How to make 2010 a perfect 10 for your business

By Rhonda Abrams, President of The Planning Shop

  1. Stay in front of customers and prospects. A critical lesson of 2009 is that each and every customer is important. That means calling, emailing, visiting, listening. Increase your marketing efforts — whether online, word-of-mouth, at trade shows. Make yourself continually visible to your customers.

  2. Exploit your strengths. One of the most important lessons I learned in 2009 is that successful people concentrate more on their strengths than worry about their weaknesses. In 2010, examine what gives you a true competitive advantage, what makes you special. Build your business in ways that leverages your strengths as much as possible.

  3. Seize opportunities. The recession of the last couple of years left your competitors weakened, your customers looking for change, great employees willing to work for less. As the economy improves (hopefully!), aggressively go after new business before new competitors emerge. Now is the time to be bold!

  4. Go to the cloud. Switch more of your business applications to be Internet-based — rather than based on a server or desktop. Yes, there’s usually a monthly charge, but there’s continual upgrades at no extra charge, backup/security (if you choose a highly reliable provider), and access anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

  5. Learn more about social networking. Social networking is the hot new thing. Much is hype; some is realistic. Learn enough about these to see whether it’s worth your time and money to develop a social networking strategy for your particular business. Create a profile on LinkedIn, start a Facebook page, check out Twitter. These may not be appropriate for your business, but you should know what they’re about before just dismissing them out of hand.

  6. Start an e-mail newsletter if you don’t already have one. Send it out more frequently if you do. Make sure there’s always something of value to the reader — otherwise it’s going straight to their junk email box.

  7. Put more money away for retirement. Overwhelmingly, entrepreneurs depend primarily on their businesses to fund their retirement. They intend to sell their company — or keep working forever. The year 2009 showed that the value and security of a company can drop precipitously, and relying entirely on your business for long-term security may not be realistic. You need other money — and other investments — than just the value and cash flow of your business. Maximize your retirement contributions every year.

  8. Get greener. Every year, I make a personal promise to lessen my impact on the environment. What can I do for my office? Turn off all equipment over night and on weekends. Use both sides when printing (often the “duplex” setting in your print set-up). Reduce unnecessary car trips. Encourage the use of public transportation.

  9. Get closer to a banker and reduce debt. Most businesses (especially growing companies) use some form of debt to run their businesses. Without my line-of-credit, I’d have a much smaller company. But most of us also rely on credit cards. In 2009, credit card companies significantly raised interest rates — some as high as 29%! Take a good, hard look at your debt. Find better — lower rate — financing methods and reduce total debt.

  10. Backup, backup, backup. Last, but not least, make sure your data and documents are secure. The unexpected happens. Find an easy, reliable way to regularly back up your data.

Finally, remember what truly matters. In 2009, I lost a very close friend, and others developed life-threatening illnesses. On the other hand, my office manager and administrative assistant each had much-wanted babies. Make 2010 a year of gratitude for health and happiness. Do your part to increase the world’s supply of joy and opportunity. And have a happy, healthy, prosperous and peaceful new year.

 

Tips on naming a new product, service or your company

Many small business owners ask one question with remarkable frequency: What should I call my company/product? Here are some helpful tips when you are in the thought process:

  • Look for a name that is memorable, but easy to pronounce and spell.

  • Choose a name that doesn't carry negative connotations (in English or other major foreign languages).

  • Check for existing trademarks and the availability of domain names.

Have a brainstorm session and ask the following questions:

  • What does the product do?

  • How does the product benefit the consumer?

  • What makes the product unique?

Other actions to explore:

  • Find a synonym using www.thesaurus.com.

  • Deliberately misspell a word you like.

  • Consider industry lingo.

Take your time and consider several names before making your decision on the perfect name!

 

Introduction to Search Engine Optimization

by Internet Marketing Strategies

Search Engine Optimization is a viable way to get more traffic to your website through natural searches on MSN, Google, and Yahoo. Your goal is to get your page listed on the first page of the search engines for the terms in your niche that people are searching for.

Search engine optimization is a two-step process: there's off-site seo and on-site seo.  You can find big, thick books written on this topic. We don't have that kind of time or space here, but we'll try to give you an overview without overwhelming you.

How can search engine optimization help you get traffic?

The goal with any website is to get targeted traffic. The beauty of search engine traffic is that the people who come to your site are actually looking for what you have to offer.

For instance, if you go to google.com and type in "Dog Food for Poodles" – you'll actually get results. So, if you were looking to buy "Dog Food for Poodles", you'd likely have your credit card out and be hot, hot, hot to spend lots of money on dog food for - you guessed it – your poodle.

THAT is the kind of visitor you want coming to your website. Not a poodle lover, but someone hot, hot, hot to find information or spend money on your niche.

If you have an information website, the same rule applies. Assuming you want information about "Training Miniature Poodles" just go to google and type in that term and you'll find websites that will help you teach your unruly poodle some manners.

Stop and think about what your website is about. Actually, what each page of your website is about. You'll want to set up each page of your website to be sure to let the search engines know exactly who to send you.

Where to start?

Since this is a very simple overview of Search Engine Optimization, we'll just cover the basics. There are two factors that determine how much traffic the search engines will send you.

First is the information you have on your own website called 'on-site'-optimization. Second is how many other websites are linking to your website. Those are the two areas you'll want to work on in order to crawl up higher on the search engines for your niche.

On your website be sure to use the keywords for your niche. If your page is about "Marathon Walking" then be sure to use the term "Marathon Walking" as your title and in the body of your article. It's quite simple.

Your offsite goals are just as easy. Work on getting other people to link to your website. You can do this by writing and submitting articles, posting comments on other people's blogs, writing press releases or even posting on forums.

 

Identity Theft: The 'Business Bust-Out'

by John Tozzi at Business Week

A criminal rents space in the same building as your company. Then he applies for corporate credit cards using your firm's name. The application passes a credit check because the company name and address match, but the cards are delivered to the criminal's mailbox. He sells them on the street and vanishes before you discover your firm's credit is wrecked.

The so-called "business bust-out" scam is one way sophisticated criminals steal business identities across the country. Identity thieves increasingly target businesses instead of individuals, experts and law enforcement officials say, but federal law and many state statutes don't consider business identity theft a crime. That's because the raft of identity theft laws passed in the last decade apply mostly to individual consumers—not business entities.

A Gap in Statutes

While business identity theft can often be prosecuted under other statutes, like mail fraud or wire fraud, businesses victimized lose many of the protections afforded to consumers under identity theft laws, like access to information about their credit. Before California last year amended its 1997 identity theft law explicitly to include crimes targeting business entities, a business whose identity had been co-opted could not even get a police report. "We were having businesses being taken over and their names being used and I could not prosecute them, at least under ID theft statutes," California Deputy Attorney General Robert Morgester says.

It's difficult to say how many businesses have been victims of identity theft because most of the research focuses on complaints by consumers. Some studies say there were as many as 8.9 million individual victims nationwide last year, and estimated annual losses approach $50 billion. But the most sophisticated identity thieves increasingly are targeting businesses because the payoffs are bigger, Morgester says. Business accounts generally have higher credit limits and make larger purchases than consumers, so hefty charges by scammers are less likely to raise red flags. While most consumer frauds won't net a criminal more than $5,000, targeting a business can bring in 10 times that or more, he says—so "From a criminal's viewpoint, it's far more cost-effective to target a business rather than a consumer."

In a July 19, 2007 proposal, the Justice Dept. asked Congress explicitly to include businesses and organizations in the federal identity theft statute. "This is a real gap," says Betsy Broader, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft division. "The current federal law looks at ID theft as a crime against individuals."

Small Businesses at Risk

Small businesses in particular make ripe targets because they may be less savvy about protecting sensitive information than big companies that can afford to hire dedicated privacy officers. Often, small-business owners are just too busy to worry about identity theft—until it happens to their firm. "The worst thing a small business can do is think of themselves as a small business," says Linda Foley, co-founder of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. "You have to be a small business with a big business mentality."

Business owners can protect themselves by keeping sensitive files under lock and key (electronic or otherwise), by restricting access only to employees who need it, and by closely watching their books. But sometimes there is little a business can do to keep from becoming a victim, as in the "business bust-out" scheme described above.

The new California laws and the proposed federal change may give law enforcement the tools it needs to go after business identity theft. But because perpetrators can be elusive and investigators have limited resources, often the crime isn't prosecuted at all. According to a 2002 study by the Government Accountability Office, local prosecutors reported only being able to pursue a "small fraction" of reported identity thefts. Morgester says some detectives have 50 identity theft cases on their desk at once, and they must focus on the handful where they think they can make an arrest and get a conviction. If the loss is relatively small—under $10,000, he suggests—police may be reluctant to take it on. At the federal level, some U.S. attorneys have thresholds of $1 million.

Victims Must Investigate

But the best solution for businesses that have been victims of identity theft can be to do the legwork of an investigation themselves, says Morgester. Often business owners must do so anyway to recover their credit and reputation. If victims follow the paper trail and bring investigators a lead, police and prosecutors will be more willing to pursue it, he says.

"There's a lot of cases where the corporation or an individual by themselves can put together 90% of the evidence," Morgester says. "We've had a number of cases where, based on the material we had brought to us by the victims, the only last step we had to do was write a search warrant and kick down a door."

 

10 Marketing Trends to Watch in 2007

An inside look at the latest marketing trends that'll help you boost your business in the coming year, written by Kim T. Gordon

Consumer Trends

  1. College Graduates: If you're searching for the most effective way to reach this desirable prospect group, move your marketing dollars into online media. The internet is now the primary source of media and entertainment among college grads, whose top planned purchases upon graduation are professional clothing, travel/airline tickets, health insurance and furniture according to the "Y2M: eGrad College Graduate Survey". Nearly 80% of respondents are online purchasers, making them ideal candidates for your online campaign.

  2. Affluent Working Women: The big news is that this group is increasing in size, and the best way to reach them may be online. According to The Media Audit, affluent working women with family incomes of $75,000 or more are growing in number, and 94.3% access the internet during an average month. About half are now considered heavy users of the internet, while heavy use of radio, television, newspapers and direct mail has all declined within this group. To increase sales from this expanding audience, alter your media spending to place greater emphasis online.

  3. Asian Population Growth: The southern region of the U.S. boasts the fastest Asian population growth rate (31%), followed by the Midwest (24%), the Northeast (23%) and the West (19%), according to an analysis of Census Bureau data in the "American Community Survey" by Kang & Lee Advertising. Asians represent a prospect group with higher than average household incomes and education levels. Can you offer a product or service that will appeal to this growing market?

  4. Word-Of-Mouth: Want to build buzz? Lucid Marketing's study, "U.S. Adults: Word of Mouth Communications," found that women were more likely than men to share a positive experience with a business or recommend an enjoyable product; full-time employees made substantially more daily contacts than those not in the workforce; and people with household earnings of more than $100,000 were more likely to make recommendations than those earning less. So buzz marketers should direct efforts to these three "chatty" groups.

Trends in Traditional Media

  1. Yellow Pages: According to a study from the Kelsey group, marketers targeting younger demographics should transition away from print. Only 28% of teens said they would turn to print Yellow Pages first to find a local business, product, or service, while 47% said their first choice would be search engines. And just 44% of respondents between the ages and 18 and 34 favored print Yellow Pages.

  2. Simultaneous Media Usage: There's no longer such a thing as a captive media audience--consumers are frequently participating in more than one form of media at any one time. Seventy percent of web users, for instance, watch TV occasionally to regularly while online, according to BIGresearch's "Simultaneous Media Survey." It also found that nearly 65% watch TV while they read, and 51% of radio listeners read the newspaper while listening. The rise in multitasking among consumers mandates an integrated media approach and an increased emphasis on advertising within the most relevant and engaging content.

  3. Newspapers: This past year, many of the websites of major newspapers have become the number-one portals in their geographic markets and are drawing a larger, younger and more affluent readership. The audience that reads a newspaper's website but not its print version accounts for 2 to 15% of the Integrated Newspaper Audience, according to Scarborough Research, and that represents hundreds of thousands of readers for many newspapers in larger markets. They're successfully attracting 18-to-34-year-olds to their sites, and the online readers are more upscale, which can make them a more desirable audience. If you're an advertiser in the "print" newspaper, you can negotiate for a combo rate to run online as well to reach these additional readers. And if advertising in the print newspaper is too expensive for your business, you may find more affordable rates online by drilling down past the main pages to place ads on content-rich, but less frequently visited web pages.

Hot Online Trends

  1. Web Conferencing: As business travel becomes increasingly challenging due to increased security, advance check-in times and transportation delays, online workshops and meetings that require no travel are coming to the forefront. It's more desirable than ever to demo your new product to a group or make a sales presentation without anyone ever leaving home. Participants can watch your presentation on their computer monitors and hear you live on their computer speakers or by phone. In fact, I'm now transitioning to this technology to deliver webinars, and you can, too.

  2. Online Research: Whether you sell exclusively online or primarily through a brick-and-mortar site, online search will have a profound impact on your sales in 2007. When asked how often they researched products online before buying them in person or in a store, 87% of nearly 7,500 respondents to a BIGresearch "Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey" said they did so occasionally to regularly. And a comScore research study showed that 63% of searchers completed a purchase in offline retail stores following their search activity. So no matter whether you sell online, off-line or both, you need a great website with deep, persuasive content that keeps your prospects and customers shopping on your site or sends them to your store.

  3. Local Search: Want to know where to invest your online marketing dollars in 2007? Aim for higher rankings in the top search engines. Sixty-two percent of searchers click on a link within the first page of results, according to a report from iProspect and Jupiter Research. To win higher rankings in natural search results, you can optimize your site by sprinkling the keyword phrases your best prospects will be searching for throughout all the pages of your site, in your page descriptions and in metatags. You should also secure links to your site from other high-ranking websites. But to guarantee you'll turn up in the top search results, invest in a paid search campaign. Local search campaigns are often the most affordable and will bring traffic from your immediate market area in the New Year.

 

Determine How Much Business Insurance You Need

by Insurance Information Institute

When purchasing business insurance it's important to obtain the right amount. Be sure that your company is neither overinsured nor underinsured. To help you decide the amount of property insurance you need, list all your company's assets—including property, equipment and inventory. You can buy property insurance on the basis of the property's actual value (the replacement cost minus depreciation) or its replacement value (the cost of replacing the item without deducting for depreciation).

An agent and insurance company familiar with the risks typically involved with your type of operation can help you decide on a reasonable amount of property and liability insurance.

 

Quick Tax Tips Before the Year Ends

by Darrell Zahorsky from Your Guide to Small Business Information

  1. Update Your Accounting: It's important as part of your year-end tax strategy to have a good understanding of your company's financial situation. Spend extra time ensuring your books are up-to-date and accurate. It won't hurt to plan time with your accountant for year-end advice, particular to your operations.

  2. Defer Income: Any payments your company can receive during the first week of January as opposed to December cuts your tax bill. Every cent earned up to December 31st, 2005 has taxes paid in April 2005; whereas income deferred to January 2006, will not owe taxes until April 2007. Of course, any deferral strategy will depend on your profit and losses for the year and your corporate legal structure.

    Depending on your income tax rates in the foreseeable new year, deferral of income can make the best sense for many sole proprietors, partnerships, LLC's, and S corporations. Ensure your cash flow can handle the deferred income.

  3. Increase Expenses: Purchase items your business will require in the immediate future to maximize deductions for this year. If you can see a need for goods and services in the first quarter of the new year, buy them now, if cash flow permits.

  4. Inventory Write-Offs: Depending on your accounting methods, you may wish to check inventory for goods that have been damaged or have become obsolete. The drop in market value of the inventory can provide your company with added deductions.

  5. Contribute to a Retirement Plan: Make payments to your retirement plan or set one up before the year-end to reduce your income for this year. Check the contribution limits for your type of plan

These year-end tax tips will apply differently to each business owner's situation and accounting method. The cash method of accounting allows for deductions and income reported for the year they are paid or received. The accrual accounting method applies income and deductions in the year incurred. Take the time to review the best strategy with a professional advisor and make the most of the year-end tax planning for your small business.

 

Creating a Competitive Analysis

A competitive analysis is an opportunity to research your market and competition to learn what they are doing and why. The more information you have about them, the better such as location, what they sell, pricing, their marketing messages, their web addresses and their reputation. Here are some options to help in your research:

  • Shop your competition. Depending on the type of business, you can probably call them, visit their office and perhaps buy from them. Get a price list. Listen to their pitch. Count customers coming out of their store, both with and without purchases.

  • Talk to their customers. What do their customers like or dislike about them. Why and how do customers decide between one competitor or another?

  • Take a look at the Yellow Pages of your local phone directory. Count the ads for the businesses you compete with. Analyze what the others businesses say in their Yellow Pages' ad and what they emphasize.

  • Purchase mailing lists and directories. They're available for certain types of businesses in certain areas. Try searching the web for mailing list sellers and visiting your chamber of commerce or county government office to see what type of directories they have available for businesses in your area.

  • Go to the economic census at www.census.gov to obtain lists of types of businesses per county in the United States.

  • Small or not, local or not, check your competitors' websites. Many companies offer an abundance of information about themselves on the web.

  • Do a thorough search of the internet, using your favorite search engines. Besides their own site, you want to see where else your competition turns up.

These are a few tips on helping you build a competitive analysis to include in your business plan on an annual basis.