Microsoft SMB Blog

Featuring business and technology insights from Cindy Bates
04/14/15 Posted by Cindy Bates The #1 Way to Lose Customer Trust

Premera — a major health insurer based in Washington State, has been in the news this month — but not because of a major advancement in healthcare or a customer milestone. Instead, the brand is under scrutiny as a result of a cyberattack that may have exposed the personal information, including the medical records and social security numbers, of more than 11 million people.

Unfortunately, these types of attacks are becoming news-making headlines for businesses of all sizes. For the majority, a cyberattack is the beginning of the end. Sixty percent of businesses who fall prey are forced to shutter their doors within six months, according to a recent study cited by the U.S. House Small Business Subcommittee on Health and Technology.

SMB owners must realize that with each transaction or piece of information shared, customers are also providing a measure of trust. By using outdated technology that leaves information vulnerable to cybercriminals, you’re risking not only the data, you’re risking your business.

During a technology audit prior to the Premera breach, federal officials conducted vulnerability scans and found that the company failed to implement critical patches and other software updates in a timely manner. Auditors also found that several servers contained software applications so old that they were no longer supported by the vendor.

“Failure to promptly install important updates increases the risk that vulnerabilities will not be remediated and sensitive data could be breached,” the auditors wrote, without knowing they were foreshadowing one of the largest cyberattacks of 2015.

Incidents like this, combined with the upcoming Windows Server 2003 End of Support, make now an opportune time to reevaluate your technology to ensure the security of your customer data and the safety of your business. In fact, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a cybersecurity alert because no patches will be available for critical security vulnerabilities discovered after public support for Windows Server 2003 ends on July 14, 2015. Gartner also sounded the alarm over potential security risks after end of support.

For SMBs less familiar with technology, the first step is to determine whether or not you have a server. If you have a business email address that’s not associated with a service such as Hotmail or Yahoo, or if you host a small website, it’s likely you have a server. Contact the IT person or partner who helped set up your hardware to determine whether or not your business is utilizing Windows Server 2003. If so, you can find important next steps here.

It can take up to 90 days for a small or midsize company to migrate, so the best time to get started is now. Waiting until the last minute just puts your business at more risk and waiting until after the final patch is like sending an open invitation to cybercriminals.

Many SMBs, such as Karen M. Hazleton, CPA have already upgraded to newer versions of Windows Server or Microsoft Azure. These businesses are seeing real benefits, including improved performance, higher reliability, and increased flexibility in responding to customer needs. Read Karen’s story here.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. After the breach, Premera is now obligated to offer two years of free credit monitoring and identity protection services to those affected, but that will only go so far. Once you lose a customer’s trust, there is very little you can do to get it back.

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04/07/15 Posted by Cindy Bates National Small Business Week Gives SMBs a Reason to Celebrate

When you’re a small business owner, every week is small business week. Fortunately, once a year, it’s official. And rightfully so due to the crucial role SMBs play in the U.S. economy. More than half of Americans either own or work for a small business, and they create roughly two out of every three new jobs in the U.S. each year, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Annually, since 1963, the SBA has taken the opportunity to highlight the impact of outstanding entrepreneurs, small business owners and others from across the nation through National Small Business Week (NSBW). This year, NSBW will be celebrated May 4-8, under a theme of “SBA: Dream Big, Start Small.” Other recognition events throughout SBA’s 10 Regions and 68 Districts will be held throughout the months of May and June.

During NSBW, there’s a sense of pride and excitement in the air — a feeling that anything is possible. NSBW is an opportunity for SMBs to celebrate the hard work they do throughout the year and to speak with one voice about the issues that matter to them the most.

There’s an added layer of activity this year thanks to the SBA’s launch of the InnovateHER challenge. Throughout March, local competitions were hosted by universities, accelerators, clusters, scale-up communities, SBA’s resource partners and other local business organizations. The SBA sought entrepreneurs who have created products or services that will have a measurable impact on women and their families, fill a need in the marketplace and have the potential for commercialization.

Those entrepreneurs selected by local judges will make it to the semi-final round. An executive committee of SBA officials will review the semi-final nomination packages and select up to 10 finalists who will compete for a total of $30,000 in prize money, provided by Microsoft.

Events will take place in Miami, Los Angeles, San Antonio, New York City and culminate in Washington, D.C on May 8th, where the 10 finalists will pitch their products and ideas to a panel of expert judges. I’m eager to see the innovations from these women and learn about their products and their journeys.

In addition, across the country our Microsoft Stores will celebrate NSBW by hosting events, presentations and product demonstrations to share how Microsoft solutions can help your business do more. The week will conclude with special networking events featuring keynotes and interactive presentations. Also in May, the stores will hold an exciting digital event for business-owners, partners, and local associations, which will be broadcast live and feature thought-leaders discussing the future of technology and the opportunity for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Stay tuned for more information.

I urge you to check with your local store for details and take advantage of activities happening in a city near you. As more details come available I will post here on the blog and share via Twitter.

For more information on NSBW, visit https://www.sba.gov/nsbw/nsbw. Join the conversation on Twitter #DreamSmallBiz.

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03/31/15 Posted by Cindy Bates SBA Seeks to Empower New Generation of Women Entrepreneurs

It’s a distinct pleasure to introduce this contributed article. The Small Business Administration, and its leader, Maria Contreras-Sweet, do so much for entrepreneurs across the country and we at Microsoft certainly value the close relationship between our organizations. The InnovateHer challenge is a unique opportunity for female entrepreneurs – Good luck to all the participants!

-Cindy

Until 1988, if a woman wanted to start a business in America, she could be required to get the signature of a spouse or a male relative to take out a loan. That changed when Congress passed the Women’s Business Ownership Act, a civil rights milestone that gave women entrepreneurs access to capital on their own merits.

America has come a long way since then. Women-owned businesses today have an annual economic impact of about $3 trillion and account for nearly 30 percent of all businesses in this country.

In 2015, our workplace policies must adapt to the fact that both parents in a majority of American households are now working. More than 40 percent of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinner. But many cannot access flexible hours, paid leave, job sharing, and other worker-friendly policies.

To support women in the workplace, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) recently launched the InnovateHER challenge. As demands on women and families grow, the need for products, services, and technologies that address their unique challenges increases. So the SBA created a competition in which entrepreneurs are challenged to create a product or service that:

  1. Has a measurable impact on the lives of women and families
  2. Has the potential for commercialization
  3. And fills a need in the marketplace.

Women provide a unique perspective about what products and services would enhance their everyday lives. Women invented the dishwasher, the paper bag and the disposable diaper, as well as products such as Kevlar and the circular saw.

InnovateHER recognizes that women can play a unique role in formulating innovative ideas to balance the demands of work and home. Products pitched in this competition have run the gamut from online babysitting services to better breast pumps to seatbelts customized for pregnant women.

As we wrap up Women’s History Month today, the SBA concludes a series of local competitions across America, where entrepreneurs have pitched their ideas to a panel of experts. Ten local winners will be chosen to participate in a national competition in Washington, D.C., during National Small Business Week. Stay tuned for updates on how to watch a live stream of the final “pitches” as we get closer to the event this May.

In the meantime, the SBA is working every day to help more women entrepreneurs get the support they need to launch and grow.

Today, just 6 percent of venture capital partners are women, and just seven percent of venture capital funding in the United States goes to women entrepreneurs. A Harvard Business School study asked potential investors to rate a series of pitches, narrated by women and men. Even when the scripts for the pitches were exactly the same, only 32 percent of investors said they would fund the woman, compared to 68 percent who would fund the man.

Access to credit is the No. 1 issue facing women entrepreneurs today. In the last year, SBA has taken some major steps to unlock capital. The SBA zeroed out fees on smaller loans of $150,000 or less, and we introduced a new field-tested credit scoring model to reduce the time and cost for banks to make approvals. Our goal is to get more credit into the hands of underserved borrowers, including women, so they can start up or scale up.

This mission is personal to me. I immigrated to America with my family at the age of 5 from Guadalajara, Mexico, with no economic advantages. But what we did have was the belief that America is the land of opportunity. As an entrepreneur and a community banker who started three small businesses before joining President Obama’s cabinet, I believe we should give women the choice to be whatever their skills allow and hearts desire – from a homemaker focused on the family to a home maker building the next house on the block.

Our future prosperity depends upon the ideas and ingenuity of our women entrepreneurs. To learn more, contact your local SBA district office or resource partner, or request a meeting with a loan officer. The SBA is here to provide you with the capital and counseling you need to get in the game.

Contreras-Sweet is the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a member of President Obama’s cabinet.

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03/27/15 Posted by Cindy Bates 5 Tips For Startups To Win With Social Media

There’s an old saying that goes “if you want to catch fish, go where the fish are.” When it comes to your SMB, the “fish,” are your customers and with more than 74 percent of all online adults using social media, it’s likely a good place to catch their attention. From review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, to the opinions and content shared on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, customers are talking about your business on social media. Below, Marty Zwilling, founder and chief executive officer of Startup Professionals, outlines how to get started in social and connect with your customers.

-Cindy

Social media is so pervasive in today’s world that every entrepreneur believes instinctively that they know how to use it for their startup. Many soon find that what you do in a personal context doesn’t necessarily translate to your business, and measuring business value is quite different from measuring personal satisfaction. When it comes to social media for your business, expect a high learning curve, but rest assured it’s not rocket science.

Social media is now one of the key marketing tools, but not the only one, so the challenge is to manage the resource tradeoffs effectively by constantly assessing payback versus cost. Startups should begin by selecting just a few of the vast array of social media offerings out there, and customize based on results.

I agree with my friend Lon Safko, and his classic book “The Social Media Bible,” which asserts your team can be successful at social without the cost of an expensive expert or agency, by following these five basic steps:

  1. Start with the dominant players. Top social networks are Facebook (1.2 billion users). LinkedIn (300 million), Twitter (288 million) and Pinterest (70 million). Concentrate your efforts on two to three platforms to start. Get to know the five W’s of these – who, what, where, when, and why. Ask yourself where are the influencers in your market, the majority of your target customers, and what type of interaction will be most productive to your business?
  2. Assess your target customer demographics. Identify your target customer and create customer profiles. If you already have a strong customer base, create a brief survey to help you determine what social media sites they’re using and how to reach them in a targeted way. Add a blog to give yourself a voice, show your expertise, but skip the sales pitch.
  3. Create an integrated conventional marketing and social media strategy. Social media does not stand alone; it must be integrated into a balanced marketing strategy. Your plan should include a well-designed web site, events, press releases, and search engine marketing (SEM). SEM is the most common form of online marketing, which increases your website visibility on search engine results pages through optimization and advertising.
  4. Prepare your staff to deliver on social media requirements. Social media is not free – it takes time and skills that you won’t have by default. Ad hoc coverage by team members in their spare time is a recipe for failure. You need executive buy-in, committed budgets, and education for the whole team on objectives and activities.
  5. Don’t forget the metrics and analytics. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Determine the proper measurement tools and set up the measurement process. Only then can you determine your ROI. Manage your expectations, and analyze every marketing channel. Scour the Internet for data from similar businesses, existing media, and match it with your own customer profiles. Then set your goals for penetration, frequency, and results.

With social media, a key element of success is focus on the message. Never “sell” or push out your message like conventional advertising. The trick is to listen first, add something of value to the conversation, and pull the customers to you because they trust you and want more. According to Lon, the keywords to remember are to be “sincere, authentic, and transparent.”

Startups are in an ideal position to capitalize on the fundamental shift in power to the customer, who now has real control over your brand message. Companies have to communicate, rather than just pontificate. Customers see what their peers are saying in blogs and product reviews, and how you respond to these, and this impacts their buy decision more than any advertisement.

Above all, don’t forget to observe your competition and their social media activity. Learning from their mistakes and building on their best practices can save you time and money.

Finally, remember that it takes time to establish and optimize your social media presence. Use the five steps listed above to start slowly, leverage your time effectively, stay one step ahead of your competitors, and enjoy the success that social media can bring to your startup.

Marty Zwilling is the founder and chief executive officer of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners. Marty is a veteran startup mentor and contributor at publications such as Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Huffington Post. Check out his blog or contact him directly via email or Twitter.

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03/09/15 Posted by Cindy Bates Build Confidence in Digital Business through a Culture of Security

By Joe McKendrick, contributor, Forbes Insights

For small and midsize businesses to advance into the digital economy, three things are necessary: vision on the part of business leaders, dependable technology and trust in that technology. For businesses working to establish a digital presence, the online world can be a very scary place, with no shortage of news cycles about the latest hackings into major corporate systems. Evolving to a digital enterprise requires complete confidence that the technology solutions and information companies use to transact business is timely, reliable and secure. To assure this level of trust, it’s important to bake security into all processes, applications and data environments. Every small to midsize business needs to establish a culture of security.

A new survey of 100 business leaders, conducted in December 2014 by Forbes Insights in partnership with Microsoft*, confirms that IT security is top of mind for many, and progress is being made to better secure digital assets within growing companies. However, substantial segments of small to midsize businesses have yet to embrace many of the practices and protocols that are required for secure IT environments.

The survey clearly identified priority areas small to midsize businesses should consider when making the journey to becoming a digital business. Trust was identified as the foundation of this change and hinges on having highly secure systems. A culture of security must develop as the business increasingly moves online. Here are ways to successfully ensure a culture of security in the digital age:

Educate and raise awareness

IT security is the responsibility of everyone in the entire company, not just an IT administrator or a single department. Employees and managers need to understand corporate IT security policies and procedures. They should receive regular updates on how to handle security threats, such as viruses, phishing and other email scams. Periodic training on the proper ways to handle data, log-ins and use of personal devices in workplace settings is also beneficial. Three out of five executives report they do not yet have a formal online corporate security policy. Such policies are critical for laying the groundwork and maintaining support for active security efforts. (See Figure 1.) Most businesses are communicating Internet security policies on a widespread basis — 77 percent will attempt to bring all or most employees up to speed on new policies. Such guidelines may provide employees direction on the use of their own mobile devices, as well as advising on the proper handling of sensitive corporate data.

Along with communicating policies, employee training is a vital part of building a culture of security. Employees need to be acquainted with the processes — and regulations — for handling sensitive data, opening emails, avoiding scams and frauds. Such training is supported at most companies, but more than one-third admit they provide no training at this time to their employees. (See Figure 2.)

To a large extent, the businesses surveyed apply a very light touch when it comes to bringing their workforces up to speed with security training. The most popular strategy, employed at 55 percent of sites, is through regular company-wide emails detailing updates or providing tips. About 41 percent admit that they provide only informal guidance to their employees, with the expectation that the employees will learn the right procedures on their own.

About half of the surveyed group do invest in training with 52 percent reporting they get more actively engaged by offering in-house coaching or guidance by their IT teams. Another 23 percent will invest in either online or on-site training programs. (See Figure 3.) Most executives indicate they make the effort to personally understand online fraud, the steps they can take to help guard against it and what they can do if they fall victim to it.

Trust, but verify

Many of today’s data breaches originate from the inside of organizations, often the result of simple human errors. No IT security strategy is ever complete without checks and balances on the inside, even if it’s to avoid simple mistakes. In addition, ensure that outside providers, such as consulting and cloud services, have strong security policies and procedures.

Seek to prevent, versus repair

The old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” applies well to IT security. However, the survey finds many businesses may be lagging in their ability to keep up with technology enhancements. (See Figure 5.) In addition, many businesses are missing the latest solutions and protocols that can provide the assurance that the IT infrastructure is well secured. (See Figure 6.)

Preventative strategies include encrypting data, strictly regulating its replication and requiring strong passwords that are regularly changed. Keeping up with releases, updates and patches also is an effective prevention strategy. Maintaining the most up-to-date versions of technology is key to having a robust IT security environment.

Security is one of several driving factors for regular technology upgrades. A majority of small- to midsize-business executives say they make their technology upgrades when it becomes apparent that their current capabilities are lagging. (See Figure 7.) Close to one-third, 29 percent, report they make upgrades when they are presented with product support issues, suggesting that many procrastinate on moving to new technology until forced to do so due to the end of vendor product support. A good example of this is the upcoming Windows Server 2003 end of support quickly approaching on July 15, 2015.

Share the knowledge and learn from others

Close to one in five executives readily admit they are aware of security breaches that impacted their organizations within the past two years, but only one in four have an appreciable level of confidence that another breach can be prevented. (See Figures 8 and 9.) Involvement with user groups, professional associations, business groups or online communities provides opportunities to learn best practices for increased confidence.

A well-designed culture of security should always be part of a business’s plans to advance into the digital economy. Transactions need to be trusted, customers need to have the assurance their data is in secure hands, and corporate operations need to run unimpeded. The digital economy is built on a foundation of trust, and small- and midsize-business executives can take a leadership role in assuring that trust.

# # #

*All respondents were with organizations of 250 or fewer employees. Forty-six percent of respondents were owners, presidents or vice presidents of their firms, while another 41 percent were managers or supervisors. All were involved in technology purchase decisions for their companies.

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02/25/15 Posted by Cindy Bates SMB contest winners reveal 5 secrets to success

Recently, I was honored to announce the winners of our Microsoft Small Business Contest. I was inspired by the stories of creativity and triumph and thankful for the thousands of people who voted for the 10 finalists. In the end, Citizen Frederick, which opened just nine months ago, took home the top prize of $20,000 and Microsoft technology. Because the co-founders behind Citizen Frederick are not only small business owners but new business owners, I thought it would be great to share a bit of insight on their early success. Below Antonio Rico and Nolan Kulbiski share five tips that have been critical to their success – and can help you start your business off on the right track.

  • Find a need and fill it – When Antonio and Nolan moved to Frederick, they loved it for a number of reasons including its central location and historic significance. They especially loved the downtown area but quickly noticed that although there were plenty of stores for women and antique-lovers, there were few options for men outside of the mall. That realization led them to explore the retail market and provide a unique option for the fashionable man. Months later, when customers expressed the desire for a different type of haircut experience, they opened the Citizen Frederick barbershop a few blocks away.
  • Start small – The pair likes to say they searched for “the smallest place with the cheapest rent when they started looking for a home for Citizen Frederick. They wanted a lease they could afford based on their salaries alone, and they suggest others look for the same. Don’t break the bank to start a business, and be flexible enough to pivot if needed.
  • Get social – Citizen Frederick had a healthy social media following even before they opened their doors. A key part of their social media success was that they made it about more than selling products, they made it about community. Instagram was used for sharing personal stories and beautiful photos of everything from local farms to other downtown storefronts – even their dog Skip made a few appearances. Through Instagram, more and more people became emotionally invested in the Citizen Frederick brand. By the time of the grand opening, the store was full to capacity. Twitter also has been a big part of their success, as they created hashtags and engaged with the local community. Soon, they’re looking to branch out into Pinterest as well.
  • Seek local mentors – No need for official titles here. Mentors can be any friend or neighbor who wants to see your business succeed. They encourage business owners to create a large, informal network of people who can provide insight in a variety of areas like finance, social media, work/life balance, and more. Antonio swears by his homemade guacamole as an ice breaker: “Whip up a bowl of guacamole and knock on someone’s door. No one can resist it and minutes later you’ll be sharing business advice.”
  • Don’t quit your day job - at least not right away – Although both Nolan and Antonio come from families of entrepreneurs, they found success in other areas before deciding to venture out on their own. Antonio worked in industrial design and construction before starting work full time at Citizen Frederick a few months ago. Nolan is still working as a news analyst.

Even if you’re not a citizen of Frederick, you can still find Citizen Frederick on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and visit their online store. I love the t-shirts from their private label and hear they’re planning to use a portion of the prize money to develop even more designs. I look forward to seeing what’s next from this talented team.

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02/20/15 Posted by Cindy Bates National Entrepreneurship Week offers unique networking opportunities

Next week (Feb 21-28) is National Entrepreneurship Week (NEW), which means it’s a great time to network with other small business owners, expand your current business or develop a plan to turn your idea into a thriving enterprise.

NEW takes place annually to raise awareness of the opportunities in place for entrepreneurs and elevate the importance of entrepreneurship to local, state and national government organizations. It’s also a great time to encourage others, especially students, to seek a similar entrepreneurial path. I’m inspired by President Barack Obama, who said “Entrepreneurs embody the promise that lies at the heart of America — that if you have a good idea and work hard enough, the American dream is within your reach.”

New business creation dropped like a rock during the recession, falling 31 percent, the biggest drop in the last four decades, according to the Kauffman Foundation. In order to right the ship and create economic renewal, we need a new sense of possibility. Recently, the Small Business Administration (SBA) introduced a new online matchmaking service, LINC (Leveraging Information and Networks to Access Capital) to do just that. LINC is aimed at providing a simple way for entrepreneurs to connect with prospective SBA lenders.

In a similar spirit, on Thursday, Feb. 26, Microsoft Stores across the U.S. will host 2-hour networking events to bring together business students, small business owners, Microsoft partners and startup organizations to share insights and experiences. In addition to these events, here are a few other ways to take action during NEW:

  • Open your doors to students- Even if it’s just for the day, allowing a local student to job shadow you may ignite their passion for entrepreneurship.
  • Share your story on social media- Offer customers an inside view of your business by sharing your journey to entrepreneurship. This is also great information to add to your website or blog.
  • Become a mentor- One of the best ways to inspire a new generation is to become a mentor. The SBA is a great place to start if you’re interested in becoming a mentor or finding a protege.

I hope you’ll end this week excited about the value Microsoft Stores and the local business community can bring to your entrepreneurial pursuit. To find a local event near you, click here.

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02/17/15 Posted by Cindy Bates Changes In Technology Can Present Opportunity for Small & Mid-Size Businesses

Thanks to new technology, it’s an exciting time for small and mid-size businesses. That’s because many are finding that increased access to new technology – such as cloud and mobile solutions – can provide access to services that were never within their reach before, helping them grow and be more productive.

They are also finding that using old or outdated technology can hinder a company’s ability to do business in a number of ways – from security risks and compliance issues to not being able to implement even modest changes or updates in software, all of which can significantly hamper a company’s ability to be successful and competitive.

A Shift In Technology

The beginning of one era in technology often means the end or phasing out of another. For example, to accommodate the shift toward modern technology used by a growing number of small and mid-size businesses, Microsoft will end support for Windows Server 2003 on July 14, 2015.

This means that security patches and updates will no longer be available after this period, resulting in a less stable and less secure technological infrastructure if no action is taken. However, the good news is that a variety of easy-to-integrate options are available for those ready to upgrade, including Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud platform. Cloud solutions such as Azure are designed to provide small and mid-size businesses with the ability to scale up or down to take advantage of opportunities or cut costs, all based on their needs.

Numerous Benefits

Many small and mid-size businesses report that moving to a cloud platform like Azure provides a range of benefits – including increased backup capacity, enhanced disaster recovery capabilities, consistent compliance with regulatory demands and access to the most modern applications. These benefits can help small and mid-size businesses move faster, reduce costs and, ultimately, be more productive.

  • Backup: Today’s businesses generate more data than ever before. The cloud offers reliable and economical cloud backup for data for businesses of any size, and it even automatically replicates data to help guard against unexpected hardware failures.
  • Disaster recovery: Backup is a great solution to protect your business from data deletion and corruption – but, it isn’t the only important factor when it comes to data. Disaster recovery with Azure means your company’s data and applications will be replicated in the cloud and accessible at any time should anything happen to your physical location.
  • Compliance: With data security comes legal and regulatory requirements. With cloud platforms like Azure, your security software will be continually updated, making it easy for your business to ensure it remains compliant with unique industry requirements.
  • Modern applications: The cloud provides the infrastructure, platform and custom-made solutions in one place, rather than having to cobble solutions together piece by piece. This helps make it possible for small or mid-size companies to spend less time troubleshooting IT issues and more time on activities that will drive the business forward.

Now is the time to plan your transition – and we’re here to help. For more information, please visit http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/server-cloud/products/windows-server-2003/. To find a Microsoft partner in your area to assist in your cloud transition, visit www.pinpoint.microsoft.com.

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02/10/15 Posted by Cindy Bates A Customer’s Trust in Your Business is Worth Protecting

As an SMB owner, it’s likely you have worked for years to build reliable and trustworthy products or services. You’ve reviewed every process, hired the right employees and connected with consumers. But there is another critical step to building lifelong customers – establishing trust. Trust can be the differentiator between a successful business and a shuttered one and can go a long way in helping your business stand out from the competition. The best way to create an atmosphere of trust is to ensure the safety of your customer data. Use the below infographic to help you prevent cyber fraud in order to protect your customers and your business.

 

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02/10/15 Posted by Cindy Bates The Windows Server 2003 Era is Ending: What it Means for Small & Mid-size Businesses and How to Plan For Migration

A lot has changed in the past decade since Microsoft launched Windows Server 2003. Capabilities that were previously only available to a large enterprise are now affordable and accessible to businesses of any size – hardware is less expensive, devices are smaller, virtualized operating systems are more efficient, and robust collaboration solutions like Office 365 are available at a fraction of the cost compared to maintaining them on-premises. In addition, the way we work has changed as well – we’re more mobile and more social in the workplace than ever before. However, despite all of these advances, many companies large and small are still running on outdated technology.

There’s never been a more important time for companies to upgrade their technology to help them grow more efficiently and more cost effectively. That’s because support for Windows Server 2003 will end on July 14, 2015. For businesses that do not upgrade to more modern technology, it can result in a less secure and stable infrastructure.

Once support for Windows Server 2003 is over there will be:

  • No updates – Microsoft will no longer develop or release any updates after ending support, which can increase security risk, result in slower performance and cause potential down time of business applications.
  • No savings – The costs of maintaining your legacy servers can add up quickly – while cloud infrastructures can deliver significant benefits to your small business’ bottom line.
  • No compliance - After support ends, your business will likely fail to meet most industry-wide compliance standards and regulations, which increases the risk for your daily business transactions.

Change Brings Opportunity

The good news is that migrating from Windows Server 2003 could signal the beginning of a new stage for your business, providing it with additional capabilities that are now more affordable and accessible for companies of any size. For example: By upgrading to the latest on-premises operating systems and cloud platforms, like Windows Server 2012 (R2) and Microsoft Azure, companies can have the flexibility to scale their businesses up and down based on their needs without a large up-front capital cost, and they have access to enterprise-grade security, disaster recovery, and much more.

When upgrading, all business owners need to consider their options and decide on what makes the most sense for their company. Microsoft offers the following tips to help you find out which solution might work best for your company.

1. Discover

The first step is to discover what applications and software you have running on outdated technology like Windows Server 2003.

There are several self-service tools that can help with this process, such as the Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Toolkit, to help you assess your current IT infrastructure and determine what platform might be best for you as a next step. You can also contact a Microsoft partner to help you make this decision.

2. Assess

Once you’ve identified what applications and software need to be moved off your outdated technology, create a transition plan that will create as little disruption as possible for your employees. If customized applications are blocking your migration, connect with your Microsoft IT partner to formulate a plan.

3. Target

Choose where you’d like to move your current workloads and applications. For example, you can choose to keep your applications on-premises with a new server like Windows Server 2012 (R2), move to the cloud on a platform like Microsoft Azure, or do a combination (or hybrid approach) of both.

4. Migrate

Several vendors offer do-it-yourself tools to assist in the decision-making process and in the migration itself, including Dell ChangeBASE, Citrix AppDNA, AppZero, Refresh IT, BlueStripe and Microsoft Services JumpStart for Windows Server 2003. Make sure to ask your Microsoft partner or team for any additional migration deals in place.

Remember, if you have any questions along the way, there are local experts – Microsoft partners – that can assist you with this transition during any step or simply help you determine what the right choice is for your business.

Cloud on Your Terms

If you are still trying to determine which type of cloud is best for the specific needs of your business, whether it’s virtualization on-premises or in a Public Cloud with Microsoft Azure or with a hosting partner, here are few questions and answers that may help:

  • Are flexibility and scalability extremely important to your business? Do you lack the dedicated IT resources to deploy and manage your own hardware? Consider a public cloud solution such as Microsoft Azure or one of Microsoft’s hosting partners.
  • Does your business store a large amount of sensitive data or work in a highly regulated industry? Perhaps a virtualized on-premises solution built with the support of a partner.
  • Do your technology needs span all of these scenarios, requiring the unique benefits of a hybrid cloud solution? You may want to consider leveraging Windows Server 2012 R2 on-premises augmented with the benefits of Microsoft Azure or Office 365.

To learn more, visit http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/server-cloud/products/windows-server-2003/ or to find a Microsoft partner, visit https://pinpoint.microsoft.com/.

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02/06/15 Posted by Cindy Bates 6 Ways to Keep Your Customers Coming Back

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog, you’ve likely seen my passion for sharing tips and tricks to help entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses. I’ve shared insights on everything from how to say thank you to your customers to how to choose the right technology for your business. Of course, it’s always great when we can learn from others – that’s why I look for opportunities to share content from guest bloggers about their entrepreneurial journeys. I encourage you to become a contributor. It’s easy to do, just click here. A great contribution example is the post below by JT Ripton, a business consultant whose work you may have read in Entrepreneur or on Business.com. He shares his advice for how to keep customers coming back again and again. I hope it inspires you to share your insights.

-Cindy

It’s no secret that repeat customers are good for business, but new statistics suggest they do even more for your bottom line than originally thought. A recent analysis by SumAll, an analytics company, revealed that 25 – 40 percent of the revenue of the most established businesses in the company’s network comes from repeat customers. Further, the analysis showed that the more repeat business a company has, the higher its revenue.

Loyal customers are invaluable to sustaining a business, but what can a company do to create them? Here are five strategies that will help you improve the percentage of customers who return.

1. Start off strong

First impressions can make or break your customers’ long-term loyalty, so it’s important to provide superior customer service from the very beginning. Once a customer experiences a great level of service that can’t be found elsewhere, they will come back not only for your product but for the experience.

2. Reward Loyalty

Profit margins on the purchases of repeat customers are higher than those of new customers because there are no costs tied to acquiring them. To build loyalty, you need to reward it. Offering a rewards program or a loyalty card is one option, but that’s not the only way to show your appreciation. For example, you might send a thank-you note to customers with an exclusive discount code for future purchases.

3. Stay in Touch

Regular communication with customers is imperative to retention. Reach out to customers through a newsletter, emails, surveys, or social media to send updates and offers. Twitter is especially useful for businesses as an easy way to keep in touch, and some companies might also benefit from a smart phone app to further engage with customers. According to TechRepublic, not only do these apps allow you to better target local customers and collect data about their behavior, but they also offer the opportunity for more comprehensive customer support.

4. Get Personal

You can’t keep customers coming back if you aren’t attuned to their needs and wants. For this reason, every company should have some form of a customer relationship management (CRM) system to collect and track information about customers, such as buying history, contact information, and birthdays. Microsoft CRM Online is one such example. With this information, you can give your customers a personal touch by sending a birthday card or email with a discount on a favorite product.

5. Keep It Fresh

For companies that do a lot of sales through their websites, customers have little incentive to check back often if the content rarely changes. Keep your site dynamic by updating your content regularly and consider adding a blog. Fun, interesting blog posts, especially those linked to social media, encourage customers to visit the site regularly and afford an opportunity to share updates or highlight new products.

6. Respond Quickly and Positively

Customers who feel acknowledged and heard are more likely to return, so make sure your staff responds to comments and questions in a timely, positive way. Have customer service reps monitor your channels of communication and respond within a specified time period. Keep these interaction positive, particularly when customers have complaints.

Keeping a customer loyal starts from the initial meeting, and superior customer service from the start will have them coming back for more. When a customer feels that they’ve treated with respect and friendliness, the perception of your company in the mind of your customers will trend positively, which in-turn will increase the likeliness of them coming back for more.

Remember that repeat customers spend more and cost less, so the return on your investment in them is huge. The aforementioned SumAll study suggests that companies devote about a quarter of their marketing spending to retaining these customers, focusing on delivering a positive, rewarding, and personalized experience. Doing so just might help to keep loyal customers around for years to come.

JT Ripton is a business consultant and freelance business and marketing writer out of Tampa. Follow him on Twitter @JTRipton.

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02/02/15 Posted by Cindy Bates How CRM is helping SMBs strengthen relationships and drive sales

I wanted to bring your attention to a great article highlighting the value a customer relationship management, or CRM, solution can bring to your business. CRM is a very fast growing technology category which many SMBs are using to help reduce costs and increase profitability. In fact, in the US the CRM market grew 52% between 2013 and 2014.

Microsoft’s CRM solution, called Dynamics CRM Online, has been deployed by small and medium sized businesses across the US and is helping those businesses strengthen relationships with customers and increase ROI on their sales and marketing campaigns.

Today we are announcing the availability of Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online through the Open Licensing program – a simple cost effective way for SMBs to purchase the latest Microsoft products and services – so there’s no better time to connect with a partner to understand how Dynamics CRM Online could benefit your business.

Be sure to read more over here.

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01/29/15 Posted by Cindy Bates 10 Ways to Modernize Your Business

By Joe McKendrick, contributor, Forbes Insights

To compete in today’s global economy, business managers need to have the right tools, as well as open minds. There are plenty of incredibly useful tools to choose from, and many of them have made their way into most businesses – such as mobile smartphones, tablet computers, social media accounts and cloud accounts. It’s important to have such tools – today’s consumers expect the companies and organizations they deal with to be just as tech-savvy as they are.

Still, is having all these enablers enough to transform your business into a 21st-century digital contender? Perhaps, but usually it takes something else – an underlying, unifying foundation that connects all these shiny new tools to your core business. To achieve the full benefits of mobile, cloud, data analytics and social media, a company’s mission-critical systems need to be agile and open enough to enable these new ways of doing business.

That’s why modernization is so vital to today’s small to midsize businesses. Yesterday’s platforms- such as Windows 2003 – will not adequately support all the new directions businesses want and need to go. By re-platforming to a modern operating system, such as Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials and Microsoft Azure, business will be able to support and take advantage of the new tools and technologies that are emerging.

Installing new software lays the foundation that helps organizations begin their modernization journey. As they progress on this journey, the myriad possibilities of digital technology will open up to them. The following are potential steps to consider for building a digital business on top of a modern technology foundation:

  1. Webify and cloudify existing assets. If you need to maintain older core applications and systems, they can quickly be made accessible with today’s Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service solutions. Important parts of applications could be abstracted and run on a web-friendly service layer, while still accessing data from the original system.
  2. Embrace cloud, both internally and externally. Cloud provides a wealth of resources to assist in every aspect of running a business. There are cost benefits that a small or midsize business will see almost immediately – such as the ability to access functionality at a low, by-the-month fee, versus making large upfront capital investments. As a business becomes comfortable with cloud, additional advantages will become more apparent, such as greatly enhanced business flexibility. For example, with cloud services, new business lines can be operational almost immediately, without the need to build or rewrite software.
  3. Tap into the power of web APIs. Related to cloud, there are a wealth of online resources – tested and updated – that can be integrated into business operations with the click of a mouse. APIs – or application programming interfaces – were once the technical glue that helped integrate applications inside the computer. Now, they bring businesses together. There are now APIs for every conceivable business function – from security to mailing list sorting to procurement to human resources tracking. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when there is already one waiting to be used.
  4. Harness the power of big data analytics. Competitive advantage in a global economy comes from understanding customer attitudes and intentions. Businesses have access to a growing amount of data on customer profiles, preferences, purchases and future purchases. This information can be integrated and shared with sales, customer service and product design managers to improve customization, overall service and customer satisfaction.
  5. Build a culture of security. The online world can also be a very scary place, especially with news articles constantly swirling about the latest break-in to a major corporation’s systems. Embarking on a digital journey requires the confidence and trust of business leaders. To gain this trust, it’s important to bake security into all processes, applications and data environments, to enable the business to interact and engage online with confidence.
  6. Discover the power of mobile. Increasing numbers of business transactions are occurring over mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. These devices also provide flexibility and boost employee productivity. These devices need to be fully supported by the underlying infrastructure of the business. With these devices, customers, employees and partners can be engaged where they are at the moment – whether it’s at home, at work or while traveling.
  7. Embrace social, both internally and externally. Collaboration with customers, partners and employees promotes innovation and builds brand loyalty. Social provides a new way to engage with both customers and employees.
  8. Develop and build online channels. Go where your customers are going. Customers seek instant access to information about products and services, as well as the ability to purchase online. More sales, and therefore revenues, will be coming through online and mobile channels. At the same time, don’t neglect traditional channels – the omni-channel model will prevail.
  9. Hire strategically. Moving to digital requires new types of skill sets, from programming to data analytics. More important than technical skills, incoming managers and employees need to be open to change and new challenges. Small and midsize businesses need to look for and hire employees willing to take the business to the next step.
  10. Explore new business models. Moving to a digital business opens up possibilities for new products and services that can be rapidly designed and created as they are needed. A business may discover, for example, that its custom-built online customer service application could be marketable to like-minded companies – thus launching the company into the software business. To think this way, however, requires greater adaptability for many small to midsize businesses, to go outside of their comfort zones.

To begin the process, check out this free e-guide, which shares the experiences of small to midsize businesses across the country that are leveraging technology to modernize. This article also provides guidance on how to safeguard your business against viruses, spyware and malware, which can be major security concerns for small businesses. The Office Insiders video series also offers: insights on why the cloud matters to your business; benefits of and best practices for increasing mobility in a small business; and tips for creating a social media strategy.

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01/27/15 Posted by Cindy Bates Modern Technology Debunks Small Business Myths

True or False? Upgrading to new technology is costly and takes too much time. Only big companies need to invest in data security protection. Employees are most productive only when working in the office. You may hold these misconceptions, or business myths, as truths. I want to encourage you to reconsider and not let them hold your small business back.

We recently partnered with small business expert, celebrated author and technology evangelist, Ramon Ray, on a video series to bust these business myths and show how modern technology can improve productivity.

The first video in the ModernBiz Myth Busting series, “Pardon the Interruptions” highlights the positive impact flexible work options have on small businesses. After enduring distracting small talk employees often face in the office, Ramon makes an important point: you can be equally, and most likely more productive working remotely as being at the office. In fact, according to a BCG study, which surveyed small businesses who have adopted the cloud, more than half (58 percent) say their employees get more done and work better together (61 percent) through the use of cloud technology.

Mobile and cloud technologies provide small businesses the ability to collaborate wherever, whenever, including outside of the office. Contrary to popular belief, these technologies are often less of an investment than traditional hardware, while allowing for greater flexibility.

Whatever the size of your company, investing in modern technology will help increase customer affinity and provide your business with a competitive edge.

To learn more about modern technology options for your business, check out our video, and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #ModernBiz.

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01/15/15 Posted by Cindy Bates Four ways to spot online fraud

Many will recall 2014 as the year of the data breach. From individuals to major brands, it seemed that no one was immune to the threat of a cyber attack. While 2014 was particularly worrisome, these types of breaches have been on the rise in recent years and are predicted to be a continued threat. Between 2013 and 2014, nearly half of all U.S. adults had their information hacked and an estimated 432 million accounts were breached. In 2012, 29 percent of small businesses were victims of a cyber-attacks. According to a recent study cited by the U.S. House Small Business Subcommittee on Health and Technology, roughly 60 percent of small businesses close within six months of a cyber attack.

While the breaches making national headlines are often the result of sophisticated hacks, far greater and more common threats stem from much simpler causes including employee or contractor mistakes, lost or stolen hardware and procedural errors. Thankfully, there are ways to help protect yourself and your business, starting with learning how to identify potential symptoms of online fraud. Here are four easy-to-follow tips:

  • Look out for suspicious emails, which will often include unfamiliar addresses, generic salutations, alarmist messages or requests, grammatical errors and misspellings or account-related requests. These “phishing scams” often include offers for rogue security software, fake tech support, fraudulent contests and financial requests.
  • Identify theft by diligently checking bank and credit card charges, and take notice of slow computer performance or frequent crashes as well as offline pop-up windows which can be clues that your system is corrupted. Take steps to educate your employees as well so they can learn to quickly identify a threat.
  • Act immediately. Check and remove viruses instantly from your computer using your own computer-scanning tool, or by using Microsoft Security Scanner. Talk to an expert about how modern technology can help protect your business.
  • Ensure and Insure your business. Invest in modern technology equipped with the latest anti-virus and anti-spyware tools. If you don’t already have a security program, you can install Microsoft Security Essentials, a free program to help protect your PC. Insure your business with Allstate Data Compromise insurance, which can protect you by providing coverage for approved legal costs, IT review of the breach and a personalized case manager if a data breach occurs.

For more tips on protecting your business, check out this great post from Allstate Business Insurance. We’ve partnered with their experts to offer a free, online fraud webinar, which will discuss this important issue for small businesses. Sign up for the free webinar on January 20 at 11 a.m. PT to learn more about online fraud including detection, prevention and recovery strategies. Share your tips with me on Twitter @Cindy_Bates or by using hashtag #SafeguardYourBiz.

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01/13/15 Posted by Cindy Bates 5 Ways to Help Protect Your Small Business from a Data Breach

As a small business owner, you’re likely to invest in the latest security systems to protect your home and office locations. You install motion sensors and use cameras to keep a watchful eye on your business, but the next step of protecting your data often goes overlooked. With data breaches on the rise, it’s increasingly important to take action to protect yourself, your customers and your business. In the below post, Mike Barton, president of Allstate Business Insurance, offers practical tips you can implement today to help keep your business safe in the digital era. Want to learn even more ways you can protect your business? Register now for the Protecting Your Business Against Online Fraud webinar on Tuesday, Jan. 20 at 11 a.m. PST.

- Cindy

When you hear of another large retailer that’s been hit with a data breach, it’s easy to assume that data thieves only target big businesses. Unfortunately, the latest data breach report from the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) lists a number of small and medium-sized businesses that have been hit, too.

The start of a new year is a crucial time to make sure you have safeguards in place to help protect your company against data theft. Here are six tips:

Train workers well. Establish basic cyber-security practices, and make sure employees are well-versed in handling sensitive customer and corporate information, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says. The agency suggests that your plan include training in avoiding phishing and malware attacks; the plan should also require employees to change email and other passwords regularly.

Keep computers updated. Yes, it’s time-consuming (and sometimes costly) to continually upgrade operating systems and software. But up-to-date programs are a simple way to help prevent viruses and online breaches, according to the FCC. The SANS Institute, a research and education organization focused on information security, outlines 20 common Internet security challenges - and plans of attack to fix them.

Safeguard your company’s Wi-Fi. To make it tougher for criminals to get inside your company, the FCC suggests hiding your Wi-Fi network’s Service Set Identifier (SSID) so your network name isn’t publicly visible. Be sure to password-protect your router, and update the password regularly.

Secure mobile devices. If you or your employees work on laptops, tablets or cell phones outside the office, the FCC encourages you to password-protect them, encrypt sensitive data, and install security apps to help prevent data breaches while away from your company’s network. You may even want to establish a virtual private network (VPN) that employees can access instead of connecting to public Wi-Fi.

Consider data compromise insurance coverage. This coverage can give you peace of mind if your business’s client, vendor, or employee data files (or financial information) are stolen or damaged. This increasingly popular type of policy could help cover the costs of informing victims about a data breach at your company, providing them with credit-monitoring services, rebuilding your data files and more. An experienced business insurance agent can help you decide whether this policy is right for your company.

Related Resources:

Mike Barton is the president of Allstate Business Insurance. He was named to Business Insurance’s list of “Power Brokers” and is a nationally recognized speaker on subjects ranging from reforming health care in America to business strategies for improving health, engagement and productivity.

 

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01/09/15 Posted by Cindy Bates Embrace the Digital Age With a New Generation of Technology

By Joe McKendrick, contributor, Forbes Insights

For small- to midsize-business executives, the digital revolution offers opportunities not imaginable just a few years ago. Markets across the globe can now be reached with a few clicks of a mouse. The latest and greatest applications are available for immediate use, with no need for installation or setup. Detailed answers to any and all market questions are just a split second away. Customers are ready and eager to help spread the word about a company if they are happy with their experience.

Welcome to the digital age, where everything is connected. Thanks to significant advances in information technology, small to midsize businesses now have access to the same powerful, secure and networked technology resources that large corporations enjoy. These resources – which can be drawn from onsite data centers, from the cloud or from a combination of both – help deliver insights from data analytics, faster time to market, and highly customized products and services to customers, as they need them.

These digital technology advances are part of an ongoing evolution that began with the computerization of rote functions across small to midsize enterprises – such as maintaining customer records, or automating general ledgers and accounting sheets. This accelerated over the past decade, as businesses learned to automate their order-to-cash processes, capture essential customer information and store it securely in powerful databases, while providing employees the tools to quickly access important information and make decisions. Infrastructure solutions, built on Microsoft Windows Server 2003, paved the way for small to midsize businesses to enter the information age and to make computing power ubiquitous across their enterprises.

However, while these solutions have served many small to midsize businesses well over the past decade, it’s time to adopt the next generation of computing to move to the next level. While Windows Server 2003-based applications have been very effective at computerizing core business operations, this older technology has reached its limits. (Microsoft has announced it will be ending support for Windows Server 2003 in July 2015.) The software and underlying hardware in Windows Server 2003 was not designed to run or effectively integrate with today’s generation of applications, or to support greater mobility and cloud access. If a company wants to run components in the cloud or enhance connectivity with suppliers and customers, additional workarounds are required.

Small and midsize businesses now have compelling choices for advancing into the digital era. They can continue to build, deploy and maintain applications and data in-house, through a powerful new generation of resident servers; go to the cloud for the same resources; or employ a combination of both in-house and cloud technologies for their needs. The latest infrastructure solutions on the market, both on-premises-server and cloud based, provide development, deployment and infrastructure services, and support many different programming languages, tools and frameworks, including both Microsoft-specific and third-party software and systems.

A new generation of on-premises servers blends high levels of processing power with access to networked or cloud resources, enabling small and midsize business to have access to the same technological capabilities as their larger counterparts, without the overhead costs of maintaining an IT infrastructure.

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials, based on Windows Server 2012 R2, enables businesses to take advantage of a wide range of IT resources, including on-premises applications, as well as cloud-based applications and services such as Microsoft Office 365, Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 and Microsoft Azure. Windows Server 2012 Essentials provides automatic backup and quick-connect VPN, data security, virtual operation, cloud service integration, remote access, file and print sharing, data backup and restoration, and other core server capabilities in one integrated package. Small and midsize businesses can choose which applications and services run on-premises and which run in the cloud. For example, they can run an on-premises copy of Exchange Server, subscribe to a hosted Exchange service or subscribe to Office 365.

With a cloud-centric option, businesses can access and run the latest business applications – as well as existing applications—and connect those applications, data and services to any end-user client or device. Workloads can be moved between on-premises and cloud environments with the click of a mouse. With unlimited scalability instantly available, small and midsize businesses can launch promotions or new market initiatives without worrying about overwhelming their infrastructure with more transactions or data than it can handle.

Microsoft Azure, available with Windows Server 2012 or as a standalone service, enables businesses to quickly scale up or down to match demand, and small and midsize businesses pay only for what they use. Small and midsize businesses can see substantial savings in on-premises data center costs, because they will not be required to pay for and maintain extra, unused server capacity. Companies can use hundreds of terabytes, and even petabytes, of Azure-based storage – a key benefit as big data grows, along with various unstructured file types, such as video files and sensor data.

Cloud-based solutions such as Azure are always highly available. It offers automatic data storage, backup and recovery. In addition, security is assured, through identity and access management technologies, as well as Active Directory, which provides an identity and access management cloud solution to help control access to thousands of Microsoft and non-Microsoft applications in the public cloud.

The stakes in moving to a more digital-capable platform are high for small to midsize businesses. Businesses cannot afford the risk of relying on old technology that serves to just help them “get by.” That’s because it’s a different world than it was five to 10 years ago. Not only are small to midsize businesses competing against their counterparts across town, but they are also competing against startups from around the globe. Business managers need to be able to reach out and actively engage with customers, suppliers and employees. They need to have data available that provides the intelligence to understand the forces shaping their markets, as well as the preferences of customers. They need the flexibility of accessing applications from both their PCs and mobile devices. Microsoft Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials and Microsoft Azure make it easy for businesses to transition to this digital reality. In the process, they will be able to fully participate in today’s digital marketplace.

The digital age is here, and now is the time for small and midsize companies to begin building for the future.

If your company is ready to embrace new technology, there are a variety of resources available through both Microsoft and our partners to help guide the journey. For example, resources on the SMB Business Hub are a great place to start your Windows Server 2003 migration plans. It features on-demand webinar content, a migration planning assistant and other valuable information that will help small businesses discover, assess, target and migrate to modern technology. Be sure to discuss details with your technology partner, or Microsoft can help you find one through Pinpoint.

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12/30/14 Posted by Cindy Bates Five resolutions to cultivate and grow your business in 2015

With the New Year just around the corner, many SMB owners are recounting the ups and downs of the past year and looking for things they can do better heading into 2015. For some, that means streamlining budgets. For others, that means getting a better grasp on the elusive work/life balance. For me, it means looking for ways to assist SMBs in increasing productivity to help them get back a bit of one of the world’s most precious resources – time.

As I look for ways to improve productivity before the ball drops to ring in 2015, I’ve shared a few tried and true methods below that will help you start your year off strong.

  • Start with you – Taking better care of yourself can go a long way towards helping your business thrive. Improving diet and exercise are perennial resolutions for many and can have even more significance for business owners who are charged with being on at all times. The basics, such as proper sleep can have an even bigger impact on your performance. I’m reminded of the study that found sleep to be more important than food. The latest wearable devices make it easier than ever to track your habits – either asleep or awake – to keep your efforts on track. Best of all, this is a resolution you can share with your employees. Scheduling “walk and talk” meetings or offering yoga courses onsite can reduce stress and encourage teambuilding.
  • Get out of the office – The great thing about the shift towards cloud mobility is we’re no longer tied to our desks. Even when we’re on the go, we still have access to important documents through our phones and devices in case of emergency or last minute edits. A change of scenery is also a great way to boost creativity and recharge. Commit to working from home more often or even working from a local coffee shop with your favorite cup of joe once a week. Networking is key and you never know who you might meet when working outside of your office.
  • Upgrade your technology – There are plenty of great tools you can use to increase productivity and ultimately save time during the workday. The right technology can increase efficiency, save money and reduce waste while outdated tools could be holding your business back. Research from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found SMBs leveraging technology grow revenue and profitability at a much faster rate. On July 14, 2015, Microsoft will completely end support for Windows Server 2003, making the New Year a great time to transition to modern technology solutions such as Office 365 and Azure that work the way you do both at work and at home.
  • Join a local business association- Whether you’re just starting out or you’re an industry veteran, business associations offer a huge return on time invested. As a business owner, the thought of adding one more activity to your busy calendar may seem unbearable, still memberships offer numerous benefits including keeping you on top of important, ever-changing marketplace issues, trends and legislation. Not to mention the great networking opportunities and access to expert advice. Your local Small Business Development Center is a great place to start.
  • Set achievable, time bound goals- I’ve most often found it easier to reach a large goal by setting smaller goals along the way. If you resolve to increase sales by 20 percent, take time to celebrate small wins along the way to help your staff stay motivated and productive.

I want to hear from you. Share your 2015 business resolutions on Twitter @Cindy_Bates.

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12/15/14 Posted by Cindy Bates Online Advertising: Make Small Size a Big Advantage for Your Business

SMB owners often have a number of titles – CEO, bookkeeper and office manager to name a few. One title that not many recognize is “marketer.” If you want your business to succeed, you have to market it effectively. Fortunately, you don’t need a big budget or a fancy title to effectively market your business. Marc Prosser, a contributor whose work you may have seen in Forbes or VentureBeat is an expert on marketing and is sharing his advice in a series of posts on how to take the fear out of marketing. In the first post below, Marc offers tips on using small size to your advantage. If you have great advice for SMBs, become a contributor to my blog. Click here to submit your ideas.

-Cindy

Online Advertising: Make Small Size a Big Advantage for Your Business

I like to call SMBs small, but mighty when it comes to advertising. As a small business, you can generate big results with a modest budget using online marketing.

There are two basic forms of online advertising: Banner ads and pay-per-click (PPC). In broad terms, you can think of banner ads (aka display ads) as the graphical ads that appear on many of your favorite websites. PPC advertising can be thought of as the text-based advertising you see on search engines like Bing. As the name suggests, the advertiser only pays when a potential customer clicks on the ad. Both forms of advertising can be used effectively by small businesses. In fact, SMBs have two distinct advantages over larger enterprises when it comes to advertising:

The option to work with smaller websites – When I worked for a major company with a big budget, I needed to provide my sales team with tens of thousands of new leads every month. As a result, we focused only on sites with millions of visitors. On the other hand, SMBs can focus on forming relationships with the owners of small sites targeted to their geography and customer base to get more ad inventory, leads, custom opportunities and negotiate better pricing. Make owners of smaller sites feel like working with you is financially worthwhile. Offering a small site $50 per month to put your ads on their website, may not be seen as worth the time it will take to put the ad code on pages. On the other hand, offering $600 upfront to put your ads on a site for the whole year, may get them excited about the relationship.

The ability to pivot quickly - Larger enterprises tend to get bogged down by red tape and long approval processes. Alternatively, SMBs are able to look at results of their marketing efforts and quickly change their approach. For example, if you’re a dentist and the display ads for one social campaign are not leading to a desired increase in office visits, owners can quickly make the switch to PPC ads using geo-targeted search terms (i.e. Lincoln Nebraska dentist).

Online marketing makes it easy to target likely customers to generate both new leads and sales. By making smart advertising decisions, businesses can reap the benefits of marketing without a big name or a big budget. Below are a few tips to get you started:

  • Start with PPC – If you are a realtor in Richmond VA for example, then having your website show up at the top when people search Bing for “Richmond Real Estate,” can potentially drive new clients. You can find a full step by step guide on how to get started with Bing Ads here.
  • Incorporate display ads - Look for sites that are complementary and not competitive to your product or service. If you are a restaurant owner you are unlikely to be able to buy an ad on another restaurant’s website. A local restaurant blogger on the other hand would likely be happy to have you as an advertiser. For more on creating a successful display ad campaign see this article from Reach Local.
  • Supplement with social - After pay per click and display advertising I recommend small business owners look at social media, and specifically Facebook ads, which I’ll provide more insight on in my next post.

Marc Prosser

 

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11/24/14 Posted by Cindy Bates 5 of My Favorite Things for SMBs This Holiday Season

I love the holiday season. For me, the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year is full of the things nearest and dearest to my heart – friends, family and food. It’s also a time when many SMB owners are busier than ever – managing surges in sales, attending or holding events and strategizing for the next year. Often, that doesn’t leave much time to find the perfect gift for someone else or to buy yourself a present that could give your business a needed productivity boost. When faced with an already full to-do list, it’s always easier to shop with a few suggestions in mind. Below, I’ve listed a few of my personal favorite things that would make great gifts for the business owner or busy person in your life.

Surface Pro 3- If there’s one gift on my list that I know will keep on giving, it’s the Surface Pro 3. I replaced my laptop with one of these a few months ago and I haven’t looked back. The Surface Pro 3 is extremely lightweight and easy to travel with, letting me get work done from anywhere whether I’m at my desk, on a plane or in front of the TV at home. If you already have or you’re planning to purchase a Surface Pro 3, consider adding the Surface Pro 3 Docking Station to your list. It’s revolutionized the way I work, turning my tablet into a complete desktop workstation. This is great for those who work from home because it can easily connect an HD monitor and your favorite accessories via multiple inputs and five USB ports.

Microsoft Band- Wearable devices are all anyone is talking about but the new Microsoft Band takes the market to a whole new level by focusing on health and productivity. Check out the great video on the website, which will help you see just how many moments you’re missing looking down at your devices. Remember to look up, especially during the holidays.

JBL PowerUp Wireless Charging Speaker - Music is another great way to unwind. I love the JBL PowerUp because I can listen to songs and charge my phone simultaneously. This speaker is especially handy for dual users, those who leverage both work-specific and personal devices to get work done.

 

Movies- I’m a huge fan of movies. In fact, I’ve seen every Oscar winning movie for the past 50 years. Curling up with a bowl of popcorn and watching your favorite movie is a great way to wind down at the end of a busy week.

 

 

Quality Time- Thanks to technology, we can be close to loved ones during the holidays even when we’re physically far apart. I have a standing Skype date with my 4-year-old nephew every Sunday where he brings me up-to-speed on his week while we share activities – sometimes I even play the piano for him. When you’re close to family yet operate a business remotely, the recently introduced Skype for Business lets you connect via video with employees, coworkers and customers. Free Skype calls can also help boost your bottom line.

Love something on my list or have additions you can’t live without? Let’s keep the conversation going. Tell me about your favorite things on Twitter @Cindy_Bates #BizWishList.

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11/21/14 Posted by Cindy Bates Every entrepreneur has a story; share yours for a chance to win $20K

Small businesses are doing amazing things in communities across the country. Not only are their owners ambitious, passionate and incredibly driven people, but small businesses also are driving the resurgence of our economy. In fact, according to the SBA, SMBs are responsible for more than half of the nation’s jobs and account for 54 percent of U.S. sales. There are great stories behind every one of these small businesses, and Microsoft wants to hear them.

We’ve recently launched the Microsoft Small Business Contest for entrepreneurs and small business owners to share their experiences. From now until January 11, SMB owners can submit a two-minute video describing their beginnings, successes, or even challenges, for a chance to win $20,000. Check out the Microsoft For Work Facebook page for more details, and follow the conversation via Twitter using the hashtag #MSSmallBizContest.

Need inspiration for your video? Entrepreneur and small business expert Ramon Ray is rooting for you, watch this as well as our own video about the contest below.

We can’t wait to see all the amazing stories from across the nation.

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11/06/14 Posted by Cindy Bates Talk This Week with Veterans Who Own Businesses

I’ve always thought of small-business owners as heroes. They’re the women and men who battle for success despite obstacles, fears, physical challenges and mental exhaustion as they work towards success. As we approach Veterans Day and the end of National Veterans Small Business Week (NVSBW), I want to recognize the unique heroism of America’s veterans who own small businesses.

Veteran-owned businesses contribute more than $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy every year and employ nearly 6 million, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA). During their military service, veteran owners learn to be dynamic leaders and tremendous problem-solvers. Those core skills may account for the fact that veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than others. Did you know one in 10 small businesses is veteran-owned? Even the hit TV show “Shark Tank” – which I happen to be a big fan of – is supporting NVSBW by dedicating an episode (Friday, 11/7) exclusively to veteran-owned businesses.

Microsoft is a proud supporter of veterans and just last year announced a new program to provide software development training and testing to active-duty service members transitioning out of the military. The Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA) has had great success in preparing U.S. service members for certification as developers, applications engineers and IT project managers. On November 6, Chris Cortez, the executive sponsor of MSSA and Microsoft’s VP of Military Affairs will be speaking at an event, which you’re invited to attend if you live in the Washington DC area. The breakfast conversation, sponsored by Microsoft and VISA, will feature solutions to help transitioning service members by expanding education and hiring efforts for service members and veterans.

But you don’t need to travel to an event to find veterans who own small businesses. You can turn to Twitter or Facebook to follow the #VetBizWeek hashtag created by the SBA. Posts to this hashtag focus on NVSBW and exchanges around this weeklong event. In addition, the SBA established the #MyVetBiz hashtag for veteran-owned businesses. If you’re a veteran, you can share your stories there. If you’re a supporter of veteran owners, you can congratulate your colleagues and learn from their experiences. Or you can simply tell the world about a vet-owned business in your community.

I had the chance to interact with Tee Rowe, CEO of America’s Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC) about how their organization works with veterans. He mentioned programs focused on helping veteran small business owners improve profitability, expand market share, and explore export opportunities.

“America’s veterans are strong contributors to our economy and we are proud to help our Veterans build and grow a thriving business as they transition from military service” he said. “America’s Small Business Development Centers are committed to helping our veterans with targeted training, counseling and mentoring to start and grow a small business.”

In partnership with Microsoft, ASBDC has free on-line training for Veterans and all Small Businesses to become more tech and business Savvy with Global Classroom. Click here to find out more.

I’ve already begun participating in this week’s dialogue on Twitter. That’s where I discovered the Veteran Owned Business Directory, a free listing of nearly 20,000 businesses owned by veterans. I found the site of Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema that is highlighting a different Arizona veteran-owned business each day. I learned about a seminar sponsored by the city of Palm Bay, Florida, on how to start a veteran-owned business.

Across the country, we’ll find hundreds of resources and stories like these. They can help all of us learn from our nation’s military veterans how to best succeed in business. Visit #VetBizWeek and #MyVetBiz to enlist in the conversation.

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11/04/14 Posted by Cindy Bates How to Get the Most from Your Technology

In my experience, the most successful small businesses are those that make the most out of their investment in technology.

They are the practitioners who are empowered to respond quickly and professionally to clients and the online entrepreneurs who can expand the capabilities of their websites. They’re often small companies reaching out to national and global audiences through email marketing. However they operate, those business people who best capitalize on technology consistently find a speedier and more productive route to their markets. Research from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found SMBs leveraging technology grow revenue and profitability at a much faster rate. According to BCG, if just 15 percent of low-tech SMBs and 25 percent of the mid-tech SMBs became high-tech SMBs, the result would be 2 million more jobs and an additional $357 billion into the U.S. economy.

We at Microsoft want every small business to realize the full power and value of accessing online technology. We recently announced the availability of three new Office 365 plans to help businesses thrive. We continue to offer small businesses affordable solutions that empower them to better serve customers and are excited about several other programs we’ve launched with partnering companies.

For micro-small business with a single entrepreneur, we recently collaborated with GoDaddy to create a small-business package called Get Online Today. For just $1 a month in the first year, this program enables even the smallest of businesses to get online with a complete Web presence. The package includes:

  • A custom domain name
  • A subscription to Website Builder from GoDaddy, including hosting for the company’s website on the custom domain name
  • Microsoft Office 365, connecting professional email, contacts and calendars to the business’s custom domain name
  • $50 in credits for Bing Ads to help businesses find new customers
  • 24/7 support from GoDaddy

Of course, there are many types of small businesses and those who are “micro” today can need to grow exponentially tomorrow. GoDaddy also has a Business Premium offer that’s available for up to five employees. We’re committed to helping businesses through every phase and these GoDaddy offers are an easy and affordable way to get your hands on the same types of online tools that your much larger competitors are using.

Online customer relationship management (CRM) is another tool that SMBs can take advantage of to gain a competitive edge. Microsoft Dynamics CRM online can help reduce costs and increase profitability by organizing and automating business processes that nurture customer satisfaction and loyalty in the sales, marketing, and customer service fields. For those businesses using Salesforce, they now get the benefit of Office 365 through our new partnership with Cirrus Insight. This powerful combo lets you view Salesforce information in Office 365 and use email templates for easy tracking to see who opened your emails, when and where.

In addition, you’ll want to be sure you’re using the most efficient hardware to avail yourself of what online technologies can provide. Consider the Surface Laptop Replacement Bundle to help you upgrade your equipment. You can receive as much as $150 off the full-powered Surface Pro 3 PC/tablet and the Surface Pro Type Cover and Docking Station when they all are purchased together.

Open the door to Office 365 for your business, in conjunction with GoDaddy and CRM and carry the full-featured Surface Pro 3 to enter the business arena armed with all the capabilities needed for drawing the most from your technology. Don’t just think big – think smart and harness the smartest technology to propel your business forward.

For more information on how to get the most from your technology and sharpen your business’s competitive edge, check out Microsoft’s ModernBiz website.

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10/24/14 Posted by Cindy Bates How Small Businesses Can Thrive with Flexible Work Options

An essential characteristic of a modern business is your capacity to do business anywhere. Technology enables an organization to cultivate a cohesive, collaborative approach while providing flexibility in when, where and how your team gets work done. According to Staff.com, one in four workers work from home at least some of the time and telework has grown 73 percent in the last six years.

We approached CEO and founder of FlexJobs, Sara Sutton Fell, for her perspective on the future of work and how small businesses can embrace a flexible work style. Sara is also the founder of the 1 Million for Work Flexibility initiative, is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, and was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Technology is impacting small businesses in unprecedented ways. From email and video conference calls, to doing business across time zones in a matter of seconds, technology has completely reshaped the way business is done. And in my experience as the founder and CEO of a startup turned small business, I believe it has opened up so many possibilities for how, when, and where we work, as well.

When I founded FlexJobs in 2007, I had a vision in mind — I wanted to create a top notch service that would help people find flexible jobs that support work-life balance. This goal was personal for me, as I had just given birth to my first son. It was the anticipation of my upcoming motherhood that led me on my own (frustrating) search for job opportunities that were both professional and flexible. The frustration I experienced inspired me to start FlexJobs.

In starting my new company, I realized that I wanted to “walk the walk” of work flexibility, not just “talk the talk.”  For me this meant creating a work culture that was based in telecommuting and flexible schedules, ideally leading to a healthy work-life balance for our team members. This was somewhat of an experiment, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the outcome — not only for myself as a working mom and CEO, but also for the amazing, productive, happy, and successful company it has allowed us to build. Here are a few of my most valued tips for how other small businesses can utilize flexible work options for their own success.

Use flexible work options to optimize productivity.

With tuned-in and healthy management techniques, flexible work options have been shown in repeated studies to boost workers’ productivity levels. Without the stress of work-life conflict, workers can better focus on doing their jobs well. Flexible hours help people better manage their personal obligations without needing to take time off. And working from home helps people avoid in-office distractions, save time otherwise spent commuting, and focus on their jobs better. The great news for small businesses is that flexible work isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition–you can craft a flexible work program that works for your company.

Keep your costs low.

Another important factor for a small business is the cost of operating. With flexible work options, you’re able to lower your costs while increasing your productivity. At my company, for example, because we all work from home, we have no central office, and therefore no real estate costs. As a business just getting off the ground seven years ago, this was a huge asset. Similarly, flexible work options can give you an edge in hiring the best candidate for the job regardless of location (if the job is 100% telecommuting), or tapping into other candidate pools, such as the highly-educated, under-utilized candidate pool of women who left the workforce to take care of their families (if the job is part-time, flexible, or alternative schedule).

Focus on the most important things.

One of the main reasons that flexible work options are good for small business is that they shift your mindset to focus on the things that really matter. Small business owners know better than anyone the value of time. In the 20th century, managers focused on face-time–a person’s ability to be in the office–rather than on the quality or output of their efforts. Today, however, technology makes it much easier to focus on what really matters. So, what matters to your business? What are your goals? And how can flexible work support them?

Allowing your team to work from home or have flexible schedules is especially suited for roles like sales and business development, administrative roles, web development, customer support, and operations–the core parts of most businesses! Once you decide to utilize work flexibility, the next step is crafting a custom program that incorporates flexible work options that fit your company well, and help you meet your goals. Lay a solid foundation for yourself, and flexible work will help your small business grow and succeed.

Read more from Sara on The Huffington Post

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10/16/14 Posted by Cindy Bates 5 Tips to Grow Your SMB through Government Contracts

On my way home from the office late last week I heard an interesting story on NPR about why women lag in winning government contracts. I paused to turn up the volume because the host was speaking about two of my favorite topics – successful women in business and unique business opportunities. While listening, I found one statistic particularly jarring: In the 20 years since the government set a goal of awarding five percent of federal contracts to women-owned small businesses, it has never met that goal.

I’ve met with countless SMB owners who have earned federal contracts and I know the impact it can give a business – opening doors, building connections and fast-tracking growth. The question is how can we help level the playing field for women who now comprise a third of all U.S. small business owners? Below, I’ve listed five practical tips to offer women a jumpstart on taking their businesses to the next level.

  • Start locally- Find the military bases and government agencies in your area and ask what products they’ve purchased before and who does the purchasing. Once you’ve made that determination, PTACs (Procurement Technical Assistance Centers) as well as SBDCs (Small Business Development Centers) are the best resources locally for all of the “How-Tos”.
  • Find a mentor- I’m a big proponent of seeking out a mentor and have been fortunate to learn from some great mentors throughout my life. There are 13 mentor-protege programs in major agencies throughout the federal government which have a goal of promoting the development of qualified small business contractors by pairing them with experienced prime contractors. Entrepreneurs.org also has a great mentorship program that can help business owners navigate the often complex and confusing procurement process.
  • Leverage the right technology- According to the U.S. Federal Cloud Computing Strategy, the U.S. government instituted the Cloud First policy to accelerate the pace of cloud adoption. Your business should do the same. Cloud technology, like Office365, plays an essential role in ensuring compliance with governmental and large corporations’ requirements for privacy and security.
  • Seek certifications- SMB owners can apply for any or all of the government certifications available through federal, state, county or city governments. Certifications are offered to minority-owned, woman-owned and veteran-owned businesses, those owned by someone with a physical disability, or those located in areas with high unemployment.
  • Be persistent- An American Express OPEN study showed that in 2013 it took both men and women about two years and at least four bids before they succeeded in winning their first contract. Rejection can be disheartening for even the most weathered business, but there are a few steps to make you more likely to win the next time around. First, ask for a debrief to find out why you did not win the contract. Also keep a few copies of the materials from your original application to streamline the process for later ones.

Don’t think your small business is a match for the federal government? Think again. The government is the largest buyer of products and services in the country. It spends 23 percent of its contracting budget with American SMBs. For additional inside tips on winning government contracts, download Braddock’s The Winning Edge, which was sponsored by Microsoft.

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10/07/14 Posted by Cindy Bates 3 Things You Need to Do Now to Help Your Business Avoid the Impact of Disaster

October is a time when many small business owners in areas vulnerable to extreme weather like hurricanes and tropical storms are bracing for the worst-case scenario, but small businesses everywhere need to consider whether they are ready for the unexpected.

According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 40 percent of businesses hit by a disaster never reopen. And another 25 percent close within two years. These are very jarring, yet real, statistics to think about when we’re talking about the future of your business.

Here in Seattle, we’re more likely to be concerned with earthquakes or flooding than hurricanes, but there’s another type of disaster, the kind that’s virtual instead of physical, which unfortunately means no city is immune. Technology disasters like system failures or hacking can be devastating to businesses of all sizes and contrary to popular belief, small businesses can be targets for cyberattacks.

Fear not. Modern technology can act as an insurance policy, assuring business continuity against even the most dangerous of threats. Follow the three tips below to help your business avoid or quickly recover from any disaster, whether it’s technology or weather-related.

  • Upgrade your devices- With modern technology, you gain the peace of mind that your systems are up and running – and that you’re open for business in any situation. For example, if your laptop is stolen, tools like BitLocker encrypt your entire device, protecting your business and sensitive data.
  • Safety in the cloud- Don’t run the risk of losing data and documents that might be gone forever if saved to your desktop. Hosting your applications in the cloud with a secure service like Microsoft Azure, which offers a 99.5 percent availability service level agreement (SLA), and 24/7 tech support, can help you get back to business in no time. Make sure to ask your Internet service or cloud provider about their uptime and backup plans.
  • Backup your data- Cloud options can protect your files from hardware failure by saving multiple copies of each file on different drives and virtual servers. Geo-replication provides redundancy of your data across regions to ensure access to your data in the event of a local disaster. Knowing that your data is safe, you can focus on other ways to protect your business.

Anyone who’s ever faced disaster knows things can quickly get out of hand when the skies darken or your screen goes black. The first action you should take to protect your business is to create a plan well in advance of when you actually need it. There are some great resources available to assist you, including the SBA. Microsoft also developed a Disaster Preparedness eGuide to help you ask the right questions and develop a more robust plan. Has your business survived or avoided the impact of disaster? Share your story in the comment section below.

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10/02/14 Posted by Cindy Bates The Discipline of Creativity

Last week my team had the privilege of having Erik Wahl, an artist, best-selling author and speaker on creativity, deliver an inspiring and thought-provoking presentation during a team meeting. His creative approach to presenting business concepts and enthusiasm for all to pursue increasing levels of excellence resonated with all of us. It is clear that to achieve such a well-crafted message much time was invested and that takes discipline and persistence. Please enjoy some words from Erik on this topic below and learn how you can encourage creativity to thrive at your small business.

In my book UNthink, I researched and wrote about framework of innovation and how to unlock our mind to unleash our natural creative genius. A good portion of the book was strategically focused on how to tackle the process of dreaming up a new idea. I have shared far less about the lonely work I do to bring ideas into action. – Innovation into actionable substance. – My personal dogged approach to grinding through resistance to discover unchartered territory.

I have found some of my greatest creative breakthroughs occur when…(are you ready for this)…I am laser focused and militaristically disciplined.

The paradox of creativity is that structure creates freedom. I am a naturally creative spirit who has built my business with extreme orderliness and attention to detail. The strength of this structure gives me greater confidence and freedom to create.

In studying the masters;

- Beethoven sat down every day at daybreak, regardless of season, and composed until 3:00pm.

- Kafka started writing at 11:30pm each night.

- Mozart taught lessons by day and composed only in the evenings.

- Picasso ate lunch each day with his family in silence and only allowed visitors one day per week.

- Mark Twain awoke at 5:30 am, ate a hearty breakfast, and wrote until 5:00 pm.

When fanatical discipline is combined with empirical creativity, the challenges of mental fatigue and mind-blocks are no match in the pursuit of excellence.

The only things these individuals have in common is the rigidity of their daily routines, carving out the pockets of quietude to listen to their inner creative voice.

Until you and I build up the capacity to focus like the masters, let us begin by adhering to the cheeky mindset of Peter De Vries…”I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”

As a small business owners I think it is imperative to apply the same principals of disciplined structure to bring innovation to market. Dream. Create. Inspire. Execute. Creativity without actionable substance is like river without banks.

https://vimeo.com/100402947
https://vimeo.com/84862277

twitter @erikwahl

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09/24/14 Posted by Cindy Bates Right Tool, Right Time: Simplifying Business Communications

Our modern workplace has evolved from a physical office to anywhere we can effectively get work done – whether it’s at home, on the road, or in a public space. That means the way we communicate must evolve to be equally flexible. With a host of fresh business communications options, such as instant messaging and video conferencing and in light of our multi-location and multigenerational workplace, it can feel like we need a more defined strategy for how and when to use which tech tools.

Recently, Microsoft launched ModernBiz, a website geared towards helping businesses at every stage. The site contains an abundance of information and insights on how business owners use technology, including this statistic – 61 percent of SMB owners use smartphones and tablets to read and send emails on the go. This got me thinking about different criteria for deciding which communications methods to use in various situations that arise in a mobile world. One way I found to start visualizing the tools and timing is to plot them out in a Steven Covey-like grid, with “Not Urgent/Urgent” at one axis and “Tactical/Strategic at the other.” Here’s my take:

  • Text (Not Urgent, Tactical): Mostly reserved for personal use, or colleagues with whom you work very closely.
  • Instant Messaging (Urgent, Tactical): Best for quick questions when you need a quick piece of info before moving forward or to get consensus when there is a very time sensitive, but low-priority decision that needs to be made.
  • Phone (Urgent, Strategic): To get consensus when there is a time-sensitive, but higher priority decision/To assign action items that require deeper context and background
  • Email (Not Urgent, Strategic & Tactical): When assigning action items that require simple direction/To update or close the loop with a large group of people, e.g. recaps of an event or marketing campaign/When you want a record of communications
  • Enterprise social, such as Yammer or social business profiles (Urgent, Strategic & Tactical): For real-time input from team members to inform decisions and plans/To obtain current intelligence, background and details from team members
  • In-person meetings (Urgent/Not Urgent & Strategic): For complex exchanges of ideas and decision making requiring in-depth dialogue among participants

My personal practice is to build awareness around people’s communications preferences in order to improve relationships and the quality of interactions. I take my cues from how and when my colleagues are most responsive. For example, some people limit texting to personal use, some people are rarely at their desks, and others only occasionally sign into IM.

I’d love to hear about your experiences communicating with colleagues and employees in the modern era. Share your personal practices in comments section below or contribute an article of your own.

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06/17/14 Posted by Cindy Bates How CRM Technology Can Transform Big Ideas into Big Results for Small Businesses

By most definitions, small businesses are small only in size—not in their ingenuity or potential impact on their markets. The smartest small businesses think about technology in the same way that larger companies do: “What technologies can help me streamline business processes, stay close to my customers, improve my offerings and make my small business appear on par with larger enterprises?”

Increasingly, the answer is customer relationship management (CRM) technology. In fact, a study of the adoption of cloud-based applications by small businesses, conducted by Dell and Techaisle research, found that CRM was by far the most adopted, up from 34 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2012.  Below are a just few ways CRM can help your business grow

  • Determining who is buying which products at what time of year
  • Seeing how frequently various customers are purchasing products
  • Spotting overall trends among consumers
  • Keeping communications to customers focused on the way they think and shop

CRM technology can be more than a tool for customer service, marketing, and sales. It’s also a platform for building services to support customer needs.

One small business that has used CRM technology to build innovative services is HealthStatRX, a specialty pharmacy that manages medication and therapeutic monitoring for patients with chronic conditions. With just 20 employees, HealthStatRX adopted technology that today provides an unparalleled depth of services. No other drug specialty pharmacy has a solution that tracks patient medications, medical conditions, lab results, drug interactions, pharmacy fulfillment, positive outcomes and direct patient communications, providing a comprehensive profile of care for each patient to guide the proper management of medications and therapies.

The objective for HealthStatRX was to help patients manage their conditions and thereby reduce the likelihood that they would be readmitted to the hospital. Lower readmission rates mean healthier patients and can save hospitals and home healthcare companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

To achieve its goal, the company built a new kind of offering on a platform that used Microsoft Dynamics CRM online. Microsoft Dynamics CRM is the front end for patient care coordination that helps manage how and when chronic patients take their medication. It also manages the dietary needs of patients. HealthStatRX was able to produce a nearly 70 percent reduction in hospital readmissions. They were also able to slash costs dramatically, but its real ROI is the positive outcomes for patients and the lives that it saves.

Whatever the size of your business, chances are that you, too, can significantly enlarge your offerings and your market impact with Microsoft Dynamics CRM. To read more about CRM and how it can serve as a platform for your biggest and best business ideas, visit the Microsoft Dynamics website.

 

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05/21/14 Posted by Cindy Bates Technology Proves to be the Key Accelerator for Growth in Small Businesses

Grow or die. It’s a mantra permeating almost every business book you read. Based on my experiences running a business group at a major brand and growing up in an entrepreneurial family, I know growth doesn’t come easy to any business.  But new research shows small- and mid-sized businesses have an ally in their quest for growth: Technology.

New research from The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found U.S. small- and midsized businesses (SMB) that leverage technology had 10 points higher job growth and 11 points higher revenue growth than “low-tech” SMBs. The same study concluded that if just 15 percent of low-tech SMBs and 25 percent of the mid-tech SMBs became high-tech SMBs, the result would be 2 million more jobs and an additional $357 billion into the U.S. economy. A recent article on CNBC presents a strong case for using technology to increase job growth.

The main difference between the tech leaders and tech laggards is that tech leaders use cloud technology, or web-based applications for things like email or productivity apps like Word and PowerPoint. I’ve seen some small businesses use cloud technology to become more relevant to their end customers, such as offering customer support via video calls. I’ve seen others use it to help teams of employees based in many different locations work together seamlessly.

Business organizations are taking notice of the critical role technology plays in the success of the small business segment. Chambers of Commerce in some of the country’s largest cities, such as the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the DC Chamber of Commerce, have made technology education a priority for their members. Both Chambers recently introduced the e-learning Global Classroom platform, designed to help small businesses become more tech savvy. These cloud-based custom portals offer hundreds of online courses and thousands of video tutorials from technology and business leaders including Microsoft, Franklin Covey, Emily Post and WIN Learning.

I’m eager to check in with these programs months down the road to learn how many businesses have seized this tremendous opportunity, and hear what it has meant to their businesses. I also want to recognize the incredible work of IT services providers across the country, many of which are small businesses themselves, who work hard to help SMBs get up and running with the right technology for their business. If you’re in need of professional IT support, check out Pinpoint.Microsoft.com, where you can filter by your location, industry, company size and other specialties to find an IT expert who can help you ensure you’re using technology to your best advantage.

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05/13/14 Posted by Cindy Bates Small Business Takes the National Stage This Week

Did you know that more than half of Americans either own or work for a small business? Read the business section of your local newspaper, listen to virtually any political candidate, or simply take inventory of what your family members and friends do for work, and it’s clear just how critical a role small businesses play in the fabric of American life.

Every year, the Small Business Administration (SBA) hosts a week of events in different cities across the U.S. and activities designed to recognize the pivotal role of small business owners to our national economy and culture. This week is National Small Business Week, and if you own a business, you may be interested in the discussion and resources being highlighted during local events and webcasts throughout the week. Here’s some of what’s in store:

  • Informational conferences.  Conferences featuring political officials, small business advocacy organizations and small business technology experts are taking place across the country this week. If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, there’s still time to register for that event, but no matter where you live you can access the events anytime, online. As a sponsor of NSBW, Microsoft is enabling live streaming of the conferences on SBA.gov. For example, the Boston conference on May 15 is featuring an Office 365 Roundtable discussion, where small business owners will learn how cloud computing enhances productivity, collaboration, and customer reach – and you can access insights from this discussion whether you live in Des Moines or Detroit on the SBA’s website.
  • Educational, relationship-building events. Microsoft retail stores are hosting great events for startups and small businesses, including Business Appreciation and Business Networking events, and workshops to show you how the cloud and search engine optimization can help your business run more efficiently and get noticed by customers. If you can’t attend a local conference, the Microsoft stores events are a great opportunity to interact with small business technology experts and receive answers and guidance on the tools that can propel your business forward.

Small businesses are the heart and soul of the U.S. economy, and NSBW is all about giving you the tools to succeed.  Find locations, web conferences, schedules, and other NSBW information here, and please let me know what you learned this week that will keep your business strong and successful in the future.

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05/07/14 Posted by Cindy Bates The Surprising Similarities Between Winning in NASCAR and Winning in Business

The key to the most compelling entrepreneurial success stories is often about finding a better way to do something that had been done a thousand times before. In fact, challenging the status quo is key to achieving higher levels of performance in practically any endeavor. Andy Papathanassiou helps teams challenge the status quo for a living.

In 1992, Andy was hired by the famed NASCAR racing team Hendrick Motorsports as the first ever “pit crew coach,” where he revolutionized the process of what happens when race cars come into the pit during a race. A former college football player at Stanford University, where he also earned a bachelor’s in Economics, and a master’s in Organizational Behavior, Andy combined his lifelong passion for athletics with his business training to revolutionize Hendrick’s entire pit program.

I recently invited Andy to lead my team in a pit crew simulation exercise, which gave us an incredible appreciation for the fast-paced, precision-focused world of car racing – and some lessons we could apply to improving our own performance as a team. Here are a few of the surprising parallels between motorsports and business:

  1. Success occurs with the proper interplay between playing it safe and pushing it to the limit to win. A NASCAR race could be a 5-hour event, but if there is a big enough mistake, such as an ill-timed lane change on the first lap, the race is over for that team right then and there. This leads to a tendency to be safe and conservative – an approach many business owners are familiar with. But only those teams that push their resources to the limit have the opportunity to win the race. In both racing and business, winning is about applying skills and knowledge, thoughtful risk taking, good timing and a little bit of luck.
  2. Every individual matters to the success of the team. In many competitive sports, peak performance by one player, such as a star quarterback, could drive the team to a win. In racing, a driver is allowed six people “over the wall” to assist during pit stops. If five perform optimally, but one adds two seconds to his or her technique, the entire team loses those two seconds. Small actions can add up in your business too, from each individual customer interaction, to the appearance of your store front. Everyone plays a role in the success of the entire team.
  3. Winning in the long term is about continual innovation and improvement. Racing is not a 1:1 competition, and neither is business. In a NASCAR race, there are 42 other competitors in each event. When one team succeeds, the competitors will try to replicate the moves that led to that success. The same happens in business. The key to staying ahead of this reality is to continually improve your products and services, whether in response to customer feedback or to meet the evolving needs of the market.

You can check out Andy Papathanassiou’s website to learn more about his “Over the Wall” philosophy. What sports or other activities do you liken to the business world? Share in the comments below.

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04/23/14 Posted by Cindy Bates A Lesson from the Seahawks: Find Success and then Repeat it

As someone who frequently finds career inspiration in unexpected places, I’m always on the lookout for learnings from individuals who have found success in a particular field, be it business, sports or personal life. Several months ago, my team and I had the huge honor of having Seattle Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson join us at my annual All Hands team meeting. Russell talked about his pursuit of excellence and his winning mindset.

The Seahawks then went on to win the Super Bowl, which was a thrill for all of us who call Seattle home. After the big win, I read an article about how the Seahawks’ coach Pete Carroll is strategizing to win the Super Bowl again. In the article, Pete also talked about the mindset that it takes to win, and win again. He said, “There’s a whole mentality that goes into how you get there, then once you get there, you continue.”

Many small businesses find it challenging to maintain and repeat their initial successes. Perhaps they have a high volume of traffic during a grand opening period, but then struggle to keep customers coming in after the new business hype wears off. Approximately 543,000 new businesses are started each month, but even more shut their doors.

In the spirit of winning, and winning again, here are a few insights from Pete Carroll:

  • “You’ve got to know how you got there so you can repeat it again.” Take the time to celebrate your success, but also make time to examine what you did to achieve it. Once you identify your own best practices, you can repeat them, and repeat your success.
  • “Always Compete.” – No one wins a Super Bowl without first winning a lot of other games. Setting concrete, measurable goals is critical to long term success. Know what success looks like to you before every customer interaction or client meeting, and then play to win.
  • “These guys were driven individuals to do something special.” – Pete was able to put together what he describes as a “gritty” football team. The players weren’t the tallest or the fastest; in fact, quarterback Russell Wilson was pegged by others as too short to be any good. But as a team, they were driven to win. It’s important for business owners to seek out employees who are committed to the business’s success. The most important thing is that they want to succeed and are willing to put in the work.

Has your business found a way to make success repeatable? Tell me in the comments below.

 

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02/28/14 Posted by Cindy Bates What Small Business Owners Can Learn From Olympic Medal Winners

I’ve always looked to professionals from diverse backgrounds for insights into how they achieved success, and with all of the Olympics media coverage over the last few weeks, it’s clear that the strategies and insights of world-class athletes are ones many businesses could apply to their own success. Here are four insights I picked up from some USA Olympic medal winners:

  • Trust your instincts. “I just had this idea in my mind all day and it ended up working out,” said Sage Kotsenburg to Transworld Snowboarding magazine after he won gold in the first ever Olympic Snowboard Slopestyle competition.  His “backside 1620 Japan” move paid off, just as bold business moves often do for entrepreneurs who step outside of their comfort zones to pursue their goals.
  • Push through, even when times are tough. “I skied my heart out,” said Julia Mancuso, a free-spirited Californian and Olympic skier, who won bronze in Alpine skiing. “That was really tough. It was a really difficult slalom run. I knew I just had to give my best shot, and it sure didn’t feel good.” There are unglamorous things about owning a small business – making a business plan, educating yourself about finances and technology, investing in employee training, and more – but being willing to do the tough stuff is what separates winners from the pack.
  • Build a great team – and lean on them when you need to. “Surround yourself and choose to work with people that are the best at what they do and that are smarter than you,” said Shannon Bahrke Happe, who is both a three-time Olympian and owner of a successful coffee business. On the slopes, this meant leaning on her brother for the inspiration and constructive criticism she needed to execute tougher jumps. In her business, this led to pulling in other business owners to establish partnerships that expanded her brand into new markets. No entrepreneur can go it alone, and for the greatest chance at success, you shouldn’t try to. Embrace what you’re great at and leave the rest (maybe it’s your IT or your accounting, for instance) to other experts who become part of your team.
  • Never let the competition define who you are. “You have a chance,” said Alex Diebold, bronze medalist in the Snowboardcross competition. “Don’t worry if there are people out there that are dominating the sport. You can come in and give it your all and come out with a result. Anything can happen.” Diebold watched the Vancouver Winter Olympics from the sidelines as a wax technician, prepping boards for the four-man U.S. team. After four years of training, he made the Sochi team and overcame his underdog status to win bronze – a testament to his dedication and passion. No matter the competition that exists for your business, your business success is defined by your drive and confidence in your unique strengths.  With that, anything really can happen.

The sacrifice, the preparation, the ambition and risk-taking – there are many things small business owners can relate to in the stories of world-class athletes. Who do you gain inspiration from outside the business realm? Share in the comments below!

In addition to these Olympic inspirations, Microsoft also had an incredible experience in Sochi: powering the infrastructure, systems, information management and communication of this year’s games through many of our technologies. We even joined the ranks of record-breaking performances, delivering the largest-ever audience on an authenticated stream for any sporting event in history. More than 2.1 million people tuned in to watch NBC Sports Digital’s record-setting stream of Team USA versus Canada in the semifinal hockey game, powered by Windows Azure. We’re so proud to be a part of Olympics history!

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01/22/14 Posted by Cindy Bates 4 Financial Benefits of Cloud Technology

Small business owners face many non-negotiable capital investments, but technology doesn’t have to be one of them. By opting for cloud IT services for things like email, productivity apps, storage and collaboration tools, you can realize a number of financial benefits.

 

 

1. Right-size IT spending. With cloud services, you pay on a subscription basis for what you use. It’s easy to add or subtract users – a particular benefit if your business needs to scale up or down on a seasonal basis.

2. Make IT an operating cost, not a capital expense. Small businesses no longer need to buy the same expensive server hardware that large companies can much more easily afford. Physical email servers and the resulting electric bills used to be a significant expense for the small business Traderscoach.com, which educates people on how to make the right investment decisions. Looking for a more cost effective solution, the owners chose Microsoft Office 365, a subscription-based cloud service providing email, instant messaging, on-demand web and video conferencing and productivity applications. As a result, the business cut IT costs by an amazing 80 percent.

3. Let IT experts handle your IT. Business owners are busy running their business. By moving to the cloud, small businesses can offload the bulk of their IT management to the service provider instead of doing it themselves.

4. Always have the latest and greatest version of your technology. A cloud service is always up-to-date with the latest versions of software, including security patches and service packs, eliminating the need to refresh your software every couple years.

Are there other areas of your business where you’ve been able to move turn a fixed capital expense into a more manageable operating expense? Share it in the comments below.

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01/08/14 Posted by Cindy Bates 4 Lessons from an Entrepreneur Using Business to Make a Social Impact

I was recently reading The Seattle Times over breakfast when I came upon the story of an Australian woman named Audette Exel, an entrepreneur using her business to power some incredibly inspiring community development projects. After reaching out to her on LinkedIn, and learning she had a trip to Seattle planned, I was fortunate enough to meet her in person. An accomplished professional and investment banker by trade, Audette runs a corporate advisory business, the proceeds of which go directly to fund The ISIS Foundation, which carries out health, education and other development projects in remote areas of Nepal and Uganda.

I’m inspired by her innovative approach to pairing business principles with charitable work. Hers is an unconventional model for funding nonprofit development projects, but it contains some key lessons for the entrepreneurial journey:

  1. Connect your heart to your work. Audette had a vision of developing a nonprofit that could be funded by a business without any strings attached – an improbable concept, but one she was able to actualize because she would not allow obstacles to come between her heart and her work.
  2. Believe in your vision, and forget the reasons it won’t work. Entrepreneurship requires a certain level of audacity. Audette, like many small business owners, admits she might not have pursued her vision had she predicted the numerous challenges that awaited her. Instead, she maintained a laser-like focus on what she believed was possible.
  3. You will make mistakes … and that’s ok. Every good entrepreneur makes mistakes, and Audette says she’s made “every mistake that is possible to make.” The mistakes we make in business help us grow, identify our strengths and improve our resiliency.
  4. Who cares if you don’t fit the mold – there is no mold. Audette had never come across a nonprofit that was funded solely by a business set up to do so, but she’s proven that a nonprofit can succeed outside the traditional donor-recipient model. Don’t be held back because your idea is different from the way things are normally done. You, too, can do things differently and succeed.

Read more about Audette and The ISIS Group at Bloomberg.com or SeattleTimes.com.

Are you using entrepreneurial principles or business skills to improve the world we live in? Share your story in the comments below.

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12/12/13 Posted by Cindy Bates What the technology you’re using says about your business

Did you know the technology you use has an impact on what current and potential customers think of your business? Those are the findings of a survey we recently conducted, in which 90 percent of respondents said they would – or would consider – taking their business elsewhere if a company uses outdated technology.

About 60% of respondents said they consider a 5-10 year old operating system or desktop computer to be “outdated.” That means the estimated 30% of small businesses that are still using the Windows XP operating system (introduced over 12 years ago in 2001), are running their business on technology that definitely falls into the category of “outdated.” Come April 8, 2014, businesses running Windows XP will no longer receive security updates or technical support, leaving them vulnerable to potential security threats.

Businesses that are using outdated technology are not only exposed to reputational and security risks, but are also missing out on some amazing capabilities that have finally become accessible and affordable to SMBs only in the last several years. There is a wide array of versatile, touch-enabled Windows 8 devices, from slates and tablets to All-in-Ones, now available to match every mobility and productivity requirement. And cloud services like Office 365 offer all of the well-known Office apps like Outlook email, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as cloud storage, IM, and voice and video conferencing, for as little as $6 per user per month.

If you want to learn more about what it takes to modernize your technology and why it matters, download this free e-guide. And let me know in the comments below how using modern technology has benefitted your business.

 

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11/25/13 Posted by Cindy Bates 3 Unforgettable Ways of Saying Thanks to Your Customers

It’s no secret that it costs significantly more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. As you take time to reflect this time of year on all you’re thankful for, there are a few ways of saying thanks that can help deepen your customer relationships and strengthen the fabric of your business.

Here are three ways of thanking the MVPs in your business that will make you stand out from the pack:

  • Make your expertise your token of gratitude. A great way to say thanks, as well as engage your best customers, is to package up a bit of your expertise for them for free. Hold a workshop, conduct a webinar, or publish a short e-book just for your best customers. Sharing your expertise in this way can further position you as the go-to for your customers, deepen their appreciation, and make them more likely to refer others to you as well.
  • “Socialize” your gratitude. If you’re in a B2B field, help spread the good word about your customers’ businesses. You could mention them in a blog post, share a link to their website in your own social media channels, or just verbally recommend them to your network. Being generous with your praise has a way of coming back to you.
  • Show them you’re listening. If you regularly ask your customers for feedback, take time to let them know how you’ve implemented their suggestions. There is no better way to establish trust with customers than to show them you were listening. Send them a note or a personal email; reply to their reviews on online reviews sites; or simply catch them while they’re in your place of business, and let them know you’ve heard them.

 

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11/13/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Where to find IT advice for your business

You know that anxious feeling that follows a major purchase, like a new car or a new home? It often comes from wondering if there’s something the seller didn’t tell you, or not being sure you got the best deal possible. I hear from a lot of business owners that the same sense of anxiety can creep in when it comes to investing in your business.

It’s especially the case when spending on areas outside your core area of expertise, from marketing advice to technology. Working with an IT expert is one of the best ways to be sure you get the technology that will deliver the most value for you. I’ve written here about Microsoft’s network of IT services providers who are dedicated to serving the technology needs of small and midsized businesses.

iCorps Technologies is one of those partners. Their blog has lots of advice for SMBs looking for IT expertise, from how you can increase IT security and productivity, to ways you can lower your IT costs.

Do you work with a technology expert you trust? Feel free to give them a shout out in the comments below!

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11/07/13 Posted by Cindy Bates 5 Things You Need to Do to Take Your Business Paperless

Have you ever noticed an airline pilot lugging a black briefcase on their way to the next flight? Those briefcases aren’t filled with personal effects, but are 40-pound flight kits containing charts, maps, manuals and guides. Delta Airlines recently made a move to replace those bulky flight kits for its 11,000 pilots by giving them each an electronic flight bag in the form of a Microsoft Surface 2 tablet. The cockpit will now be a paperless workspace for Delta pilots, with all Delta cockpits projected to be paperless by the end of 2014.

The concept of the paperless workspace – whether it’s a cockpit, a cubicle, a reception area or remote jobsite – is exciting for numerous reasons: reduced clutter, improved data security, cost savings and environmental benefits, to name a few. Here are 5 steps you need to take to begin creating your version of the paperless cockpit:

  1. Clear out the clutter. Determine which of your documents are worth digitizing, and which are not, and discard what’s not necessary.
  2. Decide where your digital information will live. You can always just create folders on your computer’s desktop if you’re the only one who needs access to important business files. But if you want to be able to access documents when you’re away from the office, and better yet, enable your employees to collaborate and easily share documents with one another, your best bet is a cloud-based file storage and sharing solution, like SkyDrive Pro or SharePoint.
  3. Go digital. There are different ways to turn paper documents into digital ones; scanning and manual data entry are two primary methods. If you have a lot of documents to convert, the process can take some time. You might consider hiring a document conversion company to scan and organize paper documents for you – a project that will pay off in the efficiencies gained once your workspace is organized.
  4. Convert paper-based processes to digital. If you currently make new customers fill out paper forms, consider switching to Word document forms, editable PDFs or online forms, which you could email to customers and clients in advance, or have them fill out on a tablet or desktop computer when you are face-to-face. Or, if your business entails the need to review and sign lengthy documents and contracts, like real estate or legal professionals do, something as simple as a Windows 8 tablet with a stylus for signing contracts right on the tablet screen could revolutionize your work world. It’ll cut back on the amount of paper you have to carry and will streamline the signing and document sharing process for customers. You also can consider offering customers e-receipts instead of paper receipts with their purchases.
  5. Change your paper-based ways. Rethink the way you’ve always done things. For example, consider giving up paper notebooks in favor of an online note-taking app like OneNote, which lets you can capture ideas and access them from nearly anywhere on a variety of devices, including smartphones, tablets and the web.

Going paperless has a lot to do with being able to get work done from anywhere. Does your business use technology that gives you flexibility in where you can work? Share your story on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #getitdone.

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10/28/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Essential email marketing strategies

Businesses have long used email marketing to maintain relationships with customers, present offers and spark repeat business. But it can be hard to cut through the clutter in customers’ inboxes and get it right.  Over on the Microsoft for Work blog, Richard Israel of Constant Contact shares four essential email marketing strategies to boost repeat business and referrals.

If you want to go a step further in deepening your online marketing expertise, you might want to check out a new series of free seminars presented by Constant Contact and Microsoft at Microsoft retail stores nationwide. At each event, a small business marketing expert will teach you how to build your business with online tools spanning email marketing, social media and productivity. For more information and to register, visit the event page. Registration for the first of these events in October has filled up quickly, but space is still available for many seminars in November, and additional events will be added soon for December and beyond.

Let me know what you learn!

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10/09/13 Posted by Cindy Bates 3 Things You Need to Do When Choosing Technology for Your Business

You want to save money. You want to get more done in less time. And you want technology that just does what it’s supposed to do. Here are three ways you can ensure you’re making the right technology decisions for your business.

 

 

  • Know that “free” often comes at a cost. The old saying is true: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Saving money in any way possible is a top priority for most small business owners, but when it comes to choosing technology, it pays to think through the downsides of free solutions before they end up costing your business in the form of frustration and lost productivity. A free software program may have some of the features you need, but getting it to interface with separate business applications can be a huge challenge. “Free” also often means you won’t have access to tech support when something does go wrong, and you’ll be on your own to learn the ins and outs of the technology as well. If you want to ensure you can learn how to use a solution, and get professional help integrating it with other applications and fixing issues when they arise, a sound alternative to free is to pay a reasonable monthly or annual subscription for cloud solutions.
  • Choose IT solutions that can multi-task. Small businesses often fall into the trap of implementing technology that addresses only one specific task. For example, maybe you need the ability to share large files with customers or partners outside your company, so you sign up for a file-sharing service. Free or not, choosing a one trick pony for simple tasks like file sharing might actually cost you more in the long run in the form of lost productivity since you’re likely missing out on collaboration tools and integration with your email and productivity applications that would take file sharing to the next level. When choosing an application or service to accomplish a single task, think through related tasks and look for an offering that lets you do more than one thing.
  • Give yourself options. Smart business owners are like good NFL quarterbacks; they want plenty of options. This is especially true when it comes to how you and your employees communicate with one another. There was a time when email revolutionized how people communicate at work, but today, your employees should have plenty of options for communicating with one another depending on the situation.  Instead of having to reply to an email and wait for a response, they should be able to open an instant messaging window directly from an email and get an urgent answer right then and there. They should be able to see when colleagues are online and available to talk, a capability called “presence.” They should be able to initiate voice calls and schedule web and video conferences right from their email inbox. Give your team options and you’ll benefit from efficiency and increased productivity.

 

If you’re thinking about a tech refresh and want to ensure the best return, consider checking out Business Technology Simplified, a new online course series developed in partnership by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and Microsoft. Three, 30-minute, self-paced courses make it easy to learn how to make the most of your technology investments and give your business a competitive edge.

 

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09/24/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Upcoming Webinar to Highlight Game-Changing Technologies That SMBs Can Afford

Most small business owners I talk to recognize the value that the right technology can deliver their business, but many of them aren’t sure where to start when it comes to evaluating and implementing the right mix of technology for their business. That’s why I’m looking forward to presenting a webinar this week on Sept. 26th that will cover how to make effective technology choices on a small business budget. “Big Business Tools on a Small Business Budget: 3 Essentials for Business Success” is a free, live event for which you can view the full program and register to attend here. USA Today columnist Steve Strauss will moderate the interactive session, including facilitating real-time Q&A.

I’ll cover how to assess whether your business could benefit from a technology facelift. I’ll also talk about the technologies that every small business should consider if you want to be more productive, more mobile and more secure. And I’ll show you how to connect with expert advice to help you make the most beneficial technology decisions.

If you’re not able to attend the webinar, check out the following resources on a variety of topics pertaining to technology for SMBs:

If you are planning to attend the webinar, I’d love to hear what you’re hoping to learn in the comments below.

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09/18/13 Posted by Cindy Bates An Entrepreneurial Approach to Changing the World

I enjoyed a recent opportunity to talk to Elizabeth Gore, who chairs the United Nations Foundation (UNF) Global Entrepreneurs Council, to learn about the organization and its efforts in areas such as health, the environment and women’s issues, among others. In case you’re not familiar, the UNF was established to support the UN in solving a range of global issues, from eradicating poverty to improving healthcare in global communities. The UNF is known for carrying out innovative campaigns that not only raise awareness of these important issues, but also have true impact – campaigns like Nothing But Nets, which has sent more than 7 million bed nets to locations throughout Africa that are threatened by malaria.

I was especially impressed by how the UNF seeks to infuse its work with innovation and creativity by drawing on the insights of entrepreneurs. Its Global Entrepreneurs Council is a team of some of the world’s brightest young entrepreneurs who serve as advisors and bring innovative thinking to the issues the UNF is addressing.

And now you can help shape the UNF’s agenda with your own input by responding to the MY World Survey, which will be used to frame the United Nation’s development agenda for the next 15 years. Survey respondents are asked to vote for the six changes they think would make the most difference to their worlds.

I’m drawn to this effort because I appreciate the approach the United Nations is taking to address global problems – an entrepreneurial and collaborative approach that involves big thinkers and ordinary citizens alike.

To date, more than 85,900 people from 194 countries have participated in the MYWorld survey. If you’d like to participate in the survey or learn more, click here.

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09/11/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Before franchising, consider your technology

Imagination Yoga is a small business with a mission to inspire real change in the lives of children, teaching them concepts like compassion, concentration and relaxation. Approximately two years ago, I had the opportunity to spend the day with the founders and learned firsthand about the daily challenges and needs of their small business. At the time the owners discussed their plans for growth and how important it was to retain their true mission while bringing Imagination Yoga to more areas. One thing they didn’t expect was how critical a role technology would play to make that happen.

Imagination Yoga is like many small businesses in that it began with a specific culture and mission. Franchising the business had always been a future consideration, but the owners were concerned that growing in this way might threaten the core of what makes Imagination Yoga so unique.

Still, they decided to move forward with franchising and have established two additional successful locations. I was excited to hear from the owners, who shared how technology, and specifically Office 365, has helped enable this expansion. It gave the company an infrastructure that improved communication and collaboration. This has helped to preserve the company’s identity and mission in the midst of franchising.

If you’re thinking of franchising your business but have concerns like the Imagination Yoga owners did, take time to consider the role technology plays in your organization. How would you rate the way it’s impacting communication and collaboration? Does it make employees more productive? Does it enhance your culture? If you can answer affirmatively to these questions, you have a solid foundation for franchising your business.

There are of course a number of other issues to consider when it comes to franchising, such as whether your business is easy to duplicate, whether it has a superior product or service, and if you have the financial means to franchise. The SBA has a great article that addresses these and other issues surrounding franchising. I encourage you to check it out if you’re in the exploratory phase.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of franchising, too. What kind of roadblocks, if any, are you experiencing in the franchising process? Has technology helped your organization through these challenges?

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09/04/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Is your business ready for disaster? Take this quiz to find out.

For those who live and work in hurricane-prone areas, the months of September and October can be tension-ridden. While not all businesses and homes run the risk of being affected by this type of event, the truth is disaster can strike small businesses anywhere. It just might take the form of a break-in or fire, or a virtual disaster like network failure or security breach among other possible scenarios.

No matter your small business’s geography, it’s important to prepare for disasters before they strike. How prepared is your small businesses? Here’s a quiz that will provide insight on where you stand.

Try answering the following true/false (or “I don’t know”) questions:

  • My office has an emergency contingency plan in place for physical disasters.
  • IT is the only department responsible for disaster preparedness within my organization.
  • I keep my employees updated on the most current security threats and provide guidance on what to look for.
  • My business operations require a 24/7/365 model that involves constant uptime.
  • My organization and its departments are tightly organized and can coordinate effectively in the event of a catastrophic system failure or disaster.
  • If my business location were struck by a disaster, it could re-establish operations seamlessly or at a minimum within hours or days.
  • My data center has an offsite disaster recovery location established and configured.
  • My organization needs a partner that can integrate my systems to mitigate disaster risk and ensure availability of systems and resources.
  • Critical IT systems and data are backed on an hourly and/or daily basis.
  • In the event of system/server failure or disaster, data can be restored quickly and effectively.

If you answered “true” to five or more of these questions, way to go! You’re well on your way to withstanding disaster. If you didn’t fare so well on this quiz, you’re not alone and there are steps you can take to prepare your business for the unexpected. Many of these recommendations also will benefit your business whether or not disaster ever occurs.

For valuable information on where to start, I encourage you to check out Microsoft’s Disaster Preparedness e-guide. It’s full of tips, business strategies and technology guidance that all small businesses will find useful in preparing for disaster. What types of advice do you find most helpful?

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08/28/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Take your business “back-to-work” this fall

Back-to-school season is upon us, and even though I no longer have to prepare for classes, I still enjoy the fresh start that the new school year brings. New beginnings can be cathartic, and I appreciate how the transition from summer to fall motivates me to look at my work with a fresh perspective.

If you feel the same, I challenge you to take your business “back-to-work” this year. Check out these great “work supplies,” which will help your small business with its own fresh start this fall:

  • Small Business Info Center – This site is a great resource for getting up-to-speed on SMB all of your tech and business questions. You can explore different eGuides and articles that cover topics like cloud computing, disaster preparedness, marketing and customer relationships. You also will find a list of small business organizations that can provide you with free technology training and business development guidance.
  • OneNote – You’ve graduated from using spiral notebooks, so why not go digital with your notetaking this year? OneNote makes capturing all types of information easily, whether they are handwritten notes, pictures, videos, links, or other types of media. With keyword search functionality, OneNote lets you search your notes quickly and easily. Also, when you use OneNote mobile apps, you can access your notes from any device.
  • Surface – If you’ve been considering investing in a tablet for work, consider Surface Pro. It comes with a range of security-enabled products, as well as management and control options that make this tablet ready for business. Plus, its VaporMg magnesium casing and impact-resistant, optically-bonded glass provide the durability you need to take your tablet with you anywhere you go.
  • Internet Explorer 10 – If you haven’t already updated your browser to Internet Explorer 10, now’s the time. Its interface is clean and simple, with improved privacy controls and malware protection. It’s also optimized for touch and includes advanced support for audio and video functionality.

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08/21/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Four ways to make employees your greatest asset

A business’ employees have the potential to be its greatest asset. Developing loyal, skilled employees with a passion for the business doesn’t happen on its own and requires a concerted effort. It’s an effort that can make a world of difference when it comes to the success and reputation of a company. Here are four ways you can start investing in what could be your business’ greatest asset:

  • Create champions. Identify areas of the business that employees are passionate about, like marketing or customer service, and let employees “champion” that part of the business. Have them take responsibility for developing ways to improve their respective areas, and empower champions by providing support teams if appropriate.  Make sure champions set quantifiable goals – that way you can track success.
  • Get flexible. If the nature of your business allows it, consider allowing employees to work remotely. This could be a regular occurrence, such as “Work from Home Fridays,” or something that’s permitted on an as-needed basis. Leverage a tool like Office 365 so employees can maintain productivity and collaboration while working remotely.
  • Spend time. Make sure it’s not just your managers who feel like you’re invested in them. Devote regular one-on-one time with all of your employees on a regular basis, even if it’s just for a 15-minute coffee break once or twice a year. A small time investment will help them feel valued, and it will give you greater insight into your employee culture and what you can be doing to improve employee retention.
  • Encourage education. Even if you can’t afford to financially support employees who desire formal education, there still are ways to promote learning. Let employees know about free seminars or trade groups that align to their skills sets. Recommend books that you think would benefit particular employees in their areas of expertise. Finally, support formal education if you are able, even if that means letting employees work flexible hours.

Any ideas you would add to this list? What’s worked for you when it comes to nurturing your employee base?

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08/14/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Legacy – every SMB has one. What are you doing to preserve and build yours?

I love to hear from SMBs how they successfully transition management of the business from one generation to the next. In succession planning, preserving the company’s legacy while also making strategic investments for future success is critical. Oftentimes, investing in technology is just what the business needs to move forward successfully and it can be done in a way that keeps the company’s legacy intact.

Bea’s Insurance Agency in East Palestine, Ohio is a great example of a company that has handled a succession plan successfully.  Bea’s has been serving consumers and commercial entities since 1999, when Bea Hromyak first started the company. Now, agents Kerri and Jeffrey Stewart, Hromyak’s daughter and son-in-law, run the business.

Kerri and Jeffrey have made some changes when it comes to the way the business operates, but all in the name of maintaining the company’s commitment to personal customer service. They needed to ensure that one of them was always in the office during business hours to respond to customer needs. Yet, given that Kerri and Jeffrey are the business’ only employees and frequently must meet with customers outside the office, coordinating their schedules became a daily headache that hampered productivity.

Technology was just what the Stewarts needed to build on the solid foundation of customer service Bea established. They turned to Office 365, a set of web-enabled tools that lets them affordably handle email messaging and calendar and contact sharing.

Now, the Stewarts can easily coordinate meetings and guarantee an in-office presence at all times. Moreover, Office 365 will grow with the business, supporting the Stewarts’ future plans of adding more agents as well as managing and sharing policies online with SharePoint Online.

The Stewarts inherited a healthy business with a strong legacy, but they also inherited a real productivity challenge that threatened the company’s commitment to personal service. To their credit, they responded by seeking a solution that would further their business and honor its trademark quality of service.

What about your business? How are you preserving its original values while also moving forward and growing?

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08/07/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Are you vacation-ready?

For career-minded individuals, small business owners in particular, taking a vacation and truly unplugging can be a challenge. I make it a point to take time off to recharge, but at times I also find it hard to detach myself from the demands of the office. Here are some guidelines I find useful:

  • Make an email schedule, and stick to it. If you truly need to check email while you’re out of the office, decide ahead of time how often you will do so and stick to your plan.  If you don’t want coworkers to know you’re checking email because doing so might generate unwanted work for you during your vacation, don’t tell them – let them think you’re completely offline the entire time. Finally, consider not checking email during your vacation. It might actually be possible, as well as refreshing!
  • Leverage video conferencing if necessary. It can be difficult to even find five consecutive days to step away from your business to take a vacation. Through technology, you can choose to be present for important engagements while you’re on vacation. Windows Phone with Skype can easily initiate a videoconference anywhere you have a wireless connection. If you have Office 365, you also can leverage HD videoconferencing and screen sharing.
  • Establish office hours if necessary. It might be necessary to attend to some business matters while out of the office. If this is the case, try to plan ahead of time when you’ll be working. Let colleagues know when you’ll be online and available by blocking off time on your shared calendar, a feature also included in Office 365.

I hope this helps any of you on the fence about taking a vacation this summer or those looking for ways to leave the office with fewer strings attached. Any tips you would share in regards to successfully vacationing as a small business owner?

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07/29/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Why Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference matters to you

Microsoft’s annual Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) recently took place in Houston. It is the information technology industry’s largest annual event held in honor of our partner ecosystem, which consists of IT service providers from around the world.

You may not realize it, but in the U.S. Microsoft works with roughly 30,000 partners that help SMBs learn about and implement our wide range of products and services. WPC gives my team an opportunity to engage with our partners face-to-face and share the latest about Microsoft’s offerings for SMBs, including cloud solutions and details on the newest Windows 8 devices.

WPC 2013 served as our partners’ chance to learn about the latest technologies for small businesses, including solutions for the cloud, and details on the newest hardware, like Surface and Windows 8 devices from our OEM partners. Often, attending partners are small businesses themselves, which allows them to evaluate new technologies from their customers’ vantage points, since they frequently have the very same needs and concerns themselves. The conference also helps to facilitate relationship-building among partners and creates opportunities to share best practices, explore new ideas and collaborate.

At the conference, partners shared a high level of excitement around Windows 8 and the wide array of PCs and tablets now available to help small businesses operate more efficiently. (Click here to see some of the new Windows 8 PCs, Ultrabooks, and tablets). In speaking with partners at the event, I continued to learn about the challenges their SMB customers face – namely the needs for increased productivity and mobility. Fortunately, for those small businesses without IT staff, SMB-focused Microsoft partners are available to help you address these challenges.

WPC is a celebration of the Microsoft partner community, and together we form an even larger community of businesses focused on growing and thriving through the power of our customer relationships. I encourage you to explore ways you can collaborate with a Microsoft partner to boost your day-to-day and long-term business objectives through technology.

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07/17/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Budding entrepreneurs amaze and advance to Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals

I’m inspired by how technology can be used to solve real problems and alleviate global challenges. Anything is possible when passionate and talented people have access to the right tools and support. This is why I’m a huge supporter of the world’s largest student technology competition, The Microsoft Imagine Cup. It’s a powerful way Microsoft connects great thinkers with the resources they need to address global issues.

We’ve tracked this year’s group of students on their Imagine Cup journey exhibiting the same perseverance, creativity and commitment to vision as the entrepreneurs I work with every day. In May, the U.S. phase of the competition culminated with the national finals in Silicon Valley. The top teams from regional competitions pitched their ideas to a host of investors, entrepreneurs and technology professionals for a chance to win cash prizes, support for their business concepts and the honor of advancing to the Worldwide Finals in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 8-11.

Advancing to the finals means one talented team is that much closer to its idea coming to life and making a meaningful difference in the world. This year’s finals were reformatted to feel more like a real-world springboard for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. Teams from across the country took top spots in various categories, but only one of the final 10 would be awarded the National Team honor.

Competing in the Innovation category, Team P’oli Ahu of the University of Hawaii at Hilo earned the right to represent the U.S. in the Worldwide Finals with its “Help Me Help” app, which aids communities in times of need by utilizing a smartphone’s camera and location capabilities to capture images and locations of hazards as they arise. These students harnessed the power of their intelligence and teamwork to create a tool that has real-life implications and a very positive impact.

As small business owners, I know you’re working hard every day to connect your products and services with genuine customer needs. The Imagine Cup provides a natural opportunity to reflect on how we’re using our individual strengths and talents to improve our customers’ lives, and I hope it motivates you to envision how your business can put something good out into the world. To follow the story of Team P’oli Ahu as it competes in the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals, please follow our social channels, including Twitter and Facebook.

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06/27/13 Posted by Cindy Bates The cloud allows “Involuntary IT Managers” to increase efficiencies

For most small businesses, relying on one person to fulfill multiple business roles is nothing new. From restaurant owners who moonlight as bookkeepers, to shop managers who maintain the email server, keeping a small business running often requires multitasking.

According to SMB-focused market research firm AMI Partners, one in three small businesses rely on an “Involuntary IT Manager” to tackle their IT operations. The Involuntary IT Manager is typically the most tech-savvy employee on staff, who – either under direction or by necessity – is called away from primary duties to tend to IT needs.

While this is not an ideal arrangement, all of us familiar with the realities of running a small business understand there aren’t always resources to fund formal IT support. IT multitasking can carry a hefty price tag: according to the AMI study, Involuntary IT Managers lose more than 300 work hours per year managing IT – valuable time that could be devoted to their core responsibilities. Just think of all the ways small businesses could invest in their companies and grow if they were not losing the time of these valuable employees!

For the 60 percent of survey respondents who said they were looking for solutions to make IT management easier, there are powerful, affordable cloud-based solutions that can help. Office 365, Microsoft’s cloud-based business productivity suite, is an ideal way for small businesses to lighten the load of Involuntary IT Managers.  Office 365 gives you simplified administration, industry-leading anti-malware and anti-spam protection, and a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee, which will allow your de facto IT expert to focus on business contributions that are more in line with his or her role and experience.

As a small business owner, you will probably never stop looking for ways to get more done with less. If having an Involuntary IT Manager has been one of your solutions, know that the cloud can be an invaluable asset to maximize your employees’ talents. Does your business have an Involuntary IT Manager, and if so, what are you doing to make his or her job more effective?

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06/17/13 Posted by Cindy Bates A coast-to-coast celebration of small-business success

This week we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s National Small Business Week, and cities across the nation are holding events to show their support of our nation’s entrepreneurs. Today is filled with excitement on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., where successful local business leaders and small-business owners will lead informational sessions and workshops designed to give entrepreneurs an edge.

The day started with a panel discussion on how technology can help businesses break into private- and public-sector supply chains. Joe Koreis, president and CEO of thriving small business Clarus Fluid Intelligence, LLC, joined SBA Administrator Karen Mills and me to share his company’s success story. It was an inspiring session, leaving the small-business owners in attendance with a sense of how technology and resources can help them reach their goals. The day also will feature breakout sessions on women’s business ownership, speed mentoring, global entrepreneurship, social media, cyber-security and supply chain diversity.

It’s not only Seattle-based entrepreneurs who get to experience support like this; through June 21, similar daylong events will be held in Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. If you’re not in one of those markets, Microsoft is proud to present all events via live stream on www.sba.gov/smallbusinessweek.

Additionally, Microsoft Store locations across the country will hold V.I.P. events, presentations and product demonstrations to share how Microsoft solutions are helping small businesses realize their potential. I urge you to check with your local store for details and take advantage of activities happening in a city near you.

We also invite you to share how your business is using Microsoft technology to do amazing things. It’s as easy as using one of our social channels (@MicrosoftSMB on Twitter or the Microsoft SMB Facebook page) to share your story, and your submission could be featured in a future Microsoft campaign. For Twitter and Instagram submissions, be sure to use #AmericaWorks to flag your submission; for Facebook submissions, upload a photo, video or post to our Facebook page. All entries must be received by 5 p.m. PST on June 28.

I hope you take advantage of the many ways National Small Business Week can help your small business thrive.

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06/11/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Small businesses find security in the cloud

Over the last year the number of conversations I’ve had with Small Business owners about migrating to the cloud has increased significantly.  When the cloud emerged as a viable solution for small businesses, many business owners were hesitant to explore the cloud because they weren’t clear on the ultimate value it would provide.  More and more I’m hearing detailed questions about specific features and benefits of the cloud, which tells me that small-business owners are now more familiar than ever with the cloud.

Many businesses recognize that the cloud can deliver real return on investment, including cost benefits and the ability to quickly scale operations.  However, security in the cloud remains a recurring concern.

The difference between cloud security perceptions and reality was revealed in a recent survey by the Microsoft Trustworthy Computing team.  The study identified significant disparities between the views of business executives who have and those who have not adopted the cloud.

Among those who have yet to embrace the cloud, 60 percent expressed that data security concerns inhibited their adoption.  They also felt using the cloud would result in a lack of control over the privacy of their data (45 percent) and that they were not confident in the reliability of the cloud (42 percent). On the other hand, those using the cloud indicated that security and privacy protections were enhanced since implementing a cloud solution, including the following:

  • 94 percent experienced increased security benefits that they didn’t have with their former on-premise technology, such as the ability to keep systems and antivirus software up to date and better spam email management
  • 62 percent said their levels of privacy protection increased
  • 75 percent experienced improved service availability
  • 61 percent indicated both the frequency and length of downtime experienced with on-premise software has decreased since moving to the cloud

The study also found that those using the cloud are realizing better levels of support and service when unexpected outages do occur.  All of these benefits translate into time and money savings, which can be reinvested into core areas of your business.

I encourage you to keep learning more about what the cloud can do for your business and to keep security top of mind as you evaluate cloud-based solutions.

 

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06/05/13 Posted by Cindy Bates SMBs can invest in future growth with smart planning

On the heels of tax season, it’s natural to feel a sense of relief that it’s behind you. But taxes shouldn’t be considered a one-time activity, they need to be kept in mind year-round as part of building and executing your business strategy.

In fact, now is a great time to take stock in your business tax strategy and technology investments to drive business returns next year. And while I’m not a tax expert, we have several within our SMB community that are, one of them being Microsoft Partner IntrapriseTechKnowlogies.

A non-traditional CPA firm, Intraprise has expertise in not only SMB tax matters, but also in IT consultation. Since this is such a relevant cross-section of experience for SMBs, I asked the firm’s CPA Donny C. Shimamoto to share his top tips for tax and technology planning:

  • Consider the cloud. SMBs should be aware of the tax impact associated with on-premise IT solutions versus those based in the cloud.  “With on-premise, the purchase would be considered a capital purchase and subject to depreciation,” says Shimamoto. “Depending on the circumstance, SMBs may be able to qualify for a Section 179 deduction that allows them to subtract the full price of the purchase. However, cloud subscriptions are generally treated as operating expenses, so are not capitalized or depreciated, but directly deducted as an expense.”

This translates to an economic benefit for the SMB. For example, if an SMB has maximized its Section 179 deductions for the year, it wouldn’t have the option of deducting the entire purchase price of an IT asset. The business would still have to spend the cash and could only claim deductions as the asset depreciates. With a cloud solution, SMBs can deduct as they go. There are exceptions and potential limitations in either case, so be sure to consult with your tax advisor to analyze your specific circumstances and options.

  • Align your tech to your objectives. When looking at a small business IT investments, Intraprise uses an adapted version of Gartner’s “Run-Grow-Transform” model to classify potential technology investment items. It’s a set of practical guidelines for planning your business’ IT investments, and could bring greater strategy and discipline to your IT budget.  According to Shimamoto:
  • “Run” items keep the lights on—they’re operationally-focused and keep everything that is part of the technology infrastructure running.  These assets – which can include operational servers, software licenses for regular-use software like Microsoft Office and ISP costs – are equivalent to conservative investments as they help maintain stability. 
  • “Grow” items help a company improve its efficiency and effectiveness. Like moderate-risk investments, they can provide a better return without big risk.  New software implementations or upgrades that provide additional functionality are all considered grow items, and so is moving from a basic firewall to a full Unified Threat Management (UTM) firewall.
  • “Transform” items have the highest risk, but potentially offer the biggest return by increasing a business’ ability to better serve its customers, allowing it to acquire new customers or penetrate new markets.  A proof-of-concept for data mining of customer information to increase sales, or a pilot project for switching from a phone and fax-based order processing to electronic data interchange (EDI), are examples of transform items.

Specific budget allocations for each of these investment types can be determined with the guidance of an experienced consultant like Intraprise. My hope in sharing this information with you is to equip you with the knowledge to make wise financial and technology decisions that propel your business forward.

What are you doing right now to improve the return on your technology investments in the future? If you have best practices of your own, we would love to hear them. Please share your comments below.

 

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05/29/13 Posted by Cindy Bates “Insider Minute” Videos Quickly Get SMBs Up-to-Speed

Attention, time-crunched SMBs: Are there features of your Microsoft solutions that would help you work even faster, smarter and better…if only you had a moment to discover and familiarize yourself with them? If you have just 1 or 2 minutes to spare, you could be on your way to unlocking the full potential of your technology. Microsoft’s “Insider Minute” video series, designed specifically for SMBs like yours, is a resource to help maximize your use of Microsoft technologies.

Each video tutorial focuses on a single feature of a Microsoft Office or Windows product. For example, a tutorial detailing how to open a PDF document in Word 2013 begins with a short introduction, followed by clear, step-by-step instructions on how to edit the PDF content as if you had created it yourself. Another video demonstrates how to video conference with Microsoft Lync, and there are dozens more at your fingertips in the online video library.

The video format is so valuable because you can see and hear the process in action, which can be so much more effective at reinforcing a topic than simply reading about it. I point SMBs to the “Insider Minute” series all the time, because I know that business owners who are already focused on getting the most out of their time, people and resources, need efficient solutions.

At Microsoft it’s our mission to empower SMBs and I encourage you to visit the site to access tools and the information necessary to compete and thrive. These videos are a quick yet powerful asset I hope you’ll put to use for your business.

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05/22/13 Posted by Cindy Bates With the right tools, SMBs can make big impressions

There was a time when SMBs didn’t typically compete for the same sized customers and in the same marketplace as their larger counterparts, but that era is long gone. As a small business owner, you’ve surely noticed the impact that a connected, global marketplace has had on your company, including an increased pressure to present as polished an image as the larger businesses with which you’re now directly competing.

As a result, your customers – existing and prospective – expect a professional experience when interacting with your business. To fulfill this need, there is a wave of new business technologies that enable SMBs to affordably enhance the professionalism and sophistication of their appearance. Office 365 Senior Product Manager Jon Orton’s recent post in the Small Business Premium series highlights Office 365’s advantages in helping SMBs present an image more professional than ever before.

The article dives deep into how low-cost, cloud-based technology like Office 365 can create and project professionalism, such as: 

  • Business-class email. The ability to brand your email addresses with your company’s name, and take advantage of Microsoft’s premium email client, Outlook, “sends the message that your business is here to stay.” With Outlook, SMBs have access to the same professional email delivery, formatting and management tools that most Fortune 500 companies use.
  • State-of-the-art web conferencing. Customers, partners and others outside your company can join high-quality audio and video conferences from a web browser, using the Lync Web App. And with Office 365’s desktop and note sharing and whiteboard features, these aren’t yesterday’s static, clumsy web conferences – they can be highly collaborative, productive, relationship-building experiences.
  • A modern website. Office 365 provides the tools you need to easily create, publish and maintain a professional-looking website. This is where your brand identity and creativity can really shine through, without the significant investment that a brand new website could cost. You can create a website from an array of professional templates, adding your company logo, text, pictures, videos, a blog and social sharing buttons for increased customer engagement.
  • High-quality documents and presentations. Want to look like a buttoned-up business? Professional business materials are critical. The simple, intuitive business document templates in Office 365 are the first step to creating polished letterhead, proposals, presentations and more.  An enhanced start menu that makes accessing these templates a snap and new Word and PowerPoint alignment guides eliminate the need to work with expensive, outside designers on your basic business materials.

A first impression in today’s marketplace is more than superficial – it can mean the difference between landing and losing your next piece of business. What elements of your business image are you most in need of – and excited about – upgrading? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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05/13/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Microsoft’s Imagine Cup sets stage for the next generation of great innovators

Many small business owners I’ve worked with have told me that their entrepreneurial spirit was on display at a young age, perhaps through an early attempt at an informal “startup” or by virtue of working for the family business. Having grown up in a family of small business owners, my appreciation for how rewarding it is to launch a business was formed when I was a child. And it’s this understanding that makes Microsoft’s annual Imagine Cup competition so special, and something I look forward to every year.

The competition, in its 11th year, is Microsoft’s premier student technology competition where young adults from around the world are urged to use their imagination and passion to create a technology solution to a key challenge in the world today.

This year, the competition’s primary focus is to enable top student entrepreneurs to realize their start-up vision by providing them the mentorship and resources to be successful. For example, in March, Microsoft hosted a StartUp Boot Camp where 15 Student Accelerator teams presented their initial concepts to Microsoft executives to collaborate with seasoned technical experts and learn practical next steps for making their own startups a reality.

A series of similar challenges have taken place around the country, and as of today the field has been narrowed to 10 college-based teams ready to compete on the national stage. One might be from your hometown or alma mater, and all are worthy of our support and admiration:

  • Lost Spectrum, University of Houston/University of Texas
  • Kinect PT, University of Virginia
  • Team DePauwsome, DePauw University
  • Team SwagFace, Rice University
  • Team Poli`ahu, University of Hawaii at Hilo
  • The Miracle Workers, Harvard University/Winona State University
  • Pitch, Boston University
  • Gigaloth, University of Colorado
  • Project SAM, University of Chicago
  • Skyline Studios, University of Houston

These teams are competing in the U.S. Imagine Cup Finals Demo Day, starting today (May 13) in Silicon Valley.  In the finals, students will present their business pitches to a crowd of investors, entrepreneurs and technology professionals.  The team that will represent the U.S. at the Worldwide Finals in St. Petersburg, Russia July 8-11, 2013, also will be unveiled at the U.S. Finals.

If you ever had to present a business plan in order to obtain financing or start your own business, I’m sure you can relate to the excitement these students are feeling as they prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

My team and the small businesses we work with share in the Imagine Cup competition’s passion for providing the support and resources to bring smart ideas to life and to the marketplace. To learn more about the Microsoft Imagine Cup, be sure to watch live coverage on May 13 through our social channels, including on Twitter @MsTechStudent and Facebook.  We encourage you to use the official hashtag #ICUSFinals.

To learn the results of the U.S. Finals please visit www.imaginecup.com. I would love for you to share your earliest experiences and memories of striking out and starting up. Please share in the comments below.

 

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04/16/13 Posted by Cindy Bates The Business Case for Happiness

I recently came across a PBS special called “The Happiness Advantage,” based on a book of the same name by Shawn Achor, a former Harvard lecturer and currently CEO of positive psychology consulting firm Good Think, Inc. The TV program and book focus on how principles of positive psychology can be applied to increase professional performance. As someone whose management style tends to favor collaboration and camaraderie within my team, I was drawn to the notion that happiness and optimism can have a beneficial impact on productivity and business results. So I invited Shawn’s partner at Good Think, Michelle Gielan, to come speak at an offsite I recently hosted for my team.

After reading “The Happiness Advantage” and hearing Michelle speak, I’m convinced that a culture of happiness at work can sharpen any organization’s competitive edge. And there’s plenty of research to back it up. One study found that happier doctors determine the right diagnosis in patients nearly 20 percent more often than their less happy counterparts, and happier salespeople outsell their pessimistic colleagues by 37 percent.

When our brain is in a positive state, we are more creative and able to imagine greater possibilities – the first step to achieving those lofty outcomes. As Michelle shared with my team, simple changes to your mindset and those of your employees can translate into a more effective and productive work culture. Here are a few tips to inject a little more positivity into your everyday:

  • Start every meeting on a positive note by recognizing something you’re pleased with or proud of that your team has completed or accomplished.
  • Make the first email you send each day a note of gratitude to someone you work with.
  • “Fact check” your negative thoughts. If you catch yourself thinking “I’ll never finish this project in time,” look for evidence that debunks your own myth, for example by thinking about all of the deadlines you’ve met in the past.

“The Happiness Advantage” asserts that the single greatest advantage in the modern economy is a happy and engaged workforce, and I believe this to be true. Is happiness one of your business values? If so, I’d love for you to share what you’re doing to promote positivity in your business. Please leave comments below so we can all create a business advantage with something as simple yet powerful as happiness.

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04/10/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Skincare Company, Naturally Me, Extends Its Reach Through the Cloud

Entrepreneurs are motivated to start businesses for many different reasons, and we recently surveyed women who have started businesses to uncover the top motivators for female entrepreneurs in particular. Among the top responses were the desire to be one’s own boss, to achieve greater financial independence, and to have greater work/life balance. But over half of the respondents said they were motivated by the desire to turn their hobby or unique expertise into a full-fledged business. I love that so many women business owners stated that as a motivation because I think there’s a special spark to businesses born of the owner’s personal passions or interests.

One of our small business customers is a perfect case in point. Chaundra Smith’s natural beauty products company Naturally Me sprang from Chaundra’s efforts to create affordable, high quality skincare products for her children. She soon recognized that her own experience likely meant there was a market for reasonably priced natural beauty products, and Naturally Me was born.

What makes Chaundra’s story even more exciting to me is how she has used technology to fuel her success. Naturally Me has just six employees spread out across three states and two time zones. The team needed the ability to communicate and collaborate on new products, marketing strategies and customer communications. So the company adopted Microsoft Office 365, which gives them professional email on the company’s own domain, access email from virtually anywhere, shared storage space, and the ability to conduct web meetings during which they can all view documents and presentations from their respective locations. Chaundra credits Office 365 with making Naturally Me look “like one of the ‘big dogs,’ not a small, six-person company.”

You can read the stories of other women who have started their own successful businesses in a new exhibit created by the National Women’s History Museum in partnership with Microsoft. The exhibit highlights the role of technology in empowering female entrepreneurs, and profiles a few Microsoft customers who have used technology to fuel productivity and success.

For more insights on what motivates women to start their own businesses, see this infographic, and if you’re a small business owner, share what motivated you in the comments below.

PS: Monday, April 8 marked the one-year countdown until Microsoft will end support for the decade-old Windows XP and Office 2003. This means if you’re running XP or Office 2003 as of April 8, 2014, you will no longer receive updates for either product from Microsoft. If you’re looking to upgrade your small business, see what your options are here.

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03/26/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Collaboration is the SMB’s competitive edge

Your employees may get along with one another just fine, but getting them to truly collaborate at work can be a different thing entirely. Collaboration goes beyond working side-by-side in a friendly fashion. It’s about being able to fluidly share information, leverage other’s strengths and tap available resources in the most efficient manner. Ensuring your employees can effectively collaborate with one another can have a real notable impact on your business performance.

One way to know whether true collaboration is happening within your business is simply to ask employees if and where they experience bottlenecks in their daily work flow. Here are a few of the most common barriers to collaboration that we hear from our SMB customers:

  • Not knowing when colleagues are online and available to connect. Known as “presence,” the ability to see if a colleague is available, in a meeting, away from their desk or offline can be a huge timesaver – especially if your team works from different locations. Being able to view others’ presence means that when a team member has a quick question for someone else, they can save the time it takes to send an email and wait for a response by checking if that person is available and just sending them a quick IM in real time.
  • Having colleagues who use different software platforms or online productivity apps, which can cause compatibility issues that waste time and cause frustration. Be sure the documents and other files your employees create can be viewed in original format by everyone within your business, and customers too.
  • Lack of a central location where employees can create, save and share their work. If your business doesn’t have a place where shared documents and other company information can be saved and accessed, your employees may be wasting time searching for important files when people are out of the office, or trying to manage separate versions of the same document.

If these scenarios sound familiar, have no fear – there are many affordable technologies that can make your team work better together without requiring them to make major changes in the way they already work. For example, Microsoft Office 365 offers two tools in particular that make collaboration a breeze:

With SharePoint Online, your team can store and organize important documents in a central location, meaning people can work together on documents from wherever they are, and everyone will know where to find the work they’re collaborating on.

Lync Online gives employees the ability to view others’ online status and location, start IM conversations, make audio and video calls over the Internet (which can save you money on phone lines), and hold online meetings with people inside and outside your organization. Lync meetings also offer the ability to share documents, presentations and virtual whiteboards among attendees.

Collaboration is worth getting right, because it drives business efficiencies that will set your business apart. You can learn more here about the full range of collaboration and productivity tools in Office 365. And share your secrets to fostering collaboration among your team in the comments below.

 

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03/21/13 Posted by Cindy Bates From Ideas to Independence

Microsoft and the National Women’s History Museum have produced a new exhibit about the history of women’s entrepreneurship that honors, teaches and inspires

I’ve always enjoyed studying history, both for enjoyment of the stories from bygone eras, as well as for the lessons learned by those who came before us.  Several months ago, I read that the number of women-owned businesses grew 44 percent between 1997-2007 – twice as fast as male-owned businesses. I found that to be a remarkable statistic, and started thinking about how the experience of entrepreneurship has evolved throughout history, especially for women. I became particularly interested in where the growth in the number of women starting businesses intersected with the evolution of technology as a key enabler for those who start and run businesses.

My team and I recently became acquainted with the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM), the foremost authority on women’s history in the U.S. I was impressed with its leadership team and their mission to educate Americans on how women have helped shape the nation. We began talking with NWHM about producing an exhibit about the history of women’s entrepreneurship. Fast forward to today, and I am thrilled to announce the launch of that exhibit, “From Ideas to Independence: A Century of Entrepreneurial Women.”

Created by NWHM in partnership with Microsoft, this new online exhibit examines the evolution of women’s entrepreneurship from the early 20th century through present day. It explores key obstacles and triumphs that women have faced in starting businesses over the past century, which business owners – male and female alike – can relate to and learn from.

For example, the desire to gain control over one’s economic situation is a reason  many entrepreneurs starting up their own businesses, and women of the Great Depression era often launched their own businesses as a creative means to generating income. The public attitude that discouraged women in non-traditional economic roles was in direct competition with the fact that families faced incredible economic hardship during these years. Rather than seek outside employment and face societal judgment, many women began their own businesses to survive. Another shared experience among entrepreneurs is the struggle to secure new business financing, but women entrepreneurs had to jump through additional hoops until as recently as 1988: until that year, some states still had laws that required women to have a male relative sign for a business loan.

The exhibit also reinforces Microsoft’s belief in the power of technology to help people and businesses realize their full potential. It takes a thoughtful look at the pivotal role technology has played in helping women get businesses off the ground. In recent years, cloud technology like Office 365 has played a particularly significant role in reducing costs and contributing ease and flexibility to the process of starting and running a business. In fact, in a recent Microsoft survey of female business owners, more than 80 percent of respondents who had started businesses in the last five years said technology was critical to starting and running their businesses. The exhibit features stories of several small businesses, like staffing firm MomCorps and children’s retailer Babesta, both of which increased productivity through Office 365 has been key to their ability to start, grow and thrive.

As you follow the journey of women’s entrepreneurship through the exhibit, you will find inspiration in the stories of how women have been successful taking their business ideas from concept to reality. For our community of self-starters, their challenges reflect the challenges that every small business owner faces.

I hope you’ll visit “From Ideas to Independence: A Century of Entrepreneurial Women,” and that you’ll be inspired. I’d love to hear what you think. Please share your thoughts in the comments below and on Twitter using the hashtag #womenpreneurs.

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03/12/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Women Entrepreneurs Make their Mark on History

March is National Women’s History Month, providing occasion to focus not only on the positive impact generations of female entrepreneurs have had on our national economic landscape, but also on how we can continue to support women in business and technology.

Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, I’ve always been inspired by women who take a business idea from concept to reality. Today, women business owners continue to make a significant and growing impact on our economy. As of 2012, there were more than 8.3 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., generating nearly $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing 7.7 million people.[1] Clearly, supporting women in business addresses a real economic imperative for our country.

Microsoft has a strong tradition of advocating for women in business, and I thought it fitting this month to share just some of the many initiatives we’re involved in. You might consider looking further into some of the organizations and initiatives below to help you advance your own networking, diversity efforts, community involvement and business growth:

  • Investing in women-owned businesses.  Over the past several years, Microsoft has spent more than $1 billion with women- and minority-owned firms, and the company also has facilitated access to capital for women-owned businesses with a $3 million loan to the Business Consortium Fund.
  • Community involvement. Microsoft works closely with organizations that support the success of women business owners. Our partners include the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), with chapters across the country; the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC); the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), including participation in its annual conference this year; and 85 Broads. We are also involved with nearly 20 leading women’s organizations that support the advancement of women in the technology field, including a four-year, $1 million commitment to support the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
  • Encouraging girls to study technology. Tomorrow’s women business leaders are in elementary, junior high and high school today, so Microsoft offers several programs that provide girls with opportunities to find a passion for, and a meaningful career path in, high tech. Our signature DigiGirlz program is a worldwide offering designed for young women that provides an introduction to technology careers and seeks to inspire young women to become involved in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries.  Through programs like IGNITE in Seattle, Microsoft employees reach out to the community to mentor students, inform them about the technology field and dispel stereotypes.

 

At Microsoft, we want to do everything possible to help women make their mark on the world. Next week, I’ll be announcing an exciting new partnership with the National Women’s History Museum that will shine a light on the evolution of women’s entrepreneurship.

How are you going to make history this month, and beyond? I’m excited to hear your ideas, so please share in the comments below.

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03/06/13 Posted by Cindy Bates You speak, we take action.

Customers are the heart and soul of every business – or at least they should be. Staying in touch with what your customers want and how they feel about your products or services can very often mean the difference between earning new and repeat business, or watching business dwindle.

At Microsoft, we hold our customers in the highest esteem and have made it a top priority to continually seek, gather and respond to customer feedback. Perhaps you have actually participated in a Microsoft focus group, survey or in-person meeting, but even if not, you’re still benefitting from the insights your peers in the SMB community are sharing with us.

What we hear from customers directly informs the products and resources we offer to help you meet your business goals and take your company to the next level.  In case you’re not aware of how powerful your feedback is, take a look at just a small sampling of the ways it’s transformed the work my team and Microsoft as a whole are doing to serve small and midsized businesses:

  • Products that work for your business and your life. In developing Windows 8 and the latest version of Office 365, Microsoft spent countless hours talking with business owners, whose input directly influenced product development. We heard that for SMB owners, there’s really no separating work life and personal life, so Windows 8 Pro was designed to deliver new levels of productivity, security and mobility, without sacrificing performance or choice. And Office 365 provides virtually anywhere access to familiar Office tools, plus enterprise-grade email, conferencing, and more IT services for any size SMB.
  • Resources that inform, support and inspire. Microsoft Business Hub, our online portal for SMBs, features a host of resources, many of which sprang from SMB customer input. Our Insider Minute videos are quick tutorials that address some of the most common technology questions we hear from SMBs. Our Customer Support page was established to provide always-on business support, and the local events directory provides a listing of live events in your area where you can learn about the latest small business technologies and trends. We have also learned from you that many businesses identify more with the industry they are in than the size of their company, so we developed industry-specific downloadable “Guides to the Cloud” for SMBs in the legal, construction and healthcare industries.

To say that we would be nothing without you isn’t hyperbole. In leading the group that serves Microsoft’s SMB customers, I am focused on understanding what you want from technology, what challenges you face in your business, and what would make life easier for you. I encourage you to proactively share your thoughts with me, right here.

How can Microsoft help your business grow and thrive? Please share in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you!

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03/01/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Office 365 for every size of small business now available!

This week, Microsoft announced a new set of Office 365 offerings designed specifically for SMBs:

Office 365 ProPlus includes the latest and most complete set of fully featured, rich Office applications — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, InfoPath and Access — delivered as a service, on up to five devices. People can now simply sign in to Office 365 from any of their devices, and their documents and personalized settings roam with them, allowing them to quickly pick up right where they left off. IT departments also get the control they need, including the ability to run Office 365 ProPlus side-by-side with other versions of Office and tools to streamline and manage updates for their users. Office 365 ProPlus is available as a standalone offering for $144 per user for an annual subscription and is included with the updated premium Office 365 Enterprise offerings and the new Office 365 Midsize Business.

Office 365 Midsize Business is designed for medium-sized businesses with 10 to 250 employees. This service includes Office 365 ProPlus as well as the enterprise-quality email and collaboration tools Exchange Online, Lync Online and SharePoint Online, plus simplified IT tools to maintain control while reducing complexity. Pricing is $15 per user per month.

Office 365 Small Business Premium is designed for small businesses with one to 10 employees. In addition to the complete set of rich Office applications, this service includes business-grade email, shared calendars, website tools and HD videoconferencing capability in an easy-to-manage service that does not require IT expertise. Pricing is $12.50 per user per month, or $150 per user for an annual subscription.

In a future post, I’ll be highlighting some of the collaboration components of Office 365 critical to the success of every small business. For more information and a free trial, visit this page.

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02/20/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Four Steps to Making Creativity a Competitive Advantage for Your Small or Mid-Sized Company

If you are a small business owner, you are a master of creativity, whether you realize it or not. Every business starts with the seed of an idea, and whether you’ve brought a business idea from concept to reality, or grown a company you inherited or bought, you’ve proven your creative capacity. When you consider that creativity is a constant and evolving process, you can view it as fuel for unlocking ongoing potential within your business.

Small businesses are especially well-suited to generating creative concepts and bringing them to fruition. In this case, smaller can be better, providing relatively more flexibility and nimbleness than many large enterprises are able to achieve. But the key to ensuring a creative environment within your business is to foster and encourage it within yourself and among employees. Here are a few ways to do just that:

  1. Encourage creativity without hierarchy. Every employee, regardless of role or tenure, is capable of bringing valuable, fresh perspectives to the business, but they must know that they will be heard and respected for sharing their thoughts. Urge employees at all levels and in all roles to propose new ways of doing things – whether product or service innovations, or basic operational or administrative improvements – by recognizing creative thinking at every turn. You could hold a monthly “idea generation session” where all opinions are welcome, or use an internal community forum, like SharePoint or Yammer to encourage creative chatter among employees.
  2. Seek diversity to breed creativity. Seeking employees of different backgrounds, experiences and skill sets helps ensure that the challenges and opportunities your business faces will be met by a team that brings many different perspectives and potential solutions. There is an incredibly strong case for actively building a team of professionals from varying, even surprising, backgrounds. I’ve seen some of the most innovative thinking come from teams and businesses that draw from a wide range of “voices,” because these different perspectives challenge the status quo.  Even if you have only a small number of employees, you can foster diversity within the office walls by bringing in a speaker from an entirely different industry to share their business experience and inspire your team. At a recent internal meeting of my entire team, I invited members of the University of Washington crew team to come talk about how to build a high performing team by leveraging the diversity of strengths across team members. It was very powerful!
  3. Stay “elastic” to stay creative. The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who know that they don’t know it all. By staying open to new ideas, and being committed to learning, you’ll set the tone for your entire team. Seek mentorships with successful leaders in fields outside of your own to help you appreciate new ways of tackling problems. Another fun approach could be to swap jobs with an employee for a day (or a portion of one) to gain an appreciation for their responsibilities, and vice versa. Then conduct a debrief to exchange feedback and learnings from that experience.

Everyday creativity provides a competitive advantage that cannot be duplicated by others. Building a culture of creativity within your small business, where innovative thinking is a natural, daily output, is key to the long term health of all businesses.

What are your secrets for fostering creativity in your small business? Share them in the comments below.

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02/12/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Some of the Cool New Features in Office 2013 – Enabling Greater Productivity

If you run a small business, you know that time is an organization’s most valuable and sometimes elusive commodity. The right technology is crucial to helping you be as efficient and productive as possible. That’s why I’m so excited about Office 2013. Chances are you know and probably use Office, but if you don’t yet know Office 2013, read on for some of the reasons why I’m loving it.

Office 2013 isn’t just a refresh, it’s reimagining of what familiar tools like Word, Excel and PowerPoint can help you accomplish. There are a host of new features that I’ve been delighted to discover. These new features help busy small business owners in many different ways; here are a few:

  • Polish your presentation skills. PowerPoint now offers the new Presenter View, which allows you to view your notes and preview upcoming slides, while displaying only the final version to your audience. It’s also touch-enabled, meaning you can zoom in, zoom out and navigate your presentation, as well as make annotations or highlight text on a slide using a stylus.
  • Do more in less time. New Excel features include Flash Fill, which automatically recognizes patterns in data and auto-completes cells; and Recommended Charts, which provides you visual examples of the best chart to use based on the data you’ve inserted into your spreadsheet.
  • Improve collaboration among your employees. Lync offers voice and video conferencing, as well as IM to keep everyone connected in real time. You can also call your Skype contacts right from Lync and vice versa. And SharePoint now has social networking features, including the ability to share ideas via Newsfeeds; follow people, documents or sites; and use of hash tags, “likes” and the ability to mention people using @ handles.
  • Have important information at your fingertips.  Outlook in Office 2013 is touch enabled and offers conveniences like a quick hover view of your calendar, contacts or tasks without ever leaving your inbox.
  • Enhance your mobility. Office 2013 helps streamline multiple device management for users, because documents saved online are made available to users from any device at any time.

Businesses of all sizes seek greater productivity and efficiency. 2013 can be the year your business achieves them. To learn more, visit the Office page on Microsoft Business Hub.

Are you using the New Office? If so, share your favorite features in the comments below.

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02/08/13 Posted by Cindy Bates It’s time to give your technology a performance review

You probably don’t think twice about conducting performance reviews with your employees, but when was the last time you gave your technology a performance review? Just as it makes good business sense

to evaluate how employees are performing and how they can improve, it also benefits your business to regularly assess how technology investments are serving the business and whether changes can be made to move your business forward.

When evaluating your technology and how well it supports your business objectives, I recommend that you structure the process by considering the following three technology priorities:

Productivity and collaboration – Consider how your technology enables employees to get things done, share information and work well as a team. Solicit employee feedback on where they experience bottlenecks in workflow and inefficiencies in their daily work tasks. Do the programs they use integrate well with respect to internal and external communications? Also, examine how well employees can communicate with one another and if they have a difficult time knowing when their colleagues are available. Depending upon what you find, you may want to explore enhanced productivity solutions that work across tablets, PCs and the phone to help your employees work better and smarter.

Mobility – Think of mobility, or the ability to work from anywhere, as a spectrum. If your business falls on the lowest end of the spectrum, then it lacks any capabilities to allow employees to conduct work outside the office. The highest end of the spectrum characterizes businesses that give employees secure access to the business anytime, anywhere and from nearly any device. Where does your business fall on this spectrum? You may have many of the tools that promote mobility, but still need plans and policies in place to facilitate smarter, more secure, remote working. Or, perhaps you could be leveraging existing remote capabilities to access a wider talent pool in disparate geographies.

Security – If only securing your business were as simple as locking up your office each night, right? Security is indeed multifaceted, thanks to the ever-changing and increasingly complex world of digital dangers. What measures does your business take to guard against security breaches, and do they include protection such as anti-virus software and malware removal? Have you considered the role cloud-based technology can play in improving your security? Do you have a plan in place for how you will respond in the event of a security breach? If these are solutions and processes not yet explored or implemented within your business, a performance review of your security measures can help point you in the right next direction.

I realize I’m only scratching the surface when it comes to explaining how to evaluate these three areas of your business’ technology. The good news is that now I can point you to a resource that will further assist you in assessing your technology – the Microsoft Assess Your Tech eGuide. This is a great resource for any SMB decision maker wanting to leverage business technology to the fullest, but needing a little direction when it comes to taking tangible actions in this area.

After taking a look at this e-guide, let me know what you think. Any areas where you want to see your business improve? Any areas where you’re pleasantly surprised to see that your business is faring pretty well? Please share in the comments below.

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01/22/13 Posted by Cindy Bates What It Takes for Small Businesses to Go Big

New e-guide demystifies the process of pursuing contracts with the government and other large enterprises.

When I talk with small business owners about their growth plans, the conversation often involves going after new types of customers.  But there’s one potential customer type that isn’t on the radar of many small businesses, even though it should be – local, state and federal government agencies.

Did you know that the government is the largest buyer of virtually every business product and service in the U.S., and that the U.S. government intends to spend a quarter of its budget with small businesses? In order for a small business to work with the government, they require a formal contract, but the process of securing such a contract can be cumbersome – so much so that in 2012, the federal government missed its small business contracting goal for the eleventh straight year. In response, President Obama recently signed legislation to help small firms compete for more federal contracts.

My team and I are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to support the success of small businesses. That’s why we sponsored the brand new 2013 edition of the Procurement Opportunities Guide, produced by Braddock Communications. This e-guide (which you can download here) simplifies the process of pursuing and securing government contracts, and provides clear guidance to help you:

  • Understand what it takes to work with the government
  • Effectively marketing your business
  • See how technology can help your business scale for growth, and
  • Uncover special programs for small businesses who want to work with the government.

We partnered with several of the country’s top small business organizations to bring the Procurement Opportunities Guide to life, including the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), the Association of Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC), the National Small Business Association (NSBA), the Association of Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (APTAC) and the Minority Business Roundtable (MBRT). These organizations and their affiliated local offices provide tremendous support and expert guidance to small businesses across the nation. I want to thank them for the work they do to advance the success of small businesses.

It takes knowledge, patience and persistence to secure a government contract, but understanding and committing to the process can be the first steps in taking your business to the next level. I hope you’ll find the Procurement Opportunities Guide a valuable resource in helping your business consider new ways of growing your business.

Has your business worked with the government? Share your best practices in the comments below.

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01/16/13 Posted by Cindy Bates Is Your Technology Supporting the Specific Requirements of Your Industry?

For healthcare SMBs, not all cloud technology is created equal

In my role, I frequently think about the different technology challenges small businesses face specific to their vertical industries. For example, I’ve recently learned more about the compliance requirements of  businesses in the healthcare industry, and the unique considerations healthcare SMBs must factor in when making technology decisions. There are some critical standards they can’t afford not to pay attention to!

Even if you don’t work in the healthcare industry, odds are you’re aware of the attention paid to the security and privacy around health data. The last time you visited the doctor’s office, you likely signed a “HIPAA form,” acknowledging your doctor’s adherence to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA was enacted to  safeguard the privacy and security  of  patient health information even as the U.S. healthcare system moves to electronic means of managing that information.

Large hospitals and healthcare companies have entire staffs dedicated to ensuring they stay compliant with HIPAA, but for small healthcare businesses with limited staff and resources, just understanding the requirements can be a challenge. And when it comes to implementing basic technologies like email and calendaring software, some small healthcare practices may unknowingly be using solutions that don’t address HIPAA compliance requirements.

One small healthare clinic in Phoenix, AZ, recently found this out the hard way.  Last year, Phoenix Cardiac Surgery (PCS) was fined $100,000 for HIPAA compliance violations after they used a free online email and calendar tool that inadvertently made patient appointments publicly accessible. PCS was just trying to make it easier for patients to schedule appointments online, but the selected technology failed to meet standards set forth by HIPAA, and ultimately PCS did not have satisfactory assurances from its vendor in the form of a required HIPAA business associate agreement (BAA), which documents the safeguards for storing and transmitting patient information.

Instances like this shed light on the importance of ensuring the technology you use for your business adequately addresses the compliance requirements of your industry. That’s why Microsoft invests in designing our products to help businesses stay compliant across a variety of industries.

In healthcare, it’s why we designed Office 365 from the ground up with to address HIPAA . For example, Office 365 offers healthcare organizations the assurance of a HIPAA Business Associate Agreement (BAA), created in collaboration with top academic medical centers, government entities and other healthcare providers to ensure it meets the broad needs of the healthcare industry. In fact, Office 365 is the only professional cloud-based productivity and email program that offers a BAA . With Office 365, healthcare businesses can benefit from cloud-based communications and collaboration tools like email, calendaring, instant messaging, voice and video conferencing, shared workspaces and access to Office Web Apps such as Word and PowerPoint,while alsoaddressing their HIPAA compliance requirements.

(I would also note that Microsoft’s BAA also covers our Windows Azure cloud platform services , and Dynamics CRM Online solution, meaning our healthcare customers can benefit from all of our cloud solutions, including infrastructure cost reductions, flexibility, reliability and state of the art security, while remaining compliant with HIPAA.

Texas-based family medical practice Mihills Webb, recently transitioned to Office 365 with the help of Microsoft partner US Medical IT. The doctors at Mihills Webb can rest assured their technology is covered by the industry-accepted HIPAA BAA in Office 365, while their staff can be more efficient and productive, and provide better care to patients. Mihills Webb calculates that implementing Office 365 has resulted in a savings of 30 days of medical assistants’ time per year. (Check out a video on MIhills Webb’s experience with Office 365 here.)

Is your technology currently addressing the compliance standards of your industry? Share your challenges or best practices in the comments below.

And for a free trial of Office 365 visit www.microsoft.com/office365/trial.

 

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12/20/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Knowing When to Invest and What Investments to Make Can Revitalize Growth for SMBs

There’s no getting around it: when it comes to parting with capital, or even taking on new operating expenses, many small business owners wish they had a crystal ball. You can have very specific growth ambitions for your small business, and still be uncertain about which investments to make and when – especially in an economic environment like the one we’ve experienced in the U.S. over the last several years.

But there are plenty of companies that have made the right investments and seen great results. One of my favorite success stories is about the revitalization of one of the oldest manufacturing companies in the U.S., after it closed its doors in 2009.

Founded in 1865, family-run Faribault Woolen Mills once manufactured nearly half the woolen blankets in the country. The company came across tough times during the economic downturn in the late 2000’s and closed its doors in 2009. Family members bought the company in 2011, attracted by the historic brand that stood for quality and the opportunity to revive excellence in American manufacturing. The new owners were committed to modernizing systems and infrastructure while staying true to the traditional textile manufacturing process.

The new owners took a methodical approach to identifying what they would need in order to make their vision work. They boiled it down to four things they would need to be successful:

  1. Accurate accounting—the most basic piece that businesses can’t take for granted
  2. Sales and marketing infrastructure that enables a high level of quality and service to maintain the brand’s reputation and meet customer expectations
  3. Effective tools for cost, production and inventory management that would allow the company to efficiently track and measure productivity, as well as  product  and raw material movement
  4. A cloud-based infrastructure to reduce the costs of software, hardware, maintenance, and in-house IT management and administration

Faribault selected cloud-based Microsoft Dynamics as an end-to-end solution that meets all four critical needs. The company uses Microsoft Dynamics GP for accounting, business management, and inventory and bill of materials management, as well as to process online orders. The integration with Microsoft Dynamics CRM gives Faribault the means to not only share information among production and financial functions, but also across sales and marketing, enabling a high level of customer service. And by opting for a hosted, cloud-based solution the company was able to deploy the solution quickly, minimizing the need to purchase and maintain costly infrastructure, which requires additional training and staffing.

Faribault Woolen Mills is now able to deliver a quality product at the best possible price. Sales growth has allowed the company to add new jobs to the local economy, growing from 38 to 50 employees during their first year back in business, and now to more than 100 employees in 2012.

I believe that the key to Faribault’s success the second time around was recognizing how technology would be critical to their success in today’s marketplace, and narrowing it down to the specific technology solutions that would enable their vision to become a reality.

We love hearing SMB success stories like Faribault’s. Microsoft Dynamics is currently inviting companies to share their stories for a chance to win a free business transformation—including $45,000 in free software and services. Visit www.microsoft.com/dynamics/wintogrow to view videos that have already been submitted by other companies and share your own story.

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12/18/12 Posted by Cindy Bates ‘Tis the Season for Tech: My Favorites for SMBs

Most of us are focused on giving gifts to others at this time of year, but while you’re at it, why not think about your own personal wishlist for yourself and your business as well? In the spirit of Oprah’s famous “Favorite Things” list, I thought I’d share some of my favorite technology for SMBs right now.

Must-have technology for every small business: One of the things I find most exciting about the state of SMB technology today is the functionality and affordability of technology that’s available for critical business functions, like email, productivity and collaboration – and how easy it is for small businesses to deploy. Office 365 secure, anywhere access to email and calendars, Office Web Apps, instant messaging, conferencing and file sharing, with a predictable cost structure and the ability to easily add and remove users as your employee base evolves. If you’re not already using Office 365, now is the perfect time to check it out! Microsoft is now offering a 90-day free trial offer for businesses with up to 10 users. You can sign up for this new free offer through the end of February.

Most useful gadget for work and play: I love the look and feel of the new Surface – it’s extremely durable, but also ultra-light and stylish. With an integrated Kick Stand for hands-free viewing, a cover you can type on, the power of the Windows 8 RT operating system, and the ability to customize the Start Screen with the apps you use most for at work or at home, it’s the perfect device for both work and play. If you haven’t seen this short video on Microsoft Surface, you’ll enjoy seeing how sleek, powerful and versatile this device is.

Favorite app for staying organized: For environmental and convenience purposes, I’ve been making an effort to move from paper notebooks to making digital notes and to-do lists. Microsoft Office OneNote   has made the transition easier, with the ability to create tabs for different meetings or topics, powerful search capabilities to help me easily bring up relevant notes, and features that make it simple to share information with my team members.

Favorite apps for supporting local small businesses: When I’m on the road for work and want to do a little shopping or need to grab a bite to eat, I always try to find a place that captures the local flavor. For guidance, my go-to app is Bing Local, a trusty companion that provides easy access to ratings, directions and the website for small business in close proximity to my location.

Best laptop carrying cases: If you’re in the market for a carrying case that works just as well for a meeting across town as it does for hassle-free air travel, look no further than the Briggs & Riley Speedy Mini. It’s extremely compact, backed by a lifetime warranty and has a classic look that will stand the test of time. If you’re looking for something a little roomier, opt for the L.L. Bean Carryall Briefcase, which comes with a new, lighter-weight design for increased capacity and can be customized with your business’ logo.

Best tech-friendly fashion accessory: One of the best inventions I’ve come across this year are winter gloves that you don’t have to take off in order to use your smartphone. Isotoner Smartouch Tech Stretch Gloves are a great option for checking email or surfing the web while out in chilly weather. They also come in a fleece-lined version for a little extra warmth.

And finally, for even more gift ideas suited to SMBs check out this slideshow of must-have SMB devices.

How about you? What’s on the top of your tech gift list this holiday season? Do you have any favorites of your own to share?

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12/11/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Is Your Business Ready for a Snow Day?

With winter approaching, it won’t be long before many of us wake up to blankets of white outside our doors. In the Seattle area, it doesn’t take much snow – just a few inches – to shut the city down. For businesses, things don’t just stop temporarily like they did in grade school. We still need to get work done. And when roads go untreated and public transportation crawls to a snail’s pace, it’s imperative we have the ability to work even while away from the office.

When I’m cooped up at home without much warning, that’s when I’m most thankful for technology that keeps me connected to the outside world and ensures my business keeps moving forward. Here are a few of the things I lean on the most:

Online meetings – Even if I can’t leave my house in Seattle, my colleagues and customers in other cities still expect meetings to take place. And on snow days, scheduled meetings can be uninterrupted. Fortunately, with Lync Online, a component of Office 365, you can conduct online meetings and even include up to 250 participants in-and-outside of your office. Lync also enables you to share desktops, files and presentations online so virtual meetings maintain all of the important components of in-person meetings.

Online presence – I love the fact that when I’m working from home and need to chat with a colleague, all I have to do is pull up Lync to see if he or she is busy or available. The presence technology within Lync is intuitive and not at all intrusive, giving people insight into how and when people connect with you.  When I’m working from home, not an hour goes by when I don’t rely on this feature.

Online document sharing – I, for one, am thankful that the days of storing documents on local hard drives, and trying to remember to email them to yourself whenever you think you might need to access them from another computer, are behind us. Now, with SharePoint Online, another solution within Office 365, you can securely store all of your business documents and information online on a shared team space. Users can collaborate, review and edit documents by checking them in and out like library books, a feature that simplifies version control and team collaboration, both in and out of the office.

Smartphones – Have you ever left your laptop at work? Well you’re not alone. If you leave your laptop in the office the evening before the big storm, or run into computer trouble while working from home, you can quickly turn to your smartphone for support. Windows Phone has Office and Outlook built in so you’ll never miss a beat. SkyDrive, another feature included with the Windows phone, also provides users with 7GB of free online storage so that you can maintain access to important documents at all times, including those days you find yourself stuck at home with only a smartphone to work from. Today’s smartphones are amazing, so make sure to invest in the latest technology available.

Do you have everything you need to get your work done remotely when the unexpected occurs? Please share what would make “snow days” easier for you in the comments below.

 

 

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12/06/12 Posted by Cindy Bates “With Windows Server 2012, my customers were prepared for Hurricane Sandy.”

When the winds and waves of Hurricane Sandy bore down ferociously on New York City, at least two Microsoft SMB customers were ready. Microsoft partner WorkITsafe had just helped these customers upgrade to the Windows Server 2012 operating system with the new built-in Hyper-V Replica feature. As a result, their IT systems experienced minimal interruption as the hurricane flooded the surrounding area and required employees to hunker down at home. In this post, WorkITsafe President Steve Rubin tells how Windows Server 2012 protected his customers’ businesses—and has the potential to protect many more.

By Steve Rubin, President, WorkITsafe

We are a Brooklyn-based IT services firm and Microsoft partner that provides a wide range of services to small and midsize businesses (SMBs) in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, in a number of industries and ranging in size from 7 to more than 200 desktops. Our customers understand that IT is critical to their business, but they don’t want to worry about it.

It used to be that only large enterprises enjoyed the peace of mind provided by disaster recovery solutions, and SMBs had access to no such thing. But small businesses require the same level of business continuity support as large companies—they are either up and running or they are out of business. Conventional wisdom says that if your business is down for more than two days, you’re toast.

When Hurricane Sandy was hurtling toward the eastern seaboard, everyone was watching the maps closely, but many people did not think that it would really hit. Suddenly, on Sunday, October 28, the winds picked up and people became alarmed. My team at WorkITSafe started getting phone calls from customers worried about business continuity. On Monday morning people went to work as usual. But at 11:00 A.M. things went haywire. Evacuations were ordered, and things got very intense. But businesses still needed to operate, especially for our customers serving their own customers outside the eastern US, so people left their offices and worked from home.

Two of our customers, the Law Offices of Aaron I. Katsman, P.C. and CSU Industries, had upgraded to Windows Server 2012 and asked us to activate Hyper-V Replica as the storm approached. Hyper-V Replica is a new feature built into Windows Server 2012 that replicates, or copies, virtual machines from one location to another using a standard broadband connection. Setting up replication can take less than an hour and involves setting up the appropriate hardware at a replication site, copying customer workloads to the replication hardware in advance, and then having Hyper-V Replica copy changes to those workloads every five minutes. With this feature, businesses have their workloads running safely in another location, and the state of their replicated virtual machines is never more than five minutes old if their primary site is knocked out.

By Monday afternoon, the tides started flooding lower Manhattan. The offices of both Katsman Law and CSU lost all power to their buildings. They were advised that they probably wouldn’t be able to return to their offices for a week or more. However, thanks to Hyper-V Replica, the IT infrastructure for their businesses continued to run safely in our data center, and employees were able to log on and work from home.

Both customers told me they were thrilled with the results of Hyper-V Replica. During a time when many other businesses failed, they were able to proceed with business as usual, making a very positive impression on their customers.

I wanted to share the story of these two customers because I believe it’s critical that every small business understand the capabilities that are available to them today to protect their business in the face of a potential disaster. New York City alone has been hit by two hurricanes in the past year, and every single business in a 500-mile radius of Manhattan needs to be prepared.

You can do so by learning about solutions like Windows Server 2012 with Hyper-V Replica. And you wouldn’t be the only one to do so. In just the first two days after Hurricane Sandy, I received four calls from businesses that wanted Hyper-V Replica. At least one silver lining of a disaster like Hurricane Sandy is the opportunity it provides people and businesses to be prepared for the worst.

For more information, visit the case study here: http://www.microsoft.com/casestudies/Case_Study_Detail.aspx?CaseStudyID=710000001721

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11/20/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Giving Thanks for the SMB Community!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s an authentic, non-commercial holiday – no need to wrack your brain trying to figure out which gifts to buy for everyone. It’s simply a time to come together with loved ones, enjoy good food and reflect on what you’re thankful for.

Different families have different ways of celebrating, but a common tradition is to go around the Thanksgiving dinner table and have each person share what they’re most thankful for. Being a bit sentimental myself, I like this tradition, so I thought we could create a virtual Thanksgiving table of sorts, and reached out to our SMB community of Microsoft customers and partners to ask them what they’re most grateful for right now.

Here’s what some of them shared:

Bryce Phillips, Founder of evo, a Microsoft customer and lifestyle company dedicated to exploring “the collaboration between culture and sport” – “I’m thankful to be moving forward with a great team and innovative projects at evo in a time when many are moving slowly as our economy recovers. We just opened our new flagship store and I’m especially grateful for this opportunity knowing that it sets the stage for creating more incredible experiences as we grow into the future. Last, on a personal level, I’m feeling pretty good as of late with our first baby on the way due in May!”

Ron Braatz, President of LiftOff, a Microsoft partner based in Crofton, MD, who specializes in helping SMBs deploy Microsoft Cloud Solutions, such as Office365 — “I’m thankful for the flexibility that my cloud business gives to me and my co-workers. This makes it possible for us to work remotely and spend more time with our families.”

Kerri Stewart, Owner of Bea’s Insurance Agency, a Microsoft Office 365 customer — “Our family-owned business is very thankful for our families, friends, and our wonderful clients and business contacts who are our ’extended family.’”

Jenn & Aslan Cattaui of Babesta, a Microsoft customer — “This year we are thankful for so many things: for our team members who execute our vision every day by being warm, cool and in-the-know; for stylish kids and parents who value independent brands and what’s unique, creative and different; for our vendors who keep coming up with amazing designs and innovative products; for the technologies and tools that keep us sane and organized; for our families who are always giving us advice and support; and for our little girls who constantly provide inspiration and balance.”

David Hewett, Town Manager of Holden Beach, NC, a Microsoft customer — “As Thanksgiving approaches, I am reminded how fortunate we are to be able to live in a place where we enjoy the freedoms of the American way. Where we are enabled to help others who might not have been spared the ravages of storms or circumstance; and continue believing that it’s the right thing to do.”

Now, my turn. I am thankful for the time I get to spend at home with my extended family in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’m thankful to be working for a company that is innovating, growing and delivering amazing technology to consumers and businesses everywhere. I’m thankful for my amazing team, all of whom are dedicated to helping our partners and customers to be as successful as they can be. I’m thankful for our partners, who deliver top-notch technology expertise to SMBs across the U.S. And I’m especially thankful for Microsoft SMB customers, whose entrepreneurship, creativity and passion for what they do keeps me energized about my own work all year long.

Here’s wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I’d love to hear what you’re thankful for! Please share in the comments section below.

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11/13/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Ensuring the Security of your Mobile Devices

Ever lost your smartphone or just thought you had until it turned up later? That sinking feeling makes you realize just how much you rely on your mobile device. And if you run a small business, it’s even more critical that you protect your contact list, work email and any other business data could be compromised if your lose your device.

Safeguarding your mobile device against the threat of loss or theft doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does require discipline and a little bit of awareness. Here are a few ways you can keep safe all the information on your phone if it is misplaced:

  • Lock your phone with a password – You probably don’t think twice about password protecting your laptop computer, so why not apply the same measure of protection to your smartphone? After all, it’s much smaller, easier to lose and also contains valuable and possibly sensitive data. Though it might initially feel like a hassle to type in a password every time you need to access your phone after a period of inactivity, before long it will become second nature. Though every phone is different, the option to protect your phone with a password is typically available within the Settings and Password/Lock menu of your device.
  • Don’t ignore updates – Just as you would with your PC, install all software and application updates on your phone, as they often contain security patches and protection against the latest viruses and other digital threats. Many mobile devices are programmed to prompt you when an update is available. It’s best just to discipline yourself to install it immediately when notified, rather than waiting for a convenient time. If you have a Windows Phone, you can find guidance on how to install updates here.
  • Give your phone a short leash – Check to see if the mobile operating system for your phone offers an online location tracking service for your device like Windows Phone’s “Find My Phone” feature. This service helps you locate your lost phone on an online map, lock it and erase data remotely if it gets stolen. If your phone’s operating system doesn’t offer this feature, your mobile carrier may offer an application that provides the same service, such as Verizon’s My Mobile Recovery and AT&T’s Mobile Locate.
  • Manage your mobile workforce – For small businesses whose employees actively use their mobile devices for work, a service like Windows Intune can offer peace-of-mind and a convenient way to centrally manage company devices smartphones. Windows Intune is a cloud-based solution for managing business devices, including PCs, tablets and mobile phones, including Windows, iOS and Android-based devices. The service makes it simple to manage updates and enforce device access policies. Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) capabilities let you manage the software and hardware used by mobile phones connected to your network, while also enforcing encryption and password requirements that you determine.

Putting these practices and tools into place will go a long way toward ensuring smartphones continue to benefit your business. If you have any other questions related to safe smartphone usage, please share in the comments below.

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11/06/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Windows 8 Pro – perfectly suited for SMBs

You may have seen the news recently regarding the launch of Windows 8, the newest release of the Windows operating system (OS). This launch is significant because it heralds a new era in personal computing – one which delivers new levels of productivity, security and mobility that will serve you well in business and in life. Coinciding with the launch of Windows 8 comes a compelling new line up of PCs, laptops and tablets from the likes of Lenovo, Dell, HP, Samsung and ASUS, that were designed specifically for Windows 8 and on which touch plays a starring role alongside the trusty keyboard and mouse.

For months, Windows 8 has generated buzz among consumers, business people and technology press alike. SMBs are joining in the celebration as well, attending launch events across the U.S. that have been organized in partnership with local business organizations, such as the Fayette, GA Chamber of Commerce Business 2 Business Luncheon, on Nov. 14., and the Ashland, OH Area Chamber of Commerce Lunch & Learn Seminar on Dec. 4, where technology experts will talk about how Windows 8 helps meet the growing needs of today’s small businesses.

SMBs really do have something to celebrate with Windows 8 because, while it maintains the core features and functionality people love about Windows 7, Windows 8 delivers a number of transformational new design elements and features that are particularly compelling for SMBs. Here are a few of the things I love most about it:

  • The new Start screen. You’re probably familiar with the Start button in the lower left-hand corner of your computer screen with previous versions of Windows. Well, in Windows 8, it has been reimagined as an entire screen that brings all of the information and applications you care most about right to the forefront in what are called tiles. A tile is an app or content that you can open from the Start screen. You can create tiles for people (like your business partner, most important customer or spouse) or content (like a website, folder or program such as Microsoft Word). You can customize your Start screen with whichever tiles you use and value most, so your Windows 8 PC will look and act more like an extension of what matters to you than any PC you’ve ever owned.
  • Security features. Protecting business data is paramount to businesses of all sizes, but especially to SMBs. Windows 8 comes with enhanced security features that will give you peace of mind and safeguard your business and personal data. Avoid the threat of malware interfering with your system from the moment you turn on your PC with Trusted Boot, which confirms the integrity of the entire boot process and shuts down potential malware threats before they can do harm. And BitLocker Drive Encryption makes everything on your hard drive indecipherable to unauthorized users. It even protects data stores on a USB stick or external hard drive when you use BitLocker To Go, rendering a lost USB drive useless if it falls into the wrong hands.
  • The System Reset feature, which allows you to easily return a system to its factory settings – ideal for reassigning a computer to a new employee.
  • Mobility features. Flexibility of location is no longer a luxury but a necessity in business. Windows 8 enables you to work from anywhere through features like built-in mobile broadband, which supports 3G and 4G telecommunication, and helps you find available Wi-Fi hotspots more easily.

All of those features are built into all versions of Windows 8. But if your business requires enhanced mobility or user account management capabilities, Windows 8 Pro is the version for you. On the mobility front, Windows 8 Pro offers Remote Desktop, which enables you connect to your main Windows 8 Pro desktop from any PC that runs select Windows operating systems, offering access to settings, files and network resources. And Offline Files makes any file accessible without having an Internet connection by automatically synchronizing whenever you’re reconnected to the network.

Windows 8 Pro also offers additional control features, such as Active Directory, which helps you manage security and user accounts, deploy user settings and start screen profiles, and confirm app installations across all your employees’ computers. Professional-grade services, such as Windows Intune and Microsoft Volume Licensing (available for organizations requiring five or more user licenses), also are available to provide SMBs control and flexibility over deploying and managing systems.

If you spend a lot of your time working on your PC, Windows 8 truly is something to be excited about. But don’t just take my word for it. If you want to join in on the launch excitement, you can visit your local Microsoft Store to test out Windows 8 and the amazing line up of Windows 8 touch devices. Be sure to check the Microsoft Store calendar for events like “Get to Know Your Windows 8 Device” workshops, and Windows 8 launch events specifically for SMBs. If you happen to be in the Manhattan area, join the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce for a Windows 8 Launch Celebration  on Nov. 19 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. And if you’ve already purchased a Windows 8 machine, it’s easy to upgrade online to Windows 8 Pro.

Have you had a chance to try out Windows 8? What do you think? Post your questions and comments below.

 

 

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10/26/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Windows 8 is now available!

It’s a big day at Microsoft! We’ve officially launched the highly anticipated new version of our Windows operating system, Windows 8. In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting more about Windows 8 Pro, the version designed especially for SMBs, and the many ways it can benefit your business. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit the Windows blog for more information on the availability of Windows 8.

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10/23/12 Posted by Cindy Bates No IT department? No problem.

If the closest thing your small business has to an IT department is a stack of instruction manuals for your computers, printers and software, there are most likely times when you wish you had a real, live IT expert in your office. If this is you, you’re not alone, and fortunately, you’re not out of luck either.

There is a host of ways small businesses can tackle the challenge of not having a dedicated IT department. For example, when it comes to computing issues related to Microsoft software, you can always turn to the Microsoft Fix it Solution Center. This site provides free, automated solutions for numerous common issues, including those related to security, privacy, performance, errors and crashes. All you need to do is select your problem area and the site’s diagnostic tool will examine, determine and solve your issue while providing recommended next steps.

Additionally, you may want to consider transitioning from on-premise software to cloud-based software. With a solution like Office 365, you get anywhere access to cloud-based email, web conferencing, file sharing and Office Web Apps. Since these familiar programs live in the cloud, they’re always secure and always updated. This setup also relieves you from the ongoing hassle of maintaining local hardware and software and guarantees you 99.9 percent uptime. For more information on cloud computing, check out this eGuide on how to run your business in the cloud.

Finally, it’s always worth it to educate yourself on the latest technology issues impacting SMBs. I’ve mentioned before that SCORE provides free mentoring resources for small businesses, but it’s worth noting that you also can connect with mentors who have specific technical expertise. Click on the Technology and Computers page within SCORE’s website and you’ll see the option to email mentors with backgrounds in technology.

The Microsoft Small Business Hub hosts useful tools and technology advice, including Insider Edge Online Events, designed to help you identify and implement the appropriate technology that best suits your small business’ needs. You also can check out your local Small Business Development Center for free or low-cost technology training. Local business organizations and chambers of commerce sometimes offer technology training, so consider checking out your local group’s offerings.

While you may not have IT staff on board for support, you don’t have to go it alone. Microsoft Partners comprise a network of qualified IT services and solutions providers, thousands of whom are dedicated to serving the needs of small businesses.  Whether you are looking to install your first server or move to the cloud with Office 365, our partners can help identify and implement the right solutions for your business. Find a Microsoft partner in your area through the Microsoft Pinpoint marketplace.

What does your small business do to tackle IT issues without an IT expert on board? Any other suggestions you might offer to small businesses looking for ways to address the challenge of not having a dedicated IT department? Please share in the comments below.

 

 

 

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10/16/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Where to Begin Assessing Your IT Needs: Advice from an IT Pro

This week’s guest post is from Reed Wilson, Founder and President of Palmetto Technology Group (PTG), a Microsoft partner that provides small and midsized businesses with IT services and solutions, such as Office 365 and Exchange Online, that enhance productivity and increase profitability.

In my role as president of the Palmetto Technology Group, I’m continually asked by small business owners where to begin assessing their business’ technology usage to ensure they are getting the most out of all the options available today. There are 4 considerations I come back to time and time again – considerations that are battle tested and have helped hundreds of small business owners to get the most out of the technology they use to run their business.

1. What do you want to accomplish? As a business, you need to identify the challenges you are trying to solve, and determine what you hope technology can help you achieve. Do you want to make it easier for employees to share documents? Ensure the security of your customer information? Enable employees in remote locations to communicate with each other throughout the day? Make your wishlist and rest assured, there are solutions that meet your needs.

2. Which path works best for your business? Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish, there are often more than one technology solution that could work. The secret is to determine which option best meets the needs of your business, which a small business technology specialist can help you determine.

3. Do you need to consider any regulatory standards or compliance requirements? Many industries require businesses to follow specific regulatory and compliance guidelines, especially when it comes to handling customer and employee information. Understanding the regulatory requirements you face is a key consideration when determining the technologies that will help your business run best.

4. What technologies will work best for your employees and overall culture?Understanding the needs, habits and preferences of your employees is key to determining which technology solutions will work best for you. For example, if your employees are all located in different locations, video conferencing and messaging capabilities may be a bigger priority for you than if they are all located in a single office.

As a technology advisor to small businesses, I know that asking the right questions up front is critical to ensuring technology matches business needs. I hope you found these considerations helpful and I sincerely hope they will help you leverage technology in accomplishing your business goals!

Connect with PTG on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

 

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10/02/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Never stop learning – tips for being a lifelong student

In high school, it was pretty easy to draw a line in the sand dividing the people who truly liked to learn and those who were “too cool for school.” Now that we are way beyond our high school days, I think we all can agree that learning, whether in a formal setting or not, actually can be fun and is something we never should stop doing.

Probably the biggest obstacle keeping us from prioritizing our continuing education is time. None of us seems to have enough of it and though we have all good intentions of getting back into reading poetry or taking that evening class at the local community college, it’s all too easy for the demands of life and work to interfere.

However, as we find ourselves in the midst of back-to-school season, let’s use this moment as an opportunity to revive whatever interests we have in lifelong learning. Doing so will benefit us not only personally but also professionally. Keeping our minds fit will help us be more inquisitive and open to new possibilities in the workplace. Here are a handful of ideas that might help you be a better lifelong student:

  • Read more carefully on the Internet – The Internet can be a treasure trove for lifelong learners, but it also can present a stumbling block. We can barely scratch the surface when it comes to reading and digesting content from notable blogs, publications and news sites and often find ourselves spread too thin when it comes to our online reading. Commit to narrowing down the Internet content you read regularly, then aim to read more carefully and thoughtfully, taking time to really digest and ponder what you’re learning.
  • Attend lectures – Attending lectures is a great alternative for those of us who’d like to return to the classroom setting but don’t have the time to devote to an actual class. If you live near a college or university, you should have no trouble finding lectures the public can attend. Trade and professional associations also can be good sources for lectures. If possible, attend lectures with others. Being able to discuss what you learned with someone else will help you retain the content of the lecture and also will force you to pay attention if you find yourself drifting off!
  • Establish mentoring relationships – Professional relationship-building takes time and courage, but the rewards are well worth the effort. We all need people we can go to with questions about our careers; the chance to learn first-hand from leaders in our respective fields can be just the inspiration we need to keep plugging away when the going gets tough. If you’re having trouble finding a mentor, SCORE provides free mentoring resources. Your local trade or professional associations also might be of help.

 Meanwhile, don’t overlook the importance of mentoring others. Providing guidance to someone else always helps you learn and grow, since you must evaluate and make sense of your work experiences and translate them into wisdom for someone else. If you don’t know how or where to find a mentee, or are intimidated by the prospect of acting as someone’s mentor, start small. Ask a younger colleague to lunch and just start talking about your respective career paths. Before you know it, you’ll be investing in someone else’s professional life.

  •  Dare to dream – If you really do have big dreams of going back to school or switching career paths altogether, don’t ignore them. Put these ideas on paper, share them with a few trusted individuals and promise to further explore what it would take to make these dreams a reality. Regardless of what the outcome is, the process of daring to dream will teach you invaluable life lessons.

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09/26/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Entrepreneurs Mentoring Entrepreneurs

One of the things I love the most about the small business community is the diversity of interests, talents and business models, all united by a shared entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to build something new. While starting a new restaurant can be a vastly different process from launching a new professional services firm, the entrepreneurs behind both ventures might have more in common – and more to learn from each other – than meets the eye.

Many small business owners may not consider themselves suitable mentors for other budding entrepreneurs. But if you’ve successfully launched your own business, you most definitely have something to share with those just getting started. You don’t have to know all the nuances of getting a bakery up and running in order to counsel a fellow entrepreneur with a passion for bread making – your varied experience alone can provide a wealth of insight for others to learn from. And you might just learn a few things yourself in the process.

If you feel drawn to mentoring less experienced entrepreneurs but don’t know how or where to begin, here are three suggestions:

  • Volunteer your time and talent at your local community college, technical school or university. Check to see if your local institutions have programs targeted at connecting students with members of the local small business community. You could offer yourself up as a guest lecturer, or even just provide your personal contact information for any students interested in one-on-one conversations with a local businessperson. This also provides a solid opportunity to identify potential interns to support your business and learn along the way.
  • Get involved with your local chamber of commerce. Chambers of commerce are fantastic places to interact with fellow members of the small business community. See what your chamber has to offer in the way of small business development resources and events. Find out how you can participate or get efforts of this nature started yourself.
  • Leverage your social media presence. If you have a strong social media presence and want a more informal way of mentoring entrepreneurs, think more strategically about how you use platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. Are you regularly sharing articles and blog posts related to small business challenges or commenting on forums to share your best practices? If not, I encourage you to consider it. It’s a great way to scatter seeds of knowledge and might even be a starting point for more formal mentoring relationships to begin.

If you’re already mentoring fellow entrepreneurs, what advice would you share with others interested in doing the same? Do you have any tips on how to build mentoring relationships? Please share your mentoring moments and tips in the comments below.

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09/24/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Small Business Development Centers: Helping small businesses grow and thrive

This week I’m welcoming a guest from my team, Senior Business Development Manager Allison Saltzer, , who recently attended the Association of Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC) conference. In this post, she shares some of the terrific resources available to small businesses from SBDCs across the U.S.

Last week, I had the opportunity to represent Microsoft at the annual Association of Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC) conference in New Orleans, where more than 1,400 small business consultants, trainers and other service providers gathered for professional development aimed at enhancing the SBDC Network’s services to small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs. ASBDC represents the most comprehensive small business assistance network in the U.S., with a vision to see small businesses grow and thrive. Microsoft shares this vision and is proud to partner with the ASBDC on expanding the breadth of technology resources they are able to offer to small business owners.

Microsoft works closely with SBDCs throughout the year to help them provide clients with valuable technology training. One way is through our Microsoft Community Connections program, which partners SBDC centers with local technology experts who counsel, train and help their small business clients make more informed technology decisions.

Starting a business provides one set of challenges, but as the SBDCs counsel their clients, and they (hopefully!) grow, small businesses find themselves with a whole other set of challenges to overcome. For growing businesses, there comes a time when their current solution – whether it’s a spiral bound notebook, a recipe card box, or a basic contact management program – is no longer sufficient to help them connect with new buyers or customers.

I know this firsthand – my husband Larry and I also own a small food manufacturing business in Denver Colorado which he runs full-time. Many times he’ll have conversations with potential new customers, and yet he finds he doesn’t have the systems in place to appropriately follow up. We have a running joke about contact information (like business cards) that end up crumpled up in our “junk drawer” in our kitchen…. “Now WHERE did I put that???”

The good news is that your local SBDC can help with consulting and training when it comes to choosing the right software or accounting tools to meet the needs of your business.

SBDCs offer an incredible wealth of resources, including 1:1 business advising; training in topics like business strategy, marketing, finance and technology; and research to help business owners make educated decisions about their product or service and marketing approach. They are truly committed to helping businesses reach their full potential. To find an SBDC location near you, click here.

Which reminds me – it’s time I ask Larry to reach out and set up a 1:1 counseling session with our amazing Colorado SBDC network!

Have you taken advantage of the resources provided by your local SBDC? If so, share your story in the comments below.

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