Advice to Government Contractors for Fiscal Year End

We’re less than a month away from the end of the Federal fiscal year, and we know our clients may be wondering about what they should do to prepare. So, we asked John Boulware, our Federal Government Contracting specialist, if he had any advice for our clients. His response is below:

Federal Contracting Fiscal Year EndAll government contractors should be bracing for another round of cuts forced upon Federal agencies by sequestration. Some contractors will be surprised at the cuts they must absorb or the option years that are cancelled as a result of painful cuts forced on many Federal agencies.

Agencies will be forced to make some more hard choices, as they have done in the last few years. Some of these choices may simply be made based on how well the Federal agencies know and trust their supporting contractors or on how closely connected contractors are with agency program staff who have the money.

If you have not maintained really close contact with your Federal client’s program staff, it may be too late for you, but don’t give up yet. Stay close to your client’s program staff in September and October. Meet with them as often as possible hoping that you can build on the good relationships you have developed over the last few years and convince your clients that your firm is the one they must protect.

In meeting with them, make sure you have a purpose your client will appreciate. For example, ask to meet with them to explain some adjustments you think you can make to bring added value to your contract. Then, when you meet with you client, be specific and show the added value.

If you have additional questions about government contracting, please visit our government contracting resource page. If you would like to set up an appointment to speak with one of our government contracting specialists, please complete our request for counseling questionnaire.

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Census Business Builder: Data for Small Businesses

Census Business BuilderWe know how important good data is for small businesses as they develop their business plans or look to grow their businesses. In the past, it has been challenging to get the information needed from a single source. Now, there’s a new tool available to help small businesses with their research needs.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau released a tool to help small business owners explore data on demographics and economic information. The tool is called the Census Business Builder: Small Business Edition and provides information that is useful to new small businesses and to those looking to expand. The video below, from the U.S. Census Bureau website, provides an overview of the tool:

The tool was designed to be easy to use and allows each small business owner to select their type of business and anticipated business location. Because the tool is map-based, it is easy for business owners to look at surrounding areas to compare different jurisdictions to their neighboring areas.

The tool also allows users to download and print maps, data, and reports that can then be used in developing business plans or for other research purposes. The tool includes data from the American Community Survey 5-year Estimates, the County Business Patterns, Nonemployer Statistics, the Economic Census, and ESRI data on consumer spending.

Currently, the tool provides information on 49 business types in six categories: construction, food services, health care, personal services, professional services, and retail. The U.S. Census Bureau plans to continue adding business types in future iterations of the tool. Quarterly updates are planned and will include additional content and functionality.

In order to make the site user friendly, the U.S. Census Bureau has developed several video tutorials to walk users through the tool. These answer common questions about how to use the tool and demonstrate several of the features that business owners will find useful.

We are excited for this new tool and the potential it represents for our clients. If you have any questions about this tool or would like more information, please feel free to reach out to us. Happy researching!

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Credit Card Liability Changes – The Time to Act is Now

Credit Card Changes EMV ChipDo you accept credit cards as payment for the goods and services that you provide to your customers? These days, most small businesses answer “yes” to that question. For those who currently swipe the magnetic stripe on credit cards, including most restaurant and retail establishments, there are major changes coming soon that may have serious implications for your business.

The major credit/debit card issuers have begun to distribute new cards that contain an embedded chip on the front which should make fraudulent card use more difficult. The fraud reduction benefits of the new cards will not be realized if merchants do not have the technology to accept the new cards. It is important for all merchants who accept these cards to upgrade to the new technology because on October 1, 2015 there will be a shift in the fraud liability. This means that, after that date, merchants who swipe chip cards will be liable for any fraudulent transactions, not the bank.

What should you do?

  1. First, if you have not already been contacted by your merchant services provider, payment processor, or financial institution, you should contact them. The solution for each merchant will depend on how they have set up their payment processing, how it interfaces with their POS (Point of Sale) system, etc. At the very least, you will need to acquire new devices that will be able to process the new cards in place of the swipe machines currently in use. There are varying charges and steps necessary, depending on the system that you use. Again, your best source of information should be your current processor.
  2. If you find that the new technology changes will not work with your current POS system, and you want to continue with that system, you may need a change in processing companies. This is why all merchants who swipe cards should be taking action now – October will be here sooner than you think.
  3. There is a great deal of information in the press and on the Internet about these changes. One of the most complete and unbiased resources is emv-connection.com. This site has listings of videos, Frequently Asked Questions, and other information to help you. Educate yourself now, talk with your providers, and begin to determine the best solution for your particular circumstances.

At 9:00 am on September 23rd, the Alexandria SBDC will be presenting a one-hour workshop on this issue to clear up and clarify any remaining questions. The presenters will be Chris Harrison and Scott Johnston of WorldPay. We encourage everyone who accepts credit card transactions to attend this free one-hour session. Register for the event here.

Small Business Owners – Don’t put this off!!!  Now is the time to act.

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Let’s Pop the Bubble on Startups, Ideas, and Investments

This blog was written by Tim Berry and was originally posted on the SBA website on July 28, 2015.

Let's Pop the Bubble on Startups Ideas and InvestmentsMaybe it’s because business schools teach it that way. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to write about. Maybe it’s because of the dream and the glamor involved. Whatever the reason, there is widespread misunderstanding about the reality of business ideas, startups, and investors.

This misunderstanding results in a stream of questions on social media, blogs, and entrepreneurship sites. They come with different wording around these core concepts:

  • I have a great new business idea, but no money. Where do I find investors?
  • I want to start a business but I have no money and no contacts. Where do I get investors?
  • I have a great idea for an existing company. I don’t have the resources. How do I sell it to them?
  • I have a great business idea but I don’t have experience or resources to execute. How do I sell my idea?

Let’s look at reality in this area. Consider this a reality check.

Very few startups get outside investors.

Only two or three of every 100 real startups get outside investment from angel investors, and about one per 1,000 get venture capital in the beginning. That’s a hard number to track down because statistics vary and they depend on definitions. The SBA reports about half a million startups with employees per year, but there are about five times more businesses without employees than those with, so I figure anywhere from half a million to two million startups per year in the U.S. alone. The Angel Capital Association says there are only about 75,000 angel investments and 5,000 venture capital investments per year, and many of those are duplications, second and third rounds, or new investments in already-existing companies.

Those numbers make sense to me. After all, outside investment is a special case in startups, related to the best of the best, normally only startups with a lot of potential growth, experienced teams, and product-market fit. Investors need companies that aren’t just likely to succeed, but likely to succeed and sell out within five years or so.

What doesn’t make sense is how many people think the natural, normal process of starting a business involved getting somebody else’s money. That’s the exception. The rule is elbow grease and shoe leather, struggling to get the first customers, focusing on a subset of the larger vision, starting with what you have, not what would be ideal. This is the realm of the normal, in which entrepreneurs turn to friends and family for help, they borrow from house equity, and they work their startup in their spare time. And sometimes, when they have a business plan and some minimal startup resources, they go to their local banks and get an SBA-guaranteed loan through the bank.

For those who complain that they can’t get startup investment, as if that were a natural right, I say welcome to entrepreneurship. Nobody is entitled to startup investment. Build a startup that’s a good investment, and you’ll get investment. Do the work.

Nobody invests in business ideas.

No offense, but your idea, no matter how good, has no value. What gives it value is the work involved in getting started. You develop the idea, gather a team, do a product prototype or minimum viable product, and prove the concept with actual users, subscribers, customers, distributors, or whatever consists of traction in that business.

You don’t even own that idea. If it’s an invention, you have to design and describe and win a patent to own it. And patents don’t always protect against imitations. You can own a creative work with copyright, which covers books, software, pictures, and art. You can own commercial words, images, sounds, and such with trademark. But you don’t own a business idea.

Companies don’t buy ideas. They don’t even listen to idea-holders wanting to pitch ideas.

You have to do the work.

A business idea doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. It doesn’t entitle you to investment. It puts you in the same boat as the rest of us, facing the journey of execution that turns an idea into a business of value. You aren’t entitled to financing; your business has to earn that with milestones met and progress made.

Does that sound daunting? Here’s the good news: If you’re there, at the start of the journey, you’re in good company. Millions of entrepreneurs have done that already, the vast majority of them without somebody else’s money to help. Solve a problem, give value, make the world better for your potential customers, and you can do it. Do the work.

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Marketing on a Shoestring Budget

This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC. 

Marketing on a Shoestring BudgetMost small business owners who I meet say that marketing takes up a large portion of their and their business’ time and attention. And, they’re right! Marketing is a good part of your job as a business owner and always your responsibility to doggedly pursue new business. You never know when sales may stop from one or two prime clients, and you need to have your pipeline well-stocked. Of course, this scares many business owners, and they think this will cost them a great deal of money and other resources. This was the topic of discussion at the recent Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable, “Marketing on a Shoestring Budget.” The conversation was designed to first discuss internal marketing/branding, then friends-and-family, word-of-mouth referral marketing, and finally low-cost marketing avenues. The following post is a recap of the topics that were covered.

Internal Marketing

Internal marketing is really about building a culture of sales. And, of course, that starts with yourself as a small business owner. Most people go into business without a sales and marketing background. Instead, you are probably a technician, professional, and/or expert in your field or industry. Sales is an immediate gap for your business that you need to fill. Daniel H. Pink, attorney and best-selling author of several books, wrote in his latest book, To Sell Is Human, that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, one out of nine Americans are in a sales position. Below is an in-depth discussion Dan Pink had with University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School, Professor of Management, Adam Grant, about the topic of sales in everyday society and why it’s applicable. I think it’s well worth the watch.

It’s not a surprise to a small business owner who is spending a great deal of time himself or herself marketing, but you need to learn a sales methodology and then pay that information forward to your entire staff (whether it’s one employee or dozens of staffers). One book that I recommended during the Roundtable was a book by Michael Port, Book Yourself Solid (which recently was also published as a fantastic illustrated guide; there’s also a Book Yourself Solid Creative Live course taught by Michael Port himself available), that teaches you as a business owner how to build a sales method that works for you. From there, you need to empower your culture to pursue sales. Sales should not be seen as a “dirty word” or less-than-savory business practice but should be embraced as what drives the mission of your business or organization. I think all the roundtable participants were in agreement that it was really important to build that culture from the ground up–from the moment you plan to hire someone, the questions you ask during the hiring process, onboarding that employee, and ongoing professional development of your team.

Friends & Family Word-of-Mouth Referral Marketing

Next we discussed the tried-and-true strategy of referral marketing, especially when it comes to friends and family. One of the most effective word-of-mouth marketing means described by roundtable attendees was helping friends and family actually understand what you do and who your ideal clients are. Most just simply don’t know or are not geographically situated near you (in the case of family, typically) to know exactly what it is you provide and who might be able to help you by referring or buying your products or services.

Something else to keep in mind is that you need to keep your existing customers primed to refer you business because they are the largest referrers of new business. It costs you virtually nothing to send thank-you notes, small gifts perhaps around holidays to show gratitude, or to use e-mail marketing software like Constant Contact, Mailchimp or iContact. This puts you at the top of your customers’ minds when they have a repeat need, but, more importantly, when they know their friends, family, or business colleagues need your products or services, your customers will suggest they to reach out to you. Remember to thank those referring, existing customers warmly for their efforts!

Low-Cost Marketing Avenues

Not all marketing is free as I’ve intimated so far. Training yourself and then training your staff are not free, but they can be affordable for your small business. In the last section of the roundtable, we discussed other low-cost marketing avenues available to small business, and some interesting ideas surfaced. Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, LinkedIn Ads, Twitter Ads, etc., all provide low-cost ways to get your business products and services out there in front of audiences that may not know you exist. There are caveats, so it’s best to do your research before you jump into online advertising. Of course, Social Media with an excellent content strategy plan in place and that is well-executed can drive traffic to your business website and reap compound benefits to your bottom line.

There are additional low-cost sales and marketing training options:

  • lynda.com (which you may have a free subscription to through your local library);
  • fizzle.co (30-day free trial then only $30 per month); and,
  • coursera.org (free massive, online-only courses (MOOCs) that have many business marketing courses).

Join us next month for business-to-business (B2B) marketing topic, “My Customers Are Other Small Businesses: How Do I Reach Them?” at the Alexandria SBDC Business Development Roundtable on August 18, 2015 at noon. Bring a drink, your lunch, and business cards! All are welcome.

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From Solopreneur to Entrepreneur

This post was written by Patricia Frame of Strategies for Human Resources, our guest author for our solopreneur blog series.

Solopreneur to EntrepreneurMany solopreneurs choose to be independent based on their goals.  Some start that way and decide to build a bigger business, while others seek to build a company once they realize that they have more business than they can handle.

At a recent Alexandria SBDC seminar on hiring, we discussed how to think about what expertise and services you need and whether that should include employees.

The triggers for adding outside services, consultants, independent contractors, or employees are the same main three:

  • Turning away business or work
  • Adding new products or services
  • Improving customer service for retention and growth

Ask yourself these questions to decide what help you really need to hire.

  1. Why are you considering hiring an employee?
  2. What are the main work requirements you need additional help to do? Be specific about both the work and the skills and experience needed to do the work.
  3. What is the time frame for hiring?
  4. What is the estimated amount of work to do per week (in hours) or over another time frame (e.g. short-term needs, seasonal needs)?

Once you have thought deeply about these questions, you can more clearly see what type of help you may need. An employee is the best choice when you have a consistent, long-term need to fulfill and the resources to manage and pay a person. Many solopreneurs start by hiring specialized help for short-term or intermittent needs via an independent contractor or by out-sourcing the work to another company.

If you have not, do check out the Employer Checklist on the Alexandria SBDC website under Resources in the HR and Employer Issues section. It will provide steps you need to take and links to government websites needed in the process to become a legal employer.

Tip of the Month

“You need the same powerful software that large enterprises need to run your business. The good news for small businesses is the emergence of SaaS (software as a service) has made it easy to find a great web content management system (CMS), CRM, email automation, social media manager, and sales automation in one easy package.” Mo Hasan www.shikani.com

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Branding Your Business

Branding Your BusinessA recent Small Business Roundtable addressed the topic of Branding Your Business. The consensus during this facilitated discussion was that the “brand” of a business is the complete experience that customers or clients have as they interact with the business. It includes visual and emotional components such as in-person and telephone interactions, printed materials, social media, website, and even your position in the community.

Just as a person can influence but not completely control their reputation, a business must do everything possible to create and enhance the experience that customers have before, during and after contact in order to enhance their brand. So how do you, as a small business owner, influence and mold your brand?

First, think about what people like about you and your business. How are you different from the other companies in your area? Look at both your target market and at your competitors. Identify your mission and make sure that the spirit and culture that you want for your business is reflected throughout all interactions.

Listen to your elevator speech and how you and your employees answer the telephone, greet customers, and interact with each other. Are you all on the same page?  If the vibe that you want to show the world is calm, soothing and professional, make sure that is what comes across to those encountering your business across all platforms. Are you the happy and cheerful place for your customers? If so, make sure that your people and your website, location, and social media interactions are happy and cheerful.

Once you have thought about your culture and the image that you want to project, take a look at your visuals. Logo and your identity can be a challenge. Everyone has seen logos and visuals that are tired or just don’t seem to fit the business. It is often easier to spot this in someone else’s business rather than your own, so ask your trusted customers and even friends for input.

A branding specialist at the Roundtable suggested that we think of the brand of a business as its body, and the logo as its face. You need to take care with your logo, as you take care of your face. If your logo is done successfully, it can be a building block to position your brand for success. It is important that your logo be designed carefully so that it can give a consistent look and feel throughout all platforms and media. What works on a business card should also work as a text avatar and look great on your website and mobile devices.

Your logo designer will most likely accomplish this by producing multiple logos with different backgrounds and tag lines that work with the requirements of each medium but with a consistent look across all. Particularly if your customer base is cross-cultural, it is very important to make sure that your name, abbreviation, or symbols do not have cross-cultural implications that reflect badly on your business. Remember that what looks funny or stylish in one culture can be considered an insult in another.

Keep in mind that often simple is better. The Nike swoosh is about as simple as it gets but is a recognized logo throughout the world and a good “face” for the Nike brand. A professional branding expert will also be able to guide you regarding color choice; different colors often promote different emotions, and you want to be sure that your color choices reflect your culture and your brand. Once you have considered your culture and your brand and decided on your logo and color choices, be sure to use them consistently in all facets of your business. Ultimately, it is all about communicating to the world what you and your business are all about; if your visual identity does not “speak” to what you do, it is time for a refresh.

Take a step back and review your materials, and then make sure that your customer interactions reflect the vitality of your visual “face”. Proudly take your brand to the world and watch your business flourish!

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3 Tips to Better Business Development

This post was written by Patricia Frame of Strategies for Human Resources, our guest author for our solopreneur blog series.

3 Tips for Business DevelopmentWe’ve all heard tips for business development and networking. These three tips aren’t new to you, I bet, but the real issue for most of us is whether we do each consistently – or not so much.

Tip 1: Smarter Networking

Research clearly shows that effective networkers have more successful careers and make more money.

Have you evaluated your networking efforts recently? Me neither. But it is on the calendar for this month. What are you doing each week to meet new people who might become clients or refer them? Yes, each week.

Once you do meet a potential customer or contact, how do you follow up? Following up is a vital skill and yet, from the proliferation of articles on the topic, one suspects many of us are not good at it. Contacting people you meet within a week of initial contact helps both of you remember the other. Sending any information promised is a basic skill here. Contacting people 3-4 months after any business discussion to keep the connection alive is another smart type of follow-up.

Networking online has value too. It is a great place to learn from peers, to find the top people in your field, to help people you know by connecting them, and to keep in basic touch with people you already know. But it does not substitute for actual human connections. Imagine my surprise when a well-known HR expert I followed on Twitter actually called to talk with me – a process I learned he does with all his new followers. Although he is not local, we have since met at a conference and exchanged help. Once you connect online, what are you doing to make yourself memorable? To get a connection from the barely-there electrons into a meaningful relationship?

Once you make a potential connection, whether at a networking event or a community/personal one or via a referral, what are you doing to convert that possibility into reality? Telephone calls, a quick coffee, or any other way to make the connection deeper and more meaningful are smart investments of your time for your future.

Tip 2.  Personal Notes

Yes, this tip comes right from what your Mom taught you as a child about thank you notes. Personal notes are fairly rare now. Yet you regularly hear about well-known senior executives and top level politicians who use them consistently. I doubt they know something we don’t – but they do execute better!

Thank you notes are the easiest. Write these in response to something a client or connection has done for you. Remind an old client or boss why you liked working with them. Congratulatory notes are another smart option. Just because you saw an event on LinkedIn or got it via a Google Alert does not mean you have to keep it online, although you certainly can. Advanced points for sending notes once in awhile to send a print article you have read to someone you know will find it of interest – bonus points if you have paid enough attention to do this for a hobby or personal interest.

Tip 3.  Remember the Basics

All of us think our existing clients, past clients, and the people we know well really understand what we do. But ask yours and you will be surprised at some of the answers. How do you combat this?

  • Use a signature for all email and have it say something about your work as well as providing contact information.
  • Use both sides of your business card. A brief description or list of your primary areas of work adds a lot of value and reminds people of all you do.
  • Write a regular newsletter. The difficult trick here is to make and stick to a schedule. Email newsletters are still quite successful marketing tools. Or you can do this as a blog on your website if you remember to publicize each issue on social media or in other ways.
  • Ask your existing and past clients for support or advice. Keeping them involved in your business helps you keep them as clients and referral sources. I recently asked several of my clients two short questions as part of a marketing project and got useful plus surprising answers that have been quite helpful.

Once you have the basics up and running well, then consider whether other social media or marketing materials are useful for your specific audience.

TIP OF THE MONTH

“The best tip I received was learning how to play to my strengths instead of doing what text books told me about building a business. A coach helped me too- so asking for advice and doing some self assessment would be a part of that. For me, this has meant being involved as a volunteer with organizations I like and care about, which in turn lets people see how I work; also going to events and programs that I find interesting rather than going to simply network; and sharing information and strategies and news about the field.” Jennifer Ayers, JL Ayers Consulting

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