Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Success Story: Iowa

Linda and Barry Mitchell are the owners of Trinity Dry Cleaners (website) (Facebook page) located in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Trinity Dry Cleaners is an eco-friendly dry cleaning business, and they are constantly looking for ways to help customers reduce their carbon footprint.  Linda and Barry feel it's their mission to play a part in converting an industry that has been historically toxic to humans and hazardous to the planet to an environmentally responsible and sustainable alternative.

Before becoming entrepreneurs, the owners both held executive level jobs in a multi- national distribution company headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Linda and Barry considered opening their own business for several years prior to launching Trinity Dry Cleaners. They examined a number of different business opportunities but felt they could make the biggest impact in the dry cleaning industry, as most plants still use Perchloroethylene, which is a toxic and environmentally hazardous solvent.  They knew they wanted to take dry cleaning in a new direction, and chose to use GreenEarth solvent, which is non-toxic and non-hazardous.  Trinity Dry Cleaners is proud to be the only GreenEarth affiliate in Southeastern Indiana, and also services markets in Northern Kentucky and Southwestern Ohio. 

Linda and Barry also feel that there is a huge technology gap between most dry cleaners and their customers.  They have embraced technology by implementing barcode technology on all of their garments, which gives complete traceability to customers.  By using Trinity Dry Cleaners website or smartphone app, customers can see not only the status of their orders, but also a full history of each garment.  They can also sign up for their free home delivery service and schedule a pickup right from their phone.  Linda and Barry said, "We felt by offering these conveniences to our customers, coupled with the outstanding quality of our work, we could differentiate ourselves from our competitors and build a successful business. We wanted to provide a comprehensive range of services to our patrons including dry cleaning, wet cleaning, expert alterations, leather cleaning and repairs, shoe repairs, pillow restoration, and area rug cleaning."

They both agree that the most enjoyable part of their business is the day-to-day interactions with their customers.  Whether it's in-person at the counter, through social media, or at community events, they really enjoy getting to know their patrons.
When asked what they enjoy least about their business, their response was, "Trying to overcome the image that dry cleaners are bad for the environment, are dirty sweatshops, and are stuck in the 1970's.  We built our store with windows into the plant, to show our customers it's as clean in the back as it is in the front.  We also installed excellent ventilation and air-conditioning to keep our employees as comfortable as possible." 

Like most business owners, the Mitchells have faced and overcame challenges along the way. Finding business partners that understood the progressive nature of their business plan was the most challenging aspect of starting the business.  Having the right accountant, insurance agent, attorney, and design consultant were critical to the formation of their business.  Additionally, finding the right financial institution was vitally important, and they interviewed several before choosing the one that they felt truly understood what they were trying to accomplish. 

Following approximately 18 months of research and development, it took 9 full months to open their business. They opened Trinity Dry Cleaners on March 17, 2014, and experienced a stronger than anticipated start to their business and hired two additional employees within 30 days of opening.  Their business has grown well beyond Dearborn County, and with the start of their free home delivery routes, they intend to expand their customer base into Ohio and Kentucky as well. They have over 1600 customers, and plan to open another location within the next year.

By offering a "green" alternative, they believe their greatest contribution to their community is twofold. They have eliminated a health risk to their customers from Perchloroethylene, a known carcinogen, and they improved the environmental health of their region by removing a threat to air and water quality.  They have also partnered with several charities and community organizations to raise funds and awareness for their respective causes, and also plan to organize their first coat drive this autumn.

Linda and Barry, who have been Southeast ISBDC clients since October 2012 say, "The ISBDC consolidates many areas of expertise in one accessible local office.  Having access to qualified advisors is an invaluable resource for any entrepreneur looking to start their own business." 

Southeast ISBDC Regional Director, Blayr Barnard, says, "I first met Barry and Linda with Trinity Dry Cleaners at our Entrepreneur Day in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. While they are well versed in business, they spent the entire day making sure they soaked up every piece of advice and information available. After having toured their facility, I can say it is the only dry cleaner I have been in that is clean enough to eat off the floor - literally!"

Monday, September 15, 2014

Does Google Like My Website?

Eric Spellmann continues to be one of the highest rated speakers at our national ASBDC conferences.  His unique view that small business websites should “do” something pushes against the standard “online pamphlet” view of most web design companies.  He believes your customer’s websites should be driving qualified leads and sales on a weekly basis.  Eric speaks at a number of other national and state conferences nationwide, but enjoys running one of the most successful web design companies in the country.  He truly believes in the SBDC mission as it helped him start his own company many years ago.  To contact him, visit his website at EricSpellmann.com.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rhonda Abrams, Travel Series Blog: High Return on Travel Plan

Your High Return-on-Travel Plan
Rhonda teamed up with Marriott and Visa to create the Small Business Smart Travel Guide, on which this blog post is based. Download your free guide here. 
Travel is an investment—of your money and your time. Like any other business investment, you want to get the highest return for the money you spend. Fortunately, with just a little bit of planning, you can significantly increase the positive impact business travel can have on your bottom line.
Change your mindset, grow your business
One obstacle that keeps business owners from traveling is the belief that they must be on-premise to run their businesses. Can you entrust team members with more of the daily operations so you can focus more on business development? Can you adopt cloud solutions and apps that allow you to be a more effective mobile manager?
There are cloud applications for virtually every aspect of your business:
-Customer relationship management
-Team collaboration
-Document sharing
- Accounting
-Inventory management
-Money management
-Marketing automation
Do You Travel Only When Necessary? Responsive vs. Proactive Travel
There are two types of business trips—those you have to take and those that, although not pressing, can truly help you grow your business. Clearly, you travel when a good customer calls. But what about when they’re not calling? Avoid missing the chance to discuss other opportunities, make new sales, expand your contacts, and learn about what’s happening with their business. And, most important, strengthen the relationship.
Consider all those other opportunities you miss if you only travel out of immediate, pressing need. What about attending, presenting at, or exhibiting at industry conferences and trade shows? There’s a high concentration of potential customers, referral sources, vendors, and consultants at these events. And you’ll learn about new trends and get new ideas.
Challenge yourself to take more proactive trips. Think of how you can use travel to build your company.
Plan for bigger returns
Think about your travel plans for the next three to six months. How can you be more strategic and create opportunities for higher returns on your travel investment? What are the add-on opportunities at each of your destinations? The following seven questions will help you figure some of this out.
7 growth opportunity questions
As you create your travel plan for the next quarter, ask yourself and your team these questions.

1. Of your top 25 customers, who have you not seen in two years?

2. Which key customer have you never met? Which key vendor has never met you?

3. At which company do you have only one or two contacts?

4.  Which customers have had staff changes?

5. Which of your second-tier customers could become top-tier?

6. At which industry event could you potentially meet five new customers, two new vendors, or one new investor?

7.Could you make a presentation or exhibit at an upcoming industry event?
Download my Smart Small BusinessTravel Guide for more travel-savvy tips and workbook that will help you plan a high return-on-travel trip.

Recognized as one of the foremost experts on small business, Rhonda Abrams writes USA Today’s small business column and is the author of 19 books on entrepreneurship. Rhonda’s books have been translated into over 30 languages, and adopted by more than 1,000 business schools. Her books include the bestselling business plan guide in the U.S.: Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies.

To receive Rhonda’s free email newsletter on starting and growing a successful business, sign up at http://www.planningshop.com/register/register.asp

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Technology, please: Using online productivity tools to do better in business

With a friend, I built kitchens and bathrooms. That was fun, and almost a hobby rather than a business—though not intentionally so. We would wait for money to come in, spend many unhealthy hours with a phone seemingly stuck to the side of our heads, and pay multiple visits to customers before jobs to plan, discuss and change plans again.

If only I knew then what I know now.

It wasn't that we didn't know about technology—hey, we had mobile phones and used email! And as fast as technology moves, even that short time ago there were tools that would have made our lives so much easier. But we did things the hard way.

We would sketch designs until we ran out of paper, rather than use any of the many free online planning tools widely available. We’d trip over duplicate emails because we weren't synced up. (I replied to the email; he replied to the same email. How professional is that? Not so much, I agree.) We chased payments. On foot, sometimes.

So would I do it again? Absolutely. But I’d do it so much better.

Knowing what I now know about all the amazing productivity tools available to small business owners (from GoDaddy and other companies), I’d work smarter -- using technology to save time and money (not to mention the environment), communicate more effectively, and get paid faster. Here’s how.  

I’d leverage the cloud.

Back then I didn’t know that moving everything to the cloud -- our designs, photographs, contracts, etc. -- would have saved us lots of mileage. I could have accessed the customer’s paperwork from the office, my car, even my customer’s house. Then—get this—have my customer sign off on plans, contracts, and so on, and then send it all back to the office for instant printing.

There are a number of free and reasonably priced cloud storage products on the market, including Microsoft One Drive™, Apple’s iCloud™and Google Drive™. You can learn more about cloud-based productivity here.

I’d be sweet on productivity suites

In addition to online storage capabilities, there are a few really excellent tools available to help small biz owners communicate and quickly and easily, no matter where you are, including:

-- Microsoft® Office 365 from GoDaddy. In retrospect, I realize the only real benefit to the free email account I used for my business was the price. A business-class solution like Microsoft’s popular Outlook® would've enabled me to sync my email, calendar and contacts across all my devices. Plus, this productivity suite includes Office standards such as Word®, PowerPoint® and Excel®. (Old me: “But I am a Mac user, and that’s Microsoft!” New me: “Yeah, and it all works on a Mac, too.”)

-- Google Docs. Intuitive (and free), Google Docs™ is a wholly cloud-based productivity suite that makes it easy to create and share word processing documents, spreadsheets, drawings and presentations.

-- LibreOffice. In the true spirit of collaboration, LibreOffice is the open source alternative to the bigger productivity players. The free, downloadable software features its own word processing, spreadsheet, drawing and presentation apps -- plus a really cool mathematics editor.

I’d take my invoicing and bookkeeping online.

It’s hard to believe how much time and energy I wasted chasing payments and rounding up receipts for tax time. With products like Square®, Stripe® and Get Paid, you can take customers’ payments with your smartphone. And products such as Online Bookkeeping, Quicken® and Mint® make managing small business finances simple so tax time doesn't equal stress time.

The mental edge

It’s not possible to list all of the tools and resources available to help small businesses get more done in less time with fewer headaches. And, naturally, it’s horses for courses—what works for me might not work for you. But what can’t be denied is that we need to make use of what’s available in this era of technology. A pencil and paper really does have its limitations.

Sitting here, writing this down, a thought crosses my mind: all of this technology is going to make me feel more professional, too. Strange, that knowing I’ll have this technology working alongside me will make me feel as though I am running a business far bigger that it actually is. Offering me resources that I didn’t even contemplate the first time around. Productivity suite? Check. Financial management package? Check. Complete email package? Check.

Hmm. I’m forgetting something … Oh, yeah—hammer and nails.

Peter Dillon was transplanted from Wales, UK, about 10 years ago and joined the GoDaddy family in 2010. A specialty trainer, Peter loves education and enjoys being on both sides of the desk—knowing that there is not only always something to learn, but there is always something that can be taught. The world’s largest domain name registrar and Web hosting provider, GoDaddy gives small business owners the tools to name their idea, build a beautiful online presence, attract customers and manage their business. To get more tips for your small business—including articles, videos and webinars—check out the GoDaddy Training Hub.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Four ways to make employees your greatest asset

Your employees have the potential to be the greatest asset to your business. Developing loyal, skilled employees with a passion for the business doesn’t happen on its own and requires a concerted effort. Here are four ways you can start investing in what could be your business’ greatest asset:

1. Create champions. Identify areas of the business that employees are passionate about, like marketing or customer service, and let employees “champion” that part of the business. Have them take responsibility for developing ways to improve their respective areas, and empower champions by providing opportunities to work together across teams. Make sure champions set quantifiable goals – that way you can track success.

2.  Get flexible. If the nature of your business allows it, consider allowing employees to work remotely. Research shows that when workers have more flexibility, they’re happier, better able to perform and more likely to stay at a job for longer periods. Job satisfaction is also improved by eliminating the anxiety caused by traffic and daily commutes. This could be a regular occurrence, such as “Work from Home Fridays,” or something that’s permitted on an as-needed basis. Leverage a tool like Office 365 so employees can maintain productivity and collaboration from anywhere.

3. Spend time. Make sure it’s not just your managers who feel like you’re invested in them. Devote regular one-on-one time with all of your employees on a regular basis, even if it’s just for a 15-minute coffee break once or twice a year. A small time investment will help them feel valued, and it will give you greater insight into your employee culture and what you can be doing to improve employee retention.

4. Encourage education. Even if you can’t afford to financially support employees who desire formal education, there still are ways to promote learning. Let employees know about free seminars or trade groups that align to their skills sets. Recommend books you think would benefit particular employees in their areas of expertise. Finally, support formal education if you are able, even if that means letting employees work flexible hours.

Any ideas you would add to this list? What’s worked for you when it comes to nurturing your employee base?
Cindy Bates is vice president of U.S. small and medium business at Microsoft, leading the company's efforts to help SMBs realize their full potential through the use of technology. For more SMB stories, technology insights, and business strategies for SMBs, visit www.microsoftbusinesshub.com.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rhonda Abrams, Travel Blog Series: Smart Small Business Travel

Increase Your Return-on-Travel on Your Very Next Trip

This blog post first appeared on 06/30/14 on Visa Business

To increase orders from your current customers and find new clients, plan a business trip. Travel, an important tool in your small-business tool kit, is an investment in growing and sustaining your business. And as with any investment, you want to get the highest return—in this case, your return on travel.
Businesses get an average return of $9.50 for every travel dollar they spend, according to a study the U.S. Travel Association sponsored, which Oxford Economics conducted. And it’s clear why business travel makes sense.

In-person interactions close sales and deepen relationships.
People do business with other people. Unfortunately, in my own business, I’ve seen that the reverse is also true. A few years ago, after losing a significant customer, I asked why they stopped doing business with us. The head of the company said, “Because we hadn’t seen you in a while, and your competitors kept coming to us.”
It was an expensive lesson.

Increasing your return on travel takes a bit of planning. Before a trip you’re busy taking care of pressing things, but carve out time to consider ways of increasing the value of your upcoming travel.

Define your wins. The purpose of your trip might be to exhibit at a trade show. But a win could be to meet with a specific prospect, get 50 new leads, or generate a certain amount of sales. Clarify what a win would be for you.

Think one trip, multiple wins. Focus on the primary purpose of your trip, but identify additional opportunities. Are important customers nearby that you’ve never met or haven’t seen in more than a year? If so, even if you have to stay another day, arrange to see them.

Build your local intelligence. Before you go, what research can you do on other prospects, potential strategic partners, or additional suppliers? You can even assess a competitor. You never know. You might learn something to improve your business.
Use your hotel as a second office. The more you center your life at the hotel, the less time you spend in transit. Smarter hotels make it easy to stay productive. Many have transformed their public spaces into inviting meeting and work spaces with good lighting and free Wi-Fi. They have flexible conference rooms you can book online.
And you don’t have to stay at a hotel to take advantage of its facilities. Some hotel companies, like Marriott, welcome small-business owners to use their lobbies and free Wi-Fi.

Take advantage of loyalty programs and benefits. Frequent business travelers can reap many rewards through loyalty programs. Sign up for these programs for every airline, hotel chain, and car-rental company you use.

You probably have benefits you don’t even realize. Many credit cards include not only an auto-rental collision damage waiver, but provide extended warranties and 90-day protection against loss or damage to new products.

Think of travel as an investment—rather than an expense—and plan trips that have a big payoff for your small business.

Download my Smart Small Business Travel Guide here for more travel-savvy tips and worksheets to help you plan your high return-on-travel trip. 

Recognized as one of the foremost experts on small business, Rhonda Abrams writes USA Today’s small business column and is the author of 19 books on entrepreneurship. Rhonda’s books have been translated into over 30 languages, and adopted by more than 1,000 business schools. Her books include the bestselling business plan guide in the U.S.: Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies.

To receive Rhonda’s free email newsletter on starting and growing a successful business, sign up at http://www.planningshop.com/register/register.asp

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

3 Things You Need to Do When Choosing Technology for Your Business

As an SMB owner, you want to maximize the investments you’ve made in your business. You want to get more done in less time. And you want to ensure you’re communicating effectively with customers and employees. The right technology can help you do both. Here are three ways you can ensure you’re making the right technology decisions for your business.

1.       Know that “free” often comes at a cost. The old saying is true: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Saving money in any way possible is a top priority for most small business owners, but when it comes to choosing technology, it pays to think through the downsides of free solutions before they end up costing your business in the form of frustration and lost productivity. A free software program may have some of the features you need, but getting it to integrate with separate business applications can be a huge challenge. “Free” also often means you won’t have access to tech support when something does go wrong, and you’ll be on your own to learn the ins and outs of the technology as well. If you want to learn how to use a solution, and get professional help integrating it with other applications and fixing issues when they arise, a sound alternative to free is to pay a reasonable monthly or annual subscription for cloud solutions.

2.       Choose IT solutions that can multi-task. Small businesses often fall into the trap of implementing technology that addresses only one specific task. For example, maybe you need the ability to share large files with customers or partners outside your company, so you sign up for a file-sharing service. Free or not, choosing a one-trick pony for simple tasks like file sharing might actually cost you more in the long run. You’re likely missing out on collaboration tools and integration with your email and applications that would take file sharing to the next level. When choosing an application or service to accomplish a single task, think through related tasks and look for an offering that lets you do more..

3.      Give yourself options. Smart business owners want plenty of options. This is especially true when it comes to how you and your employees communicate with one another. There was a time when email revolutionized how people communicate at work, but today, your employees should have plenty of options for communicating with one another from anywhere.  Instead of having to reply to an email and wait for a response, they should be able to open an instant messaging window directly from an email and get an urgent answer right then and there. They should be able to initiate voice calls and schedule web and video conferences right from their email inbox. The same can be said for customers. By providing a variety of options for customers to connect with your business, you can better understand their preferences and increase sales.

If you’re thinking about a tech refresh and want to ensure the best return, consider checking out Business Technology Simplified, an online course series developed in partnership by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and Microsoft. Three, 30-minute, self-paced courses make it easy to learn how to make the most of your technology investments and give your business a competitive edge.

Cindy Bates is vice president of U.S. small and medium business at Microsoft, leading the company's efforts to help SMBs realize their full potential through the use of technology. For more SMB stories, technology insights, and business strategies for SMBs, visit www.microsoftbusinesshub.com