Best Books for Small Business Owners Series: The Innovator’s Dilemma

As a small business owner, do you consider how exploring new ideas can lead to future success? If making time for continuous learning isn’t at the top of your priorities, you’re not alone. And we want to help. Reading or listening to business books can offer new perspectives and help you understand classic business lessons. So, follow our Monthly Must-Reads series! In this series, we share the best books for small business owners. We’ll save you time by helping you determine whether each book is worth your attention. For each featured book we:

  • Identify exactly which types of business owners will benefit from reading it
  • Summarize the main points
  • Share key take-aways and reader reviews

This month, we cover The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen. Check out the end of this article for our past must-reads.

Business Book:

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen

Focus:

To uncover two innovation types and to understand the purpose of and necessity for each of them.

Main Idea:

When companies disregard opportunities for disruptive innovation, they risk going into the shadows of more inventive start-ups.

Great for Small Business Owners Who:

Develop innovative solutions for niche markets, or have long-standing businesses and want to protect themselves from dissipating.

Synopsis:

The Innovator’s Dilemma identifies and explains two types of innovation: sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation. Sustaining innovation is the ongoing effort of listening to and improving from customer feedback. In this way, it satisfies customer’s current needs. Disruptive innovation helps companies evolve, to meet customers’ needs–often in an underserved market. Examples include the transition from digital to smartphone cameras, GPSs to navigation apps.

Christensen goes on to explain which types of companies typically focus on disruptive innovation and which ones lag behind—and why. He offers strategies for how both long-standing companies and new start-ups can successfully explore and benefit from disruptive innovation.

Key Take-Aways:

Large, well-resourced companies are more likely to ignore disruptive innovation and suffer because of it. They may not even notice niche markets. They might think that these markets aren’t offering enough rewards to compensate for the lack of credibility. These companies should continue their sustainable innovation efforts. They should also start paying attention to how niche markets want to use their products.

For start-ups and small businesses, disruptive innovation offers huge opportunities. They’re often first to market. Targeting small niche markets offers a more forgiving, cooperative and engaged customer base. Disruptive innovators don’t directly compete with larger, better-funded market leaders for customers. This means they have a higher chance of growing surprisingly quickly and unchecked.

Pursuing disruptive innovation can help companies take–or keep–their place as market leaders of the future.

Reviewers Say:

“Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma…remains one of the most important business leadership books on the market… The pace of technological innovation has increased drastically… [but] the foundational principles remain the same—when companies are doing everything right, they can still lose their position of leadership in the market. Companies are incentivized to act in accordance with what their customers want, and if they are not careful, that mentality can preclude them from taking advantage of disruptive opportunities that their current customers are not yet interested in. Christensen’s warnings should be heeded by leaders and managers at all levels of the organization…. I look forward to reading about how the Innovator’s Dilemma can be addressed in this age of near-constant innovation and rapid technological advancement.”

“I’ve been involved in innovation most of my career, and now wish I’d read this book much earlier. The simple but powerful thesis of the book is backed up by data and case studies from disparate industries. Like many business books it is a bit repetitive at the end… But the ideas and usefulness are five stars.”

Monthly Best Books for Small Business Owners:

August, 2019 – Blitzscaling

September, 2019 – The E-Myth Revisited

October, 2019 – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

November, 2019 – Built to Last

December, 2019 – Multipliers

January, 2020 – Start with Why

February, 2020 – The Five Dysfunctions of a Team


The Latest Internet Scams: How Can You Avoid Being The Victim Of A Scam?

Internet scams are booming, and why not? They’re easier to pull off than robbing a bank. And, they don’t require weapons any more hazardous than a home computer. Small business owners can easily fall victim. Your vulnerability may lie in that you’re often too busy multi-tasking – keeping your business humming – to exercise sufficient caution. How can you avoid being the victim of a scam as a small business owner? Acquaint yourself with the most common ones. You’ll notice an offer or request that has the hallmarks of internet scams.

Some common internet scams are “rip-offs”. You might get something in return for what you pay, but not much. One is the SEO (search engine optimization) quick fix. Naturally you want your website to draw in new customers, and hope it can be accomplished quickly and cheaply. Search engines – especially Google – are very adept at rejecting old SEO tricks that used to result in high search rankings.

SEO Internet scams

The Internet has many blogs questioning the value of SEO services in general, not just the scams. In reality, up-to-date SEO tactics can help your business, but not on the cheap. They don’t perform miracles.

Be sure to review the credentials of anyone who promises to push your website to the top of search engines. Talk to the key people at that company with your hype detector turned on. Also, talk to more than one (ideally, at least three) SEO service providers before pulling the trigger. Along similar lines, companies are always promoting small business coaching and business development services. Some might even be legitimate…many aren’t.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) forced a promoter to return fees paid by more than one thousand victims. “Most people who bought the defendants’ services did not develop a functioning business, earned little or no money, and often ended up in debt,” according to the FTC. In a similar case, the FTC shut down a business coaching promoter that sold information packages for nearly $14,000.

Common scam tactics

Take note of the following tactics that, according to the FTC, scammers commonly use. They:

  • Make themselves appear credible by claiming to have connections with a company you know or a government agency.
  • Rush you to make a decision before you have a chance to investigate what’s being offered.
  • Warn you that something drastic is about to happen. They prompt you to make a payment before you have a chance to give their claims a reality check.
  • Typically want payment through wire transfers, reloadable cards, or gift cards that are nearly impossible to reverse or track.

Some internet scams and theft schemes continue to take a toll on business owners and consumers alike. Often the “new” ones are just more sophisticated, and therefore effective, versions of the old ones. Take phishing, for example. The perpetrators’ goal is usually to steal your money outright. They try to gain access to your business or personal bank or investment accounts.

Caught in a phishing net

Scammers who hope to catch you in their phishing nets and haul you in have become very adept at collecting information about you or people you know (including family members) and using it to gain your confidence. If you have at least a modest digital social life, you have probably left enough information about yourself online that can be snagged by a skilled phisher.

Such information can be used by a scammer to pose as an acquaintance who is asking you to check out a website for some logical reason. Following a link to a website can result in your computer being infected with a virus that can be used to hijack your computer to gain access to login and passwords you use to engage in financial transactions. Virus detection software is helpful, but not foolproof.

Phishing scams also can lead you to websites meticulously constructed to mimic a legitimate site. It could take the form of an office supply company, either an imaginary one or a fake version of a legitimate business’s website. You “purchase” goods but never receive them, and the scammer pockets the money.

Even the best email spam filters can be tricked—and when they are, you might be, too. Consider these pitches you might fall for in a moment of weakness, even if you would hang up on someone who tried to deceive you using a phone call:

  • You receive a (phony) invoice that looks like it’s for a product or service your business uses, such as your website’s domain registration. You might be unsure about who your domain is registered with, but know that you’d be in big trouble if it expires. So in a panic you pay the bill, only later to discover the bill was bogus.
  • You receive an email seeking confirmation on an existing order of office supplies or other merchandise. Without thinking, you confirm. Then the stuff arrives, and if you don’t pay for it promptly, you get threatening demands for payment noting that you confirmed the order. To end the harassment, you just pay the bill, and vow not to fall for that one again.
  • Scammers purporting to be from a gas, electric, or water utility inform you that your service is about to be interrupted unless you pay an invoice immediately by wire transfer. In reality, your service was never at risk.
  • You receive a message from a “government agency” threatening to suspend your business license, or fine you, or take legal action if you don’t pay up. Or maybe you’re informed that you must buy labor law compliance posters that you can get free from the Department of Labor.

The speed and convenience of the Internet can be a great boon to your business, but it can be equally helpful to scammers. Developing a moderately suspicious mind, stopping short of paranoia, may be the best tip on how to avoid being the victim of a scam.


Best Books for Small Business Owners: Start with Why

January Monthly Must-Reads: Best Books for Small Business Owners

It’s easier to say you’ll make time to learn new things that really doing it, especially when you own and operate your own business. But research has shown that continuous learning is essential to business and career success. So, how do you make time in your busy schedule to think about new ideas and how you might apply them at work? Read—or listen—to great business books. With our pick of the best books for small business owners, you’re sure to find the inspiration you need to succeed.

To help you choose the best business books for your situation, we’ve created our Monthly Must-Reads Series. This series highlights helpful books for small business owners and also save you time. How? For each featured book, we share the main focus, key take-aways, and even reader reviews, so you can quickly determine whether the book is worth your valuable time. We hope this makes it easier for you to keep up with current innovation, management and workforce trends.

To kick off 2020, we’re sharing Start with Why by Simon Sinek. For a list of past Monthly Must-Reads, like December’s Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, check out the bottom of this article.

Business Book:

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek

Focus:

Identifying how the most influential leaders think about, act on, and communicate their why.

Main Idea:

Understanding the underlying purpose–the why— behind an idea, product or service inspires people to make positive changes in their lives.

Great for Small Business Owners Who:

Want to innovate and inspire by discovering their true mission and operating from it.

Synopsis:

Simon Sinek’s 2009 TED talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, is the third most-viewed TED talk of all time. In it, he urges all leaders to start asking, “Why?”

“Why do I get out of bed in the morning?”

“Why does my company exist?”

“And why should anyone care?”

And he named his book with that in mind. Start with Why delves deeper into his central idea, offering real world examples that illustrate what happens when companies successfully communicate their why.

Key Take-Aways:

  • Too many companies start with, focus on, and talk about their what: the product or service they sell.
  • When companies understand their why’ (i.e. their mission and the values that support it; the reason they’re in business), they can better identify appropriate audiences and more effectively market to them, creating a loyal customer base in the process.
  • A company’s why should also influence its culture, its hiring decisions, and its teambuilding strategies. Employees, not just customers, should understand and buy into your company’s why.
  • When you organize everything from your operations to your marketing efforts keeping your why in mind, you build a loyal customer base and an engaged, motivated team.

Reviewers Say:

“[Wow.] I cannot rate this book highly enough to take a different, positive approach to life and work. Like others, I have watched Sinek’s TED Talk on this, and questioned whether the book would add anything more, and, boy, yes it did. Imagine the TED Talk expanded to two hours, with more depth, intrigue and examples. What I like most about the book compared to the TED Talk is that it delves more in to how Starting With Why can influence home life, not just work. [It definitely makes you think], and I’m even finding myself taking a different approach around my team at work. I agree, a lot of the examples are repeated (a lot) throughout the book, in particular Apple. I’m not against Apple and found it useful how the different topics are explained using the same companies as examples. It helps provide the fuller picture. However, let me assure any potential readers that there are also plenty of new examples given too.”

“The author’s TED talk is one of the most-viewed ever; and it’s really quite good. In fact, it’s so good that you don’t need to read this book! He takes a very, very simple concept and expands, and expands, and repeats, and seemingly never edits, and then repeats, and expands, and — well, you get the idea. The whole thing could’ve been done in 50 pages or less. Example: Yes, there’s a difference between WHAT one does in business and WHY one does it. And sometimes they diverge. He calls this the “Split” and has a graphic and whole chapter on it. Really?? Not needed.”

Monthly Must-Read Business Books:

August, 2019 – Blitzscaling

September, 2019 – The E-Myth Revisited

October, 2019 – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

November, 2019 – Built to Last

December, 2019 – Multipliers


How to Create More Personal Digital Experiences Using Cloud Based Collaboration Tools

Increasingly, technology-based experiences are shaping how small businesses interact with their customers. It can be difficult to create a personalized experience, especially if you’re trying to create engaging online and digital conversations.

Cloud based collaboration tools can help to make the life of the small business owner easier, especially when you have employees who work remotely or across different time zones.

Here are some tips to find the best cloud-based collaboration tools for your team.

Understand the basics

When you store something in “the cloud,” it means your data and information, the software and services is being stored somewhere else instead of locally onsite.

Using cloud based collaboration tools means you can remotely connect with your employees no matter where they are located for real time collaboration.

Why should you consider using cloud-based collaboration tools

Having a digital hub to facilitate online collaboration creates more transparency, which can help create better accountability, improve team productivity by problem-solving more quickly and ensure the security of a project by allowing team members to house sensitive data in a password protected management system. A McKinsey Global Institute report found business owners can raise the productivity of their knowledge workers by 20 to 25 percent by using social technologies and 61% of the workweek is spent on three tasks: communicating and collaborating internally, reading and answering emails, and searching or gathering information.

How to choose a collaboration tool

Before choosing a type of cloud based collaboration software, think about what features you want and who you want to use it.

Do you want software that will…

  • Manage tasks and projects
  • Offer private communication
  • Manage documents and content
  • Take notes
  • Offer video conferencing

Most collaboration tools offer multiple features, so request a demo or a free trial to compare how easy the software is to use for you and your team.

 

Video Conferencing

Traveling is expensive. That’s why many companies have gone to virtual meetings with some of these collaboration tools.

WebEx. Need to video conference in a team and do screen shares? Host online meetings quickly with this program.

GoToMeeting. Get HD video via multiple feeds and webcams. One of the best features is its ability to allow a presenter to opt into a participants machine and take over if they are having trouble.

Zoom. Another option to video conference or host webinars. Unlike GoToMeeting, there’s also a softening filter to “touch up my appearance” in real time, a green screen option to change your background and the ability to annotate via its whiteboard option.

G suite. Use Google Hangouts to combine voice or video meetings and schedule calendar invites.

Skype for Business. Connect up to 250 people via Skype’s video conference tool.

 

Chat Function

We’re all drowning in emails and text messages. An easier way to cut through the clutter is offering a private or customized messaging system.

Slack. This communication channel is used by a lot of business owners. Instead of emailing or texting you can share messages by focusing discussions based on the topic and purpose. Create tailored and targeted discussions via various channels. Use hashtags to search topics.

Flowdock. Offer your team real-time chat capabilities by organizing conversations via different threads. There’s also a video chat option.

Yammer. Create internal communication chains and share documents with this Microsoft-based social tool that is tied to Office 365.

Zoho. Track tickets with real-time notifications, assist customers via email, phone, chat and social media.

HappyFox Help Desk. Many startups look for an alternative to Zendesk. Like Zoho, this is another help desk collaboration tool that PC magazine has rated an editor’s choice for its ability to handle multi-channel ticketing from various emails and social media accounts.

 

Project Management

Besides tracking tasks, most project management software offers a way to create a knowledge base for your company.

Milanote. If you’re a visual thinker, milanote helps organize ideas and projects into visual boards, like “the Evernote for Creative” says Bryan Clark, US editor of The Next Web. Write notes and to-do lists, upload images and files, save

Trello. Create boards on here to visually manage teams, tasks and deadlines. Each board can be easily moved as the task is moved toward completion. Employees can be added or removed as the project transitions.

Basecamp. Create to-do lists with notes, files and comment on tasks while storing documents and scheduling due dates.

Asana. Structure your team’s priorities and deadlines and then get a snapshot of tasks, details and who is in charge during each stage of a project.

Monday.com (formerly Dapulse). Track projects, manage work flows and team communication in this highly customizable management platform that more than 70,000 organizations use. “We see the future of software in the workplace as a seamless connection of cloud-based tools,” says Monday.com cofounder and CEO Roy Mann.


Small Business Cyberattacks and Ways to Prevent Them

The consequences of small business cyberattacks are no joke. IBM research shows that a small business data breach can be particularly severe for companies with less than 500 employees, according to a recent press release. In the study, small businesses suffered losses of more than $2.5 million on average.  The number equates to costing up to 5 percent of annual revenue.

And the effects of small business cyberattacks can be felt for years. In fact, IBM looked at the long tail financial impact of data breaches and found that 67 percent of associated costs were realized within the first year.  An additional 22 percent accumulated in the second year.  And, another 11 percent amassed more than two years later. Moreover, the long tail costs were higher in the second and third years for businesses in highly-regulated environments, such as healthcare and financial services.

However, small businesses can mitigate cyber risks by implementing some of the following security practices.

Use Access Controls

Strong access controls can help prevent small business cyberattacks. An access control policy should at least address who should access company data as well as the circumstances in which to deny access to a user with access privileges. Small businesses can use authentication factors to reduce cyber risk, including:

  • passwords
  • personal identification numbers (PINs)
  • biometric scans
  • security tokens

Implement Extensive Use of Encryption

Studies have shown that 96 percent of stolen data is unencrypted, according to IT Security Guru. Therefore, in addition to implementing access controls, small businesses should routinely encrypt their primary copies of data as well as their secondary copies of data, such as backups, migrations, archives, transfers and live data to keep information safe.

The extensive use of encryption can also reduce the total cost of a data breach by $360,000, according to IBM.

Deploy Security Automation Technologies

Security automation technologies allow businesses to handle security tasks that would otherwise be done manually. These technologies can automatically check for system vulnerabilities, for example, without human intervention.

And when it comes to cyberattacks, security automation technologies can help small businesses mitigate losses. According to IBM, businesses with fully deployed security automation technologies experience about half the cost of a breach compared to those that do not have these technologies.

Properly Vet the Security of Third Parties

It’s important for small businesses to vet the security of their partners and suppliers, as it can cost businesses $370,000 more than average when a data breach occurs, according to IBM. This can be done by ensuring that security standards align and by actively monitoring third-party access.

Have An Incident Response Plan

A solid incident response plan should be in place well before a cyber incident occurs.  Why? Because the speed and efficiency at which a small business is able to respond can reduce consequences. IBM finds that businesses with an incident response team and an extensively tested incident response plan have had approximately $1 million less in data breach costs on average compared to businesses with neither measure in place.

By implementing these security initiatives, or a combination thereof, small businesses can stay protected against costly cyberattacks.


7 Things To Do Before Choosing An HR Cloud Solution

You’re thinking about investing in a cloud solution to address your HR pain points, but aren’t sure where to start. Here are 7 things to consider before choosing an HR cloud solution.

Recognize Your Pain Points

Know exactly what your HR problem areas are before contacting vendors for an HR cloud solution. Doing so will prepare you to effectively communicate your pain points to the vendor. It will also help to ensure that you’re acquiring the right product. Many HR cloud solutions will address a myriad of problems, but that doesn’t mean they will solve your existing issues.

Consider Your Processes

It’s best to find an HR cloud solution that functions like your business. To reduce the risk of implementing a product that doesn’t work as expected, you’ll need to look at or identify your own processes and existing workflows. This will help you determine what HR tasks are the most important to either streamline or improve.

Decide What Software Features You Need Now and Later

HR cloud solutions offer many features, such as performance management, employee self-service and attendance and applicant tracking. To help narrow things down before you decide on a solution, you should prioritize a list of core features.  This list should begin with those features you’ll need to meet your business requirements.

Keep in mind that some businesses may be satisfied with the feature set in an entry-level cloud solution.  Others, those with more complex requirements, may need a software that specializes in a certain area, such as benefits administration, for instance. Also, think about how well the software will scale as your business grows.  This will help you to ensure that it offers the necessary features and capabilities you’ll need down the road.

Determine Integration Capabilities

Before choosing an HR cloud solution, you’ll need to determine if the software must integrate with your existing infrastructure.  For instance, will you need it to integrate with your legacy software packages, corporate website, email client, enterprise resource planning apps and other back office software?

Furthermore, keep into consideration HR programs or other programs you already use, such as payroll and accounting software, to ascertain if those items have the capability to integrate with your new solution.

Establish a Budget

Determine an appropriate budget for an affordable solution that best meets your business requirements before shopping for vendors, and consider your company size and functionality needs. This will ensure your budget ties into your HR strategic goals and can handle purchases that help grow and support your business.

Try Before You Buy

Before committing to a particular software, test the solutions that meet your needs by attending demos or participating in free trials, if available. This will help determine how user-friendly the system is and how much user training will be needed. Also, check if the solution offers phone support, video tutorials, setup wizards and 24/7 live chat to help aid your decision. Read customer reviews to help ascertain what the software will or will not do for you.

Think About Cloud Security

As with any cloud-based technology, you’ll need to look into how the solution protects customer and employee data before purchasing, as this information is stored online. Be sure to ask every prospective vendor questions regarding its security certifications, incident response plans, access controls and encryption options to protect critical data.

By considering these 7 topics, you’ll be on your way to choosing an HR cloud solution that adds value.


The Best Free Online Productivity Tools For Small Businesses

With the prevalence of digital productivity tools, you might expect businesses to be more productive than ever before. Yet, many business owners still list “improving productivity” as a top concern. Since new tools are coming on the market every week, business owners could find themselves wasting considerable time and money trying out option after option to find the tool that best meets their needs. To help cut through the clutter, we’ve assembled a list of the top 5 most versatile free online productivity tools for small businesses.

1. Wave

Website: http://www.waveapps.com

the-best-free-online-productivity-tools-for-small-businesses-wave
Source: waveapps.com

Regardless of your business structure, number of employees, and industry, you’ll need a way to track your business finances. Wave empowers small business owners to handle all aspects of their business funds, including building financial statements, sending invoices, processing payroll, reconciling bank statements, tracking income and expenses, accepting credit cards, and more. Even better, this freemium service offers personalized bookkeeping and accounting advice from professionals for a nominal fee.

2. MindMup

Website: http://www.mindmup.com

Source: Mind Map Facebook

As your business grows and evolves, you’ll need to keep on pace with new ideas for marketing, business development, and lead generation. Mind mapping tools were created for just this purpose, but MindMup is no ordinary mind map. Unlike many free services, MindMup doesn’t limit the number of maps you can create with their free plan. You can include photos, videos, spreadsheets, and other media directly into your maps.  You can also upload finished projects to the cloud for easy sharing.  In addition, you can download projects into a variety of formats, including PDFs and PowerPoints. Perhaps the best quality of this productivity tool, however, is its intuitive interface that allows you to quickly and easily capture all your ideas during brainstorming sessions.

3. Toggl

Website: http://www.toggl.com

the-best-free-online-productivity-tools-for-small-businesses-toggl
Source: toggl.com

The creators at Toggl understand a fundamental truth about tracking time for small business owners – it is a necessary evil. They designed the browser-based app with a large timer button; toggle it on to start the timer and toggle it off to stop timing. If time tracking gets much more complicated than that, people won’t use it consistently. For users that want an easy-to-use application that still allows for some customization, there are simple point-and-click tagging features that allow for categorization by client and by project type. The Toggl team also recognized that business owners need fairly robust reporting capabilities, so they allow users to create reports by client, by project, or by specifying a preset or custom time period.

4. IFTTT

Website: http://ifttt.com

the-best-free-online-productivity-tools-for-small-businesses-IFTTT
Source: thenextweb.com

In today’s interconnected environment, we all use lots of tools, programs, and devices on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the multitude of digital applications vying for our time can be a significant time waster. IFTTT (If This, Then That) is a digital integration tool that allows your apps to work together, allowing you to do less work. The program boasts over 550 different “services” or connected applications that can be used to automate your daily tasks. Wish you could set up an automated reminder in Slack to prompt your team to submit their expense reports? IFTTT can handle it. Want your Whirlpool Smart Dryer to send you a text message when your laundry is done? IFTTT can take care of that too. With thousands of applets (or automated tasks) across hundreds of devices, your ability to improve your productivity and automate more of your workday is limited only by your creativity.

5. Canva

Website: http://www.canva.com

the-best-free-online-productivity-tools-for-small-businesses-canva
Source: canva.com

If this article were titled “The best programs your graphic designer wish you didn’t know about”, Canva would be at the top of the list. Canva’s drag-and-drop interface allows even the tech newbie to create professional looking documents in minutes. These aren’t your typical cookie cutter templates that look like they came from Office 2005. Canva has allowed thousands of business owners to build high quality promotional materials without hiring a professional graphic designer. The free software includes templates for everything from business cards and resumes to social media banners and infographics. While their design platform is a huge asset to your business toolkit on its own, the website also boasts a helpful learning portal that includes free classes on topics such as “Graphic Design Basics” and “Branding Your Business”.

When searching for free online productivity tools for small businesses, it’s important to consider how the tool will be used within your organization, which features are included within the free plan, and what additional costs will be incurred to get premium features if you decide to upgrade. Since each of these tools offer feature-rich services in a free package, they are a great starting point for accomplishing a variety of tasks within your business that would likely otherwise be outsourced to an expensive professional.


How to Simplify Your Digital Life as a Small Business Owner

Business owners know how often work-life balance can feel completely unbalanced. The lines between what is work and what is “down-time” often get blurred.  This is especially the case when there are deadlines to meet, after-hours problems to solve, or when you’re the only one who can address an issue. That’s why simplifying your digital life — de-cluttering and streamlining your online usage — can be important for small business owners.

Cal Newport, author of “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” recommends cleaning your digital house to get less distracted. His philosophy is simple: Be more intentional about the technology in your life. If you can focus more intensely on fewer things, then you may find more success with fewer distractions.

“Intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life,” says Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

Even if you can’t completely unplug — which most small business owners find impossible — consider streamlining your digital life.

Here’s how:

1. Get a Back-Up

Before you start cleaning house, start by backing up everything. If you’re a digital hoarder, that can be a lot. This is a good policy regardless of how much purging you plan on doing since your hard drive could fail or ransomware could hold it hostage. This can be done using an external hard drive or a Cloud service.

Keep in mind, cloud storage is different than doing an actual cloud backup where a software-based solution will automatically back everything up for you by being housed in the background of your computer.

For external hard drives, a solid state drive is considered more reliable and typically has larger storage capacity. Regardless of what you use for a back-up, make sure you make multiple back-ups because files can be written over and drives may fail. Have a back-up to your back-up.

2. Uninstall every app on your phone

Like tidying up expert Marie Kondo’s recommendation of throwing your entire closet of clothes on your bed to see how many you have, Newport recommends deleting every app on your phone and then reinstalling the ones that make sense.

“Wipe the slate clean,” Newport says, “so that you can get rid of those that were haphazardly downloaded and then rebuild it from scratch intentionally.” Then re-add the tools you use in your digital life that directly serve the things you care about.

3. Clean out your email inbox

Like most small business owners, you may have thousands of unread emails. Although it’s great to aim for “net zero” where there aren’t any unread emails, for most owners that’s nearly impossible.

Start by seeing what unnecessary emails are tied to subscriptions and unsubscribe from as many as you can.

If you’re using Gmail, consider moving from their Inbox to Gmail platform. The bundles feature lets you customize your inbox tabs in Gmail. That can help. Then organize your emails into tabs and folders that make sense.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, snooze emails until later or set follow-up nudges, a tool that can be found under the settings button, where Gmail will move old emails to the top of your inbox with a prompt to reply.

Another option is to take the “inbox zero” approach created by productivity expert Merlin Mann. His suggestion is to reduce your time spent on email, by checking it only at certain times of the day or maybe every two hours. Then with a set aside block of time, review your emails, by doing one of the following five actions:

  • Delete
  • Delegate
  • Respond
  • Defer
  • Do

Once you are done with this, you close your email and do other work you need to accomplish.

4. Review social media accounts

Review what social media platforms are working for your business and what isn’t. If you’re an image-centric business do you really need to be on Twitter if you’re on Instagram and Pinterest? Maybe. Or maybe not. Carefully curate useful tools and then set time limits.

If you are managing your accounts manually, consider scheduling tools like Hootsuite and Sprout Social to help you manage all your social media accounts on one platform.

If you use social media for industry information or news, consider creating a free and simple Google Alert.  With google alerts you can track key terms including your name, your company’s name or industry buzzwords.

5. Clean up your internet browsing

Many business owners constantly search and research online until their browser crashes with too many tabs open in their internet browser.

Most browsers have bookmarking options which you can sync across devices so you can call them up later without keeping additional windows or tabs open.

If you haven’t already, create folders within your browser to organize your links.  Consider alphabetizing primary folders with subfolders, or classifying primary folders by themed topics such as work, tech, read later, favorites, etc.

Regardless of how you choose to simply your digital life, a philosophy of ‘less is more’ may help you spend more time focusing on work and less time wading through a digital mess.

 

 


Get Your Construction Business Ready for the Spring

If you’re a contractor or own a construction business, you’ve likely been wondering what the this year will bring in terms of revenues and opportunities for growth. While many forecasts are calling for a slight economic slowdown in 2019, construction starts are still expected to hold relatively steady. As you look ahead to warmer months, here are three things to review as you prepare to ramp up your business this spring.

Update your tech

Smart technologies, AI and automation continue to expand their influence on the construction industry. Some new opportunities to update your business technology include:

  • Streamlining project management by using cloud-based solutions.
  • Utilizing drones for site planning and survey data enhancement.
  • Investing in smart safety equipment, such as wearables to track worker movements and fatigue levels.
  • Updating your inventory tracking software to reduce materials waste.
  • Using building information modeling software to streamline project design.

While some of these options are more hi-tech (and big-budget) than others, if you run a smaller firm, consider tech upgrades that can deliver a solid return on investment without a large outlay of cash. For example, updating your company’s website is something you may be able to do for a few hundred dollars, and up-to-date information and a fresh look might help attract new customers.

Review expenses and pricing

Construction materials didn’t get cheaper in 2018. Through July, prices had risen by nearly 10 percent over 2017’s figures, according to Associated Builders and Contractors. With uncertainty surrounding tariffs and foreign trade policy, materials such as lumber and fuel might become more expensive.

Higher prices means a higher cost of doing business and a potentially smaller profit margin. When planning for the busy season, consider how rising prices may impact revenues and cash flow, in both the short- and long-term.

Specifically, think about whether you’ll need to adjust your pricing to accommodate a jump in material costs. Would a price increase allow you to remain competitive in your local construction market? How would that price increase be received by clients? Will you enhance the value you provide as your rates rise?

At the same time, look for areas where you can reduce costs. Reach out to suppliers to ask for a discount or renegotiate terms. Recycle and repurpose materials whenever possible. Consider whether it makes sense to keep maintaining older equipment or replace it with something newer to reduce repair and maintenance costs. These kinds of changes may add money back into your cash flow and create a healthier bottom line.

Assess your capital needs

With interest rates projected to rise again this year you may want to pursue financing sooner instead of later. The lower the rate you’re able to lock in, the less your financing will cost over the repayment term.

Get clear on your needs and what type of financing may work best. For example, you may want to buy a new fleet of work vans or invest in a new backhoe. Or, you may just need cash to cover everyday operating expenses during the winter months if that’s your slower building season. Equipment financing might be more appropriate in the first scenario, while a working capital loan may be better suited for short-term funding.

Remember the ROI and the overall cost when considering financing for your construction business. Before taking out a $1 million equipment loan or a $100,000 working capital loan, estimate the potential payoff, either in preserving cash flow or increasing revenues.

You also need to be sure that the payments for an equipment loan, or any other type of financing, fit your business budget. And of course, review the interest rate and fees charged by different lenders to help you secure the best deal.


How Artificial Intelligence is Driving Customer Experience

Artificial intelligence (AI) uses computers to mimic and perform intelligent tasks that normally require human brainpower. AI can adapt when interacting with humans by using speech recognition, language translation and visual perception to execute decision-making tasks.

International Data Corporation, a marketing intelligence and service company, predicts that by 2019, 40 percent of digital transformation initiatives will be supported by some sort of cognitive computing or artificial intelligence. By 2020, 85 percent of customer interactions will be managed without a human, according to Gartner.

Face-to-face interactions may be diminishing in the era of AI.  But, there are ways businesses can connect and still remain customer-friendly.

Ask Questions, Offer Tailored Recommendations

Many businesses are asking customers to do short online surveys to understand their preferences.

For example, Madison Reed, an at-home hair color company uses an online questionnaire coupled with a live chat with a licensed colorist, a phone line, and email to give customers suggested recommendations based on their hair texture, amount of (or lack there of) grey and current hair color and history, as well as the look they are trying to achieve. The color advisor questionnaire starts with asking potential customers about the end result they are hoping to achieve. Doing so allows the company to work towards that goal before recommending a particular product tailored to that individual.

Another example is 1-800-Flowers.com, which has Gywn, an AI-based virtual assistant chatbot. Gywn’s job is to help tailor gift recommendations for visitors by narrowing their search for the right gift.

What these retailers have in common is offering tailored recommendations based on a customer’s answers. It can make an impersonal online experience feel more personal by detecting customer patterns for a more intimate virtual touchpoint.

There are plenty of ways to tailor your recommendations on a smaller scale.

  • Consider asking customers a few simple questions.  Ask about where they live, their favorite type of music, color and activities to determine what products or services might appeal to them.
  • To track trends, review sales orders by name and previous credit card receipts. Keep detailed bookkeeping.
  • By mining existing customer information you can target each one uniquely, even as a small business.

Connect Creatively

With the growth of tech-enabled conveniences, being memorable and accessible may make a big difference in the user experience.

Domino’s Pizza has been at the forefront of creating new online customer experiences. They are the company behind tweeting pizza emojis for orders.  They also use an AI-driven chatbot named Dom via Facebook Messenger.  With Dom, customers can order without having a pre-configured “pizza profile.” It’s fun and a great way to get customers to try out a service, initially for its novelty, but may keep users coming back.

Small businesses and nonprofits should also consider what UNICEF is doing with U-Report, a chat bot that helps gather large scale data from people in remote parts of the world. Users must register, for free.  Once registered, they voice concerns and frustrations about human rights issues, natural disasters, health outbreaks, among other timely topics. According to the website, individual messages are confidential but aggregated data is transparent and can be viewed in real time.

It’s grown exponentially, adding 1.5 million new users in 2017, a 48 percent increase from 2016, for a total of 4.6 million users.

Make it Seamless

In an ideal situation, customers would not realize the interaction is AI-driven. Many businesses that rely on the customer service industry are working to reduce costly human interactions.  Artificial intelligence helps them accomplish that while also allowing them to focus on other services.

For example, Hilton Hotels is using its chatbot, Connie, an AI-based concierge service, to cover basic tasks, like scheduling a spa treatment, to allow the hotel staff to focus on taking the guest experience to a higher level, according to Hotelogix.

Thanks to recent advances in artificial intelligence, many cell phone makers areembedding AI technology into chipsets, making it possible for hotels to offer their guests mobile keys they can download or access via their mobile device. For example the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in Iowa are allowing guests to bypass the hotel front desk check-in, in favor of mobile keys. Guests can check-in online before they arrive, walk into the hotel and go directly to their room without having to stop at the front desk.

Many hotels, including the Wynn Las Vegas, are also equipping rooms with artificially intelligent, voice-activated smart devices like Amazon’s Echo with Alexa. Guests can then make instant modifications in their room. Customers get a very personalized experience through the ability to control lights, room temperature, drapery and television,

While hospitality still means service, in the current market it now means using technology, like artificial intelligence, to help.

Technology will continue to play a significant role in changing the day-to-day operations of small businesses.   Don’t get left behind.  Keep up to date by learning more about top technologies for 2019.


Finding Your Voice: How to Use Voice Searches for Your Business

When consumers want to find a movie time, or decide what herbs to add to their pasta, or do any number of things, they often ask Siri®. Or Alexa®, Cortana®, or Echo®. Voice-search technologies are rapidly popping up on people’s phones and in their living rooms across the country. But should you use voice searches for your business?

Some 58% of consumers have used voice search to find local business information in the past year, according to a Brightlocal study. The technology is particularly popular with younger customers: 35.8% of millennials use voice-enabled digital assistants at least once a month, eMarketer found. Just a tenth of baby boomers use the technology as frequently.

Online marketing guru Neil Patel wrote on this blog that people use voice searches because they are in a hurry and want immediate results: “They aren’t searching because they’re curious or interested. They’re searching because they need your product and they are prepared to spend money to get it.”

As a result, voice searches often focus on “must have” stuff: The three most common voice searches involve finding restaurants, grocery stores, and food delivery, followed by clothing, accommodations, and medicine.

As consumers increasingly turn to voice search, business owners must understand how to get their businesses found in those searches. While this field is developing fast, here are four emerging keys to being successful with voice searches:

Use Descriptive Keywords

Voice searches put a premium on long-tail keywords — specific phrases, typically three to five words long. “Vintage seventies clothing for men” would be a long-tail keyword, as opposed to “clothing”.  These keywords may be ideally suited to small businesses, which often have specialized, focused product lines.

Speed up Your Website’s Loading Time

Since voice searchers are in a hurry, they have less tolerance for slow-loading web sites than people who are typing. The average voice search result page loads in 4.6 seconds — 52% faster than the average web page, according to a study by Backlinko, an SEO firm. Pingdom lets you check the speed of your page. If its load time is below average, take steps to speed it up.

Think in Snippets

Google prefers short, concise answers for voice searches. The average voice research result is just 29 words, Backlinko found. As companies prepare content for their web site, they should create “feature snippets,” which are short summaries that Google can find in response to questions your typical customers may ask.

Become Hyper Local

Voice searchers don’t look too far away: 46% of voice search users seek local business information on a daily basis. If you have products or customers particularly geared to voice searchers, ramp up your local SEO efforts.

Voice searches may continue to become more important as the consumer market for smart speakers and other devices equipped with voice recognition capabilities increase. For business owners, optimizing your online efforts for voice-enabled search may help keep your business top of mind for connected consumers.

Want to learn about other technologies for your business?  Check out 5 Tech Terms Busines Owners Should Know for 2019.


5 Tech Terms Business Owners Should Know for 2019

The internet of things, machine learning and blockchain may seem like high-tech jargon only tech gurus use, but these technologies can offer low-cost opportunities to improve a business’s security, efficiency, and productivity. Here are five tech terms business owners should know for 2019.

1. Voice Recognition Technology (VRT)

If you haven’t considered using VRT in your business, it may be time to learn more about it. A new report from Grandview Research Inc. suggests VRT could explode into a $31.82 billion business by 2025. Savvy businesses are using VRT in voice-activated payment systems, on devices such as Starbucks’ reorder skill for Alexa, and in the form of voice-enabled virtual assistants to schedule appointments.

2. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML)

Chances are you’ve heard the term AI, but ML? Artificial intelligence refers to tasks performed by machines or programs that would require intelligence if performed by people. Although you may use AI in your business for something like your online accounting system, the rise of ML, or machine learning driven by AI means automated digital programs will “learn” how to automate your most common digital tasks in order to be more effective, efficient, and productive. Some emerging ML examples for businesses include automated customer support after hours, identifying patterns in machine data that might indicate necessary repairs, and helping predict health issues based on patient data patterns.

3. Blockchain

Blockchain technology is a digital ledger system in which information gets stored in “blocks” in a public database — a “chain.”

Adopting blockchain may help your business to perform more accurate, secure and efficient transactions. For example, blockchain technology is behind the Basic Attention Token, a digital advertising “token” on the Ethereum blockchain is used to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of communications between advertisers, publishers and users.

Blockchain technology might also help your business take advantage of cheaper but potentially more secure cloud-based data storage. By using encrypted data blocks, data storage companies can distribute large amounts of data over a decentralized network. This can reduce the cost of storing data with a traditional data provider.

4. Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things refers to the continuously expanding network of physical “things” connected to the Internet. And it can help your business in at least three ways.  Firstly, you could use VRT and Amazon Alexa smart speakers to manage scheduling and simple tasks.  In addition, you can look into boosting security with online security cameras and smart door locking systems that give authorized users access to buildings without keys. Finally, consider using smart tags on items to boost efficiency and tracking when shipping goods to customers.

5. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

Allowing employees bring to their own devices to use for work — laptops and phones, for example — it can help lower your costs, simplify a remote-work arrangement, and may even help your staff be more productive. However, One drawback may be that allowing employees to BYOD might leave your business open to digital security issues, so ask for expert help when setting up BYOD policies and procedures.

Advances in technology continue to accelerate, which can deliver opportunities for business owners over their less-attuned competition. Consider learning more about these technologies to see how they can help better position your business in 2019.


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