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

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

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 The Only Report You Need to Run a Successful Business

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 4 Reasons Why a Stock Market Drop May Be Good For 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.

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.

 

NYT: This Week in Small Business: About That Replacement Ref

by Gene Marks

(This post originally appeared on the New York Times)

Economy: What Fiscal Cliff?

A new survey finds chief financial officers less optimisticabout economic growth. Brad Plumer explains why fears of a fiscal cliff are not hurting the economy, and Jared Bernstein reveals important new research on a fiscal cliff issue. Defense contractors brace for federal budget cuts. Economic advisersto President Obama and Mitt Romney squabble. Zachary A. Goldfarb says that under Ben Bernanke the Federal Reserve has become more open and forceful. The chief of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank anticipates that the economy will “gain momentum over the next few years.” A new book tries to help entrepreneurs reignite the economy. A bacon shortage threatens the world.

The Data: A Seven-Month High

Manufacturing growth improves in Texas and the central Atlantic region. Home prices notch their biggest gains in seven years. Consumer confidence rises to a seven-month high, and consumers step up their spending. But new home sales fall slightly and orders for durable goods plunge. And revisedgross domestic product increased at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the second quarter of 2012.

 

Finance: Could It Get Any Worse for B. of A.?

A new Visa study says cash flow concerns top the list of small-business worries. One of the biggest lenders to small businesses will soon be on the auction block. Even when consumers are comfortable using new payment technologies, studies show they sometimes prefer paying cash. Here’s whyused car prices are rising. The replacement ref who made that controversial call last Monday is a vice president for small business at Bank of America. Did Iran attack our banks (and lose its sense of humor)?

Start-Ups: A Start-Up That Helps Start-Ups

Tim Ferriss explains Y Combinator’s contribution to the start-up scene. This is a start-up that helps start-ups. A solar panel start-up will tap a $197 million loan guarantee. Amazon may be getting into the wine business — and it’s also lending money to small businesses. A San Francisco start-up offers scooter rentals. The Wall Street Journal names the top 50 start-ups.

Selling: Replace Your Reps

Jill Konrath suggests cold-calling strategies. Matthew Bellows explains how small companies can stand out when selling to big companies: “Showing your prospects the characteristics that set your company apart is key to moving the conversation beyond a checklist comparison.” To sell well, John Jantsch says, you must tell stories. Laura Spencer has some advice for dealing with tire-kickers and other bad clients. Lars Lofgren explains why you should replace your sales representativeswith ambassadors.

Marketing: Are You a Jerk?

These are the top cities in America for social-media-savvy small businesses. Jessica Levko says there are 10 signs that you’re a social media jerk, including: “You’re attached to your smartphone.” A show with Martin Sheen explains how small businesses can use social media to find new customers. These are the most important local business directories for search engine optimization. A new Facebook service facilitates the creation of “couponlike” promotions. Erica Ayotte explains how to use Instagram to promote your business. These arefive types of images that will enhance your online marketing. A few entrepreneurs share their promotional swag secrets. Annette Du Bois thinks your marketing may be a turnoff. Here’s a case study on how a clothing company lifted its sales 205 percent with daily deal e-mails. This is what a Las Vegas casino can teach you about marketing. These are the five most effective business-to-business word-of-mouth marketing techniques.

Around the Country: Hipster Neighborhoods

Friday is Manufacturing Day, and the United States unveils a “Make It in America” contest. HLN introduces a new weekday series about “Making It In America.” Nissan invites “Edisons in training” to win a $50,000 grant (as well as a brand new 2013 Altima). FedEx introduces a small-business grantcompetition. Brooklyn booms as record rents drive construction. These are America’s hippest hipsterneighborhoods. New York’s first chief digital officer discusses how she achieved 80 percent of the goals laid out in her “digital road map.” A supply chain management firm wins anaward for small business from the Air Traffic Control Association. A cash mob hits a small business in San Antonio. A small-business owner in Dallas gives 240 customers a month the opportunity to “act like psychopaths.”

Your People: Happier and Healthier

Norm Brodsky says it’s cost of goods sold that determines whether you can afford another employee: “Once you know your gross margin, it’s easy to figure out the new sales you’ll need in order to break even on the addition of another employee to the payroll. You simply add up all the new costs associated with that new person — salary, benefits, extra phone usage, travel and entertainment, whatever — and divide by your gross margin.” A lawyer suggests that if you’re going to fire employees, you should let them know. Barclays’ chief executive plans to pay his employees based in part on whether they are good citizens. Executives at Research in Motion thank their developers with this awful video. Newresearch concludes that the argument that a chief executive will leave if he or she isn’t well compensated is bogus. Freelancers are happier and healthier than full-time employees. Here are 13 office trends that will disappear in the next five years. These communication tips will make your business buzz with productivity. A Wisconsin news station uses a replacement weather guy.

Red Tape: On Taxes and Cheating

workplace pregnancy bill is introduced in the Senate. Clint Stretch discusses taxes and cheating: “The I.R.S. estimates that in 2006 alone, the Treasury missed out on $385 billion in revenue due under the current tax law from a combination of underreporting of income, overstatement of deductions or other benefits, or nonpayment of taxes owed. To put that in perspective, increased revenue of $385 billion annually likely would be enough to make the Bush tax cuts permanent and to permanently patch the alternative minimum tax.” The Small Business Administration wants to help entrepreneurs over the age of 50. Thomas P. Hanrahan suggests 10 safeguards against consumer lawsuits, including: “The more variety there is in how you promote, the harder it is for a class-action plaintiff to prove that every consumer was taken in by the same misleading message.” Deborah Sweeney offers hersmall-business checklist for September.

Management: The Return of Myspace

This article discusses the benefits of being done versus being perfect. Mr. Sexy tries to bring back Myspace. The Queen of the Fuzzy Slippers warns us that problem solving is aproductivity issue. Nadia Goodman shares three easy exercises to increase your creativity. Here are five incredibly useful tips from TED Talks. Cassie Mogilner says you will feel less rushed if you give time away. Here’s how to find the peak time to do everything. Going for a coffee is among the top 20time-wasting activities. “The Daily Show” weighs in on the replacement refs.

Technology: Verizon’s iPhone Secret

Google introduces a new service for entrepreneurs and reports that its Play Store hit 25 billion app downloads (thankfully, it’s not run by the National Football League). Here’s how smartphones are changing health care. A puppet shares 10 useful mobile apps for businesses. A woman gives a dubious explanation for why she is waiting in a line to buy an iPhone. Jim Ditmore suggests six things he’d like to see in a future smartphone. Verizon’s iPhone 5 has a secret feature. Here are the 12 best practices for mobile device managementfor your company. Consumers will soon be able to get their hands on a much-talked-about light field camera. October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month. In the near future, developers say car apps will be big and Facebook may be the social network of the past. An 11-year-old girl wins $20,000from AT&T for a road safety app. Toyota reveals a new robotto help around the house.

Tweets of the Week

@smallbiztrends: I am getting my car serviced and guy says “you’ve only driven 5K miles in 10 months.” I reply “I run a Web business!”

@gitomer: They don’t want your brochure. They want answers to their situations and concerns.

The Week’s Bests

Jeet Banerjee says that when finding a business idea there’s nothing wrong with imitating: “Some of the greatest business ideas have been imitations of others in different ways. If a certain solution has a large market share and not enough competition, you can definitely create a successful business. … If you find a business with a solid business model, feel free to implement their model into other industries. Many ideas are so strong that they have the ability to work in different niches with just a bit of fine tuning.”

Brett Martin explains how to avoid being cheated by a contractor: “Know who’s on the job site. You might sign a contract and make payments with a person who isn’t doing all of the work. Ask upfront if your crew will subcontract parts of the job to somebody else. If so, do the same research into that person’s business as you did for the general contractor. It’s awkward to have a perfect stranger show up on your doorstep ready to swing a hammer, but beyond that, the balance between contractors and subs can lead to some of the biggest headaches on a big project — delays, incorrect installations, damage to finished work and all sides blaming the others for errors while no one takes accountability.”

This Week’s Question: What would you do to revive Myspace?

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

NYT: This Week in Small Business: $931 Billion in Cash

by Gene Marks

(This post originally appeared on the New York Times)

Economy: Still Sitting on Their Cash

Matthew Philips thinks 2013 is going to be a bummer. FedEx turns pessimistic. A Citibank study of small businesses finds that their biggest problem is a lack of sales growth. Still, retail sales rose in August. And in real estate, builder confidence and residential building growth (PDF) continued to gain momentum, existing home sales and prices went up and architectural billings turned positive. Manufacturing in both the New York and Philadelphiaregions weakened. Port traffic in Los Angeles is down compared with the previous year, and weekly rail traffic is mixed. Businesses now hold a record$931 billion in cash.

 

Management: Eat

These are the 50 most powerful women in business. Michelle Patterson sayswomen are leading the economic turnaround. Suzie Humphreys just loves to do payroll! Mark Cuban explains how to make $2.3 billion: “Either you know your business inside and out or you don’t. Either you’re willing to do whatever it takes to win or you won’t. Very simple.” Here are 27 everyday ways to get inspired. Here’s how to tell if you are a micro-manager. Jacquelyn Smith suggests some things you should do on your lunch break every day, including: “Eat. Don’t try to be a hero and starve yourself for the sake of being a hard worker or checking off another ‘to-do’ item.” Brett and Kate McKay offer advice on getting your kids to do their chores. The Exotic Entrepreneur says there are three steps to expanding your business online. Randall King believes every entrepreneur should read these three Kindle books. Michael Hartzell lists three ways to establish a good reputation, including: “Keep informed about fund-raisers and other events in your area and find ways to get involved. … Not only will you be embracing the needs of your neighborhood but it is a great networking opportunity.”

The Campaign: 47 Percent

Here are the 47 percent in one graphic. Gallup says the race is still a dead heat.A guy gets bored during a campaign stop. President Obama leaves a nice wedding gift and celebrates Talk Like a Pirate Day. The cast of “The West Wing” jumps into the fray.

Finance: Two Questions

Here’s what it’s like when two people are dating and start a company together. Ryan Matthew Pierson offers his thoughts on why start-ups fail. Anna Farmery has five tips for developing your freelance career. This is aninvestor’s-eye view of the Chicago start-up scene. Philip Campbell says bewarethe phrase, “Cash is a little tight now.” Caleb Wojcik says getting personal finances in order is the not-so-sexy step that every profitable entrepreneur must take: “The reason that entrepreneurs need to have their personal finances in order before they start taking risks is the freedom and flexibility it offers.” The mobile payment company Square is now worth more than $3 billion. This interactive graphic will help you understand how different financing strategies will affect you and your investors over time. Warren Berger reveals the secret phrase innovators use. Here are two important questions to answer before you invest in a small business. Is “Shark Tank” a good deal?

Your People: Forget Qualifications

Ken Oboh offers advice on finding the right people: “In our hiring, we’ve never looked at what the individual has in terms of formal qualifications; we’ve always looked for people who love the Internet and have a passion for building an online business.” Julie Rains shares the secret for finding great temps. These companies offer work-life balance. One in five job-seekers rejects employers who ban social media. Jill Jusko explains how to develop high-potential employees. An infographic shows where the jobs will be in 2020. This is how obese employees hurt your bottom line. Finally, someone explainswhy the chicken crossed the road.

Marketing Offline: A Really Sweet Halloween

Alyson Stanfield gives advice for promoting events six months out. Susan Ward thinks Halloween could be a really sweet business opportunity: “Large parties with participants wearing elaborate costumes are becoming increasingly popular — excellent news for people looking for niche business opportunities.” Here’s an interesting case study on how a high-end closet company segments its customers. Here are three reasons successful business owners still rely on print materials. This sentence will blow your mind. Hootsuite’s Ryan Holmes explains how to build a recognizable brand. Is this the sexiest, coolest, most epic bus commercial ever?

Marketing Online: Social Media Insurance

Ninety-eight percent of small businesses do not have mobile-ready Web sites. These are the six landing-page questions your visitors want answered. Studies show eye contact is the antidote to online animosity. Here’s how small businesses can use six LinkedIn marketing tools. A conference call provider, InterCall, starts a new online community for small businesses. As managing your company’s Facebook page becomes easier, AJ Kumar explains how aFacebook search engine could change the way people find your business. Denise Keller explains how to reactivate your lapsed e-mail subscribers. Andyou knew it was coming: social media insurance.

Around the Country: Sweepstakes

Philadelphia’s zoo will use cards and scanners to track guest behavior, and the city’s opera company gives a surprise performance at the train station. Hershey’s new plant could bring $1 billion to Pennsylvania. The Small Business Administration increases its support for Hispanic entrepreneurs, and the Morris County Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce in New Jersey celebrates its “Business Man of the Year.” New York City businesses sound offon the mayor’s sugar ban. Small businesses can go here to win a “neat” prize. JetBlue plans free Wi-Fi and other airlines add routes to the North Dakota oil patch. NCR announces a $10,000 sweepstakes for small businesses. The UPS Store makes a pitch to small businesses.

Around the World: China’s Tantrums

Japanese businesses in China are hit by protests, but Wayne Arnold says that markets are dismissing China’s “anti-Tokyo tantrums.” Here is China by the numbers. The world’s central banks flex their muscles. Russia reveals it isawash in diamonds. Small businesses in France are facing job-creation hurdles. Greece readies further budget cuts. Arctic ice melting is providing opportunities. A company in Britain builds hotels from shipping containers. Afire tornado in Australia burns up the Web. The Obama administration denies plans to invade Canada.

Red Tape: Hanging With NASA

A new poll finds that most people still don’t understand the health care overhaul, and the Congressional Budget Office raises its estimate of those who will pay the mandated tax. Health care costs are expected to continue to rise (PDF) in 2013. NASA’s chief hangs out with a small-business partner and the agency seeks more small-business proposals for high-tech research and development. It’s estimated that pending federal legislation would restrict state and local governments’ ability to levy sales and gross receipts taxes and cost state and local governments $3 billion a year in forgone revenues.

Technology: Setting iPhone Records

The iPhone 5 has record orders, and Walter S. Mossberg loves it. But Anita Li reports that the smartphone’s connectors could be a headache for businesses. Nearly half of business travelers would give up brushing their teeth before giving up their iPads. Anton Wahlman thinks it’s more likely than not that Microsoft will take a beating from Google and Apple in the wake of the Windows 8 introduction. Twitter’s chief executive says that Apple is his mentor and unveils a new look. Mile-high buildings will be possible by 2025, and this robot could transform manufacturing. Amazon Web Servicesintroduces a new hunt for innovative cloud companies. Yahoo gives employeessmartphones (but not BlackBerrys). A Web meeting scheduler, Tungle.me, closes its doors. An investment strategist names the biggest growth sector. Here’s how tablets are making cash registers obsolete. This is how to use Microsoft Excel to manage your life.

Tweet of the Week

‏@charlesarthur: Which statistics package do pirates use to count their treasure? R.

The Week’s Best

Erica Douglass writes about why 99 percent of entrepreneurs don’t make it: “I often hear teachers, coaches and even bloggers describe this as a ‘passion.’ ‘You have to find what you’re passionate about and then do that,’ they say. And to that, I say: Hogwash. You don’t need to go on a mission and find your passion to start a business. You just have to throw away much of your guilt and self-doubt … and own the fact that you were put on this planet to do this very thing that you’re doing right now.”

This Week’s Question: Do you understand how the health care overhaul will affect your business?

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

Forbes: What’s the Killer App of the 2012 Election?

by Gene Marks

(This post originally appeared on Forbes)
It seems that every Presidential election cycle brings with it the “coming out” of some new technology.  Back in 2000 the big tech story was how the Gore/Lieberman campaign was leveraging Blackberrys for communications.  The next two elections were full of stories about mobile devices, e-mail and instant messaging.  President Obama’s campaign in 2008 highlighted the power of social media.  Presidential campaigns are nothing but a much bigger version of a business like mine. They employ people.  They bring in revenues (donations) and they have to target their spending effectively.  They are marketing machines, doing everything possible to generate attention for their candidate (the product) and convince people to vote (buy) for him.   So what’s the big technology story of this year’s Presidential election?  What’s the killer app?

It’s a kid named Andrew.

 

Yes, there’s e-mail.  And voice.  And text.   There’s video, and direct mail and social media.  But in 2012, there is no one technology that’s dominating.  It’s a convergence of technologies.  Marketing your candidate (or your product) isn’t easy today.  It’s no longer about hiring Don Draper to craft a national image.  Well…it still is if you’re running for President.  But your audience is more fragmented now more than ever.  We’re not sitting in front of the TV watching “Dallas.”  We’re Tivo-ing “Game of Thrones”, or watching it live, or catching it two days later online or discussing it on Facebook or reading about some particularly steamy scene on Gawker.  We’re all broken up into hundreds of communities and getting information from dozens of places.  How does the candidate find us?  How do you find your customers?  It’s not easy.  But people are doing it.  It’s a combination of the convergence of low cost technologies…and a kid named Andrew.

Are you getting the robo-calls?  Of course you are.  They usually come during the day and leave a message on your home voicemail.  Mass voice calling is mainstream and, sadly, we’re getting used to it.   If you live in a cold weather area you’re already getting these from your school district.  And now we’re getting them all the time from our candidates.  Produced the right way, a quick voice message can be informative and helpful without being intrusive.  Small companies like mine now have the ability to take advantage of the same technology.  Voiceshot is a service that sends out mass voice message as does DialMyCalls.  And there’s nothing wrong with this.  Many of my clients are using these services to get their messages out to customers who opt-in to receive their information by phone.  I wish I could say the same about our political candidates (no one asked for my opt-in yet) but that time will come too.

I’m starting to get political text messages too.  I know…it sounds awful.  And it is.  That’s because I didn’t ask to get political messages sent to my smart phone.  I get enough text messages from my teenage kids asking for money.  The last thing I need is a text message from a politician asking for money.  But this is 2012 and mass texting services are inexpensive and if used the right way, can be a great way to keep in touch with your prospective voters…or customers.  I like Tatango, a service that will enable you to build your own opt-in list of customers, partners and prospects who want to get certain updates from you and prefer to get them by text.  We have to face reality:  a whole new generation of business people are emerging from high schools and universities around the country and these kids have grown up communicating with each other via text messaging.  This is a marketing tool that will grow in influence over time.

Of course there’s email.  But email communications are changing too.  People really don’t like to be spammed.  But for those that want information about Governor Romney’s latest addition to his iPhone playlist (Really?  Kid Rock?)  or President Obama’s performance in Sunday’s pickup basketball game they’re getting it via email from their national party or local representatives.   The cost of today’s email services are negligible.  Sending thousands of messages to your base can be done for $50-$100 a month using tools from Constant Contact,Campaigner or MailChimp for example.

And please don’t count out direct mail.  Of course the number of direct mail pieces have declined substantially since the days of Gore/Lieberman.  But it’s still an effective means of communication.  I read the newspaper every day.  Many of us still sift through that day’s mail looking for letters and magazines.   And as we get closer and closer to the big day, we’re all finding more and more postcards and letters from our candidates in the pile.  There’s a reason for that:  many of us look at this stuff, even if for a moment or two.  But it lingers in our minds.  And who knows if that one message, that one photo of the candidate kissing a baby, will continue to linger in our minds at the moment we’re in the voting box?  Small businesses are using services like PrintPlaceand Vistaprint in an effort to stay in their customers’ minds too.  They’re inexpensive and effective.

The media loves to talk about social media.  And that makes sense too.  There are millions of us who get much of our daily information from our favorite social media sites.  Our favorite clips on You Tube, updates from the people we follow on Twitter, customized news delivered daily to us on LinkedIn and conversations we’re having on Facebook.   And of course all the searching we’re doing on Google too.  So the candidates are investing heavily in all of those services.  They have social media teams engaging potential voters and search engine optimization experts looking to place the right ads for the right eyeballs.  They’re producing campaign videos to watch online.

Which brings me to Andrew.

He showed up at my door a few weeks ago campaigning for President Obama.  He’s one of thousands of high school and college kids blanketing the country this year volunteering for either the President or Governor Romney.  And there are thousands of more workers:  older, retired, passionate, political…whatever.  These people are busy collecting data.  And much of it is the old fashioned way.  Sure, the campaigns are gathering more information us filling out forms on their websites.  But their volunteers are also knocking on doors.  They’re making phone calls.  And they’re asking different questions.  They’re asking where we’re leaning.  They’re asking us for permission to communicate with us (except in my case!).  And now because there are so many choices in this converging world of technology, they’re asking us how we’d like to receive our information.

Guys like Andrew are spending hours upon hours segmenting our responses.  He’s doing this so that the campaign’s marketers can use all of these converging technologies to communicate with those that matter, like the party faithful and swing voters, while limiting communications with those that are out of their reach.

All these great technologies are now available to help the candidate win an election or enable a business to grow.  They’re inexpensive, easy to use and available in so many choices.  But without actual human people like Andrew  they’re not very effective.   That’s because for the 2012 election it’s not about a particular technology anymore.  There is no killer app.  It’s how your people are collecting the data, segmenting the data and using a convergence of available technologies to get your message out.  This is how smart candidates are winning elections.  And how smart business people are growing their companies.

Besides Forbes, Gene Marks writes weekly for The New York Times and Inc.com.