Category Archives: Small Business

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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The One Question Business Owners Should Ask When Looking At Data

Small Business Owners Should Ask Questions About Data“So what?”

Although the question may sound stupid and the answer may seem obvious, it is absolutely necessary to ask.

The Web is overflowing with rich data, but much of it is mined and reviewed in the absence of clearly defined goals. Oftentimes, mining data is expensive. Many businesses have aimlessly followed the big data trend and now have nothing to show for it. Business owners would benefit immensely from data — big and small — if they knew how to turn that data into actionable insights.

Here’s an example from personal experience that illustrates this point.

Turning data into action

When I’m not blogging, I analyze data collected from 200,000 websites reaching over 250 million people each month to identify important inbound traffic trends. Last month, I produced a report titled “Search Traffic vs Social Referrals,” which reviewed the amount of traffic the top 5 search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask, AOL) and the top 5 social media platforms (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Reddit) drove to websites during the past 13 months.

The predetermined goal was to understand–relatively–how much traffic search engines and social media sites sent to sites around the Web.

The data suggested social referrals to sites doubled over the past year. As the marketing manager for Shareaholic, I asked myself the all-important question, “So what?” I reasoned that because social media has driven an increasing number of visits to websites, more resources should be invested into improving social reach. Thus, I began creating content that was more shareable versus simply optimized for search engines.

Asking “So what?” when looking at data drives you to extract important information–the kind of data that can provide valuable insights useful for making sound business decisions.

The above example illustrated how I, as a marketer, used inbound traffic data to make smarter marketing decisions. Similarly, you can look at financial spreadsheets, technical data or the results of a survey to improve your business.

Looking beyond the data

With all of this said, it’s important to have a bit of healthy skepticism toward findings. When I discovered social media referrals grew 111% year over year, I didn’t immediately — and blindly — follow the numbers.

I researched the underlying causes for the recorded trend to make sense of it all. In this situation, my research corroborated the trends I saw. The explosive growth of social networks such as Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter provides supporting evidence that social media could — and did — drive an increased number of visits to sites across the web.

Conclusions

Essentially, data gives you an opportunity to observe trends, understand why the trends are happening and make wise decisions that will help your business.

If you’re in the planning stages of a data mining project, be sure to ask the question, “So what?” before moving forward. Pursue the data with meaningful purpose; don’t gather data for the simple sake of doing so.

If you’re wrapping up a research project with nothing to show except spreadsheets filled with numbers and charts with poor labels, don’t feel overwhelmed, and don’t throw in the towel. Instead, figure out ways to use the data to further business goals.

 

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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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New Year’s Resolutions and the Future of the Cloud

January is over. How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? If you’re like many who made goals about eating better and exercising, your efforts might already be paying off by way of a few lost pounds. As a result, you’re probably feeling better. You might even be enjoying mental clarity with that new-found energy that results from a healthier lifestyle.

Here’s something else that should add to your mental clarity: Mozy. That’s right. Mozy means peace of mind. And when it comes to backup, who doesn’t want peace of mind? After all, backup means protecting information and files that might not otherwise be replaceable should they ever be lost, whether by accident or some unforeseeable catastrophe. And speaking of peace of mind, here’s an interesting bit of recent cloud backup news that may not instill peace of mind for those who are currently backing up or even those who are still considering purchasing a backup service: 25 percent of cloud service providers will be gone by 2015, and acquisitions and bankruptcy will be the two primary reasons for their demise, according to research firm Gartner. “One in four vendors will be gone for whatever reason—acquisition, bankruptcy,” said Gartner analyst William Maurer as quoted in a Computerworld article. That should cause anyone who relies on cloud services to seriously ponder the question, “How strong is my cloud service provider?” and “Will it still be around next year?” And if you’re currently in the process of choosing a cloud service provider, Gartner’s research is no less unsettling. After all, how do you confidently choose a cloud service provider when there is a 25 percent chance that it might not even exist by the end of next year?

25% of Cloud Backup Providers Will be Gone by 2015

That should cause anyone who relies on cloud services to seriously ponder the question, “How strong is my cloud service provider?” and “Will it still be around next year?” And if you’re currently in the process of choosing a cloud service provider, Gartner’s research is no less unsettling. After all, how do you confidently choose a cloud service provider when there is a 25 percent chance that it might not even exist by the end of next year?

“There is real risk,” Maurer added. Gartner also predicts that when last year’s data is in, it will show that the portion of organizations using cloud services will have reached 80 percent. Truly, the cloud is no passing fad. It’s not even the future (though it certainly is in the future for the other 20 percent of organizations not yet taking advantage of the cloud)—it’s today. From the consumer to the SMB to the enterprise, the cloud won’t be blown away by any sudden wind but will become more and more a necessity. To be sure, the nature of backup will continue to change; however, cloud backup will remain a major part of data protection and doing IT efficiently. Recent research shows that public cloud computing services are definitely affecting IT strategy: nearly 80 percent of respondents to one survey report that cloud-hosted apps or cloud-based compute and/or storage services will have a significant impact into their storage-related strategic planning over the next five years.

It won’t surprise anyone to know that people tend to be very careful about their data and files, so trusting a cloud backup service may not be easy. But as a Mozy customer, you can be confident in the strength of the Mozy cloud (especially as you consider Gartner’s recent prediction about the future of 25 percent of cloud service providers and why they’ll be history by the end of 2015):

  • Mozy was already acquired (more than six years ago!).
  • Mozy is profitable.
  • Mozy is part of EMC’s Data Protection & Availability Division and its long-term strategy.

That’s food for thought that will encourage you to rest easy with Mozy—though it may not do too much toward helping you keep your New Year’s resolutions. But continue to eat healthy and exercise anyway. Just knowing that Mozy, your choice in cloud backup, is the most trusted name in cloud data protection should boost your energy levels. And you didn’t even have to say no to your favorite food or put on those exercise clothes. But let’s be clear: we’re not telling you to ignore your New Year’s resolutions. Say no to that piece of pastry! And consider putting on your running shoes and going for a jog at lunchtime. No worries. You can count on Mozy to back you up while you’re jogging, and anytime—this year, next year, the year after….

Navigating a Successful Platform Partnership

Navigating a Successful Platform PartnershipPlatform partnerships are key to many corporate technology strategies. When their different services are integrated, companies are able to reach more customers, deploy new services and harness IT resources more efficiently.

Instore, a software company providing mobile point-of-sale solutions to retail merchants, has been able to grow its customer base through a network of technology partners. For example, Instore partnered with Mercury Payments to offer efficient payment processing out of the box instead of building an entirely new system from scratch.

Matt Niehaus, Instore’s CEO, explained that these kinds of integrations have been invaluable for helping his company meet growing customer demands.

“We get a large amount of requests from our merchant customers to help them grow their business and run more efficiently,” said Niehaus. “Example requests include online ordering, customer rewards, gift cards, and better analytics.”

Instead of building new product features using in-house staff, Niehaus and his team rely on partnerships with vendors to fill the gaps.

“Integration partners allow us to offer more services sooner,” said Niehaus. “We also save on the cost of developing these services, which can be quite large for complex features.”

Ensuring Alignment with Partners

Integration partnerships can be resource intensive and expensive to implement. Before decided to pursue a deal, Niehaus and his team look to ensure that both companies will derive a significant return on investment.

Currently, Niehaus and his team are working on setting up a partnership with an online food delivery service.

“We have an excellent alignment of interest in that both parties benefit quantitatively and qualitatively from the other’s services,” said Niehaus.

To ensure a successful product integration, Niehaus recommends that organizations look for partners with the following characteristics:

  1. They target a similar customer base.
  2. Their product(s) will help your company build its offerings comprehensively and over the long term.
  3. They aren’t a direct competitor and are unlikely to compete with your organization down the road.

While platform partnerships can initially require significant technical and IT resources, such as the need for engineering and customer support personnel, some organizations are now offering integrations through APIs (application programming interfaces), which don’t require the same kind of heavy lifting.

Not Just a Technical Issue

Platform integrations are not just a technical issues, however.

“It’s not enough to connect your technical teams to make the software work together,” said Niehaus. “You need solid interaction with marketing, sales and customer support.”

Indeed, because business considerations drive the partnership, business development and executive teams should be leading the process.

 

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Online Dating Technology and How It Affects Our Society

Online Dating TechnologyTinder, Lulu, Grouper. Unless you’re a part of the online dating scene, you might not even recognize that these are the names of websites. However, even if you are not currently looking for that perfect mate, it’s worth paying attention to these sites: Online dating is a revolutionary industry that can provide insight into your own customers.

As a small-business owner who’s operating a website, creating an app or selling an online service, digital dating sites may be one place to look for inspiration. Scott Steinberg, a technology and innovation consultant, believes that online dating platforms can be a “goldmine” for research: “The beauty of these platforms is they show us in a more human and personable way how we can deliver content, deliver messages, and ultimately let [users] interact with it.”

Depending on their ages or interests, people gravitate toward different dating services. For example, Match.com’s audience is different than the millennial audience of Tinder, whose members are looking for quick, mobile introductions and brief interactions via photos and messaging on their smartphones.

Analyzing these digital trends may help you gain a better grasp of your customers’ online expectations and preferences. Incorporate that research into your own products, and you may find the missing piece to your consumer research puzzle.

“People forget there’s the human element of technology, and people are expecting things to be very usable and to be very intuitive,” said Steinberg. “They want to jump right in and enjoy them.”

If you’re targeting younger generations, Steinberg believes there is quite a bit an outside company can learn from the online dating scene–not to mention potential partnership opportunities for customized services or ads and specialized promotions. Depending on their privacy policies, these online dating platforms may have massive amounts of user data available for those who partner with them.

“It’s about understanding better where [potential customers] live online and their behaviors, and how to better speak to them and target them,” he said. “What makes them tick?”

 

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IT Pros: 4 Tech Trends to Follow

IT Professionals in 2014Neither time nor technology stand still for IT professionals. To effectively support the business, IT leaders must be not only on top of the latest trends, but also ready to execute on them in the context of strategic business plans. According to interviews with IT pros, the following trends are among the most important to follow in the new year.

1. Data science

According to a Harvard Business Review report from Thomas H. Davenport and D.J. Patil, data science is not only important, it’s the sexiest job of the 21st century. “[Data scientists'] sudden appearance on the business scene reflects the fact that companies are now wrestling with information that comes in varieties and volumes never encountered before,” wrote Davenport and Patil.

Companies will be competing for what is currently a relatively small number of qualified data scientists, and IT leaders must join in supporting the big data drive by developing expertise in the products and services that can help their organizations turn disparate data points into actionable insights that drive revenue and inform cost.

“Much of the current enthusiasm for big data focuses on technologies that make taming it possible, including Hadoop (the most widely used framework for distributed file system processing) and related open-source tools, cloud computing, and data visualization,” noted Davenport and Patil in the Harvard Business Review report.

2. Wearable fitness devices

Wearable fitness devices like Fitbit help consumers take care of their health by tracking daily activity and calories burned. “Wearers can get real-time tracking of their actions,” said Dave Wakeman, a technology consultant.

These devices generate a wealth of data that people can use to inform their lifestyle choices–and, with permission, that organizations can use to inform decisions about new product and service offerings.

Wearable technology positions data as a tool to enrich consumers’ lives. Companies can use data from wearable devices to perform comprehensive, individual-level analyses of fitness. This information can be used, for example, by health-based organizations to design more effective products and solutions for their customers.

IT leaders can help ensure that this information is stored and used efficiently and effectively–and safely.

3. Cloud apps and services

Small-business owners are typically challenged in the areas of personnel and financial resources. Cloud apps help level the playing field, giving small businesses access to seemingly infinite resources.

Indeed, cloud apps help democratize computing power for organizations of all sizes, from individual consultants to large enterprise brands.

“It’s awesome to see small-business owners using cloud apps and services to leverage enterprise power at a fraction of the cost,” said Gabriel Mays, founder at Just Add Content.

To ensure that companies are getting what they need–and what they are paying for–IT pros will need to become savvy in the art of contracting and developing service-level agreements (SLAs).

4. Socially enabled business processes

Social media is a power tool that can help businesses harness the power of referrals and human-to-human relationships.

“For example, within recruiting, a number of advancements are available whereby a business can see enhanced by integrating with social channels for awareness building, candidate research and position postings,” said Chris Curran, chief technologist at PwC.

Much of the activity around social media typically comes from the business side, and IT pros should be working with business leaders to develop policy around social–to ensure that the platform is being used within the company’s overall technology guidelines and in accordance with any relevant regulatory mandates.

Final thoughts

The trends named in this piece are on one level very diverse and on another very connected–with the common thread being the data emanating from today’s modern computing systems. Focusing on these trends–and looking for new opportunities to apply big data–will help IT professionals effectively support the business in the new year.

 

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How Clients and Contractors Can Succeed Together in a Freelance World

Client MeetingIn today’s economic environment, more people than ever before are freelancing or doing contract work. Freelancing is fraught with uncertainty–that’s the nature of the game–but Carol Tice figured out a way to earn a six-figure salary as a freelancer. Tice, a writer, then took an even bolder step and built a business that coaches and teaches others how to make a living in a freelance world. Tice also has advice for businesses looking to work more effectively with their growing freelance staffs.

Tice, author of Make A Living Writing and Starting Your Business on a Shoestring, knows that being a freelancer isn’t easy. She also knows that giving up a salaried, benefited office job doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in for a huge pay cut. In fact, contractors can and should make a full-time salary–if not more than what they earned as staffers.

Tice’s career as a full-on freelance writer began in late-2005. Six years later, in 2011, she was earning a six-figure income, and during the last few years she has committed herself to helping “the most freelancers earn the most money the fastest.”

In 2009, Tice published the inaugural post on the Make A Living Writing site. But it wasn’t until 2012 when Tice’s business really took off. By then, she had also built the Freelance Writers Den, a community that supports writers who hope to earn a full-time salary without working a staff position ever again.

When asked how many writers she has helped, Tice said she isn’t sure. “I think what happens when they start making six figures is I lose touch with them because they’re too busy to hang out in the Den anymore.”

Just as individuals need to figure out how to make the freelance model work for them in order to (at least) make ends meet, businesses must learn how to effectively engage and manage freelance staffers.

Tice’s recommendations include:

  • Avoid cheap solutions. (You get what you pay for.)
  • Pay contractors fairly and in a timely manner.
  • Look for ways to improve communication with far-flung staff.
  • Be available.

The last two points are especially critical. Tice urges clients to make themselves available to talk freelancers through projects and to answer any questions that arise during the course of the project. Being proactive will head off problems.

Likewise, Tice suggests that freelancers ask as many questions as they need to in order to have clear understanding of clients’ expectations. Too many people jump on a project without fully grasping what the client wants and how they can deliver on that, she said.

Indeed, the client-contractor relationship is a tricky one. Everyone has to do his or her part to ensure success.

 

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Cloud-Based Jive Helps Businesses Run Better

Jive SoftwareWith emails in one place, documents in another, business cards stuffed into a Rolodex and texts from co-workers dinging into phones, workers spend a lot of time searching for and sorting out communications. Jive Software‘s social business platform has been helping workplaces cut through the clutter and more easily collaborate for some time, but, now that the service is offered through the cloud, it’s getting even better.

Though early releases of the cloud version of Jive were missing some features, InformationWeek reports that the increased functionality and convenience of the cloud version has large clients such as Nuance Communications and Thomson Reuters making or planning to make the switch.

With 60,000 Jive users, Thomson Reuters’ planned switch to the cloud-based version of the service is no small endorsement. Thomson Reuters claims 100% employee participation with the software, and considers Jive’s “The Hub” feature so comprehensive that the company was able to shut down 14 other intranet collaboration systems it had been using (including portals and wikis) because Jive had made them redundant.

Thomson Reuters is particularly excited to gain access to the cloud-based Jive’s new social directory feature, “because allowing employees to find other employees and locate specific expertise within the company is one of the major uses of the social platform,” reports InformationWeek.

Collaboration has always been at the heart of Jive, but as Macmillan Science and Education recently learned, going through the cloud has made it easier to collaborate.

The publisher tried out the cloud-based Jive to help connect 450 employees. The pilot was so successful that the company phased it in more quickly than expected.

“The advantage of it being in the cloud is that bringing users on was just a question of literally telling them what the URL was,” Stephen Devlin, CTO of Macmillan Science and Education, told CBR Online.

Immediate integration of new features is often a benefit of cloud-based software, and Jive is no exception. The company recently announced it will be releasing two betas with its next update–Jive + Producteev integration and Real Time Communication, Both of these features will be available only to cloud customers.

Cloud users will also be the benefactors of new collaborations, such as that between Jive and Okta Cloud Connect, which ZDNet reports will allow Jive customers to connect with Microsoft Active Directory and other corporate LDAP directories.

With better directory services, increased collaboration and access to new features, the cloud-based Jive platform is upping the efficiency and productivity ante for business.

 

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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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