Home | TrendTracker | PowerBlog Reviews | The Experts | Newsletter
SMALL BUSINESS TRENDS brings you daily updates on trends that influence the global small business market.
Anita Campbell, Editor
Past life: CEO, corporate executive, tech entrepreneur, retailer, general counsel, marketer, HR ... (more)
email me
free business magazines
Trade publications FREE to qualified professionals. No hidden offers and no purchase necessary.
On Wall Street
The Deal
Computing Canada
Employee Benefit
Oracle Magazine
100+ additional titles. Click to browse.
Previous Small Business Trends articles can be found at the links below:
October 2003
November 2003
December 2003
January 2004
February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
Or, use the search box below to find a
specific post:

Sign up for our FREE Small Business Trends newsletter. (View Current)

We publish regularly and promise we won't share your email address with anyone. (Privacy Policy)
* Don’t have time to read several dozen blogs a day? Pick two or three. Your brain will thank you for it.

Small Business Trends Radio
Tuesdays, 1:00 PM Eastern U.S. time
on Voice America network
Click to listen

November 1st: Torsten Jacobi, CEO of Creative Weblogging, joins host Anita Campbell. Sponsored by Six Disciplines. Show details.
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Using Email For Selling to Small Businesses
Do you use email to make cold calls on small businesses? Or, more precisely, do you use email as the first point of contact to try to get an appointment by phone or in person with a small business owner?

Over at BNET I have two articles posted about using email as part of your sales outreach -- and I'm not talking about blasting out thousands of direct marketing messages (or spam as some might call it). Read:

Cold Calling Today

Making Email Contact with Web 2.0 Entrepreneurs
Saturday, October 29, 2005
Free Book Giveaway - "Selling is Dead"
Would you like to be entered in a drawing to win a copy of the new book, "Selling is Dead"?

The authors, Marc Miller and Jason Sinkovitz, were kind enough to donate three (3) copies of this hardback book published by Wiley & Sons.

To be entered in the drawing, all you need to do is take our quick 3-minute survey.

Your answers to the survey will help develop market intelligence about what it takes to sell to small businesses successfully today. All responses are 100% anonymous. Survey results will be shared on this site and to newsletter subscribers.

About the Book

You can read reviews of "Selling is Dead" over at Amazon.com. The book is getting good reviews, such as this one:
"Selling is Dead" is one of 10 best books on sales effectiveness published in the United States in the past 20 years. * * *

Of course selling isn't dead, literally. But it's changing in major ways, the authors say. Sales teams are underperforming because they are ineffective. The cost of sales people has risen much higher than their productivity. If selling isn't exactly dead, it's broken. The authors say the main reason is that sellers are generally unable to cope with the quickening pace of innovation."
Also, if you want to communicate directly with the authors -- and get further bites of insight -- go over to the book's blog, Selling is Dead. These days, even books have blogs.

Details, Details

No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited. Winners will be chosen by random drawing. The books will be mailed anywhere in the world. Survey and drawing ends November 12, 2005.

Go here to take the 3-minute survey.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
American Express OPEN Adventures Wrap Up
We have come to a close of the American Express OPEN "Adventures in Entrepreneurship" event.

This has been an extremely positive experience. I want to take a moment to thank the outstanding people involved: Rob May, Dane Carlson, Clay Shirky, Di-Ann Eisnor and Stacy Hoffman of Community Centric, and Thomas Harris and Lexi Reese of American Express OPEN. You can't help but learn from talented people like these, and walk away richer in experience.

American Express OPEN throughout this offline/online event has treated the bloggers with respect. They recognized that our time has value.

Not only have they compensated us for our time and effort, but they did several things to promote the bloggers and our blogs. American Express OPEN ranks number one bar none, in my book, and operates as a good corporate blogging citizen.

I hope we can look forward to future events and that they can involve a wider circle of bloggers.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Top 10 Most Practical Blogs for Entrepreneurs
The Entrepreneurs section at About.com has named Small Business Trends to the Top 10 Most Practical Blogs for Entrepreneurs. That's quite an honor -- many thanks to Scott Allen, the About.com Guide who developed the list.

I see a number of friends on the list, from whom I learn a great deal. If you frequent the small business blogs much at all, you probably recognize many of them, too. Here is the full list:
  • Small Business Trends - Anita Campbell looks at the latest trends affecting small businesses and entrepreneurs. A must-read for entrepreneurs.

  • Just for Small Business - Full of thought-provoking tips for small business owners from Denise O'Berry, I like this blog because the topics are often unexpected - not your usual small business fare.

  • WorkHappy.net - Carson McComas lives up to this blog's subtitle of "killer resources for entrepreneurs" by providing links and reviews of "killer" applications and other resources to help entrepreneurs work smarter, not harder.

  • Duct Tape Marketing - John Jantsch delivers 2-3 small business marketing tips weekly in easily digestible, actionable bite-size chunks.

  • Home Office Voice - Internet entrepreneur Martin Neumann shares his experience and tips for building a web-based business. His writing style is very informal and entertaining, but at the same time he provides some really solid advice.

  • Sacred Cow Dung - There are a number of really good blogs out there by venture capitalists about the VC market, entrepreneurship, and so on, but Christian Mayaud's blog is for me the one that most consistently provides content that is actionable, not just informative.

  • The Entrepreneurial Mind - Jeff Cornwall, Director of the Belmont University Center for Entrepreneurship, looks at trends in small business and entrepreneurship and their impact on individual business owners.

  • Escape Velocity - Flemming Funch chronicles the ups and downs of life as an Internet entrepreneur.

  • BizzBangBuzz - Pittsburgh attorney Anthony Cerminaro delivers excellent commentary and some original posts on the challenges facing emerging growth companies, with particular emphasis on legal issues.

  • Business Opportunities Weblog - Dane Carlson mixes links and commentary on legitimate business opportunities with his thoughts and personal experiences regarding entrepreneurship.
Congratulations, one and all.

I also want to mention that Scott is the co-author of a new book on online networking, called The Virtual Handshake.
Monday, October 24, 2005
Adventures in Entrepreneurship: Tomorrow's Business
Editor's Note: The following article is part of a series written in connection with the American Express OPEN "Adventures in Entrepreneurship" event, featuring Richard Branson. The event includes an online "panel discussion" around certain questions posed by Clay Shirky, our Facilitator.

I and two other blogger panelists have been asked to write about business topics posed by the Facilitator. The following is the fourth and final question.

Question: If you weren't doing what you are doing, what business would you launch tomorrow?

Response: If I were not doing what I am doing today, I would be doing something similar. Sound like I am hedging? Bear with me as I explain.

By doing something similar I mean that I would be:
  • running several businesses that are symbiotic and related in ways that I can see, but which must seem far-flung and unrelated to the casual observer;

  • bootstrapping small businesses, because today I think there is so much opportunity for small businesses versus larger ones that there is no need to get out and get venture capital or other seed money;

  • leveraging the Internet with information businesses, because those areas have growth potential and, besides, they are what I know -- and everyone should be in business with something they know.
Once again I will refer back to the words of Richard Branson for inspiration.

In his book, Losing My Virginity, (it's a business book, trust me), he writes about how his Virgin Companies seem to lack a cohesive connection to outsiders, but that there is a symbiotic relationship between many of them: "When Virgin Atlantic opens a flight to South Africa, I find that we can launch Virgin Radio and Virgin Cola there."

He describes his hodgepodge of 200 or 300 companies as a jigsaw, and says that he refuses to be held by conventional thinking about sticking to your knitting. Rather, he remains fluid in his thinking and does not rule out anything:
"The more diffuse the company becomes, the more frequently I am asked about my vision for Virgin. I tend either to avoid this question or to answer it at great length, safe in the knowledge that I will give a different version the next time I'm asked. My vision for Virgin has never been rigid and changes constantly, like the company itself."
I myself take this view. For instance, in addition to running this site and putting out information products (special reports, etc.) dealing with trends in the small business market, we also put out information products for motorcycle dealerships, and we publish an ad-supported, award-winning site for RFID technology. We also do consulting. We also write for other blog sites for compensation. And we consult with other small businesses to show them how to promote themselves online.

What's the connection? Everything relates to providing business information in some fashion and leverages the Internet. As long as these two criteria are present, I will consider any opportunity that presents itself.

I believe in bootstrapping small businesses whenever possible, because today the cost of starting many kinds of businesses is very low -- dirt cheap actually. That's especially true for information-based businesses. When I look at a business opportunity, I ask first whether it will throw off sufficient free cash flow fairly quickly, to pay a group of outside contractors whom I hire to provide specialized skills. Despite being a small business and a "virtual" company, I hire the best in order to leverage my reach. Plowing whatever money is earned back into the business is a key growth strategy for my businesses at this point, and I think should be for any small business in its early years.

Finally, there is always a business information component to what I do. I tend to be a bit of a wonk. That's my nature, and so I leverage it. I dig deep to find information niches that are not saturated, and fill the voids. For instance, with the RFID Weblog, we were one of the very first on the topic out there. By consistently working at it over a period of nearly two years, we have built up a loyal readership and have begun to be taken seriously by companies that would not have paid us any respect a year ago. This site you are on, Small Business Trends, was one of the early business blogs, and we have deliberately taken an approach of doing things that either the mainstream media publications or other business blogs are not doing. We try new things (PowerBlog Reviews, bringing in outside experts to comment on trends, this American Express OPEN event, and soon, a companion radio program.)

Having spent much of my career in the corporate world, I've come later than some to the entrepreneurial party. But that experience in the corporate world has been my secret sauce. It continues to supply the business grounding needed to have a clear sense of where I want to go in my businesses -- even if that means maintaining a unstructured "Richard Branson" view.

What do you think? What would you be doing? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts. (To comment, click on the small "comment" link at the bottom of this post -- it will bring up a small pop-up window where you can type in your comments.)

Read what the other two participating bloggers, Dane Carlson at Business Opportunities Weblog, and Rob May at BusinessPundit, have to say about this question.

* * * * *

Follow the conversation at Technorati:

* * * * *

The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs.

The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.
Friday, October 21, 2005
Adventures in Entrepreneurship: Managing Change
Editor's Note: The following article is part of a series written in connection with the American Express OPEN "Adventures in Entrepreneurship" event, featuring Richard Branson. The event includes an online "panel discussion" around certain questions posed by Clay Shirky, our Facilitator.

I and two other blogger panelists have been asked to write about business topics posed by the Facilitator. The following is the third question.

Question: How do you manage change?

Response: One of the most important ways to manage change is simply to stay in tune with the world around you.

Why is it that as people age, we still listen to music that was popular in our younger days? I still prefer to listen to "The Who," the greatest rock band that ever existed in my opinion. They haven't put out any new material in years. But that doesn't stop me from buying the latest digitally remastered copy of "Who's Next", one of their best albums.

We become comfortable with what we know and what we liked when we were younger, that's true.

Along with being comfortable, I think we just stop investing the time and effort into keeping current in many avenues of our lives, and that includes our businesses. It takes extra time -- hard work even -- to stay on top on what's new and changing in the world around us. And failing to invest time in staying current is the crux of the matter.

We all get busy and focused on the day-to-day. There are fires to put out, payroll to meet, customers to satisfy. Many times we are so focused, we get tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision is not always bad, of course. Sometimes a good case of tunnel vision in a time of crisis is the only way our businesses have managed to survive. Our single-minded focus gets us through it.

But tunnel vision all the time is dangerous. Tunnel vision is when you are so focused on the here and now, that a new competitor comes out of left field and eats your lunch. Tunnel vision is when your products stop meeting customers' expectations, because your customers have grown but your company has stayed the same. Tunnel vision is when you wake up one day and suddenly realize something big has changed in the world (like the Internet), and your business is not ready for it.

The good news, however, is that managing change may actually be easier than most people think. Nearly 50% of managing change is just to make ourselves aware of it -- to stay on top of current events and culture. Most of us readily have the tools at hand. We simply need to set aside time to do it.

How should we stay current? One simple way to start is by reading, listening and watching what is happening around us in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, films, TV, radio and the Internet.

Earlier this year, I had the chance to meet and speak with small business expert Steven Little.

He advocates that every small business owner read 50 magazines a month (or Web sites, newspapers, radio shows, or other sources of information). Break it down and the number sounds do-able: it amounts to fewer than 2 a day. And, remember, they've repealed the law that says you have to read a magazine cover-to-cover. Skim parts of it and read one or two articles that catch your eye, that's all. This is a simple strategy we can all do, if we set a goal to do it.

Then, if you want to take it one step further, Little advocates learning how to listen to "weak signals," those faintest initial indications of change around us. He described the concept of listening to weak signals in a guest column here at Small Business Trends on this very point, Using "Weak Signals" To Identify Opportunities.

The bottom line is, that if you start with something you can control, i.e., devoting some small amount of time each day or week to staying current on what is happening around you, change will not seem so dramatic and difficult. You already will be in sync with change. You will have taken the first big step to dealing with change.

Read what the other two participating bloggers, Dane Carlson at Business Opportunities Weblog, and Rob May at BusinessPundit, have to say about this question.

What do you think? How do you manage change? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts. (To comment, click on the small "comment" link at the bottom of this post -- it will bring up a small pop-up window where you can type in your comments.)

* * * * *

Follow the conversation at Technorati:

* * * * *

The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs.

The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Adventures in Entrepreneurship: Transcript of the Event
Yesterday I wrote my account of the American Express OPEN Adventures in Entrepreneurship event in Miami, Florida. Anchorwoman Jane Pauley interviewed billionaire Sir Richard Branson before a live audience of 2000+ small business owners. I had the good fortune to be there, and I wanted to make sure you could read the transcript of that event.

Here is the link to the transcript of that event.

I took away some key learnings from Branson's talk, including these:
  • On Branson's style of management: "I make sure that I spend most of my time out and about and experiencing my businesses...."

  • On competition and striving to be the best: "Anyway, there were 12 other airlines and they were all much, much bigger than Virgin Atlantic and we were not out to topple them, we were out to survive. They toppled themselves and every single one of them disappeared. And I think the -- the thing to learn from that is the best -- you know, the best never -- never -- never disappear."

  • Branson's views about the Internet: "I think if companies are not embracing it they're making a big mistake."

  • On the advantages of choosing entrepreneurship very very young: "One of the advantages of leaving school at 15 or 16 is you don't have a steady relationship. You don't have a mortgage to pay. You've got nothing to lose."

* * * * *

Follow the conversation at Technorati:

* * * * *

The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs.

The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.
Adventures in Entrepreneurship: Small Business Essentials
Editor's Note: The following article is part of a series written in connection with the American Express OPEN "Adventures in Entrepreneurship" event, featuring Richard Branson. The event includes an online "panel discussion" around certain questions posed by Clay Shirky, our Facilitator.

I and two other blogger panelists have been asked to write about business topics posed by the Facilitator. The following is the second question.

Question: There are a number of institutions that small business couldn't live without -- FedEx, Kinkos, Staples, Starbucks. What new functions are essential to small businesses today? Google? Ebay? What else?

Response: Once again, I could write a book about this topic, but I doubt that anyone has the patience to read a book online. So instead, I want to focus my discussion on one specific area: information resources. I will answer this question by referring back to the words and ideas of Sir Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Companies.

Richard Branson started his business career as a teenager by starting a magazine, called "Student." In his talk during the Adventures in Entrepreneurship event, he explained why he started a magazine, saying simply "I wanted to be a magazine editor, and that meant I needed to publish a magazine."

I found it very interesting that Branson started his career with an information business. He had something to say and needed to create a vehicle to say it with. Were he 15 years old today wanting to be heard he would probably start an Internet site -- perhaps a blog. But in the mid-1960s, he did not have that choice and so he started a magazine.

All of which brings me around to my response to the panel question. I think small businesses today could not function without access to the variety of excellent online information resources. The process of starting a business, running a business, financing a business, and marketing a business are all made much easier because of ready access to information -- much of it free -- online.

The following is my short list of the top five online information resources that I believe successful small businesses could not function (at least not function as well) without today:
  • Google, Yahoo and MSN search engines - It is impossible to overemphasize how much these giant search engines have changed the way we do business. Want to research a product or service, find outlets in your area carrying it, and do some comparison shopping? Go to the search engines. Need to find out the background of a prospective employee or a potential supplier or business partner? Check them out online. Want to conduct market research or get competitive intelligence? Dig in and start at the search engines.

    It would be easy to focus solely on Google. After all, Google has by far the biggest share of business searchers, and its name has become synonymous with ferreting out information via the Internet. But I include the other top search engines, MSN and Yahoo, because they bring something to the table too. Perhaps most importantly, the competition among all three is part of the reason that Google and the rest keep getting better. Funny how competition works....

  • Amazon.com - You are probably thinking, 'why would an online bookstore be among the list of functions small business could not live without?' It's because Amazon.com is more than just a bookstore.

    Once Amazon.com began to sell books, CDs and DVDs that the average Joe created, and became a distribution channel for the little guy, Amazon.com ceased to be a bookstore and became a marketplace. And once that happened, its value to small business skyrocketed.

    Today, you can self-publish a book or produce films or music on your own inexpensively, and Amazon.com will sell them for you. With Amazon's nearly worldwide reach, you can be assured that the tiniest niche audience can find your product. It's turned the economics of marketing niche products on its head -- suddenly it is affordable to get to market. Moreover, this has led to a huge increase in the number and variety of voices that can now be "heard" all over the world. How empowering!

  • U.S. Government websites - The United States government websites used to be pretty bad, with few exceptions. They were boring, bureaucratic, and oriented to the agency, not to the citizenry. The past year and a half have seen significant improvements. I am amazed at the information available online at these sites, and even the transactions that can be carried out online. Never in recent history has our federal government been so helpful toward small business, and I only hope this is a trend that we see more of. (My apologies to my international readers. The same may be true for government websites of other countries -- I just do not happen to be familiar with them.)

    Among the U.S. government sites essential to small business are (sorry -- I could not limit this category to just one):
    Business.gov - This impressive website is the government's gateway to all sorts of advice on how to start, grow and run a business. 'Nuff said -- check it out.

    IRS Small Business - I know what you're probably thinking... 'Get help from the IRS? Right!' But go over to this site and give it a chance. Trust me, you'll find a lot of helpful information, including online workshops for business owners. You can even apply online for employer identification numbers (EINs).

    Small Business Administration (SBA) - The SBA is not just about loans. You'll find a tremendous amount of information on the topic of financing a business generally. You can also find research about small business at the Advocacy section.

    Census.gov - many people email me and ask me how to research businesses of a certain type, etc. Whatever you do, when looking for market research always start at the U.S. Census site. It is a wealth of free data that you can slice and dice multiple ways, with various online search and reporting tools.
  • SCORE Biz Powerlinks - SCORE's (Service Corp of Retired Executives) website is impressive. While many of the resources are directed toward startups, you can find useful business information for established businesses, too. The Power Links section of the SCORE website is an exhaustive collection of links to helpful business websites.

  • CEO Express - The fifth information website was a tough call. I actually could have named a dozen or more sites I find valuable. But CEO Express aggregates hand-selected links to a wide array of business tools and information sites, on topics ranging from travel sites, to office tools and calculators, to international newspapers, to health information. Definitely worth bookmarking.
Read what the other two participating bloggers, Dane Carlson at Business Opportunities Weblog, and Rob May at BusinessPundit, have to say about this question.

What do you think? What online information sources are essential to small businesses? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts. (To comment, click on the small "comment" link at the bottom of this post -- it will bring up a small pop-up window where you can type in your comments.)

* * * * *

Follow the conversation at Technorati:

* * * * *

The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs.

The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Adventures in Entrepreneurship: Strategies for a Nimble Business
Editor's Note: The following article is part of a series written in connection with the American Express OPEN "Adventures in Entrepreneurship" event, featuring Richard Branson. The event includes an online "panel discussion" around certain questions posed by Clay Shirky, our Facilitator.

I and two other blogger panelists have been asked to write about business topics posed by the Facilitator. The following is the first question.

Question: What strategies can a nimble business employ to compete against a larger one?

Response: Given enough time, I could write a short book about this subject. But I have a better idea. I will answer this question by referring back to the words and ideas of Sir Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Companies. He made some of the following points during the American Express OPEN Adventures in Entrepreneurship event and also in his book, "Losing My Virginity" (trust me, despite the title it is a business book).

Branson throughout his illustrious career demonstrates at least three strategies for being nimble and beating the established players at their own game:
    1) Do what others are NOT doing - Branson spoke at the Adventures event about his mobile phone company, Virgin Mobile. He said that people wondered why on earth anyone would start a telecommunications company in this day and age.

    To him, though, the reason was quite clear. All the cellular phone companies in Great Britain were requiring long contracts. Yet consumers did not want contracts. He saw an opportunity to deliver something different, that was not being done.

    The same lesson can apply to just about any situation. For instance, I know one retailer faced with competition from retail giant Wal-Mart. Simply put, his strategy is to not do what Wal-Mart does. He literally walks the aisles of Wal-Mart to see what the retail giant is not carrying on its shelves. Usually that means that his merchandise fills narrow niche needs. Wal-Mart supplies the mass market, not the narrow niches.

    This particular small retailer also provides a far wider selection of merchandise within those niches. In other words, he goes narrow and deep, instead of shallow and wide. At the same time, because he goes after such narrow niches, he recognizes that he has to reach out beyond his local area in order to get enough customers. So he operates an active online sales outreach. His approach takes constant monitoring and adjustment. He is constantly looking at product selection. But it is why he can compete with a giant.

    2) Listen carefully and pay attention to detail - We don't normally associate attention to detail with being nimble. But it is clear that Richard Branson takes careful listening to a level few of us match. His ability to take in large amounts of data, process it, and then act on it, gives him an uncanny ability to identify new opportunities and jump on them with firm, confident decisions. By the time he makes a decision, he has already amassed a large amount of data and had time to digest it.

    In his book, Branson gives a clue to just how detail-oriented he really is. He writes, "As anyone in my office knows when I've lost it, my most essential possession is a standard-sized school notebook, which can be bought at any stationery shop on any high street across the country. I carry this everywhere and write down comments made to me by Virgin staff and anyone else I meet. I make notes of all telephone conversations and all meetings, and I draft out letters to send and lists of telephone calls to make. Over the years I have worked my way through a bookcase of them, and the discipline of writing everything down ensures that I have to listen to people carefully."

    3) Have courage ... and hedge your bets - Branson cultivates an image of a wild risk-taker who laughs in the face of death. I maintain this is all a public relations act, designed to promote his companies. One of the most striking themes that comes through in his talk at the Adventures event and also throughout his book, is how little appetite for business risk he really has.

    Branson makes bold moves in business, but they are carefully calculated risks. He always takes steps to minimize the risk. For instance, when he started Virgin Atlantic Airlines -- with just one plane! -- and took on the industry giants, he was careful to lease (not purchase) a jumbo jet. He also set up a separate company in order to protect the assets of his other business interests.

    His words are filled with references such as "managing cash closely" and "protected the downside - always my first concern." Those are not the words of a devil-may-care risk taker.

    It may seem counter-intuitive, but moderating your risk can position you to be more nimble. It is a lot easier to reinvent your business again and again, adding new ventures, if you know the core business is protected and secure. It's when you put it all on the line, without protecting anything, that you may be forced to forego opportunities.
What do you think? What strategies can companies adopt to be nimble? Read what Rob the BusinessPundit, and Dane at the Business Opportunities Weblog, have written on this question. Then please come back and leave a comment below with your thoughts. (To comment, click on the small "comment" link at the bottom of this post -- it will bring up a small pop-up window where you can type in your comments.)

* * * * *

Follow the conversation at Technorati:

* * * * *

The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs.

The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.
Adventures in Entrepreneurship Part 2: The Event
Editor's Note: The following article is part of a series written in connection with the American Express OPEN "Adventures in Entrepreneurship" event.

If you are coming to this site for the first time, please read my previous articles in the following order and everything will make more sense: "What Would You Ask Richard Branson?", and "Adventures in Entrepreneurship Part 1: Meeting Richard Branson." (Remember, this is a "blog" and everything appears in reverse chronological order.)

After leaving the backstage area, Rob the BusinessPundit and I, went out into the lobby and networked. Those attending were 2,000+ American Express customers from the Miami area -- all would qualify as "small business owners" I believe. As part of the light repast being served was Branson wine. Yes, among the 300 companies that are part of the Virgin family of companies owned by Richard Branson, is a winery business.

Eventually 8:00 PM rolled around and we went into the beautiful deep-red, art deco style theater. We had good seats -- maybe 35 rows back.

First came a few announcements. The business owners attending had been given a chance to write out questions in the lobby before the event. So, those whose questions had been chosen were announced and they were requested to move to a special seating section which was lighted for cameras and with microphones already set up. (More on this part later.)

Then came a few opening remarks by American Express OPEN President Susan Sobbott. She explained why this conference was being put on (to thank customers for their business and to give them an opportunity to network with other business owners in their community).

Jane Pauley asked a series of questions, and Richard Branson answered them very naturally. His story is nothing less than inspiring: he quit school at 16 and started his first business (a magazine). From there he opened a music record store situated over a shoe store. After several decades of struggling (as he says, the name of game at first was just "survival"), eventually his businesses reached the point where they are today -- having made him a billionaire.

Now, I am not going to spend time trying to tell you everything that was said, from memory. The whole event was recorded and a transcript prepared. As soon as the transcript is available, I will provide a link to the transcript and point out a few highlights of key learning. That way you can read the discussion in their own words.

One thing I do want to mention is how much enthusiasm and energy was in that crowd. The session went longer than expected. Other than a handful of people (possibly parents leaving to go relieve babysitters at home) everyone seemed enthralled and stayed until the end.

In fact, there was so much energy that Richard Branson dispensed with the organized approach to reading questions from cards, and simply called on those in the audience to speak up with their questions. The business owners attending were not shy -- look, you can't be successful unless you know how to speak up, right?

At one point, a young man from the balcony shouted out his question drowning out everyone else, he was so excited to ask it. It turns out that he was 17 years old. He attended with his father, a small business owner. He asked Richard Branson for a job, and was extremely persistent, until Branson eventually said something like "we'd love to have you on board." Definitely the most unusual job interview I've ever witnessed.

* * * * *

Follow the conversation at Technorati:

* * * * *
The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs.

The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.
Adventures in Entrepreneurship Part 1: Meeting Richard Branson
Editor's Note: This post is part of a series of articles written in connection with the American Express OPEN "Adventures in Entrepreneurship" event. Background about the event can be found here at "What Would You Ask Richard Branson?"

Last evening I met Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur, and renowned journalist Jane Pauley. I have to say, it was a memorable encounter just to see how poised and yet down-to-earth they were.

The evening started at 6:30 PM. I and my entourage were driven in a luxurious limo to the event -- OK, OK, so I exaggerate. Actually what happened was that another blogger (Rob the Businesspundit) and I and some people working for American Express walked several blocks from our hotel to the Jackie Gleason Theater, where the event was held. We entered through a side door for American Express employees and media. There we were given green colored wrist bands, which were our backstage passes.

In the theater lobby, over 2,000 attendees were networking. We made our way through them to a staging area where there were various people from American Express and members of the media.

After a while in walks Richard Branson, with Jane Pauley on one side and Susan Sobbott, the President of American Express OPEN, on the other. It was just like celebrities arriving on the red carpet on Oscar night, with camera flashes going off and shutters clicking. After posing for photographs, the three of them separated and began to answer questions from the media. At this point our little blogging group was standing off to the side letting the journalists do their work.

One particularly notable comment he made during the press interview when asked what advice he had for American entrepreneurs was: "The U.S. is the land of entrepreneurs. I can learn as much from U.S. entrepreneurs as they can learn from me."

Eventually someone prodded me to go up and ask Richard Branson a question. So I sidled my way up to the front with the press, and managed to squeeze in one question. Now, I know you are dying to know: given her one shot to ask Richard Branson a question, what profound entrepreneurship insight did she ask about? Well, the journalists ahead of me had asked some great questions, and as I did not want to repeat them I asked something a little unusual about current culture, since he seems to be such a clued-in guy. I simply asked him if he'd ever read blogs. With a kind of half-chuckle he laughed and said, "No, I don't believe I have."

By and by, Jane Pauley made her way around the room and graciously introduced herself to everyone. I said I was a blogger, and she smiled (she looks exactly the same in person as on camera) and said, "Oh, I don't think I've ever met a blogger before." Then Rob put out his hand and said, "I'm a blogger too."

One notable thing Jane Pauley said was something like "I don't think news has ever been so well covered. The Internet can be sloppy and messy and sometimes you can't tell lies from the truth but with so many people out there involved and discussing it -- the truth will be uncovered."

Our time backstage lasted 15 minutes. Richard Branson then left and made his way out into the crowd in the lobby, cameramen behind him, and talked with guests -- quite a genuine thing to do. Among the guests were a few contestants from his short-lived reality TV show, and so he wanted to greet them.

In part 2, I will tell you about the event itself, which is the real meat of this story.

* * * * *

Follow the conversation at Technorati:

* * * * *

The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs.

The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their time by OPEN from American Express.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
What Would You Ask Richard Branson?
This evening (Tuesday, October 18, 2005) I will be hearing Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, speak at the American Express Open "Adventures" Conference.

I've been hired to be part of an online blogging event about the Conference. The Conference kicks off this evening with a live, in-person event and then continues through the week as an online conference.

The live event: This evening Sir Richard Branson will be interviewed by Jane Pauley, here in Miami, Florida, where I am at the moment. I am hoping -- hoping -- to be able to ask a question of him. If you had the chance, what would you ask Richard Branson? Please leave a comment below if there is a question you would like to ask. With any luck, maybe I will get the chance to pose your question.

The online event: Following the live event, three veteran business bloggers (myself, Rob May of BusinessPundit, and Dave Carlson of the Business Opportunities weblog) will be writing about the live event and entrepreneurship topics. Clay Shirky, a professor and blogging pioneer, will be serving as the facilitator for the online event.

While the online conference is in progress, you'll see the following disclaimers at the bottom of relevant posts.

"The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect those of American Express. If you post on the blogs, be aware that any personal information you post will be viewable by anybody reading the blogs."

"The facilitator and bloggers for this event have been compensated for their
time by OPEN from American Express."

So keep in mind that despite being paid for our time to participate in this conference, American Express wants us to say what we really think. They just want you to realize it is us saying it, not them.

Tonight's event will not end until almost 10:00 PM Eastern U.S. time. So we may not be posting anything online until very late tonight or early tomorrow. But please come back during the week to all three blogs for lots of interesting discussion about Richard Branson and entrepreneurship.
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Working On, Not In, The Business
Editor's note: It's time again for another article by expert guest blogger, John Wyckoff. This month he looks at something every small business owner has heard, but rarely ever gets explained.

By John Wyckoff

How often have you heard a trainer or consultant say that as the owner of the business you should be working "on it" rather than "in it?" I've said it often myself. Fortunately, no one has ever asked me exactly what that meant. It appears to be a cliche or phrase that has become accepted although not clearly defined or understood.

So, what's the difference between working on or in your business? Employees work in the business. Most have specific duties or tasks to accomplish on a regular basis. Most know what's expected of them. The "boss" however, doesn't have such a clear path and few were trained to be bosses. Their tasks are self appointed and, based on my observations, quite varied from owner to owner. The result is that many work in the business sometimes and on it at other times. It appears to be a matter of priorities and fires.

All too often the boss spends much of his or her time fighting fires. Rather than an owner working on the business they have become crisis managers. Many sit in their offices and wait for someone to come through the door with a problem that needs attention or resolution -- now.

Most owners seem to be pretty good at handling crises problems. Some even call them "opportunities." The reality is that the owner has trained his employees to bring all problems that need immediate attention to them. This, of course, takes the responsibility away from the staff and puts it squarely on the owner's shoulders. I see extreme examples when a store is being remodeled or expanded. The owner then becomes the construction foreman, the architect, the designer and the one who knows where all the materials can be found.

Through it all, the store keeps on running. Sales continue to be made, orders for inventory are placed; each department does its tasks. The employees know what to do on a day-to-day basis. So far there seems to be no reason to change the situation. However, there is also no leverage, no long term planning, no continuing education and the owner is getting little input other than from staff members. And most of that is negative.

Okay, so what would change if the owner started working on the business? First, he or she would not be the first one in and the last one out. He wouldn't necessarily come to the store every day. She would be circulating in the community making contacts with other owners of small businesses getting ideas. He would seek out organizations made up of like-minded business people in his community. She would be joining associations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and the Lion's Club. Once a member the owner would be attending regular meetings to become an integral part of the community.

The owner would be expanding his or her circle of associates and yes, even friends, outside the industry. He or she would be spending "think time," that quiet time spent thinking about the future and how to use all that knowledge bottled up inside but not exercised because of day-to-day pressures.

As I travel and talk to owners I often hear them complain that they don't get as much time to do the things they like anymore; that they are working longer hours than ever and they are beginning to suffer from burnout.

Well, Bunky, burnout is not uncommon. It's not something only a few suffer. If you've been in the business for a decade or more you've probably suffered some level of burnout, distress, angst that seems to be almost impossible to resolve. You've been spending the majority of your time solving other people's problems. You've come to accept it as just part of the business. It doesn't have to be that way.

Only you can change you. Your quality of life has to be a high priority. Some dealers have discovered that once they give their subordinates more latitude to make critical decisions those staff members rise to the occasion and become better managers themselves.

Will they make mistakes? Count on it. People don't learn by doing repetitive work. They learn by making judgment calls that are not always right. They learn by being given the authority and responsibility to do a better job. As an owner it is your responsibility to mentor and coach your managers and have them do the same for those who report to them.

There is an adage that says: "If it can be measured it can be managed. If it is measured it can be improved." Working on your business should mean that you have the tools to measure and manage and more importantly, your managers have the training to measure and manager those who report to them.

We are truly in the digital age. Computers, cameras, even phones have moved from analog to digital. Your business must do the same. You have the hardware. Now, as the owner must learn what those digital reports mean and what you need to do to implement and monitor them.

On the analog side you do need to hone your mentoring and coaching skills. Fact is your staff is closer to an extended family than a working team. Like it or not you are the Daddy or the Mommy as well as the Chief of Police and coach. However, you shouldn't be the sole fireman.

Like this article? Read more by John Wyckoff:

Harley, Short Sellers and Franchisees

A Dangerous Trend

And more at our Expert's Directory
Friday, October 14, 2005
Small Businesses Have More Technology Choices
It is an excellent time to be a small business.

Despite all the challenges small businesses face, today we have more affordable resources, tools and support than ever.

Take technology, for example. The average small business is equipped with more technology than a large corporate office of two generations ago. Technology has had a huge impact on small businesses because it positions small businesses to deliver results that in many situations can rival those of large corporations (read "Technology Levels the Playing Field").

Small businesses wield significant buying power and collectively make an attractive market. Large tech companies know that, and market leaders put their R&D money where their mouths are. One example is HP, which this year has made a major initiative to introduce new products and services designed just for small businesses.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to talk by phone with Lisa Wolfe and Jack Van Horn, two executives with Hewlett Packard (HP). They were announcing a number of offerings and special programs to serve small businesses, under HP's Smart Office portfolio.

The new product offerings include a new backup and recovery software, called HP StorageWorks Data Protector Express. HP also offers a managed services contract for remote backup and security including anti-spyware and antivirus security protection called Smart Desktop Management Service. It is very attractively priced at about $19/month per PC client, and right now they are offering a 30-day free trial.

There is also a modular storage array solution meant for SMBs with the need to keep adding to data storage, such as law firms that experience rapid data growth. And they have partnered with Cisco to provide networking solutions and tools for SMBs, such as an online configurator for figuring networking needs.

More can be found at the HP website and in the press release.

Some bloggers do not like to be contacted with press releases nor do they have interest in following up on them. Time permitting, I usually jump at the chance to talk with vendors making big announcements about the small business market. Why? Because it is important to see not just how small businesses think, but also how vendors that vie for their dollars are thinking about small businesses.

I consider three questions when talking with vendors about their new offerings:
  • Does the vendor really understand the needs of the small business market?

  • Is the small business market an important part of their business strategy so that they will invest in product development for the SMB market?

  • Has the offering been intelligently designed from the ground up specifically with small businesses in mind (rather than something half-heartedly slapped together to respond to senior management's call "we need an SMB offering, people!")?
On all three questions I am impressed. HP's been putting a lot of effort into new product, including partnering with other companies like Cisco to bring critical components to their offering. While I have not used any of these particular offerings, at least from the descriptions it sounds as if HP has attempted to make the products (1) easy to implement and (2) affordable -- two keys for small businesses.

Lisa Wolfe, HP Worldwide SMB Business Protection Solutions Manager, pointed out that 9 out of 10 small businesses in the U.S. have an HP product. Small and midsize businesses generate USD$24 Billion, or one-third, of HP's annual revenue. I'd say HP recognizes how important small businesses are to its future.

Tags: ;
Thursday, October 13, 2005
TrendTracking: Library Resources, Small Biz RSS Feeds, More
Welcome to the fifth edition of TrendTracking, a weekly place for small businesses to see and be seen.

  • James J. Hill Reference Library: I've been a big fan of the James J. Hill Library for some time. It is one of the largest business reference libraries in the United States, and they offer a unique Internet-only subscription. Now they've made it even better, adding a less-expensive membership category designed specifically for small businesses, called Standard Membership. Don't miss the 6-minute Flash video describing membership benefits -- you will be hooked once you watch it.

  • NEOBabble is a civic commentary blog by Chas Rich that resides at Cleveland.com, an Advance Internet site and the online home of the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. We reviewed Chas's original blog, Sardonic Views, as part of the PowerBlog Review series (it was number 14). Chas writes one heck of a blog, and now it is even being recognized alongside the likes of the New York Times. His blog NEOBabble has been named a finalist in the national Online Journalism Awards. Congratulations to Chas and also to the Editor of Cleveland.com, Denise Polverine. This recognition of blogs alongside traditional media sites is a significant trend.

  • Emily Chang's eHub is a "constantly updated list of web applications, services, resources, blogs or sites with a focus on next generation web (web 2.0), social software, blogging, Ajax, Ruby on Rails, location mapping, open source, folksonomy, design and digital media sharing." OK, if you don't know what half of this stuff means, you are not alone. Some of these are cutting bleeding edge technologies. But if you want to learn about these things, Emily Chang's eHub is a great place to start.

  • Small Firm Business: Small law firms account for over 90% of law firms in the United States. Monica Bay, who is Editorial Director of Small Firm Business, announces at her blog, The Common Scold, an award for small law firms. Go here for the entry form for the 2005 Best Practices Awards. Deadline is October 28.

  • Spinfluencer: Eric Schwartzman, the Chairman of iPressroom, has started a podcast series, "On the Record...Online" which resides at his blog, Spinfluencer. His first 18th podcast is an interview of Ron Bloom, CEO of the Podshow.com. Ron Bloom's interview is very interesting because he explains why podcasts are so popular with listeners and how podcasting is evolving as a business. Bloom discusses that Internet audio advertising will be 3% - 4% of total advertising within the next 5 to 10 years.

  • AlanebyDay: This is a blog being used to chronicle the startup process in a new business. It describes itself this way: "Alane By Day is the real-time narrative of the step-by-step creation of Alane's architecture practice in just 82 days. We're using the blog format so everyone can see how it's done. If you're starting a business, this blog will help you; if you've already started a business, you can help this blog." As I write this it is Day 18.

  • Reflections of a Biz Driven Life: I have been wanting to call out Wilson Ng's site for some time now. Wilson is a successful CEO in the Phillipines who was named the 2004 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Wilson's blog is a wealth of business insights and motivational reflections. He tells me he now has a network of at least 7 sites. In the interests of space, I will simply mention his blog here and then write a separate post later pointing out in detail the great things he is doing.

  • NFIB: Hold the presses! Rex Hammock informs me this evening that the NFIB now offers RSS feeds. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) is a member and advocacy organization for small business in the United States. The NFIB offers excellent research, surveys, tools and other important information for business owners and anyone who follows the small business market. You can subscribe to separate feeds for different kinds of information, so that you only need to receive in your newsreader the kind of information you want to see. Nice job, NFIB.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Banner Year for Web Growth
Netcraft, reports that based on its October survey, 2005 is shaping up to be a record year in Internet growth: "In the October 2005 survey we received responses from 74,409,971 sites, an increase of 2.68 million sites from the September survey. The large gain makes 2005 the strongest year ever for Internet growth, as the web has added 17.5 million sites, easily surpassing the previous annual mark of 16 million during the height of the dot-com boom in 2000."

After an earlier survey from July, Netcraft noted that small businesses were driving much of the growth:
"Factors in the dramatic growth include:
  • Increasing use of the Internet by small businesses as web sites and online storefronts become more affordable.

  • The explosive growth of weblogs, a growing number of which are purchasing domains for branding purposes.

  • Speculation in the market for domain names, buoyed by rising resale prices and the ability to generate revenue via pay-per-click advertising on parked domains.

  • Strong sales of online advertising, especially keyword-based contextual ads that support business models for both domain parking and commercial weblogs.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Excel Now in Color
In yesterday's post I reviewed the results of an AMI Partners study showing that over half of small businesses do not use any kind of accounting software. Instead, many just use Excel spreadsheets.

Well for all the small businesses still using Excel to manage their books, here is some good news: Microsoft is working on a new version. The new version of Excel will feature color:
"The team developing the next version of Microsoft Excel want you to know all about it. The Excel team has set up a blog to document some of the features that are going to be available in the next version of Excel, for now codenamed 'Excel 12'. One of the more promising features looks to be the introduction of 'colour scales' to shade particular cells according to their value. For instance, in the example shown, the higher numbered cells are shaded in green tones, mediate numbered cells in yellow, and lower numbered in red. Instead of analyzing the numbers to get an idea of what your spreadsheet is telling you, now you will only need to look at the colors it is showing you. This definitely makes extracting data and trends from a spreadsheet a lot easier."

Via Real Tech News.

With this new version of Excel, some small businesses may just decide not to move away from their spreadsheets for a while longer.
Monday, October 10, 2005
Over Half Do Not Have Accounting Software
More than half of U.S. small businesses do not use accounting software.

AMI Partners, Inc., a research firm that specializes in global small business market research, notes this in a recently-published study, entitled "Small Business Accounting is Big...and Getting Bigger":
"U.S. small businesses (SBs; companies with 1 to 99 employees) spent approximately US$410 million on purchasing accounting software solutions in the last 12 months, and this figure is expected to cross the half-billion-dollar mark by 2008. The nearly 6% annual increase in accounting-software-related dollars augurs well for industry-leader Intuit (with their QuickBooks portfolio) and Microsoft, which recently jumped on the small business bandwagon with its release of Small Business Accounting 2006. More than ever before, SBs are searching for solutions that are easy to install, user-friendly and, most importantly, tailored specifically to their size. In addition, nearly three fourths of these businesses upgrade their accounting software package every one to two years, opening the door for consideration of new solutions."
One of the most interesting aspects of this study is that it covers very small businesses, down to one employee. Late last week I spoke by phone with Arjun Mehr, the analyst who authored the study. He explained that the sample might include sole proprietors, even, as long as they had an organizational structure such as a corporation or LLC.

He also confirmed one point that I suspected: that the half of small businesses with no accounting software fell primarily into the 1-4 employee category.

In this day and age, it would be hard for me to fathom that larger businesses of 5 employees and up could -- or would want to -- function without some kind of accounting package. (Of course, just when I think the entire world has to be computerized, I run into a small business still run completely on paper ledgers. Never say never.)

In any event, Arjun concludes that there is "tremendous untapped opportunity" in the market for small business accounting software. That's going to mean stiff competition among the two vendors, Microsoft and Intuit. Let's hope this translates into great deals for small businesses.

Tags: ;
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Welcome Back, Home Based Businesses
Jim Blasingame, who runs a site called the Small Business Advocate, says October 10 to 14 is National Home-Based Business Week.

I was going to write about it, but what Jim has to say in his most recent newsletter is so good that I'm just going to quote it verbatim:
"Passing along Grand River Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, in the rainy, pre-dawn hours of June 4, 1896, neighbors would have witnessed a sight that at once would have seemed both normal and strange.

The strange part would be seeing one of the residents of this quiet neighborhood test-driving the gasoline-powered "quadracycle" he had built.

The normal part would be that this enterprise was taking place at the man's residence.

For literally thousands of years prior to the 20th century, regardless of the chosen profession, most humans earned their living under the same roof where they did their living. Eventually, as much as anyone in history, our home-based car builder from Detroit changed where America went to work.

To leverage their dream of serving the burgeoning consumer economy, entrepreneurs like Henry Ford had to leave the house and build factories, offices and stores. And of course, all this corporate growth required the employment of millions to staff these operations.

Ultimately, and for most of the 20th century, working away from the home or farm became the norm in America. Indeed, home-based businesses actually became so rare as to be considered an oddity. And based on many community zoning ordinances, sometimes even illegal.

As the century of the major corporation -- the 20th -- evolved into the century of the entrepreneur -- the 21st -- two things converged to make operating a business from home not only socially acceptable once again, but as it had been for thousands of years, professionally sensible and practical.

1. The official death of the job security illusion.

2. Technology.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, downsizing as a way of corporate life created professional and family emergencies for millions of American workers who were conditioned to rely on corporate employment. Whether as a complete alternative to seeking employment, or as a part-time income supplement, those who were laid-off, as well as those who feared such a prospect, started looking for ways to work from home.

And if being sacked was the stick that motivated these would-be entrepreneurs to strike out on their own, surely the carrot was technology.

Technology made it feasible again for millions of people to literally set up shop at home, as their forebears had done for millennia. Actually, the home-based business silver bullets were powerful personal technology hardware and software, both delivered in bite-size increments and pricing, and of course, the Internet.

Being a successful small business owner is very difficult. But doing all of this from home adds a degree of difficulty that deserves special recognition. As America celebrates Home-Based Business Week -- October 10-14 -- we recognize and honor the more than 20 million courageous entrepreneurs who work without a net, from home."
It is good to see home-based businesses resurging in the 21st Century. My hat is off to you, home-based business owner, no matter what part of the world you are in.

Tags: ; ; ;
Saturday, October 08, 2005
Most Bank Fraud Occurs Offline
An article in today's Wall Street Journal (yes, there is now a weekend edition) suggests that most identity theft and banking crimes occur offline in the physical world, and not online. The article (subscribers only) notes:
"Worried that shadowy gangs of Russian hackers are breaking into computer networks, stealing your financial secrets? Don't lose too much sleep over it. * * *

Despite a series of alarming reports in recent months ... most bank-related crimes remain stubbornly low-tech."
The article goes on to cite a study by consulting firm Javelin Strategy & Research pointing out just how few crimes are attributable to online activity. "Computer viruses or hackers accounted for only 2.2% of incidents," says the Wall Street Journal, citing the study.

This is an important point for small business owners to remember when it comes to online banking. Small business owners tend to cite security as a reason for not adopting online banking. A few weeks ago I wrote about this very issue, asking: "Are Small Businesses Avoiding or Embracing Online Banking?"

I'm surprised that banks don't do more to highlight the relative security of online banking. Simply saying that online banking is secure is not enough. Using the kinds of statistics quoted here would make a much more powerful point.
Friday, October 07, 2005
CNET Announces Blog 100 List
CNET has published its first Blog 100 list:
    "With more than 14 million blogs in existence and another 80,000 being created each day, how is a person supposed to find the ones worth reading?

    That is the question CNET News.com is attempting to answer with our first Blog 100 list. This effort adds to features such as News.com Blogs, Extra, My News, TalkBack, Newsburst, and Blogma, in which News.com editors and reporters are helping find the best news and views on the Web for the convenience of our readers.

    Blogs have become an important source of information, but the signal-to-noise ratio makes it hard to find the gems. In our pursuit, we spent weeks checking out technology-oriented blogs based on the recommendations from our reporters and readers."
I am honored to say that one of my other blogs, the RFID Weblog, made the list. Thank you, CNET!

Most people who read this blog are surprised to learn that I also write a blog about radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. The subject matter is so "niche" that I usually don't think it is of interest to those who follow the small business market and so I rarely mention it here. Occasionally I will run a small button or banner over here for the RFID Weblog, but half the time I don't even have a link in my blogroll. Anyway, if you are interested in learning about new technologies like RFID, by all means please go have a look.

One final word: there are tons of great technology blogs out there -- obviously more than a Top 100 list can ever recognize. My advice to all bloggers is to "keep on bloggin'." Remember that most of the bloggers on such lists work at it several hours a day over a period of years. A few even do it full time. If you stick with your blogging, and engage with other bloggers, eventually you will be recognized for the great job you do.

More than just being a vanity list, what the Blog 100 does is to validate the importance of blogs generally as playing a legitimate role in the dissemination of news and views. And that is a good thing for everyone.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Top 10 Web Design Mistakes of 2005
Jakob Nielsen has asked the question of his readers and they've responded with what they regard as being the most irksome aspects of web design. This is a fascinating insight into the world of websites from the perspective of the user.

Top 10 Web Design Mistakes:
  1. Legibility Problems.
  2. Non-Standard Links.
  3. Flash
  4. Content That's Not Written for the Web.
  5. Bad Search.
  6. Browser Incompatibility.
  7. Cumbersome Forms.
  8. No Contact Information or Other Company Info.
  9. Frozen Layouts with Fixed Page Widths.
  10. Inadequate Photo Enlargement.

There's not much point me going into lengthy detail about each one of the ten problems as Jakob has already done the job here.

Instead we might as well talk about how small businesses sometimes get themselves into a bit of a web design muddle in the first place. There's a feeling amongst small business types that the actual term 'small business' is only a temporary one; we'll all be a big business some time in the future. We think one of the areas we can change this is in terms of the way we present ourselves through our websites - think big, act big, look big.

In fact, this can lead us down a very uncertain path of projecting what we'd like our businesses to be in ten years time. The next thing you know you're paying web designers a small fortune to produce you a fancy site with more va-va-voom than your average multinational.

If you were to develop a web presence along the lines of what mistakes to avoid, you'd be surprised as to how cheap it can be. There are far too many web designers out there obsessed with 'style' over content and usability.

There's also the added bonus that your average user might be happier with it aswell.

And that's what really counts, right?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005
TrendTracking: Acquisitions, Canadian Small Biz Sites, and More
Welcome to the Fourth edition of TrendTracking, a weekly place for small businesses to see and be seen.
  • WeblogsInc has been sold to AOL, reports PaidContent.org. And there you were, wondering 'what is the point of all those networks of niche blog sites that keep popping up?' The answer: why, to sell them to some big media company, of course. The purchase price has been estimated to be at least $20 Million (USD). Not bad for a two-year old startup earning $2 Million a year. Not all this amount would be paid out immediately. Like most acquisitions, part of the purchase price -- "earnouts" -- would be paid out over time depending on the business meeting certain goals.

  • CEO Express has been one of my favorite Web resources since 1999. The site has an outstanding, useful collection of links to resources that business executives and small business owners need in a flash. You can find industry research, online calculators, international newspapers, travel tools, writing style guides, essential software downloads -- and even small business resources.

  • Signs Never Sleep is the blog of the Lincoln Sign Company. This is such an interesting blog! You're probably thinking, "what could be so interesting about a sign company," but it really is. Through the blog you get to go behind the scenes of a brick-and-mortar business. My favorite posts are a series explaining how the company creates labels for a brand of salsa, noting: "I am going to be presenting a detailed number of posts in regards to the making of these labels, because I think Lincoln Sign Company can help many people in the specialty foods market and hopefully they will find this article and give us a call." There you have it -- authentic.

  • Canada Business is the primary business Web portal of the Canadian government. Because Canada is bilingual, there is a version of the site in English and one in Francais.

    Another Canadian small business site that keeps surfacing in my research is Small Business BC. It is a non-profit organization and resource in the British Columbia province. This site is organized in a more user-friendly format than the federal government site. It offers a deep set of articles and informational resources open to anyone, whether you are in British Columbia or not. I have found it especially useful.

  • BandWeblogs is a directory of blogs by bands and other musical blogs. There are two trends here. The first is the increasingly narrow niches of websites, giving rise to the need for specialized directories to find them. And of course the other trend is that more bands are blogging these days, as a way to reach out to their fans. Franz Ferdinand is one such band, with a blog integrated neatly into its website (hat tip PSFK). I think we are seeing a whole new set of business opportunities develop before our eyes. New intermediaries are being created to help bands and musical artists market themselves online, using new Web tools, as more bands bypass the big record labels and take control of their own marketing.

    The grandaddy of all these new intermediaries is iTunes, a site that I do not think even existed a few years ago. But there are lots of opportunities for smaller players, including independent music promotion sites, review sites like Blogcritics, as well as Web designers, consultants and marketing professionals who carve out a niche helping musical artists make their name online.

  • PubSub Gov describes itself as "a place to read about what is being said about the US federal government." The site offers news feeds that link to blog postings and media articles that talk about a particular government official or branch of the U.S. government, so that you can follow the buzz about them. For those who follow small business legislation, there is a feed that covers news and buzz about the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship (news feed), as well as a feed for the House Committee on Small Business (news feed).
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Visit Carnival of the Capitalists and Blawg Review
Be sure to check out this week's editions of two excellent roundups of blog writings.
Monday, October 03, 2005
No Pension Reform for U.S. Small Employers
Dawn Rivers Baker, Editor of the subscriber-only newsletter, The Microenterprise Journal, laments that small businesses can expect no pension relief from Congress anytime soon. The latest Senate pension bill leaves out any real reform for small businesses. She writes in the October 3, 2005 edition:
"The proposed legislation seeks to reform the pension system to provide for greater worker protections and more transparency in employer-sponsored pension plans. After the rather spectacular failures of several corporate pension plans in recent years as a result of bankruptcies and corporate accounting scandals, the need for the bill seemed pretty clear.

Since they were working on pension reform anyway, this might also have given lawmakers a golden opportunity to make the pension system more small business friendly, but that is a set of reforms that didn't happen.

In 2001, the National Small Business Association (NSBA) released an important study entitled The Internal Revenue Code: Unequal Treatment Between Large and Small Firms. Among its findings were several problems for small employers in the nondiscrimination rules governing several kinds of employee benefits plans, including retirement savings plans.

'Currently, the high and largely-fixed administrative costs for starting and running a 401(k) plan are unaffordable for our smallest businesses,' said NSBA President Tod McCracken in response to an emailed inquiry. 'As a consequence, more than two-thirds of individuals working for small businesses have no access to generous federal tax subsidies for retirement savings. SIMPLE plans are much cheaper to administer, but are less generous in the tax subsidy and require mandatory employer outlays.'

The biggest problem for small employers remains the costs of compliance. As with many other kinds of regulations, regulatory compliance costs for small businesses sponsoring pension plans are considerably higher, on a per-employee basis, than they are for larger firms, a finding that was confirmed last month by the SBA's Office of Advocacy. Advocacy found that the per-participant administrative costs of defined-contribution pension plans are 'as much as 14 times more for the smallest firms than for their largest counterparts.'"
The NSBA report cited above (download PDF report here) points out in detail how the cards are stacked against small business employers. The smaller the employer, the bigger a bite the pension costs can be.

It's too bad that Congress can't do the same thing for pensions that it did for health care. The new Health Savings Accounts and the changes in the tax laws that allow self-employed health insurance premiums to be 100% deductible, went a long way toward relieving the crushing burden of health insurance in the United States for small businesses and especially the smallest microbusinesses, i.e., the self-employed.

Tags: ; ;
Saturday, October 01, 2005
Trend of Anti-disintermediation, or Personalized Services?
During the DotCom boom days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, many people thought that intermediaries would become victims to "disintermediation." We no longer would need distributors or independent agents. The Internet and sophisticated supply chain software would take their place. Or so the thinking went.

Well, time has shown that some -- some -- intermediaries are being taken out of the picture. Video rental stores are one victim. Between new Internet distribution models and cable TV providers offering video on demand, local video stores increasingly find themselves bypassed.

But the disintermediation picture is far more complex than some predicted five years ago:
  • Disintermediation has happened more slowly than predicted. It's not like a switch being turned on or off. These kinds of shifts in commerce take years and do not occur overnight.

  • Disintermediation has not happened uniformly or for every industry. Some industries have been hit hard. Others have not. In other cases the Internet has profoundly changed the way consumers interact with intermediaries, but not eliminated the need for them. The new car industry is an example. The Internet has become a place for consumers to educate themselves before walking into the dealership thus tipping the balance of power, and it has changed the way dealerships serve customers. It has not eliminated the need for car dealers.

  • In some industries one batch of intermediaries is being replaced by another crop of Internet-based intermediaries. That is partly what's to blame for the decline of local travel agents. Certainly, some consumers go directly to air carriers' websites, bypassing the middleman altogether. But you also have large Internet sites like Priceline and Travelocity that are themselves intermediaries, just of a new type.

    Arguably another industry with a new crop of Internet intermediaries knocking on the door is the legal profession. Today if you want to file a trademark application or incorporate, you have choices ranging from LegalZoom, which helps you file basic paperwork, to Nolo, which provides forms for do-it-yourselfers. You can even go to government websites and download forms you need.
A recent BusinessWeek article by Joshua Hyatt even goes so far as to argue that we actually have more intermediaries today in the Internet age, in this humorous piece:
    "Yet there now seems to be a broader "middle class" of entrepreneurs than before. In San Francisco, Jim Rushforth last year opened up Auto Trainers & Advisors, devoted to holding seminars and writing manuals that, he says, "teach people how not to get screwed by the auto industry." Pile & Co., a Boston consulting firm, boasts a fast-growing division (sales up 30% this year) that "helps big advertisers figure out ad agencies," says chief marketing officer Chris Colbert, 46. There are go-between businesses now wedged between you and your friends (networking consultants), you and your flab (personal trainers), and you and your life's mission (CEO coaches). In fact, the intermediary market has fragmented into cybermediaries (Internet-based deal brokers), infomediaries (linking companies and online suppliers), and mediaries that are so new they have yet to be assigned annoying prefixes."
Hyatt makes a great point about intermediaries not having gone away in the space of a few years.

However, I would not call every example he lists a true "intermediary." Some are simply providing a personalized service, and play no role in the supply chain itself. They are not middlemen that you have to go through in order to acquire a product, such as a car dealer.

Rather than a trend away from disintermediation, I see instead a separate trend toward personalized services.

In today's world each of us is faced with a dizzying array of products and services that become more specialized each day. The sheer knowledge and time needed to deal with everything in our business and personal lives can be overwhelming.

Hence, enterprising entrepreneurs see the need for personalized services to help us deal with it all. And because it is easier and cheaper than ever to start a business -- especially a service business -- we can expect to see more such businesses crop up.

This trend toward personalized services is good news for some businesses and professions where disintermediation is chipping away. Instead of focusing on lower value-add transactions that can be replaced easily by technology, it can free them to focus on personalized service that technology cannot duplicate.

The accounting profession in the United States is doing just that. Most small businesses I know use QuickBooks or other accounting software. Yet, instead of QuickBooks disintermediating accountants, something different is happening. Businesses use QuickBooks to keep their own records, yet most still have an accountant for doing taxes, providing guidance on complex issues, and reconciling and auditing the books. The accountants have learned to work with the client's electronic accounting records; the technology has not disintermediated them. In fact some accounting firms now have side businesses consulting with clients to help them make better use of software packages like QuickBooks, Peachtree, Microsoft and so on.

There are lessons in this example for every business and profession, including the legal profession.

For basic transactions, people will go with the lowest price alternative, and that usually means a technology-based solution will win out. But for anything complex or confusing or unduly time-consuming, people are willing to pay for someone to talk to and help them individually. Only other people can do that.

Tags: ; ; ;
More news... more trends... more insight...

Home | Privacy | Terms | SmallBizTrends
(c) Copyright 2003 - 2005, Small Business Trends LLC. All rights reserved.