This Week In Business

The Two Things You Need To Work From Home

Does working from home mean you are suddenly relaxed and attractive? Stock photography seems to think so. Check out istockphoto.com for more hilariously inaccurate gems like this.

Does working from home mean you are suddenly relaxed and attractive? Stock photography seems to think so. Check out istockphoto.com for more hilariously inaccurate gems like this.

‘It must be so nice to be in your pajamas all day.’

‘You can do whatever you want- that’s so cool!’

People think a lot of things about working from home, like somehow those who do have some magical gig where they get paid to watch reality television and eat Lucky Charms.

I wish.

For the first three years of Breaking Even, when it was only me, I worked from home. I read the usual tips about working from home. The ideas typically include things like putting on ‘real’ clothes and starting at a set time. In other words, treat it like a normal workday where you’d leave and go work elsewhere. I am completely behind this concept.

For awhile, I did this badly. But then I figured out the two secrets to working at home. You need:

1) transition ritual where you transition into work and out of work. For most people, that’s what their commute does for them.

2) discipline to train others and yourself not to distract you. Because how other people react with reinforce (or undermine) what you are trying to do.

Transition Rituals

My former office at home. Cute but having to have it in my living room meant I had to create my own work-life boundaries. You can too.

My former office at home. Cute but having to have it in my living room meant I had to create my own work-life boundaries. You can too.

My transition ritual into work involved taking a shower, drinking french press coffee, and walking my dog. I would then feed my dog, feed myself and then start work by 9 am. Yes, even in my 220 square foot studio apartment with a three step commute from my bed to my desk, I needed a ritual. For the start of the day, I recommend a combination of getting things done, eating breakfast, and anything you need to do that involves feeling like you are ‘waking up’.

My transition ritual out of work usually involved doing something moderately mindless like some data entry while watching a 20ish minute television show on Hulu. This way I was able to eek out an extra few minutes of productivity while getting into relax mode.  To end your work day, I recommend doing something that needs to get done businesswise but is kind of tedious (like putting in payments into Quickbooks or updating your email Contacts list) while feeling like you are ‘relaxing’.

These are my recommendations. Experiment and see what works for you!

Ask other people how they do it and read other people’s experiences and you may find something you haven’t thought of. Some people’s rituals will fascinate you. I once read about someone who got dressed, got in their car, drove around the block, parked in their driveway again, and walked back in the house to start their work at home day.  The only thing that matters is finding an into work and out of work ritual that work for you. Even if they are a little insane.

Training Yourself And Others

If your significant other comes to your house at the end of the day and comments about how you haven’t done the dishes, set that crap straight.

If your friends try to Facebook chat with you, ignore them.

If you find yourself starting to think about cleaning your bathroom or rearranging your closet by color, put the idea on a list to get it out of your brain and keep working.

The temptations of being at home are numerous. Sometimes you have a noble purpose of wanting to be productive so your family will wow at how you juggle both work and home in an effortless way. Sometimes you are trying to procrastinate and you feel like a naughty kid getting away with something when you do it. Or it could be that your friends have worked with other people all day and the only conversation you’ve had is with the mailman and you are a touch lonely. These are all valid. But these temptations trying to pass off  as needs can not be met during your workday.

In terms of being good to yourself, give yourself a break, one in the morning and one in the afternoon just like legally they’d have to give you if you worked at a job outside your house. I used to keep a kitchen timer on my desk at home and when it went off, I could stop working and take a break (usually after 2 hours). Use your break time to do some dishes (if you really want) or chat with people on Facebook (if you really want). Thing is it’s your break so do something that feels like a break. It is up to you but I recommend getting away from the computer if you can for it to truly feel ‘breaky’.

In terms of other people, it may take a few months to set expectations. People who aren’t in your situation aren’t trying to be jerky, they just don’t understand. So take some time and let them know you can’t talk because you are in the middle of something. Follow discussions up with behavior that is consistent with what you are saying: don’t answer personal phone calls during the work day, keep chats under five minutes that aren’t work related, and let people know they can’t just stop in because you may have a conference call or other time sensitive activity scheduled. The interruptions will die down and people will respect that you are working when they see that you aren’t doing fun stuff between 9 to 5. Or whatever set time you’ve established. ‘I don’t call you during the day anymore because I know you’re working.’ one of my friends said to me a few days ago, completely unsolicited. Exactly.

On the same level, I keep work stuff separate too. I don’t answer work calls during non work hours. If something is urgent, people will leave a voicemail and I can call them back. I try to take one full day off from the computer every week (usually Sunday). Because while you don’t want life to interfere with work, you also don’t want work to interfere with life.

Will you seem like a hardened drill sargent by enforcing this boundary? To some maybe. But this is your life we’re talking about and anyone who needs you to be available to them 24-7 with no regard to your needs or sanity is not someone you want to be buddy buddy with anyway. The enforcement stage usually is only a couple months until people get used to your schedule. And as they respect it, you’ll find yourself starting to respect it more too.

Working from home? It’s not that difficult but it takes a certain kind of person to do it well. Be that person.

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Hosting A Better Event

No matter what kind of business your in, chances are you’ve had to host an event. Or will at some point.

Most of us like the actual event more than the stuff leading up to it, myself included. After hosting at least 20 workshops, here are some high and low tech ideas we’ve learned to make hosting your next event less painful.

Put event information everywhere.
For our last workshop, we created a Facebook event on our business Facebook page, put a snippet on the ‘Events’ page of our website, sent out a press release, emailed the local Chambers of Commerce to promote it, tweeted out the registration link a few times, and sent out notice of it in our last two email newsletters. (We still got messages about people not hearing about it, and you will too. You can’t win them all!) But put all the information for the event in every place you chose to advertise it you can so that people can note the day, time, location, etc. from wherever they first find the information. Because while it doesn’t make your life easy, it makes theirs easier.

Send an information email to who is going before the event.
People like having a lot of information, myself included. Sending an email (blind copy all the recipients) with directions, the internet password at the venue, etc. will save you at least a dozen emails or phone calls to answer. Bonus is the people in the know can forward it on or tell the people who don’t know, meaning you won’t have to have those conversations either.

If you want people to show up and pay, let them pay online.
You know what’s not fun? Managing 100 checks, trying to note who paid and who didn’t while you try to set up for your event. Having online payment/registration means less day of event headaches and gives you a fairly firm head count. We use Eventbrite and even though they take 3% of ticket sales, the lack of hassle is well worth it.

Create a hashtag for your event.
If you are at an event with social media types, at the beginning let everyone know they can use a specific hashtag so you can follow Twitter, Instagram, and other event related shares. For example, at the Joomla World Conference, we all used #jwc12 so we were able to follow what was going on with different speakers, when lunch was being served, and other important information. Even if the conference isn’t big, hashtags can let you follow the conversation and questions during the event.

If your event participants aren’t social media savvy, consider text messaging.
The makers of Mailchimp have a mass texting app called Gather. (Thanks to Matt at Svaha LLC for that find!) Attendees of your event can get text alerts related to your event (sudden location change or weather cancellations for example) at a very low cost to you.

Cohost the event.
Having an event cohost means you get double the exposure while doing the same amount of work. Find an event partner that makes sense. For the last workshop for example, we partnered with the Maine Crafts Guild who promoted the workshop to their email newsletter recipients and Facebook fans. We were then able to gear the workshop towards artists, so it was a win-win. We got a full room and they got a workshop specifically for them.

Don’t overlook the little things.
Nametags help shy people talk to each other. Coffee and treats make people happy. Good background music as people come in can set a tone. Comfy chairs mean people will sit a little happier for two hours. Think about the little things that don’t cost a lot that you can provide to make your attendees have a bit more fun.

So while we aren’t the perfect event hosts, a mixture of internet and in person efforts, you can fearlessly host your next event.

What are your favorite event hosting tricks?

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Where Are My Customers Online: Three Places To Start

Whether your target customer is a kid using their parents’ iPad or a senior citizen using their smartphone, there are significant numbers of the exact kind of person you want to find online. So how do you find them?

If you are here, where are your customers?

If you are here, where are your customers?

To make this easier to think about, let’s think of your customer going through a sales process.

Stage One: Investigation
Your potential customer is interested in what you have to offer. They are at the stage of visiting websites and getting information.

Stage Two: Interrogation
This is where you start seeing posts on Facebook like “We’re considering blah-blah-blah, who’s good?” or you get someone who fills out the contact form of your website. They’ve looked and are interested, and they have some questions.

Stage Three: Enthusiasm
Whether they end up buying from you or not, these people like you. They follow you online, comment on your stuff, share with their friends and, directly or indirectly, you’ll probably get a customer.

Clearly we’ve got people at different levels looking at our businesses all the time. So let’s look at some questions here:

Where is your target audience spending time online? (Investigation)
Source: www.alexa.com (You’ll need to install the toolbar to get some of the data you want but trust me, it’s worth it)

It’s important to know where your customer is hanging out online. To paraphrase from Gary V’s book ‘Crush It’, money follows eyeballs.

Here’s an example. About three years ago, I looked at an office space above one very steep flight of stairs but I didn’t take it was that I thought my growing business would involve older people that couldn’t want to walk up stairs.

It turns out my best customers are business owners in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. In other words, looking at the data, the people spending money with Breaking Even are skewing younger than I was expecting. So I went ahead and got an even better deal on an office… and didn’t even hesitate when I saw it was up two flights of stairs.

Age demographics for social networks on Alexa. Among seeing whether a website skews to one age group or another, you can check out whether visitors will typically have kids, aveage household income, and more.

Age demographics for social networks on Alexa.com. Among seeing whether a website skews to one age group or another, you can check out whether visitors will typically have kids, average household income, and more.

At first, you will guess who your customers are but after you have some data, you’ll actually know who they are. Where your ideal customer is, be there online. So if we look at the comparison above and see that Facebook and Twitter are skewing younger, Pinterest is in my target and LinkedIn is in my target and skewing older. If we look at other kinds of data (and more websites) where to be becomes more and more clear.

Take this idea beyond social media websites. Look at blogs, news websites, anything. Knowing where your customer spends time is knowing where you should spend time, and potentially buy ad space if it comes down to that.

Who is talking about my business online and what are they saying? (Investigation)
Source: Socialmention.com

SocialMention, like Google Alerts but on steroids, allows you to see what keywords are being associated with a phrase, who the content creators are, and what blogs, Twitter status updates and more.

Hint: You might need to tweak results using the ‘Advanced Search’ function (see green circle upper right). Otherwise you may get a lot of extraneous results. I also recommend making a Google Alert for your business name and possibly your name, just to keep tabs on what’s going on.

Knowing who is talking about you means you can talk to them back… and potentially get even more ideas of what your customers are doing online.

Who is actively engaged in your brand/business?
Source: Facebook Insights (linked on your business’ Facebook page) or other metrics like Twitter retweeters, etc.

This statistic is a bit less straight forward. You can often collect names and sometimes contact information but this process is manual and involves individual followup if you are serious. But if someone is taking the time to repin twenty items of mine on Pinterest or retweet half my blog posts, the least I can do is make a personal connection by messaging them.

As social media stats get more robust, this will not be so manual as it is now but at the very least, it’s worth taking some time to pay attention. You may be surprised just who your enthusiastic advocates are!

So if you find your potential customers at the investigation, interrogation, and enthusiasm stages and keep in touch with your current customers, soon you should have a good idea of where places you can maximize your online time. Then do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

What about you: Where are your customers online?  And more importantly, how do you know?

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Our Town Belfast Retail Website 101 Round Table

I was recently invited by Breanna Bebb with Our Town Belfast to come take part in their ecommerce round table. A mix of business owners and website people would form a panel and talk about ecommerce. The event was organized by Breanna and Mike Hurley.

The small business Belfast crowd hanging out at the Hutchinson Center... They had snacks, as advertised.

The small business Belfast crowd hanging out at the Hutchinson Center… They had snacks, as advertised.

What I liked was this came out of a downtown business survey.

“Two years ago in the annual downtown survey it was clear by an overwhelming majority that the businesses that had an active web and social media presence were much more likely to report that business was good or getting better… But less than 20% of downtown stores actually sell anything online.”

It was an excellent premise for a discussion.

Ellie Daniels of The Green Store, talks about her Wordpress website and how she uses photos to invoque a feeling. "Your website feels like your store."  someone later said. As it should!

Ellie Daniels of The Green Store, talks about her Wordpress website and how she uses photos to evoque a feeling. “Your website feels like your store.” someone later said. As it should!

Ellie Daniels, who owns The Green Store has a full featured shopping cart on her domain and has had an online presence for the business for over ten years. Her presentation focused on the importance of creating a pleasing online experience, technical and accurate descriptions for products, and keeping accounts like Facebook and the website up-to-date and complimentary of one another. One of her best selling bumper stickers ‘Oh no, not another learning experience’ can summarize what it is like to operate in this increasingly online world.

Carl at Bay City Cargo uses Ebay (and direct repeat sales from initial eBay customers) to grow business. His focus on customer service and finding customized lettering solutions has earned the eBay store a 99% satisfaction rating (he wants 100%). While he says some people may wonder about using an eBay platform ‘eBay is working for us’. (In case you’re curious, the eBay store costs $45/month plus $0.20/item and both PayPal and eBay take their percentages.)
Terry St. Peter runs BOSS (Belfast Office Supply and Services). To run the ecommerce section of his office supply site, he uses a third party system that specializes in office supplies (Red Cheetah). By letting customers combine shipping, he is able to offer customized service close to Belfast.  Their primary online marketing has been to offer Facebook coupons and coupons on a local newspaper website.
'eBay works for us,' says Carl Goodwin-Moore of Bay City Cargo. No matter what you use, only stick with it if it works for your business.

‘eBay works for us,’ says Carl Goodwin-Moore of Bay City Cargo. No matter what you use, only stick with it if it works for your business.

Mike Hurley, who runs a variety of businesses including Bay City Cargo, discussed free web tools that allow customers to set up ecommerce themselves like Shopify.
As the lone web developer presenting, I wanted people to know what a custom online store could and couldn’t offer. But mainly I wanted to encourage these businesses to get online in a real way, whether they could afford a custom solution or not.
What I liked most about the panel was there wasn’t one agenda. If there was one formula for success, one of us would have figured it out and replicated it to become millionaires many times over. At least I would have! 🙂
Terry St. Peter and Susan Guthrie of BOSS talk about how they use their online presence to extend local service. They aknowledge that, while their customers are local, they also want the convenience and cost savings online service can offer.

Terry St. Peter and Susan Guthrie of BOSS talk about how they use their online presence to extend local service. They aknowledge that, while their customers are local, they also want the convenience and cost savings online service can offer.

The important thing to do is:
1) Research what you need and separate that mentally from what you want. This will get you the best price/solution.
2) Implement and test. 
3) Analyze your data. If people abandon the shopping cart at the third step of the checkout process, figure out why. If you find the paid ad you bought isn’t sending website traffic your way, try another method.
4) Repeat 2 and 3. Over and over. 
5) Listen to your customers… but not too much. It’s important to make them happy but understand it’s you who know your business best. But make it as easy for them to buy from you as possible so they will.
6) Be yourself. As I told one woman who runs an amazing book store, Breaking Even doesn’t sell anything unique or at the lowest price point either (which was her worry). But people buy from us because they trust and like us. And as small businesses, that’s what we all have going for us. So work it.
I think this is one of the most useful events I’ve ever been a part of, if only because it showed how different people were ‘making it work’ online, some selling products and some services. The number of solutions was impressive and it was fun, interesting, confusing, and educational. In other words, it was a great night and hopefully those who came out came away with some great ideas about how they could do ecommerce.
Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Salesman or Consultant: The Price of Advice

Advice can be fun but when it comes to your business, it might be worth paying for. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swanksalot/6300958000/

Advice can be fun but when it comes to your business, it might be worth paying for. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swanksalot/6300958000/

As of three months ago, Breaking Even began warning people on our meeting booking page that we charge for consultation meetings. I expected a huge downturn in appointment booking off that page when we put this and other disclaimers on there, but it seems that they’ve actually increased business.

Weird, right?

Maybe not so much. Here’s why I think people might not be so hesitant to pay for advice anymore:

The Difference Between A Vendor And A Consultant: How To Know Who You Are Talking To

So someone comes into your office selling y service or x product. They tell you all the features, what the package includes, and what an opportunity it is for you. This person is selling something in particular is a salesman (or, to not conjure up vacuum cleaners, a vendor). The vendor typically makes money based on the sale of that product or service to you, often based on commission. To use a cheesy fitness example, a vendor might be a representative for the NordicTrack company.

When you talk to a consultant, the interaction is more conversational. You are asked questions about outcomes you may want or frustrations you might have. You may have specific questions to ask about choosing a particular product or service to ask the consultant. You may have information about your business that you want them to work with. You are recommended x solution or y approach by the consultant based on reasons from your conversation. If the consultant talked to your friend, they would come out of it with a different solution since it involves different information. You pay for the consultant for the advice and you can choose to do with it what you wish. In cheesy fitness example land, a consultant would be a personal trainer.

So you see in one case you are paying for a product (which there is some knowledge behind) and in one case you are paying for someone’s knowledge (which may or may not involve a product or service).

It helps to know if you are talking to a vendor or a consultant. Someone selling one product? Not asking you to pay for advice? Probably a vendor. Someone working with your point of view? Asking you to pay something? Probably a consultant. This is not to say there isn’t some overlap here but your gut reaction will tell you the difference when you see it.

Breaking Even is a consultancy. We always have been. We want to educate business owners and give what we think is the best advice. If suddenly a product we were using started to stick like rotten eggs, we’d want to be able to switch our recommendation without worry of consequences, financial or otherwise.

Maybe you are at a point of getting some advice. Maybe you are writing a business proposal or overhauling some part of your business or looking at your budget and cutting your three biggest doing business costs. Here’s why it might be a good idea to pay for advice:

Advice could save you time and money.

The reason people often pay for advice is to save them time and money in the long run. It may be worth spending some money figuring out which computer system would work best for your company, and someone who knows that space can ask you the best questions and get you to your answer quicker and often less expensively then you would on your own. Getting advice means knowing why you are making this decision and why you aren’t going with other options. Having to change course at some other time, while possible, can be a pain in the butt. And expensive.

Advice could save you a headache.

As much as I personally enjoy calling all the area catering companies to see their prices on ham and portabella mushroom sandwiches, I’d just as soon let an event planner deal with the headache of planning a lunch. Stick to the kind of headaches you enjoy most (mine usually involve Facebook).

Advice wasn’t gotten for free.

Your consultant did not get their advice for free. They spent hours learning it and practicing it. If it’s an industry like internet marketing, it is something that must always be kept on top of. That real estate agent knows the market, who is in it, who isn’t in it, where the best deals are, and how property taxes have changed in each area over time. To get their advice is not just paying for the time you sit face to face with them; it’s paying for the time they spent getting the knowledge you are now so easily accessing.

So to expect the person you are talking to for advice and impartial information and expect them to do it for free isn’t fair. Because of them, you are not having to reinvent the wheel and because of you, they get to spend some of their time keeping on top of the best information.

When have you paid for advice? And, more importantly, what did you do (or not do) with the information you got?

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Want To Start Your Own Business? A Few Places To Start

A few friends who have been thinking about the self employed life have asked me how I learned what I know about running a business.

On the surface, I am a weird person to ask. I’m a geology major with a teaching certification. What do I know about running a business? Apparently enough!

Here are a few of my favorite resources to consider in terms of business development:

1) Earn 1K
So if you aren’t sure what you want to do in terms of work, this is the best place to start. Ramit Seti has a free idea generator to help you come up with business ideas. His online class costs $1000 but the idea is you earn that money (and then some) back over time. Among the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

2) Local Resources
If you are looking for long term support and your timing is right, WHCA here in Downeast Maine has a program called Incubator Without Walls.  Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development has a ‘Top Gun’ program running in the Portland area. These are both longer term programs (months to a year) that you do with a group of other people like yourself and people I know who have been through them really enjoyed them and got a lot of useful info out of them.

If you want something that’s a shorter time frame or just some one-on-one consulting to help you finish up your plan, you can try something like Women Work and Community whose ‘New Ventures’ class I took four years ago. 

Whether you live near me in Maine or not, you no doubt have some local business consulting resources supported by a local university, the government, or a business-related non-profit. Leave a comment with this blog post and let us know what you find in your corner of the world… you can help someone else out! 

3) Books
I joke around with my friends that if I ever wrote a business book it’d be really short:

1) Do good work.
2) Be nice to people.
3) Don’t spend more money than you make.

That said, there are lots of great books about starting a business out there. Personally I enjoy reading the biography type books. Like I got way more at of Poppy King’s “Confessions of a Lipstick Queen” (she starting a lipstick company out of high school) than I was expecting to when I paid $1.99 for it at Mardens.

I don’t believe you have to learn from people in your field necessarily, just sometimes hearing a concept put a different way can help. Right now, I’m working on “$100 Startup “.

4) Other People

There’s a fine line between listening to other people and letting them run the show. My initial instinct when people ask me about changing how I do something is “No!” But instead of saying that out loud, I take a breath and say “Why do you say that?”

Guess what? While I didn’t screw up anything in my business entirely (yet), I didn’t necessarily set it up to be the most well oiled machine possible. So when other people look at something and have an idea, it might be a good to listen to it. Alice coming on board has brought some great new ideas for example.

That said, if I know the rationale and something still doesn’t feel right in my gut, I won’t do it. I once heard somewhere that your brain takes in a lot more information than you realize you are processing so that ‘gut feeling’ you get is actually your brain taking it all into account and spitting out a valid answer. But understand what you are saying no to before you actually say it.

So with a combination of courses, self reflection, books, and other people’s opinions who you trust, you’ll get a lot of good information about running a business that’ll help in other aspects of your life. And while a business degree is helpful, don’t let not having one stop you from going after what you want. I didn’t. :^)

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.
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