RSSAll Entries in the "ManagingSmart" Category

Obamacare Small Business Quick Start Guide

Obamacare.v2Whether you’re angry, happy or just plain confused about how “Obamacare” (a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act, or ACA) will impact your business, my best advice is this: Get over it!

Official start date is January 1, 2014, but some provisions are already in place (such as healthcare tax credits for small biz) with more coming soon. Time to buck up and figure out what it means for your business, what steps you need to take and how you’re going to deal with the changes.

Many business owners and entrepreneurs are still in “wait and see” mode. That could be a mistake if you end up overpaying for existing coverage, or want to get first time coverage and face health expenses before getting your coverage in place.

Details Unfolding

Details of healthcare reform are starting to unfold. The U.S. Small Business Administration, for example, has launched a new website (SBA.gov/healthcare) and blog (sba.gov/blog) devoted exclusively to explaining it for small business. And while the SBA’s take on ACA is certainly biased to the upside, this new resource does offer a helpful gateway to information about how it will work.

Keep an eye out for something called the Small Business Health Options Program or SHOP. This program, launching in October, is designed as a (relatively) hassle-free way for you to find health insurance. If it works as promised, you’ll be able to choose the coverage level you want, what portion of employee costs you want to pay and tap available tax credits. You can sign up to receive email updates about SHOP at the HealthCare.gov website.

Starting in 2014, you or your small business can also get insurance through a new type of non-profit, consumer-run health insurer called a Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan (CO-OP). As with other co-op setups, these insurers will be run by their small business and self-employed customers themselves. Such CO-OPs are meant to offer consumer-friendly, affordable health insurance options to small businesses and must meet the same state and federal quality and financial standards as other plans. You can find more at the HealthCare.gov website.

Here are some key provisions based on the size business you are, from self-employed to 50+ employees.

Self-Employed

Health insurance coverage for the self-employed will be in place and available through a new competitive health insurance marketplace in each state no later than January 1, 2014, with open enrollment starting October 1, 2013. You’ll be able to choose from four levels of coverage that pay different percentages of your costs.

Under 25 and Under 50 Employees

One provision already in place is a tax credit (way better than a simple deduction) for small businesses with fewer than 25 employees that pay a portion of employee health premiums and meet other criteria. Right now, the credit maximum is 35% of what you pay for coverage and that will go to 50% in 2014.

Small Business Majority, an advocacy group for small business, has a handy Health Care Tax Credit calculator on it’s website. You’ll see it on the right side of the homepage at: SmallBusinessMajority.org.

Also starting in 2014, businesses with fewer than 50 employees can use the SHOP system to secure coverage. The assumption is that competitive pricing and pooled purchasing will lower costs significantly, although that’s yet to be seen.  Right now, small businesses pay about 18% more on average than big companies for equivalent coverage.

50 or More Employees

This is where mandates kick in. Starting in 2014, businesses with more than 50 full-time (defined as working 30 or more hours weekly) employees must offer health insurance or pay an “assessment.” The details of this “Employer Shared Responsibility” and other ACA tax provisions are available on the IRS website at IRS.gov. See Affordable Care Act Tax Provisions under “Hot Topics.”

Starting in 2016, businesses with up to 100 employees will be able to buy health coverage through SHOP.

Here three other helpful features available on the HealthCare.gov website:

  • Timeline for implementation: What you need to do and when.
  • State-by-state breakdown of new healthcare options for small businesses.
  • A glossary of healthcare act terminology.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

5 Low Risk Ways to Fund Future Business Growth

Funding growthHere at BizBest, a common concern I often see from business owners and start-up entrepreneurs is where the money will come from to fund future growth. For some, that might require outside investors, which in turn can mean giving up partial ownership or control.

But most businesses can grow successfully by using one or a combination of other financing approaches that don’t require major commitments or outside investors.

The idea is to prepare and position your business for growth so you don’t miss out on growth opportunities when they arise. A big part of that is not only keeping your current balance sheet in shape, but also lining up potential funding sources.

It starts with understanding the different options, and that alone can be challenging. For example, an American Express survey found that 34% of business owners believe – incorrectly – that a business “term loan” (funded immediately for a set term and amount) and a “line of credit” (which you open and tap as needed) are essentially the same. And nearly 40% believe it’s a good idea to apply to as many lenders as possible when seeking a loan, when the opposite is true. (Multiple applications can harm your credit rating.)

Here are five ways to position your business for all the future funding you’ll need:

1. Reinvest your profits

The best source of “venture capital” for an existing business is money you’re already generating. This is “patient” capital that builds value in your business without debt and without giving up shares to others.

Many entrepreneurs miss growth opportunities by spending profits in unproductive ways. Others take the opposite extreme, pumping every penny into the business while taking nothing for themselves.

Both can backfire. If you do need to seek a loan, lenders will prefer that you pay yourself a reasonable salary. They want to know the business can be profitable even if those running it get paid.

2. Tap into trade credit

“Trade credit” is a way to put off payment for goods and services your business purchases from suppliers and vendors. You may find vendors more than willing to sell on credit to a growing business – and even to a startup – if you can strike a long-term deal to buy from them.

And from your perspective, trade credit is also one of the safest forms of business borrowing. Bank debt is dangerous because payments are still due even if sales drop. But if sales drop so will your orders, so your level of trade credit drops too.

Trade credit may also be more readily available than bank or other types of loans. And it lets you spread payments over months or even years with little or no down payment and generally favorable rates.

3. Line up a credit line

The time to establish a line of credit is when you have the ability to qualify for one and might not really need it.  Having a line of credit can help you grow by providing ready financing when opportunities arise. A line of credit is also vastly preferable to using credit cards that carry much higher interest rates and other onerous terms. But use your credit line cautiously. Lines are meant to be tapped as needed, then paid off so they are available again the next time.

Establishing a credit line is cheap, you only pay interest on what you borrow and you can use the line for almost anything. Start small – basically with whatever size line a lender is willing to provide.  The important thing is to get a foot into the bank financing door. Once you have it, put it to use and pay it off diligently and always on time.

4. Expand your banking relationships

If you have accounts with only one big bank, consider opening additional accounts at a regional or community bank (or vice versa). That will give you more options when it comes time to look for loans, lines or other services to support your growth plan.

5. Consider alternative sources

A few options include credit unions you may be eligible to join, accounts receivable financing (also called “factoring”), and so-called “peer-to-peer” lending. Peer-to-peer (or person-to-person) lending is handled online through a variety of web-based services that function as intermediaries, including Prosper (www.prosper.com) and Lending Club (www.lendingclub.com).

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

How to Hire Teens While Staying Sane and Legal

Beautiful Young AdultsSoon, teenagers by the millions will be seeking summer jobs – the vast majority at small businesses coast to coast. An estimated 18 million U.S. teens will work this year, one of the highest totals in the developed world.

Speaking as a parent of teens, this is a good thing.  But in its song Teenagers, the rock group My Chemical Romance seems to capture the U.S. Department of Labor’s take on teens with a refrain that says “Teenagers scare the living @#$% out of me.”  DOL, you see, is rife with rules and regulations on teen labor, and prone to enforcing them with fines and sanctions. As are its state gov counterparts.

For example – and not to pick on Portland – but one recent DOL “enforcement initiative” involving Portland restaurants found violations of minimum wage, overtime and child labor laws at a whopping 79% of the eateries. Even kid-focused Chuck E. Cheese locations in San Francisco were fined $28,000 for violating child labor rules. Whoops!

The point is this: If you plan to hire teens for summer (or other) jobs, be careful.

Most rules are common sense, and deal with safety issues. That’s because young workers suffer a disproportionate share of on-the-job injuries. About 160,000 teens suffer work-related injuries or illnesses yearly…about a third of them requiring emergency room treatment.

And more than 75% of incidents happen in the retail and service industries – not sectors usually considered more injury-prone such as manufacturing and construction.

Teens at Greater Risk

Young workers – especially those in their first summer jobs – are at greater risk of workplace injury because of their inexperience. And also because, well, they are teenagers who may hesitate to ask questions and may fail to recognize workplace dangers. (What did that song say?)

Familiarize yourself with federal and state laws on teen employment – especially the rules on what types of jobs teens are specifically not allowed to perform.

Finding Help for Hiring Teens

Dozens of private suppliers sell OSHA compliance materials, and there are many safety consultants to choose from, available easily online. But your best starting point is OSHA’s small business website at  www.osha.gov/smallbusiness. Look for OSHA Compliance Assistance Quick Start, which helps new small businesses understand the rules and find the right resources. It’s a step-by-step guide to major requirements that may apply.

DOL has a helpful website devoted to the rules of youth employment called “Youth Rules” at www.youthrules.dol.gov. Here you’ll find information and links to almost everything you need to know about federal and state rules, including limits on hours teens are allowed to work, and jobs they can perform. This is where you will also find information on age requirements, work permits and wages.

Another helpful government site called “TeenWorkers” has a wide range of information on summer job safety for specific sectors such as construction, landscaping, parks and recreation, life guards and restaurants. Under landscaping, for example, you’ll find tips on preventing injury from pesticides, electrical hazards, noise and many others. The small business FAQ section includes a long list of the most common questions businesses have about hiring teens, along with links to detailed answers.

OSHA says that restaurants rank especially high among industries at risk for teen worker injuries, and even has a website devoted to restaurant safety for teen workers. To find it, check the A-Z Index at the top of the OSHA homepage under Restaurant Safety.

A Few Teen Hiring Basics

For teens employed in non-agricultural jobs, restrictions on hours and jobs include these:

  • Minimum age is 14.
  • Those 18 or older may perform any job (hazardous or not) for unlimited hours.
  • Youth 16 or 17 may perform any non-hazardous job for unlimited hours.
  • Youth 14 and 15 years old may work outside school hours in non-manufacturing, non-mining, non-hazardous jobs. They cannot work more than three hours a day on school days; or more than 40 hours per week when school is not in session.
  • During the school year, 14- and 15-year-olds may not work before 7:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m. However, during the summer that’s extended to 9:00 p.m.

Before you assign a job to a minor, be sure it’s allowed by law. If you have a specific question regarding the job which you are hiring a minor to perform, contact the Department of Labor’s toll-free help line at 866-4US-WAGE (866-487-9243).

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

6 Lessons on Becoming a High Impact Business

High growth biz Uncle Sam wanted to know:  What kinds of companies are America’s true growth generators? Is it corporate giants like Apple, Amazon or GE? Is it startups? Is it relative newbies such as Facebook.

After some exhaustive research, the answer was clear: “None of the above.

As it turns out, the real economic spark plugs in the U.S. are not big public companies. They are small, privately-held, fast-growing firms that already exist. These “high-impact” businesses are defined as firms whose sales and employee count have at least doubled over a four-year period.

Surprise! High Impact Includes All Industries

That’s about 350,000 businesses and the research shows they tend to be a bit younger (but still average 17 years old) and a whole lot more productive than others.  And they’re not just a bunch of high tech firms, either. They exist in relatively equal shares across all industries – and get this – even declining and stagnant ones! No single industry dominates.

That alone is both positive news and a huge lesson for startup entrepreneurs and other business owners who fear they can’t hit it big in more traditional businesses or industries. In short, you can.

Here’s another stunning finding of the U.S. Small Business Administration study: This relatively small group (less than 10% of all U.S. companies) of privately-held small firms accounts for all (not most, but ALL) net job growth in the U.S. economy. And get this: These high-impact businesses are also largely immune to ups and downs of the business cycle. Sound good?

Small Firms Dominate

But surely these must be the “bigger” small business, right? Wrong again. The vast majority (94%) of high-impact businesses have just one to 19 employees. Another 5.5% come in at between 20 and 499 employees, and a scant 0.5% have more.

In other words, a few hundred thousand businesses with just a handful of employees are having a bigger collective impact on job growth in the U.S. than all the corporate giants combined. Now ain’t that somethin’!

By now, you should be saying to yourself you’re either one of these firms – or you want to be. But how? For answers, let’s check in with Edward Hess, professor and Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s graduate business school. Hess has studied high-impact businesses for years and has an insightful new book called Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Entrepreneurial Businesses (Stanford University Press, 2012). He offers these six lessons on being a high-growth firm:

1)    Don’t grow yourself into trouble

Many small businesses flame out when they try to grow too quickly, as growth outstrips people, processes and controls. Cash flow is critical. Growth requires investment ahead of cash receipts. “Entrepreneurs must understand they might not be able to afford all available growth,” says Darden. Avoid the “grow or die” myth. A better approach is “improve or die.”

2)    Upgrade continuously

Remember this: What got you here, won’t necessarily get you there. In other words, solutions that work at one size business generally won’t work as you get bigger. Growth means continuous change. Hess has found that common tipping points that require adjustments occur at 10, 25, 50 and 100 employees. Top entrepreneurs and their teams know how to experiment, learn and adapt.

3)    Know when to back off

All private businesses face the same growth challenges. The most successful ones know how to pace their growth. Hess calls it the “gas pedal” approach. They know when to let up on the growth gas pedal to give their people, processes and controls time to catch up.

4)    Manage your risks

Growth creates stress on finances, quality controls, people and processes. It can dilute your business’s culture and customer value proposition. And it can even thrust you into a different competitive space. Understanding these risks is crucial to managing your growth pace and preventing your business from being overwhelmed.

5)    Get better at delegating

In order for your business to grow, YOU must grow, too. There’s only so much you can do yourself. That means you have to evolve from being strictly a doer, to also being an effective manager, delegator and leader.  Sometimes that’s hard to do or swallow, but it’s a must.

6)    Keep strategic focus

Having and keeping strategic focus is also critical to growing “safely.” The most successful high-impact firms focus on doing one thing that lots of customers need, and doing it better than the competition.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

Related BizBest Articles

13 Business Resolutions for 2013

2013Here they are, along with some of our best tips and strategies to help you pull each one off:

Resolution #1: Fix my website!

Here are 10 things that are probably wrong with your site, and how to fix them: 10 Things Wrong With Your Website

Resolution#2: Improve our customer service!

Here’s how: 8 Ways to Earn True Customer Love

Resolution#3: Be a better tweeter!

Here’s one way to do it: The Right Way to Retweet

Resolution#4: Boost my social influence!

These 16 tools can help: 16 Sweet Social Marketing Tools You Gotta Try

Resolution#5: Nurture our leads!

Become a lead nurturing pro: 9 Steps to Lead Nurturing Success

Resolution#6: Find a business mentor!

Here’s how & where: 8 Places to Find Your own Free Business Mentor

Resolution#7: Launch a new product or service!

And when you do, here’s how to market it! 14 Ways to Market a New Product or Service

Resolution#8: Try A/B testing!

Here’s what you need to know:  The Magic of Test-and-Learn Marketing

Resolution#9: Keep better books!

These basics will get you there: The 10 Bookkeeping Basics You Can’t Ignore

Resolution#10: Get serious with Facebook!

Can’t go wrong with this Facebook cheat sheet: A 10-Step Facebook Cheat Sheet for Biz Owners

Resolution#11: Network more!!

These tips will really help: 9 Ways to Make your Contacts Really Count

Resolution#12: Review our pricing!

There’s more to pricing then you think: What Every Business Should Know About Pricing

Resolution#13: Innovate more!

Here’s how to make it happen: 4 Rules for Fostering Innovation in Your Business

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

6 Things that Growing Businesses Do Right

growthWhat sets growing businesses apart from their biz brothers and sisters whose revenues are flat or falling? Based on a recent study that compared small firms with rising revenues against their counterparts with flat or declining sales, here are the six practices that stood out:

1. Planning Ahead

Business owners who managed to grow in the face of economic weakness were adept at planning for what might go wrong, rather than simply reacting to trouble. When times were good, these well-prepared businesses squirreled away cash reserves and opened credit lines that helped them weather tough times without having to make cutbacks.  In contrast, owners with declining revenues found themselves madly rushing to slash expenses as difficulties mounted.

2. Borrowing Strategically

Growing businesses understand that borrowing can be a good thing (especially since interest is tax deductible) if the money is put to good business use.  And the use that has paid off best for growth firms is R&D. About 58% of high-growth small business owners report that R&D type investments yielded the most positive returns. On the other hand, borrowing to open new offices, build production facilities or add new capabilities was more likely to correlate with a DROP than an increase in sales. Likewise, borrowing to add staff was generally a money-losing endeavor.

3. Sharpening Management Skills

Professional development also leads to more income. Business owners who improved their skills at strategic planning and money management, for example, had a better chance of achieving revenue growth than those who didn’t.  But the most compelling results came from those who got better at hiring the right people. Team building skills, it turns out, are great for boosting a bottom line.

4. Getting Good Advice

Business owners have always relied on advice from friends and fellow entrepreneurs. That never changes.  But the best of them also make sure they plug into a savvy accountant or other financial advisors to provide the kind of professional fiscal advice that every business needs, no matter what size.  For example, 68% of businesses with rising revenues sought out financial advisors, while only 51% of those with declining revenues took that step.

5. Balancing Business and Life

Revenue-boosting business owners tend not to be all-consumed by their businesses.  They’ve learned to balance involvement with family, friends and their communities.  In short, they run their businesses – not the other way around.  Conversely, business owners whose revenues decline tended to be more fiercely independent and obsessed with their companies at the expense of other parts of their lives.

6. Sharing Vision

There’s also a strong correlation between success (in terms of revenue growth) and business owners who were strong leaders and adept at sharing their vision with employees, colleagues and others.  In addition, it was critical for business owners to demonstrate commitment to the business and inspire teams to perform at their highest level.

If you’re not among the ranks of revenue risers, take these six differentiators to heart as you plan your year ahead. By following in the footsteps of success, you’ll have a better chance of increasing revenues no matter what’s happening in the economy around you.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

8 Ways to Earn True Customer Love

Many businesses are content if their customers seem “generally satisfied” overall. Others aspire to something more — they seek the kind of passionate customer satisfaction that inspires glowing thank you letters and backyard fence (or social media) recommendations.

If you suspect customers aren’t quite feeling that kind of love for your business, you’ve probably got some work to do. In a sense, customers who aren’t wholeheartedly with you might as well be against you. Customers who lack the love factor can actually be more damaging to your business than those who do business with your competitors.

That’s because people who aren’t yet customers of yours might at least try you out in the future. But those who are blasé about your business have already tried out your product or service and found you lacking in some respect. That’s not good.

Earning true customer loyalty – the kind that translates into recommendations and referrals – takes commitment, innovative ideas, energy and a little old-fashioned elbow grease. You, as business owner, must clarify for everyone else just what it is you want to accomplish with customers. This includes partners, employees, vendors and others who support what your business does.

And lest we forget, customer “love” also translates into a better bottom line. A recent American Express survey found that 75% of small business customers are willing to spend more with businesses that provide great service – up from just 58% two years ago.  And here’s the kicker: A hefty 78% of consumers have bailed on a transaction or not made an intended purchase because of poor service.

Here are eight things that will help customers find the love:

1. End the obstacle course

Take the initiative to find out when customers need (or will soon need) service or help – before they have to ask. The magical customer service moment is when your call, email or postcard offering help arrives at the precise moment the customer needs it.  Meanwhile, make it clear to each and every customer exactly how they can get service or help from your business when they need it – including a name and contact information.

2. Avoid customer hot potato

Whenever possible, the person who speaks to a customer first should “own” that customer for the duration of their visit. Companies send signals of disrespect by passing off a customer to “someone who can better help you with your problem.”  Yeah, right.

3. Streamline your website

Many small business websites seem cobbled together – a collection of different areas with different terminology and logic for getting around. Figure out one look and message you want to send, and stick with that.

4. Fix (for real) the big issues bugging your customers

Millions of businesses ask, ever so thoughtfully, “How can we improve?” That’s good. But how many really listen and act on what they hear? Customers read inaction as lack of caring and won’t bother to respond the next time you ask. A business that makes changes based on what it hears from customers earns more love.

5. Invest in customer loyalty

Customers have had it with loyalty programs that are just too much work or offer skimpy benefits. Try offering customers something without them having to ask or pay extra for it.

6. Offer customers real choices

Don’t bind customers into the fake choice of letting them “opt out” of something. Let them know up front that they can decide to get emails, offers or whatever from you and give them a choice.

7. Make someone responsible

Maybe it’s you. Or perhaps you make it part of someone else’s responsibilities. Either way, you call attention to your company’s passionate and persistent commitment to customer care. Be sure to reward employees publicly for exceptional customer care performance.

8. Put your money where your mouth is

Define specific customer care objectives that are right for your business, put some resources behind them, and figure out how you will measure the results.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

4 Reasons to Ban the Yearend Bonus

Sure, nobody wants to be labeled a Scrooge. But if you’re among the roughly 50% of U.S. businesses (and shrinking) that still offer traditional yearend bonuses, it might be time to join the 21st century – and plan for something different in 2013.

Too many small business bonus plans operate on autopilot, under “conventional wisdom” that offering yearend bonuses works. But these ritualized holiday handouts can actually undermine your mission, strategy and goals.

“As an employee incentive strategy, the traditional yearend bonus is better suited to the 19th century world of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol than today’s workplace,” says employee recognition expert Michael Levy, CEO of Online Rewards, who’s created incentive programs for a wide range of large and small companies.

In fact, the yearend bonus or gift has already been fading for some time, according to surveys conducted by the human resources firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Five years ago, nearly three-fourths of companies surveyed said they offered yearend awards – a figure that’s plunged to just half, and appears headed lower.

More and more businesses are discovering that “automatic” bonuses do little to reward and retain high performers, nor do they help much with morale or loyalty. Yearend rewards are often too far removed from actual positive actions that occur throughout the year to be meaningful. Business owners who drop yearend bonuses are shifting instead to year-round efforts that have proven more effective.

Unless you’re a Wall Street firm (where plump yearend payouts remain a staple of the trade), reviewing your strategy could be a good idea.

Here, BizBest offers four reasons to ban the yearend bounty and look for new ways of getting more bang for your bonus buck:

1. Yearend bonuses have little impact on performance.

Traditional yearend bonuses as applied at most small businesses simply don’t have a significant impact on employee behavior. For the most part, they are symbolic rather than strategic. Even if you’ve “always done it,” bite the bullet and ban the bonus. Today’s employees react more positively to the instant gratification of receiving real-time rewards throughout the year, rather than waiting 12 months for a bonus envelope.

2. Payouts or gifts should be based on performance, not entitlement or tradition.

Some of America’s most innovative small companies are realigning holiday bonus budgets to put them more in step with individual performance, as well as overall business goals and results. Instead of offering yearly lump sum payouts, these businesses are creating continuous reward and recognition strategies that recognize outstanding performance when it happens. These timely rewards are better able to target employees based on individual performance.

3. Year round programs are better at strengthening relationships between employees and business owners or managers.

By offering smaller but more frequent rewards throughout the year, you’ll regularly promote behavior that advances your overall business goals and creates a more lasting positive perception among employees – and customers, too.

4. A “meaningful” bonus might be much less than you think.

Numerous studies show that most employees merely want to be recognized for their ongoing contribution to the business. This doesn’t require a Wall Street-sized check. “Many workers are happy with a $25 gift certificate to a local store or restaurant,” says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray. “Others would be happy with an extra day or two of paid vacation at the end of the year.” Electronic devices, gift cards, travel vouchers and movie passes often serve as better rewards than cash because they are indulgences the employee might not otherwise experience. Cash often goes toward basic expenses (credit card debt, for example), and is less memorable.

Not about being cheap

This isn’t about cutting costs or being cheap. But done right, your investment in bonuses and rewards throughout the year will improve results and help achieve your business goals.

Instead of the stale yearend approach, consider a variety of employee reward and recognition programs, sales incentive solutions and even customer loyalty programs tied to employee performance. Your goal should be to create engaging and purposeful incentive solutions, not simply a bonus plan that people starting thinking about when the weather turns colder.

 Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

8 Places to Find Your own Free Business Mentor

No matter what type of business or startup you run, having a “mentor” to help guide you can increase your odds of success, big time. Having a wise, loyal advisor – especially one who’s “been-there, done-that” – is like money in the bank.

Mentors can’t make decisions for you.  That’s your job.  But their expertise can be invaluable as a sounding board or reality check.  Mentors aren’t in it for the money.  Generally they work with business owners for free, for the satisfaction of helping out.

So how do you find such a person? Here are some places and organizations that help match mentors with business owners or startup entrepreneurs:

1. SCORE (www.score.org)

Probably the best-known organization providing free (and confidential) mentoring to small business owners via its national network of some 13,000 retired business executives, leaders and volunteers. SCORE’s volunteer mentors share their expertise through both in-person and online counseling (via email).

2. Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs)

Another great source of free or low-cost help and advice for current and would-be business owners of all types in all locations. There are over 1,200 SBDC locations nationwide. For help locating one, visit www.asbdc-us.org.

3. Women’s Business Centers (WBCs)

WBCs offer business training, counseling and other resources to help women start and grow successful businesses. To find your nearest WBC check the Office of Women’s Business Ownership at www.sba.gov.

4. Minority Business Development Centers

Part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, MBDCs offer free help to minority-owned businesses through about 40 centers nationwide.  Visit the Minority Business Development Agency at www.mbda.gov.

5. eBusinessNow.org

This specialized SCORE program helps biz owners use web-based technologies to grow their businesses.  An experienced SCORE technology mentor available through this program can provide personalized advice – for free.  Go to the “Find a Mentor” section at eBusinessNow to find a SCORE location near you, or search for a mentor online.

6. Trade or Professional Associations

Many trade and professional associations operate mentoring programs for business owners just starting out. Some offer formal one-on-one mentoring sessions as well as group networking opportunities.  Check associations in your industry.

7. Mentors for Government Contracting

If your business plans to sell to the federal government, the General Services Administration (GSA) offers a Mentor/Protégé Program designed to encourage prime contractors to help small businesses be more successful in government contracting and enhance their ability to perform successfully on government contracts and subcontracts. You’ll find it at GSA.gov.

8. Your own Network

Who do you know? Is there a previous boss who was very inspiring to you or a friend who is a business owner? Ask that person to be your mentor or share his or her successes and struggles. You have nothing to lose. Just be prepared to share with them why you chose them in particular, your goals and what you are looking for from them. The best way to connect these days is LinkedIn. Make sure you’re on it!

Here are some tips for getting the most out of a mentoring relationship:

  • Be organized, prepared and consistent. No one wants to waste their time if you aren’t serious about success.
  • Plan your mentoring sessions in advance. These could be as simple as having a one-on-one consultation or lunch meeting once a month to discuss where you are against your business goals, how best to tackle business obstacles, getting advice on business processes or regulatory requirements that you don’t understand, and so on.
  • Casual one-on-one sessions are good, but also have more structured sessions that address different aspects of starting, running, managing and growing your business. A good starting point is for you to prepare a detailed agenda of items to discuss at each meeting.
  • Take notes, take change of your “action items” and review progress against these in your next session.
  • Be respectful of your mentor’s time. Use their insight and apply as you best see fit. It’s still your business.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

7 Ways to Embrace a New Normal for 2013

For business owners, there’s a “new normal” out there, and it doesn’t look a whole lot like the old normal.  If your business seems to be on a treadmill, maybe it’s time for a makeover.

Put everything up for grabs, including your mission statement, business and marketing plans, budget, sales and expense expectations and more, says business makeover specialist Patricia Sigmon, president of LPS Consulting, which creates profit-focused tech solutions for small businesses.  Make 2013 about regrouping and renewing your business for the new normal. Here are seven of Sigmon’s suggestions for giving your business a profit makeover:

1. “Fire” unprofitable customers.

Sometimes, the highest-maintenance, most time-consuming customers you have are the ones who pay you the least. Analyze the profit margin or lack of profit margin that each customer or perhaps customer segment produces. Stop pursuing customers who are not helping you be profitable – period.

2. Reward your best customers.

Look at which customers are giving you the most profit, and coddle them, woo them, don’t lose them! Offer them frequent buyer rewards. Send them a small gift at their one-year anniversary. Give them a random call every few months to “check in,” thank them, and ask what else they might need. Treat them like gold.

3. Start relationships.

This coming year, it’s time to overhaul your sales behavior. Turn all one-time sales efforts into relationship sales. Start monthly maintenance plans, suggest auxiliary services, sell complementary products, or offer retainer plans covering 50-100 labor hours, for example.

4. Erase those expense lines.

Reduce your operating expense budget to the lowest possible number. If that means selling your car or closing an office, so be it. You can’t build a new profit base when you are still using yesterday’s expense model. Go through your expenses line by line and get rid of everything you can live without.

5. Outsource more.

Whatever type of skill or service you need, think hard before hiring a new employee or keeping an old employee. Look at each department or each person when you are trying to manage costs. Can you eliminate positions (perhaps through attrition), combine jobs, delete processes, and outsource tasks? Outsource exactly what you need for the right amount of time and the right amount of money.

6. Update your networking.

From blogs to Twitter to LinkedIn to Facebook, invest big-time in building the online and social media presence you need to compete in the new digital world. Businesses that don’t leverage social networking will be left behind. Jump-start new relationships in 2013 with a burst of social media activity. Update all your social sites and accounts. Keep your online relationships fresh and dynamic with news, blogs, newsletters, tips, and surveys. Find an online forum in your industry and become an active contributor.

7. Take your office with you.

With cloud technology, you are no longer bound to a desk. Log onto some new interactive cloud-based systems that can help you do your business anywhere. Make sure to you have Internet connections on all of your devices. Everything you once needed to do in your own office can now be done remotely. Best of all, when your employees are sharing files in the cloud, it makes for a much more cohesive, connected team. j2 Global offers several low-cost cloud-based services that can help.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.