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Senator Sherrod Brown Announces $18 Million Fund for Ohio Small Businesses

Small Business Trends - Fri, 2014-04-18 15:00

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has announced a new $18 million fund for Ohio small businesses.

This is federal funding designed to give Ohio small business and manufacturers access to credit. It comes through the U.S. Treasury Department’s State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI), which was part of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010.

Brown, chair of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection, was a strong advocate of the Small Business Jobs Act. In a prepared statement, Brown said:

“Small businesses and manufacturers are the backbone of Ohio’s economy. But in order for these companies to grow operations and create new jobs, they must have access to capital. These new federal resources will provide an immediate boost to Ohio small businesses and help leverage additional private investments – many from local community banks –to help add jobs throughout Ohio.”

Ohio has many small businesses in manufacturing.  Brown advocated for the SSBCI provision within the Act in part to help those small businesses with higher loan limits due to higher capital costs.

According to the statement issued by the U.S. Treasury Department, the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 was endorsed by the National Federal of Independent Businesses (NFIB).  It created a $30 billion loan fund to enable community banks to make loans to small businesses.

In August 2011, Brown announced more than $55 million in federal funding through the SSBCI program was allocated to the State of Ohio, in three payments.  This is the second payment.  The first disbursement was $12.4 million, leaving about $24.7 million still to be allocated in the future for Ohio.  The total allocated for all states was $1.5 billion.

Under the SSBCI, participating states will use the federal funds for programs that leverage private lending to help finance small businesses and manufacturers that are creditworthy, but are not getting the loans they need to expand and create jobs. The SSBCI will allow states to build on earlier models for state small business programs, including collateral support programs, Capital Access Programs (CAPs) and loan guarantee programs.

Critics of the SSBCI program, however, point to the fact that some of the funds will go to programs administered by large financial institutions and venture capitalists, in part to go to high growth startups rather than Main Street small businesses.  The SSBCI program creates funding programs for financial institutions, state loan programs and venture capital programs.  Chuck Blakeman of the Crankset Group observes, “Steve Case, a nationally known venture capitalist, said it best, ‘If you sit in a room of 200 startups, and you ask which of them are small businesses, no one will raise their hand. What they’ll tell you is that they are giant businesses that just haven’t scaled yet.’  These are the companies that will get the SSBCI funds from venture capitalists. How does that help small businesses in any way?”

Senator Brown’s office has prepared a summary of the Small Business Jobs Act, including a description of the funding provisions here.

Image: Brown.Senate.gov

The post Senator Sherrod Brown Announces $18 Million Fund for Ohio Small Businesses appeared first on Small Business Trends.

Lana Khavinson of LinkedIn Shares How Small Businesses are Using the Platform

Small Business Trends - Fri, 2014-04-18 13:00

Lana Khavinson, Small Business Segment Marketing Lead for LinkedIn, discusses a recent report regarding how small businesses are using social media and, more specifically, how LinkedIn is focused on helping them.

* * * * *

Small Business Trends: Before we start talking about a recent study you did around how small businesses are using social media, and how LinkedIn is helping small businesses, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your personal background?

Lana Khavinson: I’ve been in marketing well over 10 years and have always, in one way or another, been in the small business segment. I come from an entrepreneurial small business family and have always had a passion for helping smaller businesses figure out how they can succeed.

Small Business Trends: Can you share a little information on that report and why LinkedIn decided to do it?

Lana Khavinson: Sure. So on LinkedIn, we have quite a significant small business segment. We really wanted to learn more about small businesses to understand what their thoughts are around social media.

Small Business Trends: What are some of the main findings?

Lana Khavinson: We were really blown away by the growth of small businesses using social media now. We found 81% of small businesses are currently using social media to drive business and 9% are planning to use it in the future.

We found they’re not only using social media, they’re succeeding with it. Three in five said it helped them gain new customers.

The other thing we found – a strong correlation between use of social media and hyper growth small businesses. Ninety one percent of hyper growth small businesses said social media helped them increase awareness and 82% said it helped them with lead generation. So it’s really quite incredible the success small businesses are seeing when they learn and really apply themselves to social media.

Small Business Trends: Is this a case of these small businesses using social media for a while, and now they’re starting to get the hang of it? Or is it a case of having more realistic expectations?

Lana Khavinson: Absolutely a mix. There are definitely those small businesses out there that have been using social media for a while and have been testing and really figuring out what the secret sauce is.

And there are those others that have just been embracing it recently. One of the great things is there’s so much information out there now on best practices around different social media platforms. There are also so many more tools now to help you manage your social media presence, test it and gain some success.

Small Business Trends: Were there any findings in the report that surprised you?

Lana Khavinson: Yes. One of the things we were really excited to see was, after growing or attracting customers and gaining new customers through social media, 49% of the small businesses said they’re using social media to learn.

So it’s really exciting to see small businesses understanding social media is not only about marketing, but a place to have peer-to-peer connections, learn from the experts, gather best practices information and then use that in their day-to-day work.

Small Business Trends: If you think about how small businesses are leveraging the LinkedIn platform, have you seen a change over the years?

Lana Khavinson: I’d say initially, small businesses were very nervous about using LinkedIn, so they’d have their profiles and potentially even have a company page to showcase their business. But now they’re taking it to a whole new level of interaction and engagement.

What that means is they’re building up their networks – realizing their network on LinkedIn is not just about friends and family because it’s not intended to be your personal network; it’s your professional network.

Small Business Trends: What are some things small businesses may not be taking full advantage of when using LinkedIn’s platform to engage customers?

Lana Khavinson: I’d absolutely encourage, if small businesses do not have a company page yet, that they absolutely have one. What we hear time and again is two people meet at an event or conference, discuss possible business opportunities and then one of them will go back to LinkedIn, look at that person’s personal profile, then go to their company page.

If you don’t have a company page on LinkedIn, it’s a big loss. By creating that presence, you’re giving authenticity to that conversation you had.

Having a company page alone is not enough. It’s also about getting your voice out there through company updates, personal updates and joining groups relevant to your particular industry or specialization.

Small Business Trends: Where can they go to learn more about the results of the study, and how they should be using social media?

Lana Khavinson: We actually just launched a new resource center for smaller businesses that gives free tools and tips on things that you can, and should, be doing on LinkedIn.

This is an edited transcript. To hear the full interview, click on the audio player below.

This interview on how small businesses are using LinkedIn is part of the One on One interview series with thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. This transcript has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click on the player above. 

The post Lana Khavinson of LinkedIn Shares How Small Businesses are Using the Platform appeared first on Small Business Trends.

7 Out of 10 Consumers Prefer a Business with a Social Media Presence

Small Business Trends - Fri, 2014-04-18 10:30

Seven out of 10 consumers prefer a business with a social media presence. That’s according to information provided by GoDaddy (click the image above to see the full graphic), through its service Get Found. Get Found provides small businesses with tools to update their information instantly across a wide variety of platforms online.

But why do consumers feel this way? Is it because the social media presence confirms there are real people behind the business? Or is it because they truly want to follow the business on social media?

Rene Reinsberg, General Manager and Vice President for GoDaddy’s Get Found and other SEO products explains:

“A social media presence has become an essential and expected component of a business’ digital presence. In some cases, consumers are bypassing search engines and other traditional search options to find businesses on social media. Having a social presence confirms the legitimacy of a business and also provides an essential channel for communication. Social media is so critical for most consumers that if you aren’t on social media, you don’t exist as a business.”

Here’s another thing to consider. Seventy-seven percent of consumers are unlikely to give a location-based business a second chance once they’ve discovered outdated or incorrect information about that business online.

Again, why is this? Certainly, in the old days, people were used to running across outdated information in the Yellow Pages. So why are consumers so unforgiving about outdated information online?

Reinsberg adds:

“Consumers are not necessarily more unforgiving about online information than they have been about offline information. However, the proliferation of Internet use and companies defined by their speed of service has increased consumer expectation towards immediate gratification. Consumers are now used to getting any information, at any time, immediately. Additionally, attention spans have waned as consumers increasingly multitask in different ways, which may reduce patience for inaccurate information.”

GoDaddy announced the launch of Get Found in January. The  service enables small businesses to simultaneously update their information on platforms including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Yelp.

The service was created by Locu, a company GoDaddy acquired in August of 2013. The San Francisco-based company pioneered online updating tools for more than 30,000 restaurants, spas, salons, accountants, photographers, home-remodeling companies and other small businesses.

The post 7 Out of 10 Consumers Prefer a Business with a Social Media Presence appeared first on Small Business Trends.

Sales Started Out Like, “Yeah!”

Small Business Trends - Fri, 2014-04-18 08:00

I love language, but even I sometimes find my own conversations devolving into phrases like “so it went like,” or “then she’s all like,” and the like. (Pun intended.)

I think we all do this from time to time. But there’s a time and place for that – and a sales meeting is definitely not one of them.

The post Sales Started Out Like, “Yeah!” appeared first on Small Business Trends.

Bet You Didn’t Know About These Amazon Payment Services

Small Business Trends - Fri, 2014-04-18 05:30

You know about Amazon’s retail services for selling everything from books to fishing equipment. But do you know about the range of Amazon payment services the online retailer already offers, or plans to offer, to small businesses and consumers?

If not, let us clue you in. Below are some of the programs either already in place or in development for Amazon.

Amazon Login and Pay

First off, last year the company launched its Amazon Login and Pay option for online merchants. The idea is to let customers sign in and pay at other eCommerce websites using their Amazon accounts.

Login and Pay differs from the older Checkout by Amazon program, which requires only copying and pasting a snippet of HTML into your site. It also appears to offer a bit more integration than the older service.

Here’s a video that explains more:

Amazon says the new service allows payments on any device and allows you to add payment options like pre-orders, split-orders and in-store pick-up.

Amazon Payments

You may not have heard, but Amazon also has a peer-to-peer money transfer service letting you send or receive money online similar to a service also provided by PayPal. It’s called Amazon Payments, simply enough.

The feature allows private accounts using an Amazon sign in to send or receive up to $500 a month. Sellers using the service pay 2.9% plus a $0.30 per-transaction fee for payments of $10 or more.

Other Amazon Payment Services Coming

Earlier this year, reports surfaced about Amazon plans to offer small brick and mortar retailers a checkout system built on Amazon’s Kindle.

The Wall Street Journal reported Amazon might be considering the move later this summer and targeting smaller retailers without a good checkout system already in place. The maneuver could get Amazon a piece of the nearly 90% of all sales that still happen at brick and mortar retailers.

Re/Code also reports Amazon is looking into creating a payment option that would let customers handle offline transactions by phone. For example, you could pay for your parking or for a meal at a restaurant by phone.

The post Bet You Didn’t Know About These Amazon Payment Services appeared first on Small Business Trends.

How to Create Buyer Personas for Your Content Marketing Strategy

Small Business Trends - Thu, 2014-04-17 19:00

Many small business owners are revamping their content marketing strategy this year. While there are lots of different ways to alter your strategy and stay safe being discussed among the Webmaster and SEO community, one of my favorites is by creating buyer personas. It’s creative and it’s a great way to try something new, so there’s really no reason not to get started.

How Buyer Personas Work and Why They Matter

Creating buyer personas essentially means you’re really digging into the buyer habits and patterns of everyone in your audience. Typically, you’ll have several different buyer personas in order to fit everyone in your entire audience into at least one group. Everyone is different, but usually you’ll find trends among your audience in terms of where they search before they buy, for how long, and how they form their decision.

The reason I like buyer personas is because they can work directly with many editorial calendars, so you know exactly which content you should show which people and/or make sure you have a good mix of content that’s really targeted (more on this later). Creating buyer personas is an excellent way to compare audiences and determine the content each would want to read most. This might mean more work because you may have to create a different piece of content for each of your five buyer personas, but it’s more personalized which will get you far.

How to Get Started Creating Buyer Personas to Help Your Content Efforts

Below are three different ways to create buyer personas and how to use them to your advantage:

1. Talk with your audience through surveys, phone calls, and user accounts.

Unless you have a company with only 20 customers, it is unrealistic to talk with every single person in order to fit him/her into the right persona. Nonetheless, you can ask customers or visitors of your website to take surveys and answer questions. If you have a system where visitors can create a profile or account, this is a great way to get a lot of information about a potential client. If you work for a big company, having a team of people call everyone who signs up for your service is a great way to get some key information.

When talking with your audience, you’re going to want to get demographic information as well as information about their buying process and interests. Remember that you want to learn about them as buyers, so ask questions such as:

  • How much did you know about the product/service before researching?
  • How do you like to shop for this product/service?
  • What was most important to you about this product/service?
  • How long did it take you to find this product/service? Make a final decision?

Of course, there are other questions you can ask depending on your specific company, but try not to ask too many. If you’re talking with someone on the phone asking more questions is a good idea, but sometimes surveys online can seem daunting if they last more than 5 minutes.

2. Look at your marketing funnel and try to segment your audience into personas.

Segmenting your audience based on the information they gave is how you’re going to determine your main personas. It typically helps to look at your marketing funnel and determine where he/she would fit. This helps you understand how each buyer acts at each step in your marketing process. Once you have your information/audience segmented into your marketing funnel, you should look for trends within each funnel to potentially create even more personas.

In the end, you should have groups of people who act similarly when it comes to buying your product/service, which means not only can you improve your paid marketing efforts or other marketing strategies, but also your content marketing.

3. Think about the content needed to help each persona make a final decision, and use and editorial calendar to schedule content and create these personas.

When thinking about content, you not only want to think about content to be published on your blog or your website, but also what type of content will be published on other channels like YouTube, social media, etc. You will want to take a look at your buyer personas and see which group uses YouTube the most to find information, for example, and then create content that fits in with some of that groups other buyer traits.

I highly recommend using a tool called “CoSchedule.” This is a standalone app that syncs with WordPress. (Extra tip: It does quite a bit more than work with personas.) It allows you to create your buyer personas and then lets you mark which content is best for which personas so that you can target them specifically and make sure you’re putting out an even amount of content for each persona.

Do you have practice working with buyer personas? What was your process to find these buyer personas like, and do you have any tips for using personas to jump start a content marketing strategy?

Persona Photo via Shutterstock

The post How to Create Buyer Personas for Your Content Marketing Strategy appeared first on Small Business Trends.

A Plug-and-Play Customer Loyalty Program for Small Businesses

Small Business Trends - Thu, 2014-04-17 17:30

Punch cards for your repeat customers will soon be a thing of the past. But it’s difficult for small businesses to afford those plastic key cards that you might get from a place like a grocery store or gas station.

Huzzah Media says its new Huzzah Loyalty platform is one solution. In fact, the company is targeting businesses with fewer than 10 employees that are still looking for ways to keep their valued customers coming back.

Huzzah VP of Marketing Greg Garrick told Small Business Trends recently that a company survey found nearly half of all small business owners consider repeat customers key to their business’ success. However, less than 20 percent of them offer their customers a loyalty program. Cost in setting up such a program is a major obstacle. Huzzah says that some custom loyalty programs could cost a small business tens of thousands of dollars.

In a company press release, Huzzah’s VP of Product Development Lance Brown added:

“We know that for all businesses today, increased customer engagement is essential to keep customers coming back, and for smaller merchants, this rings especially true. Huzzah brings deep expertise in the small business market and we are committed to delivering a new set of services that enable them to compete with bigger brands and drive revenue.”

The Huzzah Loyalty program is fairly simple. Currently, the company is giving small businesses a chance to try it out for six months for a nominal fee: $1. After securing a credit card, Huzzah sends you an iPad to display at your business and a box of loyalty cards to give to your customers.

When customers visit your store after receiving a loyalty card, all they need to do is swipe it or a QR code on their smartphone in front of the iPad to earn points. These points can be accrued toward rewards that you select as the business owner.

In an interview with Small Business Trends, Brown said that his company works with small business owners to set up their unique loyalty program:

“Small business owners can talk to specialists to help them guide on which offers to offer. We walk them through the process. You answer questions, they set up everything.”

After about five months, Huzzah contacts small businesses that have been using the loyalty program to gauge their interest going forward. Following the trial period, monthly subscriptions to Huzzah’s platform range from $69 to $139. Businesses are required to enter into a one-year contract with Huzzah at that time.

In addition to the loyalty program, Huzzah has also announced several other services aimed at small businesses competing with bigger ones.

Huzzah will design a mobile app for your business, customized with your company’s logo and color scheme. The company’s website claims that you need no coding experience or design skills to get your app active. The company also places it on all the major app stores with a premium plan. Mobile apps designed through Huzzah range from $20 monthly up to $65.

Huzzah also has a mobile ad program designed to drive traffic to your mobile app, website, and eventually your business. The ads are localized so that mobile users in your area are more likely to see your ad. Monthly subscriptions in Huzzah’s mobile ad network get your business between 20,000 and 40,000 impressions for $100 and $200, respectively, the company says. Each level gets your business a banner ad and a mobile landing page when someone clicks on your ad.

Image: Huzzah

The post A Plug-and-Play Customer Loyalty Program for Small Businesses appeared first on Small Business Trends.

Small Business Opinions Divided on Plastic Bag Fees

Small Business Trends - Thu, 2014-04-17 15:30

Dallas recently passed a citywide 5-cent fee on plastic bags. New York City is considering a 10-cent fee. Similar plastic bag fees (or bans) on plastic bags already exist in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Supporters of the fees and bans say they will help raise awareness about the damage these bags do to the environment. Business groups say the added cost will hurt both consumers and businesses.

In a statement issued to FoxBusiness.com, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Carlo A. Scissura explained:

“We are reviewing the legislation and speaking to our members, but any additional regulations for businesses and consumers have to be carefully considered before action is taken. This is especially true in light of recently enacted regulations that continue to place additional burdens on the backs of small business owners.”

But in reality, it sometimes seems as if larger businesses have been complaining the loudest. For example, in the case of the new Dallas plastic bag fee, Kroger, a national grocery chain with 2,640 stores in 34 states, has been one of the most vocal critics.

Store representative Gary Huddleston told a Dallas radio station the new rule would force many hardships on the chain including creating special bags to comply. The Dallas Observer quotes Huddleston as saying:

“In addition, the new ordinance forces Kroger and other retailers to add signs, reprogram cash registers to account for the bags, train staff, and even reprint all of their bags to include their thickness on them. Plus, retailers worry check-out lines could get longer, since bags have to be added to your bill before you pay.”

But there are some businesses that don’t mind the new rules and some have already started creating incentives of their own to encourage customers not to choose plastic.

Tony Marcano manages Union Market, a small chain of locally owned grocery stores specializing in organic and local produce with three locations in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan.

He recently told FoxBusiness.com:

“I don’t mind if it’s going to help the environment. A lot of places are already charging for bags. To be honest with you, 90% of our customers come with their own reusable bags. . .We don’t go through many bags here, because our customers are conscious.”

Bag Photo via Shutterstock

The post Small Business Opinions Divided on Plastic Bag Fees appeared first on Small Business Trends.

Now All You Need to Deposit a Check is a Smartphone

Small Business Trends - Thu, 2014-04-17 13:00

Trips to the bank may soon be a thing of the past.

New imaging technology lets you take a snapshot of a check with your smartphone and use that to make your deposit. Mitek Systems says it has partnered with more than 2,000 financial institutions – including the top 10 retail banks in the U.S. – to bring mobile check deposits to customers.

For a lot of small business owners, the ability to deposit a check they receive without having to plan a trip to the bank could save time and money. Provided your bank uses Mitek’s licensed technology, all you have to do with your customer’s check is point and shoot. In about two days, the money is deposited to your account.

Mitek’s patented technology allows customers to use their “Camera as a Keyboard.” The mobile photo technology automatically captures images of personal and financial documents and then extracts relevant data, according to the company’s website. Now that a lot more financial institutions are getting on board, the head of Mitek Systems expects use of the technology to grow exponentially.

Mitek President and CEO James B. DeBello says in a company release:

“We’re excited to see the continued adoption of Mobile Deposit. We continue to support the top 10 banks in the country, and coupled with our 100% customer retention rate, this further solidifies our leadership position in the market. We now estimate that consumers have deposited over $150 billion which represents more than 250% growth in cumulative deposit volume.”

Several small business owners spoke with Small Business Trends recently to discuss their experiences with and the advantages of depositing checks through a smartphone photo:

Jeff Wolfert is an aspiring professional football kicker. While he’s chasing that dream, Wolfert runs KCKicking camps in the Midwest. His camps aim to get college recruiter exposure for high schoolers. He says that he receives a lot of checks and often, on the road, there isn’t a Bank of America nearby. Another benefit is that, even if there is an error on the check – like the name of his business being spelled wrong – there aren’t delays in making the deposit. Wolfert explains:

“Running a small biz, it’s about time. If I can take 5 pictures in one minute, it saves me a 25-minute run to the bank. I’ve never had a check returned to me because of errors on the check. It’s a little less strenuous.”

Oleg Korneitchouk is a young Web designer and has been using Mitek’s technology for more than a year. He says that he started depositing checks via his smartphone once he upgraded to a better phone. Like Wolfert, he sees efficiency as the main advantage of the technology. He adds:

“(Going to the bank) took up a lot of my time. The mobile app is super convenient to deposit my money. It’s the most convenient way to deposit checks.”

Image: Mitek Systems

The post Now All You Need to Deposit a Check is a Smartphone appeared first on Small Business Trends.

Why Your Yahoo Local Reviews Are Disappearing

Small Business Trends - Thu, 2014-04-17 10:30

Let’s say you’ve amassed years worth of mostly positive reviews on your Yahoo Local listing. Then, all of a sudden, your Yahoo Local reviews disappeared and they aren’t showing – but Yelp reviews are showing instead.

This is exactly what happened to Dan Tringale, owner of Colonial Hardwood Flooring of Lexington, Mass. Tringale says his company had amassed six years of mostly positive reviews on Yahoo Local. But when a new deal between Yahoo and Yelp went into effect, all that changed.

A few weeks ago, Tringale estimates about 50 of his reviews on Yahoo Local disappeared in search as Yahoo started displaying Yelp reviews instead. Tringale tells the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s a slap in the face that they took all those reviews down overnight…It’s not easy to get 50 great reviews.”

If you were this business, you wouldn’t be happy. Yahoo says it’s in the interest of users. A spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal:

“We partnered with Yelp, one of the most trusted, relevant sources of consumer business reviews, to provide a richer search experience for Yahoo users. . . That’s why when Yelp’s reviews are available for U.S. businesses, they will replace Yahoo Local reviews.”

But is this really in the interest of users of the site, if six years of good reviews are hidden from view just because of a deal Yahoo made with Yelp?

If you’re focused on getting online customer feedback, be sure to direct satisfied customers to Yelp, rather than other online feedback like Yahoo Local listings, for example.

In the first place, Yelp reviews are now featured prominently on major search engines including Google and Bing.

In the second, small businesses are discovering that, since the deal giving Yelp reviews a more prominent place in Yahoo search, Yelp reviews trump Yahoo’s own.

The post Why Your Yahoo Local Reviews Are Disappearing appeared first on Small Business Trends.

Strengthening Your Small Business With Subcontractors

Small Business Trends - Thu, 2014-04-17 08:00

Dealing with the ebb and flow of workloads can be challenging for small businesses. How do you address those extra busy times without adding regular employees? And what happens when things slow down again?

Subcontractors can often help provide a great solution. Below are some benefits of using subcontractors and considerations for bringing subcontractors on board.

The Benefits of Using Subcontractors 1. Cost-Effective Help

Without creating a lot of additional overhead, you can bring subcontractors (or independent contractors, freelancers, etc.) on board to handle extra work.

Hiring a new employee can cost you 25 percent more than if you bring a subcontractor on board for the same purposes. Why? Because for an employee, you’d likely pay Social Security and Medicare tax, worker’s compensation insurance, liability insurance, employee benefits, training, and so on.

2. Specialized Assistance

Subcontractors can bring with them a unique skillset that can enhance your business’s work. From design efforts to technical writing tasks and beyond, you can keep clients happy by meeting their needs with specialists you might not have in-house already.

This also keeps your existing team members focused on their areas of expertise, so their primary work doesn’t suffer if there’s an assignment that doesn’t play to their strengths.

3. Busy-Season Boost

Is there a particular time of year that sees a surge in business?

Subcontractors can provide the extra manpower when you need it temporarily. Whether it’s around the holidays in the winter months or tourist season during the summer, subcontractors can be the answer to meeting those seasonal needs without bringing folks on board for the long haul.

So, what’s next if you decide this could be a good path to take for your business?

When Working With Subcontractors. . . Find the Right Fit

Use your existing networks – word-of-mouth, social media, etc. – for trusted recommendations and referrals. Check out portfolios or samples to get an idea of a person’s work.

Create an Agreement

Formalize the basic terms and conditions of this new working relationship. Include a description of the professional services delivered, quality expectations, termination conditions, invoicing terms, tax reporting requirements, non-compete language and an intellectual property agreement.

Consider a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA)

This legal document establishes the confidentiality of shared knowledge or materials. It can restrict subcontractors from speaking about or divulging private company information to outsiders.

Follow Hiring, Tax Reporting and Labor Requirements

The law is strict when it comes to how businesses classify subcontractors/freelancers versus employees  – and violations can be costly. Check out these articles about contracts and tax forms for more information.

Subcontractors Photo via Shutterstock

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Heartbleed: What You Do and Do Not Need To Worry About

Small Business Trends - Thu, 2014-04-17 05:30

If you have a business website, you’ve probably already heard, and are worried, about the Heartbleed Bug.

Simply put, the Heartbleed Bug is a flaw in the SSL certificate used by some websites. That flaw might allow passwords, credit card numbers and other data to be leaked as a result.

SSL certificates are usually limited to websites that deal with online financial transactions. Websites that use it can be distinguished because they include an “https” instead of “http” in their URL. A lock can also often be seen in the search window in front of the URL while visiting the site.

Mashable recently published a hit list of some big sites and services affected. These include:

  • Facebook
  • Pinterest
  • Tumblr
  • Google
  • Yahoo
  • Gmail
  • Yahoo Mail
  • Amazon Web Services
  • Etsy
  • GoDaddy
  • Flickr
  • YouTube

There has already been a Chrome extension (and probably other tools out there) claiming to help determine whether your site is affected. Of course, it’s important to be careful when using such tools and perhaps make some tests to be sure they are reliable. For example, you might test them to see whether you get any false positives.

Since only “https” sites can potentially be affected for example, test to see whether you get positive reads off “http” sites, too. If so, the tool your using might not be trustworthy.

Dominic Lachowicz, Vice President of Engineering at Merchant Warehouse, also cautions that not all SSL certificates are flawed. Merchant Warehouse provides electronic sales tools for mobile, ecommerce and storefront sales, but Lachowicz says the company was not affected by the bug.

Lachowicz spoke with Small Business Trends recently about some of the issues of most concern with Heartbleed. He acknowledged:

“This is indeed a serious problem on the Web. The first thing I’d like to advise everyone is to not panic.”

He says the first step is to determine whether your site has been affected. If you maintain your own site, Lachowicz recommends testing it for the bug using a tool built by encryption consultant Filippo Valsorda.

If your site has been affected, you will need to reinstall your site’s SSL certificate. For example, Lachowicz writes in a recent post on the official Merchant Warehouse Blog that a new fixed version of OpenSSL has already been released.

If you don’t manage your own website, Lachowicz recommends reaching out immediately to your Web development team or online provider. They will be able to tell you whether they have been affected.

If they have, chances are a fix has already been installed, in which case you will simply need to change any passwords associated with the site. That should be enough to protect against any future exposure.

Concerned Photo via Shutterstock

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The Sky is the Limit as Google Acquires High Altitude Drone Company

Small Business Trends - Wed, 2014-04-16 19:00

Google has come one step closer to making its balloon-powered Internet initiative, Project Loon, a reality. The tech giant recently acquired Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico-based company that builds drones for high altitudes, the Wall Street Journal reports. Though the price of the acquisition hasn’t been released, Business Insider estimates that it must be higher than the $60 million offer Facebook made earlier this year.

Titan’s drones can reach atmospheric heights – as high as 12 miles in the sky – and, powered by solar energy, can fly continuously for five years straight.

There are a number of projects Google might find Titan’s technology useful for, including Project Loon, Google’s initiative to use balloons to beam Internet connections to under-served, rural areas around the world. Titan’s drones could also help Google collect more satellite imagery for Google Maps, according to TechCrunch. Google also referenced “disaster relief” and “deforestation” as further goals of the acquisition.

News of the deal follows shortly after Facebook acquired Titan competitor Ascenta. Both deals indicate that Google and Facebook are racing to claim more global users by increasing Internet access around the world.

Images: Titan Aerospace

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4 Reasons IBM’s Massive $500 Million Private Cloud Hartford Deal Is Symbolic

Small Business Trends - Wed, 2014-04-16 17:30

IBM recently landed a huge deal – a $500 million, six-year private cloud whopper with insurance colossus, The Hartford. The Hartford will move to a private cloud-based infrastructure on IBM’s PureFlex System. Under the $500 million agreement, IBM will also provide a number of other services related to mainframe, storage, backup and resiliency.

The Hartford will define the services it requires, and IBM will be responsible for the solution and delivery of those services. The partnership supports The Hartford’s strategy to drive profitable growth and increase operational effectiveness as it continues to focus on its property and casualty, group benefits and mutual funds businesses.

Why Is This Behemoth Cloud Investment Symbolic? Cloud Investment Is A Mandate

As The Hartford continues to execute on its strategic plan, it is making significant technology investments to increase operational effectiveness and improve competitiveness.

The partnership with IBM will help The Hartford implement a strategic technology infrastructure that will provide greater agility and offer more flexibility and transparency as you continue to grow our businesses. This move, by The Hartford, is being mirrored in diverse strategies by enterprises in all industries today.

Businesses Want IT Partners – Not Just Providers

The $500 million directive, according to Philip Guido, general manager, IBM Global Technology Services, North America, is an example of how leading organizations are utilizing cloud technology to gain competitive advantage.

Clients today are looking for IT partners who can understand and help drive their business with a focus on innovation and delivering business outcomes – not just IT efficiency.

Cloud Adoption Is Rising – Fast

A recent IBM study reveals that 66 percent of organizations are using cloud solutions to strengthen the relationship between IT and lines of business – with the majority using cloud to integrate and apply mobile, social, analytics and Big Data technologies.

Businesses of all sizes are moving to the cloud to operate from a platform ideally designed for today’s mobile workforce.

IT Partnerships Create Collaborative Opportunities

As part of the agreement, The Hartford and IBM will also partner on the creation of a joint innovation committee to foster collaboration on strategic initiatives.

The project will leverage the expertise of both firms, market insights and research to build new business models and competitive capabilities that will enhance The Hartford’s ability to anticipate and meet the needs of customers and agents – all thanks to a robust commitment to adopt cloud technologies in one massive sweep.

With more businesses of all sizes researching and adopting cloud technologies to empower business functionality and improve client engagement, a new directive for smart business is rapidly unfolding. . .grow your business with the cloud – or do not grow at all.

IBM Photo via Shutterstock

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Spotlight on Righteous Marketing: Dedicated to PPC Campaigns

Small Business Trends - Wed, 2014-04-16 15:30

This week we shine the spotlight on Righteous Marketing, a niche marketing agency. This Utah-based company was founded in 2010 by Robert Brady (above) and currently has two employees.  Righteous Marketing manages pay-per-click (PPC) marketing campaigns for small businesses to medium sized businesses.

WHAT THE BUSINESS IS KNOWN FOR:  Deep expertise in pay-per-click advertising.

This includes Google AdWords, Bing Ads, Facebook Ads, Twitter Ads, and LinkedIn Advertising.  By focusing obsessively on the pay-per-click niche, the team is able to stay up-to-date on new features, strategies, and best practices. But they also look at the big picture, to make sure pay-per-click ad campaigns work hand in hand with a small business’s other marketing. “We understand how PPC fits in the overall marketing mix and can support other areas such as email marketing, content marketing, SEO, conversion rate optimization and sales. ” Brady adds.

BIGGEST RISK TAKEN IN THE BUSINESS:  Hiring the company’s first employee.

“With employees you need more consistent cash flow as well as cash reserves to ensure you can always make payroll,” Brady explains. Hiring also adds more expense — and that puts the company under pressure to bring in more sales. “The worst case scenario would be to add employees just before losing clients and creating a situation where the company doesn’t have the revenue to justify the headcount, leading to layoffs,” Brady says. Fortunately things have worked out well with the hiring of the company’s first employee, however. And Brady says Righteous Marketing  continues to grow.

FIRST MOVE IF THE COMPANY SUDDENLY GOT AN EXTRA $100,000:  Deploy software to automate highly repetitive tasks the team does every day.

“Whether that would entail purchasing a software solution currently on the market or developing our own, that would be my first move,” Brady adds.

After that, attending more conferences for the added networking, visibility and training they provide would come next on the list.

IF THIS BUSINESS WERE A SONG IT WOULD BE:  ”TNT” by Australian heavy metal band AC/DC.

“Because we really are dynamite and are ready to blow up your PPC campaigns!” Brady explains.

FAVORITE QUOTE:  ”I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. My apartment has many leather-bound volumes and smells of rich mahogany.”

The quote is from the movie “Anchorman” starring Will Ferrell.  In one scene, Ferrell’s character TV anchorman Ron Burgundy famously makes that quip  in a comically self-important way. Of course, Brady, a humble likeable man, sees the humor in that quote.

FAVORITE TEAM FOOD: Owner Robert Brady lists Arby’s among his favorite places to eat. He says he knows it’s weird but likes it anyway.  “It’s the combination of seasoned curly fries, Mountain Dew on tap, and roast beef sandwiches,” he explains. Righteous Marketing’s first employee Sam Turner  is a huge fan of the macaroni and cheese from Noodles & Co.

FUN FACT: Each day at 3 p.m. in the afternoon the two-man team at Righteous Marketing has a “shootout” on a Little Tikes basketball rim. Each gets two practice shots and then 10 regular shots. The highest score wins for the day. If there is a tie, team members have an overtime round with five shots each, no practice. If still tied after that, they go to sudden death, one shot at a time. “It’s fun and helps break up the afternoons when people tend to be getting a little tired anyway,” says Brady.

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Your Smile is Worth a Thousand Words

Small Business Trends - Wed, 2014-04-16 13:00

We meet so many people in our business activities at events, conferences, meetings, workshops and even randomly.

I have found that if I invite and attract someone to me by my energy, attitude and self confidence all wrapped up in a big, warm smile and a firm handshake, it’s worth a thousand words.

I don’t know why more people don’t smile.  I understand the fear of meeting new people and being at events with a large crowd where they may not know people. It’s daunting and scary. It is for me too sometimes, and I consider myself very good at this. But I have had to work on it – and through it.

I find that if I go into networking and meeting with people from a neutral, fun position rather than with an agenda, things turn out the best. Using the power of a smile can be a secret weapon and superpower. It’s everyone’s.

The power of a smile is transformative and we all have that power when we smile. Turns out, there is a science behind smiling that begins in the brain. Once the smiling muscles in the face contract, there is a positive feedback loop that goes back to the brain and reinforces our feeling of joy:

“Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure-inducer, cannot match.”

Our brain can even distinguish between a real smile and a fake smile, and it’s all in our eyes when we smile. Your brain keeps track of your smiles, kind of like a smile scorecard. It knows how often you’ve smiled and which overall emotional state you are in.

Studies have shown how smiling reduces stress, increases our overall health, well being and attitude. Below are a few things that can help you get your smile on more – especially in business.

Smile Networking Use Your Imagination

Imagine and think about happy, joyful experiences and situations before you go to events. Set up your mindset before you attend.

Researcher Andrew Newberg says:

“We just ask a person, before they engage in a conversation with someone else, visualize someone they deeply love, or recall an event that brought them deep satisfaction and joy. It’s such an easy exercise, and we train people to do it in our workshops.”

Practice Smiling in a Mirror

As silly as this sounds – is as effective as it can be. Practicing smiling with yourself can get you through some of the fear that makes you uncomfortable with smiling at others. Try going through the day and smiling a lot to everyone and everything. You’ll be amazed at how it is reciprocated.

Get Comfortable Drawing People Towards You

Smiling is magnetic and it’s a conversation starter. People who smile are kind of intriguing and magnetic to me. I find myself wondering what they are smiling about, and isn’t that a great conversation starter:

“What’s making you smile today?”

Researcher LaFrance concluded that overall, women smile a lot more than men. She says:

“In general women are more accurate than men in detecting what is really going on with someone by looking at their face and listening to their voice. Women are more likely to tell the difference between a felt and a fake smile.”

I bicycle regularly and have started smiling at other riders, walkers and runners that I pass on the trail I ride on much more. Turns out, they are more than willing to smile back, give me a head nod or a thumbs up.

At business events, I am naturally drawn to people who are smiling and enjoying themselves. When I use the power of my smile, it not only puts people at ease, and gives them an opening for a conversation, but people who smile at me – I am much more inclined to engage with.

Your smile is worth a thousand words. Trust it and use it as much as you can – it’s your superpower.

Smile Photo via Shutterstock

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Microsoft’s First Digital Assistant, Cortana, Is Here

Small Business Trends - Wed, 2014-04-16 10:30

Sometime ago buzz began about a new digital assistant that would be available with the unveiling of Windows Phone 8.1.

Now, Microsoft’s first assistant, Cortana, is here. Microsoft has made the new Windows Phone 8.1 available to developers which means your carrier will have the phone available very soon.

The name Cortana apparently comes from a holographic character in Microsoft’s video game franchise, Halo.

Whatever the inspiration, the Cortana assistant acts much like Apple’s digital assistant Siri and Google Now. It’s designed to be your personal assistant keeping track of things that are important to you and searching for information on your Windows Phone. Cortana will be able to set your alarms and even reserve a table at a restaurant. She will remind you of meetings in your calendar and even tell you how long it will take you to travel to your next business meeting.

Cortana works inside just about every other app on Windows Phone 8.1, too. Tapping on a magnifying glass inside the app you’re running allows you to multitask. So, if you’re listening to music while on the road, you can tap to activate Cortana to also set a reminder or alarm, schedule a meeting, or run a Bing search.

Here’s a look at how Cortana works, from Windows Phone Central:

Outside of Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 features new live tiles that you can customize with a unique skin. The Verge also notes that the update improves support for dual SIM cards, calendar views, and app updates.

“On one hand, Windows Phone 8.1 is a push toward the future, full of new things and new ways to do old things. But it’s also simply Microsoft’s biggest effort yet to bring its mobile platform closer in line with iOS and Android, to make it seem less alien to those who might switch.”

There is actually a way to get access to the updated mobile operating system. But be aware, this process will void the warranty on your device until your carrier releases the operating system update, according to The Verge in a different post.

If you’re not an app developer and are too anxious to wait for your mobile carrier to release the update, here’s how you can get Windows Phone 8.1 now.

First, go to the Windows Phone App Studio and sign in with your Microsoft account. The next step is to create a project. If you already have Windows Phone 8, you can download a free preview app. When you sign in to the app, your phone will detect the Windows Phone 8.1 update.

Image: Xbox

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How Do You Optimize Your Facebook And Twitter Accounts?

Small Business Trends - Wed, 2014-04-16 08:00

Whether you need to promote your brand, share event pictures, connect with your clients or create a buzz, social media marketing is a necessity and not an option any more.

An optimized social media profile shows your strong social media presence. But how do you elevate your social media profile to establish a strong connection with your fans?

Let’s explore two of the most popular social media platforms and how you can optimize them.

Facebook Optimization Your Facebook Profile Demands a Vanity URL

Select a unique username for your business page through www.facebook/username. This will be used for your unique Facebook URL.  However, once the name is chosen, it cannot be modified later, so be sure to check for errors.

Add a Professional Touch to Your Profile Image

Your profile image should only consist of your name and logo of the company. This helps to build brand awareness every time your business updates, comments and shares content on Facebook.

Be Creative With Your Cover Photo

Think of roadside billboards. Your cover photo should follow the same path. It should be eye catching and express your brand clearly:

  • Highlight your team.
  • Feature a promotion.
  • Share a holiday message.
  • Use collage images to showcase your products and services.
  • Use fan photos shared with you of people enjoying your products, services, promotions, etc.
Use Apps

There are many Facebook applications that can help you promote links to your site, your articles and online retail space. Here are few commonly used ones:

  • SlideShare
  • Networked blogs
  • Static FBML (Facebook HTML)
  • Reviews
Update Your Business Status With Keywords and Visuals

Facebook pages are indexed by search engines. This means that public updates from your Facebook business page often show up in Google’s real time search results. So, next time you update something on your page, keep important keywords in mind.

And nothing is more boring than a page full of text so be sure to add images and videos.  Research shows that updates with images are clicked 54% more than text-only updates and 22% more with video updates.

Twitter Optimization Be Smart With Your Twitter Handle

What comes after the ‘@’ symbol is important. It should convey something to followers. For instance, an effective Twitter handle is your company name. However, keep in mind that your handle can only be 15 characters. So get creative if you have a lengthy name for your company.

Get Creative With Your Profile Image and Background

Your profile picture is attached to all tweets so keep it consistent with your business logo because it is the face of your brand. Twitter is all about what you have to say, so it should look like its coming directly from you and nowhere else. Be creative with how you present yourself. An engaging profile image should possess the following characteristics:

  • Different from your competition.
  • Visually engaging and professional.

An engaging image for your Twitter profile can make you stand out in a sea of thousands of tweets. Moreover, if you are successful with your universal value proposition and targeted value proposition, there are chances that lots of visitors will become your consistent followers because they identify with your overall value proposition.

Similarly, your background image can make a big difference in the conversion rate. Incorporating a compelling background image increases the amount of time visitors spend on your profile. Your Twitter background image should communicate and highlight your value proposition. Try some of the following ideas:

  • Use custom call-to-action that converses directly with Twitter users.
  • Share contact information including your phone number, social networks and blog.
  • Offer promotions.
  • Add testimonials.
  • Crowd source photos from followers that use or show off your products.
Pay Attention to the Color of Your Header Image

Your header image should not overshadow your profile image. Keep it dark and muted. If your image is too bright, your profile may not be readable.

Develop a Great Bio

Every business is unique and so are its requirements. It is important to be interesting and engaging. Your bio should be a unique 160 character summary of your company’s mission. This reflects who you are, why people should follow you and the benefit of following you.  Make sure to display:

  • What your business does.
  • Your brand’s character.
  • Who they are talking with.
Add Your Location and Link

This is the easiest thing to do and hopefully takes the least amount of time. If you do not want to add a specific location, pick a geographical location. Advanced search on Twitter allows users to search by location. Adding your location is a great way to connect with your local community.

Also add a link to your website. Chances are that the 160 character summary doesn’t explain everything you want to convey to someone who is genuinely interested in your company. Ideally, that is what your website does.

Tablet Photo via Shutterstock

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BigCommerce Increases Reach Into Small Business Commerce

Small Business Trends - Wed, 2014-04-16 05:30

BigCommerce is known for the big brands that are using it to get eCommerce sites up and running quickly. Clients include Gibson Guitar, YETI Coolers and many others.

But the company says that BigCommerce isn’t exclusively for major national brands. Small businesses can and should be taking advantage of what the eCommerce platform can offer.

In an interview with Small Business Trends, BigCommerce CPO Westley Stringfellow said:

“The reality is BigCommerce is built for business, large or small. Our vision is to power small business. Our role is to amplify the merchant.”

If your business is in the market for an eCommerce platform, BigCommerce appears to be a powerful option to consider. Having your own store online can help you to build your brand and break free from other services like eBay or Amazon.

Stringfellow says:

“It’s very clear that as we grow, merchants want to have their own presence. They want to grow their brand. It’s hard to do that on eBay.”

BigCommerce users have access to dozens of store design templates, many of them free, as well as hundreds of apps to help you manage your store. Many of these apps are also free.

Stores on BigCommerce range between about $25 per month to about $150 monthly. More expensive tiers allow you more storage, up to 30 GB of space, and more product listings. The basic plan (known as Bronze on BigCommerce) allows you to list 100 products at one time.

No matter what plan you choose through BigCommerce, there are no transaction fees tacked on to any of your sales. BigCommerce is relatively easy to use and can get your eCommerce presence online in less than an hour.

Once you’ve chosen one of the templates, you’ll be able to integrate different apps with your new store. That includes apps like eBay and Amazon. When you use these apps, you can sync your inventory with products you have listed on those sites.

Other apps allow you to integrate accounting software and even several apps that let you interact with visitors to your site in real time. BigCommerce is also integrated with more than 60 payment providers, including PayPal, Stripe, and others.

Stringfellow tells us that about 30 apps have a one-click install feature. He says:

“Our platform is made to simplify the tech used on the Internet. You don’t have to worry about setting up or managing your website. What’s important to business is not managing the complexity of a website but managing the business they create from the website.”

Small businesses are finding their experience with BigCommerce enjoyable, too. Adam Teague, a founder of The Two Guys Bowtie Company, said in an email to Small Business Trends:

“There are so many great built in features like the ability to segment customers into wholesale and retail customers, to be able to quickly and easily update content, and the ability to effectively communicate to the customer where their order is at in the order fulfillment process. I have used several other eCommerce platforms in the past and we have found BigCommerce to be the best fit for our business.”

Images: BigCommerce Video Still, The Two Guys Bowtie Company

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The Effect of Heartbleed on Commonly Used Small Business Websites

Small Business Trends - Tue, 2014-04-15 19:00

As you might know by now, Heartbleed is a security flaw that enables unauthorized users to access your encrypted information. When you visit a website through a “secure connection,” in theory the information is encrypted and can’t be accessed.

According to CNN:

“Cybercriminals could exploit the bug to access visitors’ personal data as well as a site’s cryptographic keys, which can be used to impersonate that site and collect even more information.”

Just do a Google search for “Heartbleed” to see what you need to do. But in short, you need to:

  • Ensure that the websites you use have fixed the Heartbleed security flaw
  • If they’ve done this, you need to then change your password.

There seem to be so many security holes, flaws and ways for unauthorized users to access your network.

Here’s What You Should Do To Be As Secure As Possible
  • Be vigilant and aware when major secure flaws are announced by the general media.
  • Sign up for security notifications from your software vendors.
  • Regularly update your computer software (browser, operating system, software).
  • Backup your data and related software and applications.
  • Train your staff (and yourself) in the basics of computer security.
  • Be vigilant and smart (don’t write your password down on a piece of paper, for example).
  • Consider “two factor authentication” to have not only a password to access your websites, but also a secret code provided on a cell phone or other 3rd party device.
Affect of Heartbleed on Commonly Used Small Business Websites

Below are some popular small business online software websites and how they have been affected by Heartbleed.

Quickbooks Online: Not affected.

GoDaddy: If you use their SSL services read this statement on what to do.

PayPal: Not affected.

Dropbox: Was affected but has patched it’s servers, although a password reset is probably needed.

Evernote: Never affected and was secure.

Asana: Was affected and fixed their servers, but you might want to change your password.

Banks: Most all banks appear to have not been affected.

Infusionsoft: Not directly affected at all, however read this thorough blog post for more details.

Heart Photo via Shutterstock

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