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8 Steps to Negotiate Your Business Equipment Lease
The credit crunch is impacting more than just the housing market. Small businesses will begin to face increased requirements when seeking financing. Most equipment leasing lenders have watched the number of clients with bad debt and delinquencies more than double in 18 months. In the past, entrepreneurs could use the equity in their homes to weather tough times, but with the housing crisis that safety net has diminished. Against this background, it is easy to see why lenders are taking a closer look at which businesses they finance. Here are some steps every business owner should consider when applying for equipment leasing or financing. Step 1: Know the difference between want and need Needing and wanting are two separate things. First, decide what equipment is essential to start or grow your business. Then create your budget for the entire year, keeping in mind what your business needs and when. Forecasting equipment needs is not always easy, but a good idea of annual costs /- 15% is beneficial. This essential step will keep you from paying for unnecessary equipment. Step 2: Know where you stand as a business It is absolutely essential that you understand how your company appears to lenders. Your Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) report is like a personal credit statement for your business. Request a copy of your report from www.dnb.com and review it thoroughly. The key information lenders evaluate is time in business, proper ownership, lawsuits, liens, and the company Paydex. Paydex is a score that tells the lender how your company is paying its bills compared to other similar businesses in your industry. Companies with a Paydex score under 50 will have a very hard time attaining financing. Step 3: Know where you stand as a consumer At least 90% of all lease obligations have a Personal Guaranty, which means the business entity and its owner(s) enter the agreement together. Leasing companies believe that if the owners do not pay personal bills on time, they are unlikely to pay their business bills in a timely fashion. Most lenders expect the personal credit scores of business owners to be in the mid 650’s and most leasing companies have a hard cut off at 620. Lenders also look at whether owners have adjusted their mortgages and how much debt is held on personal credit cards. It is imperative you know your personal score and what might be driving it downward. Step 4: Initiate contact with leasing companies The best way to make contact with a leasing company is a referral from a current customer or vendor that has an existing relationship. Over 90% of the time equipment vendors will have an excellent relationship with a lender they can leverage. The last source for equipment leasing companies is the Internet. Make sure all the companies you consider are members of UAEL, ELFA, or NAELB. Request literature and information on a few leasing companies and pick your top three.
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Step 5: Comparison shop After following the first four steps, compare your top three choices. In addition to monthly rates, you should focus on how easy it is to work with the company, the terms of the contract (paying special attention to late and other hidden fees), and how often your credit will be pulled. Most lenders do a credit inquiry after 90 days if you are looking to add more equipment. Other lenders pull your credit regardless of when it was last checked. Some leasing companies also only have a 3-day grace period that will almost guarantee a late fee that is typically 10%. If you choose a larger lender you might find you are stuck with offshore customer service and diminished decision making once you are in their system. Step 6: Get approved Now you are ready to apply for the financing with the lender you have chosen. The approval process can take a couple of hours to a few days depending on the amount of your request. Once you have been approved, evaluate the payment schedule. It is extremely important to match the equipment payment to your cash flow. If you are buying equipment with a long useful life, such as a large commercial printer, it might be the best decision to select a longer term such as 60 months. For equipment with a shorter lifecycle, like computers, 36 month leases are advisable. Most leasing companies also allow deferral payments, which can ease cash flow restraints until you get the equipment and business running. Most companies will offer no payments for 90 days or even 180 days. That extra time that can make a huge difference for smaller companies. Step 7: Understand the payments and terms Some entrepreneurs get so excited about their new contracts that they jump headfirst into a lease for new equipment. Understand that if your business falls through, you must have a contingency plan. There is nothing worse than making payments for equipment you no longer need and/or cannot afford. Review all the terms on the lease, make sure you know your options and understand the contract. Most leasing companies will allow minor changes to reflect your businesses needs. Step 8: Plan to succeed A leasing company can help you maximize cash flow and increase profits. However, most entrepreneurs do not plan their leasing needs for the year. Allow your business to thrive in challenging times by following this 8-step program to reach your goals.
Dealing With Debt
Q: Over the past 18 months, we have piled up quite a bit of debt. Most of it is on our credit cards – trying to keep business creditors paid and what not. I don’t think I need to file bankruptcy. Is there some other way to get out from under? Vance A: How would you like to get out of debt for about 50 cents on the dollar? I’ll tell you how in a moment. Although there is very little that is good that can be said about this economy, if there is one bright spot, it is this: Some creditors seem more willing than ever to work with people who are indebted to them.
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Businesses get into debt for all sorts of reasons and with all sorts of creditors. Maybe its money owed to a business associate, or a bank loan, or money owed to vendors. Whatever the case, there may come a time when you need or want to get out from under. When that time arrives, you have a few choices. First, you could, of course, work out a payment arrangement. The advantage here is that this solution will do the least damage to your credit rating. Call your creditors up, tell them what you are able to handle, and I bet you will be surprised at how flexible they are. Creditors know these have been tough times for people and are often willing to work with you. Another option of course is bankruptcy. It is, and should be, the option of last resort. I have written about it before in this column previously. But today I want to discuss a third option that can occur before you file a bankruptcy. At that stage, it is often true that your business debts have been sold to third parties – to collection agencies. When that is the case and you want to avoid bankruptcy, what do you do? Negotiate, that’s what. In an economy like this you just may find that these creditors will be more willing than you think to work out a settlement with you. You can in fact often settle for, yes, 50 cents on the dollar, or less. (Standard caveat: While I do feel sorry for the creditors, and have been named as a creditor in a bankruptcy myself, I can pass no judgment on negotiating down a debt.) If negotiating a reduction in your debt is of interest to you, here’s what you do: 1. Make a list of all of your debts: When people get into financial trouble, there is a natural tendency to hide from the facts, but if you want to deal with your creditors you have to make a list of how much you owe whom. For each creditor or collection agency, list the principle and interest, along with their phone number. 2. Get a lump sum together: This is the hard part. These creditors have little reason to settle with you if you can’t pay off the settlement amount in fairly short order – say a month or two at the most. No, I don’t know where you will find the money, but I do know you need access to some – from a relative, friend, or wherever – if you want to be successful in this process. 3. Smile and dial: Get on the phone with each agency / creditor and tell them that you want to negotiate a settlement. Offer 25 cents on the dollar. They won’t like it, but they will very likely counter offer. If you can offer a lump sum settlement, expect to end up at around 50% of what you owe – sometime a little more, sometimes a little less. 4. Get it in writing: Before making any payments, get each collection agency / creditor to sign a document, yours or theirs, that says they are agreeing to the agreed-upon settlement amount as payment in full for the debt and that you will have no further financial obligations to them. You may want to speak with a lawyer about this part or get a copy of a suitable settlement agreement.
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Make sure too that your credit report will reflect a zero balance. 5. Pay: Pay as agreed and say goodbye. It will take you a few years to get a decent credit rating again, but hey, by then the economy should be good once more. Today’s Tip: Have a great blog, or maybe you are a tweeter extraordinaire, but have yet to create an app? Well, hop on the bus, Gus! An app can extend your brand online and help you monetize your content.
Finding The Right Bank
Taking the time to search for the right bank, or potential investor is critical to a company’s longterm success. Regardless of whether you borrow from a bank, you should still establish a working relationship with a financial institution that provides you with services you may need. Many sources can assist you in finding the best bank for your business needs one way is to search the newspaper and Yellow Pages to research how banks position themselves to the public. Look for banks that market themselves as lenders to small and mid-size businesses, or for those with a business lending division. You may also look for referrals from accountants, attorneys, insurance agents, trade associations, vendors, and business peers.
Do your homework. Assemble your financials. Know your history. Have information in a readily accessible form, including cash flow and balance sheets, for at least two or three years. The bank will want to see forward projections of how you will be using any money that you borrow and, most importantly, how you plan to pay it back. Go for compatibility. Choose a banker you’ll be comfortable talking with. Pick someone you can trust, because your banker becomes your agent inside the bank. Line up more than one bank contact. Establish at least two contacts inside the bank, beyond your loan officer. Like any other business, bank staffs change, so you should have more than one person familiar with you and your business. Look for the two-way street. Bankers who earn their keep are more than bankers, they’re sources of good business referrals. Ask your banker what business he or she can bring to your company. If the banker is not interested in sending business your way, then he or she is probably not the right banker for your business. Be honest. Solidify your relationship by assuring your banker that you will share everything—the good news and the bad. Then follow through. There should be no hidden agenda. You can’t expect your banker to take a risk if he or she is not certain that you have been open and straightforward.. Check capacity for growth. If you’ll be approaching the lending limits of the bank, chances are it is not the right bank for you. Banks can be too large, but they can also be too small. Choose a bank that can grow with you.
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Get the Loan You Want Although times are tough, small business financing is still available. Banks are collateral lenders and require guarantees from borrowers with a strong credit score who pledge verifiable assets to secure a loan. Getting the loan you’re looking for is possible if you’re informed. Use these quick tips to start you on your way to the perfect loan package. Form a relationship. You need to identify a local community bank in your area and open an account relationship with them. They are typically small financial institutions whose market area is confined to neighborhoods or smaller cities. Most importantly, lending decisions are made by senior executives who understand the needs of their community, and have a personal relationship with their customers. Community bankers provide loans to people they know and trust. Get your PhD, really. Passion. Heart. Determination. Write a short but compelling cover letter that details your loan request, your ability to repay and what makes you “special.” Truth be known, we are all guilty of drawing conclusions based on first impressions. Don’t waste the opportunity by not making a passionate explanation on why the banker needs to consider your loan. Prepare your plan. A business plan with a concise executive summary explains in a few pages your experience and knowledge in the field, your competition, your competitive advantage, and who supports your business. A client list and testimonials from those you do business with are important to validate your business plan. Submit financial documents. You will be required to submit the past two year’s tax returns for your business, yourself and your significant other. A year-to-date balance sheet and income statement also will be required plus a detailed budget for at least 24 months supporting how you will be able to repay the loan. Also, consider providing recent appraisals and/or an annual inventory report as well as a list of your accounts receivables that can support real estate and asset valuations. Be clear on terms. Then pay. It is important that you show the lender you understand their underwriting requirements and that you are a qualified borrower. Plan for how the loan will be repaid if the business fails. Seeking money for your business is not a quick and easy process. It is critical to understand lender requirements and provide current and accurate information about you and your business.
Getting Paid: The Waiting Game
We all need to keep the cash flowing so we can run and grow our businesses. But, for many entrepreneurs, money is still hard to come by. And I don’t mean investment capital; it’s become a waiting game just to collect money that’s due us.
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Far too many business owners have receivables they, well, haven’t received. So, how do you collect what you are owed? Call the companies that owe you money and ask when they’re planning to pay. If they can’t pay in full, try creating a payment schedule. Going forward, try incentivizing companies you do business with to pay on time. Offer a discount if they pay within 30 days. If you want and can afford it, offer a bigger discount if they pay net 15. If you’re often paid with credit cards (and then have to pay the credit card company a few percentage points), it may help your cash flow to collect more of your bills in cash. Again, you’ll need to somehow incentivize the businesses to pay this way. Just make sure whatever you give away in discounts is worth it. If your situation is more precarious and you need the money now, try factoring. Factors buy your receivables and immediately give you about 80 percent of what’s owed you. They keep the remaining percentage in reserve, then give it to you—minus their fees—when the receivable is paid in full. Fees generally range from 2 to 6 percent (over 30 days), which is higher than traditional loans from banks. If the factor doesn’t receive the money within the month, most charge an additional daily fee. Worst case: If the receivable is never paid you might have to pay the factor back in full. (Check the fine print in your contract with the factor.) Get the Loan You Want Although times are tough, small business financing is still available. Banks are collateral lenders and require guarantees from borrowers with a strong credit score who pledge verifiable assets to secure a loan. Getting the loan you’re looking for is possible if you’re informed. Use these quick tips to start you on your way to the perfect loan package. Form a relationship. You need to identify a local community bank in your area and open an account relationship with them. They are typically small financial institutions whose market area is confined to neighborhoods or smaller cities. Most importantly, lending decisions are made by senior executives who understand the needs of their community, and have a personal relationship with their customers. Community bankers provide loans to people they know and trust. Get your PhD, really. Passion. Heart. Determination. Write a short but compelling cover letter that details your loan request, your ability to repay and what makes you “special.” Truth be known, we are all guilty of drawing conclusions based on first impressions. Don’t waste the opportunity by not making a passionate explanation on why the banker needs to consider your loan. Prepare your plan. A business plan with a concise executive summary explains in a few pages your experience and knowledge in the field, your competition, your competitive advantage, and who supports your business. A client list and testimonials from those you do business with are important to validate your business plan.
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Submit financial documents. You will be required to submit the past two year’s tax returns for your business, yourself and your significant other. A year-to-date balance sheet and income statement also will be required plus a detailed budget for at least 24 months supporting how you will be able to repay the loan. Also, consider providing recent appraisals and/or an annual inventory report as well as a list of your accounts receivables that can support real estate and asset valuations. Be clear on terms. Then pay. It is important that you show the lender you understand their underwriting requirements and that you are a qualified borrower. Plan for how the loan will be repaid if the business fails. Seeking money for your business is not a quick and easy process. It is critical to understand lender requirements and provide current and accurate information about you and your business.
How to Value Your Business
As a business broker and business appraiser for the past 30 years, I have sold and appraised many businesses. The value of a business will depend upon a lot of factors, such as the number of years in business, number of employees, the amount and condition of the equipment, facilities, supplies and inventory, the type of customers, the degree customers are tied to the owner and the stability of earnings. The value of a business is usually a function of its earnings not its tangible assets. Depending upon the nature of the tangible assets, it is true that a buyer might be willing to pay more for a business with a lot of assets based on the idea that if all goes badly, the buyer can at least sell off the assets and recover some of the investment. Three Approaches to Valuing a Business There are three approaches to valuing a business. The first approach is known as the Asset Based Approach. This approach derives an indication of value based on the costs to replace the tangible assets in like-kind condition. If the earnings will not support a value greater than the assets, then at best, the value of a business it the value of its tangible assets. The Market Approach derives indications of value using ratios or factors derived from the earnings, sales and/or assets of past transactions of similar businesses. These ratios or factors are then applied to the subject company’s sales, earnings and/or assets to derive an indication of value. Rules of Thumb are also considered to be a Market Approach method; however, Rules of Thumb are dangerous because they are not very specific as to how the conversion factors were derived and at best Rules of Thumb are based on averages. If the subject business is not average, then Rules of Thumb will not properly determine value. The Income Approach derives indications of value by converting some level of earnings into a value using a capitalization rate, discount rate or multiple. There are about five Income Approach Methods that appraisers frequently use to obtain indications of value. Each of these methods
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requires some level of earnings and a conversion factor to convert the earnings into a value. Properly matching the selected level of earnings (pretax, after-tax, discretionary or some form of cash flow) with the correct conversion factor (cap rate, discount rate or multiplier) is the key to obtaining a reasonable and supportable indication of value. If done correctly, each of these methods should produce similar values. Formula to Derive Indication of Value Here is one Income Approach Method frequently used by business brokers and appraisers to derive an indication of value. It is known as the Multiple of Discretionary Earnings Method. This method is a two-step process. First, you must determine the discretionary earnings likely to reoccur in the near future. This can be determined by either averaging the last several years or if your most recent year is indicative of what you expect to be on going, then you can use this past year's discretionary earnings. Discretionary earnings is defined as reported pretax earnings, plus your salary, interest expense, depreciation and any personal expenses run through the business. The next step is to pick a multiplier. The entire range of multipliers applicable to this level of earnings is 0 to 3. Most small businesses sell in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 times the discretionary earnings. The resulting value includes all the tangible assets needed to operate the business such as the fixtures, furniture, equipment and inventory. Additional value that you can keep or sell is the net liquid assets (cash, accounts receivable less payables) and non-operating assets owned by the business such as your personal car. Thus, if a business generates discretionary earnings of $150,000 and the business is considered average, then 1.5 times $150,000 = $225,000 plus the value of the net liquid assets.
Secrets To Unlocking Venture Capital For Your Company
If there is a secret to obtaining venture capital it is simply: Preparation, Positioning and Perseverance. Preparation You need to prepare yourself and your company for your search for capital. Develop a clear, concise, realistic business plan that gets the reader excited about the opportunity your company presents. The plan must not only cover what you are going to do but how you are going to do it. Venture Capitalists say the most critical mistake entrepreneurs make in their business plan is failing to clearly identify the opportunity. In second place was unrealistic projections, followed by simplistic assumptions, and finally lack of competitive information. Hone your market research and analysis skills. Systematically gather information on your competitors, so that you can make a credible case for why your product/service offering will be better.
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And, don't make simple mistakes in spelling, grammar or math. Let other experienced business people read and critique your plan, testing it for clarity and reasonableness. Never send a first draft to the venture capitalists. Proofread it a number of times. Put together a strong, experienced management team, with people who have been successful in the past. The importance of a strong management team can not be overstressed. Lack of a strong management team is the number one reason why VCs decline to invest. Management is also their most important factor in valuing a transaction. A strong management team is defined as experienced with a proven track record. Only 17 percent of the VCs did not include experienced or a proven track record in their definition. But what if you just have a great idea?—only 7 percent said they would consider a great idea in lieu of strong management. Positioning Research the investment criteria of the venture capitalists to ensure that what you offer is what they are looking for. The second most common reason venture capitalists decline to invest is the company doesn't match their investment criteria. This mistake can easily be avoided. Most venture capital firms have a web site and that web site not only states their investment parameters but also will list companies that they have previously invested in. Make sure that your company is at the stage the VC wants, in the geographic area they prefer to remain in, the industry they prefer and finally that the amount of funding you require is what they prefer. Use every method you can think of to reach potential investors. Many entrepreneurs believe that a referral is mandatory to be taken seriously by a VC. No personal introduction means no consideration. But that's not necessarily true. While some VCs insist that they won't give you the time of day unless you're referred, direct contact by the entrepreneur is the second most common way (30 percent) VCs find the companies they actually invest in. This was true in 1998 in our first survey and in late 2000. The most common way VCs find the deals is referrals by other venture capital firms (34 percent). In third place is referrals by intermediaries (17 percent), followed by referrals by accountants (7 percent) and attorneys (7 percent). Interestingly, entrepreneurs thought that the most common way was referral by an intermediary (64 percent). If you can get a referral, get one. Those VCs who recommend a referral are usually adamant on the point. One VC told us "If they cannot get a referral, they probably do not have a plan that would interest anyone." Another said "Referrals are the only way." And "Only referred deals are reviewed." Expand your personal network, see if you can find someone that knows the VC and can make that personal referral. But don't use a lack of a referral as an excuse. We asked the VCs what an entrepreneur could do if he/she didn't have a referral. 23 percent said make sure the entrepreneur had an excellent business plan, or executive summary 21 percent. Perseverance
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Keep trying, don't give up. Continually widen your network of contacts to give you more avenues of approach to investors. Refine your business model. Believe in your company and your passion about your company. Venture Capitalists told us: "Also follow up your plan submission with a single call several weeks later." "If possible, follow up your fax or email with a phone call." "Call the VCs every day. Be persistent." The capital is out there!
The Best Ways to Finance Your Business
Money is the mother's milk of any startup. Access to capital often determines whether a fledgling enterprise succeeds or dies in infancy. There are several common types of business financing options available to young companies. Angel Investors and Venture Capital Angel investors are an excellent source of early stage financing. They are often willing to tread where there is too much risk for banks and not enough profit potential for venture capitalists. Angels will invest for a longer time-horizon than will other investors—up to five years or more. They may also invest smaller amounts—$1 million or less. Venture capitalists, by contrast, have stringent investment criteria and generally specialize in specific high-growth industries. Because they want a way to cash out in three to five years, venture capitalists usually shy away from very new businesses and rarely invest less than $5 million at a time. Accepting a venture capital investment also represents the potential loss of independence for owners, because venture capitalists often take an active role on the company's board and may push a specific strategic agenda. Commercial Banks Commercial loans are attractive because they don't require entrepreneurs to turn over equity or company control. But servicing debt can drain a young company with limited cash flow. New companies may not even have access to bank loans if they have no operating history and no collateral to secure the loan. Businesses seeking $100,000 or less, however, can often find unsecured loans available through a simple application process focusing on the owner's personal credit history. Business owners with personal assets can also obtain secured loans against those assets.
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Small Business Administration SBA loan guarantees can mean the difference between getting a bank loan and being entirely shut out. The federal agency loans no money directly. Instead, it guarantees 75 percent of individual loans made by private lenders, up to $750,000. But a business must first show that it cannot obtain conventional financing at reasonable terms. Business owners must personally guarantee SBA loans and must also show cash flows sufficient to repay the loan. Most commercial banks offer information about SBA loans. Home Equity Loans Home equity loans are a cost-effective alternative to other types of loans because they offer some of the best interest rates available. But you may not want to risk your family home to launch your business venture. Before going this route, you should carefully consider the risks involved. Credit Cards Cash advances from credit cards are an easy and quick way to gain access to cash. But as a longterm financing method, they can be expensive—credit card interest rates typically run much more than the 1 to 3 percent “over prime” you would likely pay on a bank loan. If you use credit cards, shop for the best interest rate. Introductory “teaser” rates often give you a bargain for up to six months. If you have the time and energy, you can roll over your debt to a new card every six months, taking advantage of a new teaser rate. Equipment Leasing Equipment lease financing is an option for many cash-starved businesses. Equipment leases give you access to many types of equipment—computers, copiers, fax machines, cars and trucks— without tying up your cash or credit lines. Although it doesn't bring in cash, leasing reduces the amount of cash you otherwise have to raise. Leasing generally proves more costly than buying in the long run, but if cash flow is an issue for your company, it's definitely something to consider.
Eight Tips for High Performance Hiring
Success in hiring the right people determines how quickly a small business moves from survival mode to growth paths. Business success depends on not only hiring good people, but hiring extremely talented people who are the best for the position and the company. Below are eight tips for increasing your hiring success-in big or small businesses:
1. Define Key Objectives of the Position
Make a prioritized list of five key objectives, then determine the skills and experience needed to be successful in the job.
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Or, at least create an outline of the functions and expectations of this position. Thinking this through helps refine the description and firms up priorities in the hiring decision. Use a Broad Base of Sources to Find a Sufficient Number of Prospective Candidates Asking employees, vendors, colleagues, trade associations, educational and alumni groups, advertising in traditional and non-traditional places helps you cast the broadest net. Give yourself plenty of choices to screen, so that you can narrow down the best choices. Utilize the Screening Process Take advantage of the screening process to gain valuable data on competitive salaries, intelligence and best practices. Call in only those who pass the first few hurdles when evaluated against your key objectives and skills required screen. Use a Structured Interview Process: A. Screen B. Inquire C. Evaluate & Investigate D. Trust but Verify Ask All Applicants a Core of the Same Questions, then Some Custom Questions Created for their Particular Experience During the interviews, ask specific experience and accomplishment-related questions and ask for examples. Try to avoid hypothetical questions as most candidates know the right things to do/say. Asking for specific examples give a better read on what they did and will do in the future. Check References, Verify Degrees and Steer Clear of People Who Have Too Many Ready Excuses Unfortunately in today's litigious employment climate employers must practice "defensive hiring." Be cautious of people who look too good to be true-as they often are. After the Hire, Create a Thorough Orientation for the New Employee Getting the right person off to the best start takes only a little more effort and can reap big rewards. Give progress reports and feedback in the first few days, weeks and months.
Hire and Keep Good People
To find and hire good people with current skills, look in the right places and understand what you need. 1. Get Organized First, review or create the position description. That old description may not still be current. What are your organization's needs now? What will they be a year from now? Set a realistic timetable for your search and hire. Don't let the pressure of an upcoming meeting or the start of a big project push you to hire someone. Arrange for time to hire right the first time. Spread out key tasks among other staff with the appropriate rewards and incentives. Or, bring in
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temps or freelancers to handle specialized, skilled work. The wrong hire can mean you have to train the person, deal with disgruntled co-workers, or let the person go and start again. Want to compete with the big guys offering bigger salaries? Then provide challenge and growth in the day-to-day job. It's not just about money—life balance and a work environment where employees feel appreciated can make them choose your job over more money. 2. Sources of Talent Newspaper ads can bring a deluge of candidates, from qualified to wishful to awful. Try starting with a more narrow and focused search. Networking is a terrific source of leads. Through your professional society or network of contacts you can get referrals for qualified applicants. For mid-to-senior level positions, search firms may represent money well spent. Temporary agencies specializing in communications, accounting or legal work can be a source of job candidates. Many do direct hires, and temp-to-perm options are a great way to test an applicant before making a decision. Also, many professional societies have job banks or newsletters, which list positions at no cost and reach a well-targeted pool of applicants. 3. Select the Best Keep the number of applicants you interview to a small, reasonable number—your time is your money! Next, prepare for each interview. Make a checklist or question sheet to be sure you're consistent with each candidate. And, be familiar with what you can and can't ask legally. Know what you need to ask all applicants and decide what to ask individuals based on their resumes and cover letters. Judge applicants on skills and characteristics valuable to success, not on doing the same job elsewhere. Talented people don't move into identical jobs if they can avoid it. Hire people who have been successful one rung down the experience ladder and are ready for the challenge, new skills and experience you offer. Ask broad, open questions. Let candidates tell you what they think is important for you to know about them—it can be very revealing! Then follow up with detailed questions. Take the time to check references. It can help you choose between candidates or spare you a dangerous mistake. Finally, be realistic about turnover. Good people won't stay forever. Loyalty means doing the best job possible each day. To get the best value, hire people who want your job—then train them to do it! You'll get the most from them while they are with you.
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How to Develop an Ethics & Compliance Program
The large-scale corporate scandals that have captured the nation’s imagination and headlines typically feature big-name companies, from Enron Corp. and Tyco International Ltd. to The Boeing Company and Arthur Andersen. But in today’s skeptical marketplace, even small and mid-sized businesses must guard against the financial and ethical snares that trapped and, in some cases, destroyed these giants. Have you heard of Park Plaza Medicine Clinic of Houston, L&H Administrators of Las Vegas or Integrated Health Services of Denver? Probably not, because these companies are now out of business because of compliance violations. Many small and mid-sized firms argue that they don’t have the budget or staff to develop, implement and enforce full-scale ethics and compliance policies. This may be true. However, by following a few simple steps, even the smallest company can effectively create and communicate policies to ensure the integrity of its business and its employees. To develop a solid compliance program, small businesses can follow a simple checklist. 1. Develop open lines of communication. For a compliance program to be effective, the most important element is that employees feel comfortable asking questions and reporting possible violations.
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Establish an open-door policy for the compliance official or committee and the highest level of on-site management to receive employee reports. Guarantee that there will be no retaliation against employees who make good-faith reports of misconduct. Provide an anonymous suggestion box, which may induce some employees to report problems.
2. Identify the risks. Management must first ferret out risks that the company faces, so the right factors can be monitored, audited and evaluated. A wide range of potential risks should be considered, including:
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Environmental risks (clean air and water, hazardous waste disposal, transportation of hazardous materials, etc.) Health and safety Money laundering, especially when involved with foreign entities
3. Establish standards and procedures. Some fundamental standards and procedures should be included in any organization’s compliance program. For example, every business should:
Adhere to a record retention policy.
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Perform background screening of potential employees. Develop forms to address recurring issues, so that incidents are recorded fully and consistently.
4. Designate a compliance official or committee. Every compliance program must be overseen by an individual or committee that has ultimate accountability. These duties might include:
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Overseeing and monitoring the implementation of the compliance program. Establishing methods to improve quality of service and reduce vulnerability to fraud and abuse. Revising the compliance program periodically in light of changes in the company or the regulatory environment. Training employees in compliance. Ensuring the company does not do business with prohibited people. Investigating allegations of impropriety and overseeing corrective action.
5. Conduct appropriate training and education. Every employee in the organization must receive both initial and periodic training to ensure they fully understand the company’s compliance policies.
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When the program is first implemented, the highest level of management should address all employees to explain the purpose and substance of the program. Periodic refresher meetings should be held to reinforce key points. Written compliance materials should be kept in a place accessible to all employees. Modifications and updates must be circulated in writing to all employees and explained in meetings. The organization should have a bulletin board on which compliance updates are posted. Sign-offs for attendance at meetings and for receipt of written updates should be required and maintained in the compliance manual.
6. Respond to detected offenses. When employees violate the company’s policies, action must be swift and decisive.
• • • •
No report of a suspected violation can be ignored. Each allegation must be fully investigated and documented. Investigations can be tailored to the level of the allegation. Corrective action must be taken, and any corrective action must be documented and communicated to all employees. If a violation calls for self-reporting to the government, the company must immediately refer the matter to legal counsel.
7. Enforce disciplinary standards through well-publicized guidelines. Don’t just tell employees about the policies. Provide a detailed explanation of the consequences for breaches in conduct.
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• • • • • •
Ensure that compliance officials, managers and employees are comfortable discussing ethical matters openly. Clearly spell out sanctions in advance, ranging from a reprimand to probation, suspension or firing. Outline when referrals to criminal justice agencies will be made. Ensure the disciplinary system retains the flexibility to take into account both mitigating and aggravating circumstances. Provide positive reinforcement as well as discipline. Measure success for the company, as well as benefits for employees who follow the firm’s compliance policies.
The benefits of developing clear ethics and compliance policies are immeasurable. Managers can have peace of mind knowing that every employee has a detailed understanding of the impact of their actions on the business. Plus, the business will establish itself as a moral environment concerned about its impact on society. The company’s stakeholders, from employees to customers, will have a positive feeling about the firm and confidence in its operations.
How to Prevent Employee Theft
1. Selecting the Right Employee One of the most basic steps in preventing employee fraud is not to hire employees who have stolen previously. Before hiring anyone, you should conduct a background check to find out as much as you can about the employee's previous experience with employers and law enforcement. Each company must decide whether the time and expense of such background checks is worth the return. It is always a good practice, but, at a minimum, you should check the background of any employee who will have constant access to cash, checks, credit card numbers, or any other items that are easily stolen. Before hiring an employee, you should check as many of the following as possible: Past Employment Verification Even though most employers will only verify position and dates of employment, you can usually tell by their tone of voice what they think of the employee. Also, ask the previous employers whether the applicant is eligible for rehire. Criminal Conviction Checks Most public records services (such as Nexis or ChoicePoint) have criminal conviction records for almost every large county in the U.S. If not, you may go to the courthouse and search the criminal conviction records in the criminal courts division of the employee's county of residence (or other counties in which he or she previously resided). Drug Screening Many companies are now conducting drug screenings for potential hires as well as current employees. People who are frequent drug users can be more prone to theft or fraud.
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Reference Checks Amazingly, very few employers actually call the references a candidate provides. Most operate under the theory that someone wouldn't provide a bad reference. However, many times people will list important-sounding individuals as references with the hope that you won't call. And, people often assume, incorrectly, that a former supervisor or co-worker will provide a good reference. Education and Certification Verification It is always a good idea to verify a person's education. Also, if the person claims he has a license or other certification, call the issuing organization to verify it. It is not that unusual for someone to claim a certification or license that has actually been revoked due to a disciplinary action. Most licensing or certification organizations, including the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, will tell you if any disciplinary action has been taken against a particular member. Get the Consent of the Candidate Numerous federal and state laws, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, govern the gathering and use of information for pre-employment purposes. Many of these laws require that you obtain written consent from the candidate before gaining some types of information listed above. It is also a good idea to obtain a signed authorization and release from a potential candidate. Consult with your human resources and/or legal department to ascertain the laws applicable to your company and to obtain the proper authorization forms. 2. Policies and Procedures that Help Deter Fraud Developing anti-fraud programs can be one of the most important things that you can do for your business. Prevention, in the long run, is always cheaper than recovering your losses. Perception of Detection Employees who perceive that they will be caught engaging in occupational fraud and abuse are less likely to commit it. Increasing the perception of detection may well be the most effective fraud prevention method. Internal controls, for example, do little good in forestalling theft and fraud if their presence is not known by those tempted to steal. This means letting employees, managers, and executives know that managers are actively seeking out information concerning internal theft. Proactive Programs Becoming proactive in your anti-fraud efforts can be one of the most effective steps that you can take to prevent fraud. Some of the programs cost very little, while others require a cost commitment, although most anti-fraud programs will more than pay for themselves. Employee Education Every company should have some mechanism whereby to educate managers, executives, and employees about fraud. This can be done as a part of employee orientation, or it can be accomplished through memoranda, training programs, and other intra-company communication methods. The goal is to make others within the company your eyes and ears.
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Any education efforts should be positive and non-accusatory. It should be emphasized that illegal conduct in any form eventually costs everyone in the company through lost profits, adverse publicity, decreased morale, and productivity. Auditing for Fraud Developing audits that focus on high-risk areas for fraud is something that many organizations have found to be effective in their anti-fraud program. Not only have they identified fraud, but fraud decreased in subsequent audits. Some of the areas that are good areas for fraud audits are:
• • • • • • • •
Expense reports Payroll Purchasing Sales Accounts receivable Customer complaints Cash Suspense accounts
Enforcement of Mandatory Vacations Many internal frauds require manual intervention, and are therefore discovered when the perpetrator is away on vacation. The enforcement of mandatory vacations will aid in the prevention of some frauds. Job Rotation Some frauds are detected during sickness or unexpected absences of the perpetrator, because they require continuous, manual intervention. EXAMPLE: A manager who embezzled $1.6 million from his company said, "If the company had coupled a two-week vacation with four weeks of rotation to another job function, my embezzlement would have been impossible to cover up." His fraud lasted three years. Surprise Audits Where Possible All too many fraud perpetrators know when auditors are coming, and therefore have time to alter, destroy, or misplace records and other evidence. A proactive fraud policy involves using the technique of surprise audits as much as possible. It might have a significant deterrent effect. Management Oversight It is most common for employees who steal to use the proceeds for lifestyle improvements. Some examples include more expensive cars, extravagant vacations, expensive clothing, new or remodeled homes, expensive recreational property, and outside investments. Managers should be educated to be observant to these signs. EXAMPLE: Discovery of a $97,000 embezzlement that occurred over a two-year period resulted when an observant manager asked the internal auditors to examine the responsibilities of a seven-year veteran of the company. The manager noticed that this female employee had begun wearing designer clothes (and making a big deal about it), and was driving a new BMW. The
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manager was also aware of the fact that this employee had no outside income that might explain the upgrade in lifestyle. Minimize Employee Pressures Pressures, such as financial hardship or family problems, can be especially difficult to detect on the part of the employees. Companies can take steps to assist an employee who might be having difficult times. Open-Door Policies If employees and others can speak freely, many managers will understand the pressures and might be able to eliminate them before they become acute. EXAMPLE: The controller of a small fruit-packing company in California stole $112,000 from the company. When asked why, he said, "Nobody at the company ever talked to me, especially the owners. They were unfair. They talked down to me, and they were rude. They deserve everything they got." Employee Support Programs Many progressive companies and agencies have realized the benefit of employee support programs. Some kinds of support programs include alcohol and drug assistance, and counseling for gambling, abortion, marital problems, and financial difficulties. Management Climate If the style of management is conducted by objective measures rather than by subjective measures, then employees will not manufacture or imagine the performance criteria employed by management. In addition, it is obvious that management that is perceived to be dishonest will beget dishonest employees. EXAMPLE: Jim, a loan officer for a mortgage bank, received his primary compensation based on the total volume of loans (measured by dollars) he was able to put on the books each year. Dollar volume was the only criteria for the compensation. In addition, the loan officers were all in competition with each other for the high volume award of the year. The pressure to earn more than his fellow officers became more acute each year. When the mortgage company was closed down, most of Jim's loans were in default. Because Jim perceived that his job performance was based solely on volume, no attention was paid to the quality of the loans. In fact, it was discovered that on several occasions, Jim coerced the loan processing department to close loans, even though all the requirements had not been completed. EXAMPLE: A large fast food chain lost $200,000 when one of its buyers got involved with a supplier. The company decided to notify all of its vendors of the company's policy prohibiting the giving of anything of value to influence a purchasing decision. Two vendors called in with complaints about competitors, resulting in the discovery of two other frauds totaling an additional $360,000.
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Monitoring Systems Another key part of an anti-fraud program is having a reporting system for employees and agents of the organization to report criminal conduct. Confidential hotlines are one of the best ways for an organization to monitor compliance. Reporting Programs Each employee in the company should know where to report suspicious, unethical, or illegal behavior. A reporting program should emphasize that:
• • • • • •
Fraud, waste, and abuse occur in nearly all companies Such conduct costs the company jobs and profits The company actively encourages any employee with information to come forward The employee can come forward and provide information anonymously and without fear of recrimination for good-faith reporting There is an exact method for reporting, i.e., a telephone number, name, or other information The report need not be made to one's immediate superiors
Hotlines Hotlines have proved to be a very effective reporting mechanism. However, most hotline reports do not result in fraud cases. At the federal level, published reports indicate that about 5 percent of hotline calls result in serious allegations. With careful screening of calls and proper handling, spurious complaints can be effectively weeded out. There are three general types of hotlines. The advantages and disadvantages of each are summarized below. Rewards Some companies have a policy of rewarding information that leads to the recovery of merchandise, property, or money. Others offer rewards upon the criminal conviction of the person(s) involved. If a reward policy exists, strict criteria should establish reward payments, and such proposed policies should be reviewed and approved by counsel. The amount of reward paid by companies varies from fixed fees to a percentage of the recovery. Studies indicate that rewards should not exceed a few thousand dollars. Crime Stoppers recommends rewards not exceeding $1,000. 3. Insuring Against Dishonesty Many larger organizations carry insurance policies against fraud. These policies, sometimes called fidelity bonds, indemnify the holder against employees who dishonestly (1) commit fraud for personal benefit, or (2) cause the insured to sustain a loss. Everything from routine theft and embezzlement to commercial bribery and stock fraud is covered. The burden is on the insured, though, to show that an act of fraud caused the losses claimed. Companies can't be reimbursed for unexplained inventory losses or pilfered cash accounts without a suspect. Most fraud insurance carries subrogation provisions which provide that if the insurance company pays a claim, it will acquire the rights of the insured to sue the wrongdoer. Policyholders are forbidden to interfere with the company's right to sue in any way. No settlement agreements or releases can be made with a dishonest employee unless the insurance company consents.
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The insurance company's civil suit may seek to recover the losses under its policy, plus any uninsured losses suffered by the victim in excess of the policy limits. The recovered losses over the policy amount are paid to the policyholder.
Nine Ways to Keep Employees Engaged
Are your employees engaged in their work, or are they estranged from your company's mission and their role in making it happen? Mounting evidence suggests that the more engaged employees are in what they do, the better their performance and the higher the rewards for everyone. The key is to have managers who are skilled at creating employee engagement. This article offers nine tips for giving employees what they need so that they're willing to be and do their best. Are your employees giving your company "their all?" Do they believe that what they're doing is important? Do they feel appreciated? Do they show up for work each day with passion and purpose? A red flag should go up if you answered "no" to any of those questions. Why? Managers who aren't taking care of their employees are missing out on significant cost-savings and profits. There is a growing body of research on this topic. For example:
Gallup International reported that businesses in the top 24 percent of employee engagement had less turnover and remarkably higher percentages of customer loyalty, profitability and revenues. Extensive studies by HayGroup revealed powerful links between employee engagement and productivity, which ultimately impacts the bottom line. Workplace values expert John Izzo has abundant proof that this 'generation' of employees is more conscious of their own needs and of their place in the world
For business leaders in companies of all sizes, the writing is on the wall: You can make and save money by keeping employees engaged. Here are nine management tips for creating and sustaining employee engagement: 1) Let go of any negative opinions you may have about your employees. Approach each of them as a source of unique knowledge with something valuable to contribute to the company. Remember that you are co-creating the achievement of a vision with them. 2) Make sure employees have everything they need to do their jobs. Remember when you started a new school year and you'd prepare by getting all new school supplies? Why not build just such an opportunity into your department simply by asking each staff member, or the team as a whole, "Do you have everything you need to be as competent as you can be?" Remember, just as marketplace and customer needs change at daily, so do your employees' needs change.
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3) Clearly communicate what's expected of employees—what the company values and vision are, and how the company defines success. Employees can’t perform well or be productive if they don't clearly know what it is they're there to do—and the part they play in the overall success of the company. Be sure to communicate your expectations, and to do it often. 4) Get to know your employees, especially their goals, their stressors, what excites them and how they each define success. I'm not suggesting you pry too deeply or start 'counseling' your team members. What I am suggesting is that you show an interest in their well being and that, when appropriate, you do what it takes to enable them to feel more fulfilled and better balanced. 5) Make sure they are trained and retrained in problem solving and conflict resolution skills. These critical skills will help them interact better with you, their teammates, customers and suppliers. It's common sense—better communications reduce stress and increase positive outcomes. 6) Constantly ask how you are doing in your employees' eyes. I know it can be difficult for managers to request employee feedback—and it can be equally if not more challenging for an employee to give the person who evaluates them an honest response. To get strong at this skill and to model it for employees, begin dialogs with employees using conversation starters such as, “It's one of my goals to constantly improve myself as a manager. What would you like to see me do differently? What could I be doing to make your job easier?” Be sure to accept feedback graciously and to express appreciation. 7) Pay attention to company stories and rituals. Are people laughing at each other or with each other? Do they repeat stories of success of moments of shame? Stay away from participating in discussions that are destructive to people or the organization, and keep success stories alive. 8) Reward & recognize employees in ways that are meaningful to them (that's why getting to know your employees is so important). And remember to celebrate both accomplishments and efforts to give employees working on long-term goals a boost. 9) Be consistent for the long haul. If you start an ‘engagement initiative’ and then drop it your efforts will backfire, creating employee estrangement. People are exhausted and exasperated from ‘program du jour’ initiatives that engage their passion and then fizzle out when the manager gets bored, fired or moved to another department. There's a connection between an employee's commitment to an initiative and a manager's commitment to supporting it. A manager's ongoing commitment to keeping people engaged, involved in and excited about the work they do and the challenges they face must be a daily priority. Ultimately, you must keep in mind that employees are a company’s greatest assets. Their collective ideas, feedback and enthusiasm for what they do can help your business grow and succeed. Some people are naturally wired to give their all and do their best no matter where they work. But the majority of people require the guidance of skilled managers who welcome their ideas, ask for feedback and generate enthusiasm in order to have a sense of purpose and energy about what they do.
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10 Common Myths & Misunderstandings about Patents 1. The first thing to do with a new idea is to get a patent. Wrong. Mere ideas are not patentable. Only useful products and processes can be patented, and you have to be able to describe it with such completeness as to enable others to make or practice and use it. 2. If my product has not been on the market before, I can patent it. Wrong. That’s not enough. If it has been described in a prior printed publication anywhere in the world, it is not patentable. Moreover, merely being different is not enough—it has to be an unobvious improvement over what is known to the public. 3. Having a patent stops others from copying or imitating my product. Wrong. Patents are not self-enforcing. You have to identify and pursue copiers, and a patent infringement lawsuit takes years and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, win or lose. 4. Getting a patent is something I can do quickly, at low cost. Wrong. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized a patent as one of the most difficult documents to write. Getting a patent is a highly specialized undertaking that requires the services of a patent attorney or agent. And, it takes a couple of years, and costs thousands of dollars, even if no complications are encountered. 5. Having a patent is needed to be able to sell my product. Wrong. Most products on the market are not and never were patented, and in most cases any applicable patents have expired. 6. Having a patent will assure the success of my product. Wrong. Fewer than one patented product in a hundred ever makes it to the marketplace. 7. Having a patent will assure that I will be able to sell my idea or license it to a big company. Wrong. Big companies have many specialists developing new products, and the likelihood that a private inventor without that expertise might come up with something they haven’t thought of is unusual. Besides, your product would have to be a good fit for all three major company divisions —manufacturing, engineering, and sales/marketing—before a big company would have any interest. 8. I can get a non-disclosure agreement which will give me adequate protection without a patent. Wrong. Non-disclosure agreements are not all alike, but to be enforceable they must be limited in time and scope. Typically they expire in a year or two, and they cover only specifically disclosed subject matter. Besides, for a manufacturing company, signing such an agreement in advance is like signing a blank check—you simply cannot expect that. 9. Describing my idea in a registered mail letter to myself will protect me.
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Wrong. Such documents are useless. They are not even admissible in evidence in the Patent Office or in the courts. 10. So is there anything I can do, without major expense, for at least a measure of protection? You can file a provisional application in the US Patent and Trademark Office. No search, no claims, and no special format requirements apply, so you can do it yourself provided that you make a complete enough disclosure to enable others to practice the invention by using only ordinary skill in the field to which the invention pertains. For a private inventor or small business, the only cost is a government fee of $100. A provisional application is not a patent and can never become a patent. It does not enable you to stop others from imitating or copying. What it does is give you an official priority date in the Patent and Trademark Office for the material which it contains. And, it holds that date for up to one year, enabling you to test your invention, do market research, have a patentability search, see if you can find prospective licensees, and get other information to help you make the cost/benefit decision on whether it's worth making an $8000 to $10,000 commitment to go after a patent. Unless you file a complete application within that year, the provisional application dies and will never be opened to public access. Having a provisional application on file enables you to mark your invention “Patent Pending,” but only while either the provisional or a follow-on complete application is alive. However “Patent Pending” does not mean that others cannot make or sell copies. It is like a “Keep Off the Grass” sign, but it has no teeth.
10 Steps to Protect Your Great Idea
1. Put all your ideas, notes and drawings in an inventor’s journal, and have it signed, witnessed and dated. Be careful about disclosing your ideas to anyone—use a confidentiality or nondisclosure document when discussing your ideas. 2. Decide whether to file a provisional patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. 3. Conduct a Preliminary Patentability. Search to discover what patents exist like your ideas— and get a patent attorney to render you a Patentability Opinion. There are many ways to conduct the search, including the Patent Depository Libraries on the uspto.gov Web site. File a PTO Provisional Patent Application for one year if all looks good. 4. Make a model, demo or illustration and conduct preliminary market research with end-users. Know the consumers of your product, and listen to feedback. Use feedback to fine tune your project.
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5. Investigate intellectual property filings such as utility and design patents in the United States and overseas. Also investigate copyrights, trademarks, service marks and domain name registrations for Web sites. Explore U.S. and international protection options and limitations. 6. Think about the two main pathways to inventing success: entrepreneurship or licensing—how do you want to be rewarded for your great ideas? The pathway you choose will dictate a lot of your actions—and budget. 7. Do not fall prey to invention development/promotion scams, which are prevalent. Check with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for a list of these unscrupulous firms. If their promises sound too good to be true, they probably are. Get real professional help and seek the support of legitimate inventor organizations. 8. Investigate competitive products to make your product superior or better priced. Employ brainstorming techniques to evolve and accelerate the marketability of your ideas. 9. Find an inventor mentor—some one who's done this process before—to provide guidance. 10. Believe in your ideas and persevere—it takes some time and effort to do all this right. Be realistic about your goals and good luck.
CAN-SPAM Law: What it Means for Your Business
At first glance, it looks like there may actually be an end to all those Viagra, weight loss and sexual enhancement ads that appear in your inbox each morning. Just four months after the new CAN-SPAM law was enacted, the first spammers were arrested. The four Michigan men are accused of operating an Internet scam involving the sale of fraudulent weight-loss products, sexual aids and herbal supplements through millions of unsolicited emails. According to CIO Today, the men are accused of a number of illegal activities, including spoofing return email addresses by using open proxy servers owned by a variety of major companies and organizations. Although violating the spam law carries a punishment of up to five years in prison, it’s doubtful the men would actually go to prison for the violation of the anti-spam law. Not because they are innocent, but because there are so many gray areas in the way the current CAN-SPAM law is written. CAN-SPAM Has Many Gray Areas & Loopholes
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Since the law was enacted, marketers and consumers have many questions about how to comply with the new law. As a result, the FTC says it will spend the next 18 months or so, further defining the law. One of the main issues that has legitimate online marketers questioning the new law, is the section outlawing all commercial email, which is defined as any email sent by a Web site with a commercial purpose. This piece of the law could clearly hurt legitimate B2B online communications. The following are some other areas of the new law that deserve a closer look:
1. According to CAN-SPAM, all commercial emails must contain a physical address.
In theory this sounds great. But how can you verify if the address is actually real? In addition, many spammers who are trying to appear CAN-SPAM compliant resort to tricks such as posting their company address and contact information within a graphic. They can later easily change the address graphic at anytime, by simply uploading a new graphic to the server. 2. According to CAN-SPAM, all commercial all emails must provide newsworthy content. Again, that sounds like a legitimate request at first glance. But as a result, spammers are literally providing one line of “newsworthy” content, followed by several ads. What about the Do Not Email Registry? This would function similar to the Do Not Call list, where advertisers would be financially penalized for emailing anyone on the list. Again, another great idea in theory, but upon closer look there are some significant risks. 1. There are many ways spammers could get a hold of an online database of people who registered with the Do Not Registry list. And once compromised, it is questionable whether or not the list could ever be re-secured. 2. One of the proposals includes a domain-wide Do Not Email option. This option involves domain owners submitting their domain name to have all associated emails excluded from spam. The problem? This option could potentially kill legitimate B2B email communications, as the current Do Not Email proposal contains no exemptions for preexisting business relationships. Even if CAN-SPAM is Better Defined, Can it be Enforced? Since the CAN-SPAM law was enacted, numerous studies have shown no reduction in spam. In fact almost 58 percent of our inboxes is still spam. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer was honest about his lack of resources to enforce the new email law. According to Ben Isaacson’s February Clickz.com report on the Spam & the Law conference, Lockyer stressed the importance of getting the industry’s support to help enforce the law. “He cited an online form that can be used to report violations… and went so far as to give out his personal email address to anyone (at the conference) who would provide assistance.” Issue of Offshore Spamming So if we all pitch in, and help identify spammers, does this mean the end of spam is near? Not
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likely. Many spammers are simply moving their operations offshore. Which can be as simple as setting us a server in countries such as Taiwan, China, India or Russia, making it almost impossible for U.S. law enforcement to prosecute violators without the help of officials in that country. The End of Spam Starts With You Reducing spam must start close to home through our own email marketing practices. Make a commitment not to buy or rent email lists. No matter what an email marketing company will tell you, no one opts in to have their email address sold. Buying or renting an email list is spam, period. If you are having trouble growing your current email list try offering a bigger incentive in your next email newsletter or announcement to spark viral marketing. For example a two for one offer, catchy contest or a significant discount will encourage your existing subscribers to forward your message to co-workers, friends or family, thereby getting your message out to a larger audience (without spamming) and potentially increasing your email list (without buying one). We are a long way from the end of spam. However, the CAN-SPAM law is a positive step in the right direction.
Protect Your Trade Secrets with a Nondisclosure Agreement
A nondisclosure agreement—also called an NDA or a confidentiality agreement—is a contract in which the parties promise to protect the confidentiality of secret information that is disclosed during employment or another type of business transaction. If you make a nondisclosure agreement with someone who uses your secret without authorization, you can request a court to stop the violator from making any further disclosures and you can sue for damages. The use of nondisclosure agreements has become almost ubiquitous in the high-tech field, particularly for Internet and computer companies. For example, Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail, made sure that everyone who knew about his start-up company signed a nondisclosure agreement. Over a two-year period he collected over 400 NDAs from employees, friends and roommates. He believes that his secrecy efforts gave him a crucial six-month lead on the competition. He eventually sold Hotmail to Microsoft for a reported $400 million in stock. Protect Trade Secrets You can use a nondisclosure agreement to protect any type of trade secret—that is, any information that is not generally known and gives your business a competitive advantage in the marketplace. For example, using a nondisclosure agreement, you can prohibit someone from disclosing a secret invention design, an idea for a new website or confidential material contained in a copyrighted software program.
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Create a Confidential Relationship The real purpose of NDAs is to create a confidential relationship between a person who has a trade secret and the person to whom the secret is disclosed. People who have such a confidential relationship are legally bound to keep the information a secret. A confidential relationship can also be created through an oral agreement or can be implied from the conduct of the parties, but few people rely on such informal arrangements because they are always more difficult to prove than a relationship based on a written agreement. In one case, for example, an inventor developed a ratchet and brought it to the attention of an independent dealer for the Snap-On Tools company. Later, the inventor submitted a tool suggestion form to SnapOn's corporate headquarters. The inventor never requested confidentiality and never indicated that he expected compensation for his idea. Snap-On manufactured and sold the ratchet without paying the inventor. The inventor sued, but the court ruled against him because he disclosed the information without strings attached and without stating that it was a business proposition for which he wanted payment. NDAs are often categorized as either "mutual" or "one-way." A mutual NDA is one in which both parties are exchanging confidential information—for example, you provide secret information for a company to evaluate and they provide you with secret information about their marketing strategy. A one-way agreement is used when only one party is making a disclosure— for example, when you explain your secret to a contractor or investor.
Elements of a Nondisclosure Agreement A company may want you to sign its nondisclosure agreement or modify your own. Generally, it does not matter who furnishes the nondisclosure agreement so long as it contains the basic elements to limit disclosure. There are five important elements in a nondisclosure agreement:
• • • • •
definition of confidential information exclusions from confidential information obligations of receiving party time periods, and miscellaneous provisions.
Definition of Confidential Information Every nondisclosure agreement provides a list of the types or categories of confidential information to be protected in the agreement. The purpose is to establish the boundaries, or subject matter, of the disclosure, without actually disclosing the secrets. For example, an NDA may define confidential information by listing the various types of information considered confidential, such as: Confidential information includes programming code, financial information, related software materials and innovative processes. When reviewing your agreement, make sure something on the list fits your type of disclosure. Exclusions From Confidential Information Every nondisclosure agreement excludes some information from protection, meaning that the
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party that receives the excluded information has no obligation to protect it. These exceptions are based on established principles of law—the most important one being that information is not protected if it was created or discovered by the receiving party prior to (or independent of) any involvement with the disclosing party. For example, if another company develops an invention with similar trade secret information before being exposed to the disclosing party’s secrets, then that company is still free to use its independently created invention. Obligations of the Receiving Party The nondisclosure agreement will generally state that the receiving party must hold and maintain the information in confidence and limit its use. Under most state laws, the receiving party cannot breach the confidential relationship, induce others to breach it or induce others to acquire the secret by improper means. Most businesses will accept these contract obligations without discussion. Time Periods Some agreements require that the receiving party maintain the secret information for a limited period of years, including language such as “the receiving party shall not use or disclose the secret for a period of five years from the date of execution of the agreement.” You can often negotiate the time period. Disclosing parties want an open period with no limits; receiving parties usually want a short period. Five years is a common length in American nondisclosure agreements, although many companies insist on only two or three years. In European nondisclosure agreements, it is not unusual for the period to be as long as ten years. Ultimately, the length you decide to use will depend on the relative bargaining power of the parties. Miscellaneous Provisions Miscellaneous terms (sometimes known as "boilerplate") are included at the end of every agreement. They include such matters as which state's law will apply in the event the agreement is breached, whether arbitration will be used in the event of a dispute or whether attorney fees will be awarded to the prevailing party in a dispute. Always Read an NDA Before Signing Some agreements are titled Nondisclosure or Confidentiality Agreements, yet their terms have the opposite effect. Instead of agreeing to secrecy, the party with the secret effectively waives any claim of trade secret confidentiality. If you sign one of these waiver agreements, you can lose important rights. Since trade secret protection is based upon confidentiality, your waiver could result in the loss of your trade secrets and leave you with no legal recourse. A waiver agreement usually contains language like the following (alternate terms appear in parentheses):
• • • •
This agreement does not create a confidential relationship. No confidential relationship is established or implied by the exchange (disclosure) of information (submission). The exchange (disclosure) of information (submission) is not made in confidence. No obligation of any kind is created (assumed, implied, imputed) by the receipt (exchange, disclosure) of information (submission).
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6 Steps to Small Business Success
1. Start Smart. Identify a niche. Don’t compete to be the lowest cost provider. Look for what makes your product or service unique and adds a special value for the client and charge for that value. Every business has many facets. Start with what you know and like; start a business that has meaning to you. Keep in mind that we don’t know what the future holds, many of the jobs and businesses of tomorrow don’t exist today. You can create your own success. Now is the time to dream. To start smart, you should like the idea of the business. The way to earn a good income and build wealth is by serving clients well, making their life better in some way—it’s more than filling a need in the marketplace. To succeed you want to test the idea to make sure your potential clients like the idea too. Test your ideas. 2. Set up Systems. The most basic system every business should have is a good financial system. Ask yourself how am I going to generate enough income to support myself and my family. Begin here. Put together a personal budget, so you know what it costs you to live. Now, you can move on to the business budget and sales planning, so you can see how many sales you need to break even and make a profit. The start-up expense plan, operating budget and your accounting software are vital to your success. 3. Seek out Sales. The daunting question is how do you go about seeking out your first sale. Recognize that since you don’t have a big ad budget to be seen by everyone, you need to target a niche and get connected in your market community, be it local, regional or national. You need other people selling for you—not employees—goodwill referrals. Get out and talk to as many people as you can. Join organizations that would have clients for your product or service. Become a visible part of your market, and then ask for the sale. You begin the sales process with people that you know. Yes, it’s okay to start with friends and family as your first customers, and then broaden from there. 4. Aim for Growth. The basic tenant of creating a company is that you own the company. You are not just creating a job for yourself. It’s less risk and less investment to get a job. Building a business is creating a company that is more than the job itself. Think about the future. How large do you want the company to be in terms of sales, net profit and employees? Your answer to each of these questions will influence how you grow. There are varying costs and profits associated with growth. It’s important to make a deliberate choice early about how you want to grow your company. 5. Leverage Opportunities. Good luck. Good fortune. Good timing. All play a part in business. As a business owner, be very clear about your core focus for the business and how it serves clients. Your core business is what pays the bills. Then, as an entrepreneur you are about opportunity. When you see a potential opportunity or stroke of luck measure it against your core business focus. Good fortune is great, when it matches your vision for the business. Always consider if a good opportunity is the right fit for your business. If something looks great, but it’s not in sync with your long-term plan and budget, think carefully before committing your company’s resources. Take advantage of good opportunities that make sense for you long term. A perfect example is McDonalds. Ray Krock started a small business that became a large franchise network with a consistent product, consistent systems and an ability to seize opportunities such as the Arch card and offering healthy salads to meet the interests of today's consumers. 6. Plan Your Exit. Someday you may want to sell your business or retire from business. Today,
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ask yourself what’s next? How can I have an asset in the future that someone will buy? If you are going to sell someday, you have to have something to sell—a plan, vision, business on the books, equipment and systems. Whether you have been in business for one week, one year or 15 years —look ahead to what the business itself will be as an asset. Your business has value, value you are creating today. To sell or distribute equity in the business you need to have it down on paper and keep good financials. Know the worth of your business, so you can know the value it can bring to your future wealth and/or retirement.
Developing a Succession Plan
Continuing a business beyond one generation of leaders requires planning. Whether through private shares transferred to a senior manager, or a leadership transfer to family members, a succession plan smoothes the way for continued business success. Don't shy away from succession planning because it looks too far in to the future. Devising a formal plan that outlines who will own and operate the company, once you are not in the day-today role, is a critical path decision that has a direct impact on long-term business profitability. Unfortunately, succession planning is not an exact science. There simply isn't one approach that's right for every situation. However, many business owners will focus on the following five steps. 1. Choose Your Successor It's difficult to choose a successor for your own job. And, you don't wake up one morning knowing that a particular manager or family member will be suited to picking up where you leave off. Rather, this is an intensive effort that calls for an examination of all employees, who potentially have skill and ability to lead the company. If you have difficulty narrowing the field, you may want to seek the advice of your board of directors or that of a search committee you assemble to help you select a successor. These two approaches can help take some of the emotion out of this decision and can add objectivity to the process. Experts generally estimate that succession planning should begin 15 years before you intend to retire. This way you have time to oversee your successor as he or she learns the business and hones his or her skills. 2. Develop a Formal Training Plan for Your Successor To develop a successful training program for your successor, identify the critical functions of the company. Then, it's a good idea to have your successor work in each of these areas. Immerse your successor in the business of your company so he or she sees both the depth and breadth of the operation. This may sound simple enough, but there is a certain amount of "letting go" that goes along with teaching your successor by allowing him or her to learn, grow and make mistakes before assuming the helm. By creating a culture that encourages the person to take charge within broad guidelines, you establish space for your successor's style to fit with your broader business goals. 3. Establish a Timetable Set up a training timetable and a timetable for shifting control of the company. If succession is to be successful, you, your successor and your management team need to know who is in charge of what and when. Your successor can't succeed if you overrule decisions routinely. Also, a
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timetable helps motivate your successor to move through his or her training program quickly and successfully, with a clear understanding of what the coming roles and responsibilities are going to be when you move out of day-to-day operations. 4. Prepare Yourself for Retirement It's also important to outline a plan for your transition from officer and operations manager for the company. Begin your retirement plan early. That retirement plan may encompass recreation, travel, community service or another business venture—whatever is right for you. As your successor takes on more and more responsibilities, spend time planning how you will continue to be energized and involved in other activities away from the business. 5. Install Your Successor You owe it to your company's future and to yourself to install your successor in your lifetime. Once that's accomplished, you need to be prepared to let your successor carry out the role for which he or she has been trained. Ultimately, your successor's success or failure is up to him or her. You can lay the groundwork, provide the training and establish a culture for your company. From there, the senior management and board of directors are both the support system and checks and balances for the company. While succession planning is a challenging task, it is worth the reward of watching your business grow and succeed in the next generation. As you work on your succession plan, be sure to seek the assistance of outside advisers such as your accountant, attorney and your investment or insurance professionals, since your succession plan will have far reaching impacts from a tax, investment and legal perspective.
Grow Your Business with Direct Sales
I’m a self-professed shoe-aholic. It’s true. My husband says if I bring home anymore shoes we’ll have to build an addition onto our house. Okay, it’s not really that bad, but I do love shoes. So think about this: Shoe shopping at a party with your girlfriends! Could it get much better than that? Margaux Jordan didn’t think so. She took this idea and launched a successful business -Footprints International, a company based in Orange County, California, that sells shoes through home parties. When I first met Margaux and learned she’s in the shoe business I had to know more. But honestly, I found her business growth model as interesting as the shoes. I asked Margaux why she chose the direct selling model to expand her business. She explained that she had, and has, a very large vision for her company. She wants women all across the country to be able to earn money by having fun and doing something they love to do. “I knew that bringing fashionable fun shoes into the living rooms of women would be a great business idea, and it has been. Women are all so busy today with so many commitments and obligations that shopping, even for shoes, can be difficult to squeeze in. But being invited into
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the home of one or your friends and being able to buy shoes together – just too much fun!” she explained. To date, Footprints International has 30 representatives in 11 states. The practice of direct selling isn’t new. It dates back thousands of years, and its gaining in popularity. Direct selling is the sale of a consumer product or service, person-to-person, without a retail location. Accordingly, it requires less capital to expand your business reach. The Direct Selling Association, (DSA), reports annual industry sales in 2006 increased to $29.7 billion dollars and the industry’s ten-year growth rate is almost 80 percent. (The 2006 numbers are the most recent available). There are more than 14 million Americans who work in this industry and over 80 percent are women. An economic impact study conducted by Ernst & Young found the industry contributed $72 billion to the U.S. economy in 2004. Commenting on the Ernst & Young research, Neil Offen, DSA president and CEO said, “The economic impact study confirms the ongoing growth of direct selling as a shopping option for millions of American consumers. In ever-increasing numbers, Americans are choosing direct selling because they enjoy personal contact with knowledgeable sales representatives. Consumers enjoy service, selection and social interaction that is hard to match with other shopping experiences. A growing number of companies recognize the benefits associated with direct selling – low overhead, robust cash flow, and loyal customers among others – and are diving into the direct selling market.” The direct selling industry includes global companies that are now household names such as Avon, Mary Kay, Herbalife, The Pampered Chef and of course, Tupperware. In addition to these well known giants, there are a lot of diverse products being sold through this business model including, power tools, wine, high-end jewelry, children’s toys and clothing. If you’ve never thought about using the direct selling model to grow your business, perhaps now is a good time to take a look. The key to success is having a product that sells well when experienced by the consumer. Many small companies are experiencing rapid growth and expansion by adopting this strategy.
Put the Advantages of Leasing to Work for Your Business
A lease is an agreement in which you have the use of a piece of equipment, but don’t own it. Today eight out of 10 businesses in the United States lease equipment, and approximately onethird of all new equipment is leased. How do you know if leasing is right for your business? What goes into the decision-making process to lease? How should you proceed once you have made the decision? The answers to these questions will enable you to realize the full benefits equipment can bring in running your business while maximizing the return on your equipment budget. The characteristics of leasing are unique from buying equipment with cash or a loan, and an understanding of the properties of leasing will help you make the right decision. Benefits of Leasing Flexibility and convenience are two of the benefits most frequently cited about leasing. As your
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business grows and your needs change, leasing allows you to add or upgrade equipment at any point during the lease term through add-on or master leases. With leasing, you can customize a program to address your needs and requirements regarding cash flow, budget, transaction structure and cyclical fluctuations. It also offers options including installation, maintenance and many other services. First, understand that with leasing, you pay only for the time you use the equipment, rather than the whole value of the equipment. At the end of the lease term, the worth of the equipment is called its residual. This residual value is built into the lease pricing so that monthly lease payments are usually less than monthly loan payments. This benefit improves cash flow, an always-important consideration for small and start-up businesses. Another reason leasing improves cash flow is because it does not require a down payment or additional collateral, so it is equivalent to 100 percent financing. These benefits allow you to direct more budget dollars into revenue-generating activities. Another advantage of leasing is the ability to transfer the risk of obsolescence and being left with out-dated equipment to the leasing company since the equipment can be returned at the end of the lease term. This also enables an equipment re-fresh so you can have the latest equipment affordably, and is especially important in rapidly evolving equipment categories such as computers. Ease of equipment disposition is another benefit of leasing that cannot be underestimated. The costs of removal, environmental fees (in the case of some types of equipment such as computers), and remarketing, which under the terms of outright ownership can be significant, are avoided with leasing. The treatment of operating leases for balance sheet management and tax reporting also make leasing advantageous. An operating lease is not reported as a long-term debt or liability, and does not appear on your business’s financial statement. So you enjoy the use of the equipment you need, while maintaining favorable debt to equity ratios and other financial measurements required by traditional lenders in the event that you need them. For tax purposes, operating leases are treated as overhead expenses so lease payments are deducted from your corporate taxes, thus avoiding depreciation write-downs over time. Leasing also offers customized solutions that allow you to tailor a program to fit month-to-month or year-to-year cash flow requirements. For instance, seasonal businesses may be permitted to miss one or more payments during a low season without penalty. Leverage The Benefits of Leasing Now that you know some of the many benefits of equipment leasing, it’s useful to know how to apply them to your business situation. First determine how and for how long you plan to use the piece of equipment. The amount of flexibility your business requires will help you make the decision whether leasing or owning makes more sense. For instance, if you expect a sudden growth spurt, leasing can readily accommodate your needs. Once you have evaluated how the equipment is to be used, you can determine the appropriate level of investment for a lease. Doing a simple cost/benefit analysis that compares the periodic
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leasing payment to the revenue you expect to generate from using the equipment will help you determine this. Establishing a relationship with a leasing company is a critical component in the success of your leasing experience. Working with a leasing company that understands your particular industry will provide you with customized options that consider your business’s needs and requirements. Your leasing company should be attuned to your areas of focus, including cash flow, budget, tax and other considerations. Manage Your Equipment Assets Business managers who know the strategic use of equipment leasing can enhance their financial performance and capital productivity even further. Asset management is the ability to systematically plan, acquire, manage and recycle assets through a mix of owned, leased and rented equipment. The successful implementation of each of these stages has the potential to significantly impact the return and profitability of your equipment investment. Asset management entails all phases in the lifecycle of a piece of equipment from delivery to installation, use, maintenance and de-installation and disposal. Most companies do not have formal asset management programs in place, though there is a growing trend in organizations that use large amounts of equipment to establish them. Your leasing company can be a valuable ally in your asset management efforts. Equipment disposal and remarketing, for instance, is a full-time job in itself, and is better left to your leasing company for whom the function is a core competency.
Plan and Prepare to Make the Most of Media Opportunities
A television appearance. A radio interview. An article in a magazine. Every business owner understands the value of positive media coverage. There’s no better way to build your brand. It’s much more credible than paid advertising because it’s coming from an unbiased, third-party source. That’s why companies spend a lot of time and effort trying to capture the media’s attention. There’s a lot of information available to small businesses on how to write and distribute press releases. But there isn’t much that explains what to do once a reporter actually calls. What would you do if Oprah called your business? You certainly don’t want to blow your opportunity. Here are some tips that can help you make the most your 15 minutes of fame. Never take a “cold” call from a reporter. Find out exactly what the interview is going to be about, how it is going to be used, and what questions or topics will be covered. Find out the reporter’s deadline for the story. Then arrange a time to actually conduct the interview. This allows you the time you need to plan and prepare. It’s a good idea to jot down three or four key message points you want to make during the interview. And this may sound ridiculous, but actually practice saying them. Your mouth has memory and when you rehearse the language you want to use, the less likely you’ll stumble.
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Avoid using slang, industry-specific jargon and acronyms. You want your message to be communicated with clarity. And be succinct. That’s particularly true when you are doing a television interview. Most television segments are around two minutes in length. Even if you aren’t doing a live interview, a rambling answer is fraught with disaster. The producer and editor may select a portion of your answer that doesn’t incorporate your key message. Don’t be fooled by a reporter’s silence. Sometimes when you have finished answering a question the reporter won’t respond immediately. A lot of people who are uncomfortable with long pauses in a conversation feel compelled to continue talking. That’s when you can get yourself into trouble by saying something incorrect or foolish. Keep in mind, you have your key message points and when you are finished you are finished. Always assume your microphone is on. You’ve probably seen a few public blunders with that one. And nothing is ever “off the record.” Off the record means different things to different journalists so if you aren’t comfortable sharing the information, don’t. “No comment” is never a good response in an interview. It is best to either answer the question or explain why you can’t. If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it, and offer to do some research to find the answer. Media coverage can give your business a big boost, so plan and prepare to make the most out of your media opportunity.
Resilience for the Small Business Owner
The threats of terrorism and a soft economy have combined to make times uncertain for the small business owner. You may be spending all of your energy in getting your company to bounce back, but it’s essential that you focus on your own resilience as well. The good news is that the skills of resilience can be learned. Here are 10 ways to build resilience. Make connections. Networking doesn’t just make good business sense, it makes good psychological sense. Form a network of professional and personal resources who can step in with advice or even just a sympathetic ear when times get tough. The support goes both ways— helping others in their time of need can benefit the helper as well. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Whether your business has had to downsize or just changed markets to accommodate the economy, you should focus on the big picture and realize that these setbacks do not necessarily threaten the life of your business. Accept that change is a part of living. People evolve, and businesses do too. While change can be painful, accept that your business will change to meet new circumstances—whether it is an updated business plan or a new niche of customers served. In today’s business and economic climate, the ability to be flexible is key.
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Move toward your goals. Small business owners tend to be very goal-oriented, but sometimes the inactivity forced by a stagnant market can stall an entrepreneur. Develop some realistic goals and do something regularly - even if it seems like a small accomplishment - that enables you to move toward those goals. Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away. Problem-solving is an active and ongoing process that can increase resilience considerably. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. Small business owners can focus so heavily on changes in the market that they forget that they also are evolving as entrepreneurs with each challenge they meet. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggles. Nurture a positive view of yourself and your company. You may think that small business has been hit hard in this economy, but take a look at how well-positioned your company is to survive. Small business owners may have been hit hard by the economy, but they also have the ability to be nimble and flexible, something the larger companies often have trouble with. Keep things in perspective. Assuming your basic business plan is sound, realize that the economy eventually will rebound and that other companies are facing a difficult time as well. Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear. Take care of yourself. Small business owners spend so much time nurturing the company and their employees that they sometimes forget their own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience. Each entrepreneur may find as many ways to build resilience as he does to build his or her business. The key is to identify ways that are likely to work well for you as part of your own personal strategy for fostering resilience.
Don’t Chase Your Tail: Three Surefire Tips to Help Your Business Grow
We have a new team member at SBTV.com. His name is Maxwell Solovic and he is the Chairman of the Bone. Yes, I got the title right. Maxwell is a five pound Shih Tzu puppy who comes to the office with me when I'm not traveling. Because he's only about three months old, everything is a new adventure for him – sights, sounds, smells and people. He has more toys and treats than you can imagine, (he's an only child
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—I mean puppy) but one of his favorite things to do is chase his tail. He'll run in a circle at manic speeds until he ultimately collapses having never achieved his goal, if he even knows what his goal is. That doesn't stop him, however, from trying again later. It's perfectly acceptable for a young puppy such as Maxwell to chase his tail. After all, he's a dog and it's cute. When you are trying to build a successful business, it’s not so cute to spend your energy chasing your tail. You’ll find yourself frustrated and burned out without ever achieving your business goals. So if your business isn’t growing as you’d hoped, ask yourself: Are you simply chasing your tail? Think about it. How many days do you work at manic speeds until you're exhausted, but if you're honest with yourself, you didn’t really accomplish a thing? I see it all the time. People “make busy.” They create lots of commotion and they talk a good game, but their business is going nowhere. Here are a few surefire tips to help you grow your business so you don't wind up chasing your tail.
Keep your eye on the ball. When you start a business money is always tight. Opportunities will present themselves that are attractive because you see them as a quick way to bring in cash. Before you eagerly accept, stop yourself and think about whether or not it fits with your business goals. One of the biggest reasons many small businesses fail is because they take on projects or products that are completely unrelated to their business strategy and before you know it, not only have they lost the original business concept, but they're not doing anything well. Set Milestones. Create a growth strategy and set milestones and/or deadlines for yourself. Without established measurements, days, weeks and months can pass by while you talk, talk, talk about what you're going to do, but you never get around to doing it. You may not meet every one of your goals in your estimated timeframe, but at least you'll be continually focused forward. Take Action every day. Never let a day go by in your business where you haven't done at least one activity to help you reach your business goals. Business success requires discipline -- the discipline to practice those things that are instrumental for your success. Occasionally making a sales call or attending a networking event won't help you generate new business opportunities. You know better than anyone what actions are necessary to grow your business. Practice them every day.
Starting and growing a small business isn't easy. Make sure you work smart so you don't wind up chasing your tail.
Putting Your Business on the Web
Q: With business slower than usual it does seem like a good idea to check out possibly getting into e-commerce. I certainly have the time! I was hoping you could give me some steps to follow. Thanks — Linda
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A: There are so many great things to be said about e-commerce that I am not sure where to begin, but let's start with this one: E-commerce is, even today, a fairly new market; it has really been around for a little more than a dozen years. Being able to tap such a huge market at the relative start won't happen again in our lifetimes. There remains a world of opportunity and untapped e-potential. Other benefits include easy access to global markets, having an automated and additional profit center open 24/7, a low cost of entry, and the ability to compete with larger companies. Here's how to jump in – in 7 Steps. Step 1: Notice what works: Whether it is eBay, Amazon, or your own favorite, e-commerce sites that succeed tend to do the same things right: • They are attractive, intuitive, engaging, and easy to navigate • They offer plenty of inventory • They are easy to shop and check-out • There are discounts and specials (coupons, free shipping, etc.) • They offer great customer service Step 2. Consider the competition. Who else sells what you want to sell? Take a look at the players both big and small. Buy some merchandise from them and ask yourself – what do they do right, and wrong, and how can it be it be improved? Step 3. Pick your products: If you are in business and have products that you already sell, then adding them to your online store is easy: Take pictures of them, add them to your online catalogue (see below) and write some great copy. If you don't know what you want to sell, then consider your options. There are tons of wholesalers and distributors from which to choose. If you don't know of any, I would suggest you surf over to my site –MrAllBiz.com– and check out the wholesale product search engine we offer. You can find wholesalers for just about any product you are looking for. Note: The culture of the Web is one of discounts, keep that in mind, and remember that selling expensive items online is more difficult. Step 4. Create a great site: You have about five seconds once someone finds your site to impress them enough that they will decide to poke around a bit and maybe buy something. That means your site must be graphically pleasing to the eye, unique, and useful. Step 5. Consider drop shipping: What if you just want to get your feet wet and don't want to spend a lot of money discovering whether this online universe is for you? Then check out drop shipping. Drop shipping is an arrangement between you and a wholesaler whereby you offer their products on your site but you don't actually physically stock any inventory. If someone
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clicks and buys, notice is sent to you and the wholesaler, the wholesalers ships the product using your labels and logos, and you split the profit. If you think this is a great way to get started, you are right. There are no products to buy and stock, no huge up-front costs, no labor expenses, etc. You can find drop shippers for most any product by doing an online search, or again, by typing "drop shipping" into the product search engine at my site. Step 6. Build your store: There are two parts to your online store – the front end and the back end. The front end is what the world sees – your products for sale, specials, policies, and so on. The back end is what you see – inventory control, reports of what sells, etc. You will need to find an online partner / Web host to help you build your store. Their software will create both the front end and the back end. It will allow you to create thumbnails of your products as part of your overall online catalogue. What you want is a partner that offers • Pre-designed, customizable templates • Inventory support • Easy acceptance of credit cards • Search engine optimization • Easy adding and subtracting of products • Up-selling tools, coupons, gift certificates, etc. • Real time stats and reports • Secure transactions, and • Plenty of support Step 7. Handle sales: To be able to accept online sales, you will need a merchant account (an account with a credit card issuer) and / or the ability to accept PayPal payments. You will also need to be able to handle inquiries, returns, exchanges, and refunds. Don't underestimate shipping and related costs either. Plenty of other small businesses have made the leap to online success, and if they did it, so can you.
Eight Great Tips to Boost Your Sales
You could have the best products in the country or provide the best services in your region, but that may not be enough to succeed. You need to learn the best ways to sell your products and services. Selling is key to your business success. To help you succeed, here are some great sales tips for
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small-business owners and entrepreneurs: Set goals This is a brainstorming exercise. List your top five goals and then try to come up with at least 10 ways you can achieve each one of them. Listen It’s easy to get carried away when talking about your business. My friend, sales expert Barry Farber, advises that in order to make the sale you need to listen 70 percent of the time, and talk only 30 percent. Don’t rest on your laurels. More advice from Farber: Ask your best customers, “Is there anything I’m not doing that I could be doing to better serve you?” That’s not only a smart sales tip, it’s great customer service advice. Incorporate social media It is not hyperbole. The use of social media like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook is having a major impact on the sales process. Send e-newsletters If you don’t currently send an electronic newsletter to your customers, start sending one out. The folks at Constant Contact advise you to be consistent and send it out the same day of the week for a weekly newsletter, or the same week of the month for monthly communications. Check the calendar to make sure your delivery schedule is not impacted by major holidays that could affect open rates. Get personal As effective as they are, e-mail marketing and social media shouldn’t replace meeting with clients (both existing customers and prospects) face-to-face. Work your Web site Investigate the latest SEM (search engine marketing) and SEO (search engine optimization) strategies and whether you should use PPC (pay-per-click) advertising. Your site should look professional and be easy to navigate. Get advice Read books, magazines and online articles to stay on top of trends and get new ideas. Get great advice from your local SCORE counselor.
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Marketing Wisdom from Ben Franklin
Marketing is the “voice” that drives business success. Without marketing, many of the best products and top services would go unheralded and perhaps even undiscovered. So, how do you attract customers? While there are literally thousands of places you can turn to for marketing advice, from books, to experts to Web sites, there’s one source that is all too often overlooked—Benjamin Franklin. Yes, that Ben Franklin. The one who said, “Time is money.” So the next time you’re looking for some marketing advice, before you waste your time (and money), listen to the wisdom of one of America’s first—and most celebrated--entrepreneurs. The point of marketing is to draw attention to your company. Franklin believed you could do that in two ways—“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” In either case, it’s all about delivering value and telling people about it. For some of you, customer involvement is crucial to your success. Bring customers into your shops and restaurants by staging events like fashion shows, wine or beer tastings and fundraising promotions. Retail and service entrepreneurs can host seminars, lectures and workshops. As Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” The best marketing campaigns will not make up for shoddy products or bad service. Reputation was essential to Franklin: “Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never well mended.” And “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” It’s your business. Sure, you can hire out or delegate some tasks. But at the end of the day, you’re in the driver’s seat. Franklin’s advice, “Drive thy business or it will drive thee,” is something business owners need to remember every day. One of the most important rules of marketing is that it must ring true. As Ben reminded us, “What you seem to be, be really.” Your business is in a constant state of evolution--and your marketing plans must evolve with it. So be open to change. As Franklin said, “When you're finished changing, you're finished.”
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Make The Sale: 8 Smart Tips
When the going gets tough, the tough…start selling. With apologies to singer/songwriter Billy Ocean, in times like these entrepreneurs need to focus on bringing in the money. That means selling more. To help you do just that, here are eight smart tips to help you boost your bottom line. 1. Knowledge is power, so you and any employees or outside sales reps need to be fully upto-date on what you sell--and what your competitors offer as well. 2. When you started your business, hopefully you defined your USP (unique selling proposition). That’s what makes your product or service stand out from the competition. Is your USP still working, or does it need tweaking? 3. Remember, your job is not to sell your products or services. Instead, it’s to sell prospects on the benefits of doing business with you. Frame your sales pitch around what’s in it for them, not what’s in it for you. 4. Make sure you’re selling to the decision-maker. Don’t waste your time pitching your goods and services to people who can’t say “yes.” Hopefully you’ve done your research and discovered that your prospects not only have a need for what you’re selling, but also can afford to pay for it. 5. Sales are not just momentary transactions. They’re about building trust and forging relationships, which turns prospects into clients. People are going to question you, your prices, your customer service policies and more. Giving them straight answers builds the trust factor. 6. All clients have objections. Your job is to overcome them. This means listening more than you talk. It’s crucial you uncover your client’s pain points. What are their challenges? Then explain how you can solve them. 7. Even if you’re not going to sell online, you need a Web site. Having a Web presence helps consumers find you (if you optimize your site), boosts your marketing power and makes it easier to do business with you. 8. Keep talking. If you make the sale, follow up periodically to make sure your customers are satisfied and to see if they need anything else from you. If they are happy, ask for testimonials and referrals. If you don’t make the sale, ask why they didn’t buy from you. Take what you learn and incorporate it into your sales process.
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12 Sure-Fire Steps to Improve Your Retail Sales
The purpose of any business is to bring in customers, and it can only be accomplished through marketing. If your cash registers don't ring, something is wrong and you had better find out what is wrong fast. Because in today's competitive retail world...getting results is what counts. Successful retailers aren't any more talented or intelligent than you are—they simply have learned to do things in a different way and make money in the process. Use the following 12 steps to improve your retail sales, you'll simplify your efforts, multiply profits, and increase the odds of success. 1. Know Yourself Having your own business is more than just creating a job for yourself. Your basic roles are in marketing, finance, administration and the responsibility of personnel. To get the best results, it is rare for one person to play all these roles equally well. You must know which parts you can handle yourself and which parts you're going to need help with. 2. Plan Ahead Many stores are run by well-intended people but who don't have all the information they need to do their job. This includes a clear idea of market segment, target markets, customer service, product selection, marketing mix, promotional activities and pricing tactics. If you want to succeed you need a well thought out business plan that helps you make the right decisions. 3. Know the Industry You can gain the greatest competitive edge if you have an intimate knowledge of your business. To thrive and prosper, you must be committed to learn and have the desire and energy to accomplish your goals. These are five main reasons why most businesses fail: 1. Lack of Industry Knowledge 2. Lack of Vision 3. Poor Market Strategy 4. Failure to Establish Goals 5. Inadequate Capitalization 4. Understand Your Customer Make it your business to give your customers what they want, and they will do business and buy from you. The products and services you provide should reflect your customers needs and wants. Think in your customers' terms; buy, show, sell and say things that interest them, not just what interests you. Remember, it is the customer that determines whether or not you succeed. 5. Keep Good Financial Records If you don't know where your money is going, it will soon be gone. The "game of business" is played with computers—and the score is evaluated in dollars and cents. Good financial records
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are like the instruments on an airplane, they keep you posted of your height, direction, and speed. Without them you’re flying blind with no controls to guide you to your destination. 6. Manage Your Cash It doesn't matter how unique and wonderful your store is, your business can’t survive without cash flow. Money coming in your store is the vital component that keeps your business financially healthy. If you budget wisely and know the interval of your monthly income and expenses, you won't have to worry about running out of money. 7. Use Sound Management Practices As a store owner, you are also a manager. You have to make decisions, offer customer service, manage time and resources, and know how to merchandise and run the business better than anyone working for you. Give your employees the opportunity for growth, treat them fairly, pay them what they’re worth and they will help make your business successful. 8. Develop a Distinctive Image Your image is important and is a function of your marketing efforts and materials. Customer’s create their perceptions of your business from your name, Web site appearance, store location, products, prices, visual merchandising, signs, displays, business cards, newsletters, advertising material, customer service and anything else that relates to your business. 9. Control Your Inventory All retail stores need to manage inventory. It is your money sitting on a shelf and represents a large portion of your business investment. The retailer who merely watches the store’s shelves can’t maintain a proper balance between the right amount of merchandise and probable customer demand. Without adequate control, slow-moving inventory becomes dated and very costly. 10. Buy and Price For Profit To understand retailing, one must start with the concept that the price of your merchandise is nothing more than a temporary estimate of what the customer is willing to spend. In devising your overall pricing strategy, a practical approach can be based on the function of supply and demand. To be more competitive, join buying groups and seek out manufacturer discounts that allow you to purchase merchandise below wholesale prices. 11. Learn From The Pros In today’s explosive markets, making the right moves is absolutely essential, there is little room for error. Without knowing how to navigate through these fast-moving times, it can be a tricky and even a self-destructive experience. Because of the emotional and sometimes difficult decisions that must be made, the crucial difference is having fresh ideas with an impartial business position. 12. Ask For Help When You Need It Don't be too proud to ask for help, we all need help sometimes. It is important to recognize that what you don't know can end up costing you money, hurt the odds of success, and greatly reduce the chance of achieving your business goals. Hiring an expert with specialized skills can be the
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most profitable decision you can make to protect both your business and financial future.
Drive Media Interest at a Trade Show
Follow these steps to get your business noticed before, during and after the show. Trade shows are a key component of most companies’ marketing efforts. And for small businesses, trade shows are especially beneficial because they provide an opportunity to reach a plethora of potential customers, investors, industry analysts and journalists over a very short period of time. Susan McPherson, vice president of global trade show services at PR Newswire, shares her tips for leveraging your participation in a trade show. Entrepreneur.com: What tools and resources should a small business use to plan for a trade show? Susan McPherson: Trade shows begin booking exhibitors at least six months in advance. An important step is finding out if the trade show management offers any tools to help exhibitors reap the full benefits. These might include media lists, a website for posting exhibitors' news before, during and even after the show, and special packages and pricing with service providers. These benefits can be especially helpful to a business with limited resources. You should also consider asking the trade show management about their PR plans. In many cases, there'll be opportunities for riding the coattails of the show's promotional activities. For example, if they're issuing a news release about the event, consider asking if your company can be listed in it as an exhibitor; or offer your participation as a case study for their marketing materials. If you're launching a new product or service, make sure to target the daily show magazine or newspaper, both online and in print. Also consult the editorial calendars of industry trade publications. Many will run show editions. Keep in mind that most magazines have long lead deadlines, so be sure to make contact early. And last, but certainly not least, if you're launching a trade show-specific website, be sure to have it populated with relevant content at least three to four weeks beforehand, and make sure that you're able to update it while you're on the road. Use your special event URL in all showrelated correspondence, press releases and invitations, and include a link to it from your main website. A well-managed site could be the difference in converting leads to customers. What's the best way to manage a product launch at a show? McPherson: There are a few simple steps for getting the most out of launching products at a trade show:
Plan ahead. Develop a calendar of tasks to complete prior to the launch. The calendar should extend at least a month in advance and should account for such activities as drafting and finalizing the launch release and marketing materials, producing graphics or
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product photos, securing customer testimonials and performing media outreach. Then, align these activities within the timeframe of the trade show. Some tasks may need to be adjusted based on trade show rules and deadlines. If media coverage of your launch is a priority, preview your product for select journalists and analysts ahead of the event. Doing so will enable those reporters to break the story the day of your official launch. Make sure to obtain the trade show media list as far in advance as possible. A well-orchestrated product announcement is key to generating publicity. Check with event organizers to see if there’s an official newswire sponsor and if there are any regulations for issuing news at the event. Create a standalone website or product page that can be updated quickly and easily. Populate the site with information about the launch, including marketing materials, the official launch release, photos, fact sheets and a link to encourage further communication. Make sure you have the right people staffing your booth. Product managers are essential if you're going to be demonstrating a new service. If you have happy customers who have used your product, you might consider asking them to act as live testimonials at the booth. Unless you're introducing the next iPhone or similar product, don't hold a press conference. The cost will outweigh the benefits.
How should a company structure its product launch announcement if the news is being issued at a show? McPherson: Follow the same basic news release writing guidelines as you would for any other announcement. Make sure to address the five W’s--who, what, where, when and why--avoid jargon and write a catchy headline that directly relates to the news. The only major difference between a trade show-based announcement and a standard release will be the dateline. The lead paragraph should indicate that the launch is taking place at the event. This'll add an element of timeliness to the news and attract the attention of reporters assigned to the show. What's the best way to secure media interviews? McPherson: Again, plan ahead. Use the media list given by show management, and send out emails to reporters who'll be attending. If the show doesn’t supply a media list, search for past articles on the event and develop a list of publications and reporters on your own. The same reporter may be assigned to cover the show again. And if not, he or she should be able to point you in the right direction. Be sure to initiate contact at least two weeks prior to the show. Remember, your company won't be the only one trying to set up an interview. Reporters’ calendars fill up quickly. And give the media a reason to take notice. Offer breaking news or a unique angle that distinguishes your company from the other businesses. Also look for opportunities to secure speaking engagements, either as a keynote speaker or as a participant in a panel discussion. Speaking engagements require extensive planning and creativity, so start early and identify several themes you’re comfortable discussing. Don’t focus
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solely on topics directly related to your business. The most enticing speakers are those who can branch out beyond the standard subjects. What marketing materials should you have on hand? McPherson: Minimal ones. No journalist wants to carry reams of paper, and with concern for the environment growing, no one likes to see waste. Consider placing all your marketing materials on branded jump drives. You should also include these materials on your trade show website for easy download by journalists when the show is over.
Got Meme? How to Attract Your Clients' & Customers' Attention
If you've opened up a magazine or watched TV in the last ten years you've seen either the "Got Milk?" ad campaign or the fun and memorable milk ad campaign using celebrities with a milk mustache. Chances are it got your attention and you remember the phrase, “Got Milk?” A good meme is simple, provocative and infectious. An effective meme rolls off your tongue and sticks in your mind. Others remember it and pass it along to their friends and colleagues. It’s the cultural equivalent of a gene. For those of you without a national advertising budget, helping prospects and clients quickly grasp what you do and having them spread the word about your services is a form of zero cost marketing that you can use. You may already have a tagline, slogan or catch phrase you use in your marketing, but does it work as well as a meme? Like a gene, memes synthesize complex information, concepts and ideas and pass them along with little effort. They communicate what you do in a few words or in a short sentence. They enable you to get across the benefits of your products and services to prospects in a form they'll remember and repeat to others. Does your current title, tagline or catch phrase: Tell people what you do? Create a perception of need? Start conversations? What a Meme is Not Labels such as "Trial Lawyer" or "Copy Editor" or "Computer Specialist" are not marketing memes. The problem with labels is that they don’t tell anyone how you can help them, or which problems you solve. In most cases they kill further conversation. Descriptions of work processes and methodologies are not marketing memes. These usually start with "I ...". While at some point a prospect may want to know how you work, it is their problems and concerns which interest them the most and are the best place to begin. Offers such as "Buy this and get two free" are not marketing memes. Your meme isn't meant to convince someone to buy but rather to get his or her interest and start a conversation. Examples of Effective Memes Effective marketing memes focus on a specific clientele and a solution, or better yet a common
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client problem. For example, "I help independent professionals attract more clients," identifies a market and a client problem. It also invites the follow up question "How?" FedEx grew their now billion dollar business with the meme, “When it absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight.” Whether you use a meme in the elevator, on your business card or in your mailings, it should help your prospects know whether you are talking to them and define you as someone who can help them solve a problem, and prompt prospects to ask if your products and services could help them, too. Tips to Writing Your Meme The "Got Milk" campaign used both words and images to get the message across. If you are only relying on words, you may need more than two, but limit it to less than ten. Use the following steps to write your meme.
• • • • •
Identify your target market. Define problems you solve for clients. Clarify the benefits you provide. Determine what you would like people to do after they hear or see your meme. What question do you want them to ask or what action you want them to take? Use this information to write five conversation-starting phrases that summarize who you help and the problems you solve.
Once you have these draft memes, try them out. Some may elicit blank stares; others will prompt people to ask questions or start listing names of people they know who could use your products and services. A good meme can start a chain reaction in people’s minds and prompt them to move from prospect to client. When you hear people repeating your meme to others, you'll know you've got one that works. Coming up with an effective meme isn’t easy, but it’s the lowest cost and most valuable tool in your marketing tool kit. You may be pushing prospects away with your current tagline instead of helping people understand what you do and, more importantly, what you can do for them. So get meme, and get going with your marketing. Online Marketing Strategies to Promote Your Business Picture yourself at the ball game cracking through a bag of dry roasted peanuts. You’re on your second handful when that familiar red and white logo pops up on the big screen advertising an ice-cold Coca-Cola. You immediately track down the next vendor with a basket of ice-cold drinks. This is called “pin point marketing.” It is the process of delivering an appropriate message at the right time that produces actual results. In contrast, let’s say you are enjoying those same peanuts when an advertisement for Toyota Trucks pops up on the same screen. It’s a nice ad, but not nearly as effective. This is an example of “interruptive marketing.” It is not truly targeted because it is not what you are actively looking for at that moment.
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What does this scenario have to do with your business? Well, rather than wasting valuable marketing dollars on billboards, 30-second television ads or radio commercials (all examples of “interruptive marketing”) focus your energy on putting your product in front of potential customers while they are looking for it. Unlike when people watch TV or listen to the radio, Internet users are actively looking for a solution to a problem. If you can place your product in their path at the right time, you’ve made a customer. The most cost-effective way to achieve this is by combining your marketing message with important content that users are already actively seeking out. Start by submitting “how-to” or “industry news” type articles to relevant Web sites in your industry. Unique Web content is important to all size companies. And, buying custom content is expensive and time consuming. As a result most companies are willing to trade a free plug for your Web site or company for an informative, well-written article. Every article you submit should enhance your company’s position as an expert or industry leader, while providing valuable information at the same time. Content written around your company or product also helps your business gain credibility, which is extremely important for small businesses. When a potential customer reads your article, you have already established yourself as an expert in that field. By the time the customer clicks over to your Web site or gives you a call, you have a very hot lead. Perhaps you own a local painting business. Your target customers are most likely looking for home improvement information online, so you could exchange stories and “how to” advice with local carpenters or electricians. Or take it a step further and submit your “expert painting advice” to popular home improvement and real estate Web sites. You can swap content with anyone in your industry that is not a direct competitor. By doing so, you’ll open your company up to a wider audience while building up your credibility. Also, think about what type of person will be using the Web site you select to post your article. For example, studies show that a mother of two who needs a quick dinner recipe will do a quick search, and then print out the page. So animated banners ads or even a link to your Web site may not be the most effective way to get her attention. On the other hand, adding a clip out coupon to the article would be very effective. In traditional media, one positive sentence in editorial is worth much more than two paid advertisements. The same is true on the Internet. Getting a free link or product mention on another Web site is an extremely valuable way to gain high quality leads. Combine that free link or product mention with a well-written article and you’ll turn that product mention into a sale.
The Communications Cycle
A good public relations strategy allows an organization to communicate effectively with its target audience. To achieve optimum value, business owners need a process for executing that
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strategy as effectively and efficiently as possible. Without the right framework, you may be faced with short-lived gains or unnecessary expense. The good news is that there's a simple method to follow--the Communications Cycle--that can serve as a guide for small business owners who want a simple and effective method for developing their public relations strategies. Ted Skinner, vice president of PR Products at PR Newswire, answers key questions about making the method work for your business. What is the "Communications Cycle"? The Communications Cycle can be broken down into five steps: 1. Messaging: Before implementing a public relations strategy, you must first determine what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. What are the key points you want to convey? What is the most effective format in which to communicate the message: text, video or multimedia? 2. Targeting: The most important aspect of public relations, as in sales, is knowing your target audience. A common public relations misconception is viewing reporters as the primary audience. True, reporters will be your main communications conduit and a very important group for tailoring your messages, but the ultimate target of a PR campaign should be customers, investors and potential partners. Before engaging in any public relations outreach, determine who your audience is, where they're located and what information sources they use to drive their business decisions. The more detailed your targeting, the more effective your communications will be. 3. Distribution: There are several methods you can use to get the word out, ranging from the very basic to the more robust. As with messaging and targeting, tailor your distribution to each audience based on how it accesses information. E-mailing or faxing to a pre-determined list is the simplest and least costly method for disseminating information. However, this approach is limiting because only those on the list will get the information. Newswire distribution services come with a price tag, but the expense ensures a much wider audience through direct contact with reporters and postings to news and consumer sites around the world. Further, some newswires offer search engine optimization of news releases, which increases the likelihood of your release being picked up by Yahoo! or Google. Social media elements, such as tagging technology and blog monitoring, are also being incorporated to augment the standard press release distribution. Speaking of which, blogs and social media sites offer an increasingly important and very costeffective channel for PR activities. However, with reward--reaching a highly targeted, motivated audience--comes risk. Blogs and social media sites open you up to criticism.
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4. Monitoring and measurement: Monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of a PR program is crucial and should be ongoing. The most straightforward and cost effective way to monitor PR activity is to manually collect articles from printed publications or websites. Services, such as Google News, offer a relatively easy and free way to track coverage that's posted online. However, collecting and clipping articles can be time consuming, especially for a small business owner. Professional clipping services can assume this burden, but at a price. Equally important to the number of articles generated is the effectiveness of the coverage. Were your key messages properly conveyed? What tone did the media take in relating your news? Was it discussed in the blogosphere? These are all important factors in weighing the success or failure of a PR program and should be evaluated after each campaign. 5. Assessment: The final stage in the cycle is taking what you've learned from your campaign and applying it to future work. If the media wasn't interested in your news, look for a different angle or different publication. If lack of understanding was a problem, refine your messages. If the wrong people read your news, re-examine your distribution methods. Over time you'll hone your campaign to achieve the greatest results for your business. How can the Communications Cycle benefit a small business? The Communications Cycle is designed to generate targeted exposure in a cost- and timeeffective manner. For small business owners with limited experience planning or executing public relations strategies, the step-by-step approach allows them to organize their activities around a framework that will help produce measurable results. Public relations will always be more of an art than a science. The Communications Cycle helps clear up some of the vagaries. What simple tools and practices can small business owners with limited resources use? A solid media list should be at the core of every public relations campaign. Media lists can be built from first-hand knowledge, online sources or from media databases. Although there's a cost involved, media databases offer the most efficient means for gathering information and accessing important details about specific reporters.
Newswire distribution services can also be valuable to the PR efforts of a small company. Again, there are costs involved, but the scale of distribution that a newswire provides can't be matched by other comparable means. An online media room is another tool that can be valuable to small businesses. Very simply, a media room is a section on a corporate website dedicated to news and materials that are valuable to reporters and other individuals seeking information on the company. Media rooms can range from the basic, such as a chronology of recent announcements, to the more sophisticated, including technology that automatically posts releases, allows for the download of multimedia content and provides direct communication to company contacts. Expert sources, individuals at your company who can discuss topics related to your business or industry, are highly desirable to the media and can offer companies a way to gain notoriety even when news isn't available. There are several ways to leverage an expert source. The most direct approach is to proactively offer a list of reporters access to
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the individual if a need arises. Once a relationship is developed, very often it will be the reporter who approaches your company for future commentary. Online services, such as ProfNet, connect your experts with journalists looking for quote sources. The services allow companies to create profiles for their experts, which are then made available to reporters who are registered on the site. The sites also allow companies to access postings from reporters who are seeking experts for articles currently in production. Blogs offer a forum for your expert to voice his or her opinion on a wide range of matters and, in turn, showcase his or her knowledge to readers. The risk with blogs, as mentioned previously, is the potential for critical or negative comments.
In the future, what will be the most important PR tools for small businesses? The growth and maturation of social networking will continue to influence the PR landscape. As these technologies become more mainstream, we should begin to see more localized, Zagat-like content available in communities across the country. Such sites should afford small businesses even greater opportunities for exposure. Traditional tools and practices will continue to be the foundation of public relations, but more and more we'll see the influence of shared content and communications.
10 Tips on Time Management
Many small businesses find themselves stretched for time in an economy that requires businesses to do more with less to stay competitive. That’s why it’s wise for entrepreneurs to develop good time management habits so that everything that needs to be done, gets done. Here are 10 time management tips to help you work smarter and use your time wisely. 1. Buy a week-at-a-glance appointment book and use it religiously. Write everything that you need to accomplish in this book. This book is your brain! 2. Differentiate between the urgent and the vital. The urgent may be making a lot of noise to get your attention, but it is rarely vital that it be done right now or at all. “The vital task rarely needs to be done today. The urgent task calls for instant action. The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible, and they devour our energy. With a sense of loss we recall the vital tasks we pushed aside. We realize that we have become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.” –Charles Hummel 3. The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. 4. Keep track of your time by 15 minute increments for 2 weeks to see how you actually spend your time. Compare this to what you should be or want to be spending your time on. It will give you the motivation to make needed changes.
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5. Say “no” to the project, not the person. You cannot do everything everyone asks you to do. 6. Learn how to effectively delegate. This means picking the right person, giving clear directions, setting benchmark and due dates, and then letting them do it. 7. Procrastination has a lot of different causes: fear, boredom, perfectionism, an overwhelming task and unclear goals. Identify the reason behind procrastination, so you are solving the right problem when dealing with it. 8. If you earn $10,000 a year, each minute is worth $.09. If you earn $30,000 a year, each minute is worth. $.26. Use these thoughts to help you prioritize your activities and to determine to whom you should be delegating. Any time you are doing work that someone at a lower wage could be doing, you are losing money. 9. Set goals. They help you prioritize your activities and let you know that you have succeeded. 10. There are 1,440 minutes in a day and 29020 days in an 80 year lifetime. Take control of your time and make this year the year you do what you want.
Get Organized—Right Now
Every successful entrepreneur tries to be well-organized in order to maximize every minute of the day. If you believe getting organized is just for the compulsively neat, add up the time you spend every day hunting around for misplaced files or documents. You'll be shocked at how much time and money your messy desk costs your business. Hiring a professional organizer is one way to go, but be prepared to pay between $50 and $150 an hour. It's also not that difficult to do it yourself. Start by reading Taming the Paper Tiger, by Barbara Hemphill, and using the companion software product. Meanwhile, get started right now.
1. Schedule a weekend or two to totally clean up your office. If necessary, pay
employees overtime to help you tackle the mess. Get into the right mood by playing your favorite music. Bring in plenty of snacks, soft drinks, cleaning supplies and lots of big trash bags. Tackle everything off your desk and set things on the floor. Throw away any piece of paper that you haven't touched for a month. Next, go through your "in" basket and distribute everything you can. Scan through those stacks of magazines and newspapers. Tear out articles that you absolutely must read. Recycle the rest. Clean out every file in your filing cabinets. Ask your employees to do the same with their files, too. Be ruthless. You don't need paper copies of everything that is in your computer as long as the files are properly backed up and stored off-site. Remember, your desk is a work space, not an exhibit area. Clear off all the plants, family pictures, toys and gadgets.
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you stay organized. Everyone has a different style of organization. Wander around a big office supply store. Do you like to see project files hanging on the wall? Would colored files help you keep better track of projects? Use filing cabinets for storage, not for active projects. 7. Sort through your piles of business cards. Throw out the ones you'll never use. Then put the remaining ones in a Rolodex file, a business card album, or scan them into a business card database. 8. Buy a calendar that works for you. Keep one master calendar for yourself. Multiple calendars create confusion. Do you like one that shows the whole week, the whole month, or each day individually? I use a book size calendar that shows the entire month on two pages. When I'm traveling or have a lot of appointments, I transfer my daily schedule to an index card. Index cards are cheap and easy organizing tools. Save the cards if you want a daily journal. 9. Once you've cleaned up your office, try to keep it neat by avoiding the paper pileup. Sort the mail into categories: bills, personal letters, marketing materials, and so on. Throw out the junk mail right away. Put the bills in a file and keep them in a safe place for check writing. Pass along as much mail as you can to key employees. Write notes and action steps right on the letters or information. 10. Try scheduling what I call "in days" and "out days". Schedule back-to-back appointments for your "out days" and stay out all day, if need be. But on your "in days," stay in and work hard. 11. Set aside an hour or two every day to return phone calls. Take advantage of voice mail to leave after-hour messages. Don't be afraid to let your assistant or your voice mail pick up your phone. You'll never get any work done if you take every call that comes in. 12. Promise yourself that you'll try to stay organized for at least a month. Then take it one day at a time.
Growing Your Business While Maintaining Balance in Your Life . . . It's Easier Than You Think
As the American Business Women's Association (ABWA) prepares to celebrate 50 years of helping women succeed in business, it is amazing to look back and see the changes in the workplace that have taken place. The astonishing developments in technology alone have forever changed the way we do business. Advances by businesswomen have created new struggles as well, such as the difficulty of finding the perfect balance between career and personal life. One of the biggest barriers to achieving this sought after life balance is time, more specifically a lack of time. Fortunately, one of the solutions to this problem is simple, time-tested and proven to help you get ahead in business, while simplifying and enriching your personal life. The solution? Networking. Women-owned Businesses are Growing According to U.S. Census data, women are currently starting businesses at twice the rate of men,
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resulting in nearly 8 million women-owned businesses in America today. A survey conducted in 1994 by Avon Products Inc. showed that 74 percent of corporate women are interested in starting their own businesses. As more and more Americans take the entrepreneurial plunge, the market gets tighter, the competition gets tougher and business owners need competitive advantages to stand out. Women have historically helped each other along the way in the struggle for equality and the same is true today as they leave the corporate world behind and forge new ground in entrepreneurship. Networking Is Essential Whether you are an established entrepreneur or just entering the work force, networking is an essential component to achieving success, as well as balance in your life. Networking is especially important to individuals who are starting or running their own businesses. While business ownership provides tremendous perks and satisfaction, it also carries with it a unique set of concerns and issues, especially for women trying to balance business, family and personal life. Why Network? The bottom line about networking is that it works. If you don't think you have time to network, think again-you really can't afford not to. In addition to meeting experienced business owners, discovering new ideas and learning innovative ways to do business, you may also find quality day care, a part-time housekeeper and a carpool for the kids' soccer game when you have a late sales meeting. Networking is becoming the bridge that unites the conflicting states of work and family. It's important to recognize that networking is more than handing out your business card. If you are not connecting with people on a more personal level, you are not networking. Donna Fisher, author of People Power: 12 Power Principles to Enrich Your Business, Career and Personal Networks, stresses the importance of listening. "People can sense when you are truly listening and when you are only feigning interest," says Fisher. "People know that you care by the way you listen. Listening is a powerful rapport builder, because the process of listening conveys sincerity and attention." Because many people feel self conscious and uncomfortable networking with strangers, Fisher also emphasizes the ability to connect with others. "Any time you feel uncomfortable it is because you are focused on yourself," says Fisher. "When you take your attention off yourself and focus on others, your self consciousness will disappear." Anne Baber, co-author of Smart Networking: How to Turn Contacts Into Cash, Clients and Career Success, points out the importance of sharing a success story with your conversation partner. When asked the question, "What's new?" most people reply, "Not much, what's new with you?" Instead, share a success story and you will convey what you do, how you serve clients, something unique about your business and what your firm has to offer. Baber suggests you have several success stories planned in your mind, so you will always be prepared. Your story should be short, unique, service-oriented and strategic. Network Everywhere Networking can take place informally almost anywhere; in line at the grocery store, at the dentist's office or in a restaurant. Increasingly popular, however, are formal networking sessions
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in professional group meetings. ABWA started when three businesswomen got together to support each other in their career and educational goals. It was not called networking in 1949, but that's exactly what it was. Today, with 80,000 members, ABWA knows the value of networking and provides opportunities for women to connect in several ways Women-owned businesses employ one out of every five U.S. workers for a total of 18.5 million employees. There is no doubt women have changed the face of the work force and marketplace. Your network is never big enough and there is never a point when you can afford to stop networking. Take advantage of networking opportunities. You will be amazed to discover how networking will help your business grow, enrich your life and help you achieve balance between career and family.
Recommended Reading: Use These Books to Grow
If you're interested in reading more about what it takes to fund and grow a small business, try these recommendations from Hector V. Barreto, former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Mr. Barreto left the SBA in June 2006 to head The Latino Coalition. Before being named SBA administrator he was an entrepreneur in Los Angeles. He has been vice chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Latin Business Association in Los Angeles. Here is his list:
"Strategic Selling" and "Conceptual Selling" By Robert B. Miller and Stephen E. Heiman with Tad Tuleja "I used both of these books to help get my financial-services and securities broker-dealer business off the ground." "What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School: Notes from a Street-Smart Executive" By Mark H. McCormack "This is a common-sense approach that highlights important aspects of business that you cannot find in a textbook." "Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done" By Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan with Charles Burck "This is the most recent book I have read. It preaches accountability, of which I'm a big believer." "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive: Outsell, Outmanage, Outmotivate and Outnegotiate Your Competition" By Harvey Mackay "This book focuses on taking on your competition and winning."
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"Jack Welch & the GE Way: Management Insights and Leadership Secrets of the Legendary CEO" By Robert Slater "This book was very useful to me as I embarked on my career as SBA Administrator. It is a useful tool in managing complex organizations." "The Spirit to Serve: Marriott's Way" By J.W. Marriott Jr. and Kathi Ann Brown "Marriott shows the importance of being a hands-on manager and that a manager sets the tone for the organization." "Trump: The Art of the Deal" By Donald Trump with Tony Schwartz "Trump preaches the need to take calculated risks and chances."
Six Keys to Unlocking Your Best Business Solutions
Running or starting a business today is tough. Everyone’s seeking “secrets” of success and there are peddlers aplenty who claim to have ’em. Funny thing about secrets, though. There really aren’t any. What we need instead is something more solid than secrets to build a foundation for success. Growing a business requires access to the right connections and information to get things done. At BizBest we call it BASIC—short for Best Advice, Solutions, Information and Contacts. I say the “right” connections because much of what masquerades as “resources” today is either woefully out of date, superficial or advertising in disguise. Still, a gold mine of help awaits any entrepreneur who makes a modest effort to seek it—help in every area imaginable, from management, technology and sales, to marketing, operations, finance, manufacturing, you name it. As a biz owner and journalist, I’ve been sniffing out useful resources for decades with the needs of small biz in mind. Here are six keys to unlocking great resources for your business, plus some specific connections that have earned a high BizBest rating. They are drawn from over 2,000 listings in BizBest: Connections for Success, America’s only independent, ad-free resource locator for biz owners. Some have made the prestigious BizBest50 list of the most useful resources for small biz.
1. Let It Be Free: “Free advice” is worth what you pay for it, right? Not always. Some of
today’s best small biz resources are free. SCORE"Counselors to America's Small Business" is one of America’s best small biz resources. Here are a few other examples (among hundreds): - The Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership operates EntreWorld is one of the most extensive and useful small biz Web sites. It’s all free and has no advertising. - Biztraveler.org, from the National Business Travel Association, is a free resource with tips on biz travel that will save you time and money.
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- Energy Star Small Business is a program that helps small biz save money on energy costs with free tech help and resources. Call 1-888/STAR-YES. Expand Your Boundaries: Some terrific resources are near; others far. Organizations such as Better Business Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce and Small Business Development Centers have thousands of local offices. But for opportunities beyond U.S. borders, Hong Kong-based Alibaba is a top provider of online marketing services to small importers and exporters. Consider Big Biz: When it comes to small biz, a few big companies do “get it.” Staples, for example, makes ordering supplies a breeze; OPEN: The Small Business Network from American Express offers good financial management tools, services and savings; while Microsoft’s bCentral is a standout. Go for Gov.: Government-sponsored resources (state and federal) can be helpful, especially for startup info, contracting and import/export matters. Business.gov is a good portal. (And by the way, StartupJournal.com, from the Wall Street Journal, is a super site for start-up info.) Don’t Leave Your Desk: A phone, a Web connection and a guidebook such as BizBest to help point the way are all you need to find help for any business need. Be a Skeptic: Thousands of organizations, publications and Web sites offer “resources” that are blatant advertising. Look deeper. Ask questions. And be wary of the Web. It offers tremendous resources, but picking them out from all the garbage gets tougher by the day.
Starting a Business? It’s Who You Know
When I started my business, the first thing I did was surround myself with skilled people I know and trust. I recommend you do the same. Think about all the smart, successful people you have worked with or done business with who can help you get your business off the ground—and start calling!
1. Friends and family: Ask your close friends and family to give you an honest opinion of
your business idea. Keep their personalities in mind (you won’t get honest advice from either the perpetual optimists, or Debbie Downers in your inner circle), but listen and consider what they say. They might see the flaws in your idea that you’re too excited to notice. 2. Former coworkers: Is there an excellent graphic designer, salesperson or IT genius you always respected and worked well with? Well, now is the time to send a quick e-mail or set up a lunch to talk about your new business. Maybe the person has extra time to help you on the side (or maybe you can even hire them). 3. Business contacts: Don’t break any non-compete regulations, but make sure you let your former business associates know you’re starting out on your own. Get their thoughts on how you might be able to do business with their companies once you’re up and running. Find out their needs and how you can meet them.
60 Compiled By: Jagat Singh Dhami, MBA 4. Free help from SCORE: Make an appointment with your local SCORE office and let
their business experts help you plan your future business, identify its sales potential and manage cash. Start by going online to SCORE’s mentor service. Last, but not least, don’t be afraid to call in some favors. During your career, I bet you’ve helped many people along the way; now it’s your turn to ask them for help. The more you reach out for advice and help, the better your chances of success. Starting your own business is really a team effort, after all.
Creating Your Own Logo
A logo is more than just a little design or your company name written in a fancy font. Logo design is a special skill, and there's no one definitive method that is better than the others. All good logos, however, have a few things in common. When you're designing your logo, aim for something that:
• • • •
Isn't trendy and doesn't need to be redesigned each season. Will look good even in black and white and reduced to fit on a business card. Is adaptable enough to fit on different products or marketing pieces. Is integrated into your overall marketing strategy.
You'll probably want to use a combination of your company name and emblem. That's the best, safest bet for most small businesses. Done correctly, your logo can become an important part of your intellectual property and can offer real value to your business. Who Are You and What Do You Do? If you want your logo to communicate effectively who you are and what you do, you've got to know precisely who you are and what you do. That sounds obvious, right? But far too many businesses can't articulate what makes them unique. In 10 words or less, what is your business? You need to discover the essence of your industry and what people want to find there. Here are a few examples to get you started:
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If your business is a medical practice, most people are looking for trusted experience and advice. If you own a vintage clothing shop, people want to find quality merchandise and knowledgeable salespeople. If you run a day care center, you want to convey a fun and secure environment for kids and a sense of trustworthiness for their parents.
What Can You Do for Me? You're about to learn a secret far too few business people understand. When you describe your business to other people, you need to focus on the benefits you provide to your customers. Most people, when asked to come up with a list of benefits, come up words like: reliable, fast, honest, conscientious, professional, experienced.
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These are features, not benefits. The difference is that a feature is merely a description—a fact— about a product or service. To move from feature to benefit:
• • •
1. Write a sentence that describes who you are and what you do. "I am a trustworthy accountant who works hard to manage your money," for example. 2. Ask yourself, as your potential customers will, "So what?" 3. Answer that question: "I have been an accountant for 15 years, and I can manage your money effectively."
Now you're on the way to a benefit. This statement answers the customer question: what can you do for me? In this case, the benefit you can offer, at its most basic, is: I can manage your money. That's what you want to convey behind your messages, behind your logo. Options for Logo Design Now it's time to go out and get your very own logo. There are several options for doing this.
Create your own logo. Designing your own logo is the cheapest option available. And you don't have to spend time trying to communicate the details. However, you may find that it's difficult to translate your vision into a logo if you're not a professional designer. Worse, you may find that you get what you pay for—and when you pay nothing, that bargain price might be reflected in your new logo. Hire a freelance designer. Working with a freelance designer requires more investment —potentially significant in both time and money—than creating your own logo; however, it also has its advantages. Freelance designers create logos for a living and have a lot of knowledge and research to support their creations. Hire an ad agency. If you can't find a freelance designer you like, or if you're just wary of doing business with an individual, you might want to look into an advertising agency. In many cases, several designers will likely collaborate on your logo. That's good and bad. Good, because more creative visions mean more ideas. Bad, because sometimes too many cooks can spoil the soup. Use an online logo design service. A relatively new development in the design world is the advent of online design services. These companies provide fast-turnaround logo design at low prices—to the tune of a professionally designed logo in three days for under $300.
How you choose to obtain your logo is your decision. It depends on you and your business needs. Only you know your budget, time constraints, and comfort level. Eight Things You Can Do to Create a Visionary Enterprise From a business perspective, most people would agree that the past several years have been real doozies in a lot of ways. As we look ahead into the coming year, and assess the path we traversed in the past 12 to 24 months, we'll find things that remain outside of our control, things for which we might plan and things that we can do right now to start the year with a sense of forward-momentum (and positive momentum, at that).
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First, a very quick look back: Economic and cultural quakes The degree to which the past several years have been a challenge may differ depending on who and where you are, and whether your enterprise is business-to-business or enterprise-toconsumer. In the late 1990's, many organizations became, to varying degrees, dependent on the high-tech and dot-com economies. Others had become complacent, or perhaps unnecessarily lavish in their spending, in the boom-time economy. The effects of the layoffs, reorganizations, stock-market volatility, business failures, tightened purse-strings and executive malfeasance rippled outward over the last few years. Yet even as these few years featured such challenges, the period also had many shining moments, particularly those that involved a unified populace, a focus on truly important values and a degree of resilience and fortitude that always inspires. Indeed, a turn to history tells us that such challenges—and worse—have been surmounted and used as springboards for even greater cycles of innovation, well-being, unification and prosperity. The more trying events have showcased cultural and human strengths and values that had simply been overshadowed by the near exclusive focus on material growth and gain. From the perspective of some philosophical and wisdom traditions, wonders can often (and often do) emerge from chaos that seems at some point to be uncertain, or even terrifying. What we can do as we look ahead to creating prosperity in 2006 and beyond? Rudyard Kipling wrote that one crucial attribute of a successful person is the ability to keep your head about you when all around you people are losing their heads and some are even blaming it on you. His point is not to be underestimated. So instead of allowing yourself to be carried away by the more dastardly events of the past few years, as awful and emotionally draining as they might have been, you might choose instead to keep your wits about you and focus (and act) in a positive, forward-moving manner that pays homage to all who have worked diligently and persevered in the face of challenge. Though the results may not be exactly what you had hoped for the short-term, perseverance does have its rewards. Here are a few steps for beginning your journey into the coming year: 1. Take stock of your situation. There is nothing to fear but fear itself, said Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Whenever I find myself fearful and anxious, I grab a notepad, flipchart or whiteboard, pens and several of my colleagues if appropriate, and do a thorough check-in on circumstances, resources and possibilities. Freefloating fear is dangerous because we can't work with it; by untangling the subjects of our fears (in this case, regarding our business or livelihood), we can better know what we're working with and take action. Do your own check-in with the list that follows: 2. Articulate your worst-case-scenarios or fears. Perhaps you fear that the economy won't recover, or won't recover in time for your organization's
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survival. Maybe you fear that you'll lose your financial standing, or material assets upon which you base your perceptions of success. Or you may fear that you'll go bankrupt, or that your traditional customer base will no longer support your business. If you're an employee, you may fear that you'll get laid off before all of this is said and done, which raises some of the fears mentioned above. These scenarios may shake your confidence, give you an upset stomach, or have you waking in the middle of the night with anxious thoughts of failure. As fearsome as these scenarios can be, we often over-estimate them and underestimate our ability to deal with even these. One of the best ways to decrease our fears of the ghosts in the closet is to open the closet door and turn on the light. 3. List assets and contingencies. Now that you've unmasked your worst-case scenarios, make a list of anything you consider to be one of your assets or resources. What might you still have, or what might you do, if faced with these worst-case options? When in the past do you remember overcoming difficult circumstances and prevailing in the face of challenges that might have seemed insurmountable at the time? 4. Assess your strengths. The assets you listed may be considered strengths, as might less tangible traits. For example, your previous experience at creating opportunities and overcoming challenges or anxiety provoking circumstances is a strength. Other strengths may be revealed by positive things others have said about you, reasons people have enjoyed working with you, or even those things that you love to do even if you do them for free or as a "value added" in your work. For this part of the exercise, you'll want to unabashedly accentuate the positive and sing your own or your group's praises. 5. See where you can be of service. Mother Theresa offered very practical advice when she said, "If you want to know how to change the world, pick up a broom." Some wisdom traditions emphasize that "you find yourself when you lose yourself" in service to others, but you don't have to practice any particular wisdom tradition to know that being of service to others feels good and takes your focus off of your own short-comings and areas of lack. That's a great start. This exercise isn't about what's profitable (though it might come back to you ultimately in that way), but rather how you might help meet community needs. For example, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, local bookstores found themselves to be important information sources and gathering spaces for neighbors in search of answers or just comfort. While large-scale tragedies magnify such needs for community and mutual support, the needs—and opportunities for service— always exist. Ask yourself how you or your business can be of greater service or help create a more enriched, positive, supportive community. 6. Imagine the possibilities. Put your cynicism, criticism and negativity on the shelf for this exercise. Taking a look over the things you've listed based on the exercises above, imagine how you can reinvigorate or revitalize current products or services. Who else might benefit from the strengths and assets you've listed? Are there potential customers that you just haven't considered before only because flush times didn't require that degree of creative thinking? Are there other ways that you could organize skills, assets and strengths to create new products or services that fit current and forecast needs in
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2003 and into 2004? What accomplishments would you like to celebrate as you wrap the coming year? 7. Brainstorm opportunities. Having identified assets, resources, areas of service and a multitude of possibilities, what opportunities might exist for bringing those ideals or concepts into your daily, weekly, monthly and annual activities? What resources and revenues will you need to meet your desired quality of life and sustainability (individual or organizational)? What organizations exist that could benefit from the services or products you provide? How can potential avenues of service be integrated into your way of doing business (or doing your job)? With whom can you create a mutually beneficial partnership to provide your products or services in a way that meets a need, while receiving a fair revenue in return? With whom can you partner, or to whom can you turn, for trusted advice and a helpful perspective to put the needed resources into place and create the opportunities? 8. Align your vision with action. Continuing your dialogue started in the exercises above, what action can you take today to begin creating resources and opportunities, and fulfilling this vision of what's possible? What can you do this week? This month? In the coming quarter? While you can add other categories and exercises to your list, the ones above can help give you a start as you launch a new year, and will provide an anchor and resource as you check in each month and quarter to assess your progress, identify new resources and opportunities, or upgrade your goals for the year.
How to Get Started As A Government Contractor
Becoming a contractor or sub-contractor for the U.S. government can bring in lucrative, ongoing revenue to your small business. But doing business with the government is very different than typical business-to-business selling. Sales cycles are often much slower. There is a process that must be followed, and you'll face stiff competition from larger companies with more experience. In fact, the process can seem overwhelming, especially if you're just starting out, and you need to be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort before you start bringing in large contracts. So how do you get your foot in the door, start bringing in money now and cut down on your learning curve? Start by selling locally. Municipal agencies in your city, town or county government, such as water and sewer commissions, parking bureaus or even boards of education—regularly do business with small, local companies. How to Get Started:
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might be interested in your product or services? Target the top two or three agencies that you think will be the most likely to need your products or services. Don't try to be all things to all people. Find out what their needs are: Go to your local library and read the newspaper archives. Attend a couple of city council meetings. What are the issues they are faced with? What actions are they taking? How can your products or services help them to solve their problems? Knowing what their problems are and having an instant solution can go a long ways in getting you the contract. Find out who you need to see: Find out who is responsible for creating the Request for Proposals (RFPs) for the agency. Who is in charge of purchasing? How do they prefer to be contacted? Get as much information as you can about the process as well. Determine your price. Remember that local agencies are usually required to get three bids and take the lowest one, so they can show that they're not wasting taxpayer's money. But, before you lowball yourself into losing money on the deal, carefully look at each aspect of your bid. Make sure that you can live with the amount you bid, because once accepted, it's very difficult to make changes later. Create a marketing strategy: Figure out your "who" "what" "when" and "how." Set up face-to-face meetings when possible. Bring information such as brochures and catalogs with you. Because government agencies base most of their purchasing decisions on shortterm expenditures, not long-term value, you may need to adjust your sales strategy accordingly. Make Contact: When you make the initial phone call, use the knowledge you've already collected about the agency to get an appointment. You also want to know what is their process for making purchases. Do they have registration requirements? What are they? What information do they need before they make a decision? First Meeting: Your objective here is to listen to your prospective client. What does she/he think are their most immediate problems and pressing needs? (From the research you've done, you should already have a general idea of what they're looking for, and what their needs are. Now is your opportunity to get the "inside scoop.") Ask intelligent questions, and give basic information about your company, your abilities and your products or services. Just remember—this meeting isn't about You, it's about them! Make sure you ask any questions you've still got about the application process, and what you need to do in order to put in a bid. Leave the information with your prospective client, and tell them what you will do next. If you set a time to follow up, do it. If not, you're going to follow up anyway, but more about that in a minute. Follow-up. After the meeting, put together a plan of action. Create at least three solutions to your prospective client's problems, but make it something unique that can only be done by your company. If you sell a product, perhaps you could provide a free training workshop, to get users up to speed more quickly and efficiently. If you provide a service, offer an additional incentive, or extra component that either solves another problem or provides added value and benefit to the client. Then get it to the person you saw. For example, you could send a simple letter…"Dear Fred, Thanks for meeting with me last Friday. After we talked, I started thinking about what you said about …, and came up with …" Don't be afraid of giving him your best ideas. You want him/her to understand that you can solve his problems. You don't need to go into details about "how" you'll
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accomplish it. Just let him know that you can. Make sure that you follow the application process completely, and turn it in before the deadline. 9. Network, network, network. Don't stop now. Who else do you know who can help champion your cause? Who is your local city council person? Other elected representatives? You don't have to be a major contributor to ask your representative for assistance. Most politicians are more than happy to help local businesses succeed. Getting the word out about who you are and what you can do is just good business. Talk to your local chamber of commerce, SCORE or small business development center (SBDC) office. 10. Be professional. Above all else, you want to project an attitude of competence and professionalism. Go the extra mile. Make sure that your client is more than satisfied by doing business with you. And once you've got one government client, it will be easier to convince other agencies to do business with you.
How to Profit From a New Invention
"An invention is one of those super strokes, like discovering a platinum deposit, or a gas field, or writing a novel, through which an individual . . . can transform his life overnight, and light up the sky," so wrote author Tom Wolfe. He continued, "The inventor needs only one thing, which is as free as the air: a terrific idea." My apologies to Mr. Wolfe, but besides needing "a terrific idea," the inventor also needs to know how to turn the idea into a money-maker. To do so, inventors or small business owners must concern themselves with four areas: Invention Evaluation This needs to be done first, but don't try to do it yourself. There are universities whose business departments offer new product evaluation services, usually for a small fee. A leader in this field is the Wal-Mart Innovation Network, or WIN program, at Southwestern Missouri State University. You can submit an invention, or simply a product idea, to them for their confidential review. WIN uses 41 criteria to assess the commercial potential of what you submit. They give you a 13-page feedback report with a cover letter that usually contains specific comments from your chief evaluator. Their fee is only $175. You end up with an objective "risk profile" of your project that you can show to vendors, backers and others. If your invention scores high enough, Wal-Mart may want to test your product in its stores. WIN's report contains professional advice that helps you decide if you should continue with, modify, or abandon your idea. Call WIN for a free information packet at 417/836-5671. Another leader in the new product evaluation field is the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center at: 414/472-1365. Low-cost "Patent Pending" A "patent pending" notice warns the world, "Don't copy my invention, because someday I may stop you with an issued patent and collect damages." However, it's illegal to use this notice
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unless you first file a patent application at the U.S. Patent Office. This could cost several thousand dollars because you need to pay a patent attorney or agent to prepare the application, and then pay the Patent Office its filing fee of $395. But, you can postpone or avoid these big costs by filing what is called a Provisional Patent Application (PPA). A PPA is simple enough to be filed by most individuals in a few hours without hiring help. The filing fee is only $75. And, it's quick—the moment you mail your PPA (to the U.S. Patent Office) your invention gets the same valuable "patent pending" status as it would get with a non-provisional application, except it lasts only 12 months. The purpose of the PPA is to give the inventor time to develop and test an idea—disclosing it in safety to vendors and others—and determine whether the invention merits further investment in a regular (non-provisional) application for a 20-year patent. For information on how to file a PPA, call the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to request a free brochure on its 24-hour toll-free line, 1-800/786-9199. Product Development and Manufacturing Product development is basically a matter of refining your invention into a product that can be manufactured and offered for sale at an attractive price. Begin with these three steps:
• • •
Produce a prototype. Test it. Find out how much it would cost to have various quantities manufactured.
Once you've completed these steps, you will know enough to decide if your product is a candidate for further investment. For example, if you test the prototype and it won't do what you thought, or you find its cost to manufacture is too great, you may want to reconsider or drop the project. However, if your prototype works well, show it to vendors and backers and get it photographed for advertising and PR purposes. For help with your prototype, check the Yellow Pages under Model Makers. Don't set up to manufacture your new product in-house. Rather, use outsourcing. Look up likely manufacturers in the 28-volume Thomas Register of Manufacturers. It lists 150,000 manufacturing factories according to what they make. Find it at your library, or access it free on the Internet at (www.thomasregister.com). Fax your requests for quotation to appropriate factories and ask for costs on quantities from, say, 1,000 to 100,000 units. Select the best factory by comparing costs, capabilities, location, etc. Use your manufacturer's quoted costs as the basis for creating your own wholesale and retail price lists. Set a big enough profit margin to allow for product promotional costs, packaging costs and adequate profit. The end-user price should be about five-to-15 times your cost to manufacture, depending on the category of your product and other factors. Distribution and Promotion Negotiate with your manufacturer to produce a minimum quantity, say, a few hundred or a few thousand units for sampling. Use these samples to do informal market surveys to see what retailers and consumers think of your new product. Visit retail merchants that would carry this kind of product. Demonstrate a sample to these merchants and see if they think it would sell. (Get the names of local sales reps that call on them.) Go to a shopping mall, politely stop
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pedestrians, demonstrate your product and ask for their feedback. (Meanwhile, prepare a single-page catalog sheet including your product photo and specifications.) If the product scores well in your surveys, line up local sales reps, arm them with samples, catalog sheets and your survey results, and hire them at 10-to-15 percent commission to sell to distributors and retailers. Have your sales reps write advance orders for quantities of your product. With orders to fill, there's reduced risk in placing that first production order with your manufacturer. Order extra units to maintain an ample inventory as you line up more sales reps and launch the product across the country. Send out a new-product press release with a photo to the appropriate industry trade magazines to get free publicity. Forward sales leads generated by this publicity to your sales reps for follow-up. And, finally, keep promoting and promoting!
How to Set-up a Home Office
Establishing and maintaining a home office requires a healthy dose of the five P's (Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performances). Through a telephone conversation, the client won't know if you are using a desk in your bedroom. But in order to succeed, it is important that you commit yourself to professionalism. Not everyone can work at home; many find it distracting on many levels. One of the first problems I had was with my dog. The dog barked every time the Federal Express man made a delivery or someone approached the door. Distracting sounds of the dog barking incessantly or the doorbell chiming while talking on the phone with the CEO of a multi-national company will not leave a favorable impression. When the kids began to leave the home, I insisted that they would acclimate faster if they took the dog. I also got a quieter doorbell. Set up your office professionally, as though you were working in a downtown office. There are enough distractions—the refrigerator, telemarketers, repairmen, delivery people—without having to work in an undesirable environment. I worked out of my unfinished basement once and I found the office was always disorderly. I had converted a bedroom and used bits and pieces of office furniture and equipment. I hated to walk into that mish-mash each day, so I kept finding reasons not to go there. My business suffered. Finally, I started to look for office furniture packages, which included desks, matching file cabinets and computer stations. The costs were prohibitive. One day a cabinet maker came to repair our entertainment center and I asked him to take a look at my office. After telling him what I needed to accomplish in the office, he and I drew the original design on the back of an envelope. I now have a totally built-in office, with computer desks, mail center, file cabinets, bookcases and ample collating and storage space. I had it built from regular laminates in offwhite, though I could have chosen wood tones or various colors. The cupboards hang from the ceiling on three walls over the counters, and under the counter space (except for kneeholes) are drawers and filing cabinets. Some shelves are enclosed and others are not. And, I'm surrounded by my family photos and pictures of exotic places I intend to travel. Total cost: less than $2,500. It was built off-site and installed in one afternoon; it's a total business cocoon.
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Situate your work space according to your work style. Position your most needed files, printers, phones, copiers near your work area. Don't worry about "normal" order. My "R" files are near my desk, not in their alphabetical order. Why? Because for the past two years, my two largest client's names began with "R" and I used that drawer most often. The copier was purposely placed farther away, so that I am forced to get up from my chair and move about. Now about that chair! Don't be tempted to buy a cheap one! What you save in initial costs you will spend in medication for your backaches. If you are like most business people working from home, you will spend many hours in that chair. Sit in it for more than three or four minutes before buying it and be sure it fits your lower back and doesn't inhibit your arm movement at the computer. Some people put different colored carpet in their offices than the rest of their house. Some make the door face a hallway rather than the patio or pool. Some paint the walls a different color. All these things are fine, if they help you concentrate. You will also find that when you are working from home, your family expects you to accept deliveries, consult with repairmen, etc. Keep this to a minimum. Do only those things that you would do if you worked in an office tower downtown. I don't go to the grocery store or hairdresser in the middle of the day, even though it may be less crowded . You must think of your time away from the office as time and money lost, otherwise you will become less of a business person and more of an errand runner. My office has three separate phone lines: one is a dedicated fax/modem line and two are incoming lines, one of which is also a home line that can be answered at my desk. It will not appear professional to callers if you have call-waiting, rather than a dedicated business phone. Clients are frustrated when they are told that they have to wait until you hang up the phone to fax something, because you didn't invest in the proper phone equipment. I once was speaking with a consultant, who asked me to fax his contract to the local Kwik-Copy location because he didn't have a fax in his office. I began to worry about his commitment to being in business, since fax machines are now available for less than $200. I never sent the contract. I recently heard a definition of "consultant" as a person who was gainfully un-employed. If you don't want to be described as such, make a commitment to setting up your office in a business environment that helps you concentrate solely on your business. This is your best long-term investment.
Lets Get It Started
This is the perfect time to start a business. Really! While many may think that advice is counterintuitive, it’s not. Many businesses that started in previous economic downturns are still thriving today (Whole Foods, Microsoft and FedEx are just a few examples). There are good reasons and bad reasons to start a business. Starting a business will not make you rich overnight, nor will you get hours of free time to play golf or go shopping. It’s hard work, but
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it will put you in control of your life. So, what are you waiting for? Here are 7 smart tips to help you get started: 1. Dream big, but start small. Apple, Amazon and HP were all started in garages. Sure, the entrepreneurs behind these businesses had grandiose visions, but they didn’t start out with millions of dollars or even hundreds of customers. Consider starting online; it’s much cheaper. 2. Find a niche and fill it. A startup cliché, to be sure, but it’s true nonetheless. The opportunities lie not with the masses, but with the underserved markets. How do you find a niche? 3. Do your homework. What do people want or need that’s not easily found? What new demographic markets are emerging that need products or services? What product (or product innovation) or service would make your life easier? 4. Write a business plan. Lots of people think they can skip this step. Don’t. Get some business plan software and let it guide you through what you need to find out about your proposed startup. 5. Where’s the money? In good times or bad, most startups are self-financed, or funded by family and friends. So figure out how much money you need--not only to start the business, but for six months of living expenses. Then add another 33 percent to the total to cover the what-ifs. 6. Make it legal. Make sure you get the required licenses and permits. Get a tax ID number (both federal and from your state). Keep good records and pay your taxes. 7. Get help. If you have questions or need assistance, SCORE can help.
Roberts Rules of Entrepreneurship
You believe in yourself. You have ideas and dreams. Use these convictions to create a rewarding and fulfilling business life, where you are the boss. During the agonies and ecstasies of starting my own company, I learned these "rules of entrepreneurship" the hard way…on the job! Perhaps it can help those of you who are just beginning, to start on the right track and to avoid the road blocks along the way. You probably need a break from the complexity of starting a business. Here is some fundamental business advice—simple, straight forward and easy to implement. 1. Find a need—be ahead of your time. Find a niche where the Giants won't bother to go. 2. Identify your market and learn all about it. You have to know everything about your business at the start.
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3. Prepare a business plan...yes you have to. No bank will take you seriously without a plan for profits. 4. Have adequate financing to start and to stay. Success does not happen overnight, so be sure you're financially fit. 5. Pay for the best professional advice. Lawyers, accountants, insurers do work on an as needed, fee basis. 6. Keep your overhead low and your standards high. Work from home or at a low cost, convenient location. 7. Establish a clearly defined distribution network. Whatever your product or service, how will you present and sell it? 8. Be creative—your new idea does count. Depend on marketing strategies rather than costly advertising to grow. 9. Seek and hire the most qualified people. From the first employee, look for someone who knows more than you. 10. Know your competition and work to win. Be persistent, focused and flexible…anything can happen. 11. Learn from the success and failure of others. Read, watch trends, and observe what is "hot" in your industry. 12. Use technology as a tool for building your business. From computers to telecommunications to the Web-use them all. 13. Don't be sensitive and don't take it personally. Be prepared for rejection, but never give up your dream. 14. Never underestimate the power of passion. You will need to take risks and believe when no one else does. Starting a business requires discipline and discipline requires rules. You may want to follow my "rules of entrepreneurship" or create your own set of rules. But you must clearly identify your goals and live by them. Use them as a road map to your success. Good luck!
Seven Perils of Entrepreneurship
If you’ve been out of work for a while, or are just plain tired of the work you’ve been doing for years, you may be thinking of starting a business. If so, get ready to embark on an exciting,
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rarely dull, often nerve wracking journey. To call it “perilous” may be stretching things since perilous is defined as “dangerous”. However, peril means “exposure to risk or harm,” and starting a business can certainly be risky and is definitely challenging. Since writing challenges down seems to make them easier, let’s look at the obstacles you’re about to face. 1. Time Mis-Management—This is one of those issues that create problems for many of us who start new business ventures. Either you spend all of your time working, or you can’t quite keep yourself on a schedule. Many businesses fail within the first year because the owner couldn’t get a handle on work time vs. “the rest of life” time. Rule number one: you can’t spend every waking minute on your business. You still need to have a life. Otherwise you’ll burn out. 2. Organizational Skills—If you’ve got them, you’ve just passed a major hurdle. Being disorganized not only means wasting time as you dig around trying to find something, but it also makes focus difficult. Which leads to peril number 3. 3. Focus (or Rather “Lack Of”)—One of my friends decided to close his business and focus on consulting. Seemed like a good idea. He knew his field and had a lot of hands-on experience. He also had a fully equipped home office and no kids or spouses around for distraction. Unfortunately, the idea was better than the venture. Why? He couldn’t focus without the structure of an office environment. Working at home seemed like some sort of part-time job. Instead of being at his desk every morning at a certain time, he’d find other things to do. Lunch hours often turned into taking the afternoon off. It was a “sort of” business—not a serious one. 4. Fear of Failure—Failure and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand. If you’re not fully aware that your business could fail—or if you’re terrified of failure—go to work for someone else. Because if you’re not willing to take risks, you shouldn’t be in business for yourself. Risk means stretching, taking chances, trying new tactics, making mistakes and learning how to work through them. Do some reading about successful entrepreneurs. You’ll find that most have had failures along the way—either companies that didn’t succeed or ideas that failed. Didn’t stop them from starting again. Call it gumption. 5. Lack of Marketing—Most new businesses simply don’t have large marketing budgets. However, that’s no excuse for not marketing. Because if you’re not getting your name out there, someone else will…only it will be their name, not yours.
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There are a host of inexpensive marketing tools. Networking is my number one favorite for new businesses (and old). The cost is minimal. Your investment is in time. Find some. Join networking groups, chambers of commerce, or industry organizations. Attend events where you’ll meet new people. Craft a thirty second “elevator speech” about your company (benefitfocused). Carry your business cards—always! Talk to people when you’re out. I’ve picked up business by chatting with people at social events. You never know who might be a potential customer…or who might know someone who might be. Other cost-effective marketing tools include direct mail (very targeted), direct email, enewsletters, a Web site (takes the place of a printed brochure) and public relations. It’s not necessary to have an advertising campaign. It is necessary to do something! 6. Not Staying on Top of Your Game—Technology has radically changed the way we do business. Information is disseminated immediately via the Internet. You need to be able to make decisions quickly. The same technology that makes our lives easier also requires that we work harder. Stay current on what’s going on in your particular industry. Find some industry leaders and read their newsletters and books. 7. Forgetting to Have Fun—Perils aside, as an entrepreneur, you control your destiny. You’re not at the mercy of a company downsizing and eliminating your job. And if you lose an account here or there (it happens), you can go out and get more. You can be as busy as you choose to be. So enjoy what you’re doing. Get up in the morning knowing that you’re (hopefully) doing what makes you happy. And, have fun.
The Value Of A Business Mentor
You begin your life with no experiences, just an innocent child with the world as your teacher. You are immediately introduced to your parents, your first teachers in this world. As we grow others enter our lives and make an impact, guide us on our journey to ultimately find out what our true meaning and purpose is in life. If you are persistent and aware of your surroundings, you will find these treasured guides along your journey. Over my career I have met many "guides," or mentors. These individuals have had a major impact on my life and my career. I must say that I did not always want to listen, but I am glad that I have traveled this road, and met the mentors that have impacted my life. For me, there have been a few key mentors; first, of course, was my father. A semi-pro athlete and entrepreneur himself, my father taught me that if I didn't enjoy what I was doing to change and find something that thrills me.
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As I started my business career after college I met numerous individuals that I learned from, but it wasn't until I went to work for the General Electric Company, and met Vince Tullo, did I discover the possibilities of what a mentor/mentee relationship can look like. Vince was more of a guide than a boss. He taught me how to work within the corporation, and what really mattered. I excelled in the corporate world, but deep down I wasn't very happy, and when the time came for me to follow my entrepreneurial journey, Vince was behind me 100 percent. This relationship had a profound effect on my career and me. So, as I started my entrepreneurial journey I knew that finding a mentor for this trip would be crucial. I didn't have to wait very long, as I met one of my current mentors, and one of my business partners, Mitch Schlimer, on a train shortly after resigning from GE. I had still not had my last day with the world's 2nd largest company, and my newest mentor had already appeared. Mitch is the founder and host of the syndicated radio talk show, Let's Talk Business. Mitch has gone through his own journey since we have met, and I believe that in some ways, other than building a business, I have been his mentor as well. But the entrepreneurial journey would not have been as successful as it has been if it weren't for this individual in my life. I tell everyone that I meet that I would have a job by now if it weren't for Mitch. Our relationship is special. We are able to talk on a level that I can with very few people. When you find someone who has the knowledge and experience to help you get to where you want to go, make it happen. Our business, Let's Talk Business Network, is focused on helping entrepreneurs along their journey. I meet entrepreneurs on a regular basis, and the one's that seem to be the most successful are the one's that have learned from those before them. So how do you find your mentor? I don't believe that finding a mentor can be considered a science, but you want to look for a number of key characteristics. Find someone who has accomplished goals that might be similar to yours. Find someone who is open to providing time and energy to help you achieve these goals. Find someone who you are willing to listen to, even when you might not want to. And, find someone who has similar values to you. One of the strongest bonds between my mentors and me has been a shared value system. So, if you are on the entrepreneurial journey and you don't currently have a mentor, find one and see your entrepreneurial dreams come true!
Exploring Franchising Options: Do Your Homework
We see franchised businesses popping up all over. Yet some of the most recognizable franchise brands are under attack in civil courts. And one of the most prolific attackers is Robert Zarco, a lawyer with offices in Miami and West Palm Beach. He goes after sellers of franchises, called franchisors, wherever and whenever they mistreat his clients. Zarco told me, “the problem with franchising is perception of rewards are very different than reality.”
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With so many franchises in the United States, you might think that these small business owners, called franchisees, are a happy lot. Not necessarily so, says Susan Kezios, president and founder of the American Franchisee Association, a trade association that represents franchisees nationwide. She tells us that many of her members are unhappy with the franchises they purchased and would have made different choices if they knew then what they know now. Scrutinize the Franchise Agreement Zarco’s law firm, Zarco, Einhorn & Salkowski, sued over 300 different franchisors internationally on behalf of unhappy franchisees. Zarco says abusive franchisors are using the franchise agreement “as a weapon rather than an operating guide.” They use minor technicalities to threaten withdrawal of the franchise unless franchisees comply with unrealistic demands. “When you read the franchise agreement, the promises disappear and are often contradicted by the franchise agreement," warns Jeffrey Haff, with Haff & Associates, a Minneapolis-based law firm. He told me that franchise salesman are often given "free reign to say and promise whatever they want." So what are the most common abuses by franchisors? Zarco tells us heavy remodeling requirements, exceeding a realistic return on investment, is too often imposed by franchisors. “Franchisors don’t care because it’s easy to spend someone else’s money,” he said. Watch for Encroachment Another abuse mentioned by experts is selling competing franchises in protected territories. “Encroachment or selling more franchised units in protected geography held by an existing franchisee is a frequent abuse by franchisors,” says Nicholas Bibby, head of the Bibby Group, a franchise development company. “This issue is magnified when the [encroaching] unit is [franchisor] owned.” Do the Research Understanding that there are abuses by some franchisors should not deter you from buying a franchise if you’re willing to operate in a structured environment and want the benefits of a proven system. However extensive due diligence and professional advice is recommended. The key to buying a franchise is getting into a business line that fits a person’s skill-set and interests” says Don Lapp who, with his wife Ronda, own and operate Express Personnel Services franchises in Bradenton and Sarasota, FL. He also develops and sells Express Personnel Services franchises in locations from Tampa Bay to Naples. Make certain the franchisor has a proven track record of success going back at least five to ten years”, Lapp advises. “Franchising is an excellent opportunity for a person who has always wanted to own their own business, but does not wish to reinvent the wheel.” Tips for Selecting a Franchise So, your first step is choosing a proven franchise with a lengthy history of success.
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The second step is being sure that the franchisor has a strong management team and ability to put you through an extensive training program. And, make sure the franchisor will provide the ongoing support you expect after initial training. Thirdly, check out the franchisor’s financial capabilities. If they are expanding too fast or don’t have enough liquidity to withstand economic slowdowns, they may not be capable of helping you when you need them most. Of course there are initial franchise fees and ongoing royalties to pay. Determine if the benefits they offer are worth this extra cost.
Limited Liability Company: The Growing Entity of Choice
Start-up entrepreneurs have a new choice in determining how to legally organize their companies: the Limited Liability Company (LLC). The LLC offers many of the advantages of both corporations and partnerships, with few of the drawbacks. The LLC can be added to the three well-established forms: sole proprietorship, partnership, and corporation. The LLC offers the advantages and benefits of corporations and partnerships, without many of the disadvantages. Thus, it provides tax advantages and flexibility to entrepreneurs and investors. Consider some of the problems of the well-established legal organizations: An S corporation offers certain tax advantages, but is restrictive in key areas regarding stock ownership and investment. A partnership offers greater ownership and investment flexibility than an S corporation, but it lacks the protection of individual limited liability that is found in an S or C corporation. Over the last few years, LLCs have become an option for entrepreneurs in all states. In effect, the LLC is a hybrid entity that possesses both corporate and partnership characteristics. Like a corporation, an LLC shields the owners, or "members," as they are known, from personal liability for the organization's debts and liabilities. LLCs also offer pass-through tax advantages similar to an S corporation; however, there are no limitations on the number and type of owners of an LLC. An S corporation is limited in the number and type of shareholders it can have. Nor can it own more than 80% of the stock of another corporation. Not only is an LLC free of such limitations but, like a partnership, an LLC offers important flexibility in planning distributions or allocations.
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In a conventional partnership, there are limitations on who can participate in management decisions, so as to preserve protections on liability. All members of an LLC can participate in the management, without risking loss of liability protection. Moreover, the earnings of an LLC are not subject to corporate taxes; instead, the profits flow through to the owners in proportion to their ownership. For start-up entrepreneurs, the LLC deserves serious attention as a form of organization that provides the best of corporations and partnerships.
The Importance of Business Structure: How to Select the Business Structure that is Right for You
Selecting a business structure is one of the most important decisions business owners make, with wide implications for their financial success. Business structure affects safety of personal assets, taxation and smooth continuation of the business upon ownership change. Many businesses start out as sole proprietorships or partnerships. Both of these structures provide management flexibility. The primary risk to sole proprietors or partners, however, is personal liability for company debts. As a result, many business owners opt to incorporate or form a limited liability company (LLC) to protect their families and financial interests. Businesses may change structure at any time. Here are the five most critical items to consider when selecting-or re-selecting-your business structure.
1. Protection of personal assets-Sole proprietors and partners have unlimited personal
liability for business debt or law suits against their company. Creditors can attach homes, cars, savings or other personal assets. Incorporating or forming an LLC helps separate your personal identity from your business identity. Corporation shareholders or LLC members have only the money they put into the company to lose. 2. Pass-Through Taxation-For sole proprietors and partners, company profits/losses pass directly through to their personal tax returns. For corporations, profits are taxed, then the profits that are distributed to shareholders as dividends are taxed again on the personal level. This "double taxation" can be avoided while still enjoying the benefits of personal asset protection by forming an LLC or by electing an S Corporation. S Corporations and LLCs are taxed just like partnerships. 3. Tax Deductible Employee Benefits-Incorporating or forming an LLC usually provides tax-deductible benefits for you and your employees, an advantage that sole proprietors and partners do not typically enjoy. Even if you are the only shareholder or employee of your business, benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, travel and entertainment expenses may now be deductible. Best of all, corporations and LLCs usually provide an increased tax shelter for qualified pensions or retirement plans (e.g. 401Ks).
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become legally entangled when one owner dies or retires. Corporations and LLCs are enduring legal business structures. They may continue regardless of individual officers, managers or shareholders. Corporation ownership may be transferred, without substantially disrupting operations, through sale of stock. 5. Access to Capital-Sole proprietorships and partnerships may find investors hard to attract because of personal liability. Investors are more likely to purchase shares in a corporation where there is a separation between personal and business assets. There Are a Variety of Ways to Structure a Corporation or LLC Based on their needs and intended business activities, entrepreneurs may choose from a variety of legal structures. The general, or "C," corporation continues to be the most common entity type, as it allows for an unlimited number of shareholders and usually limits a stockholder's liability to the extent of their investment in the company. The limited liability company (LLC), which combines the corporate advantage of limited personal liability with the pass-through taxation advantage of a partnership, is also gaining popularity. But if a general corporation or LLC is not suited to your business needs, there are many options available for the formation of a new legal entity. Other types of corporations include: Close Corporation A close corporation is similar to a general corporation, but limits its number of shareholders to a maximum of 30. Many close corporations require that new stock be offered to existing shareholders before being offered to outsiders. Not all states permit this type of filing, but it may be appropriate for entrepreneurs who plan to start their business alone or with a small group of individuals. Subchapter S Corporation A general corporation that has elected a special tax status through the IRS is known as a "Subchapter S" corporation, or sometimes, "S-corp." A Subchapter S corporation is appropriate for business owners who wish for their corporation to have the pass-through taxation benefits of a sole proprietorship or partnership, as the profit and loss of the company flows through to the individual tax returns of its shareholders in proportion to their investment in the company. Non-Profit Corporation A non-profit corporation is an entity that has been organized for charitable, religious or scientific or educational purposes. In concurrence with the formation filing through the Secretary of State, non-profit entities also generally elect a tax-exempt status through the Internal Revenue Service. Professional Corporation (PC) A professional corporation is an entity type intended for businesses that require professional licensure—examples would be engineers, attorneys or physicians. Many states require proof of a license before the formation filing can be completed, and members must all belong to the same profession.
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Professional Limited Liability Company (PLLC) Like the PC, a PLLC is intended for state-licensed professionals who practice the same type of business. Not all states recognize Professional Limited Liability Companies as a legal entity. Limited Partnership (LP) Limited partnerships consist of limited partners, who normally contribute capital to the company and have limited liability to the extent of their investment, and general partners, who manage the company and have unlimited personal liability for its debts. Limited partnerships allow companies to raise capital without involving outside investors, but partners can be held personally liable for the business, either wholly or to the extent of their contributions. Limited Liability Partnerships (LLP) Limited liability partnerships are used for professionals. Partners aren’t personally liability for the malpractice of other partners. Partners report any profit or loss on their personal tax returns. Not all states offer this type of structure, and those that do often restrict its availability to certain professions, such as accounting or law.
10 Simple Ways to Lower Your Computer Support Bills
When in doubt, reboot.
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Before you consider an issue a real computer support problem and call your computer consultant, always reboot first. Exit out of whatever files and programs you're working on. Then run through a Shutdown and Restart sequence to reboot your PC. If you suspect the problem involves something hardware-related, such as a network card, modem, mouse, keyboard or sound card, go one step further. Shutdown your PC. Turn the power off for a minute or so and then power your PC back up again.
Protect against viruses with a strong defense.
Adopt a strong defense to guard against expensive emergency computer support service calls for virus-related problems. Make sure every PC, notebook and server in your office is licensed for antivirus software, has antivirus software installed and properly configured—and most importantly gets refreshed at least once every two to four weeks with up to date virus definitions, also known as signature files.
Take a hard line on unauthorized software installation.
Many end users in offices of all sizes mistakenly assume a personal computer (PC) is their personal asset and that they can install whatever software they like.
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However since installing unauthorized software can lead to enormous piracy liability, virus infections and major operating system and application instability, it's in your best interest to take a hard line with your staff and co-workers. Make one person in your office in charge of installing and maintaining all software— period. And while you're at it, have this same person keep all software diskettes, CD-ROMs, license agreements and installation codes locked up.
Invest in power protection before you need it.
Are your computers ready for brownouts, blackouts, surges and sags? Do you have adequate surge protection measures in place? Do you have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) fully charged up, tested and ready to go? If you answered "Not Sure" or "No," you're certainly not alone. Your computer and phone systems may be a lot more vulnerable than you realize. Make sure every piece of sensitive electronic equipment in your office has some kind of surge protection or battery backup power. Also, regularly test your uninterruptible power supply and monitor its related software log files.
Learn how to use your backup/restore software and tape drive before you have an emergency.
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Don't wait until your CEO inadvertently deletes a folder of important Microsoft Excel files to learn about and test your backup/restore system. By then, you'll likely be in a panic and need an expensive computer consultant service call. Set aside time to ask questions now and take good notes. Learn how to check if your automated backup routines are running properly and if data is making it onto the tape as expected. Be sure that you can handle any required manual backup and restore procedures. Also, add a recurring event to your electronic organizer or Microsoft Outlook calendar to test your tape backup system, at least once a month, to make sure you can successfully restore a group of files.
Schedule proactive maintenance well in advance and during normal business hours.
The best way to protect against emergencies is to prevent them in the first place. Don't procrastinate. Schedule your computer consultant to come in and run through basic proactive maintenance. If at all possible, have this done during normal business hours, to keep the cost down and to let your computer consultant see end users in action. If you're not watching over your computer consultant's shoulder at least 25 percent to 50 percent of the time, you're probably not getting maximum value out of the visit. If your computer consultant refuses to share his or her knowledge with you, find another small business computer consultant. Knowledge transfer is just too important to your company's success with technology.
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Launch your Web browser to get solutions for common problems with software applications and operating systems.
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For example, with popular Microsoft products like Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows, you can search Microsoft's online Knowledge Base at http://support.microsoft.com. This is roughly the same information that's used by both Microsoft support professionals and most computer consultants. Many of the major hardware vendors, such as Dell Computer (http://support.dell.com), also have similar computer support resources available for their products. For a list of more online resources, see 10 Great Web Sites for Free Small Biz Do-ItYourself Tech Support at http://www.smallbiztechtalk.com/news/archives/tips012802ht1.htm.
Use built-in Help features in your software applications.
Don't overlook integrated Help functions available in most software applications. For example, in the Microsoft Office family of applications, you can always reach the Office Assistant from the Help pull-down menu. In many cases, pressing the F1 key on the keyboard also launches a Help screen.
Visit a newsgroup for free advice.
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For example, Microsoft has online newsgroups where you can post questions and get answers from peers and "official" volunteers (called Microsoft MVPs). Find out about available Microsoft newsgroups at http://support.microsoft.com. Again, many of the major hardware and software vendors also have similar newsgroup resources available.
Take notes, lots of them!
Chances are, whatever computer support problems and resolutions you tackle this week will be relevant at some point down the road. Logging computer support problems also gives you a great paper trail for documenting your most common computer support issues and challenges. In addition, the logs are great tools for planning training programs and resolving vendor disputes.
The Bottom Line
There's no reason why you can't take a few simple steps to reduce your utilization of expensive outside computer consultants. Conserve your technology budget for high-end projects that command professional expertise. Use these ten tips to plan how you can lower your computer support bills.
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10 Ways To Make Your Web Site Work Harder For You
You bit the bullet. You set up a Web site because new prospects and existing customers kept asking you for your Web site address. Then, too, there were all those stories you kept hearing about small companies bringing in significant business through their Web sites. So, you paid a Web developer thousands of dollars to put your business on the Web, or spent countless hours of your own time learning enough about the Web and about html to put up the site yourself. But your site's been up a couple of months and you haven't gotten a single sale you can trace to the Web site. What happened? What's wrong? What do you need to do to make your Web site start bringing you business? Here are several tips that will help you fine tune your site to make it a more effective marketing tool. Make Sure Your Site Looks Professional Take a hard, cold look at your site—or ask a friend who will be brutally honest to look at the site. Does it look professional? Are the graphics professional-quality and clear? Are the fonts, font sizes, and font colors used in a consistent way? Or does your site include design flaws like these that immediately mark it as an amateur production:
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Photos that are squeezed or stretched out of proportion Multiple elements on the page that are blinking, bouncing, scrolling or turning in circles Multiple styles of type used for headlines and body copy Colored background graphics or textures that make it difficult to read the type Background graphics that are inappropriate for the content of the site (eg.: bubbles on a site selling bookkeeping services) Text blocks that are out of alignment
First impressions matter on the Web, just as they do anywhere else. And, the first impression your site makes should be one of professionalism and appropriateness for the markets you serve. Don't Use the Name of Your Company as the Web page Title Every Web page has a windows-style title bar. The title that appears in that title bar is determined by what you include in the title "tag" in the html code for the page. You or your Web site designer may want to make the name of your company the title of the page. That's not a good idea, however, unless the name of your business includes a descriptive term that someone looking for your services would search for to find what you sell. The reason: Search engines place heavy emphasis on the words in the title bar. Like the text on your page, the closer the text in the title bar matches the term a Web surfer is searching for, the higher your site will rank when the results of the search are displayed. So, if your company name is nondescriptive and little known, leave it out of the title page, or put it at the end of the title. Don't Let Your Home Page Be a Flash Presentation Flash is a technology that allows you to put animated presentations and demos on the Web. Designers love it because it shows off their multimedia skills, to say nothing of increasing the amount they can charge for the site. Business owners often think it makes their site look
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impressive and make their businesses appear to be on the cutting edge. But, Flash presentations can make your Web page take a long time to load. Search engines don't pick them up, and they often annoy visitors who come to your site for product information or facts in a hurry, not entertainment. If you have a product or service that benefits from an animated demonstration, make that one of the choices on your home page (e.g.: "Watch a demo.") Don't make the Flash presentation the entire home page. And if your products or services don't need an animated demo, don't use the technology at all. Focus the Home Page & Product Pages on Your Customers' Interests, Not Yours You're proud of your business and your accomplishments. (As you should be.) So, it's tempting to write a lengthy description of your business accomplishments and run it on your home page with a big photo of yourself, your building and/or your employees, saying, "We're here to serve you." But prospects and customers aren't coming to your site to learn about all the great things you've accomplished. They're coming to your site to find out what you sell and how it will help them. Get their attention with benefits-oriented headline and text. The headline should make clear what you do and suggest a benefit. For example, "Fast, accurate transcription for Monroe County Medical Offices and Hospitals," or "Phone systems that grow with your business." Don't toss out that company information, though. After you interest the customer in your products or services, they may want to know more about your company before deciding to do business with you. So, if the purpose of your Web site is to sell your product or services, make the company information a link off your home page, not the focal point of the home page. Avoid a Cluttered Look If you sell multiple products, you want them all to be found. And if you are being billed by the number of "pages" on your Web site, you may want to keep costs down. But don't try to squeeze dozens of images or product descriptions on a single page. The page will look cluttered and make it difficult for visitors to find the products or information they want. Instead, put small photos of a few of your best-sellers or most representative products on the home page, and then have links to other products in your catalog. Break up the links into logical categories. For instance, if you sell sandals, you might have categories for women's sandals, men's sandals, and children's sandals. If you sell footwear, you might have pages for men's footwear, women's footwear and children's footwear, and then break down each of those pages into categories such as sneakers, shoes and sandals. Minimize Graphic Sizes to Make Sure Your Pages Load Quickly Photos and other graphic images make your pages look appealing and help illustrate what you sell. So, they are important to include. But don’t let the size of graphics slow down your Web site. In most cases, images should be thumbnail size—no more than 1 to 1 1/2 inches in size. If a larger image is needed to properly display an item, then you can add a link that says "Click here to see a larger image." That way big images that take a long time to display will only be displayed by people who really need to see a bigger picture.
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Be Sure You've Included Important Supporting Information To turn Web surfers into customers, you'll want to provide enough supporting information about what you sell to make them feel comfortable buying from you. If you sell software, for instance, you'll need information about what platform the software uses, compatibility with other products, system requirements and links to press reviews, if any. If you sell graphic design services, the "supporting information" you need should include a portfolio of work you've done. If you provide consulting services, it would be a good idea to include case studies describing client problems, what you did to solve them and how they benefited as a result. (Be sure to get the client's permission before using their name in this way on your site.) A page with testimonials from satisfied customers is beneficial as well. Make Sure It's Easy to Place an Order Imagine how annoyed you'd be if you ran into the supermarket to pick up a container of milk, and couldn't find the checkout counter? Web site visitors are no different. They will get annoyed if they have to scroll up and down or side to side to find a place to order from you. Avoid the problem by keeping pages short and including a buy now button or link in the same location on every page. A good location is just below the text that describes any product or service. Be Sure Your Contact Information is Easy to Find Customers not only want to know what you sell and who you are, they want to know how to reach you. They may have questions about the merchandise you are selling, want to know who they can contact if there is a problem with their order, or prefer talking to a "real person" instead of ordering online. Avoid losing sales by including your phone number, store location (if you have one) and phone number on every page. Share Links With Other Businesses in Your Community The tips above will help you get found in search engines and help make your pages more appealing to potential customers. But even in the Internet age, business still has as much to do with who you know as what you do. So talk to business owners who sell different products and services than you do, but serve the same market. Help get each others' pages found by swapping links and giving each other referrals.
Common Practices to Safeguard Your Business Against Email Viruses
A simple email message can threaten your entire business. How? Viruses passed through email can threaten the confidentiality, integrity or availability of your information. Stolen employee records could lead to identity theft or loss of privacy. Business records that are lost, stolen or modified could result in lost revenue or trust. Information kept on a computer with Internet access is at risk to theft or damage. Following are simple recommendations that you can do to protect your information. 1. Don’t open email attachments from strangers, or unexpected attachments from people you know. Thieves and pranksters can use attachments to plant programs on your computer that corrupt or steal your information.
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2. Beware of passing on a great joke, game or tool from a friend. You may be passing on a virus. 3. Configure mail software to not preview or automatically open messages. 4. Don’t download games, tools, documents, spreadsheets or executable software unless you know it is from a reputable source. 5. Running programs on a Web page is the same as downloading it. This includes Java Script, opening a document to read it, playing a sound file and clicking on an “.exe” file link. 6. Have a company-wide tool for detection of viruses and regularly update your tool’s virus definitions. 7. Have a process for reacting to virus infections and make sure that every employee knows what to do or who to contact. 8. Backup all files, software, and configuration data from all computers. The goal is to be able to restore systems and data to what existed before an incident.
A firewall refers to several types of hardware and software, and involves multiple different technical approaches. Firewalls are available for both business and home use, as freeware, and are even built into most standard operating systems. What Is a Firewall? A firewall is simply a gatekeeper between different zones of trust. Systems inside an organization have a high degree of trustworthiness. External partners, suppliers, and customers exist in different zones of lower trust. And, of course, the least trusted zone is the "untamed frontier" of the Internet. Connecting to any outside systems means risking exposure to viruses, hackers, and a multitude of other threats. The firewall is the first line of defense against these threats. A company's firewall enforces defined security policies regarding whether, how, and which computers and networks can communicate with their internal systems. When a firewall is installed on a network or computer, all data sent to and from it is monitored and compared with a set of user-defined security criteria. Any traffic that doesn't meet those rules is blocked. The personal firewall software on a PC erects a similar barrier around that computer's resources. Filters Administrators can configure firewalls to filter content based on:
IP Address–Firewalls can block traffic based on a machine's unique IP address. For instance, it can ignore requests from a computer that attempts several incorrect logins. Protocol–Policies can define whether and how different types of network communications are handled. They can, for example, block all telnet requests originating from the outside.
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Domain Name–Filtering out requests for ESPN.com or eBay data could help discourage leisure and private Web surfing while on the job. Keywords–Similarly, some firewalls can filter out content that contains specific words and phrases. Ports–Rules tighten access to server ports.
Firewall Approaches Most firewalls employ one or more of the following methods to enforce security policies:
Packet Filtering – Examines packet attributes such as originating IP address or destination service to screen out all traffic that doesn't conform to the rules. Application Layer Gateways – Also known as proxy servers, these act as middlemen between internal client machines and external systems. They pass authorized packets along while shielding clients from unauthorized traffic. Proxies are often specific to a network service (HTTP, FTP, telnet). Stateful Inspection – This approach examines packet contents and makes decisions based on its context. It uses a table of connection states and knowledge of how types of communication typically operate to differentiate authorized from unauthorized traffic. For example, it could block a mysterious application from opening an FTP connection, thus preventing a hidden keystroke logger program from "phoning home" with its purloined information.
Limitations A firewall, however, is only as strong as the security policies it enforces. And like door locks, a firewall is a necessary first step in protecting your network, but it's no cure-all. A determined attacker can find ways around it, and it does nothing to protect against attacks and mistakes that originate inside its perimeter. For higher security, firewalls should be used in conjunction with anti-virus software, spyware scanning software, intrusion detection systems, and other safeguards. Most commercial firewall products are available as part of an integrated suite of security software. Four Steps to Getting a Web Site On-line Creating a Web site can be intimidating and overwhelming if you don't understand what is involved. These feelings stop many people from proceeding, which is a real shame as a Web site is a powerful marketing tool and can be a lot of fun. There are four steps in creating a basic web site, they are: Step One: Domain Name (URL) Registration-This is the address people will use to access your web site (www.yourcompany.com). Once you have determined that the URL you wish to use is available, the cost to register a name is anywhere from $8.00 to $35.00 per year. A domain name needs to be renewed every year.
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When you register a domain name, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Your contact information must remain current. If your email address is going to change (most often because of changing to a new Internet Service Provider) it is imperative that you change your contact email address BEFORE your old address becomes invalid. Use a position (such as "President") instead of an actual person as a contact-this is more stable, in case the person ever leaves the company. Make sure your company/organization is listed as the "Organization Name" (the "organization" will be considered the "owner" of the domain name.)
To see if a domain is available, go to http://www.betterwhois.com. For more information about domain names visit http://www.virtualtech.com/news/may2001fa.htm. Step Two: Design of the Web Site. This is where the look, feel, and content of the Web site are determined and created. Web sites are created using HTML (HyperText Markup Language). This can be hand coded, or a program such as Microsoft Front Page or Macromedia Dreamweaver can be used. Often companies/organizations will hire a student to create a Web site because they know HTML. Just as you would not let someone who has taken one shop class put a new engine in your car, don't have someone with no experience create your site. Your web site will be a reflection of your company/organization. Don't let it be a bad one. Cost for web site design varies greatly depending on where the company is located and what the needs of your Web site are. Designers will either charge by the hour or by the project. If the designer charges by the hour be sure to have a detailed contract as to what they will do and how long it will take. Tips for hiring a web site designer:
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Visit their web site. Do you like what you see? Ask the web designer for examples of other web sites they have designed. Get the names and phone numbers from at least three of the web designer's clients. Call them and ask if they would hire the person to work on another project. Do they have a contract that outlines the agreement, what they agree to do and what your responsibilities are? Get everything in writing. Don't be afraid to ask questions, from cost, to design and search engine placements.
Step Three: Hosting your web site on a web server. This is basically where you rent space on a computer that is always connected to the Internet. Price will vary, depending on the amount of disk space you will have and the connection to the Internet. Be cautious of a free or low cost hosting service, as they tend to be very slow and may put ads on your web site. When choosing a hosting company here are some questions to ask:
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Does it backup daily? If the server crashes, you don't want to have to recreate your Web site. Does it offer POP3 (password-protected) email accounts? What kind of tech support is included?
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What type of a connection to the Internet does it have? The minimum connection a Web server should have is T-3 (45 Megabytes per second). A T-1 (1.5 Mbps), or worse yet a cable or DSL connection (0.768 Mbps), is not adequate for the amount of traffic a commercial site will receive. Does it support Full FTP (File Transfer Protocol) Access? This allows you to transfer files from your computer to the web server. Does it offer web site logs showing you how many visitors your site has, what pages they are going to, how long they are staying, etc.? Does it allow for use of forms and CGI (Common Gateway Interface) scripts? This allows you the ability to create a form where visitors can be asked questions or register for meetings.
Step Four: Marketing Your web site. You should be thinking about the marketing of your Web site as it is being designed. The content of the site needs to reflex the search terms you will want your site to appear on search engines. The first step to marketing your web site is to include your Web address EVERYPLACE your phone number appears. This includes brochures, business cards, print ads, etc. In addition, include your Web address on your telephone voice message and email signature. Your site should be submitted to search engines a minimum of every six weeks. Currently you can submit to AltaVista, Google, MSN, Dmoz, Netscape, and Fast at no cost, while AOL, Excite, HotBot, and Snap are not accepting submissions. Yahoo!, Looksmart, Lycos and Inktomi all charge a fee to review and index your site. Pay for click search engines, such as Overture, are becoming an essential part of web site marketing. These search engines work basically like an auction. First you determine what search terms you want your site to appear under, now search for those search terms and determine what the bid amount for the position you want is. You then open an account and place your bid. Yes, you can be outbid.
Internet Solutions: Moving Beyond The Hype To Help Small Businesses
Have you lost count of the number of times you have heard about the billions of dollars of online commerce transacted in the last two years? How about the billions more to be spent in the next two years? This seems to be a universal imperative for everyone in business. Online marketing and e-commerce are important components for any business to consider in its overall marketing and technology plans. What does this mean for you? Before a business creates a Web site, it must think clearly about what benefit a Web site will provide and must be willing to do what it takes to maintain a successful site. Will the site primarily be a vehicle for online commerce, information about products and services, customer support or some other purpose? Actually selling products on the Internet is
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only the tip of the iceberg for business use of the Web. In fact, a May 1998 Find/SVP survey indicated that more people made purchases in 1997 off-line after researching the product on the Internet than those who purchased directly from the Internet ($4.2 billion vs. $3.3 billion). Should Your Small Business Have a Web Site? Here are a few questions to help you think through the decision of whether or not to establish a Web site for your business:
If the business is selling a product, is the product a natural "fit" for selling on the Internet? Can it be delivered to a national or global marketplace? If the business is service-oriented, can it provide meaningful information about its service and industry? People make buying decisions on the Internet based on information. The successful businesses are those that help educate consumers to make a good buying decision. For example, I recently replaced the air conditioning in my home. I found a wonderful Web site for an air conditioning company that evaluated all the brand names and gave me tips to look for in an A/C company. Helpful, objective information like this builds powerful credibility. Does the business need to build a targeted client list or qualify its customers? Do they have clear plans to do this through their Web site? The Internet is the realm of the selfdirected consumer. Those consumers who come to a Web site to conduct business are generally ready to buy. Can the business leverage the Internet to reduce expenses? For many, the Web can reduce costs for production, fulfillment and distribution and provide a cheaper and more efficient means of communication to remote staff, vendors and customers. Businesses can also make information available that reduces customer inquiries. Can the business use the Internet to improve customer relations? Customer relations can be enhanced on the Internet in a number of ways including providing up-to-the-minute and detailed information about products or services, helpful information, means for immediate feedback, and technical specifications, support, etc. Does the business have plans to market its Web site? At the very least, this should include submission to search engines and inclusion of the Web address on all collateral material. The business could also purchase or trade for banner ads, place listings in directories, etc. Simply building a Web site will not bring traffic; people need to know it exists!
When Should Your Business Develop a Web Site? If the collective answer to these questions is a yes, a Web site may be just the right strategy for your business. The next question is when do you launch your Web site? If the Internet is a crucial component of the overall business strategy, begin the site with the start-up of the business. If you have a business up and running, put plans in place to build your Web site and go live as soon as possible. Now, step back and think about site size, complexity and cost. Web sites can cost from $200 to $200,000 depending on the features of the site. Because capital is always an issue for business, a full blown Web site with e-commerce may not be your first step on the information superhighway. If this is the case, consider building your online presence in several phases with planned timelines, budgets and expectations for results.
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Phase I could include company information, product and service information, helpful articles and tips with links to additional relevant information. Phase II would take the concept to the next level. For some it will include online transactions, the incorporation of databases, store locators and other features. Web Conclusions Simply having a Web site is not the answer. Having a Web site that is a core business strategy with a clearly defined purpose and skillful implementation-now that's a winner. It requires strong commitment. For this reason, most businesses will want to contract with outside help for all but the most basic Web sites. The bottom line is that when your Web decision is a strategic business decision, it can be a powerful tool to leverage your business toward success. The following resources are good places to start to help you get up to speed and stay up to speed on this rapidly developing medium:
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Webreference.com—particularly the section on advertising and e-commerce Web Marketing Today—links to hundreds of online articles about effective Web marketing Cyber Atlas—online marketing, demographic and advertising trends One Business Place Interenet/Web Design Ask An Expert—email a specific Internetrelated question to an expert for a response within 24 hours
Insider Secrets to Accepting Credit Cards Online
The process of learning how to accept payments on the Internet is similar to the course of figuring out how to launch a business. What at first seems puzzling and intimidating may be viewed as straightforward and easy to understand if one has the right guide or manual. The following serves as a brief primer for any business owner who needs to set up a system to accept credit cards online, and includes a necessary glimpse of the associated fees. The savvy business owner who plans to accept payments on the Web must form an alliance with a payment processing company. There are a multitude of firms to choose from, and one should exercise due diligence in the selection process to avoid those that are overpriced and/or do not engage in fair-minded business practices. Among the throngs of payment processing providers, there are two distinct entities: ones that provide merchant accounts and others that proclaim themselves as "no merchant account" providers. The latter group accepts payments on the owner's behalf and offers a rather easy setup. Payments are taken on their site (not the owner's), and owed funds are forwarded to the owner two or three times a month. Merchant account providers (which include financial institutions and independent sales organizations) assert that they give a more professional look to an owner's website since they enable the owner to receive payments on his/her own site. Moreover, they point out that cash
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flow is less of a problem since entitled funds are transmitted from customer to owner in several days, in contrast to their counterparts' record of periodic monthly payments. Regarding the all-important issue of price, it is difficult to make any absolute determination about which group offers the overall best rates. For instance, while no merchant account providers waive many of the monthly fees, they typically charge a higher percentage of the ticket price. (All credit card providers charge a percentage of the ticket price, called the discount fee. Most add an additional charge on top of that—a flat rate—called a transaction fee.) As a rule of thumb, if an owner anticipates a "moderate" amount of transactions online, he/she may be better utilizing the services of a merchant account provider. The caveat when choosing a merchant account provider is for the owner to be aware of all fees— not just the discount and transaction rates. Because the terminology used may be different from company to company, the owner must know the quoted total start-up cost (e.g., set-up fee, application fee, etc.), and total monthly fee (e.g., statement fee, customer service fee, etc.) Among fees that are not commonly disclosed—but any astute owner should ask about—includes the following: 1. AVS fee. The fee to determine if the customer's billing address provided by the customer matches the one listed on the credit card. 2. The non-qualified rate. The amount that the discount and transaction rate will be bumped (higher) to if certain Visa/Mastercard requirements are not met. For example, if there is no AVS match, the owner will likely be hit with a non-qualified rate. Shouldn't the owner be aware that this transpires and the fee that results? 3. Batch fee. This is a small daily fee charged to batch or close out transactions. 4. Chargeback fee. This cost is administered when someone disputes a credit card charge. It is important to note that an owner may be asked to establish a "reserve account" at the processor's bank to handle any future chargebacks, especially if an owner's credit is not very good or he/she is receiving a large volume of transactions. 5. Monthly minimum. The minimum amount that the owner must reach in his/her processing costs. Here is an example to determine this number. Suppose, for example, an owner had only one sale of $100 for the month. If the discount and transaction rates were respectively 2 percent .30, the owner would pay .02 x 100 = $2.00 .30 = $2.30. If the monthly minimum is $25, the owner still owes $25 - $2.30 or $22.70. After all the fees are provided (preferably without an owner's prompting), the owner should use good, old-fashioned number crunching, logic and intuition, and determine who should have the privilege of helping him/her receive payments from customers. The owner is halfway to completing the mission of becoming an Internet tycoon or at least being able to receive a sale. There are four steps left—the order form, the secure server with certificate, the gateway, and the shopping cart, if desired. The order form, either supplied by the owner, his/her Web designer or the processing company, is simple to design. Once created, it must be on a secure server. When any customer enters his/her credit card information, it is sent in plain, unencrypted text form to the server hosting the Web site. As it is possible to intercept this data, SSL encryption (usually 128-bit) must be employed. Many merchant account providers offer this secure server with
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official certificate. An owner who is going to use a payment processing provider should not have to spend money on obtaining this. The gateway component is next. Just as cars use a tunnel to get from one place to another, the gateway serves as that tunnel to transmit information from the customer to the credit card processor. At first, within seconds of the customer submitting his/her credit card information, the processor either authorizes the transaction or declines it. If an authorization code is given, the customer's account is not charged, but his/her credit limit is reduced. Subsequently, the approved customer's information becomes "captured" and the authorized amount of money is then charged to the consumer's credit card. This capture becomes part of the merchant's batch and travels through the gateway again. The processor then knows to finalize and settle the transaction, and voila, the owner is paid. So the gateway is actually the owner's gateway towards profit! But the merchant account itself is the engine that makes the car go. Many merchant account providers offer a shopping cart that integrates with their gateway. Even if the owner already has a shopping cart, chances are good that the gateway can work in concert with it. It is best that an owner look for a merchant account provider that can serve as a "onestop-shop," providing its own secure server with certificate, gateway and shopping cart. After reading this information, a business owner is now armed with knowledge and a greater understanding of how the payment processing/merchant account field operates. This will empower such an owner and help in determining which company to hook on with among the ever-abundant sea of merchant account providers.
Microsoft Vista: What It Means to Your Business
With Microsoft's latest operating system (OS) incarnation, Windows Vista™, touted as a true next-generation blend of hardware, software and user experience, there's a lot of hype to live up to. The big question for business now is: has it been worth the wait? The answer? It has. Through the Looking Glass Vista is a notably secure OS that provides a seamless office environment with better connectivity and advanced networking and mobility. Armed with an impressive range of benefits, Vista provides many things to many people. For small business customers, the expectation for Vista is that of security with autonomy:
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Built-in security features Improved productivity Easy-to-use tools for configuring, administering, and controlling their PC Less reliance on IT support Improved ability to connect integrated technologies Simplified tools to manage business hardware and networks
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For enterprise customers, Vista aims to provide true connectivity and management:
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Improved security Simpler PC deployment and management Better, easier communication and collaboration with colleagues and partners Less need to quality-test hundreds of print drivers Improved ability to connect integrated technologies Faster communication to information
Furthermore, potential benefits include a reduction in OS images within an organization (even in multiple languages), an upgraded Windows Firewall to reduce the need for third-party products, improved self-healing and help, support for mobile users, and even potential energy savings from Vista's hybrid sleep mode. Complete Integration Vista was specifically developed with the assumption that it would be attacked, so its security has been improved through hardened and segmented services that run with reduced access privileges, along with incoming and outgoing firewall protection. To capitalize on these features, and provide further benefits to its own hardware, original equipment manufacturers have invested significant development into relevant, valuable services that compliment Windows Vista, for example, express upgrade solutions and expanded wireless management functionality. With Vista installed, businesses can have more confidence that their PCs are more secure and manageable, that their printers will work seamlessly with their office environment, and that they will see an increase in their operational efficiencies.
Multi-tiered Internet Security for Small Businesses
The Internet is vital to today’s small business. Unfortunately, the dangers posed by viruses and hackers can jeopardize privacy and productivity and erode customer trust. In an ideal world, small businesses would have around-the-clock network protection from an experienced Information Technology (IT) team. In reality, the small business owner faces 24/7 confusion and worry about a network attack because he or she is the IT team. As dependence on the Internet continues to grow, and the threats to computer networks continue to evolve, it’s important to become aware of what activities make small businesses more vulnerable to Internet security threats. Do you have valuable information on your network? By taking advantage of the convenience and accessibility of the Internet, many small businesses have made valuable information more accessible—both to employees and outsiders. Although types of sensitive data can be quite broad and vary from organization, there are a few key types
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of information that every business should plan to protect. These include all data related to: private customer information, strategic plans, business operations and financial data. Damage to or loss to any of this information could result in decreased sales, reduced competitive advantage, potential lawsuits and decreased profits for the victimized company. Are you connected to the Internet? Small businesses open themselves up to a variety of Internet threats just by being connected. Confidential files, such as salary data and credit card information might be sent across email or be viewed by network intruders. Do you use wireless LANs (WLAN)? Many small businesses are starting to adopt wireless networks—sometimes access points are even installed by employees without approval from the business owner. It’s important that small business owners understand that when using wireless, everything sent or received is broadcast hundreds of feet in every direction and can be received by every wireless receiver within range. Do you have several employees online? Providing Internet access to employees has likely yielded productivity gains and better customer service for most small businesses. However, end-user behavior can often be a small business’ biggest downfall when it comes to Internet security threats. Reading email may lead employees to accidentally download dangerous attachments infected with worms or viruses, threatening damage and/or data deletion, while propagating themselves out to the rest of your computers. Do you allow remote access? Remote network access can also be a great benefit. By providing employees with the capability of accessing important work-related files while traveling, or at home, small businesses can improve employee morale and productivity, while enjoying cost savings. High speed remote access connections are usually accomplished by using the Internet to “tunnel” into the corporate network, establishing a virtual private network (VPN). If your small business allows telecommuting, use of a VPN is essential for ensuring the privacy and integrity of your confidential data as it travels across the Internet. Integrated security as a solution If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, chances are you need an integrated security solution. Current security solutions typically consist of multiple point products, which must be purchased, installed, deployed, managed and upgraded separately. With this nonintegrated approach, IT managers need to address problems related to the lack of interoperability between each of the products. Also, it can be difficult for a small business owner to manage multiple point products. Integrated security provides a comprehensive system that addresses the challenges and opportunities of today’s networked enterprises. Key security technologies that can be integrated include firewalls, intrusion detection, intrusion prevention, content filtering, VPNs, wireless LAN security and virus protection. Individually, these security technologies can be cumbersome to install, as well as difficult and expensive to manage and update. However, when integrated
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into a single solution they offer more comprehensive protection while reducing complexity and cost. An integrated security strategy improves the overall security posture of the network and reduces costs in ways not possible via implementation of individual products from many different vendors. Whether security is handled in-house or outsourced, ensuring that all of these features are in place is vital to maintaining a secure critical infrastructure.
Organize Your Digital Life
Having all the latest gear can be a serious drain on space—not only of the hard drive and memory card variety, but on your real-world surroundings as well. Here are some ways to tame the jungle of electronic cables and get your digital life in order. Functional Furniture As more cell phones, iPods, and other personal electronics are purchased, smart furniture makers are responding in kind with cool storage solutions. These nightstands, tables, desks, and stands come equipped with docks for devices that need frequent recharging, stealth power strips, USB ports, internet jacks, and dedicated nooks and spaces to hide cord tangles—all built right into the furniture. Electronics makers advise against enclosing recharging devices in a tight unventilated space because the recharging process generates heat. So, the most efficient gadget-friendly furniture includes ventilated holes, mesh, or slots for areas meant to accommodate recharging devices. The ideal condition, however, is on top of a desk at room temperature. Getting It Together If you can't justify a new gadget-friendly furniture purchase, there are some ways to increase the efficiency of what you already have.
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Organize your cords with wire/cable management systems. Use a room where your workspace is in close proximity to electrical outlets, cable outlets, and phone jacks. Choose an all-in-one handheld device instead of an individual phone, PDA, MP3 player, and laptop. All for one and one for all will save you a lot of time. Likewise, stick to one master task calendar as opposed to multiple calendars.
Tidy Up with Technology Computers, used the right way, can make your life a lot simpler. Here are some tips for making the most of your digital life.
Keep favorite sites and search engines bookmarked. This will save valuable time. Save information in a text file that lists different sites and what information is found there.
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Organize email into intuitively labeled folders. This will keep your inbox from getting overloaded—and you as well. Read tips on how to manage your email. Try eliminating scraps of paper with phone numbers jotted down on them by feeding them to your handheld organizer. You can also program your computer or handheld to remind you of important dates, appointments, or meetings. Tear out articles you want to save from newspaper or magazines and file them away. Recycle the rest. Throw away any piece of paper that you haven't touched for a month. For scraps of paper that you feel the need to save, scan them into a digital file and save them on disk or hard drive.
Spot the Business Problems the Internet Can Solve
There are many reasons to create a Web site to take your business online. You can use your site to reduce your marketing costs to geographically diverse locations, to open new sales channels, or to enhance customer service. You can also use it to extend your current business into an entirely different product line, or to project a professional image. Reduce Sales and Marketing Costs A Web site broadens your reach far beyond normal physical constraints by making information about your business available to anyone with access to a computer and an Internet service provider—which translates into millions of people around the world. You can provide up-to-date information 24 hours a day, seven days a week without the costly reprinting associated with brochures or the long-distance charges and travel expenses of contacting your customers directly. Your web site can extend the value of the marketing dollars you already spend. You can include your web site URL on your collateral marketing materials so that potential customers will have a convenient way of getting the information they need to make a purchasing decision. You can offer specials without the expense of mailing campaigns. If your site is designed to process orders, you can make sales regardless of the date, time of day, or current staffing levels without incurring the extra costs of toll-free calls, regional sales offices or distribution centers. Open New Sales Channels Web sites allow you to explore new ways to sell products. For wholesalers, it can open a new retail channel. For local businesses, national and international sales are now more attainable. For vendors of specialty products, the diverse client base on the Web makes selling their products more feasible. And, potential customers can find your products regardless of whether or not you count them in your target customer base or intentionally market to them. Enhance Customer Service Even if you don't sell your products or services online, a web site can be a useful, cost-effective tool for customer service. Most sites feature FAQs—answers to frequently asked questions—that enable them to provide timely answers to most customer questions. Many also feature email
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links to customer support personnel, which can reduce the expense of toll-free calls. If you sell your products online, you can confirm orders electronically. You can also offer your customers the ability to check the status of their orders or accounts or handle transactions anytime. Offering your customers convenience makes them more loyal. Learn About Your Customers' Needs Your web site can help you find out more about who your customers are and what they want. You can gather information about your customers from online forms and surveys, or from observing what parts of your site people visit and how they find your site. This can help you focus on what's important to your customers and allow you find out quickly whether a new product feature or program is of interest. Offer New Products The Internet has proved to be a fertile ground for experimentation. Many companies have found the Web to be a place where it's safe to offer new products or move into entirely new businesses. The ease of posting pages to a Web site—and the ability to gather instant information about how customers react to new product offers—lets you test-market goods and services in a way never before possible. While many companies big and small are sticking to their traditional products, many are using the Web to move into new areas. Make a Stronger First Impression By leveraging technology, small businesses can project the professional image of being a larger company. The way your site handles Web technology—serving up pages, accepting orders, incorporating dynamic and interactive features—can easily leave visitors with the impression that your small business is much larger than it really is. Take WorldSpy. This company gives the impression of a large shopping mart, when it's actually staffed by only a handful of marketers and programmers. WorldSpy connects manufacturers directly to express delivery services, which drop-ship products to WorldSpy customers at low prices and high margins. Your company's Web site is a tool that can reduce your business costs while improving your marketing efforts, generating new sales, and better serving your customers. Creating a Web site can present you with an opportunity to think strategically about how to expand your core business and the kinds of new products and businesses avenues you might want to explore, as well as the image you want to project.