Posted on April 21, 2010
Filed Under (Advice, General) by jennifer

Working from home has many advantages, including a very short commute (which not only saves time but gas) and flexible hours. But it’s not right for everyone.

To decide if working at or from home is right for you, first ask yourself these three questions: 1) Am I okay being by myself for long stretches of time? 2) Am I disciplined enough, or can I be disciplined enough, to make and keep to a work schedule every day? And 3) Can I be firm with my spouse and children about work time versus play time, and get work done when family is around?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you have what it takes to work from home. But just in case you are nervous about getting started, here are some tips that if followed can make your work-from-home experience a successful and productive one:

* Create an actual home office, using either a spare or seldom-used room or a quiet nook — away from the kids or action — where you can plug in your computer, a monitor, a printer, have Internet access, and a phone.

* If you are going to be making a lot of work-related phone calls, get a second line — using a service like Skype, which is free.

* Use an online calendar (my spouse, an entrepreneur who often works from home, and I use Google Calendar), so you can plan your work week (or month) ahead of time –- and can share your calendar with colleagues and/or family.

* Set some ground rules with your family, so they understand that even though mom or dad is at home, you are working –- and when and how it’s okay to interrupt. (My daughter knows she needs to knock if she needs me or my spouse, who is an entrepreneur with a home office, and that unless it is an emergency, if we are on the phone she needs to wait or write us a note, or send us an instant message.)

* Get dressed every morning as if you are going to work, which you are.

* Make sure you get up and stretch, or walk around, periodically, as being sedentary for long periods of time is unhealthy and unproductive. (Even better, take at least 20 minutes each day to do some exercise, either at home or at your gym.)

* And even though you have a home office, make sure you leave work at the end of the day.

Thinking about taking your small business virtual and having all your employees work from home? Be sure to read the cover story from the May issue of Inc., titled “The Case, and the Plan, for the Virtual Company,” first.

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Posted on February 16, 2009
Filed Under (Advice, Ecommerce, General, Networking) by jennifer

Turning away work — saying no to a project or firing a client — is never easy, especially in tough economic times like these when many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat. But sometimes it is necessary, for both your business and your sanity.

If you do not have the people power, time, or resources to fulfill an order or properly execute a project, do not agree to take it on. As tempting as it is to say “I’ll just figure it out” or pray things will go your way, remember it is always much better to under promise and over deliver than the other way around — and ultimately more profitable, too. (For a great example, read “The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart” from Fast Company.)

Similarly, if a client is giving you more grief than revenue, it may be time to end that relationship — or at the very least have a conversation with that client about what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. Or you may want to charge that client more to keep doing business.

True story: I once worked with a husband-and-wife design team who referred to difficult clients as “pee-ers,” as in these clients would (figuratively, of course) pee all over the couples’ designs, although they kept hiring them. The couple didn’t want to outright fire these difficult clients, but they felt they needed to do something. Their solution:  they started quoting “pee-ers” (i.e., high maintenance clients) a higher hourly or project rate, figuring it would either scare the client away, which was fine with the couple, or they would be more fairly compensated for having to deal with these difficult clients.

Similarly, if a client changes the terms of your contract or asks you to provide additional work without additional compensation (something which seems to be occurring more and more), it is perfectly acceptable, even necessary, to renegotiate the terms of the contract (i.e., ask for more money) — or to say no, especially if doing the extra work affects your bottom line or prevents you from doing other work. Remember, you are in business to make a profit.  No profit, no business.

By the way, just because a client is rude to you does not mean it is okay to be rude back. Just remember the golden rule (which is not “she who has the gold rules”) and always be polite and professional when dealing with existing and prospective clients — and clear and upfront, from the beginning of each assignment or project, about how you work and what your expectations and fees are. Many businesses explain their business philosophy and how they do business on the “About Us” or “Terms and Conditions” page of their website, as well as in their contracts, which I think is an excellent idea.

For more on this topic, check out “When, Why, and How to Fire That Customer” from BusinessWeek, as well as this shorter piece “On Firing a Customer.”

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Posted on January 27, 2009
Filed Under (General, Networking) by jennifer

Ah, Valentine’s Day, a time of hearts and flowers, chocolate and jewelry and opportunity. Even if your  business isn’t in the business of selling chocolate or jewelry or flowers, if you aren’t capitalizing on Valentine’s Day, you could find your heart broken and your e-commerce site or website abandoned.

Fortunately, thanks to the Internet and email, there are more ways than ever to play Cupid — and get customers to fall in love with your site, products, or services all over again or for the first time. All it takes is a little time and creativity.

In need of some Valentine’s Day inspiration and/or tips? Check out my article, “E-Commerce Marketing Tips for Valentine’s Day” on Ecommerce-Guide.com. There you’ll find out how ThinkGeek had a record-breaking Valentine’s Day last year thanks to some help from YouTube; how CCBerries friended Facebook; how Chicago Chocolate Tours is using co-marketing to drive traffic to its site and tours; and may other great ideas, from coupons to contests.

Have a Valentine’s Day e-marketing tip or strategy you’d like to share? Leave me a comment. (Note: Only legitimate, non-pornographic suggestions and links, please. All inappropriate comments will be deleted and/or blocked.)

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According to new research from Guidance, an e-commerce solution provider based in California, people like the websites they regularly visit to provide them with some sort of social interaction, whether it’s customer testimonials, consumer-generated content like product reviews, live chat, or a message board where they can chat or compare notes with fellow visitors/consumers. And social commerce isn’t just good for online shoppers/web surfers, it’s good for business, especially now when market share and distinguishing yourself from the competition is more important than ever.

Over the past few years, larger e-tailers have realized that adding social features to their e-commerce sites, à la the Amazon model, is a good thing — and that not doing so could actually hurt them, and sales. However, smaller e-tailers have been more hesitant to do so, typically because of the perceived cost and uncertainty regarding the return on their investment. But according to research conducted by Guidance (and others) “every business can benefit from having at least some social commerce, or social activities, on their website,” said Guidance CEO Jason Meugniot. And they are often more inexpensive and easier to implement than you think.

To find out how you can easily and inexpensively make your site more social/sociable, check out my new article, “Social Commerce Strategies for Small Online Businesses,” and larger ones too, which was published on Ecommerce-Guide.com, a great resource for all things e-commerce related.

And if you have any additional tips or advice re social commerce, or need some help finding someone to help you make your site more social, leave me a comment or send me an email.

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Posted on January 14, 2009
Filed Under (Advice, General, Networking) by jennifer

Don’t think it matters if you wear a suit or nice outfit to a business meeting, networking event, conference, or trade show? Maybe if you’re Steve Jobs it doesn’t. But for the rest of us, how you present yourself, from your attitude to your attire, makes a huge impression on how others — especially those you are trying to impress and/or get business or money from, such as clients, business prospects, lenders, and investors — see and treat you.

While I have long known the power of a suit and dressing for success (a habit instilled in me at an early age by my mother — thanks Mom!), after I had my daughter and started working from home, especially during the cold winter months, I didn’t always follow this important business rule. And I have no doubt it has cost me important business connections and possibly work.

Not that I attended meetings or networking events looking like a bum. I just didn’t dress the part of the confident business owner, often preferring to go the casual-but-chic route.

But as I found out (again) yesterday, after attending my first Entrepreneurial Woman’s Network luncheon, how you dress and present yourself speaks volumes about you. And in this case, my new black power suit got me a meeting — and necessitated my refilling my business card case as soon as I got back to my home office.

Coincidence? I think not. How do I know this? Because one month ago I attended a similar networking lunch but decided last minute to go the casual-but-chic route (Ralph Lauren jeans, a nice top, expensive cowboy boots) instead of wearing a suit or a dress, figuring “it was just lunch.”

Boy, was I wrong.

No sooner had I stepped out of the elevator and into the conference room than I felt immediately felt out of place. Only one other woman, a photographer, showed up casually dressed. And her friend, a business coach, who had come dressed for success, looked and treated me as though I was in the wrong place.

Fast forward to yesterday, and my new black power suit. I swear just wearing that thing made me feel more confident. And I guess it showed. For no sooner than I had removed my coat in the cloakroom did that very same business coach from the last networking meeting walk in and look right at me. “Jane!” I cheerfully addressed her. “So nice to see you.”

The look on Jane’s face spoke volumes — and she immediately made note of my suit and the fact that when we last met I was “wearing jeans.” Ouch. (Though true.) After exchanging some chit-chat, I confidently strolled into the dining room, made small talk with an EWN member, with whom I exchanged business cards, then took a seat at a table, where I proceeded to tell the other women present about myself and my business, which elicited a half-dozen (or more) requests for my card and, at the end of a lunch, a request for a meeting.

Luck? Maybe. But after my website upgrade, that suit (and another one just like it in midnight blue) may be the best investment I’ve made this month, and possibly this quarter. And you can bet I won’t be showing up to any business events or meetings in jeans (no matter how nice) any time soon.

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Words — choosing and using the right words to convey an idea, sell a product, or promote a concept — are very important to me as a writer and marketing communications pro. But they should be important to every business owner, no matter the size of your business or marketing budget.

So when I was recently asked to contribute a guest post on a great site for entrepreneurs and small and mid-size business owners called The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, run by serial entrepreneur and author Mike Michalowicz, I knew what I had to write about: the importance of good writing in marketing and promoting your business and/or website.

You can find my post, titled “The Five Secrets to Creating Great Copy: How the Right Words Can Increase Traffic and Sales” on The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur’s blog by clicking on the link/title of the post. And while you are there, check out Mike’s other posts, as well as his guest bloggers’ posts, for other great tips and ideas.

And speaking of helpful tips, ideas, and resources for entrepreneurs and small and mid-size business owners, I highly encourage you to check out the following sites and blogs (in addition to this one), which many (most?) of you may not be familiar with, but should be:

Making It Legal: The Small Business Mentor’s Guide to Entrepreneurship and Law, run by attorney and entrepreneur Nina Kaufman, who also runs Ask the Business Lawyer.

The “Betty” Factor, a “Conversation About All Things Marketing Related,” run by marketing guru David Politis.

Ecommerce-Guide.com, a publication near and dear to me (I’m a contributor) and your one-stop shop for all things e-commerce related.

SmallBusinessComputing.com, another great resource for small and mid-size business owners looking for tips, tools, and advice re anything and everything technology related.

Duct Tape Marketing’s blog, run by John Jantsch, which features marketing tips, tools, and advice for small businesses.

While I know there are many — probably thousands — of great sites/blogs aimed at helping entrepreneurs and small and mid-size business owners, I have found these sites particularly helpful and easy to navigate, and I bet you will too.

However, if there is a site or a blog aimed at entrepreneurs and SMBs that is near and dear to you that you think others should know about, let me know via a Comment.

Wishing you all prosperity and success in the new year…

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I always love to read or hear about personal success stories, particularly when they involve women who followed their passions. Over Thanksgiving break, during a trip to Chicago, I met one such woman, Valerie Beck, and got to experience her business, Chicago Chocolate Tours, first hand and speak with her.

Valerie, a Harvard-trained lawyer, started Chicago Chocolate Tours in 2005 as a way to combine her various passions — namely chocolate, bringing people together, and starting new ventures. The business was an instant success, garnering accolades from chocolate lovers and the media.

A savvy businesswoman, Valerie wasted no time expanding her business to include corporate and private tours, gifts (which she sells online), even a Cocoa Cruise, all in keeping with the original business and her passions.

A big part of Valerie’s success: putting her passion (and work ethic) into everything she does — and the Web. As Valerie told me, the company’s Web site, www.chicagochocolatetours.com, is the number one source of traffic/referrals, even though the bulk of her business involves physical tours of different Chicago chocolate shops, bakeries, and eateries. The Web site is a both a vehicle for e-commerce (selling tickets and gift baskets) and a powerful marketing tool, and it costs less than having to run big ads in expensive publications (and is easy to maintain and update).

Asked if she missed the law, Valerie says no way. How many people, she says, get to do what they love for a living? Indeed.

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Posted on September 15, 2008
Filed Under (Ecommerce, General, Marketing) by jennifer

Over dinner during a bike trip this summer, our tour guide mentioned that his “real” job was helping his mother run the family business, a small publishing company aimed at parents who home-schooled their children. As we talked some more, the young man mentioned that while the company sold books through its own website, a lot of its sales came through Amazon, which not only sold the books but printed and shipped them, too.

Always on the prowl for interesting small business stories, I wondered if there were many small and mid-size businesses out there that not only had their own e-commerce site but sold on or through Amazon, too (as opposed to companies that just sold on Amazon, or on Amazon and eBay).

As it turns out, there are thousands of companies just like my publisher friend who are using Amazon as a sales channel. And I heard from around a dozen of them, some of them, you would think, would not need or want to sell on Amazon, yet consider it an important part of their sales and marketing strategy.

If you’ve ever thought about selling on Amazon, particularly as a secondary sales channel, check out my article “If You Can’t Beat Amazon, Maybe You Should Join It,” which is featured in today’s Ecommerce-Guide.com. In the article, I list many of the advantages and disadvantages of selling on Amazon, gleaned from conversations with entrepreneurs like yourselves.

I also “Dugg” the article on Digg. So if you find the article useful, and I hope you do, click here and “Digg” it yourself — and feel free to share it with a business owner you know who is considering selling on Amazon.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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In July, my editor at Ecommerce-Guide.com asked me to look into a two-year-old company called iShopUSA, which claimed to take the hassle out of international e-commerce that is, selling stuff to customers outside the United States for companies of all sizes doing business online.

With more people in more countries going online and shopping, and the weak U.S. dollar making U.S. goods even more attractive to overseas buyers, now would seem to be a great time for U.S.-based e-commerce businesses to go global. Until you consider the hassles and risks like navigating international customs and tariffs; credit card fraud, which occurs nearly three times as often on orders originating from outside the U.S. and Canada; and the added costs of providing international customer service.

But iShopUSA promises that if you sign up with them, they’ll take care of all that for just 10 percent of each sale and no upfront costs. And the service is delivering. Dozens of businesses, including the two small businesses I interviewed, EyeSave.com and AmazingSocks.com, have signed up with iShopUSA, and rave about the solution.

To learn more about iShopUSA, international e-commerce, and to help determine if iShopUSA is right for your business, read my article, “International E-Commerce: Going Global Just Got Easier.”

Even if your business is purely domestic, you still need to be online and have a good website. What do I mean by good? I mean visually attractive, easy to navigate, and regularly updated. As I learned from researching my article, “Selling Travel Online: It’s Not Just for the Big Guys,” whether you run a boutique travel agency, book adventure tours, or are trying to sell just about any service or product, your business won’t go anywhere without an online presence.

The good news is you don’t need to spend a lot of money to create a good website or the help of a celebrity like William Shatner to market your business. To find out how, check out the Web Design and Marketing sections from my Clips page, which include several articles full of advice, tips, and tools from experts as well as small- and mid-sized business owners and managers like yourselves.

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I recently reconnected with a high school classmate who, it turned out, also runs a small marketing/communications business. Business had been good, she said, but recently she found something new that really excited her (she was even writing a book about it in her spare time!) and was now rethinking what it was she wanted to do. Actually, she knew what she wanted to do. The question was how to blend her passion with her business — or how to shape or re-shape her existing business to focus on, and profit from, this new area of interest.

In reading and writing about entrepreneurs and small business owners over the years, I have learned that the most successful ones are passionate about what they do. In fact, oftentimes the business was the result of an idea or concept or product the founder felt passionately about. Or a hobby or skill the person enjoyed and was good at and wanted to share and see if he or she could profit from it. (There’s a reason there are a lot of sites selling hand-crafted jewelry and crafts and pottery and silk-screened t-shirts and photographs.)

Curious about how easy or hard it was to turn something one loved into a business, and sustain it (as well as the initial passion), I wrote an article on the subject, called “Turning a Hobby or Passion into a Business.”

As many of you already know, it’s often a lot harder than you think. While passion and drive are essential, running a business requires more than just an emotional investment. So I asked several small business owners, who had turned a hobby or passion into a business, what were the secrets to their success? And I came away with the following:

Tips for turning your hobby into a business:

1. Really ask yourself, “Is this something I really enjoy doing and can sustain, or am I just swept up in the latest craze? (Think Beanie Babies and Magic cards.)

2. If you think your passion or hobby still has potential as a business, try to find out if lots of other people are doing it — who or what the competition is. What is it about your offerings that are unique or hard to find? Is this something people really want?

3. If you are planning on selling online, make sure you have enough money to invest in creating and maintaining a decent e-commerce site — and make sure your site is being picked up by the major search engines (which may require some advertising).

4. Remember, the customer is king (or queen). Don’t underestimate the power of customer service or how a lack of customer service can cost you sales.

5. Network with other hobbyists or dealers.

6. Have fun. Once you lose your passion or drive, what made you go into this in the first place, you’re going to lose business.

If you’ve turned a hobby or passion into a successful business, or recently re-tooled your business, or have more tips to add to the list, let me know by sending me a comment or emailing me at jennifer [the “at” symbol”] schiffandshiff [dot com].

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