small businesses will once again find their mailboxes overflowing with charitable appeals. A recent report by Blackbaud, a software provider for nonprofits, found that more than one-third of all charitable giving happens in the last three months of the year. That giving really adds up: According to Giving USA Foundation, American corporations and businesses gave over $16 billion in charitable gifts in 2013. Obviously, every small business wants to ensure that the dollars they donate are used wisely, but how can they evaluate a charity's efficiency? What's a sensible way to choose good causes to support? We asked some fundraising experts to give us their perspective on how small businesses can make informed judgments for doing good.   

 

Donate your services

While charities are still happy to accept monetary donations, they are also open to other forms of support. "Businesses can think about ways that can bring their own expertise to a particular charity," says Michael Nilsen, vice president of public affairs for the Association of Fundraising Professionals. "I think most charities would love it if an organization came to them and said that they'd like to get more involved."

 

For example, Nilsen says that many charitable organizations would welcome an overhaul of their website or someone to help them with their social media efforts—services that a small business could provide. Nilsen explains that large national charitable organizations are doing well, but that smaller charities are still recovering from the economic downturn and can use help in many different forms.

 

Nilsen recommends zeroing in on the issues that matter deeply to the business and to the employees and then find charities that support them. "The charity process gets better when there are more engaged donors and engaged volunteers—as opposed to trying to figure out what's most efficient or most effective—because there's no easy way to measure that," he says. "You could have five different charities working on the same issue and they're probably doing five different things, whether it's research or program implementation. Figure out what's most important to you and focus your giving on that. Find out from employees about organizations that they like, so you've got that engagement started already.”

 

Use outside ratings agencies

There are a number of services—such as Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, GuideStar, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance—that provide information about a charity's functions, management, finances, and policies. While some of these services are free, others charge both site users and the charities themselves to be rated.

 

Charitable_Giving_PQ.jpgSandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing at Charity Navigator, which provides information without charge, recommends looking at three broad areas when investigating a charity. First, see if they spend the bulk of their finances on programs compared to overhead costs. Charity Navigator uses a 75 percent to 25 percent ratio, although smaller or newer charities will likely be spending more to build their support base. A charity that generates more money in each succeeding year and that also maintains a rainy day fund are also positive indicators of a well-run operation.

 

Second, see if there are outside independent voting members on the board and whether an impartial audit is done annually. Third, look for charities that are making an impact and are willing to share their results in specific metrics.

 

"When you call them, you want to go beyond just numbers," Miniutti says. "You don't want to just hear that 10 people got placed in jobs this week. You want to know: how long are these people keeping these jobs? How can the charities scale up? What challenges do they face? You want to probe a little deeper beyond just one heartfelt story about one person being helped. We would always encourage donors of any kind to open up a dialogue with a charity. For small businesses, that can be critical because if you give the development staff person a call, they may have ideas about ways that you can work together to both further your company's goals and further the charity's goals."

 

Get involved

Appeals that turn up in your mail can also tell you something about the impact of the charity. For example, an organization that delivers food to elderly shut-ins could say how many meals each donated dollar will provide. To make those dollars go further, some small businesses will match employee contributions up to a fixed amount or even make charitable giving part of their culture. Case in point: Lautman Maska Neil & Company, a Washington, DC-based fundraising agency, that practices what it preaches.

 

"Instead of giving gifts to each other at the holidays, we support one of the local chapters of Volunteers of America," says Lisa Maska, partner and owner. "They always have lists of things needed by families. We get about three families, maybe 12 to 15 people. We get their wish list and we each volunteer to buy the things that they want. Someone will buy the clothes and someone will buy the toys. We gather everything together and VOA picks it up.” Maska also recommends that a small business can find a charity locally that they feel connected to, get to know them, find out what they need, and how that business can help.

 

And how trustworthy are telemarketers? Maska says that the overwhelming majority are legitimate, but a skeptical donor can always ask the telemarketer to send them printed material through the mail that they can evaluate themselves. They can also follow up directly with the charity to see whether a telemarketing campaign is underway.

 

"So much press is given to charities that maybe aren't doing things the way they should be, but most charities in my and the industry's experience are extremely well-run, accountable, and have incredible ethics," Maska says. "They just want to provide the best support to their constituents."

 

PrepForRetirement_body.jpgBy Erin O’Donnell.


Jonathan B. Smith thought he would be retired by his 40s. Instead, the longtime entrepreneur is just now opening a retirement savings account.


Smith, owner of the Chief Optimizer business strategy firm in Arlington, Va., says he has always valued saving over spending, but he didn’t have a process in place. Now, with the proceeds of a favorable investment, he’s setting up an individual 401(k), which appealed to him because of its high contribution limits. But, he says, “even if I fully fund the 401(k), it’s not enough to last me through retirement.”


Like Smith, many small business owners haven’t established a retirement savings plan, despite the tax benefits that such plans provide. Only 36 percent of small business owners have an IRA, according to a 2010 analysis by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and only one-third of them contribute to it. To put that in context, consider that about 66 percent of American adults have some retirement savings, according to a report released in August by the Federal Reserve Board.


The challenge for small business owners is that they are solely responsible for their own benefits and savings, says Nancy Skeans, managing director for personal financial services at Schneider Downs Wealth Management Advisors in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


“In your own business, you have to think about things like disability insurance and life insurance for yourself, too,” Skeans says. “People may not want to spend money because of cash flow when they’re starting out. But at some point you have to have an exit strategy.”


Your business is not your retirement

The biggest mistake business owners can make is to assume they will sell the business to fund their retirement, with no other savings, says David L. Perkins Jr., managing director of Acquisition Advisors in Tulsa, Okla. That strategy also misses out on the tax advantages that retirement plans can provide in the ensuing years.


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“The sad cases are in smaller businesses when they’re making $50,000 to $200,000 a year, and they’ve not saved outside of their business,” Perkins says. “They’ve kicked the can down the road and there’s no way to make up that savings.”


Skeans says often a company has lost more value than the owner realizes, because he or she hasn’t continued to build the business. Even a strong client base will eventually decline if it stops growing, she says. “You’ve put in so much money and time,” Skeans says. “But the real business that’s thriving, the one that someone might pay you one or two times revenue for, is slowly disappearing.”


Ask for advice

Dentist Matt Lawyer and his wife, Kendra, plan to sell Carothers Parkway General Dentistry in Franklin, Tenn., as part of their retirement strategy. But they’re also working now with their financial advisor to establish a retirement savings plan to supplement the proceeds from the sale. Up until this year, the Lawyers’ only investments were tax-deferred college savings for their children.


“We’ve just started the process of planning for retirement, which will hopefully be in the next 15 or 20 years,” Kendra says. “He doesn’t really want to be working until he’s 75.”


Kendra, who handles the financial side of the practice, says they’ve spent the first 10 years growing their patient base and paying off a business loan. Now, they plan to reallocate the money that they once used for loan repayments to their retirement savings.


Options for small business owners and the self-employed

Several tax-deferred retirement plans are available to small businesses and sole proprietors and are outlined below. Contributions to employee plans are considered deductible business expenses as well. And, Skeans adds, business owners can change plans as the company grows or changes.


(See www.irs.gov/retirement for complete comparisons and up-to-date contribution limits. The U.S. Department of Labor also produces a guide to choosing a retirement solution for your small business.)


IRA: An Individual Retirement Account is the leanest option for the self-employed, Skeans says, with the fewest tax benefits and lowest contribution limits -- $5,500 for the 2014 tax year, or $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older by the end of the year. But, she cautions, “if you just settle on an IRA because you don’t want to be bothered with the rules governing contributions to other kinds of accounts, you really can lose the tax benefits that go along with putting money into these plans.”


SIMPLE IRA: Business owners with 100 or fewer employees can offer a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees, with low setup and administrative costs. The employer and employee can contribute up to $12,000 each in 2014. (Workers over 50 are eligible to make a $2,500 catch-up contribution.) Employers are required to contribute to their employees’ plans, between one percent and three percent of total pay.


SEP Plan: The Simplified Employee Pension appeals to entrepreneurs who don’t have employees because of its high contribution limits -- 25 percent of compensation, up to $52,000 a year – and its low setup cost. Only the employer contributes; if you have employees, you must contribute to their accounts at the same percentage as your own. This could hamper your ability to make your own maximum contribution; however, contributions don’t have to be made every year.


Individual 401(k): A 401(k) plan is a more expensive option because you must pay a plan administrator. But you can double up contributions as both employee and employer. Here’s how: you can make employee contributions up to $17,500 this year ($23,000 for those 50 and up). Add to it your employer contribution, which can equal up to 20 percent of your net earnings. The combined contribution can top out at $52,000 in 2014, plus a $5,500 catch-up contribution for those 50 and up.


“Even if you just start with small amounts, it helps you from a tax standpoint, and you get the benefit of compounding,” Skeans says.

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