Earlier this week I was in New York to attend the 4th annual Small Business Summit. This is one of my must-attend events each year.
There are several events named “Small Business Summit” but this particular one is the only one put on by small business owners for small business owners.
The organizers are Ramon Ray, who some of you know from his well-established Web publication, SmallBizTechnology.com. Ramon’s partner in the event is Marian Banker of Prime Strategies, a consulting firm that works with small businesses.
As in past years, this year it was sold out — overbooked, I’m told. In some ways this event is like a Who’s Who of the small business world. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the people there, and some of the notable news I picked up:
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Campaigner — My day started off by meeting Sue Rutherford and Melanie Attia of Campaigner. Campaigner is an email marketing software application. Protus, headquartered in Ottawa, acquired it last year and since then has been making a number of enhancements.
One of the interesting things about Campaigner is that you can “set it and forget it” when it comes to providing customized communications to contacts. For instance, Campaigner can be set to remember the birthday of a contact and send out a nice discount coupon on items the person has indicated a preference for, on the birthday — just one of many features.
I also had a chance to meet Paula Slotkin and Tom Francoeur of Topaz Partners, which assists Campaigner in getting public visibility. Paula (one of the partners of Topaz) told me that Tom is a former English professor … now that doesn’t fit the mold of a “typical” PR person.
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Dell – Bob Pearson, Manager of Community and Conversations with Dell, was the morning keynote speaker. He offered 10 tips for using social media, some of which were excellent for small businesses and I’ll share with you:
- “Have conversations online, and avoid content dumps,” said Pearson. In other words, avoid speaking one way at customers and prospects, and instead engage them in a two-way communication with both sides listening.
- To reach people B-to-B online, remember that even in your B-to-C communications you may be reaching B2B prospects. “You don’t know who ‘CandyMan602’ on a consumer forum is or who he works for,” he said.
- For small business owners who sell services, you have to “give away enough information and expertise to get people to perceive you as a thought leader.” (This was in answer to the question, ‘how much information should a consultant give away for free?’)
- Talk about a topic people are interested in, not just your products. You will get a larger audience that way. As Bob said, “People browse online for a month or more before buying.” So you want to make them aware of your products before they are actually ready to click and buy. He mentioned the Digital Nomads site, which is a site that discusses technology topics and is underwritten by Dell, but is not ABOUT Dell per se — in fact, Dell’s presence on the site is understated.
A few of the tips were more for large companies. For example, the importance of monitoring mentions of your brand online is typically more of a big-business concern. (Most small businesses would be thrilled just to get someone — anyone — talking about them online!) But overall his talk was one of the highlights of the show.
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Microsoft Office Live — Microsoft Office Live Small Business was there with a big presence, as was the local New York based Microsoft group. Microsoft Office Live has made quite a few enhancements to its offering in the past year. If you rely primarily on referrals for your business, you may find referrals are not enough during tight economic times right now and you need to do more to develop customers.
That’s where Microsoft Office Live comes in. It’s turned into a one-stop toolbox for your online marketing presence. There is the basic offering, which includes a website and domain name, up to 100 email accounts, and online file storage. Now they also offer an online contact management application (which includes a level of integration with Outlook), plus an email marketing application, ad manager, and a lot more.
Quite a bit of the Microsoft Office Live package is free. The Web-based control panel is self-serve and allows you to choose certain optional upgrades or add-on services for an additional monthly fee. I’m going to try to get someone from Microsoft on my radio show to give us an update of everything included and the benefits for small businesses.
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Elance — This Web-based marketplace for finding contractors to staff your projects (if you are a buyer) or finding projects to bid on (if you are a supplier) was a sponsor at the Summit, I believe for the first time. I spent a few minutes with Brad Proteus of Elance (who also spoke on a panel about tips for thriving when customers spend less). During the last recession, Elance survived by focusing on serving the staffing needs of large businesses. This time around, Elance appears squarely focused on serving small businesses.
Over the past year Elance has made substantial improvements to its Web-based platform for both providers and buyers, so that it’s more than just a place to peruse projects up for bid or find contractors. There are now substantial community features (enhanced provider profiles and discussion forums), where contractors can network and share tips. There is a blog providing tips and advice. There’s also a “virtual workspace” behind the scenes to make the process of communicating and collaborating on projects easier and more convenient for both buyer and supplier.
I was also happy to finally meet Emily Borders and Kathleen Gratehouse, of Borders + Gratehouse Public Relations after years of email and phone communications. The West-coast based firm represents Elance and a variety of other providers that serve the small business market.
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Infusionsoft – Infusionsoft, which offers an automated follow-up marketing system, also had a presence at the show. Recently Infusionsoft has implemented some additional packages that can make it more affordable than ever to try their product (more here).
I quoted Clate Mask, the CEO of Infusionsoft, in my brief remarks at the Summit, using one of the tips he gives on the radio spots on my show (Infusionsoft is our radio show sponsor): “Do not be timid.” That’s good advice for all of us if we want to succeed in business — many times those 4 words have given me the added boost to focus on what I want to achieve in business.
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PexCard – Toffer Grant, CEO and Founder of PexCard, spent a few minutes with me. PexCard is a prepaid Visa card (issued through The Bancorp Bank) that businesses can use to cover employee expenses in the field. For instance, if you have a sales team that is frequently on the road making sales calls or an office manager with petty cash authority, a PexCard can be funded up to a certain amount to enable your employees to pay for expenses using the Visa card.
PexCard eliminates having to fill out expense reimbursement forms and all the paper-work that entails. As the business owner/manager, you have control at all times using a Web-based administration panel.