Microsoft Can Now Talk Better Than Humans And Other Small Business Tech News This Week

by Gene Marks

Here are five things in technology that happened this past week and how they affect your business. Did you miss them?

1 – Microsoft says its speech recognition is now as good as humans.

Based on a study it did, the software giant put its speech recognition technology up against professional transcriptionists. The result? Humans made more mistakes than the software. (Source: VentureBeat)

Why this is important for your business:

According to the VentureBeat article, Microsoft has called this a milestone in human parity and believes that it will have “broad implications for consumer and business products that can be significantly augmented by speech recognition.” I don’t doubt that.

2 – Facebook announces new features to help small businesses sell more products and services.

The social media leader has released updates so that restaurants can receive orders and service providers can accept appointments directly on their Facebook pages and have them land on Microsoft’s new Bookings app that will soon be included with Office 365. It’s also enhanced its ability to make buying recommendations when users ask a question. (Source: Recode and Microsoft Office Blogs).
Why this is important for your business:

All these enhancements are free and are designed to not only make it easier for your Facebook customers to do business with you, but to receive new business through recommendations, too.

3 – You will soon be able to receive customer texts directly from a Google ad.

Google says that advertisers will soon be able to allow recipients of their ads to send texts with questions directly to the advertiser. (Source: VentureBeat)

Why this is important for your business:

When customers see your ad now and they have a question, they have to go searching for ways to contact you – with many losing interest in the process. Allowing them to quickly text their questions right from the ad will solve that problem and hopefully keep customers buying. Continue reading

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This Is Why Lots of Talented People Choose to Never Work for a Big Company

by Gene Marks

If you work for some big companies, you actually get paid to sleep. I’m serious.

Just this week Aetna’s CEO Mark Bertolini said in an interview that his company pays his employees to sleep. “If they can prove they get 20 nights of sleep for seven hours or more in a row, we will give them $25 a night, up to $500 a year,” he said, explaining Aetna uses various ways to help workers keep track, including the use of Fitbit fitness trackers.

The Huffington Post isn’t paying people to sleep — they’re just encouraging their employees to sleep on the job. They’ve got nap rooms in their offices. They’re not alone. According to this report “other companies like Google, Zappos and Ben & Jerry’s are getting on board with the napping trend. All now have built nap rooms in their offices.”

Paid for sleeping? Napping at work? Nice! Sign me up!

In these times of low unemployment and a lack of skilled workers, big companies are coming up with all sorts of crazy perks to entice millennials through their doors. LinkedIn offers unlimited vacation. Etsy’s paid time off policy covers new parents of either gender. Spotify covers the cost of egg freezing and fertility assistance. Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) helps its employees pay down their student debt. Twilio gives employees a free Kindle and a monthly allowance to purchase books. Twitter offers onsite acupuncture and “improvisation” classes. Asana’s employees get free life coaching. Zillow pays the overnight shipping costs for moms who are breast feeding. Perks, perks, perks!

Continue reading

The Only Report You Need to Run a Successful Business

by Gene Marks

I’ve been working with clients for over 20 years and, without question, the most successful of them rely on data to help them run their businesses. But you may be surprised with where the data comes from.

It’s not from a financial statement. For a small-business owner, financial statements are generally useless. They’re prepared months after the fact. They show a snapshot from a historical period that is usually long past. And they’ve been jiggered and reconfigured by accountants to reflect accounting standards that usually don’t have much connection to the real world for most of us. Banks and investors may look to financial statements as part of their documentation to approve financing. But smart business owners don’t. Instead they rely on another report. A daily report called The Flash.

The Flash Report is also a snapshot. Except it’s a daily snapshot. Its one page contains on it the most critical information that a business owner needs to run his or her company. What kind of information? That depends on your business.

But the core numbers are always there: cash in the bank, open accounts receivable and accounts payable, year-to-date revenues. Then there are other numbers that are particular to the business owner: year-to-date purchases, overtime that week, open orders ready to be shipped, backlogged orders, forecasted sales, machine hours that week, billable hours that month, Facebook likes, returns or complaints or leads generated that week.

You should know the numbers. These are the numbers you need every morning so that you have a pulse on your business. If you can’t tell me what these are right now, then consider this a wake-up call.

Continue reading

4 Reasons Why a Stock Market Drop May Be Good For Your Business

by Gene Marks

A precipitous drop in the stock market can of course have a negative effect on your business. It creates uncertainty. It holds back your customers from spending. It gives you pause before you invest. It has an overall negative psychological effect on everyone, dampening spirits, cutting wealth, giving an indication of tough economic times ahead. It effects jobs and livelihoods. We know all this.

But a stock market drop also brings a few benefits to your business too, both tangible and intangible. Don’t believe me? Here are just a few.

A stock market drop validates you.

Remember how you were telling anyone that would listen that those stocks seemed overvalued? And you resisted investing in those tech stocks because your gut told you something didn’t make sense. You were right. You’re a business owner. You see three kids from Stanford start a company that’s loosely based around texting friends where they’re having dinner and then a year later that same company is valued at over a billion dollars and you scratch your head and say out loud “this doesn’t make sense.” Yes, you were right. Like every bubble, there is a limit. And you saw this coming long ago. That’s because you know that the true value of a company is based on a combination of real and intangible assets, infrastructure, contracts in place, processes, customers, revenue streams and market sizes. Those companies that have those traits will continue to build their value and create real, long-term wealth. When you see the stocks of those companies that don’t have those traits suddenly fall down to earth you’re sad, but feel a little vindicated too. Common sense prevailed. There is order in this crazy world. Your gut was right.

You are reminded where the real value is.

Continue reading

Forbes: 3 Little Technologies You Never Heard Of, But May Have a Big Impact On Your Business

by Gene Marks

(This post originally appeared on Forbes)

A few weeks ago I had a British experience at Pizzeria Uno’s near Boston.  No, they weren’t serving fish and chips.  On each table at the restaurant was a little wireless device.  When I was done eating I paid for my meal by using the device.  No server was involved.  I say this was a British experience because every time I visit my wife’s family in London my kids drag us to the local Pizza Express restaurant.  After receiving our bill of $100 for a pizza dinner (yes, London is expensive) we pay for it like all Londoners do: via a handheld device brought to our table by our server.  I always wondered why this type of mobile payment technology isn’t more widespread here in the U.S.  Well, I can wonder no more. It’s here.  And it’s just one little technology that’s going to change millions of businesses.

The device I used is made by Ziosk.  “Ziosk is currently servicing about 5 million guests per month. Over the next 12 months we will service 100 million guests and in the next 24 months we will be servicing 100 million guests per month.” This is per John Regal, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer.   By using the Ziosk’s 7″ touch screen, guests can check into Facebook or the restaurant’s loyalty program, view the menu, order food and drinks, play games, read the news, view movie trailers and pay their check.  And unlike my family’s beloved Pizza Express in London, a server doesn’t have to bring the device to the table – it’s there to play with for the entire meal.

 

The company, which currently employs 48 people, is in the process of raising $10 million from private investors and is focusing on the casual dining industry.  According to Regal, there are 168,000 of these restaurants in the U.S. and they serve over 20 billion meals per year.

Why not create a smartphone or tablet app for your customers instead?   Ziosk is more secure, costs a lot less than building your own application and…is more fun.  “Future applications will enable guests to interact with the Ziosk via their mobile phone, for example, using it as a game controller,” says Regal. “Or, if the guest has an NFC (near field communications) enabled phone, they can tap the Ziosk to pay for their meal or to receive special offers to be added to their e-wallet.”

Any business with a point of sale system, which pretty much means any small business in the retail or restaurant industry, will be using devices like the ones made by Ziosk within the next few years.

Of course, it would be a lot easier if their data was accurate and stored in one place too.  This is also happening.  Quietly, a little company called Locu has built up a database of over half a million businesses in the restaurant industry.  And now they’re turning to other small businesses like nail salons and beauty shops and spas.  Your business might already be in their database.  Should you care?  According to the company, you should.

“Maybe your menu changes daily or weekly, or maybe you have soup or sandwich of the day, or maybe you find out at the very last minute that there won’t be any tomatoes for your famous marinara—what do you do? Call your Webmaster? Manually update your menu? Then post your changes online site by site? With Locu, you use your online dashboard to make changes simply and quickly. It’s all in one place and it’s super easy to use.”

TechCrunch reported that the company recently debuted programming tools which will allow developers to pull in menu, pricing and hours of operation information from local restaurants into their applications. Already “several hundred companies” are now using these tools, including a “few big-name partners.”

Why am I excited about Locu?  Say you’re running a restaurant and want to change your menu.  Or offer a special happy hour.  Or say you own a pharmacy or a nail salon or a gas station or a pizza shop and you want to add a new item, change a price, announce a contest or start a new delivery service.

Instead of figuring out how to do this on your own, you update Locu’s database.  Instead of your own tangled chaos of data stored in a spreadsheet/website/database created for you by that high school kid last summer you now have a single, uniform, consistent repository of data that will then be familiar to a network of programmers.  With so many small businesses trying to figure out how to use the web and social media to attract new customers and grow, Locu (at least in my opinion), has figured out the answer:  provide a single database of pertinent information that the customer needs and make sure it’s accurate.  Then open it up for smart programmers (like the people at Ziosk maybe?) to access and build custom applications.  We’re just starting to use the cloud.  Except it’s a mess.  Because there’s not just one “cloud.”  There’s millions of little databases and websites stored throughout the cloud. Companies like Locu re beginning to bring all this data together for good, low-cost use.

And what about the countless small businesses that use photography to sell their products and services?  Landscapers proudly take photos of their jobs to display to their customers.  Roofers and contractors often take before-and-after pictures to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work.  Many of us use our cameras to take snap shots of our employees, our offices, ourselves in action and we’re using these photos on our websites, brochures and other marketing materials.

Well, that’s all about to change.  A new camera is hitting the stores shortly.  It’s called Lytro and it uses light field technology.  At $399.00, the Lytro camera is the first consumer camera to capture the entire light field. No other conventional camera does that today. So, why should you care?  According to the company, when you capture all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space, you can do some pretty cool things like focusing a picture after you take it and creating interactive, living pictures. When you share those living pictures online, your friends, family members or customers can refocus them too, right in Facebook, in Twitter or on a blog or website. These living pictures are highly engaging, fun to share and easy to create.  And it’s a whole new way for your customers to engage with your business.

How will businesses benefit?  “Simple,” says the company’s Vice President of Marketing Kira Wampler.  “Businessowners who want to create interactive content to engage customers, prospects and fans online will enjoy using the Lytro camera. We’ve seen bakeries create re-focusable cupcake pictures and aquarium aficionados take amazing fish shots. Beyond small business, there are many industrial, commercial and scientific applications for light field technology.”    Light field technology, in my opinion, will be a game changer for how we show our products and services to our customers and enable them to interact with our companies differently.

Keep an eye on Lytro.  And Locu. And Ziosk.  You’ve probably never heard of them before.  But these are three little technologies that may have a big impact on your business.

Forbes: 3 Little Technologies You Never Heard Of, But May Have a Big Impact On Your Business

by Gene Marks

(This post originally appeared on Forbes)

A few weeks ago I had a British experience at Pizzeria Uno’s near Boston.  No, they weren’t serving fish and chips.  On each table at the restaurant was a little wireless device.  When I was done eating I paid for my meal by using the device.  No server was involved.  I say this was a British experience because every time I visit my wife’s family in London my kids drag us to the local Pizza Express restaurant.  After receiving our bill of $100 for a pizza dinner (yes, London is expensive) we pay for it like all Londoners do: via a handheld device brought to our table by our server.  I always wondered why this type of mobile payment technology isn’t more widespread here in the U.S.  Well, I can wonder no more. It’s here.  And it’s just one little technology that’s going to change millions of businesses.

The device I used is made by Ziosk.  “Ziosk is currently servicing about 5 million guests per month. Over the next 12 months we will service 100 million guests and in the next 24 months we will be servicing 100 million guests per month.” This is per John Regal, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer.   By using the Ziosk’s 7″ touch screen, guests can check into Facebook or the restaurant’s loyalty program, view the menu, order food and drinks, play games, read the news, view movie trailers and pay their check.  And unlike my family’s beloved Pizza Express in London, a server doesn’t have to bring the device to the table – it’s there to play with for the entire meal.

 

The company, which currently employs 48 people, is in the process of raising $10 million from private investors and is focusing on the casual dining industry.  According to Regal, there are 168,000 of these restaurants in the U.S. and they serve over 20 billion meals per year.

Why not create a smartphone or tablet app for your customers instead?   Ziosk is more secure, costs a lot less than building your own application and…is more fun.  “Future applications will enable guests to interact with the Ziosk via their mobile phone, for example, using it as a game controller,” says Regal. “Or, if the guest has an NFC (near field communications) enabled phone, they can tap the Ziosk to pay for their meal or to receive special offers to be added to their e-wallet.”

Any business with a point of sale system, which pretty much means any small business in the retail or restaurant industry, will be using devices like the ones made by Ziosk within the next few years.

Of course, it would be a lot easier if their data was accurate and stored in one place too.  This is also happening.  Quietly, a little company called Locu has built up a database of over half a million businesses in the restaurant industry.  And now they’re turning to other small businesses like nail salons and beauty shops and spas.  Your business might already be in their database.  Should you care?  According to the company, you should.

“Maybe your menu changes daily or weekly, or maybe you have soup or sandwich of the day, or maybe you find out at the very last minute that there won’t be any tomatoes for your famous marinara—what do you do? Call your Webmaster? Manually update your menu? Then post your changes online site by site? With Locu, you use your online dashboard to make changes simply and quickly. It’s all in one place and it’s super easy to use.”

TechCrunch reported that the company recently debuted programming tools which will allow developers to pull in menu, pricing and hours of operation information from local restaurants into their applications. Already “several hundred companies” are now using these tools, including a “few big-name partners.”

Why am I excited about Locu?  Say you’re running a restaurant and want to change your menu.  Or offer a special happy hour.  Or say you own a pharmacy or a nail salon or a gas station or a pizza shop and you want to add a new item, change a price, announce a contest or start a new delivery service.

Instead of figuring out how to do this on your own, you update Locu’s database.  Instead of your own tangled chaos of data stored in a spreadsheet/website/database created for you by that high school kid last summer you now have a single, uniform, consistent repository of data that will then be familiar to a network of programmers.  With so many small businesses trying to figure out how to use the web and social media to attract new customers and grow, Locu (at least in my opinion), has figured out the answer:  provide a single database of pertinent information that the customer needs and make sure it’s accurate.  Then open it up for smart programmers (like the people at Ziosk maybe?) to access and build custom applications.  We’re just starting to use the cloud.  Except it’s a mess.  Because there’s not just one “cloud.”  There’s millions of little databases and websites stored throughout the cloud. Companies like Locu re beginning to bring all this data together for good, low-cost use.

And what about the countless small businesses that use photography to sell their products and services?  Landscapers proudly take photos of their jobs to display to their customers.  Roofers and contractors often take before-and-after pictures to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work.  Many of us use our cameras to take snap shots of our employees, our offices, ourselves in action and we’re using these photos on our websites, brochures and other marketing materials.

Well, that’s all about to change.  A new camera is hitting the stores shortly.  It’s called Lytro and it uses light field technology.  At $399.00, the Lytro camera is the first consumer camera to capture the entire light field. No other conventional camera does that today. So, why should you care?  According to the company, when you capture all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space, you can do some pretty cool things like focusing a picture after you take it and creating interactive, living pictures. When you share those living pictures online, your friends, family members or customers can refocus them too, right in Facebook, in Twitter or on a blog or website. These living pictures are highly engaging, fun to share and easy to create.  And it’s a whole new way for your customers to engage with your business.

How will businesses benefit?  “Simple,” says the company’s Vice President of Marketing Kira Wampler.  “Businessowners who want to create interactive content to engage customers, prospects and fans online will enjoy using the Lytro camera. We’ve seen bakeries create re-focusable cupcake pictures and aquarium aficionados take amazing fish shots. Beyond small business, there are many industrial, commercial and scientific applications for light field technology.”    Light field technology, in my opinion, will be a game changer for how we show our products and services to our customers and enable them to interact with our companies differently.

Keep an eye on Lytro.  And Locu. And Ziosk.  You’ve probably never heard of them before.  But these are three little technologies that may have a big impact on your business.

NYT: This Week in Small Business: They’re Talking About Us!

by Gene Marks

(This post originally appeared on the New York Times)

The Debate: Small Businesses Front and Center

The first presidential debate favored Governor Romney, and small businesses were front and center. Stocks rallied the next day. Unfortunately, too many people were playing drinking games to pay attention. But these are five good takeaways from the night. And here’s one issue the candidates missed.

The Fiscal Cliff: Fears Grow

Fears begin to build about the looming cliff, and some people are concerned itmay impede job growth. Americans may see smaller paychecks next year as payroll tax breaks expire. Senate leaders work on a plan to avoid mandatory cuts. A group offers a $2 trillion alternative. Rick Newman advises on how to prepare. Dana Blankenhorn says the real fiscal cliff is economic growth: “So let’s assume we’re all about to be made happy, with faster growth, and lower unemployment starting to push up wages. What happens, then, to the government’s costs for borrowing new money? It goes up. And small increases in interest rates make for a big change in costs, when calculated as a percentage. It’s simple math.” Chairman Bernanke answers five questions. ThePostal Service defaults again.

The Economy: Slow Growth, Rising Stress

The unemployment rate falls to 7.8 percent, and ADP says companies added 162,000 jobs to payrolls. Jack Welch says the president cooked the books; Paul Krugman says Republicans can’t handle the truth. Advertised vacanciesrise. But weekly unemployment claims go up again. An Intuit index shows thatsmall-business growth is slowing, and TD Bank says small-business owners’stress levels are rising. Wells Fargo’s chief financial officer offers a sober outlook on the economy. Chief executives sharply reduce their expectations. Harlan Levy says that “other than technology, it’s hard to see any part of the U.S. economy growing more than 1 percent or 2 percent.” Retailers reportslower sales growth. The domestic office market barely gains in the third quarter. Manufacturing new orders are “a disaster.” Curt Schilling may evenhave to sell his bloody sock. But mall vacancies declined and auto sales stayed strong with Ford reporting truck sales at their best pace since 2007. The service sector grew in September and holiday sales are expected to rise 4.1 percent. Home prices went up in August.

 

Your People: More Caffeine

The debate continues over whether an entrepreneurial M.B.A. degree is worth the time and money. This is how one teenage entrepreneur snubbed college to build an apps empire. Leigh Branham says there are seven reasons employeesmove on. Here’s a guide to maternity and paternity leave for small businesses. These 15 professions drink the most coffee.

Marketing: Free Cookies

Neil Patel has some advice on handling sales, including: “Offer a free trial.” Here are four things for small businesses to keep in mind as they consider how they can leverage the media, both online and off. Drew McLellan offers seven tips for creating compelling case studies. Girl Scout cookie packaging gets a redesign. Laura Click says there are seven mistakes that will kill your e-mailmarketing, like not offering a “cookie” to sign up (she’s not talking about Girl Scout cookies). Marcus Sheridan says there are seven reasons blogging is failing to generate leads for so many marketing agencies, starting with this: “The reality is the marketing industry is full of blogs that simply are boring.” Rebekah Henson explains how to market like Google.

Social Media: Mars Has a Mayor?

The first Foursquare check-in is made from Mars. The Bengals celebrateGangnam style. A tweet from KitchenAid shows (yet again) why social media needs mature talent. Facebook tops a billion users. Here are five social lessonssmall businesses can learn from big businesses. This music video was made by 2,601 people. David discusses the pros and cons of creating video or keeping it audio only.

Customer Service: Generating Word of Mouth

U.P.S. is now providing a new online destination that answers small-business owners’ requests for support. Jeremy Epstein explains how Merrell Shoes generates word of mouth. Andy Sernovitz shares a tale about a boring store: “If people aren’t stopping in their tracks in front of your door, you’re missing the point. Close your store and start a direct-mail business.” Tina Imperial says that customer touch points are your chance to show how good you are.

Start-Up: A Floating Touch Screen!

A new study from the Kauffman Foundation shows where entrepreneurs come from. Women are flocking to start-ups but trailing in computer tech. This start-up promises a touch screen that floats in the air. Jim Smith wonders if you should start a business in a red or a blue state. Catherine Clifford goesinside the workings of an accelerator. Seven cancer survivors turn their experiences into small-business ideas. Cezary Pietrzak explains why yourstart-up’s name matters. A company amasses restaurant data so that subscribers can update their own profiles in local search directories.

Management: A Tale of Two Arcades

AshleyMadison.com, a site for cheaters, questions Groupon’s ethics, and Noah Fleming has ideas for how the daily deal site can save itself. Goldman Sach’s chief executive says that operating a small business is as hard as running his firm. An I.B.M. executive gives advice for growing businesses. President Obama’s approach to management depends heavily on routines, such as wearing only gray or blue suits. In a video, Teri Geymi explains how to break free from the limitations of fear. This tale of two pinball arcades shows why one struggles while the other survives. Dean Black wants to know what your daily calendar looks like. These are the 2012 MacArthur grant winners. Tracey Schelmetic wonders if clusters are the future of advanced manufacturing. This is what B movies tell us about entrepreneurship. A team of high school soccer players show how to stick together.

Cash Flow: When to Buy Furniture

Small-business lending rises. Chase claims small-business successes. Here’s how companies manipulate earnings. Here’s some advice on when to buy new office furniture, and this is an irreplaceable guide to buying Halloween candy. A regulation overhaul is on the horizon for New York City small businesses. Valpak is giving $10,000 to North America’s favorite small business.

Around the World: Russia Loses $58 Billion

Eurozone unemployment hits 11.4 percent, and one in 10 European employeesis depressed. Matthew Kalman tells the story of a successful Palestinian start-up. Eric Krell lists the riskiest countries in the world and how to protect yourself. This game proves that you’re much worse at geography than you thought (but not as bad as Apple.) Rob Cox says that Vietnam is a bad examplefor emerging markets. Manufacturing growth in India holds steady. China gears up to make more overseas investments. Mexico’s economy may be givingBrazil and China a run for their money. Russia watches $58 billion in capitalleave the country. A human-flesh meat market opens in London. Start-Up Chile gains traction.

Technology: A Headstone App

The Internal Revenue Service revamps its Web site to make it more small-business friendly. Tim Murphy takes you inside the technology of the Obama campaign. Meanwhile, the White House gets attacked online. Researchers at the University of Surrey have made a great step forward in storing hydrogen or methane to power cars. PayPal introduces free online invoicing for small businesses. QR Codes are appearing on headstones. This infographic shows how small businesses are using mobile apps. Mass production of the mini-iPadis reported, and Intel’s production problems may affect Microsoft’s new tablet. Ultrabook sales forecasts are cut in half. Emily Suess lists fivesmartphone apps for businesses. This is how much energy a smartphone usesin a year (and what it means for your budget). And even though there are too many battery factories and too few electric cars, the battery of the futuremight run on sugar.

Tweets of the Week

@cfibTO – They should have called this the presidential #debate on small business. Two dozen mentions of #smallbiz in the first 20min. Amazing!

‏@armano – Oh snap. I need to wear a suit tomorrow. It’s like Superman eating a bowl of Kryptonite

This Week’s Bests:

Daniel Kehrer explains how rock star customers can help you grow. “Rock star customers won’t help grow your business on their own. Even customers who identify themselves as ‘promoters’ in customer surveys — saying they’d be highly likely to refer you to a colleague or friend — aren’t actually doing so. Studies have shown that only about 10 percent of self-described promoters actually refer profitable new customers. The key is this: You have to take the initiative and make it easy for them to do so.”

Two researchers find there’s a dark side to flattery: “Our theory suggests how high levels of flattery and opinion conformity can increase C.E.O.’s overconfidence in their strategic judgment and leadership capability, which results in biased strategic decision making.”

Michael Schuman reports on the myth of Chinese efficiency. “I can imagine pampered visitors thinking China is something it is not. If you fly into the nifty airports in Beijing or Shanghai, get whisked by a waiting driver to your snazzy hotel, have a few meetings, and then get escorted out again, China might appear to be a sparkling vision of modernity. But spend any time here, or try to really do anything, and the notion that China is an efficient place is rudely exposed as a myth.”

This Week’s Question: Did the debate alter your thinking?

Gene Marks owns the Marks Group, a Bala Cynwyd, Pa., consulting firm that helps clients with customer relationship management. You can follow him onTwitter.