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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Securing Your Web Traffic on Google

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. 

Securing Your Traffic on GoogleWhen Google makes changes to its algorithm, technologists and the media take notice. Google is the Search Engine juggernaut responsible for giving you the answers to most of life’s major and minor questions. “What’s the meaning of life?” Google answers, “42.” (If you don’t get the reference, read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.) “What is the square root of 345?” Google calculates this as fast as you type the question with, “18.574175621.” Aside from these Google Search hacks, it provides the world with 11.944 billion searches monthly to direct users to information, products and services. This constitutes 75.2% of the United States search market (and 87.1% of the U.S. mobile search market, where most searches take place today)1. In August 2014, Google announced that it was starting to use your website’s security configuration as one of the factors in ranking your website on Google’s search engine results. If you have the correct setup, you won’t be penalized by Google and suppressed on its Search Engine Results Page (SERP). So, in this case, Google made a change to its algorithm…and now small business owners need to take notice.

What Matters to Google Are its Users, and What Matters to Google Matters to Small Business

Google doesn’t often make too many demands of small business websites. It actually goes out of its way to index and show those websites even when most small business websites themselves are actually poorly constructed in the way Google would prefer them to be. After all, their mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”2 You can’t do that without scouring websites that can be unsavory, disorganized and sometimes dangerous (i.e., loaded with malicious software). It’s because of this, many computers–your business computers, Web servers where your websites live, and your customer’s computers–are susceptible to being infected by viruses that can be spread to others.

For years, this problem has proliferated and Google users were empowered to report anything that was suspicious about a website that would make Google Search anything less than a quality experience.3 This makes sense as a Google user, that if I have a poor user experience because of spam websites or malicious attacks on my computers, I will stop using Google. And, then a lightbulb went off over at the Googleplex to help Web publishers (i.e., you) secure the data transferred between users and websites they visit from Google Search. A website that secures the data inputted and transferred from their Web host “builds user trust”4 and users who trust Google-referred websites stay happy Google Search users. It all comes down to making Google users contented with safe content so Google will continue to send your business website traffic. Let’s learn a little bit about the mechanics and how to make this Web security happen.

Website Security 101

When you are browsing the World Wide Web, you are doing so by a connection to the Internet through your Internet Service Provider (ISP). The World Wide Web itself is merely a small portion of the Internet that’s public and available to mostly everyone in the world. They are connected by links to and from other Web pages and files that can be downloaded. When you browse to a website, you’re actually downloading a series of files that are displayed in such a way that you can consume the information or interact with it. You see this happen usually, instantaneously, and seamlessly through a Web browser like Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and/or Apple Safari. The magic happening in the background are hundreds of thousands of lines of Web programming code swimming around Web servers, routers and other hardware, and your computer or mobile device. It’s along this river of information that malicious programmers create programs that lurk in the background to take unsuspecting Web-goers by surprise. It’s as disgusting as a gun-wielding criminal in Central Park, waiting in the bushes after dark to steal your wallet or cellphone, or worse. But, there are things we can do to protect ourselves and our website visitors against these would-be attackers.

From the dawn of digital technologies, there were concerns about privacy and security and so there were people who built protocols for protecting our binary lives. Today, we have several security options (Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) Web protocols). Using the prior analogy, it would be like walking through Central Park and having two police escorts with you along the path letting ne’er-do-wells know that you’re protected and they should stay hidden in the bushes. Enabling these security protocols verifies with an independent, trusted third party that you (as a consumer) are connecting to the website you intended to. Then, it enables that data to be transmitted to and from that website in an encrypted mode.

Encryption can be really complicated and confusing, but in its most basic form, encryption is changing the data to a format a would-be digital villain cannot understand. So, to give an example, let’s take an analog situation. You want to send a secure message to a friend. You swap around the vowels and consonants of the English alphabet, write a letter using this new combination of alphabet, and then you create a chart showing the normal alphabet with your version next to it (a “cipher”). To transfer the message, you give your friend the letter in its encrypted form, and separately you hand the cipher to that friend so they can translate your encrypted messages easily (and future messages perhaps). In the Web world, we have many different strategies similar to this. We add characters, we swap them and several other methods, in order to make sure that someone intercepting that data sees nothing but gibberish and cannot decipher the encryption algorithm.

By enabling SSL or TLS on your website or Web application, in essence, you’re taking advantage of these security techniques for your Web visitors. These visitors to your websites are potential, current and past clients who you don’t want to distrust you, or worse, be infected by malicious software by visiting your website. Again, this makes Google happy because it makes Google users happy.

Note to Government Contractors

Having a secure website is particularly important for anyone hoping to contract or be a subcontractor with the Federal government. Agencies and most large primes, particularly those in the defense and intelligence arenas, are automatically blocked from viewing any website that is not secure. If you do not have a secure website you will be invisible to them.

Next Steps

So, what does this all mean on a practical level? To start with, you will need to obtain an SSL certificate with your domain registrar / Web hosting service (also known as a “CA,” for Certificate Authority). If you don’t know who that is, just type “whois.net/whois/” (no quotation marks) followed by your domain name/URL (e.g., “whois.net/whois/alexandriasbdc.org”) and it will give you some information to lead you to know who you are registered with for domain services. Once you know who your domain registrar is, you will need to purchase a SSL certificate (approximately $30-40 per year). You will be asked to generate a Certificate Signing Request (CSR). This is a bit of code that your server will create that hosts a public key for the SSL certificate; the private key that will also be generated should stay private only to your business.5 Again, don’t share that private key with anyone. After you have produced your CSR, you’ll hand that over to your domain registration service and they will issue you the SSL certificate, and then offer you instructions to apply the security configuration to your website. Every website domain/hosting service is a little to drastically different, but they should provide you with detailed direction to make that happen. You will know you are successful when your website loads with a lock symbol next to your domain name in any Web browser and it shows a HTTPS (secure HTTP) instead of HTTP (not secured) in the URL field.

Subsequent to initializing SSL on your own Web domain, you should now be able to browse to your website and see a lock symbol. This shows you are secure in your data transfer between you and the server, but this is not where the process ends unfortunately. Finally, you will need to make sure all your links to and from your website are themselves HTTPS links (meaning they too have SSL certificates). There are tools for doing this, but I would recommend that you call your Web hosting service and ask them if they have an internal tool for speeding up the process.

After all is said and done, securing your website is not just for Google. It’s so that you are secure in your business data on your website, your customers and Web visitors are safe, Web criminals are discouraged from continuing their malicious efforts, and in the end, this means a safer Internet, and hopefully more business sales for you.

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Summer Retail Tips and Trends

Summer Retail TipsStarting on July 13th and running through August 24th, the Alexandria SBDC will be presenting a series of events for retailers and restaurants. Every Monday, the SBDC will have a guest speaker presenting on a different topic. We’re excited about this series and the impact it will have on our small business community.

In the meantime, we thought we would share some information on the trends in retail for this summer, as well as some tips that you can implement before attending one of our workshops. We hope that these tips will allow you to boost your sales and avoid making some common retail mistakes.

Summer Retail Outlook

The summer retail outlook is quite positive. A combination of factors, including rising incomes, declining gas prices, and positive job growth are all contributing to additional consumer spending. Kiplinger’s Economic Outlook is projecting a 7% increase in sales at bars and restaurants this summer and a 10% increase in online and catalog sales.

When people have more disposable income, they also tend to travel more, which is beneficial to retailers. While some areas are not equipped for tourist traffic, Alexandria has a great infrastructure in place to accommodate tourists and benefit from increased tourism activity. Retailers should think about ways to capitalize on these opportunities.

Tips for Retailers This Summer

There are several things that retailers can do to make the most of the summer retail season. Here are a few tips:

  • Send monthly emails over the summer that highlights seasonal offerings and specials
  • Engage with customers over social media; showcase a new product or provide a seasonal discount
  • Participate in local community events that are held during the summer, like festivals, summer concert series, or farmers markets; even if you’re not able to sell products at these events, you can take advantage of this opportunity to promote your business
  • Host a party or event in your space, or invite other organizations to use your space for an event
  • Refresh your window display; as customers stroll during warm summer evenings, make sure your space looks fresh and inviting

What are some of your favorite retail strategies for the summer? Tweet your ideas to @AlexVASBDC and let us know what we’re missing!

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Why Are Millennials So Important?

millennialsEverybody’s talking about millennials and it’s no wonder; they are a very influential cohort. There are two important contexts that compel small businesses to better understand millennials: marketing and the labor force. Millennials are a desirable consumer demographic, and businesses need to understand how to grab their attention and how to appeal to their distinct preferences.

Additionally, as boomers exit the workforce en masse over the next decade, the workplace is being reshaped by millennials. Employee retention and motivation are changing, and savvy employers must stay ahead of that curve.

In a recent presentation on marketing to this group, Maurisa Potts, CEO of Spotted MP, pointed out that, by 2030, millennials will outnumber baby boomers by 22 million. They will account for one third of all retail spending in the next five years, and soon, millennials will be 50% of the workforce.

Each generation is shaped by the circumstances they grew up in, so millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) have different living, working, shopping and socializing preferences from the preceding generations. This was the first generation to grow up accustomed to unfettered access to technology and the internet. As their cohort reaches adulthood and occupies a greater percentage of our workforce and society, we’re paying attention to their preferences, and those preferences are increasingly influencing the shape of our communities and institutions.

Recognizing the characteristics and preferences of millennials is the first step. The greater challenge is to determine what your business needs to do in order to successfully incorporate millennials into your workplace. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center conducts occasional programs on generational issues; some on marketing to millennials and others on engaging them as employees. You can sign up for program announcements at the bottom of the center’s home page (www.alexandriasbdc.org) and can also register for no-cost educational programs.

There is also a wealth of research and news on millennials. These articles cover everything from their spending habits, to how they consume advertising, to what office configurations they prefer. A quick online search of your specific industry or needs can help small business owners gain a better understanding of millennials and generate ideas on how to appeal to them.

In Alexandria, we are fortunate to have access to a growing millennial labor force. In fact, Alexandria has one of the fastest growing millennial populations in the country. In general, millennials feel a greater sense of connection to their friends and peers than previous generations, which translates to a preference for mixed-use developments and walkable, urban communities. Alexandria has this sense of community and the amenities that millennials are seeking.

With access to a millennial workforce and guidance on how to successfully engage this generation, both as employees and as consumers, Alexandria businesses are in an excellent position. It is important for businesses to start planning for the changes spurred by millennials, and Alexandria has the resources to support businesses with any transitions.

This article first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 28, 2015.

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Retail Architect: billboards store design

Retail architect are always looking at design features that can make a store stand out, or differentiate, from its neighbors in the mall scape, leading to a design idea that I may, or may not, have mentioned previously; namely mall storefronts are being treated like billboards. Compare, for example, the type of merchandising that is going on in the Aldo store with that of the Buy Paris Collection below. On a practical level this may not be a very fair comparison as Aldo has rallied all of its substantial store planning resources around supporting and marketing their brand, while the shop in the Paris airport is marketing multiple brands, probably with considerably less resources. That said, this discussion is academic and I am using the contrast between the two shops to demonstrate a design technique.

Clearly, Aldo has used every inch of wall space to deliver a marketing message about their product. It is a message being delivered to virtually every potential shopper with a view of the store no matter where that shopper happens to be located. The desire to accomplish this is nothing new. The installation of billboard size images on every available inch of visible wall, on the other hand, is a fairly new trend. I expect it is only a matter of time before the message, actually creeps onto the ceiling, and I am sure examples of exactly this can easily be found.

By comparison, the Buy Paris Collection casts its marketing net into a much smaller visual pond simply by dint of scale. Certainly good design practice is employed. The high contrast between the white illuminated sign on the black background along with the brightly colored banner are attention grabbing features. The interior signage, illuminated graphics and nicely displayed merchandise all follow the store planning rules, leading me to ask; is one of these techniques more effective that the other?

The question is one of relevance. The retail environment, always competitive, is ever more so now. Pressured on one side by online competition and the other by indirect competitors for the attention of the same customer base, retailers are feeling compelled to enter the context of entertainment shopping. It is a fluid environment where relevance is everything.

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

Subcontracting Tips from the Big Primes

Subcontracting Tips from Large PrimesThe Alexandria SBDC recently attended a Procurement Conference sponsored by Congressman Don Beyer. Among the several worthwhile presentations was a panel of representatives from large prime contractors with tips on how to be successful in securing subcontracts with them. Among the recommendations were:

  • Start early. Almost all teaming and subcontracting activities are accomplished through active marketing well in advance of an opportunity being released for competition.
  • Do research. Familiarize yourself with the products and services of the prime that you are targeting. Monitor their program awards, recompetes and new opportunities.
  • Familiarize yourself with the prime’s target government client. Customer knowledge and intimacy is key. If you have strategic relationships with that agency, you will be more attractive to the prime, and more likely to be considered for an opportunity.
  • Know your company, and have a great elevator speech. Be able to clearly articulate what you do and why your company is special.
  • Differentiate yourself – show what value you can bring. Do you have technological or service advantages or innovations? Solid past performance is very important.
  • Make sure that your SAM and D&B registrations are up-to-date and correct.
  • Many large primes have their own registration sites. Make sure that your profile is up-to-date and carefully worked with important key words. Keep it concise.
  • Be sure that your website is secure. Particularly for Primes in the Defense, Security or Intelligence arenas it is important for potential subs and partners to have a secure site, since they cannot view an unsecure site. The Alexandria SBDC will post a separate blog about this issue and how to make your site secure in the next few weeks.
  • Several large primes said that they will only talk with companies that already offer Health Care for their employees.
  • If the work requires security clearances, make sure that your employees have complete and correct clearances, and that they are represented correctly. Misrepresentations in this area can prevent your company from getting another chance forever.
  • Any bait and switch or other activity will blacklist you with the primes for good.
  • You will need to show that your company is financially solvent before the big primes will partner with you.
  • Make sure that your subcontract agreement deals with the issue of “poaching” employees. This is an issue in both directions with primes and subs.
  • Consistently strong ethical behavior is crucial. One of the areas mentioned in particular is making sure that all of your employees’ timecards are complete and correct. These are under careful scrutiny and can create issues with payment. Irregularities are considered a major fraud issue.
  • They are looking for resource availability and HR stability
  • Your reputation is everything – be known as a dependable and responsive team player.
  • Follow-through and follow-up!

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