Over the last few weeks I've started to hear from many of my business clients that their businesses are "starting" to show signs change...change for the good. Now, I'm not going to tell you that there's any big changes underfoot, but my sense of it is that there's a change in attitude, and it's less negative than I've seen for a long time. I'm delighted, and I'm hoping it's not just my wishful thinking.
Small businesses are often the first to see change, but usually the last to recover, because they have less "fat" to live on in hard times. Many of my clients are finding it tough, and in fact are holding on, hoping for an upswing. Now's the time for the banks to have faith and hang in there. Unfortunately, bankers are often bound by their institutional rules, and even if they personally would choose to cut a struggling small business some slack, they risk censure or even termination if they do so. 
So, look for a bank with a local focus and personality. The age of the mega-bank is not coming to a close, but if there's anything small businesses has learned in the last, difficult years, it's that local banks may often come through when national and international banks have their focus on trying to get the government to bail them out.

If you're seeing any positive change in your business, or the attitude of your banker, your creditors or your vendors, post a comment here on my blog...I'd love to hear about your experience.
Here's some really good books to read to help keep up with what's happening in marketing and technology:

This is a step-by-step guide to getting the most out of internet marketing. It's well written and therefore easy to read and absorb. At the back of the book the authors have provided a checklist that I find very useful. Can't recommend it enough!
Authors: Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah
Publisher: Wiley 
ISBN: 978-0-470-49931-3
Cover price: $24.95 (Hard cover)

A book that describes the "Freemium" selling strategy that we see more and more online. Basically, Freemium describes an initial, low level service offering that's free, with upgrading options that cost a small amount. It's been used for many years, but is increasing in popularity. It might make sense for your company, so take a look at this book.
Author: Chris Anderson
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 978-1-4013-2290-8
Cover price: $26.99 (Hard cover)

Chris Anderson describes a new phenomenon that has evolved over the last few years, as retail selling increasingly moves from brick-and-mortar shops to online. It used to be that 80% of retail sales dollars in products such as books, were generated by 20% of book titles. Amazon and other online sellers are experiencing that this mix has changed dramatically, and the resulting change may have impact on a wide range of industries. A book worth reading and implementing.
Author: Chris Anderson
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 978-1-4013-0966-4
Cover price: $15.95 (Soft cover)

Another book that talks about a new phenomenon that is spreading fast; the "after sale" or Collaborative Consumption market of goods that we see on ebay, Craigs List and a slew of other sites. The second chapter is a little depressing (to say the least) as it deals with the ecological mess we now find ourselves in, but the discussion and ideas are refreshing and practical. It's a book for entrepreneurs who are looking for a new business idea that is fairly simple and low cost. Worth a read.
Authors: Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-470-196354-4
Cover price: $24.95 (Hard cover)
Here's a great free resource that you'll probably find useful. The address is: http://www.addtoany.com/buttons/.
You'll find tools there that can add value to your site and are easy to use. The one I like most (and we've used on this site) is the Social Networks link button. Here's what it look like:

You just add a little code they provide to your web pages and visitors can use the button to recommend your site to friends, add to the most popular Social Networks and Bookmark sites, and more. That's it.
There's a lot of other tools available on the site too, so check it out.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the science that is used to make sure web sites are set up correctly to take advantage of search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, Bing and thousands of other lesser known services. The process is difficult, arcane and filled with folklore, voodoo science and misguided assumptions. There's a slew of consultants and service companies offering SEO services; many prey on web site owners who have little or no idea of what SEO truly is, but know they need it. If you find a good practitioner, the service can be expensive, typically between $500 and $5,000 per month on a six to twelve contract. 

The other alternative is to do some studying and become proficient at maintaining your own site. It's time consuming but really worth it. One way to get up to speed is to use the newly updated SEO Starter Guide that Google just released. You can download a free PDF copy of Google’s SEO Starter Guide here.

Another free resource that you'll find useful is http://websitegrader.com. You enter your website address and the Grader pulls together a range of testing tools that will tell you if you need to make minor tweaks to your site, or if there's some significant issues that need addressing. If you want to see how your site compares with your competitor's sites in terms of traffic, go to http://alexa.com . Enter your website address and the addresses of your main competitors and you'll see a chart comparing traffic. You'll also see your "Ranking", which is a global ranking of web site's popularity. For example, Alexa ranks Google.com as number 1, Facebook.com as number 2, and so on. The SCORE.org site (Our national site) is ranked as a very respectable 23,280, and the Ulster Chamber of Commerce site as 3,334,036. This may sound like a very low number, but if you consider that there's probably 100 million web sites now it doesn't seem too bad.

These free tools are not only useful in helping you make more use of your web site and drive more business, they provide you with an ongoing set of measurement tools that you can use to monitor how you are doing. But there's an even better way to monitor your site's performance, and it too is free. Go to http://www.google.com/analytics/ and sign up. Google offers any site owner a tool to monitor traffic, identify where your traffic comes from, where it abandons your site, and more. All you do is add a small tag to your web pages and Google does the rest. 

Web traffic is becoming more important to small business so make sure you're getting the most from your site.

Here is what I believe are the most important success factors in business:
1. Look for opportunities to do something better than just about everyone else.
2. Accept risk as a necessary evil. It makes for much less competition.
3. Act responsibly to customers, employees and vendors.
4. Goals aren’t enough. You need a plan. You need to execute the plan.
5. You need to fix the plan as you go. Learn from your mistakes. Most people don’t.
6. Do not reinvent the wheel. Learn from others — join a business group.
7. Make sure the math works. I know plenty of people who work hard and follow their passion but the math doesn’t work. If the math doesn’t work, neither does the business.
8. Make sure that every employee understands and works toward the mission.
9. There are going to be difficult times and you need to be resilient; whining is a waste of time.
10. There will be sacrifices. Work to find a balance so that you don’t become a financially successful loser. It’s not about the income, it’s about the outcome.

The economy is taking its sweet time to recover, and if you've been thinking about starting a new business, you have to be asking yourself if now's the time....
There's no simple answer to this question, but if you have some investment dollars to spend for your future, now would be a good time to place them because as the economy does recover, prices will rise quickly. If you don't have cash to invest, the prospects of borrowing are as dismal as they have ever been. Although Bank of America and other large banks may talk a good game about their interest in lending to small business, the reality is that they are so reticent, they seem to only be lending to customers with which they have had long term relationships.
Smaller banks are, as always, more nimble (if the use of the words banking and nimble in one sentence isn't an oxymoron) and willing to talk to new customers. However, don't be tricked into thinking that their old rule of only lending to companies or individuals with high credit ratings has changed. It hasn't.
Here's a few observations that may help you if you're considering a new business venture:
1. Buying an existing business right now, often makes more sense than starting from scratch. Sellers are ready to get out (they have often weathered a grueling few years, and are tired), sales are down and the last few year's net profit has been poor, so it's hard for sellers to get top dollar.
2. If you do buy an existing business, buy it using future income. In essence, pay for the business by giving the seller a piece of the net profit for the next few years. That means that they have a vested interest in helping you keep the business up and running, and will be helpful on an ongoing basis.
3. Don't fool yourself into thinking you could run the business better than the existing owner. It may be true, but you'll need a concrete plan of action before you start. Don't "wing it".
4. If you need to raise cash for operating capital, look first to the inventory you'll get with the business. It's usually old stuff that hasn't moved, and so see if you can discount the inventory that's obviously old and sell it to get cash.
If you intend to start a business from scratch, make sure you reduce your risk as much as you can. It's a brutal truth, but most, in fact almost all new businesses don't succeed and often that means leaving the entrepreneur with a hefty debt to pay off. Here's a few tips to think about:
1. Don't get into any long term commitments...for example, try to get a month to month lease on your office, if you need one. If not, start at home and stay there until you're bursting at the seams.
2. Lock up your cash and don't spend it. The more you have in reserve, the better the chance that you'll succeed. Oh, and you'll need more cash then you plan for (I usually allow for double my cash requirements projection).
3. Incorporate if you have to take on any debt or liability. Spend the $250 or so it takes to create a corporation and you'll have personal protection if things go wrong. But remember, incorporating won't protect you from the IRS, so pay taxes first and on time.
4. Don't waste money on advertising. Make sure you know that an ad will work before you commit to spending cash. Try new, online marketing as it's cheap, quick and often effective. Once you know what marketing messages work you can feel more confident in spending advertising cash.
Starting or buying a business is a difficult process, but with good planning and a lot of time and energy, it can be the best thing you ever did. Good
A few weeks ago we were notified about a new SBA sponsored program to provide quick funding for existing and new businesses. The program, facilitated through Borrego Springs Bank, is a new and innovative program that we hope will help a lot of businesses in our region, and further afield.
You can learn more about the the program here: http://www.borregospringsbank.com/sba_express.asp but i'll run through it briefly below.

First, the program focuses on loans of up to $25,000, but can facilitate borrowing of $50,000 or more. Here's the rules regarding eligibility:
  • -All SBA eligible industries considered
  • -Start-up businesses allowed
  • -Loan proceeds for business acquisition not allowed
  • -Working capital loans to businesses after acquisition has been fully completed are permitted
  • -Franchise must be on the SBA approved Franchise Registry http://www.franchiseregistry.com
  • -Liquid assets of individual owner cannot exceed $100,000 – does not include IRA and other qualifying Retirement Accounts
  • -No tax return required
  • -Utilizes Fair Isaac Credit Score System, which evaluates credit score of the applicant and industry data including current and recent past due accounts; collection accounts have a very negative effect on the applicant's credit score and loan decision
  • The main feature of the program is that you get a preliminary yes or no in 48 hours or less (Right now they are experiencing a lot of applications, and our first client application has taken over a week, but that may be a short term issue). The other key feature is that you, the borrower must agree to work with what's termed an SBA Technical Assistant (TA). A TA is in essence a Mentor who works with you to prepare the paperwork, signs-off on your business plan and stays and works with you for a minimum of a year. There are several SCORE Ulster counselors who are also approved SBA TAs, so just contact us if you want to look into this further.

    Overall, the program looks really exciting and has a lot of promise. As I said previously, we are in the process of submitting the first loan application via one of our counselors/TAs, so we will know better how it works in a few weeks.
    The SCORE Ulster team have updated our web site and added a lot of new functions. Here's a quick summary:
    a. The Blog. Members of out team will be posting blogs that are intended to help our clients keep in touch with what's happening in the small business arena, and to provide a platform for our counselors to express their personal views on specific topics.
    b. The Forum. The forum is where we post new ideas and resources, and our clients and others can ask questions, provide feedback, rant (when necessary), make suggestions and generally interact.
    c. Sponsor Slider. You'll see a new tab to the left of the pages on the site that when clicked, tells about our wonderful sponsoring organizations that make the extra services we offer possible. Click again and you'll see their web sites. Please try to use the services of our sponsors whenever possible.
    d. Donations and Sponsorship. We've make it possible for our clients and sponsors to make small donations whenever they can. We are a volunteer organization and none of our counselors or management team take any income from SCORE. Each year the Small Business Administration provides us with a very small stipend to help with out of pocket expenses, but that's it. We rely on our sponsorships and donations to fill the gap and pay for seminars, workshops and everything else we offer.
    e. Schedule. If you want to visit the SCORE office you are always welcome. However, we're only open on certain days and at certain hours. Check our schedule to see when the office is open and who has office duty. Workshops and other events are also posted on the schedule.
    The SCORE Ulster Team.