Can technology reduce your small business expenses?
What do you picture when you think of ‘technology’? Do you see boxes of expensive monitors, printers and software, and the corresponding bills to be paid? Think again. While it’s true that you must incur ‘upfront’ costs to adopt new technology, there’s potential to reduce small business expenses by making a few high tech investments.
First, by using websites, mobile devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, you may be able to maintain a virtual or home office and avoid a pricey storefront or office space. These days, online marketing allows you to sell your products far beyond Main Street, and many prospective customers are happy to shop online, supported by prompt delivery and good service.
Next, internet access lets you use low-cost VoIP (voice over internet protocol) telephony or even free, online services like Skype, to axe long distance costs. To avoid expensive software programs, many small businesses embrace open-source applications - developed and distributed by programmers free of charge as alternatives to conventional commercial programs. Today there is open-source software for most office functions, from financial accounting and contact management to web design. By using an open-source word processing app, instead of a major brand, a start-up could save hundreds of dollars per PC.
Naturally, you must critically assess each technology option to ensure it fits your need, and won’t cause headaches if you’re not a techie and have no on-staff I.T. guy. A good starting point: ask other entrepreneurs what technology they use.
What’s been your experience? What new technology have you adopted in your business? Is it paying off? What have you learned from the experience?
Can social media give your marketing plan a kick?
If you’re reading this post, you’ve already dipped your toe in the sea of social media, but are you really putting the technology to work? Even if you’ve established a web site, you may not be taking full advantage of social media to stretch your marketing efforts farther.
While old school methods like brochures, flyers and cold calling remain a staple for tight marketing budgets, you can also employ inexpensive tactics like blogging or tweeting to reach new customers – beyond your block or even your hometown – and build loyalty among current clients.
In fact, some entrepreneurs realize that websites and mobile technology let them forgo traditional ‘storefront’ locations and choose virtual offices without costly leases. That said, it’s important to start slowly, have a realistic understanding of costs and benefits, and take small strides to test the water.
How can you get started? Try a simple Twitter account. This micro-blogging tool can help a business build a community of supporters, by sharing expertise online, seeking consumer opinions, or announcing business events. For instance, a flower shop may:
- ‘tweet’ seasonal garden tips;
- send a Mother’s Day reminder;
- issue a ‘friends only’ discount coupon.
But remember to avoid blatant advertising and instead build connections through networking and referrals. Start by watching and learning from others to get ideas. Then, like any business investment, you should set specific targets, evaluate your results and revise the plan as needed.
What do you think? What social media tactics have you tried? How’d it go, and what would you recommend to others?
Building a Solid Business Team
Financial Know How
As an entrepreneur, you may have specialized skills in marketing or product development. But there are areas where it makes good sense to draw on the experience of professionals.
For example, if your business is going to do well, the numbers have to add up. A good accountant can help you understand margins and profits and help you anticipate problems.
Similarly, a good lawyer can be invaluable for your business, helping you with everything from reviewing contracts to incorporating your business to registering trademarks.
Your small business advisor or account manager can also be a source of valuable advice and can work with you to find strategies and financial solutions that will help improve your bottom line.
Your small business advisor will be able to provide advice and information on a wide range of business issues, from improving cash flow, managing your borrowing, business account options, choosing investments, and identifying cash management solutions.
They can offer you the tools, resources, access to experts, and other value-added benefits and are committed to helping you grow your business.
What steps can I take to prepare for getting financing for my business?
First, make sure that your business plan is up-to-date and that it outlines clear measurable goals. This will show your lender that you have a plan about how to use the money you are applying for.
You also need to ensure that your financial statements give an accurate picture of your business and personal finances. That includes a personal statement of net worth, as well as your business balance sheet and income statements. If you are purchasing an existing business or expanding your business, you’ll need to supply historical financial statements and tax returns for the business.
Before you apply for financing, it may be a good idea to have your accountant review your statements. An accountant can provide insights into areas of your business finances that you may have overlooked, and help you anticipate questions you may be asked.
It’s also important to ensure that your personal finances are in order. Are your personal credit card balances always close to their limits? Do you have any unpaid loans? Are you only paying the minimums? The sooner you can get your personal debt in order, the better position you will be in to obtain business financing.
As part of this process, be sure to request a copy of your credit report from Equifax and Trans Union.
How can I use my network of contacts to market my business?
Educate your personal network. Your family and friends trust you and want you to succeed. But your business, particularly if it's a new direction for you, may be a world apart from how they have come to know you professionally. You can help them become more confident about you by first educating them about the value you have to offer. Once they understand this, they will more readily buy from you or recommend you to their colleagues, clients, and contacts.
Implement a personal marketing program. You are your best marketing tool. It's imperative that you get out into the market place as often as possible. Attend as many local networking events as you can (many free of charge). Share the message about your value, and use these contacts to build relationships with other professionals, rather than simply trying to sell.
Network within your target market. Even though everyone may be a potential client, there will always be a demographic that has more need of what you have to offer, and the financial resources to purchase your product or service. Identify that target market. Then discover the association or network that serves it. Make it your mission to join and actively participate in this organization. It represents a key leverage point to access and market to this high-value market, accelerating your chances for success
How do I use Social Media?
With all the buzz about blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, it can be tempting to jump right in and get started. It’s OK for individuals to do that, but if you’re running a business, you need to be more thoughtful and more strategic. The first thing to understand is how social media can help your business.
For one, writing a blog or creating a fan page on Facebook can drive traffic to your Website. This can improve your search engine rankings, boost your brand recognition, and increase lead generations and sales. This is the potential of social media, but successful entrepreneurs are not so quick on the hard sell.
Instead of trying to sell too quickly and overtly, successful entrepreneurs approach social media more strategically — by building communities on Facebook and Twitter, by sharing their expertise through a blog or a YouTube video, and by establishing themselves as experts in their field.
Through developing a community of like-minded individuals, listening to what your readers are saying, and freely sharing your knowledge and expertise, you are building trust and a loyal customer base that can translate into sales for some time, not just for today.
Are there cost effective options for training employees in my small business?
A culture of ongoing training and learning is key to the success of all businesses, large and small. The pace of change in business and technology is rapid, and companies and their employees need to keep pace. Ongoing investment in training is also becoming crucial to attracting and retaining talent. At the same time, companies want to see the returns for what they’re spending on training.
E-learning is becoming an established and cost-effective method for delivering training. Traditional training usually involves offsite courses and associated expenses or the cost of bringing instructors to the workplace. E-learning can out these expenses.
Savvy business people view training as a process and an investment. A culture of training can give your employees a greater stake in the business, expand their capabilities, and make them more productive. And because e-learning facilitates individualized learning and is easily updated, it helps employees stay current and refresh their skills when necessary.
How can I market my trades Business on a small budget? TR
Referrals are the cheapest and most effective way to market. People want to work with a contractor they trust, who does quality work, and who gets the job done on time. If you do this for your customers, you will get referrals. Before you get referrals and build clients for life, you need to attract customers. Here are some ways to do so that won’t break the bank.
Job signs. When you are on the job and you are able to put a job sign on a customer’s lawn, you are gaining exposure. People want to work with people who know their area, who know their community, so job signs are very important and cost-effective. Truck signs are another important marketing tactic that doesn’t cost a lot.
Direct mail/targeted marketing. An easy way to complement your job sign and truck sign is to write a direct mail piece telling the neighbourhood that you’re working there and what you have to offer them. When targeting a neighbourhood, I believe a three-part direct mail series gives the neighbourhood time to become familiar with you and your work.
Have a plan In the skilled trades industry, another crucial element of marketing is making use of the time when you are not working on job sites. For instance, December, January, and February are slow times in the trades. That’s when you need to build your marketing plan. But make sure the plan has concrete steps that you can easily act on.
How Can I use the web to Market my business?
Think of your Website as a digital calling card - it may be the first thing that people will see. Prospective customers want to understand quickly what your company does, who you are, and how they can reach you. If you currently have a Website, ask some of your current customers if it truly reflects your company - the results may surprise you. Listen carefully to what they tell you, and if it's different from what's already on your site, change it.
Conventional wisdom says that users will spend no more than 30 seconds on a home page, so it's a good idea to summarize what you do in pictures or graphics, supported by short text that accurately describes your business - which can help optimize search results when potential customers are looking for you.
You should try to avoid too many graphics that together take a long time to download. Similarly, flash may look impressive, but some users may find it disruptive.
Finally, get to know how search engines work. For example, some offer free tools that can analyze your site to determine if it's being properly optimized for searching. Good searchability means that prospects can easily find you.