RetailEasy Blog

iPad App Version 1.0.1 Available Now


Version 1.0.1 for the LightSpeed Cloud iPad App is out and available for download in the iTunes store now.

What’s New in Version 1.0.1

– Fixes for uDynamo hardware with MerchantWarehouse
– Fixes for the Socket Scanner hardware
– Fixes for Inner Fence payment processing

 

We messed up, but those labels are getting fixed ASAP!


On behalf of the whole team at LightSpeed Cloud, we would like to apologize that the recent label update (My Dog Skip) had a major bug. We realize this caused some pretty significant inconveniences for some of you, and we are truly sorry for this.

Basically, “My Dog Skip” made a mess Friday morning, three days after the release. It was an intermittent issue that was hard to duplicate but we’ve found the source of the problem and have released a fix that is in beta right now. We will release this update tonight and all shall be well in the Clouds tomorrow.

We also realize we should have made more of an effort to communicate this change with you. We learned our lesson.

Thank you for your patience with this…and again, we realize how much of an inconvenience this was for you. Our sincerest apologies. -The team at LightSpeed Cloud

Requesting more cool people to come work for us!


LightSpeed is hiring for Customer Heroes, again! Customer Heroes are full time employees who provide excellent support to our customers via email, chat and phone. Check out the full job description, and apply online if you want to work with the best of the best. (more…)

Meet PeopleMine, a more in-depth way to manage your customers


How well do you know your customers? Do you know the customers you’ve lost or the folks that are starting to not come in your doors as much? Hopefully you have some idea, but I’ll come back to the first question later.

LightSpeed Cloud users familiar with the Customers tab may already believe themselves to be experts on customer relationship management. While we have enough customer management features to shake a stick at, there are limitations as to what that tab and our reports can accomplish.

For instance, there is no way to look at spending trends for your local customers. In another scenario, it wouldn’t be an easy task to email your first-time customers with a special offer or send a thank you to your big spenders using LightSpeed Cloud alone. Well, for those of you looking to do advanced customer analysis, there is an integrated solution.

peopleminelogo (more…)

The Business Life Cycle: Final Thoughts and Small Business Advice


This is the 7th and last post in a series by Bradley Saul, called “The Business Life Cycle.”

Over my past few posts, I gave a glimpse into the rise and fall of the bike store I co-owned for five years.

There are loads of business books full of tips and advice on how to succeed in business. I created my own list to share with you. I tossed it in the trash.

Throughout these posts, I haven’t told you one thing: I never wanted to run a bike shop. That is, I did not want to deal with customers or managing employees. (more…)

The Business Life Cycle: Business by the Numbers Part 2 – Inventory


This is the 6th post in a series by Bradley Saul, called “The Business Life Cycle.”

In the last post, I looked at my business’ total sales revenue over the course of its existence. In the graph below, I broke down sales by inventory category. I defined an inventory product as an item that we stocked and expected a frequent turnover, as opposed to rentals or service.

The first stacked bar chart shows the proportion of sales for each category.

Sales by Inventory Category

(more…)

The Business Life Cycle: Business by the Numbers Part 1 – Sales


This is the 5th post in a series by Bradley Saul called “The Business Life Cycle.”

In the next two posts, I’ll share sales reports for the five years of our business.

The following table shows 2008 as the best year for sales. Though 2008 was the first year of the recession, it was boom time for cycling in California as summer gas prices stayed over $4 per gallon. This initial boom tapered off by October 2008; then it became time to learn to actually run a business. We managed to make it through 2009 and 2010. A variety of factors including increased competition, owner burnout, and a wet Spring led to a remarkably poor 2011.

Sales by Year (more…)

The Business Life Cycle: Business Mistakes And Work-Life Balance


This is the fourth post in a series by Bradley Saul, called “The Business Life Cycle.”

In my previous post, I discussed the mistakes we made in 2008 that eventually led to our demise.

We started to get the hang of running a business in 2009 and 2010, but a few factors stood in our way.

First, my business partner wanted to invest additional funds to both remodel our store and commit to a high-end bike brand. The remodel was desperately needed. As business increased in 2008, we found that employees were tripping over each other and the retail space could be much better used. Admittedly, I cautioned against making a huge commitment to a high-end bike brand. We were having trouble with cash flow and maintaining inventory levels on entry-level bikes that sold well. If there’s money to invest, I said, let’s invest in products that we know are turning over. (more…)

New Login page launches first week of April


Spring is a time for growth and renewal. As you may have heard, we launched our iOS Sales app recently, and we’re getting ready to launch an updated user interface soon as well. To help facilitate these changes we’re launching a new Login page, which will look different than the screen you are used to seeing when logging into your LightSpeed Cloud point of sale.

Not to worry though, everything functions the same, just with a new and improved look. And we added some subtle flair too… we can’t help ourselves. 

Look for our new login page early next week. Here is a snapshot of what it will look like.

2013 Login Screen

The Business Life Cycle: The Reality For One Start Up Business


This is the third post in Bradley Saul’s series, “The Business Life Cycle.”

Upon opening, we were immediately well received by the community. We realized just how tough and how much work small business ownership can be, but we were excited. We were exceeding our sales projections. We felt like we could pull this off.

While many businesses struggled at the beginning of the recession, we exploded in the Spring of 2008. As James Macpherson of the Associated Press wrote in May 2008, “Four-dollar-a-gallon gas is good for business — if you run a bike shop.” If you know how to scale your business and manage an overload of business, a sales boom can be great. Otherwise, it’s a curse disguised as a blessing. (more…)

How To: Prepare for the British Columbia GST and PST Tax Change


As many of our Canadian friends know, British Columbia is reverting from Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) back to two separate tax percentages: Goods and Services Tax (GST) and Provincial Sales Tax (PST).

Here we have a group of BC business owners trying to figure out how to convert LightSpeed Cloud to GST + PST.

Don’t worry, we can show you how!

(more…)

Rescheduled: User Experience (UX) Open House


openhouseIn the last few years we updated and polished the look and feel of our web site and branding but the actual product’s look and feel hasn’t gotten a lot of love from our design team. That’s about to change in major way – we’re working on a significant refresh of the LightSpeed Cloud look-and-feel and we want to get your input early and often as we work towards releasing this exciting update to LightSpeed Cloud.

Rescheduled to due to illness on Thursday, March 28st at 3pm PST we will host our first online “User Experience (UX) Open House” where you can see an early version of the new user interface, ask questions and make suggestions about what you’d like to see in both this current project and future ones. Sign-up to attend the UX Open House online (25 registrant maximum). (more…)

The Business Life Cycle: The Small Business Plan Becomes Reality


 

West County Revolution 3

This is the second post in Bradley Saul’s series called “The business Life Cycle.”

The executive summary of our business plan began:

A June 20th Press Democrat article identified Sonoma County as a “New ‘Must Ride’ for Cyclists.”  From the waves to the wine, western Sonoma County is a popular destination for cyclists from all over.  Sebastopol is home to a large population of avid cyclists.  However, in an area crawling with bicyclists, there is no bicycle shop in a 6-mile radius of Sebastopol nor is there a bike shop west of Highway 101 from Cotati to Healdsburg.  The West County Revolution aims to fill that gap. (more…)

The Business Life Cycle: What I Learned After 5 Years


This is the first post in the series, “The Business Life Cycle,” about my experience opening and closing a bicycle shop.

On July 15th, 2012, the West County Revolution Bike Shop closed its doors for the last time. My business partners and I made a go for five years, but with our lease up for renewal and a business that, well, wasn’t quite worth it, we decided to lock the doors.

In this series of posts, I will reflect on my experience as a small business owner. So often you read about what it takes to make a successful small business, but sometimes we learn more from failure. Whether you have an established venture or intend to start your own business, I hope my retrospective is useful to you.

We interviewed many fellow business owners before we opened, but we did not have any specific sales numbers from which to make educated projections from. I will share some of our sales reports, and though the numbers come from a bicycle store, the lessons from our business apply to any retail business owner.

Before picking apart the West County Revolution, let’s look at the retail sector as a whole. Using data from the Census Bureau’s Business Dynamics Statistics, I’ve plotted the probability of survival for retail firms established in 2005. (They presently don’t have data beyond 2010, so I chose the first time at which I could see a 5-year trend).

Probability of Business Survival

Relative to the rest of the retail sector reaching the 5-year point defies the odds, but surviving does not mean thriving. For the most part, we were trying to keep the business alive.

In the next installments, I talk about turning our dream of owning a business into reality and what that looked like for us.

LightSpeed Cloud Mobile – Simple Sales on your iPhone and iPod Touch


We’re excited to announce our release of the latest version of the LightSpeed Cloud Point of Sale App for iOS. The LightSpeed Cloud Mobile Sales App< allows you to conduct simple sales with your iPhone or iPod Touch. You can add items by scanning barcodes using the built-in camera or by searching by keyword. Additionally you can look-up current stock-levels for any item in your inventory, connect sales to existing customers or add new customers all from the app. We've kept it simple to make sure it works quickly and easily and we'll continue to improve the App as time goes on. (more…)

We’re Hiring…Again.


We’re hiring for two Customer Heroes. Customer Heroes are full time employees who provide excellent support to our customers via email, chat and phone. Check out the full job description if you are interested in working for a seriously rad company that works hard and plays hard.

After we filter through hundreds of applicants, this is what we’d like to find in a candidate

LightSpeed looks for candidates with a positive, upbeat attitude that would be a great fit for our team. Our software can be learned, but a great attitude sometimes cannot. Of course, being tech savvy is important, and experience with technical support is a welcomed bonus.

Our hiring process for Customer Heroes goes something like this

  • Interested folks fill out the Customer Hero Job Application, and (for now we don’t need a resume or cover letter)
  • After we filter through the hundreds of applications we get, if we think you might have what it takes we’ll contact you for a quick phone interview
  • If we still think you might have what it takes after that, we’ll schedule another [longer] phone or in-person interview
  • If we are having trouble deciding between a few people, we’ll ask you back to meet the whole support crew, and they’ll help make a decision
  • Read up on tips for our hiring process in our Customer Hero Hiring Process blog post from last year – like for one, know what LightSpeed is and what we do

The application process will close just before we get to an overwhelming amount of applications (generally within a couple of weeks).

Perkville Offers Two-month Free Trial


perkville_greenIt sure is rewarding for business owners when customers keep coming back for more. Perkville offers a great customer loyalty program that helps ensure they do. Since Perkville is now partnered with LightSpeed Cloud you can easily integrate a loyalty program into your business.

You can reward your customers for their return business, referring friends, following your business on Facebook and Twitter, and well…pretty much anything you can think of. Perkville is free for customers and is an online service, so customers do not have to carry any cards.

Perkville is offering a two-month free trial to LightSpeed customers during the month of February. (more…)

Kerry’s First Day = Day of Drinking


kerry no background_525w

Hi. I’m Kerry.

I’m the newest employee at MerchantOS. I’m here to launch us into social media bliss. Marketing is evolving with social media these days, and there are so many ways to reach existing and future customers. MerchantOS not only wants to gain more customers and provide a seriously awesome experience with our software, we want to create relationships with our customers too. I’d like to help that along. (more…)

Start Thinking About Taxes


Sure, it’s only January. But April 15 will be here before you know it! And with plenty of time before filing day, now is the perfect time to start looking for those deductions and credits. Nolo.com provides great tips and often overlooked expenses that you can use to ease the pain of filing business taxes.

1. Business Start-up Costs – Before your doors even open, you incur several costs just getting your business off the ground. You can deduct $5,000 of these capital expenses the first year of your business. Remember that all the daily expenses of advertising, utilities and supplies can also be deducted – but only AFTER your business doors are open.

2. Auto Expenses – We probably all use our vehicle for work. So always keep track of your car expenses! There are two ways to deduct auto costs. The actual expense method requires you to track and deduct all your business expenses. The standard mileage rate method means you add up all your work-related miles travelled and multiply it by the IRS’ standard mileage rate.

Not sure which options is best for you? If your car is used for both business and personal, you can only deduct the business portion. In this case, tracking the mileage may be your best bet. However if you have a newer car, the actual expenses method may provide an overall larger deduction. Plus with this method, you can deduct the vehicle depreciation amount.

3. Books and Professional Fees – Do you subscribe to industry magazines for your business? What about business books you’ve purchased? These are both fully deductible as a cost of doing business. And all those fees you paid your lawyer, CPA or consultant? Yep, those are tax deductible as well.

4. Bad Debts – This one may not apply to everyone. But it’s worth considering, especially if you’ve had a client or customer who skipped out on paying you. If your business sells actual goods, and a customer took your products and stiffed you the payment, then you can tax deduct the cost of those goods. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for services that were not paid.

5. Interest – Did you know you can deduct interest on business purchases? If you use credit or a personal loan to pay for business expenses, the interest incurred is fully tax deductible.

Being a business owner or entrepreneur can be tough at tax time. But if you keep track of your expenses and deduct the items you are entitled to, you are likely in much better shape than you expect. Don’t let April 15 come without being prepared!

5 Tips to Make Your Business a Success


In today’s economy, it’s crucial for your business to stand out among the competition. Here are five tips that will bring success to your retail shop. 

1. Customer Service is Key! One of the main reasons consumers are shopping in stores as opposed to online is for the extra level of in-person service not available on the web. And with online rating websites like Yelp, a little bit of good (or bad) customer service goes a long away in people’s minds. Treat customers like a pro and remind them that the level of service they receive in your store is their reason to keep coming back.

2. Use the Best Signs and Displays to bring in the customers. According to Entrepreneurstorefront signs and displays are the best way to grab customers as they walk by your store and tell them there’s a reason they must go inside your store. Key words like sale, discount and last-chance are motivation and action words that draw crowds not wanting to miss a bargain.

3. Stay current on trends. It’s important to know the latest fads and what people are buying. But on the flip side, it’s also important to know your customer and not try to entice them with a trend that they clearly won’t  benefit from. Entrepreneur encourages business owners to ask the key questions: Will it sell in your store? Does it fit your theme? If the answer is “no,” then it’s best to leave that trend by the wayside.

4. Draw Them In (and Keep Them Coming). Once your display signs and banners bring the shoppers in, what’s next once they’re inside? Place the deep discount items at the back of the store so the customers have to walk by all the regularly-priced items first. Keep a theme in mind when stocking your shelves. Having dozens of options and items may be very cool, but it can also be overwhelming to the buyer.

5. Location, Location, Location. If you already have a shop, you’re probably not looking to move right away. But for those of you just getting started, be sure to put research and thought into the location you select to start up a retail shop. Go to where your customers are. If you’re selling to teenagers, a mall may be a better bet than a small shopping center in a suburban community. And if you opt for the mall route, pay attention to the stores around you. You don’t want to sell beauty products at the end of the shopping center that contains mostly men’s interests.

Today’s economy and the age of the internet are tough. But retailers are thriving because they are following the right steps to be successful. Knowing how to market to customers, provide quality service, and knowing your audience are three of the best lessons you can learn as you run your business.

Why Your Business Needs to be on YouTube


Online video has become one of the fastest growing content areas on the Internet. YouTube sees 800 million unique visits each month and 72 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. With impressive statistics such as these, you may want to think twice if you don’t have a presence on YouTube. Let’s look at four reasons you want to host your company videos on this popular video sharing platforms. youtube

The Cost – If budget is a concern, there is no better place to host than YouTube because the service is free. Videos take up a lot of storage space. So if you opted to self host, your company would be spending significant cash on large servers.

The Audience — There’s no question that YouTube has the audience with more than 3 billion videos viewed every day. People are on YouTube and looking for content. With the right keywords and descriptions, your video can be found easily and by many people.

No Techie Skills Required – With YouTube, you click a few buttons and your video is uploaded to the website in an instant. Any non-technical user can accomplish this, and HTML coding is not required.

The Search Capability – Every video that is uploaded to YouTube is mined by the Google search bots since the video sharing site is owned by Google. In addition, Google often fails to recognize iframes and embeds that are not from YouTube, thus making it tougher to find your company’s videos by search if they are not on YouTube.

There is no question that YouTube is a powerhouse in video sharing and search. The hosting site offers several advantages for hosting.

Tax Break Discounts. Time to get Mathematical!


Recently a challenge appeared before the Support Heroes locked away in their Olympic ivory tower. A LightSpeed customer wrote in to support asking us, what is the best way to pay for the customer’s sales taxes? This was a promotional sale and another good strategy to keep that momentum going from this past holiday season.

Read the complete How-To in our Help section →

Yelp, Foursquare and Google+; Why Your Store Needs to be on These Sites


If you’re a retailer or small business owner, having a presence on online review websites is a must. Social sites like Yelp, Foursquare and Google+ make it easy for potential customers to find the businesses they seek, as well as leave written praise (or criticism) about their customer experience. You could be missing out on potential customers and revenue if you’re not on these social platforms. Let’s look at the three social review sites and see how they can make the difference between profit and loss to your business. check-mark

Yelp — The largest social online review site, Yelp sees 78 million unique visitors every month. Every business owner and manager can set up a free Yelp account to post photos and message customers. The site has become a trusted destination for customers to use when looking for a restaurant to dine at, places to shop, or businesses to frequent.

Yelp is especially useful when people are in unfamiliar cities or neighborhoods because of its emphasis on local business targeting. And while it is possible to receive negative reviews from some customers, Yelp is a great tool for business owners to reference when looking to gauge customer service.

Foursquare — This service was designed as a free app for smartphones that helps people find businesses, friends and make the most of where an individual is located. Foursquare uses a person’s location to give personalized recommendations and deals. It also allows people to leave reviews of the locations they visited. Since its inception, 25 million people have used Foursquare.

In addition to the strong customer user base, 1 million businesses use Foursquare’s free tools to help businesses grow and connect with customers. The app enables retailers and businesses list events, post updates, and customer loyalty programs. It also offers analytics to help monitor online engagements.

Google+ — This site is one of the most critical sites to have a presence on, especially if you’re a small business owner or retailer. As of December 2012, 235 million people are actively engaged on Google+. What many people do not realize is that Google+ is mined by the search engines. Anything your business promotes on Google+ will appear in search results. For business, Google+ is a great place for customers to post reviews, which also show up in search results.

In the coming weeks, spend some time making sure your business profile is up-to-date on Yelp, Foursquare and Google+. And once you’re online, be sure to check your reviews and ratings on a regular basis to monitor customer comments and feedback.

Tips for Managing Work Outside the Office


Small business owners are often seen as never slowing down or stopping work, spending quite a bit of time in the office and at work-related events. With the growing popularity of smartphones, busy executives now have an easier time keeping up with business while physically outside the office. And with the emergence of more technology and applications designed specifically for business owners and managers, it is easier than ever to telecommute or work outside the office. Lets take a look at the best ways to evaluate which of your business tasks can be completed outside the officeoffice

Make a list of all the tasks you do in a given month and the programs you use to complete the work. Anything that takes time should go on the list, including sales meetings, industry research, and social media activities. Regardless of whether it is a 2-minute task or a 2-hour meeting, knowing where your time goes and in what increments will help you develop a strong mobile strategy.

Begin by finding applications that you already use in your office and research mobile and cloud programs that will allow you to work from anywhere. Pay close attention to applications that serve multiple purposes, such as accounting services that connect to files with email, or content aggregation sites you can organize by subject and then link to social media sites with scheduled releases.

If your job is to consistently share information via social media, there are dozens of applications that allow you to share posts to a variety of social platforms, all with the click of a button on your smartphone or tablet.

If you find yourself staying in the office to read industry blog posts or publications, consider downloading applications and e-readers that stream your blog feed to your mobile phone. This strategy assures you catch up on business reading, but you don’t necessarily have to sit at your office desk to do it. You may find yourself taking two minutes to read a blog post while waiting in line to pay for groceries.

The ability to work outside the office has never been easier. Once you know what mobile applications to use, start using them both in and out of the office. Take the time to learn all the capabilities of the product and test all features. You will quickly learn which applications work best for your business, and you can focus your attention on getting them set up to really work for you.

5 Key Sections for Your Employee Handbook


Does your business have an employe handbook? Whether you have an existing handbook that needs updating – or need to write an entire draft – why not make 2013 the year you will distribute the official employee handbook? handbook

An employee handbook is an important communication tool between you and your employees. Not to mention the fact that a well-written handbook clearly illustrates your expectations for your employees, and describes what they can expect from your company. While your employee handbook should certainly encompass all of your company’s policies and procedures, there are other things to include that make it more than just a book of rules. Below are five things to consider adding to your handbook.

1.  Your company’s mission statement is your very reason for being in business and all of your employees should know it by heart.  If you do not yet have a mission statement, there is no time like the present to craft one. Get your management team together and brainstorm as to what the company’s true undertaking is, where you see the brand in ten years, and what steps you need to take to get there.

2. Include your core values in the handbook is critical as they are the pillars by which everyday business is conducted. As such, by putting them in with your policies and procedures reinforces your commitment to them. It also makes employees more aware of what those values are and how they should be using them in their day to day work.

3. A brief history of the business is a creative and thoughtful inclusion. If you are just starting out, give a description of the germination of the business. Letting employees in on the roots of the company will help them feel connected to and invested in their jobs. And a connected and happy staff is a productive staff.

4.  Does your business offer continuing education resources? If so, include this information in the employee handbook. If you do not currently have any resources, perhaps adding a professional development library to your business in 2013 should be a goal. It can start small, with the addition of only a few books but making them available to all employees again shows you are invested in their success.

5. In addition to making the topics interesting, switch it up by including illustrations along with the standard language.  Any visual stimulation is guaranteed to liven up your handbook. This will keep the mind from wandering and keep attention focused on content. It can be as simple as a few charts or standard clip art graphics from your word processing program.

Why Your Company Needs an Intranet


What is an intranet and why does your company need one? An intranet is similar to a website but is completely internal. It can be designed countless ways but frequently companies mirror them to their external websites, creating a sense of connection within the company. inranet

While there are perceived downsides such as the initial investment of time and resources to build out an intranet, they are far outweighed by the benefits. Here are four reasons you should create an intranet for your small business.

1.  Get the (same) word out quickly.
No more water cooler gossip. Posting to the intranet allows you to get one uniform message out to all of your employees at the same time. Everyone gets the same information, avoiding miscommunications and misunderstandings. There is also no risk of the dangerous “reply-all” with intranet posts.

2.  Save time and save space in your inbox and on your server.
With an intranet, you can keep your email reserved for truly business-related matters. It will cut down on the number of emails people receive and save time they spend sifting through their inboxes. Plus it provides a common place to link to shared documents, saving space on your server. This also saves time by making those documents easily available to everyone, meaning you no longer have to hunt through a dozen folders looking for a specific HR form. It is right there on the HR section on the intranet.

3.  Enjoy an increased sense of community and boosted morale.
Having an internal site where employees can go to get company information increases the sense of community within the workplace. Knowing that everyone has the same information generates a sense of unity. The opportunity to post “comments” or collaborate on an employee message board is also an option with an intranet, creating a safe form of social networking you can easily control and monitor. This appeals to the younger generation, keeping them engaged with the company and their work, while also bringing the older generation into the fold through an easy to understand format.

4.  Cut costs.
By putting items like company-wide forms and benefit information on the intranet, you not only make it easily accessible, you save money by not having to constantly print out fresh copies for new hires. Plus, once it is built out, an intranet is easy to maintain and update, making it a low-cost, high-payoff investment.

5 New Year’s Money Management Resolutions for Small Business Owners


Still feeling a pinch from the Great Recession, but want to make changes in 2013 to better your financial position? Start by taking a look at your business’ finances and make a plan for the next year. Here are five money management resolutions that will ensure a better financial new year. 

1.  Learn Basic Accounting
Small businesses often start with a passion and an accountant to keep the finances in order. The only way you can truly run your business successfully, however, is by analyzing your financial picture. Taking a course in basic accounting can keep you from falling into one of the many financials traps that can wipe you out of business. Even if you have an accountant, learning more about this area will change the way you view your financial picture and make the time with your accountant more valuable.

2.  Understand Your Business Finances
Whether or not you take an accounting class, you need to know exactly where and how your money is flowing. It is critical to identify trends in order to make good business decisions and move your business forward without big surprises. Make sure you understand not just the results of your money, but what each number on your financial statements mean.

3.  Protect Yourself By Incorporating
You put a lot into your small business, including risk, but you can limit your personal liability and protect your personal assets by incorporating.  A corporation is, in simple terms, a legal entity that is controlled by you. A corporation provides a legal way to protect your personal assets and identity, and has the added benefit of potentially lowering your taxes.

4.  Organize Your Taxes Early
Taxes are one of the biggest headaches faced by small business owners.  At the same time you are gathering your 2012 tax documents, set up a system to keep track of your tax information for the following year. When you start a new year freshly organized for taxes, you alleviate the end of the year stress of finding paperwork all over the office.  Another bonus: many accountants give discounts for getting your tax paperwork in early.

5.  Plan for Retirement
More often than not, small business owners do not plan to retire. But the reality is you may retire much sooner than you think. If planning for retirement has been on the back burner, move it to the front in 2013. The sooner you develop a retirement plan, the less painful it is to execute. Don’t simply count on your personal health or the future health of your business to continue to stay strong. You need to have a good plan in place.

Make money management a priority in 2013 by investing your financial education, protecting your personal assets, and planning for your future.

5 Ways to Create a Compelling Website


No matter how much we now rely on social media and viral marketing, a company website is still one of the most critical components for a business. Perhaps you are starting a new business venture and you need to build a site from scratch. Or maybe 2013 is your year to revamp your current website. Whatever stage you’re in as a business owner, it is important to think through an entire website plan before going into building mode in order to create the best website you can. Here are five ways to build a compelling website for your business. 

1. Plan and strategize before designing
There’s no question that the design aspect of creating a website is usually the fun part of the process. That being said, many people skip the crucial planning process and go straight for the design work. Ask yourself the following questions before you start working:

  • Who is my audience? (Don’t be everything to everyone!)
  • What is the goal of my website: information source, gathering leads, providing content?
  • How will I capture leads?
  • Will I be a profitable ecommerce site?

2. Put first things first
Once you’ve decided to start your website and understand your goals, the next step is to determine your budget and decide where you want to invest your development funds. If you do heavy selling online, you may opt to spend the majority of your budget on the e-commerce side of the site. If your goal is to be found online and generate leads, then investing in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) services may be your best bet. Knowing from the beginning what your budget is and where you need to spend the funds will help tremendously in the long run.

3. Determine a plan for content
Whether you decide to invest time and resources in a content marketing strategy (also known as blogging), have a plan for what type of content you will provide and how often it will be delivered. Create an editorial calendar and be sure you use in your posts keywords that describe your business. It’s okay to only provide content on a weekly basis. Just select what you want, be consistent in the delivery, and maintain quality.

4. Keep resources easy to find and navigation simple
It’s easy to get lost in fancy designs and exciting navigation. But in reality, you want your website to be user-friendly for the audience. Keep navigation simple and do not make it so your customer has to click through several links and pages to find what he needs. Have contact information readily available (even if it’s a form to submit questions).

5. Use visuals and creative content
In order to keep visitors on your website, make sure the site is interesting and has great visual imagery. Use photos and break up long sections of text. Bulleted lists are also great for conveying a lot of information. The days of static websites are long gone. Make sure your site combines helpful copy with a stellar look and feel.

6. Have a launch plan
Just as you had a plan for conceptualizing and building your website, make the time to plan for a launch of the website itself. This can include items such as when you will debut the new site to internal staff and stakeholders (and how you will ask for feedback). You may also want to build in a period of testing before announcing your new website to the world. Also include if you will promote the new site via your social media channels and if you plan to ask the public for feedback. Just remember that when you ask for feedback, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. So build in a strategy to deal with website feedback too.

Congratulations, you just took the necessary steps to create a compelling website!

5 Small Business Marketing Trends for 2013


Every year brings new trends in business, marketing and finances. As a small business owner, it’s important you keep apprised of what consumers want from you with respect to marketing.  Here are five marketing trends small business should pay attention to in 2013.  

1.  Mobile Devices Rule
In today’s mobile-popular world, having a mobile-friendly website is a must. Consumers are expecting more from their mobile experience, such as one click ordering and easy web access via an application. Consider investing in app development as part of your marketing and budget plan for 2013.

2.   Visual Simplicity
People have more content to digest and less time to spend reading websites. Make your website easy to visually scan by using less text and more images and infographics. Infographics are a quick way to communicate your message through visual storytelling. They are quick to view, understand, and share; all good for business. One look at Pinterest will prove to you that consumers want images.

3.  The Consumer as Salesperson
Connection to your customer has never been more important. Consumers are furiously writing reviews, commenting on content, and airing their grievances (and delights!) all over the Internet. A happy customer can sell your product almost better than you can. As such, make online reputation monitoring a priority in 2013. Use social media to communicate with and educate your customers rather than simply selling to them.

4.  Content for Education and SEO
Content marketing is now essential to having a web presence. Having fresh content, often in the form of a blog, is essential to getting search engines to notice you. Think of it as a way to educate your consumers on your industry, your type of products and services, and your company. Most importantly, post great content that is relevant to your business. Poor content does nothing for your image even if you are moving up the search engines scale.

5.  Promote Your Content
Once you create great content, you want it to be seen. Content promotion is a big trend in 2013 and there are a variety of ways you can distribute your work. Start with you standard social networking avenues (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) and add content syndication sites like B2B Marketing Zone, Social Media Informer and Social Media Today. Research other syndication sites specific to your industry, as they will have the best audience for your work.

Get on track with these trends and you will be poised to have your best year yet!

Get Control of Your Inventory


Inventory is one of the top expenses for a small business and keeping that balance between overspending and overstocking is often tricky. You want to have what people want to buy the moment they walk in your store. Yet excess inventory can mean the difference between a profitable quarter and one that leaves you in the red. Inventory control is an important part of any business that must have a stock of products or items on hand. As the end of the year draws near, here are four tips to consider when planning how your business will take control of its inventory. 

Stale Inventory Costs Money
Every day a product sits on your shelf it loses value. It takes money to run a business, and everything depends on what’s being sold. The longer an item sits on the shelf, the more resources it consumes (including keeping the lights on and the register staffed).  One row of combined stale inventory is a direct reflection of wasted time and money.

Inventory (and Mark Down) Often
Retail trends change quickly. If you notice an item is slow to sell, mark it down quickly. Shoppers love a bargain. So even if Mary Customer was not willing to pay for a sweater set at full price, she may be tempted to buy two at 50 percent off.

Negotiate Your Finance Terms
If your store is purchasing items with credit, always negotiate the payment terms so you receive the money from your customer before it’s owed.  For example, if you extend a 30-day payment term to your customer, negotiate a 60-day term with your wholesaler. You can look to previous sales and seasons to guide you through the best practices that will work for your business.

Assure You Have the Right Inventory
Your customer is one of your best sources for information. Spend time understanding what she’s looking at, paying close attention to recurring items.  Another great source is your supplier as these companies are often the first to know the trends given the volume of orders they receive. Spending a few minutes with your representatives can make all the difference in the world when it comes to excess store inventory.

By staying on top of your inventory, you will have more control of your business and revenue in the long term. This ultimately helps your business grow and succeed as you can then be flexible and relevant to the customers’ changing needs.

10 Employee Gift Ideas Worth Giving


‘Tis the season for gift giving. When you’re making your list and checking it twice, don’t forget to include the people that support you the most during the year — your employees. Even if giving gifts is not your personal tradition, remember that simple tokens of appreciation go a long way in showing gratitude to staff. Here are ten simple ideas to say “Happy Holidays” and “thank you” to your staff for the work they do all year long. 

Half day off with pay — Treat your staff with a half day off work with pay, or consider closing up business early on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. Sometimes just a few extra hours during the day is a much-needed gift (especially for last-minute holiday shoppers).

Comp day — Create your own gift card and allow each employee to schedule a comp day in 2013. This is a great treat for staff that do not have a lot of vacation time accrued.

Gift cards — These days, finding a gift card for the pickiest member of your staff is as easy as heading to the local grocery store gift card mall display. Consider restaurant gift cards for couples. Bookstore cards for the reader. Or an iTunes card for the music or game lover. Sometimes even grocery store gift cards are much appreciated this time of year.

Mugs with coffee beans or tea — It’s easy and inexpensive to pick up some attractive mugs as a local discount store. Pair the mug with a bag of coffee beans (for the coffee drinker) or tea bags (for the tea enthusiast), and you have a personal gift that your staff can use in the office as well.

Wine — If your staff is over the age of 21, consider giving a bottle of wine to each employee. Perhaps pair the wine with a few glasses or wine charms for a unique gift.

Baked goods — Everyone loves baked goods (especially when a person doesn’t have to bake them herself). If you’re not a baker – or don’t want to stress about making dozens of treats – ask your local bakery to put together gift packages for you. Remember that you may end up spending the same (or less) on pre-packaged baked goods than you would if you made several desserts from scratch.

Fruits and nuts — Fruit and nut packages are great tokens of appreciation. You can order pre-assembled packages from online retailers. Or head to your local specialty food shop and put a few things together yourself.

Candy — Boxes of chocolate are always fun to receive and are the gifts that people rarely buy for themselves. While a person may not head to their local chocolatier, she certainly won’t resist a box of truffles to take home.

Treat the staff to breakfast — Take your staff to breakfast one day before your store opens for business. If you have a large staff and cannot afford treating everyone, consider asking employees to chip in $5 cash and you’ll get the rest.

Buy a pizza lunch — If you have a business where it’s not feasible for the entire staff to take off for lunch or a meal, how about treating everyone to a pizza lunch in your breakroom?

A handwritten card — Never underestimate the power of a handwritten card that says “thank you.” For many people, that simple recognition is all they ever desire.

Santa’s Tips to Increase Your Holiday Marketing Efforts


Get out the tree, hang the stockings, and display the twinkling lights! The Christmas shopping season is upon us and there’s no better time to increase your marketing efforts. The National Retail Federation (NFR) predicts that holiday sales will increase 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion this season. In order for your business to make the most of this year’s holiday market, here are Santa’s tips for increasing your marketing efforts this holiday season. 

Holiday Deals
Shoppers love a great deal and the holiday season is a great way to offer a variety of discounts that may actually increase sales in the long-run. Strategies such as “buy one, get one free” or “save 20%” go a long way with shoppers trying to find the best deals. Be sure to create compelling window and display signs that assure customers will see these great discounts.

Gift Bundling
Use the holiday season to bundle gifts together in pretty packaging or baskets. Wrap the entire package in festive paper or a silver ribbon for a touch of holiday cheer. Packaging gifts together is a great way to help shoppers feel they’re getting more for their money.

Send the Greeting Cards
It’s easy to send customers a personalized greeting card with the multitude of online and local printing houses available. Of course, if your business prefers to stay green, send an ecard or personalized holiday email. Take just a few minutes – and a few written words – to tell customers how much you appreciate them.

Volunteer
If your business is not just about the bottom line, use the holiday season as a time to show your commitment to giving back. Pick a cause or charity and send employees to volunteer on company time. Volunteering is a great way to give back to a community organization, and it helps you market your brand at the same time.

Use Your Newsletters
Don’t forget to use your email marketing strategy during the holiday season. Take the opportunity to show off special deals, new products, or discounts. And while you don’t want to over-market to customers, don’t simply send one enewsletter the first week of December and forget about it. Keep marketing until Christmas Eve to catch those last-minute shoppers.

Social Media
Make sure you get festive on Facebook, Twitter and your other social media sites. Use these networks to ask questions to fans about holiday plans. Promote special one-day deals to Facebook followers. And post photos of your decorated store.

The Psychology of Holiday Shopping


What is it about the smell of fresh pine, cinnamon sticks and vanilla sugar cookies that gets people in the holiday mood? These classic Christmas scents are enough to bring out the shopper in nearly everyone. And there’s good reason for it — there is an entire psychology behind what motivates people to shop. Let’s explore four aspects of the psychology of shopping during the holiday season. 

Packaging is Perceived Value
There is something about bundling several items together that makes shoppers feel they’re getting a great deal (even if the price is the same as it would be non-bundled). This is why you see so many stores grouping like items together in fancy packaging and beautiful baskets. Pulling all those items together helps buyers feel as if they’re getting the most for their buck, even if in reality, that isn’t the case.

Holiday Tunes Motivate Buying
There’s a reason nearly every store blasts Christmas music during the month of December. And that reason has less to do with the holiday and more to do with inciting the urge to spend. Not only does music set the mood, but studies have shown that the holiday music actually puts shoppers in more of a buying state of mind.

The Use of Psycholinguistics
Psycholinguistics is a scientific specialty combining psychology with neurobiology to examine the components of language. Marketing executives have for years used the science of psycholinguistics to select specific words in marketing copy that motivate buying. This technique is of course used during the holiday season. Words you will likely see quite a lot of during December to generate sales include:

  • sale
  • limited edition
  • hot
  • collectible
  • shortage
  • delayed
  • must-have
  • in-demand

Price Endings are Crucial
It’s not a coincidence most prices end in .99. Prices ending in nines deliver higher unit sales volumes than the next higher or lower number. And since buyers typically make purchase decisions based on value – and American shoppers read from left to right – consumers always notice the number on the left first. A person is likely always going to select an item that is priced at $8.99 before $9.00, even though the difference is a mere penny.

While it may seem like retail and the holidays are just about festive displays and good deals, as you’ve seen here, there is an entire psychology behind holiday shopping and marketing. From price points to specific words to playing “White Christmas” on the speaker, there is deliberation behind everything having to do with selling to customers during the holidays.

Time Management Tips for Business Owners


Did you know that one in four small business owners believe an extra hour in the day is worth more than $500? And that 50% of owners say there is just not enough time in each day? Mastering your time is the most important thing you can do as a business owner. Even making one small change will help your productivity tremendously. Here are four ideas that will help you and your business get back on the time management track. 

Use mobile apps and smartphones.
When you’re a business owner, the reality is often that you must work outside the office. So when you need to check email away from a computer or get caught up on industry reading, there are dozens of online applications that will help you accomplish just that. Seventy-five percent of small business owners believe the use of apps has saved them time. Apps enable you to keep organized and stay on track with projects when you’re away from your desk.

Schedule time for your calendar.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but always schedule time for your calendar review. it is critical to check in with yourself every so often to determine if your calendar is balanced with the right amount of time for each activity. Customize your day based on when you are most productive and alert. So if you are the most alert after lunch, do the most important projects then.

Use online collaboration tools.
There are many project management tools available that allow you to manage multiple projects within the online platform. A few examples include Asana, Basecamp, and Dropbox. These programs allow you to assign employees to tasks and projects, and gives the boss an easy way to see the big picture of what’s going on in an organization.

Organize a little every day.
Most business owners think of themselves as unorganized. In reality, organization may not be the problem. It is more likely the problem resides in not enough time to organize. Schedule time on your calendar – even if it’s just 10 minutes a day – for organization. Include tasks such as shredding, entering contacts and filing within that time.

Remember the ability to access information quickly adds extra hours of productivity to your day. Take the time to organize your office, review your calendar and use technology to get you on track and organized.

How to Retain Great Employees


Most business owners agree that employee retention is important, yet often times they strategies to keep good employees are not at the top of a company’s priority either. To get the most out of your employees – and keep your business’ bottom line in check – follow these five steps for a better business tomorrow. 

1. The costs of hiring a new employee, including advertising open positions, taking time away from work to interview, conducting background checks, and new hire training, can be quite high. There is also the potential that you can lose business when a valuable employee leaves as some customers can be as loyal to individuals as they are to your company. Lose a great person and you might see a decline in revenue as a result.

2. It’s not always about the money. Did you know only 88% of employees actually leave a job for reasons other than money? While many employers think that salary is the main reason employees leave a company, this is not actually the case. Turnover is more often than not related to limited career opportunities, lack of respect, lack of a challenge in a job. Most of these issues can be resolved with a well thought-out employee retention plan.

3. Make employees a priority. If you want to keep top talent, make sure employees are a priority in your organization. The only way to know if you have a happy employee is to create an environment where feedback is encouraged and rewarded.  When people feel they can contribute ideas and suggestions to better the organization and their own employment, they develop a loyalty to the job and take more ownership in their job responsibilities.They want to see the company succeed.

4. Listen to your employees. Listening to your employees will help you create retention programs of value. Most people want to do their jobs well. So find out what they need to accomplish that goal. Consider offering training and mentoring opportunities that lead to a rewarding work experience for staff that want to continue to develop in your organization.

5. Support a work-life balance. So many employees struggle with maintaining the right balance between work and home life. Consider offering flexibility (within reason) for certain working arrangements. Whether it be telecommuting or looking at alternative flexible schedules, allowing employees to work in ways other than traditional business hours can have profound effect on employee retention and morale.

Why Small Business Owners Should Invest in Education


Business owners are often required to wear multiple hats, taking on the role of several employees in lieu of hiring a large staff. Yet the company owner or executive may not have been trained in marketing if his background is strictly in sales. Or the accounting manager may not have a background in employee relations, but finds herself performing those duties in addition to her current job responsibilities. Continuing education offers great benefits as education helps any individual master the skills he is practicing.  

Planning wisely for your own continuing education – as well as that of your employees – will have an immediate return on investment. Education is one of the indicators for success in business. Don’t miss out on opportunities to grow and expand your knowledge to keep your business competitive.

Where to Look
There are a variety of ways to find educational opportunities that stay within a budget and work with your already busy schedule.  In some cases, short topic online training can be found for free or at a nominal price. One of the best resources for these trainings is the Small Business Association (SBA), which offers online small business training on topics ranging from marketing to finance. The SBA also has tools to help you find resources in your community for additional training programs.

Many traditional colleges and universities offer skill-specific training, both in the classroom and online, in addition to their traditional MBA and Executive MBA tracks. Look for courses specific to your industry, as well as general business topics, with the ability to earn certifications. The real benefit of these courses is they will often apply towards a degree should want to pursue a more formal education at a later date.

Pursuing non-traditional training programs can also prove beneficial as long as you do your research. There are many options available such as fee-based mentoring, eBooks, online training, and webinars. Talk to people in your industry and find out what programs they used that contributed to their success. Try to get actual recommendations.

Your continuing education plan should also include seminars and professional development events. There is much to be said for learning from the successful business owners within your field. Make it a regular part of your job to join at least one professional organization that relates to your business and regularly attend their events.

5 Ways to Monitor Your Company’s Online Reputation


“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” — Warren Buffett

Who you are in the online community has become reality in the business world. Even if the perception on the Internet is fiction, how the world sees you and your business is often considered reality. And these days, your identity in the online marketplace can make or break your business. Do you know what your reputation looks like in the online world? Here are five ways to monitor your company’s online reputation.

Search
Search your company on all the major search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing) and see what comes back on the search result pages. You may be surprised to find comments or blog posts that have quoted you or posted photos or Pinterest pins of your products. By the same token, you may find customer reviews of your products and services that can be great testimonials for your website.

Google Alerts
One of the best ways to have Google monitor your reputation for you is through the use of Google Alerts. These are essentially web filters you set up by defining what words Google should search on a regular basis. You then receive an email when your name or company comes up on the web. This proactive approach is a great way to put out fires as soon as they arise. In addition, GoogleBlog Search provides search capabilities to inform you if your company has been mentioned in a blog.

Social Mention
A free tool that tracks what people are saying about you across the web’s social media landscape is Social Mention. This real time tool will send you daily email alerts of your brand, company, CEO, marketing campaign, or on a developing news story, a competitor, or the latest on a celebrity.

Yelp
This consumer-driven online guide helps customers find great spots to eat, shop, drink and find services. Customers leave positive or negative feedback based on personal experience. Make sure you monitor the comments left on Yelp about your business, and establish a response strategy to both positive and negative comments. Complaints left unanswered have the potential to ruin a company’s brand and scare away prospective customers.

Reputation.com
Being on the Internet exposes the good and bad to the public. What happens when a person does not have a pleasant experience with your business and that individual starts posting about it? How do you respond in a timely manner? Reputation.com allows you to create a strategy to mitigate content in relation to your business. This website helps you keep positive content flowing and also has features that protect your private information. Reputation.com does charge a monthly usage cost to business.

The Benefits of Guest Blogging


Most business owners and marketers understand that having a blog is a great way to increase reach. Blogs are SEO friendly and the content can easily be shared and curated across multiple online platforms. Another way to expand your blog’s reach is by welcoming guest bloggers to your site. But how does inviting a guest blogger to post on your website benefit your business? Here are five reasons guest blogging will bring you increased traffic and help build better relationships.  

Increased Reach
By inviting another blogger to write a post for your website (particularly a blogger that is known in a given field), you are now increasing the reach of your blog to all the guest blogger’s followers and fans. The guest writer will bring traffic with her, and as such, bring a host of new readers and potential customers to your business.

Build Relationships
Guest blogging is a great way to build strong and prosperous relationships with other business professionals. This helps your company in a number of ways as these relationships may lead to business opportunities, connections, new clients, and referrals.

Increased Search Traffic
When you invite a guest blogger to your website, you should include his bio and links back to his website or blog. Linking is what controls the internet. The more inbound links you have to your website, the better your SEO results will be. While it takes time to build up the number of inbound links you have, guest blogging is a great way to jump-start that efforts. And not only should you invite guest bloggers to your site, ask for the favor to be returned so you can guest blog on another website.

Opportunity to Interact with Commenters
A well-written and thought-provoking blog post will likely yield several comments from readers. Make the time to interact with the people leaving a comment by replying back to their thought. Invite the individual to look around your website. This is a great opportunity to interact with a host of new visitors that may find added value on your blog.

Align Your Business with Industry Experts
By inviting industry experts to guest blog on your website, you are strategically aligning your company with the people who are highly sought after and respected within a defined community.  Your association with that individual brings a sense of credibility to your brand as well.

If your business has a blog, start researching individuals and fellow bloggers who will make great guest writers for your site. Look to bloggers that are experts and have a deep reach. Not only will you be gaining valuable content and new traffic for your blog, you will build business relationships that otherwise may not be easy to form.

In Pursuit of LightSpeed’s Galactic Media Emperor


LightSpeed is looking for that special person to take the reins of our social media presence. While we’re not total newbies at using the tools of the trade we’re finding ourselves way too entrenched in building a great product and helping our awesome customers. We need someone  to help share our story with current and (hopefully) future customers. (more…)

5 Tips for Successfully Branding Your Business


When you hear the name Nike, what comes to your mind? Swoosh, Michael Jordan, “Just do it,” and many other wonderful athletes who have represented the company. But Nike is more than a word; it’s a brand. The Nike swoosh is a symbol of excellence and the company is dedicated to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. When it comes to branding your business, consider the following five tips as you define what your business is about and what makes it unique and successful. 

Defining Your Brand
If you’ve branded your business successfully, customers have a clear picture of what your business is about when they visit your website or hear about your product or service. Be clear about the audience you are serving and make sure your brand messaging speaks to that group. For example, Nike would likely not be targeting swimmers for its running shoes.

Take Time Defining a Brand Name and Logo
Be creative when it comes to selecting a name and logo for your business. Your logo should allow customers to quickly and easily identify your symbol by your company name. To achieve that type of brand recognition, take the time to really hone a design and test it with your audience.

Do The Research
Gary Vaynerchuck, self made wine and social media expert, built his brand by spending time on Twitter and listening to what Twitter communities were saying about wine. He spent several months interacting as a guest and would interject about certain wines until he built a following on his own Twitter site. Today, Gary has more than 956,000 followers.

Brand Culture
Perhaps more important than creating an outward facing brand, make sure your employees can define your brand and successfully articulate the purpose of your business. It is impossible to project a consistent brand when there is internal disagreement about what the company stands for. Before launching your new logo and tagline, make sure everyone internally is speaking the same language.

Be Consistent
Have you ever had a cup of Starbucks coffee in California and then have another cup of Starbucks coffee in New York? Chances are the first thing you notice is consistency of the product, which is the key to brand duration. Customers are creatures of habit and want to depend on a proven product to deliver the same experience each time a purchase is made. So keep your brand and offerings consistent and not complicated.

6 Strategies for Successful B2B Marketing


Business-to-business (B2B) marketers have a tough job. These individuals are constantly looking at new ways to promote a company’s product to other companies with the ultimate goal of selling those services. While B2B marketing is often considered tougher than business-to-customer (B2C) sales, the two realms use similar strategies to achieve the sales goal. Here are six strategies B2B marketers can use that will lead to marketing success. 

1. Create strong brand recall — The first step in any B2B marketing campaign is to create brand awareness that will stay with the potential buyer long after the product has left their field of vision. To create that brand identification, use strategies such as creative slogans and messaging, as well as visual images, to make the product or service memorable.

2. Qualify your leads — It is critical to qualify all of your marketing leads into sales-ready opportunities. By making time to do this research, you will dramatically improve the quality and conversions from leads to actual sales and clients.

3. Know your audience — Just like B2C prospects, your B2B prospects are looking for economical and easy solutions to make the business profitable and save time. Just like a customer makes a purchase decision based on what’s best for him or his family, a business owner has that same mindset for his business.

4. Measure and analyze your marketing efforts — From CRM systems to Google Analytics, there are so many online tools available these days to measure and gather analytical data about your marketing efforts. Use that information as you craft promotional messages and marketing strategy. And if a strategy is not increasing sales, drop it and move on to another idea.

5. Maintain creative consistency — Trying new creative ideas is alway smart, but make sure those ideas are consistent with your other marketing campaigns. This includes print publications, advertisements, video, website copy, and even social media presence. funnel.

6. Be human — Just because your audience is businesses and companies (rather than customers), that does not mean the individuals you are marketing to are not human. Make sure your marketing materials speak to the human side of the business world. This has never been more important as so many B2B marketing strategies are downright dull.

B2B marketing is not easy. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you think about it in a similar way you market to customers. Be human, creative, consistent, and measure your efforts. Taking those simple steps will go a long way in turning your business prospects into sales.

 

Promoting Content in the New Age of Facebook


Still struggling to get more viewers on your business Facebook page? Here’s something you might not know: the new EdgeRank algorithm on Facebook now takes quality of content into consideration when you post to your page. Your page reach (the number of people who see the post) will increase or decrease based on the determined quality. But what is considered quality and how do you make each post valuable in this new ranking system? 

Low quality content is a post that doesn’t pique a user’s interest or urge them to engage. By reviewing the insights for your page, you can quickly determine which posts had low engagement and will likely see a trend: simple status updates, no visuals, and no calls to action.  Here are some simple steps to follow to assure that everything you put on your page has the potential to be ranked as high quality content.

#1 Keep it Visual
As most savvy Facebook users know from personal use of the social media tool, people prefer to see pictures of friend’s parties, kids and vacations versus a status update pondering the beauty of life. It’s surprising how quickly our own personal tastes get lost in the effort to present great content and engage users on our business pages.  A compelling sale offer in 140 characters will not have the same impact as an image showing items that are discounted.

Aim to have something visual to share with most, if not all of your posts. Want to wish your followers a Happy Halloween? Find a great image of a costumed dog, put your text on the picture, and post. Your post has instantly been deemed higher quality.

#2 Ask for Participation
Post quality is determined by how engaging the content is. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a question begging an answer can be worth a million. There are many ways to elicit feedback from your users. To increase the potential engagement of a photo, add some a fill-in-the-blank phrase and ask people to respond.

#3 Ask for Contributions
Facebook users love to share and always enjoy a good contest. Users will share photos and stories for the chance at recognition and, most importantly, winning great prizes. Allowing fans to vote for a contest winner, you increases the number of people that engage with your contest. Use the status section to outline the rules and instructions, let the image get the attention. Make sure you follow the Facebook Page Guidelines for all of your promotions and use applications to make sure your winner selections are fair.

If you try getting visual, engaging users, and running contests, but are still not happy with the results, consider the Post Promotion option to get more visibility. And always remember that whatever you post and promote, make sure the content will attract the kind of fans that are best for your business and brand.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Hurricane Sandy


We haven’t heard from many of you out east during the storm and its aftermath. On behalf of the LightSpeed staff I want to say our hearts go out to you. We hope that you and yours are safe and sound. If we can help with anything, please ask.

Help Your Business Prepare for a Disaster


The eastern United States continues to feel the affects of Hurricane Sandy that hit thousands of cities, businesses and people this week. It is likely many businesses and retail stores that were hit by this natural disaster may not reopen for quite some time. In fact, 25 percent of businesses that are hit with a disaster do not reopen their stores. Hurricane Sandy is forcing many business owners to take stock and make sure all proper coverage and emergency plans are in place. Consider the following two areas as you evaluate your company’s emergency plans. 

Insurance Coverage is Crucial
It is critical to have the appropriate insurance coverage for your business, whether it is large or small. One of the following three insurance categories are likely what you need to cover your business.

  • Commercial Property – Commercial property insurance helps businesses pay to repair buildings and property damaged in an emergency situation. Many policies also cover business interruption and lost income (check your policy before assuming you are covered in this area).
  • Home-Based Business – If your business is home-based, do not assume your personal homeowners insurance will cover your business losses. Your insurance company, however, may be able to attach a separate business rider to your policy.
  • Specialized Coverage – Many insurance policies do not cover specific catastrophes like hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. Always ask your insurance provider if those emergencies are covered; and if not, seriously consider paying for that extra coverage. Especially if your business is located in a region that is likely to be hit with a natural disaster (e.g. hurricane and flood coverage in Florida).

Make Safety a Priority
Panic is less likely to ensue when safety procedures are in place and employees are trained before a disaster strikes.

  • Create an emergency preparedness plan if your business does not have one written. Make sure all employees read the plan and know what their specific roles are during such an emergency.
  • Have a list printed out that includes phone numbers and addresses for your local emergency services and repair companies. This may seem like an unnecessary task; but if the electricity goes out and Internet connections are lost, finding the phone numbers you need will be tougher than you think.

Having a disaster recovery plan and appropriate insurance can help a small business avoid closing its doors forever. Start preparing now so you won’t be one of the thousands left without protection when disaster strikes.

Image Source: Creative Commons

How To Set Items Aside For Store Use


I remember when we used to do these workarounds weekly, but we’ve all been pretty busy staring out into the Puget Sound from the new LightSpeed Olympia office. Well some days, not as much.

Now the point of this article is to go over this often asked question, how do I set an item aside for store use?

Read about how to set aside items in our Help →

Farewell Cash Register, Hello Mobile Payment Options


Mobile payment transactions have become so popular that mobile is projected to bring in $171.5 billion worldwide in 2012. This is a 62% increase from $105.9 billion in 2011. The payment systems range from pieces of equipment that attach to smartphones and tablets, to downloadable apps. Are you thinking it may be time to say farewell to your cash registers? Here’s a look at four mobile payment options that can transform the way you do business. 

Square
Ever wondered what those small four-sided gadgets are that attach to to iPads and phones? Those are actually Square payment terminals. Approximately 2 million businesses use Square and it has processed $6 billion in transactions since it was founded in 2010. After Hello Bicycles, a Seattle-based bike shop, began using Square, its earnings tripled in one year. The retailer also loves Square because it compliments the company’s eco-friendly paperless philosophy. In 2011, 800,000 merchants accepted $2 billion in payments using Square.

Intuit GoPayment is an option for mobile payment transactions with the added bonus of providing customer follow-up services. The program enables retailers to send a text or email receipt to their customer, complete with your company logo. Intuit GoPayment syncs directly with QuickBooks software for business management. Vendors pay as little as 2.7% per swipe without a monthly fee requirement.

Google Wallet
Google Wallet is a new tool in which the consumer’s credit and debit cards are stored on highly secure Google servers. Consumers can use the app to keep the information stored on their smartphone or computer and pay in stores by tapping the back of the phone to an NFC point of sale terminal at checkout. Google Wallet lets people shop with the ease of leaving their actual credit cards at home and without the need for an actual wallet.

LevelUp
This mobile payment system not only processes payments, it focuses on a points redemption system for customers. Consumers store their credit card information on LevelUp’s mobile app. A unique QR (Quick Response) code is issued, which is scanned at the time of purchase. Customers who spend $50 receive a $5 credit. This is a great way for merchants to build customer appreciation programs into an already-existing payment methodology.

It’s likely more and more retail stores and vendors will use mobile payments as time progresses. With a commitment to going green and the user-friendly aspect of these apps, those costly cash registers and credit card terminals will likely go the way of the typewriter.

Time Management Tips for Business Owners


Did you know that one in four small business owners believe an extra hour in the day is worth more than $500? And that 50% of owners say there is just not enough time in each day? Mastering your time is the most important thing you can do as a business owner. Even making one small change will help your productivity tremendously. Here are four ideas that will help you and your business get back on the time management track.  

Use mobile apps and smartphones.
When you’re a business owner, the reality is often that you must work outside the office. So when you need to check email away from a computer or get caught up on industry reading, there are dozens of online applications that will help you accomplish just that. Seventy-five percent of small business owners believe the use of apps has saved them time. Apps enable you to keep organized and stay on track with projects when you’re away from your desk.

Schedule time for your calendar.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but always schedule time for your calendar review. it is critical to check in with yourself every so often to determine if your calendar is balanced with the right amount of time for each activity. Customize your day based on when you are most productive and alert. So if you are the most alert after lunch, do the most important projects then.

Use online collaboration tools.
There are many project management tools available that allow you to manage multiple projects within the online platform. A few examples include Asana, Basecamp, and Dropbox. These programs allow you to assign employees to tasks and projects, and gives the boss an easy way to see the big picture of what’s going on in an organization.

Organize a little every day.
Most business owners think of themselves as unorganized. In reality, organization may not be the problem. It is more likely the problem resides in not enough time to organize. Schedule time on your calendar – even if it’s just 10 minutes a day – for organization. Include tasks such as shredding, entering contacts and filing within that time.

Remember the ability to access information quickly adds extra hours of productivity to your day. Take the time to organize your office, review your calendar and use technology to get you on track and organized.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Is Your Business Ready for the Holidays?


It’s beginning to look a lot like … November! That means the holiday buying season will soon be in full throttle. Is your business ready for these shoppers, and do you have a plan in place for your store to be “holiday friendly?” Don’t worry if you’re not quite there yet. Here are five ideas to get your business ready for the holiday season. Afer all, Black Friday is only five weeks away! 

1. Get your holiday decor ready now. We’re not saying you should start displaying holiday gift boxes and Santa’s sleigh this week. But use this time to gather your holiday decor, purchase the items you need, and order your festive store signage. There’s a reason the large wholesale stores are stocked with holiday items now – for the small businesses. Have everything ready to install for a Black Friday debut.

2. Document your return and exchange policies on receipts and on signage at the cash registers. This time of year more than any other, it’s critical to articulate your return and exchange policy for purchases, even if it will not vary from your year-long policy. Make sure it’s documented and have it printed on receipts for the customer’s ease.

3. Start your holiday messaging now. Include information about Black Friday specials and holiday offers in your marketing materials as soon as Halloween ends. These deals can be communicated within email blasts, on your website, and through social media.

4. Have a staffing and security plan in place. Start preparing now for large crowds on Black Friday and beyond. Hire extra seasonal staff. Make sure you have plenty of inventory available, especially for the items you are advertising. And have a security plan in place should your crowds get out of control. Not having these areas thought-out ahead of time is what often leads to a public relations nightmare when things go wrong.

5. Go above and beyond for your customers. It’s easy to add little gestures to the holiday shopping season that won’t break the bank, yet will make a positive difference to your customers. For example, offer complimentary gift wrap service. You can purchase the gift wrap from dollar stores, and then consider asking a local high school Key Club to provide volunteers to wrap the gifts. Consider offering hungry shoppers a festive cookie or coffee while they browse your store. Ask a local bakery to donate the cookies and include a sign in the store acknowledging their donation.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Why Employee Mentorship is Critical in Business


“If you help others succeed, you will find your own success.”

Many successful business owners refer to the quote above when talking about how they achieved their goals. Investing in people is the surest way to get others invested in you. Taking the time to mentor your employees, both in job skills and in life, allows you to generate loyalty among your staff. These are the people that will work harder, stay longer, and have your back when tough times hit. 

Often managers are so caught up in the day-to-day activities that they forget their cashiers and line-level employees have aspirations too. Developing a mentoring program can be a key differentiator between you and your competitors when it comes to attracting great employees. Yet it’s not as simple as assigning people mentors and making a big announcement. Think carefully about what goals you want your mentor program to achieve, and how you can make it a part of your business culture. Here are three tips for setting up a meaningful employee mentor program.

Understand what kind of mentor your people want. There are many reasons to start a mentoring program, including helping new employees learn the business, teaching new skills, and developing personal relationships with employees. Figuring out what kind of mentoring you want to implement can be as simple as asking your employees what they want. Some may want to learn the skills of others, while others may want advice on how to get into a certain career.

Choose relationships wisely and give guidance. As a manager or business owner, you may have the best intention to take on the role of mentor to an employee. But if you don’t have the time, arranging for others to mentor is a better alternative. You may find great mentors already on your team, or ask friends and colleagues outside your business. Most importantly, make sure you communicate the goal of each relationship. There should also be agreement about how much mentoring time is expected, what activities are appropriate, and what, if any, compensation will be given for mentoring opportunities.

Check in and revise. Mentoring relationships should not be micromanaged, but you will should check in regularly to see if the mentoring is working. Is the protege getting what she needs from the relationship? If not, it may become just another task for her to do. If you are offering to mentor someone and it doesn’t feel like it’s working, consider asking what your business can do to help her reach her goals. The employee may not want a traditional mentor, just a chance to learn more skills to make them better employees.

Employees have options and will continue to look for jobs that take them where they ultimately want to be. Taking the time to develop a mentoring program and support staff members’ goals can have a lasting impact for both your employees and your business.

 

Using Social Bridge Professional for Small Business Success


Many small business owners are using cloud-based file-sharing services, which enable  individuals to quickly and instantly update documents and presentations. However there are some tasks and project coordination that need personal oversight that go beyond uploading documents to a cloud server. Having a system in place that enables effective client collaboration can result in faster project completion and better customer satisfaction. 

Social Bridge Professional was created to meet this need and to specifically give small businesses the power of large scale collaboration, but for a small business price.

Social Bridge Professional allows you to set up unique workspaces for team members and clients that may contain files, calendars, databases, project management, and reporting. In many ways, this platform is like a virtual meeting room that is always open. Each workspace is individual, private, and entirely managed by you.

Social Bridge Workspaces

Once you have joined the program, you can then create a workspace for a specific project. Start by including all the people involved in the project, both internal and external. For example, if you are working on a website redesign, add the clients, account manager, creative director, and web developer onto a single workspace. Then assign each person different permissions and then create a task list for the project completion.

Workspace members can upload screenshots and live links for review. In addition, clients can ask questions and request changes, which are instantly received by all the parties working together on the project. Clients can also give approvals and move the project along for a small upgrade. If your business bills hourly, you can also log work completed on each task, and set up an alert to notify clients how many hours are completed on the project.

Additional Social Bridge Features

Social Bridge also allows you to send traditional meeting requests or schedule web meetings with desktop sharing for presentations. The platform integrates with Outlook for calendar and email collaboration.

Another feature of Social Bridge is the corporate database capability, which allows you to store contacts, documents, orders, and inventory within the workspace. It essentially creates a central location for your entire team’s communication and project needs.
In addition, Social Bridge has live support and a vast library of video tutorials that help you realize the full potential of this powerful site. Initial pricing begins at $99 per month (but you can try it for free). The program offers customization to make it the perfect collaboration tool for your business.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Three Social News Sites That Bring Readers to Your Blog


Has this scenario happened to you?

You’ve written a great blog post with content that begs to be read, liked, and commented upon. However you soon realize you have a problem driving traffic to this post. Social media has been integrated into blogging platforms, making published posts instantly available on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. But the introduction of social news sites is changing the content sharing game yet again. Social news sites enable you to share content to a broader audience. Here are three content sharing sites that can bring your blog posts new readers and more exposure. 

Digg – Digg is one of the largest social news sites available today and is very tightly controlled. You can submit your original blog or article content; however are penalized if this is the only thing you do. As such, to be successful on Digg, you must be reading and posting other people’s content.

In addition, “digging” (a “digg” is equivalent to a like) your own content is frowned upon. To get the most out of Digg, ask friends and colleagues to submit your work to the site and “digg” it among other posts. The sophisticated site also punishes those who only “digg” content from a single source. While these controls seem daunting, it actually keeps the site clean from spammers and helps elevate your content to being newsworthy.

Reddit – Reddit is a bit more complicated. The site contains “reddits,” which act as community rooms specific to a topic. Decide on which reddits community you want to follow that most aligns with your content. While Reddit can be tricky to navigate, it has a very large following. Therefore if you are an active participant, have great content, and follow the rules, you have the potential to drive thousands of visitors to your blog.

Delicious – Delicious is a bookmarking site with a social element. Whenever you find a great article on the web that you want to bookmark, you can post it on delicious. You then add tags to each bookmark. The social element is added when you search delicious for tags for topics that interest you. By having others follow you – and following others – you can add your original content to the mix by bookmarking it and then gaining additional exposure for your blog.

Joining a social sharing site can be intimidating at first, yet it also offers the opportunity to bring countless new readers to your blog. If you are not ready to begin navigating these tricky waters, start by asking friends and colleagues who are active in these communities to help share your work.

How Google for Entrepreneurs Can Help Your Business


One of the most newsworthy events to hit the web recently is the launch of Google’s new tool for small businesses and and start-ups: Google for Entrepreneurs. This new platform brings together all the Google programs and partnerships worldwide that benefit businesses. The site offers access to online resources and local events that can help you launch a new business or grow an existing one. 

What is Google for Entrepreneurs?
From the front page of Google for Entrepreneurs, you will find local workshops and specific programs that match your business goals and help get you connected to thought leaders, both locally and worldwide. In the resources section, you can access tutorials about Google Apps, AdWords, and Google + for business. You can also connect with local Google business groups and take advantage of a free Google-hosted website for one year. The main page also highlights some of the programs that are being offered worldwide, including the following sites.

Startup Weekend – Sponsored in part by Google, Startup Weekends are being offered all over the world, where entrepreneurs can work through an idea and determine if it’s a viable business plan. These events are hands-on programs with so much substance. In fact, more than 36% of the startup weekend startups are still going strong 3 months later.

Startup America Partnership – Becoming a member of the Startup America Partnership will instantly connect you to a community of founders, investors, and local networks that help attract customers, recruit employees, and find investor funding. The group has a library of resources, events, and special promotions. For any new business, the Startup America Partnership is an incredible opportunity to participate in a community that understands your unique challenges and can help offer solutions.

Accelerate Your Business – This rigorous training program was developed by Google to help minority- and women-owned business grow and succeed online. It is currently in its pilot stage and is accepting applications from business owners who meet specific criteria.

Women 2.0 – Google for Entrepreneurs is also making efforts to further women as business owners with a partnership with Women 2.0, a media company providing content, community and events for aspiring and current female technology innovators. Currently focusing in the United States, Europe and South America, Google hopes to expand Women 2.0’s Founder Friday series to go into new cities through the use of Google technology.

Google for Entrepreneurs is free to use, as are many of the programs. While the platform certainly helps startups and small businesses find great opportunities and partnerships, it also makes loyal Google users out of a new generation of businesses.

Is Anyone Listening? How to Measure Your Twitter Reach


You have your company’s Twitter account set up and you’re constantly sending out tweets and following trends. So now what? In order for your social media endeavors to be successful, it’s best to have a plan in place to evaluate your Twitter reach. How do you determine how far your tweets are going and who is reading them? Two new Twitter services — Hashtracking and Tweetreach — help you do just that. 

Hashtracking — This online platform allows you to track campaigns, measure reach, and calculate influence. All you do is enter a hashtag and Hashtracking will provide you with a detailed report. Try it for free on Hashtracking’s homepage.

Hashtracking provides detailed reports that include drill-down content analysis, detailed contributor lists, and full transcripts when your hashtag is mentioned. The company offers a variety of customized plans to select. There are basic reports that are free. And for a charge, you can received 1-day, 1-week, or 1-month Pro Reports. Hashtracking also has a multi-hashtag monthly enterprise solution.

Hashtracking uses the example of the #vsfashionshow hashtag (Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show). Their basic report came back showing the hashtag had the following reach: 69.1K tweets; 43.1M impressions; 51.7K contributors; and a 24.8M reach.

TweetReach — TweetReach works with individuals, as well as thousands of agencies, marketers, event producers, and publicists to measure the impact of Twitter campaigns. TweetReach helps you analyze tweets about your hashtag, brand name or URL. You then receive in-depth social analytics on reach, exposure, tweets and contributors.

TweetReach gives the example of the 2012 Golden Globe Awards. By tracking and analyzing all the tweets during the broadcast, TweetReach was able to identify nearly 1 million tweets from 300,000 contributors that generated more than 2.2 billion impressions. The company also determined the 2012 Golden Globe Twitter results were three-times higher than the volume seen during the 2011 awards. This type of data is especially helpful when raising advertising revenue.

You can try TweetReach for free with the search tool located on the website. If you feel you need to measure multiple tweets, hashtags and brands, there are a variety of pricing options depending on your needs.

The best Twitter presence in the world is meaningless if you cannot measure the success of your efforts. Consider a service such as TweetReach or Hashtracking so you can demonstrate the value of the work you are doing. Even if you are only tweeting your personal brand, it’s critical to do the research and see the type of impact you’re making with your efforts.

Image Source: Creative Commons

5 Ways to Build Your Email Subscriber List


No matter how big social media becomes or how many apps are released for mobile devices, it’s safe to say that email marketing is not disappearing in the near future. In fact,  many companies use email marketing as their direct line of communication with customers. Given the fact that email is here to stay, it is critical to continue growing your email subscriber list in order to keep current customers engaged and prospective consumers in the pipeline. Here are five ways to build your subscriber list using modern strategies. 

1. Add a subscribe option on your company’s Facebook page. Your Facebook page can now be manipulated and programmed to include landing pages and email subscription sign-up forms. Since more people are spending their time on social media, makes sure signing up for your e-newsletter is a viable option for customers.

2. Offer a free downloadable tool or white paper. People love getting free stuff. One great way to improve your email subscription rate is to offer a free downloadable worksheet or white paper when customers sign up for the newsletter. This option makes the customer feel like they are receiving an exclusive benefit while you are getting permission to market to him in the future.

3. Have the subscribe button present on all your web pages. Some websites only include an email subscription option on the business’ home page. Consider adding the sign-up option to every webpage your company maintains. This ensures that individuals browsing your website will see the same “subscribe” message multiple times.

4. Catch subscribers at check-out. If you are an e-commerce site and sell products, one of the great ways you can find subscribers is to adding an opt in (or a pre-checked opt-out) button after the customer pays for their purchase. A high 90% of email marketers say adding an opt-in request to the purchase process is at least “somewhat effective” at growing email lists.

5. Use the “forward to a friend” feature. It’s surprising how many companies do not take advantage of the “forward to a friend” button at the end of an email message. This is a great way to create viral buzz for interesting topics or website images. Make it easy for your current customer to send the email to a friend or family member with one click.

With a few very simple techniques, your business can begin growing it’s email newsletter subscribers from a few to several hundred, just by using even one of the suggestions above.

Image Source: Creative Commons

3 Tips to Help Your Customers Understand Swipe Fee Surcharges


As most businesses are well aware, every time a credit card purchase is made, your store is charged a 1.5% – 3% surcharge. Until recently, there were no other options but for the business to cover that cost. This will not always be the case as many companies now begin passing along the surcharge to the customer paying with plastic. 

Why is there a shift from retailers to consumers paying the surcharge? As part of a recent lawsuit settlement, retailers are now able to pass along that fee to their customers. The lawsuit included more than 50 complaints, including grocery chain stores and other large companies. Debit cards, however, do not incur a swipe fee and that will not change in the future.

Nobody wants to be charged more, even if it’s for convenience. So if you are a company planning to pass along the surcharge to customers, here are three ways you can make this transition a little less stressful for your loyal buyers.

1. Give your customers plenty of notice. While the transition will not happen overnight, if it looks like your store will begin collecting the surcharge from the customer, start posting signs at your registers and within the store that give people a heads-up this change is coming. Include a date as to when the transition occurs. If your business sends out an email newsletter, consider including information in the publication as to why this is happening. Customers may not like the change, but they’ll appreciate the notice.

2. Offer cash buying incentives. Encourage customers to use cash to make purchases by giving a small discount off the total bill. Knowing they will not be required to pay a surcharge – while saving money at the same time – this special offer may be enough to get buyers to switch to cash only purchasing.

3. Assure customers their purchase is still protected. One of the main reasons people use credit cards for large purchases is the protection guarantee provided by the credit card company. Let your buyers know that their purchases are still protected by your business, even if they pay with cash. Consider adding a few sentences to this effect at the bottom of receipt copy so they have something “in writing.”

It’s not easy being charged a fee, even if it’s as low as 3%. After all, this complaint is the basis for these lawsuits in the first place. So if your business is planning to pass along a credit card surcharge to customers, help them understand why you’re doing this and make sure you offer an alternative solution. By doing so, you are educating your consumers while also assuring them you understand what it’s like to pay a little bit more for convenience.

Image Source: Creative Commons

6 Apps to Manage Your Business on the Go


In today’s working world, business moves at the speed of light. This often means business owners are relying more on mobile devices to act as virtual offices and assistants. If you are a smartphone user, you probably have waded into the app market looking for tools to make your life easier. Here are six applications that will allow you to get out of your office but still keep your business fully functional. 

1. Google Drive – The first thing your smartphone should be able to do is connect you with all of your files. Google Drive lets you access anything you have loaded onto the drive, including photos and video. It makes document management easy by allowing you to read, upload and update files all from your device. You can easily share files with your contacts, making late night emergency trips to the office computer obsolete. Best of all, Google Drive is free with a Google account.

2. Adobe Reader – Managing PDFs can be particularly challenging in business because most smart phones can read PDFs, but don’t let you manipulate them. Adobe Reader app enables you to download a document on the go, complete and sign it, then send it back in an instant. For a mere $5, you can stop being shackled to your desk and printer by the simple PDF.

3. Asana – You have access to your files, but how about your staff? Managing people is not an easy task, particularly if you are spending time offsite. Download Asana to your smart phone and you can assign tasks, add due dates, and see progress instantly. The free version lets you collaborate with up to 30 people so you can be connected to your people even as you are out and about.

4. Square – You have your files and your people at the touch of a button, but what about sales? Don’t let mobility take away your ability to make transactions. The Square Card Reader has four simple steps: download the free app, get your free card reader, link your bank account, and start swiping sales. There are no contracts or merchant accounts needed. Square charges a small fee of 2.75% per transaction.

5. Expensify – If you are on the road a lot (like many business owners are), you are collecting mileage and receipts that you will need for tax time. Or you may have employees out on the road that need reimbursement. Expensify is a free app that makes expense tracking easy. It acts as a receipt scanner, mileage tracker, and even purchase tracker by syncing with credit cards and bank accounts. It’s easy to use, and expenses can be selected for individual reports, making it easy to view spending.

6. HootSuite – Stay connected with your customers no matter where you are with HootSuite. This app is not new, but is one of the easiest mobile management tool for controlling Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and FourSquare. This powerful tool also includes monitoring and tracking, so you know when you are hitting the mark with your efforts.

Don’t let your computer or laptop tie you down to working in an office. With the abundance of business apps available, it’s easy to be mobile and manage your business at the same time.

Image Source: Creative Commons

5 Ways to Use Content Curation for Your Business


Content curation is one of the biggest trends in marketing these days because it’s a great way to brand your business as an expert within a given field. Essentially content curation is a form of content marketing where a publisher (in this case, a small business) collects the best content/articles related to a niche and targeted to a specific audience. The publisher then enhances that content by adding personal opinions and expertise. That enhanced content delivers added value to the target audience who consumes it after it’s published. 

Knowing that content curation can help establish your business as an expert, how does one go about pulling together content without easily getting overwhelmed by countless articles on the Internet? Here are five tools available that will help you find great information, put it together, and create a compelling story.

1. Storify.com – This powerhouse of content curation enables users to find great pieces of information by sourcing social networks. The easy interface allows you to drag pieces information into a story and manipulate the final batch of information along with additional commentary into a single article.

2. Paper.li – This site allows you to create a “newspaper” on specific topics. These papers can share all the interesting and relevant news of the day regarding a specific topic through article and links in a designed format. You can then push out the “newspaper” via Twitter and Facebook for added exposure.

3. Scoop.it – This site makes it easy to find and follow information related to your interests through a dashboard search website, social media, and other sources. As you are fed content, you can easily and turn that information into a magazine to share with your audience.

4. Trap.it – This site curates content based on your feedback. Give items thumbs up and down, and “trap” things that you want to be the basis of the curation for a particular theme. The style of Trap.it is very similar to the online music site, Pandora.

5. Bagtheweb.com – Here you can “bag” (such as place in a shopping bag) interesting finds for later use. You can set up a bag for any topic and add information at any time, with the option to share your bags with the community while you follow others. In addition, you can put together a great bag of information and share it with your audience by embedding it into your website or blog.

Whether you are searching, bagging or trapping information, always read each source carefully. Your audience is relying on you to do the heavy work and trusts you to make sure the information is credible. Once you start curating and sharing that content with an audience, you will start to be seen and followed by the exact people you want to reach.

Image Source: Creative Commons

4 Reasons Infographics are Smart for SEO


Infographics are everywhere! These new graphic stories distill complex sets of information into easy-to-understand visuals. They are fun to look at, and easy to comprehend. But to anyone who has been working on site tags and back links, their SEO value might seem insignificant because infographics are viewed as an image. And the text contained in the image is unreadable by search engines. So if the search engines cannot read the content, why are infographics so popular?  Contrary to the casual observer, infographics can be a huge benefit to SEO rankings. Here’s how. 

1. The average attention span of web reader is short. She wants her information quickly. The easiest way to get your message across in the shortest amount of time is through a visual aid (think early spreadsheets and PowerPoint). Facts are added to representative images, and the images are laid out to tell a story. The story is now an infographic, a quick and easy way to digest information, and is easily shared on social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

2. Infographics that are visually appealing on interesting subjects make an impact on social media. BitRebel recently studied the impact of their social media content in relation to infographics and found that posts that included an infographic were retweeted on Twitter 832% more than traditional content. And they had 629% more shares on Facebook , resulting in 746% more page views. Page views are the number one reason why infographics have become popular — and great for SEO.

3. Additionally, as a single image, the content on the page loads quickly and Google rankings include site load time. So the faster it loads, the better the ranking.

4. An outstanding infographic may also get discovered and posted on a high-value site, like Mashable, increasing your site credibility, and ultimately your SEO ranking. If you don’t already have a high-traffic website, work on getting your infographics discovered by using sites like Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon to increase the chance that your infographic will go viral.

If you are ready to dive into the world of infographics, but are not a graphic designer, use one of the many tools available online to help you turn flat facts into interesting infographic stories. Two great sites to help you get started are visual.ly and easel.ly. Both sites are easy to use and full of resources to help you figure out which type of infographic will work for you.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Why Your Business Needs Pinterest


As one of the fastest growing social sites, Pinterest has more referral power than several social networking sites combined. Pinterest allows people to “pin” images from all over the web to their personal accounts on “boards” that are essentially virtual bulletin boards. More importantly, each “pin” links back to the original source of the image. In other words, people can share images from your website and send people right back to your site. 

While this is an exciting and innovative opportunity for businesses, like all social networking, Pinterest requires some planning and effort to make the most of your results. Here are five tips to harness the power and gain the referrals that Pinterest can offer.

1. Rethink your website visually. Pinterest is all about the image. Without great images, people are not likely to “pin” your content, and more importantly, you will lose valuable “repins,” which comprise 80% of all pins on the site. With over 11 million unique users a month, it’s worth the effort to rethink how much effort you spend on your images.

Start with a stunning image and use the right tools to enhance images like Instagram, Pinstamatic, and Snagit.  If you have interesting content, consider creating an infographic to make it “pinworthy.” Sites like http://www.easel.ly/ and http://visual.ly are two of the best resources to make your content into compelling infographics.

For original images, you will want to include a watermark that identifies the image with your company name or website. It’s not uncommon for pins not to link back correctly to original content, make sure your name is part of the image and not just rely on the link back address being correct. Lastly, add “Pin It” buttons to the content on your website to make it easy for people to share.

2. Create a Pinterest account that represents your business. Setting up your pin boards is a crucial step in the process. Boards are essentially categories, and each board can be followed individually. Think carefully about categories that describe your business and create boards that clearly understood and can be pinned to regularly. Be careful not to get to specific within each board, making them obsolete after time, because you may lose valuable followers. Avoid dated boards, e.g. “Winter 2012,” and opt for broader categories like “Winter Wonder.” You can continue adding the to the board year after year, and bring your followers with you.

Use your website as your guide for some of the product categories that make sense, but also think about the subjects that inspire you as a business and make boards to share your finds. Think about the history of your industry and include boards that highlight the history, art and people that make your industry great today.

3. Follow companies and boards that inspire you. Think about what your company represents and do keyword searches to find other companies and individuals that share your vision. Remember, this is a social site and repinning the great finds by others makes you more visible and increases the likelihood that others will follow you.
You can also learn a lot about what people are interested in related to your business, and can increase the quality of your own pins by following the trends you see. You can also use the trends to tailor new products that can attract new customers.

4. Be Social — Find other pins and companies by using #hashtags of keywords that relate to your business and use the #hashtags to make it easy to find you. For example, if you are posting an infographic, use #infographic as the hashtag. When following someone, make sure to comment and like images, but resist the urge to comment on everything in the search for followers and risk getting banned as a spammer.

5. Use tracking applications — Pinterest offers great insight into how your pins are being received. Make sure to check your “Recent Activity” on your Pinterest homepage. You can also use applications like Pinerly to set up campaigns, track statistics, optimize your pins, and improve your Pinterest performance. Lastly, check your website statistics. If you are seeing an increase in traffic, it’s working.

Start utilizing the power of Pinterest to drive traffic to your business website and gain customers through social media sources you may not have otherwise tapped.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Using Amazon SQS as a Messaging Bus


In a previous blog post I wrote about how we use a Message Queue server in a Message Bus design. Since that post was written we’ve moved from ActiveMQ to RabbitMQ and now we are moving to Amazon Web Service Simple Queue Service (SQS). I’m going to cover:

  • What is SQS?
  • The Message Bus design Pattern
  • How we’re using SQS to integrate with outside systems.
  • Bonus: I’ll also include how we’re looking at using SNS for notifications.

Intro to AWS SQS

Amazon Web Services are a suite of hosted services run by Amazon that are available on a pay per use basis. SQS (short for Simple Queue Service) is their messaging queue service. SQS operates much like other Queue servers, you can:

  • Create queues
  • Place messages on queues
  • Read messages off of queues.

One important difference with SQS is that there is no guarantee about the order that messages are delivered in. In most other stand alone queue servers messages are delivered in a First-In, First-Out (FIFO) manner. The primary reason that messages can be delivered out of order with SQS is a feature called message visibility. When a message is read from SQS it is no longer visible on the queue. This prevents multiple clients from getting the same message to process. But unlike some other queues, reading a message from the queue does not remove it. A client must explicitly acknowledge a message for it to be removed from the queue. If a client reads a message, but doesn’t acknowledge it, the message will become visible again a short time later. While the message is not visible other messages can be processed, and thus completed before the message becomes visible again.

What is a Message Bus

A Message Bus is a software design pattern that allows for message senders and receivers to be decoupled. This means that message senders and receivers can be added and removed without effecting other senders and receivers attached to the bus.

While we started with a message bus in our design for using SQS as a queue, we are not currently taking full advantage of the Message Bus design pattern as we use one sender class and one process for reading and distributing messages to the correct subscribers.

How we are using SQS

Now that we’ve covered SQS and the basic concept of a messaging bus, lets look at how we put it all together at LightSpeed.

Generating Messages

We have many different message types that are generated and placed on our queue (Item, Customer, Integration Specific messages, etc). Since we are generating all of these messages within our own application we have simplified our message generation code to one class that is used across our system. Using one central message producer allows us to reduce the overall architectural complexity of generating messages and placing them on the queue. This also allows use to integrate other message generators in the future as we need or want them.

Receiving Messages

On the receiving side we have used a few techniques to improve the reliability of receiving and dispatching of messages

Using a CRON to receive messages

To receive messages we use one CRON process that wakes up and forks child processes. These child processes are each responsible for taking one message off of the queue and forwarding it onto its appropriate destination. We have previously used separate processes for each endpoint that needed a message. The downside to this technique was again complexity of monitoring each process and diagnosing when issues arose.

Reducing Coupling

While using one parent process that creates worker processes has potential pitfalls as a point of failure, we have mitigated those by reducing the coupling of the worker processes to the endpoints that they call. One technique we used was to have the workers call the endpoint (typically an RPC endpoint on our API), post it’s message payload and disconnect without waiting for a response. Each endpoint becomes responsible for logging its success or failure. By keeping the workers short lived we reduce the overall impact of one worker failing.

Routing Messages

Another way that our queue usage has evolved is by consolidating all messages into one queue. Previously we used per account queues, which allowed for segregating accounts that might be generating many queue messages from those that only generate a few. In the long run we found that it failed to give us any practical benefit.

We now use a two queue system where all messages are first placed on a “priority queue”. These messages are read off and dealt with by the worker processes described above. If one account is generating many messages, or if we have determined that the endpoint they are calling is saturated and cannot process any more messages, they are re-routed to a delayed queue. Messages on the delayed queue are read once the message volume has reduced or the endpoint is ready to receive messages again.

This arrangement of a limited number of message producers, sending to a limited number of queues, being read by a limited number of consumers, has helped to reduce our queue complexity, improve the transparency of the message flow through the system, and given us better monitoring of our queue status.

Integrating SNS

Our next steps with SQS and our queue development is to create the ability to generate webhook callbacks that can be notified about messages on the queue. We are currently evaluating Amazon SNS among other options to provide a way to generate notifications. With a general notification framework in place it will allow for more complete workflows that include LightSpeed as one component, including potentially being able to create websockets for a richer client interface.

Wrap-up

Our queueing infrastructure has evolved over time to help us create decoupled integrations while reducing our application complexity. Amazon SQS is an integral piece in our ability to reduce our application complexity while also allowing us to scale as our user base grows and our messages per user increases. We’ve got some exciting changes coming to our queuing infrastructure that will allow for richer interactions with API clients. Watch our blog for more posts as we release these changes.

5 Top Sites for Finding Excellent Marketing Images


When you write a great blog post or come up with great website copy, you want to find images that make the piece stand out. Unless you have the time or are a professional photographer, this step can often times be the most frustrating part of a project. Nothing is more frustrating than a mediocre image that detracts from the messaging and turn a great piece into a bore. 

Luckily, there are so many online resources for great images. And for most of these sites, the cost is a simple tagline attributing the image to the site or photographer. In addition, the sites also have user-friendly interfaces to find and download images quickly and easily. Here are five great websites for finding quality images.

FreeDigitalPhotos.net – This site offers the best in clean and polished images of people and professional scenarios. There is no registration required and small images are free. Higher resolution images for print and graphic design are available for purchase. This service is ideal for blogs and websites.

MorgueFile – With gorgeous images taken by highly skilled photographers, this site is a creative person’s dream. Beyond the images is a community, including forums, blogs, online tutorials, and supporting photographers and image seekers alike.  It’s simple to register and easy to find, edit and use images. The MorgueFile Free License Agreement allows you to remix images and use them for commercial purposes without attribution.

Compfight – This site is a bit more savvy as it’s essentially a powerful search engine to quickly find the images you need. Results include Flickr images along with all other stock photo options. With Compfight, be sure to review the search filters and review the terms of use for each photo, as some will be fee-based and others free with attribution (but not for corporate use).

Behold.cc – Another image search engine, but solely for Flickr-housed photos. If you want to be able to modify images, or use them for commercial use, their filters make it easy. Not as pretty or robust as Compfight, but might be a little less intimidating as well.

SXC.hu – Consisting of a huge gallery of photos, this site is a workhorse for stock photos. Offering more than 350,000 images from over 30,000 photographers, you will find nearly any image you need. You can also browse tutorials and forums that will teach everything from how to create effects in photo editing software to great retouching tips.

Be sure to read all of the fine print for any of these sites from whom you are obtaining images.  Make sure you attribute each photo when required, as there is nothing more disappointing to a photographer than finding his image getting widely viewed without his name attached. With these five sites, you will never be at a loss for images again!

Image Source: Creative Commons

East Coast Road Trip


Checking in with a trip report (with pics!) to the far east reaches of the U.S. LightSpeed attended a trade show called action bike and outdoor in Atlantic City then I headed north to New York City to visit some customers and hang out with my sister at her pad in Harlem over the weekend.

Action Bike And Outdoor

We met two shops using MOS at this show. This is fairly significant given that by my estimate only about 100-200 retailers actually attended! If you want uninterrupted access to vendors attending this show, you as retailers should go. If you’re a vendor and want a lot of exposure to retailers in these industries, don’t go!

I Heart New York

I drove into the city from Atlantic City. My first driving experience on the East coast. What’s with the gas stations and restaurants in the middle of the highway parkway? How do you go back the way you came? Wrong turns or missed off ramps cost you dearly in time! Tolls as much as $12! I was for sure the n00b on the road out there.

Customers!

My goal was to visit as many customers as possible on Friday and try to see a few more on Saturday. Here’s a roundup of who I made it out to see.

Luck Wang

This children’s apparel shop is on the bleeding edge of hip. I had to score something for my 9 month old and found the perfect howling wolf shirt. Kit runs two nearby locations and has his inventory up on Shopify for E-commerce sales.

      

 

Kiosk

Kiosk has an array of styling and sometimes retro items. Due to my unannounced visit, I sadly missed the owners but did get to check out the shop and check in with the present staff. Kiosk has a single store front tucked away in the SOHO on the second floor. They get a lot of touristic traffic passing by but also run a Shopify E-commerce site.

Toga Bikes

Toga Bike Shop is one of our first twenty customers to use our point of sale. A must visit. They have four locations around the New York City area and I swung by their West side location. Eddie helped fill me in on what we can do better for them.

Mod Squad

Up in Harlem these guys have a very pleasantly laid out shop. What I can only describe as a bar layout in back provides a great hangout area for customers to banter with the repair staff. Dale over there gave some great feedback about allowing all employees, regardless of their rights, to be able to see their hours clocked. A great suggestion we’ll try to accomodate.

The Spokesman

This shop is delightfully packed with a wide array of inventory. We went over some of the functionality of LightSpeed Cloud.

More Shop Visits

One of the best parts about this trip is we get to directly connect with customers to find out what they need and learn first hand how our software works in their shops. This is a great way for us to learn to enhance the software and witness first hand how our software interacts with employees and customers in their store. We’ll try to pre-anounce our trips so shops can request a visit in the future.

See you soon…

  

AWS DynamoDB For Session Redundancy And Failover


This article will go over what DynamoDB is and how we use it to backup our session data. It allows us to failover from one datacenter (AWS region) to another without losing session data and logging people out of our system.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) DynamoDB

DynamoDB is a cloud NoSQL database hosted by Amazon. You simply create a table and set the read/write capacity you want and Amazon takes care of the rest. No servers to manage or scale. Pretty awesome. Actually it’s so awesome that Amazon DynamoDB is the fastest growing new service in the history of AWS.

What’s is DynamoDB good at?

  • No hassle data store that is performant, scalable, and reliable.
  • Quick reads/writes. You decide the performance you need and pay for that.
  • Relatively cheap.
  • Access data via a key.
  • Store data that is in the 1-10KB range per item (you can store more but it gets expensive).

What’s does DynamoDB suck at?

  • It’s not a relational database. You can’t query it with joins or complex selects.
  • It’s not as fast as memcache (in our experience).
  • For large items or extremely high throughput it can get expensive (compared to running your own memcache service for example).
  • There is no simple way to back up your data (they do have a process by which you can get data to S3 but it’s pretty complicated and involves two other totally separate services from AWS).

Where can you read more about DynamoDB?

Using DynamoDB For Session Backup

In the blog post Scalable Session Handling in PHP Using Amazon DynamoDB they cover how to implement session handling for PHP using DynamoDB. I experimented with this, but what I found was it was too slow for our needs. Our session reads with DynamoDB were taking 20+ms. Our memcache session reads are an order of magnitude faster than that. We also already have memcache session handling implemented and working beautifully.

Why Do We Need To Backup Our Sessions?

For some applications it might be acceptable to log everyone out if you failed from one datacenter to another (heck lots of applications run in only one datacenter and don’t have any failover). Our application is mission critical for our customers – if we’re down they’re losing money. We run completely redundant setups in two different AWS regions on EC2.

If there’s a problem we have to switch customers from one datacenter to the other. Not having the sessions backed up in a way that both datacenters can access would mean everyone using our system would be logged out. This is a real hassle for our users because sometimes the stores are operating with a manager login and associates just have PINs to switch to their profile. If they get logged out they have to have the manager come by and log back in. What if the manager is out on lunch? Out of luck.

We previously stored our session backup in our MySQL database. But this became unscalable as the number of concurrent sessions grew. A few months ago we turned off our MySQL session storage and have been running just on memcache sessions. It improved performance, but it meant we might log everyone out if we had to switch datacenters.

DynamoDB To The Rescue

I looked at a number of different NoSQL type solutions for our session backup. DynamoDB made it to the top of the list because of it’s easy of management, scalability and price.

The basic concept is:

  • Session are stored and read from Memcache (every page hit)
  • Every 15 minutes we write the session to DynamoDB (each session stores its time since last DynamoDB write)
  • If we can’t find a session in Memcache (datacenter failure, or Memcache reboot) we look for it in DynamoDB.
  • Result: Users aren’t logged out if we switch datacenters or reboot Memcache.

DynamoDB PHP Code Samples

I gleaned a lot of this code from AWS blog post on PHP DynamoDB sessions.

readDynamoDB

This reads our session data out of DynamoDB when we need it. We call this from our custom session reading function (see session_set_save_handler)

[php]
function readDynamoDB($ses_id)
{
$this-&gt;initDynamoDB();
$result = ”;
$response = $this-&gt;_dynamodb-&gt;get_item(
array( ‘TableName’ =&gt; self::DYNAMODB_TABLE,
‘Key’ =&gt; array(‘HashKeyElement’ =&gt; $this-&gt;_dynamodb-&gt;attribute($ses_id)),
‘ConsistentRead’ =&gt; true, )
);

$node_name = ‘Item’;
if ($response-&gt;isOK())
{
$item = array();
// Get the data from the DynamoDB response
if ($response-&gt;body-&gt;{$node_name})
{
foreach ($response-&gt;body-&gt;{$node_name}-&gt;children() as $key =&gt; $value)
{
$item[$key] = (string) current($value);
}
}
if (isset($item[‘expires’]) &amp;&amp; isset($item[‘data’]))
{
// Check the expiration date before using
if ($item[‘expires’] &gt; time())
{
$result = $item[‘data’];
}
else
{
$this-&gt;deleteDynamoDB($ses_id);
}
}
}
return $result;
}[/php]

writeDynamoDB

This reads our session data out of DynamoDB when we need it. We call this from our custom session reading function (see session_set_save_handler)
[php]function writeDynamoDB($ses_id,$data,$expire_minutes)
{
$this-&gt;initDynamoDB();
// Write the session data to DynamoDB
$response = $this-&gt;_dynamodb-&gt;put_item(
array( ‘TableName’ =&gt; self::DYNAMODB_TABLE,
‘Item’ =&gt; $this-&gt;_dynamodb-&gt;attributes(
array( self::DYNAMODB_HASH =&gt; $ses_id,
‘expires’ =&gt; time() + ($expire_minutes*60),
‘data’ =&gt; $data,
)
),
)
);
return $response-&gt;isOK();
}[/php]

deleteDynamoDB

This delete our session data from DynamoDB when we are done with it. We call this from our custom session destroy and gc function (see session_set_save_handler)
[php]function deleteDynamoDB($ses_id)
{
$this-&gt;initDynamoDB();
$delete_options = array( ‘TableName’ =&gt; self::DYNAMODB_TABLE,
‘Key’ =&gt; array(‘HashKeyElement’ =&gt; $this-&gt;_dynamodb-&gt;attribute($ses_id)),
);
// Send the delete request to DynamoDB
$response = $this-&gt;_dynamodb-&gt;delete_item($delete_options);
return $response-&gt;isOK();
}[/php]

7 “Scary” Marketing Ideas for Halloween


Now that Labor Day has come and gone, you probably are finding your marketing and promotion efforts quickly heading into the dark night of Halloween. Hanging the plastic spiders and their gauzy webs, you may be wondering how to scare up more excitement in this first major holiday of the season. After all, Americans spent in excess of $6.9 billion last year to celebrate this spooky day. Here are seven chilling ways to market to your customers and scare up new sales. 

1. Office Zombies – Whether it’s zombies, ghosts, witches or ghouls, choosing a zombie theme can bring these characters into the spirit of your business. Do you sell office equipment? Create a zombie headquarters, with the creatures wearing glasses and answering the phone.  Witches could be brewing up recipes found with food sold in the store, and ghosts can be hiding in the products pages of your website with special savings.

2. Scary Deals for Great Customers – Send out spooky invitations and emails to your best customers for a private sale.  Enjoy some witch’s brew and caramel apples while giving them the scariest sale prices you can conjure up.

3. Mascot Costume Contest – Do you have a great mascot or a really catchy logo? Have a costume contest for the best company based costume, with a large prize for the winner. Having even 20 of your mascots running around town for Halloween is great advertising, and the bigger the prize, the more of your “brand ambassadors” will be out and about.

4. Ghost Hunting – Partner with other local businesses to host a ghost hunting adventure to encourage people to shop your local area while searching for ghosts that offer special prizes and savings. This opportunity offers a good mix of retailers, and you have a full day of activities for your customers.

5. Sweeten the Cauldron – Have a never-ending cauldron of treats to thank customers for their business near the checkout, and attach a ticket for a future holiday shopping discount.

6. Witch & Warlock Watch – Santa has an application that tracks his progress across the sky, so maybe it’s time to have a witch and warlock watch during Halloween. Create a map, online or on a cork board in your store, and place little witches and warlocks on the map where a “sighting” has occurred. You can run a news blotter on the side of all the naughty & nice activities these little witches have gotten up to, such as going to bed late, flying on her broom instead of cleaning her room, or making a best friend potion for her buddy at school. Parents may be able to give you good ideas of witch sightings in your neighborhood to add to the board. Kids will want to come by often to see what little witches and warlocks are up to.

7. Midnight Madness – Stay open late, beyond the last candy trickster and offer amazing deals at the stroke of midnight. It’s a great way to clear inventory and make space for the biggest holiday season of the year.

Halloween can be a fun time of year to celebrate the silly and scary.Celebrate by using clever marketing tactics for this fall holiday and get your customers and employees into the zombie swing of things!

Image Source: Creative Commons 

How to Manage Work/Life Imbalance


How many times have you said to yourself, “After this big meeting/presentation/holiday season, I will make more time for my personal life,” only to find that after the big event a new slew of challenges crop up?  It’s a constant struggle for business owners to achieve that ultimate balance of professional and personal time. And more often than not, work wins out. 

A lot has been written about the subject, and there is a lot of great advice out there about time management, prioritization and the art of saying “no.” It’s all good advice, but it’s equally important to note that balance is not always going to be there, no matter how many applications you download or filing cabinets you keep. The real question is, how can you find happiness in the imbalance of it all?

1. Get Organized

Managing the imbalance still requires you to get organized. Time spent searching, hunting, and doubling back is wasted time and taking away precious moments where you could be attending to the things that really matter – whether personal or business-related. How can you tell if your organizational skills are hitting the mark? The easiest way is to ask the people around you. If they don’t think you’re organized well, chances are, you aren’t. Also ask yourself how long it takes you to find things and if know where your client files are in an instant.

2. Be Realistic

Yes, you might be able to work 18 hour days and build a bigger, more lucrative business. Or you might work part-time, earning little but able to attend every school pick-up and swim meet.  Neither option is a bad life, IF it’s what you really want and need to feel successful in life. You need to get real with yourself and those in your life and determine what is most important. Having financial and personal goals predetermined will help you make decisions that better match your goals.

3. Be Present

Once you are organized and know what you are working towards, cut yourself a little slack.  If you need to be at work late, yet at the same time find yourself stressing about the family dinner you are missing, you are not enjoying the meal or the office. This is when you develop an ulcer and make the imbalance feel intolerable to all those around you.  The amount of time spent doing something is never as important as the quality.

4. Communicate the Imbalance

Balancing in imbalance affects all those around you. When life seems particularly tilted in one direction, talk to those around you that are missing out on your time.  A good conversation may result in better understanding on both sides, and possibly even a reevaluation of what your ultimate goals are. Trying to manage the stress all alone alienates those around you and keeps you from enjoying life in all its facets.

Owning a business can be a rewarding experience. Yet struggling with balance can rob you of the joy. Being open to inevitable imbalance, and making those around you part of the dialogue, you may find that being imbalanced is not so bad after all.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Tips for Connecting with Local Bloggers


Blogging has become a booming industry and one of the major sources of marketing for businesses of all sizes. By the end of 2011, there were more than 181 million blogs around the world, up 36 million in only five years since 2006. In addition, 12 million people write blogs using their social networks. 

While there are services that will send out press releases to media in an instant, small businesses often find more success when they take the time to find a group of individual bloggers and create a relationship with those individuals. Here are four tips for connecting with local bloggers to bring your business a new level of success.

1. Finding out who is blogging in your area. This can be as simple as reading your local news website. Many will have guest blogs listed in a variety of topics, and reading one local blog often leads you to others through guest posts and blog rolls. You can also use sites like Technorati to find lists of blogs, or do a google search for blogs in your area.

Take the time to get to know the local blogging community by reading their blogs regularly, and approaching a blog only when you know that they are a fit for your business. Sending out a mass pitch to a list of bloggers may net you some response, but you are more likely to get noticed by a quality blog when you send a personal request that shows you are familiar with the website and see an opportunity for a mutually beneficial relationship.

2. Have something to offer. What can you offer a blogger besides a product to review? If you have done your research, you already know that bloggers are reaching the target audience similar to your existing customers. You can provide valuable and interesting content to your customers, while at the same time, promoting a local blogger. Share the blog posts on your website and through social media. Bloggers are rated by their active readership, so helping them reach new eyes is a great way to create a strong relationship, even before you ask for a review or product mention.

3. Follow the blogger’s pitch guidelines. Once you find a local blogger you want to partner with, be sure to read their guideline for receiving pitches. Some bloggers want to be contacted directly, while others may want requests to go to an agent or administrator. Whoever you connect with, send a personal pitch that explains why you think their readers would be interested in hearing about your business and products. Be sure to also include snippets of information with images and links.. Good blogs receive a lot of pitches, so getting the basic information in a short format is your best chance to get your pitch read. Always offer to send more information if requested and the best way to reach you.

4. Get the blogger information and product in a timely manner. When you find a blogger interested in writing about your business, make sure she receives your information in a timely manner. If you have offered a product for a give-away, make sure the winner receives the product quickly (and of course send the product to the blogger as well). Following through and offering great customer service to a blogger and her audience is the best way to show the value of your company commitment.

Recognizing the value of local bloggers in getting the word about your business can open your business up to a new customer base. Take time to cultivate relationships with bloggers that share your customer’s interests, values and target audience. You will quickly see how your business – and the blogger – will soon see the advantages that good press can bring.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Planning for Retirement as a Small Business Owner


Small business owners are most often living day to day, juggling responsibilities, projects and expenses. Because of the busy entrepreneurial lifestyle, more often than not, personal financial decisions are often pushed to the bottom of the “to do” list. Retirement planning is one of those items that is ofter overlooked. However without the safety net of company sponsored 401K or similar retirement plan, it is crucial to start saving for the Golden Years before time runes out.  

While no one can predict the stock market forecast or the future economy, one thing is for certain: If you do not take the time to set aside funds now, there is no guarantee you will enjoy your retirement years or be able to stop working all-together.

The first step toward saving for retirement is developing a financial plan. If you are not comfortable developing one yourself, use a recommended financial advisor to help you through the process. It is important to know how much money you need in order to retire in the lifestyle you expect. Once you know what you need to save – and what you already have – it’s time to familiarize yourself with options. Here are three traditional plans to get you moving toward retirement.

SEP Plan or SEP IRA
A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan is one of the easiest plans for small business owners. The SEP allows owners to put aside money directly into individual retirement accounts and contributions are not taxed until withdrawal.  A SEP plan does not require deposits every year, and often does not require any documents to be filed with the government during tax season. A SEP Plan is required to be available to all eligible employees, and a SEP IRA is for self-employed individuals. Contribution Limit: Up to 25% of employee compensation, maximum of $49,000 annually.

Traditional or Roth IRA
Anyone can open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Contributions to a traditional IRA are not taxed until the money is withdrawn. However if you select a Roth IRA, taxes are deducted before contribution instead of withdrawal. This means that when you retire and withdrawl your money, you do not pay taxes at that time. In order to open a Roth IRA, however, individuals must make no more than $107,000 annually, or have a combined family income of more than $169,000.  Contribution Limit: $5,000 annually.

Individual 401(k) or Roth 401(k)
This option is specifically for business owners that do not have employees (other than a spouse). I-401(k) accounts work the same as a traditional 401(k) plans offered by large companies. The plans require more administration than a SEP/IRA, but unlike a SEP Plan/IRA, you can borrow from your 401(k) account. These plans are ideal for sole proprietors who plan to contribute large sums of money because the plan allows you to contribute both as an employee AND an employer. Contribution Limit: Up to 25% of employee compensation with a maximum of $49,000 as an employee and $16,500 as an employer.

Retirement is not that far away. When you know how much money you need to save to have the retirement you want, it’s easy to select a plan that fits your needs. Depending on the amount you hope to save, you may find that a combination of plans will work best. Any of these options are simple to implement, but all require you to take a little time to get real with your retirement needs.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Should You Hire an Employee or a Freelancer?


In today’s economy, employees are pushed to their limits and asked to be more productive with less resources and time. Projects are pushed aside in lieu of getting the important stuff completed first, and many initiatives sit stagnant on the shelf of “someday.” Someday always comes, and when it does, there is often a scramble to get things done quickly. 

It has become common practice in small businesses to use a freelancer – or independent contractor – to develop the new company website or for technical assistance. But the freelance market has grown to include accountants, marketers and social media management. For many companies, outsourcing work to a freelancer makes financial sense. But how do you know if it will work for you?

Here are three questions to ask yourself when you are unsure if an additional employee or a freelancer is the right choice for your business.

1. Is the task I need completed part of a project or a position?
Website designers became popular freelancers because websites are easily understood to be projects. Once a new site is developed, it’s easy to say goodbye to the designer and move on to other projects. In the same way, hiring a tax accountant in the spring makes sense.

The freelance market has grown to include marketing and operations and may make more sense as well. For example, you think you need a new marketing employee to manage all the different marketing opportunities, like social media for example. Ask yourself, do I enjoy marketing but just feel overwhelmed with all of the options and opportunities? There are freelance marketing consultants that can help you develop a marketing plan that fits your business, offering guidance about where to spend your time and money, but who allow you to continue to do the work yourself once the plan is complete. If you need a longer-term solution to a problem or ongoing issue, this is where hiring an employee may be the best solution.

2. If I need ongoing work, how many hours a week will it require?
If what you need is ongoing, think about the activities you need completed. If it is less than full time, you may want to consider hiring a freelancer or independent contractor. Business owners will often try to combine positions in order to justify a new hire, but it can quickly result in job dissatisfaction and poor job performance. Hiring a marketing position, but asking them to double as your receptionist is not always a wise move.  There are individuals with the expertise in many areas of business that would be happy to have you as a client, working the hours you need, within an area of their expertise.  Just a reminder that even though the work is ongoing, it is not always done in your office. Most freelancers will work from their own offices and provide you with reports and details of work completed.

3. What is a realistic budget for this person?
Using an independent contractor can save you a lot of money since you are not required to pay her Social Security and Medicare taxes, and you do not need to provide health benefits or retirement plans. However good freelancers can come at a cost. It’s important that you have a budget in mind so you can assess if you are truly saving money. Rates and work vary significantly in the freelance market, and you may find that a part-time employee makes more sense depending on your needs.

As you review your business’ project and staffing needs, determine whether it makes sense to use an independent contractor for project-based work, or if hiring a new staff person is the best solution. Your budget and the project scope should help steer you to a decision as to which solution is best for your business.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Customer Hero Hiring Process


We just finished up hiring for our Customer Hero position. I thought I’d break down our process. We’ve had some great results from the process and hopefully it’ll help you when you decide to hire your next employee(s).

The More People You Interview The Better

We’ve learned that the more people you interview the better your final candidates. Filtering based on resumes or applications down to just a select few gives random results. Instead we do a one pass filter using a written application and then we do a whole lot of phone interviews and quite a few in person interviews. Here’s what it looks like by the numbers:

  • 900 visitors to the customer hero job description and application. We posted to craigslist, Facebook, and twitter.
  • 158 people filled out our fairly lengthy application.
  • 79 applicants were invited to schedule a phone interview.
  • But only 64 actually scheduled phone interviews.
  • Out of 64 ten minute phone interviews we passed 21 candidates and invited them to interview in person.
  • Out of 20 in person interviews; 11 failed, 4 failed but were kept on a possible future hires list, 3 were asked back for a second in person interview, 1 was so outstanding they were hired on the spot.
  • We had a second in person interview and had a clear winner out of the 3 we asked back.

The Written Application

The first step is a written application. It helps us filter out people who:

  • Don’t write well.
  • Can’t find information on our website.
  • Expect a pay range that doesn’t align with the job.

We are pretty lenient with how we filter these application. As I said before we error on the side of interviewing more people over the phone.

The Phone Interview

This interview is very short. We give about 10 minutes for each interview. Often it’s over in 1 minute because the interviewee failed one of our first few questions.

We are looking for a few things in the phone interview:

  • Do they know who we are and what we do (at a high level)?
  • Excellent phone presence and personality.
  • Pay range, full time, when can they start (we don’t want to move on to the in person interview if any of these don’t line up).

See my blog post Why You Failed Your Phone Interview: The Harsh Truth from last year.

In Person Interview

This is a pretty quick interview like the phone interview. We ask pretty standard interview questions. What are we looking for in this interview?

  • Personality: I’m looking for someone that is easy to talk to, has a positive attitude, and generally makes people feel good.
  • Wants to do the job we are hiring for: We need to see that you’ll be happy doing the job we are hiring for. It’s great if you have ambitions about the future but we don’t want to hire someone that won’t be happy until they move up.
  • Isn’t in it just for the perks. Yes we have fun at LightSpeed. But if the only reason you’re interested in the job is because it’s a ‘hoot’ working here it doesn’t instill a lot of confidence that you can do a great job and work hard. We are a business.
  • Technical ability; we don’t have very strict technical knowledge/skill requirements but we do want you to be familiar with computers and technology in general.
  • Can take the heat. Doing phone support can be a stressful job. We want to see that you handle stress well. Everyone gets nervous in an in person interview, but some people handle that better than others.

At this point we either fail, hire, or ask back to a second in person interview.

Meet The Team: 2nd In Person Interview

If we can’t decide between a couple great candidates we’ll ask them back for another in person interview. In this interview we basically have the candidate go around to members of the support team and ask some questions (provided). We then get a sense for what the group thinks. Usually there is a clear preference for one candidate over the others from the group. This part of the process is more a “we could hire any of these people but we can only hire one” filter. I’m happy with who ever the group chooses.

A Long Process But We Get The Cream Of The Crop

This whole process took us 2 months: from posting the job to getting the new people in. That’s a long haul, but it’s worth it. In the end I know our support team is made up of some really awesome people. They are the top 5% (or better) of job seekers.

Welcome Aboard: Heather and Zach

We’ll introduce our new team members in more detail in a few weeks. But we are stoked to have Heather and Zach joining the team.

Want Our Interview Questions For Your Hiring Process?

I’m happy to share our interview questions and job application if you are hiring. I don’t like to share them on the web publicly because our next round of candidates may read them and distort our process. But I’m happy to share them with other employers.

How to Assemble a Small Business A-team of Employees


Retail sales are up for the first time since the beginning of the year. This is definitely good news, but are you ready? So many small business owners have had to downsize operations during the Recession, letting go of valued positions and employees. Finally seeing a brighter future, it may be time to review of your current employees and plan for growth, including adding new employees to the team. 

With a large pool of applicants, it seems like it should be easy to cherry pick the perfect employee, but if you are not looking at your business as a team you may not make the best choice.  Take stock of the employees you already have, assessing their strength and weaknesses. Be sure to include yourself in the evaluation of employee strengths and weaknesses because surrounding yourself with people that fill in where your own expertise is lacking can help make your business stronger.

After evaluating your current team, don’t be afraid to make changes at an organizational level. Small business staff often grow as a result of immediate need, and job descriptions and organizational charts can get complicated.  If you are having your administrative assistant mange your email campaigns, and your sales representative managing social media, perhaps it’s time to hire a marketing manager instead of another sales person. This is especially important when you have current employees working in an area where they have little experience or have no interest in.

Taking a step back before hiring and establishing clear roles and responsibilities will make hiring a new team member more successful on the long run, assuring you have hired a competent person for a role that is clearly needed.

If you find that you have several positions to fill, focus on your higher level hires first. Your managers are a key role to your success, and an asset when hiring lower level positions. Often team leaders have a distinct management style and will gravitate towards hiring people they know they can work well with. Their input will help you assemble a team that works well together, and avoid hiring competent but incompatible employees.

When searching for the right people, don’t be afraid to headhunt. With the advent of social media, you can effectively recruit the right kind of employee using posts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. You may be surprised at how many applicants you can attract by simply getting the word out there using the channels you already employ. With LinkedIn, you can also reach out to people with proven track records in your industry and garner referrals of potential employees, alleviating the need to wade through thousands of resumes from complete strangers.

Even if you are not quite ready to expand, doing the legwork before the immediate need arises will help prepare to hire the perfect candidates.  Shifting your focus from an individual hire to a team hire will plug the holes that can be so detrimental to small businesses.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Turn a #Fail Into a #Save


The Olympics have ended, but the hashtag #NBCfail will remain for some time in the social media court of opinion. Luckily, NBC has trained professionals in crisis management to handle these public relations issues. But what would you do if your business suddenly found itself under attack? 

With social media here to stay, the court of public opinion has been blown wide open. People can weigh in on your products and service on Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and many more. For small business owners, getting a bad review can be a huge blow and turn away many potential customers. And unlike your website, you can’t just delete these comments, even those that are false or misrepresented. So how you handle these comments can either boost your reputation or further damage it. Here are three ways to manage crises in social media.

Don’t Ignore Dissatisfied Customers
It’s not uncommon to read reviews that are less than stellar and see no response from the business. This is such a simple way to show that customer satisfaction matters, yet very few businesses take the time. Take the time to read your reviews – positive and negative – and respond to your customers. These people have taken the time to write a review, and a response to their critique would be appreciated.

Be Sincere in Your Reply
How many times have you heard “It will never happen again,” only to have it happen again? There is nothing more frustrating, or more damaging, to a relationship than making promises you can’t keep.  When reading a bad review, be thoughtful about the critique and take the time in your response to explain what you are doing to make your products and services better, rather than just apologizing to the individual.

Facing a critique about something that is part of your brand? Explain your brand, why you love it, and respect the fact that your brand is not for everyone.  This is an opportunity to attract your ideal customer and deterring customers that may become another negative reviewer.

Make Reviews Part of Your Culture
Restaurants have long been including a comment card with the check, asking for feedback on everything from furniture to food.  Consider using an online review sites as huge paper savings, and embrace them as part of your culture. It’s one of the best resources for small business owners available today.  So if you are not getting reviewed much, start asking for comments. Direct your customers to any one of the major sites after their experience by including it on the receipt or a small sign at check out.

Bad reviews can feel like a punch in the gut, but they can actually be more beneficial than harmful when handled correctly.  A few bad reviews can actually help the credibility of your brand online since no one believes in perfection. And a few bad reviews with a good, sincere response can help you attract new customers and show you care about public opinion.

Image Source: Creative Commons

How Employee Empowerment Can Help Your Business


Empowerment is a term often used by business coaches and management strategists, but what does it really mean for your business? One may assume it means letting employees run wild with grand ideas and little oversight, but that’s not the intent. Empowering your employees means training them well and trusting that they will do the right thing.  It allows employees a feeling of ownership, yet they still need to answer for their behavior. So how do you succeed at empowering your employees while still keeping the reigns? 

Why Engage in Employee Empowerment?
Employees are your greatest commodities and often the face of your company. Giving them the ability to make decisions about how they work, how they interact with customers, as well as allowing input into bigger company decisions develops loyalty, productivity and performance.

Creating an empowered workforce can also positively affect your customer’s experience.  Working with an individual that is well trained and able to make appropriate decisions is the best advertising avenue you have, and works to retain existing customers and attract new ones.  Think of empowerment not just as a management strategy, but also a marketing gold mine.

If you can create a culture of ownership on a smaller scale – where ideas are encouraged and respected – you develop a strong workforce willing to weather storms, embrace change, and go the extra mile to see your business succeed.

Ways to Empower Employees
Transforming your employees from paid-by-the-hour to empowered mini-owners requires commitment from the top down. From the CEO to direct managers, there must be an agreement that employees will be given room to work and room to make mistakes.  Letting employees be part of figuring out solutions turns mistake into learning opportunities. The system requires that your employees are trained well to begin with, so development must be large part of your company strategy and a great place to start.

Your training strategy should also include management. It is not possible to create a sense of empowerment if managers continue to micromanage their employees. This is not to say that there is no accountability in the culture, but rather an expectation of performance and intervention through problem solving and additional training when necessary. Leading by example is the best way to show that you value the input of your entire team and trust their ability to make good decisions, but additional training may be required to move your company from simply results management to empowerment.
Setting boundaries is another important step in ensuring that employees feel comfortable that they are truly empowered. You may not want your financial manager to make decisions about marketing so be clear about each person’s scope of responsibility.

Consult your employees and determine what decisions they face on a daily basis that they do not feel empowered to make.  Give them specific boundaries of what they can and cannot manage without oversight and then share with them the logic of how these decisions should be made. If you want cashiers to manage discounts, educate them on pricing strategy and overall business finance, showing them how discounts can affect overall business performance. Being transparent about how your business is run and your goals and concerns helps employees understand how the decisions they make impacts the entire business.

Empowerment does not happen overnight and a set of new rules will not be enough to transform your place of business. First and foremost, you must truly see the value of empowerment, be willing to change the way you operate as a business owner. Take the time to listen to your employees and find out what sort of empowerment they need to do their job better.  Second, you will set appropriate boundaries and give employees the tools they need through training and development. Finally, make empowerment an ongoing vision of your company and continually look for ways to develop ownership in each and every person that you hire.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Electra Bicycle Catalog Integration


We’re pleased to announce that we are now offering a catalog integration with Electra Bicycles. This catalog integration provides up-to-date item, price and availability information for items in the Electra Catalog.

Find out more about our integrated catalogs in the LightSpeed Cloud Help Help.

Add Flare to Your Media Marketing


Social media is a lot of work, but a necessary tool to market your business. If your company is actively using any of the major channels like Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest, you may have noticed the media posts are flavored with more “flare.” Images are cropped, filtered and quote stamped. Video vignettes of cheeky little cartoon characters with flat voices are talking about companies you are just discovering. And with all these enhancements, social media is more interesting – and more daunting – than ever.

However, social media does not need to be intimidating. There are hundreds of applications that exist to give you the ability to spice up your media. Here are a few of the new applications that are simple to use, and will make photos pop and your ideas come to life.

Images: Over by Potluck
Have a great product photo that deserves a great tagline? It’s easier than ever with Over, a simple application that allows you to add text directly onto the image, using different fonts and alignments. The program allows you to crop and enhance images before you add your captions.  You can also add text first, then apply a filter in Instagram. The options for great photo stories are limitless with a few apps and a touch of creativity.

Videos: xtranormal
Videos are popping up all over the place. And not everyone posting them is a film student or graphic designer. The most popular site creating these little gems is xtranormal, a quick and easy way to bring your words to life.  This text-to-video site allows you to choose themes, characters, voices and background sounds. Imagine the possibilities for your business to create viral buzz in a virtual world.

Once you have created a video, you can imbed the code into your website our share it on Facebook. It’s a fun way to bring your company to life in a new way, and the initial xtranormal video is free depending on the elements you choose.

It’s no secret that Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest have changed the way small businesses connect with their customers. And with new applications coming out every day, the marketing possibilities are endless. The amount of flare you give your existing content, the more excitement you are generating for your products and services.

Does Your Business Have a Brand Ambassador?


Small businesses are inundated with social networking tasks because the way people receive information has changed.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest accounts have been created, and the SEO experts have been called in because social networking is where it’s at. But is it? 

It is not uncommon these days to “like” a Facebook page because you met a company employee that told you all about the great things the business was doing. She piqued your interest enough that you found them on Facebook and now follow their tweets. While she may not have been deputized brand ambassador for her company, she certainly is a fantastic company spokesperson.

The idea of a company brand ambassador is not new, but has taken on more importance in today’s age of social networking. Brand ambassadors can be internal staff or fans and loyal customers (or bloggers) who love your business. For this post, let’s talk about the employee brand ambassador.

Historically, an employee that loved his company would tell family and friends what a wonderful place it is, with the message spreading organically through word of mouth. Now a single Tweet or status update can be seen by hundreds of people.  Employees are your best assets in reaching new customers. Improving your brand awareness by putting a face with the company name and generating overall excitement is today’s successful marketing tactic.

How do you find your brand ambassador? Look for employees that are working well in the company and are enthusiastic about your mission. Most importantly, identify those who are socially active online and in the community. You can follow the employee on Facebook and Twitter, or watch how much sway they have with their peers at work. You want your brand ambassador to be someone whose opinions are respected by others.

What does a brand ambassador do? Essentially he becomes an official representative of the company in social settings and online social networking. He is tasked with sharing his enthusiasm for the company in his personal and professional communications.  In order to be effective, he must have access to information about exciting new company campaigns and the people leading them. Getting the opportunity to sit down with the founder or CEO is one of the great perks of the position.

How do you compensate a brand ambassador? Since the job description is vague and the activities are directed by the individual, it can be difficult to determine how to reward a brand ambassador. Get creative and give your brand ambassadors perks such as a reserved parking space, or make it a paid title. Sometimes just the title, recognition and access to company leaders are enough.

The idea of sending someone out into the world as an official representative of your company with very little oversight can seem like a scary proposition. But if you choose your ambassador wisely, the risk is not as great as the reward.  The right person is the one that embodies your company spirit and supports the company mission entirely. Give your brand ambassador the right information and let him take off!

Image Source: Creative Commons

Developers: API 2.0 Change On Wed 8/8


If you don’t know what an API is; ignore this and carry on.

If you’ve written an integration to the LightSpeed Cloud API or have had an outside developer write an integration take note! The API will change to version 2.0 this Wednesday night (8/8/12). Your integration may break if you are not prepared.

Here are the primary changes we are making in version 2.0 and how you can work around them to keep your current integration working:

  • shallow by default: Currently you can specify a shallow parameter on our API to have only the requested object, but none of its children or related objects returned. We are going to be setting this as the default behavior. To receive related objects you will need to specify a “load_relations” parameter with the related objects to load (see below).
  • readonly by default: By default all read (GET) requests will be using our readonly backend. For applications that are only reading or aggregating data there will be no changes. For applications that write data and then read that data out, be aware that there is a replication delay between our servers where the write requests (PUT, POST, DELETE) are processed and the servers where reads (GET) happen.
    • It is possible to override this behavior by setting the readonly parameter to false (readonly=false). Only do this if you need to read data immediately after writing it. Abuse of non-readonly reads can result in your application being rate limited or blacklisted.
    • Responses from writes are always realtime. When you write data you get the object that was created/updated back as a response. That data is always a real time response to your write. No need to worry about readonly=true.
  • load_relations search parameter: As mentioned above a new search parameter is being added that allows you to load related objects dynamically. Using this option you can load only the related objects that you need to get information from. All other related objects will not be loaded, allowing our API to respond to your request more quickly. load_relations=all will have the same behavior as the 1.0 version of the API.
  • JSON format changes: We are also improving our JSON emitter to improve its performance. In addition we are changing how single objects are returned in JSON format. Currently they are returned as bare objects. After the API version 2.0 changes they will be returned in an array the same way that multiple objects are returned. We hope that this change will simplify parsing JSON from our API.
    • We are also improving the layout of tags in our JSON responses so that they are not as verbose. Again we hope this will improve client parsing.

Workarounds and Fixes:

  • Version=1: The easiest work around is to set your version to 1. Adding a GET parameter of version=1 will accomplish this. You can also send a version header in the form of a specially formated Accept header like: application/vnd.merchantos-v1+xml (version 1 with xml output). Another example would be: application/vnd.merchantos-v2+json (version 2 with JSON output)
  • load_relations=all: Set load_relations=all as GET parameter to your query to load it with all relations just liket he default behavior in version 1.0. If you have an integration that needs to read a lot of data from us we recommend you do not use load_relations=all. Instead use load_relations=[set of relations you really need]. That will allow us to handle more of your requests.
  • readonly=false: If you need to write data and then read with those changes applied in real time set readonly=false as a GET parameter. As noted above this can get your application/IP rate limited or blocked if you abuse it.

OAuth 2.0

The API changes also include OAuth 2.0 for authentication. This allows us to set a per client rate limit. If you need a higher rate limit than 10 requests per minute you will need to implement OAuth 2.0 for your API authentication. We will then review your integration and increase your rate limit if you meet our quality standards.

Eventually we may phase out other authentication methods so it’s a good idea to implement OAuth 2.0 now. It also makes for a better user experience if you have end users setting up your integration (no more cutting and pasting API keys).

API Version 1.0 Sunset

We will sunset version 1.0 of the API when we release version 3.0. You should plan to make the changes necessary for version 2.0 compatibility even if you plan to use version 1.0 for now.

Why The Changes?

We’ve had some big challenges with our API around scaling. It’s easy for a programmer to write a loop and eat all our server resources. These changes are moving us towards a more scalable API.

Subscribe To The Developer Group

If you have an integration that uses our API, please subscribe to our Google Group.

Holiday Shopping … in August?


The holidays come earlier and earlier every year, and there is a good reason for it. Costco, which is a membership warehouse club for consumers and resellers, recently answered a question from a customer about why holiday items make an appearance in stores well before pumpkins line the shelves. 

“It’s because some members purchase for resale, and partly because buying before peak season helps us lower prices. Plus, with less at the end of the actual season, we have less to mark down, move and store – saving even more in operating costs, which keep our prices even lower!,” Costco replied on its Facebook page.

There is a lesson to be learned by Costco and retailers of all sizes that inventory management is key in staying competitive and profitable. Having holiday items stocked early gives sellers an advantage to promote products in a variety of ways beyond shelf presence.  They can capture the early shoppers and also the attention of different marketing and media channels.

Getting in Guides
Most media holiday promotion planning is already starting to come together in August in the form of holiday gift-buying guides. These are a great way to promote your business both locally and nationally depending on your customer base. But they require early planning. Preparing a signature holiday gift can get you included on many lists and reach a broad audience of holiday shoppers. Gifts can include products, but also gift certificates and special promotions.

To be included in a guide, start researching all possible media outlets available to you and determine their submissions guidelines. Some require submissions several months before publication, so getting an early start is a must.  Consider looking at local print and television outlets, but also review online opportunities, including blogging communities in your area. Most major metros have a strong network of bloggers that will allow you to place your products and services listed on multiple sites, often for free or in exchange for a sample product.

Have marketing materials and samples ready to send to the outlets that show interest. This is especially important for online guides that include giveaways and reviews. Always evaluate each request for samples, ensuring that the value of the press is worth the value of the product.  Determine how many people these articles will reach and if it’s your target audience that receives the publication.

Preparing now with stock and media coverage will help you with early sales and reduce the need for last-minute markdowns to sell off season-specific products. Many small businesses will generate a significant portion of their profits in this narrow window of time, creating a buffer for slow months of operation through the rest of the year. The key is selling more of your products early and at full price.

Even if you oppose the thought of seeing candy corn in August and Santa Claus before the first snow, early holiday marketing is an opportunity you can’t afford to miss. Take a lesson from businesses like Costco are already successfully working the holiday magic in August.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Rockstar Advice from MozCon 2012


10 Second Summary

The speakers at MozCon said we should focus on producing excellent content, turning customers into evangelists, and connecting our campaigns across platforms.

Mozwhat? MozCon is among the most innovative online marketing conferences in the world. I was lucky enough to attend this year and thought I’d share some of my notes. The speakers included geniuses like Rand Fishkin, Tom Critchlow, Wil Reynolds, and Marty Weintraub. They covered everything from advertising and content creation to highly technical search engine optimization. Without further ado, here’s the good stuff:

Compelling Content Wins

Nearly every speaker at MozCon repeated the same mantra “create awesome content.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a huge multinational or a hometown retailer, you’re going to need compelling content if you want to succeed online. What should you create? That depends entirely on your business, brand, and audience — but research shows that images and videos score the highest engagement ratings.

Extra Bonus: Are search engine rankings important to your business? If so, there are several ways to get a nifty rankings boost from images. My favorite is to find your image on Google, search for “similar” results, find all of the websites using your image, and then ask the owners for a link to your website. It’s an easy way to get lots of links and increase your rankings! (thank Paddy Moogan for this gem)

Create Evangelists

An evangelist is someone who loves to tell people about your business, and they’re your most powerful marketing resource. The trick is figuring out how to convert people who just “like” your business into evangelists who preach the gospel. First off, remember that not all evangelists are created equal and that you should focus your energy on the people who are most influential (bloggers, leaders, etc). The easiest way to create an evangelist is to provide an exceptional service and then surprise and delight a person by doing something they never expected. Kotex did this brilliantly last year by selecting 20 influential women on Pinterest and sending them a surprisingly beautiful box of gifts with a personal note. Nearly all of the women responded by posting pictures of their gifts and blogging about the event. In total, Kotex estimates that their campaign reached nearly 50,000 women through a trusted source — for the cost of a few gift baskets and a little creativity.

Reallocate Advertising

Online advertising options have improved dramatically in the last few years and return-on-investment (ROI) is very solid, especially compared to traditional advertising mediums (print, radio, television). The trick to running a successful advertising campaign is to tie in social media profiles, landing pages on your website, and interesting content. This obviously works out differently depending on your industry and size, but let’s look at a few specific examples:

Local Grocery Store Uses Facebook advertising to their Facebook page because every time someone “likes” their page they’ll have access to them for future communications. These ads are relatively inexpensive and it doesn’t take long to build up 2000 followers. Now when they post of coupon or a daily special, it reaches between 400 and 700 people without further cost.

Large Law Office Every new client brings in a significant chunk of money, so this law office an afford to spend more money on a conversion. This particular office is doing very well by targeting auto injury and malpractice related keywords in their area on Google ads. Each click costs approximately $35, so they’ve built beautiful landing pages for each topic (auto injury, mesothelioma, etc) to help maximize the number of people who actually convert into clients. This particular office also uses retargeting ads — which means that anyone who clicked on their mesothelioma ad on Google will now see their mesothelioma banner ads on major websites like the Wall Street Journal.

Small Bike Shop These guys have a passionate audience who consume interesting cycling content faster than it can be created, so they’ve focused on building up a blog with tons of industry articles and visual tutorials. They use the same Facebook strategy as the grocery store but they’re also advertising on Google for keywords that relate to bicycle tutorials (in their geographical area). This bike shop is also experimenting with YouTube banner ads that show up when people in their city search for cycling related videos.

The takeaway is that online advertising is quantifiable, targeted, and relatively affordable. There are also lasting benefits if you can link your campaign to a social media platform and retain fans for future communications. Successful campaigns are well targeted, link to great content, and allow visitors to easily opt into something so you can retain them.

Author: Roderick Campbell is the CEO and co-founder of Coral Payments. His background is in digital marketing and search engine optimization. If you have questions, you can usually find him on Twitter @CoralHQ.

Here are some resources for more information: social media articles from SEOmoz, learn Facebook advertising from AimClear, and find dozens of useful articles on CopyBlogger.

Bring the Olympic Spirit Into Your Business Practices


The Olympics are here! People are excited to support their favorite athletes, watching the back stories, and cheering them on from the couch (or the computer or iPad).  It’s also the time for great Olympic marketing and advertising. There are several ways to bring the Olympic spirit into your business, from creating employee morale programs to company branding. Take a cue from some of the major Olympic sponsors and networks to get great results. Here are three ideas to help you do just that. 

Incorporating the Olympics into marketing materials does not always mean paying for the official logo or using images of gold medals. You can use the spirit of the Olympics instead. Take a moment to make a list of words that describe the spirit of the Olympics; words like competition, world-class, perseverance, performance, teamwork, overcoming odds, training, and strength, triumph. Choose several that naturally apply to your business and then celebrate your business by highlighting what makes you a world-class company.

Another thing that makes Olympic coverage so great is that we are brought into the lives of the athletes away from the London games. We get glimpses of what they are like at home, with their families, and how they train to become world class athletes.
Think of your employees as your athletes, and find ways to introduce them to your customers on a more personal level. A simple example of this is the sign at a coffee shop that says, “Amanda is your barista today. Her favorite drink: caramel macchiato. Her favorite Olympic sport: fencing.” It’s a simple and effective way to personalize the woman behind the counter and bring Olympic enthusiasm to the daily grind.  You could incorporate employee predictions of winners or share what sports they play.

You can also incorporate the spirit of the Olympics behind the scenes, holding contests and awards for great employee performance. Beyond awards related to sales and service, use your original list of words to come up with ways to recognize employees that embody the spirit of the games.  Create “countries” of employees and have them compete for prizes in team competitions. You may even want to host your own games as a team building event. Getting creative, like having relay races that include trash removal, restocking, and window cleaning can work well for taking care of daily tasks that lack excitement.

The Olympic games bring people together across the world in the spirit of competition. What better way than to use this milestone event to celebrate with your customers and employees? Using the Olympics as a backdrop for fun promotions and employee incentives can improve sales, customer relationships and employee satisfaction. Enjoying the games while improving your business will earn you a gold medal in management.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Is Your Business Using a Landing Page?


Does your business have a landing page? We’re not talking about your website’s home page as a landing page is different and serves a unique function. A landing page is simple a web page that you send traffic to after a person clicks on a QR code, a tweet or email URL. Landing pages are important for many reasons, but first and foremost, because they provide the first impression of your business to prospective customers. Need more convincing? Here are a few reasons landing pages can be the best marketing tactic you use. 

Customize Search Results
By using a landing page, you can direct paid search to specific topics. For example, if John Customer searches for a bike repair shop in Seattle, Wa. (and that is your business and location), the landing page of your store can be customized to take John not only to the website, but to the topic and location he’s searching for. This type of customization is more likely to keep a person on your website than clicking back to the search results.

Branding
You have only a few seconds to get the visitor’s attention and keep her on your website. The landing page is a critical way to engage and promote your business brand. You want to create a page that tells your story visually and creatively. If what your brand does is not clear within the first five seconds, you may not see the visitor again.

Analytics
A landing page not only helps brand your website, but it is also trackable. The analytics derived from the landing page are some of the most valuable ways to determine who is visiting your website, where the traffic is coming from, and how long each person is engaging on the website. This data will also help you as you create future landing pages.

Quality Score
Google generates a Quality Score for every search link. It estimates how relevant your ads, keywords, and landing page are to a person seeing your ad. Having a high Quality Score means that Google thinks your ad, keyword, and landing page are all relevant and useful to someone looking at your ad. It can also mean the difference between paying $1 vs. $10 per click. A quality landing page that gives the searcher what he wants will increase your Quality Score quite a bit.

Creating a landing page is easy and you don’t need a full-time web designer or programmer to set it up for you. There are several companies — Premise by Copyblogger Media, UnBounce, and I-on Interactive — that create the landing page for you. These businesses also help with analytics and placement. Landing pages can be a critical part of your marketing efforts. Start promoting your business with even more strategy by implementing landing pages today.

Can Social Media Results be Measured?


Lets face it — the days of traditional marketing methods are changing fast. Businesses are spending less money on the outgoing marketing strategies and putting their capital toward inbound initiatives and social media — mainly because it’s less expensive. Inbound marketing costs 62% less per lead than the traditional methods.

The question, however, always comes up from business owners and traditional marketing strategists about whether social media results can be measured. There is no simple answer to this question. But there are ways to examine your social media strategy to see if it’s working. Lets look at four ways you measure your social success. 

1. Assign value to social. It takes time, people and resources to create a presence on social media. Consider measuring the time it takes the employee to complete these tasks and assign an hourly value to that time. If you find your social media presence is generating customers and exposure, then calculate what that sale is worth versus the time spent on developing those prospects. Clearly something is working.

2. Focus on engagement. Social media is different than advertising and public relations. Instead of focusing on ROI, experts suggest instead focusing on the return on engagement. For example, look at your company’s Twitter account and see how many people are following your business. Are you engaging with those individuals on a regular basis? Are they retweeting your tweets? Are you doing the same? Believe it or not, all this tweeting and sharing helps build brand loyalty.

3. Target your specific market. You may have 1,000 likes on Facebook, but are all those people the audience you need to reach? Take the time to develop targeted prospects that will follow you via social media. These are your customers and will yield better click-through rates and sales. In addition, they have the ability to influence other potential clients who are like them.

4. Create incentives for social media followers. One way to track leads and sales coming from social media is to create specific incentives that are only offered to Twitter followers, Facebook fans, and Google+ members. Offer these individuals something different that other traditional customers would not receive (maybe a 10% social discount, or free item with purchase). Make sure the customer mentions this deal or the social site in the transaction. This is a fairly simple way of tracking sales through social networks.

As you interact with customers through social media, remember you cannot look at the engagement in the same way you did with traditional marketing strategies. It’s a different world out there and consumers (especially younger ones) have a very different mindset when it comes to brand loyalty. Realize it may take time to build your brand socially. But once you see engagement in social networks, those individuals may start doing your marketing work for you.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Becoming a Better Self Editor


Sending a thank-you note after a client meeting is great thing, unless you forgot to turn on spell check or neglected to do a final proofread. Images can be shattered when a written communication is riddled with errors. Editing your own work is one of the toughest tasks to do. Spell check is not always perfect, grammar rules are complicated, and missing words can easily appear. And with mobile devices taking over our communication, it’s easy to send hastily constructed emails and employee newsletters. So how is it possible to develop a great writing product and be a better editor? Here are four tips to help you edit better and preserve your professional image. 

Read Everything Out Loud
We memorize what we’ve written, and the voice in our head can place words within sentences that are not actually on the paper. Take the time to slowly read what you wrote out loud. You will be surprised how quickly you will identify writing that is clumsy, lengthy, and just wrong. Spell check will not catch “fro” instead of “for,” but reading aloud should do the trick.

Don’t Write Important Messages on Mobile Devices
Mobile devices are everywhere and have been lauded for the incredible freedom they provide today’s professionals. However all good things come with a price. And in this case messages are sent at the cost of editing. Mobile devices are great readers, but not ideal writers. Try to limit using your phone or iPad for professional communication and wait until you are back at your desk where you can have spell check and grammar check activated at all times. Auto-correct may think it’s doing you a favor when it really is not!

Edit Others and Have Others Edit You
It’s always easier to edit someone else’s work than your own. Having a fresh set of eyes is the best way to catch mistakes. Offering to edit other people’s work will allow you to develop skills that can be applied to your own work. Likewise ask someone to proof your writing — especially when it comes to important documents and messages.

Walk Away From Your Writing
Trying to edit something that you have just written is very difficult, especially when the ideas and words are so fresh in your mind. Take time away from your writing so you can come back to editing with a fresh eye. Believe it or not, this will actually shorten your edit time in the process.

Written communication is often the first and last impression people will have of you. You will be judged based on the way you write. Don’t lose out on opportunities because of small errors that could have been easily caught with these simple steps.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Tips to Develop an Employee Mentor Program


Most businesses can point to team members who make things happen. Those individuals are the superstars – the rainmakers – the ones you want to clone. While cloning an individual is not possible yet, you can leverage their knowledge, skills and abilities, and promote her to the role of a mentor. Mentors can act as the catalyst to improve the performances of the entire team, develop individuals for future promotions, and enable stronger relationships amongst coworkers. 

Developing a successful mentor program is not as simple as assigning people a mentor and announcing it to the team. You need to carefully plan just how your mentor program will operate, as well as your desired results. Lets look at a few guidelines to help you decide if a mentoring program is right for your business.

Decide on goals for the mentoring program. There are many reasons companies decide to implement a mentoring program, including new employee transition, skills development, and culture development. Figure out exactly what purpose your program will serve so that you can develop relationships and structures that will help you reach the goal. For example, if you want a mentor program to develop interdepartmental relationships, you will need to think carefully about which departments require the most mixing, and what type of mentoring activities are appropriate to reach your goals.

Develop a program. Mentors and proteges need direction from you if they are to be successful. A great mentoring program should include education on the purpose of the program, training on what being a mentor means, and support within the company from the top down. There should be agreement about how much mentoring programs should be included in standard working hours, what activities are appropriate, and what, if any, compensation will be given for mentoring opportunities.

Choose relationships wisely. Determining the goals of the mentoring program should guide your mentoring relationship choices, but individual personalities and skills should also be considered. Getting input from managers and team leaders will help you select the right combinations and give your program a better chance of success.

Check in and revise as needed. Mentoring programs should not be micromanaged, but there should be reviews at regular intervals to make sure the program is having the desired effect. You will want to revise pairings that are not effective and search for other partnering opportunities. Checking with both mentors and proteges about how they feel the program is progressing, and asking for feedback on how to make it more successful, will allow you to continually work on the program to make it better every year.

Mentoring programs can be incredibly powerful tools when managed correctly, and it should be considered a long-term commitment to the future of your company. Developing and retaining talent that you already have is a great way to reduce employee costs and attrition down the road.

Image Source: Creative Commons

How to Fund Your New Business


So you’ve got a great idea for a business and you’re ready to order supplies, start marketing, and take in the customers! But there’s a problem — you need money to start your business. While this may seem like an impossible dream to many people, there are many creative ways entrepreneurs can raise capital and start a business. Lets look at three ways you can fund your next venture. 

SBA Loans
One of the most common sources of funding for new ventures is through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). SBA loans have two distinct advantages. First, they typically cater toward entrepreneurs who may have had trouble qualifying for a traditional bank loan. Second, because the loan is structured to meet certain requirements, a portion of the loan is guaranteed by SBA to the lender. This means that if you legitimately default on payments, SBA will help cover a portion of the loan default. To apply for an SBA loan, visit your local bank to see if they participate in SBA programs. SBA loans do require a fully-written business plan and other items, so be sure to do your homework before applying.

Venture Capital
Venture capital is start-up money that is traditionally funded by other entrepreneurs or companies that are looking to invest in a new business. Unlike traditional or SBA loans, venture capital investors often lend cash in exchange for future company shares or a role in the business. It is a type of equity financing that addresses the funding needs of entrepreneurial companies that for reasons of size, assets, and stage of development cannot seek capital from more traditional sources. The SBA website outlines how you can find venture capital opportunities.

Crowdsourcing
Crowdsource funding methods are a relatively new way to finance business ventures. One of the most successful crowdsourcing services is Kickstarter, which was launched online in April 2009. Since then, 24,000 projects have been successfully funded by 2 million people, with $250 million pledged on said projects. Kickstarter requires each project creator to set the project’s funding goal and deadline. If the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all backers’ credit cards are charged when time expires. If the project falls short, no one is charged. This is a great way to get family, friends and social media fans engaged in your business venture.

Funding your new business venture is not as intimidating as it seems. With some research, planning and creativity, you can find an investment that will work best for you. So whether you are thinking of making the move to entrepreneurism – or need additional funding for your current venture – consider one of the suggestions above and start raising the money you need to succeed.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Take the Pain out of Writing a Newsletter


Does this situation sound familiar to you? It’s the day before your newsletter is set to go out and you are desperately trying to think of what to write.

It takes time to create really good original content, and while e-newsletters are an important way to connect with your customers on a regular basis, they can quickly become the dreaded task. However creating a great newsletter doesn’t have to be this way. Here are some ideas to make your newsletter dynamic, informative, and something your customers will want to read, while at the same time, not giving you a last-minute headache. 

Don’t Write Everything Yourself – You have taken the time to develop a solid list of subscribers and you want to keep them. Utilize the vast amount of information that’s already on the web to create a newsletter that connects your readers to relevant topics. Consider curated content where you select the newsletter topic, offer a brief commentary at the beginning of the pieces, and then feature the different articles. There are many websites you can use to find articles related to your profession, including paper.li and scoop.it.

Use Your Own Images – Using images in a newsletter is standard and, in fact, encouraged to break up lengthy text. But move beyond clip art and free images online. Take your own photos of staff, customers, displays, and items that relate to your brand. Images can provide a personal touch, letting subscribers get a glimpse of what your company is all about.  Remember that too many images can overcrowd and not open well on some computers. Choose your images wisely and sparingly.

Let Your Customers Speak – Include a section reserved for customer reviews, questions or profiles. Asking for reader feedback is a good way to keep subscribers engaged, and allows you to demonstrate customer service. If you want people to submit content, have a policy that informs people that all material is subject editing. You will want to clean up submissions, but never change the gist of what the person is trying to say.

Have Employees Contribute – Employees are a great resource for stories and many would love the opportunity to have a byline. Remember that employees are often on the front-lines and have great tips for customers that they share on a daily basis. Why not give them a larger audience through your newsletter? You could also use employee profiles with pictures, and set up your company’s team of “experts.”

Highlight Your Good Work – Most companies are involved in some sort of community service. Share your stories about giving back, update readers on fundraising goals, and publish letters of thanks. Let your readers know that you are not only a business, but also working to make your community a better place.

A quality newsletter can connect you to your readers, giving them the information they need and the personal relationship that they want. Taking to time to source relevant content will go a long way in creating repeat business and generating new business. It’s important to invest the time in the project, yet at the same time, assure the newsletter is easy enough to produce that you won’t neglect this marketing tool.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Employee Incentives That Won’t Break the Budget


Good employees are hard to find, and often harder to keep. Having a culture of employee recognition is important for every business, even the small ones. During these difficult economic times, cash rewards are not always possible. In addition, they can send the wrong message if used too frequently. You don’t want to confuse reward with compensation when wages are already tight. So how does a small business create a culture of rewarding excellent employees without negatively affecting the bottom line? Here are five ideas that won’t break your budget. 

Reward Money-Making Behavior – Rewards should be based on activities that positively affect your bottom line. Rewarding sales is the most common form of incentive, but it may not be the best strategy for creating a culture that retains great employees. Consider other areas of improvement that can be recognized, such as lowering error rates or reducing sick days.  Identifying desired behavior is also a great way to boost morale. Recognize positive attitudes and attention to detail, which can translate into a better customer experience and ultimately more repeat business.

Give Employees What They Want – And it’s not always money in a paycheck! Your employees work hard to make your business a success, often seeing their coworkers more than their friends and family.  A great way to recognize stellar performance is offering them the reward of time. There are several ways to implement this type of reward depending on how your business operates.  Reward personal days, flex-time/telecommuting opportunities, or specific time to take care of personal business while at work. One unique application of this is giving employees that reach certain goals one hour a week to work out at the gym nearby, or attend a yoga studio class, or even take a walk.  By taking care of the health of your employees, you are in turn, taking care of your business’ best assets.

Make it a Social Reward – Cultivating a place of work where people enjoy being can also be achieved by rewarding great teams. What better way to bring a team together than offer a reward that includes everyone? It could be as simple as ordering a pizza lunch in for the team that has had great performance. Or perhaps a long-term reward of having a holiday party fund that gets contributions based on performance.  If food and parties aren’t appropriate for your workplace, consider giving employees personal rewards like casual Friday. Not sure what will work for your people? Ask them! They will have great ideas about what will motivate them.

You Can’t Go Wrong With Practical – The practical gift isn’t always as exciting, but it’s almost always guaranteed to be used. Gift cards for gas, bus passes, or metro cards are a great way to recognize your top employees and easing the strain of the small expenses that add up.  Companies like Exxon offer bulk purchasing and the opportunity to customize cards.

Recognition – The simplest and cheapest way to reward employee performance is public recognition. This can include individual recognition at meetings, a profile on your company website or blog, or a personal lunch with the boss. Time with upper management is particularly appealing to many employees because they have great ideas of how to make your business better, yet don’t always have the opportunity to express said ideas. Taking time to get to know your top people can have the added benefit of finding new and improved ways of making your business a success.

Employees are an investment in your business. Cultivating an environment where great work is appreciated and recognized will help you retain the employees that you want on your team. It will also attract great new talent who want to be a part of such a nurturing environment.  Take the time to figure out what motivates your employees and implement a reward program — it’ll be well worth the investment.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Make the Most Out of Your Grand Opening


You have finally opened your retail shop and it’s time for the grand unveiling. You want it to be an event that attracts customers, garners attention, kick-starts your profits and eventual success.  To make your grand opening a grand affair, take your time to prepare for the best and take advantage of the many opportunities to gain publicity and customers. Here are some tips to help you get started planning for the big day. 

Pick a Date – Your grand opening should not be the first day you are open for business. Give yourself at least a few weeks to several months to work out the kinks and master your customer service before you invite the world inside. The time will also give you a chance to figure out your high-traffic times so you can attract the most attention to your festivities.

Create the Guest List – Beyond your friends and families, there are several prominent people you will may want at your event. Having well-known community members will increase the press your event may receive.  Here is a list to help you get started:

  • Company representatives, funders, employees and their families, and anyone that played a role getting your business going
  • Chamber of Commerce officials (city and community chambers)
  • Prominent local business officials
  • The mayor
  • city council and state assembly members (especially the ones that represent your business’ district)
  • Other business associations in your area
  • Local press

Invitations should be sent to your guest list at least 2 – 3 weeks before your event. If you have a considerable amount of planning time, think about sending a save-the-date postcard and/or email as well.

Plan a Great Party – You are setting the mood for your business and hoping to attract repeat customers — so give them a good party!  Beyond providing refreshments, have door prizes or promotional giveaways to entice people to spend the day with you.  Additionally, let your company spokesperson address your crowd and thank customers for coming in and explaining why they should come back. Consider a special discount only available for purchases during the grand opening. Nurturing your customer relationships early on is a great business practice habit to get into from the start. Lastly, have a remarkable moment, such as a ribbon-cutting or balloon release, and declare your business officially arrived. These moments make great photo opportunities.

Send out Press Releases – Having the media in attendance is the greatest boom to any grand opening as it allows someone besides you to tell everyone about the great aspects of your business. Press coverage like that is better than any advertising you will create. You can create your own press release or hire someone to help you. Deliver your press releases in person and have simple press kits prepared for the day of the event. Use social media and email blasts as well. Make sure to thank members of the press that attend your event. And don’t forget to include in the press release the time of the ribbon-cutting or balloon launch!

Advertise – It’s not a party unless people come. While you don’t want to spend your entire marketing budget on this single event, you may want to spend a little more than your standard budgeted amount for the month. Utilize social media ads and in-store signs to promote your event and giveaways. And encourage guests to bring a friend.

Having a grand opening is an important way to introduce your new business to the local community. Throwing a great party, getting to know your potential customers personally, and making connections in the local business community are the foundations to have a successful retail business.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Notice anything different? The blog has gone through some changes!


If it isn’t already apparent from viewing our blog, you may have noticed it has received a fresh new look! The front page of the blog has been set to only display the most recent post. We have also decided to move the sidebar content to the bottom of the page to help give a primary focus to the post/posts. We hope these changes help make it easier to promote discussion of the most recent articles within the blog.

Promoted Discussion

As an example, when you see a new post, you’ll notice this “start a discussion” box located below the post”. If you click this box it’ll promptly take you to the posts comment section, allowing you to create a comment thread within the post.

Once at least one comment has been made, the latest comment will be displayed on the post loop to show that “Hey, there people are talking in here, you should join in!”

Archives Page

In addition to some tidying up, we also have a new archives page in place. This page organizes and neatly displays each and every post within the LightSpeed blog.

We are constantly striving to simplify and improve the way we communicate and hope you enjoy these changes. If you have any questions/comments about the new look, feel free to leave a comment below.

5 Tips for Interviewing Potential Employees


Finding the right employees is a key component to running a successful business.  Often you only get one chance to meet an individual after a resume is sent, and deciding on the perfect candidate comes down to 30 minutes or less.  Making the most out of an interview can save you time and money, as well as bring a valuable new member to your team.  Here are five tips to help you use your interview time wisely and make the best hiring decisions. 

1. Know the Job – In small businesses, particularly, employees will often wear multiple hats. Hiring for one set of responsibilities while ignoring other skills required to make your operation work can potentially result in unhappy employees and the need to start over multiple times. If possible, have the person vacating the job opening write out the job description. After all, she knows best what her job entails.  If that isn’t possible, talk to other members of your team about what they expect from the person doing the job.  Uncovering how a new employee will be expected to interact and perform within your existing staff will allow you to search for the skills that be the best fit.

2. Prepare Questions in Advance – Take time at the beginning of the hiring process to write down the questions you want to ask before you interview your first candidate. This will keep your interviews on track, maximize the information you get and make it much easier to compare candidates.  A candidate that may be very personable and easy to talk with may not be the best person to hire based on skills. If you have a very skill-specific job you are hiring for, you may want to add additional time for a promising candidate to demonstrate his proficiency with a skills performance exercise. For example, if you’re hiring a communications professional, give the candidate a set time to write a sample blog post or simple marketing plan.

3. Take Your Time  – Schedule interviews so that you have enough time to get the answers to all of your questions and also have a chance to get to know the candidate as a person.  Take promising candidates on a tour of your facility and to meet other members of their prospective team.  If the position requires him to work closely with other employees, include those employees in the interview process.

4. Take Notes – The amount of information needed to find the right candidate requires you to take notes on each individual. Answers to questions are the most obvious to write down, but also include general impressions. Did she arrive on time, dress appropriately, answer with confidence or seem hesitant? Everything is noteworthy when interviewing.

5. Get Feedback from your Team – Unless this new person will work directly and primarily with you, listen to what your team says about the candidates. A team that works well together will yield better daily results and employee retention.

The importance of knowing what you need and taking the time to find it is crucial for a successful interview. Getting organized for interviews may seem cumbersome, but having your process down will make the process smoother and result in better interviews and better employees. Remember, it’s much easier to hire the right person once versus the wrong person several times.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Travelogues: Murdoc In Canada


I wish I could say that riding a Komodo dragon and snapping pictures of my friend trying to make out with a bronze Orangutan was the strangest thing that happened to me on this last trip. But it wasn’t, this was Toronto – a strange and wonderful megalopolis in Ontario, Canada. Here’s what I was up to while avoiding your emails and calls.

I felt an unease as my 26th birthday approached. I began to panic, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew whatever it was, I didn’t want to do it in Olympia. A few Skype messages later I decided to meet up with my old drinking buddy from college, Matt Funston, the aforementioned primate lover. He’s a soft-faced, loveable man-child that likes to use a Scottish accent while drinking. To this day I’m not sure if he has control over that or not.

Matt and I met at the iconic Sneaky Dee’s on College Street where our empty stomachs could not meet the challenge of The Destroyer – a TexMex mutation of the Canadian staple, poutine. We were, as our clever waitress put it, destroyed by The Destroyer – easily a meal for two and probably the calories for a large family with a golden retriever. Happy birthday, to me.

While The Destroyer may have not made the best first impression of fries covered in gravy and cheese curds, Smoke’s Poutinerie on Queen Bathurst certainly made up for the overwhelming monstrosity from the previous evening. I’m not sure how the Canadians came up with it, but I am convinced that it is in fact, the best bar food. It’s delicious, soaks up alcohol surprisingly well, and practically every place that takes money serves it. The other trademark Canadian thing was the Caesar, a fiery Tabasco infused Bloody Mary, it didn’t help my daily hangovers, but it was a good drink to start the mornings with.

There’s this saying that if you choose a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life. If any of that is true, then I enjoyed not working during my visit to Evymama, a nursing – maternity store that uses LightSpeed Cloud to its full potential. I made a special trip out to their shop to say howdy and see if there was anything I could help with. Of course the day I show up, nothing is wrong except for the mystery of the ghost customer. A customer that no longer frequents their shop would constantly appear in the register. This mystery was cracked by my nerd super powers, which involved updating their bad link to LightSpeed Cloud from https://east1.merchantos.com/register.php?form_name=select_customer&customer_id=22 to https://shop.merchantos.com. Matt managed to snag this stock-quality good photo of my heroic deeds. With the phantom customer slain for eternity, shop owner Sarah rewarded us with local knowledge and guidance on our next quest to find authentic Greek food. Little did we know what perils were ahead of us on our journey down Danforth Ave.

Danforth Avenue is home to one of Toronto’s most vibrant, blue and white pride neighborhoods, known as Greektown. We found Avli, a lovely Greek restaurant managed by a passionate football fan. The prix-fixe lunch consisted of a beautiful collection of dolmades, a hearty moussaka, and a dessert I still don’t know how to pronounce, Galaktobouriko. Pairing this with an Alfa and Mythos, both wonderfully hoppy Greek beers was what we needed to prepare for the engagement ahead of us. Unbeknownst to me and my comrade, the Eurocup Finals were going on that week. The Greek vs. Poland game was winding down as we paid our tab, so as we left the restaurant we were greeted by a mob of proud Greek football fanatics spilling out into the street. As we made our descent into the madness a voice static and loud let out “IMAGINE IF WE HAD WON!” followed cheers and forest of hands sprouting to the sky. These folks were just happy to have tied with Poland. That neutered momentum was still a joy to behold and this kind of exuberance for the Eurocup was not exclusive to Greektown.

Toronto is reputed to be one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in the world. With more than 80 ethnic communities represented, it is a real treat to go into those vibrant neighborhoods. The hostel I stayed in was between Little Italy and Kensington Market (a fantastic place reminiscent of Portland, OR). During what brief time I had to myself, I made my own adventures to Koreatown, walked in amazement on Spadina through an enormous Chinatown, and got lost in Little Portugal.

The neighborhoods I visited flowed with unusually polite and beautiful people. Some hopped up on Tim Horton’s, other faces glistening red with tears of joy or sadness from the rush of the Eurocup, and just a handful of sleepy faces loosely smiling as they recover from the night before. After just six days of falling asleep to sounds of street car bells, chirping like birds at 5 am, Toronto became a place I feel like I can come home to.

[portfolio_slideshow autoplay=true navpos=disabled slideheight=400]

Cheers!

Local SEO Part 3: Analyze Your Success (or Lack of It)


In the past 2 blog posts on local search, I’ve shown how to list your site on local directories and discussed the basics of local search engine optimization (SEO). For today’s post, I had planned to talk about search engine marketing (SEM) and using tools such as Google Adwords to drive traffic to your site. Instead, I will get to that in a later post. This post cover tools to measure your SEO efforts and a host of other aspects about your website. Welcome to the world of web analytics.

In this post:

  • Web Analytics for Retail
  • Choosing a Web Analytics Vendor
  • Setting up Google Analytics
  • 5 Examples of Analytics Insights
  • Need help?

Web Analytics for Retail

To understand why a web analytics tool can be important for the brick-and-mortar retailer, you first have to the answer the question: why do you have a website in the first place? There is no right answer, but the answer is definitely not “because I have to.” A retailer’s website probably serves at least these purposes:

  • to be discovered online
  • to drive traffic to the business
  • to engage existing customers online

Once you have a firm grasp on your website’s purpose, my next question for you is: does your website do what it is purposed to do? A web analytics tool can help you answer this question by giving you insight into:

  • how people are finding your site
  • how they interact with your site
  • the level of engagement with your customers
  • and so much more

If you have an e-commerce site, the data’s power is all the more potent.

Choosing a Web Analytics Vendor

Google “web analytics,” and you will find countless software companies offering web analytics tools. Most of my experience has been with Google Analytics. Though I’m sure other companies offer great software, I recommend Google Analytics for small businesses for 3 reasons:

  • it’s free
  • it’s easy to install
  • you get key reports out of the box

Setting up Google Analytics

Getting starting with the basics of google analytics is as easy as going to google.com/analytics, signing up for an account (be sure to read the terms of use first!), then installing the tracking code on your website.

Install Google Analytics code

If you have an ecommerce site or multiple sites or subdomains, the tracking code may need to be tweaked. The google analytics help center is your friend in these cases. If you need further support, see the Need Help? section below.

Once you have your analytics code installed, wait a couple of days, then check to be sure data is being recorded. Now wait a few weeks until you have collected enough data to begin to notice trends.

5 Examples of Analytics Insights

Rather than give a tutorial on using google analytics, which others have created, I’m going to share 5 examples from my own data or data from clients.

Local Search

In a previous post, I showed how to get your site listed on various local business listings sites. I wondered how much this effort had paid off in my own business. To examine this, I created a custom segment for local search referral traffic from sites such as yelp.com, yellowpages.com, superpages.com, maps.google.com, etc. See directions here. The dashboard below shows the traffic from these sites for September 1, 2007 to today. In that time these sites sent approximately 2% of our total site traffic. That’s not much relatively speaking, but looking at the Page/Visit and Bounce Rate metrics this is clearly a highly qualified segment. These are definitely potential customers.

Local Search Engine traffic

We can dig further. Yellowpages.com referred a fair amount of traffic, but look! In the middle of 2010, traffic from yellowpages.com all but disappeared. What happened? I think that’s when we stopped advertising with them.

Yellowpages Traffic

Should we have continued advertising with yellowpages.com? I don’t know. That’s a budgetary and marketing decision, but you can see how web analytics gives you tremendous insight into your business online. We can take the analysis a step further and compare visits from yellowpages.com to all visits from new visitors. From this, it appears that yellowpages.com did not contribute enormously to sending new visitors to our site; however, after 2010 it does appear that we have a problem in finding new visitors. Our business is cyclical by the season, but that orange line should be trending upwards.

New Visitors vs Yellowpages.com traffic

Unbranded Keywords

When I set up a new analytics account, one of my first tasks is to create a branded keyword segment and unbranded keyword segment. By branded keywords, I mean any search term that is clearly referring to your specific business. For a business named “Joe’s Bike Shop”, I might include any keyword phrase, containing “Joes” or “Joe.”

The image below shows the unbranded keywords that brought people to my bike shop’s website. We’re doing pretty well when it comes to people for Sebastopol and bikes. Sebastopol, however, is a much smaller town than the nearby Santa Rosa. We’re actually closer for some Santa Rosans than Santa Rosa shops. If I were to work on optimizing for local search, I might try to capture some “santa rosa bike shop” traffic.

Google Analytics keyword

At one point, we were trying to build a rental business, so a subset of unbranded keywords that we were specifically interested in related to rentals. I can segment the unbranded keywords further to examine the location of people searching for bike rentals. Over half of those who searched for rentals were searching from California. Interesting. We can go a step further.

Rental keyword analysis

Note that Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Rohnert Park, and Windsor are all within 20 miles of our shop, so a large portion of people looking for rentals where searching from a computer that was already close to us. There are possible, not mutually exclusive explanations: (a) local people are planning for visiting friends or family, (b) local people are looking for a bike to rent for themselves, or (c) tourists visiting the area are searching from a computer while on vacation. This information could help us shape our marketing strategies.

Notice the outlier in this group: Bellingham. I don’t know what happened there, but judging by the % New Visits metric, the same person (or same computer) came to the site multiple times.

Geographic keyword analysis

Correlations Worth Exploring

As in the example above, segmenting your data based on the dimensions provided in Google Analytics generally provides the most actionable and interesting information. However, just looking at your overall visits count can sometimes make you want to dig deeper.

In this time series chart, I’ve graphed our unique visitors since we’ve been open. What stands out is the trough from January 2011 to June 2011. During this period, we had the worst sales slump in our history. Why is this? I don’t have the answers now, but web analytics provides the data to at least explore the question.

Correlations worth exploring in Google Analytics

Home Page to Home Page

This next example demonstrates the type of information you can glean about the structure of your website. The in-page analytics section of Google Analytics shows you, among other things, the number of clicks a link on any given webpage receives. In this case, it’s the homepage of one of my consulting clients. I noticed that almost ten percent of the clicks on the homepage are to the homepage itself. That’s a waste of clicks! It might not make a huge difference to overall conversions, but why waste precious seconds of potential customers. I recommended the client add color to the navigation menu links to indicate the page a user is on.

Google's Inpage Analytics

Where Should I Advertise?

My final example is from an adwords campaign for an ecommerce site I run. I don’t have much to spend on this account, so I have been doing as much as I can with few resources. I run image ads via Google’s Adsense network. In addition to having Google automatically place the advertisement, I can choose websites in their content network  on which to display the ads. Yesterday, I decided to check how the placements were doing.

Take a look. You don’t need a statistical test to tell you that one domain garners interested visitors more than the other. So much for advertising on youtube. For now, it’s a waste of money. If I had the time or inclination, I could try to optimize ads and landing pages for youtube, but I’m looking for simple, low-hanging-fruit ways to get the most from my advertising.

Adwords placement analysis

Need help?

I hope these examples give you an idea as to the power of web analytics. I’d also like to mention that I’m offering web analytics consulting services. If you’re interested, email me directly. I’d love to help other retailers understand their online presence.

As always, if you have questions, let me know in the comments below.

 

5 Things That Keep You From Being Productive


We’ve all had those days where we wake up and have the best of plans to be productive. Yet somehow, we end up distracted by one thing or another, and the next thing we know it’s 5 pm and only one task has been accomplished? Having a great calendar system is a great start to getting the most out of your day. But chances are, you are losing precious hours to these five time wasters. 

1. Noise Intruders – If your calendar says you are working on a presentation, but you are listening to the phone ring and trying to read the caller ID. That’s at least one wasted minute, and more if you take the call. If you are setting aside time to do something, do it.  Turn off your ringer if you can, shut down email alerts, and turn the dryer buzzer off if you work from home. Better yet, get noise canceling headphones.  The hardest trick to master is focus, and the biggest distraction is noise.  Figure out how to reduce the noise that is not directly related to your task at hand to maximize your time.

2. Information Hunts – You need a phone number, but the contact isn’t in your phone.  You hunt it down on Outlook, only to remember that you haven’t entered the information from his business card, which is somewhere in the pile “to file.” You then spend 30 minutes going through drawers and files to find the information. Keep your information organized in a way that make sense to how you work including bookmarking frequently viewed web pages, keeping a posted list of  commonly used phone numbers, codes, specifications, or directions that easily forgotten but often used, and using a file system that works for papers. Spend more time working and less time hunting.

3. Working to work – If you don’t have specific, short-term, measurable goals you are working to work. How are you able to judge productivity without something to measure it against? Setting weekly goals is the easiest way to keep you focused on the important tasks, decreasing the amount of time spent on unnecessary items that may be more fun, making much better use of your time in the long-run.

4. Doing it alone – Many people subscribe to the statement, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.”  An addition to that statement should be “…and ultimately do less.”  There will never be more hours in the day, so if you want to be more productive you might want to consider delegating.  Handing over an entirely new project to someone may not be the way to start the process, especially if the results are extremely important. Instead find elements of projects that can be handed off and develop a feedback process so that you can develop trust with the people you choose.

5. Heavy eyes, cloudy vision – Working while tired has become a normal part of many people’s professional life.  We work longer and longer hours trying to get more and more don But are we really accomplishing that much more in the end? Tired work is often poor work, and poor work often requires rework, which is just more work. Keeping your body rested and your mind sharp is the best way to reduce your work load overall.

It takes time to master the art of productivity, especially when you’re used to working in an environment where you take every call and answer each email as it comes into your in-box. So start slow. Try turning the ringer off during your next project deadline. Or forgo the late-night writing session for sleep. Avoiding the time wasters will help you get the most out of every minute of your day, allowing you more time to do the things that you love.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Weekly Workaround : Consignments


If your shop is planning on taking in used items for consignment, trade, or both, here’s the simple setup for the best workaround.

Read about it LightSpeed Cloud Help “Workaround: Consignments” →

5 Tips for Effective Networking


One of the best ways to meet new clients and find referrals is through networking events. But it’s not enough just to show up to a mixer and expect business to come to you. There are so many great business networking tips available that will help you make the most out of your next event. Here are five tips for making the most out of your next networking event.

1. Don’t stare at your phone all night.
One of the worst things you can do at a mixer is show up and look at your smartphone all night. You are there to engage and meet people. By engaging only with your phone, you’re essentially giving the message, “I don’t want to talk with you.” You may be missing huge opportunities. So put the phone on silent and out of sight for a few hours and talk to people.

2. Listen.
How many times have you attended an event and haven’t been able to get a word in edgewise with a prospective business lead? If you’re at an event to seek out clients, really listen to what people are telling you. Don’t talk non-stop about you and your business offerings. Ask the prospect what her needs are (not yours)? Pay attention and repeat back the information to demonstrate you understand what the person needs.

3. Always follow up (and respond when contacted).
This may sound simple, but always remember to follow up with prospects. Don’t just stuff the business card in a drawer. Send the person a quick email or pick up the phone and tell the person you enjoyed meeting him at the mixer. Collecting business cards without following up is a waste of your time.

Similarly, if someone calls you as a result of networking, don’t ignore the communication. Respond to the email and return the phone call. You never know what potential partnerships will form, or whether the person can be a referral source.

4. Have a system in place to capture leads.
When you leave the mixer with a stack of business cards, have a system in place that helps you capture the information quickly and effectively. If you have a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool, input the business card information into the system (or have an assistant do that for you). If you don’t have a CRM, use Microsoft Outlook or an Excel spreadsheet where you can categorize the lead’s service and how you met her.

5. Follow new prospects on social media.
Social networking is a great way to keep in contact with prospects. Take the stack of business cards and look up each person on Facbeook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and starting connecting. Communicating via social media can also be seen as less communication pressure for some people, and it’s also a great way to stay visible in front of a potential clients.

Networking is tough. But if done right, it can be very rewarding and a great source for gathering business. And don’t think you need to spend the entire event gathering 100 business cards. Even if you walk away with three prospects, that’s three leads you didn’t have before. Make the most of those three individuals by putting your networking to work for you.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Should Your Business Be in the Clouds?


Cloud computing is one of the most exciting innovations to hit technology and the Internet, and has captured the interests of small business owners. The idea behind cloud computing is that all your critical documents – every piece of data you need for your business – are available to you from any location and from any machine. This is done by the creation and saving of documents–not on your personal computer–but rather on another server located “in the clouds.” Google Docs and Dropbox are examples of cloud services. 

Cloud services sound great, are inexpensive, and create an efficient way to do business. In many cases, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to working in the cloud. However as with all new business measures, you must carefully review your own practices to assure cloud computing is best for your business. Here are four things to consider before jumping into the cloud.

1. Evaluate your current software and services – Take an inventory of the services and software you already own and evaluate them as if you are about to purchase them again.

Does it do everything you need it to do?

Do you use all of the features, or just some?

What would you like the service to do better?

Which services would work better if they could integrate?

How often do you need to upgrade and at what cost?

Until you know exactly what you have versus what you need, you may be spending money on monthly cloud subscriptions needlessly. Or sacrificing performance of some services by trying to use the free or low-cost cloud versions.

2. Consider data security – Depending on your type of business, you may have special industry considerations for the data you handle. When looking for cloud computing options, make sure that vendors have established themselves in your particular industry and maintained the appropriate security procedures.  The data is owned by you, and you remain liable for any security breaches of your customers’ information. You may find that your data security needs outweigh the benefits of cloud computing after a cost analysis of services available.

3. Consult your technical staff – If you have an IT department, or a “go-to” technical person, make sure you consult them about the transition to cloud services.  Converting your current data to a new application could take a lot of work and additional money, so be sure to get a technical opinion before moving forward.

4. Consider your employees – Even if you switch from the software to a cloud version of the same program, it will require some training by your employees. By having your employees included in the process of selecting a cloud application, they will be more invested in the change and more willing to learn a new system.

Cloud computing can be a great way to reduce costs and have better access to your business data, as well as keep you on the cutting edge of market trends in software and applications. However if the transition to cloud is not done carefully, it can quickly turn into a burden rather than a benefit. By carefully reviewing your existing applications and service needs, you can select applications that will immediately enhance your current business and prepare you for future cloud work.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Rich Snippets: Worth the Time


Searching for content has become a whole lot easier with rich snippets. Most search engine results show listings that utilize a rich snippet, or put simply, more than just the site link.  Major manufacturers use rich snippets to show images, pricing, reviews and more. Bloggers are including head shots and bios, recipe sites add ratings and images, movie theaters will give you titles and show times, all on the search results page. Let’s answer a few questions you may have about rich snippets to help you get started using this tool.

rich-snippet

Why give all that information away before someone has even clicked on your site?
For starters, you will be much more visible than the simple blue line listing above or below you. Attracting more traffic means your search engine rankings will go up and draw even more visitors.  The visitors you do attract will also be better quality.  Giving people a chance to see what the content of your site contains before clicking makes your page viewers more targeted, as they already have an idea of what your site is, and they want more.

The snippets also help your search engine results because you are providing more content, structured in a way that search engines are able to read and qualify easily. There is a process of marking up your web pages in order for rich snippets to work that’s well worth the effort.  The more your site is understood, the better search engine ranking you will have, particularly on the local level.

This sounds complicated. How do I do this without hiring somebody?
You no longer need a web developer to take advantage of this dynamic and profitable opportunity. The popularity of rich snippets has spawned a new generation of tools developed just for this purpose; several great plug-ins are available that offer great functionality and easy installation. Two to look at are Schema for WordPress and SEO Ultimate.

rich snippets2If you are not using one of the many WordPress plugin tools, you may want to hire a programmer, unless you have a pretty good knowledge of HTML. If you do have the HTML experience, the first step to take is determine which format of microdata you will use to mark up. The three types are microdata, microformats, and RDFa.

Next you will mark up your content in one of the rich snippet areas: reviews, people, products, businesses and organizations, events, music, video, and author data. Finally, you will use Google’s rich snippets testing tool to make sure Google can read your data.

Adding rich snippet functionality will require some learning and a lot of patience, but it has become an excellent way to grab attention and attract visitors to your site. Keep in mind that it may take up to several months to see your rich snippets appearing in searches. But once it does, you will more than likely be very pleased at the results.

Taking Engaging Photos with Your iPhone


As a retailer and business owner, you spend a lot of time developing your product line, attending to every detail, and designing each piece for functionality and beauty. Communicating all of your hard work often comes down to a single photo on your product page, and this can mean the difference between a purchase or a pass.

It’s easy to justify spending thousands of dollars hiring a professional photographer, or purchasing a high-end camera, to make sure your products shine. But with the launch of the iPhone 4s, packing an 8MP camera with enhanced optics, you can turn your back pocket into a professional photographer in an instant. With the simple tools below, you can start snapping your products without losing the clarity and radiance that your design work deserves.

Tools of the Trade
If you have ever been on the set of a product photo shoot, you will notice that the photographer utilizes light, backgrounds, tripods, and editing programs to create the amazing images that represent his client’s products.  You can do this yourself for a fraction of the cost and still get the quality pictures you need.

Phone Settings: You already have a powerful camera in the iPhone 4s, but you will want to check your settings for optimal shots:

  • Set your phone to “Airplane Mode.” It will stop interruptions like calls, texts, and emails.
  • Turn off your Auto-Lock by setting it to “Never.” This will ensure your phone stays on at all times.
  • Turn your flash off.
  • Connect you phone to a power source.

Camera Application: Other than your phone, you are going to need a great camera application that allows you to control the focus, exposure and white balance.  A great option is Camera+, which also allows for basic editing, like cropping, and a 6x digital zoom.  Whatever application you choose, make sure you play around with it for awhile, getting to know all the features before the big shoot.

Tripod: In order to get the clearest pictures that capture every detail, you must have a tripod.  Even the slightest wobble in your hand will make a wobbly picture not fit for your website.  iPhone tripods are often small and adjustable, so once you get your camera placed, you should take the extra measure of securing your tripod with strong tape, or another type of heavy anchor.  A great product on the market is the Gorillamobile for iPhone with adjustable legs that can attach to almost anything.

Lighting/Background: Good lighting and a simple background will highlight details and emphasize the design of your product.  If you are shooting outside, take your photos early in the morning or late in the afternoon to get the softest light nature can provide.  Try to shoot in an open space, like a park or beach, to keep the background noise to a minimum. If outside is not always an option and you have multiple products and changing inventory, it may be wise to invest in home studio kits that include lighting elements and backgrounds like Modahaus Table Top Studio Pro.

Once you have your elements assembled, get shooting! Try shooting from many different angles and change your background if working outside. Pretty soon, your iPhone will become so much more than a phone. It may even replace your expensive camera and photography budget.

Image Source: Creative Commons

Why People are Talking about AWeber


One of the most commonly used tools by businesses is email marketing. And while social media and text messaging are becoming popular methods for reaching customers, email is certainly alive and well as a messaging technique. There is much written about the two well-known email systems, Constant Contact and MailChimp. Let’s take a look at AWeber, an email program that is quickly gaining buzz and clients throughout the world. 

AWeber aims to help businesses create profitable customer relationships. Its program is not just designed for the sending of messages, but also focusing on the entire relationship cycle. To this end, the relationship management platform offers the ability to build contact lists and stay in touch with prospects. More than 102,000 businesses are using AWeber software to deliver email marketing campaigns.

Features
AWeber offers a variety of features and services with their system. The following are some of their key functionalities.

  • More than 150 HTML email templates ready for use
  • Unlimited autoresponder messages — AWeber helps you build relationships with new clients and prospects by creating campaigns that welcome new subscribers and then follow that email with a series of auto-responders.
  • Easy conversion of blogs to newsletters. If you have a blog and an RSS feed, you can get those posts noticed not just by your regular blog readers, but also by sending the posts out as an email newsletter blast. AWeber automatically takes your blog feed and converts it to a newsletter.
  • Stellar customer support. AWeber prides itself on having real live people answer your questions. The customer service support is free and available weekdays and Saturdays. They offer email and live chat support as well.

Pricing
So how much does AWeber’s email service cost? The basic usage plan is $19 per month, which includes the sending of unlimited monthly emails to up to 500 subscribers. You can sign up and try the services for only $1 for the first month. AWeber also offers quarterly and yearly payment options.

Don’t fret if you have more than 500 subscribers. For additional $10 per month ($29 total), you can send to 2,500 subscribers. Sending to 10,000 subscribers is easy at a cost of $39 per month. There are several options depending on your businesses needs.

With so many email services available now, it’s important to evaluate the ones that work best for you. Remember that email marketing is still one of the most effective way to reach customers. Choose an email marketing program that best fits your needs and your budget.

Image Source: ilamont.com

Using Perkville for Customer Rewards


What are you doing to retain your customers and keep them happy? It costs a business about 5-10 times more to acquire a new customer than it does to sell to an existing one, according to Inc. In addition, current customers spend 67% more than new ones. One of the best ways to keep customers coming back to your store is through a customer rewards program

One such program that is easy to navigate and provides advantages to customers is Perkville. In fact, MerchantOS has been using Perkville for its clients since last year. Let’s look at what Perkville is and how it can help you reward your loyal customers and keep business flowing.

The Basics
Perkville helps local businesses create a loyalty program in minutes. Essentially you as a business owner work with Perkville staff to create a loyalty program that presents perks tied to purchases at your local store. You determine the point levels and what the customer needs to spend to earn which reward. Perkville is free to customers and offers plans beginning at $9 a month for businesses. What’s impressive is Perkville will integrate with point of sale systems (like MerchantOS) so the payment system automatically uploads data into the rewards system.

Another great feature of Perkville is that it allows rewards points not just for sales, but also for referring other customers. And since social sharing is one of the most popular ways to build company awareness, customers can earn points simply by sharing a link to your store’s site through Facebook and Twitter.

Perkville makes it easy for customers to check their reward balances online or via mobile phone. When the consumer is ready to cash in his rewards points, he presses a button and gets a voucher for the perks. This helps free up your business time so you are not issuing vouchers and coupons.

Success Story
Charm City Yoga is a retailer using Perkville for its customer rewards program. As a result of using Perkville, Charm City received 277 referrals that have taken 1,700 classes (as of April 29, 2012). The reward participants take 70% more classes, and the business has won back 500 clients. Finally, Charm City Yoga has seen 2,600 Facebook postings and tweets as a result of implementing Perkville. Clearly, loyalty programs work!

Perkville customer rewards program makes it easy to reward loyal customers and attract new ones into your business pipeline with minimal effort on your part as the business owner. If you have not already implemented a rewards program, join the 65% of marketers who have already begun customer loyalty programs and help your customers do your marketing for you.

Optimizing Your Website for Mobile


The Obama administration announced in May a new initiative that will require government services to be available through mobile devices, since more Americans will be accessing the Internet through their mobile devices than the traditional desktop. If you haven’t already optimized your website for mobile viewing, now’s the time.

Chances are, your customers are already clamoring for mobile content. If you are not providing it, you may be losing out. In order to keep customers engaged – and attract new prospects – company websites need to be optimized for mobile. Here are four steps you can take to start transitioning to what President Obama is requiring of federal agencies.

Step 1: Find the right tool
It’s never been easier to create a mobile site. There are many applications that can help you develop a mobile site, and your website host will likely have partnerships or suggestions for plug-ins that will walk you through the steps.  One of the best tools on the market is MoFuse.  Log on, tell them what site you want to mobilize, choose your content and layout, and drag and drop.  You get a preview of the new mobile site so you can make sure you got what you wanted.  MoFuse offers its service free to bloggers and have plans beginning at $650 in which your mobile site will be built for you.

Step 2: Simplify, and simplify again
When people are accessing your mobile site, it’s because they are on the go. Most likely they are searching for information they want to find quickly, or looking to make a fast transaction.  Every field you require them to fill out increases the chance of losing them as customers, regardless of where they’re accessing your website. Look at your home page first and find ways to simplify for the desktop, and then simplify it again for your mobile site. Determine what actions your viewers are taking most and make it as close to a one-click process as you can.  For good ideas, get out your mobile device and check out your favorite sites, and your competitors.

Step 3: Design Well
People should see your mobile site as an extension of your home site.  Use the same colors, fonts, and categories as much as possible.  Do not, however, use Flash or Java, because many mobile devices do not support these formats, turning off potential viewers.  Another difference will be utilizing white space: use it!  Mobile users are on the go and they need to see things clearly and quickly.  While it will be tempting to get as much information in as possible, resist the urge and stick with the important stuff.

Step 4: Make it Easy to Switch
There are two ways to do this. The first is using mobile directs, in which your site will detect when a viewer is using a mobile device and send her to the new mobile site. The other way is allowing your mobile users to quickly switch to your full site if needed by including links to the mobile version of your site.

Making the move to mobile optimization will help you in the long run, especially as customers become more reliant on smartphones and tablets. It will also help you reach new customers, since the younger Millennial Generation uses its phones more than anything else. Taking the time to reassess your mobile site regularly will allow you to take advantage of the newest tools available and assure your business thrives in years to come.

Image Source: Ed Yourdon