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Road_Warrior_body.jpgby Cathie Ericson.

As every small business owner knows, the work doesn't stop just because you are out of town. And we’re traveling more these days—a survey from Travel Leaders Group projects a seven percent increase in business travel in 2015.

While it can be hard to focus on the task at hand while worrying about what’s going on in the office, it’s imperative to maximize your time during out-of-town travel. Here are four strategies for staying connected to the home office while on the road:

1. Keep customers informed. Make sure clients know you might not be as responsive as usual. Activate your out-of-office email message and consider adding a buffer day to deal with issues and requests upon your return. Record your outgoing voicemail message so that it directs callers to someone else in the office, or clearly states how they can reach you in an emergency.

2. Make your tech work for you. Tools like Google Docs, Evernote, Nozbe, LastPass and cloud-based storage allow you to stay in touch no matter where you are. Justin Lugbill of Chicago and his wife own two businesses—Redline Digital and Lugbill Design. By using these online tools he says he can work efficiently where he is, accessing and editing files, and staying current on workflow. “In order to maximize my productivity away from the office, I've become ‘device agnostic,’ by implementing systems and services that can be used no matter what device you have in your hands at the moment,” he says.

Road_Warrior_pq.jpg3. Adjust your schedule. Understand that long days may be a staple of your business trip since not all work can be put on hold. Lugbill typically gets up an hour or two earlier to take care of emails and messages to close the loop and start the day knowing he’s addressed unfinished business. You’ll likely have to invest some time at the end of the day, too, since it can be challenging to make calls and respond to email during meetings.


4. Make the most of down time. Don’t squander your travel time. Ten years ago, travel days were wasted days, but now of course, work can be done in the airport, on the plane, and in your Uber car or cab. “Five minutes waiting to deplane has become an opportunity to answer an e-mail,” says Lugbill. He also advocates phone and computer tethering, which essentially allows you to turn your smartphone into a mobile hotspot, so you can go online without an extra expense in areas where you can’t access free Wi-Fi. (Check your plan though; some may charge).


The key to feeling confident when you’re away from the office is minimizing what your absence means to customers and your staff. Use these opportunities to delegate what you can to employees, and implement tech solutions that enable you to stay as connected to customers as if you were sitting behind your desk.

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3D Printing Thumb.jpg3D printing has the potential to be a game changer for small businesses. Essentially, the process allows you to produce an object in three dimensions in less time and often at a lot less cost than conventional production methods, such as injection molding. With a reduced barrier to entry, 3D printing can spur innovation—making it easier for entrepreneurs to design, test, and market more products, as well as dream up custom or specialty parts. Yet for all the excitement, some experts say that small business owners should carefully assess the process and do their due diligence before deciding whether 3D printing is right for them.


Click here to read the full article (PDF).

Wearable_Tech_body.jpgBy Jennifer Shaheen.

The International Consumer Electronics Show is the annual event where major tech manufacturers like Google, Apple, and Samsung unveil the products they’ll be promoting during the coming year. Much of the focus of the 2015 show was wearable tech, with devices designed to make it easier for people to pay on the go and stay fit capturing most of the attention. While not every device launched is destined to become your customers’ favorite new gadget, some surely will—and this year they’ve got the potential to change the way you do business.

Smartwatches: Put the world on your wrist

Every major tech brand has a new smartwatch offering, from the highly anticipated Apple Watch, Samsung’s Gear S, and LG’s Audi. Think of smartwatches as miniature phones. Typically they can accommodate multiple apps allowing wearers to do everything from read email to pay for purchases.

It’s reasonable to expect that the customers already eager to pay for purchases using their smartphone will want to do the same with their smartwatches.

Wearable_Tech_PQ.jpgFitness Trackers: Healthy customers are happy customers

The Fitbit was, for many people, their first piece of wearable technology. Today’s selection of wearable fitness trackers has expanded in many ways. They’re used to record activity levels, the amount and quality of sleep, and more. For small business owners on the go, this can be a convenient and easy way to help ensure a healthy lifestyle. The data on these devices can also guide both lifestyle and purchasing decisions. Someone who learns they aren’t getting enough high quality sleep, for example, may be highly motivated to purchase a new mattress.

Size can be an issue

The smaller size of wearable technology limits how much functionality can be built in. A computer the size of a jacket button simply can’t match the capabilities of a larger model that has more space for memory and processor.  However, the convenience factor may lead people to overlook these limitations. In fact, the Google X development team cites this as the reason we’ll see people wearing more and more devices, rather than trying to find one piece of wearable technology that does it all.


Cloud_Computing_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


In its most fundamental form, cloud computing hosts your files and applications at a location separate from your business premises and staffed by trained IT experts that oversee their safety and maintenance. Some small businesses might be understandably wary about giving up a large measure of control over their data when they switch to a cloud computing solution. But others find the lower set-up costs and layers of protection that the cloud offers preferable to the expense of doing everything in-house. As you decide if cloud computing is viable for your business, consider what these experts have to say.


Less costly investment

"There's no better tool for a small business to get up and going at a level that previously demanded a lot of investment than cloud computing," says Darran Haessig, an IT consultant at Clarity Technology Group, a Madison, Wisconsin-based IT firm. "You do not need to invest in the resources for this service. And depending on what the service is, [you could save] a large cash outlay."


For example, a business that wants to host its own email in-house would have to provide all the components—such as the hardware, backup systems, maintenance, and security applications. But with a cloud computing solution, Haessig explains, "now you're paying a monthly rate to a service provider, such as Microsoft, that will handle all that for you. All you have to worry about is your Internet connection and your basic maintenance for your everyday PC to get access to it." As your business grows, cloud computing also gives you the ability to scale up cost-effectively.


Savings notwithstanding, some small business owners are uncomfortable with hosting their files at a remote location away from their direct supervision. Many service providers will let you try their services for free or for a limited time. Haessig says that this is an excellent way to see whether they are a good fit for your business, handle your requests promptly, and have security protocols in place that satisfy your concerns.


Secure your devices

While safeguarding your files is certainly an issue, some experts say it's a mistake to think that a cloud solution is inherently more vulnerable. 


"Quite the contrary—a data center has to meet compliance standards in the industry," says Charles Henson, vice president at Nashville Computer, a Brentwood, Tennessee-based IT company. "For example, if they are hosting data for a financial institution like brokers or investment firms, they would need to follow the guidelines of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. A facility that hosts data offsite for a healthcare company must meet HIPAA requirements mandated by the government and provide an agreement showing they have met the regulated compliance. Therefore, those machines at the data center are up-to-date, backed-up, and have the kind of security that small businesses or medium-sized businesses don't have with their current server and/or infrastructure today."


Henson says that the devices that attach to the cloud—such as a PC, desktop, Mac, tablet, or smart phone—pose more of a security risk than the cloud itself since employees may be opening suspicious emails or visiting questionable websites. It is the responsibility of the small business owner to come up with policies and practices on computer usage. Still, some IT companies "will assist you in securing your desktop devices as well as ensuring you're getting the right connectivity and the right cloud solution for your environment," Henson says. "So really you need to hire an IT professional that does this all day every day because they understand everything that needs to happen to make sure that your devices are secure."


Cloud_Computing_PQ.jpgWhen choosing a provider, Henson says to work with a knowledgeable IT consultant who can perform a cloud readiness assessment to see what applications your business is running and whether they are compatible with a cloud environment. As part of your due diligence, you should get references, review case studies of the provider's performance, find out the kind of disaster recovery plan the IT provider has, and how you can get your data if the company goes out of business.


Despite these hurdles, cloud computing can be a lifesaver for a small business. For example, Henson says that his firm set up a cloud computing solution for a bookkeeping company based in Franklin, Tennessee that also had employees spread out across the country. When Nashville was flooded in 2010, the bookkeeper called up, panic-stricken because the basement of her building was underwater. She lost everything and wondered what to do. "My engineer told her she didn't need to do anything and not to worry," Henson says. "He told her that her data and her servers were in our data center. She could go home and work as normal. And so they never missed a beat during that Nashville flood."


Get employees onboard

Small businesses that have employees at multiple locations around the country or the globe can use cloud computing to bring them together on a common project easily, and maximize their creativity and skills since they can each access the data efficiently.


"From the standpoint of a global workforce, the cloud is magnificent for this," says Laurel Delaney, founder of GlobeTrade, a Chicago-based management consulting and marketing solutions company. "The ability to do it all on one platform really saves the business owner a lot of time and headaches in a way that's not going to cost an arm and a leg."


Small businesses should look for cloud computing solutions that are easy to use, have a minimal learning curve, and allow employees to log on and have access to files in a minute or less. While some cloud providers offer free service, Delaney warns that it should be clear at what point a fee kicks in—for example, at five megabytes of data—and whether you'll be notified beforehand by email. "You want to know well in advance before you hit that threshold as opposed to getting cut off suddenly or finding that you've reached your maximum capacity. You don't want to get stuck if you're in the middle of working on a project."


Delaney also says that business owners should discuss switching to a cloud-based solution with their employees. Rather than make a dramatic announcement without warning, owners should spell out the reasons for the switch, the benefits to the company, the advantages of the new solution, and the positive impact it will have on their performance. "Get them excited and onboard because it's so important to get a companywide commitment on this," Delaney says.


Mobile_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

The amount of time people spend on their mobile devices daily now surpasses the amount of time they spend watching television, according to a recent report from Flurry, a marketing agency which specializes in apps and mobile advertising. Users devote an average of two hours and 57 minutes to their smartphones and tablets every day.

Mobile commerce is booming.

What are mobile users doing for all that time? While social media, email and game playing top the list of favorite activities, there’s no arguing the fact that mobile users are doing a lot of shopping. Tech Crunch reports that 12 percent of last year’s holiday retail sales took place via a mobile device, with Amazon Prime members making six out of every 10 of their purchases via smartphone or tablet.

Smartphones are outpacing tablets as the mobile device of choice.

More than 6 billion smartphones are expected to be in use by the year 2020. Ninth Decimal, a mobile advertising company, has tracked how customers are using mobile devices to research purchases. They’ve found tremendous growth in the use of smartphones for research: there has been a 110 percent increase in number of customers who research retail purchases since 2013. During the same period, the use of tablets to research purchases dropped over 20 percent.

Mobile_PQ.jpgMobile advertising is more effective on smartphones – especially when geo-targeting is involved.

In the same report, Ninth Decimal shared their data on mobile advertising. They found that over 40 percent of customers made a purchase on their mobile device after seeing an advertisement for the item. This was only true for 19 percent of tablet users. Geo-targeting is a powerful strategy for reaching the mobile consumer: ad conversion rates climbed 20 percent when a location is included. Consumers exposed to mobile ads reported visiting stores 65 percent more times than consumers in a control group, who were not exposed to those ads.

Customers buy on the platform where they do their research.

The price of an item or service determines how long a customer will devote to researching a purchase before taking action. If the price tag is less than $50, customers researched 10 days or less, while a purchase that required $1,000 results in an average of 45 days spent researching. While customers would use multiple channels to do this research, it appears that they tend to favor the channel they use most to ultimately make the purchase. In other words, Ninth Decimal says, if a shopper does most of their research in a store, they will buy in that brick and mortar location. If they’re doing the majority of their research online, they will be a mobile buyer.

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