Wi-fi on your smartphone–Americans want more

An interesting article from Information Week discusses Americans growing demand for full-service wi-fi on their smartphones.  Instead of using their data plans, many mobile browsers are happy to use wi-fi, and in fact most would love to save money on their monthly service bills by using either public or private wi-fi networks.  Others felt that the wi-fi service was faster than surfing via their mobile provider.

Again, make sure when you do access wi-fi that you do it safely and legally.   On unencrypted networks be very wary of using any service that requires logging in with your password–even streaming sites like Pandora or your Facebook page.   Your mobile web service may be the right choice for applications that require more security.

Have a social media policy in place before your employees start sharing

Right now your small business may be so small that you are the only employee.  You have the good sense to use your company’s name responsibly and protect its image.  You would not disparage your business online or make off-color jokes.  But what about when you start to grow?

The new part-timer you hire to do some bookkeeping, does she know that her Facebook posts might show up in a search of your business name if she mentions it?  Did your teenage intern’s Twitter followers get updated about private customer information?

Idle gossip or phone conversations never were searchable by your potential customers and competitors, but with modern search engines everything posted on the Internet can pop-up in search results.  The consequence could be embarassing at the least or in a worse-case scenario lead to legal liability for defamation.

Take the time to formulate your business’ social media policy.  Let your employees know your expectations and the consequences for violating that policy.  What may have seemed like idle chatter of a harmless nature shouldn’t come as a surprise with real-world negative results.

Line up your tech support before trouble starts

As you grow your business your reliance on your technology tools grows along with it.  Our business is our connections, our knowledge, our history and our data.  Imagine losing access to all of your electronically stored information in situations ranging from a few hours of  down-time or complete loss.

We try to keep on top of everything through having data backup regimens in place; we keep our antivirus and other software up-to-date; we use surge protection and keep our computers cool and copacetic–but still things  happen.  Computers fail, bad guys break in and sometimes your software doesn’t play well with others.  Who are you going to call?

Well, Ghostbusters won’t be much help.  Do you have a backup plan other than wishful thinking?  Your data is your business and you can’t risk losing your data without having a rescue plan.

Find a reliable tech support service before disaster strikes.  Just like finding a good mechanic, a good doctor or a good receptionist–it takes some research, trial and error and advice from colleagues.  Ask around and ask questions.

A good way to test out a computer support professional is to buy a few hours of consulting time.  Get their advice on planning your next tech move (building your network, setting up VPN access, integrating your phones/ computers).  Are you impressed with their insights?  Have them repair or setup something that has exceeded your own tech skillset.  Did they listen and they solve the problem?  If you find good computer help, get them to provide a service agreement.  Have them commit to an acceptable response time.  If you secure good help in advance, when you have the luxury of time, you will be ahead of the game when the inevitable failure occurs.

Don’t ignore the basics – a website that works

Are websites still necessary for a small business? 

Only if you want someone to know how to that you are open for business, what you do, who you are and how to contact you.  Today’s consumer goes online for information.  If you aren’t there to be found you put the burden on yourself to reach each and every potential customer.  And when you do contact the customer, they don’t have the ability to confirm your message or contact information.  A simple website provides reassurance and serves the role of the old yellow page ad.

Is it something that you can do ‘eventually’? 

Ideally, staking your claim to a URL is part of the business start-up process.  Your website is part of your marketing and getting the right name and right website address will ensure that your customers can find you.  The cost of getting your domain name (web address), web hosting and the design of basic website can be the most effective marketing return-on-investment available.   Don’t be concerned that your starter website doesn’t have all the bells and whistles from the beginning.  It is most important that you secure your domain name and that the basic who, why, how and where are answered.  A more ambitious web strategy can come later; be sure to claim your space.

 Be sure to get the affiliated email addresses and use them in your business.  You can forward the email to whichever account you prefer to use, but don’t waste the opportunity to reinforce your business name in all of your communications.  Using a free email service in your business communication shows that you aren’t investing your own trust in your business.

Managing Digital Distraction

Procrastination has always been with us.  It is amazing what can be entertaining when a deadline looms over your head, or worse yet, down the road.  Even as a kid of the 70s and 80s,  before cable TV, I could find almost anything more interesting than chores or homework.  We all have to admit, however, that the internet available anywhere is the ultimate procrastination destination.  So how can you head off these distractions when it gets in the way of productivity?  Here are a few things to consider:

1.  Schedule your surfing.   Give yourself a block of time to catch up on all of your tweets, personal email, and news feeds.  When you first get to your desk, check your business communications (voice mail, email, mail, etc) for emergency action items.  After that, look at the work flow in your business.  Do you have an intense morning followed by a slower afternoon?  Is there a particular deadline you need to meet each day?  Are the phones busy at a certain time of day or is your business reliant on contact with clients in a different time zone?  You want to work around those crunch times to make sure that you can devote your energies in an appropriate fashion.

2.  Don’t discount the importance of letting your mind and attention wander when you head out onto the web.  Follow something unexpected and you might find new ideas that wouldn’t have come to you by reading strictly your industry’s trade publications.  Engage with others.

3.  Take clues that let you know that you are wasting time and energy.  If you are constantly refreshing a favorite site or pressing send/receive, then you are not actively engaged, you are probably avoiding your longer-term priorities.  Even if the projects are at holding points, a walk around the block is probably going to be more beneficial than resorting to reading gossip sites.

4.  If you need rules set them.  We all know what works to motivate us.  Are you a list maker?  Make a list.  Need to put on some ‘blinders’?  Turn off your computer or silence your phone.  Reward yourself if that what works for you, one hour of proposal writing could earn you 15 minutes of TMZ.  Find your motivation and work with it.

We all need to put our nose to the grindstone to accomplish our goals, don’t let the ‘look at me!’ nature of the internet keep us from achieving success.

Finding your social media ‘voice’

Social media has changed the way that small businesses connect with customers.  Whether on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or any of the other social media platforms businesses can share news about their products and promotions, seek feedback on their service or product, raise their visibility, address complaints and share compliments.    It has allowed small businesses to compete on a level playing field with the largest of organizations–something that would previously be unheard of.  But before you jump in some basics on finding your business’s voice:

1.  Know your voice.  As part of your business’s start-up you probably had a mission statement: a clear statement of your company’s aim and your approach in meeting that goal.  Having a confident grasp of your company’s ‘personality’ will help you form your voice on your communication strategy whether through paid advertising or with social media.  Really take the time to think about how humorous/ serious you want to be; how formal or casual; how chatty/reserved you want to be.  Why did you start this company?  Your communication strategy should get that message across with all of the messages you send out.

2.  Keep your professional / personal on-line lives separate.  While your business should reflect your talents, your values and your  personality–remember to keep some separation between your business and your personal lives.  Both your customers and your friends/ family will appreciate it!

3.  Social media isn’t just marketing.  It is about opening up a new line of communication:  one that is fast, reactive and informative.  Share news and insights but also listen to your customers.

4.  Be persistent.  Don’t jump in and out of the fast lane of social media.  Schedule it into your daily routine.  Don’t get discouraged and keep on connecting.

5.  Let your old school methods of communicating help you connect in the new school world of social media.  Add the magic words “Follow us on Twitter” and “Find us on Facebook” to all of your print advertising, on your website and in your emails.

Be willing to do more of what works and less of what falls flat.  Think of what intrigues you when you follow others and learn as you go.  Your voice will evolve as you get more confident, and your customers will be glad you spoke up!

Government info for small biz on the web (and on the go)

Who thought they would see the day when the US government would have an Appstore?  The developers of USA.gov recently launched a one-stop shop for some handy applications available for most mobile phones.  The most inclusive of these is the USA.gov mobile directory, giving you access to contact information and websites for all government agencies including local and state governments.  They also have Apps for the TSA and the Postal Service which would be handy for small biz entrepreneurs.

Another great resource for small biz-types is the Small Business Administration’s website.  Even if you are not seeking SBA financing for your business, they have a wealth of resources.   From disaster planning advice, free on-line training and resources on how to plan, start-up, establish and grow your next new idea.

Wi-fi Know-How: Connect legally and safely

We all love using wi-fi.  Around our home on our personal network, in the coffeeshop on their wireless network, in an airport or even community provided networks–it is convenient and with many devices it is the primary method to connect to the internet.  Here are a few things to keep in mind when logging on.  The first question you should ask is “Do I have permission to use this network?”  Many users don’t realize that if they connect to a wi-fi signal without explicit consent that they may be breaking the law.  Most states have laws dealing with “unauthorized access to a network”, here is a list of those state laws at the National Conference of State Legislatures.   An unsecured network alone cannot be considered permission but people do disagree if the network is labelled “free for all internet” or something similar. But even if network access is allowable to an unknown network provider, should you?  Some networks are left open as ‘honeypots’, hoping to entice wi-fi users to log on so that the network host can monitor all of your activity online including passwords and personal information.  This McClatchy News article discusses this possibility.

Feeling generous with your network?  Unfortunately, almost all service agreements with broadband providers prohibit sharing your signal with others.  People have also gotten into trouble with the activities of others on their networks.  Imagine that your ‘he seemed like such a nice guy’ living a few houses down decided to download movies via your network.  Do you want to deal with the hassle of defending yourself against a lawsuit from the movie studio? 

So how can we connect safely and legally?  Lifehacker has an excellent guide “How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi”.  It may seem to be overly-cautious, but you need to remember how much personal information is exposed when you surf the web. 

Extended Warranty or Not for Your Laptop, Phone or Other Electronics

As you check out with your new electronics purchase you inevitably get the question “Would you like to purchase the extended warranty/ buyer protection plan or some other-named coverage?”  Consumer Reports has told you to skip these come-ons for the most part.  You also know that you are a terrible klutz.  One spilled soda or case of butterfingers might end up costing you hundreds of dollars and the loss of the use of your essential technology.  Do you have any other options?  Here are a few:

1.  Remember you have a manufacturer’s warranty.  Make sure you know the warranty length and coverage and have that be part of your purchase decision.

2.  Check to see if you have any coverage affiliated with your credit card–Check with your particular issuer to see if they provide an extended warranty in addition to the manufacturer’s warranty period (for example American Express and Visa have programs).

3.  Third party insurers.  You can cover your electronics with personal property insurance either through your regular home or renters insurance or with a separate insurance policy.   Consider that making a claim on your homeowners/renters policy might lead to future difficulty in obtaining insurance or higher rates in the future.  Holding a separate insurance policy for your laptop or smartphone might be a smarter choice.  Two popular insurers are SquareTrade and Safeware (though I do not have any particular knowledge of these two companies, both are accredited by the BBB).

Spell-check—Friend or Foe in the Office?

We’ve all done it.  Ran a quick spell-check on an email and just accepted the changes.  Then you find out you have auto-corrected your phrase from something that makes sense to something completely different.   Instead of getting to the ‘heart of the matter’ you have gotten to the ‘hearth’ of it because you mistyped hearh instead of heart. 

Or perhaps you didn’t change a misused word because it passed your spell- and grammar-check.  Grammar check might be smart enough to know ‘effect’ from ‘affect’ but you are smarter than your spelling or grammar checker (at least some of the time).  If you don’t add certain technical terms or less commonly used words to your personal dictionary, you will be prompted to change it to the incorrect word.

Take the time to read your emails, text messages and documents and do a proper proofread before hitting the send button.  One trick I use is to compose longer emails in my word processing program before cutting and pasting into my email.  I even change the font using ‘Paste Special’ so that I can look at it in a different frame of reference.  Sometimes it is easy to miss mistakes when you get used to looking at it on a screen in a certain format. 

Remember—mistakes do make an impression.  We are all human and we all will make mistakes.  Keep in mind, though, when you are trying to present a professional face to the world and our written word is all our reader has to judge us by, those mistakes will stand out.  These software tools can make it easier to avoid errors, but use them with care.