Tag Archives: small business

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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Mobile Freelancer, Mobile Entrepreneur: 5 Budget-Friendly Approaches to Your Business Workflow

Freelancers and Mobile ToolsEntrepreneurs and freelancers manage their businesses online just as much as every other kind of owner and corporate project manager, but they often find themselves working with a limited budget.

“We can’t always hire someone to keep certain information organized and structured,” says Sean Mahoney, president and CEO of AndPlus. “Custom software and the use of mobile applications on the devices we carry each minute of every day offer the single and best opportunity for us to place the time spent usually organizing into running our businesses.”

From payroll and ops to low-cost personal-assistant apps, from idea-banks to team-collaboration tools, let’s look at some of the options that can work for the independent entrepreneur and freelancer on the go.

1. Focus on Cash Flow: Apps like Freshbooks ($19.95/month) and Outright (free; $9.95/month premium version) allow you to see your cash flow day by day as it relates to payroll and operations.

2. Task Flow is as Important as Cash Flow: Use task reminders as if they were a personal assistant. A shortlist to check out includes Wunderlist (free; $4.99/month premium version) , Wrike (free; $49–$199/month premium version), and Any.do (free).

3. Consolidate Your Creative Materials: Combine all of your notes, pictures, and recorded audio in one place, using an app such as Evernote (free; $5/month or $45/year premium version). No matter where you are during a day, all of your creative materials are searchable. This can be a life saver at a meeting, during an impromptu pitch, or in any situation that depends on your ideas being instantly at hand.

4. Keep Your Comm Lines Open: Communicate with your team on a platform that allows mobile and desktop interaction. A good place to start: Yammer (free; up to $8 per user premium version).

5. Customize When Ready: At some point, as either your budget grows or your workflow exceeds the free and low-price apps we’ve just considered, you’ll probably want to push your entrepreneurial/freelance toolkit into the customized space. Many of what are the most common actions online professionals needs to deal with every day can be integrated into personalized mobile applications quickly and easily.

“We now are allowed to move forward with our lives and running our businesses in the way we feel is most productive, not the way we feel we’re forced to,” says Mahoney.

The bottom line is, even without a massive line to draw upon, small-business and solo entrepreneurs can create dynamic management tools that put them on the same playing field as their bigger-budget counterparts.

 

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SMBs and the Online Workforce: Long-Term Relationships are the New ‘Gig’

Freelance Opportunities Are GrowingThere might have been a time when hiring freelancer online meant short-term contracts and cost savings for companies, but new research shows that employers are thinking differently about what web-sourced workers mean to a project.

Business owners are hiring at higher salaries and for longer-term arrangements, according to a new report by Elance. The study shows that 50% of the employers it polled are now bringing on online workers to handle multiple projects, not just one. And pay over the past year has increased by 69% year-over-year.

“I’m still re-hiring freelancers from just about every project I’ve done,” said Bill Calhoun of BillCalhoun.com. “Once you get your feet wet and establish a trusted relationship, it’s easy to hire again and again.”

Let’s look further into the numbers, and see what else the Elance study shows about owners such as Calhoun.

One of the trends in online hiring is that business owners are using web-based searches and platforms to find specialists in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Elance’s survey showed the following:

  • Demand for data scientists and statisticians is up 200%.
  • The demand for mobile-app developers increased 49% with continued growth in demand for iOS, Android and HTML5 skills. Demand for software application developers was up 62%.
  • The demand for networking and security experts saw remarkable growth with an over 300% increase in hiring.
  • The rise of 3D printing is pushing demand for computer-aided design experts in the U.S. The number of 3D-printing related jobs was up over 200% while the overall demand for U.S. based CAD talent grew nearly 70%.

“The ability to hire the best available person online and on-demand is becoming an essential strategy for agile businesses of all sizes,” said Fabio Rosati, chief executive officer of Elance.

If the numbers in the report bear a message, then, it’s that owners’ staffing strategies are more fully embracing the online workforce. And that leads to stories like those of freelancer Dave Russell.

“In early 2012 I was given a life-changing opportunity to work with a brilliant company,” Russell said. “It was initially just a 30-hour contract, but we got along so well that we continued working together—I was even invited out to Mountain View, California to meet everyone in-person . . . I’ve not only improved my skills, but I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting and working with incredible people.”

The concept of hiring-up via the Internet has become an everyday practice, and pay and contracts are enjoying the parity that comes with increasingly proven success.

 

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Make your (or somebody else’s) side projects happen via Sideprojectors

SideProjectorsIf you’re a creative type, you may have an endless list of world-changing projects that you have brainstormed, blueprinted and prototyped.

If you’re a businessperson, you are probably capable of executing and growing great projects, but are short on things-to-build.

If you fit into either category, you’re soon-to-be in luck.

SideProjectors, formerly a tiny community of creatives and moonlighters who showcased things they were working on or had worked on, is developing a marketplace to buy and sell side projects.

The revamped site is to-be-launched, and promises to be a dead-simple solution for finding “someone who can potentially take over your projects. Alternatively, if you are looking for interesting projects that others have paused on, SideProjectors would be a great place to discover them.”

Keeping side projects alive

Instead of quitting a languishing side project entirely — it’s always difficult to let go — put it up for sale so you can live vicariously through its success or watch it burn in flames knowing at least someone tried.

The entrepreneurial-minded no longer have to start from scratch and can move on from the wannabe stage, ridding themselves of the excuse, “If only I had a great idea…”

Of course, not every side project will become a full-blown business that will launch you into the Wall Street Journal. Many are destined to fail. Some will evolve into completely new ideas.

Side projects are good, but startups are better

Side projects allow creators and developers to build things for fun and feed their entrepreneurial spirits. But there is a caveat: turning a side project into a successful business requires a committed entrepreneur.

David Hauser, founder of Grasshopper writes, “The biggest problem with side projects is that the lack of commitment dilutes the startup talent pool, hurts the side project or startup, and in turn kills great startups from succeeding. If you’re looking to start a business, take some time to consider whether or not you’re ready to be all in.”

That’s where the SideProjectors marketplace intends to help. Not only can it help vet ideas, it can also find that committed entrepreneur that good projects need.

Sign up for an early invitation into the SideProjectors community at its website.

 

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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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Small Biz in the Forum: How Smart Posting is Good Marketing

Small-business advertising has often amounted to something like this: how much bang can you get for your buck?

Billboards, ad spots, commercials, whatever the format, you want to see your marketing dollars amount to returns, sales, conversions.

But while a billboard-heavy marketing campaign by the big guys can lead to increased business, it’s often difficult to understand just how much money they eventually bring in. Just as often, ad experts tell us, it’s about expanding the reach of your brand and it’s about recognition.

But the smaller shop doesn’t always have the luxury of dropping crucial marketing dollars on what can amount to only a concept play. So, for small businesses, how can you showcase your expertise and build your reputation, but still keep the budget and return-on-investment at the center of the game?

One way is the online forum.

Let’s look at small-business owners who’ve used forum posting to develop new clients. We’re helped by Manta Connect, an online community-builder for small businesses to connect to the communities of customers they want to find.

Forum Posting: It’s About Time, Not Money

“Small business owners who actively share their knowledge and experience in the forum on Manta Connect not only establish themselves as industry experts in the community,” said Pamela Springer, chief executive at Manta, “but they gain a competitive advantage in expanding their customer reach.”

Take Stephen Lewis, for example. He’s the owner of Worthwhile Things in Orlando, Florida. While his team is working to coach small businesses, he turns to forums to find new clients  — and he does this by answering the questions they’ve asked.

Online Forums“Most of the questions and posts I respond to involve a business owner asking how to do something online, or how to do it better,” he said. “By giving clear answers which contain relevant and thoughtful tips, comments and feedback, I can establish myself as an authority on a given subject.”

The outlay for what amounts to a new, real, and concrete customer lead? A little bit of time.

“I find that by giving 5-10 minutes of my time and offering a short bullet list of free advice, I receive great reviews and feedback, and give myself an opportunity to make a new business contact or customer,” Lewis said. “I always include anchor text links back to my various online properties, but always to specific pieces of content that will augment my answer to the question posed.”

Expertise Online: Look to Learn, then Show Don’t Tell

For small-business owners as well, two other major elements of online forums come into play:

— A Lab for Best Practices: By watching your colleagues who also post and interact, as a small-business owner you’ve got a free way to learn at your disposal. From the best moves to mistakes, participating in online forums allows small-business owners to listen in on a vital conversation about best practices.

— A Place to Demonstrate What You Do: When a small-business owner rents a booth at a trade conference, they’re really spending money to demonstrate something about what it is they do. Forums can provide that, in a different way, without the expense. ”By using my experience and providing any help that I can,” said Patrick Tuure, web designer and owner of O.T. Web Designs in Columbus, Ohio. “I demonstrate to other forum followers that I know what I’m doing and, as a result, it opens them up to doing business with me. Since the posts are always there, they serve as a great icebreaker when someone contacts me. I don’t have to spend the time to convince them of my level of knowledge, they can clearly see it.”

Image Credit: Forum / Sarah B. Brooks / CC BY 2.0

 

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Silver Lining: Small-Business Owners Suggest Economic Optimism During Tough Economic Times

A silver lining for small businessesHere’s something that might seem counterintuitive, given all the economic bad news that small-business owners have to wade through in these times: small-business owners aresaying that the future’s looking bright and looking up.

That’s what became clear in a June 2012 in a survey of more than 1,000 small-business respondents. Of them, 76% said they are optimistic about their company’s growth for the remainder of the year. Other interesting numbers from the survey include:

  • Fewer than 7% said the opposite of “expected growth,” that they thought conditions for their business would decline by the end of 2012.
  • About 17% of the small-business owners said that the November U.S. Presidential election would further determine how they feel about a positive or not-so-positive future for their shops.

But that’s not all. The survey also reveals a correlation between the age of the business owner and the level of optimism. The younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is positive about the future. Let’s dig into those numbers.

Youthful Optimism: Digging Deeper into the Small-Business Owner’s Mindset

The survey, conducted by j2 Global — a provider of cloud services, such as e-fax, virtual phones, and e-mail — indicated that while a majority of respondents are optimistic about the months to come, those under 32 years old were the most confident of the lot.

The tally: 85% of the Millennial generation’s respondents said that they expected their business to grow. The numbers then dipped a bit as the answers came from older owners.

  • 81% of those between 33 and 47 years said they felt optimistic about their business.
  • 71% ranging from 48–66 years were positive about business growth.
  • 64% of owners over 67 were feeling bullish about the future of their work.

“I think younger business owners are in a group maybe more tailored to the current economy and current world,” said Mike Pugh, vice president, marketing of j2 Global. “Maybe they adopted mobile devices and models that allow them to be more nimble. They may have less infrastructure and overhead, with what they do based on the cloud-based solutions that are out there.

“Another part of it is what I like to say is the sheer optimism of youth,” Pugh continued, referring to youth especially during tough economic times. “They have been through this on a shorter timespan, and the older generation: they’ve been through more. They’ve been through this before. Maybe they fell less heartened about taking it on another time.”

Social Media as Growth Promoter: New Opportunities for the ‘Nimble’

One of the reasons the youngest cohort is the most positive might be that the business world is shifting away from brick and mortar to online and interconnected.

According to j2 Global’s survey, one in three owners say their marketing strategy is now completely social-media centered. And 26% say social media takes up half or more of their marketing-strategy time.

And then there’s the effect of mobile-device technology.

No longer shackled to a desk in some back office, mobile-minded small-business owners may be saving up to 370 million hours of time per year by going mobile with location-non-dependent apps.

Indeed, the survey says that 38% of small-business owners use five or more mobile applications to keep their operations running well.

“Nimble is the word that comes to my mind,” said Pugh. “My opinion about these mobile-based businesses is they have the flexibility to start up, to wind down, to change and to restart faster. An older capital-intense business has to raise money, get a facility, buy equipment. Your ability to change your mind is pretty slim.”

And so, when it comes to optimism, Pugh said: “The key word is nimbleness, and that compresses all these timeframes, and it makes for more opportunities to change. And with that, you can change the rules.”

 

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Should you consider a co-working space?

Co-working spaceMost of you are familiar with the idea of a shared tenant services for small businesses that can’t afford their own office space but want to take advantage of a common collection of services such as fax machines, conference rooms, reception areas, and the like. But what if the $400 or so a month fee for these services is still out of the park for your nascent business owner? And what if working out of a coffee shop or other free WiFi place isn’t really professional enough? In between these setups, several different kinds of shared office spaces are also available. Let’s look at the options.

First up is co-working, which also goes under various names, including the “Jelly” movement started by Amit Gupta. The idea is that people who want more than just a virtual water cooler of email, Tweeting and posting online can actually get out of the house and spend some time nearby other humans doing their work too. The goal is to create a community of like-minded people but from different walks of life, skill sets, and interests – just like your local Faceless Big Company Cubicle Warren. Bring your own laptop and cell phone, tie into a WiFi connection, and sip some of the included coffee. The “rent” is reasonable – about $50 a month or even less, depending on how often you need to show up. Some facilities have more, such as multiple-line phones and conference rooms, and some have less. All are a step up from Starbucks, though. Some are in business district locations, some in more residential areas that are not much more than a converted home with a bunch of desks in them. Some are sponsored by local governments, others are setup by private businesses.

Probably the best thing to do is just to check out some of the many resources on co-working on the web. Look at the co-working wikilistings by city, or the link for Jelly (listed above). Call a few of the places that are in these directories and find out the basics, such as price, hours of operation, and what else is included.

Before you visit with your laptop and cell phone, make sure you have a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones along too. Some of these places can get noisy, and you’ll want some protection from all the hubbub. Also, if you do get a lot of phone calls, consider leaving your desk and finding someplace a bit more private, so as not to disturb your fellow co-workers.

Somewhat different from co-working is where companies are renting spare office space by the hour. This is the growing trend in some California cities. An article in ReadWriteWeb talks about this and where you can find these kinds of services.

Still, my work style wouldn’t tolerate such close quarters – at one of the co-working sites that I visited last week, it could easily house ten people in a large bullpen area. I like it nice and quiet and no one else around, because that is what I need to write and to interview people on the phone. But perhaps you are different, and crave the company and companionship. You might want to investigate co-working, and see if there is someone in your area that has such a setup, or even start one in your own house.