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// by Bridget O'Brien / Oct. 29, 2015 0 comments
Customer Service

Your business may have a strong, well-articulated brand. But even the best brand will suffer if your company's customer service doesn’t reflect and support your brand message.

For example, Disneyland's brand is "the happiest place on earth," a brand is reflected at the amusement parks by smiling, helpful employees who go out of their way to create magical moments for visitors. Imagine the effect on the Disney brand if employees were surly and poorly groomed? All the marketing in the world wouldn't overcome the disconnect between that brand and its customer service.

So how can you ensure that your customer service supports your brand? Here are some steps to follow.

Make sure that your employees understand and embrace your brand. New employees should be oriented to your business brand and mission statement as part of their on-board training, while existing employees’ ongoing training should emphasize the importance of building the brand. Get employees on board with your brand by:

  • Explaining branding in general
  • Sharing what your brand is
  • Explaining how your brand differentiates your business from your competition
  • Explaining how a strong brand can benefit the company — for example, by attracting more customers or enabling you to expand your business to new locations—and how that, in turn, benefits the employees.

Use concrete examples to explain employees’ roles in enhancing the brand. Branding can be a complex issue to understand, but using concrete examples will help clarify what employees should and shouldn’t do and how their actions affect the brand. For example, if your bakery requires employees to wear gingham aprons as part of their uniform, you can explain that the apron reflects your brand of homemade baked goods “just like Grandma used to make.” Understanding that your rules aren’t arbitrary will help employees see their importance.

Incorporate brand-related actions into your operations manual and/or employee manual. You can help ensure a cohesive brand message by creating rules, scripts and templates for employees to follow in interacting with customers. For instance, you may want all employees to answer the phone in a certain way, such as "Good morning, it's a delicious day at Granny’s Bakery! How can we help you today?" or to answer the phone on the second ring. You may want to create:

  • Grooming code (make sure this complies with any state or federal labor laws in terms of discrimination)
  • Dress code (ditto)
  • Script for answering phone
  • Script for greeting customers when they enter your place of business
  • Script for helping customers with complaints or problems
  • Template for sending emails to customers/standard response templates to use in reply to customer email

Pay particular attention to customer problems and complaints. The way you deal with unhappy customers can make or break their loyalty. When everyone follows the same scripts and rules, you’ll convey a consistent brand message, even in difficult situations.

Don't forget the digital aspect of customer service. Many customers will prefer to contact your business via your website, email, online chat or social media. The way you respond to these contacts is vital in conveying the brand. For example, if your brand is informal and friendly, your digital presence should reflect that. You can create template responses such as autoreplies that convey a casual, friendly vibe as opposed to sounding like they’re written by a robot. In addition, your social media posts and replies should all reflect the same general tone and attitude to enhance a consistent brand message.

Monitor how well your customer service reflects your brand. You can do this by:

  • Following up with customers after a purchase to ask about their satisfaction
  • Conducting regular surveys of customers, online, by email, by phone or in person
  • Monitoring what customers are saying about you on social media
  • Using independent secret shoppers (or employing your friends and family) to visit your business and report back on the customer service they received

By implementing these steps, you can help ensure that your company's customer service accurately reflects, conveys and strengthens your business’s brand.

Bridget O'Brien
Vice President Marketing Communications
Vistaprint

Bridget O’Brien is Vice President of Marketing Communications at Vistaprint where she is responsible for all aspects of the company’s brand strategy and external communications. This includes establishing an integrated marketing strategy for the business across multiple mediums. 
www.vistaprint.com​ | @Vistaprint​ | More from Bridget

// by JT Ripton / Oct. 28, 2015 2 comments
video chat

With the big-league companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook integrating WebRTC into their processes, the rest of the business community is left to wonder about the capabilities of this new technology.

What exactly is WebRTC? Is it really worth the hype?

Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) is an emerging open-source standard that allows for voice calling, video chat, and data sharing directly between browsers. It enables every device despite its maker, type, or operating system to become a user’s communication platform. WebRTC means no software installation, no new IDs and passwords, and no need to learn the nuts and bolts of a totally new product. WebRTC is about convenience, simplicity, and mobility, but that’s not all. For business owners, WebRTC is a lifesaver. To find out why, check out these five reasons:

WebRTC Is All About Ease

Before the emergence of WebRTC, users had three options to choose from if they wanted to video call: Skype, tools like GoToMeeting, or full-blown Unified Communications (UC) systems. All three are standalone services that require installation, passwords, and time to get to know the specifics of their functionality. To use either Skype or GoToMeeting, a user has to flip back and forth between applications, manage multiple contacts lists, and remember a separate set of ID and password for the call to happen. Utilizing a UC system (Microsoft Lync, Cisco, Avaya) on the other hand, comes with a hefty price tag, making it a communications standard affordable only to large corporate accounts. Implementation of a full-fledged UC system requires the purchase of associated hardware and software and the hiring of an expert who has the knowledge and the skill to deploy the system. As a result, most companies integrate with the application only partially, but certainly all of them experienced large expenditure on the product and employee fatigue with the system’s complexity.

Unlike the above options, the only thing WebRTC needs to function is a working browser. At the time of writing, WebRTC is supported by Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera, with Microsoft coming soon, making virtually every device capable of integrating with the new technology. With minimal effort required to install and operate, WebRTC is designed to deliver the ease of communication.

Low-cost Communications

Services come with a price. Skype charges for phone calls, GoToMeeting offers subscriptions, and UC systems come with significant hardware investments. WebRTC is not a service, instead it is technology that enables its users to make calls and share files in the browser, thus making communication absolutely free over the Internet, or very low-cost when using optimization services. If you want WebRTC pre-packaged and easier to use then you may want to pay a little for pre-built libraries and cloud services from a WebRTC infrastructure company. This is most appropriate when you need a guaranteed quality service, for example across global networks and mobile devices as provided as a service by Agora.IO (try their free app at beckon.cc).

There are no hidden charges or additional hardware purchases required, and for larger businesses, WebRTC significantly reduces the cost of operating a contact center by significantly reducing the need for expensive 1-800 numbers. Customers can now reach businesses for free through a mobile app or the website with the click of a button. WebRTC is all about simplicity.

Secure Like No Other

When it comes to business communications, sensitive information is often involved. Whether it is a large corporate merger in the works or a patent-pending design, avoiding information leaks is critical to any company’s future. It is no wonder that enterprises across the board are invested in keeping their conversations and data files private. Since WebRTC is based on a secure real-time protocol (SRTP), no one other than the callers will be able to interfere. In contrast to WebRTC, most VoIP (Voice over IP) services utilize a real-time protocol that does not incorporate modern-day security features such as encryption and authentication. Experts say that it is the technology’s security that has even traditionally rigid financial and healthcare organizations considering the implementation of WebRTC.

Employee Engagement Boost

Gone are the days of weekly employee meetings. Today, enterprises operate with their workforce spread across the globe. The challenge of bringing everyone on the same page is the daily struggle of a project manager or a business owner. With less than 68% of employees feeling engaged in their work, it is the company’s productivity that is at stake. Many solutions available on the market use texting features in an effort to replicate consumer social media messaging, but his does not meet the full needs of business engagement. So how does a business owner overcome the obstacle of low engagement?

WebRTC provides a solution.

The technology’s real-time video awakens the sense of team work among employees as it visually connects them with one another, going beyond the impersonal nature of e-mail or chat. WebRTC creates a sense of presence and involvement in the business’s workflow among employees translating into higher participation and engagement. Unlike other solutions, WebRTC is here to demolish the walls and bring people together so that they can achieve their goals and feel accomplished.

New Age of Customer Service

Customer satisfaction is at the core of any business transaction. No customers equals no sales. However research shows that as many as 89% of consumers switched to a competitor after a poor customer service experience (RightNow survey) and up to 60% of consumers agree to pay more for a better customer service (Desk survey). Clearly, some companies prefer to focus on closing a sale rather than catering to client satisfaction. Customer service departments remain either hard to reach (long hold times or obscure email addresses) or hard to connect with (limitations of verbal explanations). Trying to explain a simple product issue can take hours and resolve in nothing. In a saturated market of products and their providers, it is a recipe for disaster. To improve their customer relations and resolve issues with ease and efficiency, businesses should consider WebRTC. WebRTC enables consumers to connect with a company with the click of a button, explain the problem or ask a question, and provide visual materials to support their claim. WebRTC’s click-to-call capability not only elevates customer concern resolution, but also increases conversion as visual demonstrations and support is available in an instant.

The simple, secure, and cost-effective nature of WebRTC is here to transform the world of business communications. Its protocol will keep conversations confidential; the low cost of implementation will optimize balance sheets; the ease of operations will improve customer satisfaction; and its collaboration capability will make employees feel more involved. With analysts forecasting 4.6 billion WebRTC enabled devices by 2016, many businesses will step into the new age of secure and simple web communications. The question is: when will you?

JT Ripton
Business Consultant & Freelance Writer
JT Ripton is a business consultant and a freelance writer out of Tampa. When he's not helping small business owners get started, he's writing articles for various major business sites, you can follow him on Twitter @JTRipton.
@JTRipton| More from JT           
// by Rieva Lesonsky / Oct. 27, 2015 0 comments
total compensation

As the economy improves, are you worried about retaining your best and brightest employees? For a small business, it can be hard to replace vital workers with specialized skills and deep knowledge of your company. However, offering salary increases to keep employees isn't always possible for small business on a tight budget. That's why more and more companies are finding that employee benefits are critical to retaining employees.

A new study by the Society for Human Resource Management polled HR managers to see how their companies use benefits and what types of benefits are most popular in terms of retaining employees. Here's some of what they found—and what it means for your business.

First, you're not imagining things: It is getting more difficult to retain employees at all levels. Over one-third (36 percent) of survey respondents have had problems retaining employees in the past 12 months. That's up significantly from 2013, when just 26 percent had this problem.

Benefits are important to retain employees of all types, from high-performing and high-skilled workers on down. One-third of respondents had used benefits to retain employees in the past year, up from just 18 percent who did so the year prior.

What benefits are most important in employee retention? Far and away, health care benefits rule: 80 percent of the companies surveyed used healthcare benefits to keep employees in the past year.

Retirement savings benefits have helped 57 percent of these businesses retain employees. In fact, retirement benefits are more important in employee retention than compensation, which 46 percent have used to retain employees.

I was surprised to see that the use of flexible work arrangements as a retention tool declined in the past year. Only about one-third of respondents used flexible work options to retain employees, down dramatically from more than half who did so the previous year. The report doesn't indicate why flexible work has become less important in employee retention, but perhaps it's because more workplaces now offer this perk, so employees considering a job change are likely find flexible arrangements elsewhere, too.  

What can you learn from these survey results about retaining employees?

First of all, when trying to keep employees on board, healthcare benefits are the first thing to emphasize. Many employees don't realize the value of their healthcare benefits unless you educate them about their true cost. Today, most small businesses require employees to contribute some part of their premiums, but typically the employee contribution only accounts for the tip of the iceberg (so to speak). Letting employees know the full amount you’re actually paying for their and their families’ coverage can help them better appreciate what they're getting.

Of course, which benefits to emphasize may also depend on the demographic of the employee in question. The survey notes that flexible work arrangements, while becoming less useful as a retention tool, are still very important to two groups you might not expect: Millennials and workers over 55. Although you might assume working parents most desire flexible work, the survey found that Millennials like to control their own work schedules, even if it means accepting a lower salary. In addition, 55-and-over employees may be starting to phase into retirement, may have health issues or may need to care for aging parents—all demands on their time that make flexible work hours a priority. Since older employees often have valuable institutional knowledge, industry connections and skills you don't want to lose, flexible options are a simple way to retain them.

Last but not least, don't forget about retirement benefits. This survey is only one of many I've seen reporting that retirement benefits are extremely important to employees of all ages. The recession hit Millennials so hard they’ve got financial stability on the brain, while older workers who lost value in their retirement plans need to make up for lost time. Instituting a retirement plan for your workplace is much more affordable than you may think—and well worth the small cost to your business when you consider the payoff in terms of employee retention. (Bonus: It benefits you, too—I know many of you have no retirement plan in place, and that’s a big mistake.)

I hope you're already offering many of these benefits, but if you’re not, your SCORE mentor can help you decide what matters most to your team and suggest places to get the best value. Visit www.score.org to get matched with a mentor today.  

Rieva Lesonsky
Columnist and CEO
GrowBiz Media

Rieva is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company specializing in covering small businesses and entrepreneurship. She was formerly Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine and has written several books about small business and entrepreneurship. 
GrowBizMedia.com | @rieva | More from Rieva

// by Liberty Tax Service / Oct. 26, 2015 0 comments
Tax Help

When do you start thinking about taxes? Be honest.

If you’re like some small business owners, you put taxes out of your mind until tax time. That’s simply too late. Once the calendar year comes to an end, many options to materially affect the net income of your business have vanished for that tax year.

What follows are 5 steps you can take to make the tax process work better for you and your franchise business.

Schedule estimated tax payments. The IRS expects small business owners to pay their tax liability as they make profits throughout the year. Many small business owners do not make these crucial estimated tax payments. That failure can result in a large balance due and underpayment penalties. Small business owners should meet with their tax professional throughout the year to assess their tax situation, ensure they are making the proper amount of estimated payments, and discuss strategies that can lower tax liability.

Maximize deductions. Every year, business owners miss out on deductions or credits that can help reduce their tax liability. According to internal data from ADP, at least 3,000 federal and state incentives are available, but 50 percent go unclaimed. That amounts to tens of billions of dollars that business owners are leaving on the table. Some purposely forgo the incentives, claiming the rules that go along with them are too complex or cumbersome. The complaint is valid, however complexities in the tax code should not stop a business owner from investigating all the tax breaks available to him or her, then making a determination about which ones are best for the business to pursue.

Two substantial tax breaks are in limbo again in 2015 – Section 179 and bonus depreciation. The Section 179 deduction will be reduced from $500,000 to $25,000, unless Congress acts to extend the larger deduction. Section 179 deduction can be used for qualifying business property placed into service in a given year. The deduction allows a business to recover all or the greater part of the cost than depreciation allows. Bonus depreciation is set to expire in 2015 unless Congress acts. This tax break allows businesses to deduct 50 percent of their costs for computers and other new capital equipment purchases in the year in which they were purchased, instead of over several years. Both were extended in late 2014, and the same could happen this year, but business owners will have to wait and see.

Other deductions to consider include:

  • Business use of car. Businesses can deduct actual expenses, including gas or oil, insurance, licenses and registration, interest on a non-lease auto loan, lease payments, parking fees, repairs, garage rental space, and more. Or they may choose to deduct using the standard rate for miles driven. When using the standard mileage rate, businesses may also include fees for parking and tolls. For 2015, the rate is 57.5 cents per mile. Whichever method your business uses, it is essential that you maintain a mileage log.
  • Meals/Entertainment: Businesses may deduct 50 percent of business-related meals and entertainment expenses, including: travel away from home on business; entertaining customers at a restaurant or other location; attending a business convention or business meeting.
  • Advertising expenses: The following costs count as advertising expenses: business cards, newspaper ads, greeting cards sent to customers, and sales literature.
  • Other deductible business expenses:  These include but are not limited to commissions and fees, product liability insurance, insurance licenses, supplies, business telephone, interest on business loans, office expenses, gifts limited to $25 per person/calendar year, rent on business property, repairs and maintenance on office equipment, business and professional dues and trade publications and preferred customer programs.

Access health insurance. In 2016, Affordable Care Act (ACA) rules for businesses with 50-99 employees go into effect. That means those employers will have to provide health insurance coverage for their full-time equivalent employees or they may face a penalty. Some things to consider about ACA:

  • The Health Insurance Marketplace offers options for coverage for individuals and their families. If you do obtain coverage in the Marketplace, annual income from your business will be tightly coupled with your monthly premium costs. Changes in your net income from business could cause an increase or decrease in your monthly premiums.
  • Businesses with fewer than 25 full-time equivalent employees have options for affordable coverage for their employees. They may be eligible for the Credit for Small Employer Health Insurance Premiums.
  • Businesses with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees can take advantage of the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP). Currently, small businesses pay on average 18 percent more than larger businesses for health insurance. The SHOP Marketplace offers small employers increased purchasing power so they can obtain higher-quality coverage at a lower cost.

Recordkeeping matters. Without good records, you open your business to cash flow issues and tax woes. Consider double-entry cloud-based accounting software that allows users to access it anywhere. The software won’t replace a financial adviser, but it will help business owners keep records organized and in order. One plus with double-entry bookkeeping software is that for each credit you input, the software automatically includes the corresponding debit, and vice versa.

Talk with your tax adviser. There’s not much more to add here. Your tax adviser is the person who best understands the tax code and how it may affect your business. It’s important to have an ongoing dialogue with your tax adviser so you can be sure you maximize deductions and take advantage of tax savings that will help improve your bottom line. Your tax professional can help you establish a plan and structure for keeping business records. He or she should encourage you not to mix business and personal financial records and to establish a separate business bank account or bank card.  One of the first things the IRS will look at in a business audit is bank records, so it’s important not to have muddied waters. Separate accounts will also help during tax time. Your tax pro will be able review the business account and help you properly classify expenses and income on your tax return.

Liberty Tax Service
SCORE Corporate Patron
Liberty Tax, Inc.

Founded in 1997 by CEO John T. Hewitt, Liberty Tax, Inc. (NASDAQ: TAX) is the parent company of Liberty Tax Service. Liberty Tax’s online services are available through eSmart Tax, Liberty Online and DIY Tax, and are all backed by the tax professionals at Liberty Tax locations and its nationwide network of approximately 35,000 seasonal tax preparers. 
Liberty Tax.com | @LibertyTax | Facebook | More from Liberty Tax

// by Bridget Weston Pollack / Oct. 23, 2015 0 comments
Seasons

As summer turns to fall, it’s easy to get caught up in seasonal activities like choosing Halloween costumes, picking apples and pumpkins, or for small business, even getting ready for the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

But if a disaster struck your business, would you be ready? Seasonal changes provide an ideal time to check your business’s emergency preparedness plans, especially for weather-related emergencies. FEMA reports that between 40 and 60 percent of small businesses never reopen following a disaster. Blocking out some time on a quarterly basis to think proactively about unexpected and unfortunate events can help your business stay strong through difficult times.

Review your emergency preparedness plans each quarter

“Defeating Downtime, Keep Your Business Weatherproof,” a SCORE webinar with Jennifer Shaheen of Technology Therapy Group, Shaheen reminds us that no matter how big or small your business, every company has essential supplies and equipment. “Make a list of items your business can’t survive without,” she advises, by taking an inventory of important equipment and breakables. You may have taken a similar inventory in the past when you obtained or updated your insurance policy. But a routine check of essential items and expensive tools accounts for any new pieces of equipment or changes to your business.

Once you take inventory, think about how your business operates. In the event you need to be away from your business longer than a day, what information can you not live without? What hardware, software, or pieces of equipment do you need to use all the time? Focus on these elements of your business as you prepare for various emergency scenarios.

As we move into colder months, being ready for emergencies means preparing for more than just snow days. Power outages, reduced access to area roads and facilities, auto accidents, and employee illness are all common winter threats to your business says Mark Norton from Agility Recovery in another SCORE webinar, “Winter Weather Preparedness.”

Now’s the time to: review insurance coverage; compile contact information for your building owner, insurance company, plumber, or snow removal service;  establish an inclement weather attendance policy for employees; and discuss the many scenarios that could slow down your business. Don’t keep these plans a secret from your team -- rather, involve them in the preparation process. “The better prepared your staff is for recovery, the better prepared your organization will be as a result,” Norton advises.

Plan for internal and external emergency communication

Once your team knows how to handle an emergency, review how you’ll share the status of your business with the public in the event you can’t operate as planned. Make sure you can access your business website and social media accounts remotely or by mobile device so you can post your operating status.

If there’s a warning period before a threat like a snowstorm, start posting on those accounts to alert customers that your hours and functions may change depending on the forecast. It’s important for your internal team to communicate regularly throughout an emergency event, but you also need to notify customers, clients, and suppliers of those situations as well.

Turn to resources to help you anticipate emergency events

Don’t rush through or skip emergency planning. Take time to review each part of your company’s plans, and be sure to consider and plan for new threats.

Looking for a checklist to help keep you organized and recognize threats you might not have considered? PrepareMyBusiness.org offers a variety of emergency planning worksheets, and SCORE’s Disaster Planning Guide can help you identify risks and prepare for the potential impact of a variety of unexpected events.

Have an unusual circumstance and can’t figure out how best to prepare? Contact SCORE mentors for help. They’ve seen their share of unexpected events, and can help you think proactively now, so your business can thrive all winter long. 

Bridget Weston Pollack
Vice President of Marketing & Communications
SCORE
Bridget Weston Pollack is the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at the SCORE Association. In this role, Bridget is responsible for all branding, marketing, PR, and communication efforts. She focuses on implementing marketing plans and strategies for the organization to facilitate the growth of SCORE’s mentoring and trainings services.
// by SBA / Oct. 22, 2015 0 comments
Cyber Security

The Internet gives us the power to connect with people and businesses all over the globe. While this is a great opportunity for the growing number of small businesses and employees to reach each other it is also an opportunity for security risks. We are all familiar with the major breaches in cybersecurity lately for several large operations. Cybersecurity is no longer an issue for the future, it should be a present day concern for all businesses large and small. The good news is, The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established October as National Cyber Security Awareness Month to educate the public and business owners about cybersecurity.

Protect Your Network

First things first, make sure that your Internet connection is secured with a firewall, router, and password. If you have clients or guests that may want to use the wireless connection create a second password for those users. You do not want anyone who is not authorized to have the same access as you and your employees.

You are one link click away from viruses and spyware. Your business should be equipped with antivirus software and antispyware. Make sure that it is updated regularly and automatically to ensure that you are always up to date. Remind your employees to not click on or open suspicious links and emails as they can often spread very easily throughout your network once activated.

Another process that is worth automating is the backing up your data. Automating this step will give you and your employees piece of mind and help to protect your important documents and databases.

We all have so many passwords to remember and it seems like the requirements are getting more and more strenuous. However strong passwords, changed often, are going to help you control access to computers, laptops, and your network. Additionally access to computers should be restricted and administrative rights should be reserved for IT staff.

More cyber tips for small businesses

Prepare Your Employees

Creating strong polices and best practices for employees are going to be one of the most important lines of defense for your network’s security. Provide education and support for your employees on ongoing threats so they can help protect your business against potential risks.

Establish clear security procedures for handling any sensitive material or personal identification  information and in-turn outline the consequences for violating the policies.

The policies should include posting company information online. Especially with most people having at least one social media account, outlining what is appropriate and inappropriate for employees will be an important part of their training.

Top Tools and Resources for Small Business Owners

File a Claim

If you suspect or have fallen victim to internet scams or fraud you should file a complaint with local, state, and federal law enforcement officials. Law enforcers review consumer complaints to spot trends and build cases against hackers, identity thieves, scam artists, and other fraudsters.

Agencies like The Federal Trade Commission collects complaints about fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices. If you think you may be a victim of fraud, file a complaint with the FTC. In addition, you can file a claim locally with your State Attorney General’s office. They handle a wide range of complaints related to consumer protection.

Report stolen funds or identities to The Internet Crime Complaint Center and complaints about businesses or services should be directed to the Better Business Bureau.

Additional Resources

SBA
U.S. Small Business Administration

The SBA is an independent federal agency that works to assist and protect the interests of American small businesses. The agency delivers the answers, support and resources small businesses need to start-up, grow and succeed through district offices throughout the U.S. and a network of resource partners including SCORE.
www.sba.gov | Facebook | @SBAgov | More from the SBA

// by David Bobbitt / Oct. 21, 2015 0 comments
Fundability

When I started my first small business sixteen years ago, the idea of securing a loan through my local bank was a much more realistic and fairly simple option.  At the time, like many business owners, I took a loan from the Bank of HELOC.  I went to my mortgage lender and obtained a home equity line of credit (HELOC); it was a short process with fairly easy underwriting.  Unfortunately, for most small business owners today, the Bank of HELOC is closed—many people still don’t have equity in their homes after the Terrible Recession, and some lost their homes entirely. What’s more, even if you have a home, it’s hard to get any type of loan using your home equity, including a traditional small business loan.

Financing is one of the most important challenges small business owners face.  For example, you may need money for working capital or another reason.  In that first business, I needed money to pay my employees while I waited for some of those first payments from my customers.  You might also need funds to help expand your workspace or acquire new inventory.

The world has changed and running a small business is different today than it was when I was running my first business. Fortunately, although it can still be hard to get any sort of financing in some situations, there is a growing number of financing options for small business owners—in fact, more than ever before.  Some products will feel familiar, but have changed radically due to how the Internet has made the small business loan process quicker and easier.  Fintech companies—a new class of non-bank lenders that use online technology to make underwriting faster and much more simple—didn’t exist when I started my first business.

Now, many online lenders have emerged offering small business loans through a much simpler application process. With so many options and so many different rules for underwriting, it can be a terrible time sink for small business owners to understand and shop for their best option.  The New York Federal Reserve recently surveyed small business owners and reported the average time spent searching and applying for financing is now 33 hours.  That’s a heckuva lot of time that you could be working on your business.  Or enjoying with your family, instead of looking for a small business loan.

This is why I’m so proud that SCORE and BusinessLoans.com, with support from OnDeck, have teamed up to provide a no-cost tool to help any small business owners assess what kind of financing products best fit their specific situation. The Fundability Tool asks you a few short questions and then identifies the financing options that may work best for you and your situation.  Best of all, because it walks you through the basic requirements of each option, you can learn and understand what options may be available in the future as your business changes and grows.

It will also help identify where your application might have a hole or two, so you’ll know where you can improve your application to qualify for a loan at the bank, an SBA loan, an online business loan—or any of the other options next time.

The fundability tool is just one example of what we’re doing with BusinessLoans.com and OnDeck to make small business financing education more available at SCORE. For example, if you’d like to learn more about what’s changed in the world of small business lending, you should view this SCORE webinar too.

The Bank of HELOC may have closed for many of us, but the Bank of Hopes and Dreams can never close.  I invite you to try the fundability tool and let us know if it helps you find financing for your business.

David Bobbitt
President
The SCORE Foundation

David R. Bobbitt is President of the The SCORE Foundation.  A serial entrepreneur and star of the documentary Small Business Revolution, he holds an MBA from Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
The SCORE Foundation | LinkedIn | More from David

// by Rieva Lesonsky / Oct. 20, 2015 0 comments
Startup Costs

When you're starting a new business, chances are you don't have a huge budget to work with. One way to trim your startup costs is by launching a business in a location that’s affordable due to a low cost of living, low tax rates or other factors. A new study by SmartAsset investigated the cost of starting a business in various cities around the U.S. to see what cities have the lowest startup costs. SmartAssets used these five factors in determining startup costs:

  1. Office space
  2. Utilities
  3. Filing fees for incorporating or forming an LLC
  4. Legal and accounting costs for the first year in business
  5. Payroll for five employees earning that city's median annual salary

Overall, the study found, the South is the most affordable place to start a new business. Relatively low labor costs and low rent for commercial office space were the key factors here. The cheapest place to start a business is Chattanooga, Tennessee, followed by Columbia, South Carolina; Wichita, Kansas; Knoxville, Tennessee; Orlando, Florida; Lexington, Kentucky; Little Rock, Arkansas; Greensboro, North Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; and Louisville, Kentucky.

What about the most expensive place to start a new business? Not surprisingly, that dubious honor goes to the Bay Area. High taxes in California combined with expensive real estate and high average salaries for employees mean that startup costs in San Jose and San Francisco are more than 50 percent higher than the national average. Ouch!

Of course, locating in a low-cost city isn't the only way to save money on startup. Here are some other cost-cutting tips that can work no matter where you are:

  • Run your business from home. This won't work for every business, but if it will work for yours it can save you a bundle on utilities and rent. Another option that’s somewhere in the middle: Find a co-working space where you can rent space as-needed for much less than the cost of a traditional commercial office.
  • Rethink your business model. If you have your heart set on a high-cost startup such as a retail store or restaurant, think about ways you can adjust your business model to lessen the startup cost. For example, how about opening a food truck instead of a full-scale restaurant? You can open a restaurant later on if your concept proves successful, but in the meantime you'll save a bundle and start to build your brand awareness.
  • Don't be too quick to hire. The cost of employees is one of the biggest expenses in even the lowest-cost cities in the SmartAssets study. If at all possible, try to delay hiring full-time workers until you absolutely have to. There are so many other options for getting work done these days, such as outsourcing to independent contractors and freelancers, or hiring a virtual assistant to help you with day-to-day tasks.

One last word of warning: Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish. If a commercial location or full-time employees will help your business grow faster or become more profitable, then go for it. Saving money isn't the ultimate goal of entrepreneurship, after all; making money is.

Your SCORE mentor can help you figure out how to save money (and how to make money). Don’t have a mentor yet? Visit www.score.org to get one. 

Rieva Lesonsky
Columnist and CEO
GrowBiz Media

Rieva is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company specializing in covering small businesses and entrepreneurship. She was formerly Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine and has written several books about small business and entrepreneurship. 
GrowBizMedia.com | @rieva | More from Rieva

// by Jeanne Rossomme / Oct. 19, 2015 0 comments
Life reimagined.

"If you're like me, you're here today to explore, imagine and perhaps start on a journey to re-energize your sense of purpose and passion in life.

My wish for you is that you'll be inspired Learn and have fun.  Along your journey of exploration you will have the chance to think about what matters to you in virtually all areas of your life, from your well-being and relationships, to work and career, inspired by some of the worlds leading thinkers and leaders who have reimagined their own lives."

Emilio Pardo, President, Life Reimagined and Executive VP, AARP

Are you at a transition point in your life?  Perhaps you are looking at the next stage for your business?  Or perhaps you have a personal change in your health status?

Whether you are looking for guidance with career, relationships, finance or well-being, there is a great new program just launched by AARP: Life Reimagined.  Your guide to What's next?

LifeReimagined.org is a fantastic resource full of expert advice and tools.  Well known writers (like Richard Nelson Bolles, author of What Color is your Parachute) contribute to tools such as online tests to help uncover your passions.  The site even integrates  with LinkedIn so you can use your past experiences to assess and possibly reposition your skills.  The resource is free and a treasure trove of aids to help you along your journey.

And for those you want even more guidance, there is a new subscription service called LifeMap.  Subscribers are paired with a LifeMap coach who can help you identify your greatest gifts, passions and desires.  Together you then map out the actions to get you to your purpose.

Life Reimagined also hosts live events with fantastic speakers (such as Chris Gardner, the real life hero of the movie, "The Pursuit of Happyness") who both inspire and keep it real.  Some kernels of wisdom:

  • “You have to go with your passion.  Plan B sucks.” Chris Gardner
  • "No" stifles creativity.  It shuts down potentially transformative ideas.  How about trying "Yes, And" on for size?  Second City Works
  • "Potential exists within all of us and there is no personal reward quite like knowing you are making the world a little better than you found it."  Rabbi Abbie Ingber
Jeanne Rossomme
President
RoadMap Marketing

Jeanne uses her 20 years of marketing know-how to help small business owners reach their goals. Before becoming an entrepreneur, she held a variety of marketing positions with DuPont and General Electric. Jeanne regularly hosts online webinars and workshops in both English and Spanish.
www.roadmapmarketing.com | @roadmapmarketin | More from Jeanne

// by Bridget Weston Pollack / Oct. 16, 2015 0 comments
going global

Selling internationally can feel like the final frontier for your small business. You’ve mastered the market at home, you’ve got a great product, and you’re ready to expand!

But even if you decide overnight that you’d like to take your business overseas, you won’t be able to start this stage of expansion on a whim. Doing business internationally takes research, planning, and the perfection of your company’s processes.

Before you go global, consider the following questions.

Who’s your target international market?

It can be tempting to open your business up to all international markets at once, but it might not be the right move for you. Navigating the landscape of taxes, duties, and shipping regulations is a task best taken on one country at a time.

To determine your best options for expansion, consider both your past experiences and future goals. Do you frequently receive emails asking if you ship to a particular place? You may have a growing fan base in that country. Do you see a need that your product can fill? Starting with a nation that would love your product will help boost initial sales and spur greater long-term growth.

If you’re not comfortable in a second language, you’ll probably want to start by considering English-speaking countries. Otherwise, you’ll need to prepare a translated website, marketing collateral, and even packing slips!

How will you find and reach your new customers?

It’s not enough to add a few lines to your website and wait for international customers to come rolling in. Your business may require considerable outreach efforts to educate potential customers about your new international offerings.

If you’re a B2B company, you may be able to forge connections on LinkedIn. If you’re a B2C business, you’ll probably want to announce your new shipping options in your email newsletter.

If you want to deliver wholesale product to shops around the world, you’ll want to be up front about international ordering policies. But approach new wholesale accounts gently -- your potential stockists may be just as new as you are to doing business internationally.

How will you manage payments and shipping?

This is perhaps the most complex part of doing business overseas is determining how to handle customer payments and shipping.

As Emma Johnson explains in SCORE’s online workshop International Shipping 101: How to Take Your Business Global, international shipping involves more than just paying for a label and dropping a package in the mailbox.

You’ll need to determine if you want to collect the full “landed cost” of your product, to include insurance, taxes and duties, and other fees due upon arrival, or leave those delivery costs to the consumer. A potential buyer is more likely to complete a purchase if they know their total cost from the start, rather than getting sacked with a bill when they pick up their package from the local post office.

If you’re using a third-party sales platform, such as Amazon, Etsy, or eBay, many of the hassles of shipping and handling payments are taken care of by your shop host. If you’re operating your own ecommerce solution, you may need to invest in shipping software.

Johnson advises small businesses to pay special attention as you evaluate shipping solutions. Can the program choose the right customs forms, pre-fill information based on the order information, and print all the information you need to submit or include in the package? A good shipping solution will also alert you to shipping bans -- country-specific limitations on what can be mailed into the country.

Choosing the right shipping method not only saves you time. It also avoids delivery delays that can irritate customers and prevent them from coming back again and again.

Still struggling to evaluate international opportunities for your small business? Call on a SCORE mentor. Many of our volunteers have done business around the world and can provide experienced insight for your unique situation.

Bridget Weston Pollack
Vice President of Marketing & Communications
SCORE
Bridget Weston Pollack is the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at the SCORE Association. In this role, Bridget is responsible for all branding, marketing, PR, and communication efforts. She focuses on implementing marketing plans and strategies for the organization to facilitate the growth of SCORE’s mentoring and trainings services.