Microsoft SMB Blog

Featuring business and technology insights from Cindy Bates
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 TwitterFacebook 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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09/14/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Three Old-School Business Philosophies for the New-Tech Era

When it comes to business, the old saying rings true: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Though the digital revolution has catapulted business into new directions and new ways of operating, there are certain business principles that stand the test of time. Over the course of my career, and in my daily interactions with my team, our partners and our SMB customers, a few key principles have been tried and true in helping me achieve my business goals:

1. The customer is always right.The well-known Connecticut-based supermarket chain Stew Leonard’s makes its version of this customer service policy very visible to all who enter. Etched into a three-ton rock at the entrance of each of the chain’s four stores are the policy:

  1. The customer is always right.
  2. If the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule #1

Perhaps one of the best known business philosophies, this type of customer orientation tends to earn a great reputation and loyal customers for businesses who effectively deploy it. But it also helps a business and its employees to develop empathy for the customer, leading to the development of products and services that actually meet the customer’s needs. And it’s not necessarily that the customer is literally always right, but another hidden value of this orientation is that it focuses employees not on blame and excuses, but on finding a solution to any issue that arises.

2. Nothing beats good old-fashioned networking. People do business with people they know and like. That makes networking just as important today as ever. Whether at community events, industry conferences or a gathering of local business people, getting out to introduce yourself and your business to real people can be one of the most important ways of building your business. The trick is to use technology to help you extend your network far beyond your immediate community. For example, LinkedIn will be integrated into the new Office and will provide extensive profile information on any connection who emails you, helping you take business relationships to the next level through a deeper personal connection. You will be able to network throughout the day as you work while discovering new information about those with whom you communicate for work.

3. You need to get out and see your customers. Meeting face-to-face with your customers at their location adds chemistry and clarification to the content of your business communications. In our global business community, however, one-to-one meetings often can be expensive and difficult to schedule, but Microsoft Office 365 technology can help you make those house calls virtually. With applications like Lync and Skype, you and your customer can sit at the same virtual table, collaborating through video, audio and documents to reinforce your business relationship.

The philosophies that brought us to where we are may change shape, but they never go out of style. What other old-school business principles are you incorporating in your business? Share them in the comments below.

 

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09/05/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Security in the Cloud for Small Businesses

Ray Paganini is president of Cornerstone IT, a Microsoft partner who provides IT services. In this guest post, Ray addresses the security concerns facing today’s SMB, and discusses the ways in which cloud technology is streamlining many of these challenges.

Small business owners with limited IT resources can often find themselves overwhelmed with the challenges of rapidly changing business technology. Whether it’s network system integration, software compatibility, data security or technical support, business owners are often dragged into IT decisions that are critical to the business, but often fall outside of their area of expertise. Managing your IT and security concerns yourself can quickly become very costly and inefficient.

Consequently, many small business owners adopt a false belief that their business is “too small” to face any real security threat. The truth is, no business is too small to avoid potential security threats. Oftentimes, the person appointed to manage the company’s IT is usually the employee who may be the most technically adept, but likely does not have the time nor expertise to dedicate to the full scope of technical IT support required by the organization.

As an SMB owner, your IT concerns and potential risks are no less significant than larger corporations. System vulnerabilities and potential network disasters and downtime should be at the forefront of your concerns, and you must have a disaster recovery plan in place so that your business can resume quickly if such an event occurs.

Cloud computing can be an advantageous method of disaster recovery for businesses from small to large, in addition to benefits such as enterprise-level data security and maintenance that is much greater than what you could otherwise afford. Cloud computing offers additional benefits that streamline IT operations, including: rapid deployment, reduced overhead costs, remote access, automatic software upgrades and low-cost technical support.

In some cases, you’ll be able to find a cloud vendor that also provides managed IT services for more security, monitoring, maintenance and technical support benefits. Here are the key criteria you should consider when selecting an IT services provider to help you implement cloud solutions:

Where are the servers physically located? Are there any natural disasters likely to occur in this region? Is your vendor compliant with the local data and information laws? What level of support will the vendor provide you when disasters strike or in the event of compliance issues?

Who has access to your data and under what circumstances? Choose a cloud vendor that is willing to disclose the access control policies that govern their employees. What level of data encryption and access authentication is required by your vendor? What level of support can your vendor provide in the event of a security breach?

Does the provider have a good reputation and long-term viability? Select a vendor that is established and reputable to avoid the risk of sudden service outages, or mergers and acquisitions. Determine how and where your data will be managed in the event that an outage or another disaster were to occur. Reach out to your vendor for support and ask any unresolved questions.

Note from Cindy: To get started with Ray’s tips above, check out this cloud computing eGuide that will walk your business through the steps that Ray outlined.

About Cornerstone IT

Cornerstone IT is a full-service information technology firm supporting small and medium sized businesses in Northeast Ohio. Cornerstone IT is a Microsoft partner and Cloud Champions member, with the full range of capabilities to serve as a company’s complete IT department, to complement existing internal staff, or to manage special projects.

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08/31/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Coastal Town in Southeastern U.S. Relies on Technology to Weather Big Storms

This week, guest contributor Holden Beach Town Manager David Hewett has provided his firsthand insights on the challenges his seaside town faces during storm season, and how cloud technology is now an integral part of its communication and information security strategy.

Located on a small barrier island in southeastern North Carolina, the Town of Holden Beach, pop. 575, supports a summertime population that can swell to 20,000 people during peak season. Supporting day-to-day operations, in addition to communicating with residents, property owners and visitors alike, is crucial to managing a town like Holden Beach, especially in the face of weather-related threats. The fewer than 600 full time residents are reasonably familiar with the dangers of end of summer storms, along with the logistical challenges associated with a storm’s arrival. However, part-time residents, remote property owners and the visiting public may not be so acutely aware of these tropical disturbances and what they entail.

It is a difficult situation to be in, especially when a tourism-based economy is affected by a decision to evacuate and subsequent desires to return as quickly as possible without missing a beat. When Hurricane Irene barreled into the area in August 2011 and forced an evacuation, the town’s cloud technology system was put to the test – and it enabled swift communication with residents and a smooth transition to getting up and running after the storm ran its course.

With the help of GeniSys Global, a Wilmington, N.C.-based provider of technology solutions, the Town of Holden Beach moved its technology systems to the cloud, enabling it to accomplish three important goals:

  • Achieve cost-effective technology support for day-to-day government operations
  • Ensure continuity of operations when the town’s residents and government officials are evacuated due to a weather-related event
  • Quickly resume normal operations once a storm subsides

The town runs its entire suite of IT operations from a hosted virtual environment at GeniSys’ inland facility, away from coastal weather hazards. Multiple departments within the Holden Beach administration rely on Microsoft Exchange, Office and Lync, which have proven invaluable when storm systems move into the area.

The ability to physically evacuate the island should the need arise, while maintaining a secure virtual presence, enables the continuity of governmental services. Having the ability to provide municipal services before, during and after a storm event has become the de facto service level expectation. With cloud technology, Holden Beach is “always on,” regardless of the weather, day or time. Government officials can make decisions and communicate them to the public while service provision continuity is maintained. This facilitates informed choices by the public, and more capable, reliable and cost effective provision of services by Holden Beach.

Were it not for the solutions and capabilities afforded by cloud-based services and technology, the Town of Holden Beach would not be able to meet the demands placed upon its services daily and, more importantly, during contingency operations.

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08/23/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Women SMBs: Tips to blaze your own trail

When I look around at the many women in our country who hold or have held positions of economic, political and social power, it’s hard to believe that less than 100 years ago, these same women didn’t even have the power to vote. That all changed with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave U.S. women full voting rights, and which National Women’s Equality Day on August 26 commemorates. Women gained the right to equal representation in our political system long ago, and I’m excited to say that we’ve made incredible strides in claiming a share of our country’s business opportunity, too.

According to the American Express State of Women-Owned Business Report, women entrepreneurs aren’t just succeeding, but are an integral gear in our country’s economic engine. As of 2011, it was estimated that there were more than 8.1 million women-owned businesses in the United States, generating nearly $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing nearly 7.7 million people.

As a segment, women-owned businesses have arrived–but have you, individually? Maybe you own an SMB but have struggled to attract loyal customers or carve out a unique spot in the market. Or perhaps you have an innovative idea for a product, service or business model but don’t know how to take it from concept to execution. Fortunately, you can find a wealth of resources and no shortage of mentors who want to help you join the ranks of women-in-business trailblazers. Some of my favorite resources are below, which I routinely encourage women I work with and mentor to take advantage of if they’re looking for:

 

  • Inspiration and connections: 85 Broads is a global network of 30,000 women who offer each other motivation and empowerment. The organization’s 36 regional chapters foster a global presence through exclusive workshops and events featuring industry experts.
  • Tools and information: The U.S. Government’s Small Business Administration provides resources – from loans to a national education network and federal contracting opportunities – to help women business owners to start, grow and succeed in small business.
  • Financial and marketing expertise: WomanOwned.com, the largest online community devoted solely to women SMBs, is a networking program and more: the site is an easy-to-navigate library of resources, which include loans, grants, and marketing, advertising and technology best practices.

The chance to gain equal representation in the marketplace for your business is yours for the taking. I urge you to spend some time at the sites listed here, and see how far your business can go with the right support. Already succeeding? Please pay it forward by sharing with us your story; what motivated you to be a trailblazer, and how have you created your own legacy of success?

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08/14/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Simple ways to be a lifelong learner

What books rest on your nightstand right now? When was the last time you attended a lecture or took a class just to learn something new? If you’re coming up dry on the answers to these questions and need to admit that, although you’d really like to be reading before bed, you’re often too tired to get through more than a few pages, I understand. Life and work demand a lot from us, and setting aside extra time for personal education isn’t always easy.

However, as children and young adults soon head back to school and college, I encourage you to follow suit. You just might find that prioritizing learning will energize and inspire you and make you a better businessperson overall, if only for the simple fact that you’re keeping your mind fit. Here are a handful of ways, big and small, that you can take yourself “back to school:”

  • Subscribe to a new periodical – If you only have brief bits of time to read, consider subscribing to a new magazine, newspaper or journal. The periodical you choose doesn’t necessarily have to directly relate to your profession. Rather, the goal is to be learning new things regularly, and nearly any periodical can help you do that.
  • Attend a lecture, or two or three – If you live near a college or university, you should have no problem finding lectures the public can attend–and often for free. Trade and professional associations also tend to offer lectures regularly. Try to find someone else who will attend the lecture with you, since being able to discuss what you learned with someone else extends the value of the experience and will help you retain the content of the lecture. It will also keep you accountable for following through to attend.
  • Find a mentor – If you don’t already have a career mentor, now is the time to find one. It doesn’t need to be someone within your company, or even someone who lives in your town, since phone and video conferences are easy options for correspondence. If you’re having trouble finding a mentor, SCORE provides free mentoring resources; your local trade or professional associations may also have a similar service in place.
  • Be a mentor – There’s nothing like knowing you have a noon lunch date with your mentee to kick your brain into gear. Teaching and providing guidance to someone else forces you to evaluate and make sense of your own work experiences and translate them into wisdom someone else can use. This process isn’t always easy, but it is valuable. You’ll quickly discover that when you choose to mentor someone else, you really do gain more than you give. If you don’t know how or where to find a mentee and the process intimidates you, start with where you are today. If there is someone you work with who is younger in his or her career than you are, begin taking small steps toward sharing more of your knowledge with that person.
  • Don’t be afraid to dream – Not all of us will go back to school or make enormous career shifts in midlife. On the other hand, if you’ve been feeling the itch to do something totally different career-wise or to try something completely new with your current business, why not put these ideas on paper and commit to further exploring what it would take to make them come true? Whether it’s a new product or service offering, technology implementation or target audience shift, whatever the outcome, you’ll no doubt learn something along the way.

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08/08/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Tips for giving your business a mid-year checkup

The low point of most children’s summer vacations is usually the back-to-school health checkup. If you reflect back on this time in your life, you might remember dreading the shots and the valuable time that pesky visit to the doctor’s office took away from your waning days of freedom.

Well, just because your own back-to-school days and checkups are far behind you doesn’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to examining your business at mid-year. It’s a perfect time to pause, look back at the road map you set for your business at the beginning of the year and determine what’s working, what’s not working and how you can finish the second half of the year well.

As you revisit your business plan and conduct a mid-year checkup, here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • Does your organizational chart still make sense? Most businesses will see some employees come and go throughout the year. If organizational changes have left talent gaps within your organization, or bestowed on you new talent you didn’t think you’d have this year, it might be time to reconfigure the structure of your company to make the most of your gains and losses. Identify areas where employees have shown significant strength outside of their current job descriptions. Consider making “specialists” on staff, for example if someone is particularly adept at presentations, make sure other employees use them as a resource and sounding board when in similar situations.
  • Are you generating and engaging with new customers? The marketing strategies you developed at the beginning of the year might still be effective, but they might also need some tweaking in order to help you continue to create and retain customers. If you haven’t already checked out Brandify, I encourage you to do so. It’s an easy-to-use tool that can help you in your marketing efforts by analyzing your online brand and reputation and providing specific recommendations for improvement.
  • Does your service or product still meet the needs of your audience? A lot can happen in one year and just because your services or products might have made sense in January doesn’t mean shifts in the marketplace or new trends won’t have impacted their relevance. If you are unsure of what your audience needs or wants, then you may need to come right out and ask them. Try assessing the value of your products or services via an online poll, customer comment cards or even in-person conversations.
  • Is your technology meeting the needs of your business? True, many small businesses don’t have a surplus of funds available to make large, unplanned-for technology investments mid-year, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pause to evaluate how your IT infrastructure and investments are supporting the growth of your business and where there might be areas for improvement. For instance, if more and more of your employees are working remotely, now might be the time to phase in technology solutions that better enable mobile communication and collaboration. This might mean you simply make plans now for investments you’ll make in the New Year, and that’s ok. Getting a head start on next year’s plan is always a good thing!

Conducting a mid-year checkup takes effort and time, but the health of your business is worth it. Share what you’re business is doing to review and plan for the second half in the comments below.

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08/02/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Another Dimension of Our Community

In my last post I wrote about the importance of establishing authentic relationships with customers and building community around what your brand stands for. But community doesn’t just have to be comprised of customers. For Microsoft – and especially my team where we are dedicated to serving small and midsized business (SMB) customers – a vital component of our community is a group we refer to as our partners.

Microsoft partners are independent providers of technology solutions and services who serve Microsoft business customers. They are the technology experts who SMBs turn to for consultation and implementation of the technologies you use to run your business – from managing your web domain and email, to deploying servers and migrating to the cloud. Many of our partners are solely focused on serving SMBs, and they are passionate about helping businesses discover which technology solutions can help to increase productivity, save time and money, and ultimately contribute to business growth.

Last month, Microsoft and our partners came together in Toronto for our annual Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), where we attended presentations and saw demos of the new products Microsoft is launching this year, such as the New Office, Windows Server 2012, Windows 8 operating system, plus Windows Phone 8 and our forthcoming tablet, Surface. The energy at WPC this year was electric with anticipation for everything that’s on the horizon from a technology perspective for SMBs this year. The general consensus is that there has never been a more exciting time for SMBs in terms of the technology that is available to help you compete and thrive, achieve greater productivity and grow your business.

There was a lot of discussion around Office 365, which more and more businesses – from small to large – are adopting in order to experience the business benefits of Microsoft Office productivity apps, such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, combined with collaboration tools like SharePoint Online and Lync Online – all in the cloud. With Office 365, teams of all sizes, across geographic locations, can work together more easily on virtually any device, in a highly secure way.

I come from a family of small business owners, and I love the nature of entrepreneurialism – the can-do spirit, and the energy and passion that drives small business growth. I am totally energized by the fact that today, small businesses have access to technologies that were previously available to only the biggest companies. I want you to know that my team and I are dedicated to understanding your needs, and together with our Microsoft SMB partners, we are committed to bringing you the technology products and solutions that will help your business grow.

I occasionally hear from small business owners that they aren’t sure where to turn for advice on what technology solutions might be best for their business. That’s where Microsoft partners come in. If you’re curious about how a Microsoft partner can help your company leverage technology to solve specific business issues and address long-term goals, I encourage you to check out Microsoft Pinpoint. It’s a site that will help you identify the applications and services your business needs to thrive, and can quickly connect you with local technology experts. There’s an entire community of SMB technology experts out there who are eager to help you take your business to the next level.

Also, starting next month, I’ll be welcoming guest contributors to my blog, some of whom will be Microsoft Partners, who will share technology best practices and answer your questions about technology. I hope by opening up access to one of my favorite communities I belong to, you’ll be exposed to great advice and potential partnerships, and inspired to expand your own community beyond your customers.

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07/24/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Transform your business into a community

Building a strong customer community is a topic I plan to devote more time to on this blog, in part because I really believe it’s a way for small businesses to foster affinity among their customer base and grow their business.

One small business that has been particularly effective at building a customer community is located in my neck of the woods. Seattle-based evo sprang from humble beginnings, when founder Bryce Phillips started the company in his Seattle apartment in 2001. A lot has changed since then. evo now serves as a ski, skate and snowboard shop, clothing store, art gallery and a community gathering place.

Over the past 10 years or so, Bryce has focused on creating a retail experience that brings together all of the things evo customers love, including cultural events and non-profit efforts, into one physical space. In so doing, he’s created more than a loyal customer base – but an actual community of brand loyalists.

The community aspect is inherent in how evo has built its business. Its online presence mirrors its physical Seattle space, with photos and witty bios of evo employees. The company blog communicates personality and reaches beyond the company’s local geographic area through generous giveaways, attention-grabbing videos and all kinds of news related to an active lifestyle. What’s more, customers who order products from evo are often treated to personal thank you notes with their purchase.

Want to find inject community-building strategies into your customer relationships? Here are a few more examples of what evo has done that you spark ideas for your own business:

  • Clarity in mission. evo’s owners know exactly what they want the company to be about and who they want to reach. Their corporate mission is to promote collaboration between culture and sport. Since there’s no waffling on why evo exists, they can more effectively target their intended audience with events and efforts that really speak to individuals interested in culture and sport, including skateboard and snowboard mentorships for kids. For some basics on developing a corporate mission statement, check out this Entrepreneur article.
  • A willingness to think beyond product transactions. Movie premieres and art showings might not sell ski gear today, but they do succeed in creating a great impression and certainly contribute toward positive word-of-mouth. Try holding a company brainstorm and see what ideas you and your employees can drum up to think beyond the cash register. Businesses with physical storefronts should certainly consider on-site events, while companies that only have online presences can explore community-oriented options including tweet-ups, online forums and live streaming of speakers or events.
  • Contagious passion. evo’s employees clearly have a passion for the urban, action sports lifestyle. Getting into their customers’ brains is easy since they already are their ideal customer. When bringing new members onto your team, ask yourself, “Can I envision this person demonstrating enthusiasm for our product/service and their role within the company?” Of course not all businesses center on hobbies or products that intrinsically get people excited, but even when it comes to the worlds of plumbing and insurance, leading companies will exude a passion for excellence in whatever they do or sell and passion begins with employees. Figure out what you need to do to kindle or rekindle enthusiasm among your employees, even if it means injecting more humor into your company’s culture, supporting continuing education or learning opportunities, or even hosting more office parties and friendly competitions.

Are there any companies you admire or do business with because of the community they’ve created? If so, I’d love to hear about them and why you think they’re succeeding in building community.

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07/17/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Three easy ways to build stronger teams

Most of us have probably engaged in team-building exercises over the years, starting as early as middle or high school when classes often take trips to obstacle or ropes courses or participate in scavenger hunts across the city. While these activities can certainly help build stronger teams, they aren’t the only avenues to creating more effective teams, and I imagine this comes as good news to SMBs with limited time and financial resources available for such endeavors. On that note, here are three ways you can boost teamwork within your office, all without spending a great deal of time or money:

 

  • Conduct five-minute interviews – During team meetings, take five minutes to interview one team member about his or her life. Keep the questions open-ended to avoid any awkward disclosures. These quick interviews might reveal points of common interest you weren’t aware of before, or simply help you better understand the way a colleague thinks and acts.
  • Eat together – On a regular basis, conduct team meetings over a meal or snack. There’s something about eating together that helps people let down their guards and be more sociable. You don’t always need to provide the food either – even if everyone brings their own lunch, you’re still eating together.
  • Secret helpers – At the start of the week, have everyone throw their names in a hat and draw someone else’s name. The person they choose is the person they must secretly serve throughout the week. The goal is to look for ways to help a teammate out, but not get caught in the process … which means the savviest of players will aim to serve everyone in an effort not to be discovered. At the end of the week, have everyone try to guess who their secret helper was and, if you like, provide small prizes for those who guess correctly.

What about you? Any easy ways you’ve found effective in building stronger teams at work?

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07/16/12 Posted by Cindy Bates What’s your swing thought?

They say that in golf it’s helpful to have a “swing thought,” which is really just one very basic thought to focus on as you prepare to strike the ball.  If you play golf, you can understand the importance of this practice.  To achieve the perfect swing, so many different things have to come together perfectly, but it’s impossible (though tempting!) to think about all of them at the same time.  Instead, it’s better to ust quiet the mind, concentrate on just one thought related to your swing, hit the ball and hope for the best!

Well, on the fairways of business, it’s just as easy to get distracted by too many maxims for success and too many of the latest and greatest secrets to winning big in business.  It’s not that these aren’t helpful or valuable, it’s just that they cease to be effective when too many of the crowd your mind and actually paralyze you rather than provide momentume.

Have you ever felt this way?  If so, it might be helpful to have a “cheat sheet” of swing thoguhts that can get you back on track whenever you feel like you’re on informatio overload.  If you find one or more that you like, jot them down on note cards and pull them out whenever you start to feel the deluge of business adivce threatening to overwhelm rather than support you.

  • “Leadership is a potent combination of startegy and character.  But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” – Norman Schwarzkopf
  • “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.” – Albert Eistein
  • “Management is nothing more than motivating other people.” – Le Iococca
  • “Change before you have to.” – Jack Welch
  • “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur
  • “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Of course there are many more possible swing thoughts and maybe you already have a few that you haven’t pondered in quite ahwile.  If so, what are they? I’d love to know!

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07/10/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Free webmaster tools to boost your business

The word “webmaster” can sound like a daunting term for the non-technical among us, who would probably prefer to avoid even thinking about what that role actually is and how it applies to us. Really, though, a webmaster is simply someone who creates, organizes or updates information on a website. If your business has a website, then it has a webmaster, either by intention or default.

It’s up to you how much to require of your webmaster, but in an age when an increasing amount of business gets done on the Web, leading businesses do all that they can to increase traffic to their websites. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do so that won’t cost your business anything at all, beginning with Bing’s Webmaster tools.

With this set of free tools, your webmaster can:

  • See your site as Bing does by viewing crawl activity, index coverage, traffic stats, and more.
  • Optimize for search and research which keywords drive traffic to your site.
  • Share site information with Bing by uploading sitemaps, controlling the Bing crawler, blocking URLs and telling Bing how to interact with your site.
  • Find out who is linking to you with insight into a comprehensive view of sites, with anchor text, that link to your site.

A great example of how one company put Bing’s Webmaster tools to use is available here. Digital coupon issuer CouponFactory registered its site with Bing Webmaster Tools and increased the efficiency of essential search engine optimization tasks by 96 percent! It estimates saving $4,800 annually.

Wow. Wouldn’t we all like to see numbers like these? For more information on Bing Webmaster Tools and other resources Bing provides small businesses, click here.

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07/03/12 Posted by Cindy Bates What’s your swing thought?

They say that in golf it’s helpful to have a “swing thought,” which is really just one very basic thought to focus on as you prepare to strike the ball. If you play golf, you can understand the importance of this practice. To achieve the perfect swing, so many different things have to come together perfectly, but it’s impossible (though tempting!) to think about all of them at the same time. Instead, it’s better to just quiet the mind, concentrate on just one thought related to your swing, hit the ball and hope for the best!

Well, on the fairways of business, it’s just as easy to get distracted by too many maxims for success and too many of the latest and greatest secrets to winning big in business. It’s not that these aren’t helpful or valuable, it’s just that they cease to be effective when too many of them crowd your mind and actually paralyze you rather than provide momentum.

Have you ever felt this way? If so, it might be helpful to have a “cheat sheet” of swing thoughts that can get you back on track whenever you feel like you’re on information overload. If you find one or more that you like, jot them down on note cards and pull them out whenever you start to feel the deluge of business advice threatening to overwhelm rather than support you.

  • “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” – Norman Schwarzkopf
  • “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.” – Albert Einstein
  • “Management is nothing more than motivating other people.” – Le Iacocca
  • “Change before you have to.” – Jack Welch
  • “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur
  • “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Of course there are many more possible swing thoughts and maybe you already have a few that you haven’t pondered in quite awhile. If so, what are they? I’d love to know!

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06/26/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Can you see me now? The basics of video conferencing etiquette

If you’ve ever participated in a video conference that gave you some unwanted face-time with a colleague working from home in his or her pajamas, you’ve gotten a taste for some of the challenges that have come along with the benefits of advanced communication technology. Anytime, anywhere access to communication tools can make it all too easy for standards of politeness to suffer and leave many of us with a bad taste in our mouths when it comes to video conferencing.

But, adhering to some basic rules of etiquette can help ensure that you and your employees get the most out of being able to connect with colleagues and clients through video conferencing, all without making anyone regret logging into the meeting in the first place. Here are some guidelines I recommend for successful video conferences:

  • Do a dry run. If you’re using new video conferencing technology, have never conducted a video conference before, or are doing so from a new location, do a dry run with a colleague or friend to increase your chances of working out any potential issues ahead of time. If you’re going to be sharing any documents or presentations, test those functions as well.
  • Start on time, end on time. As with any meeting, punctuality matters. Don’t let the informality of a video conference dupe you into thinking otherwise.
  • Remove distractions. Consider your surroundings and what visual distractions might get in the way of an effective meeting. Do your best to remove anything that could cause you or others to lose focus. This includes food (unless it’s agreed upon ahead of time that the meeting will occur over a meal), inappropriate attire (i.e. pajamas), toddlers running around in the background, etc.
  • Eliminate side conversations. If you’re in a room with others during the video conference, don’t engage in side conversations that can wait until after the meeting is complete. Keep conversation topics pertinent to all participants and you’ll avoid alienating or offending anyone.
  • Consider alternate forms of communication. Before initiating a video conference, make sure it’s the best format for the meeting at hand. It might be that a simple audio conference would better serve you and the meeting participants.

When in doubt, assume the standards of your video conference should follow the same standards of etiquette you already adhere to in actual in-person meetings…which hopefully are high! Also, for information on how your SMB can benefit from the latest communication technologies, including audio, web and video conferencing, check out the Microsoft Lync website here.

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06/19/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Mixed feelings on multi-tasking? You might be onto something

For all the good that technology has done to help us accomplish more things quickly, sometimes I feel slightly conflicted that perhaps we who develop and provide technology solutions don’t spend enough time emphasizing the value of slowing down and focusing on one task at a time. In my own life I know that, when I’m trying to carry on a phone conversation with one colleague and IM chat with another, while also searching for a document on my computer, I’m not necessarily using my time well and might even be doing my colleagues a disservice by only giving them a fraction of my attention.

Have you ever felt this way? Many studies suggest that multi-tasking actually slows us down, since it takes our brains extra time to transition between tasks. Turns out our brains aren’t as efficient as we give them credit for.

While I think there will always be situations where we must do a few things at once, here are some scenarios where I think we could all (myself included) do well to drop a few tasks and focus on just one priority:

Meetings – The next time you’re in a meeting, experiment with focusing solely on the meeting itself. Resist the urge to check your e-mail if you’re not expecting anything time-sensitive. I’ve found that sometimes we check e-mail more out of habit than necessity, and that habit can easily distract us from what we’re really supposed to be doing.

Writing projects – When working on a document or e-mail, especially one that you’ve been putting off for a while, try reserving your attention for just that project alone. If you’re using Microsoft Lync or another messaging service, switch your status to “Do Not Disturb,” close your e-mail and Internet browser and see how much more you accomplish. Even if you just try doing this for 30 minutes, you might be amazed at the difference in the quality of your work and the speed at which you accomplish your task.

Phone conversations or audio conferences – It can be so tempting to multi-task while on the phone or when participating in an audio conference, since you don’t have to hide the fact that you’re scrolling through yesterday’s e-mails or surveying the news on the Internet. However, I know we can all attest to missing an important part of a conversation for no good reason other than that we were occupying ourselves with something else, which can be embarrassing and possibly even detrimental to your business. Endeavor to cut back on this kind of multi-tasking and you’ll be doing yourself and your colleagues and clients a big favor.

What do you think? When do you think multi-tasking has negative effects? Or, are there times when multi-tasking actually helps you?

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06/12/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Cashing In on the Cash Mob Trend

You may have heard of cash mobs, groups of do-gooders who land at the door of local businesses, ready to spend in the name of supporting their local economy. They are growing in popularity across the U.S., and hitting headlines in a big way. Promoted through social media, often by hometown grassroots organizations, cash mobs bring together members of a community to support local small businesses. The light-hearted cash mob rules state that participants must have fun, meet new people and spend at least $20 during the shopping trip. Businesses that are visited by a cash mob liken the experience to the holiday shopping rush, and sometimes rack up record sales in a single day.

Cash mobs represent the broader trend of how word of mouth has been turbo-charged as social media has taken root. Though cash mobs are just one trend within the social media revolution, their relevance to small businesses can hold important lessons for business owners. Here are a few things to consider:

Maximize your social media presence. The immediate effect of cash mobs – from an event being posted one moment, to a crowd of customers arriving at the designated business the next – is a particularly striking illustration of the impact social media can have on businesses. From review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, to the opinions shared on Facebook and Twitter, customers are talking about your business, and there are ways you can harness the conversation for your benefit. Tools like Brandify can help you establish, monitor and improve your online presence, so that the conversation about your business drives actual business results.

Community involvement runs deeper than discounts. Cash mobs differ from flash sale sites like Groupon and LivingSocial in that with cash mobs, participants are principally driven by an interest in supporting local businesses, rather than by promotional offers. After experiencing a cash mob, small business owners have commented that the event brought them customers they otherwise may not have been able to attract, and because these customers were not primarily discount-driven, they’re the type who are likely to return. In your quest to gain new customers, think beyond marketing materials and sales promotions, and make an effort to connect with your community in a more organic way. This could mean sponsoring local events or donating your time and services to a community initiative. Through community participation and networking, you’ll not only increase awareness of your establishment, you’ll also inspire your customers and the broader community to get more involved in local initiatives.

Bond with other businesses. Cash mobs were formed to support local business communities in whole, with some events involving entire downtown areas. A great start to leveraging your local business connections is seeking out and joining area business associations. Visit your local chamber of commerce or the SBA website for more information on groups to consider joining. An easy but impactful gesture: if your products or services are complemented by another local business, consider recommending the other establishments to your customer base. Want to make a bolder statement? Organize a recurring event that encourages the community to shop and eat local. By heightening your own leadership in your local area, you can help to create a network of small businesses that can benefit one another and the community.

The cash mob movement is inspiring because it demonstrates how local communities are more actively supporting small businesses. I encourage you apply the cash mob mentality to your own business, to make social media an integral part of how you engage with current and potential customers, and to ultimately strengthen ties to your customers and local community.

To learn more about cash mobs or to see a list of cash mob events coming to your town, please visit: http://cashmobs.wordpress.com/near-you/. You can also search, join and monitor local cash mob groups and events on Facebook.

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06/02/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Don’t fall prey to comparison games – it’s your business

In yoga, you’ll often hear the instructor remind the class to stay focused on their own yoga practices and not on what everyone else is or isn’t doing. It’s great advice, especially as you catch sight of your neighbor balancing his entire body on just his forearm. Everyone’s yoga practice will look different and that’s a reality to embrace, not shy away from. Some bodies are made to stretch and bend in certain ways, while others never will or may not do so right away. The goal is to focus on listening to your body with all its limitations and possibilities, instead of wasting time with comparison games.

Similarly, in business it can be all too tempting to pay excessive attention to what your competitors are doing or what you’re reading you should be doing, even when these actions might not be best for your business right now. Here are a few examples that come to mind:

  • Social media overload – Yes, today’s businesses benefit from having social media strategies in place, but that doesn’t always mean tackling Facebook, Twitter and a corporate blog all in one week. Depending on the nature of your business and your available manpower and talent, you might be better off tackling one social media platform at a time, as well as consciously choosing not to adopt platforms if you honestly don’t feel they serve your business well at this time.
  • Moving it all to the cloud – I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the value of moving software solutions to the cloud, but that doesn’t mean every business should move every program skyward. Carefully consider the short and long-term savings a cloud solution will bring to your business. In some instances it makes more long-term financial sense to leave some programs on-premise.
  • Focusing too much on growth – This is a tough one. Every business needs growth goals and in a challenging economy it can be very tempting to set lofty goals for growth that end up getting in the way of high-quality products and services. Be sure your growth goals don’t impede with the quality of your offerings. Each year will look different for your business and some years might call for greater attention to quality over growth than others.

What do you think? How have you seen comparison games impact your business? How are you learning to focus on your business instead of all the competition?

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05/30/12 Posted by Cindy Bates How the Cloud Can Make Your Business More Secure

A growing number of small businesses are coming to realize the benefits of moving their IT infrastructure to the cloud, but many have questions about the security implications of doing so. That’s why I was excited to see the results of a recent study conducted by Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing group, which found that small and midsized businesses using cloud solutions achieve higher levels of security and spend less time and money managing IT security than SMBs that do not leverage the cloud.

You might be wondering exactly how the cloud can benefit your businesses when it comes to security. Here are a few ways:

  • Peace of Mind – The cloud delivers security updates in real-time, meaning you or the person on your team who manages your IT will be alerted directly of potential security vulnerabilities, such as running outdated anti-virus protection software. The companies that responded to the survey I mentioned above cited increased peace of mind as one benefit of moving to the cloud, with about a third of them reporting noticeably higher levels of security, and the same number saying they spend less time worrying about the threat of cyber attacks. Many security resources – like Microsoft Security Essentials, free anti-virus monitoring software designed for small businesses, and Microsoft Security Response Center, a support team of security experts who monitor, identify, and resolve threats and vulnerabilities 24/7 – leverage the cloud to help ensure that your systems are current with security updates.
  • Time Savings – Time not spent updating and overseeing IT security issues can be reinvested in other business initiatives. According to the study, small businesses leveraging the cloud spend 32 percent less time managing security than companies not using the cloud. And more than half of survey respondents reported that cloud solutions enabled them to add new products or services that benefit their business in an efficient and secure manner.
  • Cost Savings – By streamlining IT security needs via cloud solutions, you can save big. In fact, the study found that when compared to companies that don’t use cloud, SMBs using cloud are five times more likely to lower their security management expenses as a percentage of overall IT budget. One of the stats I found most compelling from the survey is that over 40 percent of cloud users said they were able to hire more staff to actually do the stuff that fuels business growth! (You can read here about one Microsoft cloud customer that cut IT support calls by 70 percent and saved $90,000 in IT costs by implementing Microsoft Windows Intune.)

As you continue looking for ways to maximize your team’s productivity, streamline management of your technology resources, and enhance the overall security of your buisness, I’d encourage you to take a closer look at cloud-fueled job creation and collaboration to learn more about what cloud can do for your small business.

And you can read more about the survey findings on cloud and security here.

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05/22/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Small Business Week Resources That Bring Big Value

Approximately 600,000 small businesses are started in the U.S. each year, and the big question on every small business owner’s mind is, “what does it take to make it?” Microsoft is dedicated to supporting small businesses, and during this year’s National Small Business Week, we will be in Washington D.C. sharing tools and tips to help entrepreneurs and small business owners build a lasting foundation for success. Below, is a glimpse into two key areas of opportunity that we’ll be discussing at National Small Business week for you to consider.

Online Customer Engagement. With the increasing popularity of smartphones, tablets and laptops, your customers are more connected and informed than ever before. In fact, 97 percent of consumers conduct online research before making purchasing decisions. When potential customers search your business online, what they find (or don’t find) could make or break your chances of engaging with them. Unfortunately, most small business owners don’t have the time or resources to develop and maintain a positive online brand. Here are some customer engagement tools designed to do the heavy lifting for you.

  • Brandify. Through sponsorship from Microsoft, the founders of MyWebCareer created Brandify, a free service that offers SMBs tips on how to create and maintain a positive online identity. If you’re wondering how to get started in building an online presence or evaluating your existing place on the Web, this tool can help.
  • Bing Advertising. Advertising with Bing allows small businesses to expand their reach to millions of potential customers and provides advertisers with complete control over their budget. Bing Advertising offers resources to help you target customers, optimize campaigns and measure your results. Plus, Microsoft Adcenter is providing $1,000 in free search advertising to the 120 National Small Business Week award winners to jumpstart their advertising efforts.

Streamline Communications and Operations. A challenge facing small businesses today, especially those with limited resources, is operating with an outdated technology system due to budget constraints or lack of IT support. This scenario creates issues for your company’s communications and operations infrastructure. Fortunately, the cloud offers solutions. Cloud computing saves businesses money, streamlines their technology needs and operations, and allows employees to collaborate across a variety of devices. Additionally, IT maintenance and management are handled in the cloud ensuring that you have access to the latest technology.

  • Office 365. A solution such as Office 365 delivers Microsoft’s suite of office productivity and collaboration tools to any Internet-connected computer, on a scalable, pay-as-you-go basis. Check out my previous post on how small business ‘wichcraft is serving up improved employee communication and collaboration with Office 365 – not to mention, yummy sandwiches.
  • Windows Intune. Learn about and implement business solutions that empower even the smallest-scale enterprises with world-class IT management from Windows Intune. This unified portal centralizes all your IT-related tasks, including software installation and upgrades, handling viruses and malware, responding to user queries and requests, and managing company-wide computers and devices regardless of their physical location.

While the above tips and tools will help you get started on the journey to small business success, I hope the energy and excitement of Small Business Week will spark your passion and drive to achieve greatness.

Learn more about Small Business Week and ways you can get involved here.

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05/14/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Small Business Spotlight: ‘wichcraft

As National Small Business Week approaches, Microsoft is highlighting small businesses who’ve harnessed the power of technology to drive their businesses forward. If you’ve been hesitant to delve into the world of technology simply because your business isn’t tech related, you’re missing out on what many small businesses have already discovered: implementing the right technology can help you overcome challenges and transform your business – making you more productive and profitable. One technology I cannot say enough about, especially because of its transformative power, is cloud computing. If you’re not sure if cloud is right for your business, or how to get started, take a page out of ‘wichcraft’s book.

Founded in 2003, the unique sandwich shop has grown to 15 locations in three cities. In addition to its dine-in crowd, catering accounts for about 20 percent of ‘wichcraft’s revenue, and it sees anywhere from 40 to 50 catering orders a day. However, the company was facing issues collaborating and communicating effectively and efficiently across all locations, especially when it came to organizing and delivering high-volume or last-minute orders. ‘wichcraft needed to integrate a solution that would allow multiple, remote employees to simultaneously access a centralized database in real time.

The cloud turned out to be ‘wichcraft’s recipe for success. Through an investment in cloud technology with Office 365,‘wichcraft quickly capitalized on speed and quality customer service necessary to thrive in today’s competitive, digital society. To get a glimpse into what companies like ‘wichcraft experience in the early stages of adopting a collaborative, real-time solution like Office 365, I’ve pulled together a few key insights below:

  • Collaboration – with Office 365’s ability to seamlessly integrate email and other communication modes, ‘wichcraft has been able to move all employees to one centralized email system, eliminating redundancy and saving time.
  • Accessibility – previously, the business experienced issues loading and accessing the critical documents it needed to serve customers across its many locations. With Office 365, ‘wichcraft employees can access documents faster, and at the same time as employees in other locations, while maintaining version control and consistency.
  • Analyzing Data – by creating customizable solutions to gather and organize customer data through Microsoft Access, ‘wichcraft is developing a more intuitive catering program that will enhance customer service and provide information on primary purchasers, order history and frequency.

Although ‘wichcraft has just scratched the surface when it comes to the potential of Office 365 and cloud solutions, the business has already seen great results. I encourage you to look into some of the challenges your business is facing to uncover opportunities for technology to help you overcome them and grow your business.

Want to learn more about other small businesses who’ve gotten a taste of success? I recently participated in a luncheon catered by the owners of ‘wichcraft that focused on small business growth. You can read about it here.

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05/09/12 Posted by Cindy Bates White House Urban Economic Forum Provides Resources to Build a Strong Small Business Community

Recently, Microsoft joined the White House Business Council and Small Business Administration for the White House Urban Economic Forum initiative. The forum is a series of national events designed to connect small business owners and entrepreneurs to local and national resources that will aid them in developing their companies. Additionally, the forum brings together governors, mayors, local political elites, and White House officials to discuss and share how they are helping the small business community grow and thrive. The Urban Economic Forum takes place in cities across the U.S., including Birmingham, Ala.; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; Jacksonville, Fla.; Kansas City; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; New York City and Phoenix.

I had the pleasure of participating in the Los Angeles event, and found that it highlighted topics vital to small business owners and entrepreneurs. The event included discussions on policies and programs that fuel the creation of private-sector jobs and the next generation of entrepreneurs. Microsoft partners participated in workshops and breakout sessions focused on business growth and technology, sharing expertise on cloud computing and its impact on productivity.

A few of the business development programs mentioned during the forum that small business owners should look into include:

  • Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) – sponsored by the Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide a wide variety of information, management assistance and guidance small business owners
  • SCORE – a resource of the SBA focused on entrepreneur education and the creation, growth and success of small businesses nationwide
  • Microsoft’s BizSpark – a global program connecting software startups to tools, technical support, business training and a network of more than 2,000 partners
  • American Express OPEN Victory in Procurement – a program offering mentoring and training with a special focus on building a strong customer base

Another hot topic that continued to surface during the keynotes and breakout sessions was the ways in which technology breaks through the barriers of cost and geography. My colleagues and I had the chance to share high value, cost-effective resources such as Brandify, a tool suggesting ways you can leverage online search, business listings and social media in order to reach more customers; SkyDrive, a solution giving you mobile access to your information; and Office 365, secure, anywhere access to email and calendars, Office Web Apps, instant messaging, conferencing, and file sharing.

I was inspired to see firsthand the dedication on both the part of our small business community and government officials to build a strong and lasting economy. I encourage you to attend an upcoming event in your town and take advantage of resources to become more involved in this exciting initiative.

To learn more about the White House Urban Economic Forum and how you can get involved, visit: www.whitehouse.gov.

Upcoming forums will stream live at www.whitehouse.gov/live, and you can join the conversation on Twitter using the #UrbanEconForum.

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05/01/12 Posted by Cindy Bates Open a New Door to Small Business Support

Have you ever been working on a project at your desk and run into a technology problem that just stumps you? At times like this, it would be so nice to be able to simply click a button and get some help. The good news is—now you can.

Microsoft has just created a new online support portal that is dedicated to the needs of small businesses. You can enter the online portal through the Microsoft Business Hub and there you’ll find relevant information and helpful support personnel with exceptional experience in providing small businesses with easy solutions for technology issues.

You can call on the new small business portal as a resource to fix a problem, to learn how to use a new software application or to get help directly from Microsoft. The support portal is conveniently integrated with information regarding Microsoft’s SMB products, and it’s easy to access through a friendly user interface. It offers simple, guided walkthroughs to help resolve issues, but you are free to choose how you would like to be supported—with onscreen information sharing or a conversation with support experts.

The Microsoft small business online support service is available in five languages for users in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. So whatever the problem you encounter (and whatever the language you use to express it), help is already at your fingertips.

If you’re seeking more in-depth assistance to assess your business needs and facilitate the implementation of new technology, I highly recommend working with a Microsoft partner in your local area.

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