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Conventional wisdom has it that the first year of running your own business is the hardest. But while those first months are certainly a make-or-break time for many small business owners, entrepreneurs who make it past the one-year mark know that the hard work doesn't stop there. As your business gains its footing, it's easy to feel as though your very success is working against you, or that you'll never be able to stop running in place long enough to achieve your target sales numbers or profit margins.
Every business is different, and the needs of a retail storefront will vary from those of a contractor, a consulting business, or an online merchant, but there are certain challenges that all small businesses face at one time or another: How do you grow your business when you're bogged down in day-to-day operations? How do you find time for the big tasks when there seem to be fewer hours in every day? How do you maintain efficient communication between yourself and your employees? How do you continue to drive new business (and keep up with your competition) on a tight marketing budget?
Fortunately, solutions to these questions and more may be right at your fingertips. Here are five great tools to help you run – and grow – your small business.
Most of us have been tethered to a mobile phone of one kind or another for more than a decade, and as small business owners, we take it for granted that we're always "on call," even on our rare days off. A smartphone or tablet device picks up where cell phones leave off, helping you check in with the office when you're not there so you can stay abreast of ongoing issues and avoid coming back to an inbox full of emails.
With the wide range of apps available for both iPad and Android devices and the emergence of cloud software and services (that is, applications and data that are accessed over the Internet, rather than hosted on your computer), tablets have become true productivity tools, enabling small business owners to get work done on the road, make presentations, demonstrate products, and even complete point-of-sale transactions, all while traveling light.
It's hard to grow your business if you don't have a good handle on your finances, beginning with your expenditures, revenues, and profit and loss (P&L) statements. If you're still shoving your receipts into a shoe box and handing it to your accountant a few weeks before tax time, chances are you're not watching your inflows and expenses as closely as you should be. While QuickBooks is probably the best-known small business accounting software, there are also dozens of low cost (and even free!) online accounting applications that let you track your finances from anywhere. Many banks and small business credit cards enable you to download your recent transactions directly into your accounting program, and some like Jot from Chase (download at Ink-business-credit-cards/jot) will even categorize your expenses into spending categories to help with record keeping. Your accountant will love you for it, and your business will benefit from your newfound attention to numbers.
While office workers may sit in their cubicles counting the minutes until 5 PM, small business owners are more likely to look up at the clock and find that they've worked straight through closing time, dinner, and half the primetime TV lineup (again). To make sure you finish what you set out to accomplish each day, try using one of the many time management applications available online.
Depending on your needs and work habits, you can find an app that lets you segment tasks (and workdays) into manageable chunks, create employee schedules, collaborate with remote clients or employees, manage virtual to-do lists, or generate custom invoices based on the time spent on a given project. There are even programs that will block you from your favorite time-wasting websites after you reach a pre-determined daily time limit.
If you haven't yet found a way to make social media work for your business, the prospect can be daunting, and many small business owners simply don't know where (or how) to start. We could write an entire article about using Facebook to grow your small business, but in the end, marketing your business through any social media network boils down to the same simple concept: Know where your customers are (do they use Facebook? LinkedIn? Twitter?), then go there, and read what they have to say. What do they struggle with? What products do they love? What problems might you help them solve?
Social media outlets offer small business owners unprecedented opportunities to connect with and listen in on customers. More than anything, your social media activities should be viewed as a two-way conversation with your customers and prospects. They needn't (and probably shouldn't) replace your traditional marketing efforts, but the potential to build brand awareness and form new client relationships is huge, and the cost is extremely low as compared with traditional marketing campaigns.
Once upon a time, the phone book was the go-to resource for customers in need of a new product or service, and a yellow pages listing (the bigger the better!) was a must-have marketing vehicle for businesses of any type. Now, consumers rely on search engines, smart phones, and GPS devices to tell them where to find the closest plumber, pizza place, or coffee shop.
The good news is that it's easy (and in most cases free!) to improve your chances of being found by simply creating a local search listing for your business with each of the major search engines. To see how you fare in local search results, go to Google and type in the name of the service you provide along with your zip code. If your search results include a local map with your business indicated by a "pin," some of your work is already done for you. By clicking on the pin, you should be able to find the local business listing for your company. After completing the free registration (and usually some sort of validation process to verify that you are the business owner), you'll be able to update the listing with your hours, services, and even pictures and videos. You'll then want to repeat the process on other major search engines. As with social media, your local business listings do not replace your company website presence; they simply give you another way to be found on the web.
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