Sunday, 6 March 2011

4 Mantras For Small Business Owners To Follow

As a small business owner, I’m always looking for lessons or mantras that I can hold on to. Little nuggets that I can use to guide my decision making help keep me on the right path during difficult times. Over the past two years, I’ve come up with four mantras that I think any small business owner would do well to follow. I’ll share them below. Let me know if you agree or, perhaps, what your own mantras are for your business or your brand.

1. Stay Social
Yes, I know you have a million things to do today, but try to make at least one of those things to get on Twitter and start talking to people. Or to create a new FourSquare or Groupon promotion for your business. As a small business owner, you need to be on the lookout for ways to integrate social media into your day-to-day activities. Think of how you can use these new platforms to build upon the experience you’re already creating elsewhere. Social media is powerful for medium- and large-sized companies, but I really believe it’s even more powerful for small businesses. It’s about storytelling and connecting to people on a human level. This is what SMBs have been surviving on for years. Now you can do it grand-scale and for free. Stay social.
2. Stay Quick
It’s easy to become intimidated as a small business owner. You hear you need to start a blog and you start thinking about the content, worrying about who’s going to build it, who will maintain it, who will market it, etc. You immediately get into that snowball of worrying about everything that will go into that blog. And while that’s important to think about, it can also derail momentum. Start small and stay quick. Instead of worrying about the beast that WordPress can be, get yourself something more lightweight – like a Tumblr account. Instead of worrying about all the camera equipment you’ll need to produce those online videos, get a Flip video camera and upload it straight to YouTube. Sometimes picking the lightweight solution allows you to skip the hassle and get right into the meat of creation. That’s where you want to be. Nimble.
3. Stay Small
I write a lot over at my company blog about the importance of thinking small and keeping that startup mentality. The one that paints you as the scrappy underdog who needs to outwit his competition by being fearless, trying new things, and really focusing on building relationships with your customers. That’s how you become successful when you’re small and it’s something businesses forget (or just plain ignore) as they become larger. But don’t let that happen to you. Stay small and stay in the business of servicing people and making every touch point you create count.
4. Stay Open
Do your best to remain transparent with your customer base. Introduce them to your staff, let them know what you’re working on, be honest when you goof up, and do what you can to bring them into your organization and show them what you’re about. Again, this is something we’re typically really good about when we’re small, but forget to keep doing as we grow. Social media has shown us a lot. But one thing in particular is that customers like feeling connected to the businesses that they support. And they connect through the stories we tell, the information we share, and by how we reach out to their community. Don’t lose sight of that.
Those are four mantras I’ve tried to hold on to as a small business owner. What words do you live and run your business by?

Lisa Barone is Co-Founder and Chief Branding Officer at Outspoken Media, Inc., an Internet marketing company that specializes in providing clients with online reputation management, social media services, and other Internet services. She blogs daily over at the Outspoken Media blog.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

5 Reasons Your Website Isn’t Attracting Leads

So, what are your big Internet marketing plans for the New Year? Will you be investing more in social media? Will you start blogging? Will you take a more proactive stance with self-promotion? Whatever your online marketing plans, the end goal is likely to attract more people to your website in the hopes that the influx of new eyes will translate into new customers, new leads and new opportunities for your business. However, you won’t be able to do any of that if your Web site is turning people off, instead of turning them on.
Below are some very common reasons SMB Web sites fail to attract customers and how to avoid falling prey to them.
1. There’s no conversion path in place.
One criticism of many SMB sites is that they don’t include a clear conversion path for their customers. If you want customers to take a certain action, you need to create a funnel intended to guide them to do that. Simply stringing together a number of content pages won’t necessarily put someone on the path to buy. Your conversion path may be as simple as a solitary landing page paired with a call to action, or as complex as an entire microsite. Either way, you are in charge of designing the flow of your website. Creating a clear conversion path not only helps customers feel more comfortable on your site, it also gives you clear data to track so that you can see where people are abandoning, where they’re engaging, etc. The more data you have to act on, the better you can design your site to attract new customers.
2. There’s no sign of life.
Customers are discriminating. You can bet that when they land on your website they’re going to kick the tires a little to see if they can trust you. They’re going to check your copyright date to see if it lists 2011 or 2006. They’re going to look for old statistics or other signs you haven’t taken the time to update your content. They’re going to check your company blog to see how often it’s updated, if you reply to commenters, if people are talking back, etc. They’re going to look for signs that you’ve created a dynamic website, instead of one lying around in stagnant water. Before your customers get there, take a look around yourself. Would you hang out with you?
3. It’s all about you.
Customers don’t head to your site to hear how awesome you are. They’re there because they have a problem they need you to fix or a question they need you to answer. Your website should be designed to help them quickly achieve whatever it is they came for. Too many references to “I” in lieu of “you,” too much sales talk instead of helpful information, and too much of you not addressing their fears/wants/desires will turn people away from your brand, not on to it. Your customers don’t care about you–they care about how you can help them.
4. People can’t find you.
If you’re finding that customers aren’t interacting with your website at all, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself.
  1. Is it accessible? With more and more users searching via mobile devices and on the go – is your website mobile accessible? If it’s not, users trying to find you may hit a dead end. There’s nothing worse than trying to find your accountant’s website while on the road and finding out his site only renders in Flash and won’t load on your phone. Not that I’m talking from experience.
  2. Is it properly SEO’d? Have you made it easy for users and search engines to find your content? That means using the right keywords, linking properly, making your site super crawlable for spiders, and staying away from common SMB SEO mistakes.
Sometimes before you can see more traffic, you have to break through the obstacles preventing you from seeing any.
5. There’s no POD.
If you want to attract people, you have to give them more of you. You have to stand out from the crowd and show them something that they’ll want to align themselves with. Take a look at your own site – what are you showing potential customers? I don’t mean the graphics or the videos you choose to incorporate (don’t forget to SEO those, too!), I mean the experience that you’re creating. Are you using your site to set yourself apart, or do you come off like everyone else? Are you talking to customers in their own language or filling your pages up with buzzwords and jargon? The more powerful a POD (point of differentiation) you can create, the better you’ll attract the right customers to your brand.
If you’re finding it difficult to attract leads via your website, it may be time to ask yourself some hard questions. Before you can fix the problem, you first have to identify it. What are some struggles you’ve had attracting new leads? How have you fixed the problems?

Friday, 4 March 2011

The virtual business: Doing deals in your pyjamas

Sitting at your office desk, squinting in the direction of the distant window as you work through the post-lunch slump, do you dream of starting your own business and being your own boss?
But then you think of the cost of starting your own business - the cost of office space, IT infrastructure, staff, and realize you just can't afford it.
Or can you?
Running a business from home is nothing new. But technology such as the internet and cloud computing is increasingly providing easily-shared lower-cost software options for start-up firms. Cheap internet telephony services let you stay in touch with people half a world away.
Friends Jamie Waldegrave and Chris Huey met at university in Durham before taking jobs in the financial services industry.
In October they quit their jobs and decided to start their own business. TipToken is a group-buying website, and has been live for just three months.
So far uptake has been promising, says Mr Waldegrave.
"We've been really pleased with the response," he says.
"It takes time to grow, but the numbers are moving in the right direction, we're getting more and more traffic to the site and more sales, which is really nice."
Chris Huey (left) and Jamie Waldegrave Chris Huey (left) and Jamie Waldegrave say operating virtually was their only option
The partners are the only full-time employees of the company. For any other work that needs to be done they use remote freelancers thousands of miles away, as they don't need full-time staff.
The business is web-based. Skype lets them talk to their developers and designers in India, and for all other IT needs they rely on cloud-based services accessible from anywhere, so they can share data with staff based anywhere in the world.
The self-funded operation started on a shoestring budget, and Mr Waldegrave says working as a virtual company is the only reason they exist.
"The cost of taking on in-house design staff and development, or keeping a local company on retainer would be impossible," he says.
"We don't have to upgrade to bigger offices, and we don't have to worry about employment law. That would have slowed us down a lot. We can do things quicker and faster."
Taken on trust Mr Waldegrave says that building a relationship with remote workers you can trust is vital.
"The ones we started out with, they were no good, didn't get the work done and it was a real problem. We had to go through the process of getting the deposit we'd paid back and that took a lot of time."
"We do a lot of research on someone before we take them on, and try not to have too many different people." screenshot The website lets prospective employers see how freelancers have been rated
One of the ways TipToken tries to minimise problems is by using sites such as, an online marketplace for remote workers.
The company says they've seen a growth in registered users from 50,000 to 136,000 across 150 countries on the back of the virtual business trend.
Chief executive Xenios Thrasyvoulou says the company focuses on providing talent, rather than outsourcing menial tasks.
"They're no less talented than those who are part of your core. It's just that you don't need an SEO [search engine optimisation] person fulltime, and you can't afford it.
"But you want someone to be on your instant messenger, to be able to call on a Saturday and get an answer, in the same way as an employee anywhere in the world."
So how far can you take the virtual company? Mr Thrasyvoulou thinks there are limits.

“Start Quote

Working virtually in the beginning meant that we've just worked a bit more intelligently”
Jack Waley-Cohen Lingo24
"It's a fallacy that you can be 100% virtual, it gets to the point where it gets quite draining on the one person that's the owner. You need a core to grow with."
Lingo24's operations director Jack Waley-Cohen agrees. The translation company started as a virtual company. They now have 130 staff spread over four continents.
"Before we got our first office location I was convinced we could carry on being pretty virtual, but I genuinely think there comes a point where you do need people together. Not necessarily all the time, but some of the time."
Mr Waley-Cohen says what they have is a "hybrid" situation - a core physical presence in small offices, with the majority of staff working remotely. He thinks that starting virtually had huge benefits.
"Working virtually in the beginning meant that we've just worked a bit more intelligently," he says.
"We've developed all our systems to give us flexibility you won't have in an office. And as a growing business cost is a major consideration. Even if you have a small team in an office it adds to the overheads."
The company uses a lot of free or publicly available IT tools, including Skype, Google Apps for business, Dropbox and Yammer.
Alone in a crowd There are disadvantages. Having staff working in isolation, even with a wealth of modern connectivity tools, creates its own problems.
Mr Waley-Cohen says keeping everyone in the loop can be difficult - the company now uses a daily newsletter to keep staff connected.
Textappeal is another company working to a hybrid virtual model.
Founded originally in Paris, the company does transcreation - translation for the advertising and marketing industries. This requires more than just straight language skills, it's about ensuring that advertising and branding translates culturally.
Clients have included a worldwide hotel group. When this hotel firm translated its slogan into Chinese characters, they found later it also meant pig's tail, leading them to engage Textappeal's services.
They now work in 151 markets with global brands such as Nikon, Swarovski, and Nokia's luxury mobile brand Vertu.
Co-founder Elliot Polak says their remote workers can feel isolated at times.
"The idea that everyone can work from their home is a nice idea, but most people want to be with other people - it's more stimulating and they come up with better ideas."
The company says it values its remote workers and works hard to help them feel like part of the team, flying their top people in to head office to spend time with each other and the team.
In the 12 years Mr Polak has been in business he has seen a seismic shift in the technology available.
"It's hard to believe we were using fax machines. We could fax each other and find people in different markets who could do these things.
"Over the last two years people have realised that you don't really need offices - you just need talented people and thanks to technology you can connect people up."
Using talented people who have been through a rigorous testing process, but who are local to the countries the brands are breaking into, gives Textappeal the edge, Mr Polak believes.
Pyjama party For the budding virtual business owner it doesn't have to stop there. If you'd rather your new venture had a more prestigious address than your bedroom, there are companies that can provide you with a postal address and redirection service, telephone answering service, and even meeting rooms when you're in town.
Executive Offices is one of those companies, and their chief executive officer is John Drover. The company has seen huge growth in virtual businesses using their services.
"It allows people working form home to punch above their weight. It's great to work from home but 18 Acacia Avenue doesn't have quite the ring of 23 Berkeley Square."
Business meeting taking place in Second Life Business meeting taking place in Second Life
And if you want to be truly virtual, or just take a meeting while still in your pyjamas, you could join those using the services of virtual world Second Life.
Adam Nelson, executive director at Linden Labs, the company behind Second Life, says that hundreds of companies use Second Life to arrange meetings, conferences with remote workers, training, 3D rapid prototyping, and more.
"Businesses can purchase their own virtual spaces, and build or buy the 3D content and applications that suit their specific needs," Mr Nelson says.
"Many choose to work with a company in our Solution Provider program, qualified experts in creating content and experiences in Second Life.
"Alternately, businesses can choose to use facilities in Second Life provided by third parties - for example, there are several full-service conferencing facilities available."
IBM has held a global conference in Second Life, Northrop Grumman used it for training people to use a bomb disposal robot, and the Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago used it for a disaster preparedness simulation.
Virtually there This is just the beginning, according to Milind Govekar of technology analysts Gartner.
"For years we've been talking about globalisation but we didn't really have the tools to manage that. Now we do."
He says the driver behind the acceleration in uptake over the last few years is undoubtedly cloud computing.
"If I've got an idea and I want to do something, it's cheap as chips, as well as the agility it gives me in terms of trying it out."
"It's a generational thing as well. The next generation coming to work are very comfortable with virtual entities, they are digital natives, they've grown up with computers."

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Bob Williamson

From Junkie to Software Success

Accidental entrepreneur Bob Williamson's personal turnaround led to the creation of his 180-employee, $26 million company
Accidental entrepreneur Bob Williamson, 61, is projecting his company, Horizon Software International, will hit $32 million in revenue this year.

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Bob Williamson fled a broken home in Mississippi at age 17 to hitchhike around the country. He landed in Atlanta in 1970 at 24, homeless, broke, and addicted to heroin and methamphetamine. When he got a job there cleaning bricks for $15 a week, no one would have guessed that he would start a $26 million software company someday.

Successful businesses often spring from a combination of hard work and dumb luck, and Williamson credits both. Not long after arriving in Atlanta, he was injured in a car wreck and spent months recovering in the hospital. While there, he read the Bible, converted to Christianity, and decided to straighten up his life. It wasn't easy: He had a criminal record, no college degree, and few job prospects.

"I was either going to commit suicide, which several of my friends had done, or I was going turn my life around," says Williamson, now chairman and chief executive officer of Horizon Software International, a 180-employee maker of software for food service systems used in schools, hospitals, and other institutions.
Promoted Eight Times in Two Years

Williamson eventually landed a job putting labels on paint cans in the basement of the Glidden paint company in Atlanta. He cleaned up the labeling department and helped Glidden move to the company's first computer system. His work ethic, he says, was: "First one there, last to leave." Glidden promoted Williamson eight times in two years.

He went on to work at two other paint companies. By then a paint expert, Williamson started working in his basement to develop a better formula for his hobby: airbrush art. "I borrowed $1,000 on my Visa (V) card and bought a bunch of chemicals and made a bunch of paint," he says. At a trade show, artists flocked to his booth to buy the paint he developed, called Polytranspar. He quit his job and started his own paint company, Master Paint Systems, in 1977.

He spun that into several other businesses: a magazine for artists, how-to books, an art supply manufacturer, and a mail-order business, teaching himself as he went along. As the business grew, so did his need for organizational tools. It was the early 1980s, and he realized he needed systems for his warehouse, inventory control, and supply-chain management. "Back then you couldn't buy software, so I hired a couple of programmers, and we wrote software for all these different companies," Williamson says.
Recovering From Bankruptcy

By 1986, when he was selling 6,000 different art-related items, Williamson prepared to take the company public. But during the audit for his IPO, he discovered an accountant had been embezzling money from the company. "We fought our way through it, and my accountant and my lawyer and everybody told me to just take bankruptcy and forget about it," Williamson says.

But he was convinced he could recover. Williamson urged his creditors not to file lawsuits that would force a liquidation. "Every week I would send them a letter and tell them what was happening, and we rebuilt it up beyond its former stage," he says.
Focused on School Cafeterias

After recovering, he sold off his previous ventures, and in 1992, founded Horizon. The company was built on the back-office software Williamson spent years developing for his own businesses. "We wrote a system for our mail-order business, we wrote software for our manufacturing company, a point-of-sale system for retail," he says. "We weren't selling that to anybody. We had just written in-house for our own use."

The company focused on systems for school cafeterias when Williamson found no one had written back-office software for that market. He was soon selling into other institutions like hospitals, nursing homes, colleges, and military bases. Horizon recently won the contract for the Los Angeles public schools, the nation's second-largest system.

Williamson's son, Michael, who is Horizon's chief operating officer, says his father succeeded by jumping on opportunities that chance presented. "You would never have thought that we would be in food service software when we started Horizon, but the path just kind of led that way and we took advantage of it," he says. "He's always had a great ability to look out into other markets and other products."
The Element of Chance

Williamson, now 61, presides over Horizon's 44,000-square-foot headquarters in Atlanta. The company had $26 million in revenue in 2007, and he's projecting $32 million this year. Still, Williamson says, "I'm the first one there and the last one to leave." And he ascribes his business success to his conversion. "I have always tried to run my business according to the way that God would want me to…I've always tried to be honest and straightforward, and not lie and not cheat, and not try to take an easy way out."

Hard work was certainly part of Williamson's improbable personal turnaround: He recalls years of working 20-hour days and says he still only sleeps four or five hours a night. But chance guided his entrepreneurial success as well: a car accident that jolted him out of a destructive life, a paint recipe that became a hit, and early exposure to the burgeoning software industry.

And in some ways, Williamson's arrival in Atlanta at the nadir of his life set the foundation for his rise. "I'd been through so much in my life, I don't get discouraged," he says. "The trials I've had in business are mild compared to what my life was like."

Flip through this slide show (, 5/12/08) for profiles of more accidental entrepreneurs.

Tozzi covers small business for BusinessWeek Online.