Make the Most of Tourist Season

Make the Most of Tourist SeasonThe weather is warming and the National Cherry Blossom Festival has begun. Spring is finally upon us, and Alexandria soon will notice an upswing of visitors to our community.

Our colleagues at Visit Alexandria tell us that tourism generates millions of dollars in revenue for local businesses and city government and supports thousands of local jobs. Alexandria gets 3.3 million visitors per year, and they spend $738 million in our community. That generates $24 million in local tax revenue, which reduces the tax burden for each of our households by $300.

There’s definitely an economic return associated with crowds of visitors, but there’s so much more to consider. Alexandria’s vitality and cultural richness is sustained by tourist dollars, and our quality of life is enriched by the appealing places where we can shop, dine and explore.

Cities that are tourist destinations also tend to spur creative economies. Alexandria attracts highly desirable creative businesses, and the very charm and vitality that lures owners here also helps them recruit skilled workers. As we recover from sequestration’s downturn in government spending, Alexandria’s economy is becoming more diversified and less dependent on the government, and our hospitality industry has helped support this recovery.

Our assets also nudge us to be better citizens. We live in a highly desirable location — Extraordinary Alexandria, as described by Visit Alexandria — and we are compelled to be good stewards of our treasure. We don’t take our community’s extraordinary features for granted and have worked hard over the years to enhance and promote its history, culture, infrastructure, and quality of life. Without the stimulus of tourism, we might be more complacent.

Unfortunately, it is easy to find communities that contrast with Alexandria — where tourists once visited but now streets and stores are empty. Locals try many approaches to lure visitors with contrived festivals and quirky museums. We are fortunate to have an authentic atmosphere that draws visitors and we should embrace visitors and their support of our city.

What can we as individuals do to enhance this good fortune we are blessed with? The first step is to be welcoming in every way possible. Maybe you have traveled and sensed the locals looking at you warily or, contrastingly, giving you a welcoming nod. How did you feel when someone noticed you looking at a map and stepped up to ask if they could help? This goodwill and ambassadorship goes a long way to promoting Alexandria as a tourist-friendly city.

Visit Alexandria is developing training on the city’s attractions for businesses that serve tourists, as visitors often turn to salesclerks or waiters to ask questions. When an employee shows enthusiasm and directs visitors not to miss certain attractions or restaurants, that’s not just friendly service: it’s branding that results in visitors staying longer, spending more, and heartily recommending Alexandria to others.

Spring has sprung, and it’s a great time to get out and enjoy our community — and let our enthusiasm become contagious to visitors.

This article first appeared in the Alexandria Times on March 30, 2015.

The post Make the Most of Tourist Season appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

8 Small Business Tax Preparation Mistakes to Avoid

This post was written by Caron Beesley and first appeared as an blog on April 2, 2015.

8 small business tax mistakes to avoidTax time brings with it a sense of urgency and pressure, and mistakes inevitably follow. Tax deductions go unclaimed, paper trails go awry and costly surprises can result.

Here are eight of the most common tax preparation mistakes that small businesses make, plus some tips for mitigating them.

Start a business last year? Write off the expenses

New business owners can write off the expense they incurred before technically opening their doors for business. Don’t overlook this important deduction. Read more in How to Write Off the Expense of Starting your Business.

Car deductions

A lot of confusion exists about what constitutes a legitimate business driving deduction. SBA guest blogger Barbara Weltman clears the air in her blog “Driving for Business.” What is business driving? “When you travel from your office to see a customer or vendor, this constitutes business driving. Whether travel from your home to another location is a business trip depends. If you commute from home to your office (and back), this is a nondeductible personal expense. If, however, you work from a home office for which you claim a tax deduction, then travel from home to any business location (and back) is treated as deductible business driving.”

The mileage deduction for tax year 2014 is 56 cents per mile.

Another big mistake that business owners make is to limit their deductions to mileage. If you can prove that they are business expenses, you can also deduct other costs including gas and oil, tires, insurance, lease payments, tolls and parking fees. Read more.

Don’t forget the small stuff

Petty cash purchases, magazine subscriptions, educational classes and more. These “small” expenses can add up quickly. Make sure you track all your expenses and check with your tax advisor about what you can and can’t deduct.

Don’t exaggerate your deductions

Your accountant can ensure you don’t overdo or exaggerate your deductions – something that can raise the possibility of an IRS audit. For example, many small business owners mistakenly assume that they can deduct 100% of meal costs while traveling or client gifts. They are actually only partly deductible.

Likewise, if your expenses are a lot higher this year than last or not considered typical for your industry or business type, the IRS may get inquisitive.

It’s not all about the IRS

The IRS is only one piece of the tax pie; don’t forget about your other tax obligations – property, payroll, local taxes, excise tax, self-employment taxes, etc. These can all come back to bite you if you aren’t compliant in a timely manner.

Separate personal and business

Intermingling your personal and business bank accounts is a big cause of confusion around tax time, making it hard to track income and expenses. Furthermore, if you operate a home business, make sure you keep that space distinct and separate from the rest of the home so that you can correctly claim the home office deduction.

Avoid payroll mistakes

Payroll tax compliance is something that many small business owners struggle with. The financial consequences of getting it wrong aren’t pleasant either. Statistics show that approximately 40 percent of small businesses incur an average of $845 per year in IRS penalties. To make sure that your payroll taxes are deposited correctly, outsource your payroll function to a payroll company. The benefits often far outweigh the fees. Read more about the five payroll tax mistakes to avoid from Barbara Weltman.

Keep your records up-to-date

This is a common problem for small businesses and often leads to missed opportunities for reducing your taxable income for the year. Make sure your expenses are reconciled, tracked and supported with receipts (the IRS requires it). Spend time each week to review your accounts – receivable, payable, credit card transactions, cash flow, etc. if your business is growing, consider accounting software (which synchronizes all your financial transactions and activities in one centralized dashboard) or retain the services of an accountant.

The post 8 Small Business Tax Preparation Mistakes to Avoid appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Retail Architect: pattern, color and scale that delivers a marketing message

BBW store
I took this photo of a new Bath & Body Works store in a recently renovated local mall because the project is instructive on several levels. First there is no doubt about who the retailer is. The name is perfectly highlighted on the front of the main entry fixture, again above the wall display, and of course on the storefront sign, there but not shown. Some landlords try to limit the number of times a retailer can repeat their logos in the line of vision. As a Retail Architect, I find that, recently, this practice has been giving way in favor of more flexible design guidelines, possibly in response to tighter retail markets. Either way, repetition is good for the brand.

This project is about more that the name though. It is about delivering a marketing message, which is done here by the clever incorporation of text into the very context of the store. Let’s consider the context first. The checked wall covering is extremely busy and could have, in a different application, gone totally wrong. It is working here because the high contrast both attracts attention and supports the message in terms of scale. In fact, it functions as a connection between the blocks of small merchandise and the actual text messages which are all offset in large solid color fields. These solid color blocks show up as more that just backdrops for signage. They are used in the back of displays, as plain color coded markers used to define categories of merchandise, and even as fat text turned into color blocked display fixtures. The result is interesting and completely readable.

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.

Podcasting for Small Business

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. 

Podcasting for Small BusinessTerrestrial radio started in the early 20th century when broadcast technology became a reality for the first time. It was then that wartime broadcasts could literally be heard around the world and were taken by the United States military for its sole use. Commercially viable radio followed just a few decades later. In 1990s Internet radio broadcasting became a reality, through an now-ancient but then-innovative process of recording and pushing audio to the listening audience in far off places that couldn’t be touched by local broadcasting radio waves in the past. Fast-forward to 20 years ago and a new form of Internet broadcasting was developed out of a need to access audio broadcasts when Internet might not be available and wireless broadband was in its infancy. Podcasting (a portmanteau of Apple’s “iPod” music listening device and “broadcasting”) was born; although, it was called netcasting (as the iPod didn’t exist, combining the words “Internet” and “broadcasting”) until podcasting became the term of popular choice.

Podcasting allowed you to download audio files through a Web feed (think, how a syndicated newspaper column  is placed in many newspapers around the country with modern technology called RSS) into a computer or a mobile listening device. From there, you are able to disconnect from the Internet and consume the broadcast. Podcasting had a heyday because of the unique circumstances (say, technology limitations) of the era. When broadband and the proliferation of streaming audio took off over the next decade, interest in podcasting waned. Many but the ardent podcast listeners thought the medium was dead. And they were wrong.

Podcasting since 2008 has nearly doubled in listening audience, specifically here in the United States and I’m sure those numbers are much larger if taking into account the developed and developing nations. The waxing nature of podcasting comprises several possible factors, including American love of urban sprawl and increased work commutes to our increasing demand for customized news and entertainment. With podcasting you get to choose the programs you listen to, and when you can subscribe to shows as specific as a type of cuisine and as broad as how to fix your car, the options seem endless. Therein lies the business case for podcasting. This cultural and technological Renaissance provides a fantastic opportunity to market your business. Businesses are able to emotionally connect with your audiences one-to-one. You’re literally in their ears and have a good portion of a listener’s attention; in a world of fragmented focus it’s like a California miner striking pay dirt during the Gold Rush Era.

On March 19, Alexandria Small Business Development Center held its first workshop focused solely on podcasting for Small Business. The day was built around helping business owners get most of the requisite strategy and technical/technological skills (or know which they need to further develop them) to launch their first podcast. It was an intense day full of downloading information about Web presence and content market strategy combined with copious laughter, seeing a podcast episode recorded live as a demonstration, and a few tears of sorrow as business and organization leaders read their heartfelt scripts in their rough, first drafts.

The Podcast Workshop was refreshing, and yet surprising.  I knew social media was a powerful platform, but it was not until I took this workshop that I realized just how much this form of communication reaches the masses.  Ray’s enthusiasm while explaining how this method of connecting with millions was infectious.  By the end of the day, I, too, was excited by the many possibilities for my small business using podcasts as well as the opportunity to work with Ray on this next step in growing my business.

Laetitia Pryor, Owner, My Time Feminine Care

If you haven’t yet contemplated podcasting for your small business or organization, the playing field is ripe for local and national Web presence building. The time to invest in a multimedia, multi-channel marketing and engagement strategic campaign is hard work, and totally worth it. You can impact your local communities, increase your brand exposure, and add profit to your bottom line with podcasting. Here’s an free, introductory course on YouTube to podcasting to get you started.

[Watch the entire playlist of podcasting tutorials. It’ll only take an hour!]

Podcasting will only grow over the months and years as more smart technology is infused with the ability to download and play rich media like audio and video in almost every environment you spend time: cars, kitchen (in your refrigerator), smartphones, bathrooms even, and more. Take advantage of this time and prosper by doing so. I look forward to listening to you on my smartphone while running or driving soon.

The post Podcasting for Small Business appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Solopreneur’s Challenge: Professional Development

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

Solopreneurs_Professional DevelopmentI recently got an invite to an interesting looking one-day event directly relevant to my interests and, with discounts, the price would only be $1600 plus expenses! I was talking with another consultant about all the events coming up in same week and she lamented how much was available locally that she wanted to go to compared to her available time.

Most of us realize it is important to stay current in our field. All of us need to learn new skills and technologies. Some fields require seminars, classes, or continuing education credits for licensing or recertification. Finding ways to keep your professional development a priority while funding it as well as making the time are challenges many solopreneurs find difficult.

When you are busy with clients or customers, it is hard to make the time. When you aren’t, you worry even more about the costs. Yet polishing your skills and knowledge is critical to your continued success.

Review Your Options

What is available locally? Take a look at professional associations in your field and what local chapters offer. Consider community college classes or university run seminars. Many professional groups and training companies offer programs in the Metro DC area, which cuts out travel and lodging costs.

The Alexandria SBDC runs a wide range of programs to help you learn new skills or keep up with changing trends. Many of these focus on marketing, retail, contracting, and employee issues. Also, the SBDC offers access to professionals who provide a wide range of free advice and consulting assistance each month to SBDC clients, including a lot of solopreneurs.

Local Chambers of Commerce and area business associations offer speakers and events that provide development options. Perhaps a Meetup group has what you need. There are a variety of small business, technology, women and veteran focused organizations offering great programs.

Check out online options. The SBA offers a myriad of online training programs. The Virginia SBDC Network does webinars on many topics, too. Consider a MOOC – many big name universities offer them and many also offer podcasts and webinars. Look at the various YouTube, podcasting, and webinar options – a little searching turns up a wide range of interesting programs.

Ask your mentors and others you trust for leads. You may find great events you would never hear of otherwise, I certainly have.

Make your continuing development a priority in your business plan. Set aside time and money each year to learn something new, keep up with changing technology, and develop new skills. This is easier if you are keeping abreast of trends in your field via books, trade publications, general business publications, professional associations, newsletters, and other similar resources – both online and off. In my field and many others, an annual legal seminar is critically important. Sure there are some quite expensive options but there are also local law firms which often offer less expensive or free legal updates. Your IT vendors and software providers may offer webinars or publications to help you keep abreast of important changes and security issues.
The Washington Post, Washington Business Journal, Potomac Tech Wire, Washington Network Group and others regularly publish lists of upcoming seminars, talks, and meetings which may meet your development goals – while offering good networking opportunities too.

TIP of the Month

“Make connections with people with complementary expertise. As a writer, my network includes great designers, photographers, PR experts, and others. I refer business to them and they refer business to me. The client benefits, and so do we.” Paula Whitacre

The post Solopreneur’s Challenge: Professional Development appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Roundtable Recap: Multimedia Marketing

This Tuesday, we hosted our monthly business roundtable, which focused on multimedia marketing. Ray Sidney-Smith, our resident roundtable facilitator, filmed this short recap of the conversation for those that were unable to make it.

In the video, Ray gives an overview of several of the topics discussed, including localized marketing, developing a multi-channel strategy, and optimizing marketing campaigns by employing different types of media. Ray also covered a similar topic in his monthly webinar for the state SBDC network called, “Beyond Google…Marketing & Managing on the Web” which is an interactive opportunity for people to learn more about how and why to use the Web. This month, the topic was, “Photo Blogs, Vlogs, and Podcasts: The Multimedia Age of Web Marketing Your Small Business,” which ties in nicely with our roundtable topic.

If you’re interested in viewing this webinar, or any of the other webinars in this series, please visit the Virginia SBDC website. Our next roundtable will be on Tuesday, April 21st and will discuss how to determine your target market. All are welcome to attend, and more information can be found on the events page of our website.

The post Roundtable Recap: Multimedia Marketing appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Six Steps to Protect Your Brand

Tips from the United States Patent and Trademark Office

Six Steps to Protect Your BrandThis week’s blog post was written by Craig Morris, Managing Attorney for Trademark Outreach at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

A trademark is an essential part of a brand, helping to distinguish a business’s unique products and services from what another business offers. It can be a word, slogan, logo, symbol, design or even a sound. The following six steps from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provide a useful guideline on what to consider before registering a trademark and during the application process. Have an invention? Make sure to protect that too.

  1. Determine whether a trademark is even appropriate for you.  Trademarks, patents, copyrights, domain names, and business name registrations all differ.  A trademark typically protects brand names and logos used on goods and services.  You must be able to identify these goods and services specifically.   A trademark, for example, does not cover a general idea.
  2. Select a mark using great care. Before filing a trademark/service mark application, you should consider (1) whether the mark you want to register meets the guidelines for registration, and (2) how difficult it will be to protect your mark based on the strength of the mark selected. Note that the USPTO only registers marks, and the mark owner is solely responsible for enforcement.
  3. Always search the USPTO database to determine whether anyone is already claiming trademark rights in wording/design that is similar and used on related goods/services through a federal registration.
  4. File the application online through the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS).  View trademark fee information. REMINDERS: (1) The application fee is a processing fee that is not refunded, even if the USPTO does not ultimately issue a registration certificate, and not all applications result in registrations; and (2) All information you submit to the USPTO at any point in the application and/or registration process will become public record, including your name, phone number, e-mail address, and street address.
  5. Because all of the above are very important, you should consider whether to hire a trademark attorney to help you with these steps, as well as the overall application process.
  6. Throughout the entire process, you should monitor the progress of your application through the Trademark Status and Document Retrieval (TSDR) system.  It is important to check the status of your application every 3-4 months after the initial filing of the application, because otherwise you may miss a filing deadline.

For more information on trademarks and to access a variety of helpful resources, including instructional how-to videos, visit the USPTO website.

The post Six Steps to Protect Your Brand appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Anticipation is the Key to Business Success

Anticipation is the Key to Business SuccessOne of the critical predictors of the success of a new venture – whether it’s a totally new business, a new product or service line, or approaching a new market – is the quality and extent of forethought and planning.

At the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we are strong proponents of thorough business planning. We have a downloadable business planning guide on our website that is easy to follow and has the added value of organizing information in the way that bankers and investors prefer.

The very process of researching and writing a business plan clarifies your intent and contributes to informed decision-making, but it can be intimidating to tackle on your own. If you get stuck and need personalized guidance, our center offers small business owners the opportunity to bounce ideas off staff who are objective and whose foremost concern is what’s in the business owner’s best interests. Staff can also provide additional tools and checklists to help you consider options that might not otherwise occur to you.

In many ways, successful business owners may need to be willing to set aside pride as they embark on their new venture. We’ve all heard the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Those who ask lots of questions often head off problems that blindside those who charge ahead. Good business owners must be introspective about what they do well, where they are lacking, and when they need to turn to outside expertise. This is no time to bluff, and center staff has access to great referral resources.

Others in the community can also help you anticipate potential obstacles to your best-laid business plans. The City’s Residential and Small Business Facilitator in the Permit Center, Allison Cook, is a friendly advocate who works with businesses to accomplish their goals by helping them navigate zoning, building codes, special permit requirements, and signage policies.

It is important to approach Allison as early as possible in your planning process to identify the red flags before you have to spend extra money or time to make changes. She can also help if you run into problems and aren’t sure what your next step should be. When in doubt, we recommend our clients check with the Permit Center early and often to avoid potential pitfalls.

The Permit Center isn’t the only community resource for expert advice. The Health Department also gladly meets with owners early in the planning process to identify requirements for permits as well as to offer guidance for operating businesses that pertain to public safety and health. Our center is offering consulting sessions with the Health Department each month to make it easy for businesses to get their questions answered.

Anticipating potential obstacles and problems at the start of a venture is much less expensive and time consuming than confronting them near what you had hoped would be the finish line. It’s in your best interest to engage community resources that can highlight those pitfalls and recommend solutions to you.

This article first appeared in the Alexandria Times on February 26, 2015.

The post Anticipation is the Key to Business Success appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.