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2007
SBC Team

Selling on the Web

Posted by SBC Team Oct 31, 2007
It has never been easier to build an online store and sell your products on the Internet. Is it time you took the plunge?
By Morin Bishop

No matter what your company's products or services, it's increasingly clear that you need some sort of Web presence, if only to raise consumer recognition of your business. But what if you want to actually sell your products online? In the early years of the Internet, website creation was in the hands of software writers who understood HTML, the software language used to place content on the World Wide Web, the popular user interface that runs on the Internet (the two terms are popularly used, erroneously, to mean the same thing). Fortunately, today a myriad of services exist to get your business online and ready for e-commerce with an absolute minimum of difficulty and fuss. If you know how to work a web browser, you can begin selling your products online.

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Importance of E-Commerce
A 2005 survey commissioned by web hosting giant 1&1 found that 94 percent of small business owners that maintained a website credited it with increased sales and market presence. "Our findings indicate that, more than ever, the vast potential of the Internet is definitely within reach for SMBs," says Andreas Gauger, Chairman of 1&1. "These are businesses with anywhere from two or three to 100 employees, and they're reaping the rewards of the Internet just as much as their larger corporate competitors. Clearly, you don't need a massive IT budget or advanced technical resources to have a sophisticated and productive web presence. Those SMBs that still aren't online are truly missing out on taking their business to another level."

 


Building Your Own Online Store
Opening an online store for your products is surprisingly easy. There are a large number of web hosting companies, firms that create and operate web sites from their servers for a monthly or periodic fee. Working with a web hosting company eliminates the technical hassles of purchasing your own Internet server, connecting it to the Internet and keeping it in working order. All of the larger web hosting firms, most of which cater to small businesses, allow you to create your own web site, using off-the-shelf software readily available at popular software vendors, like CompUSA, or by using their own web site creation software. If you choose the latter option, the hosting company will walk you through the construction of your website by asking you what you'd like to see appear on it. According to Kevin Kilroy, chairman of web hosting firm Dotster, his company's website creation process is simple. "We provide the small business owner with direct contact to a human being who takes him or her through the design process." Kilroy says that Dotster listens to what the small business owner wants and suggests additional options based on the business's type of operations and then creates a variety of sample web sites that are sent to the small business owner for alteration or approval. "The whole process can be done with a phone call or two and can take as little as 24 hours," Kilroy says. Adding the ability to sell products through your site then becomes a simple matter of selecting an e-commerce option. Hosting companies like Dotster, Yahoo, Blue Host, IX Web Hosting, GoDaddy, and iPower will configure your online storefront for you, adding whatever products and services, as well as billing and shipping options, you want.

 


Payment Options
If you want to sell your products online, you'll need to be able to receive at least some of the major electronic payment options, which include credit card payments and electronic bank transfers. You can easily equip your online store with electronic payment processing services from a number of companies, including VeriSign, Authorize.Net , CyberSource and Payment Online..

 


The eBay Option
Perhaps your don't want to set up your own website, but you'd still like to sell your products online. eBay may be your answer. Though best known for its auction-style sales, eBay permits vendors to sell their merchandise in a variety of ways, including at fixed prices. eBay also permits vendors to create "storefronts" on its site and provides various advertising options to steer bidders and browsers to your products. You will have to register with eBay and agree to their restrictions and fees, which have risen recently, but more than half a million small businesses and individuals have made eBay their primary source of income.

 

Morin Bishop is editor-in-chief of Priority magazine
SBC Team

Protect Your Business

Posted by SBC Team Oct 21, 2007
You and your colleagues have invested untold amounts of time, energy and capital into your business. You want to protect it from potential threats - ranging from burglars to computer viruses to fire.
By Reed Richardson

Security is especially critical for small companies. Small firms have fewer resources than their larger competitors, so they tend to suffer disproportionately when security problems occur: For example, a negligible theft or computer virus at a big corporation might cripple a small business. Many small businesses are strapped for time and cash, however, so they often fail to take sufficient precautions to protect themselves. That's a big mistake. Security investments not only keep your company safe - they pay for themselves many times over. The following sections outline the most important steps you can take to protect your firm's information, assets and employees.

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Digital Security

The digital revolution has given small businesses capabilities that were once the exclusive domain of their big competitors - from fast, high-quality publishing to instant global communication. But those technologies also have brought new dangers, including hackers, viruses, worms, Trojan horses, spyware, adware and other digital beasties.

A recent study by the Small Business Technology Institute (SBTI) in San Jose, California, found that most small businesses are inadequately protected - and the problem is getting worse. "Small businesses are using increasingly sophisticated technology," says Patrick Cook, an analyst with SBTI. "But their digital security systems aren't keeping up, so they are increasingly vulnerable."

The study found that more than half of small businesses had experienced an information security incident in the previous 12 months, and one in ten small businesses had suffered five or more. Some of those incidents resulted in catastrophic data loss or theft, but the majority had less obvious repercussions. "The biggest problem was lost productivity," says Cook. "Viruses, adware, spyware and other intrusions lead to downtime for networks and employees, and that costs businesses a lot of money."

Mike Faoila, president of Boston-area printing company Arlington Lithograph, learned that lesson seven years ago. The 25- employee business upgraded to an entirely digital printing process in 1995 - and experienced its first virus in 1998. "Four of our six workstations were disabled," says Faoila. "Everything ground to a halt."

Faoila discovered that the company's antivirus software was six months out of date. A quick upgrade took care of the problem - and the experience made Faoila a true believer in the importance of data security. "That was probably the best thing that could have happened to us," he says. "Everything we do depends on our computers. Security takes a small investment of time and money - and it pays for itself even if it just prevents one workstation from going down for one day."

The moral: Investments in network security can boost your bottom line. Cook recommends increasing your business's digital security expenditures in line with your investments in computers, servers, and networking equipment.

The following steps will help you spend that money wisely:

Put up firewalls.
Firewalls prevent hackers from peering inside your network. They come as both hardware and software products - your firm should have both. Make sure firewalls are installed both on your computer network and on each computer, including those connecting remotely.

Use powerful passwords.
For passwords to do their job, they should contain at least eight characters and some combination of upper-and lower-case letters, digits, and symbols. Make sure everyone at your company changes passwords every few months.

Patch holes automatically.
Make sure your operating systems have all the latest security patches. This is a snap: Simply go to the OS maker's Web site and sign up for automatic security updates. The site will upload any new patches to your computers as soon as they become available.

Use free security tools.
For example, Windows XP contains a high-quality built-in software firewall, and Symantec, Microsoft and other software companies offer free spyware scans on their Web sites.

Inoculate against viruses.
Install up-to-date anti-virus software on every networked computer. Make sure it's set to download updates automatically.

Surf with care.
Enable your Web browser's security settings (you usually can find these in the "preferences" menu), and never click on pop-up ads.

Email intelligently.
Never open attachments from unknown senders, or attachments with extensions you don't recognize.

Back up data files.
Assign one employee daily back-up duty, and test the system regularly to see if information can be restored from the backup copies.

Hide your wireless network.
Wireless networks are relatively easy for malefactors to exploit. Use Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), which encrypts wireless data and prevents intruders. Avoid older systems such as Wired Equivalent Privacy, which have less protection.

Audit your security systems.
Hire an IT consultant to perform an annual security audit that includes an examination of every machine at the company.

Vital Records Protection
Chances are, your business would be in big trouble if a fire or natural disaster destroyed documents such as customer lists, contracts, invoices, and insurance documents. In fact, Steve Aronson of the records protection firm Fire King International reports that only half of all businesses that experience total records loss survive the following year.

The good news: It's relatively simple to protect such documents. Store them in file cabinets that are rated by Underwriter Laboratories to withstand one hour of fire as well as heavy impacts. Impact protection is critical, since large fires typically cause roofs or floors to cave in. Such cabinets typically cost two to three times the amount of an ordinary steel filing cabinet - a small investment to protect your firm's most valuable records.

Digital records stored on CDs, hard drives, and other digital media are more sensitive, so they need greater protection. Be sure to keep those records in a data safe rated by Underwriter Laboratories to keep contents below 125 degrees and 80% humidity for at least an hour during a fire.

Physical Location Security

Many small businesses will be well served by hiring a security vendor to monitor their premises and deter robbery, vandalism and other physical threats. Security vendors can tailor a system that keeps a lookout using digital video cameras and a variety of sensors, and then relays important information to key business members and law enforcement. (The cost will vary widely depending on your security needs.) Select a reputable vendor recommended by your chamber of commerce or other small businesspeople and certified by the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA).

Meanwhile, take the following security precautions:

  • Make frequent deposits to reduce the amount of cash on hand.

  • Maintain adequate lighting, both inside and outside your facility.

  • Eliminate hiding places around the premises by keeping grounds clean and spacing out trees and bushes.

  • Change locks regularly, particularly if you have high employee turnover.

  • Use safes that carry Underwriter Laboratories ratings of five or higher.

  • Contact local police about performing a security audit

Fraud

Fraud is more common - and more costly - than you might think. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) estimates that the typical business loses 6% of its annual revenue to fraud. Losses are even worse for small businesses: Small businesses that suffered from fraud lost a median of $98,000 - more than all but the very largest organizations. Create a positive work environment. "Employee resentment creates an environment ripe for fraud," says Larry Cook, a fraud examiner in Kansas City. Some essential elements of a positive environment include:

Integrity at the top. If the owner takes cash from the till without recording it, he sends the message that doing so is okay.

Written job descriptions. Job descriptions create clear responsibilities, so employees don't feel put-upon.

Open lines of communication and clear lines of authority. Workers need to know that complaints will be dealt with fairly and expediently.

Separate financial responsibilities. It's best if the people who handle the money are not the same people who record transactions. Limit access to valuable assets and information. Such items include cash, tools, and other pricey equipment, intellectual property, and accounting and human resources records. Create strong fraud policies. Fraud and ethics policies should be written and distributed to all employees - including senior management. The ACFE found that the higher a fraudulent employee's rank, the more expensive the fraud. Conduct thorough background checks. Examine an applicant's criminal record, driving record, and history of civil lawsuits, and verify the information on the resume or application. Look for warning signs such as arrests for violent offenses or lawsuits for fraudulent conduct or collection of funds. Important: The applicant must sign a release allowing you to look into these matters, or you risk running afoul of privacy laws. Build an anonymous reporting system. The majority of fraud that's discovered is reported by whistle-blowing employees.

As a result, companies with confidential reporting mechanisms lose only half as much to fraud as those without them, according to the ACFE. Make sure employees, customers, and vendors know about the system. You can outsource your reporting system to a vendor, or simply maintain a phone line that goes straight to voice mail. Perform regular and irregular audits. You can hire a security firm to gauge your fraud-prevention controls. That's likely to be expensive - typically more than $10,000. Alternatively, fraudinvestigation firm CVA Solutions offers a well-regarded vulnerability assessment at ifvat.com. Use video cameras - but only where necessary. Closed circuit cameras are one of the best ways to deter employee theft, and advances in digital technology have made them far more affordable and easier to use. Employees generally don't mind surveillance cameras, as long as they are clearly used to prevent fraud - not to catch loafing. Investigate incidents promptly. Doing so will discourage future fraud, and encourage whistle blowers.

Guarding your business against digital intrusion, records loss, robbery, and fraud is essential and can make the difference between the success or failure of your enterprise. The process may not be easy, and certainly will require an investment of time and cash - two things in short supply at many small businesses. But those investments will reap generous returns. Protecting your firm from the various threats it faces may increase productivity, decrease losses to theft, and keep you afloat after a calamitous event - and it also will dramatically improve your peace of mind.

Reed Richardson is an associate writer/editor for Business 24/7 magazine.
akgold

Your Web Presence

Posted by akgold Oct 16, 2007
You may not believe that the Internet is critical to your success, but if you’re not on the Web, you’re ignoring a vast pool of potential customers
By Reed Richardson

It’s increasingly clear that the Internet is reshaping the face of commerce both in the US and internationally. Small businesses are not only not immune from the effects of the Internet, they are often in the forefront of making the Internet work to their advantage. However, many small business owners remain hesitant to create an Internet presence for their companies or to expand what they already have, because they fear the technical issues involved.

We offer the following questions for small business owners to consider when evaluating their firm’s Internet presence in 2007.

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Does my small business really need a web site?
According to most experts the answer is a resounding yes. No matter what size your business is, or what industry you’re in—even if you never plan to handle any transactions online—the value of a web site as a marketing tool vastly outweighs the cost of creating and maintaining the site.

In the U.S., recent Pew surveys found that 73 percent of American adults currently use the Internet, with almost 42 percent of American households now possessing broadband (high speed) Internet access. Mary Madden, a researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, notes that 32 percent of adults say the Internet has profoundly changed the way they shop and gather information. “Many people begin their shopping with a visit to Google or another search portal,” she says. “More and more people look at online phone directories before they pull out the Yellow Pages.” And, of course, Internet use by young people, especially teenagers, is even higher than that of adults. Today’s children and teens will become tomorrow’s consumers, likely to consider the Internet an integral part of seeking out product information, locating businesses, and even purchasing products or services. This means that if your business doesn’t have a presence on the Internet, you may end up overlooked by potential consumers, including many from outside the geographical area in which you normally operate and advertise.

How difficult is it to create a web site?
Getting your business onto the Internet is surprisingly easy. There are a large number of web hosting companies, firms that create and operate web sites from their servers for a monthly or periodic fee. Working with a web hosting company eliminates the technical hassles of purchasing your own Internet server, connecting it to the Internet, and keeping it in working order.

These firms will handle the otherwise technical aspects of obtaining a domain name (Internet address) for your company’s site, putting together email accounts, and establishing the site architecture. Most web hosting companies will walk you through the construction of your web site by asking you what you’d like to see appear on it. According to Kevin Kilroy, chairman of web hosting firm Dotster (dotster.com), Dotster’s web site creation process is simple: “We provide the small business owner with direct contact with a human being who takes him or her through the design process.” Kilroy says that Dotster listens to what the small business owner wants and suggests additional options based on the business’s type of operations, and then creates a variety of sample web sites that are sent to the small business owner for alteration or approval. “The whole process can be done with a phone call or two and can take as little as 24 hours,” Kilroy says

Do I need to have an e-commerce web site?
While e-commerce— buying and selling merchandise online—is a major buzzword, and surely a growing trend, not all businesses are suited for e-commerce, and not all need e-commerce capabilities to have a successful web presence. Professional organizations, for example, may benefit from having a web site that simply outlines the services offered and the professionals available, gives office hours, and lists contact information. A service-oriented firm, on the other hand, might offer a way for online visitors to schedule an appointment. Businesses that do sell products, on the other hand, can make use of the e-commerce options provided by web hosting companies, which include secured online transactions, billing and shipping notification, and customer feedback.

What should I consider when selecting a web hosting company?
First and foremost, you want a financially stable company with a reliable track record. If the web host’s servers crash or the company goes bankrupt, your site will go down as well. So start by seeking out firms with a track record, who are willing to refer you to satisfied clients. Larger firms like 1&1, Dotster, Yahoo, and iPower have created a permanent presence in the industry. Ebay, through its ProStores group (prostores.com), now offers an affordable but robust ecommerce package for small business customers as well.

A web host’s email package is a vital consideration. Most web hosts will offer a certain number of email accounts at the web site’s domain name. The more email options the better. Does the web host offer an auto-respond function? Can emails be forwarded to your other email accounts? Are the web site’s email accounts accessible on the web? Can you access them with your current office software? It’s a good idea to get more email accounts than you think you will need. That way, if your company hires new people, they can be added without having to renegotiate your web hosting agreement.

Since most small business owners don’t have the technical knowledge to create their own web site, it’s important to choose a company that will help you build your site. Make sure to ask exactly how much assistance the web host will offer you when putting up the web site in the first place.

Keeping a web site current is important, the web host should make it easy for you to add or delete information, or change the site’s appearance whenever necessary. Be sure to inquire about how you can change your web site once it’s up and running.

You will also want to know how much bandwidth your web site will be given. Bandwidth (or data transfer) is the amount of data that can be transferred between your web site and anyone who accesses it. Every time someone goes to your web site and looks at your web page, a certain amount of data is exchanged between the servers holding your site and the computer of the user who views it. You want to make certain that your monthly fee includes enough bandwidth to permit normal traffic on your web site. Normally bandwidth use in excess of the specified amount results in extra charges. Be very skeptical of web hosting companies that claim to offer “unlimited bandwidth” and ask for specific numbers. Most good web hosts also allow you to keep track of your web site’s usage. Make sure that the web host lets you see statistics showing how many people are visiting the site, where they come from, and what they are looking at on the site. Such statistics useful in evaluating what elements of your web site are attracting consumers, and what your geographical reach may be.

Since your web site will be stored on the web hosting company’s servers, you will be purchasing a certain amount of storage space. If your site is basically an advertisement of your business, offering just information will be information about what you do and how to contact you—basically, a billboard on the Internet—then you will need very little space indeed, say five megabytes (MB) or less. If, on the other hand, you intend to conduct some sort of ecommerce on your web site, you will need more space to store photos, graphics and data. Few small business web sites, however, need more than 100MB of storage space.

What information should I put on my web site?
Since your web site may be the first exposure a consumer has to your business, you want to keep your website as professional as possible while making it absolutely clear exactly what your business does. “Generally speaking, there should be an ‘About Us’ section that will tell visitors what it is that you do, the history of your company, and why you are qualified to provide whatever service you do,” says Dotster’s Kilroy. “That’s a minimum.” Kilroy also suggests a Frequently Asked Questions section or “FAQ” which answers general questions about your company and its policies. Equally important is providing contact information. “You wouldn’t believe the number of company web sites that tell you everything about the company, but leave no easy way to contact them,” says management consultant Peggy Morrow. “It’s very frustrating for potential consumers.
And frustrating people that may want to do business won’t win you any new clients.” So make sure that your web site at least features your business address and telephone or fax numbers. Email is another great option, which provides web site visitors the chance to communicate directly from the site. If you offer email contact information on your site, make certain you have someone check the incoming email at regularly. “Unanswered email— just like an unreturned phone call—is a surefire way of irritating a customer,” Morrow warns.

How often should my business’s web site be updated?
Internet users have become accustomed to up-to-the-minute news and information, so it’s a good idea to keep your web site as current as possible. Not every web site needs to be updated every day, but you want to make certain that all the information you have on it is accurate. When aspects of your business change, make sure that your web site reflects those changes as soon as possible. This includes people who join or leave the company, changes in client-relevant company policies, events sponsored by your firm, or even vacation dates. Even if your business isn’t a whirlwind of change, it’s probably a good thing to alter your web site’s appearance every so often, or add company news and information that can be updated weekly or monthly. “We are in a world where everything continues to move forward, “says Dotster’s Kilroy. “So to remain static is to become less attractive.”

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