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Small business owners packed the room at the Alexandria SBDC last week for Maurisa Potts’ annual update of the latest trends in marketing.  As always, content is king, and the focus is on how to connect with customers in a way that the “big box stores” and online sales cannot.

The first step, of course, is to really know your customer.  This includes, but goes way beyond their age, gender, and whether they are a tourist or local.  What are their desires, their expectations?  What life-changing events are happening in their lives?  You get to know this by going back to basics – talk to them!  If someone knows that you have taken the time to get to know them and what they are looking for in a shopping experience then your place becomes their place.  In addition, repeat customers talk with their friends, and they will bring in more customers to show off their special place.  Integrated social messaging is enhancing engagement and the customer experience.  There are messaging apps and tools that can help you to communicate one-on-one with customers in real time and specific to that customer.  These tools, such as WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp can be both scalable and cost effective for small business owners.

Once you have established who your target customer is, it is important to develop a content strategy, and establish a budget to carry out that strategy.  More and more this will be by way of visuals – video, infographics, photos, charts, etc.  Make it authentic to your target audience – what do they want to see?  One of the hottest new platforms for this is virtual and augmented reality.  Customers would love to be able to use their computer screen to see what the fashion piece on the hanger would look like on their body, even if they are not in the store to try it on. While this is not mainstream yet, Maurisa sees it as the next big thing.  She urges those who are already allocating resources to developing more live video (a big trend) to continue to experiment with different formats – including virtual reality – to see which audiences respond best to.

One platform that is increasingly popular is Instagram.  In 2017 the platform had 800 million users, who found that it offers better engagement and advertising controls than other platforms.  Maurisa told the story of a beer keg tap maker with a small manufacturing operation.  A short time on Instagram and he was getting orders from breweries all over the country.  Local real estate broker Mike Porterfield said that he has seen the value of Instagram in just a short time using it, and expressed the following:

I have been hearing people talk about its potential in the business world and since I started actively in Jan. of this year I have already received one prospect call from a space user and have been solicited by a possible service provider that I might consider using.  The only cost to Instagram is your time and imagination.  Until I learn otherwise I am going to keep promote my business interests and interacting with other Instagram users.  If that’s where the people are that’s where we need to be.

Continuing the trend to more engagement with customers, the attendees at the workshop discussed ways to create curated special events and experiences – this is what can set small independent businesses apart from the big chains and online shopping.  Partner with complimentary community businesses and nonprofits to expand the reach of all of the organizations.  Think ahead and establish a calendar-year budget for these events, and keep track of the most effective methods of transferring events and experiences into customers goodwill and eventually, sales.  Keep track of who showed up, and whether they became a repeat customer.

With all of these tools it is crucial to keep data on what you have tried, and what worked.  Most tools have analytics built in to their software – learn how to use them!  It is often important to try something a few times to see the patterns of your audience response. Measuring the impact allows you to set targeted goals and measure success. Metrics can take time, but they are important!

On a final note, Maurisa revisited a prediction that she made at the beginning of 2017 – that Twitter was losing its usefulness as an effective tool for small business marketing.  While certainly popular among politicians and journalists, the platform was unable to grow users in 2017. She again predicted its inevitable demise.

The post Workshop Recap: Marketing Trends for 2018 appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday of the month for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. The topic for discussion at the February 20th Roundtable will be “Dealing With Challenging Customers”.

Does this sound familiar to you?

You recognize the value of professional networking for your business. However, you might be a little bit daunted by the idea of going out there and doing sales and professional networking for your business. But, you persevere and register for the next upcoming Chamber of Commerce professional networking happy hour.

You go to the event. You collect a bunch of business cards. You return back to your office and put them in a drawer never to be seen again.

This is a story told to me by business owners time and time again.

At the January Business Development Roundtable at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we discussed strategies and techniques for better professional networking. I believe many of us can agree that professional networking is tough; as is overcoming the reality that most often you have to be your own salesperson. You have to be likable. You have to be knowledgeable and willing to help people. So, it’s not easy. Over the years, among my many mistakes, I’ve learned some of the practical things you can do to be a successful small business owner through professional networking. Here are three suggestions for establishing an effective professional networking practice within your business for greater profitability and generally feeling good about your business and the community you’re building around it.

  1. Business cards, along with Facebook Page fans, LinkedIn connections, Instagram and Twitter followers, are not collectibles. These are hearts and minds that need to be won over requiring human connection, investment, and interest. Follow-through is the key to building these relationships. When you leave a professional networking event, take the next step of connecting online and offline. Send a LinkedIn connection-request, but also invite people you believe to be valuable new contacts to join you for coffee, or lunch. Get to know them as a person. These are the genuine connections that make you memorable and make them more likely to refer you new business when the appropriate opportunities arise.
  2. Next, make a list of five people you know and five people you don’t know. Then, for those you know, ask yourself whether or not you know what that person currently needs or wants the most in their professional or personal life. These can be customers, clients, vendors, colleagues, students, friends, and family members. For those who you don’t know, why is it that you would like to know them? As well, what is it that you believe is their most important goal currently for themselves professionally or personally?

Now, go out and find out those answers. By doing so, you will truly be developing connections with people who are important to you for professional reasons but approaching them in an angle that reaches their hearts and minds. For better or for worse, people are inherently self-interested when it comes to professional contacts. If you can find out what speaks to them and what they can get out of a relationship with you, that builds authority, credibility, value, and reciprocity in attaining or retaining new or existing business.

  1. Finally, meet people in peer networking opportunities as much as possible as opposed to professional networking opportunities and events. Go to social networking sites and other platforms, such as Meetup.com, in order to create social connections that lead to offline interactions. As much as digital interactions are important for establishing and even maintaining social connections in today’s workaday world, the importance of offline connection (even face-to-face video if in-person is not possible) is to creating human connection and the bonds that allow us to deepen relationships with people cannot be understated.

You’ll be best off if you create a system and use a tool to collect and manage the contacts and the latest time in which you have made contact with a professional or personal contact for professional networking purposes. It’s simply a way of managing what information you know about that person, when the last time is you contacted them, what information would you like to share with them on occasion in order to stay top-of-mind, and perhaps the next time you intend to make contact with that person. People get to know, like and trust you from the repetition of contact with them. So, you need to manage this like you do any other operation within your business. A friendly email with an article that you believe will be of interest to them on occasion can sometimes be enough to keep you top-of-mind. Making the effort to meet someone for coffee or tea a few times a year may be more effective. You need to figure that out based on the person or persons you are attempting to establish within your professional networking community.

With these few suggestions, you can have a stellar professional networking system that brings new and repeat referral business. Don’t simply collect business cards and online contacts, but connect with people genuinely. Find out what makes people tick, what they truly want and need, then go out and find ways to make that happen. Last, meet people in not only professional networking events but also peer networking environments to create lasting, sustainable relationships. This all requires systems and tools in place to support keeping track of your professional networking contacts and opportunities. And, remember, professional networking pays dividends in the long run; don’t expect immediate results.

The post Networking Best Practices appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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Do you ever wish that you had the time to work ON your business rather than IN your business?  Eight local entrepreneurs have been doing just that for the last several months, as the initial cohort in the Alexandria SBDC’s AMPLIFY program. The group met for six 90-minute sessions over a three month period that also involved some significant homework assignments. The “graduation certificates” were handed out last week, and all agreed that the program had been worth the time and effort.

AMPLIFY uses worksheet and other tools from Growth Wheel, a 360 degree strategic way of looking at a business that has been adopted by the Virginia SBDC Network. The Alexandria participants were all small businesses that had been around for a few years and were ready to grow. They started by revisiting their Mission statements and determining if they needed to be tweaked or updated since their business had started. In the second session participants reviewed their current brand and typical customer with thought to how both fit into their future vision for their company. In the third session they looked at the trends in their market and their place in their industry. They discussed different ways of following the trends for their industry and the various resources and tools that are available to assist. In the fourth session they worked on solidifying their ideas for growth and discovered the many different ways that a small business can grow.  They brainstormed ideas for growth and considered how each of these ideas would affect the SWOT analysis that they had done for their business. At the fifth session each of the participants presented their plans for how they wanted to grow their business, and received feedback from their peers in the group as well as a few successful entrepreneurs who had been guest speakers at earlier sessions. At the sixth and final session participants worked on a timeline for their growth plan, determining what could be started now, and what steps they still need to take to prepare for future growth.

Participants had several comments at the conclusion of the program. All felt that one of the biggest benefits was in taking the time to actually step away from the daily operation of their business and look at the bigger picture. They expressed interest in the common challenges that they shared, even in very different industries. They enjoyed the Growth Wheel worksheets and tools used in the sessions and are interested in exploring more of them in other aspects of their business.

In all aspects, this first cohort was a success. The Alexandria SBDC credits much of the success to the commitment and dedication of the eight participants who enthusiastically dived in to the exercises and group discussion, cheered each other on, made suggestions and worked together to support all of the businesses in the group, not just their own. Particular thanks go to Amy Shields of Mull Consulting who worked up the structure of the program, chose the worksheets, and was the real catalyst to Alexandria SBDC’s taking on this project. We are glad that she did, and look forward to offering a second cohort in the spring!

AMPLIFY Cohort #1, left to right: Marilyn Patterson, Joyous Events; Kathryn Taron, Refresh Yoga Center; Amanda Sozer, SNA International; Kat Zajac, Ascend Cycle; Vivek Sinha, Belleview Medical Partners; Carolyn Alexander, Momease; Eugene Bounds, Bounds Associates; Gresham Harkless, Blue 16 Media

The post Alexandria SBDC AMPLIFY – A Success! appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on November 23, 2017.

Much of our celebration of the holidays over the next few months is experienced through shopping, dining and entertainment. The goal each year is to minimize stress and fill the coming weeks with the most enjoyable activities possible.

This year, there are even more neighborhood saround the region vying with Alexandria for shoppers and diners, but our community still compares favorably with the best of them. We are, after all, the authentic waterfront attraction whose stores, sidewalks and neighborhoods are steeped in history and distinctive character.

Our Visit Alexandria colleagues note that Alexandria was named one of America’s Top Holiday Towns by USA Today and a Top 10 Christmas Town by HGTV. They note that strolling historic King Street is like being in a real-life Dickens Village, and that throughout the city, shoppers can visit independent boutiques and chef-driven restaurants.

Rather than struggling through crowds in nondescript shopping centers, an Alexandria outing includes distinctive architecture and neighborhood character. Schedule breaks for lunch or refreshments, and imagine how many generations have shopped and dined along the same sidewalks or in the unique shopping nooks and crannies.

Your store experience is likely to be distinct, too, when you shop in genuine neighborhoods rather than in large malls or contrived town centers. In small stores, you’re more likely to be greeted when you enter, and you’ll find that the sales staff knows its stock and responds thoughtfully to questions. The prevalence of independent boutiques means you’re likely to meet the makers, get expert advice and find products curated by local owners who are often on site.

Alexandria retailers tell us that their staffs are not only more knowledgeable; they are typically more enthusiastic about working during the holiday season than their mall counterparts. Another added bonus — your gift purchases in these smaller stores are likely to be unique finds, and not something your recipients will see everywhere.

Alexandria’s “Black Friday” campaign on Nov. 24 and the “Small Business Saturday” promotion on Nov. 25 are great opportunities for all of us to make an extra effort to shop local this holiday season.

On Friday, more than 50 independent boutiques kick off the holiday season with one-of-a-kind deals. Enjoy special discounts throughout the day and stay for the Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony at 6 p.m. On Small Business Saturday, parking meters in Old Town and Del Ray will be free. There will be in-store activities, a Santa stroll on King Street, pop-up stores, surprise giveaways from an Elf Prize Patrol and holiday caroling.

The next day, visit your favorite historic Alexandria museums for the first-ever Museum Store Sunday. Find unique and historically inspired gifts with special offers, seasonal refreshments and more.

Don’t miss this opportunity to explore our local attractions, and we don’t have to limit our “shop local” focus to a few days around the holidays. We have an opportunity to support local businesses year round, and our community benefits every time we choose an independent retailer.

The post Shop and celebrate locally this holiday season appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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This blog post was originally published through the IRS Tax Tips service. More information on all of these topics can be found at the Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center.

Small business owners often have a running list of things to do. These include deadlines, sales calls, employee issues, banking, advertising – and taxes. The IRS can help with the last one.

Here are seven resources to help small businesses owners with common topics:

  • Looking at the Big Picture: The Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center brings information on IRS.gov to one common place.
  • Organizing Tasks: The IRS Tax Calendar for Businesses and Self-Employed helps owners stay organized. It includes tax due dates and actions for each month. Users can subscribe to calendar reminders or import the calendar to their desktop or calendar on their mobile device.
  • Searching for Topics: The A-to-Z Index for Business helps people easily find small business topics on IRS.gov.
  • Getting Information by Email: Small business owners can sign up for e-News for Small Businesses. The free, electronic service gives subscribers information on deadlines, emerging issues, tips, news and more.
  • Watching Videos: The IRS Video Portal offers learning events and informational videos on many business topics.
  • Finding Forms: The Small Business Forms and Publications page helps business owners find the documents they need for the type of business they own. It lists tax forms, instructions, desk guides and more.
  • Meeting in Person or Online: Small business workshops, seminars and meetings are held throughout the country. They’re sponsored by IRS partners that specialize in federal tax topics. Topics vary from overviews to more specific topics such as retirement plans and recordkeeping.

The post IRS Has Options to Help Small Business Owners appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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Every year, a small subset of small business owners that I meet lament that they were not prepared for the “holiday marketing season.” That is, they say they were not prepared with their holiday marketing campaign in time to take full advantage of it. Don’t let this be you! Before you know it, the winter holidays season will be upon you. After all, there are less than 12 weeks until Christmas as of the time of publishing this article.

This period is prime time for every type of business—brick-and-mortar retail, service-based, manufacturing, and online businesses alike—to make a plan to reach out to customers, even if it’s not for the winter holidays season. Now is the time to start preparin

Photo Credit: James Cullum, courtesy Visit Alexandria

g and executing the background plans to be ready with your annual marketing campaigns!

Holiday marketing is a year-round event

The first bit of advice is to understand that holiday marketing campaigns are not just for the winter holidays season. Yes, according to the Retail Marketing Federation, the winter holidays (Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, and to some extent, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day) spending rings in at more than half-a-trillion dollars (that’s 10 zeroes before the decimal!). But, that’s not the whole story.

Consumers don’t only spend leading up to and for the winter holidays. They spend year-round at strategic times. It’s important for you as a small business owner to know when those times are that your specific consumers are buying. If you look back at your prior sales and revenue reports in your accounting software, you should be able to see where peaks and valleys are in purchasing. As well, speak with your local businesses and/or retail stores that have similar target audiences (and this doesn’t mean you have to talk to your competitors necessarily) to learn about their experiences for when the highs and lows are in their businesses’ sales and revenues throughout the year.

You might learn that the winter holidays season is actually not the best time for you to spend your hard-earned money and your hard-fought time on acquiring new business. (And, it might be and that’s good to have confirmation.)

What are the holidays that you can market to business on?

In that vein, it’s a good idea to find anchors in the calendar to have a reason to reach out to your current and past customers, and do pull marketing for potential customers. There are several events throughout the year and even more holidays than Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.

Once you’ve identified the months, weeks, and days that are important to get in front of your audience, you have the background to create an editorial calendar and marketing plan. You then have the opportunity to execute the plan. And, finally, you should track what works and what doesn’t. This will information you for the future years’ planning. Also, beware of confirmation bias; sometimes Small Business owners see a small subset of success or failure and take that as the whole picture.

What’s the message you’d like to convey to your customers, or the goal of reaching out to them at all?

While decorating your front-facing retail spaces, website, email newsletter, and even your Google My Business listing, are important to your holiday marketing campaigns, these are vehicles to a message you want to send to your potential, current and past clients. What are you trying to say?

If you’re reaching out to clients during Thanksgiving, are you sending a message of appreciation/gratitude? That’s not necessarily “buy from me” and may not be as effective for sales, but for goodwill.

Are you networking among your other clients (especially if you’re B2B, but this works with B2C)? You might host an event–doggie happy hour, lady’s shoe club, or wine and cheese open house.

Are you celebrating a big anniversary of being in business? Use this as an opportunity to feature your best clients, because others who are like that best client will be drawn to connect with your business as well.

Is this a special promotion campaign? Be it a sneak peak of future products, discounts, free shipping/handling for your best customers, or something more creative (a la ugly sweater contest benefiting

a local charity), make sure your customers know what you’re offering.

Understand well what you’re trying to communicate and then work backward on the tactics you’re going to use to effectuate that.

If you landed on this article at the tail-end of the holiday marketing season, there are last-minute holiday marketing tactics. And, start planning for next year now, so you don’t get stuck in this position again! Good luck, and happy holidays!

The post Holiday Marketing Campaigns – Some Advice to Small Business Owners appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 28, 2017.

Lately, our television screens have been filled with scenes of hurricanes and earthquakes, and people struggling to recover their lives – and businesses. For those devastated businesses, survival statistics are especially grim. FEMA estimates 40 percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster, and of those that do reopen, 25 percent fail within one year.

Tragic events dramatically teach us how much of our daily routines are dependent on infrastructure that we take for granted. We expect to reach colleagues, customers and our support network by email or phone. We count on accessing critical financial or operational records electronically or in our file cabinets. A variety of calamities can make those inaccessible – temporarily or permanently. These include hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, severe storms, fires, pandemics, power outages, demonstrations, terrorism and cyber-attacks.

The aftermath of catastrophes is always chaotic. Larger corporations dedicate staff to emergency planning and have established backup procedures, but small businesses tend to procrastinate such pre-planning, and often flounder through the recovery process. Even when federal, state and local resources are made available, it’s often not obvious when and how to access them.

Since hurricane images are fresh on our minds and September is National Preparedness Month, this an ideal time to pause for a moment to think about the most critical aspects of your business and the many ways they could be disrupted. With those contemplations, you can then plot a few basic preparedness steps. Here are some basics:

  • Check your insurance to see what coverage you have. Is it adequate? Do you have flood and business interruption coverage?
  • Establish a communications plan for alternate ways to reach employees, customers and your support system. This might necessitate keeping key lists and records offsite.
  • Have offsite backup for your digital files. This can include a full copy of your encrypted data on an external hard drive taken offsite, and/or using a cloud storage backup service. Note that offsite storage of data, lists and records must be routinely updated.
  • Prepare a handy, waterproof and fireproof survival kit that includes cash, nonperishable food, water, first aid, sanitation, flashlight and battery supplies. Retailers and restaurateurs might add a manual credit card machine, credit card slips and instructions on what to do in case of an outage. If you have perishable items, consider a generator for refrigeration.
  • Make sure all of these contingency efforts are periodically explained to all staff.

Most emergency preparedness recommendations are too cumbersome for small businesses to realistically undertake. SBA has more succinct guidelines and checklists at SBA.gov/prepare.
Alexandria Small Business Development Center staff interacted with SBA and FEMA following the disaster declarations for both 9/11 and Hurricane Isabel. Most of the resulting disaster loans approved throughout Northern Virginia followed the Alexandria center’s direct involvement. We pray there’s never another occasion to use that expertise, but local businesses should note Alexandria SBDC as their go-to contact in dire circumstances.

Preparedness efforts aren’t easy to prioritize, but they can predetermine business survival.

The post What precautions are you taking for the next catastrophe? appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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What makes a potential customer want to buy your goods or services from you rather than from someone else? If you are a small business you may not be able to compete with the “big guys” on price.  So what sets you apart?  This is something that all small business owners need to think about and cultivate. What makes you special?

At a recent Small Business Roundtable, several of Alexandria’s small business owners discussed what might differentiate their small business from a competitor. The first thing to recognize is how to make your product or service superior to that of competitors. Often it is because the customer experience is superior. Not too many folks worry about the “customer experience” when they buy paper towels or other ordinary goods – let the online services and big box stores deal with those. However, if what you sell is a product that people want to try on, touch, or feel, or taste, then you can offer what a big store or online service cannot, a pleasant experience for the shopper.

The same is true for most services. There are apps and online services for everything from banking to web design, and most of us do some purchasing online.  However, if your printer or designer had their shop around the corner, wouldn’t you consider that they would have a better “feel” for your business that some anonymous online presence? If you can offer the “local touch”, and are able to communicate that to your potential customers, than you have found a competitive advantage. Remember this when you do your own business-to-business purchasing as well. For your business and for the small business community around you, be sure that the word gets out to buy small and buy local.

The personality of the small business owner and the employees can also be a competitive advantage or, unfortunately, a disadvantage. A pleasant greeting on the phone and in person can go a long way. Know and advertise your neighborhood and your connections. People like to do business with folks who “know people”. If you can recommend the ice cream shop around the corner on a hot day, a great coffee shop where someone can rest for a few minutes during a busy day, or a great local dry cleaner, your customer will see you as a part of the local community. Reinvigorate the experience of doing business with your company, and with your business community — that is your competitive advantage, and it will bring the customers back time after time!

The post What is Your Competitive Advantage? appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on August 24, 2017.

Holidays are a wonderful time in Alexandria. The area is especially beautiful and festive from Halloween through Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years and George Washington’s birthday. We have the prototypic neighborhoods and shopping streets that lend themselves to a holiday backdrop and spirit.

It’s never too early to start planning for the season. It’s Alexandria’s time to shine, and a critical time for retail revenue. Our colleagues at Visit Alexandria held a Holiday Planning Summit recently that incorporated a cross section of business, city government and economic development representatives. The theme of the summit was to continue building on Alexandria’s distinctive assets, attractions and charm – but also to take it up a notch for the approaching season.

Alexandria shopping districts face even stiffer competition this year from a broader variety of shopping options, and each of them are putting substantial efforts toward attracting their own shoppers and diners. Some of them are our f

Photo Credit: James Cullum, courtesy ACVA

amiliar competitors but there are new venues for Alexandria to vie with. Washington D.C.’s The Wharf opens soon, billing itself as “the most exciting neighborhood in the history of the nation’s capital” and “a true waterfront destination.”

Many of our competitors have their own business improvement districts that plan, fund and oversee cohesive approaches to holiday décor, promotion and events. That coordinated approach often fashions a sophisticated holiday atmosphere and creates an appealing buzz for shoppers and diners.

Even without a central coordinator, Alexandria businesses and organizations are undertaking to work collaboratively to encourage individual merchants and business groups to up Alexandria’s holiday game with lighting, holiday designs, promotions and events. Holiday efforts are so much more spectacular when they are coordinated.

Alexandria has several things going for it. One of those is authenticity. Ours are the genuine charming neighborhoods and sidewalks where many generations have shopped and dined. Another of our strengths is our concentration of small businesses. Even while large retail chains downsize, there’s a growing appeal to shopping with small and unique, independent merchants.

There’s another trend toward experiential retail, and several of Alexandria’s merchants are regarded as destinations for their marketing and shopper experience. Hopefully, others will attain that status by refining their products or services, improving customer interaction, and upping their merchandising and marketing.

Alexandria Small Business Development Center provides specialized retail resources including store visits by retail, merchandising or food service experts; and educational programs on a variety of timely topics such as retail hiring, retail trends, and advertising on social media platforms. This fall we’ve engaged a window display and merchandising expert to guide merchants in developing their holiday decorating, lighting and merchandising strategies.

It takes extra effort to get into the spirit of the holidays in the dog days of summer, but the success of our long holiday season is worth it. As was said by that great philosopher, Roger Staubach, “It takes a lot of unspectacular preparation to have spectacular results in both business and football.”

Happy Holidays.

The post It’s not too early to begin holiday planning appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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If you want a pleasant Sunday morning read, check out this list of data breaches of major companies, organizations and government agencies. These are entities with IT departments, security professionals monitoring their networks, cybersecurity policies, and a budget to support their cybersecurity efforts. At least one of these data breaches included data about you. And, these cyberattacks were not even the primary targets of most attacks in the world. Hackers today find it lucrative to target businesses and, more specifically, North America-based small businesses.

Hackers have breached about 14 million small businesses in the last year, and most don’t know it. Cybersecurity for Small Business might sound obscure if you’re in business on “Main Street” and don’t sell online. However, it’s one of the most important management areas of your business to focus on today. Cybersecurity itself means protecting your digital world from attacks in a variety of forms so you can focus on running and growing your business.

Unfortunately, gone are the days when you can buy antivirus software for your desktop computer and all your digital worries can go away; it’s part of the solution but it’s not the whole solution. There are many ways in which hackers can penetrate your personal, your business, your employees, and your customers’ machines and access data with intent to steal or get access to that equipment for nefarious reasons. Frequently, the reasoning doesn’t make sense on the surface so you aren’t suspicious, and this can be the most dangerous cybersecurity breaches because you are unaware for so long.

I’ll use the colloquial term “cybercrime” throughout this discussion to cover the wide variety of crimes, unethical tactics, and downright immoral practices of individuals and companies against personal and business systems and their data. These cybercrimes include, but are not limited to,

  • hacking your digital devices (which could be your smartphone, computers and laptops, Point of Sale terminals, credit card machines, and similar devices),
  • hacking your digital services (think about your website, email, cloud storage, and online services),
  • blatant physical theft (ergo, larceny) of digital equipment to get the underlying data,
  • data theft,
  • phishing,
  • stalking,
  • identity theft,
  • wire tapping,
  • denial of service (DoS) and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against your servers to shut down your websites,
  • (the equivalent of a DoS/DDoS attack, but with a volume of email messages sent to you instead of HTTP requests to the server), and
  • injection of malware (malicious software), ransomware (taking data to make you pay to gain get it back), and other types of software that do dubious actions to your digital environment.

Now isn’t this a Charlie Foxtrot, eh? I know it’s daunting and it might scare and overwhelm you. It’s understandable that you may feel this way. But, as a business owner in the Internet Age, you must head cybercrime off at the pass, or risk losing time, money, and clients. Thankfully, there are some common sense ways to deal with cybercrime, so you can rest at ease knowing your digital world is safe and get back to running your business.

Physical security of hardware

Every Small Business should have physical security protocols for all digital devices (phones, external hard drives, computers should be secured in place so they cannot be easily picked up and run away with, laptops / tablets / credit card readers should be secured in locked storage when not in use.

Your next best defense since people are fallible, is to have an offsite backup. This can include making a full copy of your encrypted data on an external hard drive and taking it someplace away from the business location, and/or using a cloud storage backup service such as Carbonite, Crashplan, or even Google Backup and Sync.

Something that some businesses are starting to do as well, when all else fails, is to make sure their business liability insurance cover physical theft. And, you should know that there are cyber security risk / liability insurance policies available for damages and losses from digital means.

Physical access to systems (users)

When it comes to physical access to systems, your users should be guided by an effective Digital Device Policy and include protocols for:

  • How to create employee user accounts and assign only the administrative/user privileges needed for them to perform in their role.
  • Give users physical access to systems only at the times needed to satisfy their assignments, and not give access to unnecessary systems at all. If employees don’t need access to your server room, don’t give it to them.
  • For how to allow Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) employees at your business. You should have in place a policy for managing BYOD’s. Employees must use and abide by these security protocols on their mobile devices, if they use personal devices at work.
Separation of personal and business devices

You separate your business and personal finances, because you need to track what is yours and what is your business’, even if only for tax purposes. The same goes with cybersecurity. You need separate personal and business logins for online accounts. This may also include hardware, like the phone you use to make and receive personal or work calls. Will your ISP or telecommunications provider have protections in place if you’re using your consumer service for business purposes? Probably not. The fine print matters here.

Software protections

Since the late 1990s there has been antivirus and anti-spyware software. And, yet, business owners resist installing reputable antivirus software on their business machines. While some have costs associated with them, many are free and built into your operating system, such as Windows Defender. You simply need to activate them. But, if you have purchased a license for one not built into your operating system, please make sure that your license is still valid and the software are kept up-to-date (including your mobile phones and devices). Also, firewalls keep your computer, and any devices or routers connected to the Internet safer, especially your Web browsers (all of them, even if you don’t use them all, all of the time), must have firewall protection. Again, on Microsoft Windows, there’s Windows Firewall that simply needs to be enabled.

VPN when on WiFi on anyone else’s network

If you spend much of your time on other people’s WiFi, then you need to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to secure your business data trafficking across the network. This includes any open WiFi network at your local cafe and if you’re working at a coworking space or even at your client’s site. No network outside your firewall can be trusted to be secure. A VPN product you can try for 500MB per month for free is TunnelBear and if you use more data than that per month across your business, then you can upgrade.

Web browsing and email protections

As a business owner (and advising your staff similarly), don’t open suspect emails and don’t transact any personal or private information about yourself via email. Period.

At the core of most Web and email protection is antivirus and spam-filtering software, so it’s definitely recommended that your ESP (email service provider) and/or ISP (Internet service provider) give you options for protecting and securing your Web and email traffic. However, that’s simply not enough for a business today.

In addition to such protective software, you should also seek out information on implementing SPF, DKIM, and/or DMARC as available through your ESP.

It also doesn’t hurt to enable two-factor authentication (a/k/a 2FA or TFA) on all online services that have the capability. Where possible, use a password manager, such as LastPass, 1Password, or Dashlane, to not only use unique passwords for every online account you have for the business, but also long passwords with unique passwords to increase its resilience to attacks.

Mobile security

As more and more computing happens on mobile devices, security on them will become the dominant concern for small business owners. But, mobile doesn’t simply stop there. With the advent of Internet of Things (embedded “smart” technology in everyday things), wearable technologies, smart vehicle systems (Android Auto, anyone?), and voice assistants (like Amazon Echo devices, Google Home, and, the newcomer, Apple HomePod), cybersecurity needs expand to have to meet those new frontiers.

It’s so important for Small Business to have their representatives’ support when it comes to combatting cybercrime against them and their customers. In April, a bipartisan small business cybersecurity bill was introduced by nine senators—the MAIN STREET Cybersecurity Act of 2017. Sadly, this bill, according to Skopos Labs as detailed on GovTrack.us, has a 3% chance of becoming law. This is a commonsense piece of legislation to get the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), “to disseminate resources to help reduce small business cybersecurity risks, and for other purposes.” Call your congressional representatives and tell them that you support S. 770 and they should support their small business voters by supporting this bill.

Also, if you’re scared senseless and you need help, never fear. Contact the Alexandria Small Business Development Center and we can refer you to professional security consultants who can help you.

Next Roundtable – August 15, 2017 – Sizing Up the Competition: How to Create a Competitive Advantage

Alexandria Small Business Development Center hosts a monthly Business Development Roundtable from January to November. We meet in our main conference at noon on the third Tuesday of the month, and you can bring a beverage or your lunch, for a different business marketing or management topic that’s pertinent to Alexandria Small Business. Join us on August 15, 2017 at noon, when we gather to discuss “Sizing Up the Competition: How to Create a Competitive Advantage.”

The post Cybersecurity for Small Business: It Doesn’t Keep You Up at Night? It Should! appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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