The recent hack of Sony's systems have been in the news like so many other hacks. What makes this one different is the information that has been made available. While other hacks were about national security or personal debit or credit card information, this hack stems from a movie that Sony produced. The emails that have been released have been perhaps the most damaging since they contain personal opinions and commentary from everyone at Sony up to it's executive leaders about actors and even the President.
One would say that smaller businesses are more vulnerable since they may not have IT security measures or software like Sony so all of their information could be attained by a novice hacker. There are a couple of lessons from all of this.
1) Business emails should be all business. Because the line has blurred between our personal and professional lives we may get complacent and mix our content with our communication channels. Never add personal thoughts about others like coworkers, vendors, competitors or clients. Remember also that emails can be admissible in court for cases such as slander. In this case it's best to follow your mom's advice, 'if you can't say something nice about someone...'
2) Be selective when emailing. Remember, an email travels along a long path passing many different servers and equipment before reaching it's intended audience. Google, Microsoft and ISP's are always scanning emails for marketing opportunities so hackers may be able to as well. If a phone call or face to face would be appropriate for the information that needs to be relayed use those channels instead.
3) Have a policy or rules for emails. Setting up some rules about the appropriate use of email in a work setting is good especially if you have employees. If you are a sole proprietor or smaller organization make sure to keep your business and personal communications separate and be mindful of the information you transmit.
4) Most importantly, never ever click on links in emails that appear suspicious from unknown persons or vendors/clients. Hackers are getting more and more sophisticated with this process. They will send an email with malware that will collect your contacts and email them so your contacts believe they are getting an email from you when in reality they are getting an email from the hacker. Always check the address that it is coming from since this can be a dead give away (ex. the name display is John Smith from ABC Company but the address is email@example.com) As always, if you know the person and are not sure about the email you can call them to verify whether it is legitimate or not.
While it appears that anyone can be hacked, keeping business emails, business can help prevent alienating others around you, damaging your small businesses reputation or brand or opening your or your small business to slander and defamation.
The Spurs emphasize the fundamentals, passing, shooting, blocking and playing together. Even Tim Duncans nickname was The Big Fundamental (before being named Old Man Riverwalk) Fundamentals are the foundation for any endeavor. If you want to build a strong house, a strong relationship, a strong sports team or a strong small business you need master the fundamentals for a solid foundation. For small businesses those fundamentals fall under financial, marketing and customer service.
Cash flow is the life blood of any business. Without a firm understanding of your finances and the effects operational decisions have you can't get to the awesome marketing campaigns. Many startups run out of money before they get to breakeven or even bringing a product to market. Good financial fundamentals include financial controls, good data, financial reports, budgets, forecasts and a financial strategy. None of this is sexy but it's vital. Without cash you can't do anything else.
Next is your marketing. Before you get sold on glossy marketing materials and splashy ad campaigns there some fundamentals. What is your brand or your business all about? To advertise you need to communicate about yourself and have a call to action. Measurements, what is the ROI on your marketing? What campaign is bringing in clients? Is that billboard bringing in clients or are people so distracted by the radio or texting to see your billboard? A good marketing expert will learn about your business to determine the most effective way of communicating your brand and not be afraid of measuring marketing effectiveness.
Customer service is huge as well. You have to leave your customers with a positive experience every time. Take care of the need first. Customers feel better when they feel you are looking out for them by asking what the need is and providing options that fit. This also build a degree of trust which can go a long way to providing repeat and referral business.
These are some of the fundamentals that can help drive small business success. As with all fundamentals these need to be worked on consistently to ensure and allow you to build your own championship organization.
The San Antonio Spurs have won their fifth championship. The Spurs now have the highest winning percentage of not just any basketball organization but any sports organization and have broken a number of records in the last two finals. Forbes lists the Spurs as number 10 on Forbes NBA Team valuations
One of the thoughts stressed by coach Popovich is give up a good shot for a great shot. This entails a player not taking or passing on an opportunity for a good shot and give the ball to a teammate who is in a position to take a great shot. This brings to mind a comment I once read that says you have to say no to the good so you can say yes to the best.
There are opportunities and choices that are good, but are they the best? There is always a limit to the time and resources available but this is more pronounced for small business owners. Small business owners do not have the cash flow or other resources of larger organizations and so being able to do this is more critical to small business owners.
Knowing the difference between good and best means knowing what is needed. What qualities are required, what needs have to be fulfilled? You need a benchmark in your mind to know when opportunities are good and when they are great. You also have to be realistic, while having a vision and a full checklist is good you also need to know that you will only get close to getting everything on that list. You also have to be able to walk away from an opportunity. Having a benchmark or vision of what the best solution or opportunity is will help, but it can still be hard to walk away from opportunities. Remember, as a small business owner you may have to walk away from many good opportunities to be able to accept great ones.
While no one wants to give up a good shot at an opportunity saying no will leave you open for taking a great shot down the road and help you build your own world class organization.
Information or business data is critical to the success of any business but even more so for a small businesses. This information can not only let you know when there are issues with your business but can also be used to help guide decisions for critical business initiatives and ventures.
But getting the right business information requires having certain elements to ensure that the information you are basing your decisions on is accurate and relevant.
I spent several years as a business analyst providing information, reporting and decision support to business leaders and have found the following is necessary:
Good data - remember GIGO? (garbage in, garbage out) It is important to ensure that the data you are entering into your systems and software is correct if not any report based on this data is irrelevant and useless. Good data provides a strong foundation for business reporting, analysis and decision support.
Relevant data - Not only does the information that is entered need to be accurate, you have to determine what information is important to capture. You know you need sales and the date of sales but what other information is important? Do you need the location of the sale to compare the performance between markets? You can't analyze business performance with data you do not have.
Ask the right business question - This one is a bit tricky. Business reporting and business analysis requires pulling relevant data and applying parameters. If you ask the wrong business question you may pull the wrong data element or use the wrong parameters. It is important to fully understand what information you need or what business decision you need to make.
The three elements above are important in ensuring that business leaders have the information they need to make the best business decision possible for their small business.
With the move to mobile devices applications are turning smartphones and tablets into productivity tools for your small business. Need to fax something or scan it? No problem, just take a picture with your phone and send it via email or text. But what other functions can you perform on your mobile device that may be beneficial to your small business? Here are a few mobile apps that are available.
Need to store files but keep them accessible? Dropbox is an app where you can store files in a cloud and easily retrieve them. Dropbox provides 2 Gigabytes free and the app is free as well.
Need to jot notes or ideas? Try Evernote. Again, the app is a cloud based app that allows you to save notes and not only retrieve them later, but allows you to search by keyword or tag.
Need to process a credit or debit card? Apps such as Square allow you to plug in a small swipe device and your mobile phone becomes a credit card processing machine. Several of the apps charge a percentage of the transaction amount and the app and sometimes the dongle are free.
Need to have a virtual meeting? Skype and WebEx allows for virtual meetings. Skype allows for face to face and WebEx gives you the ability to share files so that those you are meeting with can view the files as you review them.
Need to review files created in Office? Docs to Go is a mobile app that allows you to open, Word, Excel and PowerPoint files and even allows you to create Word and Excel documents.
Too many passwords to remember? Password Keeper and other applications like it have the ability to keep user id's, passwords and even the website url giving people the ability to store all their passwords in one application. So instead of trying to remember all your passwords or having a list, you only need one password, the one to get into the password keeper app.
With mobile technologies capacity continuing to grow the mobile platform will have continue to see newer and better applications that can help with running a small business.
We live in an age where people tweet to one another or message via Facebook, but some people still reach out via the phone. With all of the technology that has come up, some people have forgotten the lost art of answering a business call.
How you answer your phone can be just as important as any marketing strategy or campaign that you come up with. It is the first contact and first impression that potential clients get when they speak with you or anyone in your business.
Cathy Hernandez is the owner and operator of A&A Virtual Office, a locally owned answering, transcribing and administrative services firm that has been the front desk for many small businesses and entrepreneurs. Cathy is experienced and well versed in the art of the business call. She provided a few tips regarding answering a business call:
1) Be professional - you can't answer with "Waz uuuuup?" and a generic "Hello?" will have people asking if they dialed the right number. Callers should get a courteous, professional response, know who they have called and feel that they are dealing with a professional business. Remember first impressions count.
2) People like talking to people and not machines - we have all called an 800 number and started hitting "0" to get to a "live operator". An answering machine may be less expensive but could cost you business. If cost is an issue an answering service can provide that professional first contact for a fraction of the cost.
3) A missed call can mean missed business - if potential clients are calling you, they are also calling your competitors. A professional response to a call can go a long way to creating a good first impression, provide potential clients with answers to general questions they may have and set expectations as to signing up for services or purchasing products. If it's getting difficult to get to your calls, having someone take on that task may be a good idea. Again, an answering service is a cost effective option for small businesses or entrepreneurs.
A phone call may seem like a little thing, but it's the little things that can drive potential clients away. Providing a good first impression regardless of any channel that you interact with potential clients on can make your marketing campaign a success as opposed to lost dollars.
Technology has made it easy to save and access our information. We are instantly connected through our mobile and other devices. The new technology makes it easier to manager and run our businesses and to provide goods and services to our customers.
But what happens when you lose your device or it is stolen from you? Suddenly anyone with your device can access your small businesses information. Securing your business devices is important. With the work that you do for your small business and the information that is accessed your devices can become a treasure trove for hackers and thieves. What are some things you can so to protect your information?
Technology is changing so quickly that it is changing how we communicate, how we get business, and how we do business. The proof was at the last development breakfast held by the South Chamber and a recent Tech 101 at the Plaza Club.
I am a business person, not a techie, but I try to keep up with what is going on with technology since it can change the landscape so quickly. Changing landscapes can have a dramatic impact to our businesses and if we don't try to at least understand it, we may be come victims of it.
Any business can advertise on Google's search engine. Ads can be set up and target web surfers in San Antonio, Texas or the U.S. Cloud technology allows for files to be stored offsite and accessed anywhere. Some website providers allow for self service with multiple widgets so that small modifications or wholesale changes to a website can be make quickly.
We have made use of some of this technology and it has provided tremendous advantages both operationally and financially and has helped us to successfully service our clients needs.
And the trend will continue towards more mobile computing and self service applications. Processing will occur and software (Office 365) will reside in the cloud and our phones will be become more than our gateway to computing needs. And more innovations are still coming like 3D printers.
While some may see technology as a challenge, it is really an opportunity that can help small business gain an edge or make it easier for entrepreneurs to start their own enterprises.
Sequestration, a long, funny sounding word with serious implications. With the deadline on March 1st and no resolution in site, there are predictions of dire consequences. Some small business contractors could be affected by reduced business with government agencies.
This is a reminder that challenges to our small businesses can come from anywhere and some may be out of our control. But how would a small business minimize the impact of outside forces?
Diversification - it's always a good idea to have a diverse book of business. Providing different kinds of goods, or services in more than one market segment can help prevent catastrophic changes. Small businesses that only have government contracts may be in for a rough time.
Cash on hand - it's good to have a reserve. Yes, sometimes it is very difficult to set up a reserve for your small business but you can use a budget to help build a reserve. Want to know how long you can operate on cash reserve only? Take the total cash you have and divide by your average total monthly cash outflow and multiply the result by 22 for the average number of workdays in the month. This will let you know how many days worth of reserve you have.
ex. (Total cash on hand/Average monthly cash outflow) x 22=days worth of reserve
Keep your customers informed - if the work you perform for your clients includes working with government or federal agencies let your clients know that services may take a little longer. Keeping your clients informed or resetting timelines will help with customer experience.
Emergency reduction plan - do you have an emergency plan for your small business? Would you know which expenses are essential to your business and which you can cut or delay? Having a plan for surviving reduced work or business can help if a situation comes up. It would be no different than an exit plan in the event of a fire. You hope there will never be a fire, but you know what you need to do and where to go if there is one.
Sometimes you will never know when a threat to your small business can come or where it can come from. But making sure your work is diversified, having a reserve and having a plan for such situations can help you and your small business survive challenging times.
We hope that you had a festive and safe holiday season filled with family and friends. The season of peace and reflection now has given way to the start of a new year, new hope, and new opportunities.
How can small business owners help themselves get off on to a good start for 2013? Here are a few tips:
Budget - Have a realistic budget for your small business and stick to it. How do you go about creating a budget? You need good data and information to start with. Making sure that your business expenses are booked correctly helps. Don't fret if unexpected expenses such as a repair comes up during the year. These are one time events necessary to keep doing business.
Get value for your dollars - when you look at your expenses, don't look to cut costs, look to see if there are opportunities to increase the value you get for the dollars you spend. Shop around and find what works for your small business.
Remember customer experience matters - take care of the customer's needs first and make sure their experience is positive. Give your customers a reason to come back to you, think of you for other needs or recommend you to others.
Stop, start and continue - Take some time to think about your business and make a list of things to stop, start and continue. Stop the things you are doing that are not working or is not providing value to your small business. Once you stop things that aren't working you will have some time to start things that you need to do for your small business. Also, continue the things that are working and are valuable to your small business.
These are just a few tips to getting a small business off to a good start for 2013.