Instagram: How To Make Your Small Business Just Like ‘Em!

If there’s any proof that a small business can go big, it’s Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of social media fixture Instagram.

A small venture with only thirteen employees (that’s right, thirteen!), Instagram shows that it’s all about the idea.  Have a great idea but you’re too scared to make the full-on entrepreneurial leap?  Here are some ways to get over that fear and get started.

  1. What’s the plan? Take time to map up how you will start (and run!) your business smoothly. Anticipate financial roadblocks and head count.
  2. Educate and dictate. While you’re the boss, don’t forget you are also a student. Take advantage of free online courses and books that offer free business training and economic counseling. You’ll have questions down the road, so hold onto your notes for reference.
  3. Get rooted. Pick a business location convenient for employees and customers. If you’re an online business, pick a cool spot you’re willing to spend many, many hours in.
  4. Cash in. Without the backing you can’t move forward. It’s a good thing you have the business plan, because your investors, grant advisors and government backers want to see a future.
  5. Legalize. You’re not a real business until someone says you are. Pick a form: LLC, corporation, nonprofit, you name it.
  6. Who are you? Pick a name! This should be the fun part. Register it with the state gov.
  7. Taxes, taxes, taxes.
  8. Get all the permits, licenses, yada, yada, yada you need.
  9. Happy workers. They’ll need health insurance, benefits and security. Make ‘em comfortable and they’ll work better. If you can’t afford the insurance, look into other ways to help.
  10. Your job. Learn your limits and learn the rules of the game. How to hire, who to hire. Legalize and monetize!

Not every company is going to be Instagram. Better yet, not every start-up is going to make it. But every company must follow some basic steps to achieve mover-and-shaker status. Make a splash in the market, but first, do your business.

6917067560 ba72274a6a o 300x300 Instagram: How To Make Your Small Business Just Like Em!

Take a Vacation From Work – and Make It Stress Free

Many Americans don’t want to take a vacation from work, fearing that a couple of days away relaxing will only create more problems for them upon their return.  Remember that all work and no relaxation can take their toll on productivity after awhile.  You need time to recharge your battery so you can return to work with a clear mind, less stress and a positive attitude.  Go ahead and take some vacation time – just follow these tips to ensure that your vacation and return back to work are seamless.

vacation 300x188 Take a Vacation From Work   and Make It Stress Free

1. Choose your return date carefully.
Many experienced travelers like to get home on a Friday or Saturday, allowing themselves the weekend to reacclimatize.  If you give yourself a few days to get your personal life in order, then whatever awaits you at the office might not seem so overwhelming.  Similarly, consider returning toward the end of the week and slipping into work for a day or two to get back into the office environment. Enjoy a weekend at home and then be ready for a full workday Monday. 

2. Set up voice and email notifications.
Let people know that you’re away and will not be checking email or voicemail until a specific date.  In your absence, provide an alternate contact from your office. You might give your return date as a day later than it really is in order to allow yourself a day to get organized upon returning.

3. Clean up.
Clean your desk before you leave town.  Returning to an uncluttered work space will feel less intimidating than coming back to disorganized piles of papers.

4. Be in the moment.
While you’re on vacation, try to put work out of your mind.  The quicker you’re able to get into vacation mode—something that takes many people a few days to do—the more you’ll gain from your time away. If you’re traveling with family or friends, they’ll appreciate not hearing about work, too.

5. Get in—or out—of touch.
Decide in advance if you’ll have any contact with the office while you’re away. If you tell people that you’re cutting all ties for a week, then there will be no expectations of you. On the other hand, if you say you’ll call in, make sure to follow through.

6. Decide whether or not you’ll check email.
It’s hard to find a place where you can avoid email at this point in time. Be honest with yourself about your relationship to email. Sometimes, it’s impossible to look at just one. If you’re the type who will get into an hour’s or more worth of work time and stress by checking your email, then leave your laptop at home and ignore Internet cafes. However, if you can open email and respond to a few high-priority messages, then go for it. Chances are you’ll return to work feeling more on top of things.

7. Readjust your attitude before you return.
That first day back can be like a dip in a cold pool.  Make a real effort to be positive about returning to work and squashing your post-vacation blues.  Choose one or two things to look forward to, be it a coworker you’ve missed or an interesting project.

Here are some websites that will help ease any travel-related stress.

The online service LugLess will ship your bags for you to any destination – and prices start at $39.  Considering that it can cost $40 to check a single bag, it’s not a bad deal – and, unlike with airlines, your stuff is guaranteed to get where it’s supposed to.

If you’re traveling with just a carry-on, it can be stressful trying to find all your favorite cosmetics and toiletries in the required 3.2 ounces or less size.  The website 3FlOZ carries a wide range of products, all at TSA-approved sizes.

Make sure you’re knowledgeable about where you’re going, what you’ll need, what you can’t bring, etc.  Check out the Travel Advice section of Travel Sense.

How to Boost Your Creativity

Sitting in the same environment with the same old ideas can lead to apathy. How can you take yourself and your team out of a rut and boost your creativity?

10 ways to boost creativity1 300x225 How to Boost Your Creativity

You may not know where to start when it comes to thinking more creatively about your work.  Here are some tips to help you tap into your inspiration and increase creative thinking.

Hire a pro. Many reputable firms, big and small, specialize in helping companies and individuals innovate. Depending on your budget, outside help could mean anything from a total overhaul of how your company develops product ideas to a motivational speaker who comes in for just an hour. If you don’t have a budget? Ask your team to read a book on innovation and spend time discussing it. Suggested: Little Book of Big Innovation Ideas by Stephen Shapiro or Get Back in the Box: Innovation From the Inside Out by Douglas Rushkoff.

Work Together. Creating the right environment for innovation is imperative to ensure maximum creativity, according to Bettina von Stamm in her book Managing Innovation, Design and Creativity. For example, building an innovation portal or intranet site where employees can share, comment, and collaborate can help create new ideas. Rather than adopting an open “suggestion box” approach, brainstorming can also be better focused through posing specific questions or problems that need to be resolved.

Explore Open Innovation (OI). Open Innovation is the concept of accepting ideas from almost any source, either inside or outside of your organization. Social media, for example, offers the opportunity to tap into the masses, and keeping abreast of advances. This could help you deliver the next great product concept or identify a new way to apply your own skills. A few examples of OI in action: Organizations like NineSigma are connecting innovation seekers with problem solvers, and Starbucks asks customers for feedback directly at

View obstacles as an opportunity. Ask yourself what challenges your team faces (or you face as a business owner) that might serve as a channel to explore a new direction. For example, the current state of the economy is forcing many companies to reevaluate business in order to survive. By changing customer needs—such as the need for more affordable products—a number of companies like Super 8 Motels and Wrigley’s got a successful start in equally tough times. Approaching a brick wall with an open mind might lead you to your biggest breakthrough.

Networking 101: Make Business Events Work for You

With the rise of career and social networking, you can “meet up” almost any night of the week with other people in your field. Often these events involve name tags, low lighting, and small talk. While this may sound totally unappealing to some, business networking is incredibly important.  Here’s are some networking tips that will help you stand out from the crowd.

Networking 300x300 Networking 101:  Make Business Events Work for You

Find the right event.  There are endless numbers of networking events you could attend, so make sure you’re choosing the right ones.   There are many web resources that will help you choose the best networking event that fits your goals.  Try this list here.

Know your goal. Do you want to socialize with other people who understand the woes of selling X, Y or Z in a poor economy? Or are you looking for potential clients or advice? Be clear about your networking goals for the evening before you arrive.

Perfect your introduction. Brainstorm some easy, witty things to say that will help break the ice. For example, “My name is Molly and I own A to Z Communications” is kind of dull—it’s more or less what everyone says. Instead be as descriptive as possible. “My name is Molly Sullivan and I’m the CEO and founder of A to Z Communications—we handle PR and marketing for independently owned small companies.” That tells your new contact significantly more details about who you are and what you do. It also opens the door to better communication and a conversation that may help you accomplish your goal for the evening.

Plan a follow-up question.
Once the introductions are complete, it’s now time to get to know the other person. Steer clear of questions like “Do you like your job?” and get in-depth: “How many clients do you represent?” “Do you do a lot of advertising?” “Is your firm large or small?” These all allow you to learn more about the person you’re talking to, the business they work for, and their specific job.

Come prepared. Make sure you have plenty of business cards in an easily accessible pocket. Ideally you’ll exchange them with every person you talk to. If your conversation has been especially positive, send a personalized and genuine follow-up e-mail letting people know how glad you were to meet them.

Don’t be shy. A networking meet-up is a place where you are expected to chat with other people, make new friends, and talk openly about yourself and your job. This is not the night to sit at the bar, nurse a beer, and watch people. Don’t imbibe too much, but loosen up, laugh, and be friendly. Don’t be afraid to talk about your strengths, and about what excites you in your field right now. If you enter the room comfortable and confident, you’ll be far more likely to exit it with lots of good contacts and a positive feeling about what you accomplished that evening.

Start using social media: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

Are you using social media?

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs: for those who aren’t tech-savvy, the ever-evolving world of social media can be confusing and even a bit intimidating.  But the truth is, if you’re not using social media for marketing, you’re putting your small business at a serious disadvantage.

social media1 300x145 Start using social media: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

The recent 2011 Social Media Marketing Industry Report confirms that social media has been instrumental in helping small businesses grow over the past three years.  In fact, small business owners are reaping the most benefits from social media marketing according to the study.

Of 3,342 self-employed or small business owners, 88% reported that social media has helped them increase their exposure.  72% claimed they saw increased traffic and subscriptions.  Small business owners were more likely than any other group surveyed to see increased exposure, with 89.2% reporting positive results.

Not convinced that social media is worth your time?  Take a look at these other facts:

- 59% of self-employed and small business owners reported new partnerships as a result of social media.

- They were twice more likely to find qualified leads than other types of businesses.

- 48% saw improved sales.

- 59% of the self-employed and 58% of the small business owners were more likely than others to see reductions in marketing costs while using social media marketing.

Now is the time to get serious about seeing your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts as powerful marketing tools.  Here are the top five tips to expand your social media presence.

1)      Gather a following.  If you’ve opened social media accounts and have neglected them, you’ve probably collected few followers.  Get the word out about your social media presence the old fashioned way: word of mouth.  Mention it to clients, partners and customers.  Let people know in your email signature, on your business card and in advertisements.  Send emails to customers, friends and family with direct links to your pages.  Incentivize people to follow your business online with promotions and give-aways.  The bigger your online community, the more credibility you gain.

2)      Be consistent.  Whether you’re using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or blogging, make sure that you’re consistently updating your content and communicating with your followers and readers.  Whether you update once a day or a few times a week, your content should consist of high-quality, useful information.  Share updates about your business, offer deals and discounts, or offer resources that may be valuable or to your customers.  While you don’t want to barrage their newsfeed by overloading them with information, you need to stay on their radar – that way, you won’t become a victim of “out of sight, out of mind.”

3)      Be giving.  As the old adage goes, in order to get, you’ve got to give – and the same is true in the social media sphere.  Provide your expert advice and solutions, and do so without expecting anything in return.  Knowledge is money, but by showing generosity to others, they’ll be more apt to turn to you when they need to purchase your product or service.    You can do this by leaving comments on other people’s pages or inviting followers to directly ask you questions.  This way, you will be seen as a dependable, go-to resource in your industry.

4)      Build actual relationships.  It’s essential that you engage your customers by starting conversations, providing feedback and thoughtfully answering their questions.  It’s easy to post information, but if you want to build a loyal fan base, you’ll need to interact with your followers as much as possible.  You never know which of these relationships may progress into a real-life relationship with a client, vendor, partner, etc.

5)      Sync up your accounts.  There are ways to sync up your Facebook and Twitter accounts so that when you post to one, it posts on the other.  LinkenIn and many blog platforms will also sync to your Twitter updates.  This way, you’re getting much more bang for your buck by reaching customers across different networks while keeping your branding and messaging consistent.

How to Start a Website for Your Small Business

Staying ahead in today’s economy means putting your best digital foot forward. Whether you’re marketing your own small business or looking for an incoming stream of projects, it’s helpful to start a website that showcases your business’s talent and value. Start a website for your company and you’ll be one step closer to sharing your message and drawing a concentrated audience.

how to start a website 300x233 How to Start a Website for Your Small Business

Name your domain. Start off by purchasing a domain name (the URL) for your site. Create a name that’s short, professional, and easy, so that visitors can quickly recall it. Then browse sites like or, which sell domains for less than $10 a year.

Choose a hosting site. 
Hosting providers offer packages to users that require little to no technology expertise. For those who don’t speak HTML, CSS, or Java – check out,, and to find a package that best suits your needs. Costs range from $4 to $20 per month. Consider a hosting provider that provides e-mail addresses to match your domain, which will add a degree of professionalism and organization.

Personalize it.
 Hosting packages like include simple website builder programs that allow users to edit layout, color scheme, and images on various pages with a simple click of the “Design” tab. (Prior to the design process, you’ll be prompted to enter the domain name you recently purchased.) Be sure to keep your design simple and stay mindful of your target audience.

Select target words.
 “Search engine optimization,” or SEO, is important for locating your site. It’s no secret that Google search-engine rankings can make or break a site’s number of unique visitors even its success. Decide what words your target audience would use when searching for content on your site, and then incorporate these keywords in headlines, captions, text, and tags text on your site. Using a tool like “Google Analytics” will help you monitor your visitors and can guide you to make necessary SEO adjustments over time.

Test-drive your site. Have your colleagues try out your site-in-progress and provide their honest feedback. Have them consider factors like aesthetics, effectiveness, and navigability. Pay close consideration when multiple people provide the same feedback since many visitors share their opinions.

Spread the word. Once your site is live, start advertising. Send e-blasts to your network of contacts. Submit the site to major search engines. Promote your site on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also leave comments on related blogs and forums and include your URL in the signature. Once you’ve gathered a fan base, continue to explore new and compelling ways to update your site to keep visitors coming back for more.

Be Your Own Best PR

By now, you’ve probably seen this Staples commercial on TV starring “Dave,” the small business owner who has to do it all himself.  (Click here to watch.)

Staples Dave ad 300x225 Be Your Own Best PR

Well, this ad isn’t very far from the truth for most small business owners.  And when you’re first starting out, it really may be you and only you who you can rely on to get the job done.

This means you’re going to have to be your very own publicist – and effective PR is key aspect of running any successful business.  When most people think of public relations, they instantly imagine a powerful publicist who knows exactly the right thing to say at exactly the right moment.  Well, in the case of the small business owner on a limited budget, that publicist has to be you.

Craft a personal pitch. Business-development folks stress the importance of an elevator speech—a 30-second sound bite to convey a company’s message. So why not craft one for yourself? Instead of talking up your employer, mention your specific skills, interests, and achievements.

Establish a Web presence. While Facebook is great, most likely you’re not using it as a tool to advance your career. Start creating a professional online persona through sites like LinkedIn, or develop a site or blog that speaks to your area of expertise. For example, if you work as a sales rep, create a blog doling out expert advice to other sales reps.

Get quoted. Reporters seek out industry leaders as sources for articles. Get yourself quoted to raise your personal PR quotient. Subscribe to a service like Help a Reporter Out and respond to queries that could use your expertise. When you get quoted, promote it on your website or through social media.  

Brand Your Business

In recent years, “branding” has because a buzz word in the business world, and it’s one you shouldn’t ignore.  Kleenex, Band-Aid, Starbucks—the name tells you everything you need to know.  Somewhere along the way, name and product became one and the same and they’ve become synonymous with quality and value.  In brand we trust.

branding 300x200 Brand Your Business

Building a trustworthy, reliable brand doesn’t happen overnight.  And brands aren’t solely about logos and catchphrases – brands tell your customer what you do, why you do it better than your competitor and why they should choose to do business with you.

Here are simple ways to get started on the process of brand building.

Make a mental picture.  Close your eyes and picture who you are and what qualities you want people to call to mind when your company name comes up. Those qualities should be the cornerstones of your brand.  Try to incorporate these themes into all of your brand’s marketing materials going forth.

Be consistent. For those branding giants—the aforementioned Kleenex, Band-Aid, and Starbucks—the image is reinforced with logos, trademarks, commercials, and catch-phrases. Each time a customer interacts with a given product, the corporation reinforces the brand until, when you need a tissue, you think Kleenex.  Apply this concept to your own brand.  Use consistent, memorable imagery and words so that customers can easily identify you and your product.

Commit to your message.  Brand-building requires complete focus; one misstep and your brand crumbles. Create a well thought out tagline that helps showcase what your brand does and what it stands for. Spread this message via new outlets, press releases and industry events.

Connect with clients.  Connect with your clients by enlisting a hands-on on customer service process.  Building a relationship with clients will help you gain their trust and support as you grow.  Your brand will also get useful feedback from looking at issues from a client’s perspective.  As the leader of your business, take the time to personally field email request from customers.  By directly connecting with your customers, they’ll feel like they’re a valued part of your brand and be more likely to spread the word to others.

Spread the word. Utilize technology and social media to help connect with potential customers. Regularly update your Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep customers engaged and informed. Encourage customers to friend your business page, follow you on Twitter and connect with your company on LinkedIn. Create contests and/or giveaways to promote more signups. Remember, advertisers and investors do look at a company’s social media following when deciding to partner with potential businesses.  Also, send out e-mail newsletters to keep your clients informed about new products, announcements, and promotions.

How to Get Funding When Money is Tight: Part II

In my last post, I started to talk about different ways to get funding when money is tight.  Here’s the rest of the list…

Angel funding. Angel investors are affluent individuals, or sometimes small groups, who are willing to invest their personal resources in a start-up. Most will do this only in exchange for a chunk of your company’s equity, and many also charge a monthly “management” fee. Finding angel investors can take some detective work, but one good online resource is government-affiliated Active Capital.

Peer-to-peer lending. For small loan amounts, try They’ll match individuals searching for a loan of any purpose with others looking to make an investment. Facebook’s LendingClub is also worth exploring.

Your existing lines of credit. Taking an advance on credit cards still remains a popular source of funding for entrepreneurs because it’s so easy. However, borrowers should exercise caution here—you’ll be paying high interest rates, plus your personal credit rating could be endangered if your business hits a rough patch. And in a weak economy, maintaining a strong credit rating is vital for securing future funds.

As for being prepared, looking and acting like a real business before you approach potential lenders is often critical. If at all possible, you should obtain a business phone number, address, and applicable licenses in advance. You might also want to invest some time in finance and business management courses (such as those offered through SCORE) to prepare for the credit marketplace.

Do you have any suggestions for what to do when money is tight?  What’s worked for you, and what hasn’t?

How to Get Funding When Money is Tight: Part I

Today, we’re going to talk about a subject that’s probably on most of your minds: funding.  And not just funding, but how to get it when money is tight.

HowToGetFunding 250x250 How to Get Funding When Money is Tight: Part I


Your bank. Yes, this is an obvious one – but do you know how to actually get that loan?  Creating a real relationship with a smaller bank is key.  Once you’ve established a year or two of deposit history, then you have a better chance of getting what you want when you ask your banker for an expansion loan.  You’ve got to work the relationship and be visable so that when the time comes, your banker will be more likely to give you what you want.

Friends and family. Borrowing from people you know has many advantages—they’re more approachable than a bank, they may be willing to lend to you even if you don’t have a strong credit history, and the terms of the loan may be better. However, it is important to formalize those terms to protect your relationship. Virgin Money, which recently took over CircleLending, is one place to obtain tools for structuring your loan. (Richard Branson of Virgin-mega-success fame launched his empire with a loan from his aunt!)

The Small Business Administration (SBA). The SBA is not a lending institution itself. But local branches typically maintain relationships with the banking community and can help point you toward potentially amenable lenders. SCORE is a nonprofit organization that partners with the SBA to offer entrepreneurs tools, training, and additional resources.

Stay tuned for Part II!