Strategies to Keep Your Small Business One Step Ahead

August 4, 2010

 By Adam Boyden

 Successful small businesses are nimble – able to stay ahead of the pack no matter what is thrown at them. Thanks to their swift responses, they’ve remained at the top of their game, even through this recession. Below are some lessons you can learn from successful small companies that you can apply to your business and stay at the top of your game.

1. Loosen Your Purse Strings Wisely

Wary businesses may have hunkered down to ride out the storm, but with the economy turning around, now is the time to think about rebuilding. Proceed with care and caution. For instance, you might want to bring on interim freelancers to help your burgeoning business, without the immediate risk of a full-time hire. The good news is there are a lot of qualified people currently in the marketplace, which gives you ample opportunity to pick some of the best talent out there. Sensible choices now will put you in the position to afford full-time employees when the time comes.

2. Stake Out The Competition

It is easy to get lost in your own business, but you can’t afford to take your attention off your competition. Staying informed is a simple and smart business tactic that can help you stay ahead of your competition. There are straightforward tactics like reading trade magazines and setting up Google Alerts, but there is more you can do. Digg and Reddit let you subscribe to their RSS feeds-allowing you to stay on top of any news related to your competitors. And, for those harder to reach searches, try Copernic’s Tracker. For an extremely low price, Copernic Tracker automatically looks for new content on Web pages as often as you like.

3. Improve Customer Interactions

Considering how hard we work to acquire a customer, it’s frustrating how easy it is to lose one. A single negative experience or simply a better offer from a competitor may be all it takes. To learn how satisfied your customers are, monitor their conversations about you on online communities like Twitter, Facebook or Yelp. You can make adjustments on the fly to create an optimal user experience. Look at how Constant Contact uses its Twitter handle to keep a pulse on what is happening – and resolve issues as they arise. Or consider creating a browser app to keep your customers engaged.

Nurture your customer relationships by participating in a dialogue with them. For instance, make a resolution to reply to each customer inquiry within a set period of time (and share this promise with your customers). Create ways for customers to give you feedback, whether it is a form on your website or an informal exchange at the checkout counter.

4. Don’t Just Market;

Inform With today’s free or low cost-marketing tools, such as e-mail marketing, social networking and browser apps, it’s easier than ever to broadcast your message to your customer base. But don’t be in sales mode all the time; instead, use these tools to provide your customers with relevant information and educational content. Keep them engaged with information they need and can use; for example, in your outbound communications, include a button for your blog where you publish white papers, articles and how-to tips for your customers.

This type of content is more desirable than straight promotional marketing. Plus, your prospects and customers will begin to look to you as an expert resource, thereby strengthening your relationships. For instance, Dan Hollings, a marketing consultant, has a browser app called Twitten Secrets. He offers readers a rich repository of tips and advice, positioning himself as an invaluable resource for online marketing.

What to Consider Before Starting a Small Business

By Emily Driscoll

Published August 03, 2010| FOXBusiness

Starting a small business is an exciting adventure, but the decision to become your own boss should not be taken lightly.

Here are six steps to take into account and plan for before taking the leap into entrepreneur land.

Make a Flexible Business Plan

Map your business out on paper, the experts suggested, making it easier to visualize your plan of action.

“You definitely need a written business plan so you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there,” said Mary Reed, owner of Mary Reed Public Relations.

Analyze Your Potential Market

Knowing your market from the start will lead to strong revenue streams in the future, the experts said.

Bob Prosen, president and CEO of The Prosen Center for Business Advancement and author of Kiss Theory Good Bye, suggested analyzing the following questions:

•What’s the size of the market of what I have to offer;

•Is the market growing;

•What’s the demand for my product or service;

•Who are the competitors, how successful have they been and are they growing or shrinking?

“It’s really an understanding of the market and the value that your customers or intended customers are placing on the product that you’re offering,” Prosen said.

Calculate Your Cash Flow Needs

Cash flow is one of the most important elements of a startup and bad planning at the start could be your downfall later, the experts warned.

“Cash flow tells you a lot about the health of a business,” explained Prosen. “You always need a lot more money and access to capital than what you anticipated. Always overestimate and make sure you have enough sources that you can cash into to achieve the full amount.”

You need to have a backup plan in terms of where you will get money should you encounter financial difficulties. Reed suggests establishing a line of credit with a bank or setting aside an emergency savings account.

Many companies grow rapidly at the beginning but end up going under later in life due to poor planning and management of cash flow, said Eric Tyson, co-author of Small Business for Dummies.

“Just because your business is growing and you’re getting more customers doesn’t mean that you’re home free,” he explained. “Your expansion plans and the cost of doing business can get out of whack with your revenue growth. Cash flow is probably the one of the most important financial variables that you need to be tracking to make sure you’re on track and not going to be running out of money.”

Know Your Target Audience and Their Needs

Knowing your target consumer base is critical for marketing, said Reed.

Reed advised all potential entrepreneurs to ask:

•Who are you going to go after?

•How are you going to appeal to them?

•What web sites or magazines are you going to advertise on?

•What kind of public relations campaign are you going to conduct?

“If you don’t understand what your customer needs and don’t identify the target correctly, you’re going to end up wasting precious time and sales dollars trying to convince people that they need your product or service,” explained Prosen.

“When you’re selling your product or service to either a business or consumer, you have to understand what the business’ customers need. That’s what they’re trying to satisfy.”

Know What You Want from Employees

Before you decide to enter into a partnership or hire employees, identify the type of people you want working with you.

“If you have one wrong person; they don’t share your vision or understand what you’re trying to accomplish, it can ruin the whole organization,” said Dave Evans, co-founder of WorldWideSalesTraining.com.

You need to consider what type of people you work best with, especially in the case of a partnership.

“If you’re taking on a partner, it’s kind of like getting married,” said Tyson. “You want to discuss as many things as you can before you get ‘married’ and disperse them. You should put an agreement in writing so that you’re literally on the same page.”

Expert Advice: Taxes and Legal Liabilities

Depending on the business, startup entrepreneurs may want look to professionals for advice on issues such as taxes and potential legal liabilities. The experts suggest forming a team of legal and financial advisors to protect your company and your personal assets.

“You want to make sure you have a respectable CPA–someone you trust, someone who is going to do the right thing,” advised Evans. “The right CPA is as critical as having the right employees. If they give you the wrong advice, you could be in trouble.”

Depending on the state you’re in and the type of business you’re starting up, taxes can be simple or very complicated, so you may want to hire a tax attorney to guide you through the process.

“A tax attorney understands the ramifications of how you set your business up and can help you minimize taxes,” said Prosen. “I would rely on expert advice here and not just go by research and the seat of my pants.”

Improving Your Credit

By Rhonda Abrams, USA TODAY

No one likes discussing credit, but, now more than ever, it’s critical to improve your credit as part of running your small business. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your credit even if your credit is lousy now. I did it. You can, too.

I now have good credit — very good credit. My banker loves me. I’m on terrific terms with my vendors. I’ve got high limits on my credit cards. But my credit picture wasn’t always so rosy. I was — I am — a typical small-business entrepreneur. I’d rather be out there generating sales instead of sending out invoices or paying bills. I’d pay late and get paid late. I’d get in trouble, and my credit score and history suffered.

How did I change my credit so dramatically? And what can you do to improve your credit?

• Get help! The single most important thing I did was I outsourced my financial management. I realized I was terrible at taking care of my bills. Entrepreneurs want to handle everything themselves, especially their money, but, like me, they’re not always good at it.

One of my contractors, Rebecca Gaspar, wasn’t good at it either. “One of the big lessons I learned from my first go-round as a freelancer was that taking care of my finances was not one of my strong points — keeping track of invoicing, payments and taxes. Quarterly taxes sneak up on you fast. I’d be all messed up.” So when Rebecca became an independent consultant again, she changed. “I hired a small-business accounting firm. They make sure my invoices get out, I receive payments, that tax money comes out, and I pay my quarterly taxes. It’s a relief for me not to deal with that stuff, and I can stay focused on client projects.”

• Check your credit score. When you own a small business or are self-employed, your personal credit score and your business credit are entwined. Typically, you’re going to have to give a personal guarantee for business loans, to your vendors, to sign a lease or buy a van. Business creditors are going to check your personal credit score. So pay attention!

Once a year, by law, you’re entitled to a free credit report from all three of the major credit agencies. Here’s where you go to get it: www.AnnualCreditReport.com. Beware!! There are many other sites that purport to offer you free credit reports — this is the one and only official site.

Take steps to challenge or clean up any mistaken information on your credit report. Even filing a statement on your credit report explaining a problem can help you.

• Use different types of credit. Most entrepreneurs rely on personal credit cards to help finance their business expenses. I did too, and sometimes still do. Credit cards are easy to use, and if you pay them off, convenient and cheap.

But credit card companies have significantly tightened credit lines and increased interest rates and fees in the last couple of years. Pay late and it’s very expensive. Moreover, it mixes your personal credit with your business credit even more. (Another downside: Credit cards used for business are not subject to the recently passed consumer credit protections.)

More mature small businesses rely on a variety of types of credit, including:

• Lines of credit are like a credit card from your bank, but with a lower interest rate. They’re designed for short-term expenses. Typically, you have to pay it down to zero for at least 30 days a year.

• Term loans are loans you pay off in installments over time — perhaps five years or more.

• Vendor financing involves payment terms from your suppliers enabling you to pay your bills over a period of time instead of the typical 30 days. You may be able to get lower rates than from a bank or credit card company, especially for terms of a few months. Ask!

• SBA loans are financing from banks and private lenders guaranteed by the federal government. Some SBA loans are for working capital for companies that wouldn’t otherwise qualify for bank loans; other SBA loans include financing for real estate or equipment.

In this economic climate, I’m finding that even my ability to get credit is tightening. More than ever, managing your credit is part of running a good business.

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her newest book is Hire Your First Employee: the entrepreneur’s guide to finding, choosing, and leading great people. Register for Rhonda’s free business tips at www.PlanningShop.com. For an index of her columns, click here. Twitter: twitter.com/RhondaAbrams. Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2010.

Unemployment Benefits Aren’t Stimulus

From the July 8, 2010, Wall Street Journal Opinion Page

By ARTHUR B. LAFFER

The current debate over extending and increasing federal unemployment benefits encapsulates the disagreement between the Democrats in power in Washington and their Republican opponents. What the consequences will be of raising unemployment benefits in today’s depressed economy is at issue.

The most obvious argument against extending or raising unemployment benefits is that it will make being unemployed either more attractive or less unattractive, and thereby lead to higher unemployment. Empirical research supports this view.

The Democratic retort is that the economy today is so different from the past that we have to suspend our traditional understanding of economics. With five job seekers for every job opening, the unemployed are desperate for work and increasing unemployment benefits will have very little if any disincentive effect. This view hinges on a total change in employee behavior from “normal” times to the current period of “the Great Recession.”

On the face of it, the idea that higher unemployment benefits won’t lead to more unemployment doesn’t make much sense. Imagine what the unemployment rate would look like if unemployment benefits were universally $150,000 per year. My guess is we’d have a heck of a lot more unemployment. Common sense and personal experience indicate higher unemployment benefits will make unemployment less unattractive and thereby increase unemployment even in the Great Recession. As the chart nearby clearly shows, since the 1970s there’s been a close correlation between increased unemployment benefits and an increase in the unemployment rate. Those who argue that things are different today don’t have the data to back up their claims.

[laffer]

The Democratic argument also ignores the impact of unemployment benefits on employer costs. Employers don’t usually hire people to assuage their consciences. They hire people to make after-tax profits. And if workers require more pay because of higher unemployment benefits, employers will hire fewer employees. Whether increased unemployment benefits incentivize workers to work less or disincentivize employers from hiring more workers, the effect will be the same—higher unemployment.

The second point made by the Obama administration is that unemployment benefits are a great way to stimulate demand. Increased unemployment benefits operate quickly and the recipients spend what they get, which makes these stimulus funds the best bang for the buck.

Here again the facts are in dispute. Studies have shown that previous stimulus spending—much of which was also targeted for the poor and unemployed—was to a large extent saved and not spent. But I’m not going to rest my case on the obvious failure of Washington’s prior stimulus packages. Based upon the above logic (as described in the January 2009 white paper co-authored by White House economists Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein) the administration forecast that the unemployment rate would be a little above 7.3% in the third quarter of this year. That isn’t going to happen.

Associated Press

The flaw in their logic is that when it comes to higher unemployment benefits or any other stimulus spending, the resources given to the unemployed have to be taken from someone else. There isn’t a “tooth fairy,” or as my former colleague Milton Friedman repeated time and again, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” The government doesn’t create resources. It redistributes them. For everyone who is given something there is someone who has that something taken away.

While the unemployed may spend more as a result of higher unemployment benefits, those people from whom the resources are taken will spend less. In an economy, the income effects from a transfer payment always sum to zero. Quite simply, there is no stimulus from higher unemployment benefits.

To see this, imagine an economy that produces 100 apples. If 10 of those apples are given to the unemployed, then people who otherwise would have had those 10 apples now won’t. The stimulus of 10 apples for the unemployed is exactly offset by the destimulus of 10 apples for those people from whom the 10 apples were taken.

Given the massive inefficiencies the government creates in securing resources from the private sector, there may also be a large negative income effect over wide ranges of stimulus spending. This is the proverbial “toll for the troll.” These massive inefficiencies could lead to lower output.

To see these effects clearly, imagine a two person economy in which one of the two people is paid for being unemployed. From whom do you think the unemployment benefits are taken? The other person obviously. While the one person who is unemployed may “buy” more as a result of unemployment benefits, the other person from whom the unemployment sums are taken will “buy” less. There is no stimulus for the economy.

But it doesn’t stop there. While the income effects sum to zero, the substitution effects aggregate. The person from whom the unemployment funds are taken will find work less rewarding and will work less. The person who is given the unemployment benefits will also find work relatively less rewarding and will therefore work less. Both people in this two-person economy will be incentivized to work less. There will be less work and more unemployment.

Not only will increased unemployment benefits not stimulate the economy, they will at the same time lower the incentives for people to work by reducing the amount people are paid for working and increasing the amount people are paid for not working. It’s pretty basic economics.

No one opposes unemployment benefits as a transition aid for people to get back on their feet and find a new job. Unemployment benefits are a safeguard for individuals down on their luck. But to argue that unemployment benefits actually reduce unemployment is disingenuous at best, and could induce our government to enact policies that have the effect of destroying our nation’s production base from whence all benefits ultimately flow.

Any government program that would reduce unemployment has to make working more attractive for both employer and employee. Since late 2007 the federal government has spent somewhere around $3.6 trillion to stimulate the economy. That is a lot of money.

My suggestion would have been to take all $3.6 trillion and declare a federal tax holiday for 18 months. No income tax, no corporate profits tax, no capital gains tax, no estate tax, no payroll tax (FICA) either employee or employer, no Medicare or Medicaid taxes, no federal excise taxes, no tariffs, no federal taxes at all, which would have reduced federal revenues by $2.4 trillion annually. Can you imagine where employment would be today? How does a 2.5% unemployment rate sound?

Mr. Laffer is the chairman of Laffer Associates and co-author of “The End of Prosperity: How Higher Taxes Will Doom the Economy—If We Let It Happen” (Threshold, 2008).

Time for Price Hikes and Rebates

Raise prices on less-visible products and services and use rebates to “deflect requests for discounts,” says consultant Anne Graham

By Karen E. Klein 

Anne Graham has been brainstorming strategies to help her clients get past recession and into recovery. Graham is managing director of the Legendary Value Institute, the online arm of her Vancouver-based marketing-and-strategy consulting business. She also serves as a lecturer at the University of British Columbia and a mentor for Lions Capital, a Canadian venture capital firm.She spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about pricing adjustments and other tactics that small business owners can employ immediately, whether they’re feeling the recovery or not. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: You believe that small business owners ought to revisit their pricing strategies even during recession. How? 

Anne Graham: Small business owners are scared to raise prices. They worry about losing business to competitors, so they delay—then they panic and do it the wrong way and raise prices across the board. Their customers get riled up and start talking about getting quotes from competitors.

 I recommend raising less-visible prices on services or products that not every customer buys every time they do business with you. Don’t gouge your customers, but even a 1 percent or 2 percent or 5 percent increase on these small costs can add up to a big difference in your bottom line. And they won’t get noticed like a 10 percent across-the-board increase would. For instance, you probably check the price per gallon at the gas station, but you might not check how much the chips cost in the store.

 What about the timing of price increases at companies that are starting to pick up steam?

 Here’s where the scarcity principle comes in. As people start placing orders again, you start raising your rates. This is particularly good for self-employed entrepreneurs whose time is scarce, or small manufacturers who may have lost some material suppliers in the recession.

 The busier you get, the higher your rate quotes should be. I tell new clients: “I’m fully booked, but I’ll make time for you,” and I always quote a premium price. Small business owners give away their time too easily, working nights and weekends. If you’re booked, charge extra to accommodate new clients.

 Won’t that scare them away?

 If it does, you’re already working to capacity. In a service business, if you can position your value as return on investment, you can justify almost any price. For instance, I will normally charge $500 an hour for strategic planning work. I got an inquiry from a new client and told them it would be $8,000 a day. They didn’t even blink.

 Here’s another tip: Implement these kinds of changes with your least-profitable, highest-maintenance customers. If I’m going to lose anyone, I want to lose them first.

 You recommend that small business owners use more rebates. Why?

 Rebates are a great way to deflect requests for discounts. Small businesses get asked for discounts all the time and their margins really get squeezed. This is particularly tough when it happens in the late stage of a recession or early stage of recovery.

 The next time someone asks for 10 percent or 15 percent off, tell them you’d like to offer them a rebate once they reach a certain threshold of business with you. Encourage them to make you a one-stop shop. If you can provide things they’ve been buying from your competitors, offer to bundle those things and give them a price rebate.

 Rebates are great because they get paid out after the fact, they don’t affect your cash flow and the truth is: Not everyone requests them. Always err on the ethical side by making the rebate real and easy to claim, of course.

 Electronics retailers use rebates all the time, but you seldom see them from small businesses.

 They are very underutilized and overlooked by entrepreneurs, but just about any business can take advantage of them—with some creativity. The other great thing about rebates is that they are very easy to discontinue. When recovery settles in, you stop offering the rebate and customers tend not to even notice. By contrast, if you take away a discount, people get really upset.

 Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.