COVID-19 relief options and additional resources
LEARN MORE Close

Managing

Use the “Dog Days” to Rethink Your Marketing Strategy

By Rieva Lesonsky, Guest Blogger
Published: August 14, 2012

 

Is August a slow season for your small business? For many of us, business slows down as the days heat up. Fortunately, that makes the rest of this month the ideal time to use your downtime productively by reassessing your marketing strategy. Determine what’s working and what isn’t, and revamp your approach for the rest of the year.

Here are some areas to consider:

Has your target market changed? Maybe your customers are getting older, moving out of your area or spending less on what you sell. Is there a new target market you could focus on to pick up the slack? How could you adjust your product or service mix or branding message to effectively reach out to new customers, or recapture those who used to buy from you but have stopped doing so?

What’s your competition doing? Assess your closest competitors—both large and small, online and offline. How are they marketing their businesses? What are they doing differently or better than you are? What marketing tactics could you employ that they aren’t using? Are they targeting markets you’re ignoring, or are there markets they’re neglecting that you could capture?

Has your industry changed? Keeping up-to-date with your industry association’s news, training and conferences will help you stay abreast of the latest marketing trends for businesses like yours. Take advantage of free or low-cost resources your industry association may offer to help you learn the latest marketing tactics. Take note of industry best practices for marketing and learn from them.

Have your marketing goals changed? Maybe it’s time to adjust your marketing goals. (You do set measurable goals, don’t you?) What return on investment do you expect to get from each of your marketing efforts? Are certain parts of your marketing plan exceeding your goals while others fall short? Consider pulling back on the areas that aren’t paying off and putting greater focus on those that are.

What resources will you need? Do you have adequate resources (time, manpower, money) to carry out your marketing plan? If not, you’ll have to make adjustments, whether that means hiring, reapportioning budgets or changing your plans. Now more than ever, successful marketing requires turning on a dime, so be prepared to make changes to your plans quickly, and set aside a portion of your marketing budget to handle the unexpected.

What does the future hold? This time last year, no one could have predicted the extent to which mobile marketing and mobile shopping would affect the 2011 holiday season. Are there similar game-changers in store for your industry in the coming year? Think like a futurist and examine the market trends affecting your customers, your region and your industry. How could these trends play out in the next 12 months, and how will that affect your marketing?

Assessing your goals, needs and results, then adjusting your plans appropriately, will enable you to fine-tune your marketing strategy for success the rest of the year. Now, that’s a summer well spent.

About the Author:

Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky

Guest Blogger

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and President of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Follow Rieva at Twitter.com/Rieva and visit SmallBizDaily.com to sign up for her free TrendCast reports. She's been covering small business and entrepreneurial issues for more than 30 years, is the author of several books about entrepreneurship and was the editorial director of Entrepreneur magazine for over two decades

Getting Smart on Uncle Sam’s Dollar

By BarbaraWeltman, Guest Blogger
Published: August 8, 2012

The quotation I keep on my desk from Benjamin Franklin says, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Savvy business owners know that learning is a lifetime affair. Fortunately, there are many federal income tax breaks to help defray the cost of your ongoing education.

Lifetime learning credit

If you continue to pursue formal education beyond the undergraduate level, you may be eligible to claim a tax credit for tuition, fees, and certain other qualified expenses. Each dollar of the tax credit reduces your tax bill by one dollar. The lifetime learning credit is up to $2,000 (20% of the first $10,000 of qualified costs you spend).

The only hitch is that the credit may be reduced or become unavailable to you if your income is too high. The full credit can be claimed in 2012 if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which essentially is income before exemptions and the standard deduction or itemized deductions, is no more than:

  • $52,000 for singles
  • $104,000 for married persons filing jointly

The credit phases out for singles with MAGI between $52,000 and $62,000 and joint filers with MAGI between $104,000 and $124,000; no credit can be claimed if MAGI exceeds these limits.

Deduction for education costs

If you take courses or training to improve your professional or work skills, you can treat the costs as a deductible business expense. These courses include required continuing education for your profession — whether taken in person, online, or as self-study. Even courses taken in resort locations may be deductible (as well as the travel and lodging costs for attendance).

If you pay out-of-pocket for your education costs and the business does not reimburse you, then where you deduct the costs depends on how your business is organized.

  • If your company is incorporated, you can only deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses (your education costs) as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. Totals must exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income to receive any benefit from the write-off. What’s more, if you are subject to the alternative minimum tax, which affects many higher income taxpayers (especially those in high tax states), then you effectively lose any tax benefit from education costs.
  • If your company is unincorporated so that you are self-employed, you can deduct education costs. Sole proprietors deduct education costs on Schedule C of Form 1040; partnership and limited liability company members deduct the costs as a subtraction from their share of business income reported on Schedule E of Form 1040.

Caution: No deduction can be claimed for education costs that qualify you for a new trade or business. Thus, the costs of law school and bar preparation expenses are not deductible because a law degree qualifies a person to practice law (whether or not this is the intention). The cost of an MBA may be deductible; there’s a lot of litigation on this point, but many taxpayers have been successful in showing that this degree is not a new trade or business.

Even better than deducting education costs is having the business cover them. In this case, costs are deducted on the business return. If the business is incorporated, there are two ways to do this without triggering taxable income to you (as an owner-employee of the corporation):

  • The company can adopt an education assistance plan to pay up to $5,250 annually for any courses, whether or not job related. This offering must be available to all employees on a nondiscriminatory basis, so, as a practical matter, this plan may not be helpful in small companies because of nondiscrimination requirements in the tax law.
  • The company can pay for any job-related courses; this is called a working condition fringe benefit. There is no dollar limit on the costs that can be reimbursed on a tax-free basis.

An unincorporated business can simply pay your education costs or reimburse you for them; no formalities are required other than substantiating the costs.

Tax-free educational options

You don’t have to spend a penny to learn more about finance, marketing, taxes, or other areas to help your business. There are many free online sites to smarten you up. Because they’re free, there is no tax issue involved.

Here are some resources for free learning:

  • Colleges offering unaccredited online courses, including such prestigious schools as Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Online training from government agencies, including the IRS, OSHA, and the SBA.

Final thoughts

There are many other education-related tax breaks and you usually have to choose the one that provides you with the most tax savings. These breaks all have different rules, such as income limits and qualifying education costs. You can learn more from IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education. When in doubt, ask your tax advisor whether the education you want to pursue can be pursued on a tax-advantaged basis.

About the Author:

BarbaraWeltman
Barbara Weltman

Guest Blogger

Barbara Weltman is an attorney, prolific author with such titles as J.K. Lasser's Small Business Taxes, J.K. Lasser's Guide to Self-Employment, and Smooth Failing as well as a trusted professional advocate for small businesses and entrepreneurs. She is also the publisher of Idea of the Day® and monthly e-newsletter Big Ideas for Small Business® and host of Build Your Business Radio. She has been included in the List of 100 Small Business Influencers for three years in a row. Follow her on Twitter: @BigIdeas4SB or at www.BigIdeasforSmallBusiness.com

Workplace Injuries Happen - A Plan of Action Can Help (and Save You $$)

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: August 8, 2012 Updated: September 15, 2016

Do you have a plan for an accident or injury that occurs in your workplace?

While the U.S. workplace has become a much safer place over the past century, accidents do happen. The latest data from the Department of Labor shows that nearly 3.1 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported in the private sector in 2010. This is the equivalent of 3.5 cases per 100 workers. Even more disturbing, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that 4,690 workers were killed on the job in 2010.

"Every day in America, 13 people go to work and never come home. Every year in America, nearly 4 million people suffer a workplace injury from which some may never recover…”– Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Workers Memorial Day speech April 26, 2012.

The Case for a Safe Workplace

Thanks to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, all workers have a legal right to a safe workplace. As an employer, it is your responsibility to maintain a safe work environment in accordance with the requirements of this Act.

Aside from regulations, though, there’s a strong case for small business owners to invest in injury prevention. According to the OSHA, for each dollar invested in injury prevention, employers can expect a return of $4 to $6. An injury claim against a business can have devastating impact on a company’s bottom line – especially if the injury was due to poor or unsafe working conditions. In fact, OSHA states that companies that didn’t adequately manage workplace safety and health programs performed worse financially than those who did between 2004 and 2007.

 Employer Responsibilities

The following workplace safety and health resources from OSHA will help you understand what the law requires (summarized here) and how you can comply.

You can also refer to this Small Business Guide from OSHA, which explains more about specific benefits and programs the agency offers to help you develop a safe workplace.

OSHA is a valuable resource that shouldn’t be overlooked. In 2010, OSHA provided free assistance to over 30,000 small businesses covering 1.5 million workers by helping them create safe and healthy work environments.

What to Do if an Employee Is Injured on the Job

Here’s what you should do if an employee is injured at your business.

  1. Seek medical attention – Get the appropriate medical care.
  2. Write up an accident report It’s important that you take care of this important step as soon as possible. Talk with employees who witnessed the injury and take photos of the accident scene. You'll want this information for your own records, but also to help you comply with OSHA reporting and recordkeeping polices. OSHA has limited requirements for low-hazard industries and very small businesses with 10 or fewer employees.
  3. Provide workers' compensation reports, if applicable – Workers' compensation systems are managed differently by different states. For state-by-state details, see the Department of Labor's Office of Worker Compensation Programs.
  4. Assess liability – Depending on the situation and the severity of injuries, you may need to offset medical expenses and provide short- or long-term disability leave for an injured employee. If an injury occurs as a result of an OSHA violation, you may be required to provide additional benefits and compensation. OSHA takes employer size and other factors into consideration when assessing violations and penalties. Contact an attorney if you’re concerned about liability.

For more information about workplace injury laws or programs and training resources that can help your business comply visit www.osha.gov or contact your nearest OSHA office.

Related Blog

About the Author:

Caron_Beesley
Caron Beesley

Contributor

Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley

Who’s Lending? How to Find Small Business-Friendly Banks

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: August 6, 2012 Updated: July 21, 2016

If you’re seeking financing for your business, you may have noticed promising signals in small business lending. Banks overall are reporting the biggest increase in lending to small businesses in four years. Month over month, the numbers are improving. Reuters reports that in May 2012, small business lending reached its highest level this year, up 18 percent over the previous year. (For more data read: Business Lending Showing New Signs of Strength).

But who’s lending? If you’re shopping for a business loan, here are some tips for finding a small business-friendly bank in your town.

1. Finding Lenders - Data Proves Community Banks Favor Small Business

If you’re in the market for credit, one good option is your community bank. Thanks to the Small Business Lending Fund program, part of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, community banks have increased their lending to small businesses across the country to the tune of $3.5 billion, blogs the U.S. Treasury. You can find a list of community banks that are upping their lending here.

Other sources of small business lending include this Banking Study from the SBA. It provides information on the lending activities of specific depository institutions by name, loan amounts and state.  Keep in mind, though, that this study focuses on the 12-months ending in July 2011, and is not a current snapshot.

You can also refer to new online tools like BankingGrades.com (which measures loans in relation to deposits) or Enterpreneur.com’s Best Banks for Entrepreneurs.

Another initiative created by the Jobs Act to spur $15 billion in lending is the State Small Business Credit Initiative. Participating states – not all 50 participate – use federal funding from the Treasury Department for state-based programs to boost private lending to creditworthy small businesses and manufacturers in a variety of ways. Find out more about participating states via this interactive map.

2. Seek Out Certified or Preferred Lenders for SBA Loans

If you’ve had trouble getting a loan in the past or your business may not qualify for a traditional business loan, an SBA-backed loan is another option. SBA does not lend business owners money directly; it provides a guarantee to banks and lenders for money they lend to small businesses.  SBA backing mitigates the risk for banks and lenders and makes them more inclined to provide loans to small businesses who don't qualify for traditional loans, often because of collateral.

If you are looking for an SBA loan, seek out a bank or credit union that has been through this process before or one that is a Preferred SBA Lender – in other words, a lender with a proven track record in processing and servicing SBA loans.

When seeking an SBA loan, it’s worthwhile talking to your local SBA office, Women’s Business Center Small Business Development Center or Veterans Business Outreach Center. All four can help provide advice about SBA loans.

3. Understand the Fundamentals of the Lending Process

Once you have your short list of commercial lenders, educate yourself about the fundamentals of business financing. Every bank will be interested in the viability of your business, its cash flow and collateral. For insight into what you will need to provide and discuss with your lender, refer to this traditional Business Loan Checklist or this SBA Loan Application Checklist.

SBA offers several free online courses about how business financing and SBA-guaranteed financing work. These self-paced courses take about 30 minutes.   

4. Find a Lender that Fits your Business and your Needs

Your relationship with lenders can last many years, so it’s important to be comfortable with them, their business values and other banking/ financial services they can offer. Find out who the decision-makers are, how many people you will have to deal with, and if your bank offers regular one-on-one advisory sessions.

Useful Resources

  • SBA Direct – Find SBA lenders in you area via this online tool.
  • SBA Loans and Grants Tool – Search for SBA loan programs for which your business might qualify (SBA doesn’t offer grants).

Related Blogs

 

 

About the Author:

Caron_Beesley
Caron Beesley

Contributor

Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley

Losing Deals? 5 Tips for Getting Your Sales Back on Track

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: August 1, 2012 Updated: September 16, 2016

One of the more perplexing questions small business owners ask is, “Why did I lose that deal?” or even more worrying, “Why do I keep losing deals?”

Whether you sell to other businesses or directly to consumers, you’re not going to win them all. But there are always going to be times when a sale that looks like a sure thing goes cold – for no apparent reason.

If these times worry you and you’re looking for a better win rate, here are five things you can do about it.

1. Be First and Be Prepared to Differentiate

Those who are first through the door always make an impression. It’s true in the interview room and it’s true in sales.  The guy in the middle almost invariably has less impact, simply because that’s how people process a set of repeat actions. But you’re only going to make something of that impression if you’re smart enough to understand the needs of your customers. To do this you need to do your research, but you also have to have a clear understanding of your own differentiators and the impact they can have, i.e. what problems will they solve. This earlier blog offers tips on doing just this: 5 Tips for Using Differentiators to Increase Your Small Business Sales.

2. Make This About the Customer

A good sales person has the integrity and skill to let the customer do most of the talking. So follow the 80/20 rule (80 percent listening, 20 percent talking). Instead of rushing through your sales pitch, let your customer talk. Listen, understand their needs and identify ways your product or service can address these needs. A very good salesman will go the next step and look for needs that the customer hasn’t even raised. Whether you are selling house painting services to a homeowner or complex software to a business, the more you can get the customer to think about needs they hadn’t previously recognized, the more likely you are to earn their trust and spur them to action.

3. Get to Know the Influencers

If you are in the B2B space, seek out and talk to the users as well as the buyers of your services. Be bold. Ask if there is anyone else you could talk to gather more information about the business’ needs. These are your influencers and they can have an impact on an executive buying decision. It might also be useful to develop marketing material and messages that target these users. Even in the consumer market, the big buying decisions are made by teams (like a husband and wife, for example).

4. Evaluate where the Customer is in the Decision-Making Process

Knowing where the customer is in the decision-making process can give you a pretty good indication of how much time you should invest in this deal and a good idea of your chances for success. Are they still gathering information?  If so, you still have time to make an impression. Have they seen several of your competitors already (a possible sign that they are shopping around for the best price)? 

5. Keep an Eye on the Follow-Up

You should always try to get another appointment to review your offer or proposal or take steps to stay in touch. There’s nothing wrong with persistence, as long as it doesn’t feel like pressure. Respect your customer’s timeline and fit yours to it.

Likewise, you should be paying attention to how the customer follows up. Did they commit to doing X by Y to move along the decision-making process based on their meeting with you? If they didn’t, there has to be a reason why.  Try to probe and get things back on track.

Additional Resources

 

About the Author:

Caron_Beesley
Caron Beesley

Contributor

Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley

4 Interview Questions That Get to the Heart of a Candidate’s Potential

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: July 26, 2012

Hiring new employees is an opportunity, but it’s also a huge risk. So perfecting your interviewing skills is critical. But what kind of interview questions are most effective at helping you find an employee with the right skills and experience, and the best fit for your company culture?

The most successful interviews are based on facts, and these are usually best gleaned via the behavioral interview technique. As in life, actions and (in this case) past actions, speak louder than words. You can get a pretty good sense of how anyone is going to react, cope or integrate into your team based on how they’ve done this in the past.

Some of the best recommendations I’ve seen for conducting fact-based, behavioral interviews (and we’re not talking psychoanalysis here) come from Jeff Haden, a bestselling business writer and contributor to Inc. Magazine. Here’s a summary of his favorite behavioral interview questions as published in this article:

1. "Tell me about the last time a customer or co-worker got mad at you."

Interpersonal skills as well as ability to deal with conflict are critical in any small business. The key to this question, Haden explains, is to keep probing so that you find out why the customer or co-worker was mad, what the candidate did in response, and the outcome.

Look out for a candidate who blames the other person and takes no accountability for the conflict on themselves. What you really want to hear is a candidate who admits responsibility for the conflict, but who worked to rectify the situation. This doesn’t mean they are a cause of conflict, but their actions suggest that they learned from the situation, admitted they were wrong and fixed things.

2. “Tell me about the toughest decision you had to make in the last six months."

The goal is here to evaluate the candidate’s reasoning ability, problem solving skills, judgment, and willingness to take informed risks.

If you get no answer – consider it a warning sign!

Other more positive responses may shed light on how the interviewee made a difficult analytical decision based on reasoning or perhaps a difficult interpersonal decision. A really good answer will combine both! As Haden explains: “Making decisions based on data is important, but almost every decision has an impact on people as well. The best candidates naturally weigh all sides of an issue, not just the business or human side exclusively.”

3. "Tell me about a time you knew you were right but still had to follow directions or guidelines."

Clearly, here you are looking to evaluate the candidate’s ability to follow, but also their potential ability to lead. If the candidate went against these directions or guidelines, “because I knew I was right,” then consider that a warning sign. Likewise, note whether they followed directions but then let their performance suffer because they felt wronged or overlooked.

Positives to look for include candidates who did what needed to be done, met deadlines despite everything, and then raised their concerns or issues at an appropriate time and place, with the goal of improving things. Now if they did all this and stayed motivated, while helping motivate others as well, then they deserve a big tick in the box.

4. "Tell me about the last time your workday ended before you were able to get everything done."

Here you’re evaluating commitment, prioritization and communication skills. Pay attention to this warning sign: "I just do what I have to do and get out. I keep telling my boss I can only do so much but he won't listen...”

Things to look for are comments about staying late to finish critical tasks, or prioritizing during the day to stay on top of everything so that nothing is left uncompleted.

Perhaps most important is communicating early on that deadlines were in jeopardy and then staying late or prioritizing accordingly. Surprisingly few employees put their hand up to tell their manager that they’re going to miss a deadline before it’s passed them by.

The Bottom Line

Keep the dialog going and insert follow-up questions (“so what happened next” or “wow, how did you deal with that?”). If candidates are being honest and have experience or facts to back up resume hype, then they should be able to participate fully in this form of interview. If they can’t, potential disconnects between who the candidate says he is and who he really is will be easier to spot.

Concludes Haden: “… great employee(s) will almost always shine during a fact-based interview.”

Related Articles

 

 

About the Author:

Caron_Beesley
Caron Beesley

Contributor

Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Managing