April 25, 2009

Life is Like a Checkbook - Keep It Balanced

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a minister named Bettye Walker at a women's retreat. Although we don't see one another very often, we've kept in touch through the wonderful world of technology. I'm always trying to learn something new and Bettye showers me with words of wisdom. Recently, she sent me an article, Put Yourself First, written by Rebecca Pratt. It reminded me of why I learned to work hard and play hard .

As a woman business owner, it's easy to fall into the trap of trying to do it all and getting worn out. When it's all said and done, life is pretty short. So take care of yourself. If it's important for your employees, spouse, children or family to exercise, eat right and get plenty of sleep, it just might be important for you also.

I love the way the article ends - "Your life should be like a checking account, balancing out on a regular basis so that you always have assets to draw upon. By making even small deposits - taking care of yourself with a 10-minute walk or a nutritious meal - you'll be amazed at the interest you'll reap."

April 9, 2009

Social Networking 101

FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter...social networks are all the rage lately. If you are new to social networking, you're probably just like the rest of us were at first...wondering what to do with the on slant of information.

What's all the hype about? Who should I connect with? How safe is it to share my contact information? Why are people asking me to connect to them? When will I find time to keep up with yet another communication tool? What will these social networks do for my bottom line?

If used properly, social networks can be a powerful communication tool and provide an avenue for you stay connected to your customer base. Mark Amtower, the Thought Leader on Government Marketing started using LinkedIn two years ago and is now reaping the benefits of having done so. Check out his Ultimate Jumpstart Program on Social Networking. It's a step-by-step guide on how to use social networks to expand your presence, connect with potential clients and much more.

February 11, 2009

Micro Loans for Small Businesses

According to the Center for Women's Business Research, women of color start businesses at three to five times the rate of other groups. One of the primary obstacles to growing their businesses to the same level of success as other groups is gaining access to capital. Further research indicates that women business owners that do obtain capital make an average of four attempts to obtain a bank loan or line of credit and more than 20 attempts to obtain equity capital.

Access to capital is key to the success of small businesses. If you own a small business in the District of Columbia and need access to capital, you may want to consider applying for a micro loan. DC Government just announced a pilot micro loan program. The loans are restricted to certified business enterprises (CBE) but you never know, this might be the one attempt that works in your favor. Click here for more details and application instructions.

January 27, 2009

4 Tips to "Get" Through Tough Economic Times

These days the newspaper and news magazine headlines are filled with stories of economic downturns, financial losses and layoffs. The banks have all but stopped lending. Mergers and acquisitions abound. What’s a woman business owner to do during tough economic times?

Even if you’ve experienced losses there things you can do to position your firm for future growth. Business owners everywhere are hunkering down to weather the storm and so should you. Here are my four suggestions for getting through tough economic times:

Get Back to Basics

In order to remain competitive, we’ve all had to invest in new products and services. New development can be timely and costly. So when times are tough, it might help to get back to basics. Take a look at the core capabilities that made your firm a success and have brought the most value. (Notice I said value and not revenue. For example, if your product sales are great but the customers that buy are an administrative nightmare, you need to consider the cost of maintaining the customers in order to determine real value). Are there services you used to offer but stopped because you were focused on a new service? For those products and services that represent strong revenue dollars and high value, consider bringing them back.

Get “Shovel Ready”

Got any new ideas? The Obama administration promises to focus spending on products and services that will help to stimulate economic growth and get folks back to work. According to USA Today, “shovel ready” projects are those that help to rebuild roads, make buildings energy efficient, modernize schools and upgrade hospital technology. Create a plan for implementing that new health care technology solution, making your product “green” or aligning your existing service to make buildings more efficient. Everyone will be jumping on the Obama bandwagon so consider creative ways to differentiate you from the competition. Join the ranks of those who have “shovel ready” projects just waiting for the right timing and some funding.

Get Lean

Now is a perfect time to meet with your accountant, banker, broker and financial advisor. Have the accountant examine your expenses and see where you might be able to trim excess. A quick review of our books revealed the need for a change in our 401k plan that will save thousands this year. Find out what you need to do to position your firm for growth financing should that “shovel ready” project come through. If you haven’t already, have your broker review your insurance coverages to see if you have all you need or can get better pricing based.

Get Feedback

There’s a tax service whose byline is “I got people”. Well, so do you. Your employees, vendors and customers are a good source of information regarding ways for you to increase efficiency, eliminate wasteful practices, reduce costs, identify customer pains and evaluate company programs. All you need do is ask. You might be surprised to hear what they have to say.

You’ve got a business to run, employees to manage and money to make, so get to it!

November 18, 2008

Your Competitive Advantage

If you are a small business doing business with the Federal Government, specifically with the Department of Defense, then you'll want to be aware of the latest developments in contract procurement.

In a decision on November 4, 2008, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that the Defense Department can no longer use Section 1207 of the Small Business Act to award contracts based on set-asides for socially and economically disadvantaged individuals (e.g., 8(a), SDB, etc.)

According to the Small Business Administration (SBA), "the 8(a) BD Program, named for a section of the Small Business Act, is a business development program created to help small disadvantaged businesses compete in the American economy and access the federal procurement market. Socially disadvantaged individuals are those who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias because of their identity as members of a group such as:
  • Black Americans
  • Hispanic Americans
  • Native Americans (American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians)
  • Asian Pacific Americans (persons with origins from Japan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Samoa, Guam, U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands [Republic of Palau], Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Laos, Cambodia [Kampuchea], Taiwan; Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Macao, Hong Kong, Fiji, Tonga, Kiribati, Tuvalu, or Nauru; Subcontinent Asian Americans (persons with origins from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives Islands or Nepal), and
  • Members of other groups designated by the SBA.
Last week's ruling stems from a court case that was filed in 1998 by a firm owned by a Caucasian Woman disputing the Defense Department's contract award to an Asian American owned firm even though the Caucasian-owned firm was the lowest bidder. The case has gone back and forth from the District Court to the Appeals Court and was finally decided on appeal.

There are arguments on both sides of the fence as to whether or not government set-asides provide an opportunity for fair competition. There's a tremendous amount of competition in a Federal marketplace that is dominated by large systems integrators, missile defense contractors and aerospace companies. Some say the large companies would take all the business for themselves if not for set-asides. The authorization of contract bundling, implemented during the Bush Administration, has resulted in contracting teams that consist of a large integrator with up to 80 small businesses that are actually performing the work.

Others feel that the country has evolved to the point where ethnicity and socioeconomic status are no longer relevant measures of one's ability to compete. Some site Barack Obama's election to the Presidency as evidence that we no longer suffer from the racial ills of our past and that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough.

When it's all said and done, this ruling sets a precedent that may have a ripple effect on Federal contracting as a whole. If the Defense Department can't use set-aside goals, then there's a strong likelihood that set-asides may be challenged at other agencies as well.

Here's my advice - If you are currently or are considering using socioeconomic status as part of your competitive advantage, it may be wise to identify other methods of distinguishing yourself from the competition.

Click here to read the Court's opinion. Drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

August 16, 2008

Are You Using Fillers?

Picture this scene with me. You prepare your research on the prospective decision maker you'll be meeting today. You review your notes, polish your shoes and wear a power business suit. The receptionist knows you are coming and welcomes you with a smile. You are excited about the possibilities as you are ushered into the meeting room. The decision maker that greets you is polished and has a firm handshake. Everything is looking up until the conversation starts and every other word out of his mouth is "um". Crash and burn.

When I was in college, my sorority sisters and I coined a phrase - "great hatred". We used it whenever we had disdain for something. That said, I have great hatred for "um". I find it hard to follow a conversation and stay focused when the person with whom I'm speaking keeps saying "um".

Very often, people use words like "um", "ah", "well" or "and" as space fillers in a conversation. It's like a bridge from one sentence to the next. However, it is an unnecessary bridge. Sometimes people use them when they don't know what to say next or when they lose their train of thought. It is perfectly acceptable to leave a few seconds of quiet time between sentences.

First impressions are lasting. Not only is what you say important, so too is how you say it. If you want to be remembered and respected as an entrepreneur, become a master at speaking properly.

Make it a habit to remove fillers from your vocabulary. Start right now to change the way you speak. New habits can be formed in as little as 21 days. Here are a few suggestions on how to get started:

  • Try listening to what you say throughout the day.
  • Use a digital recorder to record a planned speech or team meeting. You'll be surprised what you learn about yourself.
  • Train your brain to recognize the times when you use fillers and then practice silence during those times when you feel a need to fill the space.
  • Ask a friend to observe your conversations and make note of your use of fillers.
  • Place a rubber band on your wrist and snap the rubber band each time you catch yourself using a filler.
  • Take time to properly prepare for meetings, speeches and sales calls.
If you need something more structured, you may want to consider joining Toastmasters or taking a Dale Carnegie course. Here's to the end of fillers!

July 30, 2008

The Case for an Employee Handbook

Long before ever starting my own firm, I served as a manager in a variety of capacities in firms big and small. One of the things that made my job easier while managing employees in large companies was that they tended to have detailed management procedures and employee handbooks that documented the company's policies.

In addition to lots of other valuable management advice, I was told early on that it's not a question of "if" a company is going to be sued but "when". So, not long after starting my own firm, I created an employee handbook that includes policies that cover:

  • Equal Opportunity Employment (Important

  • Fraud, Waste & Abuse (What it is and what to do if they suspect it)

  • Proprietary Information - (What it is and how it should be used)

  • Health and Safety Information (Laws applicable to the company)

  • Email Usage (It could be used in a court of law)

  • Safe Workplace (One that's free from sexual harassment and workplace violence)

  • Drug and Alcohol-Free Workplace

  • Employee Benefits (Holidays, leave accrual, benefit eligibility, etc.)

  • Time Reporting (Core work hours, time reporting requirements, etc.)

  • Pay and Salaries (When to expect a performance review and potential increase)

  • Disciplinary Actions

I provide the handbook to prospective candidates when I make an employment offer. I do this to ensure the candidate has enough information to make an informed decision about the company's way of conducting business. I require each new employee to sign an acknowledgement that they have received it, understand it and intend to comply with the policies that are outlined therein.

I do use a progressive disciplinary process. It's the kind where an initial infraction leads to a verbal discussion, followed by a written warning and so on until termination becomes an option. Human resource consultants tend to fall on either side of the debate as to whether or not to have a progressive or loosely defined disciplinary process.

In my experience, it's been beneficial to use this method because it creates a paper trail that both you and the employee can refer to, and it eliminates confusion with respect to your expectations as a manager.

I can remember a time when a former employee filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company I was working for. I was surprised to find that I was personally named in the suit along with other representatives from the company. Even though the company had a legal department, I was required to provide a lot of detailed information about my interactions with the employee. The documentation I created along the way from initial warning to eventual termination made it very easy for me to respond factually when preparing the affidavits associated with the lawsuit.

On more than one occasion, perspective candidates have told me that they viewed the employee handbook as a sign of the company's commitment to creating a professional workplace environment, and that it helped to provide a point of reference when they had questions regarding time reporting, leave policies and benefits.

From a business standpoint, the employee handbook has been beneficial because our customer base include the local, state and federal government agencies. When submitting proposals, we are required to indicate whether or not we are in compliance with EEOC and other labor regulations. The handbook is written proof of our commitment.

There's a short guidebook on How to Assemble an Employee Handbook in the August 2008 issue of Inc. Magazine. You should check it out and share your thoughts.