Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Free Shipping Day

There are plenty of shopping days left until Christmas.

Of course, that's not a license to procrastinate, but who wants to shop for the holidays when we're working on our Halloween costumes?

Knowing how often I shop for gifts late in the season (I actually like holiday shopping during the holidays - crazy, huh?), I've already marked my calendar for Dec. 17, this year's Free Shipping Day.

This revolutionary idea is the brainchild of an entrepreneur I interviewed, Maisie Knowles, for my podcast this summer.

She and her husband Luke founded in 2007. Last year, they had a last-minute brainstorm and created Free Shipping Day in time for the 2008 holiday shopping season. They were surprised to get participation from 250 retailers and 250,000 visitors in a 10-day period, including over 100,000 visitors on the actual day itself.

This year, the Knowles' expect to attract more than 500 retailers. If you're a small business owner selling online, it's an idea that worth considering.

How does it work? Free Shipping Day occurs on the last possible 24-hour period when retailers can guarantee on-time delivery by Christmas Eve. Retailers who participate promise to provide free shipping for online orders placed on that day. So far, merchants like Toys R Us, Babies R Us, FAO Schwartz, eToys, Baby Universe and Crate & Barrel have confirmed they will participate this year.

My calendar is marked; how about yours?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reinvent Yourself

In many respects, small businesses get the short end of the stick. When companies cut back, small suppliers are usually among the first to get jettisoned.

When consumers cut back, it's the local businesses they tend to stop frequenting. And meanwhile, they're always striving to deliver more quality at lower prices than their larger competitors!

Back in 2007, I started to hear about small companies really suffering. Looking back, I think they were the "canary in the coal mine" of the Great Recession, which didn't hit in full until last fall.

And with credit still tight and consumer spending way below what it was a few years ago, there's no doubt that many small business (the ones who've survived) are still hurting.

It's good to know, however, that many entrepreneurs have powered through the downturn doing exactly what they're best at: Being creative, innovative and flexible. In my Smart Answers column today, I interview several small business owners who've been successful this year because they've changed their business models.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the risks of cashing out retirement funds to start a small business.

And on my podcast, management guru Michael McGrath discusses smart startups and how they can make good decisions.

Pissed Off?

There are a lot of unfortunate people who live by P.T. Barnum's* old adage, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Even more unfortunate: A lot of them are determined to make suckers out of startup entrepreneurs. Nothing more tempting to a con artist than an optimistic, enthusiastic individual with a little money saved up or borrowed, apparently.

One of the first tests of a successful entrepreneur, in my book, is whether s/he gets through the startup phase without being victimized by someone selling worthless "information," "motivation" or "consulting." I have a hunch that a lot of would-be business owners get ripped off - but don't report it because they are too embarrassed.

Sometimes we have to learn lessons the hard way, I guess.

But here's some good news: The Internet has empowered all of us who may be lured by scammers. And if we're not sharp enough to research first - and resist - we can always report later, and save someone else from ruin.

I take some comfort in knowing that the bad guys' true motives are being exposed all the time. Here's the latest site to focus on ripoff reports.

Before you do business with a new company, take a gander and see if they've recently pissed someone off. And if you're a small business owner, it would be smart to monitor the site and take steps immediately to resolve any complaints posted about your company there.

*Turns out that Barnum denied coining that phrase, but if he didn't say it, it's never been determined exactly who did.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Future of Journalism

I woke up to good news this morning: My Smart Answers podcast has been named a finalist in a digital media competition.

The American Society of Business Publications Editors (how's that for a mouthful!) also named six other finalists in categories including web news, commentary, video and podcasting. The SmallBiz channel, which is the site that I specifically write for, was named a finalist in the Web Microsite category. The awards will be handed out in early November.

Whether we win or not, it's quite an honor to be a finalist for a national award. And the timing couldn't be better: Bloomberg is currently deciding how much of it will keep alive in the new year. My colleagues and I are hoping that getting the nod today will help push that decision in the proper direction!

What else is going on in journalism?

The Washington Post reports on one journalist turned entrepreneur who could be a role model for many of us.

And a new report assessing the future of community journalism - and how it might use new, innovative funding models - is being released tomorrow.

Look for some interesting conversations on the possibilities raised, including government grants to journalistic outlets that do investigative and innovative reporting. That should stir up some controversy!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Beyond Stereotypes

I noticed it immediately - indeed it was unmistakable: The charged-up energy of entrepreneurship. It hit me like a wave as soon as I arrived at Perfect Pitch 2009, the entrepreneur/investor conference I attended this week.

The level of excitement, stress and pure self-promotion at the conference seemed almost testosterone-fueled. Perhaps that's because the audience - and presenters - were mostly male. Or perhaps it's because there's a mythos that surrounds entrepreneurs, who are usually portrayed as hard-charging, risk-taking extroverts.

But that popular perception, however ubiquitous, may be off the mark. Dr. Candida Brush, an professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, writes that being a successful entrepreneur is more about what you do than who you are.

Perfect Pitch 2009

I'm happily looking forward to attending Perfect Pitch 2009, a conference that allows entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas to investors.

I've been asked to appear as part of a panel that listens to entrepreneurs discuss their business ideas and get feedback on them. It should be interesting: Sir Richard Branson is the keynote speaker.

If you can join us on Monday, Oct. 26 at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, please do!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Championing Experience

Last time, I wrote about Choire Sicha's New York Times op-ed from last week.

That piece was published just below another column that caught my eye. This one was about the downfall of Gourmet magazine.

The author, Christopher Kimball, is the editor of Cook's Illustrated. But he takes no delight in the closing of his competitor.

In fact, he laments the fading of the "old-media" tradition of writers gaining experience, spending years covering an industry or topic and learning to write and report with excellence:

The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up.

While I've seen many people - bloggers, mostly - celebrating this coronation of the ordinary, Kimball's not so complimentary:

The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise - the kind that comes from real experience, the hard won blood-on-the-floor kind.

I happen to agree with him, probably unsurprisingly, since I've got a few years' experience in journalism myself. But how do those of us who do have professional credentials and expertise make sure we can still make a living at it? Here's Kimball's prescription:

To survive, those of us who believe that inexperience rarely leads to wisdom need to swim against the tide, better define our brands, prove our worth, ask to be paid for what we do, and refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice.

It may not be popular, but I agree with Kimball. And I especially like the part about asking to be paid for what we do.

Too many people think that work done online doesn't really "count" as work. Those of us who are professionals really cannot afford to accept that idea.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We're All Entrepreneurs

This morning I got the news that McGraw-Hill had sold BusinessWeek to Bloomberg. It's unclear at this point what the sale will mean for small business coverage at BusinessWeek, or for my contract there.

While I obviously hope that my contract gets renewed at Bloomberg BusinessWeek and that I'm able to continue doing what I love - providing advice and insights to entrepreneurs - the news is a good wake up call. And not only for me, but for all of us.

Increasingly, technology and the changing economy are forcing individuals to become more pro-active about their careers. It used to be fairly common for someone to take a job at a large, powerful corporation out of college, move up through the ranks and eventually retire - from that very same company - 30 or 40 years later.

Now? Not so much. I know a few people who've followed that model, but not many. As Choire Sicha wrote in the New York Times last week:

Now that we are all on Facebook, we are each a sole proprietor. We are all perpetrators and victims of promotion (for the most part that promotion is tediously of the "self" variety). That every consumer is now a retailer is capitalism's ultimate and most logical evolution.

I don't know about the logical evolution of capitalism (not being a macro-economist myself) but I have to agree with her sentiment, and others', about all of us being more akin to sole proprietors than we ever expected to be.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dreaming the American Dream

Lots of wanna-be entrepreneurs looking for advice on going into business for themselves these days. Take this future interior designer.

I've also answered questions recently from an aspiring sports merchandiser and a someday ex-pat jeweler.

Wait, don't let me forget the soon-to-be luggage designer looking for a domestic manufacturer!

It's funny, but I never get tired of investigating these folks' dilemmas and finding good advice for them. The questions are endlessly interesting to me and the information is so readily - and satisfyingly - accessible online.

I hope it is helpful to my readers as well.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Make Them Pay!

One of the most troublesome - and easiest to fix - areas for small business owners is their accounts receivable department.

They may ask for 30- or 60-day payment terms, but they don't always get them. Certain clients may be chronically late payers, and others simply may not pay at all. Ever.

Some entrepreneurs are tempted to fold and chalk the missed payment up to "experience." Not me. I once loaded my babies up in their car seats late on a Friday evening and drove 30 miles to a delinquent editor's home a week before Christmas to demand a check that was three months overdue.

We were in "austerity budget" mode as a family, I had done the work as requested and turned it in on time, and darned if I wasn't going to get that payment! The man answered the door in his bathrobe and handed me a check. And it didn't even bounce.

Needless to say, I didn't do work for that publication again. And yes, they did call me a couple of months later for another project.

The point is, you'll never collect funds owed you if you don't try. Sometimes you'll be spinning your wheels but other times, if you're persistent, you will get paid eventually.

Start by finding out why your client isn't paying. Call to remind them politely but firmly that your bill is outstanding. If they are not responsive, or do not follow through on promises to pay, send a strong letter informing them of your intent to sue. These easy steps may scare your client straight.

If not, and the amount owed you is reasonably small, you can probably file a small claim online in your jurisdiction. You may have to pay another fee for process service and show up in small claims court for a hearing.

If the amount is larger, it may be worthwhile filing a lawsuit. Talk to an attorney about the cost-benefit ratio in those cases.

You can chalk late- or non-payer situations up to experience as well. They demonstrate how important it is to get an upfront retainer from new clients. You can also get their credit card number in advance and let them know you'll bill it directly when the balance is due.

Most importantly, know your customers before you get into business with them. Have them fill out a basic credit application that includes their business information, banking information and client references.

You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Social Media Tips

I attended a brown-bag lunch meeting today of a local LinkedIn group. Its aim is to share information and advice about social media and how it enhances business online.

Thought I would share a few of the tips I got out of the very informative session:

1) It's hard to know whether your marketing efforts are having any effect unless you measure things like traffic to your website or blog. The good news is that you can measure those things, quite precisely and inexpensively, with free tools such as Google Analytics.

2) Even if you know about Google Analytics and have it installed for your website, you may not really know what all the terms mean and which are most important. "Unique visitors" is what you want to notice. "Hits" apparently just describes how many unique pieces of code are downloaded each time someone calls up your site. Unless you're a programmer, the number of "hits" you get is not important.

3) To measure visitors' engagement with your company website or blog, look at the categories called "Page Views" and "Bounce Rate." You want to increase your page views (how many pages visitors to your site are looking at) and decrease your bounce rate (the number of people who click on your site but navigate away from it almost immediately). In order to keep people on your site, give them something to do (like "order now" or "click here") right up front.

4) You also want to encourage people to stay on your site longer and increase your subscribers. In order to do this, you need to build an interactive community - rather than think of your customers and potential customers as an audience you will be selling to.

The last point I think is very important, but it's not easy to grasp. As business has moved online, there's an interactive component to customer relations that is really quite revolutionary.

I've written a little about it here and here.