Virtual Assisting Benefits Small Businesses: Why Outsourcing Makes Sense

Hiring a virtual assistant seems like an extravagance to many small business owners, yet outsourcing promotes small business growth. Here’s why hiring a virtual assistant makes sense.

Virtual Assistants Help a Small Business During Peak Periods

Many small businesses have seasonal or cyclical upticks in volume. The small business owner who tries to manage the increased demand during these times without outsourcing any work can be overwhelmed and unable to keep up. Client orders could be missed, the business owner may become ill due to stress, and important shipment details might get overlooked. An assistant can be hired to help handle customer orders or assist with the small business accounting during peak periods, allowing the small business owner to focus on the increased demand for products and services.

Outsourcing Allows the Small Business Owner to Focus on Bringing in Revenue

Tasks like managing the small business payroll or installing small business software must get done for a business to operate, but these types of activities can eat up a large percentage of a business owner’s time. If these duties are outsourced to a virtual assistant, the small business owner is free to devote attention to things like product development and creation, which can have a direct impact on the growth and profitability of a small business.

Virtual Assistants Help Small Businesses with Special Projects

Whether it’s a global launch for a how-to-make-money-online membership site or a social media promotion for a new blog, virtual assistants keep things running smoothly during special events. The assistant may be hired to manage behind-the-scenes tasks related to the special event or might handle duties normally performed by the owner, such as keeping the small business accounting system up to date. Either way, outsourcing work allows the business owner to realize the greatest growth potential from a special event or project.

Small Business Owners Control the Virtual Assistant Service

There are virtual assistants specializing in most anything a small business owner could ask for. Many assistants bill by the hour and some will bill by the minute, so the small business owner can contract for the specific needs of the business.

Hiring a virtual assistant allows the small business owner to focus on activities that will grow the business. Whether helping out during peak periods or performing tasks such as small business payroll, virtual assistants provide exactly the type of help that is needed for the exact period of time they are needed.

Finding Small Business Clients for Very Targeted Marketing

Creating a strong marketing plan is just Step One of many for small business owners in finding prospective clients. Some trying to build their businesses from the ground, up build very targeted marketing plans, but then are not sure where to find those that will be most in need of the services or products they provide; so they either misdirect their hard work by networking with the wrong prospects, or get frustrated and stop focusing on marketing altogether.

Any small business owner that knows the benefits of the products or services he/she is offering inside and out and has been able to construct marketing materials and a message that reflect this unique offering has already completed one of the hardest parts of filling up the sales funnel with new prospects. The next step in finding prospective clients is locating the places where targeted marketing efforts will be most effective.

The following are some ways for small business owners to find potential clients that will be most likely to want, need and be able to afford services or products being offered.

Advertising lists provide easy access to future customers:

Advertising lists are good, inexpensive ways to find concentrated groups of possible customers. Compiler companies like Zap Data (http://www.zapdata.com/) and InfoUSA provide lists to small business owners of clients to help streamline the process of customer acquisition. Other similar services can usually be found through local business groups as well as in newspapers or journals. These types of list services have search features that can help narrow down the field of small business clients to only those that would fit a very specific profile, eliminating the need to question, “Does this person care what I have to offer?”

Finding out where great clients hang out and being there is a great networking opportunity:

Creating a profile of the “ideal” client and doing a little research can produce important information about where ideal clients regularly go. It is in these places that targeted marketing efforts will be most successful. For example, a small business owner selling a product or service that a lot of attorneys use can look around the community for business groups to which attorneys belong and get involved. They should go to meetings and conferences when appropriate and sign up for trade shows, volunteer to be panelists at events or write articles for industry publications. This type of networking can provide a slew of appropriate, highly-relevant places for small business owners to get to know potential clients personally, showcase their products and expertise and be part of a well-rounded marketing plan.

Less is always more:

Once a small business owner unlocks the many doors that lead to where clients are, they need to be gentle and smart about finding prospective clients. No one should join more than a few networking organizations or spam mailing lists with e-mails or direct mail, even if they represent very targeted efforts. Marketing is easy to overdo. Above all, it is an evolutionary process that takes time to develop and get right, so patience is necessary. Small business owners should build efforts slowly over a few months and continue to save time for actually focusing on providing the services and products that will best fulfill the needs of their clients.

Finding prospective clients is obviously critical to building a solid business foundation. Getting active and out there in the appropriate marketplace, networking in diverse environments that will be receptive to the specific company’s mission is a huge part of targeted marketing that can produce great referrals and build a company’s roster exponentially.

Small Business Business Plan: Business Planning Software Simplifies Start-up for Small Businesses

Any business operation operates more smoothly with a plan. Many small business owners are unaware that crafting a comprehensive business plan can improve their operation, or are intimidated by the process. Business planning software works to streamline the process of creating a business plan for inexperienced business owners, helping them to create marketing plans, and improve financial planning.

Planning For Small Business

Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to changes in the economy. When times are good, business owners are too busy to make plans. When times are slow, owners seldom think to work on business plans. Many aspects of business are forgotten, due to the lack of administrative experience. Less obvious expenses, such as equipment depreciation, are seldom added to financial calculations, and marketing strategies aren’t fully thought out. Business planning software can simplify the process for small business owners.

Business Planning Software Helps Small Business Owners Get Organized

Business planning software, such as Business Plan Pro, offers a small business owner the chance to create a business plan in a step-by-step format. Sample plans are available for virtually every industry, which simplifies the process even further. The business planning software walks business owners through the process of creating a business plan, including sections on marketing and financial planning.

A Small Business Marketing Plan is Necessary For Success

A marketing plan for small businesses is not just about advertising. Appropriate pricing of products and services is a critical part of creating a small business marketing plan. Conducting research about the industry, including competition and the positioning of the business, is also necessary to the success of a marketing plan. Due to the proliferation of information on the Internet, much of the necessary information can be gathered from online research.

Financial Planning Improves Income For Small Businesses

Most consumers know that a budget is the way to ensure financial health. Budgeting is also an important part of financial planning for small businesses. Profit and loss projections, as well as a break-even analysis are all necessary in the creation of a small business business plan. While these calculations are complex, business planning software automates the process.

Creating a business plan is a key to long-term success for small businesses. Many small business owners are unaware of the need for a business plan. Others are inexperienced, without the necessary knowledge to create such a complex document. Business planning software gives small business owners the opportunity to benefit from compiled knowledge and experience.

Business Incubators Impart Success Potential to New Businesses

Business incubators help such entrepreneurs with inputs that see them through various stages to a successful business enterprise. Built-up space, expensive equipment, funding facilitation and marketing contacts are examples of inputs typically provided by business incubators. They might also relieve entrepreneurs of routine tasks such as accounting and secretarial work.

Significance of Business Incubation

Business incubation is a more efficient alternative to the earlier scenario of entrepreneurs starting their ventures in a basement or garage, and struggling through a learning process to finally establish a successful business. Incubators set up by experienced and successful businesspersons speed up the learning process of novice entrepreneurs, and might also actively help the ventures with the critical funding and marketing activities. This modern alternative could have helped many of the entrepreneurs who failed under the earlier scenario.

Whereas small business support agencies such as SBA of the U.S. are obliged to help all proposals that come to them, business incubators are more selective. They select only startup proposals that have a good chance of succeeding, and then extend much more support to develop these into a successful enterprise than SBA could. In addition to active funding and marketing help, the incubators also mentor the businesspersons through the business operations.

 The businesses that graduate through the incubation process will typically be able to stand on their own once they leave the incubator. They would have a business that is operating successfully, and the mentoring and business development processes would have imparted essential business skills to the businesspersons. Studies have found that nearly 90 percent of such businesses survive for the long term, as compared to less than 10% of all small business startups.

Business incubation can help with economic development of specific regions, creating jobs, developing an entrepreneurial climate, empowerment of women and minorities, and even energizing local communities.

Support Provided by Business Incubators

The list below will give an idea of the wide range of services that business incubators provide. Not all incubators provide all these services, and some of them might restrict their support to businesses in specific areas.

Help is typically provided in the following areas:

  • Physical facilities such as office space, equipment and connectivity
  • Venture funding for innovative and promising businesses
  • Commercialization of new technology
  • Loans from banks and guarantees for such loans
  • Organizing an advisory team
  • Assembling a management team with required skills
  • Contacts and networking for marketing and other purposes
  • Developing skills in gap areas e.g. marketing, financial management
  • Business services such as accounting and secretarial
  • Help with regulatory compliance, intellectual property protection

Microsoft Innovation Centers, for example, provide access to business and technology training, free development software, computer labs and investor networking. These centers operate in many countries across the world.

The key point to notice is that the typical businessperson starting a new business is not likely to be well-versed in many of these areas. Business incubation thus helps speed up their learning process.

Many incubators provide support for businesses operating from homes or in remote areas. For example, businesses in remote areas are helped through counseling and other help delivered over the Internet and phone. Incubators might also focus on specific sectors, such as computer hardware, life sciences, nanotechnology and software development.

The incubation period typically differs from industry to industry. Industries that need long research-to-market times might remain under incubation for much longer that those who can provide a product or service almost immediately.

How Incubators Make their Money

Governments might extend funding assistance in the form of grants to business incubator companies. The companies will also typically charge for business services such as accounting. Additionally, many might also take a stake in the mentored business, and benefit when the business prospers.

In fact, private entrepreneurs have found that business incubation is good business, and some of them even derive great satisfaction in helping new entrepreneurs grow their business.

Business incubators have changed the scenario facing new entrepreneurs by providing them just the type of support in an organized manner that each startup business needs. The support can range from business space and expensive equipment through funding assistance and networking to business mentoring. Business incubation has proven itself as highly effective in fostering entrepreneurship and economic development.

ERP, MRP & CRM: Making Sense for Small Business Owners

Confused by all the business acronyms out there about ERP, MRP and CRM software packages? Wondering how these systems can help small businesses, but unsure what they do? Well, for many small business owners, with so many options to choose from, and with so many conflicting testimonials, making sense of it all can often be an exercise in futility. Don’t despair, in their simplest form, all these systems do is improve the access to information from both inside, and outside the company. In fact, it’s the amalgamation of this information that both reduces costs, and improves efficiency.

Companies know that to win business and grow, means to provide real time information, shorten product lead times, and excel at customer service. Customers will always gravitate to those companies that can provide products and information quickly. That includes providing customers with immediate information on delivery delays, new programs and discounts on deals, and up to date information on their account. Delays cost business, but lack of information on those delays, costs more. At the heart of all these systems, is to allow companies to become proactive in the eyes of their customers.

What Does MRP Stand For?

MRP stands for Manufacturing Resource Planning, and is a software package designed around managing production in all its forms. Typically these systems track work orders through production. They dictate the amount of material and parts to use, the number of finished products to make, and track the individual cycle times of each operation during the product’s manufacturing life. More importantly, it allows all internal departments, including customer service and sales, a window into the current status of work, and an estimated completion date for customers.

 What Does CRM Stand For?

CRM is an acronym for Customer Relationship Management. Its approach is to improve the ease of information transfer about customer purchasing patterns, credit information and payment history, contact information, sales leads, and customer service history. The importance of a CRM software is that it allows its users to locate and close on business opportunities, and use existing information to improve customer loyalty, incentivize them to continue purchasing, and improve a company’s ability to reduce sales cycle times. It bridges together a company’s sales, technical support, marketing and customer service functions into on all encompassing information source.

What Does ERP Stand For?

Perhaps no other software package brings together a company’s entire access to information, as does Enterprise Resource Planning. Consider an ERP system as an extension of MRP, in that it takes the benefits of tracking manufacturing activities, to tracking all of a company’s internal activities between its departments. ERP systems bring together a company’s entire internal process into one system, with real time information, that can be accessed by all. In the process, the company reduces operational costs, improves service and eliminates timely work delays.

Companies that use ERP programs might include companies that design, engineer, and manufacture products. The ERP system bridges a company’s entire internal information so as to improve operational effectiveness. Redundant work processes, and lack of information, is one of the largest costs to companies. Regardless of size, if a company has a hard time moving work from one internal department to the next, or lacks real time critical information that all its employees can see, it will simply result in delays, and delays to customers mean lost business.

As for which system is best, it really depends upon the business itself. Small businesses don’t necessarily have concern themselves with programs designed for much larger organizations. Customers must come to see their vendors as on the ball, and ready to help. Lacking the ability to service customers, or unable to provide essential information, is a recipe for an upset and frustrated customer. These programs improve efficiency and reduce costs, while improving a company’s ability to be proactive, instead of reactive.

Going Green in Small Businesses to Save Money: Economic Conditions and Competition Make Greening a Good Practice

Businesses that followed the green path in the past did it for two reasons; principles and community responsibility. This approach was considered an expense to a business and written off in marketing and public relations. However, going green is a necessity today and just plain good business practice.

Today going green is approached as a means of reducing costs (not an expense) and making an impact on the environment. Small businesses must be lean and mean if they are to survive in highly competitive world, regardless of economic conditions. Going green is a business practice that improves the bottom line through cutting expenses on and reducing the need to lay off productive employees.

Going Paperless – Really!

This was a common theme after the integration of computer technology in the 1980’s and 90’s. However, in many cases businesses had increased the use of paper instead of going paperless. Today the idea of going paperless is gaining ground because of the increased costs of office consumables. As businesses cut back on their use of paper, they are going green and saving the environment at the same time. Cutting back on using a large amount paper, allows for greater use recycled paper to replace regular paper.

Advances in computer software packages for office and business management, the need to use paper has actually decreased. These programs have file sharing and built in cooperative functions that make creating and editing documents by multiple users easier. Incorporating these document handling procedures in a small business reduces paper use, along with speeding up processing and handling of documents for greater worker productivity.

The actual reduction in paper use has impacted the U.S. Post Office, because more businesses communicate through e-mail for sharing documents and conducting business. Scanned copies of important documents and the editing capability of PDF files; allow businesses more productivity without sending important documents through the mail.

Reducing Printing and Copier Expenses

Printers, ink, and toner are expensive. Printers also consume a lot of energy. By reducing the amount of paper used, a business can reduce the cost of all three. This supports green initiatives by keeping fewer and more efficient printer/copier combinations in one central location in a business. Money is also saved through recycling ink and toner cartridges.

Another cost saving green approach is to use double sided printing and copying for anything that does not specifically require a single sided printing. This approach can significantly reduce paper usage and most new copiers have automated single to double sided conversion settings.

Reduced Filing Needs

Filing systems take up a sizeable percent of the floor space in an office. With less paper being used and stored, a business is able to move to a smaller office. Filing fewer papers also reduces cost of long term storage of documents.

Reduced Housekeeping

Anything that reduces paper waste also reduces the potential cost of shredding documents, along with office cleaning costs. Checking trash cans in a business will quickly result in the observation that most trash is paper. Reducing the use of paper reduces the amount of trash. Less trash leads to less money being spent on cleaning and trash removal services. Paper that winds up in the trash can be recycled.

Energy Efficient Lighting

Low energy light bulbs are not new; however their use in businesses is new. Low energy bulbs are not just for the home. Using low energy bulbs reduces energy bills and the cost of replacing bulbs so often, because low energy bulbs last longer than incandescent bulbs.

Making Connections

Reducing and replacing consumables is a direct money saver, capable of both improving the bottom line and increasing employee productivity. Going green is no longer a need to meet an ideology or for supporting the community. Going green is a necessity that every business must embrace, because of cost savings and saving the environment.

Starting A New Business

The best business ideas often come out of that moment of rebellion when the budding entrepreneur comes to the conclusion that “I could do that better myself”. All those ideas presented to the boss that were never acted upon; colleagues seen to be not pulling their weight but earning the same; watching the profits that are being made from ones efforts heading off in another direction. All these very common scenarios often act as the catalyst to starting a new business.

The great danger is to fall in love with the idea and rush in without thinking it through. This doesn’t mean writing a business plan immediately; important though it is that comes later. The first step is checking on prospective customers, are there enough buyers out there who want the product or service, enough times and at a high enough price to make the idea viable when the bills have been paid.

Five Forces

In short the business idea needs to be seriously challenged. How easy would it be for others to follow and become serious competition? How much competition is there now and how good are they? Is the world changing and the product may no longer be required? Who will be in charge the buyer or the seller? Too much dependence on a small number of big buyers can be very dangerous. Will the business be under the thumb of its suppliers who may be able to impose too many conditions?

 Market Research

If the first hurdle is cleared without mishap it’s time for the research to begin. To look at customers and their needs – who are they, how many are there, where are they?

  • Customer behavior – how much they buy, how often and for how much?
  • Competitors – who are they, where are they, what are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • Costs – what are the direct costs that will occur if a sale takes place and the indirect costs that will be there whether a sales takes place or not?

Armed with this information it’s time to come up with some sales assumptions taking into account businesses tend to start off slowly and build up momentum with increasing sales but often experience peaks and troughs in demand that need to be built into the sales assumptions on a month by month basis.

The Business Plan

The business plan comes next, the narrative that explains the who, where, why, what, when and how of the first year in business. This is accompanied by the financial forecasts in the form of cash flow and projected profit and loss statements.

There are many styles that can be found on the internet but it is important to choose something fit for purpose. The 100 page plan is well over the top for simple one man or woman business but may be absolutely right for the new manufacturing business with plans to create 30 new jobs. There are three good reasons for preparing a detailed business plan:

Luxury Brands Form Strategic Alliances to Increase New Business

Sales in the global luxury industry are creeping up. Slowly. However, luxury brands haven’t broken out the champagne to cheer the economy’s cautious upturn; they’re looking for ways to make inroads into the buying choices of the rich and famous. And one consideration is partnering with other luxury brands who, while they don’t compete, share the same wealthy audience.

Is it Strategic Alliances or Fusion Marketing?

Call it what you will, fusing the marketing efforts of two, non-competitive companies it is the most inexpensive, yet effective form of marketing, that while totally underused, generates the most rewards: mutual profits. Best-in-class companies, working together, sharing expenses and manpower build brand equity, increase their customer base and deliver on their promise of quality service. While their customer database is a valuable asset for any company and would never be shared outright, partnering on a project by linking both their names on a marketing piece for promotion is smart business. It’s also a great way to infiltrate a different marketplace to generate new business..

Partnering to Control Secondary Markets

Luxury companies often, and unhappily, see their high-end merchandise being auctioned off on sites like e-Bay, and they can’t stop it. Gucci is one luxury retailer who has taken matters into their own hands by partnering with Christie’s (an auction house specializing in fine art) to provide a service that gives owners of vintage Gucci handbags and luggage the opportunity to have their items appraised. After the collector has her piece appraised, she’ll be notified if the piece is suitable for an upcoming Christie’s vintage sale. The beauty of this partnership for Gucci is that they are controlling their secondary market, while Christie is gaining vintage pieces directly from the owner.

Other examples of successful collaborative marketing partners that have boosted the bottom lines of each of the companies, and provided customers with a unique experience.:

  • American Express partnered with Hilton Hotels and generated a specialized credit card for travel rewards.
  • Fairmont Hotels teamed up with Lexus to provide hybrid Lexus cars to their best customers.
  • Frequent Flyer Clubs fused with hotels, car rental companies and cruise lines.

Strategic alliances can be formed with the unlikeliest of bedfellows; there just has to be a common denominator and that is usually the customer. Luxury companies willing to recenter their brand positioning and partner with other like-minded, prestige brands will continue to create passion, desire and a new customer experience for their jet-setting clientele. Not to mention that profits will start to tick upward.

Small Business Ideas for Book Lovers: Start Ups for People Who Love to Read

For people who enjoy reading and didn’t want to work for someone else, becoming a book store owner was a dream come true. Then, the super bookstores came along and independent bookseller after independent bookseller went out of business. Luckily, there are still some small businesses that are a perfect fit for book lovers.

Become a Magazine Publisher

Creating a magazine can be very rewarding for people who love to read. Choosing to focus on parenting or kid related topics gives them a chance to encourage a love of books in future generations. While the magazine industry as a whole is struggling, there are some markets that still do well. Free regional magazines that are completely funded by local business advertising or online magazines that take advantage of the flexibility of online publishing can thrive under the ownership of a determined and creative entrepreneur.

Extroverted Book Lovers Can Become Storytellers

People who love an audience and enjoy reading stories to their children in the voices of different characters may want to look into starting a storyteller or puppeteering business. Storytellers are popular with schools, libraries and after school or summer camp programs. They also may find customers who are throwing parties for their children. It can be a hard field to break into, but those storytellers who are successful enjoy their work.

Online Used Book Sellers Keep Costs Down

While traditional used book stores have almost become a thing of the past, online book stores do well by keeping costs down and doing a high volume of business. Many online booksellers choose to list their books on sites like eBay.com, amazon.com, alibris.com, or half.com to take advantage of the tremendous traffic that these sites bring in.

Personalized Book Small Business Idea

Children love to imagine themselves adventuring with favorite storybook characters. Personalized book sellers can find a company that specializes in printing several different stories personalized with children’s names to sell at craft fairs, school functions, etc. If they enjoy writing, they may want to cut out the middle man and create their own stories. Today’s print on demand options make it simple to create quality books one at a time after customers make the purchase.

Start a Book Related Home Party Business

Usborne is a popular educational book publishing company with a unique business model. Instead of having books stocked on traditional bookstore shelves for a few weeks and having the rest of the print run quickly remaindered, the company chose to use consultants to sell books through home parties, booths at events and directly to educational institutions. Barefoot Books is another children’s book publisher with a similar model.

With a bit of creativity and a willingness to think outside the traditional bookstore box, a book lover can still successfully start and run a small business that appeals to readers. There are several very successful business models available, from selling books online to introducing children to the world of books through a home party business model.

Small Business SWOT Analysis: Help Build the Foundations for Long-term Business Success

A SWOT analysis is an important strategic planning tool for business. It is used to determine internal and external influencing factors that can impact the growth and success of a business. However, before a small business owner clicks away through fear of boredom – read on! Carrying out a SWOT analysis needn’t be boring and full of management speak, instead it can be a fun and highly relevant management tool for even the smallest of businesses.

A SWOT analysis doesn’t require understanding of the latest business management buzzwords or MBA-babble. It simply requires that the small business owner has a good understanding of their own business and the marketplace in which it operates. While it is an important strategic tool, undertaking a SWOT analysis is a creative process. It should not simply be a case of stating the obvious, instead it is the opportunity to think creatively about a business and its future direction.

What Is a SWOT Analysis?

A SWOT analysis takes a look at the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that face a business. The whole SWOT theory works on the principle of balance. This means that every strength has a corresponding weakness and that every opportunity has a corresponding threat and visa versa.

As an example of this, a small company may recognize that one of the biggest strengths of the company is its staff (this is particularly important with single person businesses). The threat, therefore, would be that something happened to key staff that stopped them from performing. An opportunity might be a new market opportunity opening up and the threat might be that someone else also sees this opportunity and enters the market.

How to Undertake a SWOT Analysis

There are several ways to undertake a SWOT analysis, however the principle is always the same, and that is to draw up a grid with four squares, each with one of the headings from strength, weakness, opportunity or threat.

It is then simply a case of writing in as many different features as possible. At the end of the exercise all the different points should be checked to make sure that there is corresponding positive or negative point for every point raised. A discussion about the exercise might be useful at this point.

Tips for Running a Successful SWOT exercise

Here are some tips to run a a successful SWOT analysis exercise:

  • Make it fun! – The more interesting and fun the exercise is, the more likely it is that people will join in with enthusiasm.
  • Encourage debate – Full and frank discussion can be useful when discussing different aspects of a business. It is important, however, that people can do this in a positive way.
  • Set a time limit – Setting a time limit on any management exercise is important as this helps to keep the discussions on track and avoids people going off on a tangent.

What Happens Next?

A SWOT analysis on its own won’t help a business. The next step is where things start to get interesting and that is when the SWOT study is incorporated into a business plan. Even if this is done informally it is imperative that an action plan of some description is drawn up – otherwise all these important thoughts will go to waste!