Category Archives: Small Business

Small-Business and Q1: An Uncertainty ‘Report Card’

Small Business Report CardSmall-business owners say the early part of 2013 was all about the financial crisis in Congress, with 37% indicating in a recent survey that they delayed hiring due to uncertainties stemming from what would come of the impasse.

With sequestration now the new reality, it remains to be seen what will develop in terms of small-business human resources as the result. Let’s look at some of the deeper issues and effects of recent changes in the economic scenario. We turn to the numbers, and the people generating them, to examine where SMBs stand at the end of Quarter 1, as they start the rest of 2013.

Q4–Q1: The Horizon for SMBs

Tough times have apparently taken a toll on small-business owners.

Among those polled by Manta, a company that connects SMBs with new clientele and resources, 82% did not make any new hires from October–December of 2012. More than half (65%) didn’t plan to add staff in Q1 of 2013. Meanwhile, nearly 40% of those businesses said that these decisions correlated directly with the recent fiscal turmoil in Washington.

More stats and figures:

  • 14% said they would not increase salaries or issue bonuses until the effects of the fiscal wrangling became clear.
  • 13% indicated that they had already eliminated discretionary spending.

Respondents also said they were leaving behind some healthy habits in favor of working harder at their shops.

  • 29% of small-business owners said they ate healthier and worked out more, in recent months, but that’s down compared to nearly 51% who said they were doing so during 2011.
  • Nearly half of those polled said they worked more than 50 hours/week, up more than 20% from 2011.
  • 37% of the owners said they averaged less than 6 hours of sleep every night.

But all hope hasn’t been lost. Among the small businesses polled by Manta, 78% of the owners said they’re still hopeful about growth in 2013.

“I’m always hopeful about the year ahead, but I also know it’s on me to make it happen,” said Stuart Rubenstein, co-owner of Florida-based Kaleidoscope Limited, who participated in the survey. And that attitude is no surprise to Pamela Springer, Manta’s chief executive officer. The will to survive, and to thrive, she said, is a hallmark of the SMB demographic.

“The New Year has a new level of uncertainty for all businesses,” said Springer, but, she added: “It is inherent for small-business owners to have a can-do attitude, even in the toughest of times.”

 

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Mobile Security and the SMB: Emerging Strategies and Tools

Mobile Security and the SMBAccording to global research firm Forrester, 350 million employees will use smartphones by 2016, with 200 million choosing to bring their own device to work. That’s a lot of points of pressure when it comes to mobile security in the realm of corporate data.

Professional users are demanding the same kind of end-user experiences in business as they enjoy in their personal lives. To respond to these requests, many businesses have adopted bring-your-own-device policies. For chief information officers, the imperative is to isolate simple, safe and secure multipurpose mobile solutions. How to keep all this information flowing, but protected from being hacked?

Let’s turn to to some of the experts in making BYOD work, security-wise, and to one company that’s deploying mobile with a mind to make it free of compromises.

Logging: The Employee/Employer Equation

According to a report recently published by CIO, while a whopping 88 percent of employees believe their device is very or somewhat secure, 77 percent of IT managers see the risk of malware spreading to the corporate network from mobile devices. Level of risk: moderate to very high.

One responses is what’s come to be known as logging. Companies simply record what employees are doing on the internal network. But there’s a potential complication for staff members: they may not realize that they’re being watched.

Study-conductor Blue Coat found that even though only 19% of corporate employees would knowingly allow their company to monitor their personal devices as they interact with the in-house network, some 41% of the corporations examined were already doing so.

“And the regulations have come down pretty clear on this,” Timothy Chiu, Blue Coat’s director of product marketing, told the publication. “The corporate network is a corporate-owned resource and companies are allowed to log what they want.”

The Third Party App: Minimizing Risks with Employee Buy-In

Another idea in the arena of locking down personal mobile security on the corporate network is to implement third-party data sharing apps.

Eric Hart is the network/infrastructure manager at PING, the golf equipment brand.

“Mobile devices are important for how we share information,” Hart said. PING uses a third-party data-sharing company to manage their employees BYOD on the IT side.

“Teams at PING use . . .  smartphones, tablets and traditional computers to collaborate with our partners, clients and vendors for a more consistent and secure experience,” Hart said.

The bottom line in Hart’s environment is that the company wants to open up the employee-end options by having the whole team get onboard with a common-thread application. The goal is to reduce the obstacles and effort it takes to share information, but to also keep the walls from crumbling when it comes to protecting what’s proprietary at PING.

And so, the BYOD moment is upon us. Making companies productive without compromise: the realities are still coming into focus for both workers and their employers, but the tools and strategies are emerging that may afford collaboration and security a better future fit.

 

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Internet and Hiring: How Tech Professionals (and SMBs) Can Win in 2013

SMB Hiring Cloud JobsIt is the era of the online-market independent.

If the Freelancer Fast 50 report for the end of 2012 tells us anything, it’s that employable skills in the cloud-based world of business are at the center of what hiring managers want.

“The Freelancer Fast 50 report is a fairly unique leading indicator of the online economy,” said Matt Barrie, CEO of Freelancer.com, which recently released its report after surveying some 261,000 job posted online — companies in search of new blood.

Let’s look at the main points from the survey’s results.

Top Trends from Q4

Things are changing in the cloud. Internet traffic is up, but social networks are in flux. The online marketplace was anything but consistent, at year’s end.

But the good news about that is that independent workers are scooping up business opportunities, and the numbers and the percentage-shifts are, for the most part, not small.

Here’s what Freelancer’s report tells us about what’s happened.

— Website Hosting: Jobs skyrocketed over 3,300% to 4,059 jobs as businesses moved into the cloud. Many of these jobs involving the transfer of established websites to  cloud servers, or they were related to companies throwing the switch and making cloud-hosted sites live for the first time.

— Software and Website Jobs: Quality assurance positions soared as eCommerce sites rushed to fortify themselves for holiday season traffic. Q4 saw a spike in software- and website-testing jobs, and software-testing jumped 2,500% to 5,200 jobs. Meanwhile, website-testing saw a 2,055% increase to 3,923 jobs.

— eBay Jobs: After 17 years in the online auction business, eBay rolled out a number of changes to its website and mobile application, including new branding. These changes, in combination with a pivot to a mobile-centric and small-business friendly focus, correlated with eBay jobs gaining 22% (to 1,790 jobs) for the quarter as it diversified its auction house into an e-commerce marketplace.

— Social Media and Internet Marketing: Jobs in this space may be experiencing a moment of contraction, in the wake of platform and search-index changes. According to the New York Times, only 14% of digital advertising budgets are currently allocated to social networking, and social-networking projects declined 5.1% (to 5,820 jobs). Both Facebook — down 8.4% to 7,186 jobs — and Twitter, down 6.4% to 2,240 jobs, seemed to feel a pinch. Internet marketing in general was flat — down 1.4% to 15,244 jobs — while SEO may still be reeling from the after-effects of Google’s Panda changes (down 3.3% to 10,159 jobs). Some marketers fell back to e-mail marketing, which ticked up 186% to 1,003 jobs.

Those are the numbers, and, of course, what might seem clear from Q4 is always subject to changes in the market place.

What’s currently certain is that most freelance workers with a tech-savvy portfolio are deep in this mix. Whatever the result for individual companies — those seeking to impose or reinforce their presence in the marketplace — 2013 should still be a time when those seeking work will find it.

 

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A Small-Business Guide to the Fiscal Cliff: 2013 Edition

Fiscal Cliff 2013Seems like we’ve been hearing about the fiscal cliff forever, now, and with March 1 comes the latest iteration: sequestration. What does this mean for small businesses, and what can owners do to help mitigate the impact of what’s already been done?

Let’s look at a rundown of what’s next on the line, but also some fresh strategies for grappling with what U.S. lawmaking has so far left it in its fiscal wake.

Fiscal Cliff 2013: Sequestration

So, yes, the fiscal cliff — at least a version of it — looms anew, with this March representing another crucial turning point. The newest round of wrangling has to do with sequestration — the ways that the federal government may (indiscriminately) cut into $85 billion worth of spending, programs, and services.

Experts say that if the sequester locks in, small business may very well feel the impact.

Here’s what Stephen Fuller, professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy told a House committee about his predictions on the matter, last fall.

“The size and specialized nature of small businesses make them more vulnerable to sequestration than large businesses,” Fuller said. “As a result, small businesses will  bear a disproportional impact of the federal spending reductions under  sequestration. While these impacts can be measured in the loss of jobs by small businesses that are prime federal contractors (34.1% of all prime federal contractor job losses), small businesses that are subcontractors, suppliers and vendors and  whose existence depend on consumer spending that would be negatively impacted by the losses of labor income resulting from sequestration, would account for 57  percent of the associated job losses across the country.”

This is why small-business owners watch for the outcome of the March 1 sequester deadline with weariness.

The Story So Far: What SMBs Can Do (Right Now)

In an effort to show a path through what may be some already difficult territory — into the next 9–10 months and beyond — accounting-software experts at Xero put their heads together with Jody Padar, CEO and principle of New Vision CPA Group, and Jason Lawhorn, of Lawhorn CPA Group, Inc.

Together, they’ve broken out helpful tips and notes about the state of affairs for SMBs, right now. Here are some fundamentals, and what owners can do to protect themselves. They’ve categorized their main points as good, bad, and ugly, regarding what’s happened in the fiscal-cliff scenario, so far.

The Good:

– The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) relief, and extended Bonus Depreciation and Section 179 deductions. The AMT was created to tax high-wage earners, corporations, estates and trusts. At its advent, middle class and solo workers were exempt up to earnings of $45,000. But the bill did not account for inflation and wages have definitely increased since 1969 when the bill was first introduced. Had the relief law not been passed, a significant number of middle income taxpayers would have been subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax which is substantially higher than the exemption from regular income tax.

– Congress also extended the Bonus Depreciation and Section 179 deductions, which allow SMBs to recover the cost of investing in new infrastructure and property. The deductions will continue to stimulate spending, support SMBs, and encourage economic growth. At present, Congress says the approved AMT relief and tax deductions are permanent fixes. Word of caution though, say Padar and Lawhorn, no fix is ever permanent with the tax code.

The Bad:

If your small business is defined as an LLC you will see a 3.8 percent tax on your earned income as part of the Healthcare bill beginning this year. One way to mitigate this is to change your status from an LLC to an S-Corp. Here’s the key to the timeframe: if you change you status before March 15 this will apply for 2013, whereas if you change after the cut-off date you will not be eligible until 2014.

The Ugly:

A misnomer is that the the $450,000 tax increase is on the “rich” and independently wealthy, but this is not the case. S-Corps and LLCs are in the same tax pool as individuals. Additionally, most of the $450,000 earners are small business owners. Your average person is not making this type of salary, suggest Padar and Lawhorn, and the small business owners that are may be using this as “flow-through” money — that is, reinvesting this capital back into their businesses. However, because of their tax designation (S-Corp, LLC) they still fall into this bracket and their taxes will be increased.

What to Do: 2013 and the Next Steps

The main thing to be aware of is the complexity of the law changes.

For small-business owners, finances are already complicated. Padar and Lawhorn said that dealing with undecided government regulations can feel like driving in a blizzard. They recommend (of course), that owners secure the services of a qualified accountant. And the idea is to work with that accountant to navigate the new landscape all year long, not just at tax time.

“If you read or see something that does not make sense, contact your accountant,” they said. “Sticking your head in the sand when it comes to your finances is as good as leaving the cash drawer open while you’re out.”

 

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Encrypting/safeguarding your USB drives and removable media

USB flash and hard drives and removable media make it easy to carry data around – almost too easy. You can buy 16 GB drives for about $20 these days, and larger ones for not much more.

But with this convenience comes risk. If these items are lost or stolen, someone can have access to your data. Fortunately, some drives offer built-in encryption and free tools like TrueCrypt and Microsoft’s BitLocker To Go can safeguard your data and ensure that no one besides you can read your files. The encryption means that you need to enter a password before you open any of the files on the drive, otherwise all the data is just gibberish.

BitLocker To Go was introduced in Vista, but many users found it too difficult to setup and administer. It is much improved in Windows 7 and in Windows 8. Once you insert your USB drive in your computer, you right-click on the drive and start the BitLocker preparation process. You are asked for a password or a smartcard to protect the drive and where you want to store the recovery key information. It is simple and it just takes a few minutes to perform the encryption, depending on the size of the drive itself.

Note that if you want to read any of the files on your encrypted drive with older versions of Windows such as XP, you can’t.

You should see screens similar to ones the below when you want to decrypt the files on the drive.

Encrypting and Safeguarding USBs

Once you set up BitLocker To Go on a drive and a specific computer, you can set things so that it automatically decrypts the drive when it is inserted on that computer, which is a nice touch and makes things very easy to manage.

If you are responsible for your organization’s IT infrastructure and want to enable BitLocker across all the PCs in your company, you might want to review the group policies that are part of Windows here.

If you don’t use Windows, or if you want something more powerful and flexible, then TrueCrypt.org has free open source tools for Mac, Windows, and Linux machines. One of the features that I like is the ability to recover a forgotten password, which is probably the biggest fear in using any of these products. The Windows 7 BitLocker has this recovery feature too. Another feature is that you can encrypt a portion of your hard drive, where BitLocker needs to encrypt the entire drive.

If you want something more powerful than simple password protection, you can link the encryption technology to the Trusted Computing Module chip, (see this video here on TPM) or make use of the built-in fingerprint reader; both are part of most modern Windows laptops.

 

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Protect your data while you can

No one wants to lose their laptop but, with the best will in the world, mistakes happen. And more of them happen at this time of year than any other.

Lost Laptop

According to new research from Mozy, more items go missing in December than any other month of the year. And 70 per cent of us, the figures show, have lost a data storage device such as a smartphone or laptop.

The research suggested that commuting puts everyone at risk, with 6:00 pm being the peak time of day to lose something and cars and public transport featuring highly on the list of locations where things are mislaid.

For IT managers, that means a flood of requests coming your way for replacement devices. But it’s not just the devices themselves that will be slipping through fingers. Unless it’s properly protected, the data on the devices will be walking out the door with them.

So, if you want to minimise the impact of unintentional loss, make sure that you’re prepared before it happens. It’s easy to insure a laptop but the best insurance for your data is comprehensive backup.

To find out more about how to protect the devices at your company, visit mozy.com/pro.

Or to read more results from Mozy’s research, head over to mozy.com/lost.

Common Insider Security Threats – And How to Stop Them

Suspicious EmployeeThe biggest security threat companies face isn’t hackers or cybercriminals – it’s their own employees.

Most data breaches can be blamed on negligent employees failing to keep sensitive corporate data secure, according to a recent report from research firm Forrester. At the 7,000 organizations surveyed, just 25% of the data breaches they’d experienced were blamed on external attacks.

The remaining 75% were caused by employees and other insiders – and most often due to their negligence or failure to follow policies. The most common causes of those data breaches were:

  • Laptops, smartphones or other computing devices lost by employees (31%)
  • Inadvertent misuse of sensitive information (27%), and
  • Intentional theft of data by employees (12%)

As those numbers show, IT pros could prevent many data breaches by directing more attention to finding and eliminating the threats that exist in the company’s own workforce. Here are the most common types of insider threats to watch out for – and what IT can do about them:

1. Negligent employees

As Forrester’s report shows, negligent employees are the most common security threat IT departments face. Often, data is leaked because those people fail to follow IT’s security policies. And the threat is only becoming more common because employees are carrying more information around on mobile devices.

Requiring those devices to be equipped with encryption and other security tools is key to keeping data locked down. Also, IT should be careful to only give employees as much access to data as they need to do their jobs.

2. Malicious insiders

Insiders who knowingly steal data or cause other problems may not be as common as negligent employees, but they can do a lot of damage. Malicious insiders might steal confidential information to sell to competitors, use financial data to commit fraud, or carry out other costly crimes.

IT staff should work with other departments to determine who has access to a lot of sensitive data. That way, those department managers can make sure they’re conducting background checks accordingly. And again, keeping access privileges to a minimum is key for lowering the risk.

3. Ex-employees

IT must also protect against recently terminated employees that could still have access to data. Those people may include fired workers who sabotage networks or data for revenge, or an employee who took a job at a competitor and steals trade secrets to take with them.

To prevent that, IT should be in communication with HR to know when employees leave the company so their access rights can be terminated immediately.

4. IT staffers

IT managers don’t just need to worry about the potential security risks lurking in other parts of the company – there’s also a chance the IT department may have insider threats of its own. Tech staffers often have access to the most data in the company. And in fact, 20% of IT pros have admitted to snooping on sensitive data, including the CEO’s private information.

That’s why IT managers should conduct thorough background checks on their own hires and watch out for suspicious behavior from their direct reports.

5. Business partners

In addition to their own employees, companies must be careful about the employees of any cloud computing provider or other business partner they work with. Those people are out of the organization’s watch, yet often have significant access to the company’s data.

When contracting with a third party, companies should ask about the vendor’s security policies and background check protocol to make sure the proper standards are in place.

About the Author: Sam Narisi is editor in chief of IT Manager Daily, published by Progressive Business Publications.  Connect with Progressive Business on LinkedIn or Glassdoor.

 

 

The Cloud in Times of Trouble: How It Works for Small Biz When Disaster Strikes

The understatement of late 2012, when it comes to technology: systems suffer when the environment is extreme.

The Cloud in Times of TroubleWe saw this, of course, in late October, as New York, New Jersey, and parts of the East Coast lost power, public transportation — and lives — during the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy.

The human toll being the most critical at such times, it can take a while for the challenges of running a small business to return to their normal focus. But later, when the sky has cleared and life must resume something of its normal routine, challenges do loom. For small-business owners, this means bringing their data infrastructure back online.

Payrolls. Repairs. Contact lists of vendors and customers — for all kinds of reasons these become more critical than ever. Has your IT core been protected? Have you lost the data that everyone relies upon to get back to bringing in a paycheck?

Let’s look at the cloud, and the role that professionals working with it daily see it playing during not only Sandy, but also future crisis events.

Data First Responders and the Cloud

“During disasters, IT teams become first responders tasked with trying to keep the business operational,” says Todd Krautkremer, vice president of marketing at cloud-network company Pertino.

Krautkremer blogged about the role of the cloud in the days after Sandy: “They often have to deal with a wide range of issues, including keeping back-up power running, physically relocating servers, and grappling with an entire workforce that suddenly needs secure remote access.”

So, hats off to the IT crews out there. But one way to avoid having to count on too few pros being in demand by too many hurting businesses during a post-disaster demand peak: the cloud.

Ensuring that your small business’s data is protected means making your data non-reliant upon geography. Think about it: if it’s not physically stored in the path of harm, restarting your business after an emergency requires only finding power and a working computer — not scrambling to find your data.

And that’s not as bad as facing the prospect of waterlogged hard drives and a wrecked set of servers. Even if you feel more comfortable storing your most-sensitive business information in-house, having a series of cloud servers to which you can migrate that material in stages as a crisis approaches, this is key to securing it from the elements.

Scaling Up, Scaling Down: Small Biz to the Federal Gov’t

The cloud’s role in disaster response and recovery is something businesses of all sizes acknowledge.

The General Services Administration saw the value of the cloud early on, says Casey Coleman, chief information officer for the federal department. As an early adopter, the GSA was able to provide access to its servers and help with emergency response and recovery during and after Sandy’s arrival in the U.S.

“GSA’s cloud conversion prevented complications from the Verizon outage, which would have led to interruptions in these services for GSA users in New York and New Jersey,” Coleman told FCW, a publication that covers the business of federal tech.

It is a problem not likely to vanish from small-business and other operators’ list of concerns. The changes that are now becoming  best practices, Krautkremer  blogged,  are changes based in the cloud.

“One thing is for sure,” he wrote. “The sky will open-up and wreak havoc again in the future. The next time it does, SMB IT organizations can look to the cloud.”

 

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Poll: Small-Business Owners Talk Worst Headaches (and Solutions)

Small Business Headaches and SolutionsWhat do the majority of small-business owners say are key points of stress in their world, in late 2012? The answer is, of course, related to how they manage money.

Nearly three-quarters of business owners polled in a recent Xero survey, 73% of them, said that managing revenue, expenses, and collecting overdue payments top the list of financial stressors.

“As a small-business owner, I am constantly in five places at once,” says Caitlin MacGregor, cofounder of Cream.hr, a hiring consultancy. What she seeks, in the way of solutions, MacGregor says, is a way of seeing big pictures and understanding the finances of the whole small business, moment to moment.

And so the trend, owners say, is increasingly the move to mobile.

Mobile Tools and Small Biz Finance

It’s not news that people use their smartphones and their tablets to check personal finances from almost anywhere, at any time.

Xero’s poll shows that almost half (46%) the mobile-device consumers it surveyed are looking at their bank accounts on vacation, and 18% of them will check their balance at the bar, or at the restaurant table.

Small Business Headaches and Solutions

Meanwhile, 67% of the small-business owners and operators polled say that they use mobile apps to help run their shops. And 58% of those polled describe the effect of these apps and devices: mobile makes small business operations more efficient.

How? Small-business owners are adopting the mobile finance mechanisms available to them to solve those key stressors that 73% of them describe. (Xero has a horse in this race — that’s part of why they’re so interested in these numbers. The company builds online accounting software that does the kind of things these owners are talking about, when it comes to finances and mobile apps.)
Here’s what more than 500 say about their implementation of mobile finances, in 2012.

— 33% said they check bank balances, making managing revenue the kind of minute-by-minute scenario that owners such as MacGregor say they desire.

— The expense-report problem. Some 23% of the polled owners said they use a mobile device to capture receipts. In other words, they’re submitting expense reports and the required documentation right from their phones.

— 18% are utilizing mobile tech to invoice their clients. This means, given the right apps, that they’re creating invoice documents for their customers on the spot, e-mailing it to them, and then following up on overdue statements, all from a mobile platform.

 

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Small-Business Networking: Internet Connections Eclipsing the Old Face-to-Face?

Here are the numbers: 74% of small-business owners in a recent poll say that networking online is as, or more, important than meeting with their networks face-to-face.

The number is among the results of a new survey conducted by Manta, an online community-builder for small businesses.

Small Business Online NetworkingThe survey numbers are of the kind that make you sit up and address some long-held notions. The idea that the importance of online networking is eclipsing person-to-person? It is absolutely contrary what old-school networking strategies have emphasized for so long.

But then, it makes sense, doesn’t it?

Consumers and business owners, nowadays they’re on the web. Mobile businessaccounts for some 1 billion workers. And small-business owners are freshly focusing on the facts.

Let’s take a closer look, talk to some owners about the change, and find out what else the survey can tell us about the development of networking on the web.

Connecting Online: One Sweet Step at a Time

Sherry Sheppard owns i love cupcakes, in Largo, Florida. For her, getting online and bringing her concept to new people is an integral part of her work.

“Continuous customer support and tools,” Sheppard says of her Internet networking experience, “have really helped us leverage creative ways to reach people. New and innovative opportunities to market to and connect with people online has really helped get our specialty cupcake bakery noticed, which has proven to be vital to our ongoing success.”

To what extent?

Sheppard says that 70% of her business comes to her via online networking. That’s more than just frosting on the cake.

Running the Numbers: Online Networking on the Rise

Of the 600 small businesses polled, Manta’s survey helps paint the picture of not only how many owners say web-based networking is important, but it also gives us a sense of how much time they’re spending doing it throughout the year.

  • 52% say they dedicate half or more of their business networking time to online channels in 2012.
  • Percentage of owners who say they give all their business-networking attention to the web: 7%
  • 36% of the owners said that half or more of their new customers in the past year found them through online channels.
  • Company websites are still leading the pack, when it comes to driving business. 24% of the owners said so.
  • Close behind is Facebook. 19% of the owners polled said The Social Network was the chief driver of business from the web to their services.

Building Businesses Online: Standing Out in the Crowd

The numbers certainly tell a story. But the thinking behind these stats is perhaps best summarized by one small-business executive who’s competing for customers daily.

“Since there are so many avenues to connect with people today, it’s important to consistently stand out from all the noise,” says Joseph Buczek, president of Indiana and Missouri-based Lighthouse Construction and Restoration, Inc. “In the architectural and remodeling industry, I have a lot of competitors and I need to be where my customers are – and that’s online.”

 

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