Make the Most of Your Holiday Shopping Experience

We’re on the cusp of the holiday season where we might dreamily fantasize about Norman Rockwell-esque snowflakes, frosty windowpanes, twinkling lights, and smiles. Once we’re actually into the intensity of the season, however, it tends to take on a different cast and becomes more a scene of frustration, scowls, congested parking garages, and futile searches… Read more »

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Holiday Shopping in Alexandria

Photo Credit: James Cullum, courtesy ACVA

We’re on the cusp of the holiday season where we might dreamily fantasize about Norman Rockwell-esque snowflakes, frosty windowpanes, twinkling lights, and smiles. Once we’re actually into the intensity of the season, however, it tends to take on a different cast and becomes more a scene of frustration, scowls, congested parking garages, and futile searches for salesclerks who know their stock.

But we can reclaim some of the iconic character and trapping

s of the season and perhaps adjust our mindset and approach to minimize the stress. Maybe this holiday season can actually be fun!

Alexandrians have a much better backdrop for reclaiming the charm of traditional holiday shopping than most of our neighboring jurisdictions. Did you know, for instance, that the developers of the “town center” concept – such as Reston Town Center – actually visited Old Town Alexandria to carefully measure and mimic the scale and character of our historic shopping quarter? And Del Ray offers the ambiance of a classic American main street with its art deco-influenced neighborhood shopping district.

These sought-after shopping venues allow us to maximize our holiday enjoyment. Rather than swimming upstream through crowds in nondescript shopping caverns, plan an outing with friends that includes savoring the architecture and neighborhood character. Schedule breaks for lunch or refreshments, and imagine how many generations have shopped and dined on those same sidewalks.

Your store experience is likely to be distinct, too, when you shop in genuine neighborhoods rather than in large malls or contrived town centers. In small stores, you’re more likely to be greeted when you enter, and you’ll find that the sales staff know its stock, is able to field a variety of questions about it, and will be glad to search for what you need. Your gift purchases in these smaller stores are also more likely to be unique finds, and not something your recipients will see everywhere.

On top of the charm and ambiance provided by shopping outings and independent merchants, think about the constructive impact of shopping small. National studies document the multiplier effects of supporting independent retailers vs. national chains. The calculation is that each dollar spent at a locally-owned business returns twice the amount of money to the local economy as a dollar spent at a chain.

Need more incentives to shop small and local? Our colleagues at the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association and the shop owners have combined efforts to make the holiday season especially attractive. Alexandria is THE Shop Small headquarters of the DC region. Shoppers will be rewarded for their “shop local” loyalty. Starting November 29th, shoppers can get a free Rebecca Minkoff designer “Shop Small” canvass tote bag when they bring two receipts from local Alexandria shops to the Alexandria Visitors Center at 221 King St. Visit www.VisitAlexandriaVA/shopsmall for more information.

You owe it to yourself to make this season a more rewarding shopping experience. Happy holidays!

This article first appeared in the Alexandria Times on November 26, 2014.

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Holiday Shopping Kicks Off With More Than Just Black Friday!

Our resident social media expert and blogger extraordinaire Ray Sidney-Smith discusses the importance of having a cohesive marketing campaign for the holiday season. For nearly the last decade, here in the United States, the biggest shopping day of the year has been the day after Thanksgiving. We all know it as Black Friday. However, for the savvy business owner especially… Read more »

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Our resident social media expert and blogger extraordinaire Ray Sidney-Smith discusses the importance of having a cohesive marketing campaign for the holiday season.

For nearly the last decade, here in the United States, the biggest shopping day of the year has been the day after Thanksgiving. We all know it as Black Friday. However, for the savvy business owner especially here in Alexandria Virginia, we have several other retail business opportunities available than just Black Friday.

While the Friday after Thanksgiving is still the most important retail shopping day of the year, Small Business retail shops, and even service-based businesses that can benefit during the 4th quarter holiday season shopping, should plan to create a cohesive marketing campaign for more than just Black Friday. The Saturday after Thanksgiving was dubbed Small Business Saturday as an American Express program back in 2010, according to their website to “help businesses with their most pressing need — getting more customers.” For the first time the National Retail Federation inquired about holiday shoppers taking advantage of Small Business Saturday, and according to their recent press release (“140 Million Holiday Shoppers Likely to Take Advantage of Thanksgiving Weekend Deals in Stores and Online, According to NRF”), “nearly three-quarters (72.7%) [of the 140 million shoppers this weekend] say they will or may specifically shop for Small Business Saturday.” That’s an astonishing testament to the power of Small Business Saturday and the Small Business Movement that American Express has mounted on all our behalf.

Included in the holiday shopping weekend festivities is the not-as-famous-but-just-as-important Cyber Monday. While it’s an unfortunate statistic that more than 60% of small businesses still lack a website, Cyber Monday stands to top 2.29 billion dollars in online sales as it did in 2013. Are you taking advantage of that piece of the retail marketing holiday pie? If not, perhaps you should make an appointment to talk to a counselor over at Alexandria Small Business Development Center, to get you on track to making that website happen in 2015. Online and mobile commerce stand to be a growing and potentially the largest part of retail trade in the coming years. Not that brick-and-mortar should ever go away, but for those stores that cannot hold unlimited inventory or stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, online and mobile commerce help you capture that revenue while you spend time with your family, or better yet, sleep!

Additionally, there is a growing counter-consumerism movement happening with the advent of Buy Nothing Day (which is the same day as Black Friday) and Giving Tuesday.

Buy Nothing Day is your opportunity to join forces with the Shop Small movement and encourage people, as the American Independent Business Alliance has promoted, to buy less disposable and more “green/environmentally-friendly” products, more durable goods and locally sourced and made products. Also, as I said earlier, if you provide a service that can benefit from the holiday shopping season, this is your time to jump in. For example, if you have a business such as a beauty salon or yoga studio, this is your time to help holiday shoppers “buy nothing” by buying gift certificate packages for their loved ones of your services. Promote buying of local, independent business gift cards instead of from large corporate ones. Beware that Buy Nothing Day has promoted protests, sit-ins, “zombie walks” and other public events in shopping malls and downtown areas, so train your staff on how to manage in the unlikely event it happens near you, but from reports they have never caused a problem for businesses (and generally sound like informative and non-confrontational events) so it’s best to be respectful and continue on with business as usual.

On the other hand, Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving which started in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation, provides your business a great opportunity to show that you support for your local community. “The goal of #GivingTuesday is to encourage people everywhere including retailers, charities, online organizations, community centers, individuals and families to come together with one common purpose,” says Charity Navigator, “—to help others and incentivize ways to give more, give smarter, and celebrate the great American spirit of generosity through charitable contributions and volunteerism.” How can your business incorporate giving into your holiday marketing campaign? It can be as simple as a clothing or food drive, coordinating a volunteer outing for your staff at Carpenter’s Shelter, or other creative ways to give back.

Altogether, Black Friday, Buy Nothing Day, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday combined give you an amazing retail marketing platform on which to make your Q4 a profitable and enjoyable buying season for your Small Business and your local community. And, don’t forget to take advantage of the Social Media media storm that is happening around the hashtags #shopsmall, #blackfriday, #cybermonday and #givingtuesday over the next few days and into next week.

As always, we are here to help with startup to veteran to growth businesses, and we’re no-cost! Let us know how we can help, and we hope you have a great holiday season!

This blog was originally posted on AlexandriaSmallBusiness.com on 11/27/14. 

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Productivity Tools for Time and Email Management

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. If you had all the time in the world, would you ever get much done? The British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson would say unequivocally that you would not. After all, you… Read more »

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Productivity Tech Tools November 2014This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC.

If you had all the time in the world, would you ever get much done? The British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson would say unequivocally that you would not. After all, you had as much time to complete things as you wanted, so what’s the rush? Parkinson’s Law, named after Mr. Parkinson for his extensive observations of working at the British Civil Service, states that work expands to fill the time allotted to complete it. As Small Business owners we all need to recognize the value of our time, and more importantly the effectiveness of the skills, strategies, people, and tools that influence our outcomes. In doing so, we harness the power of not just our personal productivity but also that of the success of our businesses. Every month, Alexandria Small Business Development Center hosts the Business Development Roundtable, where Small Business owners and their representatives come to talk about topics that make a difference in our business and professional lives. November’s Roundtable was all about using productivity tools (that you already have) to use our time and energy better. We had a great turnout and the group started with a discussion of the virtues of their own personal productivity. Where do you struggle with personal productivity? Where do you excel with your time, team, task and project management skills? People had a wide range of struggles and areas of prowess in their own work worlds; we honed in on time and email management in this Roundtable.

Time Management

The Roundtable participants shared their calendar and time planning tools. Several attendees keep digital and analog calendars. Some keep a calendar planner that they carry with them or have at their office desk, so that they can quickly and easily capture events and appointments in their planners without additional technology. Others need the connectivity to share their calendars with others, and like that they can carry their calendars in their smartphones, so they choose to use software-based calendars. And yet others keep a dry erase board-style calendar that helps them map out their weeks, months and more, to get a higher perspective on their time planning.

The question was asked about how to invite people to events (such as a sales meeting, or to lunch), and whether text (SMS) messaging was appropriate. I took the question, since I actually have a strong opinion on the subject. While I regularly communicate via SMS with my family, friends and staff, I connect infrequently with clients, colleagues, vendors and other work-related contacts via text messaging. It is still primarily via phone and email. And, I need to really look at my calendar and look at other planning documents to usually decide on when something might be a good time to meet with a prospective vendor, partner or other business contact. That said, I would very much rather a phone call followed up by an email, or just an email, explaining why one wants to meet with me. That’s just me. And, that’s my point. I believe that you must ask people how they best like to be communicated with in order to be most effective in getting in someone’s calendar. Sometimes you don’t need to ask directly, as you can find out from others, but you need to find out how a person best plans and communicates. This puts them in the right mindset to make the best, most favorable decision to meet with you.

Also, I mentioned during the discussion section about calendars a really awesome Kickstarter project called the Pivot Calendar. Pivot Calendar is an adhesive, repositionable project management tool for your Small Business. You plan by the quarter, so you can have one, two, three, or four quarters up on the wall in your business. What makes it really unique (as you can see in the video above) is the ability to create a horizontal timeline as well as plan within the weeks vertically. It’s a very flexible planning tool for any business or organization.

Email Management

When it comes to the number one productivity drain people in American corporate and small business talk of, it’s email. Email is a double-edged sword because it’s also an amazing technology that has revolutionized the way businesses and consumers alike communicate. It can be the most productive tool in your business arsenal, or the bane of your professional existence. Thankfully, most of that is up to you! At the Roundtable, several people asked and answered questions about the specifics of their email tool.

Sanebox Email Management Tool

One cool tool that was discussed was Sanebox, an email management tool that works with any email system. The way it works is that it connects to your email service (such as Gmail, Microsoft Exchange, Yahoo, AOL, Outlook/Live) and on mobile devices (i.e., iOS and Android) so you can manage through Sanebox. It creates “smart filters” that separate unimportant email messages from the important ones for you. As well, it categorizes, spam proofs your email, unsubscribes email newsletters with one click, defers email you want to read or respond to later, and can even save email attachments to your Dropbox file storage account for you. It’s a pretty powerful tool for the Small Business owner looking to maximize their time spent on email.

Because of the success of our discussion this month, we resume the Roundtable program in January (as we don’t meet in December) with a follow-up to this month’s topic. We will cover the areas we didn’t get to discuss at this session: task, project, and team management productivity tools. As a productivity enthusiast, these topics speak particularly to me personally, professionally and intellectually. More importantly for you, these productivity tools help you make more money, have more time for your family and friends, increase your quality of work and life, and decrease distress (the negative kind of stress) overall in your daily life. There are countless other granular benefits, but I’m sure you can think of those yourself. In the next month, I offer you this wisdom from the group—make time to take time to consider the productivity tools you use already and how well you use them. You don’t need more tools to become more productive most often. It is usually a matter of making better use of the tools you already possess, digitally and physically.

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Celebrating Veteran Entrepreneurs

This week, as we celebrate Alexandria Honors Veterans Week, the City publicly recognizes the value that veterans bring to our community at large. Here at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we recognize that veteran entrepreneurs enhance our business community as well. This recognition is part of what led to the formation of the Alexandria Veterans… Read more »

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Veterans for Economic DevelopmentThis week, as we celebrate Alexandria Honors Veterans Week, the City publicly recognizes the value that veterans bring to our community at large. Here at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we recognize that veteran entrepreneurs enhance our business community as well. This recognition is part of what led to the formation of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC), which has co-hosted several events for veterans in business this week. Whether you are looking to start a business, grow your business, network with other veterans in business, or explore career opportunities, AVBEC is available to support and guide veterans at any stage in the process.

In addition to the activities this week, last week was National Veterans Small Business Week. In support of this, several articles and blog posts were published to highlight why veterans excel as entrepreneurs. Additionally, there were several articles written on the current trends in the veteran business world. We’ve rounded up a few of these articles to share with you below:

Emily McMahan, the director of the AVBEC, was also featured in an article this week. This article, which appeared in technical.ly DC, explains an exciting new addition to the AVBEC program. The Bunker, a Chicago-based incubator for veterans, has chosen the AVBEC as its expansion location in Washington, D.C. The Bunker also announced that it will be expanding to six other cities, including Philadelphia, Tacoma, Los Angeles, and Austin. AVBEC is anticipating welcoming its first class of veteran entrepreneurs in early 2015.

We would like to thank all of our veteran clients for their service and for the contributions they have made to our Alexandria business community. We are also thankful for the veterans who lead our economic development organizations. Many people my be surprised to know that Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the Alexandria SBDC, and Val Hawkins, President and CEO of AEDP, are both veterans. They, along with Emily McMahan, are pictured in the image that accompanies this post, and we are grateful for their leadership and the skills they bring from their time in the military.

As we wrap up the events of Alexandria Honors Veterans week, we look forward to continuing to work with our veteran business owners and to supporting the first class of veteran entrepreneurs at The Bunker.

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Leveraging Innovative Community Resources

In an ideal world — one where small businesses have unlimited time and money — entrepreneurs would employ a bevy of experts to advise them in a variety of areas. In reality, most small businesses make do with limited resources and usually lack the capacity to engage consultants. There are, however, opportunities for business owners… Read more »

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Business_School_studentsIn an ideal world — one where small businesses have unlimited time and money — entrepreneurs would employ a bevy of experts to advise them in a variety of areas.

In reality, most small businesses make do with limited resources and usually lack the capacity to engage consultants. There are, however, opportunities for business owners to leverage community assets to access otherwise unaffordable assets. For example, we often overlook our local universities, which are an amazing resource for the small business community.

Through a partnership with the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, local business owners enjoy the opportunity to spend a semester working with teams of students from Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business MBA program. This 15-year-old partnership has saved entrepreneurs time and money.

More than 50 Alexandria-based businesses have taken advantage of the MBA program since its inception, usually between three and four each semester. Past participants include retailers, professional service firms, graphic designers, art galleries, daycare centers, food service businesses and pet services. To participate, business owners submit simple applications — and project proposals — that describe their needs, which can be anything from operational issues to new ideas that the entrepreneur may not have the time or expertise to implement.

Student teams select the projects that appeal to them and begin functioning as consultants, meeting a few times with the owner, conducting research and finally delivering an in-depth report complete with recommendations. Project topics include general operations strategy and competitiveness; quality concepts; product and service design; process planning and technology decisions; facility location and layout; forecasting; capacity planning; distribution; and inventory management.

These projects are not abstract academic musings. They have very tangible payoffs for the small businesses involved. Here are a few examples of businesses that have benefitted from previous student projects:

  • Students working with the Christmas Attic conducted in-store customer surveys and proposed that the owners consider a store for all seasons. That recommendation played into the development of the store’s Urban Attic.
  • When Mom Made Foods was planning for national expansion of their healthy organic frozen foods in 2008, an MBA team researched storage and distribution options. That help facilitated their coast-to-coast expansion very soon thereafter.
  • A graduate student team’s analysis of the cost components of each of Popped! Republics’ popcorn products led to improved pricing calculations for each of the products distributed via their food truck, retail and online storefronts.

Planning is in progress for future projects with Virginia Tech, and we encourage business owners to contact the center for more information on how to get involved. Resources for small businesses can be found across our community when we work together and are willing to think outside the box.

This blog first appeared in the Alexandria Times on October 31, 2014.

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Tips for Developing a Small Business Website: Part 2

In the second of our two part series, we provide tips on website development after you have selected a firm to work with. 1. Don’t skimp on the strategy phase of your website redesign. A good website firm will have a defined process for determining what you want and need from your new website. This… Read more »

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In the second of our two part series, we provide tips on website development after you have selected a firm to work with.Internet

1. Don’t skimp on the strategy phase of your website redesign.

A good website firm will have a defined process for determining what you want and need from your new website. This helps them understand your organization and your desired outcomes so that they can give you the best advice on how to achieve these goals. We did a lot of the leg work for this phase before we had even selected a firm to design our website. We knew that we needed to reorganize our existing content as well as add a lot of new functionality and resources. We had many brainstorming sessions internally where we identified our “wish list” of things that we wanted to incorporate and how we wanted that to look. We had documented this process and were able to provide it to our firm for their review and feedback.

Even though we had done all of this preparation ahead of time, our firm’s fresh perspective and expert advice was very helpful. Their questions help us really flesh out our ideas and pinpoint exactly what we wanted. They provide us recommendations from both a technical and strategy perspective, and they were sure to be conscious of our budget and, ultimately, the ease of use of the site. While this step can be time-consuming, it’s critical to laying the foundation for a strong final product.

2. Recognize that a strong sitemap and high-quality wireframes will make your website better and save you time and money.

Before we could even begin thinking about the look and feel of our website (which is really the fun part of the website redesign process!), we knew we needed to establish a clear and logical structure for the site. Our first step was to create a sitemap with advice from our design firm. This is where you put together an outline of your website that includes each individual page and identifies the hierarchy of where those pages fall within the site.

For some groups, it may be helpful to complete a physical exercise to determine all of the pages for your site and how they should be organized. For example, you could use index cards and write topics for individual pages on each card. After you have brainstormed all of your topics, see if you can group those topics together under different headings. Once you feel like you’ve captured everything and are pleased with how information is grouped together, you’ve completed your sitemap.

After we finalized our sitemap, we moved on to the wireframe process. This process involves the design firm presenting options for laying out information and showing us how it would appear on each page. This is done without any of the visual elements like graphics or specific fonts. Instead, the wireframes include placeholders for photos, text, hyperlinks, and any other essential elements that make up a webpage. This allowed us to get a sense of what the website would look like without getting caught up in the aesthetics of the site.

Make sure to request wireframes for any custom designed pages on your website. Many of your pages may have the same layout, but you will likely have some that are unique. For example, we built an Interactive Resource Library for our new website that allows users to sort and filter documents. This required a custom wireframe because the layout of this page was unlike any other page. Your home page will also have a designated wireframe. For standard landing pages that are used across your website, your firm will develop one wireframe that will be used for these pages.

The wireframe process is your opportunity to tweak exactly how the information on your page will be laid out, so make sure you are completely satisfied with the final product. It is much faster, easier, and less expensive to make changes to a wireframe than it is to make changes to a final webpage that is live on your site.

In both of these steps, it’s important to think of your website from your user’s perspective. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and forget that most of your uses will not be as familiar with your subject matter or your site. If you constantly think about your site through the lens of someone who is unfamiliar with you and your organization, you will be more successful in developing a user-friendly finished site.

3. Consider all other materials (logos, brochures, flyers, etc.) when choosing the visual design of your website.

We knew we wanted a clean and modern look, as well as a design that would tie strongly to our existing brand. We wanted to strike a balance between maintaining white space on the website while still having interesting visual elements and plenty of information on each page.

These design decisions worked for us because they were in line with our existing designs for event flyers, email distributions, our logo, and our professionally-printed collateral. Unless you are rebranding your entire organization while you are redesigning your website, it makes sense to try to match the look and feel of your existing materials.

While most of our website has a consistent visual design, we had a few distinct landing pages for the site that were custom designed differently from the typical internal page design. We actually mocked up several of these pages by hand so that we would be sure that we were conveying our ideas accurately.

Don’t be afraid to give specific feedback to your design firm, whether that’s through examples from other websites or hand drawings on the back of a napkin. We spent some time discussing options with our firm for those pages, and they gave us a few different designs to choose from. We are very pleased with how these unique pages turned out.

4. Once you move into the development phase, keep in touch with your website firm.

The development process, in a way, is the easiest phase from the client perspective. We put a lot of effort into the strategy, wireframe, and design phases, and then we got to sit back while our website firm did all of the development work! During this phase, the firm was implementing all of the technical components and actually building the website.

Midway through the development process, we met with our firm to make sure that we were all on the same page and that we were pleased with their progress so far. Once the development was completed, it was our turn to go through the website and identify any technical problems or things that needed to be fixed. This process is called the QA (quality assurance) phase. We kept a running list of issues and changes, and the firm addressed them one by one.

Once all of our changes were made and we were happy with the final product, we went live with our new site.

5. Don’t forget about the content of your website; that’s what your users are coming to your site to see!

While all of the phases of the website redesign are going on, it’s easy to forget about the content of your site. Not only do you have to develop all of the content for your site, you also have to load all of the content for your site. Some firms will migrate your existing content from your old site, but others will recommend that you enter all of your content into your new content management system so that you become familiar with how the interface works.

Using our sitemap, we set up a spreadsheet that listed all of the pages on our website. Where possible, we identified which pages from our existing website would match up with pages on our new website and made a note of this in the spreadsheet. We then briefly outlined what new or additional content we would like to add to each page. We also identified what links or documents we wanted to include on each page. After going through this exercise, we felt like we had a good grasp of the scope of creating content for the site.

We then divided up the content between different members of the team. We created a Word document where each person could input their content. This made it easy to see our progress and for us to work collaboratively. Every week, we had a brief meeting to check in and discuss any questions that had come up during the content creation process. This kept us on track to meet our deadline.

Once we were comfortable with the content for our individual sections, we each went through and provided edits on the other sections. After editing all of the content, we were ready to start putting the content into our website.

Our website firm provided excellent training on how to navigate the backend of the website and had set everything up in a way that was very intuitive for the website administrator on our end. Even so, it took us a few weeks to get all of our content loaded. We were not just loading text, but also images and documents. Each image or document requires a description before it is uploaded to the site. We also tagged our documents with relevant key words so that people could easily search for them.

While all of the content creation was intensive, it was a great opportunity to review our messaging and to make sure that we were giving our clients the information they needed. We significantly increased the amount of information on our site, which is certainly helpful to our users. By having an organized approach to updating our content, we made the process as smooth as it could have been.

6. Remember that a great website is always changing and evolving.

Hopefully, you will be able to incorporate all of your wish list items into your redesign, but always keep a running list of ideas for future enhancements, even if they are very ambitious. From a content perspective, realize that a great website redesign is a lost opportunity if you fail to keep the content on the site up to date, so have a plan in place to keep things fresh and exciting once you launch.

We hope these tips will be helpful if you choose to undertake a website redesign. Please feel free to reach out to us if you have individual questions on any of these topics.

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Tips for Developing a Small Business Website: Part 1

The process of developing a new website can seem overwhelming to many small business owners. There are so many variables, and most small business owners are not website development experts. During the redesign of the SBDC website in early 2014, our staff learned several valuable lessons that we wanted to share with our clients. In… Read more »

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websiteThe process of developing a new website can seem overwhelming to many small business owners. There are so many variables, and most small business owners are not website development experts. During the redesign of the SBDC website in early 2014, our staff learned several valuable lessons that we wanted to share with our clients.

In this two-part post, we will outline some of the things we found most helpful and some of the lessons we learned along the way. The first post will cover the process through selecting a vendor, and the second post will cover working with the vendor to complete the redesign. We hope you will find some helpful information as you consider redesigning your own site.

1. Recognize that this process is going to require a significant amount of planning up front.
A website redesign will require a substantial amount of time and effort on your end, and it may impact your day-to-day activities for the duration of the project. We don’t say that to scare anyone, but it’s good to be prepared for the realities of this type of project. As the client, you know your users and customers best, so you are the content expert, and you need to bring that information to the table. Of course, you will have the support and guidance from the experts at the design firm, but a team effort will yield the best results.

2. Before doing anything else, figure out why you think you need to redesign your site and what you want to accomplish.
We started out the process by considering these five basic questions:

  • What is our overall vision for the website?
  • What is the purpose and desired outcomes from the new site?
  • What is our wish list of items that would make our current website more effective?
  • What are some best practices from other websites, both within you industry and beyond, that could be incorporated?
  • What essential tools and functionality need to be included in the new site?

We started out by putting together a big brainstorm wish list of all of our ideas. We looked at our current website to determine gaps and areas for improvement, and we also talked more broadly about what additional information we could incorporate. We visited other websites, both general sites and other SBDCs across the country, to get ideas. After looking at all of this information, we narrowed down our wish list to the things that were most important and that we felt would best help us meet our mission.

As the client, you need to have a clear vision for what you want your site to be before you look for a design firm. Yes, they will give you recommendations and help you shape that vision, but you need to know your core requirements before the project starts. Otherwise, you may end up wasting time later going back and forth about different decisions.

3. Determine how much you can afford to spend on your website redesign.
The price of website redesigns can vary from several hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Part of the price of the design will vary based on how much you need your site to do. For example, a simple site that lists a business’s contact information will be much less expensive than a site that includes the capabilities for customers to buy things online. A simple site that is well-designed and attractive is better than an overly-complicated site that has lots of bells and whistles but does not give users the key information they need.

As the business owner, it is up to you to determine how much you can afford to spend on a website. You can choose whether or not to share your budget with potential firms. Recognize, however, that if you choose not to share even a ballpark budget with those firms, you may get proposals that are significantly over your budget.

4. Write a detailed Request for Proposals (RFP) to send out to potential firms.

Using the information that we gathered during our initial brainstorm and research, we put together a very detailed RFP to send to local web design firms. This included our mission and vision, a project overview, specific tools and features that we wanted from the site, other considerations for the project, our expectations for specific deliverables throughout the process, and our budget.

The more specific and detailed you can be in your RFP, the better. This helps web development firms understand what you are looking for so they can prepare a thorough response. The more they can clearly grasp what you’re looking to do, the more likely it is that their proposal will be on target. This makes it easier for you to evaluate whether you think the firm will be able to meet your needs.

5. Do your research on potential partners before sending out your proposal.
For us, collaborating with small businesses in Alexandria is very important, so we started by looking for website firms in the City. We recognized the value of working with a partner that was familiar with the local business community, and we wanted to take advantage of our local resources. We used a list of all of the web design firms in Alexandria and started by visiting their websites. We also asked some of our partners and contacts for referrals.

We looked at each company’s website to gain insight into their past clients and examples of their work to determine who might be a good fit for our vision. We immediately discounted companies that didn’t have an updated and professional website that included examples of past work. This isn’t a necessity, but we felt more comfortable being able to see these examples. It also helped us judge whether or not the company would take on a project of our size. As a nonprofit organization, we are very budget-conscious, so there were also companies that we simply couldn’t afford. Otherwise, we kept an open mind during this process.

6. Interview multiple firms and prepare carefully for the interviews.
Ultimately, we were able to narrow our list down to about five firms. We sent our prepared RFP to these companies. We had preliminary meetings or phone calls with these firms where they gathered more information about our project. Each of the firms then submitted their proposal by our deadline.

After submitting the proposal, each firm came to our office and presented their proposal. We were able to ask questions, which we had prepared ahead of time. Try to ask the same general questions to each firm so that you are able to compare all of the firms on the same information. If you have any follow-up questions, feel free to email the firms or call after the proposal presentation.

7. Evaluate each firm on the same criteria using a quantitative scale when possible.
We found it helpful to develop a matrix and rank each firm on a variety of factors. These included past experience, cost, capabilities, perceived ability to understand our business, and a variety of other categories. We also did a pros and cons list for each company to help us make a decision. After evaluating all of these options, we came together as a group and selected a company. It is important that everyone feels comfortable with the final decision, even if the company was not everyone’s first choice.

Find a firm that has a strong track record, that you feel comfortable with, and, most of all, that is willing to give you honest, constructive feedback. Sometimes, you may have “pie in the sky” ideas, and it’s helpful to work with a team that can (gently) bring you back to earth! This is the sign of a good working relationship and will lead to a better final product.

8. Notify your company, sign the contract, and begin the redesign process!

Next week’s post will cover the remainder of the website redesign process.

The post Tips for Developing a Small Business Website: Part 1 appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Your Small Business’ New Best Friend – Your Accountant

Many small business owners talk with their accountant (or try to find one) only at tax time.  Those who do, however, are missing the opportunity to develop a real relationship with one of the most important business advisors that you will have.  Accountants have a large range of expertise that will be crucial to you… Read more »

The post Your Small Business’ New Best Friend – Your Accountant appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

AccountingMany small business owners talk with their accountant (or try to find one) only at tax time.  Those who do, however, are missing the opportunity to develop a real relationship with one of the most important business advisors that you will have.  Accountants have a large range of expertise that will be crucial to you at every stage of your business:

  • For those just starting a business, your accountant, along with your attorney, can advise you on the optimal business structure (Corporation, S-Corp, LLC, etc.) for your particular set of circumstances.  This is the time to interview several accountants to pick one whose style and personality work with yours.  It is important to develop a relationship with your accountant so that they are aware of your goals and issues, as well as the operations of your business.
  • When choosing an accountant make sure that they are ready to think strategically about your business and advise you, rather than just “crunching numbers”. It is a good idea to make sure that your accountant is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which means that they have passed certification exams and required continuing education to keep up-to –date with the pertinent laws and regulations. Communication style and personality are also important factors to consider, because you want your accountant to be an easy-to-work-with proactive partner in your business.
  • A good accountant will help you set up your books and accounting systems so that you will have accurate records from the beginning of your business.  No matter how small your business, your business records and bank accounts should be separate from your personal accounts.  Whether your accountant offers bookkeeping services, recommends a qualified bookkeeper, or trains you to maintain your own books, you should at least have a periodic check to make sure that all is in order.  This should not wait until tax time, because then it is often too late to fix errors that should have been caught and corrected during the year.
  • Your accountant can help you to run and understand important decision-making reports such as CashFlow statements and Profit and Loss reports.  These are crucial for your own purposes in understanding your business, meeting your benchmarks and controlling costs while you are getting there. Failure to analyze your financial statements in a way that you completely understand means that won’t know as much as you should about how your business is doing. Accurate reports are also needed when applying for a business loan.
  • Once you grow from a one-person business, it is crucial to have your accountant who understands the difference between an employee and an independent contractor, as defined and strictly enforced by the IRS.  The accountant will ensure that all of the required forms are filed and withholdings made in accordance with the federal and state laws, and that W2 and 1099 forms are sent to the proper people at the proper times.  This is one of the reasons why it is so important to deal with a local accountant.  Employees who work in your Virginia business but who live in Maryland or DC have different withholding, and there may be different laws that apply.  Using your brother-in-law accountant from Massachusetts may save you some money in the beginning, but can cost you significantly if you end up with back taxes and penalties because your accountant was unfamiliar with local laws.
  • You should be talking with your accountant at tax time, even if you will be filing your taxes yourself.  Do not wait until tax time to discuss what kinds of business expenses are deductible.  Many of the laws and regulations about business deductions differ by state and change frequently.  A good accountant will keep up-to-date on the changes and will know which ones apply to your business if you have developed the relationship and your accountant understands your business.  There may be things that you can do to minimize your taxes before the end of the calendar year and to plan for next year’s growth – now is the time to talk with your accountant!
  • You should meet with your accountant at any transition point in your business.  Is it time to grow, in terms of space, products/services or employees?  Do you see your company getting into government contracting, for which accurate accounting is absolutely crucial and which may require specialized accounting systems? Are you thinking of retiring or selling your business? An accountant who understands your business can help you. The accuracy of your books will help in the valuation of your business.

Choose your accountant well, and trust them to be an important partner in developing your small business. You want to run your daily business operations and make the “big plans”.  You do not have time to try to learn all of the things that your accountant already knows!  Get the most from this important business relationship.

The post Your Small Business’ New Best Friend – Your Accountant appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.