Small Business Stories You Might Have Missed

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iStock_000019387075XSmallThe amount of information that comes across our computer, smartphone or tablet screen on a daily basis is overwhelming. Photos, and videos, and status updates, and tweets, and links. It’s too much.

We click on 100 million Twitter links and share 2.5 billion items on Facebook everyday. Yes, you read that right. Everyday! You can’t possibly see every story or read every useful article pertaining to the growth and success of your small business.

Keep in mind that we can’t either, but we can do our best to get you a few of the most relevant and interesting articles concerning the small business market in this new blog series. So, in case you missed them, here are four articles you should check out right now.

Job Creation

Despite the United States unemployment rate remaining unchanged at 7.6 percent from May to June, small businesses are continuing to add jobs. Last month, companies with fewer than 50 employees created 84,000 jobs — 45 percent of the total new jobs added in June.

For a full breakdown of the stats and what it means, check out this article from Small Business Trends.

Managing Your Time

If you are a small business owner, you’ve come to one important realization:  there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.

Time management is crucial to efficiency and maximizing your efforts. Vice President of Marketing at Nextiva Yaniv Masjedi takes you through five ways you can manage your time more efficiently so you can not only improve your business, but also have a more peaceful workday.

Optimize Content Marketing

Content marketing is no longer just a trend. In fact, it is believed to be the future of marketing because it encourages people to share links on social networking sites; therefore, driving more traffic to your website.

Sam Slaughter at Mashable discusses the danger of content marketing drifting away from its original intention and purpose and simply becoming link bait. He also gives useful tips to improve your content marketing strategy immediately.

What Kind of Entrepreneur Are You?

Not every entrepreneur or small business owner has the same personality or work style. From investing your time and money into a start up to possibly buying a business, it is important to understand the different types of entrepreneurs so you can make the right decision.

This article takes you through five entrepreneurial styles like total risk takers to “Do It Yourself” enthusiasts, so you can learn how you can maximize your efforts.

You’re Never Too Big to Hit the Road

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Zoho Group pic rsMost of us have attended a few expos, trade shows, or conventions in our life. I’ve certainly been to my fair share. Usually, these types of events showcase fledgling companies who are really just trying to build awareness and let people know that they exist.

Up until a few months ago, I had always thought the idea of “hitting the road” and setting up booths at conventions and expos was the type of bootstrapping that was only practical for small “mom and pops” or other up-and-coming businesses. Afterall, what tangible value could a large company like Google, Apple, Facebook, or (dare I say) Zoho possibly be able to extract?

On a good day, you might interact with a hundred people. But, if a company were to instead direct the money spent at an expo towards something like online advertising, they could reach thousands of people. Seems pretty simple, right? Why connect with a hundred when you can connect with THOUSANDS?

Well the key word here is “connect.” While mass marketing certainly has its place when it comes to building large scale awareness, it severely lacks in building strong connections.

On a day-to-day basis, how many internet advertisements, radio pieces, or television commercials do you actually connect with? How many do you interact with?

I can’t remember any of the commercials I saw yesterday, but I can remember the extra friendly barista at Starbucks the other day. We connected.

That’s not to say that there is no place for mass advertising, because obviously shouting the company message from the rooftops can lead to booming business and high growth potential. However, connections are the way to build deep rooted customer loyalty.

If we think about it geometrically, mass advertising is the way we build area, but “hitting the road” and connecting with customers is how we create depth and plant roots.

I first noticed the effect of “hitting the road” when I was in college. I worked at a place called Tennis Warehouse that was/is the largest online distributor of tennis equipment in the world. Yet, every year they would spend tens of thousands of dollars to set up a massive tent at a tennis tournament in Palm Springs, California to sell merchandise. Additionally, they would send nearly half the staff along to run the operation.

Obviously, this was a major cost.

Although they made a lot of sales, the real added value was the enthusiasm people felt when they saw a familiar brand and the customer connection that inevitably resulted in brand loyalty.

Several people would come into the tent solely to meet the staff and some of our online personalities. At the time, I was too preoccupied with enjoying my status as a q-list celebrity to realize the “connection effect” that our presence was having on our customers.

To this day, if any customer ever posts a complaint about the company on their online forums, hoards of Tennis Warehouse “fans” step in to the companies’ defense before a Tennis Warehouse admin can even address the complaint.

Now THAT is customer loyalty.

Apple and Microsoft too have become a much more local presence. I have no idea how profitable their retail stores are, but I would imagine a major reason for opening was to develop a deeper connection with customers and potential customers. I know I have personally walked into the Apple store several times just to play with the technology, and I’m more apt to buy their products knowing that I can personally connect with an Apple employee if I have any questions.

With Zoho, I’ve been fortunate to see this kind of connection in action at the annual Zoholics event as well as at a recent business expo I attended. Zoho users would see our booth and absolutely illuminate with delight.

As much as I wish their enthusiastic approach was because of my handsome face, it was more likely because of the colorful Zoho logo on my shirt.

But the connections grow beyond just the presence of Zoho.zoho interview

For example, one of my jobs is to interview enthusiastic customers we meet at such events. Not only does that help us create interesting media, but the customer now feels like a brand ambassador of the company. In psychology, they refer to this behavior as “commitment and consistency” – once someone identifies themselves as a Zoho fan, they will strive to behave consistent with that belief. Essentially, these customers become walking, talking billboards for Zoho.

And then there’s the company giveaways.

Most companies at expos go with the old standard candy bowl to lure in traffic. To their credit, anyone who has a Twix candy bar for the taking has a 100% chance of me stopping by to chat. But candy bar satisfaction to an attendee is fleeting, and the company is quickly forgotten.

At the Zoho booth however, we had something special. Ultra small flash drives that were Zoho branded. Customers were dumbfounded at the small size of the flash drive combined with its 4GB capacity and were eager to put them on their key chain. Now, for the foreseeable future, they will see the Zoho logo EVERY TIME they use the flash drive.

Subliminal marketing.

Zthumb DriveAs you can see, the flash drive is small and pretty cool (maybe I have a future career in “hand-modeling?”).

Let’s try another analogy, shall we?

Think of an expo as a crowded bar on a Saturday night and I, the attendee as an attractive single woman (this may be a stretch, I know).

The booths are like the single guys trying to lure me in with a free drink (or Twix bar). I may stop by to say hello and enjoy my free treat, but after five minutes of fluff talk, I’m finished with my drink and ready to move on to the next guy.

Then I spot Zoho with it’s colorful logo and well-dressed yet magically charming team. I stop by and chat, and they give me the coolest flash drive I’ve ever seen. Instead of walking away with an empty glass, I’m walking away with an engagement ring hooked to my key-chain that will remind me of Zoho every time I use it.

I think you get the picture (however feel free to erase the mental image of me as a woman).

The bottom line is, you’re never too big to hit the road. Sure, let’s share our brand with as many people as we can so they know we exist and offer something valuable, but the depth of customer connection is magnitudes greater when you take the time to give them a face and personality as well.

They will become connected and “engaged” to you, and THESE customers are the roots that make sure you never fall on the way to the top.

Spending Too Much Time Waiting for Payments?

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This is a guest post by Craig Keolanui of SmBizWinningTips.

According to a recent survey, over 50% of small businesses find collecting payments and late-paying customers to be the most challenging aspects of managing their cash flow and payment activities. And particularly for businesses running on low margins, late payments can be a huge setback.iStock_000019620208XSmall

Late payments can cripple a small business with cash flow problems!

Late payments not only reduce your revenue, but they also have you paying for goods (components of a sale) or services (payroll) while waiting for payments to come in. If your sales are increasing, but late payments are also taking off, you will have a revenue shortfall when you start paying your bills.

If you are not completely on top of your books, this can sneak up on you right when things start getting consistently busy. The joy of increasing sales can quickly be extinguished by the angst of having to call for payments when it comes time to pay for supplies or payroll. You have to do whatever you can to encourage early payments while deterring late payments.

There are several steps to take to encourage early payments. Invoicing in a timely manner goes a long way, but you can also try:

  1. Invoicing twice a month. Some companies cut checks on certain dates and you might receive half of the usual monthly activity a little early. Keep this in mind also for accounts that are getting bigger or keeping more money tied up.
  2. Make sure to establish contact with accounting departments at any of the businesses with delinquent account activity and send them email reminders after mailing each statement.
  3. Encourage paying off invoices as opposed to waiting for monthly statements.
  4. Give a credit on the next statement for any early payment. You can also set up a rewards program or discount for companies that pay before 15 or 20 days.
  5. When setting up accounts, give some kind of one-time credit or discount for any accounts that are set up with purchase cards (credit cards!). Accepting them eats into your margin, but you set a firm hook and make it easier to process orders and get paid in full.

Discouraging late payments can also help speed things up.  Here are some techniques to use:

  1. Charge the dreaded late fee. Make sure you spell things out and if you are just starting to establish late fees, be very specific about “invoice dates” vs. “statement dates”.
  2. Try calling clients who actually place orders to inform them of any issues getting payments out of accounting. Sometimes peer pressure will work better than any call you could make.
  3. Put up a list of delinquent accounts for staff members to act on if those customers place an order.
  4. Set yourself up to process electronic payments.  Many of these customers can be steered that direction and you can start offering it to others.

Increased sales is a good thing, but making sure you get paid for your sales is critical to keeping the cash flowing and avoiding coming up short.

Laptops, and Tablets, and Phones! Oh My!

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Businessman at his desk using a digital tabletAs necessary as it is to daily life and my job, part of me is annoyed with our culture’s dependency on technology. Annoyed with sitting in public — restaurant, gym, bar, supermarket, you-name-it-kind-of-store — and seeing the majority of people with their heads buried in a smart phone.

Annoyed that face-to-face conversations are a dead art. Annoyed that a couple on a date can’t make it through dinner without one of them reaching for their phone as the other gets up to use the restroom.

Annoyed that I just described myself.

Yes, whether I like it or not, I’m fully immersed in this lifestyle. Here I sit with not one, not two, but three screens in front of me. I have a laptop, an external monitor, and of course, an iPhone all on my desk. My co-worker is holding an iPad, and if I had the chance, I’d have one too.

And while we all may feel a little like Fred Armisen in this Portlandia sketch from time to time, this is the modern workplace. Multiple devices, multiple screens; each used to complete every task necessary for running your business. But just how many devices does the average worker use, or need?

Whether you realize it or not, we are all using multiple devices on a daily basis. Sitting at home watching a movie or television show on your laptop while texting a friend or checking your email. It’s second nature.

Last year, Google examined this trend and found that 90 percent of people move between at least two devices in order to complete a task. That’s 9 out of 10 people doing something along the lines of checking an email on their smart phone before moving to a laptop or tablet.

statsIn a similar research report from Forrester, the breakdown of how many devices people are actually using becomes much clearer. After surveying 9,900 employees, the independent market research company found that 74 percent used at least two devices on a daily basis at the workplace. Additionally, 52 percent used three or more devices, 16 percent used four or more and 14 percent used six or more!

With workers using personal devices — smart phones and tablets — along with a desktop or laptop, they are able to complete tasks at a quicker rate virtually anywhere. In fact, many researchers say workers are currently adopting mobile technology in the workplace at a much faster rate than when desktops were first introduced.

Multiple Devices for Marketing

Along with understanding the new trend of multiple devices in the workplace, as a small business owner, you should also understand how multiple devices can impact your marketing strategy.

In the same study from Google, the company found that customers often take a multiple-device path before making a purchase. An estimated 65 percent start on a smart phone with 61 percent then moving to a PC or laptop and only four percent moving to a tablet. Twenty-five percent of customers reportedly start on a laptop while only 11 percent start on a tablet.

This means that a strong web presence across multiple platforms is as important as ever. This also means advertisers and marketers should approach each platform differently in order to appeal to their consumers more effectively. You have to tailor ads or content to best fit the device consumers are using.

“While marketers once generated content to fit manufactured and static advertising placements, consumers now control their own flow of content — from day to night, and from screens large and small,” Natasha Hritzuk, senior global director of Research & Insights at Microsoft Advertising, said. “So it’s even more imperative that marketers understand consumer motivations in order to meet them in their moment.”

The reliance on technology and multiple devices in the workplace and in marketing is only going to intensify in the coming years. By understanding this trend, you can not only use these devices to your benefit by completing tasks, but by also reaching your audience on multiple, dynamic levels, across various platforms.

Organizational and Nature’s Communication Mechanics

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Nature is the most accomplished engineer and the human body is perhaps the greatest piece of engineering. Mimicking this marvelous technique can work wonders.

An organization has a very close conformity with the mechanics of our body. Similar to the cells being fundamental unit of body, people are the basic units of any corporate body. Cells communicate effectively, so that the organs function well, in turn the body remains healthy. Similarly, effective communication among people in the organizations leads to organizational well being. There is a central nervous system to control all body functions and it is coordinated by all organs. This controlled communicative synergy, when adopted by companies gives them an open and efficient work culture.

But its not always hunky dory. Communication can be hindered by certain barriers such as differences in perceptions and language, overload of information, pressures of time and geography, emotions of people and hierarchical layers. There are solutions!

These barriers when acknowledged by the management can be removed using more efficient tools. The flow of information, knowledge and ideas shouldn’t be limited to a single mechanism, such as email, because of cost savings. The communication should be consistent across channels and should engage target audience. It is important for organizations to seek new technologies that enable efficient and effective communication.

The orthodox dictatorial  mode of communication, when found less effective compared to  prospective tools, have continuously been replaced by new tools. From emails to chat to intranet to Social network, the tools of communication have been evolving. Email has response delays, Chat has informal pitch, and Intranet has hierarchical hurdles. This has led to evolution of more open and robust medium.

Newer tool like Enterprise Social Media has given employees better visibility, platform to put forward their ideas, collaborate, communicate and freedom to express.  More and more companies are looking forward to adapting to this social evolution. This ultimately leads to satisfaction among employees which is the recipe for better productivity.

Passwords or Pulcinella’s Secrets?

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What is the purpose of a password? If we pose this question to any group of users, we will get a variety of responses. In simple terms, the purpose of a password is to keep your data/information secure, secret and private. Essentially, passwords have to be kept secrets to serve the purpose. Ironically, due to lack of proper password management, we tend to make our passwords much like ‘Pulcinella’s Secrets’!

Yes, you read it right – Pulcinella’s Secrets! If you wonder whether you got the meaning correct, let me explain:

pulcinella-secrets

Pulcinella is an illustrious comic character in Commedia dell’Arte, a form of theater that
began in Italy in the mid-16th century. The very character of Pulcinella is his inability to keep secrets. Any confidential information conveyed to him would become an open secret in no time. The secret will reach far and wide, but everyone will pretend not to be knowing. In reality, Pulcinella’s secrets are not secrets at all.

Passwords in Text Files, Post-Its or Spreadsheets are Pulcinella’s Secrets, Literally!

With the proliferation of password protected online accounts and IT assets, businesses are drowning in a pile of passwords. But, many organizations and business establishments do not have any effective password management procedure in place at all. Employees adopt their own, haphazard way of maintaining the passwords. Following are some typical scenarios:

  • Sensitive passwords are stored in volatile sources such as text files, spread sheets, post-its and the like
  • Many copies of the passwords are circulated among the people who require them for their job functions. There is generally no trace on ‘who’ accessed ‘what’ passwords and ‘when’. This creates lack of accountability for actions
  • When one user changes a password, it should be updated in all the ‘copies’; otherwise, at the most needed time, one would be trying to login with an outdated or old password. As a result, the passwords mostly remain unchanged for ages for fear of inviting such lockout issues
  • There is rarely any internal control on password access or usage in many organizations. Users freely get access to the passwords
  • When other members of the organization require access to an online application / an online account, passwords are generally transmitted over word of mouth
  • If an employee leaves the organization, it is quite possible that he/she may be getting out with a copy of all the passwords

So, if you follow the traditional style of storing the business passwords as described above, your passwords would have probably turned Pulcinella’s Secrets! Many in your organization might be accessing the passwords, while you would be thinking otherwise. Obviously, this practice leaves the organizations open to security attacks and identity thefts.

Deploying a Password Manager – The Best Practice Approach

One of the effective ways to keep your passwords secure (and really secrets) is to store them in a central, secure, digital vault and automate password management tasks. Deploying a password manager like Zoho Vault can help you in taking total control of your passwords. You can store all your online identities – passwords of web applications, PINs, registration numbers, access codes, bank account details – anything sensitive or confidential in the online vault and access them from anywhere. Password changes can be updated at the central vault.

You can selectively share common passwords on need basis among the members of your organization with fine-grained access privileges. Your users will get access only to the required passwords, not all. You will also get comprehensive audit trails on ‘who’ accessed ‘what’ passwords and easily trace activities to individuals. You can completely eliminate the insecure, cumbersome practice of storing passwords in volatile sources like post-its, text files, print-outs and spreadsheets. Try Zoho Vault, now!

Freedom to Focus on Your Business: Happy 4th of July!

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Happy 4th July from Zoho!

When you run a business, there are many things that could take up your time and attention, and hold you back from actually running your business – but Zoho frees you from many of them. Zoho Invoice frees you from the chores of sending paper around and collecting payments. Zoho Sites gives you the freedom to create your very own beautiful-looking sites and Zoho Creator gives you the freedom to create your very own biz apps. And just this Monday, we announced that Zoho Support now frees you from having to count licenses, with unlimited free licenses for your support team.

Zoho frees you from the complexity and cost associated with business software – so you can bring the focus on your business. We hope you don’t have to work this Independence Day weekend, but if you do, all that you need will be right there in your phone, in your tablet or in your friend’s computer. Happy 4th of July!

Note to our customers in other regions outside of the US: Our support channels will be open throughout July 4th.