Blogged Down?

October 3, 2007

By Carol Tice

Many are enchanted by the potential of social networking, file sharing and blogging. Decidedly outside this cheering section is former dotcom founder Andrew Keen, who decries the corrosive effects of anonymous internet posting in his book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture. Keen believes the biggest concern with Web 2.0 is that “anyone can trash your brand. A particularly militant blogger, Jeff Jarvis, got upset over Dell customer service and single-handedly launched a damaging crusade against Dell. Small companies aren’t targets as much, but a few negative posts could destroy you.”

To protect yourself, “don’t allow anyone to post on your site anonymously,” says the 47-year-old, an avid blogger himself (andrewkeen.typepad.com). “And remember, when you’re blogging, it only takes one [misunderstood] comment, one inappropriate joke, to have a negative impact.”

If you’re targeted, how should you respond? “Aggressively, but with civility, to protect your brand,” says Keen. “Launch a counterattack. Take it to the conventional media and develop your own network of bloggers, who will cite the lies and explain what really happened.”


Time to ‘Mobilize’ Your Site?

September 30, 2007

By Ramon Ray

A few weeks ago, New Yorkers–myself included–experienced some severe thunderstorms, as happens to most of us from time to time. The result of a lot of rain is that often our transit systems break down, leaving riders frustrated, late and at times downright angry. While I was waiting for the train during one of these extended delays I used my new smartphone to check out the schedule of the local commuter bus company.

Until recently I had been using a basic cell phone combined with a PDA. But I got tired of carrying two devices and decided to purchase a Motorola Q instead.

I’m not alone in this transition. Millions of consumers and business professionals are ditching their basic cell phones in favor of more advanced cell phones and smartphones that combine the functions of a PDA, cell phone and web browser. In November 2006, Arizona technology research company In-Stat said that smartphone unit sales almost tripled from 2004 to 2005, and increased by 50 percent in the first half of 2006 compared to the same period in 2005. Mobile internet access is going to continue growing.

What It Means for Your Business
It’s time to consider updating your website and making it compatible for mobile web browsers.

Say you’re a florist. With your current website, you probably have big, bold and beautiful pictures. Maybe a video on the front page of your website gives your customers a weekly tip on arranging flowers for an office environment. After a few seconds a pop-up window displays, encouraging visitors to sign up for your monthly floral e-newsletter. Your website works well for your corporate customers accessing it from their high-speed telecommunication lines.

But the corporate event planner that typically accesses your website via his computer at work might need to access it in a taxi cab using his new cell phone or smartphone with internet-enabled connectivity. Or maybe a soon-to-be bride wants to share your flower selections with her mom while she’s standing in line at a mall.

Is your website ready for these “new” customers wanting to access it in a mobile environment?

If it’s not ready, now’s the time to consider who your audience is and how they access your site. Work with your technology professional to analyze your traffic logs and see what types of browsers are accessing your site. Do you see mobile traffic? Take the time to poll some of your customers about the likelihood of them accessing your website and others on their smartphones. Once you’ve decided a mobile site is right for you, it’s time to create one.

How to Create a Mobile-Optimized Site
If you have a very large website with thousands of pages, it might not be necessary to configure your entire site for mobile access. I would guess that many of your mobile customers visit your website for a specific purpose–perhaps to check on orders or search your inventory. Find out what they want from your site and work from there.

The simplest way to create a site compatible with mobile browsers is to use a website creation wizard tool, which will help you create a basic site from scratch. Choose the design you want, add pages and content, and you’re done. Unlike traditional website creation tools, this wizard is specifically designed to create mobile websites.

You can find a wizard at Network Solutions or domain registrar .mobi. Creating a mobile website using one of these wizards is simple and low-cost, however, you’ll have two websites: one for your mobile customers and one for your other customers. Keeping them both updated could be a hassle. But I would encourage you to test the waters with a dual website strategy.

If you don’t want to create a mobile website from scratch and want the benefit of having one website, work with a professional web developer to code your site so that when users access your main website, different content is served to web browsers depending on whether they’re mobile. If you visit Google on your PC or Mac and a mobile web browser, you’ll find two different screens. On your computer’s web browser you’ll find the full Google site. On your smartphone’s web browser you’ll find minimal content–a simple search box and not much more.

What’s Next
Think about your business, your website and your customers. Consider whether you have–or should have–content that mobile customers would want to access. If so, experimenting with a mobile website is probably worth the effort.

If you have a database of product information and want mobile customers to access it, you might want to try 4info.net, which offers a service that enables mobile users to search content on your website or retrieve it via short message service.

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The Future of Small Business Technology

July 25, 2007

By Ramon Ray

I’m not a huge fan of studies that predict the future, but I do respect those that try. Their job is to look at the past, analyze the present and conduct surveys to gain insight into the future. Based on all of this information, researchers try to provide a road map for what’s to come.

In this case, Intuit, working with the Institute for the Future, found that tomorrow’s successful small business owners will be far more reliant on technology than today’s entrepreneurs. They’ll be more connected in a mobile world, market to customers in ways only imagined today and blur the lines between the virtual and physical worlds. The findings are part of the “Intuit Future of Small Business Report: Technology Trends and Small Business” the second installment of the three-part “Future of Small Business” series.

What’s happening in business is what’s happening in our personal lives. My own children, from their birth, have been immersed in a culture of technology. My daughter, as a toddler, was playing with my PDA. My son’s entertainment is watching NFL video clips online, and he has his own football blog. I, on the other hand, grew up in the ’80s, when computers were still thought of as special tools that not everyone owned, and Word Perfect for DOS was the reigning champion.

This study of the future indicates that small businesses will continue to go through a similar evolution in their own use of technology. The study predicts that technology will revolutionize the nature of running a small business and identifies three emerging technology trends:

1. “On my time, on my terms”–In a connected world, small business owners will have even more flexibility in running their businesses.

2. Global, local, virtual–The evolution of the web will fuel small business formation, operations and innovation, especially as technology becomes cheaper and social networking and virtual worlds become more popular.

3. From “push” to “pull”–The small business marketing approach will shift from “push” to “pull” as consumers begin seeking out product information rather than accepting what they’re told by companies.

In addition to these emerging tech trends, Brad Smith, senior vice president and general manager of Intuit’s QuickBooks business unit, told me he sees three significant things happening in small business technology now:

1. Companies are doing more not only to make it easier for small businesses to find products, but also to find the right products.

2. Peers helping peers is on the rise. With the increase in social networking, it’s much easier for small businesses and entrepreneurs to find each other and get help. Sure, SCORE‘s thousands of counselors will always be around, but with self-help sites from Dell, Intuit, Constant Contact and other companies, not to mention LinkedIn, Plaxo, Ryze and more, it’s much easier to get help from your peers.

3. Vendors are listening more to what customers are saying. I recently had the honor of moderating a technology event with Michael Dell to launch a new line of computers for small businesses. (Click here to listen to the webcast.) Why is Dell doing this? The company is listening to its customers and knows it must evolve and grow with customers to keep them. HP and Lenovo, Dell’s arch rivals, are doing the same.

What This Means for You
Mobile technology will be increasingly important as small business owners, their employers, their partners and their customers demand anytime-anywhere communication, collaboration and access to each other.

The mantra that “the world is flat” is going to be an asset and a challenge for small businesses. In the past, going global was something that big companies primarily did. But now, thanks to technology, more and more small businesses are finding customers and competitors all over the globe. Technology is connecting New York and New Zealand, and Russia and Rwanda.

Selection of specific information by recipients is going to explode. We’ll always have direct mail and TV, for example, which blasts a message to many. But by using technologies such as RSS and podcasts, more and more small businesses and their customers will be able to specifically select what information they wish to receive. Traditional mass media will evolve to niche media.

If your small business is not using technology as a tool to grow, you’re set up for future failure. Your competitors that are preparing themselves for the future are going to take your customers and your best employees.

You might still be in business 10 years from now, but you’ll find that competitors who are able to do more with less, maximize their resources and adapt to their changing customer base are going to be the thriving small businesses of the future.

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Reinventing the Conversation

April 30, 2007

By Sarah Pierce

Who: Jack Dorsey, 30
What: Twitter.com, a global community of users who stay connected through instant messaging, texting and online posting
Where: Based in San Francisco

It was only a matter of time before those pesky things called “conversations” became obsolete. Anyone with a cell phone or personal computer has experienced the subtle social shift taking place in the way people communicate. Commit to a three-minute phone conversation? No way; send a text instead. Wait for your friend to check his e-mail? Better not waste your time; an instant message is easier. In this technology-driven era, people are constantly looking for the fastest, easiest way to communicate, and anyone who’s smart enough to recognize this movement would be wise to capitalize on it now.

Like all good entrepreneurs, Jack Dorsey had his finger on the pulse of pop culture when he started working on Twitter.com in March 2006. Unsatisfied with his job at a podcasting company, Dorsey began looking into the mobile phone industry, which he felt was becoming huge. “I’ve always been fascinated by IM–letting people know when I’m at lunch or at work,” he says. “I wanted to set up a way to receive messages about what my friends were doing no matter where they were.”

With help from some co-workers, Dorsey began working on Twitter.com as a side project, officially launching the site in August 2006. Twitter is a global community that keeps users in constant contact with one another through texting, IM or their personal Twitter pages. Anyone connected to you as a friend instantly receives your messages. This is no MySpace or FaceBook, though; don’t expect to see a lot of pictures or blog entries. The site instead is a simple way to quickly let your friends know exactly what you’re doing or thinking at any given moment. Typical messages range from mundane updates, such as “at work. working on: email,” to random thoughts: “my emotional homework for the week: clean out my glove compartment, then go the arcade and spend $3-$5.”

With no startup money invested, Dorsey has relied solely on word of mouth to get his site going. So Twitter was slow to get going for the first couple months. “Bloggers were the early adopters to push it, and from there it was a matter of them forcing their friends to join,” says Dorsey.

Twitter caught its first big break when it helped sponsor the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas in March 2007. The popular music and media conference has become a favored gathering among bloggers and other tech-lovers, making it a target audience for Twitter. Knowing that the majority of his users are bloggers, Dorsey set up two plasma screens displaying real-time twitters between conference attendees–and they were hooked. Since the conference, the number of users, updates and messages has doubled.

“The response to Twitter has been amazing,” says Dorsey, who admits he’s currently not receiving any income for his “side project.” “We’ve had some interest from cell phone companies in helping us cover some of the expenses, but my main goal right now is purely on growth. For a company like this, that’s doing something no one has ever done, growing is the most important thing.”


What Technology Does My New Business Need?

May 15, 2006

By Ramon Ray

Congratulations, you’ve opened your new business! As your hands run over the new furniture and you wrap up a few things with your lawyer and accountant, you’re probably starting to wonder what kind of computing infrastructure you should consider for your business.

Many businesses have very similar needs, which I’ll outline below. Depending on the specific needs of your business, there will be some particular technologies you’ll need that other businesses have no need for. Here are six things your business must have in the beginning in order to be successful.

Local Technology Consultant
One of the most important investments you can make is to ensure you have one or two local technology consultants who you trust, who know about your business, and who can guide you in your technology growth.

You have an accountant (for obvious reasons) and a lawyer (for even more obvious reasons)–having a local technology consultant or solution provider is no different. Get references, see what past work they’ve done and, like an employee, give the relationship time to mature to be sure they’re working in your best interest.

A good place to find small-business solution providers is at Microsoft’s Small Business Specialist Program (www.microsoft.com/smallbusiness).

High-Speed Internet Access
Every business, no matter how big or small, needs high-speed access to the internet. Having traditional dial-up access is simply too slow and too limiting for a business. High-speed internet will enable you to take advantage of online backup, VoIP and other technologies you wouldn’t be able to do at all or as efficiently with a dial-up connection.

For those businesses who are only online or do a significant amount of business online, your internet service is the life blood of your business. You must ensure that the vendor providing the service offers very reliable service and support.

Computers
Of course, you must have computers for each employee. These computers shouldn’t be slow, rinky-dink, bottom-of-the-barrel relics from the early ’90s, but should be relatively new, high-speed tools. Each computer should have plenty of memory (512MB or more), hard-disk space (80GB or more), a fast processor (2-3GHZ) and a quality screen for minimum eyestrain.

Your computers must be set up in a network with a file server and shared internet access.

Those who are dealing with large files such as graphic artists, design shops or others must have very powerful computers to be able to quickly manage and store the files. The memory you use backing up 100-word files that a very small law firm might deal with is much smaller than backing up 100 hi-resolution photos.

Data Security
It’s absolutely imperative that your businesses data is secure and backed up. Your local network and each of your computers should have a firewall (a hardware firewall for your network and at least a software-based firewall for each computer) and anti-virus software (many come bundled with features to detect phishing and other online threats as well). In addition, ensure your computers and network are configured by a local security consultant (your general knowledge solution provider might not have sufficient expertise to properly harden your computers and network from online attackers).

If you have a wireless network make sure it’s secured as well. The second phase of your security plan is to ensure all of your data is backed up and that you have a recovery plan in place. If you came to work and found nothing but a hole in the ground, what would you do? What plan would you have in place to recover your data onto other computer systems? That’s how you have to think.

If your business retains personal information of your customers, especially financial information, social security information, etc, it’s even more important that a professional security consultant work with you to ensure your information is secure. Your network must be secure, but also your online applications. Hackers can go to your website and use “back door” holes in the online software to access your database if the online application or database isn’t properly configured.

Website
Every business must have a website. If you want to start out with a very simple site that’s more like a digital brochure, that’s fine for now. But consider having a website filled with relevant information for your customers, partners and employees.

You can easily build a website on your own using tools from Homestead Technologies, Microsoft Office Liveor many other web-hosting companies. You can also hire a website developer to do this for you.

As your business grows you’ll find that filling your website with as much customer-facing information as possible will a) reduce the amount of inbound e-mail and phone calls to your business, and b) customers can serve themselves from your website and be happier.

E-Mail
One of my personal pet peeves is seeing a growing business with an AOL, Yahoo! or Hotmail e-mail address. I think it’s unprofessional, and since it’s very easy to have an e-mail address with one’s business name, there’s no excuse. Your web host can set up e-mail accounts for you as part of your web-hosting service. Or, as always, you can work with your local technology consultant.

If you’re in a regulated industry it’s vital that you have systems in place to archive your e-mail to ensure it complies with government regulations for your industry.

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