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The Power of QR Codes for Small Business

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. The last thing you need is another new high-tech doodad to figure out. Fortunately, quick response (QR) codes aren’t all that complicated, and the payoff for putting these handy (and free!) devices to work for your business could be powerful indeed.

Actually, QR codes aren’t all that new —just new to catch on in the U.S.  They’ve been common in Europe, Japan and elsewhere for a while. A QR code is like a barcode on steroids. It’s a scanable, computer-generated code that can contain all kinds of different information that you specify, such as text, images, a web link, email address, contact information, a menu, Facebook link, coupons, specials or any kind of promotion. Best of all, you can easily create QR codes yourself for free online in seconds (see BizBest’s top picks for where to do this below).

The scanning device used to read the code is a simple smart phone that most of your customers already have.  Most newer phones come with a QR code reader; older devices can use a free download.

QR codes have literally thousands of possible uses, and innovative business owners are coming up with new ones all the time (we list more in “tips” below). But one of the biggest is using QR codes in printed materials – including print ads in newspapers, yellow pages, magazines, posters, postcards, direct mail, and even flyers. Putting a QR code into a print ad is like turning it into a live link. Biz owners are putting QR codes on everything from business cards, receipts, invoices and newsletters, to coffee mugs, t-shirts, billboards and window signage. (The QR code on this page contains BizBest’s web address. When someone scans it on a smart phone they’ll be brought here.)

QR code usage is skyrocketing.  Big companies use them, and so do solo business owners and freelancers.  The technology is free, and the cost to put QR codes into use is a pittance. Small and local businesses and professionals of all types are turning to QR codes, including real estate agents, spas, salons, fitness centers, bars, dry cleaners, dentists, retail stores, restaurants, coffee houses, jewelers, attorneys, car dealers, auto repair shops, wedding planners, print shops, venues, grocery stores, wine shops, and dozens more.

A critical advantage that QR codes hold over barcodes is their ability to hold vastly more information. Thus, QR codes are far more versatile.  You can, for example, create a code that will automatically dial your business phone number, point to your new video, event calendar or location details, deliver a product booklet, and much more.  Best Buy now puts QR codes on information tags attached to the products it carries.  A customer can scan the code and be instantly directed to online reviews or other info.

Enterprising local businesses are putting QR codes on “Closed” signs they hang in a door or window.  Customers scanning it can see a message from the business owner, be directed to a website or online store, or be given a way to leave a message or send an email.  Before long, a growing segment of customers will expect QR codes, and businesses that don’t have them will be left behind.

QR code tips, tactics and uses: 

  • Put only valuable, useful information on the QR code. Anything less will be a turnoff to customers.
  • Since people scan QR codes on a mobile device, any websites you send them too must be mobile friendly.
  • Use QR codes on “For Sale” signs, packages, clothing tags, fliers, in bar restrooms (for taxi service, for example), bumper stickers, promotional items, trade show booths, wrapping paper, paper coffee cups, window decals, business cards.  Just use your imagination.  

Where to Create QR Codes:  Below are BizBest’s top picks of services where you can generate free QR codes. Some offer custom QR code designs that add colors and graphics to the codes themselves to make them more interesting and fun. Not all QR code generators support the same types of information, so keep looking if you don’t immediately see what you need.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

Free Technology Training and Advice for Small Business

Keeping up with technology (or getting in the tech game to begin with) is something millions of small business owners and startups struggle with.  Many have dreamed of having a “technology mentor” they could turn to for expert advice, and access to free tools for learning how to put tech to use. Happily, there’s something new that promises just that.  

eBusinessNow.org – a new program just launched by SCORE with backing from a bevy of big tech companies – is in a mission to help small business owners better understand how new web-based technologies can help boost their businesses, and show how to tap that technology for business growth.

Online, on-demand “Tech Made Simple” workshops form a core component of eBusinessNow. These include:

  • Technology:  Boosting your business using tech
  • Roadmap: Creating a tech plan for your small business
  • Build a site: Building the perfect website for your business
  • Sales:  Using technology to jumpstart your business
  • Cash Flow:  Applying technology to improve your cash flow

But workshops are just the beginning.  eBusinessNow also offers helpful “how-to” guides in these same five topic areas, as well as local Tech Made Simple events held in cities across the country.  

Putting a SCORE Technology Mentor on Your Side

And here’s one of the best parts: An experienced SCORE technology mentor can provide personalized advice – for free.  Whether you’re just starting out, or already have a business, these SCORE mentors will help you harness the power of cutting-edge technology to grow your business.  Go to the “Find a Mentor” section at eBusinessNow to find a SCORE location near you, or search for a mentor online.

“When I first met Emmett, my SCORE technology mentor, I was a senior at the College of William and Mary,” says Frank Taylor, founder of Campus Massage. “I wanted to operate automated massage chairs on college campuses using a unique payment system. Before coming to SCORE I had encountered some technological barriers while trying to get the concept off the ground. Emmett has helped me refocus my business plan and navigate the complex process of developing a new technology.”

A SCORE tech mentor helped Yamile Jackson, founder of Zakeez, Inc. in Sugarland, TX, tap the potential of high-speed Internet. “Broadband is not a luxury, it is essential for my business,” selling products and services for healthy babies, she says. “Because our resources are limited, it is important to be efficient in how we distribute advertisements, news and sales efforts to a wide audience. Broadband also allows me to reach customers around the world, conduct web conferencing and keep an eye on my competition.”

eBusinessNow’s backers include AT&T, Best Buy, Cisco, Constant Contact, Google, HP, Intuit, Microsoft, Skype and Time Warner Cable, plus the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

These heavy tech hitters ensure that eBusinessNow has legs.  “The fact that we have such a strong list of high profile companies attests to the critical importance of technology mentoring and training for small business,” says Ken Yancey, CEO of SCORE.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

The Future for Small Biz in Social Media

Time.  It’s a little word, but the single biggest roadblock to small business engagement in social media.  Sure, millions of biz owners have embraced social.  But time constraints produce constant dropouts and millions more won’t buy in as long as they believe the time sink outweighs the benefits.

The future, then, may well be a web-based service called Roost – or something like it – which promises to revolutionize social business engagement with free (for now at least) productivity tools that help local biz owners leverage the social web to generate leads and build their businesses efficiently and effectively.

Roost is brand new; barely out of the wrapper.  But its new social marketing platform for Facebook and Twitter solves the nagging problem all business owners face when thinking about social marketing: “What do I post and when do I post it?”

Roost helps biz owners and local professionals plan their social marketing activities in 20 minutes per week. Just set the duration and content types (post, link, quote, etc.) for each social media campaign. Roost automatically provides customized recommendations on post type and frequency to match the length of the campaign and achieve maximum customer and prospect engagement.

Roost’s suggested content feature offers direct access to articles, blogs, quotes and other original content. You can queue up content on a daily or weekly basis from a library of topics related to your type of business.  A feature called The Roost Bar also helps you gain more friends, fans and followers.  When someone views a shared link, a small, branded bar appears above the article and allows audiences to immediately “like” your business Facebook page.

A feature called Roost Circles helps biz owners and individual pros band together with their closest business associates, and by request, share each other’s posts, providing branding and engagement opportunities across each other’s networks. Whether the circle includes employees, favorite customers or vendors, the technology capitalizes on the economically relevant concept that rising tides lift all boats.

Roost was built for the restaurant, CPA or Realtor who can’t devote 10 hours each week to online marketing, says Alex Chang, CEO of Roost. “They know they need to be on Facebook and Twitter, but they aren’t sure what to do or how to start.”  In short, Roost is a service for real business owners who have little to no time, aren’t fully up to speed on all the nuances of social media marketing but who may live and die by referral business.

And best of all, it’s free.

Roost, a venture capital backed startup based in San Francisco, already has about 20,000 small biz professionals using the service.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

A Terrific New Twitter Tool for Business

BizBest 30-Second Solution 

With Twitter use by small and local business soaring, busy biz owners need new and better ways to tweet their way to success.  InboxQ is a new browser plugin that offers business users an efficient way to quickly find and engage Twitter users interested in specific products, brands or topics without having to scroll through endless tweets.  With InboxQ, you can set up a campaign based on specific keywords or tweet quantity and then immediately reply to those targeted tweets that are asking questions related to your business or expertise.  A clothing designer, for example, can easily keep an eye on women looking for a new dress.  In short, InboxQ is an easy way to alert your business of compelling opportunities to engage with prospects, and to use your expertise to help solve a problem and win new customers.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

A Virtual Phone System App that will Blow You Away

Say what you will about AT&T, but its new “Office@Hand” virtual phone system application for small biz, introduced Feb. 1, is going to blow away a lot of business owners.  It’s a service that finally recognizes what biz owners already know – that small companies use phones today is radically different ways, with a complex mix of mobile and land line, voicemail,  fax, text, toll-free, automated messages/greetings, forwarding, email and more.

Office@Hand is a complete phone system for up to 100 users that you can buy, setup and activate instantly – no hardware or tech skills needed.  It’s a high-powered PBX system based entirely in “the cloud” (meaning you access it online) that works with your existing mobile and land lines and takes seconds to add, delete or change employee or department extensions, modify the auto-receptionist company greetings, change call routing and answering rules or update business hours.  The Office@Hand application (app) is a free download from the Apple App Store or AT&T AppCenter, and service is $14 to $16 per month, depending on number of users.

Office@Hand lets you perform minor phone system miracles and do things you never thought possible from a system you can run from your smart phone, such as transferring live calls between mobile and land lines, voicemail and fax forwarding via email, and advanced call routing rules and logs.

Check out this short Office@Hand video for an overview of how it works.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved. 

A Small Business Grant that Really Exists

One of the most persistent myths among would-be business owners is that Uncle Sam and other organizations dole out free, no-strings-attached grants to business startups. With rare exceptions, it doesn’t happen. Yet the fairy tale persists and “small business grants” has long been one of the most popular searches online.

There is, however, one small business grant program that really does exist.  It’s called the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. SBIR offers specialized high-tech development grants and is administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Eleven different federal agencies participate, including the Departments of Energy, Education, Agriculture, Commerce, Defense and Transportation, plus the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, National Science Foundation (NSF) and others. These agencies openly invite small firms to submit their technology problem-solving proposals for possible funding.

Be aware, however, that SBIR is a highly-competitive and highly specialized program focused exclusively on developing new technologies and rarely if ever funds startups.

But if that’s what your business does, SBIR is definitely worth a shot. The SBIR Program stimulates technological innovation in the private sector by funding research and development (R&D) at small companies.

Consider Irvine, CA-based ChromaDex Corp., a small firm that develops novel, natural ingredients to fill unmet needs in the dietary supplement, food, beverage, cosmetic and pharmaceutical markets. ChromaDex was recently awarded a $500,000 SBIR grant to fund commercial development of plant-based antioxidants (called anthocyanins) for use in nutritional products.

Anthocyanins are naturally occurring plant pigments or colorants which contribute to the vivid coloring of berries and are proven to aid in protecting against oxidative stress and control blood glucose levels to assist with weight management and diabetes.  The grant money came from the National Science Foundation.

ChromaDex will use the grant, along with its own resources, to complete the work necessary to commercialize anthocyanins.  It then plans to market and license these anthocyanins to food, beverage, cosmetic and dietary supplement manufacturers.

Funding R&D in a small company is tricky business, often requiring large amounts of cash with an uncertain outcome sometime in the future. The beauty of an SBIR grant is that it generally comes with no strings attached. And the federal government has over $2 billion it must spend annually on small business technology development. Money is used for all stages, from concept to prototype to marketplace.

A typical SBIR grant is about $850,000, but can go to $2 million or more, according to Fred Patterson, who co-founded two companies that received almost $50 million in SBIR grants. Patterson now runs SBIR Coach, which counsels business owners on how to seek SBIR funding.  He says that while about 15 percent of SBIR proposals are funded, the odds can be as high as one-in-three at some agencies.

Government agencies that participate in the SBIR program regularly solicit proposals from small business to solve specific tech-related problems. Business owners and entrepreneurs can search the listings to find topics in their market or industry. Agency listings will also include details on proposal content and submission guidelines.

“The agencies review the proposals, and rate and rank them according to the degree of originality and innovation, technical merit, credibility of the proposing team and the future market potential,” says Patterson. The best proposals – about 1 in 7 on average – get the grants. There’s no interest and no equity to give up.

The basic qualifications to apply for an SBIR grant are simple:  The business must be organized for-profit, more than 50 percent American-owned, located in the U.S. and independently operated. The principal researcher must also be an employee of the business.

For more details, start at the main program website, SBIR.gov.  From there you can link to current solicitations, SBIR conferences and events, state resources and past awards.  The part awards in particular are helpful to see the types of projects that have been funded, which agencies funded them, and the type of small business that was awarded the grant.

SBIR Gateway is another helpful site to visit.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved. 

Great Free Sites and Software for Small Biz

1. Home Office Suite: For many solo and home-based businesses, the $279 Microsoft Office software suite is overkill. As a free yet powerful alternative try OpenOffice.org from Sun Microsystems. You can download for free, and it comes with word processing, spreadsheet, a draw program, database program and presentation software.

2. Free Invoicing for FreelancersBillingBoss.com is a free online invoicing tool designed for small business owners and freelancers to create, send and track invoices. It’s easy to use and you can create your first invoice within minutes of signing up.  If you’ve been getting by with spreadsheets, or use complicated accounting software only for its invoicing tool, BillingBoss might be for you. Unlike some free services, there’s no limit on the number of invoices you can create or send with Billing Boss. You can also set it up so customers can pay you online through Billing Boss. There’s also comfort in knowing this service is run by one of the world’s leading business software companies, and that your information is encrypted and securely stored.

3. A Virtual Office Online: Microsoft (http://officelive.com) is a free password-protected online workspace where you can store and share files and access your work from anywhere, even from other computers.  Its companion site Office Live Small Business is a terrific, affordable place to build a professional-looking online presence, and get a free website and marketing help as well.

4. Customize Your Own Free Software and Tools Package: Google Pack is new from the global search giant. It lets you customize and download you own set of free software and web tools that includes everything you need to work more effectively both online and off.  Dozens of  choices – all free – include:

  • Email, calendar and document creation applications.
  • Anti-virus and spyware protection.
  • Photo editing and sharing tools.
  • Skype for making free voice and video calls via the Internet.
  • Adobe Reader to view, print and search PDF files.
  • Google Talk to connect with friends via instant messaging (IM) or free voice calls.
  • A media player that lets you play and organize your music and videos.

5. Manage Your  CustomersFreeCRM.com is a great tool for small business contact and lead tracking, sales and contact management, sales forecasting, customer service and business management.  The free version is self-service, allows unlimited users and provides up to 10 MB of storage. If your customer base is not particularly large, it can be a quick and easy way to automate your sales, do a better job of tracking leads and even manage email and call campaigns.

6. Free Bookkeeping: QuickBooks Online Free is a simplified, free version of the QuickBooks accounting and bookkeeping system for small business. While it lacks the more powerful features of QuickBooks’ other versions, it still packs a nice punch for a solo business. You can instantly create invoices, track your money and manage up to 20 customers. The “easy accounting” features of QuickBooks Online Free are designed for people who don’t know anything about accounting. It helps you get and stay financially organized by gathering your important information in a central place. Your information is then available to you anytime, anywhere via the Internet.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved. 

Probing Customer Data for Bigger Profits

When customers buy something from you, change an order, request information, provide an email address or take other action, they create critical clues about who they are, what they want and how your business can better serve them.

Small businesses that capture and analyze such information – also called data or metrics – can use it to spot trends and patterns that can help avoid potholes and pump up profits. In the big business world, this is known as “data mining.”  But small business owners can do it with a simple spreadsheet, a data-mining add-in for Microsoft Office or with sales management tools for QuickBooks.

If you have the information, the goal of data mining is to dig into it for the nuggets of wisdom that can guide your decision making. That often means looking at things in a different way.

According to data mining experts at Microsoft, one reason businesses use the technique is to get better insight into their customers so they can improve their marketing.  The idea is to step back and look for connections that were probably always there, but previously invisible to you.

Information you already have, for example, might tell you that most of your customers live in a certain part of town, or come from certain cities or areas. But not until you delve into the data do you see that they’re mostly over 65, own a small dog, prefer the color red, and do most of their buying on weekends.

That’s helpful because if you know your ideal customer is 65 and is a dog owner, you can target exactly that in your marketing. You could establish stores or offices in areas where the population is largely over 65. You could make the print larger on your product. You could build partnerships with other companies that cater to dog owners and an older demographic. Knowing the information is essential, but so is acting on it.

Most business owners and entrepreneurs think only about “top level” data such as revenue, profit margins and accounts receivable. Data mining goes deeper. It’s a way of thinking that successful businesses use to coax out hidden relationships between the different data points.

Consider Amazon.com for example.  When you view a potential purchase on Amazon, the site automatically mines its data to instantly display related products that people like you also bought. You can do the same.  You can determine that people who bought one particular item also bought another.  Or you might note that customers who purchase directly from your website spend less time with you, but buy more often.

As you dig into your data and begin to recognize patterns and links, you may also discover new cross-selling opportunities and ways you hadn’t thought of to improve customer satisfaction and retention.  Data mining can also help with the important task of identifying your most (and least) profitable customers.

Even if your business isn’t yet collecting customer data, now’s a good time to start. Keep in mind that each “touch point” you have with customers and prospects – in person or online – represents a data-gathering opportunity.

The information you gather doesn’t have to be highly sophisticated.  Start with basics such as name, address (or at least a Zip Code), email, buying habits (when, how often and what they buy), how they found you and if possible, age and general income level. If you sell business-to-business, you can adapt these categories to companies instead of people.

If you plan to dig for data mining gold, remember it’s not just an exercise. The goal is to “connect the dots” – to recognize and act on new opportunities that were hidden in plain sight.

Microsoft offers extensive help and information about data mining on its website, including white papers and webcasts, as well as details on its data mining add-ins for Office. Go to office.microsoft.com and enter “data mining” in the search box.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved. 

How to Know if Your Business Needs a Server

The world of small biz tech is awash in low-cost, high-powered, easy-to-install computer servers designed especially for small business.  For example, HP and Dell have both rolled out new small business server offerings putting these powerful devices within reach of many small companies for the first time. The HP ProLiant – small enough to sit on or under a desk and priced at just $329 – is a great starter server aimed at businesses with up to 10 employees. Meanwhile, Dell’s new R415 and R515 PowerEdge servers pack an even greater storage (up to 8 TB), speed and reliability punch, starting at about $1,200.

But how do you know if a server is suitable for your business?   Here are 10 tipoffs:

1)      You have multiple PCs. Bottom line:  if you need two or more PCs (or Macs) in your business, it’s already time to consider a server. By storing and organizing documents and data in one place, you’ll be able to access and share files easily.

2)      Running software is vital. I you have important business-related software applications you need to run on more than one computer, a server can help.  No need to waste time and money installing software (and frequent updates) on each individual PC.

3)      Employees can’t share software, computing power and broadband access. A server lets employees share documents and software, access company databases and share broadband internet.   A server will help you store and organize documents and avoid multiple-version confusion so you always have access to what you need, when you need it.

4)      Customers think your business is owned by Go Daddy. If you’re still using one of the mass market website hosting companies such as GoDaddy and you want your company website to break out of that cookie-cutter mold, using a server to host your own site will present a more professional image and let you build a better web presence.  Ditto for email.

5)      You do business outside the office: If you work from home, travel frequently or have mobile or remote workers, a server will allow you and your employees to remotely connect to your company network and access information and resources no matter where you are.

6)      You’re drowning in wires and cables: If you have two or more computers that share access to peripherals, such as printers and fax machines, it may be time for a server. Not only will a server help you eliminate the mess of excess cords, it also saves the cost of buying them.

7)      Your business creates and/or stores lots of data: Even today’s lowest priced small business services offer tons of storage space, and the processing speed to help you get at it quickly.

8)      Your PCs are going gray: Whether you want to replace your old PCs or just help them function better, a server can help.  Using a server to shift files from an old PC to a new one is a cinch.  This frees up memory and storage, helping older PCs function better.

9)      You want better backup and stronger security: If you have valuable files and data that can’t be replaced, a server will help protect them from loss and corruption. You’ll be able to back up information easily and restore files that were accidentally deleted or misplaced. A server also lets you more easily restrict access to sensitive information, such as financial records and personnel information, by storing it away from prying eyes.

10)   You want to look better to your customers and accountant. A server lets you easily add powerful new software solutions and platforms — such as customer relationship management (CRM) and accounting programs — which allow you to schedule group meetings, share financial information, and manage clients and vendors.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved. 

How to Jumpstart Your Biz with Social Media

Lots of small businesses – especially new ones – are jumping into social media because it’s the hot thing to do. But achieving results is something else entirely. You need a strategy and framework for creating the kind of experiences consumers want and demand in the digital era, says Rick Mathieson, vice president for Silicon Valley-based Creative Advertising & Interactive Media and a leading voice on digital marketing.

Here are five rules from Mathieson on using social media to launch or jumpstart a small business.

Rule #1: Ask Why, not How: Just because social networking is hot, that doesn’t mean it’s right for every new business. Don’t just ask yourself what your social networking strategy should be. Ask why it should be, and why your target customers should care.

For example, the small Seattle-based firm Jones Soda couldn’t afford pricey TV commercials to launch its brand of beverages. So it uses social media to connect with consumers in highly personal ways. Jones Soda Facebook “Fans” can upload photos that might be printed on Jones bottles and labels. Today, it has over a million submissions and has used thousands on bottles.

“We allowed the labels to be discovered, and that gave consumers a sense of ownership,” says founder Peter van Stolk. Paying a celebrity to sponsor a beverage has been worked to death by big soda brands. “For all the money they have, our big name competitors should be thinking more originally, but they don’t. If they ever do, I’m dead,” says van Stolk.

Rule #2: Focus on Events and Offers: While some pundits can find social media success by simply sharing their “stream-of-consciousness,” chances are you can’t. For most small businesses, a more strategic approach is in order. Think of social media as digital direct mail — the ability to deliver limited-time, social network-only offers.

Countless small pizza shops, for instance, offer specials on social networks to attract customers, says Mathieson. Some are now pulling as much as 40 percent of their business from such efforts.  According to a new Rice University study, Facebook fans of one Houston-based cafe chain visited 20 percent more often and spent one-third more than non-fans.

Rule #3: Keep It Social to Keep Them Coming Back: Youth-oriented discount travel company STA uses social media to help customers meet others who love to travel, and who may be part of the vacation packages they purchase. Users can read about other people’s adventures through their own words, tips, photos and videos. And they can ask experts about travel related issues. Best of all, the company offers travel prizes monthly. And Twitter and RSS feeds will even send STA subscribers the cheapest flights so they can stop spending hours online searching for the best deals.

Rule #4: Be Creative about Selling:The price of developing apps for Facebook is dropping, and with ingenuity, can be revenue builders. Pizza Hut recently launched a Facebook app that lets customers place orders directly. The time is coming soon when a local sandwich shop will be able to do the same.

Los Angeles startup ice cream truck company Coolhaus takes a different approach. In addition to differentiating itself with ice cream sandwiches designed with architectural principles and names like  “The Frank Lloyd Light,” Coolhaus roams Los Angeles and updates its location on Twitter, says co-founder Natasha Case. The idea is to entice people out of offices and onto the street for an “ice cream social” that racks up serious sales.

Rule #5: Be a Good Social Listener:Social networks are also a great way to solicit customer feedback. Perhaps you’ve heard of Dell’s “Twelpforce” (or Twitter help force), a team that fields questions, offers suggestions and sends Twitter-specific promos to followers.  Small businesses can use social media in the same way, answering customer questions and providing purchasing guidance.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.