Ramon Ray, journalist and editor at Smallbiztechnology.com, sums it up perfectly: “Small businesses can do BIG things using low-cost technology and readily available expertise.” It doesn’t matter if you’re running a business out of your home, the local Starbucks (free Internet), or an abandoned warehouse, if you have the right tools to reel in a large consumer base, it’s not necessarily important how small your business is because it’s doing big things. With all of the technology tools out there, small businesses are now in a better position to compete.
“With the rise of social media and ubiquity of online software the time is NOW for small businesses to reach a big business audience,” Ray says.
Now is also a good time to understand that it’s not necessarily about appearing bigger—and leading your customers to believe your company is something that it’s not—it’s about identifying the advantages your company has from being a proverbial small fish in your market and leveraging that to your benefit. Phil Simon, author of The New Small: How a New Breed of Small Businesses is Harnessing the Power of Emerging Technologies, explains in his book how small companies are using technology to do cutting edge things and becoming leading competitors in their industry.
Simon notes that with today’s technology, smaller businesses now have the capability of being just as powerful as larger companies. “In fact,” he says, “you can argue they’re more powerful because they’ve got less stuff clogging the technological artery. So, smaller companies can turn on a dime…[and are] able to do things that big companies can’t, not because those big companies don’t see the value but because they are, for example, contractually obligated to an antiquated software vendor for the next 10 years or politically it’s not possible to move in a different direction, or financially the cost for such a move would be prohibited.”
Embracing the fact that you have a small business doesn’t mean it’s bad to aspire to be bigger. There’s nothing wrong with that at all Simon says, but even to accomplish that goal you need to have a firm understanding about which tools you can use to become a big player in the market.
Start With the Basics
So you run a small business, maybe even a business of one, and you feel like it’s time to take it to the next level. Here are three must-have items to get you started:
Professional Business Cards – Cutting cost can be a great thing, but your business card represents you and your company when you’re not present. So it should not be “some flimflam, two bit piece of yellowing paper,” Ray says. This is not to say that you HAVE to invest in over-the-top, pricey metallic business cards—though, if you’ve got the means go for it—but perhaps relying on your self-printed paper cards is not the best idea.
There are companies that will make, print, and deliver your cards to you for a reasonable cost including VistaPrint, UPrinting, and PrintPlace. It’s important to take the style and design of your business cards seriously or no one else will. How many times have you thrown away a card because they don’t look professional?
Company E-mail Address – “Clearly if you’re giving somebody a business card and you’ve got [email protected] listed as your business e-mail then that just doesn’t connote the same professionalism,” Simon says. “It doesn’t take a lot of technical know how to register a domain.”
Go Daddy, iPage, and JustHost.com are good places to start. Leave your Gmail, AOL, Hotmail, and Yahoo accounts for personal use.
Updated Website – “You can’t be taken seriously as a business if you have no website or an ugly website. In the book I call them 90s sites, sites that look like they were built 15 years ago,” Simon says. “They have a Home, About, Contact, Directions, Testimonials, but there’s no meat, no compelling content, there’s never a reason to come back. That’s a huge mistake.”
You can create a basic, yet effective, website for a modest price. Do your research, read reviews, and ask around before deciding which web hosting tool is right for you. Sites such as Fat Cow, Blue Host, Go Daddy, and Inmotion are good places to start.
Unfortunately, just like you can’t be in two places at once and you can’t answer every single business call you get. The good news is that someone can. There are call centres and answering services that can screen, sort, and direct your calls for you. Determining which service is right for your company requires a little bit of research. A few things to look for is to make sure they understand your business, inquire about their features and find out about the quality control procedures. Companies such as AmeriCall, PCMSI, and AnswerConnect are a few places to start.
If you’re considering something smaller, and free, try Google Voice. It’s a pretty innovative way to customise, record, transfer, and transcribe all of your calls. It’s easy to set up and allows you to associate your Google Voice number to your other phone numbers.
After you’ve set up your business e-mail address, using a tool to help you manage it could really help. Tools such as MailChimp, Constant Contact, and Vertical Response are specifically designed to help businesses communicate with a large group of customers and clients. Simons uses MailChimp but also recommends trying AWeber. Each tool also has an e-mail newsletter services as well.
Long gone are the times when relying on your secretary’s handwritten appointments on a paper calendar was enough. Depending on the size of your company, you may not need anything extravagant. Many people swear by the free calendar-management tool, Tungle.me but another popular one is TimeTrade, which is an appointment-scheduling software that many businesses purchase. Ray suggests using Google applications for your calendar would also suffice, if you’re looking for the basics.
Considering you already have a company Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn page (and you should) instead of hiring someone to log on several times a day every time they want to tweet or post something, make it easier. The great thing about MailChimp is that if you have a company newsletter, you have the option to create link versions of it to you social media pages.
Additionally, creating an account with either HootSuite or TweetDeck will help you manage multiple accounts in one setting. Both are considered to be social media dashboards that many businesses use. Though there are pros and cons to both, each makes managing your accounts easier than before.
The list of useful pieces of technological tools could go on forever (Ray suggests BatchBlue, for managing a high volume of contacts and Ring Central, an alternative phone system for businesses) but you should certainly be aware of the common ones that many of your competitors are taking advantage of. And if you have the means, it may be a good idea to hire a technology consultant to help you walk through which technology tools will help you best optimise your company’s reach.
Ray notes that there are a few things to remember: “One, DO NOT be afraid of technology, INVEST in [it]; Two, BACKUP your technology [and] get experts to help you use it better; Three, STOP using old technology; Four, every six months consider refreshing your technology; Five, DO NOT just replace it but at least consider what’s new. And six, get educated about technology so you can use it better.”