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The State of the Modern Meeting

Business owners and professionals can come together on at least one idea about meetings: While nobody loves to take them, everybody agrees that face-to-face time is a key value to the conference-room setting for meetings. Companies are increasingly looking for effective ways to provide that face-to-face opportunity–even when one of those faces is far apart from the other.

Indeed, the circumstances around “face time” are changing.

The State of the Modern Meeting

A new Blue Jeans Network survey shows that while 71% of polled professionals believe they’ve lost a business deal because their personal contact with a client or partner was replaced by conference calls and all-audio environments, some 30% are now using online tools to create video meetings that can in turn replace the physical conference room.

“This new way to collaborate means that bad weather, budget cuts, holidays and a geographically scattered team are no longer threats to business productivity,” said Stu Aaron, chief commercial officer at Blue Jeans. “You can easily conduct face-to-face meetings with nearly any browser-based device — from any location.”

The Blue Jeans Network survey offers additional insight into the state of the modern meeting and the changes business conferences will undergo in 2014.

Meeting Modern: Trends and Technology

A number of trends are affecting the meeting milieu.

  • In 2013, winter storms resulted in more meetings rather than fewer–some 20% more. Meetings simply became online conferences instead of in-office meet-ups.
  • One-third of all meetings now include participants who are appearing via mobile devices. New York holds the title for most mobile meeters, with San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston close behind.
  • Mobile is driving a change in meeting times, as well. Three times the conferences via mobile devices are now happening at 7 a.m. versus 8 a.m., or at 6 p.m. instead of 5 p.m.
  • Meetings on Saturdays and Sundays declined by more than one-third in the last half of 2013–from one in 10 meetings occurring on the weekend to just one in 15. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the most popular meeting days of the week.
  • The traditional lunch hour is also improving, at least in terms of how many times meetings intrude upon it. The polls shows a 20% dip in conferences scheduled between 12 noon and 1 p.m.

The survey also revealed another interesting statistic: While 41% of meetings begin on time, the survey stated, CEOs, CTOs, and other C-level execs typically arrive after everyone else.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

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How Small Businesses Can Avoid Common Hiring Missteps

Small Business InterviewHiring a new employee can be stressful–especially for a small business. Get it right, and you improve the productivity and profitability of the company. Get it wrong, and it can end up costing the company dearly–in time, money and, potentially, reputation.

While there is always an element of the unknown when making a new hire, there are some tried-and-true guidelines that organizations can follow to make the process go as smoothly as possible.

  1. Your ‘gut’ isn’t a hiring manager. Your intuition can be a powerful force, but, when it comes to hiring, gut feelings should not drive your decision-making process. Rely more on work samples and references and less on a candidate’s charisma.
  2. Favors to friends and family won’t do you any favors. Cousins, nephews, buddies and next-door neighbors–keep all these individuals in their place. Due to emotional ties and the complications that come with friendships, bringing personal and family relations into the workplace can be a recipe for trouble if things don’t go well on the job.
  3. Not every great candidate is a great small-business candidate. The stellar designer whose last job was in a shiny office tower with 10 times the resources your small business can provide might not be the right fit. Problems arise when a new hire has all the right qualifications and skills, but also has expectations that are torqued to a big-business kind of horsepower. Be clear with your candidates about the nature of a small business — your small business. Be specific about its atmosphere and limitations, and also its charms. How a candidate responds can tell you a lot about how he or she will fit into a small-shop experience.
  4. Listen more than you speak. You feel strongly about your business and love talking about it, but it’s important when interviewing a job candidate to listen more than speak. Market the pros of your company and provide all pertinent information, but then stop talking for as long as you can and open your mind to what the potential employee has to say. Watch the candidate’s body language and seek out tones, textures and all the little things that will develop your impression of how this person’s skills and background match up with how they present themselves and who they probably really are.
  5. Beware of illegal questions: Small-business owners may not have a human resources department or even an HR specialist on board, so they have to learn themselves what is and isn’t OK to ask during a job interview. Stay away from questions about things like pregnancy, marital status or age. Basically, avoid any questions whose answers could be perceived as placing a candidate at a disadvantage.

The good news is that successful hiring comes down mostly to common sense. Pay attention to these tips and then start fielding your best bets with the confidence that you’re about to find the right person for the job — and that you’re going about it by making all the right moves yourself.

 

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Starting the Year Off: Setting (and Achieving) Resolutions for SMBs

SMB Goals in 2014We’ve come a long way, baby.

That’s the underlying message from small-business owners about 2013, according to a new Manta survey.

The poll shows some 72% of SMB leaders characterized the past 12 months as a period in which their companies flourished. The grimmest days of a recession-bound marketplace may be behind us, after all.

Good news, if it’s the case, but that doesn’t mean these SMB owners are resting on their laurels. Instead, the plan for the year to come seems to be growth, to push even harder. Let’s look at where small businesses say they are headed next, and break out some of the tips that can help them — and you — achieve a similarly successful 2014.

Working for the Best: SMBs on This Year’s Goals

Marketing is the word for the new year, according to the Manta poll. Small-business owners — 40% of them — said that finding new ways to promote their company would be the priority between now and December.

Other resolutions included:

  • 21% said improving customer service and bringing in new clients topped the list
  • 14% plan to launch new products, or upgrade and enhance the goods and services they currently provide
  • 9% said that increased networking was a primary goal
  • 5% intend to delegate more responsibility to employees

What does this all mean? For one thing, online resources will likely play an even more prominent role.

“With almost half of small-business owners focusing on amplifying marketing and promotions, we can expect to see more [of them] leveraging techniques that capitalize on their online and offline networks and digital content and distribution strategies,” said Kristy Campbell, director of marketing and communications at Manta.”

How to Get There: Tips for Achieving in 2014

Whatever your goals may be, your business is more likely to prosper if you apply your energy and resources to them in fresh and smart ways.

Start with the following points. Each is geared to help your company write this year’s success stories, no matter what your resolutions may be.

  1. Align your personal and professional vision: This year, establish a vision for your business that is aligned with your personal vision. Your personal health and professional health impact each other, so it is important to maintain both. One way is by complementary goal setting.
  2. Create your own advisory board: Business owners don’t need to have all the answers. Consider developing a small-business advisory board. This can be in a more traditional format with knowledgeable experts, or you can create your own virtual boardroom through online forums, Google Hangouts and other Internet-fueled meet-ups.
  3. Give and grow: Giving back to those in your network–whether they are employees, other small-business owners or loyal customers–will help you to grow your own network and business. Exchanging advice, developing strong internal teams and enhancing your relationship with clients are all important parts of making your business thrive.

Goals set. Strategies in place. May 2014 be a year in which business is better than ever. Because, right now, for SMB owners, the numbers suggest that the future is looking bright.

 

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SMBs in the New Year: Focusing on 2014

2014 CalendarIf you’re a small-business owner, you may not be able to think of a recent year that’s been so transformative: 2013 marked a banner 12 months for technology IPOs, and it heralded the introduction of the Affordable Care Act.

So, how does all of this affect SMB professionals’ outlook for 2014? Things are looking positive, according to a new poll of more than 1,000 small-business owners by Rocket Lawyer. Some 80% of SMB pros surveyed say optimism is the watchword for the coming year.

Opportunities: Growth sectors

Owners of small and midsize businesses are looking at a fairly topical slate of growth areas in 2014.

With all the talk in the news about tech companies such as Twitter going public and healthcare systems undergoing unprecedented change, perhaps it’s no wonder that polled owners say technology (36%) and healthcare (27%) are regions of opportunity in the coming year.

Meanwhile, growth in 2013 looks to be a mainly marketing-focused effort.

  • More than 40% of the owners say marketing will lead their 2014 to-do lists.
  • 25% indicate fundraising will be the primary focus.
  • 13% of the polled SMB professionals cite product development as a priority.

Healthcare: The ACA in 2014

In light of the predictions of doom by numbers of politicians, it’s perhaps somewhat surprising to hear what SMBs have to say about the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

  • 75% said that the healthcare act’s implementation will not affect their hiring plans.
  • Less than half (45%) say they’ll not enroll in the ACA in 2014 (or even 2015).

Among those who will not enroll, the reasons given include having fewer than 50 employees (40%) and/or having a healthcare plan they’re already satisfied with (30%).

With all of this in mind, the poll also shows that the outlook is also on the uptick for would-be employees, especially freelancers.

For them, the big picture looks like this: More than one-third (37%) of the SMB owners said they planned to hire on new staff in the first half of 2014, and more than half of those new hires, the owners say, are expected to be independent contractors.

That’s promising news, and a strong way to start a new year–for employers and employees.

 

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The Holiday Office Party: 5 Do’s and Don’ts for SMBs this Season

The office holiday party is a long-held tradition, and it has been the scene for many a faux pas. The office holiday party may be the time to loosen ties and lift spirits, but it’s not the time to throw caution–businesslike behavior–to the wind. In fact, SMBs must be careful to steer clear of common mistakes that could come back to haunt them long after the snow is melted and the punchbowl stored.

Holiday Office Party

Rocket Lawyer offered some advice on keeping holidays happy and complaint-free:

  1. Get a gift from Uncle Sam. Expenses for your holiday party should be tax-deductible, as long the party isn’t overly lavish or wholly unrelated to work activities. Keep receipts. The IRS wants to see the business that’s supposed to come with your holiday celebrations.
  2. Make sure you’re driving the sleigh. When you’re planning your party, make sure you have written contracts with all of your holiday vendors–from the DJ to the caterer–with each clearly stating payment and cancellation policies.
  3. Don’t get caught underneath the mistletoe. Nearly 45%of Americans have seen someone share inappropriate personal details about themselves with a co-worker or supervisor at a work event, according to a 2012 study from Caron Treatment Centers. Especially at events that alcohol is served, make sure you have a game plan in place when it comes to dealing with behavior that could potentially lead to a sexual harassment claim.
  4. Check your list twice. Typically, event spaces will require you to release them from liability at a holiday party. Think about what kinds of situations insurance might have to cover, and, if needed, purchase a short-term policy to cover the event.
  5. Keep an eye on the eggnog. Fifty-seven percent of workers have witnessed a fellow party-goer drive under the influence, and 64% have called in sick due to a hangover the day after an event, according to the Caron survey. If alcohol is served at a company event, you may be liable for accidents that happen because someone has consumed too much. It’s wise to offer cabs and coordinate designated drivers in advance of the party to protect everyone’s safety. It’s always a good idea to serve food, and then to limit the amount of the time the bar is open.

A happy holiday business function comes down to details and a lot of common sense.

 

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Closing the Deal: Mobile Tech Catches Up with the Critical Signature

Signing Document on PhoneDeals require a signature, and the signature needs to have reliable legal standing–no matter where, when or with what the deal is done–including mobile.

In the past, small and midsize businesses have been able to cover most of their bases by signing documents by fax. It has been more challenging to come up with a model that works with mobile technology, but business owners say the technology is now catching up to what their old fax machines could do. And, as buyers of the latest mobile devices equipped with fingerprint-sensitive hardware have found, the transmittable fingerprint is changing the landscape even further.

Mobile tech and closing the deal

In a recent j2 Global survey, more than 32% of 1,100 SMB leaders said they closed a deal in 2013 on their smartphone or tablet.

Beth Ann Alitt, owner of Alitt Insurance, based in San Marcos, Calif., is accustomed to faxing paperwork back and forth for signatures, but plans to also use mobile fingerprint signatures moving forward.

“As a small-business owner helping local businesses and residents obtain almost every type of insurance possible, I fax daily to process paperwork under tight deadlines,” said Alitt. “Last year, I faxed on a cruise and even at a Paul McCartney concert in London.”

Alitt is in good company. One-third of owners polled in the j2 Global survey said that the tipping point for using mobile devices is the advent of fingerprint signature features. Alitt said these features “will help me close even more deals on the go.”

In fact, about 70% of those surveyed said that digitized fingerprint signatures will help them to close more deals.

The new “office”

If the j2 survey is any indication, small-business owners need plenty of flexibility when closing deals. The j2 survey also showed that:

  • — 74% of business owners have closed a business deal at a restaurant or bar;
  • — 23% said the train or inside a car was an environment in which they’d closed a deal, thanks to their mobile devices;
  • — More that 30% sent or received a fax on a plane, or in an airport, via mobile tech;
  • — 20% sent or received a fax via a smartphone or tablet at a sporting event; and
  • — Deals have also been closed in the dentist’s office, at casinos, waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles and while climbing El Capitan in Yosemite.

All of this suggests that the very notion of the office is changing.

“The mobile device is the office,” said Mike Pugh, vice president of marketing for j2 Global. “That means that deals need to get done anywhere. Same with contracts, invoices, expense reports, and any other document that keep a business moving.”

 

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SMBs Target Gen Y Buyers this Holiday Season

Holiday ShoppingWith Thanksgiving coming late in November, this year marks the shortest holiday shopping season in more than a decade. Small-business owners are moving quickly to make the most of the time they have. For many SMBs, this means tapping into the buying power of millennials.

Half of some 1,000 SMBs that Manta polled in September and October say that, with Thanksgiving falling on Nov. 28 this year (leaving only 25 days for the traditional gift-buying span), they’re adjusting their sales plans for the holidays.

Offering hope for a successful season is Gen Y, which continues to be a potent buying force. These younger shoppers–the so-called “millennials” who reached adulthood around the year 2000–represent some $1.3 trillion in consumer spending, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

By targeting millennials, SMBs are also changing the way they market and sell, according to the Manta data. Business owners say that some 30% of their millennial customer base is mobile-based, and about 20% of the owners surveyed expect an increase in mobile business as millennials complete their holiday gift lists with online purchases.

“We’re seeing the astounding effects of the continued shift to online holiday shopping — especially from mobile devices — to the small business community,” says Kristy Campbell, director of marketing at Manta. “With the changing demographics and mobile habits of millennials coming to the forefront, these trends will continue to accelerate and gain importance.”

According to Manta, it will be important for SMBs to focus their content development and brand awareness campaigns not only on mobile and social channels, but also in terms of tone and frequency.

Manta recommends creating engaging content mapped to your company’s strategic timeline. “Make the tone of your e-mails and social media posts reflective of the timeline for consumer shopping behaviors,” suggests Manta. For example, develop content and begin outreach early using phrases like, “Get ahead of the holiday rush!” Later, as you move closer to the end dates, Manta, build urgency into your subject lines, tweets and Facebook posts. For example, use subject lines including phrases such as, “There’s still time!” or It’s not too late!”

With your holiday sales on the line and precious little time to make your goals, it may pay to focus on millennials and target their habits and the channels they tend to spend the most time on.

 

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SMBs and Mobile Security: 5 Ways to Keep Your Company Safe

Mobile SecurityIt’s more the rule than the exception these days that mobile devices are employees’ preferred computing endpoints. The ubiquity of mobile devices, combined with near 24/7 use, can provide a big boost in employee productivity, but it also increases the risk of data compromise exponentially. SMBs, which often work with a mix of in-house and freelance professionals and may have fewer security and IT resources than larger companies, are especially vulnerable. However, there are steps that companies can take to mitigate risk while exploiting mobile technology.

A recent Forrester survey shows that some 43% of small-business owners say they’re prioritizing data mobility. Indeed, sensitive company information is increasingly being accessed and stored on mobile devices–some corporate-owned, some personal–which increases the risk of compromise.

Companies have to take precautions to make sure that data is protected, but they don’t have to panic: Here are five crucial steps organizations must take to keep data, employees and customers safe, even in the ever-changing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) environment.

  1. Analyze: Root out potential pain points that may arise from the use of personal devices for business purposes. For example, is there information that simply should not be accessed and/or stored on a mobile device? Are there categories of users who absolutely must have mobile access to certain applications and data? Will that access warrant increased security measures?
  2. Engage: Survey the types of mobile systems used by your employees now, and keep an eye on device, mobile operating system and app news–you want to anticipate what mobile hardware and software employees will be using in the future, as well.
  3. Set policies: Policy is key: You must explicitly inform users about what they can and can’t do, and get them to sign off on these rules. Policy should determine, among other things, what devices will and will not be supported. When it comes to who gets access to your network, set parameters based on employee/contractor role and location. Also, your team members invite greater risk every time they connect to unsecured wireless networks, download and install unapproved apps, visit possibly malicious websites, and/or leave their mobile device unattended. Your policies should cover these activities, as well,
  4. Plan ahead: Map out the procedures to be taken when devices are lost, stolen or damaged. Encourage reporting and honesty.
  5. Implement monitoring and defense: Research vendors and decide what kind of IT technology and assistance makes sense for your business. Spending money on technology like internal app scanning and external monitoring can save you the expense of financial damage and ruined reputation by finding evidence of spam and malware activity before it becomes a public disaster.

You can’t stop every criminal out there or prevent every end user from doing careless things. However, with some thought and planning, you can keep your small business — and its staff, customers and partners — safe while providing them with all of the opportunity that mobile technology affords. A little work now saves a lot of grief later, so spend some time on your mobile data security plan.

 

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SMBs and iOS7: Tips to Adapt to the New Look and Feel

If you’ve spent untold hours developing a good mobile app, how do you react when the operating system changes the way it looks and works almost completely?

That’s a question that small-business owners have to answer when it comes to iOS7. Love it or hate it, the radical aesthetic and functional changes to Apple’s mobile working environment are here to stay, and for businesses with iPhone or iPad apps, it’s time to prepare users for app redesigns as well.

iOS7

Image Source: Apple

But SMB customers aren’t always early adopters, and if they’ve come rely upon your mobile app as a go-to service, you don’t want to lose them while they’re catching up to the technological times. So, how do you please everyone, without (a.) falling behind the forward leaners or (b.) outstripping the more cautious among your clients?

We turn to some experts for tips and advice on what to do to adapt to the iOS change and also keep your users happy.

Version Shock: 3 Tips for Avoiding It an iOS7 World

Recent reports suggest that nearly 1/3 of Apple users still haven’t upgraded to the newest version of Apple’s operating system. Some people just aren’t ready for the change, and there were even early reports that the operating system made some users feel sick to their stomachs.

On the other hand, as a business owner with customers that fall into that other ~70%, you can’t let the change-resistant overstate their case. So, how to walk a line?

Here are some tips, with guidance from developers at Roambi, one company that has been building business-productivity apps for iPhone since the very beginning of the App Store.

  1. Make sure the current version of your app is up-to-date. It may be hard to do while your app-development team is working to create the newest version of your app, but it’s important to perfect the existing version of your app before moving on to the next version. Any bugs or glitches should be fixed now so that you can focus on the next iteration of your app.
  2. Notify your customers. Not everybody is an early adopter, and this newest version of Apple’s operating system represents the biggest design shift from Apple yet, so make sure your customers know why you are changing your app and have an idea of what to expect. Sending an email to your user base or making a video tutorial with FAQs will be essential.
  3. Listen to your users. Even Apple’s newest edition of its operating system wasn’t perfect the first time around. Be prepared to receive feedback from your users on your new app and make notes on what can be improved for the next time you want to push an update.

Whether it’s you that codes for your small business or you work with tech-savvy team, if you’re ready to sink into some deep app-redesign, avail yourself of this set of key project notes from Apple’s development pages — including further advice on keeping iOS6 support intact.

Create and innovate, and with a quiver full of these tips you’ll know you’re aiming for the bullseye when it comes to new adopters, but still hitting the mark for your users who want to stick with iOS6 a little longer.

 

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After the Shutdown: SMBs Weigh-In on the Showdown (and Who’s to Blame)

Government ShutdownThe rhetoric isn’t over, but the U.S. government shutdown is, for the moment, at an end. With a late-night vote on Oct. 16, the House of Representatives dragged itself across the finish line of a 16-day endurance lap that was meant to test the resolve of the President, the Senate, and — to their chagrin — the American people.

Throughout the process, we heard a lot from politicians about closed monuments and parks, and about the outrage prompted when those resources weren’t available. But what really happened on the ground? What about the business owners that felt the shutdown’s impact?

“The shutdown is about more than national parks and zoos, landscaping and passports,” says Crystal L. Kendrick, president of The Voice of Your Customer. To her, the larger concern about federal offices going dark was “the effect of this shutdown on federal contractors, medical research, and federally funded social services.”

Now, as the dust clears, small-business owners are ready to talk. Here are the stories of several, and what they experienced as the federal government drew the shades for over two weeks in 2013.

Federal Contracts: Hitting Pause on Cash Flow

The Voice of Your Customer works with clients to penetrate niche markets via surveys, focus groups, and media campaigns. Part of its business comes from U.S. government contracts.

“As a result of the government shutdown, our contracts and work assignments were put on hold,” Kendrick says. “Additionally, our invoices were not being processed. What is more is that few federal RFPs have been released since 1 October, so the future workload of federal contractors will be affected as well.”

And the effect ripples across not only Kendrick’s company, either. The freelancers with whom she works will feel a pinch as well.

“We have delayed spending with our contractors and other suppliers,” she says. “We now have idle resources and delayed receivables. We have assigned our staff to other internal activities and we are using other resources to manage our cash flow.”

Bureaucratic Freeze: Licenses, Taxes, and Loans Take a Hit

If you’re a freelancer in need of that new permit, or you’re resolving a complicated tax scenario, the shutdown likely created new problems for you. So says Michael Raanan, president of Landmark Tax Group.

“The shutdown had a significant adverse affect on my business since my tax practice is dedicated to resolving IRS tax disputes,” Raanan says. “No IRS live assistance was available, no paper tax returns were being processed.”

And all those wage levies, tax liens in need of removal, and IRS approval for licenses and escrow issues? All on hold.

Similarly, if you had a loan application in with, say, the U.S. Small Business Administration, you can almost certainly expect that process to be slowed by the backlog caused by the shutdown.

The Finger of Blame

It’s clear that partisan wars are fought by more than one side. But small-business owners and U.S. citizens have shifted in how they answer the question of who bears the blame for the 2013 shutdown.

A Manta flash poll of 1,000 small-business owners allocated blame for the shutdown like this:

  • Congressional Democrats: 12%
  • Congressional Republicans: 22%
  • President Barack Obama: 30%
  • Tea Party: 8%
  • Both Democrats and Republicans: 24%
  • Other: 1%
  • Don’t Know: 3%

By Oct. 13, a Pew Research poll, its findings not confined to small-business owners, showed different results when it came to assigning blame.

  • Republicans: 46%
  • Obama Administration: 37%
  • Both: 13%

Steve Silberberg, owner and head guide at Fitpacking, a company that takes hikers on trips to national parks and forests, placed himself squarely in the mid-October 46%.

“I consider Congressional Tea Party members to blame for the shutdown,” says Silberberg, focusing on those members’ efforts “to defund the Affordable Care Act and convince me that it will place undue burdens on my business. They shut down my business.”

 

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