Oct
25
Posted on October 25, 2006
Filed Under (Web Design) by jennifer

So I keep talking to these web and design “experts” and writing about how important it is for small businesses to keep their websites fresh and enticing and I realize that my own website, HTML coded by my spouse and myself several years ago now and maintained and updated by yours truly, was in desperate need of a facelift.

At first I considered a gentle scrub. Then I thought just a little hand-coded Botox to smooth the creases, or maybe a little e-collagen to plump it up here and there. And then I came to the realization that that wasn’t enough. My website lacked color. It lacked style. It lacked… I’m not sure what else it lacked, but these things always sound better when there are three in a series.

I contacted some web designers about creating a new look and one or two templates, but the quotes seemed high. Then I remembered that I had written on this very subject less than a year ago, for Small Business Computing, in an article entitled “Outsourcing Design Work.” So I contacted one of the companies I had profiled (which had impressed me), Logoworks.

For $1499, Logoworks is redesigning my logo, providing me with stationery and business cards, and giving my website a fresh new look. I am still in the early stages of the redesign but am looking forward to sharing the final result and my thoughts on the whole process with all of you.

Btw, if any of you know of any great services or designers who work with small businesses on website redesigns, please forward me their information. I would like to put together a resource list, which I would (of course) share with all of you.

Until next week…

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Oct
18
Posted on October 18, 2006
Filed Under (Advice) by jennifer

Just as you cannot build a house without a solid foundation, you cannot build a business (or one with more than three people) without a reliable network. Yet many small business owners barely give their networks a thought — until something goes wrong.

To get the 411 on how to find a good network consultant who will keep your network — and your business — in tip-top shape, I spoke with Constance Rajala, the CFO and co-founder of Sterling Network Integration, a successful Chicago-area network integration and consulting business which works with small (and larger) businesses.

KNOWschiff (KS): What is one of the biggest mistakes you see small business owners make when it comes to IT in general and their network in particular?

CONSTANCE RAJALA (CR): A pitfall that a lot of small owners get into is not asking questions. They take the first recommendation they get and buy themselves a world of trouble. Many salespeople are under-informed. So the quality of information you get is generally not very good. And often they [small business owners] are being asked to make a decision with a gun to their head (figuratively speaking).

KS: What do you mean by small business owners buy themselves “a world of trouble” when they too quickly take the first recommendation?

CR: A world of trouble can mean anything from you were sold the wrong product; you were sold the wrong scale of the right product; you were sold a product that won’t work with something you already have; or you have the right product but you have the wrong people to put it in; or when it is integrated into your system it breaks everything else or it can’t be configured to do what you want it to do.

KS: And how do you avoid “a world of trouble” when it comes to your network?

CR: You need to find somebody whose exerpise is network related. It’s got to be somebody who comes from the network side, who is familiar with cabling infrastructure, hardware, all of the software applications that you are using, be they server based or workstation based. In addition to that, they need to be familiar with things like security, compliance (what is pertinent to your industry), your telephone system, your fax, your printer, your copier, your scanner. All of those things come together in one spot, and that one spot is your network. Your network is the focal point over which all of that will be deployed.

You really shouldn’t have somebody whose day job it isn’t putting in your network. Just because your neighbor is in the IT department at IBM doesn’t mean this guy knows jacks**t about putting in a network. And when you have a problem at 2:30 on Wednesday, he’s not going going to answer your call.

Similarly, just because you were able to get your DSL modem working at home does not mean you can bring up a Windows 2003 Server on your own. You need a network consultant.

KS: How or where can small business owners find a good network consultant?

CR: Word of mouth is the best way.

KS: Who should you ask for a recommendation?

CR: Where I started and where a lot of small business people start is with a banker. Bankers are like yentas. We got the name of our accountant and our lawyer from a banker. Every small business has to have a lawyer, an accountant, and a banker. So ask any of those people. [KS NOTE: Another good source is fellow small business owners, particularly ones who are in the same industry as you are.] Just say, ‘I’m going to need a network. Do you have a network consultant that you work with? What do you think of him?’

KS: What should a small business look for — or avoid — when choosing a network consultant?

CR: Beware of the hotshot salesperson who cannot talk technically. Avoid companies or people whose attitude is ‘I’m converting you. I’m migrating you. See you in church.’  Ask companies what their hours are. Your business is not 8 x 5 x 50. Your business is 24 x 7, and it’s not unreasonable to ask if people have coverage at what would seem strange hours.

Get an initial network diagnostic [if you have an existing network]. Most consultants should do that for no charge or if they do charge for it then if you subsequently engage them to execute their recommendations, they should give you a rebate.

The results should tell you a lot about that person. Do they simply give you a simple quote that says something like ‘Install Windows 2003’ or do they give you a long discource — ‘This is what we found. This is why it’s a problem. And this is what you need to do to fix the problem’?

When we start talking to people we talk about becoming your technology partner. What differentiates us from the Tom, Dick, and Harrys who call themselves network consultants is that I care about how everything works. I don’t care just about how your one application works — or selling you that killer app or piece of hardware. I care about whether your workstations are new. I care about your security. I care about your phone system. I care about how all of this works together. And I would much rather make sure that you have an efficiently operating network than sell you a piece of Cisco equipment.

KS: Anything else small business owners should avoid or look for?

CR: Do not put up with somebody who is three hours late. Do not put up with somebody who gets into the office and pulls out the manual. Do not put up with somebody who hasn’t shaved in a week. Do not put up with somebody who send you a bill that says ‘$1500 XPC.’ Put up with none of those things.

Expect your network consultant to be efficient, on time, communicative, able to give good feedback and talk to you. If you say, ‘What was wrong with my PC?’ They should be able to give you a good, clear explanation in two or three sentences.

KS: When is the best time to hire a network consultant?

CR: The best time to do it is when you’re doing your business plan and looking at office space. But nobody does that. Very few people put a network in when they are starting their business. They usually drag in a few PCs and set up Windows sharing.

Engineers will say that when you get to have more than two or three people you have to have a network because Windows-based file sharing is not secure. And you need virus and spam protection and a lot of other things to keep operating efficiently.

So the best time to get a network consultant is when you get to a flash point, like when you are thinking of buying the killer app. When you need to buy a major piece of software, that’s the time to factor in the network, because you want to plan the network properly.

KS: Any final words of advice?

CR: The IBMs and Motorolas of the world can absorb a multi-million-dollar mistake. Small businesses cannot afford a $25,000 mistake. They cannot absorb the lack of business continuity that results when something on their network isn’t working.

Also, do not look at a network consultant or network people the same way that you look at the washing machine repair man. There’s a lot more skill to it than that. Have some respect for the profession. 

KS: So to recap:

  • Plan your network when you plan your business — or before you get to more than three people or need that killer app.
  • Find a network consultant who knows networking, knows your business, and knows your industry.
  • Ask tough questions to make sure the prospective consultant isn’t just selling you something to make his quota.
  • If you already have a network, have the consultant perform a diagnostic — and give you a detailed report of his findings.
  • Make sure the consultant keeps the same hours you do and can communicate problems effectively.
  • And don’t put up with poor or sloppy service.
    CR: Yes.
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    Oct
    11
    Posted on October 11, 2006
    Filed Under (Advice) by jennifer

    Last night I had dinner with a former college classmate, Nina Kaufman, who is a partner at Paltrowitz & Kaufman LLP, a New York City-based law firm that provides “wise counsel for growing businesses.” Nina is also an e-commerce entrepreneur, who founded and oversees a website called Wise Counsel Press, which provides legal resources and good advice to small business owners and entrepreneurs.

    I bring up Nina and her business because I frequently hear small business owners talk about the need for good, affordable legal help in a variety of areas — from setting up a business or incorporation to employment and contract-related issues to intellectual property and patent searches. And I want to help them find the help they need, or at least point them in the right direction.

    So I asked Nina what were the major reasons why small business owners came to her, and she told that most people came to her when there was a problem — and how much better it would be if entrepreneurs had a good attorney they could rely on and go to BEFORE there was a problem. Hence today’s blog post.

    If you or someone you love (or just care about) needs some small business-related legal advice, check out these three great online resources:

    http://smallbusiness.findlaw.com/

    http://www.wisecounselpress.com/

    http://www.nolo.com/

    And if you have a great SMB attorney or legal resource or piece of legal-related advice you would like to let others know about, let me know and I will add it to the list.

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    Oct
    05
    Posted on October 5, 2006
    Filed Under (Web Design) by jennifer

    Competition online is fierce — and getting fiercer all the time. Yet the number of people who actually buy from the Web sites they visit (what’s known as the conversion rate) is low, only around 3.5 percent according to Mighty Interactive, an Internet consulting company that’s been advising e-commerce businesses since 1994. Fortunately, there are many tips and tricks — design and usability tweaks — you can employ to make your Web site stickier and improve sales without busting your budget.

    Check out my article on the subject, “Tips and Tweaks to Tune-Up Your Site,” where you will learn what the experts have to say.

    Don’t have time to read the whole article? Here’s the Top 10 list of ways you can improve your e-commerce site’s conversion rate:

    Top 10 Ways to Improve Conversion Rates:

    1. Have an easy-to-find URL.
    2. Create a professional-looking, aesthetically pleasing site.
    3. Use great photography, pictures that really show off your product(s), which customers can zoom in on.
    4. Use good, short product descriptions and place them up front (on home page or main category page).
    5. Make navigation easy, meaning products are easy to find with minimal clicks.
    6. Include a search feature that gives clear results.
    7. Optimize performance so that it only takes a busy online shopper (someone on his lunch break with little time to spare) a few seconds to buy what he needs.
    8. List prices and shipping costs up front or as up front as possible, not just on the checkout page.
    9. Make promo code boxes easy to find.
    10. Make checkout quick and easy.

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    Oct
    03
    Posted on October 3, 2006
    Filed Under (Tools) by jennifer

    So my spouse, Kenny, who is CMO/CTO at a rapidly growing (but still small) tech company here in Connecticut, is always looking for great, untapped talent that he can get at a good price. By “untapped” I mean not fully utilized in a previous job — a “diamond in the rough,” if you will — or someone with great skills who has been out of work for a while or maybe used his or her skills in a different profession. (Kenny has had great luck repurposing musicians, who are often very tech savvy.)

    While Kenny has posted on Monster.com and other job boards, he has hit gold with craigslist.org. Yes, I know some of you may be thinking, what’s so hot or new about that? But I have to say, craigslist has really delivered, not just for Kenny but for lots of small businesses. You can check out the stats on job board effectiveness and what you get for your money by clicking here. And at $0 for a classified in most markets and only $25 for a classified in New York City, craiglist is not only more effective but a lot cheaper than the competition. Small businesses take note!

    I’ve also heard a lot of positive things from tech people about Dice.com, which is a site geared to technology professionals and employers. And, surprise!, I found yet another job board comparison, this one done by Harris Interactive, which just happened to happened to favor Dice in the tech arena. However, with 30-day postings starting at $429, Dice isn’t cheap.

    There are also new niche job sites cropping up online, many started by blogs, which are aimed at specific audiences. You can read more about them by reading this article from RedHerring.

    Lastly, SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT, I wanted to share with you a very cool (relatively) new job search engine, Indeed.com. Think of it as the Google of job search. I recently had a chance to chat with the CEO of Indeed.com, a very smart, very savvy fellow by the name of Paul Forster, and he impressed me. Indeed.com recently launched the first pay-per-click classified advertising network and is currently beta testing a new salary tool, Indeed Salary Search, which should prove very helpful to businesses of all sizes as well as to job seekers. You can find out more about these services by going to Indeed.com’s blog. Also, I know Paul is very interested in getting feedback on Indeed Salary Search. 

    That’s it for this posting. If you have any thoughts on great places for small businesses to find qualified candidates at a good price, let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

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