Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Who needs technology? Part one of three

Small Business Administration Awards Luncheon
Computers. Smartphones. Tablets. High-speed Internet. WiFi. These game changers continue to transform the world of business in general, and hold special promise to enable Small Businesses to compete at a level unimaginable even five years ago.

Ironically, as more Small Business owners, operators and employees become more computer- and technology-literate, we are discovering that... nobody is really interested in technology. Seriously: nobody cares. 

Unlike the early days of "the consumer Internet", noone talks about what kind of chip their computer runs on, or how fast it is. People are still using Windows XP, and even the poor souls who got stuck with Windows Vista pre-installed on their PCs have stopped complaining about it. The smallest of Small Businesses are now confidently buying iMacs and Macbooks, and naturally expect to either build their work network with them, or integrate them with whatever systems they already have without too much of an effort.

Tablets have pretty much replaced laptops as the portable computing solution of choice. More people are accessing the Internet using their Smartphones, the "iPhone vs. Android" religious war has subsided to a brokered peaceful co-existence, and it appears even Microsoft finally has a credible threat with it's latest Windows Phone offerings.

iPhone vs Android
iPhone vs Android (Photo credit: nrkbeta)
So it's not that noone cares about technology: it's that the focus is no longer on the technology, but on the benefit of using the technology. Texting isn't just for kids: it's a way to document your informal business communication, followup on one conversation while in a meeting or a conversation with someone else.

Facebook presents opportunities to expose your brand to tens of thousands of people on a shoestring budget, control your company's image and shape its brand message. Twitter enables Small Business to craft real-time marketing campaigns, leverage location-based demographic data and identify the "long tail" sweet spot that makes up its niche market.

Businesses being more "tech savvy" doesn't mean that they now speak like geeks, but that they think like CEOs instead of peddlers. Businesses in all industries, of all sizes, have the power to increase productivity and profitability while actually decreasing the effort and activity required to get things done. Technology provides no magic bullet solutions, which is we see fewer tech pros like myself boasting of "functions and features", and now focusing on "benefits and strategic advantages".

Everybody has an email address. Nearly everyone has a smartphone now (or should!). Small Businesses have become quite tech savvy... but have technology professionals become more business savvy? We'll examine that in part two.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Using - but could use BETTER: part five

Calendar/Task Management

Microsoft Outlook
I had a client a few years back - an office with about five people working in it. You could stand up at your desk and turn around 360 degrees and see the entire company in the sweep of your glance.

While I was there working on low-level installation and configuring, I couldn't help but overhear something occur more than once: an important meeting scheduled with a client had to be rescheduled because one or more staff members had a scheduling conflict. What?

Everyone that worked in the office was in view of each other, and within earshot. Even more puzzling, everyone had Microsoft Outlook installed on their computers. What, I finally asked, were they using to manage inter-office scheduling. Answer: NOTHING!

I'm not a shill for Microsoft, but Outlook is the corporate standard for good reason -- in addition to being an email client (which is all they were using it for) it's a contact manager, a task scheduler, and has individual and group calendar capabilities. Don't think I'm picking on Small Businesses, though -- most of the larger firms and corporations I've worked at and for didn't use Outlook for anything but email either.

Outlook isn't the only viable candidate for task scheduling and shared calendar management: Google Calendar, leveraging the iCal standard, is a great FREE alternative, which interacts natively with almost any Smartphone, making it an even better mobile solution than stationary desktop-based Outlook. As I often say in situations like this, "It's not the tool you choose, it's the tool you USE".

Google Calendar
Task management and calendar (appointment) management about more than just making checklists. Making sure that appointments are kept and tasks don't fall through the cracks are essential aspects of providing superior customer service. They're also areas in which Small Businesses tend to fail miserably since, if they manage them at all, they usually depend on memory or old-fashioned, 20th Century pen and paper methods.

Managing your appointments, tasks and to-do lists manually, by some paper-based method is a non-starter in the 21st Century business environment.
  • You can't copy and paste
  • You can't search
  • You can't import or export email addresses, phone numbers and website URLs
  • You can't easily categorize or prioritize your activities
  • You can't share your schedule with multiple co-workers
  • You can't see, at a glance, available free time to schedule the activity of several people
Let's face it: most Small Businesses still aren't in a position to increase their staff or budgets. Increasing efficiency and eliminating wasted time and effort are simple, accessible ways to step up your customer service game. Google Calendar allows you to create alerts for your scheduled appointments that will send you reminders by email, popup messages or SMS text messages delivered to your cell phone.

I use Google Calendar's alerts to help me not "airhead" important meetings. I create email reminders five days, three days and one day before each appointment. Two hours and one hour before each appointment, I have text reminders sent to my cell phone number. It's like having the most efficient executive assistant constantly shadowing me, keeping me on track with my schedule.

Workforce Development Professionals Learn Micr...
So I can concentrate on the important things: attending the meetings on time, and providing superior customer service to my clients. To-do lists that track to my phone keep the "what I have to do next" literally at my fingertips. So very little falls through the cracks. And tasks that are tracked in a system like Outlook, Google Calendar or some other computer-based/online system, roll forward until they're cancelled or completed.

Thus, fewer important things are overlooked or fogotten. And I don't double-book my time anymore, which used to happen when I managed my schedule on paper or, even worse, by "remembering" them. Because a mind IS a terrible thing to waste -- on the trivial details of task and time management.

Let you computer and you Smart phone do the grunt work -- so you can focus on the stuff you get paid for.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Using - but could use BETTER: part four

Data Storage

Inner view of a Seagate 3.5 inches hard disk d...I remember in 1994, I was working as a systems administrator for a Wall Street firm when the first 1 gigabyte Seagate hard drive arrived. All the sys admins dropped what we were doing and rushed to the lab, to gaze in awe at this miraculous device. "Can you believe it?" someone remarked, "they've managed to fit an entire gigabyte on a single hard drive!"

I imagine this anecdote is amusing even to the non-geeks out there. My iPhone has 16 GB of storage, and that's not even the top of the line. Terabyte hard drives - a thousand gigabytes - are now available for $100 or less -- considerably less than the 1 gig drive we ogled like a fan perched at the velvet rope for a glimpse of his favorite superstar actress. Large format hard drives are marvelous; we can store digital pictures, movies, MP3s of our favorite songs with ease, and room to spare.

Of course, the more we store on a single device, the more we stand to lose if (and when) that device fails. Although modern computers are infinitely more stable and dependable than the clunky boxes we were using in the '90s, hard drives are the parts most likely to fail simply because they have the most moving parts, and those parts are moving all the time. How do we protect ourselves against data loss, when we're storing hundreds - or thousands - of gigabytes??

 Back in the 1990s, we backed up data on 8 millimeter tape. This was fine when 10 or 20 gigabytes was a large backup set, but simply won't do for a Small Business backing up ten times that -- or a hundred times as much! The simplest method we recommend is to use an external hard drive unit - attachable via USB connection - as the target of your computer's built-in backup utility. While this is the typical method most Small Businesses use, when they DO backup their critical data, we suggest a twist - backup your data about once a week, and detach the external hard drive between backups, storing it in a safe location away from the computer you're backing up.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Global Entrepreneurship Week

Nov 14-20 is Global Entrepreneurship week: 123 countries, 40,000 events to stimulate global the economy. Check it out at

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Using - but could use BETTER: part three

PC Security

If you're like most people, keeping your computer secure is a task similar to dieting - it's something you've heard a lot about, everyone you know has an opinion, yet no matter where you are with it, you suspect that you're still not doing the best you can.

We can lock our computers down so tight that nothing gets done without a half dozen pop-up windows asking "Are you sure?" after every mouse click. Or, we throw caution to the window and shut all that "annoying" security stuff off, which makes it much easier to get work done -- until the next virus or trojan hijacks our machine, and we're offline for days (or weeks) trying to clean up the mess and make up for the lost time.

Real-world PC security falls somewhere comfortably between "front door wide open" and "Def-con 1". The problem is, most articles on computer security discuss theory, not fact. Rotating "strong" passwords sounds good on paper, but in the real world it means you'll create a password so complex you'll have to write it down to remember it (which is like putting the front door key under the doormat), only to have to change it several times a year.

What you actually need to do is assess the level of security required for the asset being secured. You need a stronger password for your GMail or Yahoo! Mail account than your personal workstation, because your web-based email account is exposed to the world, while your personal computer is only vulnerable to those who have physical access to it. Until you connect to the Internet, or install software from an untrustworthy source.

Which brings us to the "real world PC security short list". Three things you must do, or be prepared to do, to have reasonable security as you surf the web and expose your computer to the risks - and benefits - of the global Internet:
  1. Use hard-to-guess passwords for all important assets
  2. Use a software firewall at all times
  3. Use ONE anti-virus program, and update it regularly

The best way to protect your computer, email accounts, online banking and such is to make a "hard-to-guess" password. Given enough time, opportunity & resources, *all* passwords are crackable, so don't go crazy trying to create a password that would require a supercomputer to defeat -- you're not securing the president's nuclear launch codes. You just need to keep the script kiddies and automated password cracking programs out.

A simple method of creating passwords both hard to guess and easy (for you) to remember without writing them down is to combine two words & use a substitution method. For example: start with "crack" and "this". Join them with an asterisk, so you now gave "crack*this". Next, swap an "@" for the "a", "#" for the "h" and an exclamation mark for the "i".

Your password is now "cr@ck*t#!s". No brute force dictionary hack is going to crack this: it would literally take going through every combination of ten character combinations until the one you created was randomly stumbled upon. Yet, you should be able to remember it (relatively) easily, since you know what you started with, & what you combined & substituted to get the end results.

Software firewall/Anti-virus program

I'm going to save time (and column space) here, and just make a recommendation: download and install Microsoft Security Essentials. It's good, it's free, and since this post is about PC security, it secures every version of Windows from XP to Windows 7 (if you're using anything earlier than XP -- c'mon now... really?)

Microsoft Security Essentials
Microsoft Security Essentials (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now the readers of this blog, and this series, may be surprised that I don't provide a short list of options here. There are other free anti-virus and firewall programs that are about as good as MSE, and you may be using them. If so, please continue. But the focus of this post is security as a business process, not as a technical consideration.

For those of you who aren't using anything, and thus are unfamiliar with activating and configuring a software firewall, MSE's advantage is that it provides a best-of-breed antivirus program AND automatically activates and configures the built-in Windows firewall, saving you the headache of closing the firewall too tight, and helps you avoid the risk of finally shutting it off because the frustration of calibrating it becomes too great a disruption of your workflow.

When all else fails

Even when you do all of the above, your computer may still become infected. PC security is an arms race, and a constant compromise between locking your computer down until it becomes unusable, and leaving that one thing open that lets the badguys in.

Before that happens, do yourself two favors. First, download and install Malwarebytes Anti-malware. Install it and upgrade its definitions. Make a habit of upgrading the definitions every other week, just as a force of habit. Why? Because if your computer ever does become infected, this most likely may be  the only program that will clean up the infection -- but the security definitions MUST BE UPDATED to deal with the newest infections, which pop up faster than bad pop songs on iTunes.

The second favor is to bookmark these free, online anti-virus scanners in your browser of choice:

If you are running MSE (or another anti-virus/firewall combination) and your computer becomes infected anyway, it will most likely be a trojan - software that masquerades as something harmless and buries itself into the operating system itself. Definite signs of a trojan infection are that your antivirus program stops working, and your browser is blocked from connecting to the Internet. That's why you need Malwarebytes already installed and updated - you'll need to run it to kill the trojan, and restore funtionality.

After an actual infection, I like to be double, triple sure that all traces of scum-ware have been removed. That's where the above websites come into play: they are the best online antivirus scanners available. They're all free, and are online services offered by the best anti-virus companies in the business. I recommend that you run more than one of them to ensure a clean machine - the truly paranoid among you can run them all.

In closing, remember that security is a process, not a program. It's how you do what you do that keeps you secure. For further details on this subject, check out my FREE eBook, "4 Things You MUST Know About Computer Security", available to read online or download to your hard drive.

And don't forget to scan it after you download it -- trust noone.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Using - but could use BETTER: part two


INBOX. Reply All. Attach file. Blind CC. When most of us think of email, what comes to mind is how it works. "Is my INBOX full?"  "I can't open that attachment"  "I hope I did(n't) hit 'reply all'...!"

Rarely do we consider email, a tool as commonplace now as the telephone and postal mail, to be much of a business asset. Everyone has it now, so it's no longer a big deal, and it's pretty much taken for granted these days. But this simple tool, properly exploited, can be leveraged in several ways as a most powerful, cost-effect strategic asset.

Here are a few tips on how you can use email to work more effectively and efficiently, as you grow Your Small Business:
  • Free Outlook substitute
  • "Freemail" accounts as SPAM catchers
  • Apply email filters to avoid "INBOX" overload
  • Consolidate multiple email accounts
Free Outlook substitute

Mac users have Mail, and those on the Linux platform have Evolution, but on the Windows platform, most folks think they have no alternative but to buy Microsoft Outlook. As recently as five years ago, free Windows-based alternatives were either unavailable or inadequate, but much has changed.

Thunderbird by Mozilla -  the folks who brought you the Firefox web browser - makes a fine substitute for Outlook: in fact, there are many who find it to be a superior choice. Like Firefox, it can be extended and modified by a multitude of addons, that allow you to schedule email for later delivery, extract attached files and photos with a single click, and translate words and phrases  just for starters.

"Freemail" SPAM catchers

No longer regarded as amateurish, many of us have a free email account, often as our primary account. GMail and Yahoo! Mail accounts provide huge INBOXes (Yahoo!'s are unlimited). Since you can create as many "freemail" accounts as you choose, I like to use them as SPAM catchers.

Sometimes you need a valid email address to register at a website to download a useful document, or free software. A link is sent to your email account which must be clicked to complete the transaction. You know they want the email address so they can bombard you with sales offers and other unwanted information. Or, they sell you address to other marketers, who will flood your INBOX with endless SPAM.

So... create throwaway freemail accounts specifically for that purpose. Use them only for registering at these types of websites; check them for the necessary links, and ignore them otherwise. Both GMail and Yahoo! Mail have pretty good SPAM filters, and flush most SPAM after 30 days.

Apply Email Filters

Ok... that takes care of the unwanted email. But if you're like me, you receive a ton of email that you actually want, and may occasionally lose a particular message because it gets "lost in the INBOX overload".

Well, don't depend on the INBOX - that's just the default location. Filtering allows you to have your incoming email sorted automatically according to whatever rules you apply - who it's from, specific words in the "Subject:" line or the body of the email itself - to place the message in a folder (or apply a Label, in the case of GMail) of your choice. Each folder or label will display the number of unread messages they contain - make an effort to review the most critical messages, and this will provide a visual cue of newly received emails, and help you manage your INBOX overload.

Below are links to explaining how to create filters in the most popular email clients and freemail accounts:

Aggregate multiple email accounts

On smartphones like my iPhone, I currently access seven email accounts (not all of the email accounts I have - just the most essential active ones) at once. I have a master "All Inboxes" view, that shows me emails from every account as they arrive, collected in a single view. I can, of course, also view each account individually.

The way I work, my cell phone is my laptop, my laptop is my desktop, and my desktop is in storage. Most of you, I'm sure, spend most of your computer time on a laptop or desktop computer... but if you have more than one or two email accounts that you deal with during your work day, "one view to see them all" is an advantage you must experience. The moments you save not having to click out of one account and into another adds up to minutes a day, hours a week, days a year of time saved, that can be better spent doing something more productive.

Microsoft Outlook, by default, displays all your emails in a common INBOX, while also providing methods for you to separate them by email account - but this assumes you're using Outlook. For those of you who don't, can't or won't, there is a free alternative - Zimbra Desktop. Zimbra gives you the ability to manage all your email accounts - freemail and paid - with a single application. You can view them as separate accounts, but a distinct advantage is the "All Mailboxes" virtual folder.

This collects all the email from all your accounts into a single location - just like my iPhone does. Unlike my iPhone, it marks each email with the logo of the email account the message belongs to (see image above), helping you to visual distinguish your various mailboxes even though the messages are all grouped together.

Email, properly used, is an extremely economical strategic Small Business asset. Few tools combine its low cost, vast reach and minimum requirements - nothing more than a computer, Internet connection and web browser is really required. In addition, unlike the telephone, email automatically provides a record of your communication with co-workers, employees, clients and partners, as well as an inexpensive method of file sharing.

Commonplace and ubiquitous, few tools we use everyday are as versatile and powerful as email. Take another look at that overloaded INBOX, and take advantage of one of the most powerful tech tools at your command.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Using - but could use BETTER: part one

Document Management

Other than email and surfing the web, most of us use our computers to create electronic documents. Letters, proposals, contracts and invoices, a lot of time is spent creating documents that will be printed or attached to emails.

Most of us are familiar with word processor basics: bold, italics, changing fonts and text color. To the typical Small Business owner, operator or employee, there isn't much more to document management than all that and, maybe, spell checking. But the documents you print or attach to emails sent to your clients, partners and vendors represent Your Small Business. And the time you spend searching for a particular document, or creating an appropriate document from scratch could be put to better use performing tasks more directly related to what you do for a living -- even if that's creating documents.

Just as document creation tends to be a pretty basic Small Business task, there are a few fairly basic things that can make managing your electronics documents simpler, saving you a lot of time and effort.


How often do you find yourself playing the "where the heck did I put that document again" game? Many of us tend to save the document we're creating in any random folder we happen to be in at the time. Or we have a desktop cluttered with dozens of documents, some relevant, many hopelessly outdated, and all scattered amongst downloaded programs, pictures, MP3s and who knows what all.

The "File/folder" metaphor dates back to the days when paper files were stored in beige "manila" folders, kept in the drawers of metal filing cabinets. Files weren't usually just stuffed willy-nilly into unlabeled folders and stuck into whatever drawer was closest: there was a logical structure which made it easy to remember where you placed a particular file, simplifying retrieval at a later date.

Create a special folder for your documents - that is, after all, why Windows has a "My Documents" folder by default. Place all document subfolders beneath that folder (whatever master folder you choose), and name these folders something that makes it easier to remember where you put things. Remember: creating documents is pretty straightforward. It's when you get to the point that you have dozens, or hundreds of key documents, it's finding them that becomes the problem.

Naming convention

Logical names should apply not only to folders and subfolders, but to the actual documents they contain. "Document 1", "Contract document" or "Bill's file" is not going to help you when you're looking for it seven months later. There are several approaches you can take when naming files, especially now that we're past the "eight letters, a dot, and a three letter extension" limits from back in the DOS/Windows 9x days.

You could go crazy, making each filename a story: "Contract for February 2012 widgets and gadgets.doc", but that's not terribly practical, and it's hard to sort through a folder with hundreds of files with names like sentences. A simpler approach is to use naming elements that are reasonably self-explaining, and combine them as elements of file names - "vendor-contract.doc", "client-app-lic.xls", "bank-proposal.ppt", etc.


The naming convention examples make it easier to distinguish vendor contracts from client application licenses, and keeping documents in folders named for each vendor and client helps avoid confusion... but this assumes you'll only have one contract per vendor, or a single client app. You can, of course, add more elements to the file name - "vendor-maint-contract.doc", "client-acctng-app.xls", and so forth - but another area of confusion is when you have different versions of the same document.

Why might this happen? Several reasons, actually, from different wording or styling to different people working on drafts of the same document. What usually ends up happening is that the document is saved in different locations (typically with the exact same file name), leading to confusion. You can always check the date the file was last saved or modified, but the newest document isn't alway the "ultimate" version - sometimes, the most recent modifications don't improve things... but if you step away for a few days, it can be hard to remember.

An easy(er) way of keeping track of things is to add an element to the file name that lets you know which version is which. A simple naming convention is to add date elements to the beginning of the file name: "2011-03-14-vendor-maint-contract.doc", "2010-12-28-client-accounting-app.xls", etc. While this may seem a bit clunky, an immediate advantage is that the files will naturally sort from oldest to newest automatically.

You can also use other versioning elements: "initial-draft-vendor-service-contract.doc", "bobs-version1-client-finance-app.xls" and so on. Just as long as the elements you add are consistent, and help distinguish one version from another.


Discussing versions leads naturally to the final point about basic document management: you will often create the same type of document again and again. Vendor contracts, client agreements, welcome letters, negotiations, inquiries, etc.

Often, unfortunately, we have a tendency to start fresh with each attempt, forgetting that we've been down this road before, and probably did a good job of it sometime in the past. A helpful tip is to create a "templates" subfolder, and when you've created a particularly good document - well formatted, good language, etc. - make a copy of it, and place it in this folder.

The next time you need a similar document, just replace the names, addresses and other info, rather than rewriting the whole thing from scratch. A good practice is to replace these elements in the template copy, with "placeholder" text like FIRST-NAME, ADDRESS, COMPANY and such. Then, when composing the document, copy the template into the client folder and just search and replace these elements.

Also, don't forget to change the template file name to something like "vendor-contract-TEMPLATE.doc" to avoid sending out the wrong version. I like using the capital letters to help visually distinguish the templates from the actually working copies of the documents to be delivered.

You don't have to make your own templates, however. Here are a few good, free sources of templates available online:
These are all excellent sources of templates for all kinds of documents a typical Small Business would need. In fact, Your Open Source CIO highly recommends starting with a template for important documents, especially when doing business. Certain types of documents have standard formats and expected phrases, that help distinguish you as an experienced professional.

In this digital age, many of the people you do business with will know you only by the documents you create and send them. Managing them well, as simple as they may seem, can be a key element in Your Small Business success.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Not Using - but SHOULD BE: part five

Task Management

Business is about relationships - how you relate to your clients, vendors, co-workers and partners. This has been the recurring theme of the series published so far this year. One relationship has been somewhat overlooked so far - how you relate to the effort required to do the actual work that is Your Small Business.

Whether you produce a product for sale, sell products produced elsewhere, provide a service or offer advice as a consultant, the work you must do to produce a salable end result can be reduced to a series of individual steps, commonly referred to as "tasks". While the work ends up "getting done", and money is made, most of us would find it difficult to describe precisely how the work is actually accomplished.

This seems so obvious that it is often... no - usually taken for granted. "What do you mean, how do I get the work done? I... just... well, I just do it." That's a sufficient answer from a hobbyist, but one of the major reasons Small Businesses fail to "scale up" -- to quickly add a significant number of new hires in a hurry -- is because there is no formal work process. This is also the main reason why, when facing a sudden deadline, chaos ensues among even the smallest of businesses -- a two or three person shop -- because not only is nobody on the same page: no-one knows what the page IS...

Most Small Business begin with one person doing something they're good at. They typically take on one client at first, slowly building up their client base through word of mouth recommendations from that first satisfied customer. Before they know it, their business is up and running. But before too long, they're overwhelmed with the effort required to get things done, because they never formally approached how they do what they do.

Simply getting things done is acceptable at first; certainly better than NOT getting things done. But a business is not "things done" -- a business is a predictable method of producing a quality result, in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost. If it takes too long, the client loses patience, customers of their own, or even their business.

If it costs too much, the client complains, balks... or sometimes refuses payment or may even sue you. This is why managing the tasks required to perform the work is crucial to overall Small Business success. Nobody suggests hiring an "efficiency expert", with a clipboard and stopwatch, or writing a thousand-page "how-to" manual. But tracking the work done, and the work to be done, accomplishes several essential and easily overlooked objectives:
  • It provides a checklist to ensure critical tasks are not left undone
  • It lets you know when (and if) the work is actually done
  • It provides a record of how repeated (and repeatable) efforts were accomplished, so you don't have to reinvent the wheel
  • Over time, it gives you a way to show others how to do things without having to physical supervise them, or take time explaining things when you could be getting other work done.
  • In some cases, it gives you a tangible checklist to show the client or customer the "progress so far", or proof that the required work has actually been done
Some professions relate to task management more naturally than others: construction, architecture and those involved in some sort of manufacturing process usually spend time preparing lists of tasks in advance of the actual work effort, or receive task lists from clients, subcontractors or some sort of site supervisor. But for those of us who work alone, or in less formally detailed professions or industries, "getting along the way we always got along" is usually viewed as good enough.

But this is the 21st Century, folks: are you in business to do "well enough", or are you trying to grow Your Small Business, to thrive and expand? This will not happen by accident, and you will not magically discover a secret recipe, even if you're in the food services industry. Task management is not about a particular program, but a particular approach.

You can use something as simple as the calendar and task list functions in Microsoft Office, Mozilla Thunderbird or other similar email/calendar/task/contact list application. The fundamentals of task management are actually quite basic:
  • Associate jobs with clients - this helps track what you're doing for whom, and helps you keep them in the loop as the work progresses
  • Break down jobs into tasks - the fundamental, individual effort; the distinct "thing to do" that can't be broken down any further
  • Arrange the tasks into a logical sequence - to get the overall job done in the most efficient (least time + least cost) manner. Parallel tasks (doing more than one thing at once) are acceptable, where possible
  • Schedule each task - this ensures that you actually get them done, and prevents "double booking" time conflicts
  • Check off completed tasks - this not only prevents duplicated effort, but gives you visual evidence of moving closer to the job getting done
All of this can be accomplished with nothing more than an email program like the ones described above. Most Small Businesses will never need a full-blown project management tool, with GANTT charts, priorities, resource overload tracking and the like. But some may ultimately benefit from more formal task management than an email programs checklist can provide. They may need to arrange tasks and dependent sub-tasks in a "parent -> child" structure, coordinate the effort of several people, comment or annotate tasks, track milestones and more.

In such cases, there are several good, free task management applications Your Open Source CIO recommends:
I select Feng Office (what is with these Open Source project names, for goodness sake?) as the ideal tool for most Small Business task management. It closely resembles the Microsoft Outlook layout, while presenting a well-designed web-based interface for managing tasks, related subtasks and calendar events without overwhelming you with the complexity of how it works.

Task Coach is simpler and desktop-based, making it ideal for the solopreneur who just needs to keep the things they're doing in order, check off what gets done, and maintain a sense of the overall work effort as their business develops. Project Pier has an elegant web-based interface, and is simpler in design that Feng Office, with much less focus on calendar event and document management.

dotProject is at the bottom of the list both because it's interface is the least user-friendly, and because it is really only suited for large, complex projects handled by the more formal Project/Task/Resource/Dependency project manager paradigm. It is the only application that has GANTT chart function - if you don't know what a GANTT chart is, you definitely don't need one.

As with CRM, don't get caught up on which one to choose. They're ALL free, so check them all out if you like, and find the one that fits. Remember: it's not the tool you choose, it's the tool you use.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Not Using - but SHOULD BE: part four


As is the recurring theme of these series, business is about relationships. Some time ago major corporations and the software companies that serve them realized it was time to bundle that concept into application form.

So, just as Outlook bundled email, contact management, scheduling and task management (even though few of us use it to its full potential), the many aspects of managing the efforts of acquiring leads, tracking communication with them, converting them into paying customers and figuring out how much money they've made (or cost) your business was bundled into a class of software.

This type of application is called "CRM" -- which stands for, simply enough, "Customer Relationship Management". There are many different CRM applications, both free and commercial of various levels of complexity, but the basic elements of CRM are:
Now many of you, especially you solopreneurs out there, may consider CRM to be overkill -- "I have a list of my customers, I call or email them often, and I have a spreadsheet (or maybe Quickbooks) to track what I earn and what I owe. Why", you might ask, "do I need to introduce yet another program into the mix?"

Well... ask yourself a few questions:
  • Have you ever met a prospect at an event, or had one referred... and then somehow, failed to follow up and convert them to a paying customer?
  • Have you ever taken things to the next level - an actual phone call or meeting - but never closed the deal, despite a positive feeling at the end of the initial encounter?
  • Have you ever hesitated to follow up with a lead you had contacted in the past because you couldn't remember where you had left things during you last encounter -- or couldn't remember exactly when that last encounter was?
  • Do you find yourself staring at a stack of business cards, without a clue as to who most of those people are, where you met them, or whether they are prospects, vendors, or potential referral partners...?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can see a bit of the value of the CRM approach. More that just a particular program, CRM is the approach of tracking the entire flow of the relationship, from initial encounter throughout the lifetime of the business relationship:
  • When and how did we meet?
  • Does this individual prefer phone calls, emails or face-to-face meetings
  • How interested are they in doing business? How hard can I "push"?
  • When was our last encounter?
  • What was the mode (call/email/meeting) and result of our last meeting?
  • When should I follow up... and how?
  • How much business am I doing with my existing customers?
  • Which customers are costing me more than I make doing business with them? (this question is almost never asked, regardless of business size or type)
You could attempt to manage all of this, and more, with a manual process consisting of various unassociated emails, word processor documents, spreadsheets, untracked phone calls and quickly forgotten physical encounters, but that's what you're doing now. How's that working for you?

We're in the 21st Century - already in progress, as I like to say - and isn't it time to get past the excuse that technology is too complicated or time consuming to learn.

In this "Great Recession" economy, every business, small and large, needs every competitive advantage at their disposal. If you fail to convert a potential customer, or exploit business opportunities with your existing clients, you're leaving money on the table.

Is your business doing that well? Can you afford to do that? You don't have to jump head first into the CRM mix, and it need not cost you anything but the time to learn how to integrate CRM into your current work flow. There are many choices of CRM software, both free and commercial.

Most CRM software is designed for larger businesses, and might overwhelm the solopreneur or SOHO organization just getting started with this type of application. But this doesn't leave you without options.

Here's the short list Your Open Source CIO recommends:

The free programs install on a PC within Your Small Business, with varying degrees of difficulty; the commercial applications all offer options which are hosted on the respective companies' server farms, making it much easier to set up and get going, but putting ownership of your customer data in the hands of strangers.

The top choice in each list integrates well with Microsoft Outlook, which I assume most of you readers are using as your email/contact/calendar application right now. I recommend these as the fastest way to get on board with CRM, whether you have a marginal software budget or no budget at all. Going down each list, the applications have more features, but also a steeper learning curve.

Whatever you do, pick one, and start using it. There's gold to be mined in the business cards and email addresses you already possess: don't leave money on the table that belongs in Your Small Business bank account.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Not Using - but SHOULD BE: part three

Email Campaigning

I remember attending a meeting when I was IT manager for a New York architectural design firm, and learning that the most important application was not the one that did the drafting, drawing and 3D design... but was Microsoft Outlook - their email program...!

Not surprising, once you consider it. Unless we can communicate with our clients, colleagues, co-workers, vendors and peers, there IS no business. The days of mailroom workers patrolling the aisles with carts, picking up and delivering physical mail all day are not even in the active memory of many of today's Small Business owners and employees. Email is king and, as such, is easily taken for granted.

So looking at email as a Small Business "power tool" might strike you as a bit strange, initially. Plain old, boring email -- huh? But that's not what we're talking about here.

Back in the old-timey days of carbon paper and Correct-O-Type, there used to be this thing called "Direct Mail campaigning", in which colorful brochures, flyers, postcards and the like were physically mailed to targeted audiences throughout the land. Only a fraction of recipients ever responded, but if you sent out thousands (or tens of thousands), a return of even a small percent of the total more than justified the effort and expense.

Well email, for the most part, is free. And with the proper resource, preparing the equivalent of a colorful flyer or informative brochure is child's play (and for the technologically challenged out there -- enlist the aid of your actual children in this effort: they were practically born with joysticks or game controllers in their hands).

Many of you may be familiar with Constant Contact, the popular email campaign website. In fact, if you've recently received an email invitation to an event that was well formatted, with graphics, nice fonts and such, check the bottom of that message -- odds are good it was sent from a Constant Contact account.

As good, and as popular, as Constant Contact is, Your Open Source CIO prefers and recommends (and uses) MailChimp. ... I have no idea why they call it that, but who cares what it's called:
  • It's FREE
  • Each free account can have up to 2,000 email accounts in its combined lists
  • Each account can deliver up to 12,000 mailings each month
  • It has a wealth of video tutorials to walk you through every step of setting up email campaigns
  • It has a wonderful selection of templates for all occasions, edited as easily as a word processor document
  • It's the only free email campaign site I'm aware of that has autoresponders. (MailChimp no longer offers autoresponder with the FREE accounts.)
  • Did I mention it's FREE???
For those of you who read the previous series "Top Ten Reasons Why Small Businesses Fail", you may recall that I mentioned MailChimp in the third post - Marketing. Since then (less than a month ago) MailChimp has doubled the number of outbound emails per month from six to twelve thousand. This means that if you have a targeted list of, say, 400 people, you can send each of them an email a day. For FREE.

The real advantage of email campaigning is the autoresponder. In short, it is a pre-determined series of emails delivered on a schedule - every other day, every week, once a month, whatever. As new people are added to your autoresponder list, they're automatically put at the top of the list, and get the first email - say "Welcome, Valued Customer of [INSERT YOUR BUSINESS NAME]", then the second, and third, and so on, according to schedule.

AUTOMATICALLY. So once you've set up the emails, and the schedule, you just add new names to the list. How are you doing this now? Manually, by mail merging word processor documents -- if at all?? C'mon now, join the 21st Century...already in progress.

It's a well-known metric of business that it takes an average of seven contacts to convert a lead into a customer. Will you remember to follow-up seven times with every new lead you encounter? Will you have the time?? With a properly designed autoresponder campaign, you don't have to. And this doesn't just apply to converting leads... business is about relationships, remember?

How about a valued customer autoresponder campaign? Not pitches, and upsell attempts -- just send an email every third week, with some helpful advice or amusing anecdotes, coming from you, and reminding your existing customers that you value them -- and hopefully, jogging their memory of how much they value you and Your Small Business.

Wondering how to get new business from your old clients? Remember, it's about relationships. And as with personal relationships, it's usually out of sight, out of mind.

So use email campaigning not just to pitch and sell, but to stay "top of mind" with your most valuable resources - the people you're already doing business with.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Not Using - but SHOULD BE: part two


A key advantage of technology is that it allows us to do things faster and more efficiently - like typing a business letter. Remember "White-Out"? Or carbon paper?

Most Small Businesses are "solopreneurships"  -- one person operations -- but 75% of all small businesses have up to 20 people working for them. Yet the tendency exists to conduct business as if the two, or five, or more people in the business are working by themselves, in isolation. I have several clients who complain that something as simple as scheduling meetings requires tremendous effort -- even in a shop where everyone sits within arm's reach of one another!

A distinct value of today's technology is the ability to coordinate our daily activities. It's a matter of using what's already there. Any office that uses... er, Microsoft Office (with Outlook) has calendar functions built right in, that allows everyone in the - office - to see everyone else's scheduled appointments, search for free time within the day, and link these schedules with the contacts in their address books, and send and coordinate invitation via email.

In addition, every version of MS Office since the 2003 version (currently, the most widely used) provides the ability to share the editing of word processor documents and spreadsheets, with annotated markups of who made which changes when, and the ability to merge all changes into a final version for release and distribution.

For those of us who cannot afford Microsoft's popular productivity suite, Google provides similar functionality for free, with no installation requirement except the web browser of your choice. Google Apps Standard give you the ability to set up 50 email accounts under your businesses domain name (I have done this for my "" domain), with over 7.5GB in each inbox.

In addition, using the online Google Documents function, you can create and edit documents online, share the editing tasks with your Small Business partners or co-workers, and even see their editing real-time, coordinating the work effort from anywhere in the world you have access to the Internet.

A step further in complexity is the free application "eGroupWare", which brings this functionality and more in-house. Running on any available PC in your company, you can set up a web-based central command, coordinating email accounts, multiple contact lists, tasks list, time sheets, document and project management. The best thing about eGroupWare is how it all coordinates - schedule a task, associate it with a client of vendor from the address book, link it to a meeting event in the calendar, and tie it all together with an existing project, which provides a simple but effective "GANTT chart" that visually maps your progress, and even keeps a running total of the cumulative time of the overall work effort.

Of course, none of this works if you don't use it, and that does take a bit of learning how, even if you just use Microsoft Office, Word and Excel more efficiently. But as a Small Business owner, operator or employee, knowing how is the value you bring to your clients -- if they could do it themselves, they would, and save the money they pay you.

Isn't it worth investing whatever time it would take, to bring added value to your Small Business itself? Groupware allows you to do more, with less, more efficiently -- isn't that worth investing a little time to learn how?

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Top Five Tech Tools You're Probably Not Using - but SHOULD BE: part one

Instant Messaging

If you're like most Small Business owners or operators "of a certain age", your view of Instant Messaging, if you have one, may be similar to one of the following statements:
  • Instant Messaging is for kids
  • I have an email account - what do I need messaging for?
  • It's too complicated
  • I don't have time for that nonsense
  • What good could this messaging stuff do for my Small Business?
I'm sure most of you reading this can relate to at least one of the statements above; the last one asks the question which is, in fact, the topic of today's post.

Business, as I've mentioned in the previous series, is about relationships. Relationships, in turn, are about communication. I'm sure it's no secret that email is an essential Small Business tool -- if nothing else, it has allowed Small Businesses to save on postage and shipping costs once required to provide instant communication. Where it once took a special delivery or overnight package delivery (and still took at least a day) to ship critical documents to a business partner, vendor or client, we can now attach a PDF or word processor file to an email, and the relevant party receives it almost instantly.

Thus the "instant" in instant messaging -- "IM", as it is commonly known, combines the quickness of a phone conversation with the permanence of text. This second component is not to be overlooked, or taken lightly. How many times have you spoken with someone about a previous conversation, struggling to recall an important detail that neither of you can remember now, because you weren't recording the call or taking notes?

IM-ing is nothing but taking notes, real-time, as you engage in conversation. Even with a stenographer on hand, you would still probably miss much, and usually only capture your side of the call. With IM, the transcription IS the conversation and, in addition, you have the benefit of:
  • Including links to relevant websites
  • Transferring electronic documents and digital images
  • Copy-and-pasting information from emails and existing documents
  • Creating a "paper trail" for reference and auditing purposes
In addition to these benefits, IM helps reduce the occurrence of  "foot-in-mouth disease": since you type your responses before you transmit them, you have a few seconds before you click "Send" to decide if you want to forward what may amount to an emotional outburst, rather than a well-chosen response.

Google and Yahoo! have standalone chat clients and clients built into their emails; Facebook and MySpace accounts have built-in chat as well. Blackberry, Android and iPhone smartphones all have apps that aggregate all your chat clients into a single location, allowing you to appear online to all your various chat partners.

In addition, there are stand-alone chat tools such as MeeboCitron and ICQ that do the same thing from your desktop. Being able to communicate with your Small Business clients, partners and vendors as quickly as a phone call, with the permanence of text, the ability to embed web links and transfer files may be a novel concept to you, but you must certainly appreciate the possibilities it presents.

Consider it from the perspective of business objectives, not just technology. The strategic business advantages should be quite obvious -- if you're getting the message.

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