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10 Small Business Predictions for 2012

Technology shapes how small businesses survive and thrive, and 2012 will see record numbers of small businesses harness the power of technology and especially new online productivity tools to grow their businesses. Jerry Nettuno, founder and CEO of Schedulicity, which is one of those online tools, shares his small business predictions for 2012: 

1.      Daily deals dive: The daily deal space exploded last year, but 2012 will see deal shrinkage of 30% or more. Rapid contraction will leave just a couple of “big guys,” some vertically positioned players and a long tail of locals finding ways to thrive by serving a few small regions or cities.

2.  Surviving deals get a makeover:  Burned by go-for-broke deals, many local businesses will fine tune and target their offers to strengthen loyalty. The more geographically concentrated your customer-base is, the better your chances of turning deal-seekers into repeat buyers. Look for an increase in frequent buyer and perk programs to support this movement in 2012.

3.   Small businesses move to the cloud. The ability to self-publish quickly via the cloud is moving businesses out of traditional media.  Productivity services such as Google Docs, Zoho Creator, Office 365 (from Microsoft) and many others are making it easier than ever to operate entirely online.  Low cost tablet computers will let more service professionals and small business owners run their businesses from a mobile device. 

4.      Breakthrough tools arrive. Emerging technology will spawn more break-through productivity tools.  Business owners will see new, off-the-shelf ways to connect with consumers.  With the launch of Siri, Apple’s new voice-activated personal assistant application, developers will be hard at work on amazing voice-activated apps that will offer a unique way for local businesses to stand out.

5.      The “Digital Coupon Book” takes off:  The move to more online shopping turns passive discount recipients into active coupon seekers.  Digital “coupon books” will dominate within the next two years, offering small businesses another way to leverage existing customer relationships with hyper-local offers.  We’ll see a growth in local offer networks, personalized consumer dashboards and highly targeted deals.

6.      The appointment book disappears.  The success of sites such as Schedulicity, OpenTable and ZocDoc reinforce the idea that the traditional pen and paper appointment book may soon disappear.  The number of appointments booked online is soaring.  Schedulicity alone has seen nearly 7 million appointments booked online since mid-2009. 

7.      Mobile commerce soars.  Mobile payment, location-based promotions, and mobile scheduling will all change the way small business owners conduct business in 2012.  Whether iPad or iPhone, Kindle Fire or Droid, the move to mobile will continue apace.  Making your business website mobile-friendly is only a start.  As more and more consumers are making mobile a mainstay, it will be essential for small businesses to have a mobile commerce strategy to tap into this opportunity.

8.      Thinking “local” gains steam.  With a still-shaky economy and unbending unemployment rates, 2012 is poised to be trying for small business.  Small business owners need to think local – the headlines in the local newspaper and the vibe on Main Street are more important than what’s being talked about on CNBC.

9.      Social media gets marketing money.  Social media marketing isn’t just for early adopters anymore.  Big brands and Fortune 500 companies have spent the past three years discovering (and utilizing) the marketing capabilities of Facebook, Twitter, and other online tools.  In 2012, more small businesses will expand online and embrace Facebook as the dominant social media marketing tool for local business.

10.  The client continues to be king.  Small business and independent service professionals are no longer “too busy for new clients.”  Taking advantage of networking opportunities and exploring new online listing options will help small businesses make themselves known and available to new clients. 

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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.

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Cashing in on Cloud Computing

Most small business owners shun fancy business technology buzz words, and the term “cloud computing” certainly qualifies. But like it or not, the idea of using cloud computing services hits a bull’s-eye for the kind of low-cost, high-efficiency and flexible computing services that small companies need.

Basically, a “cloud computing” service is one you access and use completely online. True cloud services require no software to purchase or install, although there could be some minor plug-in you’ll need to access the service. Cloud services are often priced by subscription, and sometimes for free at low-volume usage levels. You can typically sign up month-to-month, annually (cheaper) or buy a la carte.

Flexibility is a huge draw. Solo entrepreneurs or growing companies with dozens of employees might use the same service (albeit at different levels). In the cloud, the service can grow as you grow.

Cloud applications are the future, and the adoption rate among small and mid-sized businesses is soaring. A new study by MarketBridge, a tech services provider, found that 44 percent of small and medium businesses are using at least one cloud-based service, and 70 percent say they’ll do more in the cloud this year.

“Adoption of cloud-based information technology by mid-market and small companies – particularly in marketing, sales, and customer Intelligence – is happening more rapidly than many industry analysts predicted,” says Tim Furey, founder of MarketBridge. “There’s no doubt that the shift will continue over the next 2-3 years.”

Here are a few of the most popular and noteworthy cloud services for small business:

Freshbooks.com – among the first online invoicing services – has hundreds of thousands of users and an expanding lineup of web-based services. Its core service lets you send and manage invoices and collect payments online. You can brand your system and invoices with your company’s logo. Where FreshBooks stands apart from most other services is its ability to also let you track time and expenses for yourself, your staff or contractors who may be working on various projects with your team.

Google Apps: The global Internet giant has morphed into a multi-faceted tool that you can use to help launch and grow your small business in the cloud. No matter what size business you operate, Google Apps can help you stretch resources and work smarter. Google Docs, for example, enhances productivity and eliminates the need to collaborate with attachments. You can start a project with software like Microsoft Office, and use Google Docs to share files with others for collaborative editing.

Everyone accesses the same online copy of the file in Google Docs, so there are no attachment compatibility problems, inbox storage quota issues, or versions to reconcile. When the group is done editing, you can keep the file in Google Docs, or export it back to the original format.  Google also lets you offer private-labeled email and calendar tools to all of your users for free. You can design and publish your Web site, too. It’s all hosted by Google, so there’s no hardware or software to install.

DimDim: When it comes to collaborating online, services such as WebEx and GoToMeeting get all the attention. But they aren’t the only players. With DimDim, one click lets you share your computer screen, documents, websites and webcam. DimDim is super easy to use and is free for up to 10 participants with free audio conferencing as well.  And it works on Macs too. Basically, if you can browse to a web page, you can use this tool. When you host a meeting via DimDim, there’s no software to install and the people you invite to the meeting don’t have to install anything either.  And you don’t have to schedule meetings in advance.  Just IM, phone, email or Tweet a unique link to your meeting. Solutions for meetings with more than 10 participants start at $25 per month.

Other popular cloud services include SalesForce.com (customer relationship management, or CRM); Dropbox (online file sharing and storage); Vertical Response (email marketing); Bill.com (online bookkeeping and invoicing); and Quickbase (database management).

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