This is another guest post by Jim Beach, Author of McGraw-Hill’s School for Startups, which contends that entrepreneurship is not about risk, creativity or passion. It is a follow-up post to his article two weeks ago on passion and his article last week on risk.

How Important is Creativity to Starting a New Business?In the last two weeks, I was honored to post two articles on this blog, one about passion  and one about risk. Today, I am excited to share my views on creativity, and the role it plays in entrepreneurship. Previous readers will know I believe that entrepreneurship is not about creativity, risk, or passion. If the average entrepreneur-want-to-be changed their definition of entrepreneurship, they would be more likely to act and succeed.

I want to start by making one thing clear.  Creativity can play a huge role in any startup or Fortune 500 company.  Certainly, those people at Apple know a thing or two about creativity. But as I grant you that, please grant me that entrepreneurship is possible without any creativity.  And in fact, that is the type of entrepreneurship that most of us should strive for. Good old fashioned non-creative entrepreneurship, you know, copying!

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, published by Babson College and the London School of Economics, reported that 93% of businesses world-wide are copies of other businesses. Hyatt and Hilton. Nike and Adidas. McDonalds and Burger King. Coke and Pepsi. If you look around, there are many thousands of restaurants and day cares for kids and bookstores. Is it illegal to open another? Is it creative? Does your bank account care as the money starts to role in?

When I lecture about this, there are two scenarios I love to paint. Imagine sitting around with your friends at a bar and announcing you are going to start a business.  They are impressed, jealous, and curious. You describe the idea in detail and how you plan to succeed. Soon, you sense they want in. Eventually, one asks, “How did you get this idea?”  You say, “Saw it online on a cool biz website.” Do they lose interest? No, they still want in. Do you lose your street cred because you went online, researched “new business ideas” and found a cool one?  No, they still want in.

Or, you go to your bank to deposit your first million in sales.  The teller pulls up your account and announces, “Oh, I see you got your idea from a magazine, saw some guy was successful across the country in a business, so you decided to start that business here in our town. Yeah, sorry, I have to take 15% off the top for lack of creativity.”  No, that doesn’t happen.

People want to be entrepreneurs and sit waiting for a lightning bolt of creativity to hit them. It may happen, or they may die unfulfilled. Instead, remove creativity from your definition and start an organized, methodic study of a business to start. Allow a certain amount of time, create a list of criteria, and start researching business models.  Make a list of a hundred, yes, ONE HUNDRED. Please do not tell me that this is impossible until you have tried for a month.  Google “new business ideas” before you call me crazy!

The origin of your business is not important.  No one cares! Has any satisfied customer ever said the words, “I was really happy with your price and service, would recommend you to my friends, UNTIL I learned you got your idea 7 years ago from a search online”?  I believe these words have never been spoken or written until right now.

I think you get my point. The takeaway of this is profound. If risk can be reduced as much as possible (to under $5,000), and if passion is not important, and if creativity can be replaced with a Google search, than anyone can do it.  Anyone.  All the barriers are removed. What is your excuse for not acting now?

Entrepreneurship is about solving problems with limited resources. Do you have a problem?  Know someone with a problem?  You qualify!

Allow me two final thoughts. First, of course I am not advocating stealing. That is different. Copying is okay. Borrowing is okay. Stealing is not. Second, creativity and innovation are different. While it is okay to copy an idea, you must make it better. If you start a bookstore, make a list of everything that affects the customer experience, the parking, signage, name, smell, coffee shop, amount of books, ease of checkout, music, etc. And then figure out how to do each one in a way the makes your customer say, “I saw a place like this across the country, but you do it lots better.”

Those enjoying this article may also enjoy:

If you would like to contact Jim Beach, you can do so by emailing him at james.beach@att.net or follow him on Twitter @EntrepreneurJim.

What are your thoughts about entrepreneurship? Do you agree with Jim’s points or do you feel differently? Why not comment and share your thoughts with the world?

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This is another guest post by Jim Beach, Author of McGraw-Hill’s School for Startups, which contends that entrepreneurship is not about risk, creativity or passion. It is a follow-up post to his article last week on passion.

avoid entrepreneurial riskI really did appreciate the fierce feedback on my blog about passion. I have nothing against those of you who have passion for the business is that you run, and therefore you should respect my opinion that reserving passion for things more human is one possible route. But let’s continue this discussion about what truly embodies entrepreneurs. What about risk?

Many of you, I am sure, will relish in the opportunity to tell me about the huge risks that you took, or that a friend of yours took, when you started your business. In fact, many entrepreneurs are proud of the risks that they take, embrace these risks, and in their personal lives even seek out greater risk.

Joe Abraham wrote a great book called “Entrepreneurial DNA” which argues that just as all dogs are not the same, all entrepreneurs are not the same either. I highly recommend his test at www.BosiDNA.com. He concludes that there are four types of entrepreneurs; builders, opportunists, specialists, and innovators, and that these business types are different as pit bulls and lapdogs. Think about Donald Trump and his multitude of industries and Bill Gates who is been happy in one industry for his entire life. So, I think that we all should be able to agree that as entrepreneurs we are not necessarily inherently the same. I am an entrepreneur, and studies indicate that there is at least a third like me, and I hate risk.

When you meet an 18-year-old dreamer, a 45-year-old nostalgist, or a 58-year-old unemployed person, they frequently express their desire to be an entrepreneur, but also express their fear of risk.  I beg them to join me in a definition of entrepreneurship that excludes risk. Now those of you who got mad at me when I tried to exclude passion from my definition of entrepreneurship will undoubtedly be even more upset if I try to eliminate risk as well. But please just as I accept your standards, it is only fair if you accept mine, in the way that I choose to live my business and personal life. Now if our dreamer, nostalgist, and unemployed friend failed to act on their entrepreneurial dream because of risk, it is most unfortunate. If we can create an entrepreneurship, say one that limits fiscal risk to under $5000, isn’t that something that we should strive to do? By limiting the amount that you allow yourself to spend, you dramatically reduce risk and perhaps by doing this, it will be become possible for you to actually fulfill your dreams.

When we talk about risk there are many things that this can include. We can risk our time, our health, our reputation, our relationships, and our money. My past entrepreneurial endeavors have cost me greatly. I have been divorced, incredibly sick, and incredibly bankrupt. At one point a doctor left the exam room to get me a hospital bed, and I redressed and used the back door to exit, because I had a more important bank meeting, yes more important than being admitted to the hospital. And at one point I was about $10 million in personal debt. I feel like I know something about risk. I hate it.

But please don’t wait on the sideline due to risk! Limit your risk by limiting the amount of money that you’re willing to invest. By setting a limit of $5000 you may eliminate some forms of business that you wish to start. But that’s okay. If you study it and actually look around you will find that many, if not most, of the successful serial entrepreneurs in the world started their businesses with very little money. The invention of venture capital is after all a relatively new invention and millions of successful businesses were started before millions of dollars of startup capital became generally available.

Leave risk to the skydivers add sleep better at night by the eliminating risk from your definition of entrepreneurship. You will be happier, but most importantly you will be more likely to actually start a business today.

Those enjoying this article may also enjoy:

If you would like to contact Jim Beach, you can do so by emailing him at james.beach@att.net or follow him on Twitter @EntrepreneurJim.

What are your thoughts about entrepreneurship? Do you agree with Jim’s points or do you feel differently? Why not comment and share your thoughts with the world?

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This guest post is by Jim Beach, Author of McGraw-Hill’s School for Startups, which contends that entrepreneurship is not about risk, creativity or passion.

If you ask 100 people on the street, I think that 99 of them will say that entrepreneurship involves risk, creativity, and passion. I think this connotation is the reason that many people fail to act upon their startup dreams. I believe that none of these should be part of the definition of entrepreneurship, but today I want to deal with only passion.

I am passionate about a lot of things in my life. I have a beautiful wife and three fantastic children that make me happy almost every day. I have a wonderful dog named Sunny, who is sitting at my feet, I have wonderful family and friends, and I enjoy many things about life. My main hobby, though I don’t get to do it very much, is woodworking. One of my goals in life is to have all of the furniture in my house hand built by me. I do have a passion for woodworking. However, I know that I am not very good at it, and that even if I was I great at it, I could not make a good enough living to support the standard of living that my family and I are accustomed to. Deep down, I know that pursuing my passion would be a big mistake.

Let me tell you about the things that I am not passionate about. I am not passionate about summer camp, online education, leather jackets, furniture, medical websites, restaurants, or credit card technology. These are the some of the businesses, the products and services, that I have sold in the last 20 years. I am not passionate about these things. I am not passionate about work. I am not passionate about any product or service. I think people that are passionate about things are scary. Passionate about a thing? Passionate about work? Passionate about being away from family?

I am passionate about not work, which is also known as play or free time. I am passionate about having the ability to go to my son’s soccer game at two o’clock in the afternoon on a work day if I want to. I enjoy being my own boss so that when my daughter has ballet, I can go whenever I want without worrying what anyone will think. I am passionate about controlling my own destiny and not worrying what some corporate boss 2000 miles away might do to my job today. I am passionate about taking as much vacation time as I want. I am passionate about implementing my own ideas and the process of what we call entrepreneurship. But entrepreneurship is still work, and I refuse to be passionate about work. I will be passionate about the process and the quality of life that it allows. And, I believe that being an entrepreneur allows for a much higher quality of life.

My conclusion then is that when someone says you have to be passionate to be an entrepreneur, or that you have to be passionate to work 80 hours a week, I just don’t get it. I may work 80 hours a week, but I try to have as many of them as possible after my children are asleep, which allows me to go to lots of soccer games and ballet recitals. When looking for a business to start, do not limit yourself to things that you are passionate about. Maybe being passionate about the process and passionate about the benefits of the process is enough. Maybe the improved lifestyle is what will return the passion to your marriage! And remember Valentine’s Day is coming very soon!

Those that enjoyed this article may also enjoy:

If you would like to contact Jim Beach, you can do so by emailing him at james.beach@att.net or follow him on Twitter @EntrepreneurJim.

What are your thoughts about entrepreneurship? Do you agree with Jim’s points or do you feel differently? Why not comment and share your thoughts with the world?

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A new video series launched recently by the U.S. Small Business Administration and ADP® offers insight into the story behind the story of six successful American companies.  Featuring the individuals who built their businesses from an idea to become industry leaders, the “America’s Best” series shares keys to success, best practices and lessons learned for today’s entrepreneurs.

“With this series, SBA and our partner ADP offer current and potential entrepreneurs a chance to hear from the people who built their big ideas into some of America’s most successful companies,” SBA Administrator Karen Mills said.  “These six people share their personal perspectives and insights into the challenges they faced, along with their failures and successes, while also offering an inspirational look at the resiliency behind America’s spirit of entrepreneurship.”

Told from the perspective of company founders and key executives, the “America’s Best” videos profile once small U.S. businesses with remarkable stories of entrepreneurism, growth and success.  They are part of the SBA’s ongoing effort to celebrate entrepreneurship and provide small business owners and start-ups with relevant programs and resources to help them grow their businesses and create jobs.

“Throughout its history, SBA has provided critical support to tens of thousands of startups and small businesses,” Mills said. “This series highlights the stories of six of those firms and shares best practices and lessons learned that can be helpful to other entrepreneurs and small business owners who are working every day to grow their businesses and achieve their own piece of the American dream.”

Featured companies in the “America’s Best” video series include:

Allen Edmonds Shoe Corporation, Port Washington, Wis. – Established in 1922, Allen Edmonds operates 32 retail stores in 17 states, and is among a small minority of companies continuing to produce the majority of their shoes domestically.  Between 1979 and 1989, Allen Edmonds received SBA-guaranteed 7(a) loans totaling $2,265,000.

Cerner Corporation, Kansas City, Mo. – In 1979 the three founders, Neal Patterson, Cliff Illig and Paul Gorup, sat around a picnic table and decided to create a company.  Today, Cerner Corporation is an industry leader in medical system design.  In 1983 Cerner received a $200,000 7(a) loan and a SBA- licensed SBIC financing of $630,000 in 1986.

Columbia Sportswear Company, Portland, Ore. - Rescued from near bankruptcy, Gert Boyle took over operations of Columbia, started by her parents, and turned it into a $1 billion company.  The business received an SBA-backed loan for $15,000 in 1970.

The Gymboree Corporation, San Francisco, Calif. - Joan Barnes created Gymboree in 1976 as a place where moms and their children could play and exercise. Since then, it has become a giant corporation that includes almost 600 Gymboree retail clothing stores and nearly 300 Gymboree Play & Music centers worldwide.  Over the years, the corporation received investments totaling nearly $5 million from a SBA-licensed SBIC.

Radio One, Inc., Lanham, Md. - Among the largest African-American owned and operated media corporations in the United States, Radio One was started by Catherine L. Hughes in 1980.  Radio One owns and/or operates 53 radio stations located in 16 urban markets in the United States.  The company received investments totaling $9.5 million from SBA-licensed SBICs in the late 1990s.  Hughes also received an SBA-guaranteed 7(a) loan for $600,000 in 1980.

Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, Calif. - Founded in 1964, Ruiz Foods is the top seller of frozen Mexican dishes in the United States.  Under the brand names of El Monterey and Tornados, it produces nearly 200 frozen Mexican foods.  Ruiz Foods co-founder Fred Ruiz benefitted from technical assistance through SBA-affiliated SCORE counselors and also received SBA-guaranteed 7(a) loans in 1977 and 1979 totaling $275,000.

If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at mike.clough@bestbizpractices.org.

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Posted by: Susan Fronk

Outsourcing with Peggy

Outsourcing With PeggyA certain television commercial for Discover Credit Card always amuses me. You know the one. If you haven’t seen it, here is a short synopsis.

The commercial opens on a scene with a little building located somewhere in Siberia.  Inside, a bearded man in a sweater sits amid dozens of ringing and blinking older model phones. He answers the phone in a heavy Russian accent, “Thank you for calling USA Prime Credit, my name is Peggy. What is problem please?” The caller, who is calling from his home in America says, “Peggy? Sure. Well, suddenly it looks like a main charge of $35, an annual fee has been added to my account. Tell me this is a mistake.” Peggy says, “Yes”. The caller says, “Are you saying yes or are you asking yes”. Peggy seems at a loss for  words and gingerly hangs up the phone. The caller says, “Peggy?”

While the commercial is an exaggerated example of what can go wrong when functions are outsourced to foreign countries, it is a very realistic example of the kind of response a typical customer would have. If you’ve ever called a company and found yourself on the other end of the line with someone whose native language is not English, you’ve probably had a similar reaction.

Of course, the commercial ends before we see what the customer does next. We can only guess. He might just give up and chalk it up as one of those frustrating life experiences over which he has not control. Then, again, he could decide not to do business with this company anymore. And, I suppose many companies who choose to outsource to foreign countries are willing to sacrifice customer satisfaction and loyalty if they can save enough money. However, unhappy customers can do a lot more damage than taking their business elsewhere.

Within minutes, unhappy customers can broadcast their bad experiences to millions of people around the world over the internet through social media. This type of bad publicity can do irreparable damage to a company’s reputation and brand. Therefore, when weighing the pros and cons of outsourcing, companies need to look beyond short term financial gains to the type of long term damage it could cause to their brand.

In a previous article on this blog, “Customer Complaints Are Good for Business”, we reviewed Pete Blackshaw’s book, “Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000: Running a Business in Today’s Consumer-Driven World” which reveals the dangers of underestimating the damage unhappy customers can do.

However, there can be a silver lining in the cloud of customer complaints. Research indicates that your unsatisfied customers, when satisfied, are ten times more loyal than happy customers. Eventually, they could become some of your most vocal brand ambassadors. Therefore, it is critical that you identify unhappy customers early and do everything you can to satisfy them because a complaint is actually a great marketing opportunity.

Let me share a recent personal experience where I became an unhappy customer. I had been planning on getting a smart phone for quite some time. After doing considerable research and due diligence, I already knew which phone I wanted to purchase. The only remaining questions were when I would purchase it and how much I was going to have to pay for it.

So, when the phone I had been using began to automatically switch me over to incoming calls and cut off whatever call I was on, I knew it was time. After receiving advice from a very reliable source (someone who always buys the best products at the lowest price possible), I decided to purchase my new HTC EVO 4G at RadioShack and get my cellular service through Sprint. Since all the stores were closed and they were offering a $50 savings, I went online. That’s when my nightmare began.

I couldn’t do what I wanted to on the RadioShack website because I needed to update my husband’s account to a family plan and add my line to it. So, I had to call the toll free number to make it happen.

Right from the get-go it was clear that English was not the first language of the sales representative who answered the phone. When I asked him to repeat something he said (which I did often) he would repeat verbatim what he had just said, which reminded me of the Chatty Cathy doll my daughter had when she was little. The doll had a string that played several pre-recorded phrases when you pulled on it.

He must have received training on how to out people at ease by saying their name because every time he started a sentence, he said my name. However, after hearing my name repeated at the beginning of every sentence for over an hour, it had the opposite effect on me. It was downright annoying.

Now, it is important for me to state that I am completely sympathetic to the plight of people who work for outsourcing companies in India and other countries. On top of obvious language and cultural barriers, they sometimes have the handicap of long delays in sound transmission due internet traffic (yes, most all calls are transmitted through the internet). As an added challenge, many foreign workers employed by outsourcing companies work out of their homes. Such must have been the case with my sales representative because I kept hearing the sound of children in the background.

When my foreign-born sales representative launched into a series of queries about my personal life, my irritation escalated with each question-Now, Susan I am going to ask you some questions before I can process your order. Susan, do you have children? Susan, how long is your commute to work? Susan, what is your social security number? That triggered an alarm. But, when I asked him why he needed my social security number, he replied-Susan, we need to have your social security number in order to process your order, as if that explained everything.

By the end of the call,  the only thing worse than my frustration wasmy anxiety about how tempting it might be for a worker living in a country with widespread poverty to steal my identity.  According to a 2005 World Bank estimate, 41%f India falls below the international poverty line of US$ 1.25 a day. And, if my worst fears were realized, what recourse would I have?

The following morning, the nightmare that had begun the night before resumed when I received an email from the RadioShack subcontractor asking for much of the same information I had given the sales representative the night before. To add insult to injury, when my phone arrived, a copy of the invoice was included showing the $35 activation fee that my sales representative had promised me I wouldn’t be charged!

This prompted an immediate call to customer service at RadioShack. Now, what do you suppose was the first language of the female customer service representative who answered the telephone? Whatever it was, it wasn’t English. In fact, she seemed to have memorized a whole d a whole new series of Chatty Cathy phrases. This time, I stopped the aborted attempts at communication before I completely lost it and asked to speak to her supervisor. Ironically, while English seemed to be the supervisor’s first language, he worked for an outsourcing company in India. This seemed like an exercise in futility since I was calling to complain about the outsourcing company in India.

In response to my concern about the $35 activation fee, the English speaking supervisor told me I had to wait until I received my first bill from Sprint and they would remove it. However, when I contacted Sprint, they told me I had to work it out with RadioShack. So, once again, I tried to contact Radio Shack headquarters. But every phone number I called was answered by an outsourced worker or subcontractor. So, what do you think the chances are that Radio Shack will ever hear about the problems I experienced? My guess is slim to none unless they are listening on the internet and pick up this post.

My take away from this situation is that the lousy $50 I saved by going to RadioShack was not worth the aggravation. What I concluded about RadioShack was that either they have no idea or don’t care about the bad experiences their customers have when dealing with them. One thing is for sure. As a result of this experience, they’ve lost me as a customer. Perhaps even more serious, because I shared my experience on this blog, hundreds or even thousands of other potential customers may have second thoughts about doing business with them.

In summary, I am not suggesting that outsourcing or subcontracting is bad. If fact, it can be the most economical and practical way for a company to perform functions where they lack the competence and/or can’t respond effectively to peak demands.

However, when the outsourcing or subcontractor is located in a foreign country, it is imperative that they implement quality control measures to eliminate as many barriers as possible to a great customer experience such as language, culture and/or technology. It is also critical that these companies make it as easy as possible for customers to connect with them and provide feedback as to how well their outsourcing or subcontracting company is doing. Otherwise, the company will risk negative publicity in articles like this.

I would love to know your thoughts and experiences relative to outsourcing. Please leave your comments at the end of this article. If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at susan@susanfronk.com.

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Posted by: Susan Fronk

Recipe for Entrepreneurial Success

Robert JordanMillions of entrepreneurs grapple with the formidable challenges of starting and growing a successful business. Unfortunately,  precious few make it beyond the basic survival stage, let alone find the holy grail of sustained profitability. If only there was a simple, easy to follow recipe for entrepreneurial success that could be handed down to future generations; kind of like your French grandmother’s recipe for a soufflé that was guaranteed not to fall (fail!). Wouldn’t you like to know how some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs made it?

Well, today is your lucky day. Robert Jordan, successful entrepreneur has been launching and growing companies and helping other entrepreneurs do the same for the past 20 years, provides jolts of inspiration and shots of courage for new business owners in his new book, How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America (RedFlash Press).  Recipe for Entrepreneurial Success

Jordan’s book includes a collection of interviews from 45 leading founders who created $41 billion from scratch! Jordan’s newest endeavors are RedFlash project implementation team, and interimCEOinterimCFO, a worldwide network of interim, contract, and project executives. Here are some tips are taken from Jordan’s book:

Too little funding forces discipline.

The upside of having too little funding is that your business can grow organically and you’ll stay much focused on making a profit and positive cash flow.

In the same category, founder after founder cautioned against taking on too many investors. Equity is something to be viewed as precious, and many people don’t think about how much they are being diluted with each investor that comes on board. It’s great to have a vital sense of your mission, bringing your products and services to the world, and it’s also legitimate to be rewarded for your efforts.

Always have a standby investor.

No matter how much you like each other, and how much time and effort you’ve invested in negotiating and paperwork, large financial partnerships can – and often do – fall apart last minute.

You may feel like leaping for joy when an investor agrees to come on board, but it’s not over until the papers are signed and the money changes hands. Jim Dolan experienced this first-hand, when an investor suddenly changed the terms on the day of closing. Dolan was prepared with a “hot standby” investor and was able to create a new transaction with a new investor the same day – because he had already done the additional work upfront.

Create a business plan that’s a selling tool.

Venture capitalists look at hundreds of prospects, so your business plan has to be clear, credible, and able to demonstrate in 10 minutes or less your dedication to solving a crucial problem.

What’s even better than a plan? Phil Soran, co-founder of Compellent, recommends that you finish version 1, a prototype or even a product you can start to sell. You will be many times better off than just showing a theoretical document to an investor.

Be honest in all your dealings.

Running a business is no different than running your life. Founders should be honest in their dealings and in their assessments. Mark Tebbe, founder of Lante and co-founder of Answers.com, put it this way: always look at facts, because facts don’t lie.

You can’t find winning entrepreneurs without hearing about bedrock values that guided them and their teams along the way, including honesty, integrity and passionate desire.

Start with what you have.

Howard Tullman has successfully started and grown over a dozen companies. Howard observed that if you wait for the perfect solution to come along, you’ll never get your business going. Assume that the right tools, systems, and people will come along to refine it.

So many times we think we have to come up with the “perfect” solution to a problem, when the reality is that the marketplace will give you all the feedback you can handle, and then some. And as successful founders point out time and again, it was only with constant iteration and feedback that big winning ideas were finally proven out.

Make your employees shareholders.

When employees have a sense of ownership, it creates a kind of self-enforcement process. Dane Miller, co-founder of Biomet, made sure to give stock options to virtually everyone at his company – all the way to the janitor. Owners think differently than employees.

Challenge your management team to create an employee-oriented company. Raj Soin, founder of MTC, made sure that his managers came to realize that their biggest clients were their employees, which led to building a top-notch team.

Fail fast.

What doesn’t work, throw away, and what does work, run with it. Knowing what’s going right and what’s going wrong – and doing something about it quickly – will put you at the front of the class.

Dick Costolo, founder of Feedburner and now CEO of Twitter, described product development and marketing like an eye exam: is A better than B? How ‘bout C? Is C better than B? View your failed initiatives or projects as valuable information to then inform your next generation of products and ideas.

Be willing to tweak your idea.

If you fall too much in love with your idea, you won’t have the capacity to take feedback from other people and from the market. The idea you start with is unlikely to be the exact idea you’re going to win with.

Every one of the founders Jordan interviewed had stories about the problems they wouldn’t have discovered had they not listened to customers, colleagues, and investors in the process of pitching their product. Invariably the first product was not the winning one – the winning product came down the line. Stick with it!

Please leave your comments at the end of this article. If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at susan.fronk@bestbizpractices.org.

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Posted by: Mike Clough

A New Business Model for 2011

small business networkingWith only a few days left before the end of the year, I have been wondering what information I could share with small business that would have the greatest positive impact on their business in 2011. Then it struck me.

A few months back, I was approached by a national membership organization that wanted me to establish their first chapter in the Twin Cities. In the process of doing my due diligence, the more I learned about MainStreetChamber™ (MSC), the more excited I became. There are three main reasons why I got so excited.

First, MSC specializes in helping micro (home-based) and small business owners promote their business. Because they are a national organization, members can belong to one chapter and participate in the activities of any other chapter. This is quite different from traditional Chambers that restrict membership to a specific chapter. And, this is not the only difference between a traditional Chamber and MSC.

Second, the MSC business model differs from the traditional Chamber model in one very important way. Traditional Chambers generate revenue from membership dues and event fees. Given the financial challenges faced by most small businesses, in many cases, owners simply cannot justify this expense. In contrast, MSC does not rely on revenue generated from membership dues or event fees. In fact, members are not required to spend a single penny!

Members of MSC enjoy free lifetime membership, free attendance at networking events and free opportunities to promote their business. Revenue for MSC chapters is generated from local and/or national sponsors and partners who offer various goods and services to members, who may or may not purchase them.

Considering the fact that current and prospective customers tend to view a business more favorably if they are a member of a Chamber, small businesses are thrilled when they discover that a lifetime membership in MSC is free! Members receive a great looking membership certificate they can hang on their wall and a member logo they can add to their website (see logo on the right of this blog), which gives their business more credibility with the public. Did I mention it was all free?

MSC also hosts monthly free events for small business owners in areas where they have chapters. Small business owners love these events because they are very well attended (usually 100+) as you can see from the video below. The only downside is that although they are the fastest growing Chamber in America, MSC is a little over six months old and has only 30-35 chapters nationwide. The good news is that new chapters are being established every month and sooner or later there will be one in your area. In the meantime, if you can’t find a chapter in your area, there are many virtual benefits you can enjoy. In addition, if the MSC business model appeals to you or someone you know, why not have them contact me and I will introduce them to people who can help them establish a chapter in their area?

Third, MSC is continually searching for innovative ways to help small businesses promote and grow their business. For example, as of the first of the year, they are introducing a new program called the VIP Membership program. There are two distinct parts to this program. One part of the program offers VIP Membership card holders discounts at thousands of local and national, online and offline businesses. The other part of the program provides MSC members with an opportunity to promote their products/services free of charge, which gives them both national and local exposure, in exchange for offering card holders a meaningful discount. What a great way to promote your business free while increasing sales and revenue!

mainstreetchamber vip membership card

Briefly, here is how the VIP Membership program works. Although the VIP Membership card has a suggested retail price of $399, MSC members and fundraisers can purchase them at wholesale for a mere fraction of that price (no more than the cost of an Entertainment book). The price is a one-time (lifetime), nominal fee, which gives the local MSC chapter the opportunity to make a profit on it. The big difference between the VIP Membership card and an Entertainment book is that consumers don’t have to purchase one every year and they are not limited to coupons which can be used only once. While the VIP Membership card isn’t free to the consumer, it is every inexpensive. This makes it a perfect fundraising vehicle similar to the Entertainment coupon book.

The biggest advantage to MainStreetChamber™ members who choose to become MSC VIP Discount Providers is that eventually hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of consumers will have a chance to do business with them because of the VIP Membership card. Did I mention that members can promote their business here for free?

Of course, there are many other benefits MSC offers to small businesses but I’ve run out of space. My intent was simply to make you aware of this organization and how you might take advantage of its many benefits during 2011, all at no cost.

To get your free membership, check out this chapter website. To learn more about MainStreetChamber™ visit their national website.

By the way, if you’ve been wondering whether or not I decided to take that offer to establish the first Twin Cities chapter after doing my due diligence, I did not. I got so excited that I bought the rights for the entire State of Minnesota. At this point, I have helped launch two chapters in Minnesota owned by others (the plan is to launch eight more by the end of 2011) and, in the last forty-eight hours, have negotiated the rights for Wisconsin and Illinois as well. If any of my readers are interested in establishing a MSC chapter in Minnesota, Wisconsin or Illinois, please contact me and I will explain the opportunity to you. If you are interested in establishing a chapter elsewhere, let me know and I will introduce you to the right people. For everyone else, I recommend that you become members as soon as you can! Chick here to do so now.

Editor’s Note [2/2/11]: Due to the many emails I have received about this post, I thought I would add a video of another event as it features comments from many members. Enjoy!

My wish to every small business worldwide for 2011 is prosperity and success. Happy New Year!!

If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at mike.clough@bestbizpractices.org.

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Twas The )Fort) Night Before ChristmasNewscasters have called the snowstorm we had last Saturday in Minnesota which dumped between 17 and 20 inches of snow, “the great blizzard of 2010”.  Of course, snowstorms have little, if any effect on me since I do most of my shopping online.

On the night of the storm, content to be homebound, I leaned back in my chair, casual and cozy with a warm puppy curled up in my lap. Just as I settled my brain for a long winter’s nap, out on the street there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, tripping over my slippers and tipping over the trash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gave the luster of mid-day to objects below. When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but eight sets of headlights, roaring engines and shouting men pushing cars from the rear. A short time later, all the cars and shouting men were gone, leaving the night quite peaceful and calm.

I hope my readers will forgive me for taking license with Clement Clarke Moore’s, “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, published in 1822. I meant no disrespect. I just couldn’t resist the temptation to compare the magic I witnessed outside my window to what Moore described in his poem.

Of course, there is nothing unusual about heavy snowfalls in Minnesota. In Minnesota, when the weather gets bad, oftentimes schools, government offices and various community activities are canceled. Unfortunately, yesterday’s storm dealt yet another blow to many Minnesota businesses. You might say that the sales they had been counting on yesterday were “canceled due to weather”.

But, Minnesotans are hearty and helpful folk. It takes more than a blizzard, a tornado, a flood, or a collapsed bridge to keep them down. If I ever had any doubts about that, they evaporated as I watched the scene on the street outside my window last night. Actually, what I witnessed got me thinking about the enormous capacity we all have to help each other in a crisis.

In case you haven’t noticed, small businesses all across America are facing a crisis. Where can they get help? What can they do to help?

Well, there are many resources for help. SCORE is a non profit that offers free mentoring, advice and low-cost training for entrepreneurs and small business owners. They provide services and information online and in-person through one of over 350 offices nationwide and over 13,000 mentors.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) also offers many free and low-cost services to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Services range from information and online training on business plan writing, financial assistance, grants, contracting opportunities, compliance assistance as well as current laws and regulations.

Chambers of Commerce such as the MainStreetChamber™ offer numerous opportunities for entrepreneurs and small business owners to network, promote their business and develop professionally.

What can small businesses do to help? For one thing they can make a concerted effort to do business with each other. Why wouldn’t you give your business to another small business if you can get the same quality, customer service and cost?

Big businesses are often able to offer lower prices because they have lower costs. Therefore, it may be difficult for a small business to justify doing business with another small business based on costs. However, there is another option.

Have you ever considered trading (bartering) products and/or services with another small business? This situation allows two businesses to purchase one another’s products/services without discounting their prices or spending any money. Bartering is an excellent way to find new customers while conserving cash. If you Google barter services, you can find numerous resources.

The Holidays have always been associated with giving. And, in keeping with my focus on this blog, best business practices, I can assure you that giving is definitely a best business practice. If you’ve read any of my previous articles on social media, you may recall that a driving force in many social media communities like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is giving and getting help online.

As the State Director for MainStreetChamber™ Minnesota, our philosophy is to give first, receive later. When you do this, you often find that you receive rewards worth many times what you gave in the first place.

Actually, there are many ways you can put “giving” into practice. You can give something to your customers, employees, suppliers and vendors. You can give something to charity or the community. However, when it comes to Holiday giving, did you know that of all the major and worthwhile charities, The Salvation Army has the lowest administration costs? This means that they have the highest percentage of each dollar donated going directly help to the less fortunate.

I am sure you have seen the Salvation Army volunteers standing outside businesses ringing their bells by a red kettle. Recently, America’s Best Business Practices joined the MainStreetChamber™ Red Kettle team to help collect online contributions to the Salvation Army. You can help us raise money by making a donation (none is too small).  Even better, you too can become a virtual bell ringer for the Salvation Army if you make a commitment to raise a minimum of $150. Either way, we appreciate your help. Simply click on the Red Kettle on the right and make your choice. Allow me to thank you in advance.

You don’t have to wait for the Holidays to begin the practice of giving. If you look for them, there are countless opportunities to give each and every day of the year. Why not let a stranger go ahead of you at the check out? Why not let another car go ahead of you at a four way stop? Why not pay the check for a stranger at a restaurant?

I am sure that the notion of “giving is better than receiving” is not new to my readers. Some may even smirk a little at the notion. However, I am one who truly believes that giving without expectation of receiving is rewarding. The rewards may not necessarily come directly from the person to whom you gave. And, the rewards many not show up immediately. Except for one; the good feeling you get from making a difference in somebody else’s life. So, what kind of a difference are you making?

Wishing You and Yours The Happiest of Holiday Seasons!

If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at mike.clough@bestbizpractices.org.

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Dal LaMagnaIn spite of the bad economy, apparently entrepreneurship is alive and well in America. According to the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation’s annual index of entrepreneurial activity, the pace of new business creation in 2009 rose to it’s highest level since the index began 14 years ago.

Successful entrepreneur and millionaire, Dal LaMagna, recommends that one solution for the  millions of unemployed and underemployed people is to start a business. In his new book, “Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets It Right”, LaMagna shares profound lessons he learned from Book Review Raising Eyebrowsnumerous business failures before he started Tweezerman, a global beauty tools company, with a scant $500 and walked away with millions.

LaMagna maintains that starting really small in business, sometimes referred to as bootstrapping could actually help you succeed. He feels that the less money you have, the less likely you are to make common new business mistakes. Many new business owners who start off well financed have a tendency to accumulate too much debt, create too much overhead and focus so much on the big picture that they lose sight of the day-to-day goal, which is to consistently make a profit.

By following LaMagna’s advice, millions of unemployed and underemployed people can start a successful business if they have just $500 in their savings account. However, LaMagna recommends following these 7 principles:

Tailor it to you.

Start a business that you love. Some people just love antiquing. Others love cars, fishing or cooking. LaMagna suggests thinking about what impact pursuing your passion would have on your lifestyle. How might it affect the way you spend your days or where you would have to live? He also suggests that you consider whether or not you want to work around people or alone; what hours you would have to work, how much time you would have to spend on the phone, indoors or outdoors, in front of a computer, or out in the field. This kind of analysis can help you avoid businesses that would keep you from having your preferred lifestyle.

Be frugal.

It may sound simplistic, but refrain from spending money you don’t have. Don’t purchase anything unless you need it. This means making sacrifices and foregoing certain conveniences. Make sure that you put the money you make right back into the business.

Record every expense.

Keep a record of every penny you spend. Whether it’s the dollar you gave to the homeless guy on the way to meet a prospective client to the new tie you bought to look professional. The key to launching a successful business is to keep expenses under control and fully accounted for.

Keep a monthly record of profit-loss.

Complete a monthly profit and loss statement for the first two years after you start the business. This kind of focus will help you get a handle on where your business is going, what needs be improved, and why it fluctuates.

Find free stuff.

If you are willing to invest the time, you can find many of the items you need to start and run your small business at no charge or next to nothing. There are deals galore these days. Try thrift shops for office furniture or office supplies. Go online and check out freecycle.com. Ask friends or relatives if they have old computers, printers or other office supplies. As an example, a hair accessories crafter gets all her leather for free from a backpack manufacturer that throws all their leather scraps away.

Write down agreements.

As the owner of a small business, it can be tempting to consummate agreements with a “handshake”. Your clients may also resist signing agreements. However, you must develop the processes and procedures of a larger company and that means you need to have all agreements in writing.

Keep it simple.

When LaMagna first founded Tweezerman, he focused only on selling tweezers to cosmetic counters, one store at a time. At one point, he received an offer to sell industrial tweezers to electronics manufacturers. However, he kept the focus on what he was already doing well. He recommends not diluting your efforts until you have turned a large profit over a consistent period of time.

What about you?
So what is you big idea, your dream? And what are you doing about it? There are many resources that can help you achieve your dream. SCORE Association is a great resource that provides training through low-cost workshops and free one-on-one mentoring for as long as you need their help. There are approximately 14,000 volunteer counselors nationwide in thousands of locations standing by, ready to help you.

Small Business Administration (SBA) is another great resource. If you poke around their website you will find a vast amount of help in the form of valuable information, links to other resources, instructional videos and a whole lot more.

I would be negligent if I didn’t also mention the new and fastest growing Chamber of Commerce in America, MainStreetChamber™. New chapters are springing up each month all across the country. If there is not a chapter yet in

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Posted by: Susan Fronk

Who do you need to thank?

Who do you need to thank?In America, Thanksgiving is the season for gratitude, goodwill and generosity. And, I am one who believes that no matter what level of success someone achieves they probably didn’t do it alone. So, I would like to devote this article to all those unsung heroes who have done so much to help small business owners succeed.

Every successful business owner, if they were honest, would admit to having hard times. If you think about it, you probably have known people who were there for you, lending a helping hand when you needed it most, whether it was financial assistance, professional expertise, business advice or other types of support.

As an example, when my Dad first went into business, with a family of six kids to support, he didn’t have nearly the money he needed to get started so a friend offered to back him. Over the years, my Dad developed strong relationships with his suppliers who often carried large balances when he needed them to. He developed equally strong relationships with his clients who continued to give him their business over a 30 year period.

Although I am not Jewish, I was fascinated by an article titled, “Interest-free loans steeped in tradition”, by Kristin Holmes of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The roots of this tradition can be found in the Torah where it is referred to an act of “lovingkindness”.

The Bible, in Exodus 22:25 states, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.” Other references in the Bible can be found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

According to Mark Meltzer, co-founder and past president of the International Association of Hebrew Free Loans, there are 50 groups in the US and abroad that lend millions in interest-free loans annually. Founder and chairman of the Israel Free Loan Association (IFLA), believes that our lives are a short-term loan that has to be returned – with interest. That interest is what Jewish tradition calls ‘tikkun olam’ – making the world a better place.

Other ethnic and religious groups also offer interest free loans. According to Masood Ghaznavi, professor emeritus at Rosemount College, in Islamic law, interest is prohibited as stated in the Quran and by the prophet Muhammad.

Of course, I couldn’t write about being grateful for small business assistance without mentioning three organizations. SCORE has over 13,000 volunteers (including me!) in more than 350 chapters across America providing free mentoring and low cost training for aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners. The Small Business Administration (SBA) provides financial advice and loan guarantees to qualified entrepreneurs and small business owners. Together, these two organizations help millions of aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners each year realize their dreams of owning their own business.

The third organization is MainStreetChamber™, a national membership organization dedicated to advancing the growth and profitability of micro and small business. As President of the Twin Cities chapter of the fastest growing chamber in the US, I confess to a bias, but, we fill a real need for small business owners to have the opportunity to connect with prospective clients, build relationships with local referral partners and promote their business for free. That’s right; there is no obligation for small business owners to pay a single penny to belong to MainStreetChamber™. If there isn’t a MainStreetChamber™ chapter near you, please contact me and I’ll provide you with the information you need to establish one.

I hope that my readers do not mistake my focus on thanksgiving in this article as a shallow manipulation of sentiment and a trivialization of the plight of millions of small business owners who feel virtually abandoned by the very institutions that purport to support them. Far too many small business owners have had to close their doors or are hanging on by a thread waiting for help that has not arrived. I know only too well what that is like.

Several years ago, my husband was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Although it was generally considered very treatable, the type of cancer he had was very aggressive, resulting in a long and painful journey that ended in death. This process took a huge toll on our family emotionally, financially and ultimately led to the demise of our business which had been operating for over twenty years.

Soon, my husband was unable to work and I couldn’t because I was his primary caregiver. Like many small businesses, we had a very high deductible health insurance plan. Consequently, we quickly amassed huge medical bills, not to mention the cost of his drugs which at one point were close to $800 a week. Without an income, we very quickly found ourselves on the verge of losing our home. As my husband lay dying in our bedroom, I worried about where we were going to live when they threw us out.

Enter a cast of literally hundreds of strangers who came to our aid as a result of a letter that a friend of ours sent to his enormous mailing list asking them to help us in exchange for products we had in inventory. Then, for the next several months, I would start my day wondering how in the world I was going to keep paying for my husband’s drugs, food and other bills. Then, I would go to the mailbox and find several checks from complete strangers!

There is not enough room in this article to thank every one of those wonderful people who came to our aid. So, if any of you are reading this article, I just want to say Thank You! There are, however, a few people to whom I owe an extra helping of gratitude. They exemplify the kind of courage, dedication, resilience, intelligence, savvy and sheer grit that is required of all successful small business owners. However, it is their generosity, kindness and steadfast support that represents all that is good in people. To each of you on the list below, thank you for proving to me that in spite of the evil things that some people do, some people are very, very good! You can click on the names of those who are small business owners and it will take you to their websites so you can learn more about their businesses.

My husband, who is my best friend, business partner and inspiration.

My children, who have become wonderful people whom I consider friends.

My grandchildren, who bring me immeasurable happiness and delight.

Bonny Zerr,  my sister-in-law, who is a gentle soul and a source of strength.

John Arp, who passed way a few years ago was a great friend and business associate.

Jim and Dana Melton (Biz Owners) have always reminded me to look for the beauty, joy and love  in the world.

Tom and Cheryl Faranda (Biz Owner) have been there for me and my family through thick and thin.

Tom and Debbie Hopkins (Biz Owner) sent the letter that ended up keeping us afloat financially for a year.

David McNally (Biz Owner) has been a dear friend and trusted business associate for many years.

Tom Gegax (Biz Owner) has been a loyal friend for many years.

Kim Howard (Biz Owner) has been a generous and supportive business associate for many years.

So, who do you need to thank this year? Please leave your comments at the end of this article. If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at susan@susanfronk.com.

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Posted by: Susan Fronk

A Silver Lining for Small Biz

Silver Lining for Small BizIt’s no secret that the recession has hit many small businesses especially hard; causing record numbers to fail and close. However, it seems to have had a bright shiny silver lining for others. As millions of jobs are lost, home foreclosures continue to rise and consumer confidence wanes, many businesses are enjoying record sales and rising numbers of new customers.

So, if consumers and business owners are not buying big ticket items such as cars, homes, furniture, appliances, taking vacations, hiring workers and expanding their business what are they buying? According to a survey of 182 members of the National Association for Resale and Thrift Shops, 74.2% reported increased sales and 89.9% reported new customers. The National Pawnbrokers Association (2700 members) reported that business is up anywhere from 10-30%.

Naturally, companies offering debt restructuring and counseling, mortgage and foreclosure rescue are seeing increases in business. Automobile, boat, and motorcycle repossession businesses are enjoying a boon.  Scott Friga of “Gulf Coast Recovery in Cape Coral, Fl reported that his business was up 80% over the previous year.

In an all out effort to cut expenses, consumers and business owners are choosing to hang onto what they have and repair it instead of purchasing new items. Consequently, businesses that offer repair and/or refurbishing services to consumers and/or businesses are doing well. That includes services related to the maintenance and repair of homes, office equipment, automobiles, furniture, clothing and shoes.

In response to the public’s growing interest in saving money is the emergence of group buying sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial, Scoop ST and Tippr. Businesses pay a fee to publicize a one-time special offer that is only available if enough people are interested. The deals range from 5-90% on various goods and services. While many small businesses were reluctant to give this a try, they have proven to be quite effective for others.

Once again liquor sales are proving that alcohol is a recession proof business. And, since we’re making a positive correlation between vice and the recession, we might as well look at the upside of an increase in fear and crime. According to Jim Brush, CEO of Sentry Safe in Rochester, NY, his business is up 70%.  Private investigators are getting more business as a result of increasing numbers of fraudulent worker’s compensation claims and bad business dealings. So, for some, at least, crime does pay.

Apparently, some bankruptcy and divorce lawyers are cashing in as well. The United States Department of Justice reports that bankruptcies have grown from a mere 110,000 in 1960, to over 1.4 million in 2009. This represents around one third of Americans. The divorce rate has also increased from around 30% in the 1970s, to over 51% in the late 1990s (US Census Bureau, 2002).

Elizabeth Warren, former Professor at Harvard Law school and Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (since September 2010), found that 91% of bankruptcy filers suffered a job loss, medical crisis or divorce. Rachel Foley, a Bankruptcy Attorney in Kansas City, Missouri wrote an article titled, “Does Bankruptcy Cause Divorce?” when she noticed that a high percentage of her clients were coming back after the bankruptcy to file divorce. Apparently, couples tend to blame each other for their financial woes. With over 1/2 of all first marriages ending in divorce and nearly a 1/3 of the population filed for Bankruptcy last year, hard times are definitely good for some lawyers.

One of my favorite examples of “turning recession lemons into profitable lemonade” is a company started by Madeline Muney Passarelli called, “Wear Today, Gone Tomorrow”. With nearly 15 years experience in the fashion industry, it dawned on Madeline that many more women could dress in high fashion and afford luxury items at a fraction of the cost if they rented them. Brilliant! It reminded me of when I was young and had a very tight budget for my wedding. One day, it dawned on me that I could rent a beautiful Paris gown for a fraction of what it would cost me to buy it. Plus I didn’t need to worry about storing it afterwards.

So, how can you capitalize on the opportunities presented by the recession and the misfortunes it has caused others? The first suggestion I would make is to find out about the real needs of your customers and prospects. How can you made their lives easier and/or better? Then, adapt your products/services and marketing accordingly. Next, think about how you might adapt your products and/or services to meet some of the emerging consumer trends such as saving money, saving time, reducing waste and preserving what has meaning and intrinsic (irreplaceable) value such as family traditions, heirlooms, antiques, historic buildings, institutions, communities, and the environment.

I would love to know your thoughts and suggestions for capitalizing on the recession. Please leave your comments at the end of this article. If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at susan@susanfronk.com.

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Posted by: Mike Clough

10 Tips for Small Biz Loans

10 Tips for Small Biz LoansNow that the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010 has become law, entrepreneurs and small business owners may have better luck getting loans. However, it is still critical that small business owners lay the proper groundwork if they want luck on their side.

So, if a small business owner is looking for financing, where can they get information? A post on Business.gov by Caron Beesley titled, SBA Small Business Loans Explained–Availability, Eligibility and the Application Process, explains the nuts and bolts of small business loans.

A key consideration is how solid the bank is. Some banks that were heavily involved in the construction industry and residential home mortgages are not in as strong a capital position as they were a few years ago.

It is fairly easy to find information on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Reserve websites about banks, their financials and what other business owners think about them. Here is a list of some of the Best Banks for Entrepreneurs.

In a subsequent post by Caron Beesley on Business.gov titled, Five Tips for Finding Small Business Friendly Banks, small business owners will find several helpful tips for finding the right lender.

If you are hoping to get an SBA-backed loan you should look for a bank that is a Certified or Preferred Lender. This means they have a record of processing SBA-backed loans and are part of the Certified Lender (CLP) / Preferred Lender (PLP) programs.

Make sure you understand the lending process. You will be required to complete an application and submit information related to the viability of your business, its cash flow, and collateral. For SBA-backed loans, you can follow the SBA Loan Application checklist.

Generally, your chances of getting a small business loan are better with a small community bank. A small bank usually considers more qualitative information when processing a small business loan than a large bank.

It can be easier to build a close relationship with a banker in a small community bank than it is with a large bank. Turnover tends to be higher in larger banks. So, the banker who will be working with you and understands your business today could be gone tomorrow.

One very important consideration is the bank’s reputation as a small business lender. Find our how “small business friendly” the bank is. Ask how big a percentage of their loans are made to small businesses.

Before you start the loan application process, try to get some expert advice. You can get free advice from the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) on navigating the loan application and process. If you need help writing a business plan, contact SCORE for free mentoring and low-cost classes on how to write a business plan and a host of other small business topics

Another factor to consider when choosing a bank is what services they offer. Be sure to look at the bank’s services in view of what you might need in the future.

With proper preparation, you can dramatically increase your chances of getting a loan. After you have identified a short list of banks that you want to approach about a small business loan, here are ten tips to help you get prepared:

1. Find out as much as you can about your banker. For example, how long they have been with the bank and their credentials. Then, make sure you share details of your business with your banker including your operating cycle, risks, opportunities and cash flows.

2. Be willing to give a personal guarantee. Banks want to makes sure a business owner is willing to shoulder some of the risk.

3. Complete all necessary paperwork and submit it on time.

4. Know your personal and professional credit rating. If it is les than great, you better have a good explanation.

5. Make sure to explain how you intend to use the funds in your business. And, don’t ask for the maximum amount.

6. Be honest about the realties of your business. If it is a seasonal business or if there are other risks, be sure to explain how you intend to address them.

7. Be prepared to invest some equity or collateral. It demonstrates your willingness to share the risk.

8. Make sure you have a professional advisory team including attorneys, CPAs, bankers and insurance brokers/agents, etc. It assures the bank when you have access to expertise should you need it.

9. Be sure your business plan is compelling and includes best, probable and worst case scenarios.

10. Be prepared to demonstrate your ability to succeed as a result of your previous      experience.

If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at mike.clough@bestbizpractices.org.

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Posted by: Susan Fronk

5 Tips for Great First Impressions

Great First ImpressionsIt’s been said you never get second chance to make a good first impression. So, how long does it take to make a first impression? Experts say it takes between seven and seventeen seconds.

What kind of first impression does your company make? If you think about it, there are many ways your company makes an impression on people. Does your website, marketing materials, business cards, office and advertising make the kind of impression you want them to make? Do your employees make the kind of impression you want them to make?

Many small business owners do not realize the importance of image. Your company’s image is inexorably linked to your brand. You can have an award winning website, marketing materials and advertising, but, if your employees don’t dress, speak or behave professionally, it reflects on you. Consequently, your company is not going to make a good first impression.

Your website often is the first impression a prospective customer has of your company. If it is well designed and structured for search engine optimization (SEO), it can be one of your most powerful marketing tools. Many prospective customers today start their buying process by checking out a company online first. If your website does not look professional, appealing or is not user friendly, prospective customers are not likely to want to do business with you.

One company put an employee in charge of making changes to their website, probably to save money. The result was a disaster. The main color in the company’s logo does not match with the same color used on other areas of the same page. The graphics take up so much room on most of the web pages that key content describing the company’s services is cut off so visitors have to scroll down the page to read it.

The problems with this company’s website are not limited to image. If you click on the services offered by the company, it takes you to web pages that all have the same URL as the home page. This limits the company’s ability to drive traffic to these other pages from search engines.

I would venture to guess that any money this company saved by not hiring an expert in website design was far surpassed by any revenue they lost from prospective customers who couldn’t find them online or who were unimpressed by their website.

If you want to make a good first impression, you have to guard your company’s image. Even if your budget is tight, any money you spend on creating the right image is well spent.

Another common image problem many small businesses have is poorly designed business cards and marketing materials. When you hand someone your business card during a personal meeting, the image it creates lingers long after the meeting has ended. If it looks professional, attractive, has easy-to-read information such as phone number, email and website, you stand a better chance of people hanging onto it. If it looks like you printed it off of your computer, is difficult to read or is missing key information, there is a good chance people are going to throw it away.

If you have a bricks and mortar business, it is important that your premises and signage create a good first impression. While the reception area or lobby is important, one area that can quickly tarnish a company’s image is the bathroom. There is only one thing that is worse than a dirty bathroom and that is no access to a public bathroom.

Although most small business owners are too sharp to put up a sign with a misspelled word, you would be surprised how many signs contain typos and grammatical errors. Nothing spells “poor quality” like a typo or a missing letter in a company sign.

The most powerful, but difficult area for a small business to control is the impression made by the people in the company. People who are poorly groomed, are not courteous or helpful, do not dress appropriately or do not use proper language are the kiss of death to a company’s image. Even if employees don’t work in professional positions, any employee that comes into contact with the public should be clean and well groomed.

What can a small business owner do to ensure they make a good first impression? Here are five tips that will help:

1. Make sure everything with your company’s name on it such as your website, ads, marketing materials, stationery and business cards has a consistent and professional design including your logo and colors.

2. Establish policies and standards for how your employees dress, speak and behave. Once these standards have been developed, make sure your employees know what they are and are properly trained to comply. Then, make sure you reinforce and enforce them.

3. Develop customer service policies designed to satisfy your customers, generate repeat business and foster loyalty. It is far easier to sell to an existing customer than to find a new one.

4. Collect periodic feedback from employees and customers about how your company and its products/services are perceived . Surveys can be a great way to collect information that can help you make necessary improvements to your company’s image. Then, make sure you act on this feedback.

5. Make sure that you have a strategy to build your brand and monitor it online. Most of your current and prospective customers are involved in some type of social media network. You need to be involved in those same networks, participating in online discussions, building relationships and offering help and advice wherever you can.

Great first impressions don’t happen by accident. Small business owners need to be vigilant in creating the kind of impression they want to make and then making sure they are succeeding.

Those who enjoyed this article may also enjoy reading:

The Elements of a Web 2.0 Website
Web 2.0 SEO – Search Engine Optimization
Local Online Marketing For Small Business
What’s Your Social Media Avatar?
Social Media-Listening, Connecting & Publishing

If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at susan@susanfronk.com.

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Posted by: Mike Clough

Want More Biz? Create A Buzz!

Want More Business? Create A Buzz!If you want more business, you must capture the attention of buyers and get them talking; to you as well as others. In other words, you must create a marketing buzz.  Considering the number of advertising messages people are exposed to everyday, this is no easy task. Billions are spent on every conceivable form of media to seduce buyers.

At one time, experts estimated that the average American is exposed to 3,000 advertising messages in one day. Of course, there are many ways you could capture the attention of your buyers if you have a large enough budget. However, if you are like most small business owners, you may not even have a marketing budget.

So, what can you do? Well, if you had a bricks and mortar business, you could have someone dress up in a funny costume, stand outside and try to get the attention of prospective customers. I’ve seen that technique employed by a number of small businesses. Although, I’m not sure how effective it is.

Or, you could try using some creative online marketing techniques to create a buzz like Samuel Gordon did. Owner of the oldest jewelry store in Oklahoma, Samuel Gordon created a contest similar to the Today show’s wedding contest on his website. He convinced local businesses to donate their services to a lucky engaged couple. Visitors to Gordon’s website were given the opportunity to win a $25,000 dream wedding by voting on everything from the bride’s wedding gown, to the groom’s tuxedo, to the wedding cake, to the honeymoon destination.

As a result of the promotion, traffic to the company’s website averaged 7,500 visitors per month (up from an average of 2,500). This led him to experiment with additional online marketing and social media strategies to engage current and prospective customers.

What Gordon discovered through his contest and subsequent involvement in social media is that the more people interact with a business, the more likely they are to buy. Today, Gordon’s creative customer engagement strategies include a highly interactive website and a company blog. Visitors to his website have the opportunity to comment on his Facebook page, watch videos, view slidecasts and numerous other visuals.

In addition, Gordon utilizes Twitter and Foursquare. With Foursquare, his customers “check in” to get specials and can become the mayor to receive even more valuable jewelry. Not long ago, Gordon introduced an iPhone and Android app as part of a mobile marketing campaign where users share, like and comment on the company’s content. He personally maintains the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. He also blogs and tweets.

However, if you are interested in engaging current and prospective customers, you must give them a reason to want to engage. Some of the more common techniques include publishing news, contests, surveys, e-courses, articles, white papers, and freebies on websites, blogs and social media networks.

For example, you could invite current and prospective customers to respond to a survey about a topic in which you think they are interested and offer to publish the results at a future date. Your survey could ask respondents for their opinions about problems that your current or future products and/or services solve. This type of survey would allow you to collect valuable data from respondents that could help you make important business decisions. Of course, you may need to invest in the services of an expert to help you develop and implement such a survey. However, if you do it correctly, the investment will more than pay for itself.

One big obstacle small business owners need to overcome is the tendency to want “instant gratification” from their online and social media marketing efforts. Many small business owners try a few things and if they don’t get immediate results they give up and say it doesn’t work.

Actually, with online marketing and social media, it is relatively easy to measure the level of customer engagement. You can track the number of visitors to your website or blog and how often they interact by commenting or downloading. You can track the number of people connecting with you on LinkedIn, the number of followers you have on Twitter, the number of fans you have on Facebook, the number of times they open your emails, the number of times they read your text messages and the number of times they check in on Foursquare. Then, you can cross check these results against new customer data to see which of your online marketing and social media efforts are paying off.

Make no mistake, it takes creativity, time, patience and a willingness to experiment with online marketing techniques and social media tools before you can expect results. I have written several other articles on this subject in the past. If you want to create a buzz and engage your current and prospective customers, you might also want to read:

Social Media: What Up With That?
The New Small Business Super-Strategy
Autoresponder: The Greatest Online Marketing Tool of All
Is Small Business Blogging Really Effective?
Is Your Blog Really A Blog?
Should Small Business Give Twitter A Twirl?
Social Media-Listening, Connecting & Publishing

Web 2.0 SEO – Search Engine Optimization
Local Online Marketing For Small Business
Square Up Your Business with Foursquare

If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at mike.clough@bestbizpractices.org.

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Will Small Businesses Have a Bountiful Harvest? The long hot summer is over and a new season has begun. Here in the Midwest, the leaves are breathtaking in burnt orange, amber and brilliant gold. On any given weekend, one can find festivals celebrating fall harvest time. But, this year’s harvest for many small businesses may be less than bountiful.

Although small businesses usually account for the majority of new jobs, according to Intuit, Inc, which provides payroll for small businesses, the nation’s smallest firms hired just 18,000 additional employees in June. That is less than a third of the 60,000 workers that were hired in February.

Since small businesses typically are the first to hire in a recovery, this is worrisome. Hiring in larger companies usually lags behind smaller companies. Automatic Data Processing reported that in August, employment in large businesses with 500+ employees remained stable. However, medium-sized businesses with 50 to 499 workers decreased employment by 5,000 and small businesses with 1 to 50 workers decreased by 6,000.

Business owners have been on a virtual roller coaster ride earlier this year when their hopes rose at the promise of economic recovery only to fall when sales stalled last spring.  Therefore, any plans they had to hire employees were put on hold-indefinitely.

Rising healthcare costs is just one of the reasons why small businesses are holding off on hiring additional workers. California small businesses are stunned by hikes of 12-23% in health insurance costs. Millions of small businesses across the nation are experiencing the same problem.

If you’re wondering if there is any good news for small business, last week’s announcement by SBA Administrator, Karen Mills, regarding the passage of the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act by the U.S. House of Representatives may be cause for some optimism. Mills said, “Today’s vote by the House to send the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act to the President for his signature is a key step forward in making sure small businesses have the resources they need to do what they do best – create jobs and drive economic growth.  This bill includes billions in tax cuts specifically targeted to small businesses so they can put more of their own resources into growing their business.  At the same time, this bill ensures those very businesses have access to the capital they need by extending SBA’s successful Recovery loan enhancements and putting local, community banks in a position to be a real partner for small businesses and entrepreneurs. This bill is the right step forward for our nation’s small businesses and our economy.”

Already approved by the Senate, the bill passed the House with a 237-187 vote and is designed to ease credit and cut taxes for struggling small businesses. The legislation was created in response to the difficulty small business owners have had in securing loans during the recession. In essence, the bill creates a $30-billion small-business lending fund to waive the onerous fees on loans backed by the Small Business Administration and provides $12 billion in tax breaks to help companies invest and hire. President Obama has said that he will sign the bill. So, although the skies are still somewhat ominous for small business owners, there may be a little sunlight peeking through the clouds.

I would love to know if you think small businesses can expect a bountiful harvest this fall.  Just leave a comment at the end of this article.

If you would like to contact me, you can do so by visiting my LinkedIn page or emailing me at mike.clough@bestbizpractices.org.

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