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, 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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