Tracking Small Business Data with Adobe’s FormsCentral

by Jonathan Blum

Tracking Small Business Data with Adobes FormsCentral

Wrangling your company’s data doesn’t have to be a full time job.

Used correctly, online forms can help track everything from customer information taken from a company website to internal data like vacation time and sales.

With plenty of cheap do-it-yourself form builders on the market, it’s easy to find and set up basic forms. But not much middle ground exists when it comes to balancing affordability and ease-of-use with a secure, professional-looking service that is reasonable to deploy in a small- to mid-sized business.

Adobe Systems is looking to fill that gap in the form-builder market. The software giant recently released an upgrade to its form builder, Adobe FormsCentral and we have been testing it for several weeks.

Overall we found that the tool combines ease-of-use with a rich set of business-friendly features at a good price. A year subscription for FormsCentral costs about $17 a month while high-end subscriptions for other form builders with similar features often exceed $50 per month and can go much higher than that.

Why you might like it: FormsCentral has a simple, drag-and-drop, what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface that makes building forms a snap. The ability to re-size margins and boxes and add colors and logos for branding can make forms that are surprisingly professional looking. And we found a “test drive” function that lets you try a form before publishing to be powerful. Even writing “skip logic” — which creates special rules for your form by sending users to different pages based on their responses — is surprisingly intuitive.

Tracking performance was also solid. An Adobe account can show form results in real time. You can add categories and annotations to the data as you need to. And an array of customizable graphs and charts let you track and compare information pretty much as you would in a Microsoft Excel file. Speaking of which, moving data from Adobe into formats supported by presentation tools like PowerPoint also proved seamless.

Why you might not like it: It’s still real work. For all of FormsCentral features, no form builds itself. Expect to spend some serious time sinking your teeth into FormsCentral features, especially when it comes to the best ways to analyze and present your data to really get the results you need. All the ease of use of the tool can mask how much effort is required to get a first quality form.

Bottom line: If you are considering using forms in your shop, FormsCentral can certainly help you create better forms. Just remember, it won’t do it all by itself.

How To Smooth a Rejected Job Applicant’s Feathers

by Mikal E. Belicove

How To Smooth a Rejected Job Applicants Feathers

To follow-up on our recent post about do’s and don’ts of using social media to screen new hires, when your company uses social media channels to both source and screen new talent, you must consider that your applicants can turn right around and use those same channels to your disadvantage. In other words, if you screw up the interview process or treat job seekers with disregard or disrespect, you could find yourself the target of a rash of unwanted publicity.

For this reason, it’s most important to capture and promote good feedback from candidates who apply for a job with your company, says Lisa Chartier, U.S. head of resourcing communications for Alexander Mann Solutions, a provider of recruitment process outsourcing solutions. Her firm just published Candidates, Consumers and Your Global Brand, a white paper looking at the impact of the job candidate’s experience on consumer perceptions of businesses and brands.

If a job candidate is treated poorly during the interview process, your company risks alienating a customer — a potential evangelist of your product or service. The AMS white paper claims such ill-treated job candidates are more than willing to share their tale of woe online, and, as we know, social networking enables them to do so quickly, reaching a large number of people with the click of a button.

Specifically, the report says that 77 percent of job seekers are likely to tell people either within their profession or friends (or both) if they have a negative experience when applying for a job. And 52 percent say a bad interview would likely influence their buying decisions from that organization in the future. Only 10 percent of job applicants say such an unpleasant experience would not affect their opinion of the company.

The best-of-all-worlds solution, of course, is to make sure applicants leave the hiring process with their heads held high to ensure continued loyalty or, at the very least, apathy toward your company and brand.

Chartier says organizations need to remember that positive feedback doesn’t travel far on its own, so it’s important to capture and promote good feedback from job candidates. For example, you could post quantitative data on the careers page of your website from candidate feedback surveys, developing statistics like “95 percent of job candidates say the application process was positive and constructive.”

You should also coddle your applicants. “Email the ones who aren’t hired and tell them the position has been filled by someone who fits the role perfectly — and then tell them why,” says Chartier. She suggests letting them know what areas you’d like to see them improve, which gives the unsuccessful applicant a feeling that they’re still connected to your organization and that you really were paying attention during the interview process.

And if you’ve narrowed the field down to two or three candidates, send the losing applicants sample products, a thank you note, and an invitation to stay in touch for future opportunities.

At the SBA, New Challenges Lay Ahead

by Diana Ransom

At the SBA, New Challenges Lay Ahead

Small-business lending is soaring at the nation’s banks, but, as the government’s latest debt troubles wear on, future loan recipients may face added hurdles.

Buoyed by federal stimulus measures that cut fees and guaranteed up to 90 percent of certain loans, the nation’s banks in 2010 authorized a record in Small Business Administration-backed loans. While 2011 has so far followed suit, the SBA faces challenges both financially and legislatively that could not only derail its flagship 7(a) lending program, but also undermine other key programs.

In the 2010 fiscal year, U.S. banks approved more than $11.2 billion in loans offered through the SBA’s 7(a) and ARC loan programs, marking a 57 percent increase compared with 2009 figures. So far, in fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30, the agency has already backed $17 billion in loans.

Related: How to Find an Angel Investor

Despite losing the stimulus incentives in 2011, making SBA loans has remained attractive to many of the nation’s banks.

In July, big banks — with $10 billion or more in assets — saw approval rates for small business loans increase to 9.8 percent, from 8.9 percent the month prior, according to Biz2Credit’s latest Small Business Lending Index, an analysis of 1,000 loan applications. Similarly, the Index showed smaller banks were also green lighting more small-business loans with approvals at 44.9 percent last month, compared with 42.5 percent in June.

Related: Six Sources of Bootstrap Financing

But thanks to this enthusiasm, the SBA could feasibly exhaust its 2011 funding cap of $17.5 billion before the fiscal year ends, says Rohit Arora, founder and CEO of Biz2Credit, a New York-based online credit platform that connects small businesses with credit options.

However, the SBA in late July offered a stop-gap measure that would help shore up more cash for the agency to continue to guarantee small-business loans through September. To stay under its lending cap for the current fiscal year, the SBA plans to use the funds from canceled loans. That would give the agency another nearly $2 billion to continue to back loans until the next fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

Related: Crowdfunding Could Be the Answer to Your Cash Woes

But, of course, other challenges remain. There’s still a question of whether Congress will agree to fund the SBA going forward. Given the country’s current fiscal woes, how much taxpayers pay for everything from earmarks to entitlement programs to federal agencies will likely come under scrutiny by the recently named debt panel.

Added obstacles may arise if a new bill threatening to combine the SBA with the Department of Labor and the Department of Commerce gains steam. Critics of the measure entitled “Department of Commerce and the Workforce Consolidation Act,” which was recently introduced in the Senate by Richard Burr (R, N.C.), claim that it would further hamper federal programs aimed at aiding small businesses. The SBA said it doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

Is Your Business Ready for Video?

Is Your Business Ready for Video?

If the findings of a recent report are any indication, you should be slapping pancake makeup on your business and telling the director that you’re ready for your close-up. The survey, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, shows that 71 percent of U.S. adults who use the Internet have used video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. And these aren’t infrequent users. When asked if they’d visited such sites as recently as “yesterday,” a full 28 percent answered to the affirmative.

That’s a lot of consumers watching a lot of online videos. What does this mean for your business? First, a few fun facts.

Did you know that 48 hours of video content are uploaded every minute on YouTube? And that they’re subject to more than 3 billion views a day — with more than 200 million of those views coming by way of smartphones and mobile devices?

The Pew report has some interesting details about the people associated with those billions of online views. And as we all know, demographics such as those are a major consideration in choosing where and how to market your products or services.

For one thing, men and women were evenly split at 71 percent of the population that views video content online. Ninety-two percent of viewers between the ages of 18 and 29 participate as do 80 percent of those in the 30 to 49 age bracket, 54 percent of those ages 50 to 64, and 31 percent of those 65 and older.

Interestingly, online African-Americans and Hispanics watch more Web videos than online Caucasians. When it comes to household earnings, 71 percent of those earning less than $30,000 a year were viewers. That’s just a few shades less than the 75 percent for those earning $30,000 to $49,999 and the 76 percent of those making between $50,000 and $74,999. But 81 percent of online userss who earn $75,000 and more were online video watchers. Sixty-three percent of high-school grads said they’ve used video-sharing sites, compared with 75 percent for those with some college or college plus additional degrees.

Clearly, if your marketing, sales, customer support or technical service teams have been sitting on the video sidelines, now’s the time to get them into the game. This survey leaves no question as to whether consumers consume video online.

If what’s been holding you back is the lack of a game plan for filming, producing and managing video content, by all means get your team together and develop a request for proposals (RFP.) Then find a video production firm or consultants in your area qualified to assist you in conceptualizing and preparing your company for shooting and publishing video that will support your business-related goals.

Finally, Vimeo just released a new service called Vimeo PRO, an affordable professional video-hosting solution for small businesses, which I’ll be writing about in this space on Thursday.

How Will Google Affect SEO?

How Will Google Affect SEO?

By now you’ve probably heard about Google+, the latest social networking craze and most recent effort by Google to take on Facebook and Twitter. But did you know that it could affect how your business’s website gets found on Google’s search engine?

In addition to building a social networking powerhouse, Google’s aim with its “+1″ button — the equivalent of Facebook’s “Like” button — is to determine the social value of websites, or, in other words, they want consumers to add personalized recommendations to Web content and business sites. At present, it actually looks like Google may just pull it off. Since its June 28 release, more than 20 million people have already jumped onboard Google+. With such an unbelievable early adoption rate, many internet marketing professionals are beginning to wonder if those “+1″s will also start affecting how businesses use search-engine optimization, or SEO.

Google+ combines many popular features of Facebook and Twitter into a centralized social hub. There’s a group video chat feature called “Hangouts,” and a user-defined topical news feed (like Twitter’s hashtag) called “Sparks.” But maybe the most unique feature — and SEO-relevant — is “Google Circles,” which gives users the ability to share content with specified groups, or “circles” of people. As users build these circles, they’ll be able to see the sites that members of their circles have +1′d in Google’s search engine results pages, or SERPs.

While “+1″s are currently appearing in the search pages for users that are logged in to their Google accounts, it’s too early to say exactly how “+1″s will affect users who aren’t logged in. Looking at how Facebook and Twitter “Likes” and “retweets” currently affect where a site appears within search pages, one has to assume these +1′s will be as influential, if not more.

As search engines evolve to make searching more social, the main value added of “Likes” and “tweets” showing in SERPs is the concept of something I like to call, “trusted endorsements.” If someone searches for a product or service, there’s a good chance that customer reviews and recommendations will play some role in their decision making process. When looking at these reviews, users trust the opinions of strangers. They assume that these reviews are honest, but there’s always a hint of lingering skepticism.

Now imagine the same user is searching for the same product or service, but instead of having to rely on the opinions of strangers, they see recommendations from friends, co-workers or family members. Just like in real life, the opinions of people in their “circles” influence the decisions they make. That’s the potential Google+ holds.

So how do you optimize for recommendations?

Google has built upon some of the best features of existing social media sites in an attempt to make search less about computer algorithms and more about real people. Google+ and the +1 button are empowering users to influence other peoples’ online activity.

This isn’t SEO in the traditional sense, optimizing for these trusted endorsements is an entirely new strategy altogether. Now more than ever, marketers must focus on providing the best customer experience possible, and encourage +1 recommendations everywhere they can.

Mike Spadier is the online marketing manager for InMotion Hosting, a Los Angeles based Web hosting provider specializing in small- and medium-sized businesses.

Biryani for the racists

As I wrote last week, several hundred men and women from the English Defence League (EDL) arrived in the quintessentially English city of Cambridge on Saturday, to march through the streets in demonstration. Cambridge is a hotbed of ‘Islamic terrorism’ they say – they carried signs that read “no more mosques”.

Despite a huge turnout for the “Unite Cambridge” counter-demonstration, the photographs of the event, which you will find on the internet, were largely of the EDL. We see images of drunken, flag-waving, skin-heads being manhandled by the police, as bemused foreign students looked on in disbelief. But this, in no way represents what happened that day. These images not only undermine the phenomenal unity that emerged in the city at the weekend, but it also sensationalises the grievances of the EDL.

Talking to members of the EDL on Saturday, I soon learnt that many of them had served in the military or had members of close family or friends who had been killed or injured in conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq. Wars that they had been led to believe, were all about protecting Great Britain from Islamists. Re-integration into civilian life is tough at the best of times, but with a shifting ethnic demographic back home, and an economic downturn, it is not surprising that many of these people have difficulty managing change and understanding where their identity fits in with this. Whilst their ethos was undermined by foul language and cheap larger, their pain and anger was clear to see. Money is spent on listening to the grievances of young British Muslims for fear of them becoming radicalised, I couldn’t help wonder whether anyone was listening to members of the EDL?

But whilst some middle-class Cambridge people were shouting abuse down megaphones at these wounded souls, one group were embracing the visitors to their city with moving courage. I spoke with members of the local mosque a few days before the rally – people were scared they said, they felt unprepared for confrontation. I encouraged them to see this event as an opportunity. Within a few days they had completely turned the situation around. A decision was taken to open the mosque to the public to coincide with the Asian Mela that was happening in the city on Sunday. Leaflets were printed and Biryani for 400 English Defence League protesters was prepared.

One member of the Cambridge Muslim Council posted on his Facebook, “What a great favour the EDL did us today; we got to make so many new friends, people who visited the mosque, shared a meal, and had lots of interesting conversations”. And I agree with another member of the community who said it was right that the city should reject what the EDL stands for, but that this alone is not enough, “it needs to be combined with dialogue, and listening to their grievances”. The Muslims of Cambridge even managed to address aggressive behavior from fellow Muslims.

Cambridge residents were horrified to see gangs of young Asian men arrive in Cambridge to “defend” the Muslims. Their demeanor was much like some of the EDL – aggressive and loutish. But they were swiftly pulled aside by the Cambridge community – and although they had been up for a fight, some returned to the mosque later that day to shakes hands and apologise. “It is great what you guys are doing”. The Cambridge Muslim Council believed that what really changed their minds was that they saw the huge non-Muslim turnout at the mosque; they saw people who were not Muslim but came to show their support.

And perhaps because bizarrely, my life’s work appears to be about showing commonality between Cambridge and Karachi you might have guessed that I would be looking for a situation in Karachi that might resemble what happened in Cambridge at the weekend.

In a week that has seen Karachi fraught with violence, and media channels announcing the rising death-tolls like a cricket-score on Twitter, it might be worth remembering the “unity” that can exist in the city. In October last year the day after a particularly foul attack on a Sufi Shrine in which six people were killed, approximately 3000 young people – individuals and members of over 20 civil society organizations gathered together for Chal Utha Pakistan (Rise and Walk Pakistan). The walk raised over five Lac Rupees for flood relief and a further Rs1.6 million in sponsorship from the private sector. Like the Cambridge demonstration of unity, attendance at the event was boosted by Facebook and other social networks. And like the Cambridge event, it turned something ugly into an opportunity to celebrate unity.

“It was intended that the event be postponed because of the security situation”, said Faraz Khan who runs Stimulus in Karachi, “this was a testament to the spirit and resilience of people of Karachi and Pakistan. The youth turned up, we played music, they were laughing. Youthful, happy, educated, loving girls and boys…true Pakistan …it was lovely…” Unlike many Pakistanis I have met, Faraz truly believes that it’s only a matter of time before, what he calls “the fabric of goodness” resurfaces in Pakistan through the true spirit of communication.

The huge population of young people (over 50 per cent under 20) provides hope to Faraz and another well known activist – Junooni Salman Ahmed, who has recently launched a social awareness campaign A.R.T – Aman (Peace and regional harmony), Rozi (economic security) and Taleem (Education). He writes that this is a non-political, non-partisan and non-violent movement which Pakistani women and men of all ages and inclinations can agree upon.

“Our goal is to bring about a fundamental change in the contract between the individual and the state” says Salman, and interestingly, he is not the only one to contact me recently to mention that hope for Pakistan lies in the individual.

Perhaps we need to hear more about events like Chal Utha Pakistan, which demonstrate resilience and the turning of something negative into an opportunity to show unity. And I am certainly moved and engaged by the story of the Muslim community in Cambridge this weekend. I will never forget a show of unity in Tel Aviv I attended some 20 years ago. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs turned up in their thousands, but the media only covered the angry shouts of a handful of right-wing Jews as they counter-demonstrated. As a young woman, I was angry and confused.  So once more, I call on media channels to focus on dramatic examples of cooperation, and not go for cheap sensationalism. Last week I complained at the Cambridge News irresponsible headlines, but this week I congratulate them on their balanced content “English Defence League march ends after failed bid to target mosque” which shows images of both demonstrations and a positive video.

Sadly the EDL never got their Biryani, but the thought was there, another member of the mosque said that “there is some positive relationship with them because of this gesture”. Unity is one thing, reaching out that step further is to be applauded.

Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy.  She writes regularly for Muslim Voices and the World Bank blog, and a book about her time in Iraq is being launched in October 2011.  More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found on www.jaine.info

Will Today’s Entrepreneurs Ever Retire?

by Carol Tice | 12

Will Todays Entrepreneurs Ever Retire

Is your retirement plan to simply keep working until you drop? If so, you’re not alone.

Fewer than half of U.S. small-business owners feel “very or fairly well prepared for retirement,” according to a new survey of 1,433 small-business owners with more than $500,000 in sales from the Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute.

What’s more, four in ten entrepreneurs said they don’t plan to ever fully retire. They imagine they’ll probably go back and forth between full- and part-time work.

The main stated reason is simply that business owners imagine they’ll need the money. After all, people are living longer, and it’s harder to plan for 20-plus years of retirement. People forget that when Social Security was created, it was formulated around the notion that people would retire at 65 — and then die at 69.

Here are a couple other possibilities for why many entrepreneurs don’t envision retiring:

Of course, the past few years haven’t been kind to people’s retirement savings. So, owners who might once have thought about retiring may no longer see it as realistic.

Another possibility stems from my own experience at my first full-time reporting job, where I interviewed a lot of hardware store and lumberyard owners. I found most of these owners’ retirements followed a predictable pattern: They’d sell the store and go on a world cruise — returning a year later only to buy another hardware store.

Why? They missed retailing. Life was dull as dishwater without the chance to get up early and go down to the store, talk to employees, help customers and make sales.
Entrepreneurship gets in your blood. It’s a thrill, building a business and being in charge of your own enterprise. It can be a hard habit to break.

Retirement is for people who hate their jobs. If you love the business you’ve created, as many owners do, it may not sound appealing to quit and sit watching sunsets instead.

The 10 Best Things for Entrepreneurs to Outsource

by Carol Tice | 8

The 10 Best Things for Entrepreneurs to Outsource

Take a look at your schedule this week, business owners. How much of your time is taken up with activities that don’t create new products or services, drive more sales or find new customers?

If the answer is a lot, it’s probably time to think about offloading some of your chores so you can concentrate on what really matters. For instance, are you cleaning counters or writing Web copy, when what you’re really good at is inventing, selling or servicing customers?

Here is a list of the top 10 tasks creative solopreneurs should outsource, says Kevin Reeth, CEO and co-founder of the accounting-software firm Outright.

  1. Taxes
  2. Production
  3. Technology Setup
  4. Scheduling
  5. Cleaning
  6. Bookkeeping
  7. Data entry
  8. Shopping
  9. Creative work outside your specialty
  10. Anything you don’t enjoy

Personally, I think that No. 10 there should come first on this list. Things you don’t enjoy take forever to do, naturally. So what that amounts to for you is a major time-waster.

Shopping and errands, to me, rank a close second. Rather than drive to town, hand a bank deposit to a teller and pick up the dry cleaning, your precious time is likely better spent elsewhere. Recruit a teen – unemployment is high among our nation’s youth and you won’t have any trouble finding someone great.

Cleaning I have made a longstanding vow not to do — it’s really a bad idea for me, as I am allergic to both dust and cleaners. Plus I hate it, so back to that No. 10 there.

Having once been a secretary, I’m not so sure scheduling is a good one to outsource. Seems like half the time there’s a miscommunication once you hand that off, and we all have those handy online calendars now that track our appointments. Think I’m keeping that one.

Bookkeeping or accounting always seem like the one where you outsource it and the next thing you know, you realize somebody’s been writing themselves company checks and they’ve flown off to the Bahamas. Or maybe it’s that I’m sort of a numbers dork, having covered business finance for a long time, so I like it. Just did my half-year close and projections for annual income for 2011 this morning…my idea of a good time. If you outsource this one, I say make sure you keep a close eye on it.

Are You a ‘Horrible Boss’?

by Carol Tice | 0

Are You a Horrible Boss

It’s a sensitive subject for entrepreneurs, as many were inspired to start their businesses by a desire to get away from a nasty boss.

But…what kind of boss have you turned into, now that you’re in charge?

The new movie Horrible Bosses has thrown a spotlight on an unpleasant fact: A lot of bosses are awful.

A new survey of more than 400 workers found nearly half had worked for an “unreasonable” manager, according to OfficeTeam, a staffing firm that commissioned the survey. Unlike the movie’s plot — in which three beleaguered employees set out to kill their bosses who are variously: a sex maniac (Jennifer Aniston), a bigoted environmental despoiler (Colin Farrell), and a manipulator (Kevin Spacey) — most people afflicted with a bad boss learn to adjust.

 

Horrible Bosses

 

Nearly 60 percent of workers in the OfficeTeam study said they stayed on the job, despite having a nasty boss. Only 11 percent quit immediately, without another job lined up. Another 27 percent planned their escape, finding another job first and then leaving.

The study identified five common types of bad bosses. Do you recognize yourself here?

  1. Micromanager. Just can’t delegate, and when you do, you’re double-checking the work just to make sure it’s being done the way you would have done it.
  2. Poor communicator. With little or no direction offered, workers waste time as they fumble about trying to guess what you want.
  3. Bully. Easily frustrated? Lose your cool with employees and start yelling? Is it your way or the highway?
  4. Saboteur. You’re taking credit for workers’ ideas and successful projects. On the other hand, if things go wrong, a worker is getting the blame.
  5. Mixed nuts. I had one boss like this once — happy and laid back one minute, snapping orders the next.

Seven Tips for Selling to Big Businesses

June 29, 2011 by Carol Tice |

Seven Tips for Selling to Big Businesses

What does it really take to sell to big corporations?

It turns out, many small businesses make some basic blunders in trying to sell to Fortune 500 companies, according to Hewlett-Packard’s director of global supplier diversity and sustainability Brian Tippens and Dun & Bradstreet’s senior analytical consultant Phyllis Meyer and D&B’s risk management vice president Bill Balduino. Here are their tips on how to land a big corporate account:

1. Do your homework. Prepared entrepreneurs know what products or services the prospect is already using that they might be able to provide. They’ve scoped out the competition and are ready to explain why doing business with their small business will be better, says Tippens.

2. Be ready with your short pitch. The “elevator pitch” is alive and well in the halls of big-company vendor departments, especially on mass “supplier day” events. Tippens says, be ready to explain what you do and why you’re a better alternative within 30-60 seconds. “I’ve seen so many owners say: “What does H-P need?” says Tippens, “instead of saying: ‘This is what I do really well. This is why I’m better than H-P’s current solution.’”

3. Have your financials in order. Know that big-company buyers will investigate your credit, says Balduino, both when you land the account and on a regular basis. They’re looking at doing business with you as a risk. “If your review shows you’re in the red, you could lose the account.”

4. Be able to deliver. If you don’t have the manufacturing capacity to sell a big national chain your product, make that clear at the outset. Balduino notes big companies want to form ongoing relationships, not make spot buys, so be sure you can provide the volume they need.

5. Plan to follow up. Buyers are busy. Be a little persistent — but not a pest — and buyers will get the picture that you’re serious. Leave your meeting by asking: “What is the best way for me to follow up with you,” says Tippens.

6. Get pro business cards. Meyer says a joke at D&B is: “You paid for both sides of the card, so use them.” Put a special offer on the back, and make sure it lists any professional licenses you own. Include your street address. Cards with nothing but your name, company name and an email don’t present your business very professionally.

7.Get a company email address. Nothing turns off a major-corporate supply contact faster than hearing your elaborate presentation about your company’s amazing abilities end with: “So please contact me at joebizowner@yahoo.com.” Splurge on a professional email address that matches your company name.